By Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2006)
Wild foods are local, regional, seasonal (all the modern buzz words), and a part of our culinary heritage. There is a movement towards rediscovering old heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables, niche markets are emerging for artisanal products, everything organic. You would think that wild food would be a natural step in our search for local products to endorse, and in our quest for new tastes and ideas. So, why is Toqué the only restaurant in Montreal where you might come across sea spinach or baies d’églantiers? Why aren’t we exploiting what’s in our very own backyards?
Québecois cuisine is amidst an explosion of progress, coming into its own. Chefs are experimenting with all kinds of new products and techniques, some have even moved into labs to push the limits further. In all our exuberent exploration, we have gone off in all directions and lost track of the past. Like with agribusiness taking the place of our traditional small farms, we have forgotten what our ancestors knew about wild foods. While busy trying to uncover every last spice or delicacy from abroad to add to our repertoire, we have neglected our culinary heritage.
There are so many indigenous wild plants that we don’t know enough to appreciate or to protect. We have loads of resources, like wild mushrooms that no one is picking. Most of the mushrooms sold to the high-end restaurants in Montreal come from Europe or out west, while tons grow here.
Besides the ubiquitous fiddleheads of spring, there are many wild plants of culinary interest. All the varieties of wild mushrooms that don’t make it to market because they’re rare or less known or too perishable, for example. All the sprouts (adder’s leaf, orach, chickweed, purselane, live-forever, stinging nettle) and herbs (mint, chives, lovage.....) are more. There are baby bull rushes that you peel and crumble to make a flour that tastes like corn. There are the roots like wild ginger which has a super intoxicating Thrill’s gum-like aroma that is addictive, crinkleroot (wild horseradish) which tastes like arugula and peanut mixed, and of course, the delicious wild garlic bulbs and leaves with their complex, floral garlic flavor. There is labrador tea, and wintergreen leaves and berries, great both in the savory and sweet kitchen. Then, there are all the flower petals, flowerbuds, and wild berries like elderberry, bake-apple, partridge berry, squashberry...... And these are just some of my favorites.
When I first came across some of these things at l’Eau à la Bouche, I was enchanted, curious about all the possibilities. When the novelty wore off in my exploration, I gained perspective, and discarded those plants that were too bitter, or so subtle that they had nothing unique to offer. Afterall, I wasn’t stuck in the woods with nothing else to eat. With all the good ingredients at our fingertips these days, we chefs can afford to be selective. I am selective, but now that I’ve gotten to know these wild ingredients, I love them, and they will be a part of my repertoire forever, as long as I can find them.
That’s what worries me. Well, luckily, I have my François des bois, but what about everyone else? I wish more people could appreciate this wholesome source of food. But a part from picking the weeds in our backyards, sourcing out these indigenous plants is not easy. There aren’t many people in the business, its a tricky business because the people involved are always at the mercy of nature, and a there’s a whole mess of obstacles between the supply and the chef, especially in the city.
One of the problems is that wild plants are less predictable, less easy to acquire and deal with than cultivated crops. That makes it hard for pickers to work with chefs, and for chefs to plan their menus. Most suppliers and chefs won’t bother. Another problem is the lack of pickers, as on traditional farms.
Most important is the lack of knowledge of wild plants, or the rampant misinformation. It is not in our tradition to know much about mushrooms say as it is with Europeans, and even with plants that have more of a history here, the knowledge has slowly been lost from generation to generation. So people don’t know enough about what’s good and what’s not, inorder to look for it, want it, let alone want to pick it for a living.
Another issue is the danger inherent in a lack of knowledge and training. People are leary of wild plants, and for good reason, since the wrong plant, the wrong picking location or method of preparation can indeed cause gastric pain or poisoning. There are some books out there, but without hands on experience, it can be an adventure at best.
François Brouillard, aka François des bois is someone that grew up with foraging, he learnt it from his grandmother. He also read all the books, spent a lot of time in the woods, and survived a few stomach aches, certainly. Afterwards, he spent over ten years trying to make a living supplying restaurants, recruiting and training pickers, educating and proudly selling wild plants to a public that wasn’t ready.
