Where the wild things are: P.E.I. forager picks wild edibles for sale
Sylvain Cormier knows where to find a free lunch
Sylvain Cormier knows where to look on P.E.I. for a free lunch — just about everywhere, he says.
For the last six years, Cormier has made a living with his one-man business Everything Wild — harvesting and selling wild edibles like berries, fiddlehead ferns, sea plants and mushrooms for sale to Island restaurants.
"Most of the restaurants I'm looking for isn't your run-of-the-mill burger joint," Cormier said.
"A lot of the items I bring, they haven't seen them before, or it's something new that I'm trying to push on to the culinary world — I know it's good by trying it, then I want other people to try it."
What he's doing is the absolute coolest and pretty rare.— Lucy Morrow
He forages on public land and private property, with permission, and believes he's the largest full-time forager on the Island.
"I'm there in nature every day, doing what I like to do," said Cormier. He takes his dog, Jasper, with him as he works and his fishing rod so he can angle for his dinner.
Everything Wild sells a list of 20 to 25 products each year to about two dozen restaurants Island-wide.
'They loved it so much'
Convincing chefs to get excited about new, wild ingredients is a double-edged sword — because the products are wild, their availability is unpredictable.
A couple of years ago, Cormier discovered an abundance of sea plants called sea rockets on Island beaches. He liked the taste and introduced it to several P.E.I. restaurants, which were somewhat hesitant at first, but agreed to try it.
"Then the next year, everybody's asking for it cause they loved it so much!" Cormier said — but the sea didn't co-operate, and Cormier couldn't find enough to fill demand.
Foraged goods have become a hot commodity with hip restaurants in North America specializing in local, original cuisine.
'There's a lot of love in it'
Lucy Morrow, chef at Terre Rouge in Charlottetown, has been a long-time customer of Cormier's and is a huge fan.
"He is a true Acadian forager," she enthuses. "It's so exciting to get a text from him saying I have this, this and this."
Cormier's finds have encouraged Morrow to expand her culinary skills, she said — for instance last year Cormier brought her choke cherries, huckleberries and sumac with which she had never cooked before.
"Because they are wild they have different flavours than what you get at the grocery store," she said. And customers appreciate having local, unique "super special food items," Morrow said.
"What he's doing is the absolute coolest and pretty rare," she said. "There's a lot of love in it."
Island chefs are open to new ideas, Cormier said, and have been eager to try his finds.
'I'll just leave it there'
How does Cormier know what he's doing? He learned when he was a youngster from family members, and Cormier graduated from a three-year online course in wildlife conservation through ICS in Quebec. He has also taken a provincial food safety course, mandatory for all those who handle food.
"The mushrooms are always the question," he said. "It's really got to do with knowing exactly what you're picking. If I don't know 100 per cent what kind of mushroom it is I'll leave it there or just bring a sample to try to identify it." The only way to properly do that, he said, is to identify the colours and patterns in spore prints — something he asks for help with from mycologists, or fungi scientists.
Cormier has purchased insurance in case he is ever injured on the job, and liability insurance if anyone ever became sick from eating something he picked — something that has never happened to his knowledge.
the most expensive thing he's ever foraged? A lichen commonly known as Old Man's Beard, which grows in old spruce trees and is used to flavour soup stock — Cormier received about $200 for one pound.
Cormier also fishes clams and quahogs, traps wildlife, and raises some berries like Saskatoonberries, high bush cranberries and currants on a small seasonal farm on his property.
He said he makes a "modest" living as a forager, working seven days a week from May till October. He plans to do it for the rest of his life.