It’s cold and drizzly and I wore the wrong shoes for a walk on the beach with Fred Dardenne. It was a sudden decision to drive to the beach—in between wild mushroom deliveries to chef Culjak of Eliot & Vine and boxes of wild sumac being dropped off at Via Rail destined for picky chefs in Quebec. We head to the beach in search of sea lettuce.
There is no typical day in the life of a professional forager, as a look around Dardenne’s car attests. There are baskets and plastic containers of all sizes, rubber boots, a mushroom knife, cans of soda, and packs of Gauloises cigarettes.
“You have some very delicious spice behind your head,” Dardenne says as I climb into the passenger seat of his van. An open tray of small, dried catkins called myrica gale perches right behind my ear. Creative chefs will grind it into spice for its sublime aromatics (like rosemary on steroids).
The whole van is steeped with forest smells: earthy, herbaceous, peppery, piney, and camphorous. There are boxes of maitake mushrooms, bags of juniper berries, crates of fresh wild carrot roots, and trays of sumac.
The night before had brought one of the first storms of the season, and Dardenne tells me that this is the best time to forage for seaweed, which is why we’re going to the beach. “Nova Scotia is probably the best place in the world to forage for seaweed,” says Dardenne. “There are around eighteen edible species worldwide and we have about eleven of them and January is the best time to harvest.”
The beach is an intricate woven mat of green and brown strands. Within a short walk we have already collected an assortment of what Dardenne tells me are by far the most flavourful and sought by chefs: aonori, sea lettuce, nori, wakame, oyster thief and sugar kelp.
“Here, taste this,” Dardenne hands me a few strands of forest-green oyster thief. Salty, vegetal, and complex. “A lot of the chefs used this in the Golden Plate awards this year. It’s a totally invasive species but I can never keep up with the demand for it from chefs,” he adds.
Most of the seaweeds will be dried and provide umami, the elusive fifth taste sensation. It makes us salivate, gets our gastric juices flowing, and adds richness and bass-notes to anything it accompanies.
“There are so many things to do with seaweed,” says Dardenne. “One of my favourite is seaweed caviar—sea lettuce, garlic, olive oil and lemon. Unbelievably fresh and tasty.”
We take a short walk over the rocks and into what feels like a lunar landscape or a coral reef above ground. Grey boulders have seemingly popped up, out of an otherwise flat landscape, carpeted in alpine conifer. In between the prickly needles are hundreds of purple juniper berries that burst with flavour like little shots of winter elixir. Dardenne will collect these for craft distilleries that will steep the little violet orbs in spirits and create herby infused gins.
Bright red winter green berries grow amongst the juniper. One nibble confirms the unmistakeable taste of candy canes. As its name suggests, wintergreen is one of the few herbaceous plants found green and happy beneath the snow, even in the darkest days of winter. Kneeling to pick the berries, we are already discussing its potential use in ice cream, root beer, or maybe a jelly.
“A wild food has to fight for its existence, so it’s packed full of life and energy and nutrients,” Dardenne says. “Even when they’re bitter or sour, the foods are intense, super clean, and beautiful.”
Walking with Dardenne is like walking alongside a foraging encyclopaedia, a botanist and a conservationist. He is acutely aware of the fragile ecologies these wild foods are made up of.
Nova Scotia is blessed with many quality edible wild food and Dardenne confirms the rising trend among gourmet chefs: he now supplies 75 restaurants. But he sends most of his ingredients to Quebec with a few clients as far afield as Paris and Dubai.
Dardenne wanders off and fields calls from restaurants, looking for the day’s ingredients. At one point, he has a lively conversation with his distributor about a request for aonori seaweed. He stands, holding the phone to his ear with his left hand while squinting hard against the smoke from a cigarette between his lips, and elegantly dips down to pick some caribou moss. He’s still at work.
There is almost no one in Nova Scotia that knows more about wild food than Dardenne. Born and raised in the small Belgian village of Honnay-Revogne, he has been, among other things, an economics major, a lawyer, and a carpenter. And all of his life he has been a forager.
“It’s something I just grew up with in Belgium,” he explains. “We lived on a small farm, surrounded by woods and we lived off the land. We didn’t call it foraging, it was just a way of life for me from a young age. I tried being a lawyer for a while after university, but I knew early on I could never work in an office.”
He started out helping a friend forage for mushrooms in Belgium and ended up taking a course on wild food, where the connection to the land, the concept of terroir and food with a sense of place, all resonated. His life as a professional forager began.
It’s humanity’s oldest profession.
“People have lost their connection to nature,” he laughs. “When I first started foraging in Nova Scotia, people would regularly stop me and ask if I was OK and if I needed any help.”
The culinary world got a shot in the arm when legendary Chef Rene Redzeppi started foraging the Nordic landscape. In the bleak northern climate, he set an example for chefs to pay close attention to the land.
Young chefs like Lachlan Culjak of Eliot & Vine on Cunard Street took heed. He regularly orders an assortment of wild edibles from Dardenne. “Wild foods bring a higher nutritional value than cultivated foods and they bring fuller flavour that is distinct to the terroir,” Culjak says. “They add a sense of time and place to a dish.
“Seaweeds are my go-to wild food. Whether it’s giant kelp that I use in stocks and broths, roasted dulce as a seasoning, crispy nori for texture or sea lettuce dried or pickled. They add umami and complexity that’s unparalleled,” says Culjak.
He has seen the culinary landscape in Halifax change. Diners are more adventurous, curious to try new tastes. His ever-changing seasonal menu is proof of this. He makes mousse with bright orange sea buckthorn (a spiky coastal plant with berries that taste like tart passion fruit), he slow cooks trout, with chorizo and aenori broth, and roasted wild carrots with elderflower glaze.
Although he has Dardenne as his forager on speed dial, he admits he seeks any excuse to get out of the stressful kitchen environment as often as possible to forage for himself, remaining connected to the food he serves.
Back in the car, swirling with the briny aromas of the sea and the piney scent of the berries, it strikes me that somewhere along our path as humans we chose to value some bizarre things. We don’t like being too cold, or too hot, or too wet, or too dry. We don’t like breaking a sweat or being sore.
So the natural consequence is that we’ve disconnected from those feelings that make us feel alive.
The way back is frustratingly simple: go outside and embrace it. Take a walk in the wild. If you do that regularly, and keep in mind that everything in that ecosystem feeds some organism, you’ll start to see food differently.