In Canada’s North, where food is regularly trucked in thousands of kilometres to remote communities, and where you can still find unspoiled wilderness, wild food has always been a viable option for many households. But beyond the economic and health aspects of harvesting wild foods, more and more people are finding the idea of eating locally and in a wholesome, sustainable fashion, appealing in other ways as well.
For Miche Genest, author of the cookbooks The Boreal Gourmet and The Boreal Feast, and who regularly pens a The Boreal Chef magazine column, what collecting wild foods has done is give her a feeling of connection to the land, and to the people who live there. “When I first moved to the Yukon I got to know my new and somewhat intimidating landscape by going into the forest with friends looking for berries,” Genest recalls. “I feel really lucky to live here, where Indigenous people have lived and gathered knowledge for thousands of years.”
“The food I gather in the forest has special meaning,” says Genest. Not to mention special flavour — the berries and mushrooms you find in the Boreal forest are like nothing I’ve ever tasted before, anywhere. Shaggy mane mushrooms are as deep and pungent as truffles, to my mind they are the northern truffle, and I used them, dried, in everything from risotto to braises to omelettes. High bush cranberries are a flavour that can’t be described, only experienced.”
One of the downsides of relying on foraged foods is that harvests can sometimes be uncertain, especially in an age of climate change. “I get panicky when the stock of wild berries in the freezer starts to go down,” admits Genest. “But the great thing is, we all trade and barter. I missed the cranberry season this year, and it wasn’t a very good one, by all accounts, but happily I met a woman … who had lots of cranberries from the year before. So she offered me all the cranberries she picked this year—five pounds—in exchange for black currants, of which I had lots. That’s one of the great things that can happen when you live in a place where foraging is second nature.”
But, as humanity has hopefully learned by now, Nature’s bounty is not endless and must be carefully managed. Foraging of wild foods is no exception, and there are many cautionary tales, even in the sparsely-populated North, where foragers have done damage to a wild crop by over-harvesting.