St. Albert-based company Untamed Feast is growing its presence in the community with a new storefront in Riel Business Park.
With expectations to open at the end of March on Renault Crescent, the store provides more space for owners Eric and Michelle Whitehead to centralize their operations and educate people on the benefits of taking food's unbeaten path.
“We believe that nature effortlessly provides the best tasting and most nutritious foods – it doesn’t get any better than wild,” said Michelle. “It’s hard work, but we love it.”
Previously, Untamed Feast had a small warehouse in northern Edmonton and manufactured elsewhere, at first out of Blue Kettle Specialty Foods and other certified kitchens, and eventually out of their own licensed facility. Their products can be found in several stores in St. Albert and beyond, including Sobey's, Mercato, Amaranth Foods and Freson Bros.
In the back is a kitchen area where Eric turns the leftover pieces of dried mushroom and rice into packaged meals, and Michelle stores and packages their products by hand.
“Just like in the olden days. It’s very tedious, essential work,” she said.
In a separate area off to the side is the marshalling area, allowing for trucks to drive in and drop off their product right into the store. It’s also where all the online orders Untamed Feast receives are processed.
Untamed Feast’s supply chain differs from a typical business model – what they get from nature, is what they get.
"Some of the mushrooms that we don't get in large enough quantities, we just put them in our forest blend. Unless we had a really good year, we wouldn't sell straight up," Michelle said.
There is a market for wild food right now, Eric said. Despite only operating in Alberta during busy times, the business seems to be growing every year.
Instead of filling orders from exporters and large orders from companies for their product, the couple said they want to keep things local with the supply they have.
"We have the opportunity right now to send six 40-foot containers a year of our product abroad – we don't have enough for that. But even if we had half of that, we (would) have to say no to some of our local stores. This is how the rest of the industry works. It's all exported to Europe and Asia," he said.
"It would be way easier, but you wouldn't have a brand or (opportunities to) educate around the lifestyle."
There are more than 4,000 species of mushroom in Alberta, though the seasonal window is short-lived. For years, the couple would meticulously plan their trips and hand-pick all of their mushrooms themselves, but as demand grew, so did their network of experienced harvesters.
“Nowadays, most of our harvesters are dialled in with their spots and doing their own thing as opposed to us actively managing them 100 per cent on the ground,” Eric said.
Into the wild
Aside from wild mushrooms, the business has also expanded into wild rice, seaweed and Chaga tea, a velvety mushroom brew similar to black coffee without the caffeine and packed with antioxidants.
When comparing wild versus cultivated food, or produce grown under the care of farmers, the growing conditions make all the difference.
“When we’re talking about mushrooms in the forest, it is the most sustainable food you could come across,” Eric said.
Consider wild mushrooms as the fruit of a symbiotic relationship between the trees, the mushroom spore and the mycelium fungus weaving underneath in an interconnected web. With the mycelium acting as the “Internet of the forest,” these organisms share nutrients, minerals, and information to grow.
Wild food can have powerful medicinal properties as well, Eric said, and the knowledge of different plant species can help with self-reliance.
"At a time when the world is concerned about COVID-19 ... how do you protect yourself beyond just washing your hands?" he said.
"It's good to know what tree to look for, knowing what mushroom fights parasites and can kill ringworm or boost your immune system. There's a mushroom that's been known to successfully treat shingles in adults – that's huge."
The hunt for meaty morel mushrooms is dependent on the season, as the elusive fungus loves to grow out of scorched soil after a forest fire. Wild rice grows naturally on the lakes of Manitoba, while the company’s seaweed is gathered on the islands of Haida Gwaii.
Chaga mushrooms can be found an hour and a half outside St. Albert in dense forest. Red cap mushrooms, known as Alberta’s provincial mushroom, are common inhabitants. Stinging nettles, which have a mild spinach flavour when cooked, also grow naturally in Alberta and B.C.
As for the rest? It’s a secret, for good reason. Mushrooms can be hard to find, and pickers keep good locations to themselves. Over the years, the couple has collected their own little black book of spots scattered around western and northern Canada for porcini, other boletes, lobster and pine mushrooms.
Once open, the couple wants to incorporate zero-waste ideas, where customers could bring back their used plastic packaging and refill it or buy jars of certain products. In the future, educational workshops around wild food and foraging are on the horizon, Michelle said.
"I think there's a tremendous amount of benefit, appetite and need for just connecting people hyper-locally to the little tiny wild things they can forage around them. Maybe you're not going to have enough mushrooms to have more than a little cup of soup, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try."