Last year, Chef Brearley of Castegarth Restaurant foraged all the ingredients except for the venison for his spectacular dish at the Gold Medal Plates competition. Designed to resemble the forest floor, his plate had acorns, black walnuts, hawthorn berries, Jerusalem artichokes, wild apples, and wild ginger – all the things that the venison would eat. It was an impressive and delicious dish, and I have never forgotten it.
This spring, Chef Brearley has teamed up with fellow foraging enthusiast Scott Perrie of Morels Ottawa to prepare very special menus based on the gifts of nature. City Bites got the scoop on the exciting world of foraged ingredients from one of the region’s most passionnate practitioners.
City Bites: Have you done foraging dinners in the past?
Matthew Brearley: Yes I have been doing foraging dinners for many years I believe this is the seventh one. In the early years the wild food was more of the accent of the meal and consisted of the usual suspects morels, wild leeks, wild ginger. Last years was the most experimental using ingredients like lichens, wild carrot and yarrow. Before Castlegarth I did a special foraging menu at the 4&20 Blackbird Cafe
Where did your interest in foraging begin?
My experience with foraging started with my parents (there was a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus on the shelf as a small child) my father picked field mushrooms, puff balls and morels and my mother used to pick amaranth and lambs quarters I was a picky eater so I would have nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until I worked at Domus and John [Taylor] was getting wild ingredients that I remembered all of the stuff from my childhood — and I never looked back.
I bought 12 books on mushrooms and seven books on edible wild plants. There are many things I like about wild food and foraging. Firstly I love being outdoors in the bush and fields, also a lot of wild foods are weeds so it is a good way of weeding your garden by eating the weeds as retribution. Also plants like lambs quarters are packed with nutrients — three times as many as spinach — and it tastes better.
How did you get connected with Scott? What is his involvement in the dinner?
Scott and I had been communicating on social media for a while, but we had never met. Then one day he and his wife, Amica, came in to the food shop and happened to bring in a bag of mulberries, something I hadn’t seen since I picked them from my balcony when I lived in Toronto.
Since then we have been sharing information on wild food. We seem to have the same bizarre obsessions with mushrooms. Both of us have been firing ideas back and forth for this menu — we are going to forage it together — and he will narrate the evening while I prepare it.
Any hints about what will be on the menu?
I will be doing some interesting things with cattails, pine flour, and wild flowers, but that is all I am saying for now. Last year I did a “Salad of a Fallen Tree,” which consisted of acorn and black walnut edible soil with fried reindeer moss, butter poached morel, daisy leaves, violets, and snails. If you scroll down on the Castlegarth Facebook site you can see pictures from last year’s menu. The menu will have the same kind of playfulness this year.
Do you think there is a growing interest in foraged food? If so, why?
I do think there is a growing interest in foraged food. Europe has a culture of it and England has a full-fledged industry, as do the Scandinavian countries. With the dominance of Noma and Fäviken on the world’s top restaurant lists, there seems to be a wave of people becoming interested.
There are tours and classes occurring in cities like New York and Toronto for the Urban Forager. As well as blogs like Hunter Gatherer Cook, Langdon Cook, Tama Matsouka, and Hank Shaw, which have brought foraging into the mainstream too.
In Canada our Native population is an untapped wealth of knowledge about wild foods and we still have huge areas of wild places that can be sources of inspiration for chefs and businesses like Morels Ottawa, Societe Orignal, and myself.
What foraged ingredients are you most excited to work with?
It changes from year to year and season to season. Two years ago it was acorns, last year lichens (this year too), and this season white pine.
Last year’s menu had a white pine chocolate for the dessert. A couple of others are wild hops (found a whole bunch growing down the road from my house) and wild carrot roots. This time last year it was the leaves.
There are few tables left for the May 24 dinner but a second night will likely be scheduled on June 7. To reserve contact: Castlegarth Restaurant & Food Shop, 90 Burnstown Rd., White Lake, 613-623-3472
In addition, Chef Brearley and Scott Perrie are doing a foraging dinner in Ottawa called “Into the Wild” at Urban Element on June 3. To book, visit urban element’s website, find the event in their calendar, and reserve online.