Deerholme’s Bill Jones forages and cooks wild foods

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Spring is here: waterfowl are flying north, cherry blossoms are in bloom, and all kinds of green shoots are poking forth from the earth. And if you know what you’re doing, some of those shoots could be your supper.

      Foraging—the art and science of harvesting nature’s edible bounty—is likely humankind’s oldest profession, no matter what other trades might claim. In the past hundred years, however, wild foods have been driven off most tables thanks to refrigeration, industrial agriculture, and genetically modified organisms. But there’s a backlash going on: worried about Frankenfoods and perhaps perplexed by the complexities of molecular cuisine, adventurous chefs and home cooks have returned to the bush and the seashore, some in search of a simpler diet and others simply looking for culinary excitement.

      “Foraging is part of a trend, and trends tend to go in many directions,” explains Bill Jones, chef and owner of Duncan’s Deerholme Farm restaurant, on the line from the Cowichan Valley. “There’s been a bit of a decline in things like super-fine dining, along with more concern about where our food is sourced from. But also in the popular psyche, there’s also a very famous restaurant in Copenhagen called Noma, which for three consecutive years was ranked the number one restaurant in the world. They were very much into foraging and trained a lot of people from all over the world, so their new Nordic cuisine based on foraging spread to L.A., to New York, to London—all over the place. They were very influential—and that’s been over the past five or six years.”

      Jones exerts considerable influence in his own right. Last year’s The Deerholme Mushroom Book: From Foraging to Feasting (Touchwood) spurred many readers into local forests in search of the elusive chanterelle. His just-released The Deerholme Foraging Book: Wild Foods and Recipes From the Pacific Northwest takes a broader look at what’s out there to eat.

      Both volumes, he explains, are the result of his long-time interest in wild foods, which grew out of a combination of boredom and necessity.

      “In a past life, I was a geologist,” Jones relates. “I used to work in the Rockies, and when I was out backpacking I kept taking dehydrated food. After a while I got very tired of it and started thinking, ‘What can I eat to supplement that on the trail, to make the meals better?’ I started off with trout, and then went on to wild onions and mushrooms, and now it’s 25 years later.”

      Most foragers have had similar experiences. For Eric Pateman, who features foraged produce and wild seafood at his Edible Canada restaurant and store on Granville Island, his love of untamed food is inseparable from love itself: his first wild-harvest experiences came when he was a teenager, courting his Japanese-Canadian wife.

      “Growing up, her parents and grandparents always went foraging for wild mushrooms,” he explains by phone. “So I got to go out and go mushroom-hunting with them, although it took many years before they would actually tell me where we were going. Boyfriends come and go, but foraging grounds stay forever.”

      Secrecy remains part of foraging lore, with commercial mushroom harvesters being particularly protective of their favourite picking spots. Fortunately for Lower Mainland dwellers, many readily identifiable edible plants can be collected within city limits.

      “This spring, you’ll definitely have fiddlehead ferns and spruce tips,” says Fabio Martini, who hosts field dinners featuring foraged and artisanal produce and leads fall mushroom tours for his Urban Zucchini company. “Spring is also morel season, and there’s going to be some oyster mushrooms around. And a lot of people don’t realize that dandelion is quite edible. I kind of compare it to arugula in its bitterness, although if you harvest it early, like around right now, it’s quite mild and tasty.”

      Jones concurs, noting that in another few weeks urban foragers will want to watch out for oxeye daisy, a common roadside plant. “It has a very sweet, apple-like flavour,” he says. “It’s excellent for salads, it’s very high in antioxidants, and it’s delicious.”

      Even with this easily recognizable species, he adds, foragers will want to follow a few commonsense rules: don’t pick in an area that’s likely to have been sprayed with insecticide or herbicide; stay away from industrial locations, since the soil may have suffered chemical contamination; and rinse to ensure your plants are clean. And of course, foragers should be aware of poisonous plants and know how to identify them; Jones gives an overview in his books.

      With care, however, comes a big reward. “A wild food has to fight for its existence, so it’s packed full of life and energy and nutrients,” Jones says. “That comes through in the flavour: wild foods are just intense, and very clean and beautiful.”

      Healthy, tasty, and free: what’s not to like?