Meet Deirdre. She forages uber-fresh, wild edibles for high-end Toronto restaurants, (Edulis, Woodlot, Dandelion, Aloe).
Deirdre Fraser-Gudranas, of ‘Vibrant Matter’, is a local, professional forager, who has maintained a steady clientele base from Toronto’s elite restaurants, since 2012.
Deirdre grew up on a thirteen-acre property of field and woodland in Niagara’s SouthCoast. Her parents were from “an era of living back to the land”, she says. It planted the seeds for her love of gardening and foraging for edible plants that grow in their own backyard. It also helps that she’s really into food.
In her twenties, she began working in professional kitchens in Toronto, and on weekends would come back home to visit. She and her sister would forage together. It was her sister who suggested she pick a bit extra and come back to Toronto to present her finds to some of the chefs. The idea struck a chord with a more innovative class of chefs right away and they begged for more.
When the business first started she was on a bicycle fitted with a trailer. She was using her dad’s truck for picking, and would pack everything in coolers. Then she would pack her bicycle, bike trailer and coolers on the greyhound and make her way up to Toronto. “I would meet chefs at street corners and hand them a bag of green stuff”.
Deirdre was living in Toronto at the time and started making regular visits back to Niagara to pick. Eventually, the demand grew so much, and chefs were so eager at getting their hands on the raw, wild greens, that she started picking every day, and would make her way to her apartment only one night a week, hence, the home-base here in Niagara. Business has been steadily growing ever since, and she hasn’t even marketed in Toronto or in Niagara. “I haven’t had to try hard to get the word out. In Toronto, the chefs all know each other. There’s a network.”
Currently, she heads her wares to ten-twelve restaurants all in the same area in T.O., which makes delivery day much easier. Restaurants like; Edulis, Woodlot, Dandelion, Aloe, and the sadly closed, Keriwa, a restaurant featuring nouveau First Nation cuisine. On her way North, she makes one Niagara stop at Pearl Morrisette. Chances are if you see edible flowers on your plate, they may be from Vibrant Matter.
Borage flowers make a beautiful edible garnish.[/caption]
A typical spring harvest day will take between eight to ten hours of picking in the forest.“Aren’t you worried about ticks?”, I ask. She dresses for them; long pants, long, light shirt, a hat, and she is meticulously thorough about checking. You can’t be too careful, she says, because Lyme disease is a blood condition and is serious.
This little tick jumped on my pants during our interview.[/caption]
Business is flourishing you could say, but the actual wild greens aren’t. “This year has been a hard year for foraging because everything is so dry. The forest is “crispy. I don’t want to pick anything because it can be damaged”. So, Deirdre is relying more on her garden at this time. Her garden is an achievement.
It’s set in the back of her father’s glass blowing studio, Sirius Glass Works, and is framed by the ruins of a former barn, so it has loads of patina and character, oh, and bits of hand-blown glass, and skulls they found, and other cool curiosities. The plants are a mix of common veggies, rare and hard to find plants, that she orders from a seed catalogue, and harvests from wild seeds that Deirdre collects and germinates herself.
She found a ground cherry in Crystal Beach, that is now flourishing in her garden. Wild purslane is there, tobacco, and borage; it’s purple flowers are used as an edible garnish. She grows Anise Fennel, which is tall and rather stunning with its delicate stems that look like an aquatic plant. The yellow flowers branch out like a star and have a strong sweet, liquorice flavour. She said the chefs use it in desserts a lot of times.
Nasturtiums and the chicken coop, for personal use.[/caption]
A selection of the unusual edibles in Vibrant Matter’s Garden[/caption]
She picks three to four days a week, travels to Toronto one day, and gardens the rest of the time. In spring, the pickings are wilder, when she’s picking the season’s first plants. In summer, she relies more on the garden, when the forest gets dry. She uses local knowledge of where to find things and has a large contact base of people who allow her to forage on their land. She travels all over the region, in different types of soils; dry, rocky, clay, moist, sandy, etc. Due to the mild weather and mini micro-climates, Niagara has the most biodiversity in Ontario.
I had to ask about morels. I swear she rolled her eyes. “Everyone wants the mushrooms”, she says. “The demand for mushrooms is unrelenting”. It’s too dry right now, but you have to look under trees for them, in old orchards, and oak trees. I asked her what a really exciting find for her was. “I found Prickly Ash once”. Prickly Ash is a native plant, used to treat toothaches by the First Nation people because it naturally numbs the mouth. It’s used in cooking Szechuan food; as a Szechuan peppercorn.
Her foraging days bring all sorts of unusual and hard to find wild edible plants, and such, as the nature of things, each week her offerings to chefs are unique and different. There is no advance ordering here. She finds the plants and tells each chef a bit about its characteristics, flavours, and traditional uses, after that, what they do with it is completely up to them.
Mouse Melon; a teeny, tiny melon that looks like a watermelon, and tastes like cucumber.[/caption]
In the skilled chef’s hands, these morsels produce outstandingly fresh and complex flavour combinations. Even for someone like her who “thinks about food all the time”, could never come up with the creative ways to cook with the food she forages, says Deirdre. The chefs are trained to know the physics and techniques behind cooking food. She brings them unconventional food and each “chef uses it really differently and really surprisingly.” Her wild greens are starting to get into the hands of mixologists who love muddling them for cocktails.
Deirdre herself is a wealth of information on all things plant, the environment, and other things. We talked about books, and the local area’s environment and how it was shaped over time, by human settlement. Her own business, Vibrant Matter, is named after a book of the same title, that discusses Jane Bennet’s theory of objects and how people relate to objects.
Deirdre holds a flower for the photograph.[/caption]
Foraging is a lot of science, research, and hard work. You have a pile of accumulated knowledge and you need to know “when to pick the plant, when it is at its peak, you need to know what part of the plant to pick, and you need to know what areas to find the plant where it is plentiful enough that you won’t disrupt its ability to reproduce”. Deirdre says to be a forager “takes a weird form of endurance. You have to be able to handle monotonous acts for eight to ten hours a day and have a really high-bug tolerance.” You also need to be a “dork”. What she really means is you need to be really well versed in the science and study of local plants. Deirdre is, and she’s brilliant.