Chef Ben Staley is quickly becoming Edmonton’s shaman

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“You ate it!”

Chef Ben Staley

Chef Ben Staley

Chef Ben Staley retorts as I tell him that me and Debra Krause found a wild, underripe gooseberry the other day. Ben’s been documenting all the wild foods that grow in and around us in this bizarre hillbilly meets handsome-academic (with perfectly well-kempt hair) montage he seems to be living these days. Ben has been on a bit of an under-ripe fruit plucking bender. While the sugars to acid ratio in a ripe fruit might be optimal for sweet satisfaction, the earthy undertones of green in a mildly under-ripe fruit releases a far more complex array of flavours. He spends several days a week in the bush looking for tiny delights from cattails, wild strawberries, wild peas, hyssops, lambs quarters, gooseberries to, yes, you heard it right – wild hazelnuts. People like me and Deb’s five year old daughter, Londyn, happily ingest every tiny, edible thing we find while foraging, but thankfully Ben looks to save them and care for them.

And to care for them means giving them a life that lasts a little longer than the ticking clock of decomposition that turns on the instant they are plucked. Preservation may be mankind’s most crucial endeavour in the search of life beyond basic survival

Ben explaining the flavours of hyssop - a herb I didn't know how to spell a few days back.

Ben explaining the flavours of hyssop – a herb I didn’t know how to spell a few days back.

and let Ben expertly show you a thing or two. While it is often viewed as something grannies do in their free time, or something googleable, the key to making a good preserve lies in the science behind the substance you are trying to save and the technique you are using to save it. Why must one cook mushrooms before attempting to ferment and preserve them? Or, when should one use acid preservation over lacto-fermentation for their brussels sprout harvest this year?

What is most significant about all this though is that Ben is trying to create awareness of how essential preservation is to Canadian and Nordic cuisine. His food creations that will soon be seen in the Alder Room, a restaurant he is opening in early spring 2016, circle the idea of creating local, boreal flavours which is far more involved than simply using local ingredients. Good preservation techniques – including lacto-fermenting those beautiful fall chanterelle mushrooms you plan to forage – is an essential step in this process. I have a feeling you are going to be quite wowed by his class on Summer Preserves. Get your tickets here: Summer Preserves with Ben Staley