The Foraged Spice Rack: Cooking with Wild Herbs & Spices
Herbs and spices found in nature have been used to flavour our cooking since we've had fire to cook with. They have been in use for so long we don't know actually know when we first started adding them to flavour our food or how long specific spices have been used in traditional foodways. The mention of spices conjures up the delicious bioregional cuisines of Southeast Asia and their colourful and fragrant local ingredients of peppercorns, cinnamon, tumeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and chilies. But what if you wanted to see what it would be like to only cook with herbs and spices from your local bioregion? Things you could grow or wildcraft in nearby wild spaces to feed your family. What would that look like and how would the food taste? In curious and creative hands, it will always be delicious.
Using a combination of local substitutions for familiar exotics along with an open mind for completely original flavours, anyone can create a locally foraged spice rack to work with once you know what botanicals to look for in the wild and at markets. Such a unique spice rack represents the terroir of this bioregion and its complex ecosystem, transporting a diner to the forests, meadows, and marshes via scent and taste. Local botanicals can be used to create a whole new taste palette, or to use as substitutes for the more exotic herbs and spices in the recipes you already cook on a regular basis.
Though this article focuses on my local region of Eastern North America, I hope it inspires you to try the flavours of your own area.
Foraging Sustainability and Legalities
Some native herbs and spices are more abundant than others, some are weeds but some might be on a conservation watch list so make sure you do your research before harvesting any botanical in quantities meant for anything other than personal use. Some plants are available to purchase at nurseries and native plant sales to grow on your own land. If you wildcraft, make sure to harvest from clean, wild areas free from chemical spraying, water pollution, and vehicle traffic. Make sure to harvest on land that you can legally forage from whether it is private or crown land. Always have an owner's permission if the land is private, and always check the legalities of harvesting specific herbs from crown land and county forests and make sure your maps are up to date.
Health & Safety
Some herbs and spices are safe to consume in small amounts as a flavouring, but may not be safe in larger quantities. Others are safe to consume, but not for pregnant or breastfeeding women (sweet gale and queen anne's lace for example). Make sure to do a quick search of a field guide or online database before ingesting a wild botanical to make sure you have the correct identification and that the plant or fungi is safe to eat. Remember you alone are responsible for feeling confident enough in your identification to make the choice to eat the plant or fungi.
Chocolate, Coffee & Spice
If you are a chocolate and coffee lover, chaga and wild roots will be your best friend. Now, none of these contain caffeine but they are the closest you can come in Eastern Canada to the flavours of these exotic treats. Coincidentally, each ingredient in this category also goes incredibly well with real chocolate because of the similarity in dark, rich, earthy, bitter flavours.
Chaga mushroom, a large, black fungal growth found on birch trees, can be turned into a strong triple decoction to which you can add cream (or your preferred dairy substitute) and a sweetener like sugar, maple syrup, or honey to bring it as close as possible to a coffee experience. The tea decoction can be used as a base for making a wild version of coffee, black tea, chai, and hot chocolate - just add sweetener, spices, or cocoa. It an also be used as a base for meat sauces and gravies. Chaga should not be eaten raw due to its indigestible chitin content and the lack of medicinal bioavailability before extraction. This makes it a bad choice to use fresh ground chaga as a seasoning or rub like cocoa powder for truffles. If possible, get your hands on a double extracted chaga powder to use in this way and avoid high heat to maintain the chaga's medicinal properties. If you use chaga for recipes needing high heat (like chaga brownies or chaga tea as a beef marinade), it will not keep the same medicinal properties, but it will still add a lot of flavour, richness, and colour.
When it comes to working with roots as chocolate, coffee, and black tea substitutes, think of how coffee and cacao beans are processed. Coffee beans are dried and roasted before being ground and turned into coffee. Cacao beans are fermented, dried, and roasted before they can be made into chocolate. The methods are similar for the roots listed. They should be sliced, dried, roasted, and/or smoked, and ground before use to flavour seasoning blends, hot beverages, liqueurs, beers, baked goods, and confections. Experiment with different ways of processing and preparing the roots to discover which way they taste best to you. Grind the roots with other herbs to make seasoning rubs like this Roasted Dandelion Root Rub for Meat by Hunger and Thirst. You can also finely powdered and sift the roasted roots to make your own wildcrafted "cocoa" powder.
