The humble leak is drawing a lot of interest in culinary circles these days. However, in some cases too much interest is not a good a thing.
As the desire for forest edibles like wild leaks, morels and fiddleheads has grown, populations have shrunk in some areas to the point where they have all but vanished from some of their traditional growing areas. Muskoka lies on the northernmost border of the growing region, and later this month a new festival is being launched with the goal of bringing people to the area and increasing awareness of the wild leek.
“It’s the perfect time. They’re in bloom . . . and we need to bring awareness to them because a lot of foodies have developed an interest in them and they need to be harvested sustainably,” says Melissa Whittle, event co-ordinator.
The first Muskoka Lakes Wild Leek festival takes place between May 19-28 at various locations across Muskoka Lakes. Plans are for the event to include a culinary trail, guided nature walks and workshops; all topped off by the Leeky Bowl – a judged soup contest for amateurs and professionals alike.
Whittle says the goal of the event is to provide both education and enjoyment of the wild leek.
“We’ve been working with conservation experts to make sure our message is, not only enjoy the wild leeks but let’s harvest them sustainably,” she says. “In Gatineau they’ve been completely wiped out and I believe in parts of the Smokey Mountains as well. A lot of people don’t know that if you pull a bulb, that’s it, it’s done and it’s never coming back.”
Increasingly chefs from urban areas are realizing the culinary potential for forest edibles like wild leeks and the market for leeks has been steadily growing. Although she says there’s nothing wrong with eating wild leeks, there is a right way to go about harvesting them.
“You need to pull the leaf and not the bulb and if you pull a bulb it has to be a mature one. Don’t pull a whole bunch of them, don’t use a shovel,” she says. “We want to be the first and foremost organization when it comes to education on harvesting sustainably.”
Whittle says all of the chefs and dining establishment along the culinary trail have agreed to practice sustainable harvesting.
As a second phase of the project, Whittle says they hope to head out in the fall and plant wild leeks, while encouraging others to do the same.
Ultimately, Whittle says the goal is to create a major event in Muskoka Lakes, much in the same vein as the Bala Cranberry Festival in the autumn.
“The Cranberry Festival is 32 years this year so we’re hoping that 32 years from now we’re talking about wild leaks and we have a thriving population.”