Saturday, December 1, 2012

December: Preaching to the Converted

            As the son of an Anglican minister, I am very aware of a nagging discomfort that afflicts all priests, pastors, and ministers:  the people in front of them on Sunday are not the people who need to hear their message.  The congregation is there, for the most part, because they already agree with what is being delivered, while those who are not in the congregation are beyond the reach of the message.
To some extent, we in the Pelham Slow Food Convivium are beginning to feel the same way.  There is evidence all around us that the message of Slow Food is getting through, that consumers, purveyors, and producers are all paying attention (or at least lip service) to the notion that good, healthy, locally produced food, served in pleasant, convivial surroundings is vastly better for our physical and mental health than fast food.  Surveys of those who eat fast food reveal that even they know it’s bad for them, but they can’t resist a hit of salt and fat as a guilty pleasure… and that their guilty pleasure is, in part, responsible for the “obesity epidemic” and the consequent rise in diabetes, heart disease, and other maladies (including the return of gout) that afflict our population and our overburdened medical system.
Upscale restaurants are including on their menus the farm or producer where the dish originates.  This trend, pioneered in Niagara by Michael Olson when he was the chef at On the Twenty in Jordan, is a welcome acknowledgement that good food comes from good farmers and good producers, a Slow Food mantra.  Local farmers’ markets are thriving and even expanding.  Supermarkets are advertising local produce when it is available on their shelves, recognizing that there is consumer demand for fresh, locally produced food.  (Although, in July… prime growing time… Sobeys was offering green onions from Mexico, so I drove down the street to Gallagher’s to get the Ontario version!)  The Ontario wine industry is further evidence that the quality and value of local products has reached the consciousness of consumers.  It wasn’t that long ago that only the most daring would present a bottle of Ontario wine as a hostess gift or serve it at a special meal; now, only those who don’t know much about wine would be scared off by an Ontario label.  Fonthill’s new butcher, Churchill Meats, makes a point of advertising that their products are drug free and eagerly tells customers which farm produced each cut of their meat.  Even pet food producers are boasting that they source their ingredients from within 100 km of their production facility.
When even manufacturers of dog food recognize that good, local food is a desirable (and marketable) commodity, we have to acknowledge that there has been a shift in the consciousness of consumers.  As a society, we have become more aware of the principles that gave rise to the Slow Food Movement, even if we aren’t even aware of the existence of the movement.  And yet… at the same time, fast food outlets continue to thrive; we are getting fatter as a population; we are getting less exercise; our incidence of heart disease and diabetes continues to rise.  What’s going on?
It seems that those who are willing to receive the message have received it, while those who continue to poison themselves with unhealthy food just didn’t get the memo.  And that has members of Slow Food Pelham uncertain about our purpose.  As a group, we get together to enjoy good food and share ideas about a better environment, healthier eating, local products… but it seems that much of society, at least those who are aware and care about their food, are as much Slow Foodies as we are!  And the rest will never get the message.  For more information about Slow Food Pelham, contact Renée at

Friday, November 2, 2012

November: Recognizing Our Farmers

Now that the farm year in Ontario has wound down, farm markets are going for their winter hiatus, and we face a winter of largely imported fruits and vegetables, it’s not a bad time to reflect on the enormous contribution to our enjoyment of life provided by our farmers.  Whether they raise poultry or potatoes, soybeans or sour cherries, beef cattle or beets, grapes or garlic, we are in their debt.  This past season had trials for some with an unprecedented early spring and killer frost and drought conditions in many parts, but for others it produced some of the best crops in memory, thanks to hot weather and timely rain.  The farmer lives at the mercy of the weather and has to have the nerves of a gambler and the resiliency of a rubber ball.
Mark Bittman observes in one of his recent NY Times columns that preparing food, even at the most sophisticated restaurants, is dead easy when compared to raising that food: a process that takes weeks if not months of expertise, investment, and hard work.
It is worth remembering when we shop for our food, that for every dollar we spend on farm-produced items, the farmer gets, on average, 14 cents.  For some products the discrepancy is greater than others.  For example, on a box of corn flakes costing $3.54, the farmer’s share is about 11 cents.  There are many factors that affect the price of food, including processing, transporting, advertising, packaging, and financing the products… but you can’t eat financing, packaging, or advertising.  This is what makes it so satisfying to go to our local markets or farm gates and buy directly from the farmers who produce the food.
Canadians enjoy some of the lowest food prices in the world.  It is estimated that we spend less than 10 per cent of our annual disposable income on food.  Compare that to 20 per cent in South Africa or 25 per cent in Brazil, 35 per cent in India or 45 per cent in Indonesia.  (Of course there are some serious consequences of that cheap food, an issue that we will look at in another column.)  Every year, the Canadian Federation of Agriculture observes Food Freedom Day.  This is the day on which the average Canadian family has earned enough to pay for their food for the entire year.  This year, it came on February 12th. 
While we congratulate ourselves on the low cost of our food, let us recognize the contribution that our farmers make to provide that food, and hope that farming remains a viable and profitable venture so that the agriculture sector continues to retain and attract young, energetic, innovative, and dedicated farmers.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