Roots of plants native to Ontario include yellow avens (geum aleppicum), purple avens (geum rivale), wood avens (geum urbanum), burdock (arctium spp.), chicory (cichorium intybus), dandelion (taraxacum officinale), and the root bark of wild sarsaparilla (aralia nudicaulis) which does not need to be roasted, just dried, to taste spicy like root beer.
Herbal & Savoury
Not every wild herb has a taste suitable for culinary application, but there are those who really stand out with such strong, delicious flavours that you won't even miss your rosemary and winter savory.
Mushrooms are the ultimate wild source of savoury umami. The taste and smell of giant puffballs and various bolete mushrooms significantly intensifies when dried and can be powdered and used as an amazing flavour powder with or without salt. We use mushroom powder in almost everything at home: as a meat rub, in vegetable dishes (especially potatoes or sauteed mushrooms), in homemade bechamel for mac and cheese, in gravies, in soups, in stews, Lobster mushrooms smell and taste like lobster or prawns and can be dried, powdered, and used as a local, vegan version of bonito flakes or dried shrimp. Some mushrooms are peppery and some are fruity. If you love mushroom hunting and have a good handle on identifying fungi, they are a great choice for learning how to craft your own locally foraged seasonings.
The culinary conifers to know include balsam fir, Eastern hemlock fir, white pine, and spruce. Only the new spring tips are good to eat for spruce and white pine, but older needles are still delicious from hemlock and balsam fir trees. Fresh conifer needles have a lemon-pepper taste and scent and can be used in place of rosemary for recipes ranging from syrups and jelly to seasoning fish or making salt rubs for meats and vegetables. Another tasty evergreen spice is the ripe berries of juniper shrubs (juniperus communis and juniperus horizontalis).
Sweeter wild herbs for seasoning dishes include anise hyssop (agastache foeniculum) which has a pleasant licorice-mint flavour, citrusy wild bergamont, and wild mint (mentha arvensis) along with naturalized spearmint and peppermint. Avoid using hoary mountain mint (pycnanthemum incanum) as it is an at risk species in Ontario.
Instead of putting bay laurel leaves from the Mediterranean in your broths, soups, stews, and sauces, why not try the leaves of labrador tea or sweet gale? Sweet gale can be used in place of hops for brewing beer and infusing liqueurs.
There are also many members of the parsley plant family native to Ontario which are great for cooking with as fresh herbs (new leaves) or dried spices (seeds and roots) including angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), aniseroot (Osmorhiza longistylis), sweet cicely (Osmorhiza claytonii), wild carrot (Daucas carota aka "Queen Anne's lace"), and wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris). The flavours range from carrot and celery to aniseed and licorice.
Hot & Peppery
These botanicals have heat ranging from gentle to burning your mouth like a hot pepper, but all fall into the "spicy in a good way" category. Native plants which can be used as pepper substitutes include dried green alder catkins (Alnus viridis), dried peppery bolete mushroom (Chalciporus piperatus), and dried watercress (Rorippa Nasturtium-aquaticum), or bittercress (Cardamine diphylla and Cardamine pensylvanica). The cresses are better fresh than dried and taste similar to arugula. The leaves and seeds of wild mustard, a prevalent weed, can be used fresh or dried and in place of pepper or alongside native pepper substitutes.
Try adding evening primrose root (Oenothera biennis) to you regular recipes. If harvested in the spring or fall it can taste like a radish or turnip, tasty with a kick. If harvested during the summer it will be much hotter can can be treated like horseradish. Goldmoss stonecrop grows on mossy rock faces and is pleasingly crunchy, succulent, and spicy like a hot pepper. It burns! Treat it like hot peppers and pickle it or chop it up fresh and add to dishes as a hot pepper substitute. Why not try drying both evening primrose and goldmoss stonecrop to create a sort of wild cayenne pepper?
Native wild alliums are a great source of sharp, hot, delicious flavours which can be left raw or sweetened by cooking. In Ontario we are lucky enough to have wild garlic, wild leeks, wild chives, and wild onions. The raw green tops of garlic and leeks can be used like chives or green onions in cooking. Wild onion (Allium cernuum) is an at risk species and should not be harvested at all in the wild, but could be cultivated.
