I grew up on a mountainside in north Vancouver with forests in my backyard, so it seemed normal to head out the back door with my Austrian mother to pick wild blueberries, blackberries and raspberries for preserves and pies.
When my German grandmother joined us, she gathered dandelion blossoms to make wine and rose hips, chamomile and nettles for tea. In spring and fall we hunted chanterelles, morels and pine mushrooms.
These days foraging has become part of the burgeoning movement committed to farm-to-table fare in Vancouver.
The area, perched on the edge of the wilderness with a Mediterranean climate, offers plenty of opportunities, from April through November, to experience urban foraging within the city’s plentiful green areas, in surrounding suburbs, and along rocky shorelines and beaches.
Setting crab traps
“First, put a few turkey and chicken necks into the trap — the stinkier, the better,” said Robin Kort, a professional wildcraft guide. “Crabs love poultry.”
I tossed the trap as far as I could off the dock at Jericho Beach, and we continued practicing until we landed them in deeper water where fatter crabs hang out.
While waiting for our prey to saunter toward the bait, I learned how to distinguish females from males and the best tidal times to catch the biggest crustaceans. Then we hauled up the traps — breathless with anticipation— and were thrilled to find lunch, four hefty Dungeness crabs.
Kort demonstrated breaking open the beasts, then cooked them in their own juices with butter and garlic in a pot over a camp stove. Then we sat on the beach, with the backdrop of downtown Vancouver’s skyline, for a divine three-course meal.
As we devoured chowder with foraged Manila clams, Kort talked about foraging for the seaweed that added a delicious, fresh flavor to our accompanying salad.
Kort, a chef/sommelier who has worked alongside some of the city’s best chefs, runs Swallow Tail Tours, which offers a variety of foraging experiences. “We teach everything you need to know to safely gather, prepare and cook the unique flavors found only in nature,” she said.
Kort grew up foraging on hikes with her European father in Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, and it inspired her to get into the local food industry.
“British Columbia is a huge melting pot of international cultures, but its true cuisine lies within its wild ingredients — fir tips, salmon, seaweed,” she said. “The place influences the food.”
The original foragers
No one knew that better than the people who lived in this region for millenniums.
Candace Campo, a member of the local Sechelt First Nation, led me on an enlightening 90-minute Talking Trees Tour, an interpretive indigenous foraging tour through Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre swath of towering rain forest in the city center.
“We use salal berries many different ways — we eat them fresh, dried, in cakes and jams,” she said, showing off a cluster of dark blue berries on a low bush. She pointed at sap trickling down a tree.
“And we used the pitch from fir and pines for burns and cuts as an antiseptic.”
As we followed paths I’ve walked and jogged much of my life, Campo pointed out things I’d never seen here such as fiddlehead ferns that, gently steamed, are delicious spring fare.
She plucked a western hemlock shoot, a source of vitamin C, so I could taste its lovely citrusy flavor. Alder bark, she said, is still used to soothe sore throats. “This was our free pharmacy and supermarket,” she added.
Nearby, the Fairmont Waterfront hotel has an organic rooftop herb garden where six hives are home to 500,000 honeybees.
I met master beekeeper Julia Common, who handed me a beekeeper’s hat and veil. She stuffed fresh sage and lavender into a smoker in order to puff calming, aromatic smoke around a hive before she opened it.
“Our bees produce 600 to 800 pounds of honey every year, and it’s served in the hotel,” she said, holding up a frame and inviting me to taste. I slowly dipped my finger through a bustling mass of bees and scooped up warm, fresh honey.
“We are trying to raise awareness of the importance of bees and that they can thrive in the middle of a city,” Common said. That’s why the Fairmont encourages the public to join daily complimentary tours led by the hotel’s resident Bee Butler from May through September. There is also an intensive overnight Bee Sustainable workshop that includes accommodations, time with Common and a three-course Pollinator Dinner created with ingredients that require pollination.
The bounty of edibles found within and just outside the city has not gone unnoticed by the city’s creative chefs.
“We get baskets of foraged ingredients you can’t buy in stores every week,” said Welbert Choi, executive chef of Forage restaurant.
“Tonight we’re serving wild wood sorrel with our halibut.”
One of the restaurant’s suppliers is full-time forager Lance Stables, who brings sea coriander, sea asparagus, burdock, elderflowers and much more.
