VOICE 141 - Stephen and Lauren of Earthstar Wild Foods
“Foraging is not only harvesting and utilizing nature’s abundance, but appreciating and respecting what’s to be shared around us. It's important knowing the “where and what”, It might sound funny, but, how often do people know exactly?”
Looking for edibles in BC forests? Foraging for wild edible plants, edible mushrooms, and berries in BC and the Vancouver area will open up a whole new tasting experience for you. Not only that, foraging reconnects us with nature and learn important lessons about where our food comes from.
Stephen and Lauren of Earthstar Wild Foods have been captivated by the world of foraging. They started to forage as a small-scale business when the Covid pandemic happened in 2020.
For Stephen, cooking has always been a passion, and it is through cooking he was introduced to foraging. Both of his grandmothers were great home cooks, and he would watch them cook with fresh harvest right off their gardens. "Food was a big thing in the family. However, as a teenager, I never thought of it being a career path. When I started cooking, I realized how much I loved it." Stephen has been a chef for 14 years now; currently works at the company kitchen in Aritzia Head Office.
Food has been a big passion for Lauren, too. Having grown up in the Middle East, Nigeria, and Florida, she was exposed to much different cultural food since she was a young age. "Food was a way for me to understand different cultures", says Lauren, who now works at a local fine dining restaurant called Published on Main. Naturally, the food brought Lauren and Stephen together when both of them were working at Botanist. As a chef, Stephen has always wanted to try new things that are grown locally. He started foraging and educating himself over time. On the contrary, Lauren never really had a chance to forage up until 2 years ago, when they started to forage a lot more as hobby foragers. "Where I grew up, people don't forage there, so it was fun, scary, and nerve wrecking at the same time when I started foraging with Stephen. I fell in love with it instantly though."
More and more their friends wanted to buy foraged food from them, and what started as their hobby turned into a small business. Stephen also incorporates as much foraged food in the Aritzia kitchen. "My chefs support what we do and they love to support local. It is good to educate people, especially in the building on new produce that they don't get to eat so often. Every day I have people asking me `What is stinging nettle?` or `What is morel mushroom?` We execute the dish very well so that it would give people an opportunity to like the local produce."
One fine weekend in May, Stephen and Lauren kindly took us on the foraging trip for VOICE story. As we engaged all of our senses to mushroom hunting, we clearly understood why they are hooked. We soon realized that foraging is very fun, but it is not just about gathering food. It introduces food in a much more meaningful way and makes us understand and respect the environment that nourishes us.
VOICE(V): What is your foraging season calendar like?
Stephen(S): "As soon as spring hits, we start foraging things like stinging nettles, miners lettuce, elderflowers, and oyster mushrooms. Morel mushrooms are among our favorites. We do research the year when forest fires happen, keep the log and map out the areas, and hope for the best for the next year. The temperature, humidity, and elevation are among so many different factors that can affect the growing of mushrooms. Foraging is how we spend most of the weekends until winter sets in. In the Vancouver area, we can forage up until late December or early January for something like winter Chanterelle, if we are lucky."
V: Where is the furthest place you have been to forage?
S: "We did a road trip up to Yukon once. That was an amazing experience. We drove up almost to the Northwest Territories border. The terrains there were all so unique. We drove through rolling hills, volcanic mountain scape, chiseled mountains, flatland, grassland, wetland, and never-ending forests!"
Lauren(L): "When we reached our first campsite in Yukon and stepped out to put our tent down, we saw all the mushrooms clustered in one area. There were at least 20 different types of mushrooms! It was incredible."
V: What is your guideline for foraging wild foods?
S: "We always carry bear sprays, water, food, change of clothing, and an extra source of communication. We try our best not to over-pick the area and not to damage the surroundings. We don't leave anything behind. Honestly, if we can get there without a vehicle we would, but it is usually unlikely. We try to be mindful of other animals that also use the vegetation as their food source. It is not only ours, it belongs to nature."
L: "Especially berries. I don' think we even picked berries last year because we were having a hard time finding them due to the forest fires. We usually pick any berries that are edible such as cloudberry, blackberry salmonberry, huckleberry, wild strawberry, and dwarf blueberry. We stayed away from berries at that point and let animals have them."
V: So, how does Earthstar Wild Foods work?
S: "I know a lot of chefs and friends in the food industry and they know that I forage. Sometimes they contact me if I have anything or I can get anything for them. We do have a website, but people reach out to us directly through Instagram or personal contact. We have nothing against commercial foraging, but we genuinely love to forage and enjoy spending our weekends out in nature. We both work full time during the week, so we like to keep it small as a hobby business."
V: What does the word Earthstar mean?
S: "Earthstar is a very funky type of mushroom. It has a star-like appearance with a spherical spore-sac sitting in the center. When the air is dry, the points fold up around the sac to protect it from weather and various predators. When the air is moist, or when it rains, the points open and expose the center, releasing spores. Lauren and I relate ourselves to this mushroom because we are introverted people. Once we open up when we meet people, it is like we redistribute our knowledge or our products."
V: Do you feel the impact of climate change on foraging?
S: "As far as the morel mushroom picking goes, it can benefit from the wildfires. On the other hand, there is always a negative impact that the forest fires will have on the community or the area. We noticed that Chanterelles were starting much earlier last year because it was much warmer. It is also unfortunate to see a few of our picking spots have been decimated by logging."
L: "Pine mushrooms were early last year, too. We found one around August and September."
S: "Not only plant species, but a lot of animals are having a hard time with the impact of unusual weather events."
V: What is your favorite mushroom and how would you enjoy it?
L: "I love different mushrooms for different things. Porcini mushrooms are my favorite to eat. I love finding pine mushrooms, and I love the appearance of reishi mushrooms. They are all my favorite across the board!"
S: "I love morel mushrooms. The way they grow is so interesting, and their appearance is so alien-like. The morel mushroom catches the sauce so well that you can get a lot of flavor from it. Also, morels are only grown in the wild and they help produce new growth after the forest fires. All those little pits on the outside of the morels pick up seeds and create an ideal environment for the seeds to grow and pop out of the mushrooms to start a life on the destructed land."
V: Stephen, can you share some of your favorite morel recipes?
S: "If you get a big size morel, stuff it with meat and roast it. Morel has such a deep and rich flavor, so it is always good to have it with darker meat. Old school sauteed morels with butter, thyme and garlic is something that you can't go wrong with. It also makes a great creamy soup, and it goes well with seasonal vegetables like asparagus, peas, fiddleheads, and stinging nettles."
V: What does food mean to you?
S: "It is hard to talk about food without feeling cliche. Food is everything. Food can bring people together; it creates community, nourishment, and a cycle of life.
L: " Food is everything that we need to survive. We are very much lived to eat versus eat to live type of person!"