Zoltan's Wild Garden

Zoltan’s Wild Garden : artistry in food

Zoltan's Wild GardenI find her stand calling to me, with those odd-shaped and brightly coloured fungi lounging in a basket, along with an Ali Baba assortment of goodies: fresh homemade soups (vegan and organic versions often available), pickled garlic scapes, hot apple chutney, orange rhubarb salad dressing, and even some wild chaga face cream. Apparently some find this a bit bothersome, this uncertainty when you come to her stall as to what you will find each week. But that is exactly what others find so appealing (including myself), this surprise when you walk up and ask, “What’s new this week?” The variety is driven by what she likes to eat and to prepare, and what is in season.

Susan is an artist, a sculptor by trade, and if you observe the organic movement of the products at her stand, you see the artistry there too. She plays with what the earth and seasons provide. One of her current specialties is a smoked baba ganoush – eggplant is in season. From the garlic harvests, she has given us pickled scapes.

“My son opened a door and I marched right through it.”

Zoltan's Wild GardenIt wasn’t even Susan who started this journey into food, but rather her son, Zak, who himself is an accomplished cook. He was making cheesecakes at home and a neighbor had suggested he come sell them at the Alexandria market. Susan stepped in to give him a hand and they started going to the Vankleek Hill market as well. After awhile, Zak returned to full-time employment, so Susan continued on her own.zoltansaladdressing

We may not see Zak much, but you can sense his presence still. He is behind the wild chaga face creams (got some, love it – creamy texture, very faint scent, face feels good), his smoked butternut soup and his hot apple chutney. They also did the Festival of Flavors together a few weeks ago, so it remains an experience that mother and son can share.

“A perfect product would be 100% local and in season and organic.”

This all began back in 2009. Since then, Susan has been moving around a bit, trying different markets, to find the best fit. This year, though, it seems as though she has found her “home” with the Sainte-Anne’s market.  She even has her own little soup posse – several customers who come by each week to stock up on her jars of homemade soup. (I think I may be joining this group – a great “fast food” for winter, while still eating local and organic).

Zoltan's Wild GardenAlthough she’s been mushroom hunting for awhile, they weren’t the first items to come to market. Now, though, you can find fresh ones decorating her stand, and soon we will have a nice collection of dried mushrooms for winter soups and stews. I was able to go on one of her mushroom excursions last weekend. It was a great group – imagine a bunch of middle-aged children traipsing through the forest with their baskets and knives, bringing their finds back to Susan for identification.

That is the stressful part for her, with over 3,000 types of mushrooms in Quebec alone, it is impossible to identify them all. And there are many dangerous look-alikes, all the more reason to use caution. If in doubt, the rule of thumb is to not eat it. But she can identify many that are very safe, and very tasty.

“Walking out of a forest with a basket full of edibles, how can it get better than that?”

Zoltan mushroom huntingShe’s been growing mushrooms indoors, and her next experiment will be to try to create different mushroom habitats on her land, so she’s currently collecting coffee grounds, cardboard, newspaper and woodchips. This is a 5 year plan. You start with the root system from the base of the mushroom – the mycelium – and create a substrate for it to colonize. Once it grows, you can transfer it outside to a different substrate for it to continue to grow. Her first species will be wood blewits, king stropharia (wine caps), oyster mushrooms, and sidewalk mushrooms.

Mushroom hunting season is May to the end of October. It’s 15$ per person and usually lasts around 2 hours. You can email her at [email protected] to be put on the mailing list. Hunts are out west in Rigaud, Hudson and the Vaudreuil-Soulanges area, or closer in to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue (we went out at  Île Perrot).

“I get bored doing one thing. I hope we continue to experiment forever.”

With the booming business of Zoltan’s, her “other life” — her life as a sculptor — was a bit hidden from view. She showed me one of her pieces in the other room. It was simply exquisite. You can go to her website www.susanvalyi.com. Make sure to see the video of her at work. When you see how she puts together all those foraged pieces to make a beautiful piece of art, her table of foraged food put together into mouth-watering breads, soups and sauces will make a lot of sense.

Zoltan's Wild GardenYou can find Zoltan’s Wild Garden at the Sainte-Anne’s market year-round, and at the Hudson market from May to October. She also attends the Festival of Flavors in Vankleek Hill in September.

This post is also available in: French

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