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).