October: Slow Food and Slow Fishing


As readers of this column might have perceived, one of my passions (along with food and wine) is fly fishing.  I find this the most beautiful and calming of sports; if the word “Zen” ever applied to a leisure activity, this would be it.  This is “slow fishing” when compared to the manic, frantic type of angling we see on most televised fishing shows.  While I have fished for bonefish and tarpon, steelhead and salmon, pike and muskie, and have met anglers who prefer one of those prey to all others, I’m a trout fisher.  I would rather trick a 10 inch trout to take a floating insect imitation in a small stream than haul in an 80 pound tarpon somewhere off Cuba or Florida.  So I value small rivers and creeks for the fish they can hold when they are healthy, as well as for their importance to our environmental wellbeing.  The health of our small streams is the most important indicator of the health of our environment.  And, the best indicator of the health of small steams is the presence of Brook Trout.

     Brook Trout and Lake Trout are the only trout native to Ontario, and Brookies are an extremely fragile species, dependant on clear, clean, cold water for survival.  Any degradation of their environment is a threat to their survival; they are the “canary in the coal mine,” the first warning sign of trouble in a watershed.

     Twelve Mile Creek, which has one of its sources right in Fonthill, is the only cold water stream system in Niagara capable of holding Brook Trout.  There is anecdotal evidence from anglers, Conservation Officers, and landowners that a small population of Brook Trout still survives in the headwaters of the system, maybe downstream as far as Short Hills Provincial Park.  Old-timers tell tales of plentiful Brookies in the Twelve back in the 40’s and 50’s, but sightings now are rare.

     Enter Trout Unlimited Canada (TUC).  This is a conservation organization, made up mostly, it must be admitted, of anglers.  Like Ducks Unlimited (whose members are mostly hunters), which seeks to preserve wetlands as habitat for waterfowl, TUC seeks to maintain its sport by conserving and enhancing the environment that makes the sport possible.  (The difference between the two is that, by and large, the ducks do not survive their encounters with members of the organization, while the trout do, since most fly fishers practice catch and release.)  Regardless of the underlying motivation of these groups, the work they do to preserve, protect, and enhance Canada’s natural environment is beyond reproach.

      The Niagara Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada is recently formed, but has already begun making plans for the enhancement of the Twelve Mile Creek watershed.  Working closely with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, Short Hills Provincial Park, Niagara College’s Ecosystem Restoration Program, Niagara Conservancy, and other interested organizations, Trout Unlimited is in the process of putting in place a plan to study one stretch of the stream to determine scientifically if Brook Trout inhabit it, what the barriers are to their survival and success, and how to improve the stream.  Working one stretch at a time, their goal is to make a significant contribution to the health of this unique watershed.

     What’s all this got to do with Slow Food?  One of the most important mandates of the Slow Food Movement is the preservation and enhancement of our environment.  This can be achieved through the protection of agricultural land, through sustainable farming practices, and through efforts such as those now being undertaken by the Niagara Chapter of Trout Unlimited Canada. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September: Slow Food’s Most Important Idea

