François Brouillard is waving something green under my nose, asking me if I think it smells like pineapple. (It does.)He has me sniff the clump of leaves in his other fist and, smiling impishly, asks if I think it smells like marijuana. Whatever it is, its bouquet is highly skunky. So far we’ve plucked and nibbled at cats’ tongue, garlic mustard flower, live-forever, linden, several violet species, spring beauty, stinging nettle, bellwort . . . and I’ve lost track of whatever else.
I’m wandering through the forest with Brouillard, a master forager, and his girlfriend, the chef Nancy Hinton, near their restaurant, À la Table des Jardins Sauvages, in the Lanaudière region of Quebec, about a 45-minute drive northeast of Montreal. Knowing the edibility of nearly everything that grows in the forest is in Brouillard’s blood. He traces his roots back to 17th-century French-Canadian coureurs de bois, or fur-trading “wood runners,” and up through a long line of plant foragers and amateur mycologists. “My grandmother would bring me into the forest to find wild berries for jam,” he tells me in French. (Brouillard understands some English but doesn’t speak it.) “We pickled everything in sight and picked dandelion to make wine. I had my first glass at 7.”
I’m here because Brouillard is a wild-food pioneer who has earned something of a cult following; diners regularly make the trek from the United States and across the Atlantic for a meal at his and Hinton’s restaurant, which sits on land where Brouillard’s grandmother’s summer cabin once stood, at the edge of the St. Esprit River, bordered by about 100 acres of forest. “The French come because Quebecers have a lot of ties to France,” Hinton says. “And Europeans have a strong foraging tradition.”
Foraging is, of course, the least new of new trends. Not counting the prehistoric gatherers, the granddaddy of wild food in America is Euell Gibbons, who found fame in 1962 with his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” still considered the forager’s bible. And the bearded, bespectacled “Wildman” Steve Brill led his first foraging tour of Central Park in 1982.
Nowadays, the scouring of urban parks for salad fodder perfectly captures the ethos of low-impact locavorism. Community-based collectives keep popping up, like ForageSF, founded in 2008 in San Francisco, which offers guided walks and operates an underground market. Contemporary gatherers hit up Neighborhoodfruit.com and other sites to scan maps showing where fruits, vegetables and nuts are growing on public land. Neighborhoodfruit.com also allows people to list their own backyard fruit as ripe for picking and has spawned Find Fruit, an iPhone app for tech-savvy fruit hunters.
Foraging has also become a thriving niche in the food-service industry. Mikuni Wild Harvest, which started as a small mushroom purveyor in the early 1980s, has offices in New York, Las Vegas, Seattle and Vancouver and works with chefs like Mario Batali, David Chang and Jöel Robuchon. The longtime forager Connie Green, whose book “The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes” comes out next month, runs Wine Forest Wild Mushrooms and counts Thomas Keller among her many clients. What sets Brouillard apart is that he’s one of the few foragers to consolidate instead of expanding. He switched from supplying chefs to opening his own restaurant, where wild foods don’t just put in an occasional appearance but are the star attraction.
Brouillard began supplying restaurants in the 1990s, at the urging of Normand Laprise, the chef who in 1993 opened Toqué!, still one of Montreal’s top restaurants and one of the first to highlight wild food and artisanal cheese from the region. Laprise had approached Brouillard’s stand at Montreal’s Jean-Talon farmers’ market, where he sold marine greens picked from the banks of the St. Lawrence River. “Normand got excited about all these unknown wild things that grow in Quebec, things he didn’t recognize but was eager to discover,” Brouillard says. Soon Brouillard was crisscrossing the province, foraging and delivering his own goods to upward of 30 high-end restaurants.
Then, in 2000, Brouillard met Hinton on a delivery to L’Eau à la Bouche, a lauded restaurant in the Laurentian mountains run by the chef Anne Desjardins (widely regarded as the Alice Waters of Canada). “For him, all these things are just what his family has been picking, eating and putting up for years,” Hinton says of meeting Brouillard. “But it opened up a whole new world for me.” Brouillard now makes regular TV appearances in Quebec to promote wild food and has appeared on “Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie” on PBS. “François opened Quebec up to what was in its own backyard, to a world beyond broccoli, and stimulated a new generation of foragers, ” Laprise says. “Nancy brings city sophistication to his ingredients, elevating them to great heights. He’s a country boy, she balances him out. But really, they’re just a couple of bons vivants.”
On our forage, Hinton wipes dirt off roots and photographs plants with her phone. “Being so tied to nature has certainly made me a better chef,” she says. It’s weather dependent, but “very real and very rewarding.” Crinkleroot tastes “like horseradish and peanuts,” she says, and wild ginger smells “like Thrills gum, right?” referring to that odd Canadian confection popular in the ’70s, a soapy-tasting Chiclets-like purple gum whose catchphrase is “It still tastes like soap!”
Brouillard spots Quebec’s forbidden fruit: ramps. After years of overpicking, the wild leek has been essentially banned in the province, with a maximum of 50 ramps allotted per person for personal use, meaning it’s illegal to sell ramps or serve them in restaurants. “A few idiots have ruined it for the rest of us,” Hinton says with a sigh. “They’re slow to reproduce and people rip them out at the roots, which decimates them.” Brouillard demonstrates the right way: digging into the dirt and, with a gentle twist, snapping the bulb from the roots, which he leaves behind. “Look at him, hands always in the dirt,” Hinton says, laughing. “Even when they’re clean, they look dirty.” The stains on Brouillard’s hands are his battle scars, equivalent to the burns on a chef’s hands.
Foraging, like professional cooking, is not for sissies. “You have to contend with mosquitoes, cold, rain,” Brouillard says. “You have to be in shape. I’ve worked with guys half my age who can’t hack it. For years I was doing it 100 or 120 hours a week, spring through fall, until my doctor told me I had to cut back. But for me it’s not work, it’s play.”
Brouillard now has foragers in strategic spots across Quebec who supplement what he finds in Lanaudière, a sprawling agricultural area traditionally given over to industrial pig farming, which has taken its toll on the land. “But we’re proud to be part of a developing community of producers who are more in tune with nature,” Brouillard says. (Just down the road from À la Table des Jardins Sauvages is the Moulin Bleu mill, specializing in stone-ground buckwheat flour, which Hinton uses to make bread. About a 20-minute drive east, the cheese makers Fabienne and Frédéric Guitel of La Suisse Normande produce cheese from the milk of their own goats and their neighbors’ cows.)
Later, a five-course dinner emerges from Hinton’s modest kitchen at the restaurant, which feels like a country cabin. A Leonard Cohen tribute album plays on the stereo, and Brouillard chats up patrons, white wine in hand, cheeks reddening as the night progresses. The waters of the snaking St. Esprit River rush past the window. Smiling, laid-back waitresses deliver your orders along with framed pictures of the plant used in the dish. Sometimes they bring a specimen to smell.
A swirl of bee balm leaf pesto bobs in the soup; wild mushrooms populate the woodsy, addictive duck rillettes. In the salad, delicate Nordic shrimp from Gaspésie intermingle with sea parsley. The deer from the venison farm next door shows up two ways: seared and osso buco style, accompanied by fiddleheads with matsutake mushrooms. Hinton’s cooking is earthy yet sophisticated: one long and lively ode to this particular Quebec terroir.
À la Table des Jardins Sauvages, 17 Chemin Martin, St.-Roch-de-L’Achigan, Quebec, Canada; (450) 588-5125; jardinssauvages.com; set menu about $70.