Founder of Exile Bistro and chartered herbalist, Vanessa Bourget on the rewards of fermentation, wild crafted foods, and medicinal mushrooms.

Tracy: On your menu here at Exile Bistro you have a lot of fermented foods. Can you tell me about the importance of incorporating fermentation into your cooking methods and diet? 


Vanessa: Fermentation is a very old method of preparing and preserving food. It came to be out of not having any refrigeration, so food would just naturally start to ferment. People found that fermentation would preserve their food; it tasted better and was better for digestion. A major benefit of the fermentation process is that you’re incubating some lactic acid and some bacteria that are beneficial to the human body. If you do it properly, then you get this live, pro-biotic food that is full of enzymes, added vitamins, and nutrients because of the fermentation and active strains of bacteria. So it becomes more digestible, more nutrient dense, and tastes great, adding new flavour.


Is it true that eating fermented foods before or alongside your meal helps the body breakdown animal meat? 


Yes! You can imagine what’s going on in your gut: if you’re helping your gut break down the molecules, you’re helping all the bacteria that is already in your gut to break down the food you’re eating. So yes, it’s going to be much more digestible. Eating the fermented food contributes to the flora that you already have and that certainly helps your stomach and gut out.


Most people associate pro-biotics strictly with yogurt. Want to talk about some other foods that you can also ferment to get these pro-biotics? 


The easiest, most simple way to think about it would be to say that instead of pickling with vinegar, you can naturally ferment almost anything, and definitely any vegetable. Some things will ferment a little bit better to taste, but you can virtually ferment almost anything. And so that’s a really good way to start; you don’t necessarily need a yogurt or a dairy product to get these, especially if you’re a vegan. Also not necessarily all yogurt is pro-biotic and so we have to be careful with that, especially with things that are manufactured and then packaged. Sometimes it will even say 'pro-biotic' when it isn't really, because of the pasteurization or because the bacteria doesn’t actually survive in the environment, or with the other ingredients that are in the package. I would say that to start your own fermentation of other things if you're not eating yogurt, you only need to experiment a little bit because it’s very easy. I mean essentially as long as you’ve got a clean environment, you start with clean equipment, and you have basic ingredients like water, perhaps a really simple brine (water and salt), and then some salt, you can do it on your own. If you have a previous liquid from a previous fermentation, that’s a really great way to inoculate or jump start your fermentation, but you don’t necessarily have to start with one. And then it’s basically the ambient bacteria that will help to ferment naturally. You just have to make sure you monitor it, and observe it, and you’ve made your own.


You had a great dish with a fermented grain - I can’t recall what it was specifically, but I’d never had such a creative, flavourful dish. It was almost like a savoury porridge.


Ah yes, it was buckwheat. That’s a buckwheat porridge or a pudding that is fermented. So especially with grains it's really important for better digestion to at least soak them first to kind of initiate the fermentation process. Soaking and subsequent sprouting is the beginning stage of fermentation. So the longer you leave it and the longer you let the bacteria proliferate that kind of takes you to fermentation, or even making alcohol with food. You can virtually make it with anything. (There’s definitely a point that it can go sideways too so that’s what you need to monitor.) But for example we do like to ferment our grains - again because it gives them a little bit of tang to the taste which is really good, and it’s also way better for the digestive system; it’s way more soothing, you get more nutrients out of it, it neutralizes the phytic acid--


—Briefly explain what phytic acid is?


It’s more or less a natural component that happens in a lot of seeds and grains - kind of like the dormant energy that preserves all the seeds and grains so that they don’t spoil. That’s why you can keep rice and barley and anything like that in dry form, because it has those antinutrients that help to prevent it from starting to sprout. But as soon as they’re watered, it will start that sprouting process. So that’s why soaking and then roasting help to neutralize that. So those are ways to make sure that you’re not eating something that will bind to other nutrients, or that won’t get digested - that will just become pure roughage and go straight through you. So that’s why we look at fermentation which aside from grains, we do lots of vegetables. We have fermented cauliflower puree; so we use just white cauliflower and ferment it, then add some spices - you can use any type of aromatic herbs and then it will create its own vinegar - with the lactic acid fermentation - and then we blend it all together. In this way, you can make different textures; you can eat it whole like a pickle, or you can blend it and make sauces or purees that are a little bit more innovative than just using dressings. So you can play with texture, you don’t have to eat fermented food just one way.


