Searching for Wild Treasures

By Katie Smith

It’s not every day you meet someone who loves what they do, so when you find one who speaks with such conviction and passion about their livelihood, it makes you sit up and take notice.
Charlottetown resident Sylvain Cormier is one of those people. An Islander born and raised, Cormier is no stranger to the great outdoors. He began fishing and hunting at a young age and after his first hunting trip around the age of nine, it became clear he was a natural.

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Chantrelles are one of the mushroom varieties Sylvain Cormier forages. Photo: Submitted.

Cormier and his father were driving down the road one day many years ago, when they spotted a rabbit.
“I jumped out and went in the woods and shot three. I was smiles ear to ear,” he said earlier this month. “That was it, I was hooked.”
The more time he spent in the woods, the more Cormier started picking up different plants he would find along his travels.
“While I was hunting I always picked up mushrooms and stuff like that and bring it home and research it,” he said, adding how people eventually found out what he was picking and wanted some.
Over the past few years, what started as a curiosity has bloomed into his own foraging business called Everything Wild.
Everything Wild promotes unique and wild edibles that grow all across PEI and encourages Islanders to eat locally grown foods and enjoy the wild foods that grow in our backyards. Products include mushrooms, berries, fiddleheads, cattails, shellfish and much more.
I recently had the opportunity to tag along with Cormier when he went to scout plants and locations. We met at his house and as I arrived, he was cleaning fiddleheads he’d gathered earlier.­­
I hopped in the freshly cleaned car and commented on how great it smelled, to which he replied “I had to get all the fish scales out.” I appreciated that. Then he pointed out the blue specks that still remained on the floor mat under my feet and told me they were from robin’s eggs that had fallen from a nest.
Before we left town we had to deliver some produce to one of the restaurants downtown.  Then into the woods we went.
Because Cormier is the only full-time forager on the Island, he keeps his locations a secret. We drove down one of the Island’s many red dirt roads and walked into the woods. We approached a lake and you could see and hear the trout jumping out of the water. Cormier examined the cattails that were ready to be picked. We each picked one and ate it. It tasted somewhat like fresh cucumber. It would go nicely in a salad.

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Cormier holds a few fiddleheads he picked. Photo: Katie Smith

While most plants are harmless when consumed, Cormier warns that caution should be taken when foraging because you never know what is edible and what is not. He said that while some of them might only give you indigestion, some of them are deadly.
“Some plants look alike,” he said. “You have to know what you are looking for.”
It’s important to note that Cormier is an experienced forager. He knows when and where to pick his products, and also how to ensure that patch will grow again the following year.
Foraging, a continuously growing trend, promotes sustainability of PEI’s food industry by collecting plants that grow wild and not having to farm the land. More and more, chefs are opting for unique and organic Island products, and Cormier is the man they go to.
Well-known Island chef Michael Smith is one of Cormier’s biggest supporters. Smith recently wrote Cormier a letter of reference, stating that PEI is “a leading North American gastronomic destination” and how the restaurant industry continues to manifest the defining trends of what’s become a global food movement.
“Foraged products are cutting edge worldwide and increasingly are playing a resurgent role on Island menus,” Smith said, adding that Cormier is a valued member of the Island’s food scene.
“He perfectly combines his incredible initiative, idealistic perspective and detailed vision with a work ethic that is beyond compare.”
Lee Clarke and Soleil Hutchinson are organic farmers who have a company called plate it. and sell their products to local restaurants. They don’t grow everything the restaurants demand, such as fiddleheads, so Cormier provides them with his foraged goods.
In a letter to Cormier, the couple explained how eating local food has not only gained popularity, but is now at a point where the consumer demands exceed the Island’s current food supply, especially when it comes to foraged foods.
“For the past two years, Mr. Cormier has reliably provided plate it. and restaurants with a variety of very high quality wild foods, namely mushrooms, fiddle heads, sea asparagus, flowers, buds, and berries,” the farmers stated in the letter. “Everything Wild is a necessary Island business, and it is currently plate it.’s only source of wild Island foraged products.”
For more information about foraging, check out the Everything Wild Facebook page.

[Originally published in G! Magazine in the June 2014 edition.]

“A drink to the living, a toast to the dead…”

It’s Father’s Day weekend and I want to wish a wonderful and happy day to all the dads out there and to those who are no longer with us.

I wrote this last year about the day we lost our dad, and given this is the weekend is for fathers, I wanted to share it with you.

