Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Into the Wild: 5 Questions with Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Foods

Have you ever wanted to go where the wild men are? Well, you won't have to go far -- they are right here in Canada. When I say wild, I'm not talking about the guy your mother didn't want you to date in high school, or the outdoorsy poet who went to the woods to find himself. I'm referring to wild food.

It seems these days everyone (myself included) is talking about local food, food that is grown "in our own backyards", but really we don't need to stop there. Why not look further and explore wild food. According to Jonathan Forbes of Forbes Wild Foods, wild edibles are all around us, if we know where to look. Recently Jonathan took time out between foraging and cooking to answer 5 Questions:

After the Harvest (ATH): How did you get started foraging for wild edibles? What inspired you to make wild foods your career?

Jonathan Forbes (JF): I started as a child. Growing up Toronto, Mulmer and Nottawasaga, wild foods were always a part of my life. My Mom taught me how to make candy out of wild ginger, wine out of chokecherries and how to forage for wild mushrooms. About 12 years ago, after having shared my knowledge of wild food with various people, I realized my experiences were unique, so I decided to start the company.

The wildman himself, with mushrooms

ATH: What is your view on people getting out in their community and foraging themselves using guidebooks versus leaving it to those who know how to forage sustainably? Is it something that could become commonplace for people to be doing? Or is it best left to the experts?

JF: It is important for people to know the indigenous species in their area and they have an obligation to research the fragility of certain species. Get advice from those of us who have done it for a while. People shouldn't be afraid to get involved. I think it's wrong for people to lose touch with the natural environment. With respect to sustainable harvesting, people have to understand the vulnerability of certain plants, for example wild leeks and ginger are more rare than other wild foods and should be respected as such.

ATH: Have you ever done any wine and food pairings with the wild food products you create, or with meals made using these products? On a similar note, have you ever thought about making wines from some of the wild fruits?

JF: I am not interested in competing with the grape wine producers, they are doing a fine job creating some great wines. As far as other fruit wines, Rodriques Winery in Newfoundland makes a really great blueberry wine. It's fun to make wines at home but I don't intend on getting into making and selling my own.

Regarding pairings, I was at a food show and was matched with Inniskillin Winery who did some fantastic pairings. When pairing you have to consider not just foods but flavours. For example spruce tips. You can use this flavour with whitefish which adds a resiny taste, or I've also known someone to use spruce tips with cheesecake. With our birch syrup, you can flavour wild rice pudding, scallops, pork and roasted vegetables to name a few. Depending on how you use the flavour, you get a different effect each time, which would influence what is paired with the dish.

ATH: Do you care to share any favourite recipes that you have created using the wild food products?

JF: Last February I spent the whole month doing 2-3 recipes a day using wild mushrooms! For example, I made a seafood casserole with lobster mushrooms, but they can also be ground and used as a dry rub -- there are so many options. Have you ever heard of a book called Le Repertoire de la Cuisine? It's a book from France that shows you different ways to cook different ingredients. It's amazing, the possibilities, for example, using sole, they have over 300 recipes! Unfortunately we don't have a comparable index of recipes in Canada with foods such as pickerel or lake trout, but we should!

I don't really have a favourite recipe, but I do have some favourite ingredients. They are:

  • birch syrup
  • wild mushroom mix, which I use in risottos, soups and stews
  • mushrooms in general, especially black trumpet, morels, fresh chanterelles, spruce boletus (same family as porcini) There are 40 types in Canada and they are really good in a stew
  • lingonberries, which I use to make tarts
  • wild plums
  • dwarf raspberries
  • wild strawberries
  • salmonberries

ATH: Have you ever thought of writing a wild foods cookbook?

JF: Yes, I am actually writing one now, but there are no plans for a specific release date, it will be ready when it's ready.

Jonathan and an amazingly huge Puffball Mushroom he found!

I was so fascinated by this subject matter I just couldn't restrict it to 5 questions, so our chat continued. This fall, Jonathan has been taking the North American chestnut to markets, and he recently took pawpaw to Dufferin Grove Organic Farmers' Market in Toronto, but nobody knew what it was, even though it grows all over Southern Ontario! This is a perfect example of how disconnected we really have become from our natural environment. I asked Jonathan if he's the only "wild man" in town, and he said that there are others, most notably his partner in Quebec, Gourmet Sauvage; the two companies have been working together for 12 years.

Right here in the Ottawa valley this fall we can find highbush cranberries, rosehips, barberry and juniper berries. I even located some highbush cranberries of my own in a nearby trail!

Highbush cranberries in the MacNamara Trail in Arnprior

Why should we care about wild foods? Is there a future for them with all this urban sprawl? According to Jonathan, for wild foods, the #1 issue is habitat. Southern Ontario is overpopulated and overdeveloped. Going back to the pawpaw example, this tropical fruit grows in Southern Ontario, but people don't know it because the area has become so developed.

Jonathan's main focus is on educating people so they value their connection to the land more. He has top chefs salivating over his products and the culinary opportunities they provide, but I get the sense that Jonathan is just as happy selling his wares to the home cook. With humility and a deep connection to Canada and what its land can provide, Jonathan will happily continue foraging and cooking for years to come. I, for one, would like to see wild foods experience the surge in mainstream popularity that local food is having, but I guess we have to win one battle at a time. Promoting and supporting local agriculture is one thing, but if we can truly harness all that our Canadian landscape can offer, then we are truly eating locally.

I am thankful that we have experts like Jonathan to guide us through sustainable foraging until we get a handle on how to do so responsibly. We need to support wild food so that it can expand. More dollars need to get behind this movement not only because it allows us to take advantage of our local bounty, but also because this industry supports entire communities of foragers, particularly in Northern Ontario and B.C.

Here in Ottawa we can find Forbes products at Canada in a Basket, which also sells other wild food products from around the country. Coming up in December you can catch Forbes Wild Foods at the One of a Kind Show and Sale in Toronto, where they'll be selling their amazing wild food products as well as some handy Christmas baskets you can purchase for the foodie in your family. The Christmas baskets can also be ordered online here.

Many thanks to Jonathan and Meaghan of Forbes Wild Foods for allowing me to discover more about wild edibles! Next up in my wild adventures I visit Greensboro, North Carolina where there seems to be a curious community of wild foodies springing up! Stay tuned...

*Photos of Jonathan courtesy of Forbes Wild Foods, title photo via Cherry Shit on Flickr


  1. The puffballs I've eaten were much much smaller than that one Jonathan has in the image above, wow. I'm glad I didn't see that image before I found my first cluster, I would have been very very disappointed.

  2. the berries you are calling high bush cranberries, we call them squashberries in newfoundland.

  3. Very cool! Thanks for letting me know :)