Yes, it can add that creamy element to a dish which I love. Another thing you do here at Exile is you make your own bone broth. I’ve read how it can help your overall blood health, your iron levels, the strength of your teeth.. but then in a dish it tastes phenomenal.


Yeah it’s great to include. The idea of bone broth is that you’re making a really slow simmered bone stock, but the difference from just a simple stock is that you really want bones that are broken down so you want to keep it going for quite a bit of time. That way it has time to break down the cartilage and the collagen to make it accessible when consumed. So that’s how you get the gelatin out of it, and make it absorbable to the body. You also need to use an acid [i.e. apple cider vinegar] which helps the process of breaking down the nutrients from the bones containing all the basic building blocks of the bone matrix. So you’re getting the minerals and then you’re also getting the collagens that help your body replenish its own stores of collagens, and helps your body with its own production of those nutrients. We produce these things ourselves, but to just include extra sources of it in the body means that it won't have to take it from other parts of your body.


Which is good to know for people who are very active. Protein is pervasively talked about, but we need to remember the other things that came along with those first basic sources of protein and the benefits of cooking with those bones. To know what happens to our red and white blood cells, our iron, and these collagen levels too.


Yeah and again I haven't studied everything that happens scientifically in a lab, but from my own reading and research, you're depleting a bit of everything just because you're using your machine, so you're using up everything in your body, not just protein. And so just to ensure that you're getting the most nutrition out of whole foods as opposed to supplements, I think also would be one of the other appeals to bone broth. Because again it's such an ancient way to use up the bones and all the parts of an animal that would be used for human consumption, so we might as well make the most out of it. You get people who think that you only need to eat the meat, but they might just discard the bones when there's actually so much more deep nutrition within those parts.


Which helps to also treat our food sources with more respect too.


Yeah, exactly. And then instead of going to the health food store or the supplements store, and spending so much money on this isolated supplement, you're getting it from a whole food - this concentrated form of the actual nutrient. And that's really health beneficial: it helps with calming the body, calming the nervous system, people say that when they eat bone broth they sleep better, it helps our organs and skin, it just really does a deep nourishment that nothing else really does.


You can also just drink it straight - similar to how you would sip on a warm miso soup? And you can order it to-go in a cup from exile still as well?


Yes people can get it warm to-go like you would with a hot coffee, or a hot tea. And then people have also been buying it frozen from us as well. We have small jars to-go that you can purchase by the litre. We can make it warm, or you can take it frozen.


Where you would later use it for a base when cooking rice, or lentils, or quinoa?


Oh yeah for sure! You can also use it for a base for a sauce, or you can use it for making a soup just as a stock too. It's just going to be really rich so you would have to add a little water because when we make it, it's pretty gelatinous and kind of jelly-like. When it's cool in the fridge, it's gelatinous, but as soon as you warm it up, it becomes a liquid.


So back to eating more whole foods and less of the packaged or supplement meals. You guys are also very focused on sourcing ingredients from the wild: the concept of 'wild crafted'. What is the importance of focusing on wild foods? And why should we move away from industrialized agriculture?


Well these are both important for many different reasons. So one is that foraging or wild crafting in your area is a really amazing, empowering way to get really close and connected to your food source. And the foods you'll find are also not something that you're going to find at your grocery store. So again they contain types of nutrition that you can't get anywhere else but from the wild. It's also because of the flavours and textures that you can't get often anywhere else - they're less mainstream. I mean there are a few things that are in the stores like fiddleheads which are a common type of wild food and that have recently made it into the commercial food system. But also wild crafting makes people more independent of the food system. With the proper education on how to forage responsibly and respectfully, it would put less stress on the big agribusiness system that is depleting the world's resources if people could focus more on their own resources around them and harvest responsibly. By doing that, people will be more in touch with how eating affects their surroundings if they can learn how to harvest and collect. So I think in that way, those are some of the basic benefits. And again there are just so many concentrated nutrients that are not available in anything that is grown by humans that we can find in nature. They're just barely studying the tip of the iceberg on all of the different bio-flavonoids, phytosterols, antioxidants, polysaccharides, and all these components that are in those plants that are really good for you. And you just don't get them anywhere else.


