GREENLIGHT: Out Foraging For Wild Foods With Tyler Gray Of “Mikuni Wild Harvest”
by Claudia Chan with photos by Michelle Sproule | In our beautiful woods the wild things grow. What many of us urbanites easily forget, however, is that that same abundance thrives with edible plants and fungi. We depended on this wild plant life for our survival during most of the course of human existence, living symbiotically with nature by harvesting only what we needed and learning about the health benefits of different plants by spending much of our waking hours cleaning, processing, cooking, and eating them.
That all changed with the industrialization of our food systems. We’ve become so far removed from nature that the idea of going out to the forest for own own dinner sounds not only ridiculous, but also impossible. We’ve become accustomed to pushing grocery carts through store aisles and eating produce from boxes packed a hemisphere away.
The revival of the locavore movement has inspired some enthusiasts to return to the old practices; to recapture some of the traditional wisdom about food and the medicinal values of plants and fungi. Vancouverite Tyler Gray is one of their number.
Born and bred on the Sunshine Coast, Gray is one of the rarest of our species: a hunter and gatherer of the 21st century, one who has turned a passion for the wild into a career. He learned the tricks of his outdoor trade having spent ample time foraging for wild foods in and around Sechelt. He gives credit to his mom and grandparents, who taught him the ways of the woods and about all the treasures that grow within. “My grandparents were the original locavores,” he says, adding that “they could never tell you what that word means. They just lived that way because it’s how they were raised. They grew up in a really small town and they ended up farming, foraging and hunting all of their food. They also canned and pickled. So those trades got passed down to my mom and I was raised in that culture.”
Since 2004, having inherited that knowledge and experience, Gray has led a successful specialty wild foods distribution company called Mikuni Wild Harvest. Mikuni means “beautiful forest” in Japanese. It’s a fitting brand, as the products the company carries include some of the most exquisite and unique things that come from the woods. Think fiddleheads, caviar licorice root, chanterelles, Matsutake mushrooms, wild watercress, sea asparagus, and so on. The list of available edibles from Mikuni is huge.
On a recent (and very wet) forest walkabout with Gray, I learned that scavenging for such things required a good pair of hunting eyes, some experience, and a whole lot of confidence. You don’t want to eat just any kind of plant out there and you certainly don’t want to take a chance with mushrooms. Gray has years of practice under his belt, so it was clear on our walk that he knew where to look and what to look for (admittedly, I didn’t have a clue). But it’s not just him doing the hunting and gathering. He procures some of the finest products from a few of the most experienced foragers in North America. Those suppliers include a 70-year-old Cherokee Native American named “Running Squirrel” and a ramp forager from West Virginia named “Crazy Harry”.
Over the last decade they’ve developed the right network of people – foragers, farmers and chefs, to help grow their business. Some of North America’s most prominent chefs seek out Gray’s top-dollar products. And of course they do, since wild foods make for the most exciting, flavourful and unique culinary experiences. With humble beginnings in a basement office in Portland, Mikuni now has warehouses in Vancouver, Seattle, Las Vegas and New York that distribute wild product to kitchens all over the world.
“In the very beginning, my partners Tim and Gord Wheighell and I did everything – packing, selling, driving,” Gray says. “We would sleep in our vans on the side of the road. We started with next to nothing and to get to where we are today meant a lot of hard work.” Today, they’ve also expanded Mikuni’s larder to include a new line of immensely popular artisan vinegars, oils and syrups called Noble Handcrafted Tonics.
When asked about turning his passion into lucrative work, Gray expresses immense gratitude, “I’m deeply honoured and really grateful that there is a business for wild foods, that people appreciate our product and that they put their trust in us to deliver high quality wild products year-round [...] It’s no easy task when one can’t control what grows in the wild [...] If the French Laundry’s putting Giroux chanterelles on their menu and their counting on me to deliver for them, it can be a remarkably difficult thing to execute consistently on a regular basis.”
While most of the wild foods grow on our soil here, the highest demand for them actually comes from Japan and Europe. 60% to 70% of mushrooms grown in North America are exported overseas. It seems that the general population here has yet to understand their value. Gray can attest to that: “We don’t have a culture that’s deeply rooted in wild foraged foods like in other countries,” he explains. “I want to see it here though…I want to see it enjoyed and appreciated here. And I want to see that happen through people going for a walk in the bush and finding fiddleheads. As people’s awareness of these foods grow, then we can have more access to these products.”
If people spent more time cultivating relationships with nature, we would collectively gain a greater respect for not only the origins of our foods, but also the work involved in preparing that food and for the ecosystems that allow it to flourish. Gray maintains that environmental care is a large part of his ethos in foraging and in business. “It’s important to treat this activity and culture with respect. This means protecting the environment when you’re in it – not leaving garbage or breaking up the moss and practicing sustainable methods of harvesting. If we do so, then it’s something that we can all enjoy now as well as into the future.”
Having fully reaped the benefits of nature’s bounty himself, Gray is happy to share with others the tradition that his family imparted to him. “I want to bring this knowledge to the forefront of our generation’s consciousness and try to make that shift so that people feel empowered to do it,” he says. “Once you go on a tour and you learn what a chanterelle looks like, what a porcini looks like or what Miner’s Lettuce looks like, and where to look for them and where they grow, then you can go out on your own. That’s knowledge that you can have and that you can pass on for generations to come.” After all, hunting and gathering is primal to our species – it’s only natural that we’re curious about rediscovering our relationship with our environment. So let’s all get studying, outside.
Claudia Chan is an advocate of all things green. Born and raised in Vancouver, she is inspired by the work of local urban farmers, eco artists and policy makers who make this city the most lush and livable to work and play in. Her mission with Scout and her “Greenlight” column is to impart her enthusiasm for bike lanes, community gardens, farmers’ markets and more to her fellow Vancouverites.