A major set back for chefs and foragers is the lack of regulation. Careless pickers out to make a buck put sub-standard produce on the market leaving a bad impression on chefs trying some for the first time. Often these hacks don’t last, come in with a big batch, and collapse the prices, making it impossible for people who pick properly and respect the environment to compete. If you go further out (to unpolluted areas), pick just the tender tip, leave the root intact, and rotate land so as to be sustainable, you will inevitably have to charge more. But when buyers don’t know the product, they are skeptical about paying a fair price, and they are more likely to be duped, and ultimately disappointed. Even though fiddleheads are common, still many overly mature, polluted fiddleheads appear on the market every year; people don’t know to beware of low prices.
Moreover, there’s a disconnect between the botanists and beaurocrats working for the government, and the people with hands on experience like François. They need to team up somehow to provide a sensible framework for operation, standards for picking, picking permits, and zoning. There was a grassroots organization that people in the industry set up on their own with guidelines and collective goals, which was effective to a certain degree in the beginning, but has gotten bogged down by a conflict of private interests, low participation and has since become irrelevant.
As with projects like the Desjardins report’s reccomendations to the government for standardization and regulations in labelling local products with a Quebecois “appelations controlée” system, big change is complicated, it takes time and requires funding. Without much public interest, the government will not spend money there on research, documentation, or inspectors. But if people knew what they were missing out on, I think it might be different.
A cause that François holds close to his heart is the government’s banning of wild plants on the basis of endangerment, while every year, more acres of land rich in all these wild plants are being bull-dozed to make way for highways, superstores and condo developments. All that biodiversity, big chunks of our culinary history, are being erased just like that. François is fined if he picks the ramps they are going to destroy anyway. Ramps (wild garlic) are not illegal anywhere else by the way. Its only because Quebecois actually eat them, and ramps take a long time to reproduce. Which brings us to the issue of sustainability.
François claims (and has physically shown me) that many plants like wild ginger and crinkleroot, which the government has on the endangered list and wants to ban, have no problem reproducing if you pick them properly. In fact, they like a little trauma. They thrive if you cut off shoots, as long as you leave the root intact. It isn’t people that know how to pick like François that wipe out these plants, its the nurseries who go and rip out entire plants, root systems and all.
This just makes it obvious to me that there should be some kind of regulation, permits issued for people who respect the environment. But of course, its much easier to make a law outlawing the picking of all these plants instead of finding people to enforce proper picking and sustainability. François will have to fight for his right to continue his family’s legacy, and his livelihood.
I just find it unfortunate that before many people even find out about all these edible wild plants, they’re being wiped out, or their consumption outlawed for unneccesary reasons. They could only play a valuable role in our modern, thriving regional Quebecois cuisine.
I would not know about any of this if I hadn’t worked at L’Eau à la Bouche and dated François des bois. I feel privelaged because its made my experience as a chef richer. I want to spread the word, and I often push François to be more of a spokesperson and activist. But at the same time, I understand the difficulty of his situation. As one of the few leaders in the field, he would have to dedicate his life to educating, fighting for regulation, promoting a better understanding of wild plants, to make them them available on the market.
I understand that he belongs in the woods, not exchanging latin words with beaurocrats. I understand that being a pusher for chefs, living out of his van as he covered the province, training pickers year after year, didn’t earn him a secure living. He has been doing his part with passion and integrity for twenty odd years. He has worked with Québec’s top chefs, he’s been on numerous food shows, on the radio, in magazines, even Gourmet Magazine.
Now, all he wants to do is keep the flame alive, and do his little thing in the woods. I don’t blame him for wanting to stay put, tending to his simple woodland table, serving up his special weeds and mushrooms to people who come to him. As opposed to travelling about trying to sell something so misunderstood, and giving conferences, he’s found the woodland table to be the best way to introduce people to the wonderful world of wild food. To give it to them as a finished product with a good time at the table in a warm, bucolic setting, is more satisfying for everyone. People always leave happy, enlightened and excited. And he is doing what he likes best, sharing his passion, on a personal level. He doesn’t want to change the world. Neither do I, really. I just feel that people are in the dark about edible wild plants, and being a part of this wild world, I feel a duty to provide some scoop.