The market is spilling over with abundance – the tomatoes and peppers, aubergines and squash, cauliflower and melons; we are putting up en masse. Mushroom season is taking hold, which means that from now until the first frost, we will be focused on the shrooms.
So before I get caught up in these late summer- fall rituals, I feel the need to make a last salute to summer, and to the wild marine greens in particular, which proved to be a real gift this year.. before I forget about them until next year.
A stellar year for marine greens in Quebec
While most of the wild edibles we cook with do grow in our backyard, there are a few goodies we depend on that come from a far away part of Quebec that has stuff we don’t.
In the Bas du Fleuve, going all the way from just past Quebec City (say around Monmagny) to the Gaspésie, there is a wealth of sea greens: sea spinach, sea parsley, sea peas, sea asparagus (or samphire/glasswort), not to mention others… There is salsify (shoots to sauté in garlic) and spergulaire that I love (chicken feet that taste like beet greens). There is also sabline which I love less – bitter, but crunchy with a sweet cucumber taste when picked in water-rich conditions. Then there are the bonus sides like églantier (wild rose, petal and fruit), Saskatoon berries, juniper berries, and sweetgrass.. No wonder François claims this region as his second home.
This year seems to be one of those years when all the convergent forces are in order for a good harvest in that neck of the woods. With the sea spinach, it was extraordinary – abundant, deep green leaves, rich and tender.. Back in July, François jokingly said we could supply all the superstores in a sustainable way, if we had enough good pickers. Bad idea of course.
At the beginning of the season, we found salicorne that was tall, plump and juicy, like I’ve never seen it. So promising, but after walking 10 kilometres along the shores, we realized that it wasn’t all that plentiful, leaving with us a pound or two to show for the trek. There were scattered sweet patches, surely a lot more covered in tidal sludge. We were early, but everything was two weeks ahead, could it really be over? Like with all the wild stuff though, you just never really know. So dependent on nature, the weather, and a touch of something we will never understand, there are typically a couple of sweet days for every plant but you have to be there. The landscape changes completely in a minute; walking along the shore, you feel like you are crossing time zones, from barren to bounty. There are the different little micro-climates, and here you have to figure in the tides. In the end, because it was so hot, the season for tender salicorne turned out to be short, but while it lasted, it was sweet indeed.
François has spent the last 15 years scoping out this land foraging. He was the first to put all these sea greens on the market, to make them known to chefs. It happened because he was in the business of wild edibles supplying chefs in the 90’s, and one day, one sharp cookie had a tip for him. Anne Desjardins (of L’Eau à la Bouche), a loyal client of his in her mission to promote Quebec terroir back before it was a common term, told François that she had spotted salicorne on the shores of Kamouraska. Up until then, chefs in fine dining restaurants had been ordering salicorne from France. No one seemed to know that it grew here, like with wild mushrooms not so long before. This tidbit was shared with other chefs on the circuit, and it soon became a chef’s favourite local product, sourced by Francois.
At the time, François lived out of a van, foraging his way all over Quebec to end his week in Quebec city, Then onto Montreal and the laurentians in hopes of selling his harvest. However exciting, He couldn’t make a living doing this, so eventually he opened the table champetre and focused on transforming the wild edibles into something more people could wrap their heads around and actually eat.
As his St-Roch based business took shape, he realized he could not be all over Quebec all the time. He had met this girl who picked for him who was talented and smart and cared for the land - a Kamouraska local and a hippie at heart, Claudie. After 7 years or so, he encouraged her to open her own business, to supply him and his restaurants – good for her, good for him too, since he couldn’t be there regularly anymore.
Claudie adopted the job as her baby, it became her life. She turned out to be the best steward of the region, taking care of the territory and the plants, earnesty watching the life cycles throughout the different regions, bullying out idiots, working with the agricultural university on work ups. She even pionneared A CLEAN-up of the shores. Across one village, they filled 4 trucks with garbage. This costs money, and of course, cleaning up the environment isn’t a profitable enterprise, so shortly after, there was no money for that.
Claudie (Jardins de la mer) remains the connaisseur on the terrain, the reference and the defender of this precious resource in that area.
