Gaspésie Sauvage, Douglastown and the Canadian Wild West
IT WAS MY SECOND TIME. Can't recall much from the first though. I must have been something like six years old when I went up North Québec for the first time—to Gaspésie—camping with my relatives. The only thing that could come up to my memory from this camping trip is that I loved camping. The forest was my playing field, my far West. My father, telling us stories, and my mom grilling a beautiful piece of meat on the wood fire, alongside various greens, bought at the farmer's market. Montréal is not Québec. And 15 hours away Gaspésie has a complete different culture. Gaspé, one of the main towns of nothern Québec comes from the Mi'kmaq term "Gespeg", meaning "where the lands end". The cradle of a big Aboriginal population. Here the Algonquians were specialists in all sorts of foraging, fishing and smoking techniques. French people would not admit it but Europeans started smoking meat and fish through this native expertise, also discovering squash and corn. The wildlife of a Québec backyard is incredible. Nowadays, chefs including Daniel Humm and Wylie Dufresne from Eleven Madison Park and WD50, are using the best of what Gaspésie has to offer.
IT IS A WEDNESDAY. I'm on the overnight express coach to Gapsésie. The bus leaves Montréal at 11.50pm and arrives at Rivière-au-Renard, a small fishing village, at 2.15pm the following day. It is a long ride. I was on my way to meet with friends and the first stop was at Gérard Mathar and Catherine Jacob's place. Two Belgians, who are now adoptive Québecers, moved with their three children to fulfill their dream to find land in between Montreal and Gaspé. They found Douglastown, 30 minutes away from Gaspé. Deep in the woods, they built a house and a small farm with wood they cut and after a couple of years launched Gaspésie Sauvage (Wild Gaspésie), a family company selling edible wilds foraged by them and other foragers within a radius over 40 miles.
I WAKE UP WITH THE WORST BACKACHE. It's 5:30am and I've just arrived in Rimouski, a port town half way to the final destination. I stagger to reach the coffee shop at the back of the bus station. One coffee, one dry croissant, and an apple juice for the road. We're back on the bus with another seven hours to go. From Rimouski, the road runs along the St-Lawrence river, a large blue roar that opens on the Atlantic ocean.
GERARD AND CATHERINE ARE WAITING FOR ME AT LE CAFE DES ARTS IN DOWNTOWN GASPE. We’ve met a couple of times at food events and restaurants in Montréal. I've always seen him as a passionate bon vivant. En route to Douglastown, driving through a small wooded path we enter the forest and I catch sight of a beautiful pine house at the end of the trail. They built that house a few years ago. They bought the land, cut the trees and built their house and small farm with the wood they cut. There’s small sheds for woofers, the farmer’s version of couch surfers, cows with one milk cow, chickens, geese and rabbits. On the left side, a bread oven and on the right of the garden, a solarium. Needless to say, the family is totally self sufficient. “The only things we barter are coffee and sugar,” says Catherine. “We're going to have bee hive next year,” adds Gérard.
UPON MY ARRIVAL I REALISE I'M NOT THE ONLY VISITOR. One 19 year old woofer, wandering around Québec, helping on the farm and Mathieu Rostaing Tayard, former owner and chef of the successful restaurant 126 in Lyon, France, also travelling Québec after living in Montréal for six months. Gérard takes me around his land with his older son. We need to get mushrooms for tonight's dinner. After five minutes we have delectable Lactarius, Yellowfoot chanterelles and other boletus mushrooms for the night.
The day is over for the woofers and the family. It’s booze time. Time to taste some of the best beer you can find in Québec. Any beer is good on that terrace, sitting beside a wood fire. But La Saison chaude, a saison beer created by Société-Orignal and brewed by Brasseurs limités was amazing. Made of Myrica Gale, a type of medicinal flowering plant once used by the Aboriginal as a remedy for stomach aches and fever. The temperature dropped and embers died out slowly, giving us a reason to move inside and watch chef Mathieu at work. A root vegetable potage with wild herbs from the garden. Beaver and bear, roasted in the bread oven. It is practically impossible to have the chance to eat beaver or bear, you can't sell them in butcher shops or restaurants. On top of that, sautéd wild mushrooms we picked four hours ago. To end up the meal, rice pudding with a boletus ice cream. As a cheeky digestive, lichen vodka.
IT'S 6.30AM AND THE MORNING LIGHT'S RAYS QUIETLY ENTER THE ROOM. I hear their three boys, talking and eating quite loudly before heading to school. The milk cows don't live on the farm. They are in a pen at about 500 meters from the house. Gérard, Mathieu and I, closely followed by the dogs, walk pass majestic pine and maple trees to get to the pen. “The only things my cows are eating are grass and apples,” says Gérard. Every morning, he gives water and apples to his cows, takes one back to the farm to milk her and uses the milk for cheese and yogurt. We're all sitting at the massive wood table in the dinning room, looking at homemade cheeses, wild berries, jams, a beautiful loaf of white sourdough and quails eggs.
Mathieu Rostaing Tayard was being frank. His restaurant was a success in Lyon. In 2010, The Wall Street Journal put him in the top 10 young chefs of Europe, along with Brett Graham of the Ledbury and Magnus Nilsson of Faviken. Then two years after he opened, he closed. “The pressure was getting too high,” he says. “We were two, me cooking and my friend in front. We just wanted to do great, simple food and enjoy ourselves. But it began to be a bit much for two people. I was looking for something different, something out of the spotlight and in the countryside.”
It was almost 3.00pm and I had to take the bus and continue my trip around Gaspésie. My next stop was at Jerry Busine's farm in Matane. I had a five hour bus ride and I was going to meet with Jerry at 9.00pm.
Montreal photographer and cook Xavier Girard Lachaîne is in search of Gérard Mathar and Catherine Jacob’s forest hideaway
Xavier Girard Lachaîne is a photographer and filmmaker from Montreal working with Vice Canada and Société-Orignal.