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posted October 31, 2007

A Visit With Jonathan Forbes

by Anne Freeman

Since the early days of the market, we've been lucky to have Forbes Wild Foods on our vendor list, sometimes just for monthly visits, but regularly now that Seth has become Jonathan Forbes' market helper. Every conversation with Jonathan is a learning opportunity, so much so that I'm often tempted to take lengthy breaks from my market rounds to find out more about the foods he brings us. This fall, I spent a wonderful afternoon talking and walking with him at his place near Creemore.

I arrived around lunchtime, so to start with, what's to eat on a patch of mid-Ontario land? Well, on the particular acre where Jonathan's office-cabin sits, there's an abundance. We made this multi-season list:

- ostrich fern fiddleheads
- wild grapes
- spruce tips
- wild leeks
- cedar tea
- barberries
- rosehips and petals
- puffball
- wild apples.

- red and black raspberries,
- red and white currants, blackberries and gooseberries (all wild)
- maple flowers,sap and syrup
- ostrich fern fiddleheads
- milkweed pods and flower syrup
- pheasant back mushrooms

Jonathan Forbes

In addition, there are foods from introduced species, such as ox-eye daisy (young leaves and flower buds) and dandelion.

Many of these foods come to Dufferin Grove fresh, dried, pickled or preserved. In all, Forbes Wild Foods sells about 90 products, including the ones harvested close to home and others gathered across the country. Most are wild, though Jonathan also takes a great interest in foods that can be cultivated here, but rarely are, such as tree nuts from Niagara. A business partner in St. Adele, Quebec and connections with harvesters from British Columbia to Newfoundland make the rich variety of products possible. These aren't casual connections; a big part of Jonathan's work is developing links with remote communities where there is an abundance of wild food, and finding ways to build opportunities. He's passionate about making these opportunities sustainable for the people involved, and similarly committed to sustainable harvest methods of wild foods that need careful protection. Wild leeks are an example; in Quebec, so many were lost to overharvesting that it's now illegal to sell them. (It's good to ask questions when you buy wild foods.) As we walked, we talked at length about his ongoing collaboration with a neighbour observing patches over years and experimenting with collecting seed to extend the leek beds.

Jonathan has a long stride and exceptionally sharp eyes, both essential for foraging. Walking the land surrounding his home with him is very different from a standard hike. Every deadfall, gully and grove is familiar down to the closest detail, and there's so much to see. Black walnuts and plum trees he planted many years ago, wild garlic in a meadow, the very best fiddlehead patch (he was right not to worry about showing me; I had lost my bearings entirely long before we got there).

Late Green Oysters

We were looking for mushrooms, the precious few edible ones among the kingdom of many best left alone. Just one intriguing bearstooth (enough to flavour a pot of rice), and a handful of beautiful late green oysters went into the basket.

There was so much to talk about: the history and current picture of agriculture in the area and what might be needed to make small farming viable into the future, the complexities of finding organic ingredients, testing recipes, and preparing products to international standards, even the role of wild turkeys in restoring plant diversity to forests where cattle once grazed away the understory. Eventually, reluctantly, I had to leave. There was the drive back to face, and Jonathan had many phone messages waiting for his attention (a missing Canada Post shipment of mushrooms for the Parliament Buildings, among other things). Halfway home, still thinking about many threads of our discussion, I realized with a pang that the bearstooth, which I was looking forward to cooking that night, was still in the basket. I did have a gift of the best jar of crabapple jelly I've ever tasted, though, and I was already looking forward to our next conversation at the market.

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