How do you make a fancy dish from dirt?
Since it opened in 2012, Actinolite, a small restaurant on Ossington near Dupont, has evolved from a neighbourhood bistro into a high-concept tasting room. Chef and owner Justin Cournoyer makes biweekly foraging trips into the wilderness around Toronto, seeking out herbs, berries, lichen and, oddly enough, soil. Using an hours-long process developed by former sous chef Michael Lehmkuhl, Cournoyer distills the tastes and scents of the earth into butter, which he uses for the opening dish of his seven-course tasting menu. Here’s how he does it.
Chef Justin Cournoyer hits various spots north of the city—including his hometown, Actinolite—to search for wild ingredients. The best dirt? The stuff that includes pine needles and lots of decaying organic matter.
The soil is placed in a pressure cooker, mixed with water and boiled at 120 degrees Celsius for around 45 minutes. This sanitizes the dirt, since botulism spores can survive standard boiling. It also extracts the soil’s flavours.
The boiled material is strained and then left to decant overnight. This allows any sediment that may have passed through the strainer to settle. The soil particles are set aside, and the liquid is placed into a large pot.
The strained liquid is reduced by half to concentrate its flavour, which usually takes around an hour and a half (Cournoyer calls the resulting liquid a “tea”). As the liquid reduces, Cournoyer skims off any impurities that rise to the surface. “It’s a classic sauce-making technique,” he says.
Meanwhile, soil particles obtained from the straining process are spread out on a tray and baked for four to six hours, at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, until they are completely dry.
Cournoyer places the dehydrated soil into a porous sachet and ties it off.
The sachet of soil is placed into a vacuum pack with unsalted butter. The ratio is two pounds of butter for each pound of soil. The pack is cooked sous vide at 85 degrees Celsius for around four hours, which allows flavours that haven’t yet been extracted from the soil to infuse into the butter.
The reduced liquid (from step four) is strained and decanted again, and then poured into a smaller pot to be reduced even further. The resulting quarter cup of soil “essence” has the consistency of a glaze. The smell is sweet, and the taste is vaguely reminiscent of cocoa. “It would be interesting to make fudge with it,” Cournoyer says.
The infused butter is poured into a bowl (the separated milk solids are not included), and the concentrated soil essence is whisked into it. Depending on the taste and texture, Cournoyer sometimes adds a bit of silt obtained from the final decanting process. Once the butter has emulsified, it’s ready to use. “You see how much work you do to get so little?” Cournoyer says. “It’s like liquid gold.”
As the first course in his seven-course tasting menu ($85), Cournoyer serves the soil butter with seasonal vegetables (currently: new potatoes, raw carrots, baby onions and foraged purslane and chickweed). He adds a dusting of salt and breadcrumbs—both infused with grass oil and grass pulp.