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With the appreciation of all things created local soaring in 2019, those with a passion for uber-local tastes are going to back to the basics, embracing regional foods that can be found in fields, forests, and near the sea.
As a boy in Saint Andrews, New Brunswick, Jamie Simpson combed the beaches and shores of his hometown, searching for wild treasures. He'd been given a book about an adventuresome cartoon family whose experiences offered an engaging backdrop to an introduction to foraging along the seashore. Captivated, Simpson spent afternoons walking the shorelines, guide book in hand, gathering all manner of berries, fungi, algae, and wild spice.
A few decades later, in early 2018, Simpson published his third book, Eating Wild in Eastern Canada [Nimbus Publishing] — a guide to foraging in Maritime forests, and fields, and all along our rich and rugged coasts. In the years between Simpson worked as a forester and an arborist. These days he's (mostly) a practicing attorney, one who still gets outside regularly to collect his favourite wild treats.
The key for beginners, Simpson says, is to remember wild food is inextricably tied to time and place. “Learning the habitat and the season for each wild food,” he says, “is the critical thing. Then it's just a matter of gradually building up this mental map of the different foods available at different times of the year.”
Over the winter Simpson collected Chaga, a wild mushroom highly sought for its potential health benefits, and pine sprigs for tea. This week he'll go 'fiddleheading,' making sure he gets his fill of the delicate spring green before the tasty fern's short growing season ends.
“The best way is to find somebody and go along with them,” he says when asked the most effective way for the curious to get acquainted with foraging.
But with many still unfamiliar with the art of foraging and wary of the dangers of misidentifying potentially toxic wild eats, the idea of harvesting wild ingredients can be daunting.
Fortunately, for the unlucky who lack access to a guide, there are those who've made it their job to help teach others to forage responsibly.
In 2007 Fred Dardenne, his wife, and their three kids immigrated to Nova Scotia from Belgium. Fred, who had grown up in the small Belgium village of Honnay fell for the province's wild spaces. As a child surrounded by Honnay's lush forests, winding rivers, meadows, grasslands, fertile farmlands, and their accompanying deep, earthy smells, Dardenne developed a passion for wild things.
“You could smell all the flavours,” he says. “It was the best time of my life.” It's a passion he brought with him to the Maritimes.
When he first arrived in Nova Scotia Dardenne was still working in Belgium as a carpenter, spending about half the year in Canada and half in his home country. His time here was mostly spent in the wild searching for mushrooms, seaweed, and other wild things to use in his kitchen. In 2015 he decided to stop splitting his years between Belgium and Canada and made foraging his full-time gig when he started FD Wild Foods & Fine Products.
Nearly five years later Dardenne works with about 80 foragers throughout the Atlantic provinces (and a handful in BC) to keep his distributor stocked with a supply of nearly 200 wild products — sea truffle (a delicate seaweed) is his favourite because of it's rich smell and flavour — which are then sold to restaurants and businesses within the Maritimes and far beyond.
Dardenne also offers his popular 'eco-tours' to the public. From about May to November you can book to join a small group for either half or full-day eco-tour with Dardenne, where he takes guests into the forests and along the shores, introducing you to the wild abundance on offer, the best ways to harvest it sustainably, and ending with a meal cooked and enjoyed in the wilderness. He also has options for large groups, schools, companies, and professional chefs.
To Dardenne, getting people into the wild is important. It's about rebuilding the connection to nature many have lost. “There is a disconnection between the cultivated and the wild,” he says. “When we do an eco-tour we connect people to the habitats we can find in the wild. We can teach them how to use them.”
For Lori McCarthy, owner of Newfoundland company Cod Sounds, wild foods tell our stories, especially in places like Newfoundland, where it's people have owned much to the land and sea for their survival.
A Cod Sound is the air bladder that keeps the cod afloat. The term reminded McCarthy of one story, told by her grandfather — a fisher by trade — that recalled how during the cod boom, local fishers would remove the sound bone (essentially vertebra of the fish) before shipping their catch out of the province. With too much meat left on the bone to just throw away, the leftovers were salted and boiled or pan-fried and became a part of the local fisher's diet. Although they haven't been found on people's plates much since the collapse of the cod fishery, McCarthy chose to honour the importance of codfish when naming her company.
Like Dardenne, through Cod Sounds, McCarthy provides wild foods to local restaurants and offers a wide variety of year-round workshops, cooking classes, and wild food excursions to locals and tourists alike, as a way to ensure Newfoundland's cultural foods stay alive and on people's plates and cultivate deep relationships between people and the land.
“What I want,” she says, “is keep the food of this province on our plates. As the generations go on, a lot of these foods and traditions are being lost. And to me, they tell the story of who we are.”
So far, it seems to be working. Business is booming. Cod Sounds workshops (like Bushcraft Basics, Introduction to Curing, and Summer Coastal Forage) often sell out as soon as they're posted. Luckily for those who may have missed out, Lori also offers private excursions to individuals or groups whenever possible.
“Often times people will call me and say, oh, my son is coming home, and he's bringing his girlfriend, she'd never been here,” she says. “They want to book a family trip because they grew up doing so and don't anymore. And, it's an opportunity to share with the people who are coming from far away.”
Even after 6 years, the result is powerful for McCarthy.
“When you have people out, and they start to remember their childhood moments, it's also an opportunity for them to share their stories about where they're from. They get to share a moment so steeped in our tradition, something very every day to us.”
Making those connections is vital to McCarthy, and it's why she caps her excursions to groups of just six or eight.
“The idea is that you get an opportunity to create a relationship with people, so they leave with a better understanding,” she says. “I don't take 20 people because something gets lost. What I want to share with them comes from people sitting around a fire, talking about how we grew up.”
Eating Wild in Eastern Canada: A Guide to Foraging the Forests, Fields and Shorelines
- Author:Jamie Simpson
FD Wildfoods & Fine products
- Fred Dardenne, Prospect Bay, N.S.
- Sylvain Cormier, Trout River Road, P.E.I.
- ‘Everything Wild’ on Facebook
- Cod Sounds
- Lori McCarthy