Hunters and Gatherers

We head into the woodlands of Caledon with chef Michael Hunter in search of wild edibles

It’s a frost-sheathed morning in a thicket in Caledon and I’m perched in a hunting chair 15 feet up a pine tree, hopelessly looking for deer, convinced that I’m repelling any animals that might be nearby with my pseudo-hipster city-dweller’s aura.

I feel certain that the Internet-ification of my brain is causing me to stand out in the woods like a beacon, like a guy who has a habit of reaching for his phone every 10 minutes, who spends way too much time laughing at memes, whose most profound wilderness experience thus far has been canoeing while on mushrooms in cottage country.

 Chef Michael Hunter

Chef Michael Hunter is seated adjacent to me in another pine tree, swathed in camouflage gear, crossbow at the ready. Earlier today he told me that my aura theory is false, that animals are as wary of me as they would be of any other human, which is why we’re up in the trees. We’re trying to keep our terrifying scent as far away from the ground as possible.

This is my second expedition to Caledon with Hunter, who owns and operates Antler restaurant on Dundas West. As his name coincidentally entails, he is a hunter, and while he is prohibited by provincial and municipal law from selling wild game at his restaurant – he uses farmed game instead – he tries to incorporate wild plant life into his cooking when he can.

I have gone on these hunting trips with him because I’m curious to know more about how humans once captured their food and what happens to an animal before it ends up on the dinner plate. I believe these are important things to think about.

Last year we tried to harvest a wild turkey. We sat on the ground in the morning chill for hours, covered in camouflage print, not moving or speaking. Hunter had set out a few decoys intended to attract toms – adult male turkeys – but we left empty-handed that day.

Hunter has participated in this oft-maligned pastime since he was 19, when he went into the woods with a family friend and killed his first turkey.

It's so moving. Point-blank taking an animal's life is so emotional

“I didn’t think it would be so moving,” he recalled earlier. “The sound of them gobbling was really loud. Your heart starts beating, your adrenaline starts pumping. Point-blank taking something’s life is pretty emotional.”

When I was younger I assumed that there was something alpha-male oafish about hunting, but after meeting Hunter a few years ago I started to feel differently about it. Even though he uses it to bolster his Instagram feed and his personal brand, he treats hunting with a high degree of sanctity. He hates the idea of trophy hunting, or of hunting irresponsibly. Any time he catches an animal, he acknowledges its sacrifice and says a prayer. He seemed to me like a good candidate for a guide.

“But isn’t that savage?” one person asked me shortly before I embarked on this deer hunt.

This is a common opinion, and sure, maybe hunting is savage. We are going out to kill a creature that did nothing to harm us, a creature we will hopefully eat even though we have plenty of food at home. But you know what else is savage? Factory farming. Chick shredding. Posing for a selfie with a soggy bison slider in your hand. Those things are also savage.

Anyone who eats meat has no business condemning hunting. It seems hypocritical to be willing to swallow a medium-rare tenderloin wrapped in bacon but be unwilling to watch an animal die, or to kill one, for that matter.

Then there is romanticism. Many of us have this notion that nature is a noble eden where everything functions in cooperative harmony. The truth of the matter is that nature is a warzone. Everything is competing with everything for survival, and something out there always wants to kill you. And sometimes things become unbalanced; wild populations skyrocket, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

On our drive up to Caledon, Hunter made an observation that should be self-evident.

“A lot of people think animals in the wild die peaceful deaths,” he said. “But actually, it’s usually being eaten alive.”

Or starving to death, or succumbing to parasites, or freezing, or any of the other countless not-so-great ways to go. Nature is mean.

Hunter uses an Excalibur crossbow with a scope, a powerful weapon that usually means near-instant annihilation for any creature up to 60 yards away. The bolts are made of carbon fibre, with a deadly sharp steel tip and three razor blades just below it. If Hunter spots a deer, he will aim for the heart and lungs, and when the shot is true the bolt will literally pierce the body completely, exiting out another side.

Death is usually quick, but bad things do happen. Hunter has killed six deer in his lifetime and one of those instances was an unintended gut-shot. The deer got away, but it almost certainly died in horrific pain.

“It really sucked,” Hunter recalled on the drive up. “Totally upsetting.”

