Some of the things I learnt this June
Besides my stint at the University of Guelph earlier this month which was major brain-food, a lot of my June brainwaves came down to waking up to the mundane - those day to day revelatory details, occasionally mesmerizing when you’re dealing in nature and the restaurant business.
Mother Nature, she's just crazy
Living in the country for years now working with wild edibles, I am necessarily in touch with the weather and Mother Nature’s cycles and moods, but I am just starting to truly understand what a real adventure this is, and how much we are at her mercy. Be it global climate change, or that these phenomena now meet business in my world, the singularity of each season and plant is striking. Things don’t happen the same way anymore; the order is skewed, the plants are different depending on the weather and the ‘je ne sais quoi’, and you can’t help but feel like you’re stupid/learning all the time. François who is so intuitive, closely in tune with his vegetation and the moons, is burdened by memory/history - so off kilter in his own way; I on the other hand, am always trying to understand SOMETHING/ANYTHING concrete. Forget about it. You can’t plan for it.
So this year, spring came late and summer came early. For some spring greens, this was good; they were plush and allowed a slightly longer life before the foliage came in fully. There was excessive water for others, and practically speaking, the swollen river cut us off from habitual harvest zones. Then when summer hit, everything sprouted so fast, leaving us a small window for things like day lily sprouts or milkweed sprouts. A few morels.. It looks like it’s already time for elderflower and cattails! Why can’t they wait? I have 100lb of daisy buds to pickle. The day lily buds are peaking, meaning more bud pickling to follow. François picked his first local cepe yesterday, the chanterelles are buttons. In other parts of Quebec, many summer Oysters are ready, the wine caps (like Portobellos) are in full swing liking this cold spell. And then there are the marine greens coming in, which I am forever ecstatic about.. I cannot not be psyched about summer abundance, but wow all the waiting, then all at once, so much to process..
As mother nature keeps me on my toes, I remain thankful for the recurring rhymes and rhythms that comfort and exhilarate - starting with the fiddleheads and the ramps, and on to the day lily, elderflower, berries, sea spinach coming into season one after the other or any which way. Just reliving each arrival, weeks late or early, so familiar yet new, is something else. I know that every year when I am reacquainted with a certain wild plant in season, and I cook it up in a myriad of ways, I get to know it better and I get better at what I do. There are unexpected lightbulb moments, the kind that only come with time. Time observing, time tasting, time dancing.
Spring beauty really does taste like corn sprouts, I paired it with lobster and crinkleroot, and for the first time, served it alone with a little cold pressed canola. And there is no way to put it up; like most of the spring greens, it is a pretty sprout you enjoy for a week or two a year and that’s it, period. It didn’t take me long to love crinkleroot, but to figure out how to use both the root and the leaf to their max, how to put them up best took a few seasons. I’ve got it down; crinkleroot really sings with tomatoes and with potatoes. Sea spinach was an instant coup de Coeur (still my favourite), but sea parsley was just ok to me, not exciting until a couple of years ago; now I put it in everything. To finish a soup or salsa, it is a major component of my versatile ‘chimichurri’ and gremolata. It took me years to really appreciate Elderflower, Labrador tea or salsify sprouts, even certain mushrooms; I had to spend some time with them, one week a year wasn’t enough. Milkweed flower was a revelation last year in granites, syrups, etc; this year, something else will get my heart, new tricks added to my bag.
I have to say the most memorable thing about June (no matter who you talk to in the country) was the voracity of the mosquitos. It is a BAD year - very, very difficult for François, our pickers, anyone gardening, even our screened in customers..
Which brings me to another thing I learnt, a good reminder in life in general.. Never get too high on your horse about anything. Me, so eco-friendly and all about essential oils, I’ve reverted to Deet on bad days, sorry.
Fun and games at the University of Guelph…
Breaking out of one's bubble and hanging out with food scientists certainly fills the mind. So many questions answered, so many possibilities that opened up (even if most of them cost too much on a practical level for us). Basically, I got to pick some brains to help me be a better chef. Lucky me. Thanks to Foodday!
-I was reassured about my calculations regarding coumarin concentrations in sweetgrass and sweet clover (I am WELL under the worrying ppms, more relevant to the food additive/perfume industry who deal in straight chemicals, not plants).
-My hunch that the fiddlehead hoax is not about a toxin, but more likely a microbial issue was confirmed - so if well washed and cooked (from a non-contaminated source), no problem. Apparently, a soak in a 5% brine before hand (osmotic shock) would allow me to stick with a shortened cooking time, maximizing colour and texture (omitting salting the cooking water). Fiddleheads need salt anyway for taste.
