A visiting tour to producers, while waiting for the snow to melt:
Rice lettuce, the first sprouts, curry leaves!
I had a very stimulating cooking week. Although we did get our first pickings of wild things to cook with, the excitement mostly came from others’ offerings this time. Travelling is a sure source of inspiration always, even if you only drive 30min out of your bubble. Spending time with passionate, hardworking artisans and farmers is the most rewarding of all, and luckily in Quebec you don’t have to go too far for that. I spent a day visiting a few of these special people, and came back on fire.
My first stop was at les Jardiniers du Chef with Pierre André Daignault. He’s been supplying top restaurants with micro-greens and specialty veg for years, and the place is like a well oiled machine, laid back and mature, yet with an innovative energy still omnipresent. As I sprinted around the greenhouses, sniffed and tasted, I was reacquainted with many old favourites, only more perfect and beautiful, and came across many new items of interest. The winner of the day was his rice lettuce (laitue de riz), like a delicate looking head of romaine that really tastes like sweet fragrant rice. Amazing raw, I could sooo imagine it cooked, silky and toothsome, more deeply flavourful. There was green garlic with an outside bulb you remove leaving what looks like a baby scallion that tastes like a ramp. There was pied de poule (chickenfeet), a thin wiry, but tender green that reminded me of young sea asparagus in texture but with a mild neutral grassy taste. I tasted a nutty Japanese spinach, peppery cress, a number of novel edible flowers, numerous micro-greens, and marvelled at all his still beautiful roots (skirret, chervil root, baby carrots, Chiogga beets, Jerusalem artichokes..). When I got back to the restaurant, and then at home, I prepared as much of my bag of treats in every way I could to sample it all at its freshest (yes, cooking at home after a 15hr day..). Thankfully, I had enough customers the next day to try a few more things out. It was my first taste of summer-like abundance in a while, when you have too many beautiful things to work with, it’s a struggle to fit it all on the menu. I made a little salad with the chicken-feet, some slivered daylily sprout, celery leaf sprouts and crinkleroot oil to accompany my smoked fish rillettes and gravelax on a wild herbed breadstick. I stuffed pintade with boletus and wrapped it in rice lettuce to cook it sous-vide, I also stuffed the pintade with the rice lettuce and seared it after the slow poach, which turned out to be even better. The cress and green garlic adorned a braised lamb and gnocchi dish with curry leaf. I was so pleased I left a gushy message on his answering machine.
The next stop was Gaspor, St-Canut farms for milk-fed piglet. I hadn’t visited since they automated their operation. Alexandre Aubin, the most charming pig farmer to be sure (although as a result he does more PR now while co-owner Carl Rousseau tends to the pigs) explained the new feeding system and showed me the cute little piglet families in different stages. They raise them to 28kg or 9-10 weeks in comfortable conditions, only milk fed, and air-dry for 48hrs after slaughter. Although still a relatively small production, they are steadily expanding, and they supply fine tables across the country, in New York and beyond. Their piglet is succulent, every part of it, and the fat is a soft, creamy white. I used to get their whole pigs when I was at l’Eau, where it was a work of love finding a way to use it all up; now they sell major cuts, so it’s more accessible. Even if I found the little piglets cute, actually hilarious (they are so playful and squeaky), I can’t wait to get my hams going. www.gaspor.com
On the way back, we stopped at Yannick’s Fromagerie du Marché in St-Jerome, the ultimate cheese shop where big wheels of perfect cheese grace the countertops and knowledgeable, passionate people are eager to introduce you to all of it. I really came for a chunk of my new favourite Piave (raw cow’s milk from Venetie, Italy, kind of Parm like, but ultra nutty), but also left with a Mont Tuilly Suisse tomme (raw cow’s milk) and a raw sheep’s milk Portugese pate molle that is curdled with natural cardoon enzyme (Azeitao), as well as some Lenoir Lacroix (terrific locally roasted and blended fair-trade organic) coffee. Yannick was there, so we had to chat it up, the guy is everything you want to know about cheese in a handsome, suave, soft spoken package. He looks more like an architect or a banker than a cheese specialist and always wears a crisp blue shirt, but he knows his stuff. He pointed me to the most promising of the new Quebec cheeses on the market, and reminded me of the best of the old that have succeeded in mastering consistency. On the subject of the Alexis de Portneuf (owned by Saputo) semi-scandal, Yannick explained that the additive in question was in fact just a a milk component, cheese by-product that is normally thrown out, not something altogether unnatural, and that with their investment in this technology, they were actually doing a good job at making commercially produced cheese. I still think that they should not be marketing themselves as artisanal, and that information is all the consumer needs; I would rather choose a small farmer’s cheese anyway, but at least it’s good to know I’m not committing some food ethics crime by eating a slice of the award winning Sauvagine. However, with all the other incredible veritable farmers cheeses in his shop, it’s not even an issue. His heart is in the Alps , in Spain and Portugal , but the Quebec selection is stellar, all the cheeses are selectively sourced, optimally cared for and served at their peak. His shops (he has two in Montreal too, one on Bernard and one on the West Island ) are heaven for a cheese lover, definitely worth a trip. He really elevates cheese to noble, edible art, thereby doing justice to the artisans behind it all.
On the home front, things are just as exciting, definitely heating up. The snow is melting quickly, and this week, François brought me my first real basket of stuff. He might have had to work hard and dig deep for it, but it was impressive - daylily sprouts, a little dogstooth and daisy, crinkleroot, a few tabouret des champs tops, some micro dandelion (the only kind I can imagine eating) and a couple of dozen violets, just enough to jazz up a few of my dishes and make my plates look pretty. It’s hard to believe that in a few weeks, these treats will be almost taken for granted as things really start sprouting in earnest and the fiddleheads take over officially launching the party of everything green, fresh and local. All in time.. If spring had come sooner, maybe I wouldn’t have made it to Daignault’s, and I wouldn’t have found love in rice lettuce.
My last hit of the weekend was the lamb dish, this one thanks to my Man Siva, a dishwasher and prep cook extraordinaire I used to work with at the Tavern years ago. Among all his other lovable traits, he is also my curry leaf connection. Looking for a little excitement on my menu (this was before my producer trip), and with Stephanie St-Jean's lamb coming in (Ferme d'Elevage La Petite Campagne), I couldn't think of a better time to call on him. Wow, I had almost forgotten how much I LOVE the stuff. Barb thinks it smells like eggs, and although I do pick up some sulfur like notes, I find it very nutty smelling, more like sesame.. I braised the shoulders with the curry leaf, and once cooked, everyone said it smelled like maple syrup. Anyhow, it was delicious, atop some homemade gnocchi with Mr.Potato's (M.Berard) potatoes that have a natural mushroom aroma with a touch of nutmeg -oh ya. Sometimes you don't have to travel any further than down memory lane for some inspiration. Inspiration is everywhere. A sure sign that spring is here indeed. Hallelujah! Now if only the Habs would win.