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Some of the best things in life are free




Platitudes can be irritating - especially when they are painted on a piece of driftwood and hung on a kitchen wall - however they probably contain a grain of truth. The title of this blog is a perfect example. Some of the best things are free - and wild - and often right outside our door. We aren't talking about some feel-good intangible (not that there's anything wrong with that) - we're talking about free food and gourmet delicacies that are overlooked, under-appreciated and unfortunately, categorized as "weeds" by many of us - but not to someone like Gary Thomas - a foraging foodie and really, really interesting guy. Gary understands the value of the plants and fungi that grow naturally where we live. Foraging is a fascinating and important topic for us here at Robin Hoodies so we put some questions to Gary and he gave us answers:


First, can you tell us a bit about yourself?


I was born in Ontario but moved to Nova Scotia before I was even a year old. We lived in and around Digby and Weymouth, my first memories are in Nova Scotia. We moved back to Ontario when I was 6 years old andI lived a small town along the St. Lawrence River called Prescott. We moved to Ottawa when I was around 16. I moved back to Nova Scotia in the 90s. I met my wife here and we bought a house and had my daughter. I studied architecture at Algonquin College in Ottawa but never worked in the field. I’ve owned and operated a Canada Bread Franchise for about 25 years. I have a family with one daughter who is going to Mount Saint Vincent University next semester (shameless Dad plug) and my wife works at a restaurant. I’ve been passionate about food my whole life and it was the quest for unique ingredients that got me serious about foraging. Spending time in the woods and on the beach really changed my outlook on life. I’ve come to believe that we are a part of nature and not separate from it. Ive found that nature talks to people who know how to listen.



How long have you been foraging? When, where and why did you start?


I guess I’ve been foraging in some way, as long as I can remember. I asked my mom if she could remember anything specific. She said “I remember you hunting golf balls in the woods on the golf course to sell”. That counts, right? But she also remembers me picking berries with my father before I even went to school. I was born in Ontario but moved to Nova Scotia when I was less than a year old. We moved back to Ontario when I was 5. I made a promise to my Grandmère that I’d be back here one day and I kept it.

When I met my wife, she too had been foraging her whole life. She didn’t really think of it like that, it was just a thing they did growing up. “Getting ready for the winter” is what she likes to say. I have fond memories of us foraging cranberries and going on long walks to find blueberries or raspberries when we first started going out.


Are you self-taught or did you have a mentor or take a course or maybe read a book?


I’m self taught in as much as one can be. I own too many books on the subject and belong to several Facebook groups. There is a good online foraging community to help you with identification, preserving, cooking etc. My biggest influence right now is Pascal Baudar. He is a forager and was a ‘wild food consultant’ for a lot of LA chefs, now he’s an author and teaches not only foraging but fermentation techniques as well.

I’ve also learned a lot about local foraging from my wife. Things like cranberries and dulse, and those little wild strawberries just to name a few.


What is your favourite thing to forage/pick?


Good question. Whatever is in season at the moment. Or when I’m confident with my ID of something new. That is the favourite for a while. My wife says I kind of ‘loose it’ a little during chanterelle season, which we are in right now. I also really enjoy cranberry picking with my wife.


For each of the seasons, can you recommend something we can look for and enjoy? Is there anything available in the winter?


I look forward to shepherds purse every spring. It’s in the mustard family and has delicious slightly peppery greens. It’s the reason I get the stink eye from my neighbours when I don’t mow my lawn. That and for the bees of course. Young dandelion greens are also much less bitter than the larger ones. I’m experimenting with lacto fermentation and did some spruce tips up this spring. The flavours are just so complex, woody, earthy, citrusy and slightly salty from the brine. Oh, and cattail shoots! Summer is of course for chanterelles and berries of all kinds. In fall I look forward to cranberries and wild apples, as well as hedgehog mushrooms. In winter I sometimes forage bayberries, to make candle wax, the smell is absolutely amazing. Chaga is best in winter, but I don’t forage it anymore due to over harvesting.*

What about herbal teas? Do you pick things to make teas? Or vinegars - do you flavour vinegars with things you forage? Or jams or jellies?


Not a big fan of jam or jelly. Although I made a jelly once using Queen Anne’s Lace that was quite interesting ( tasted like honey). I am experimenting with vinegar. This was a great year for blueberries so while I was sorting them to freeze I took the squished or not quite ripe ones and put them in vinegar. I’ll let that sit for a month or so and then use it in salad dressings or marinades. The colour is brilliant already. Something I will likely try is creating vinegar from fruit flies. Basically you let fruit flies attack some juice, the bacteria that creates vinegar is on the flies. You grow out the “mother” clean it up and then use that to create vinegar you can use. It’s kind of gross, but that’s where you get vinegar from.

When I first started identifying plants I was like “OK, I know what it is, but what can I do with it”. Often that answer was herbal teas. Pineapple weed or wild chamomile was probably one of the first. It’s easy to identify, very easy to find, and tastes quite good. Something probably anyone can do right now is go out and get some raspberry or blackberry leaves. Dry them out and make a tea with them. I find it tastes like green tea. It’s really good for people who get leg cramps at night. Just drink a cup with a little honey before bed. There’s also St John’s wort, wild mint, yarrow, plantain weed, so many good medicinal plants that you can make teas with.


Can you share a favourite recipe with us?


No**


Are there any dos and don’ts when it comes to picking, foraging in the wild?


