Friday, December 11, 2009

Pelham Slow Food Celebrates Terre Madre Day

Terra Madre Day, December 10, was observed in the most convivial and delicious style by the membership of Pelham Slow Food at Pan Cafe in St. Catharines. Proprietor (and Slow Food member) Alex presented a menu of locally sourced foods (menu below) and credited the producers in her introduction to each course. Guests were encouraged to bring their own wine, and a nice variety of local Niagara wines appeared, including Inniskillin, 13th Street, Organized Crime, Creekside, and Vineland Estates.

Alex also offered a toast to Mother Earth that eloquently summarized the need for consciousness-raising organizations such as Slow Food, and events such as Terra Madre Day. Twenty-seven glasses were raised to those sentiments.

The Pelham Convivium joined 108 other convivia around the globe in honouring Mother Earth on this designated day, and a picture of the group will join pictures from all the other convivia on the Slow Food Website to mark this first Terra Madre Day.

The Menu for Pelham Slow Food's Terra Madre Dinner at Pan Cafe

Appetizer: local goat’s cheese, bread (de la Terre bakery), figs (St. Lawrence Market)

Soup: butternut squash (St. Catharines market) with roasted garlic (Vivek)

Main Course: roasted duck legs (Lakeland Farms) with red cabbage and mashed potatoes with celeriac (Vivek)

Salad: Vivek’s Greens with a maple vinaigrette (White Meadows Farms)

Dessert: Cheesecake with apple compote (Beamer's Orchards)


Monday, December 7, 2009

December 2009: A Tradition of Christmas Feasting

With Christmas just around the corner, many of us are already preparing for the feast which inevitably accompanies the celebration. Like Thanksgiving, Christmas dinner is an ideal Slow Food meal (not that we’d want to feast like that every day!) It is traditionally cooked at home, usually made up of ingredients that are mostly local, and consumed in a convivial atmosphere with family and friends.

Although our North American Christmas traditions are well established, they aren’t really that old…nor are they shared by much of the rest of the world. In fact, even in the Christian tradition, feasting at Christmas was not part of the celebration of Christ’s birth until about 800 years after the Nativity. Even the date of the Nativity was not set in the Christian calendar until more than 350 years after it happened, with January, March, April, and May at different times being recognized as the month of Jesus’ birth. It seems certain that the December 25th date was settled on for its association with the rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice. The date had been in use by many religions previously to recognize the sun’s victory over winter darkness.

However, once Christians settled on a date and decided it should be marked by feasting, they got to work with enthusiasm. Kings Charlemagne, Edmund, and William the Conqueror were crowned on Christmas amid huge celebrations and lavish meals, and Richard II marked Christmas in 1377 with a feast that featured 28 roast oxen and 300 sheep! In reaction to the excesses of Christmas feasting, the Puritans banned Christmas during their tenure in power in 17th Century England, and the Puritans who arrived on the Mayflower continued to outlaw the celebration of Christmas in the Boston area between 1659 and 1681. In fact, the United States has frequently been ambivalent about Christmas, and stopped celebrating it for years after the Revolutionary War, depicting it as an “English” celebration!

It really wasn’t until the 19th century that Christmas as we know it began to take shape in North America. And, largely through the influence of television, the North American Christmas has become the pervasive style in much of the world. I was startled to see Christmas displays in Athens shop windows that featured mounds of cotton-batten snow and icicle-dripping pine trees. Pictures from tropical Brazil show the same geographically impossible conformity to the North American ideal.

However, many nations have feasting celebrations that have very little in common with ours, except that Christmas is an opportunity for friends and family to sit down together, enjoy each other’s company, and take part in the tradition of the Christmas feast. In Australia, Christmas is right at mid summer, so the feast might be shrimp, steak, and chicken cooked on the barbecue at the beach. In Norway, as in many other countries, the feast is held on Christmas Eve, and Norwegians might enjoy cod, haddock, and lutefisk for their family meal. Similarly, the Portuguese traditional Christmas feast is salted dry codfish with boiled potatoes, eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve. In Jamaica, it’s rice, peas, chicken, ox tail and curried goat, while Czechs enjoy fish soup, eggs, and carp.

Whatever the tradition, whatever the ingredients, whenever it’s served, the Christmas meal is another opportunity to see the ideals of the Slow Food Movement in action. Enjoy yours at home with family and friends!

Monday, November 30, 2009

November 2009: “Terra Madre” (Mother Earth) Day

The Slow Food organization is dedicated to principles that include choosing locally grown food and honouring the producers of that food. It also embraces the idea of food consumption as an important part of life, not just a means of fueling up. To these ends, Slow Food has declared December 10th “Terra Madre” Day, a day to put those principles into action.

Across the world, the members of Slow Food, organized into local “convivia” will be marking the day, each in its own way. That means that some 100,000 members and their friends, in 132 countries will be finding ways to pay homage to the farmers and cheese makers, butchers and winemakers, canners and herders who often are taken for granted as we sit down to our meals. And while honouring the producers of their food, they will be preparing and eating it in the company of friends and family and treating their meal as the social, “convivial” event it should be.

Here’s a chance for all of us to pay particular attention to what and how we eat, by marking this one day down for a celebratory, home-cooked meal featuring local food. Here’s a menu suggestion for December 10th.

Start with garlic soup (recipe below), an astonishingly good soup that tastes not at all of garlic, but packs all its healthy cold-fighting benefits. This is a staple in our house all winter long. We stock up on Ontario garlic when it’s available and keep the bulbs in a cool, dark, dry place that will ensure that it lasts through until spring. With luck, we’ll be able to avoid having to buy that Chinese or South American supermarket garlic that is a pale imitation of the real stuff.

For a main course, choose an Ontario produced meat such as beef, pork, or lamb, roasted in the oven surrounded by unpeeled potatoes and local sweet potatoes that will cook in the juices of the meat. Alongside, serve Brussels sprouts (Ontario grown ones should still be available) sautéed after steaming in a little orange juice and sprinkled with orange zest. A cheese course of one of Upper Canada Cheese Company’s delicious cheeses (“Upper Canada Gold” or “Comfort Cream,” produced in Jordan) served with thin slices of baguette from one of our fine local bakeries makes a great transition to dessert. And dessert should be pie made from Ontario apples or those Niagara cherries you put in the freezer last July. If pastry-baking isn’t your thing, delicious pies made from local produce are available at Pelham’s bakeries.

Wine for this feast might include an oaked chardonnay with the soup, a hearty “Bordeaux” blend of merlot, cabernet franc, and cabernet sauvignon with the main course and the cheese, and an ice wine or late harvest with dessert… all, it goes without saying, from one of Niagara’s world-class wineries. Featherstone’s Canadian Oak Chardonnay (aged in barrels made of Canadian oak) would add a local touch, and nearby Henry of Pelham makes red wines that are consistently among the best in Niagara.

Whatever you decide for a meal on December 10th, raise a glass to our farmers and food producers, and spare a thought for our Terra Madre.

Winter Garlic Soup

1 litre chicken stock
1 head of Ontario garlic, cloves separated and peeled
3 slices of stale (2 or 3 day-old) country bread
½ tsp chili seeds (or to taste)
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut the garlic cloves in half and boil them gently along with the chili seeds in half the chicken stock. While they are boiling (about 20 minutes until soft) cut the crusts from the bread, tear it into small pieces, and soak it in a bowl of water. When the garlic is soft, pour it along with the hot chicken stock into a food processor or blender and process until the garlic is integrated into the stock. Squeeze the water out of the bread (it will be quite mushy, almost like a paste) and, with the processor running, add the bread to the soup. When the soup is thick and smooth, put it in a saucepan with the reserved chicken stock and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adjusting the seasoning.

October 2009: Family Meal Time

A recent conversation with a friend who is a teacher emphasized something that has been a recurring theme over the past year. In an attempt to get to know his students as they enter class in the new school year, he asks them to write the answers to a few questions about themselves. One of the questions is “How many times a week do you sit down with your family for a meal?” This teacher is fully aware of the research that clearly links family meals with student performance in the classroom, and even wellbeing outside of school.

This conversation prompted me to reprint a column from last year that several people have commented on. With the kids starting a new year at school, now is the ideal time to think about a new start around the dinner table at home.

What simple activity can increase a child’s grades, reduce the likelihood of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, and decrease the incidence of teen obesity and depression? Eating together as a family.

Several studies have clearly shown these results; one from the University of Minnesota even statistically eliminated all possible variables like income, and even how cohesive the family was, and concluded that it’s actually sitting down as a family at mealtimes that was the primary cause of significant improvements in children’s health and wellbeing… especially among girls.

Not surprisingly, the studies found that adolescents eating regular family meals ate more fruit and vegetables, got more calcium, and drank significantly fewer soft drinks. However, the benefits of sitting down to a family meal extend far beyond these, and include reduction in substance, tobacco, and alcohol use and significantly better academic performance and mental health when compared to those eating fewer family meals. And the benefits increased with each additional family meal per week!