Buying meat at a supermarket is a detached, unemotional experience, but hunting is the opposite. Sitting in the woods emphasizes that in the real world you can’t just pick up meat during a three-minute pit stop. In nature, you have to wait for meat, often for a very long time. And you’re probably not going to be eating it every day.

As we sit high in the air, everything on the ground is a shade of pre-sunrise indigo. The pine trees around us are tall and stark. The moon is black save for a tiny arc of pure white on its edge. Every now and then Hunter pulls out a pair of antlers and clacks them together, or blows into a tube-shaped instrument that replicates a deer’s eerie groan, in the hopes of attracting a buck.

Time draws out into hours and there isn’t much to do but fall in and out of thought streams. Hunter has told me that he usually thinks about food in these moments, and I find myself doing the same, wondering about the state of the universe and how messed up the concept of eating is, how everything we consume – plants and animals both – either is or was alive at some point.

On this tiny patch of woodland, there are plenty of edibles

The wooded area we’re in is mostly silent save for the periodic scampering of squirrels, the solitary calls of crows and the occasional hiss of cars on the nearby highway. Eventually we hear a buck in the distance, breathing heavy like a horse. What will happen if it comes our way? Will I be able to stomach watching it die? Will I hate myself for coming out here? The buck however, remains out of sight.

Then, I have to pee. Like the useless urbanite I am, I’m eventually forced to climb down from my post, tracking my scent everywhere, and relieve myself nearby. The hunt ends shortly after. Once again, we’ve captured nothing.

But even on this nondescript patch of woodland, there are plenty of edible plants to be found. Foraging is often associated with spring or summer, yet this snow-speckled landscape is rife with tricholoma myomyces mushrooms, which poke their mouse-grey caps out of the ground after the season’s first frost.

There are other goods nearby, too: a few hardy stalks of wild mint, which you can smell from five feet away; garlic mustard, an invasive weed that packs a distinct garlic punch; crab apples, tart and potent; dandelion leaves, bitter and abundant; goldenrod, an edible yellow flower; rose hips, the bright red fruit of the rose plant; smilax berries, which grow on the greenbrier vine like miniature grapes; cattails, which taste like hearts of palm; deep-green tufts of moss and lichen, which are edible (but not necessarily palatable); and fluffy cones of sumac, crimson and as citrusy as lemons.

In other seasons the bounty is even more prevalent, with morels, ramps, wild strawberries, wild raspberries and wild grapes. A lot of this stuff Hunter will use at his restaurant: he’ll make a pesto with dandelion leaves, or a chutney with peach and goldenrod, or a vinaigrette with sumac, or he’ll infuse gin with cedar, which also grows here.

Peeking around trees, we slowly gather a bagful of mushrooms along with some herbs and some bushy sprigs of green pine needles, which can be boiled into a tea with decongestant properties and high amounts of vitamin C. (Early settlers in Canada learned about this trick from the natives, and it helped them ward off scurvy.)

In nature, you have to wait for meat, often for a very long time

We head back into town to Antler to cook what we’ve found. There, Hunter chops the mushrooms and sears them on high heat in butter and oil. Previously frozen water expels from them in geysers of steam. In a nearby pot, veal stock simmers away spiced with clove, juniper, cinnamon, allspice and fennel, along with the rest of our bounty from the woods: the pine needles, the mint, the garlic mustard and the sumac, which slowly infuse into the broth.

After some time he pours the liquid into a French press along with more of the wild stuff. Then he drizzles the forest-soup over the sauteed mushrooms. The result is piney and earthy, like the woods we were just in, but also warm and floral from the spices.

During our day in the woods, we intruded upon nature. We climbed trees and stalked animals. We foraged, which is not without its ecological downsides: over-harvesting is common, and trampling about in the wilderness has its own unintended consequences.

I think there is a silver lining here, though. We went out and we thought about where food comes from. We sat in nature and respected it, appreciated its beauty and the myriad ways in which things survive and die within it. Being in nature is the first step toward actually caring about it in a way that goes beyond self-righteous tweeting.

We thought about life and death and the unforgiving food chain. And we reminded ourselves that amid all of that, nature also just tastes really good, even to a perpetual city guy like me.