« August, Good eats | Main | Food day Canada »

The downside to the foraging trend


La Faune et La Flore

Another hurdle for Les Jardins Sauvages

Good thing we’re made strong and love what we do!

Profile: Les Jardins Sauvages, Pioneer and leader in Quebec Wild Edibles. 28 years in business, constantly evolving.. Now with a permanent stall at Jean Talon Market in Montreal & acclaimed Country Restaurant in St-Roch de l’Achigan; 100+ products fresh, 100+ products preserved; A Forager and Chef team with experience, long committed to quality, local and wild, artisanal and sustainable food..

I'm told I don't toot my own horn enough, see I'm practicing..  

In case you don’t know, Jardins Sauvages is the original wild foods business in Quebec.  Long before anyone heard of Noma, François was foraging, the first to introduce chefs to wild greens and many local wild mushrooms.  He spent years of walking the through the weeds & woods of Quebec to find healthiest spots to harvest each species; he intimately knows nature and how to pick for quality and sustainability – where, when, what time of day, what stage in the cycle. Working with Quebec’s top chefs, he refined his skills, learning what was best picked young, cooked in numerous ways. And now, I’ve been cooking his wild stuff for 13 years since I met him at L’Eau, on a full time basis since 2005. I’ve figured out what’s best how, say raw or cooked or dried, savoury or sweet, what mushrooms benefit from a sauté or a slow braise, how to put them up. We were the first to make mushroom ice cream and chocolate, to smoke mushrooms, to cook with cattail pollen, promote local teas & spices or pick and cook marine greens in so many ways - paving the way, showing people what could be eaten and how.  Unlike some of the newcomers jumping on the foraging bandwagon, we know what we’re doing.

Nonetheless..  a few weeks ago, we got a visit from a couple of officials from La Faune et La Flore, a governmental arm that regulates the environment, forests and fishing. We should have nothing to fear, buy nay and yay, another battle is before us.  They are banning crinkleroot and wild ginger, among other things, but these two affect us most, a dozen of our products, our menus.

The funny thing is that they were especially eager to pay us a visit because I had put wild garlic (ramps/ail des bois) on my menu this spring. In ten years, I never dared, but then I saw all Montreal chefs with ramps on their menu, and I figured if anyone should have them on the menu it should be us, given that the wild thing is our deal, we have tons on our property, and know how to harvest sustainably and all. Not to mention that it was just a few leaves from our field, ciselé as a garnish for a soup for 10 clients. Meanwhile, restaurants serving 100+ clients a night with anonymously sourced and less sustainable garlic don’t have an inspector in sight.  BTW apparently, whether it’s from Ontario or New York, the law stands, not allowed. Anyway, it’s not like I’m tattling on other chefs, I just want to be able to do what we do.  I have never even ever heard of a Montreal chef bothered by the F&F. It’s such a joke that they’re at our door. 

Like with wild garlic, they have decided that crinkleroot and wild ginger are endangered species and need to be protected.  We agree that they need to be protected, in that they need to be harvested with care and knowledge first and foremost, not completely ripping out the plants. Especially that the foraging trend means that there are new players in the game (many uninformed, unconscious or overly ambitious), evidently, some kind of general regulation is in order, maybe permits? In any case, there needs to be an official protocol for wild edibles, all above board, a traceability, an approved list of what can be harvested and how, where, by who, sold how and for what price, all registered.  A common code of ethics was enough before, but given the current climate, we are all for this. However, it is complicated to regulate; for the govt, much easier to ban.

In the meantime, it certainly isn’t fair for us, for François who has been doing it properly for 28 years professionally and plus.  He was the first to put most wild edibles on Quebec menus - before they were being imported from France (like salicorne, mushrooms) or simply weren’t known to chefs (like wild ginger, orpin, day lily buds, milkweed, arroche de mer, caquiller, the list is long..). He is in the same patches year after year, observing and taking care of nature while he harvests; he gardens the forest. We have more crinkleroot every year, more than enough wild ginger for our needs.  He has seen the progress of the crinkleroot for 50 yrs+ because they are family spots. His family has always eaten crinkleroot; we continue the tradition of making his great-great grandfather’s Henri Rochbrune crinkleroot mustard, but 100+ years later, now we’re not allowed.

All to say, these plants obviously aren’t endangered in François’ hands. There is a way to pick that stimulates the plant if it is in a healthy environment; he knows when to leave it alone. He invited the govt officials to visit his terrain, encouraged them to follow him and bring their scientists/advisors to study his reality, to open their minds.  He does not understand where they get their data.  They’re worrying about fiddleheads and spring beauty? C’mon, just come here and see. How much we harvest from the same land every year. Their sources are from controlled studies, another micro-climate, labs, foreign or outdated books, I don’t know. One thing for sure is that the pencil pushers and botanists aren’t in the Que woods on a daily basis like François.  

On top of it, we are a small diversified business, dealing in small volumes according to nature - a little bit of this and that, all sustainable, with our spots on private territory, maintained year after year, no big threat.  We led the way, and now because wild foods are becoming popular, we are penalized. Because there are others including some hacks who are just in it short term for a bang or because they think they might like doing this but don’t know squat or care to do things right, or want to exploit a lot of one thing. 

Not all foraged food is equal!  There is properly sourced, properly harvested and there is ravaged.  There is sweet, and threre is bitter. There is tender and tough; delicious and disgusting, nutritious and toxic.. Few in the marketplace seem to know or care about the difference. As long as it’s wild or Nordic, sounds good on a menu. Sadly, marketing seems to count more than quality or integrity.  Obviously we have some marketing to do.

