I am traveling the picturesque Quebec countryside with Société Orignal, a company that develops food products in collaboration with 50 families across the province to source the best of its terroir for top chefs across Canada and New York City. My mission today is to get down and dirty with pro forager Gérald Le Gal from Gourmet Sauvage to learn more about wild edibles.
Before going any further, I need to come clean about how this last paragraph makes me feel inside. Every single time I start talking about where food comes from, I feel like a pretentious asshole. Especially when the words "local," "seasonal," "organic," or "foraged" are thrown in the mix.
It always reminds me of the "Is the chicken local?" skit on Portlandia in which Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen nag the waitress about every possible aspect of the chicken's life, from its breed to its social status, to make sure it's OK for them to order it. But as exaggerated as the skit is, conversations similar to it do happen in restaurants. As a server, I've noticed how exalted diners are when you tell them that your friend Will picked the ramps on their plate or that the chef herself caught tonight's trout special. The fact is, people have rarely been so interested and excited before in knowing where their food comes from.
This is where Société Orignal comes in, with the aim of doing business with humans and not corporations, which brings us back to forager and all-around wild man Gérald Le Gal. His family business, Gourmet Sauvage, specializes in wild edibles, drawing inspiration from Native American tradition. Located in Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré, an hour and a half away from Montreal, Gourmet Sauvage operates on the ground of a stunning old fishery turned foraging heaven.
Sporting a grey T-shirt and rimless glasses, Le Gal doesn't look like much until you get to know him. He is a former fisherman and teacher, a forager, and an author, and he also hosted his own TV show called alongside daughter Ariane Le Gal in which he explored Quebec's swamps and forests on the hunt for indigenous edibles such as squashberries, salicornia, and morels. It goes without saying that Le Gal is kind of a big deal when it comes to wild edibles in Quebec.
Stepping off his tractor, Le Gal crouches down to pick a violet and hands it to me before uttering, "Let's start eating!" The flower tastes like spring: clean and fresh, perfect for a salad. As we begin walking around the brick house, Le Gal points to different plants, and suddenly the surrounding weeds transform into an open air market. Between flowers, spruce, and woodland mushrooms, I can't seem to stop eating.
We quickly make our way to the basins where Le Gal is developing a new type of semi-wild agriculture. In each of the basins he tries to plant different native wild water plants, such as arrowheads—also known as duck potatoes, because ducks will often pull on the stems to eat them. "The funny thing is that they're also delicious cooked in duck fat," tells me Gérald, laughing.
As we walk to another basin, I'm surprised to see that Le Gal is growing cattail. "Cattail is surely one of the most underused plants," he tells me as he cuts a piece. "We can eat it all, from the heart to the rhizome, through summer and winter." He hands me a shoot to eat. Cattails to me have always been dirty swamp plants, but as I bite into it, I am shocked to discover a plant with a freshness reminiscent to that of a cucumber.
By the time we make it into the woods, my forehead is covered in bug bites and my head is spinning from trying to remember all the plants I just discovered: "Which one was the mayapple, again?" This is where Le Gal pauses and looks around for squirrels. He warns me about the dangers of careless foraging and the importance of being respectful of the existing environment. "Foraging is not about taking away food from wild animals," says Le Gal. "The goal is to find a way to create more food to satisfy everybody." He does so through forest planning and by replacing non-indigenous plants with indigenous ones that will thrive in their natural environment.
Le Gal's vision with Gourmet Sauvage goes beyond providing high-end wild edibles. Gourmet Sauvage now offers over 40 workshops on different aspects related to their products, from harvesting to cooking. His goal is to democratize his products and eventually see items like spruce tips being used in every professional and home kitchen across the country.
As we walk back to the house, Le Gal tells me about his dream to open a restaurant here at Gourmet Sauvage, where his products can truly shine. I look towards the basins and can already picture communal tables packed with families and urbanites, where waiters can point just a few metres away when asked the question "Where does this come from?"