My most shame-filled memory occurred at age three, in pre-school. I gathered a number of weeds from the playground and made a “salad,” which I then fed to my fellow children. When staff discovered our outdoor feast, they called Poison Control who administered bottles of syrup of Ipecac to each child to induce vomiting.
I have always liked the idea of foraging for wild foods, but since the unfortunate “salad” incident, I’ve been more than a little nervous.
I’m not the only one with wild food phobia. We are taught as children to avoid ingesting the unknown and uncultivated, for fear that we may drop dead simply by being in their presence. And there are poisonous plants out there. “Destroying Angel” and “Death Cap” are two local mushrooms that can — and, on occasion, do — kill the errant eater. However, there are many edible wild foods in dire need of a public relations do-over.
That’s where culinary adventurix Robin Kort comes in. Kort and her Swallow Tail Tours run hunting trips for wild greens and culinary mushrooms to teach people how simple it can be to pull delicious edible mushrooms and greens out of our local forests.
“Europeans have a tradition of foraging and learning from their family what’s safe to eat and what isn’t, but people here are afraid of mushrooms and eating from the wild,” Kort says. Her mandate is to provide this missing education.
My husband and I recently joined eight other intrepid foragers on an overcast Saturday in Lynn Headwaters Park for our own two-hour tour. The other participants were a mixed group, sharing only a keen interest in learning about wild foods.
Unfortunately, harvesting mushrooms is actually illegal in B.C. parks, so this was more of an informative tour than a harvest. Our guide started the tour by bringing our attention to local edible vegetation, including ferns, which can be eaten in all forms, dandelion, yellow dock and plantain (excellent intelligence should Survivor B.C. ever be produced).
For the record, that “salad” I made as a child in pre-school was dandelions, yellow dock and plantain. Completely harmless; vindication at last! It turns out my front lawn is a smorgasbord — this news will definitely come in handy at a later date.
The tour then segued into the forest where we were told to “keep our eyes open.” Sure enough, we all started to see mushrooms. Our knowledgeable guide identified each, imploring us to take great care before eating our wild harvest. She recommends taking a full year to study and identify the mushroom type before attempting to ingest a sample.
Mushroom identification is a complicated process that involves breaking the mushroom down into its elements: gills, cap, stem and root. Each part is then compared to a standard text. As a final step, a spore print is done to definitively identify the mushroom.
We did discover one “edible” during the tour, a Woody Pine Spike Mushroom that looked like a little yellow button. Alas, the rest were either unidentifiable or deadly. We even encountered a Destroying Angel, a wee and seemingly innocent brown-topped presence growing from a rotten log.
The tour ended in a cabin in the woods where Kort prepared a wild mushroom pate (with mushrooms previously gathered) to spread on bread, accompanied by salmon and various greens, scapes, grapes and apples gathered from Vancouver farmer’s markets. In all, quite an interesting afternoon and, for $39, a steal.
Swallowtail offers other culinary tours around Vancouver including crabbing for Dungeness crab and local wine tours. Swallowtail also runs a number of limited pop-up restaurants under the auspices of Culinary Circus. Last year their sold out “Down the Rabbit Hole Event” was an Alice in Wonderland-themed food and performance extravaganza. This year’s event will be announced shortly and is anticipated to sell out quickly. For more information, go to swallowtail.ca.
Willow Yamauchi is the author of Bad Mommy and Adult Child of Hippies (Insomniac Press) and a Vancouver food blogger on the prowl for new Vancouver culinary trends. You can contact her at: email@example.com or Twitter @willow72.