Your Outdoor Pantry

Here are five edible plants to pick in Québec, from the city to the forest.

As part of

Text — Caroline R. Paquette
Based on an interview with Ariane Paré-Le Gal, co-owner of Gourmet Sauvage.

Photos — Xavier Girard Lachaîne
Illustrations — Bess Callard

In 2015 Ariane Paré-Le Gal left her little urban corner of Montréal and her career as a journalist to put down roots in the Laurentians with her family. From there, she would take the reins of Gourmet Sauvage, the edible plant harvesting and artisanal processing company her father Gérald had founded 20 years earlier. After the initial culture shock, Ariane is now enjoying soaking up the natural life around her — even the garter snakes, hens, and insects — and particularly the wild plants, the basis of her living pantry.

But is a life of such abundance reserved only for people like her who opt to live in the forest? “If you think you can only forage in a remote area, you’re wrong. It can easily be done in the suburbs and the city,” Ariane stresses. Sometimes, all you have to do is give your front yard a bit of breathing room: “We once identified 35 edible plants on a lawn that we left to grow freely as a test.”

Ariane has chosen five easily identifiable, edible wild plants to share. All five also grow abundantly in Québec — a must for sustainable foraging. Soon you’ll be looking at your flower beds — or the forest floor on your next hike — in a whole new way.

NOTE: For each of the edible plants she’s chosen, Ariane offers comparisons to a more familiar vegetable to give you an idea of their flavour. That said, she strongly urges you to appreciate them on their own terms and explore!

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Ox-eye Daisy

“I’m particularly fond of ox-eye daisies because they’re plentiful and people are already able to identify them. They’re a daily fixture and a great way to take your first steps in wildcrafting,” explains Ariane.

Where does it grow?

Ox-eye daisies grow everywhere in Québec, in fields and in the city.

When do you pick it? How?

Ox-eye daisies are biennials. The first year, they grow a large rosette of leaves; you can pick the whole rosette in the spring just by cutting the root. It looks like a head of lettuce in your hand, and it’s easy to clean. The second year, the daisy will flower, and during that summer, you can pick the leaves off the flower stem.

What does it taste like?

Daisy leaves are very spicy, almost peppery, notes Ariane. “They’re like arugula, but without the nutty notes.”

What do you do with it?

“I’ll sprinkle handfuls of leaves on a homemade pizza, then drizzle them with olive oil and lemon to season them,” Ariane explains. “They add a nice touch of spiciness to your dishes. Of course, you can also make them into pesto or add them to salad.”

The flowers are also edible. Use them to decorate a cake, or coat them in tempura batter and fry them.

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Daisy Bud Capers

“My father, Gérald, came up with this product 17 or 18 years ago, entirely by accident. He was looking for wild vetch to cook a meal for friends and picked daisy buds instead. When he served them up, all of his guests exclaimed, ‘Capers!’ It quickly became a classic and a staple. You have to pick the buds when they’re completely closed. If you see petals starting to come out, the buds will open when you cook them, and you’ll end up with limp capers. To make these capers, you blanch the buds, then pickle them.”

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Balsam Fir

“For me, balsam fir is the quintessence of the democratization of foraging. You find it everywhere. It’s a symbol in Québec. You have them in your living room every winter, so the scent is familiar and comforting. Our intimacy with them generally only lasts for the two or three weeks before Christmas, but it’s a rich source of flavour.”

Where does it grow?

Balsam fir grows throughout Québec in urban areas, the suburbs, and the forest.

When do you pick it? How?

The young spring shoots are Ariane’s favourite. They’re a bright lime green and easy to identify. They stay tender for about 15 days. After that, they start to harden. That’s when you have to pick them. Mature needles, however, can be picked throughout the year.

What does it taste like?

The spring shoots have a citrusy, tangy, slightly bitter taste. But if you dry them, their flavour changes completely: “They cross over into cherry, cotton candy, sweets. It’s wild,” Ariane enthuses. The mature needles have a resinous taste.

What do you do with it?

The young spring shoots can be eaten raw and chopped, like an herb. “Treat it like you would rosemary: you wouldn’t eat a whole sprig of it on its own!” Ariane explains. Add the shoots to an aioli, a vinaigrette, or a salad. The dried needles can be used to flavour pastry. “I throw a tablespoon of dried fir shoots into every single lemon cake I make. I also add it to muffins and crepes.” The mature needles can flavour various dishes, but Ariane’s favourite is the fir burger.

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Good to know: All of the conifers in Canada are edible, except the Canadian yew.
Also good to know: Before you take a bite out of your Christmas tree, make sure it hasn’t been treated!

