It’s officially spring in Ontario, which means one thing: our feeds are full of chefs showing off their foraging skills! From ramps to fiddle heads to seldom seen treats like wild ginger, knotweed and morels; now is the best time to get a taste of Ontario’s woodlands on menus.
Last week, we got a chance to head into the woods with the team from Bruce Wine Bar to see how (and what!) they’re foraging for right now. Here’s what went down.
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Heading up the hunting crew were chefs Shaun Edmonstone (right) and Joel Gray (left). Both have a lifelong relationship with the woods in Grey County – Shaun having grown up living in Thornbury. As we walk through the spring muck, he tells stories of the treehouses and shenanigans that made him fall in love the area when he was young.
It’s important to preserve the woods and treat them with respect – otherwise they won’t provide for much longer. We gingerly stepped around saplings and spring flowers while Joel talked about wild things he’s experimenting with now. Apparently, day lillies are delicious but he hasn’t found a great use for them on the menu… yet.
The first ‘crop’ we find are fiddleheads. They grow by the swollen river bank in huge numbers. Fiddleheads are the young, curled up fronds of the ostrich fern. We take one or two per clump, no more – to ensure the plant has enough left to thrive through the summer months. The guys will be putting these on the menu tonight, but they’ll also be pickling and freezing some for the winter months.
We load the team into the car. Shaun has rallied service staff, dishwashers and cooks to join us. It takes a village to collect what they need for service, but “it’s also a great team building exercise” he says. His staff have been asking him for months to take them out on the hunt.
Our next stop is top secret. We’re hunting ramps after all.
Ramps – or wild leeks – are the darling on the foraging world. Everyone wants them and their population is not doing well as a result. When we get out of the cars, Shaun rallies the team and explains the plan. “Two of us on bulbs, the rest – you’re tops only. Who brought their knives? Good. You’re on tops.”
When you harvest whole ramps, it is the same as digging up an onion or beet or any other root vegetable — you are ending the plant’s life cycle. Some folks say “take only 10% of what you find”, but we’re heading into the woods with a different philosophy. “Take so few that no one can tell you’ve been here” says Shaun.
It’s a good system. Once a ramp seed hits the soil, it can take anywhere from 6 to 18 months to germinate. Once it germinates, it takes 5 to 7 years before it reaches a size that is large enough to harvest. The more you take, the harder it is for the patch to recover.
The last treasure we find is a patch of young wild ginger (above). The plan is to use it in syrups and tinctures for the restaurant cocktail program. A fitting end to a lovely day.
Looking to try wild foods but not sure where to start? Try them on the menu at one of these Feast On Certified restaurants, right now!