Winter Foraging Workshop at Topsy Farm

Wild Foraged Pickings

Whenever I suggest Winter Foraging to people I always giggle at the response. No one thinks that there is any viable foods available in our Northern deep frost, but let me tell you, there is plenty. In this particular workshop I gathered up a handful of hearty people keen to experience what the Canadian Boreal forest has to offer. Outfitted with multiple layers of clothing and good rubber boots we made our way out onto the vast property of Topsy Farms to see what we could gather.

We startled a large flock of Starlings into a Murmuration that mesmerized us almost into forgetting our task. Such is the beauty of the property here, but we trudged onwards across the slippery March ice towards an area of the Farm called ‘Lighthouse Point’. Along this area are many Juniper trees. Wind whipping off of the water we talk about the difference between the two Juniper species. Juniper Communis is the common Juniper tree. The berries are smaller but easily harvested with paper bags. Putting the whole branch into the bag you can shake the winter dried berries off in one shot. While with the other species Juniper Horizontalis needs to painstakingly picked off one by one. The needles sharp, so I always use my garden gloves for protection. Both species grow their berries in cycles and require 3 summers to fully mature. Once matured (turning dark blue) you now have competition for this tasty treat. Deer love to nibble on these along with the green needles. Most times when you find the Creeping Juniper, most of the berries will have been eaten leaving you empty handed. However, if the shrub is well established, the center branches will still have berries that the deer cannot reach. The berries on the Common Juniper are much smaller ( half the size) then the creeping Juniper. I collect both when I can because the taste is much more concentrated in the smaller but the larger are excellent to use when cooking long cured meats like Corned Beef or Sauerbraten. The picture above shows both. I am a huge fan of all Juniper berries because of one very important fact that most people aren’t aware of. Juniper is an anti flatulent. That’s right folks…. it’s a fart buster. Eaten fresh off of the tree when they are fresh or dried later in the year, these berries can significantly reduce or flat out stop unwanted gas. In the ‘Now you know’ context… make sure you have a steady supply of juniper in your home for any of the social awkward farting situations. There are also many other medicinal attributes to Juniper we shouldn’t overlook. Juniper is a Analgesic, antibacterial, Anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-rheumatic, Antiseptic, aromatic, carminative, diaphoretic, disinfectant and stimulant. So much for such a wee Berry.

We collect only what we need for the workshop purposes. Later at the farmhouse, we are making Juniper fermented Honey and a Juniper sourdough starter. Recipes and photos to follow.

We start walking deeper into the forest and away from the shoreline. The wind drops almost immediately after we are surrounded by thick underbrush with a high canopy. This part of the forest is 90% coniferous mixed with more common Juniper, Cedar and Pine. We start to follow a Deer path and discover, hidden amongst the Conifers is, a nice patchwork of Hickory trees. Every 20 yards we are surrounded by the feast the local chipmunks had of all the hickory nuts. We collect a few remaining with the thought of cracking them apart while looking at the ingenuity of the chipmunks and their tough little teeth.

Entering the Deciduous forest

Looking for Pine trees to harvest needles the deciduous forest offers up a small few red and white pine hidden amongst the Maple, Hickory and Oak. It’s almost insane the division between the two forests that hug each other. Walking out the coniferous forest we leave behind the thick undergrowth where one felt hugged by green. Our voices muffled by thick insulation. The obligatory dog (all walks must include a dog) starts barking at noises in the distance. I could only guess were some of the huge population of Deer living here. I miss some of the very Pine trees we were looking for as I start scanning the forest floor for Deer Antlers. Always shed at this time of year and always awesome to find. Thoughts of all the different projects I’d like to do start running through my head – Chandeliers, Pastry pedestals etc. When we’ve wandered through this forest aimlessly for a while, we finally spot our prize. A beautiful white Pine. So tall has it grown that we can’t reach the first branches to harvest. However, as luck would have it, Amherst Island is always the recipient of strong winds and we find freshly blown branches that are easily collected off the forest floor. We load up the collection basket and make our way back to the farmhouse for refreshments and tutorials on 3 recipes with our Winter forest finds.

