The Local Food of Northern Ontario

When it comes to food, what we eat and how we eat speaks profoundly of who we are in this time. We become the foods we take in.

Have you ever stopped to listen to your food while you eat? What is it trying to show you? I thought about this and took some time to be with the things I was eating and drinking today.

I sip on my Ginger root tea, and eat my Oatmeal. Steel cut Oats are restoratives for the nervous system; I feel them as a soothing presence while I eat. It’s like they’ve created a protective layer between the troubles of the world, and my nerves. Not necessarily a barrier, but a coating that allows me to be closer to what is real. As I drink the tea, i feel the two presences of the Oats, and Ginger in a sort of synergy. The Ginger has things moving within me, lots of lifts and whirls. I feel the tea as fire alongside the soothing mucilaginous nature of the Oats. Ginger shares moving encouragement, and heat, even as I think of the winter air. They meet in a sort of flowing steam within me, reminding me to round out my fire with a cooling edge.

Reading Pascal Baudars book called The New Wildcrafted Cuisine has stirred some musings about the local food plants around me that Nature creates without our intervention. Yes, organic farmed oats are a staple in my life, and ginger root is one of my favourite flavours…but what does Northern Ontario’s cuisine look like? Who are the plants that live here, and how can they change our perception of food? What amazing things can we create with them? They are the ones we truly share our lives with, and I believe there is great reason in this.

As I make my trips to the grocery store more and more in the winter season, I feel a big part of me longing to be connected to those wild foods that grow with such integrity like I was in the warmer months. They do not need the ground to be weeded, tilled, and babied so that they can grow. These plants face competition, pollution, destruction, lack of nutrients. And they grow so well. They inspire me in their ability to eke out such existence and gifts in spite of it all. They never stop being, no matter what human beings do. Imagine what eating these kinds of foods could do for our overall health and well being.

As a society, we have gone from hunter gatherers, to agriculturalists, and now we are primarily consumers. And as someone who loves food so much, I do not rest easy with treating my food in a consumptive way. I challenge this degree of humanity, and dare to listen deeply to what the local foods are trying to show us.

Have you ever made a salad out of dandelion, chickweed, lambs quarter, mustard greens or sow thistle? You can taste how green these plants are. They offer even greater gifts of nutrition than your garden grown lettuce, they have stronger flavours…and they’re free.

Think of the ways food could help with issues such as invasive species! And yes I’m talking about monocrop corn too! Eating sounds like the right way to solve environmental issues in our local areas.

So I ask this question again, what does Northern Ontario cuisine taste like? There are so much more discoveries to be made than what has already been tasted. I set an intent to engage even deeper with the plants I find around me in the coming months, and discover flavours that push the walls of grocery stores far out into the forests, abandoned lots, and our backyards.

What are your local food plants trying to show you…And ultimately, what can we as humans, show them?

Here are 5 edible species that grow in Northern Ontario and who I feel embody the spirit of where I come from. What are 5 species that embody the sense of place where you live? Here’s a few notes on them, along with a few ideas on how to work with them. Put a spin on your culinary favourites with some local flavours!

1) Spruce

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Getting to know the conifers was one of the first plunges I took when it came to foraging. In the spring time, lime green feathery tips will begin to appear from Spruce trees. There are so many wonderful ways to use Spruce tips in your culinary adventures. Spruce tips make delicious additions to a seasoning you could create with all of your favourite local edible plants, to different pickle recipes, jellies, and Christmas cookies!

And if you’re a person who makes your own beverages, try adding them to kombucha, or beer for a refreshing citrusy taste of the forest. PLUS your house will smell incredible if you choose to dry some in the dehydrator for later use. Always remember when foraging for these spring wonders, that this is the new growth of the tree…Don’t take more than a small amount from the trees you harvest from. Excessive harvesting will harm the tree. Stay present…Respect is imperative for this food of many gifts.

2) Blueberries

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What is Northern Ontario without blueberries? I have many fond memories of picking blueberries as a child. My best friend Andrew and I even named several islands on the lake we’d pick them on after these blue beautiful berries. Growing on rock, these acid loving plants are so abundant to our local areas. On a particularly rainy year, look out for this species to be more abundant than usual! Pies, smoothies, jams, oatmeal…Pies. So much love and gifts within these tiny berries. And don’t follow in my footsteps…save some blueberries for the off seasons! I ate every single one that I picked last year and here I am in the berry less depths of winter!

3) Pickerel Weed

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This is another plant that I feel watched over me as a young kid. I always imagined what it would be like to float and drift upon the lily pads that grew next to these flowers, or to be the bees that so passionately loved to land upon them. As someone who loves swimming and being on the water so much, I imagine how many times in my life when I’ve let my kayak stir gently as I approach the beautiful Pickerel Weed. You can find this aquatic plant in still shallow waters of lakes and due to their water loving nature always ensure the water is cleanly before harvesting. The young shoots are edible, and the seeds have a nutty flavour when roasted. However you can eat these parts raw! Grind them up into different wild flours, oatmeal, and much more! They are a great addition to a sour dough crust, too.

4) White Pine

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With striking growth, there is no tree like the great White Pine where I live. Edible bark, pollen, needles, medicinal qualities, an abundance of vitamin C, beautiful bark for baskets, and countless other qualities, this tree is the Grandmother of the forest. This tree knows all, and you’d be good to call her your desert island tree, because she would surely care for you in so many ways. Add her to so many dishes, and beverages and bask in the subtle and unique flavours. If you want to read more about White Pine, click here.

5) Cattail

Cattail is truly a unique phenomena in the wild food world of Northern Ontario. Named the “supermarket” of the wetlands, this species gives gifts in all of it’s growing cycles. The new shoots, pollen, rhizomes, rhizome shoots, and seed heads are all edible. This is truly a food that could sustain you throughout the seasons in this climate if foraged and preserved wisely. As a wetland plant, ensure the water is safe before foraging. If you want to learn more about Cattail, click here.

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