Eating Wild Things

Stinging nettles, fiddleheads, milkweed and lots of other uncultivated plants you've probably never eaten before

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By David Hammond

I've written before about foraging in Oak Park. Every spring there's a vast quantity of edible flora growing in alley ways and elsewhere in the village.

Everywhere in the world, of course, there are wild plants that people, for centuries, have eaten.

On our first day in Montreal, we had lunch at a French restaurant, Laloux with Ms. Dominique Desrosiers, a Montreal woman who is part-French and part-Abenaki, one of the many First Nations peoples who once lived in this part of the world but who now, for the most part, have vanished.

She recognized a vegetable on my plate, milkweed, which is a little like broccoli rabe and grows wild during a two-week period every year in early July. The Abenaki ate this wild "weed," as I'm sure many did who lived in this part of the world before the Europeans arrived. Such vegetables are now reappearing on the menus of fancier places. Ironically, though such wild things grow free, they are somewhat costly to harvest because, of course, most gathering is done by hand, which is time intensive.

Later, we stopped by Marche Jean-Talon, Montreal's huge farmer's market and visited with a vendor from a place called Les Jardins Sauvages ("The Wild Gardens"). Most of the food items sold at this place were previously unknown to me. There were maritime plants as well as land plants that I didn't know existed. We sampled some "oyster leaf," which I may have actually had at Alinea a few years ago: it tastes much like its namesake bivalve. We also tried little pieces of maritime plantain that had a pleasant, light green flavor, and maritime myrtle, which was more intense. We Italian say that when you have a food for the first time, you get to make a wish: I made lots of wishes that day.

There was a sign Les Jardins Sauvages table that warned "raw foodists" that some of the foods offered "absolutely need to be cooked," including stinging nettles, fiddleheads and milkweed. This is a strong argument for getting a kitchenette when traveling; it's the easiest way to make sure you get to sample foods like these that rarely show up on restaurant menus and that pretty much never show up in grocery stores.

At the Oak Park Farmers Market, it's unlikely any of these wild things will ever show up. This year, the market had to discontinue offer truly wild (foraged, not cultivated) mushrooms, and I'm certain that regulations would prohibit the sale of items that were pulled out of an empty field or swamp. There are a lot of good reasons for such regulations, but I have to think that part of the reason is that public health authorities are suspicious of plants that are not part of the regular roster of goods offered at local super markets. Canada, however, seems to take a more liberal position, which is good news for any travelers there who like to eat wild things.




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