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The Smith clan circa 1986

For Lou

There have been two defining moments in my life up until this point – the kind of moments where something just clicks in your head and you know that, as of that moment, your life will never be the same.

The first happened when I was 26 years old, and it’s a day I think of often.

In the early hours of a cool January morning, I awoke to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (the cell phone ringtone version). It was my sister calling. I woke my boyfriend up and before I even answered the phone, I looked at him and said, “My dad died.” I just had a gut feeling.

My sister was living with our parents at the time and when I answered all she said was that something happened to dad and that we should get over there right away. But I knew there was no need to rush.

I can’t explain my exact emotions at that time. I felt a surge of endorphins take hold and I was instantly in a manic state. I felt shocked and scared, but oddly enough, I felt a sense of calm come over me. Like it was ok, and that things were unfolding as they should.

We got up, got dressed and I immediately lit up a cigarette and sucked it down in one haul.

It was frosty out. I remember I could see my breath as we got into the car. The five minute drive took an eternity. We sat there in silence, perhaps both knowing what we were heading towards. It was the last few minutes of my old life, and I was holding on.

As we pulled up to the house I grew up in, one of the two ambulances that arrived was pulling away. The emergency lights and sirens were off. I knew my gut feeling was right.

I went upstairs, my heart in my throat, my eyes welling up with tears. I turned the corner and headed to my parents’ bedroom.

He still had a ring around his mouth from the oxygen mask the paramedics used to try and resuscitate him. He was laying there in his underwear, pale. He was still warm, but he didn’t look like he was sleeping. His body was there, but he was gone, though not far away.

I looked around the room and the first thing I saw was the wedding picture my parents had taken on their special day in 1976. My brain began trying to process the scene in front of me. I started thinking of this very moment – writing it down in a book I one day intended to write. Shock is a funny thing.

They said he died in his sleep, peacefully. We should all be so lucky. But I remember seeing his bottle of Nitroglycerin on the floor next to his side of the bed, and I wondered if he woke up and used it before he died. I wondered if he was panicked or in pain. I wondered if he knew his time had come. I’ve never mentioned that to anyone, but it’s something I’ve always wondered about. I’d like to think he just didn’t wake up. It’s easier that way.

I don’t remember much more about that morning. I have vague recollections of my sister, my cousin and my mom being there, and my boyfriend, who ended up being my strength throughout the whole ordeal. I knew what kind of man he was after that – a loyal man who said and did the right thing at the right time. He made the experience a little bit easier for me to deal with. I will be forever grateful he was in my life at that time.

The next couple of days were hectic. I cried of course, but mostly I just felt numb. The house quickly filled with the people who would soon become my circle of support – a kind of support that, five years later, has never left me. If anything, it’s only become stronger. I am lucky. I have so many people in my life who love me and would do just about anything for me. I have to remind myself of this from time to time, when my head starts to win and the negative thoughts creep in. I think of the way Holly Golightly describes that feeling in Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s as “the mean reds”. I get the mean reds.

The wake was something out of a movie. Nearly a thousand well-wishers made their way through the funeral parlour – which was filled with flowers, something dad used to always say he wanted. As a landscaper, it made sense. And instead of the typical death dirges that usually come through the speakers – the depressing elevator-type musak – it was one of dad’s mixed CDs he made. Mostly Irish tunes. And one of his favourites, which has subsequently become one of my favourites – You Are My Sunshine.

He used to talk about how death shouldn’t be mourned, but rather should be a celebration of the deceased’s life. And his wake was just that. At one point my friend came up to me in the procession line (after waiting for two hours) and said she’d almost forgotten why she was there, as everyone was in good spirits and telling Lou stories and listening to uplifting tunes. While it was a very sad time, it was also a very positive time. I’m grateful for that day.

Following the wake, everyone came to my parents’ house. And in true Irish wake fashion, the booze was flowing. My parents’ house was always the place where everyone gathered. There’s a big deck and a bonfire pit in the back yard and for as long as I can remember, it was a place filled with happiness, warmth and caring people. A large family really, comprised of friends, neighbours and actual family members. It was a happy crew. Even on that day. It was a very emotionally-fueled time and I’ve never felt so much love in all my life. It was then I realized just what kind of impact my dad had not only on my sister, my mother and I, but on everyone who ever knew him. He was just one of those rare good and decent men who only wanted to do right by his family. He wanted to spoil his girls. And spoil us he did without apology. I miss him every day.

Ah Lou. You left us too soon, but I know you are always with us. I love you.