Television is the biggest challenge for family meal time. According to the Canadian Pediatric Association, children at age 15 have spent more time in front of a television than in classrooms. And kids aren’t the only offenders. Meals in front of the TV tend to be reheated frozen snacks that are, simply put, health hazards. Television programming is a very poor substitute for the kind of family communication and bonding that takes place around the dinner table.

Accepting the benefits of family mealtime is one thing, doing something about it is quite another. Adolescents have always been difficult to convince that doing things as a family are “cool” and even beneficial. Add the overwhelming distractions available, from part time jobs to sports to video games to computers to cell phones to television and it’s a really hard sell to convince kids that sitting down to a family meal is a useful or enjoyable activity.

Experts in child and adolescent psychology offer some guidelines, but each family will have to formulate its own set of principles (preferably in conference with the kids) that will guide family mealtimes.

o Turn off the television. Agree also to turn off cell phones and let the household phone pick up and take messages. Importantly, the parents have to take the lead here and set an example.
o This is not a time for discussing serious, controversial, or delicate subjects. The meal conversation should be light, fun, and upbeat and the mood supportive and comfortable.
o Get everyone involved in the meal. Where there’s the interest, involve the family in planning the week’s menus, helping with the shopping, and joining in the food preparation. Clean up should also be shared fairly. Eventually, maybe older kids can take a lead role in preparing dinner (and the parents get clean-up duty).
o To begin with, the family meal does not have to be complicated. Even sitting down together for a take-out pizza or (better) a take out meal from one of Pelham’s excellent caterers like Lorenzo’s Fine Foods, Wild Flower, or Whisk and Ladle, constitutes a family meal so long as everyone sits down and eats together.
o Set a goal. Maybe begin with the commitment to sit down together as a family twice a week and discuss increasing the frequency as you all get used to the idea.
o Use the crock pot or slow cooker. Coming home to the smell of a home-cooked meal is a pretty good way to build enthusiasm for a family dinner.

On a related note, Slow Food Pelham’s annual “family dinner” at Featherstone Winery was a huge success. Forty guests, seated on the winery’s wrap-around verandah, enjoyed slow-roasted Featherstone Vineyard lamb with Featherstone Cabernet Franc, roasted vegetables by Pan Restaurant, delicious salads by Victory Herbs and Farms, and finished off the meal with home-cooked Niagara Peach Delight. It was a gorgeous September evening, shared among friends both new and old.

September 2009: Slow Food and slow cooking

As September comes to a close, so does trout season. As an avid fly-fisher, I tend to think of the year revolving around the late April opening of trout season and the late September close. Now that the season is ending and the fly tying gear comes out to while away the non-fishing hours, it’s part of the annual cycle to reflect on the year’s fishing. One of the trips I make every year is to Lake Placid, New York with a couple of fly-fishing friends to spend a week fishing the famous Ausable River. And one of the friends who comes on that trip every year is an outstanding cook. Hence the connection to Slow Food.

Peter Sullivan loves to cook and worked for many years in the hospitality and culinary departments at Niagara College. Pete takes over all the cooking chores during the week on the Ausable, and for everyone who attends, the evening meals are always a highlight. Pete is the master of slow cooking. Not necessarily Slow Food as an organization (although I know that he would be in sync with most of the aims and ideals of the movement), but long-simmered, savoury meats that provide delicious comfort on cool autumn nights, or, for that matter, after standing in cold mountain water all day in May. And since we release all the fish we catch, Pete gets to indulge his passion for slow cooking.

Pete’s specialty is Oxtails, and I honestly don’t think I have ever tasted beef that is so rich and delicious. Oxtails have been part of human cuisine for as long as we have been eating meat and didn’t throw anything away when a beast was slaughtered (often after years of toiling in the fields). Originally they really were the tails of oxen, but these days they are cow tails. At one time the tails of beef cattle were almost throw-away items and could be had for next to nothing… not any more. With only one tail per cow, and with a growing number of ethnic cooks who are familiar with them, and cooks like Pete who know how good they are, Oxtails are difficult to come by and far from cheap. They make the best beef stock, wonderful soups, and thick, hearty stews, but all Oxtail recipes depend on taking lots of time to make the tough meat fully tender and to extract the thick gelatin that lies in the marrow and connective tissue of the bones.

Pete is such a confident cook that his recipe for superb Oxtails varies from year to year, depending on what is available and what interests him. But this is a recipe that combines Pete’s ingredients and techniques to produce comfort food par excellence. Serve it with garlic mashed potatoes and fresh bread to soak up the delicious juice.

Pete’s Oxtails

Thoroughly brown about 3 to 4 pounds of Oxtails in hot olive oil, then remove the Oxtails and add 2 or 3 chopped onions, 4 chopped cloves of garlic, and 3 carrots chopped into ½ inch pieces. When they are soft (about 5 minutes), add enough Bovril to cover (about 2 cups) and 2 Tbsp of Grace’s Jerk Sauce. (Alternately, instead of the Bovril and Jerk Sauce, add a large can of tomatoes and a cup of red wine, 1½ teaspoons of ground ginger, salt and pepper to taste, and some cayenne if you like.) Heat to boiling and add the Oxtails. Transfer the pot to a 275 degree oven and cook for 2 to 3 hours. When the meat is falling off the bone, use a slotted spoon to transfer the Oxtails to a dish and skim the fat from the liquid. Serve the Oxtails with the juice on the side to spoon over. Just as good (maybe better) when heated up the next day.

August 2009: Slow Food Pelham’s year of living well

With August, Slow Food Pelham’s membership is gearing up for our second annual Featherstone Winery Lamb Roast. Every year, Dave Johnson, the winemaker and vineyard manager (and tractor driver, delivery man, floor sweeper, plumber, electrician, construction engineer, maintenance man, and occasional salesman) at Featherstone brings in a flock of lambs to thin the grape leaves on his vines, allowing the sun to fully ripen the grapes. The result is excellent wines from this small Victoria Road winery… and delicious lamb. Slow Food Pelham roasts two of Dave’s lambs on a spit at the winery and serves up a complete meal of lamb and local vegetables, accompanied by the outstanding Cabernet Franc produced at the winery. This is just one of the events that Slow Food Pelham has presented over its short lifespan.

It was only in February of 2008 that Slow Food Pelham introduced itself to the community with an information night at de la Terre bakery in Fonthill, followed by a gourmet dinner with Henry of Pelham wines at Wildflower restaurant in March. In July of last year, the group had a sensory evaluation and tasting activity under the expert guidance of Brock University’s Isabelle Lesschaeve, and followed the late August lamb roast with a visit to Jacobs Apple Farm on the outskirts of Fonthill to understand the problems faced by local producers.

This year, the group had an introduction to the mystique of cassoulet with a tasting and virtual demonstration in March. That was followed in April with a special presentation for a Seeds of Destiny talk: Slow Food Pelham provided lunch for those in attendance, emphasizing locally grown produce.

June was especially busy, with the Slow Food members enjoying a potluck lunch and comparative tasting of Meritage wines at Alvento Winery in Vineland. Meritage is the name given to red wines blended with Cabernet and Merlot… the traditional wines of Bordeaux. This blind tasting of Niagara’s 2006 vintage was especially interesting because, unknown to the tasters, two of the wines were identical. This serves both as a benchmark of the taster’s skill, and a humbling reminder of the difficulty of definitively evaluating wines. June also saw a Slow Food display at Fonthill Library, featuring some of the food-related books that Slow Food Pelham has donated to the library, and a presentation at Pelham Market that featured a taste comparison between California and Niagara strawberries (guess which won unanimously!) Later in the month, the group had an exclusive guided tour of Clos Jordanne winery… a facility normally not open to the public. This tour was just a week after Clos Jordanne’s chardonnay had stunned the wine world by winning a blind tasting in Montreal against all the best chards from both the New World (California and Australia) and Europe.

June peaked with a meal to remember at Fonthill’s ZEST Restaurant. Chef David Watt presented a five course spectacular that highlighted specific local farms and producers, including Lake Erie perch, greens from Pelham Market, Cumbrae Farms beef, and local strawberries… among other delights. Each course was paired with a matching wine from Alvento Winery and introduced by winemaker, Bruno Moos. The forty guests declared the evening a triumph.

It’s been a busy year for Slow Food Pelham and for Renée Giraud who is the leader of the Pelham Convivium and inspiration behind many of the group’s activities. And these are only the public events over the past year. Monthly meetings in members’ homes always feature great food prepared by members according to a monthly theme (from Asian to Spanish to French Canadian), and excellent wine, along with lively conversation in an appropriately “convivial” atmosphere. It doesn’t say anywhere that promoting the virtues of local food, well prepared, and served at leisure in a relaxed setting can’t be fun! For more information or to join, check the Slow Food website or email

July 2009: Niagara Culinary Institute, a local gem

Take a group of top chefs from across Canada, including headliners Mark Picone and Michael Olson; add state of the art cooking facilities, including a 200 seat multi-media culinary theatre; combine with the more than 30 years of education excellence provided by Niagara College, and you’ve got the Niagara Culinary Institute. The NCI is an amazing resource for the Niagara Region’s food and tourism industries, and yet it’s barely on the map for most of the people who live here.

