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Vancouver's Chef Chris Whittaker knows his brome from his bristlegrass.
Grocery stores may be clean and convenient, but a resourceful few are going back to their hunter-gatherer roots. Foraging, or procuring food from the wild, could be your newest foodie venture. Escape from fluorescent lighting and wobbly shopping carts into the great outdoors, where no one will give you the side-eye for taking more than one free sample. These six tips from Chef Chris Whittaker of Vancouver’s Forage restaurant (nominated for Best West End in our sister pub’s 2018 Restaurant Awards) will have you munching on berries and fungi in no time—and prevent you from poisoning yourself.
Before you venture into the great outdoors with a smile on your face and a skip in your step, you’d better educate yourself. “Identification is paramount,” says Whittaker. Obviously, you don’t want to make yourself or your dinner guests sick, so make sure you study up. Whittaker recommends reading books and guides that are specific to the Pacific Northwest, because general guides are just that—too general. Research throughly to keep your pickings tasty, not toxic.
Besides the shape, size and colour of a particular plant or berry, Whittaker emphasizes how important time is when foraging. Even if you’re sure you’ve identified a certain plant, double-check that it’s in season before tossing it in a salad. For example, Whittaker describes elderflower as white flower blossoms that grow in clusters—but they only bloom in the spring. So if you think those white blossoms basking in the August sun are elderflower, think again. Mind your calendar to keep your foraging smart and safe.
Similar to hiking or camping, make sure you’re prepared before you get out and gather. We’re talking warm clothing, proper footwear, water, snacks and a basic survival kit. To store the spoils of your forage, Whittaker recommends bringing Ziploc bags for greens and flowers and paper bags for fungi. In case of an emergency, be sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.
You can’t forage just anywhere, no matter how good your neighbour’s blackberry bush looks or how mad you are that they haven’t returned your lawnmower. Private land and regional parks are a big no-no for gathering, so make sure to do your research and have a legal route planned out.
Overindulgence is never a good thing, especially when it comes to gathering. “Take a small percentage of what is available, because you don’t want to harm the plant,” says Whittaker. “You want there to be longevity there.” He notes fiddleheads as a particularly sensitive plant; taking more than three fiddleheads per plant can cause it to die. “If something looks like it’s been picked over, I would just avoid it altogether,” he says. Be mindful of overpicking and stay sustainable.
Once the research, planning and packing is done, and you’re deep in Mother Nature’s kitchen, remember to stop and smell the roses (or the dandelions, or the clovers, or the tiger lilies). Besides towering conifers, gorgeous views and maybe a deer or two, you might just find a little bit of history in the bush. “B.C.’s so rich with logging history, you see a lot of old saw blades and that kind of stuff—you’re against these notched-out trees that were felled a hundred years ago,” says Whittaker. “It lets you know how insignificant you are in the grand scheme of things.”