Make sure you’re 100% sure before you consume anything. 99.9 isn’t good enough. I picked a bunch of mushrooms once that I thought were chanterelles. I just had this feeling though and it kept nagging at me. I double checked and they were a false chanterelle. I would have been very sick if I’d ate them. Make sure you know of any poisonous look a likes for what you harvesting. In fact go out and find those. Water hemlock looks an awful lot like Queen Ann’s Lace (same family)and a little like yarrow, make sure you know the difference or you could end up like Socrates. (Google it)

Be very aware of your surroundings, I make a lot of noise in the woods so I don’t startle any wild creature. They don’t want anything to do with humans so they’ll likely run away if they know your coming. You should also get permission to forage on land that doesn’t belong to you. Most people are cool about it.

Don’t over harvest. You can’t really over harvest mushrooms as you’re only picking the fruiting body, the rest of the organism (mycelium) is underground. Kind of like picking fruit. This doesn’t apply to chaga because what you’re harvesting isn’t the fruiting body. In some places ramps which is a wild leek has become endangered due to over harvesting. Make sure to not take everything so they’ll be some for next year and the year after that.


What is the most unique thing you have ever foraged/picked?


I don’t know. My Daughter tells me how weird I am whenever I pick dandelions and eat them. Monotropa Uniflora is a favourite find, but I also leave that where it is due to the potential for over harvesting.


Are there a lot of people in this area foraging?


I really don’t know. I’ve talked to a few people who are learning. I forage by myself or with family and I’ve never seen anyone else doing the same. Although sometimes people will beat you to a blueberry patch if it’s a well known spot.


What is the most overlooked “delicacy” that is mostly available to anyone who has access to a small patch of land/lawn/wildflowers?


Lambs Quarters are something that’s easy to find and delicious. It tastes kind of like a cross between spinach and broccoli. In fact you can substitute it for spinach in any recipe. It grows on disturbed ground, so if you dug a piece of your lawn for some reason you’d probably find it growing there next year.




If we were less obsessed with smooth monoculture lawns, would we find more things outside our doors to put on our plates?


Definitely, stop mowing your lawn and you’ll most likely find broad leaf plantain (plantago major), pineapple weed, lambs quarters, shepherds purse, dandelion, St. John’s wort and more. And learn how to cook. It should be taught in school in my opinion. You can use those techniques to cook ingredients you might not be as familiar with. After you identify some edibles on your lawn, make a game of “Chopped” for yourself and you’ll be surprised what you can come up with. Not to mention the fact that wild food has a much more dense nutrient profile than store bought foods, and the local microbiome will be a boost to your gut health and your immune system.




What kind of terrain is best for mushroom foraging? Do you need to have some decomposing going on to get good mushroom growing conditions?


Not necessarily. If you want to start foraging mushrooms, first learn to identify trees. A lot of culinary mushrooms are mycorrhizal with trees. Meaning they form a relationship with them. The trees supply carbon or sugar to the fungus and they in turn get minerals that the fungus breaks down in the soil. Trees also use the underground mycelial network to communicate with each other using chemical signals. Think of it as the “wood” wide web.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with us about foraging or anything else?

There are other things you can do to enjoy mushroom foraging other than eating them. One of the ways we use to identify mushrooms is to make a spore print. You fit the stipe (stem) off a mushroom so there’s only the cap. You then put it gill side down on a piece of paper and cover it with a bowl or something to keep out any wind. Leave it overnight and the next day you’ll have a really cool print of where the mushroom dropped its spores. You can arrange different mushrooms or a bunch of the same ones, whatever and create a work of art. This works with ferns too. Photography is another cool way to enjoy plants and mushrooms safely and creatively. If you spend as much time in the woods as I do, you’ll be convinced that mushrooms are posing for you. They definitely have character.


The concept of the Invasivore is something I wanted to mention. Invasive species are a real problem. Often having no natural predators they can take over an area, choking out native plants. People try to eradicate them with harmful chemicals causing even more damage. Japanese knotweed is a good example of this. Rather than spray chemicals why not just eat it? Japanese knotweed is edible. It tastes like a citrusy rhubarb. You can make pies, chutney, sodas, basically anything you can make with rhubarb. #eattheinvasives


Some great follows on social media

Pascal Baudar on Instagram, Backyard Foraging Nova Scotia group on Facebook, Black Forager on Facebook has really good informative videos and recipes, especially good for beginners. @powwowcafeto on Instagram is a great Canadian chef who also has a few videos on CBC Gem app. Called “Forage”. I’m @chefhach on Instagram. (Just thought I’d slide that in). If you haven’t seen “Fantastic Fungi” yet on Netflix I can’t recommend it enough. Paul Stammets is a rockstar in the mushroom community. Dr. Suzanne Simmard’s book “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” is a must read.



*Chaga has been over harvested in recent years. Someone read an article on Facebook about how it cures cancer or whatever and people tore off into the woods. You see people with 5 gallon buckets full trying to sell it, having no idea what it’s worth. Others you see with tote boxes full and a post that asks “what do you do with this lol”. Even mycologists don’t fully understand it’s role in the forest and suggest you leave it there. A mushroom you can harvest sustainably that had the same medicinal value is turkey tail (tramates versicolour).


** just kidding.

How about Pineapple Weed chia pudding

1/4 cup of fresh pineapple weed

1 cup coconut milk (the kind you drink)

1/4 cup chia seeds

Honey to taste about a tablespoon is a good place to start.

Throw it all in a blender and pulse it for about a minute.

Pour into serving bowls and let it set in the fridge for a few hours.

I recommend eating this in the evening, pineapple weed is wild chamomile after all, so it may make you sleepy.



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