On a late-summer evening, I descended into the Don Valley with 50 well-to-do Torontonians—mostly middle-aged couples in chinos, linen suits and sandals. We paid $50 each to identify edible plants. Like churning your own butter or whittling your own driftwood spoons, foraging—finding and harvesting food from wild resources—is one of those rugged pioneer traditions that has reached the peculiar status of urban artisanal fetish. Days before the tour, I imagined the calamities I might encounter: stinging nettles, disturbed wasps’ nests, rodents of unknown rabidity status.
To my relief, we never strayed from the manicured trails behind the Brick Works. Our tour guide was Tama Matsuoka Wong, the forager for the posh New York restaurant Daniel (its owner, Daniel Boulud, is opening a Toronto outpost this month). She explained how to identify Queen Anne’s lace umbels (aromatic buds used for seasoning) and cattails (tall shoots that taste like cucumber). Brad Long, the chef from the Brick Works’ locavore restaurant Café Belong, joined us, wearing Converse sneakers and a hoop earring. He lazily plucked buds and praised the dandelion leaves that grow in parking lots. After the tour, we piled into Café Belong for a foraged family-style dinner. I tried to tend to my mosquito bites inconspicuously as my fellow diners discussed the many culinary uses for wild mint.
Long is one of a handful of chefs in the city who are serious about wild things. This year alone, three new restaurants focusing on foraged ingredients have opened: Yours Truly, an Asian-inflected prix fixe restaurant that this magazine ranked as the city’s top new restaurant last spring; Ursa, a terroir-obsessed Queen West spot; and Edulis, a quaint mom-and-pop shop, whose name is the binomial for porcini mushrooms. In the mid-2000s, the locavore movement flooded Toronto menus with seasonal Ontario produce. Foraging pushes that spirit to the next level, expanding the criteria to include wild,
To the average eater, foraging still conjures images of the grizzled hunter-gatherer, in flannel and gumboots, or the loopy fruitarian who eats only fallen fruit and nuts. Its evolution from a crunchy subculture to a staple of fine dining can largely be traced to the Copenhagen-based chef René Redzepi, who opened Noma, his internationally revered restaurant, in 2003. He sticks to a strict local mandate and serves four or five wild items every night. Redzepi and his brigade of professional scroungers pluck most of the wild fare—treasures like sea lettuce and rosehip—from the forests and beaches of the
The Noma effect has been profound and pervasive, especially in Toronto. One of Redzepi’s goals for his restaurant was to cultivate a Scandinavian cuisine; before the restaurant opened, he said, Nordic food was indistinguishable from French cuisine. In Canada, we suffer from a similar culinary identity crisis, having piggybacked on continental techniques and ingredients for decades. The new crop of forage-happy restaurateurs are driven to develop a Canadian palate from ingredients untainted by industrial-scale agriculture. It’s a high-minded approach to food that’s easy to dismiss as the final event in the holier-than-thou Olympics of ethical eating. But if you can stop your eye rolling long enough to taste the stuff, you’ll find that foraged ingredients can bring intense flavours and add surprise to otherwise predictable menus.
Jeff Claudio, the executive chef at Yours Truly, worked at Noma in 2010 and is fanatically devoted to regional ingredients. “This is Ontario on a plate,” a server enthused as he laid down my terroir entrée of seasonal vegetables: streaks of herb and garlic emulsion represent the soil, fresh corn and white beans stand in for the seeds, and grilled beets, lamb’s quarters (an earthy wild spinach gathered near Trinity Bellwoods Park), borage leaves, edible flowers and garlic scapes are the vegetation. Of all the ultra-fresh elements, my favourites were the wood sorrel leaves, zinging with lemony tartness. My dessert was less successful: more scapes, pickled cipollini onions, a few concord grapes and a wedge of buffalo milk cheese. The kitchen was showing off its wild bounty instead of considering whether the ingredients would taste good with the cheese (they didn’t).
Brothers Jacob and Lucas Sharkey Pearce opened Ursa, their blithely earnest dining room, in February, focusing on nutritious Canadian cuisine. The brothers employ Deirdre Fraser, a forager who also works for Claudio at Yours Truly. She ventures out at dawn (to beat the animals to the best finds) and after a rainfall (when plants are easier to spot) to pick ox-eye daisy buds and milkweed pods. Jacob, the chef, is aggressively enthusiastic about Ursa’s mandate. “The bear is the most voracious forager in the animal kingdom,” he says of the restaurant’s namesake beast. “If we all ate like bears, we’d be very healthy people.” Jacob often pairs ingredients that coexist in the wild. On a winter menu he served whitetail venison with the cottony Iceland moss on which the deer might have nibbled.
My first taste of the wild at Ursa was a minty bourbon smash that would have been refreshing if not for the furry floating sumac buds, which caught in my throat like hair balls. But my doubts disintegrated with the arrival of the foraged salad, a radiant medley of lamb’s quarters, plump milkweed pods, peppery purslane (a piquant green that makes arugula seem mild), tangy pickled honey mushrooms and sea asparagus (a weed that grows near salt water and tastes like seaweed) and a sprinkle of microscopic wild blueberries and redcurrants in a tart Banyuls vinaigrette. Eating it was as fun as rifling through a bag of Halloween candy. The vegetables and berries were smaller than their farmed cousins, but their potency belied their
Compared with the showiness at Ursa and Yours Truly, Edulis is positively humble. The homey new bistro is owned by chef Michael Caballo and his wife, front-of-house manager Tobey Nemeth. Caballo hunted for herbs and berries every morning in Spain while working at Mugaritz, another acclaimed locavore restaurant. He still forages just outside the GTA on his days off, although he protects the location of his mushroom patches like state secrets. Caballo integrates wild ingredients sparingly for bold hits of flavour. Mussels in a smoked corn sauce, for example, were judiciously sprinkled with purslane. “They taste like spring,” marvelled my tablemate, and she was right—the greens had a zesty astringency that contrasted with the bivalves’ smoky richness.
The only wild things that got star status were the mushrooms. When I asked Caballo about his favourites, he extolled the virtues of fairy rings and morels for 10 minutes. I tried to change the subject, but he stopped me. “Wait, there are more,” he said, and went on to name lobster mushrooms, matsutakes and porcinis, which he declared to be his desert-island fungus. Porcinis weren’t on the menu on my visit; instead, he served sautéed Saskatchewan chanterelles—they were luscious, simple and spectacular. His monologue suddenly made sense: mushrooms like these deserve a little reverence.
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