Consider the idea of what 'organic' originally meant before it became a trend (and then simply a catch-phrase). Now the 'organic' label has been entirely appropriated by supermarket monopolies and big agribusiness as you mentioned. It used to be about foods that were as true to nature as possible: without pesticides, with respect to naturally mineral-dense soils, allowing for millennia-old ecosystems to continue their own processes of composting the surrounding plants and animal matter. To me this seems to be what the concept of wild crafted allows us to go back to. 


Yeah and that's exactly what it's about, because wild crafted means you're harvesting it from the wild, so it's not relying on those monoculture crops. Also focusing on wild crafted does help to reinforce those natural food systems and leads to a greater understanding of them.


So why else do you avoid sourcing from BigAg?


One of the most obvious reasons why that is would also be because we're an environmentally conscious business. Another is looking at it economically, we want to keep the economy focused on small producers and small farmers in our area that we like to encourage. So that reduces our carbon footprint, there's less transportation, and also there is less degrading of nutrients, because since it's grown so close it can just be harvested the day before or the same day and then made right here so you get a lot higher quality. Part of it is also knowing that you can trust the information on how it's grown and how people practise their farming because you can speak to them directly. Often we're using such small suppliers that you get to create close connections; we really get to know how they grow their food, what they do with it, and we can even visit where it is grown. So that gives really great perspective. It's also a really good story and visual for people if you can say, "Oh this is from Sole Food Farms, just a few blocks from here on Pacific Boulevard", or "This is a really small company that has slowly expanded. They're starting some of their shoots on Salt Spring Island, and they finish it here." Or that it's from a really amazing small organic farm in, say, Pemberton. So for people who really want to eat locally and have a real taste of Vancouver and West Coast food, then it's really great to be able to say that [our ingredients are] all from that basic radius. We even like to say that it's more of a 'Pacific Northwest' based menu, because we will get stuff from Oregon when necessary. But we just try to keep it as close as possible and encourage that focus for environmental and economical reasons. 


And that way you're not just another clog in a machine pumping out food for people you don't really ever consider. Instead you get to carry that much more passion and respect all the way from the farmer to the guest whose plate you get to personally describe.


Yes and there's a lot more of that passion from understanding what it takes and what it costs. To do it all from start to finish and then see the response in the guest, you're right.


So let's talk mushrooms. You make a lot of dishes, deserts, and even drinks using ingredients like Chaga mushroom. What's so great about incorporating mushrooms into your diet and what are the effects they can have on the immune system? 


So the class of mushrooms that include Chaga, Reishi, Turky Tail, and Maitake - even Shiitake - have been used for thousands of years in folk medicine for treating a lot of different things. You could almost say it treats virtually everything - just basically working to bring the body into balance. And they're often known as adaptogens so they help you be in homeostasis which is the body's balance, so they help you to reduce stress in the body. Reducing stress in your body is basically your overall defence system and therefore affects your immunity as well. So again these are just starting to be understood by modern science because, for example, Chaga mushroom has been used in Siberia and Russia to treat things like digestive problems, cancer, all sorts of inflammation problems, blood sugar problems, etc. I guess the best way to explain it is that when you look at the mushroom kingdom, it's such a unique kingdom that's really nothing like the plant kingdom, or is even more similar to an animal kingdom. Because when you think of all the mycelia, the system of mushrooms in the forest brings the whole network of the forest together. You can think of the mycelia as kind of like the network of vessels in our brain and in our bodies for neurological processes or for blood processes. So you can see in that way that it just really connects all of the functions - hormonally, and in harmony with your body by helping all those processes take place in a natural and healthy way. So when they are broken down within acids or in components that in-vitro actually inhibit cancer growth and proliferation, or reduce oxidative stress, that's great. But I think that it's not about all the isolated components, it's just about the amount of really gentle and revitalizing effects it has. Mushrooms are also great because they're so safe; they have absolutely no side-effects. They can be used for cancer treatment with chemo-therapy to reduce the side-effects of chemo without any reactions. They can be used for infants as well. So they're really safe and effective.


