Across the planet — from Australia to the Faroe Islands — the culinary world is rediscovering a very old idea, foraging for food. In a heavily mechanized global food system with a very large carbon footprint, where households regularly consume food from continents away, the idea of eating locally and in a wholesome, sustainable fashion, is starting to catch on, especially at the highest levels of haute cuisine. And wild foods are front and centre in this trend.
Foraged foods are not altogether a new idea for restaurants. Truffles, for example, can only be found in the wild, usually with the help of specially-trained animals who sniff them out. High-end chefs have long been in love with the truffle’s unique flavour, and have been known to pay $1,200 a pound for the specialty item. Fiddlehead ferns and wild mushrooms also make the culinary most-wanted list.
Not surprisingly, indigenous peoples are at the heart of the modern foraged food movement. A new generation of chefs from indigenous backgrounds are bringing their age-old culture to modern restaurants. Chef Rayleen Brown of Kungkas Can Cook in Australia is of aboriginal descent, and many of her flavors come from her nomadic upbringing. For her business, she sources 100 percent of her bush foods from local women foragers. Brown’s menus vary based on the foraged products that come in, “riding rhythms of the land and seasons.” Similar stories emerge from places as diverse as Brazil, the American Southwest, and throughout Canada (read our piece on Canada’s indigenous cuisine).
As foraging emerges from the fringes, the mainstream is taking note. We wrote previously about renowned chef Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food. In addition to growing his own ingredients at the Blue Hill at Stone Barns farm, Barber and his chefs also forage the nearby woods for nuts and herbs. In Japan, chef Hisoto Nakahigashi of the Michelin-starred Miyamasou restaurant combs the nearby forest and river for fresh ingredients, which he uses to create the evening “kaiseki” meal, comprising many small courses. At Attica Restaurant in Ripponlea, Australia, a suburb of Melbourne, every member of the staff forages for food each day, sometimes bringing back finds just 15 minutes before service begins, and thereby assuring maximum freshness.
Foraging can be a bit of an art, so it’s not surprising that many busy chefs employ experienced foragers to bring them their ingredients. For example. Chef Eddy Leroux of New York’s Restaurant Daniel, collaborates with expert forager Tama Matsuoka Wong, and the two have even co-authored a book, Foraged Flavor. Slovenian chef Ana Roš of Hiša Franko (who was named World’s Best Female Chef in 2017 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards), believes in a “zero kilometre” approach. She has a team of 10 foragers who harvest nearby mushrooms, berries, wild herbs and plants, many not traditionally used in cooking. Chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz of Central restaurant in Peru sends a team of seven people out four times per month, foraging from the sea to the Amazon and the Andes for indigenous ingredients. Véliz also runs a research centre called Mater Iniciativa, where researchers record the flavor profiles and properties of wild ingredients before they enter the kitchen. In the Faroe Islands, a popular scuba diving destination, chef Poul Andrias Ziska of Koks restaurant encourages divers to collect mahogany clams, sea urchins, and horse mussels and submerge them in a fjord near the restaurant until it is time to cook.
Nature’s gifts are seasonal, so not surprisingly the use of foraged and wild ingredients often vary depending on the time of year. Rene Redzepi of the Noma 2.0 Restaurant in Denmark varies their menu seasonally, focusing on seafood in winter, fresh vegetables in summer, and wild game and forest finds in fall. Poland’s Atelier Amaro restaurant goes one better. Chef Wojciech Modest Amaro divides his menu into 52 calendar weeks so that he can incorporate the freshest foraged ingredients from the countryside and his garden.
As Suzanne learned during her year of eating only food local to Dawson City, Yukon, edible wild plants abound, even in urban areas, where they are often considered to be weeds, especially if they are prolific growers. Dandelions, wild sage (a.k.a. stinkweed), stinging nettle, and chickweed are just some of the plants that frustrate Canadian lawn owners, but are in fact delicious ingredients, especially when picked while they are young. Some urban restaurants, such as in Iceland, Camissa Brasserie, in Capetown, South Africa, and Masque, in Mumbai, India, may pick up ingredients from among their city’s sidewalks and empty lots.