The NCI is based at the Niagara on the Lake campus of Niagara College, just off the QEW beside White Oaks Hotel and Spa. It features several food preparation labs where students, under the direction of superb chef professors learn everything culinary from bread making to béchamel, from Black Forest Torte to Bouillabaisse. The showpiece of the NCI is the circular dining room with a wall of windows that looks out over the college’s own vineyards to the Niagara Escarpment. It’s here that diners from across Niagara and around the world can discover the amazing quality and artistry of the food produced by senior students, guided by their professional chef instructors. The dining room is open to the public for lunch Tuesday to Sunday, and dinner Wednesday to Saturday, and features a menu that emphasizes local products and innovative preparation.

Combined with the NCI is Niagara College’s Teaching Winery, the only one of its kind in Canada. Here, the winemakers of the future are trained in a fully operational facility that annually turns out award-winning wines. Graduates of the Oenology and Viticulture program are the winemakers, assistant winemakers, and vineyard managers at many of Niagara’s wineries, and, in fact, of wineries around the world. Every aspect of the winemaking process can be covered on site, since the college has a 20 hectare vineyard where the students learn their art literally from the ground up. The college is currently building a new facility for the winery that will provide not only a modern wine making plant, but a wine education centre. A small brewery is in the plans to begin training students in the art of beer making.

The Niagara Culinary Institute and Niagara College Teaching Winery are two of the many resources we in Niagara can be proud of and use to our advantage. Even if we will never take a full program of study to become chefs or vineyard managers, restaurant administrators or winemakers, we can enjoy the Continuing Education courses offered by the college, using the same facilities and some of the same chef professors as the day programs; offerings this summer range from sushi to baking to Indian cuisine, most of them 3 or 4 hour courses that emphasize hands-on learning. Or we can dine in style at the NCI dining room, an outing that never fails to impress visitors from outside the region. Or, we can enjoy the first class wines produced by the Teaching Winery; there’s a wine boutique featuring all their products just inside the doors to the dining room.

With resources like these at our doorstep, we in Niagara can effortlessly embrace the Slow Food principles of high quality locally produced food enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere.

Here’s a recipe supplied by Niagara College Chef-Professor and Fonthill resident, Bob Demers. Bob says that most of the ingredients can be found at “our cool local market.”

Mediterranean Clubhouse

Yield: enough for 8
1 10 inch round of focaccia bread (we make our own at the College, but you can buy it from one of our local bakeries)
3 large ripe tomatoes, sliced
2 sweet red peppers, roasted, skinned and cut into strips (also can be bought)
2 yellow zucchini
2 green zucchini
2 large cooking onions, sliced thick
1 ½ pounds (680 grams) sliced Black Forest ham
8 ounce (225 grams) grated Swiss cheese
2 ounce (60 ml) olive or vegetable oil
1 jar black olive tapenade spread (store-bought)
Salt and pepper to taste
• Slice the zucchini lengthwise, ¼ inch (6 mm) and brush with the oil, Sprinkle on salt and pepper; grill them until soft, cool
• Pan fry the onions until golden and then cool
• Slice the bread horizontally into three rounds
• Assemble the sandwich by spreading olive paste on bottom piece of bread then layer with half of the ham and vegetables. Add a second round of bread, spread with olive paste and repeat layering. Top with the third round of bread.
• Press the sandwich for 20 minutes with a baking sheet or a platter topped with soup cans. Wrap up in tight in plastic wrap for travelling (picnic).
• Cut into 8 wedges and serve with salad or chips.
• Enjoy.

June 2009: “The Good Old Days”

The idea that past times were greatly preferable to today is the best evidence I know for the fallibility of human memory. I have had many a “full and frank discussion” with people who insist that periods of the past (varying from the 40’s through the 80’s) were somehow better times than these. That said, I must admit that where food is concerned there is an argument to be made that in former times we were much closer to the ideals of the Slow Food Movement: good food, locally produced, cooked using traditional recipes, and eaten in a convivial atmosphere with friends and family.

My recent column on bread brought this home to me when my friend, Linda Allison, wrote me a very poetic note about her memories of “the good old days:”
My Mom would bake bread - white and whole wheat at least once a month. At the end of the day, her counter and kitchen table would be covered with the cooling loaves. I can still see her running a buttered piece of wax paper over the top of each loaf while they were still warm -- must have given them shine or saltiness. She would call me at the school where I worked and say, ‘Drop by for your bread after school.’ She'd hand me a brown and a white, still warm… and I will admit, I would go home, get out the butter and her homemade strawberry jam and eat the loaf for supper. My Dad would cut off a thick slice, fold it in half with a big piece of cheddar cheese inside and walk to his big chair with a smile!!!! Many loaves were dropped off at neighbours' homes and the rest into the freezer for toast every morning.

Does this happen any more? Are there still Moms who spend a day every month baking bread for their families and neighbours?

Like Linda, like most people, I have “good old day” memories that involve food. My wife has similar memories to Linda’s, but hers involve her Ukrainian grandmother who summoned the Grabove clan on days when she prepared perogies and cabbage rolls. There always seemed to be someone in the small town neighbourhoods where I grew up who raised chickens in the back yard. My Dad, who was an Anglican minister, was sometimes paid for his services at weddings or funerals with food… and on one memorable occasion, with a recently killed chicken. I still remember him sitting on the front steps of the Rectory, laboriously plucking the bird while white feathers swirled around in the breeze.

The Slow Food Movement is an attempt to bring us back to some extent to those days when we knew where our food came from, knew how it was produced (and, often, who produced it), and took the time to prepare it with traditional recipes, and eat it with family and friends around the table. All that does not mean we would want to give up all the foodie benefits of the 21st century! Back when I was a kid, pizza was about as exotic as food got, and no one had heard of Thai or Vietnamese, Somali or Szechuan, Mexican or Moroccan. How much richer our food experiences are these days, when we can find ingredients in stores and markets, many of them locally grown, that our grandparents were completely ignorant of.

Moroccan Tagine
Brown in oil a kg. of lamb stew or shoulder cut into pieces, then add 3 onions cut into chunks and a handful of raisins, a tablespoon of coriander, a teaspoon of cinnamon, and ½ kilo of dried fruit (apricots or prunes are best). Add enough water to cover and a cup of tomato paste. Cover and simmer for about an hour. Add chopped fresh coriander (cilantro) and a handful of toasted pine nuts or almonds just before serving with couscous.

May 2009: Wild Leeks

This is the time of year when we can once again begin to find fresh local food in our markets and grocery stores. It’s been a long winter, and as much as we can support our local farmers by buying parsnips and turnips and cabbage and potatoes along with dried and preserved produce from last year’s harvest, it’s great to contemplate the arrival of fresh Ontario greens in May. Some of us will be getting a head start on Ontario’s food bounty this month by harvesting wild leeks.

These delicious plants grow abundantly where they grow at all. They are very soil-specific and there are many environments they don’t like… especially areas where there is human or animal traffic. To find them, you have to go out into the bush and seek moist soil, shaded by hardwood (especially sugar maples), away from trails. They are easy to spot at this time of year, since they form large green patches on the otherwise brown forest floor. You’ll often find them where there are lots of trilliums. I’m lucky to have a patch in the forest behind my house, and I’ve located a number of plots in the Short Hills.

The wild leek (also called wild garlic) is nothing like the domesticated variety of leek; its leaf looks very much like lily-of-the-valley, a bright green spear-shaped leaf with a short, reddish stalk leading to a small bulb. The foolproof way to determine if you’ve found them is to break off a leaf and smell; the garlic-onion odour is strong enough to make them unmistakable.

One word of caution before we go any further: do not take more than a handful from any single patch. Wild leeks take up to four years to propagate themselves from seed and spread very slowly in their patches. They can be transplanted if dug up very carefully and replanted in a suitable place (as already mentioned, they are very choosy about where they will grow), but you have to wait two years to see if the transplant “took” because it takes that long for them to reappear. In some jurisdictions such as Québec, wild leeks are a protected species and harvest is limited to 50 stalks; it would be a shame to see them so decimated here that such regulation became necessary. There are a few stores where you can buy them and at least one online site sells Ontario wild leeks from a sustainable source.

