Forage for Wild Edibles in Northeastern Ontario
by Pamela Hamel
We’re setting out to discover the tastes of the forest floor for your home pantry or campfire. There are many edible and medicinal options of the forest and all well documented, but in this mission you learn what to look for as the changing of seasons uncovers nature’s beauties. After exploring a few commonly found edibles with an Executive Chef and a wild picker, I guarantee you’ll be curious to explore on your next travel mission to the great BIG region of Northeastern Ontario.
Spring is the start of the season with fiddleheads, spiral vibrant greenery found at the base of new fern. During my management career at the Elk Lake Eco Centre, I had the pleasure of recruiting and learning from locavore Executive Chef Sarah Stewart. I recently spoke with her to learn about her foraging experiences while in the regions of Temagami and Temiskaming Shores. In a joyful tone, she shares with me what she calls her “muddy boot adventures”; picking an abundance of fiddleheads (curled baby fern fronds), and the resulting dismay of the unpopularity among some of her patrons. Overall, she says, most people are intrigued to try them as part of the travel experience but are afraid to cook them because of inexperience.
Sarah tells me she’s picked a great deal in her time. She shares that over the last few years with the growing interest in wild edibles, they can be commonly found in Ontario grocery stores. She explains that they are not farmed and are in fact handpicked throughout the North, and states they should come with a warning label. “But its really simple,” she says. “You pre-blanche for 3-4 minutes to remove toxins, rinse with cool water, then a final sauté with lemon and butter or added into your favourite stir fry. Myself, I love them with scrambled eggs.” They’re even popular as pickles!
Sarah shares her love of foraged mushrooms, such as lobster mushrooms. Incredibly bright and colourful, they truly resemble the lobster itself. They’re great because they don’t lose their colour, flavour or shape during cooking. Lobster mushrooms make a beautiful corn and mushroom chowder, really standing out on the plate. In addition, she harvests sorrel, nettles and spruce tips for green salads and various berries throughout the seasons. You can follow her on Intagram as @ChefSarahStewart.
Summer is for Berry Picking
Blueberry picking for me is the easiest, most commonly sought after wild fruit and jewels of the land. In mid-August, I asked my local picker if she would take me with her, thinking I could gain an appreciation as deep as hers. Seriously, Shelly, how do you pick 92 three-litre baskets?
Shelly is a first generation picker, a mom of two energetic tots, and Elk Lake’s “unofficial deputy mayor.” She is a busy gal, working full time at the municipal office, and helping her in-laws on weekends at a local wilderness lodge. An active runner and health enthusiast, her agility and stamina while navigating over the rough terrain is impressive. During a single lunch hour, which is when she goes out to pick, she’ll “dirty pick” two 4 litre baskets (picking without worry of leaves or sticks). She sells the berries to help fund the family’s summer vacation but, for her, picking is also about the benefits of solitude—the rustling leaves and nature’s song brings a calmness to her, a meditation she strives for in her work-life balance. Shelly doesn’t bake with the berries, selling most of her harvest.
Tips for Finding Your Own Wild Edibles
A few tips for wild harvesting wild edibles:
Tip #1: Sarah says to be sure you know the species you are picking, and that it’s safe for consumption and has come from reliable sources.
Tip #2: Laura from Wild Edibles shares the importance of being a sustainable harvester, never over-picking an area or digging entire roots of plants. She’s a botanist and educator and can be hired to take groups out on foraging missions.
Tip #3: Shelly advises protective clothing because the land is rugged and you can lose your footing easily and find yourself with scraped shins. Safety is important too—a hat and SPF 30 is recommended.
Tip #4: I also suggest using the right kind of containers for the type of forage. Mushrooms require large woven styles with handles and keeping them out of bright light is important, so special containers with lids are helpful. Also, spilling a basket over is not funny, so always bring handled containers for your berries and lots of them.
Tip #5: Bring a dog. They’re good company and can alert you to the presence of a bear or other wild animal. But keep an eye on your berries—some dogs love eating them and can cut into your harvest!
Roadside stands, souvenir shops, camps and resorts are great places to find regionally harvested plants that have been made into teas, syrups and treats. You can also look online! One of my favourite products is wild Ontario rice—I order it in 5 lb bags and use it in salads and soups.
Friends, you’ve got the whole winter to start planning your edible picking adventure—are you ready to start your season harvesting? Book a picking adventure with one of the many camp operators on Manitoulin Island to Temiskaming Shores area, like the Elk Lake Eco Centre, Les Suites Des Presidents, Elk Lake Wilderness Resort, Lost Lake Wilderness Lodge and Auld Reekie Lodge who will take you to the hot spots and maybe bake a pie with you at the end of the day.
To the best of our knowledge, the information contained here is accurate. Please be aware that there are risks when foraging wild edibles. If you don’t know or can’t verify what it is, it’s best not to eat it.