We hate to see so many bad foragers around spoiling it for the rest of us, but, it is also important to note that most of the destruction of vulnerable plants and biodiversity is due to development/urbanisation. François has seen so much simply disappear because of autoroutes, Walmarts, condos and parking lots.., way more havoc wrought this way than any bunch of pickers could do.  More than once, François had proposed a solution to mayors/municipalities, say when they were bulldozing to make the 50, destroying so much rich land where there was tons of wild garlic, ginger, crinkleroot and much more; he wanted permission to go and save some of the plants. His project got bogged down in beurocracy and never worked out, but he said that in a day, he could have saved enough wild ginger to supply us and every chef for a lifetime. You’re not allowed to pick the wild garlic or ginger, but they’re allowed to bulldoze it. Doesn’t make sense.

It’s not just chefs and back-to-earth types getting into foraging. As the far away regions try to develop their resources and put people to work, the exploitation of the forest and land has become key.  Backed by Govt money, they have been training unemployed volunteers to forage, small businesses opening and they’re all trying to find markets. All dandy in theory, but it’s a mess.  Too many students expecting to make $$ picking mushrooms they can barely identify.  Detached investors wanting to harvest too much. We have no choice but be implicated.  François is working in Lanaudière and also with other regions as various agencies and business groups try to sort it out. They need his expertise, and he wants to make sure they aren’t making decisions that don’t stand up.  For instance, the tentative list of mushrooms allowed for sale excluded 30 varieties that we use (because the powers that be don’t know them well enough). Like when François started selling wild mushrooms 20 years ago, many didn’t believe him that there were wild mushrooms in Quebec. He’s come along way, but now everyone is catching up to him. All this is so much time and energy  in meetings and paperwork, just to be able to continue doing what we’ve been doing forever - now that the govt., big business, foodies, tree huggers and everyone else is waking up. It’s crazy and no one knows what’s going on behind the scenes.

I thought it would be smooth sailing for a while when we were finally fine with the MAPAQ (the food inspection part), but no now, it’s something else; I swear we have the most complicated business in the world!  You see, they just don’t know what to do with us because we do something so different they don’t understand and it worries them.  Whether it’s about picking nettle, cooking fiddleheads or milkweed, marinating mushrooms or smoking duck, they’re on our ass. All our products have passed all tests, but it was still a fight to prove that our mushrooms were properly dried, that our pickles and oils and etc are properly made, etc.  Meanwhile, cheap imports don’t get any scrutiny, Montreal chefs have toxic plants garnishing their menus. I understand that there have to be rules and inspectors, but why just us? I know what I’m doing and it kills me to talk circles around the inspectors who don’t have a clue about what they’re inspecting. We’ve seen it in the field, the guys thinking we’re picking garlic and its trout lily, they don’t know the difference. In the kitchen, it’s the same. They just want to check off lists: They check your fridge/freezer temperatures, soap and towels next to the sink, all the norms etc; do you have a ph-meter, a register for your products, sanitizer.. Yes, yes, yes. Do you douse everything in Javel regularly and boil everything for 20min. They want you to be a stainless steel aseptic factory that makes one sterile product en masse, easy to verify.  We do everything right but we’re not that.  You need to be a fighter to be an artisan in Quebec.

It seems to me that we’re the kind of Quebec terroir business that they should be favouring, but no it’s too complicated. They really don’t make anything easy for a small, artisanal business ‘thinking outside the box’ in Quebec.  Unless you’re in a far away region where there are subsidies (like most of the newbies). The rules, the taxes, the cost of having employees etc.- its all conducive to big business.  We manage to win them over, proving ourselves one person, one product at a time, one costly fight after another.  I wish I could just cut out the inspectors who are just doing their job and deal with their bosses, even better, exchange with their scientists.

I figure when I retire, I should get a job as a Govt inspector, I know more than most of them, and I bet the benefits must be nice.. But what a boring job, no thanks.  I’ll continue to fight to make a living while focusing on quality, delicious local food; maybe teach them a thing or two along the way.  And perhaps things will change one day;  Hopefully we will go on to survive and thrive. Others will surely profit down the line. We’re constantly breaking down barriers, teaching, making people taste new things, opening markets, developing.. all while taking the heat and struggling to stay afloat.  By nature, it is a difficult business venture; I could do without the extra headaches.

Our passion and vocation has become a cause, a crusade.  A fight for anti-industrial small community based business, and for quality, local food and traditions - especially wild things harvested and cooked properly, with a love and respect of nature. That is and will be our legacy if anything, whether recognized or not.  If only legacies paid the bills. Seeing L’Eau à la Bouche close after 35 years and a lifetime of Anne Desjardins’ visionary, pioneer work in promoting local artisanal food and top-notch authentic cooking, I know very well that life is not fair..  Oh well. I’m still not willing to trade my quality of life for another. Rant over.

Reader Comments (1)

In response to comments I received off-site:

No, I don't believe the government is all bad. I am more of a socialist than a capitalist, but I wish it was better run & efficient, less in bed with big business, more supportive of small & quality.

I realize I shouldn't diss the inspectors too much. I know they are just doing their job. But they should be better trained, more mature, with some experience under their belt. To be fair, the last inspectors from La Faune et La Flore were professional and nice, even sympathetic to our cause, but they still need to check boxes and can't do anything. We need to have easier access to the powers above to have a real discussion. Before they make laws and send out inspectors, they should know what's up, be ready for nuance.

And if you think I should be quiet and continue doing our thing quietly, well, that's what I've been doing forever and it is getting us nowhere. I'm tired of being nice and diplomatic, sharing everything, while others just do whatever, following a trend with no repercussions, no idea of inspectors or issues surrounding the wild edibles they are using. Copycats and newbies profiting while we take the heat. I feel justified in taking a stand and saying something; it's our life work and it's not fair. That said, I will cooperate and not be bitter, just needed to rant and get some info out there!
July 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterNancy Hinton

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.