There is a true bounty along these shores, but it isn’t always good, depending on mother nature, and how polluted the area is. It took 10 + years for francois and her to work all this out, to find the sweet spots, to see how and where everything grows best year after year, how best to pick and process, and in collaboration with a handful of chefs, how best to cook up the different plants…
As these plants come onto M.-Mme tout le monde’s radar, even showing up on bistro menus, it may soon enough be adopted as a widely popular Quebec ingredient. I would like for people to know the story, the history, before it all is taken for granted.
It was Francois that made this happen, with Anne Desjardins as the initial instigator, the lightbulb. All the chefs he worked with after helped him realize what was best, Normand Laprise in particular. And Claudie allowed him to keep it going.
The show on L’épicerie in july introduced the quebec public to these marine greens. Up until then, it was a thing of the region, or featured on menus in a few high end restaurants, and chez nous. They interviewed a chef at length, Colombe ST-Pierre, who François remembers introducing this stuff to years ago.
Francois sells all these greens at Jean Talon market in season, mostly picked by Claudie and her gang, and sometimes by him.
I celebrate the marine greens every year – they are the epitome of summer and wild marvels to me. But this year provided a few more exclamation points. I truly revelled in the quality of the marine greens this time around, letting them take up a big place on my menu. I just love them. Sea spinach is my favourite. For the record, before any exotic mushrooms, François wooed me with sea spinach.
Sea spinach. Let’s see, this summer, I’ve used it cooked and raw in a number of ways, too many to name.. I have made so many salads and soups, both hot and cold – green salads, chopped salads, remoulades, chowder and vichysoisse; I put the crunchy leaves in fresh spring rolls with duck and crab, in risotto, rice and pasta, pretty much all over the place.. Although dynamite in any compound salad, it is the best simply wilted with garlic and olive oil. It is also great in spanikopita, with eggs and fish, or absolutely anywhere you would put spinach, and then some. The best thing ever! I also blanch/sousvide it to put up a whack for the year.
Persil de mer (liveche ecossaise or sea parsley). I have dried a ton for our sea salt, and made myself a major batch of pesto. I have used it in aioli with fish and seafood, in brandade, in soups and salads too, in a tabouleh like marine green salad, in gremolata with sumac, as a chopped garnish or main ingredient, and again, all over.. Tasting like celery, but with a touch of salt, parsley and anise, and a touch of something floral, it is totally versatile and easy to love.
Pois de mer (sea peas).. I used them to garnish, in soups and salads, and most memorably, in a summer cassoulet with smoked duck and confit gizzards and heart. Quickly blanched, they taste mildly nutty but still like leafy peas. Some people like them raw, but I find the taste too green and astringent. Then again, I prefer just about everything cooked, even if just kissed by the heat.
Caquillier de mer (sea rocket) is majorly robust, like wild mustard - so best used as a condiment, to spike up a vinaigrette or cream sauce, added to coleslaw or a compound salad. I use it as an herb more than a green, say to kick up my kohlrabi slaw. It is amazing in an omelette, pasta, risotto or potato salad.. It is good in soups and stews too, where it softens up, but I find it best raw or added to a dish at the last minute in small quantities. We dry some for our salt, but this is one green I don’t bother putting up. In pesto, it loses its pungency, same once cooked. It is one of those greens that is to be had in season and that’s it.
Salicorne (sea asparagus/samphire/glasswort) I don’t need to say much about this one – everyone knows it’s something special. For it’s aesthetic appearance, for its salty crunch, and because it has long been valued by the French, this one is an easy sell. Trickier to find and pick while tender, it deserves specialty status. I like it raw in salads or as a crisp, punchy garnish for something smooth, soft and bland (like a soup or brandade or creamy salad); I love it in asian style preparations (it just seems to scream for wild ginger-sesame treatment); I like it quickly blanched and made into a seaweed salad or as a wilted garlicky side dish for fish too. When it’s at its best though, it stands alone - like they do at the Brughel Micro Brasserie in Kamouraska, serving it as a snack with peanuts and beer.