My Foray Into Foraging
How I learned to find and cook spring’s local bounty.
An alarm blares at 4 a.m.
My mother pulls my 12-year-old self out of a warm bed on a cool spring morning and we pile into our 1995 fire-engine red Pontiac Grand Am. We drive to the (then) forested edges of Oakville and hike inward with our big black dog, Ed.
We are hunting for fiddleheads.
The morning sun, rising in the fog, gives us enough flickering light through the forest canopy to reveal the young, emerald green fronds of an ostrich fern stretching up out of the ground.
The same evening, my mother prepares a meal I already feel connected to – creamy lemon and fiddlehead fettuccine. We share dinner and smile at each other as we reflect on our experience hunting and gathering. On that fateful spring morning my mother taught me that we did not have to rely solely on what came from the grocery store. We could find an abundance of food all around us.
As the years have passed I’ve shared this knowledge with my husband, Michael, and together we’ve shared it with our two young sons, Kingsley and Sterling. We live in Dunedin, a lush valley near Creemore, surrounded by like-minded individuals. Our neighbours, Peter and Dawn, share our enthusiasm for harvesting, processing and consuming foraged food. We discuss what we discover, and plan our next outings over a bottle of wine. (And because art is my spirit – I thought what better way to integrate my passions than through the illustrations I created for this pages.)
Foraging is defined as the “acquisition of food.” Since the beginning of civilization, living beings have always foraged to survive. But in today’s world many of us feel we no longer have the time, knowledge or understanding to head into the woods and find food. But that’s changing. I see a shift as more people rediscover a personal and profound connection to their natural environment. If you have been intrigued by the quiet wild food and foraging movement, but haven’t yet ventured forth, allow this beginner’s guide to initiate you into finding and cooking spring’s local bounty.
An important pointer before you start: You must stay safe. Do not ingest anything you are not able to identify. In other words, when in doubt, throw it out! This is especially true when it comes to one of my favourites, morels. Beware the toxic “false morel” (Gyromitra esculenta) with its irregular, squashed-looking, dark brown cap. If sliced lengthwise, this imposter is filled with cotton-like fibres. I’ve also learned to stay away from areas that are likely to have been sprayed by chemicals, are highly trafficked or near roadsides. They’re called wild foods for a reason.
Also, don’t forget that a good forager behaves ethically and responsibly. She never takes more than she needs. This ensures regrowth as well as limiting waste. One rule of thumb is to harvest only 5 to 10 per cent of any particular patch of a given species. When harvesting, give each plant you take a shot at regrowth by not removing the whole thing (with the exception of root vegetables). And foraging on private land will require you to get permission from the landowner. If you’re curious about foraging on public land here in Ontario, look for Crown land use policies at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry at ontario.ca.
I hope the tips and images will help inspire you to do more of your own research and head out into the wild, the trails, fields and forests that surround us, with a newfound sense of curiosity. See what you can find.
common dandelion · lion’s tooth · piss-the-bed · blowball
The common dandelion (with its colourful aliases) has long been considered a pesky weed. Growing up, I’d see neighbours in their yards with bottles of pesticide, spraying each plant until it burned up and died back. My parents always left ours alone, confident our dog, Jake, would pluck off the sweet golden flowers for a snack long before they took over our grassy yard. In many cultures the dandelion has been used for centuries as a treatment for stomach and liver conditions.
Hard to miss. Slender hollow stalks bear a solitary flower head comprising numerous tiny yellow flower tubes on a round disk. Their long leaves are green with a jagged-tooth shape.
The common dandelion can be found from March to September in lawns, fields and along roadsides.
Leaves are tender in early spring and can be eaten fresh, steamed or sautéed. Mature greens can be added to smoothies, blanched or sautéed with garlic and oil. The dandelion root can be used in tea or roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. For tea, steep fresh cleaned or dried root in boiling water for two or three minutes and add a little honey to taste. The bright yellow flower can be eaten fresh in salads, battered and fried, preserved in oil or baked into bread.
yellow morel · common morel · true morel
My first experience with the common (or true) morel was just four years ago. That life-changing wild food find means I can no longer go for an ordinary trail walk, hike or even run in the springtime for the rest of my days. My gaze constantly darts back and forth, hunting for the desirable fungi – which often causes me to fall over my own two feet. Morels have a meaty texture and a rich, nutty flavour. A true wild food gem, they have a symbiotic relationship with trees, so it is nearly impossible to recreate ideal growing conditions.
Look for the telltale honeycomb texture. The pale brown or yellowish brown caps are attached to fleshy, brittle white stems. Sliced in half lengthwise, a true morel is hollow from the tip of the cap to the bottom of the stem.
In some years morels will pop up all over the place and in others they will be scarce. They are generally found in orchards, near decaying trees, burn sites and south-facing hills. Keep an eye out in areas where you can find pine and spruce trees. Collect them in breathable baskets to avoid moisture buildup.
The entire fungus is edible. You can dry, pickle, preserve, freeze, eat fresh or ferment them. My favourite method(so far) is to butter poach them and serve with a filet of pan-fried salmon. For more ideas, visit foragerchef.com.
ramps, wild leeks
Finding and collecting ramps is one of my never-miss spring traditions. They are easy to spot and have a pungent smell, so kids find it easy to help. I have taught my five-year-old how to gently dig deep around the plant, just enough to uncover the beautiful white bulb from its deep rich soil. Ramps are found across eastern North America. High in vitamin C, they were once used to treat scurvy after long harsh winters.
Smooth vibrant green dual leaves emerge sometime in April. They grow close together on the forest floor, their roots many inches beneath the surface of the soil. They have a green or burgundy colour mid stem and a fleshy white bulb.
You can find them basking in hardwood deciduous forests where the sun filters through. To ensure the survival of a patch of plants, harvest lightly, leaving most behind. Use a knife (not a shovel, which will damage other bulbs in a clump) to cut from just beneath the bulb, leaving the roots anchored.
The entire plant is edible. Ramps can be substituted in any dish where you would use leeks, garlic scapes or onions. Eat them raw, sautéed, roasted, charred or minced into butter or pesto. To enjoy this wild edible year round, try drying, pickling or fermenting. After flowering, the texture of the bulb becomes woody, but they’re still good for pickling.
fiddlehead fern · ostrich fern
Like robins, these little green scrolls of magic are classic harbingers of spring. They’re also packed with unique fatty acids and antioxidants, making them nutrition superstars. Fiddlehead is a common name for the edible first emerging coils of fern plants in April. What I’ve learned is that it’s the ostrich fern variety I’m on the lookout for.
The ostrich fern usually has six to eight fronds with a featherlike appearance that emerge from a single crown. The fronds are covered in a brownish husk holding in the young growing shoots. (For useful information, search “fiddleheads on woodlots” at ontariowoodlot.com.)
Ostrich ferns are most commonly found deep in forests near water with shade and dappled light. They like the damp, rich soil and cool conditions these areas afford.
The entire fiddlehead is edible – but never eat them raw. You’ll need to fully cook fiddleheads to destroy their shikimic acid, a compound known to cause upset stomachs. Remove as much of the brown husk as possible and wash multiple times before you steam or boil them. I like to add them to stir-fries or pastas. You can also pickle and preserve them.
And try my updated version of my mother’s fettuccine recipe.
After your foraging trip, try this fettuccine dish to celebrate.