So, what’s all the fuss about once you have found a patch and harvested a few plants? Enthusiasts just wash and eat them for a treat that is somewhere between a green onion and a garlic shoot. Others add them raw to salads or coarsely chop them and sprinkle over new potatoes along with some butter and salt. When they are cooked, they become more mellow and add a delicate flavour to soups or stews. They can be substituted for green onions in just about any dish and provide a bigger flavour hit than the onion.

In the Appalachian states the wild leek, called “ramp” down south, is far more prolific and common than it is here, and festivals are held around harvest time to celebrate the taste. Ramp eating contests, cooking competitions, and ramp specialties in the local restaurants are part of the late April to early May festivities in many towns from southern Pennsylvania to Virginia.

My own favorite preparation is to add a handful of chopped wild leeks at the last minute to potatoes frying in bacon grease. When the potatoes are done and the leeks are softened but not brown, serve them with the bacon and a fried egg or two for a breakfast that will fuel your spring cleaning activity all day.

A final note on these wonderful forest plants: juice from the bulbs was used by natives to treat insect bites… a useful trick since harvesting wild leeks in the bush at this time of year is sure to result in black fly bites!

April 2009: Terra Madre, "Mother Earth"

In January, we had a look at Slow Food International and some of the worldwide programs it has to further the cause of good, healthy, local food, well prepared, and convivially enjoyed. In this column, I’d like to present the words of a young woman, Anne Dzakovik, who attended Terra Madre, the huge Slow Food flagship event in Turin, Italy. Anne is originally from Niagara, now living in Scotland where she is a volunteer with the North Glasgow Community Food Initiative and works for a pilot food waste recycling program in Glasgow. Her mother is Sandra Watson, who is a member of Slow Food Pelham.

Anne writes:
In October, I was lucky enough to join 9000 committed folk from over 150countries at Terra Madre, the third biennial global meeting of food communities from around the world. We spent five days talking, listening, debating, celebrating, dancing, and, of course, eating. We were delegates from all around the world: youths, chefs, activists, peasant growers, fishers, breeders, academics, and artisans.

Terra Madre, which means “mother earth,” is the main event on the calendar of Slow Food International. It consisted of ceremonies, workshops, and meetings that were all designed to bring people together on issues that they are passionate about, ranging from GMOs to the future of bees, and from custodial herding to sustainable restaurants. As well as the more formal collaborations and discussions on these diverse issues, I saw many beautiful and spontaneous collaborations and connections being made all around me, especially at the communal meals.

It was hard to turn around during the five day event without bumping into someone who was working on an amazing project. Over breakfast one morning, I met a friendly Colombian man – Hernando – who works for UNESCO promoting the biodiversity and development of the Amazon region through sustainable usage of the forest’s immense food resources. On one of the daily bus journeys, I sat beside a shy Icelandic biochemist who has a side interest in creating an appealing and accessible local food economy for tourists in rural Iceland. During festivities one evening, I found myself beside a fellow Canadian who is working in Borneo on food security and peace keeping issues. Each day I kept running into a lovely couple originally from South Africa who are living and making cheese at an intentional community in Dumfries, Scotland and who connected me with a soft spoken, white haired crofter – Mr. McBride from Lewis, who specializes in hand woven tweed clothing. The list goes on and on and on.

Terra Madre has been growing each of the three years it has been in existence and this year it expanded to encompass a delegation of 1300 youths who enthusiastically launched the youth food movement during the event. As a youth delegate representing Glasgow, I was overwhelmed by the amount of positive encouragement and energy that was focused on this new offshoot of Slow Food.

Along with trading stories and ideas and getting caught up in youthful energies, I was also completely inspired by the opening and closing ceremonies at Terra Madre. The crowd and the speakers at the Palasport Olimpico stadium were multicultural and mighty colourful in dress and dialect. One of the most memorable speakers was Vandana Shiva, an environmental activist and renowned physicist from India, who spoke powerfully about the often-ignored contributions of agriculture to the climate crisis. Prince Charles and the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon sent messages highlighting the importance of traditional agricultural methods in finding the solution to a sustainable planet. A pregnant Maori educator wove a beautiful and poetic story of the survival of her people and their land and of our joint role as the earth’s guardians.

My head was swimming after coming home from Italy, reflecting on the kindred spirits I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with and looking ahead to my role as one of the founders of the new and exciting youth group. This is definitely the most rewarding and enjoyable activist work I could imagine being involved in.

March 2009: The Pleasures of Bread

Foodies the world over know very well that bread is both a staple part of every diet, and a delicious pleasure that comes in wondrous variety. Every culture seems to think that its own version of bread is the best and looks with sympathy at those of other cultures who seem unable to produce “proper” bread and must make do with the inferior stuff that their bakers supply. Italo-Canadians have long called their English Canadian cousins “mange-cake” because the awful bread they get sliced and wrapped in plastic at the Supermarket looks and tastes more like some sort of cake than real (Italian) bread. When I was crossing the border from Turkey to Greece a few years ago, the Turkish border guard asked not if I had enjoyed the scenic and cultural wonders of his country, but if I would ever be able to eat other bread again now that I had tasted Turkish loaves.

Like beer, bread is made from a very small list of basic ingredients and has been part of the diet of mankind in one form or another for so long that its origins are lost. It has entered our languages, our religions, our art, and our politics, as well as our cultural identities.

All bread produced in Western cultures was at one time “Sourdough” bread – bread produced from a “starter” of flour, water, yeast, and “lactobacillus” that provided not only the rising power but also the distinctive taste of each regional variety of bread. To make a batch of bread, flour and water were added to the starter, mixed, and allowed to rise; a small portion of the dough was then retained as the starter for the next batch (some starters surviving many generations of family bakers). The remaining dough was worked into loaves and baked. This is the method that all bakers used until the 19th century, when scientists began to better understand the leavening process and developed yeasts that could be started quickly and reliably. These “Baker’s Yeasts” quickly became the standard, especially in North America, and sourdough bread, with its stronger taste and heavier texture became an artisanal specialty, produced by only a few bakers, like Jan Campbell-Luxton of Fonthill’s de la Terre Bakery.

Bread baking at home seems, to some extent, to be a matter of temperament or natural instinct. My mother, a wonderful pasty baker, would occasionally tackle bread, and the resulting loaves were more suited to paving than sandwiches. (By the same token, I know of several talented bakers whose breads are without fail light and flavourful, but whose pastry has the texture of a pizza box.) However, there are many aids for the home bread baker now, from starter kits to videos, dedicated TV channels, and shelves full of baking cookbooks that promise to make the process foolproof. And, if all else fails, most bread machines offer step by step instructions that involve nothing more complicated than dumping ingredients into a pan and pressing the start button; the results are very edible and provide the added bonus of a timer that allows the family to wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread (if you can master the complexities of digital timing devices).

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in home bread baking: a neighbour recently loaned me a DVD of Richard Bertinet, whose book Crust has become a bestseller. The video details his unique kneading technique that produces light and airy loaves and his sourdough recipe for gorgeous, rustic country breads. My own favorites are the old reliable Baking with Julia, Julia Child’s 1996 epic, and the 1984 Fannie Farmer Baking Book. But my shameful secret is that I sometimes use their French bread recipes in the “dough” setting of my bread machine and shape the dough into baguettes to bake in the oven instead of following the long and labour-intensive multiple kneading and rising instructions. I may lose my Slow Food membership over this.

February 2009: Comfort Food

In the dead of winter, all northern peoples from the Arctic to the Mediterranean turn to comfort foods to sustain us through the cold, short days until spring. Comfort foods are usually those hearty, savoury, slow-cooked dishes that warm the heart as well as the body, filling the house with delicious odours for hours before it’s actually time to sit down and eat. Every culinary tradition has its comfort food recipes, and most often they are long-cooked dishes using the local ingredients that are available over the winter. Root vegetables, potatoes, onions, beans, pastas, and the most readily available meats, either fresh or preserved, are featured in most comfort foods, no matter what part of the world they come from.

The ultimate comfort food in my opinion (and, believe me, I’ve researched this subject extensively over the past four or five decades!) is not from a wintry nation, but from the relatively moderate region of Languedoc in the south of France: cassoulet.

Cassoulet is a savoury stew of beans and meats and fat that almost certainly developed during one of the many sieges that were inflicted on the towns of the region during the violent upheavals of the Middle Ages. The townsfolk, cut off from supplies, resorted to a communal dish made up of all the things that were left over when fresh food had run out: dried beans, duck confit (duck preserved in its own fat), smoked or dried pork, and lots of garlic. While its true origins are lost in the fog of time, there are three towns that claim to have originated cassoulet and each adds a variation to the dish: Toulouse’s cooks often add tomatoes, Carcassone’s add lamb. However, most historians say that the village of Castelnaudary is the most likely source of the dish, and that town has embraced the culture of cassoulet (the new water tower that dominates the town from its highest point is shaped and coloured like a cassoulet dish complete with gravy dripping over the side!)