“We keep a huge stock of elderflower cordial on hand since it goes wonderfully with desserts like our cheese puffs,” Choi said. “With chick weeds, pineapple weeds and lots of others you could easily make delicious salads and salsas with weeds from your backyard.”
Chef Mark Perrier gets figs fresh from the backyard trees of Italian friends in East Vancouver for Savio Volpe, his popular classic Italian osteria that serves regional rustic fare with ingredients gathered from nearby lakes, oceans, farms and fields.
Pro foragers fulfill the rest of the shopping list with a dozen or more springtime greens and herbs such as bittercress, miner’s lettuce, wild garlic and onions.
“And then there are the huckleberries (for sorbet) and wild carrot flowers (sweet clusters tossed with fennel honey and wine vinegar),” Perrier said. “Crunchy, salty sea plantains are a sea grass we serve with our grilled salmon.”
Stephanie Carruthers, another pro forager, leads Wild Walks — forest, mushroom and sea foraging trips on Bowen Island, a 20-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver. People “are completely blown away that you can so easily pick edibles straight out of the ocean,” she said.
Like most foraging trips, Carruthers’ are educational with little actual plucking taking place.
“There would be nothing left if we collected with each group,” she said, “but we taste and identify, then have a light fiddlehead, sea lettuce and kelp salad on the sea foraging trip, and I bring a herb or chaga mushroom tea to sip on the land foraging trips.”
Carruthers became obsessed with foraging when she saw that the city’s farmers markets were poorly supplied with wild products. Now she forages full time to help stock several city markets.
Like most foragers she has her secret locations for harvesting porcini, chanterelles, morels, pine, cauliflower, hedgehog and lobster mushrooms.
Fungi fans are excited that British Columbia is slowly becoming known for truffles, the holy grail of mushrooms.
Native North America truffle varieties, difficult to cultivate and even harder to stumble across in the wild, are becoming increasingly popular. Oregon truffles are found in southern British Columbia at the base of young Douglas fir trees and come in white and black varieties.
Peak truffle season is October through March, and the grassroots B.C. Truffle Festival takes place in February. You can visit a truffle orchard at the University of British Columbia’s Experimental Farm. Or, better still, make a foray into the fields to watch fungi foraging with truffle dog demonstrations. Then sample some earthy-flavored truffle hors d’oeuvres in the field.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO VANCOUVER, CANADA
All rates in USD$
From LAX, Air Canada, Westjet and American offer nonstop service to Vancouver, and American, Delta, United and Alaska offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfares from $287, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont Waterfront, 900 Canada Place, Vancouver; (604) 691-1991. Luxury hotel overlooking Vancouver’s harbor featuring beehives on the roof accessible to the public. Doubles from $277.
Listel Hotel, 1300 Robson St., Vancouver; (800) 663-5491. Chic, art-themed boutique hotel in the middle of Vancouver’s shopping district. Doubles from $161.
Bowen Island Accommodations. One-stop online booking site for B&Bs and home and apartment rentals across the island which is a forager’s dream.
WHERE TO EAT
Forage Restaurant, 1300 Robson St., Vancouver; (604) 661-1400. Farm-to-table bistro with creative, local area-sourced plates and regional wines and craft beers on tap. Dinner for two from $100.
Osteria Savio Volpe, 615 Kingsway, Vancouver; (604) 428-0072. House-made charcuterie and wood-fired Italian fare served in an industrial-chic restaurant/bar. Dinner for two from $90.
WHAT TO DO
Swallow Tail Tours, (778) 319-9453. Catch and Cook private tour with gourmet crab lunch on the beach, three hours, $230 per person. Wild Edibles Foraging from May to August, two hours including Wild Light Lunch, $35 per person. Mushroom identifying trip with lunch, $44 per person, September through November.
Bowen Island Adventures; Bowen Island, (604) 499- 0894. Four-hour June and September wild foraging walks, $58 per person.
Talaysay Tours, (800) 605-4643. Talking Trees is a First Nations-led guided walk in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, an enlightening tour lasting 1.5 to 2 hours. Adults, $30. Year-round, except November.
University of British Columbia Farm, 3461 Ross Drive, Vancouver; (604) 822-5092. The Centre for Sustainable Food Systems hosts year-round events including foraging, U-pick berries, Saturday Farmers Market and much more. Free.
BC Truffle Festival. Takes place every February. Follow truffle dogs, talk with truffle experts and dine on fresh truffles. $40 per person.
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