There are a lot of different mushroom families, or classes - some as we all know that can be poisonous, hallucinogenic, or psychotropic. So what are the different uses with consumption and ingestion?


Right. So yes there are different mushroom classes - some are really poisonous mushrooms. So those that induce the hallucinogenic effects are actually mildly poisonous and they could be medicinal also, but more in a way of self-awakening, and again is more of a recreational drug class. These other mushrooms that you just take the extract from, they won't give you any hallucinations, but you have to ingest them through extracts because they're not edible. So not like a mushroom on a pizza. Some of the edible ones have medicinal properties, but the ones like Chaga or Reishi are not edible because they're more like tree barks, or like cankers. So those that you wouldn't be able to eat, you can make more of an extract. And that way you get more benefits because those are more intense medicinally as opposed to an edible mushroom that has wild nutrient benefits. For example the Lion's Mane, Maitake, and Shiitake in their wild form have a lot of good immune boosting properties, and you can eat and include them in your diet in whole form. With the others you use in extract form, so you can make a tea out of it, you can make a powder, or you can use it in your food - we make a Chaga truffle, and you can make a sauce out of the extract as well. So you would use the extract as a base for something but you wouldn't eat the whole fruiting body because it's very much like a rough bark. 


You went to school for holistic nutrition if I'm correct? 


I did yes. I went to CSNN in 2008, so Canadian School for Natural Nutrition, and then I also did a one-year diploma to become a chartered herbalist at the Dominion Herbal College which is one of the oldest North American Herb Colleges. They're based in Burnaby but it was a distance course so I did a one-year program - although there's a lot to learn. And I also do some self-research, and learn through being really interested myself, but definitely the programs gave me my introduction to that word.


With nutrition, people typically go in a different direction than you did: they mostly choose naturopathy or focus on supplements, natural prescriptions, or herbal teas to cure patients. How did you decide on starting a restaurant? Because by integrating these herbs into foods as you've done with your menu, what's striking is that even if you didn't care what-so-ever about your health, your dishes are so incredibly delicious - so rich with just mind bending flavours.


I guess it would be because I myself don't really like to take supplements and capsules, or having to take a tea three times a day. Just being in the restaurant industry for so long, you see people drinking and eating, and so I thought, "Well people are going to drink, and they are going to eat. Why not infuse things that people are already consuming with these really beneficial ingredients." So instead of saying to someone, "Oh you have an ailment, here's what will help. Take this every day." They probably won't keep taking it, like I found in my own experience when I did some consultation. People don't do it - they're lazy like me. I'd likely do it once and then stop doing it because it's annoying. But if you make this recipe that is amazingly delicious that has the ingredient within, then you're way more likely to want to make that recipe, or buy that recipe, or go to a place that has it. So I think that's why I went in this direction.


Very True. I also find it difficult to remember to take vitamins, or capsules, or make the red clover tea I was told helps with iron absorption. But you understand the profound benefits of these teas as more and more research comes out, so I see what you mean.


Exactly, yeah. And say if for example there was a store down the street from you that sold lemonade with red clover tea in it, you'd probably be very likely to buy that. Which I guess comes out of our culture of living in smaller [residences], so we're not staying home as often, and also we want things really fast because we're so fast-paced, and therefore we don't necessarily have the time to make a tea three times a day. And I mean there are ways around it - you can make yourself a thermos and just drink from it three times a day. But I find that in making food for people, everyone really enjoys having somebody there to make things for them, especially in a big city - it's relaxing.


Restaurant culture is huge, especially in larger cities as you said. It could be because we're seeing the degradation of community and neighbourhoods that are vibrant and comforting to be in - having neighbours you know is becoming more and more difficult to find. So do you think that people are also looking for that social connection, comfort, and community that you often find in restaurants?


