Finders, eaters

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

ST. ROCH DE L'ACHIGAN, QUE. — On a sunny spring afternoon, Nancy Hinton and François Brouillard are preparing for a full house at their tiny country restaurant in St. Roch de L'Achigan, just outside of Montreal.

Mr. Brouillard is standing waist-deep in the river near the house, washing the first harvest of fiddlehead greens in the rushing water, while his girlfriend Ms. Hinton, a chef, is inside making sorbet out of her last batch of squashberries, a minty fruit that grows in the area in winter.

Mr. Brouillard, 46, has gained celebrity among gourmet crowds in Quebec for reinventing the ancient tradition of foraging, a métier he learned as a child from his great-grandmother who taught him to recognize wild ginger and eat daylily sprouts and dandelion.

The couple's restaurant, Jardins Sauvages, showcases the wild plants and mushrooms Mr. Brouillard picks in forests and along riverbanks around the province, turning simple berries, roots and grasses into a genre of haute cuisine termed gastronomie forestière.

Mr. Laprise built one of his most popular spring dishes, white asparagus salad, around Adder's Leaf, a flower that was introduced to him by Mr. Brouillard.

Every Sunday on La Semaine Verte, a Radio-Canada show on agriculture and nature, Mr. Brouillard introduces a new wild edible plant.

At Jardins Sauvages, the kitchen resembles an apothecary, its walls coved with jars full of dried mushrooms and herbs turned into powders with names such as sea parsley and vanilla grass. Ms. Hinton, who is short-listed to be executive chef at Rideau Hall, opens a jar of ground baby cattail, also known as bulrush, which she uses as a flour to make savoury crêpes. It smells of corn and asparagus.

Ms. Hinton, 37, acknowledges that some of the ingredients lining the walls will never make it into the dishes served to customers - a source of creative tension between the couple.

Mr. Brouillard wants diners to learn more about wild plants, and lines the dining-room walls with framed pages from botany books. Ms. Hinton just wants customers to enjoy their dinner. "There are a lot of ideas that never go beyond the experimental phase," she says. "The bottom line is it has to taste good."

The couple met three years ago, when Mr. Brouillard was supplying wild greens to upscale Laurentian L'Eau à la Bouche, where Ms. Hinton was executive chef from 2000 to 2005. It was a dream job for a young chef, at one of Quebec's top tables and one of a handful of Canadian establishments to earn the Relais & Château moniker.

Mr. Brouillard would come into Ms. Hinton's kitchen, tanned from being outside, with plastic bags full of new leaves for her to try. The two collaborated on a meal together, then started dating.

Foraging dates back to 1875 in Mr. Brouillard's family. His great-grandfather sold mustards to the English and aboriginals in the area.

Mr. Brouillard travelled the width of the province, from Gaspésie to Outaouais, picking edible plants, camping in the bush or in his van. He scored his first important customer, Mr. Laprise of Toqué!, 15 years ago while selling wild sea lettuce out of his van at Montreal's Jean Talon market.

He won another celebrity client, Anne Desjardins, owner of L'Eau à la Bouche, when she found that Mr. Brouillard was picking sea asparagus, a tiny version of the popular green vegetable, on the banks of the St. Lawrence in the Charlevoix region. She alerted chefs across the province - the product is coveted by gourmets who had been importing it from France for years to serve raw or blanched over fish.

By the mid-1990s, Mr. Brouillard had trained 60 foragers, guiding them himself and touring the province.

But foraging for produce to sell at markets and to restaurants was an unpredictable business. Mushrooms would get crushed in transit, or heavy rains would wash out a particularly desirable plant. And only the bravest chefs were keen on working with his products.

So he opened Jardins Sauvages in 2002 to expose more people to foraged greens, offering home-style cooking in the tradition of his mother and grandmother. Dishes included fiddlehead soup with salted pork, cassoulet and wild herbs or chanterelles on toast.

This is the second summer the couple will be working together at Jardins Sauvages. Ms. Hinton's five-course tasting menu changes weekly, depending on Mr. Brouillard's bounty.

Currently she is building dishes around a harvest of meaty boletus mushrooms, related to porcinis, that Mr. Brouillard picked in a pristine patch on the shores of Hudson's Bay.

A stinging-nettle soup is flavoured with a mushroom cream garnish.

There's a also duck confit salad with violets and crinkleroot leaves in a vinaigrette made from wild grapes, also picked in the North.

Asked if she would give up her country life for a chance to be chef at Rideau Hall, the Governor-General's residence, Ms. Hinton shrugs her shoulders. The couple has just returned from a week of hard physical labour in the woods, foraging for crinkleroot, wild garlic and stinging nettle.

"It would be hard to go back to ordering vegetables from a supplier a thousand miles away," she says.