After repeated visits to Castelnaudary, I have assembled a recipe that retains the authenticity of the dish, while compromising among the many variations, even among the many recipes from Castelnaudary itself, to create a comfort feast.

By the way, “authenticity” is relative. According to the “Cassoulet Society of Castelnaudary,” to produce a truly authentic cassoulet, you must use water from the wells of Castelnaudary, a cassolo (clay casserole dish) made in the nearby village of Issen, beans from the Lauragais region, and you must cook the dish in the communal bread oven of Castelnaudary, using wood from the slopes of Montagne Noir!

1 kg of lingot or Great Northern beans
700 g pork shoulder cut into chunks
500 g pork rind cut into strips
250 g slab bacon, finely chopped
2 Toulouse sausages (any pork/garlic sausage will do)
6 drumsticks and thighs of duck confit (make your own or buy at specialty butcher)
4 slices of prosciutto cut into thin strips
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bottle of dark beer
Soak the beans overnight, drain and rinse, then cover with water (or duck broth if available) and add strips of pork rind, chopped bacon, prosciutto, and garlic. Simmer for two hours. Meanwhile, fry the pieces of confit in their fat, and brown the pork shoulder chunks in the same fat. When the beans are done, remove the pork rind and use it to line a very large casserole. Layer the bean mixture and the meats, along with the duck fat, in the casserole. Use one cup of the beer (drink the rest) to braise the sausages, and add them along with the cooking juices to the casserole. Bake at 300 degrees for 2 to 3 hours, allowing a crust to form and stirring it back in twice. If the cassoulet begins to dry out, add a little more duck fat to moisten. Allow a third crust to form, and serve hot. Makes a very filling meal for 8 to 10.

January 2009: The Slow Food Movement

When I first heard about the Slow Food Movement, I figured that it was all about cooking things for a long time at low temperatures. Instead of fast-fried burgers and quickly re-heated frozen meals, this organization was suggesting slow-cooked stews and “made from scratch” dishes, I assumed. Others I have talked with make the same assumptions about Slow Food until they get to know more about it. Actually, the Slow Food Movement is about much more than cooking food slowly.

In essence, it is anti-Fast Food… against all the things that Fast Food brings to the table (so to speak): poor quality food from unknown sources with no regard to local agriculture, packaged and pre-prepared, served in plastic environments, consumed quickly, and wasteful of resources and the environment.

Here, then, is a look at the Slow Food Movement and what it is trying to promote.

On its website, ( the Slow Food Movement defines itself this way.
“Slow Food is a non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract
1) fast food and fast life,
2) the disappearance of local food traditions, and
3) people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.”

The Movement was founded in 1986 in Italy, and became a non-profit, international organization in 1989. It now has about 100,000 members organized into some 900 local chapters, called “Convivia.” (You can become a member on the website or by contacting the Pelham Convivium at From its inception, the over-riding idea of Slow Food (even in the selection of its name) was to counter the “Fast Food culture” of mass-produced, uniform, unhealthy food, produced on factory farms with no regard to the environment or the long-term effects of production techniques.

Individual local Convivia are places for Slow Food Members to meet and learn about quality food, local products and producers, traditional foods and recipes, and, most importantly, to enjoy each other’s company and each other’s food preparation. They also organize events for the community at large to promote the ideas of eating locally produced, fresh food, thinking about where our food comes from and who produces it, and celebrating the joys of preparing and eating good, wholesome food.

The Pelham Convivium, for example, presented a lamb roast last August featuring spit-roasted lamb raised at Featherstone Winery, with local produce and desserts prepared by Fonthill’s de la Terre Bakery, and washed down with delicious Featherstone wines. Guests ate at a single long table on the verandah at Featherstone, in an atmosphere that can only be described as “convivial.”

Internationally, the Slow Food Movement sponsors a University of Gastronomic Sciences with two campuses in Italy. Courses are taught in Italian and English and the curriculum “combines humanities and sciences with food technology and culture, the defence of biodiversity, and the protection of food traditions.” The Movement also funds a Foundation for Biodiversity which makes direct financial contributions, mostly to less developed nations, to assist with projects that support biodiversity and preserve local food traditions. The Movement’s most public event is “Terra Madre,” a bi-annual conference that brings together artisanal food producers, farmers, fishermen, cooks, academics, and NGO representatives to meet, discuss issues of common concern, and share their experiences. In 2008, more than 7000 people from 153 countries attended Terra Madre in Turin, drawing over 1000 journalists, and putting the concepts of good, clean, fair, diverse food, produced in a way that is respectful of people and the Earth, front and centre on the world’s stage.

December 2008: Preserving Our Culinary Heritage

One of the aims of the Slow Food Movement is the preservation of culinary heritage. This may mean trying to revive near-extinct native species of vegetables or fruit, re-discovering the delights of native edibles, or returning to old, long ignored recipes. The recent popularity of “Heirloom” fruits and vegetables has put a spotlight on heritage species that had all but disappeared because they are irregular in shape or colour, or don’t preserve well enough for shipping long distances, or aren’t suitable for commercial handling.

The “heirloom” designation is open to interpretation, but generally means that the species has been around, un-hybridized, for quite awhile: some say 100 years, some say 50. The fruit or vegetables are also naturally pollinated, not lab developed or grown, and never genetically modified or cloned.

There are more than 17,000 varieties of apples that have been recorded, but even apple experts (pomologists) know only a small fraction of these. While many heirloom varieties are now available at markets and specialty food stores, the vast majority of the apples available to the consumer are hybrids, commercially developed for their ability to withstand travel, the ease with which they can be machine harvested, or their appealing colour and texture. Among the hundreds of heirloom varieties still being grown in small quantities, several are still available commercially: Northern Spy (originating in New York around 1800), Granny Smith (from Australia, developed in the mid-1800’s), Golden Russet (believed to be one of the oldest varieties), Snow or Royal Snow (recorded in Canada in the early 16oo’s), and McIntosh (developed in Ontario in the early 1800’s).

Heirloom tomatoes come in an astounding range of colours and shapes and sizes, completely unfamiliar to those of us who are used to perfectly symmetrical, uniformly red hybrid tomatoes that appear on the supermarket shelves. Their tastes are equally astonishing, ranging from sweet to earthy, tart to nutty. Among the many, many heirloom tomato varieties, a few worth noting include the Brandywine, Hillbilly, Rainbow, and Mortage Lifter (so-named because the man who developed it sold enough plants at $1 each during the Depression to pay off his house in four years). Have a look at The Heirloom Tomato Cookbook by Mimi Luebbermann.

The re-discovery and preservation of old recipes has resulted in a proliferation of cook books and web sites that present old-time recipes gleaned from newspapers, magazines and long out of print cookbooks. and are just three of thousands. In most families there are several handed-down recipes that have passed from mother to daughter through generations (the home kitchen being, until relatively recently, the domain of the family’s females). Such recipes are treasured, partly because of tradition and family pride, but also because they are so good! It’s probably because Grandma’s recipe set the standard and anything else was off the mark, but everyone who has a family heirloom recipe is convinced it makes the best pie, pickles, pork, or pudding they’ve ever eaten. My family is no exception. Here’s Grandma Green’s recipe for the best mincemeat in the world.

3 lemons 1lb. Valencia raisins 1 nutmeg
1 lb. beef suet 2 lb. apples
1 lb. currants 1 ½ lb. Demerara sugar
Pare the rinds off the lemons very thin and boil for 15 min in a little water. Drain and chop the rinds and mix with the suet, currants, and raisins. Peel and chop the apples and add to the mix. Grate half the nutmeg into the mixture and add the sugar and the juice from the lemons. Mix well and store in sterilized glass jars for at least two weeks before making into pies or tarts.

For more information about the Slow Food Movement, go to or contact Renée Girard at for information about the Pelham Convivium.

November 2008: Fast Food Invades France

Although the Slow Food Movement began in Italy and still has its headquarters there, the battleground between the forces of Fast Food and Slow Food seems to be France. After all, it was in France that farmer Jose Bové spent 8 months in jail for trashing a McDonald’s in protest against what he saw as the fast food invasion of his country… and then rode a wave of popularity into the 2007 presidential race.

This summer I spent seven weeks in France, diligently doing research for this column. While I never once ate at a fast food restaurant, I certainly saw lots of them, and they seemed to be doing a reasonable business. Whether their customers were actually French or foreign tourists I didn’t determine either, but I did find out that a McDonald’s burger in France can be ordered on a ciabatta bun with a spicy Dijon sauce, and accompanied by a glass of wine. Still, many in France deplore what they see as the undermining of their culture. Food is such a vital part of French life and culture, that anything which might weaken its essential “French-ness” is seen as an attack on the nation itself. And, it must be said, Fast Food is seen as an evil American phenomenon (even though there are many French fast food chains) and its spread is often equated to the Americanization of France.