I would say that certainly a lot of people do come here because they know that we are providing this type of product, so it does become a bit of a cultural hub for people that are really into healthy eating, and wellness in general. And also just from the nature of it being a restaurant-cocktail lounge, it's kind of a gathering place in that sense. And I'm sure it will get more and more like this as time goes on and as we stay in this business - committing to this type of wild and more natural cooking. 


You've been in the industry for a while - I heard you designed the cocktails for nuba, which was one of the first places I saw with 'holistic' cocktails. One had carrot juice with turmeric infused bourbon, and another with real aloe and coconut water. This was years ago.


Yeah I've been working in restaurants since I was 14. At my first job in Quebec I was a hostess, and then I worked my way up to food-running, serving, and then eventually bartending because I thought it was way more exciting than just serving (which I found was just a bit boring after a while). You have a bit more control when you're bartending - depending on the place you work at of course - to get to kind of create and mix drinks. At the time - starting back when I was 15 even - I was already really into nutrition so I was trying out all these different [cultural] diets, and so I used the bar and the restaurant environment to experiment a little bit with what I was learning at the time - with nutrition in general. So it made sense to put the two together.

Let's end with talking about wine. Food itself is a huge topic right now: people are very interested in learning about farming practises and where their food comes from as we move away from the processed food industry that has dominated the last decade. But many seem to stop short at wine. We rarely ask, "How is my wine being grown, and what does that process from grape to bottle look like?" Your wine list here sources from nearby wineries, and you bring in a lot of wines that focus on permaculture methods.


Yes, we do as much as possible. Our wine list is 90% BC sourced right now and we're using smaller producers that are either certified organic, or who we know don't spray, or who use lower intervention methods. So smaller producers that use more ancestral methods, that don't add too many extra sugars, and who balance taste other ways. We just really try to work with people that do natural fermentation using natural yeasts as opposed to controlled inoculation of yeasts. So those are all different processes that people don't think too often about. And even when you have an 'organic' wine, they can have a certain amount grape that isn't organic, and they can also still use refining processes that involve different ingredients that may or may not be desirable, like using caramels to make it a more fuller wine that is a bit more jammy. So they can still use additives but just have a certified grape that is grown. Often you'll even see wines that don't say they are organic, but depending on where they're grown - like for example in the Similkameen Valley in the Okanagan - this whole valley is organic just because it's geographically really lucky. The valley is kind of protected, it doesn't get a lot of infestation, and it has the right weather conditions. So that's interesting to look at, and to talk to the farmers and see how the geography can influence their practises and how they choose to grow their grapes. It's very personalized and very different depending on where you are.


I was told how, because for centuries wine was aged in oak barrels, producers might add wood chips to the wine and then filter it out - to give the wine those historical notes and flavours. Is that a good or a bad thing in your opinion? 


Yeah so that's not necessarily a bad thing - when you age something in stainless steel you're just not going to get that same oak flavour, so it's fine to add that and filter it out. But you do have to be careful about the more synthetic flavours they might add in to make the wine taste a certain way. So we just really try to talk to the people that produce the wine and ask them questions about why they're doing it a certain way, why they're filtering, or why they're not. So that sort of thing is very interesting to know when bringing wines into your own restaurant. I haven't been able to personally travel to these vineyards yet, so I've just been trying to stay on top of it by corresponding through email, or on the phone, or if they come here I'll try to ask as many questions as I can. Also when talking to the wine reps, doing research on that wine or that winery is really helpful because of course reps want to sell you that wine. So they might say "Oh yeah it's sustainable" if they know you want to hear that. So just asking the right questions. Of course I did get to visit a couple of the wineries that we carry some wine from, which is really great to be able to get a visual of. I don't have a lot of time right now but I'd really love to spend more time at all the farms. In the meantime I try to really keep an open dialogue going with everyone and communicate as often as possible.


That's a great way to keep those relationships flowing and I bet they appreciate you doing so - which is also likely why your restaurant is doing so wonderfully. Thanks so much Vanessa, it's been lovely to chat about all of this.


Of course Tracy, you're very welcome and thank you for coming by.

Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.