-Although I’m well informed and have never had any problems, I got to the bottom of the nitty gritty when it comes to potential dangers with all of the types of products we make, ensuring me that I was adequately processing things (sometimes excessively actually), all to equip me against the MAPAQ who explain nothing. I’m talking high acid (pickles and vinaigrettes) or high sugar (jams and syrups) here, nothing our grandmothers didn’t make without a worry in the world. These tips will help me in determining which products to keep as we diminish the unmanageable number going. If I were to upscale certain products, I might modify procedures, choose new jars etc.
-Same with oils and drying, which I wanted to know more about in depth, given that the MAPAQ is wanting to crack down, but above all, I need to figure out if we can make it more efficient so that these could one day be profitable. Was there a way we could improve yield with better extraction, all while following safety guidelines.. How many jars would I have to make?? How do I break that heat and acid stable emulsion boletes like to make? Ok, this was not solved, but at least I know it’s more likely a lipid the cause and not a protein.
-They got me very curious about freeze-drying (we dry so many mushrooms and herbs and flowers), and I might get to try it out, but I doubt we can make this feasible since we don’t deal in quantities that justify such $$ technological intervention. Not to mention that nature inconveniently gives us unpredictable amounts impossible to schedule, usually small amounts here and there.
-I was introduced to alternate extraction methods (when it comes to mushrooms or herbs), again not necessarily accessible. But there were contacts offered, suggestions for teaming up with universities and flavour companies, avenues to explore. Even keeping with traditional methods, I found out how to improve my process with respect to pressure cooking and tools for efficiency (reasonably priced lab tools like a centrifuge or separatory funnel that would be useful to me).
It was overall extremely stimulating to sit down with scientists. They have so much insight and knowledge parallel to our world, simply inspiring. Hilarious too. Sometimes, I found myself explaining something so basic to a cook, but so foreign to a scientist not connected to his food or taste buds. One suggestion when talking about food safety that killed me: Add 25% alcohol to extract toxins and kill bacteria – hello, taste?? Denaturing said luxury food?? Good thing everything else he had to say reinforced the fact that he was very smart. He obviously operates in a different universe. He looks at plants in a way I don’t.
At GFTC, I met with another gang much more used to dealing with food and food professionals who aren’t so professional; they were so generous and cool. But wow is bacteria omnipresent in their minds; irradiation is normal procedure in their circles. I guess that is the most important aspect of their job, as scientists counselling the food industry. There is no doubt that someone needs to be guiding and regulating any Joe-Schmoe putting food on the market. But I also realized that no matter how edifying this experience was, how much I know about food processing, the bottom line is that all I want to do is cook fresh food to be eaten immediately! What the hell was I doing there? I could be bringing a product to market, all subsidized. No, I went to ask general questions. I looked like an idiot artist - I am obviously not a hardcore business person. I just want to be better at what I do all the time, whatever it is. All knowledge helps, right.
Doesn't anyone want to work in the country?
Back to the restaurant business, my never-ending search for good staff taught me a few new lessons. For one.. Waiters - can’t live with them; can’t live without them.
Good staff is scarce, especially in the country. I better treat the ones I have extra special, and hope for the best when it comes to the rest. Be it on the floor or in the kitchen, at the market or in the woods. Not many people are willing to work hard and take pride in the little things anymore.
Waiter wise, I’ve given up on the normal demands for a restaurant like ours: someone with restaurant experience in the gastronomy realm, bilingual, flexible, with a love of nature and wild edibles. Now, I’m looking for someone who is reasonably presentable and good with the public, into what we’re doing and willing to learn the rest. What kills me is that candidates with no experience, pertinent knowledge or obvious talent expect a starting salary superior to mine. I have no choice but to take what I can get here, accept that reality and make the most of it.
I keep telling myself this is one of those things I chose to accept with this country gig. You can’t have it all. Take the good with the bad. I would not be happier with a big, talented brigade in a big, high stress operation making more to spend more with less quality of life. To be able to beat to my own drum and do the food I want at Les Jardins Sauvages, I sometimes have to cover for waiters, serve, peel potatoes and do my own dishes. Answer the phone, clean, weed, fix things and be everywhere when I just want to be in the kitchen. I do like weeding more than waitressing though. I find it hard to have my head in the dining room and in the kitchen at the same time..
Such is life in St-Roch de l’Achigan. An abundance of wild edibles and good produce, a paradise for a cook, a challenge for a business. Always so much to learn, so many possibilities. One day, I might actually get around to the high tech improvements now on my radar or the solar cooker on my ‘to do list’, maybe even achieve my dream of being able to hole up in my kitchen.. If ever I nail enough solid employees.
I’m not holding my breath. But going into July, I feel wiser and ready to face the circus. With everything blooming and sprouting, I can only jump in and go with the flow.
For the record, I do still think I have the best job in the world.