Alex Cruz of Quebec retailer Société Orignal isn’t sure which language to use. The Montrealer and I have been e-mailing back and forth for a few weeks, trying to finalize a time that works. Our correspondence has taken place in English and French. That’s the way things are in Montreal, a little bit of this, and a little bit of that.
But Montreal and the province of Quebec, Canada, are not known for “a little bit” of anything when it comes to all things culinary. For the longest time, food in Quebec was viewed as cuisine grand-mère: heavy, carb-laden foods made to fill bellies for long days of physical labor. But over the past decade, grand-mère has seen her cuisine turn haute. The province of Quebec, and specifically Montreal, is a city now populated by appetites who still seek full bellies, but with a more refined touch. This is the land of poutine with foie gras, and where salted fatback is no longer seen as a poor man’s food but a gout-inducing luxury.
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Enter Société Orignal.
At first glance, it appears to be just another high-end online retailer of tasty fine goods. But it’s a company on the edge: the edges of history, the edges of the collective palate, the edges of knowledge. First, there is that name, Société Orignal, which is a play on words. “Société” in French is, of course, society, but “Orignal,” the French word for moose, is only one letter away from original. “We wanted to come up with a word that focused on the words ‘society’ and ‘moose,’ because the moose is one of the most imposing creatures in North America,” Cruz says. “But it is imposing by itself, not because it wants to step on anyone.”
Société Orignal’s small but dedicated staff
Société Orignal could hardly be viewed as stepping on anyone, but it is a force to be reckoned with, let alone admired. It has a small workforce; Cruz does research and development, while his friend Cyril Gonzales takes care of sales in the province of Quebec. Gonzales works with another sales agent who takes cares of national and international sales, while Cruz has his own assistant. Together, they sell pantry items you may not recognize but desperately want to know what they are. A perfect example is a product known as Raw Laurentian honeydew. According to its website, “Honeydew is tree sap that has been gathered and transformed by insects and then foraged by bees. It comes from elevated hives diligently placed high in the trees of the forest surrounding the village of Ferme-Neuve.” Another example of their products would be their riff on caviar: cured wild lumpfish eggs, made from the roe of a fish that is known among Quebecers as poule de mer or sea hen. And then there are the ingredients presented in a manner different from what you may be accustomed, such as immature elderberries, salted and preserved in vinegar.
The list of products offered by Société Orignal teeters on the edge of recognizability, a gastronomic palimpsest. Juniper berries are cultivated immature and brined. Herbal teas are made of clover and balsam fir. For Cruz, it’s about pushing the limits in as many places as possible — from the farmer or forager who provides the raw materials to the chefs who plate it up all the way to the consumer who tastes these flavors.
“What we want to do is push barriers in every culture,” he says. “People freak on Thai food and Indian flavors, but we have things we want them to try and to concentrate on, what you think is maybe forgotten or neglected.” But Cruz isn’t some hubris-laden entrepreneur. During the conversation, he is excited by the unknown possibilities available to him in his native province. “We don’t know everything, so we want to do research and development. It’s not just cool, it could be representative of cooking 100 years from now.”
That devotion to research and development isn’t just a question of good business sense, it’s a responsibility to his customers and his clients. “We are a bridge: On one side you have farming and the other the restaurant businesses,” he says. “To have this bridge you need to maintain it. One day we are searching for ideas in restaurants, the next day on farming and figuring out how things grow in both places.”
Société Orignal seems to be able to do both by cultivating close connections with the farmers and foragers who gather the products it sells. “We see that farming is a great business and way of life, once you start to understand it,” Cruz says. “Trying to express the creativity of agriculture is an important factor we like to share.”
Part of that expression comes in the form Quebec’s terroir. This summer, Société Orignal distributed the Laval melon, an heirloom variety from the Montreal region. “For us, it’s trying to find ingredients that grow well in the soil. What is important is to know how (these things) grow. So it’s trying to understand all those features.”
Cruz’s feet are firmly planted in Quebec’s soil, gastronomically and financially. “(We want) to be able to achieve what we want and keep our independence. We don’t want help from large corporations or government, we just need to keep up distribution of the product we create. We want to have a good time and keep our goals.”
Top photo: Honeydew available from Société Orignal. Credit: Courtesy of Société Orignal