However, McDonald’s (“Mc-do” en francais) and the other fast food restaurants are getting some competition from a new trend in French cuisine: “Fine Fast”. Several chains of restaurants have sprung up to offer good, healthy food with fresh ingredients, but in the quick and friendly style of fast food burger joints. Cojean is one such chain with about a dozen restaurants around Paris that serve vegetarian sandwiches, curry wraps, and other healthy choices, made daily with fresh, quality ingredients. Another chain from Belgium has opened its first Paris restaurant, advertising food that is “natural, fresh, and ready.” But the most shocking development in the upscaling of fast food is the opening of L’Ouest Express by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse. Bocuse, perhaps the world’s most famous chef, is credited with popularizing “nouvelle cuisine” and his Michelin three-star restaurant in Lyon, the capital of French haut cuisine, is a place of pilgrimage for foodies all over the world. Now, he has opened a fast food restaurant outside a cinema in Lyon! True, it’s fast food with a difference: rigatoni (fresh cooked in front of you) with boletus mushroom sauce, chevre sandwich on sun-dried tomato ciabatta with olive-tomato tapenade… or how about the daily special of sliced chicken in a Basque sauce of tomato, onion, and sweet red Espelette pepper with rice and salad.

While this evolution in fast food is welcome and meets some of the goals of the Slow Food Movement, there still are many aspects of this kind of eating that are unfortunate. One of the pillars of European culture is the civilized lunch. It is the standard in Europe to close everything down for at least two hours at lunch time so that employees and employers alike could enjoy a real, sit down meal. The increasing popularity of the fast lunch, no matter how upscale, corresponds to the gradual demise of the long lunch, and, in the eyes of many French people, the increasing Americanization of their culture. The traditionally close relationship between food producers and consumers is another victim. Local markets, even in France’s big cities, allow shoppers and farmers to meet face to face and discuss their common interest: food. As family cooking is increasingly replaced by convenience foods, and leisurely lunches become a quick snack, both this relationship and heirloom recipes are likely to gradually erode.

All is not doom and gloom. The markets in France are alive and very well. Every village has its market day, and no matter where you are, you’ll find a market with fresh produce, butcher stalls, cheese booths, spice and olive wagons, honey, wine, olive oil, and dozens of other products in colourful display. Bistros and fine little restaurants can be found everywhere, and even the most humble of village bars seems to take pride in offering daily specials and house specialties for lunchtime diners. In one small village I hopped off my bike at the Bar du Sport (Sports Bar) and ordered the daily special: an enormous salad, shoulder of lamb served with beans and potatoes, a selection of fine cheeses, and crème brulé… a carafe of wine and coffee were included for the 13€ price (about $20)!

October 2008: Thanksgiving, the Slow Food Holiday

The philosophy of the Slow Food Movement stresses the importance of the connection between those who produce our food and those who consume it, between those who uphold the rural traditions of cultivation and production, and those who make the choices about what they will put on the table. Thanksgiving Day in Canada is the one day of the year when we all make those connections and celebrate the links between planet, producer, and plate.

Canadian Thanksgiving has several roots of origin and a long tradition, even though it became a holiday with a fixed date only in 1957. Martin Frobisher, the English explorer who probed the north and east coasts of Canada in the 16th century, gave thanks for his safe voyage to the New World by hosting what can only be called a Thanksgiving dinner in Newfoundland in 1578. At about the same time, Samuel de Champlain and his band of settlers in Nova Scotia formed l'Ordre de Bon Temps (The Order of Good Cheer) to give thanks and celebrate the bounty of their new land in a communal feast. United Empire Loyalists who came to Canada after the American Revolution brought some of the traditions they had grown used to in the 13 Colonies. Of course, the many Native celebrations surrounding food and giving thanks for it pre-date any of these. While the date of our Thanksgiving moved around through the years, it was finally fixed as the second Monday in October by Act of Parliament in 1957. It is about a month earlier than the American Thanksgiving because our harvest is so much earlier, and, thankfully, it has maintained most of its traditional meaning while the American holiday has been tainted by commercialism: Thanksgiving Friday has become the busiest shopping day of the year south of the border.

The centerpiece of the contemporary Canadian Thanksgiving holiday is a huge family meal, traditionally made up of the local produce that is abundantly available at harvest. Nothing could be closer to the spirit of the Slow Food Movement.
First, we are eating the produce that is grown in our own neighbourhood. After all, we are celebrating the harvest, so it is only natural that we enjoy local pumpkins and turnips, squash and potatoes along with our turkey or ham and other delicacies from Ontario farms.

Second, we consciously choose food that is part of our heritage and prepare it in traditional ways. True, we sometimes look for ways to update tradition by introducing new tastes or different menu items, but for the most part Thanksgiving is the one celebratory meal that retains the same menu year after year. This is one meal where a pre-prepared, frozen heat ‘n serve just won’t do. Lavish preparation with many hands involved is part of the enjoyment.

Third, we honour those who produce our food and appreciate our rural and agricultural roots. The celebration is all about giving thanks, and in doing so we must acknowledge those whose labour makes our food available. In the Niagara region we have choices from a harvest whose overwhelming variety, quality, and quantity makes us the envy of most other regions in the world. It’s easy to take our good fortune (and our farmers and agricultural workers) for granted, so a day of Thanksgiving is perhaps more appropriate here than anywhere.

Fourth, we sit down with family and friends and take the time to enjoy the food in convivial company. Food as a sensory pleasure (instead of belly-filling fuel) and eating as a social activity (instead of a snack in front of the TV) should be a daily routine. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to re-discover these pleasures, and perhaps resolve to make them a year-round part of family life.

Add to all of this the increasing emphasis we are placing on healthy, even organic foods (whipped cream notwithstanding), and Thanksgiving could be the one meal a year that makes us all honorary Slow Food members.

To find out more about Slow Food or to become a member, go to or contact Renée Girard at

September 2008: The Urge to Preserve

In late September, when we are surrounded by the bounty of our local farms, there’s a hoarding instinct that surfaces in many of us. It’s the time when books on canning and preserving are pulled out and dusted off, and even if the recipes aren’t used this year, there is an almost instinctual urge to “put down” the fruit and vegetables that are so prolific in the markets.

One of the tastiest of all meat dishes results from this urge to preserve: confit. This process originated centuries ago as a method of keeping meats (usually goose, duck, and pork) available for winter feasts without any refrigeration. Essentially, it is meat, salted, poached in its own fat, and then placed into a container and covered in the fat. The combination of salting and encasing the meat in the fat both preserves and seals the meat, which can be kept for up to six months. It also results in a rich, intense flavour that provides a mouth-watering backbone to many hearty dishes.

But as wonderful-tasting as duck confit is, doesn’t all that fat clog up our arteries? Maybe not. Out of 100,000 middle aged Frenchmen, 145 will die of heart attacks (315 North Americans), but in Toulouse, the capital of duck fat-, foie gras-, confit-eating France, only 80 will succumb to heart disease. Some studies are suggesting the fat of web-footed birds is actually beneficial to health, and one published journal maintains that duck fat is chemically closer to olive oil than to butter or lard.

Very rare in Canada until relatively recently, duck confit is finding its way onto the menus of many fine restaurants. Locally, it makes frequent appearances on the ever-changing menu at Fonthill’s Zest, and is a staple at About Thyme Bistro in Vineland. In the south of France, every butcher shop has a tray of duck legs encased in fat on display. They are often simply fried to heat the meat and crisp the skin and served with potatoes and vegetables, or shredded into a salad. But the highest expression of duck confit, and surely one of world’s greatest comfort foods, is cassoulet.

A savoury stew of beans, garlic, pork, duck confit, garlic, onions, sausage (and did I mention garlic?), cassoulet had its origins in the southwest of France, the village of Castelnaudary having the best claim over Carcassonne and Toulouse as its place of origin. It is traditionally prepared in a large clay bowl called a cassole and slow roasted in the town’s communal bread oven. Visitors to this favoured region of France know that a meal of cassoulet warms the heart, fills the stomach, delights the taste buds, and banishes all thoughts of more food for about 24 hours! To say that it is a filling dish is to understate. A famous sign in a Toulouse shoemaker’s window explained “Closed on account of cassoulet.” There are as many recipes for cassoulet as there are cooks who prepare it, and in Languedoc, violent arguments may result about the inclusion of lamb or tomatoes or bread crumbs to cassoulet.

If there is sufficient outcry from devoted readers, I may be persuaded to reveal my own closely-guarded, award-winning recipe for Cassoulet de Castelnaudary in a future column!

Duck Confit
Immerse six or eight duck legs (thigh attached) completely in pickling salt flavoured with fresh thyme and rosemary and place in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, wash the salt from the legs and dry them, bring the duck fat to a simmer, and completely immerse the duck legs. Cover and poach in the oven for about 1 ½ to 2 hours at 275 degrees F. until the bone twists easily from the meat. Sterilize wide mouthed jars and use tongs to place the legs in the jars and fill with the hot duck fat to within an inch of the top, making sure the legs are completely covered to a depth of at least half an inch. Top the jars with a ½ inch layer of melted lard. (The denser lard acts as a more complete seal.) Screw on the lids and refrigerate. Use within six months.