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Common Lamb’s Quarters (a.k.a. White Goosefoot)

 

“Lamb’s quarters is a ‘weed’ that often grows in your vegetable patch, especially between rows of tomatoes. People pull it out without realizing that it’s an excellent source of nutrients. It’s actually among the most nutritious plants in the world!”

Where does it grow?

Lamb’s quarters grows wherever you least expect it and pops up in vegetable gardens and sidewalk cracks all throughout Québec. It’s an invasive species, so you can “eat it to beat it” while benefiting from its nutritional value.

When do you pick it? How?

Pick it in the spring when it’s young and you can pick the whole plant. Later in the summer, only the leaves are good for harvesting.

What does it taste like?

This green tastes like spinach.

What do you do with it?

“It’s nice raw in salads. When you cook it, it shrinks down in a flash, so I always add it at the very last second.” Add it to your stir-fries or soups at the very end.

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Keep in mind

Lamb’s quarters contains some toxins, most of which disappear when you cook it. If you’re eating it raw, be sure to rinse it thoroughly. You can eat as much as you like cooked! It’s full of vitamins A and C, calcium, and potassium.

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Wild Bergamot (a.k.a. Bee Balm)

“The flowers of wild bergamot look like mauve pompoms, and bees and hummingbirds flock to them. It’s a pet plant: you go pick it in the wild and can replant it in your garden. Rustic and sturdy, wild bergamot is also invasive — but that makes it good for eating! I use it almost every day: it’s my all-rounder wild spice.”

Where does it grow?

Wild bergamot grows in semi-urban areas in southern and western Québec. You’ll often find it on highway roadsides, but that’s not where you should pick it, of course. 

When do you pick it? How?

You can pick the leaves as soon as they emerge, and the flowers as soon as they flower! 

What does it taste like?

The flowers and leaves are very aromatic, a blend of thyme, oregano, and lemon. The leaves are particularly strong, especially if you pick them late in the season. 

What do you do with it?

The leaves can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried. Add them to a range of dishes, including soups, stews, omelettes, and pasta.

The flowers can be eaten raw in salads. Ariane also recommends putting them in ice cube trays of olive oil and freezing them for later: “They look pretty in a soup and add interesting flavour.”

Alternatively, she suggests drying the flowers and leaves and brewing them into an herbal tea, mixed with balsam fir and sweet gale. “It yields a lovely rich, potent winter tea . . . in the summer, add maple syrup and lemon and serve it iced.”

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Cattail

“A cattail is a wild pantry in and of itself. It’s been called the survival supermarket: you can eat seven different parts of the plant year-round. If you’re stuck, you could even harvest the root in the middle of winter by breaking the ice. But the best part of the plant is the cattail heart, which we’ll be focusing on here.”

Where does it grow?

Cattails grow throughout Québec, in swamps, lakes, and ditches. A word of caution: it’s a water filtering plant. “So if the water is polluted, the cattail will be too,” Ariane cautions. “Make sure you’re harvesting in a clean environment. It should be picked upstream from a city, town, or landfill, not downstream.”

When do you pick it? How?

You need to go into the water to pick it. “That’s when the fun begins,” says Ariane. She advises putting on old running shoes or going barefoot and enjoying getting a bit muddy. “People rarely go into swamps, yet they’re the nurseries of our forests. Harvesting cattail gives you a reason to get into a marsh and connect with nature.”

You can harvest the heart between the middle and the end of June from the base of the stem, underwater. Ariane explains that you need to give the plant a sharp blow at a 45-degree angle, so you don’t tear the root. “It’s the white part near the bottom that you want; it’s the most tender. Then remove the outer layers, which are fibrous and a bit like those of a leek, to get the heart.”

Fun fact: when you cut the cattail stem, it sends a signal to the rhizome to grow another shoot. Harvesting thus ensures the regeneration of the plant.

What does it taste like?

The hearts have a very delicate flavour. Eaten raw, they have a slightly peppery taste. The peppery taste disappears when you pickle them; then they’re a lot like hearts of palm.

What do you do with it?

Eat them raw in a salad, or just prepared simply enough to let their subtle flavour come through. You can also can them.

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Keep in mind

Be careful not to confuse irises with cattails, because irises are poisonous. A cattail is round at its base; an iris is flat.

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Gourmet Sauvage harvests and artisanally processes non-timber food from the forest. Founded in 1993 by the pioneering Gérald Le Gal, he handed over the Laurentian business to his daughter, Ariane, and son-in-law, Pascal, five years ago. The business also has the mission to share their knowledge: every year, Gourmet Sauvage introduces hundreds of new people to sustainable forest wildcrafting. Due to the pandemic, their workshops took place virtually this summer. Ariane and Gérald have published a book, Forêt: Identifier, Cueillir, Cuisiner, out of their desire to introduce the Québec terroir to as many people as possible. Currently available in French only, it is a treasure trove of knowledge and know-how.

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