Foraging for Beginners: Tips for Understanding the Wild Edible Landscape

Ass’s foot? Cough wort? British tobacco? In Ontario, this common weed is called coltsfoot—it grows in ditches, looks like dandelion, and infused into ice cream, tastes like fresh melon.

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Coltsfoot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

words :: Melanie Chambers.

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A few summers ago, I foraged in Ireland. Our guide took us to the ocean where we plunged our shovels into the sand dunes and hauled out roots that when mashed created a spicy horseradish.

Near the shore, in pockets of puddles, we found sea cactus that tasted like salty pickles. The forest was the same: a hodgepodge of completely new tastes and textures. In Ontario forests, if you know what to look for, coltsfoot is only one of many treats you can find in this adventurous country market.


Fiddlehead fern. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“It’s about understanding your landscape in an edible sense,” says Miriam Streiman, co-owner of Mad Maple Country Inn, a two-bedroom inn on a 100-acre farm near Creemore. On the menu: the Ontario forest.

“Everything we do is showcasing southern Ontario and Toronto and bringing people closer to nature…it’s about asking what season are we in – and what can I make that really honours the integrity of those ingredients?”


Chokeberries. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

But as any expert forager will tell you, don’t start picking random roots and mushrooms—unless you’re up for a potential Age-of-Aquarius trip – or worse, a bout of stomach pains from eating raw fiddleheads (note: blanch first to remove toxins) – or much worse, death from a poison mushroom (never eat anything not 100-percent identifiable).

Streiman recalls meeting Jonathan Forbes, owner of Toronto’s Forbes Wild Food, whose company features foraged ingredients from across Canada. “He took us through the woods and showed us what was what.”


Wild ginger in bloom. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Eating from the forest demands a certain responsibility, she adds, and a reverence for the ingredients. When you’re harvesting from the woods, it’s not the grocery store—not in taste, texture, or quantity.

Foraging in Ontario starts in the spring tapping maple trees for syrup. Then, just under the last layer of snow, you begin to see the magic happening: a root, or a bit of greenery peeking through. One of the most popular and plentiful is the wild leek. Use the greens for pesto and the bulbs for pickling; however, don’t stock up: found in patches, wild leeks don’t cultivate on their own. That means foragers should harvest only five percent and leave the rest to regenerate.

“Wild leeks have a seven-year cycle from seed to seed, so you can see that by taking out five percent per year, by year seven you have removed 35 percent,” says Forbes. He goes one step further: if you come across a small patch, only remove the leaves – forgo the bulbs.


Trout lilies. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

One of Streiman’s favourites is wild ginger for making candies and syrups; she also replaces molasses with wild ginger in her thumbprint cookies – expect a peppery flavour similar to ginger with a bit of heat. And did you know that a wild lily flower added to a stew will thicken the broth? Or that removing the flower’s stamen and adding it to stew has an effect similar to saffron?


Wild leeks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Later in the summer, chokecherries are on the menu. Found along bushes or shorter tight trees, unlike a regular cherry, chokecherries are inedible raw: soak and then dry them before eating. “They make beautiful syrup, jellies and even sauces for braising meat such as venison,” says Streiman.

Foraging encourages us to consider where our food is coming from. Streiman adds: “It gives you a newfound respect how to take care of the land around you and how important it is to preserve that knowledge… because foraging existed since the beginning of time.”

Editor’s note: We recommend foraging only in the company of an expert.


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