Friday, October 30, 2009
I live close to the area settled by my ancestors nearly 200 years ago. They were granted land by the Crown for services performed in the War of 1812. In that amount of time, my family lore has become replete with the ways to identify, harvest and prepare food found in the wild. Much of Southern Ontario is contained within the Carolinian Forest zone where one can find numerous types of plants that do not grow anywhere else in Canada. Many of these plants can provide sumptous foods if one knows where and when to look. The following paragraphs will outline some of the wild plants that can be found and harvested for food in Southern Ontario.
One of the first green sprouts in spring is the ostrich fern. The tightly curled fronds that emerge from the soil in early spring are called "fiddleheads" and are a highly sought delicacy. Fiddleheads can be found in much of the temperate areas of Canada. They are harvested when they are still tightly curled and have a papery sheath covering them. They are very nutritious, just the tonic the settlers would have needed after a long winter of salted and preserved food. Fiddleheads can be prepared by removing the papery covering and boiling, and changing the water twice or steaming.
Watercress is another green that appears in the spring and can be easily harvested along the shores of lakes and streams. It is a member of the cabbage family and can be used as any other salad greens. It can be found worldwide and is one of the oldest plants known to be consumed by humans.
Morels are a delicacy my mother and aunt will fight over!! The light brown, cone shaped mushroom has a cap that appears honeycombed. It typically grows in cool damp soils that are slightly acidic. One of the favourite hiding places of the morel is in or near rotting logs, especially cedar. They appear after the first warm spell of the spring, usually mid-MayUnfortunately, the morel is becoming harder and harder to find as the years pass. My great grandfather could pick them by the bushel full and now it is more likely that only a couple will be found in any given year. Fried in butter they are meaty and smell a bit like steak.
As the season progresses, more and more wild food appears in the fields and hedgerows. The Ojibwa people called June the "Strawberry Moon" as this is when the first wild strawberries ripen. The wild strawberry is tiny, much smaller than its domesticated counterpart. It is usually the size of a large rasin. Don't let its small size deceive you, for the wild strawberry packs a flavour filled punch. Sweeter and much more strawberry tasting than commercial berries, the wild strawberry is abundant and easily spotted with its three sided leaves on roadsides and sometimes even in urban backyards. Eat wild strawberries as you pick them at the peak of ripness and you'll never again be satisfied with the watery blandness of imported domestic strawberries.
Blackberry and raspberry thickets abound wherever land is left fallow. The wild blackberry is something entirely different than the blackberry found in grocery stores. Often berries sold commercially as blackberries are actually mulberries or thimbleberries, which have nothing in common with genuine blackberries (also called "black raspberries"). The berries grow on thorn covered canes, not unlike the canes of its cousin the wild rose. The canes are sometimes green or sometimes have a dusty purple colour. The leaf looks very similar to a rose leaf. Blackberries and raspberries ripen in mid July, and the wetter the weather the bigger the berry. But in my opinion, the best berries are the smaller ones that grow in drier, hotter years. The sweetness is more concentrated that way. To gather wild berries you simply must wear long sleeves and long pants to protect your skin not only from the razor sharp thorns but the insects as well. July is also peak mosquito season! Once gathered the berries can be (and usally are) eaten with cream and sugar or are baked into pies, muffins and other goods. They also make excellent jam and they freeze well too. Other berries that can be gathered in the summer are mulberries, gooseberries, thimble berries and elderberries. All of which played an integral part of the settler diet, and can still be enjoyed today.
In the fall, Ontario provides a large selection of nuts to be foraged for. Walnuts, butternuts, chestnuts and hickory nuts are some of the most common. Just last week I took my children with me as we picked basket after basket of hickory nuts. The hickory is a relative of the pecan, found in the American south. It looks quite a bit like a pecan but has a distinct maple taste. The hickory is a tough nut to crack, literally, and usually only a hammer or a vise will do the trick. Once the nut is cracked, use a pick to pry the nut meat out. The meats can be used anywhere pecans are called for and make excellent cookies and tarts.
I will strive to pass down my knowledge of local wild food to my children, as it was passed down to me. Too many people today have no idea of the existance of God's bounty that is literally in their own backyards. I hope you too will be inspired to hunt out the local delicacies of your region!