August 2008: The $374 Tomato

Why should you buy a locally grown tomato when it’s more expensive than one brought in from Chile or California? And how is it possible for a tomato that travels all that distance to be cheaper, anyway?

One study that tried to determine the “real” cost of the food we eat says that the tomato from California actually costs $374!

Let’s back up and look at how the “real” cost of things can be so far out of whack with what we actually pay. So you think gas prices are high? Actually, gasoline is vastly under priced! Studies in the U.S. and Britain have attempted to look at what gasoline really costs us, the consumers, when all factors are taken into account: enormous subsidies (taxpayer paid) to the oil companies, huge government expenditures on road construction and maintenance, millions of hectares of land taken out of production, environmental degradation, and billions of dollars spent on automobile-related health issues including accident injuries and pollution-related health problems. The U.S. studies estimated that the real cost of gas is as high as $15 a gallon! The British studies suggested petrol there actually cost between 15 and 16 £ per gallon (around $8 per litre!) Whether you drive a car or not, you’re paying about $5000 per car per year in direct and indirect subsidies. (

Similar assessments have been made to determine the real cost of food. Consider that the food in an average family meal in North America is estimated to travel over 3000 km. from producer to table, and remember the real cost of fuel. (A strawberry with the food value of 5 calories uses up 435 calories to get from California to Toronto.) Add in the tonnes of chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide needed to grow single-crop produce on factory farms year after year in the same soil (U.S. monocroppers use a billion pounds of pesticides a year!) and all the other hidden expenses of “efficient” large scale production. And think about the environmental and human effects of cutting down forests to grow corn, or converting thousands of small farms into single enormous monocrop farm factories. While millions of Ethiopeans starve, the country’s internationally owned farm factories continue to churn out coffee!

Big Agriculture, the enormous corporate entities that produce most of the food in Canada and the U.S., are not concerned about the long term costs of the food they produce, costs that will have to be paid in the future, because their only responsibility is to make profit. However, future generations will have to pay the environmental and social costs of “cheap” food when the bills come in for water depletion, forest removal, environmental degradation, and human displacement.

An entertaining animated cartoon that dramatizes the mind-boggling “real” costs of food is available at It uses the figures from studies in the U.S. to estimate the price of a factory farm-produced tomato at $374, and the real price of a pound of steak at $815!

What to do? Buy locally produced food from small farms that use sane and sustainable agricultural practices. Go to the local markets and, where possible, buy organic food. Look for the “grown in Ontario” label. Ask your butcher for meat from local producers. The more we think about the food we eat, the more we consciously make informed choices when we shop for food, the better off we’ll be, nutritionally, environmentally, and economically.

For more information about the Slow Food movement, look at and to learn about the Pelham Convivium, write to Renée Girard at

Slow-roasted Herbed Tomatoes
Slice four locally-grown tomatoes in half horizontally and carefully scoop out the seeds. In a medium hot non-stick frying pan, sear the tomatoes, cut side down until the juices evaporate and the tomatoes are carmelized (about 10 minutes). Carefully put them, cut side up, in a roasting pan and sprinkle with a mixture of 2 Tbsp of oregano and 2 finely chopped garlic cloves. Drizzle with olive oil, and roast in a 300 degree oven for 40 to 60 minutes, until they are shriveled but retain their shape. Serve as a side dish with grilled steak or chops.

July 2008: The Harmonious Winery

Featherstone Winery in Vineland is a fascinating example of how producers can work in harmony with the land in a variety of ways. David Johnson is both the winemaker and the grower at Featherstone, and so he oversees the production of his wines through the seasons, from bud to grape to juice to wine. What’s more, he and his wife and business partner, Louise Engel, try to work in harmony with the environment.

They use non-chemical alternatives to herbicides wherever possible and no pesticides at all, favouring the release of pheromones to discourage grape berry beetle for example, and hand-sorting the grapes on a shaker table to combat lady bugs. While not certified organic (only one Ontario winery has gone through the certification process: Frogpond in Niagara on the Lake), Featherstone consciously chooses sustainable, natural solutions to agricultural challenges.

One of the most noticeable instances of this is Louise’s bird control practice. Starlings and other birds descend on the grape vines in huge flocks, and one peck of a bird bill ruins not only the grape, but can expose the whole cluster to fungus and rot. That’s why a winery tour in Niagara in high summer can sound like a trip through a combat zone; the wineries use propane-powered “bangers” to scare the flocks away from their valuable grapes. Louise is a falconer, and her three impressive raptors can be seen circling high above the vines on regular patrol. While they kill very few birds, they provide a natural intimidation factor that keeps the flocks of hungry birds well away from Featherstone territory.

Another example of Featherstone’s symbiotic farming practices is the lambs that wander freely among the rows of grapes. These mammalian lawn mowers keep weeds and grasses to a minimum, reducing the need for chemical or mechanical removal of vegetation. But when they have finished with the ground cover, the lambs really become useful. They turn to the grape leaves. Normally, in cool climate viticulture, human labour is used to thin the grape leaves and allow the sun to get at the grapes and help the ripening process. Much more thorough at leaf removal than humans tend to be (after all, it’s their food!), the lambs leave the still-sour grapes alone and happily munch on the unwanted leaves. Nature has played into this happy relationship; since sheep cannot swallow with their heads tilted above horizontal, they concentrate on the grape leaves from chin height down… exactly the zone in which leaf removal is most effective for the ripening grapes.

Of course, an added bonus (for us, not the lambs) is that when they have fattened on the tender and tasty grape leaves, their meat is sweet and succulent. Featherstone lambs are in high demand among some of Niagara’s most discerning restaurateurs, including Mark Piccone and Stephen Treadwell. Lamb, fattened on Featherstone grape leaves, served with one of Featherstone’s premier red wines is a match made in gastronomic heaven.

Slow Food Pelham is hosting in August an event featuring whole Featherstone lamb slow roasted over Featherstone vine cuttings, with Featherstone wines on offer and a tour of the vineyards with David Johnson. For more information about the Slow Food movement, look at and to learn about the Pelham Convivium or to get more information on this event, write to Renée Girard at

Roast Leg of Ontario Lamb
Cut five garlic cloves into slices, and insert the slices into slits made all over the lamb leg. Combine four Tbsp of fresh Rosemary with two Tbsp of Dijon mustard and two Tbsp olive oil and smear the mixture over the lamb. Bake on a meat rack in a 375 degree oven until the internal temperature is 130 degrees for medium rare (allow about 15 minutes per pound). Cover with foil and let it sit for 15 minutes before carving. Serve with potatoes roasted in the same pan, a summer salad, and a good VQA Meritage or Cabernet.

June 2008: “The Family That Eats Together…”

What simple activity can increase a child’s grades, reduce the likelihood of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, and decrease the incidence of teen obesity and depression? Eating together as a family.

Several studies have clearly shown these results; one from the University of Minnesota even statistically eliminated all possible variables like income, and even how cohesive the family was, and concluded that it’s actually sitting down as a family at mealtimes that was the primary cause of significant improvements in children’s health and wellbeing… especially among girls.

Not surprisingly, the studies found that adolescents eating regular family meals ate more fruit and vegetables, got more calcium, and drank significantly fewer soft drinks. However, the benefits of sitting down to a family meal extend far beyond these, and include reduction in substance, tobacco, and alcohol use and significantly better academic performance and mental health when compared to those eating fewer family meals. And the benefits increased with each additional family meal per week!

Television is the biggest challenge for family meal time. According to the Canadian Pediatric Association, children at age 15 have spent more time in front of a television than in classrooms. And kids aren’t the only offenders. Meals in front of the TV tend to be reheated frozen snacks that are, simply put, health hazards. Television programming is a very poor substitute for the kind of family communication and bonding that takes place around the dinner table.
Accepting the benefits of family mealtime is one thing, doing something about it is quite another. Adolescents have always been difficult to convince that doing things as a family are “cool” and even beneficial. Add the overwhelming distractions available, from part time jobs to sports to video games to computers to cell phones to television and it’s a really hard sell to convince kids that sitting down to a family meal is a useful or enjoyable activity.

