Canada's Master of Wild Edibles


Photo by telepathicgeorge/Flickr CC

When the fresh matsutake mushrooms arrived at the Forbes Wild Foods office in Toronto, Meaghan Lynch rushed to open the box. The valuable pine mushroom, loved by many—but particularly by the Japanese, who will pay more than $100 for a good one—had been harvested in northern Quebec for the first time.

Inside were the most beautiful specimens she'd ever seen. "Perfectly clean, soft, no bruising. They weren't soggy," Lynch said. "I opened them and said, 'Look at these.'" And the smell? "Sweet."

Lynch then called the chefs who were waiting for news of the matsutakes' arrival and promptly sold out of the more than ten kilos she received that first day.

The matsutake is just one of many hard-to-find products harvested from the Canadian wilderness and sold by Forbes Wild Foods. Founded by Jonathan Forbes, the business started back in the late 1990s when Forbes realized that no one knew what he was talking about when he told them of the chokecherries he'd picked or the beechnuts he was eating. "If you asked people what are Canadian wild foods, you'd be lucky to get more than wild rice, maple syrup, and blueberries," he said.

Nowadays, Forbes also sells pawpaws and wild leeks, both indigenous to southern Ontario. These are scarce (pawpaws more so than leeks) because human development has taken over their native habitat. But Forbes also sells foods that Canadians simply have forgotten how to eat, like woodland lobster mushrooms that really do taste like their marine namesake and that the Ojibwe used to pick. Saskatoon berries whose bushes cover vast swaths of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Cattail hearts and shoots that grow wild in wetlands and marshes across the country.

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By bringing these foods out of the wilderness, Forbes is offering a different view of the Canadian backwoods. He's reminding us that the wild has an intrinsic value—that it is an ecosystem and a place to find delicious food, not just a great expanse of nothingness.

Forbes was raised a forager. His mother, a nurse, was happiest when eating a plate of wild mushrooms she'd found in the woods. They would go out together and harvest wild ginger that they would candy, or pick chokecherries to make wine. The family lived at the eastern edge of Toronto in the 1950s, not too far from farmland and the shore of Lake Ontario, where he could collect wild raspberries or catch smelt on the beaches. When his family bought a farm where they'd head for long periods, his knowledge of the foods in the wilderness grew even more.

Then Toronto's urban growth replaced wild habitat with 1960s housing developments and suburban strip malls. The waters where he used to catch smelt became too polluted to fish in. The foods were lost. "It wasn't 'til years later that I realized how divorced from the land people are that they don't know what you can do with it," he said.

When Forbes started the company, he had to teach his clientele, which included chefs, what to do with the novel ingredients. So he introduced them to products like birch syrup, made by boiling the sap of the paper birch, and today many restaurants use the syrup for desserts and drinks as well as in savory dishes. The public likes his foods too. He sells his products at farmers' markets and also to buyers in Germany and the United States.

Now his interest in developing a wild foods industry in Canada has gone beyond his own business. Forbes traveled north to pick the matsutake mushrooms as part of a trip to research the feasibility of an annual First Nations mushroom harvest in northern Ontario and Quebec, near James Bay. For six weeks, he lived in the jack pine forest, training locals to identify mushrooms in the hope that they can turn the wild foods around them into economic opportunity.

While he'd heard rumors that the mushroom grew in the area, no one knew for sure. But they were right. During his stay, the group harvested a whopping 700 kilograms of matsutakes, which is not easy because the mushroom must be picked with care. The stem is wiggled out of the earth while the picker brushes away sand and ash to keep the mushroom's gills free of detritus. The matsutakes were either sent by air to Montreal, from which they were bussed to Forbes's headquarters in Toronto, or dried in a contraption the foragers rigged themselves and then bagged to be sold later.

The matsutake might not replace the cremini at the supermarket any time soon, but thanks to Forbes, Canadian wild foods are slowly moving into the spotlight.