Written and photographed by Sandra Ozkur

Foraging: to wander in search of food or provisions. The word conjures up images in my mind of the Stone Age, where people wandered in search of food. In modern times foraging has been reduced to selecting red apples or green ones in the supermarket. But there are a growing number of people who choose to embrace what nature has to offer and have taken up foraging as a pastime, and a way to supplement their diets with organic and natural plants.

Many people are now keenly aware of the correlation between what we eat and the state of our health. Industrialized food production has stripped our foods of necessary nutrients and filled our bodies with toxic chemicals. One free and natural alternative is to get out in nature and find edible plants that can provide nutrient rich and organic food sources right where you live. Foraging outdoors is good exercise and a natural stress reliever.  It is a calming and enjoyable outing for both adults and children and an opportunity to reconnect with nature and the ecosystem that surrounds us.

Niagara Culinary Tours is a company owned by Steven and Kimberly Lovelace. They offer tours whose goal is to help you to “walk, eat and embrace your inner foodie.” They organize tours that bring people in touch with unique food experiences throughout Niagara.

Our experienced guide, Peter Blush, met our group at a pre-determined wooded area. As we hiked through the woods, he pointed out the edible plants and shared his expert knowledge with us. He told us that it is not enough just to know which plant species are edible. A successful forager also needs to know the habitat of specific plants in order to efficiently locate them. Knowing what time of year to pick and what part of the plant to eat is equally important. The entire plant is not always edible; on some plants you eat the leaves, while others have edible flowers, fruits, berries or roots.

We identified many potential plant species, but many were not yet in season for picking. We saw May Apples, Trout Lilies, Burdock, Coral mushrooms, Bear’s Head mushrooms, wild garlic, sumac and wild ginger. We sampled cattail hearts, wild leeks and ginger root. To find these plants you must have a keen eye and know where and when certain plants will appear. Each plant has an optimal time when it is ready for picking, such as mushrooms, which appear right after a rain. As a novice forager, you can start right in your own back yard.  I foraged around in mine and found dandelions and wild grape leaves just behind my house.

Be sure to do some research before heading out to the wilderness on you own. Here are some guidelines that should be followed when foraging for food in public places:
•    Dress appropriately for the weather and be aware of your surroundings.
•    Be absolutely certain about the identity of any plant before you eat it, for there are many poisonous look-alikes that can be fatal.
•    Don’t pick endangered species, it is unethical and may be illegal.
•    Never take more than you need, and never take all the plants in any patch.
•    If extracting roots, leave enough root behind so as not to kill the plant.
•    Never pick from areas that may have pesticides, fertilizers or industrial contamination.
•    Never collect in nature reserves, for they are protected areas.
•    Be as unobtrusive as possible and never leave litter behind.
•    Always wash and clean the plants thoroughly before eating.

It was a fun and invigorating hike. I learned a lot about plants and why people are interested in this pastime. The tour attracted people from all over Ontario and I was keen to know why they came. I asked Nicole and her mom Rose Marie Maciel, from Oakville, why they were interested in foraging. Nicole replied, “My friends are all into holistic living. In my dental practice I see a real connection between diet and the state of your teeth. What you eat really affects your health, so we have personally become dedicated to a more holistic lifestyle and want to eat foods that are nutrient rich and sourced from organic, responsible and sustainable sources.”

Adam Goetz, a professional chef and owner of Craving Restaurant in Buffalo, came for both business and pleasure. He told me, “I have a cult following at my restaurant. I have a list of people who are always on standby just waiting to hear what exciting things I have sourced for the menu. I have a network of local organic producers and they supply me with ultra fresh food as it comes into season, then I create a menu around the item. I was interested in learning more about wild food that I could incorporate into my cooking.”

When the hike was over we had a nice cup of herbal tea at Neob Lavender Farm and sampled some of their homemade products. We then headed to Southbrook Winery for a tour of this organic and biodynamic winery. The assistant winemaker explained their biodynamic farming practices and introduced us to the resident sheep and goats, whose grazing helps maintain the vineyard. He then guided us through a tasting of several organic wines as they were paired with each course of the meal.

The meal was prepared on site by the Yellow Pear Food Company. Yellow Pear uses organic products exclusively and operates the only solar powered food truck in Canada. They served a wonderful crème brule with local raspberries paired with Framboise dessert wine, a perfect ending to the perfect day!
www.niagaraculinarytours.com