Foraging for food in the wild and turning around to sell them is nothing new. Koreans have always perused the hillsides—even in Seoul—for wild greens they sold on the street in order to supplement their family’s incomes. Before ginko nuts became the rage for their supposed memory-enhancing properties, Korean women could also be watched salvaging that smelly fallen fruit during the fall, the kernels of which ended up sold and ground for teas and gruels. A world away, Finnish food has long been among the world’s most innovative, mostly because of the rich ingredients that can be found throughout its countryside. Forests in Finland belong to the people, and in turn anyone can pitch a stand and sell the flavorful berries and mushrooms that pair well with Finnish game, artisan bread, and wholesome cheese. Spend a summer in Helsinki and you might find French cuisine comparatively dull.
The trend has hit North America. Last week we featured a Bay Area forager who churns and sells jams made from her neighbors’ fruit trees; she has a counterpart in Santa Cruz as well. Up north, more Canadian entrepreneurs are harvesting foods that have become more popular among chefs and foodies.
Seaweed is one ingredient that is slowly catching on. Years ago when I hosted a Korean friend in the Bay Area, I was mortified when I turned around at a beach near Half Moon Bay to find that he was nibbling on some sea kelp. After all, seaweed was best already processed and batched into Mylar bags that had shipped from East Asia. But clearly this fellow was ahead of his time; one British Columbia outfit, Northwater Seaweed, harvests several varieties of seaweed from the Thurlow Islands. Nori, Sea Lettuce, Fucus Berries, and Pacific Dulse peak in May and June; July is prime for kelp. Its owner, Sequoia Lesosky, leads the operation to dry, package, and send its products across Canada. The family run business also forages wild mushrooms from the area.
Closer to the border, the Vancouver Island Salt Company sells hand-crafted salts gleaned from the local tidal waters. Beside its unrefined option, the company also sells bags of the sea salt smoked for hours over maple wood; custom-smoked options are available as well. Its owner, Andrew Shepherd, traveled and worked around the globe as a chef, and settled in BC two years ago.
Owners of these and other companies selling foraged products tout their quality, flavor, and of course sustainability. The sentiment of the latter is not shared by all: some object to using public land for private profit, and fret over the chance that lands will be pillaged and overharvested if these foods catch on. But when you compare the impact of foraged food to what is grown on industrial, or even organic farms, the overall environmental effect appears negligible. Or is it?