As I have noted previously, the Slow Food Movement started out as a reaction against fast food, and advocates everything healthy, good, sustainable, and fair that fast food is not.  While this column is written in support of the Slow Food Movement, specifically as it applies to the Pelham Convivium (our fancy but appropriate name for Chapter or Branch), its content sometimes wanders pretty widely from the stated doctrine and aims of the International Movement.  But any organization that is as big (more than 100,000 members) and broad (more than 150 countries) as Slow Food has to admit a great deal of variation within its stated principles, so I don’t feel too bad if I sometimes stray from orthodoxy.
However, I have written twice previously on a subject that hits right at the heart of what Slow Food is all about, and I’m about to make that three times.  Back in 2008 I first wrote about the importance of family meal times.  I felt the subject was so important I repeated it the following year.  It’s now time to revisit this most important of all of Slow Food’s ideas.
Here are the facts:  eating together as a family will increase a child’s grades, reduce the likelihood of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use, decrease the incidence of teen obesity, and reduce the rate of adolescent depression.  The more often a family sits down to a meal together, the greater the beneficial effects.
Many studies have been conducted to arrive at these results.  The University of Minnesota’s is typical.  They conducted a huge study on the subject, and statistically eliminated from their results all other factors like income, family dynamics, and location.  Their conclusion was unambiguous: “Sitting down as a family at mealtimes was the primary cause of significant improvements in children’s health and wellbeing, especially among girls.”  The more often the study groups sat down as families at mealtimes, the greater the benefits.  And among the benefits noted were better academic performance, reduction in tobacco, substance, and alcohol use, and improved mental health.
Of course, it helps if the meal that the family sits down to is healthy, nutritious, tasty, and home-cooked.  The benefits also are more evident if the TV is turned off along with cell phones, video games, iPods, Blackberries, Wi units, computers, e-readers, and all other sundry electronics.  But even if the meal is takeout and the TV is on, the act of sitting down together as a family at mealtimes is a beginning point that can lead to a more satisfying and “convivial” family dinnertime with all the potential benefits noted above.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

August: Fish and Chips

Many Niagara Region old timers will agree that the best fish and chips ever were produced in Welland by Ideal Fish and Chips on East Main Street.  Louie dispensed his perfectly battered fish and deliciously golden chips from behind the counter of the tiny restaurant that was tastefully decorated with grease spattered green walls and Formica tables.  Regulars would squeeze past the counter and go to the back of the place where two more small rooms accommodated tables crowded every lunchtime with a broad cross-section of Welland businesspeople, from lawyers practicing at the nearby courthouse, to Niagara College professors, to workers at the Atlas Steels plant, to local retailers.  When Ideal burned to the ground (there could not have been a more combustible building anywhere, saturated as it was with cooking fat) Louie’s customers were scattered to the four winds to try to find a lunchtime replacement for their fish and chips addiction.

As one of those thoroughly addicted, I searched far and wide for a new favorite.  Friends and fellow Ideal devotees migrated to other spots: Bonnie landed on Sue’s Seafood in Welland, while Gordon switched his devotion to Hutch’s on the lakeshore in Hamilton.  While I agree that both of these make a worthy F & C lunch, my choice for Louie’s crown is Newfoundland’s Own at the corner of Prince Charles and Lincoln in Welland, where the fish and chips are pretty darned close to the gold standard set by Ideal.   It’s takeout only, so lacks the unique atmosphere of Louie’s place, but the food is outstanding.

There are other worthy contenders for fish and chip excellence.  I stop at Jill’s in Fonthill on my way through town when I’m in the mood for a lunchtime F & C fix.  If I plan ahead, I trek out to Centennial Park in Fenwick on Friday evening for the Lions Club fish fry there, and am always really impressed.  These guys might be amateurs, but someone knows a thing or two about making fish and chips, because their product is excellent.

While fish and chips are traditionally haddock or halibut (pollock is a poor substitute), sometimes someone tries a successful variation on the traditional favorites.  Stone Road Grill in Niagara on the Lake did an upscale version, using tempura battered salmon as the fish.  Their frites have always been exemplary, so the combination was outstanding, while deviating widely from tradition.  But Niagara residents in the know venture out to Port Colborne to get a really special treat.  Minor Fisheries have boats that ply the waters of Lake Erie for yellow perch, walleye (pickerel), and smelt which they process and sell commercially.  Lake Erie, by the way, supports the world’s largest fresh water fishing fleet and has an enormous recreational fishing industry that supplies fishing families all over Niagara with delicious perch.  Minor Fisheries has a small outlet on West St., right beside the canal, that sells their fish right off the boat and does a good lunchtime business with short order meals.  Their fish and chips (for $5.00!) are prepared with their freshly caught and lightly breaded perch.  Here’s a delicious way for locovores and hundred-mile-diet types to satisfy their craving for F & C.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