Experts in child and adolescent psychology offer some guidelines, but each family will have to formulate its own set of principles (preferably in conference with the kids) that will guide family mealtimes.

o Turn off the television. Agree also to turn off cell phones and let the household phone pick up and take messages. Importantly, the parents have to take the lead here and set an example.

o This is not a time for discussing serious, controversial, or delicate subjects. The meal conversation should be light, fun, and upbeat and the mood supportive and comfortable.

o Get everyone involved in the meal. Where there’s the interest, involve the family in planning the week’s menus, helping with the shopping, and joining in the food preparation. Clean up should also be shared fairly. Eventually, maybe older kids can take a lead role in preparing dinner (and the parents get clean-up duty).

o To begin with, the family meal does not have to be complicated. Even sitting down together for a take-out pizza or (better) a take out meal from one of Pelham’s excellent caterers like Lorenzo’s Fine Foods, Wild Flower, or Whisk and Ladle, constitutes a family meal so long as everyone sits down and eats together.

o Set a goal. Maybe begin with the commitment to sit down together as a family twice a week and discuss increasing the frequency as you all get used to the idea.

o Use the crock pot or slow cooker. Coming home to the smell of a home-cooked meal is a pretty good way to build enthusiasm for a family dinner.

Slow Cooker Pulled Pork
Pulled Pork is a southern dish that has as many “authentic” versions as Chili or BBQ. The name comes from the fact that the slow-cooked pork is so tender it is pulled apart using two forks and served as a delicious, savory mush on a bun!
Pork shoulder (1 to 2 kg)
Two or three onions chopped
500 ml of liquid, made up of any or all of ketchup, BBQ sauce, Worcestershire sauce, red wine, maple syrup, liquid smoke (recommended), or any marinade. One gourmet I know uses pulled pork to empty his fridge of any leftover liquids from salad dressing to gravy to molé sauce (the latter, a chocolate based sauce from Mexico, he proclaimed a particularly tasty addition.)
In the morning, put the pork, the onions and the 500 ml of liquid in the slow cooker, set it on low, and go to work. At supper time, pull the meat apart with forks and ladle it onto fresh buns from one of Pelham’s bakeries. Traditionally served with cole slaw. A big red wine like a VQA Baco Noir would go well, but Niagara’s Best Blonde Ale is perhaps a better match.

May 2008: “Pelham Farmers’ Market”

The Pelham Farmers’ Market has resumed its weekly Thursday schedule for the season, so this might be a good time to reflect on the importance of buying locally produced foods. The Slow Food movement is quite separate from the well-known “Hundred Mile Diet” but is very much aligned with its aims. According to World Watch, the ingredients for typical North American meal travel between 2500 and 4000 km.! Think of all the gasoline that journey uses. Think of all the freshness lost along the way. Think of all the packaging and preservatives necessary for the food to make the trip.

Furthermore, the quality of foods that arrive from far-away food factories is appalling. Strawberries the size of golf balls and basketball sized melons that appear in February have the texture of a snowball… and about as much taste.

Yes, we live in a cold climate, and it’s not possible for anyone but a fanatic (see The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating , by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon) to realistically stick to such a diet. But doesn’t it make you crazy to go into a Niagara supermarket in August and see cherries imported from Michigan or apples from Oregon? By all means buy coffee and sugar and oranges (would it hurt to have local apple juice for breakfast?) and pepper and olive oil, but instead of buying salad greens from California in a plastic tub, go to the Pelham Market on Thursday and buy healthy, fresh, organic, local greens. And when you see imported produce at the supermarket during the season when local produce is available but nowhere to be seen, mention it to the produce manager. Retailers respond to their customers, and if the demand for local produce is there, they’ll offer it.

It is possible to enjoy local produce all year long if you’re willing to freeze or preserve it. Most fruit can be stored in the freezer for up to six months, and used as fruit topping on desserts or pancakes, in smoothies, or as part of many recipes. Many vegetables can be blanched and frozen, then used just as if fresh, and vegetable-based sauces all freeze well. Roma or paste tomatoes can be simply washed and frozen whole. To use them in a recipe, run the frozen tomato under hot water for a second, slip the skin off, and use them just as you would canned tomatoes.

If doing it yourself isn’t your style, you don’t have to travel far to buy locally grown fruit and vegetables all year. Frozen fruit from local farms is available at Cherry Country Connections on Tice Rd., at Cherry Hill Orchards on Highway 20, and at Cherry Lane Frozen Foods in Vineland. Niagara Presents on Mountainview Rd. in Beamsville sells preserves, jams, pickles, and sauces made from local vegetables and fruit.

We really don’t have to work very hard to support local agriculture in this region. All it takes is consciously making the decision that we want to eat locally produced food for all the benefits, both nutritional and environmental, that it provides. The Slow Food movement embraces the notion that, by becoming informed about how our food is produced and actively supporting those who produce it, we become part of and a partner in the production process. By shopping at the Pelham Market (or any of the other farmers’ markets in our region) we are both supporting local producers and engaging with them in the process of improving the quality of the food we eat.

For more information about the Slow Food movement, look at and to learn about the Pelham Convivium, write to Renée Girard at

Anna and Michael Olsen, Canada’s most famous food couple, are frequent shoppers at the Pelham Farmers’ Market. Anna filmed a segment of one of her shows for the Food Network at the market last year. In their best-selling cookbook, Anna and Michael Olsen Cook at Home, they offer this recipe for Maple Vinaigrette, a perfect accompaniment to the delicious early greens that you’ll find at the market during May.
25 ml white wine vinegar
1 ml dried mustard powder
25 ml pure maple syrup
90 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 ml coarse salt
1 ml ground black pepper
25 ml chopped fresh chives
Whisk the vinegar, mustard powder, and maple syrup until evenly blended. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil while whisking. Stir in the salt, pepper, and chives. Serve with slices of bread from one of Pelham’s local bakeries to mop up the vinaigrette.

April 2008: "Introducing Slow Food"

As recent articles in The Voice demonstrate, the Slow Food movement has come to Pelham. An introductory session at De La Terre Café in Fonthill attracted an overflow crowd to find out about Slow Food and to sample a variety of cheeses from Chez Fromage Etc. and eight apple varieties from De Vries apple farm in Fenwick. More recently, Wolfgang Sterr closed out the Wildflower Restaurant (it has now re-opened as a market-café) with a Slow Food venison dinner for about 35.

What’s the Slow Food movement all about? Obviously, it’s a reaction to the Fast Food culture of mass produced food, eaten on the run in uncomfortable plastic assembly lines. It’s an organization that promotes the idea of high quality, well prepared food, and taking the time to enjoy eating it. It recognizes and celebrates the close connection between the food we eat and both the land and the farmers who produce it. In the words of The Slow Food Companion, “The food we eat should be good; it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare, or human health; and its producers should receive fair compensation for their work.” These aren’t exactly new ideas. In the past, Canadians had a much closer relationship with the farmers and producers of their food, and we tended to sit down as families and friends in a convivial atmosphere to enjoy our food. In a real sense, the Slow Food movement is an attempt to revive the spirit of those times while recognizing the realities of the 21st century.

With over 80,000 members in more than 850 chapters (called, appropriately enough, “convivia”), the Slow Food movement is not really ground-breaking news for its recent arrival in Pelham. But, with our agricultural roots and the increasingly noticeable presence of quality restaurants, bakeries, and specialty food producers and retailers, Pelham is clearly ready for an organization that emphasizes the enjoyment of good food through recognizing where it comes from, who produced it, and how it was prepared.

For example, at a recent event hosted by a Slow Food convivium at Niagara College, participants were introduced to the differences in the ways chicken comes to our tables. Two chicken dishes were presented, one cooked with air-chilled birds, the other with water-chilled chickens. Once a chicken is slaughtered, it must be cooled quickly; by far the most common way that this is done is through dunking the chicken into a cold water bath. In this process, the chicken absorbs liquid, adding weight that simply evaporates during cooking. (Some producers add salt to the water to increase absorption, so the consumer pays for water… up to 15% by weight.) Air cooled chickens are chilled by blasts of cold air. It’s a more expensive process because it isn’t as efficient, but it produces chickens that are firmer, tastier, and, with up to 80% less bacteria than water-chilled birds, longer-lasting. In our tasting, the air-chilled chicken was noticeably more appealing-looking, firmer textured, and tastier than the water-bathed variety. Who knew? Armed with this knowledge, we now consciously seek out the air-chilled label on the poultry we buy.
For more information about the Slow Food movement, look at and to learn about the Pelham Convivium, write to Renée Girard at

Garlic Chicken
There are dozens of variations on this ancient recipe from the south of France. The number of garlic cloves doesn’t matter, but Julia Childs’ famous recipe called for 40.
One air-chilled chicken quartered
40 (or so) cloves of garlic, unpeeled
½ C white wine or chicken stock
Several sprigs of rosemary
In a roasting pan, brown the chicken pieces in a little olive oil, then add the other ingredients and cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Bake in a slow oven (300 degrees F.) for an hour, then remove the foil and cook until done (about another 30 – 40 min. until juices run clear). Either squeeze the garlic from the skins (being careful not to burn your fingers) and stir into the pan juices, or serve the cloves beside the chicken on the plate for diners to peel themselves. Delicious with quartered potatoes roasted in the same pan. Serve with a VQA Sauvignon Blanc or off-dry Riesling.