Wild alliums are often over harvested due to the high demand for them and the fact that because the bulbs used for cooking are actually the slow-growing roots the plants, they will not grow back if harvested and if a patch is picked clean, it will not recover. Extra care should be taken to either only take the green parts, or to only harvest from very large, abundant patches that other people are not also harvesting from. Wild leeks (aka ramps) are often over-harvested and poached from private properties for commercial sale. Ontario and Quebec governments are urging foragers to be sustainable and harvest only one green leaf from each ramp plant and leave the white bulbs alone. If you need to use alliums in great amounts, you should consider growing them or hiring forest farmers to grow them and look for agroforestry grants for funding.
Wild berries and fruits can help a cook achieve sour/tart flavour profiles in marinades, sauces, and sweets as we do not have a warm enough climate for citrus fruits. They can also be fermented into delicious wild vinegars which can be added to vinaigrettes, sauces, and meat marinades. Black elderberry (Sambucus niger sbsp. canadensis) has pleasantly sour, dark berries which stain everything with their purple juice. Rosehips are tart in the late summer and sweeter in the late fall after a few frosts. Try using them fresh or dried in place of tomatoes. Staghorn sumac has tart, fuzzy red berries that taste pleasantly sour like lemon. Sumac is a traditional ingredient in Za'atar; a Middle Eastern herb blend of sumac berry, oregano, thyme, marjoram, and toasted sesame seed. Elderberry, rosehips, and sumac can all be dried and treated like a cooking spice.
Wood sorrels (Oxalis montana and Oxalis stricta) are a great native plant to achieve a sour flavour which can be used in both savoury dishes and desserts. The heart shaped leaves are a favourite nibble of children and can be added to dishes raw as a garnish. Despite being a green, wood sorrel does not taste like greens at all, it tastes of lemon and sour candy and has an almost vingear sharpness to it. It is mainly used to make sauces, both with and without cream.
Sweet is a flavour we humans have always craved. The question: "What's for dessert?" is probably pretty ancient! If you are looking for chocolate or nutmeg like spices, see the "Chocolate, Coffee & Spice" section at the beginning of this article. Sweet foods are decently abundant in the Northern Ontario wilds in the form of berries, fruits, maple syrup, maple sugar, and yellow birch syrup. Berries and fruit don't need to be dessert though, they make incredibly delicious condiments such as chutneys, ketchups, barbeque sauces, jellies, conserves, and can be used to replicate any traditional brown sauces using fruit as a base. A good example is this Sweet & Spicy Hawthorn Ketchup recipe from Gather Victoria.
Local Ontarians and Quebecois put maple syrup in everything from coffee to salmon fillet. Where maple syrup doesn't work in a recipe, maple sugar can be used as a substitute --especially for baking. Maple syrup is labour intensive to produce and a lot of volume is lost in the boil making it expensive to purchase. The labour is worth it. Most people in our rural area harvest their own and their parents did before them and so on back into the family history. The photos below are from my father's small sugar shack operation on his farm - blue buckets in the trees full of sugar maple sap.
Sugar substitutes are obvious, but what about herbal sweet treats? Candy cap mushrooms are a tiny brown mushroom found in the woodlands of Canada. When dried, they smell potently like maple syrup. They can be powdered and added to baking and confectionery recipes in place of vanilla, used to infuse sugar, or rehydrated, chopped up, sauteed in butter and maple sugar, and used like toffee bits in cookies, muffins, and scones. Yes, this mushroom really is that sweet and tasty!
If you are looking for a smooth, throat soothing licorice flavour, try looking for wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota) or polypody fern rhizome (Polypodium virginianum - East Coast / Polypodium glycyrrhiza - West Coast). Again, the flavours will be more pronounced after drying the rhizomes of both first.
Another sweet treasure of the Ontario wilds is the flowers. Fresh or dried wild rose petals are incredibly versatile for using in recipes and add a delicate, sweet flavour to many preparations. Other fragrant, edible flowers include milkweed flower, fireweed flower, elderflower, basswood flower, honeysuckle, and violets. Think of flower petal ice cream, infused sugar, syrup, jelly/jam, vinegar, tea, liqueurs, cakes, custards, and more.
It's my hope you will take the names of the botanicals in this piece and research them in your favourite regional field guides and wild edibles books to compile a list of herbs and spices to harvest and add to your cooking. Here are more resources to get your started.