Finders Keepers/ The Wild Foraging Heroes of Vancouver Island

Finders Keepers – Part One

If you’ve ever picked blackberries at the side of the road, you’ve engaged in the act of foraging, an act that has sustained peoples and cultures since time immemorial. On Vancouver Island, foraging is seeing a resurgence as restaurateurs, chefs and artisanal food crafters take to the wilds. From stinging nettles and seaweed to spruce tips and sea salt, a new arsenal of ingredients are being used to accent, infuse, flavour, and change the way we think about sustainability.

Eric Whitehead / Untamed Feast

“This is an adventure, a story,” says Crofton-based Eric Whitehead of Untamed Feast, “not just another gourmet product.”
Whitehead’s story began growing up in the remote enclave of Kleena Kleene, located halfway between Williams Lake and Bella Coola. His family survived on hunting wild game and what they grew in their garden and he was taught to forage at an early age. (One of his first memories is of his grandmother showing him what a shaggy mane mushroom looked like). He began foraging wild mushrooms commercially in 1998, selling directly to restaurants, often in exchange for meals. His business has grown in leaps and bounds since then: he employees a crew of 10, and forages from BC to Alberta to the Northwest Territories, following where the forest fires have been, an indication of where morel mushrooms will be the following year. His yearly yield from morels and chanterelles to pine and the lesser-known lobster and hedgehog mushrooms is a whopping 10,000 pounds of fresh – translating into 1.000 pounds of dried. The mushrooms are dried the same day they’re picked, via a mobile drying unit, since drying concentrates the flavours. “One porcini dried has amazing aroma and great umami,” says Whitehead. His passion shows in an accessible product line of packaged dried mushroom varieties, a gravy mix with the addition of nettle leaves, and mushroom-flecked soup and rice mixes, with easy-to-follow recipes that take the guesswork out of cooking. Favourites? “Right now, it’s chanterelles,” he says, referring to his product that’s smoked in alder, rested in oak wine barrels (from Vancouver Island’s Averill Creek) and re-dried. “If you really care about where your food comes from, and not just to be on trend,” notes Whitehead, “this is all natural, vegan and vegetarian.” ‘Nuff said.

Andrew Shepherd / Vancouver Island Sea Salt

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In Cobble Hill, 50 kilometres from Victoria, chef-turned-entrepreneur Andrew Shepherd watches over three 150-gallon steam kettles. He’s not simmering chicken stock, but sea salt – from water he pumped out of the ocean from nearby Cherry Point. What started out as a bet with a friend – for a case of beer – four years ago, led to self-employment and a viable business that finds his sea salt available across Canada and soon in the US. Shepherd keeps an eye on the tides to ensure the cleanest water possible. “The more care we give to our water, the cleaner our product is,” he boasts. “And our product is pretty good.” Once clean high-tide seawater is pumped out of the ocean, it is filtered up to five times, and is regularly tested for heavy metals and other contaminants. Luckily, that’s never been an issue. The water is then transported to an outdoor-tented processing area on his property, where those steam kettles are in various stages of evaporating water. In the summer months, Shepherd and an assistant make up to 600 pounds of dried sea salt. The whole process from filtering, evaporation, and drying takes up to five days. “It’s the ultimate slow food,” says Shepherd. To make his business sustainable, for both himself and the environment, he switched from wood fires to alternative fuels, converting a diesel-powered steam boiler to run on recycled vegetable oil from the restaurant industry. His business is now carbon negative. With a chef’s curiosity, Shepherd is now infusing his delicate-on-the-palate salts with adventurous flavours from blackberry wine, and roasted garlic, to Danish blue cheese – a best seller and a personal favorite. “It’s gold served on rare beef,” he says. “And it’s great on popcorn. My kids love it!”

Brock Windsor / Stone Soup Inn

Nestled in a forested setting, Stone Soup Inn is a three-plus-acre inn, farm and restaurant in the Cowichan Valley. Open only three nights a week, the 40-seat restaurant, owned and operated by chef Brock Windsor, serves a hyper-local regional menu based on seasonality. Windsor is no stranger to the abundance and diversity of wild and edible ingredients of Vancouver Island. He first honed his skills over 20 years ago at the edible landscape of Sooke Harbour House with co-owner Sinclair Philip, learning the identification and uses of wild ingredients, herbs and plants. “There’s such a depth to the subject,” says Windsor. Quickly surveying his acreage this past summer, he recited a list of the wild edibles he regularly relies on to accent his menu: “trailing blackberry, evergreen huckleberry, black raspberries – I prune it every year, “ he says, “Himalayan blackberry – invasive, but tasty as all get out – and the Oregon grape – they’re everywhere! They make fantastic jelly! It’s very complex, with a port-like flavour and makes wicked sorbet.”
For herbs, Windsor prefers wild sorrel, ox-eye daisy – which often makes its way into vinaigrette – licorice fern and nodding onion, noting its flavour “between an onion and garlic”. His skill in coupling wild and homegrown ingredients has won the restaurant many accolades. “They really get a flavour of the region,” he says of guests enjoying his culinary adventurous menus. “They’ve never had ox-eye daisy, or realize that it grows on their lawn,” he says. “And a lot of it evokes a sense memory, something from their childhood. Because I’m practicing reservation without too much seasoning, the food is pure or clean or, as one customer said – ‘near naked and natural’.”
The mushroom is Windsor’s favourite foraged ingredient, citing the adventure associated with hunting them. He cooks them fresh and simply, stressing that a hot pan is key to browning them. Add olive oil, onion, salt and pepper and a bay leaf – et, voila!

Find Part Two of Vancouver Island’s Foraging Heroes here!



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