White Pine needles being boiled in water to extract the oils

White Pine Cough Syrup

First up is the White Pine needles. Our intention is to make an Aboriginal Cough Syrup made with honey. It’s actually a seriously simple recipe. The needles need to be boiled to extract their oils. First we need to separate the needles from the branches and give everything a good rinse. We got a great amount so I choose a very large pot to use. in a 12 liter pot I filled 3 quarters of the way full of water. Then set the burner on high. Typically I boil until literally all the color is released from the needles. This takes about 2 hours at high boil. Once this is done I pull off 75% of the needles. Leaving the remaining in the same pot because the action of boiling pushes a lot of the resin on the side of the pot.

White Pine Cough Syrup

I want this to be included in the Syrup. Adding unfiltered honey that still included propolis (tree resin collected by bees that have antiseptic qualities that helps strengthen the immune system against bacteria, fungi and viruses ), I put one cup per liter into the boiled white pine water to finish our syrup. Put the pot back on high boil. Do NOT stir and let boil at high for 30 minutes. You’ll want the mixture to reach a temperature of 230 to 234 degrees F to achieve a syrup. Once cooled, you can bottle as you please. I never filter mine as I want all the extra resin from both the bees and the tree. It does mean you’ll have to give it a good shake before using.

Juniper Fermenting in Honey

Fermented Juniper Honey

What you need: Juniper Berries, Honey, Glass Jar & Cheesecloth

I love this process and have many different foods and herbs fermenting in honey. All over the house are buckets are varying degrees of fermentation with Hot peppers, wild garlic (from last year), high bush cranberries to anything else I can get my hands on. The very same honey I used for the syrup is used for this Juniper Fermentation. In itself its active because it’s unfiltered. However, with this recipe I add only the Juniper berries. Unwashed juniper berries have a ton of natural yeasts growing on them. Once I add a handful of berries, stirred in, I don’t add anything else like in the other fermentations. Those recipes I need to add an active ingredient and I have added anything from fermented Pear juice to fresh pineapple juice (because they ferment quickly on their own). You have to be patient when fermenting this way. Leaving a cheesecloth wrapped around the opening allows oxygen exchange and more wild yeasts to blend in. Stir container at least once a week for 6 to 8 weeks. Slowly you’ll find small bubbles rise to the top with each stir and the color of the honey taking on it’s host – this means it’s fermenting and the flavors are infusing. When I bottle the finished product – I stop the fermentation through hot bottling with a seal over 30 minutes boil in water. You’ll want to do this for culinary uses so your bottles don’t explode under the pressure. I mistake I made last summer in the high heat of August bottling a experiment. Glass and Liquid honey everywhere. Ugh! what a mess.

Cracking Juniper berries to add to our Sourdough Starter

Juniper Sour Dough Starter

What you need: Juniper Berries, water and Flour

Because Juniper Berries are so naturally high in wild yeasts this is a recipe that anyone can do. Next Workshop March 30th is on Sourdough baking and we will use this starter to make our bread. That Blog will follow after or you can join the class.

This is way easier then you’ll realize. I take the Juniper berries and crush them. Today I used my Hatchet (partly because I love my hatchet but in reality I couldn’t find my meat pounder and my mortar & pestle is buried in my moving boxes still) . It does point out the simple fact that you could literally use anything to accomplish the same end result and well… I always seem to have my hatchet handy. I mix them evenly into the dry flour then add well water. City water has too many chemicals in it that could stop the fermentation and distilled water is basically dead. Our well water on the island is sweet but heavy. A nice addition to our starter. I add enough water to make it into a pancake mixture consistency. then I cover with cheesecloth and let nature take its course. I check everyday for bubbles starting to form at the top of the mixture. Once this has happened I start to feed it everyday equal parts water and flour until it’s quadrupled in size. Then it’s ready for your first bake.

If the water separates before fermenting… that’s okay. Stir it in and keep checking on it. Timing on this depends on many factors. The warmth of the air in the room, the type of flour used (Milled flour direct from the farm is always the best – it’s always very active in itself). You can buy grains and mill them yourself or just buy organic flour from your local grocer. I’m going to suggest finding your closest Farmers Market to buy there. Always support local and your bread will taste better because of it.

If you’re interested in any of our future foraging events please email us at to sign up or contact us with questions.

A Good Day is Always a Day in the Forest

Winter Foraging with Misty- the foraging Puppy