The noise of the rotating helicopter blades was overpowering at first, but it grew distant as the craft flew away from the three men it dropped off in a secluded part of British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. Eric Whitehead led the group out into the forest with a mission in mind. They were hunting for an item so popular, it was like they were prospectors during the gold rush.
While it wasn’t a mineral they were searching for, the treasure, pine mushrooms — a.k.a matsutake — are packed full of vitamins and minerals and, at the time, they were worth thousands of dollars a pound. This was back in 1999, and Whitehead was planning on selling them as a side business. For 10 days, they created bridges with felled trees to get to the most remote spots where the mushrooms thrived — and the helicopter came back every two days to pick up their bounty.
In 2004, Whitehead became more serious about selling foraged wild food, and started his own company called One Hundred Mile Wild Foods, which has since been renamed Untamed Feast. The St. Albert-based company sells Canadian grown wild food including porcini, morel and chanterelle mushrooms, along with seaweed and wild rice.
Whitehead has been interested in foraging since he was a child, growing up in the interior of B.C. “I grew up really crunchy granola style. There wasn’t even a road into our little log cabin with no power. Dad hunted the meat, and Mom grew the vegetables. It was a six-hour drive to get to the nearest grocery store.” His parents instilled a love for wild food, and a knowledge that has served him well.
Now, Whitehead, who has an herbalism certificate, runs his wild food company with his wife, Michelle, and they spend a lot of time in the wilderness. But they also need to have a foraging crew — up to 12 foragers and five independent harvesters — because the product that started off just in farmers’ markets is now in over 100 retail stores across Canada.
In 2013, the husband-and-wife team appeared on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, where their pitch created a bidding war amongst the Dragons. It resulted in a deal with marketer Arlene Dickinson, who paid $65,000 for 20 per cent of the business.
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For Whitehead, his business is about providing an extremely healthy product — one he even calls medicinal — to the general public, while also educating people about wild food. When foraging, he often has five cumbersome baskets on his back, packed one atop the other, while he wades across swamps to find the treasures he’s after: Morel mushrooms, stinging nettle, chanterelle mushrooms and porcini mushrooms. His love for his work is obvious in the videos he creates of his foraging adventures, in which he battles bugs, bears and wild rivers.
The mushrooms are dried using wood heat the same day that they are picked, making for a product that surprises many people, says Whitehead. He also says that they sell mushrooms that actually taste better when dry as opposed to fresh — all except the chanterelle, which they infuse with alderwood to create a totally unique flavour. But it’s not just about taste for Whitehead; he truly believes incorporating some wild food into a regular diet can improve health. “Have some wild food to offset the chicken fingers and fries,” he says.
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