Maybe I should instead ask, “Have you ever almost had a heart attack?” Both happened to me at Gaspésie Sauvage, a farm in Eastern Quebec that sells wild berries, herbs and an incredible quantity and variety of foraged mushrooms.
Only one other person from my group in the small mushroom and herb drying room at Gaspésie Sauvage realized what an Ali Baba’s cave we’d just walked into. I grabbed his arm to steady myself, and squeezed tight.
If you don’t have GPS I can almost guarantee that you won’t find La Gaspésie Sauvage. It’s located 11 hours east of Montreal in a rugged, fog-drenched part of Quebec that reminds me a whole lot of Newfoundland where I grew up.
But when you do find the place, it’s as though the world exists in this one microcosm of a multi-acre farm/forest/rural utopia. It’s the project of one man and his partner. Now their sons are involved, as well as seasonal pickers. The man, Gérard Mathar is from Belgium, which is where he learned to forage. He moved to this little corner of the Gaspésie where raspberries, chanterelles and salicorne grow wild and built his family a house. In the winter when there’s less work to do growing vegetables and foraging, he works on the house.
In the summer, I honestly don’t know how he takes care of the entire farm. This man has the work ethic and strength of a horse, with enough business savvy to make his family very comfortable. But he lives simply, putting up his own preserves, making his own cheese, and drying and aging his own sausages and meat to get through the winter. Not because he has to, but because he thinks he should. Self-sustainability and sustainability in general are the foundations of both his personal and business philosophies.
The first thing you see when you drive up Gaspésie Sauvage’s winding path are the animals.
Free-range doesn’t begin to describe it.
There are hogs and chickens and tiny kittens that run around. I dare you to not pick up one of those kittens. It will fit in the palm of your hand. The hard part is putting it down. I therefore refused to pick one up, anticipating the inevitable loss.
Then there’s the garden out back, with fruits and vegetables I recognized and a lot I didn’t.
There were blue flowers I’d use for dyes, bee balm for pollination, herbs for teas, and greens for stewing and eating raw.
Mathar’s tomatoes are in greenhouses because the Gaspésie doesn’t get hot like Montreal.
The house is in front of the garden. There’s a tiny kitchen, sufficient living space, and that tear-jerkingly incredible basement. It’s not grandiose or ostentatious. It’s part of the simple life the family intentionally leads and believes in, strongly.
Mathar made us sample his goats milk cheese. One small wheel was stuffed with garlic scape pesto. This was the best cheese I’ve ever eaten in my life. I do not say that lightly. As a lactose intolerant I actually eat a lot of raw milk cheeses. It was a little sour, a tiny bit sweet, and had the most creamy texture. It was the kind of cheese you take a healthy bite of and let your eyes roll back in your head from sensory overload. Then you take a big bite of the pesto-stuffed version. And it happens again, but even better this time. He cut up two dense rolls of the stuff. It was priceless. We couldn’t leave a piece behind.
He can’t sell the cheeses. They’re made from raw milk and aren’t aged long enough to legally sell. But why would he sell them? They’re for his family. He doesn’t believe in pasteurized cheese. He has animals. He has the capacity to make cheese instead of buying it. So he does. It sits in vats in a small room to the right as you come down the stairs into the basement.
The same rule of sustainability applies to the sausages hanging in front of the log wall next to the cheese room. He butchers his own animals and doesn’t waste.
Here are the mason jars in his pantry that brought tears to my eyes. I dream of having a pantry like this, but without the farm in the woods.
He makes a kombucha-like lemonade, naturally fermented and sweet. I don’t drink kombucha. I might start.
He opened a litre for the group of us to share. It’s the jars labeled “Comornie 8%,” for the percentage of sugar in them.
There were also pressure-canned litres of mackerel, preserved by putting the fish straight into the jars, raw, and cooking it directly in the pressure canner.
He also pressure cans stews.
There’s cassis syrup like my French former roommate’s mother would send him. And there are jams, enough to slather on mounds of goat cheese and eat with fermented elderflower lemonade and sliced sausage for a lifetime.
There were also litres of pressure-canned greens and maybe even cake, if the label is correct.
None of this makes him money. The money comes from the mushrooms. Which brings me back to the $20,000 worth of the stuff in the drying room.
Chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, and lactaires next to crates of salicorne and gourmet herbs.
He ships these in wooden boxes by truck to Montreal, Toronto, New York and further, along with more unusual mushroom offerings: chagga (which looks like burnt wood on the trees it uses to grow), matsutake, blue foot, sheep’s foot, and prized morels. That day there were boxes labelled for Edulis Restaurant in Toronto, Laloux in Montreal, and Boulud in New York. He and his partner announce what’s being shipped each day on Twitter. They also reply to direct messages from upcoming visitors and potential clients. Social media is the backbone of their business, it seems. And this in a rural area where Smartphones have no wifi reception.
We came to go mushroom picking. After an hour and a half tour of the house and farm, we set off with Mathar’s son into the woods. It had just rained, so it wasn’t a good time to pick mushrooms. But the young, blond boy pointed them out and explained how and when to pick them.
He showed us lactaire mushrooms, so-named because you rub their ribs and they release a milk-like substance.
We also found chanterelles.
And chagga, the black bark-like mushroom that’s energizing and detoxifying when made into tea. You can steep it multiple times. It’s often found in powdered form, but you can slice it off a tree and chop it into cubes, which is much easier.
Gaspésie Sauvage is open to visitors. It’s best to contact them before coming. They’re always there, though. It is their home. Still, it’s more polite to not drop in unannounced unless you’re a neighbour.
There, you can learn to forage for mushrooms, or learn to forage for everything. You can spend a week helping out on the farm and in the woods, or if you’re lucky enough, you can be their cook when they have hungry pickers to feed in high season. There’s only so much cheese and sausage to go around.
If you can’t make it to the Gaspésie, you can try their products at Laloux, Pastaga, or just about every great restaurant in Montreal. They can be ordered directly to restaurants, or through Société-Orignal.