Stay away from those wild leeks!

Locavores, beware

Conscientious foodies have put a premium on foraged goodies such as fiddleheads and wild leeks – but popularity can come at a cost, Sarah Elton reports

From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, May 20, 2009 at 8:59 AM EDT 

The wild leeks are up, the fiddleheads are out and local food aficionados are licking their lips.

            But while the recent rise in locavorism has created a surge in demand for wild foods, their newfound popularity can come at a price.

            The choice to buy something foraged from a Canadian forest instead of imported broccoli may seem good to those who tally miles, but when wild foods hit the mainstream, the risks of overharvesting can threaten the species and

large-scale industrial processing can diminish the qualities that attracted people in the first place.

            A few years ago, wild leeks, also known as ramps, were enjoyed only by foragers and gourmets who knew the woodland plant offered a delectable onion flavour with a hint of garlic. This year, the wild relative of the onion is everywhere. In grocery stores such as the upscale Pusateri’s in Toronto, ramps sell for $3.99 a bunch. They are also sold wholesale at the Ontario Food Terminal and distributed at greengrocers across the city. Ontario-picked ramps are even advertised in online classified ads in Montreal.

            “It’s crazy,” says Anthony Rose, executive chef at Toronto’s Drake Hotel who in the past few weeks has been approached by about 20 different sellers, more than two times the number of people who contacted him last year.

            But all this attention isn’t good news for the leek, says Gérald Le Gal, president of the Quebec-based Association for the Commercialization of Forest Mushrooms and owner of Gourmet Sauvage, a company that sells prepared wild fruits and vegetables.

He doesn’t think anyone should be selling ramps.

            “Don’t touch the stuff. It’s just too vulnerable,” he says. When you pick a ramp, you take the entire plant, including the bulb. Once the bulb is gone, there is nothing left of the plant; it will not grow back the next year. The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority considers it to be “a species of conservation concern.” And eating a nice sized bulb could be the equivalent of dining on an old-growth cedar. “It’s a really, really, slow-growth plant. A bulb could be 18 to 20 years old,” Mr. Le Gal says.

            In Quebec, the wild leek saw a similar surge in popularity in the early 1990s. At farmers’ markets across the province, bottles of pickled wild leek were snapped up by the hundreds, pushing the species to the brink.

            Today in Quebec, it’s illegal to sell wild leeks. In an attempt to stop extinction by commercialization, the provincial government only allows people to harvest 50 bulbs a season for personal use. Chefs aren’t allowed to cook with them, and it’s forbidden to import them from other provinces.

            Wild leeks aren’t the only forest product growing in popularity. NorCliff Farms Inc., the country’s largest supplier of fiddleheads, has seen a 20-per-cent rise in demand each year for its fresh and frozen products over the past 10 years, says chief executive officer Nick Secord. This spring, the company opened a processing plant in Quebec where about 60,000 tonnes of fiddleheads roll off the conveyor belt every day. To process the large quantities, the company uses an industrial shaker to remove debris and a pipe that shoots water at 140-pound pressure to clean the fiddleheads before they are packaged and shipped.

            To satisfy demand, the company trucks in fiddleheads foraged from riverbanks and forests in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, as well as the northeastern United States, Mr. Secord says. The company also has created a fiddlehead farm in Port Colborne, Ont., where they flood the land, simulating the natural ecosystem in which the ferns thrive.

            The way the fiddleheads come to market does not jibe with the image of a local forest product. While you can find locally foraged fiddleheads at farmers’ markets, a fiddlehead in the grocery store that has been picked in New Brunswick, processed in Quebec and sold in Ontario could have journeyed more than 1,000 kilometres to your plate.

            Unlike ramps, harvesting fiddleheads doesn’t endanger the plant – as long as you don’t take too many from the same patch, says Jonathan Forbes, owner of Forbes Wild Foods. He says pickers should only take three of the seven fronds of each plant or else risk its survival. “You can’t take all the fiddleheads off the plant,” Mr. Secord says.

Problems, experts say, start when people don’t respect these principles.

            “You’ve got people who are aware of how to harvest properly and others who just want to make a buck,” says Tim Brigham of the Centre for Non-Timber Resources at Royal Roads University on Vancouver Island, a research centre dedicated to the sustainable use of forest products.

            Mr. Brigham believes that it is possible for Canadians to commercially harvest wild foods from nature in way that preserves the ecosystem. He is part of a group trying to put together a national network of sustainable harvesters.

            Mr. Forbes agrees. “There are some wild foods that you could have everybody in the country eating and it could be sustainable,” he says, listing fruits such as Saskatoon berries and wild raspberries. He does not include fiddleheads or wild leeks in this list, even though he sells them both, but adds that they can be harvested sustainably. The ramps he sells come from Beausoleil First Nation where there is a sustainable forest policy in place.

            When it comes to buying wild foods, the consumer can use the foragers’ mantra as a guide to what’s safe to eat, Mr. Le Gal says. Berries and mushrooms are no problem while you should be cautious with stems and leaves. When it comes to roots and bulbs, you must be really careful, he says.

            To feel comfortable putting wild leeks on his menu, Mr. Rose makes sure he knows where the product is coming from. “You have to ask a lot of questions and be aware,” he says.

            But as long as harvesting is done sustainably, the wild foods can help to protect nature, Mr. Forbes says. “When people realize that the forests provide really good food, it gives it an ecological value it didn’t have before. Then they may go easy on the environment.”