July: The Cherry Harvest

               If we ever needed reminding about the risks of farming in Ontario, this summer has provided it.  While strawberries were gorgeous and the grape farmers are licking their lips over this year’s fall harvest, Niagara’s tender fruit farmers took a licking.  And it was so promising early on with hot weather in March providing the potential for an early and beautiful crop.  But, while farmers are often seen as pessimists, in this case, those who professed their fear that the early budding would lead to disaster had their fears confirmed.  April frost destroyed the sour cherry crop in one or two nights.
                The July harvest saw farmers in our region harvesting crops of 10 to 20 per cent of normal volumes… those who harvested the crop at all.  For some, it was more expensive to harvest the few cherries on the trees than to just let them fall.
                This is the second year in a row that the cherry farmers have been smacked by Mother Nature.  Last year, a good looking crop was devastated by two weeks of cold, rainy weather just as pollination was beginning.  The bees, who do much of the pollination, never left their hives, and the wet weather put a damper on the natural wind pollination.
                The only bright spot for farmers is that these last two years have proven the effectiveness of some recent farm technology.  While wind machines have been around since the 1920’s in California, they have made inroads into the Niagara area only relatively recently, and grape growers were the first to experiment with their benefits.  Now, they are springing up in tender fruit orchards at an increasing rate.  The theory is that a properly tuned wind machine can drive warm air down onto the fruit trees or grape vines, keeping them warm enough to prevent frost damage to the developing fruit.  The air at 20 meters can be 5 to 10 degrees warmer than the air at crop level.  The machines are also used on frigidly cold nights to prevent damage to the trees and vines themselves.
 Installing a wind machine at between 30 and 50 thousand dollars a pop (plus $30 to $40 an hour to run) is a gamble.  But, one machine can protect up to 15 acres of crop (more for low-lying fruit like grapes), depending on the terrain and local conditions.  This year, where wind machines were installed, growers harvested an almost full crop of cherries, and with prices very high thanks to the small crop, the machines virtually paid for themselves in one harvest.
Yes, it’s true that wind machines are noisy creatures.  They sound something like a helicopter hovering over the orchard.  (In fact, helicopters have been used to blow warm air down on at-risk crops in many areas, including Niagara.)  But for the few nights per year when they are employed, it’s almost comforting to hear them, knowing that they are protecting a precious crop and keeping our farmers in business and our delicious tender fruit available.  Give me a cherry orchard, even with the wind machines, over a sub division any day!

Friday, June 1, 2012

June: Salt: the good and the bad

Salt is the new olive oil… which was the new wine.  All of the tasting skills and language that once applied only to wine have been brought to bear on olive oil in recent decades, and our consciousness of different types of oil, different grades, different tastes has increased so much that some restaurants are offering olive oil tastings.  More recently, salt has received the same scrutiny.  For those of us who thought that salt was… well, salt… it’s time to catch up with the gourmet world.

 Most of our salt is mined from deposits left by ancient seas.  Goderich, Ontario is famous for its salt mines which tunnel out under Lake Huron and produce Sifto brand salt.  However, gourmet salt is not mined; it is produced from seawater that is fed into shallow lagoons, where the water is left to evaporate and leave behind the salt.  Different regions produce different salts, and gourmets have ascribed various tastes and qualities to the salts harvested around the world. 

Fleur de sel is the first salt harvested from the salt lagoons, and is painstakingly collected by skimming the surface of the lagoon by hand, using only traditional methods and wooden implements.  In some cases, the best of the best is put into a small canister which is autographed by the “saunier” who was in charge of the harvest.

While Fleur de sel comes exclusively from the Mediterranean Sea and is harvested only in the South of France, many regions of the world produce gourmet salt, and each has its claim to fame.  The Atlantic coast of France, the south of England, New Zealand, Australia, California, Cyprus:  all produce salts that are advertised as unique in taste, texture, and colour.  Even Vancouver Island has a small sea salt industry which specializes in flavouring the sea salt they harvest with everything from wood smoke to roasted garlic, balsamic, mustard, and even banana peppers.

 A pinch of salt on your food helps to bring out flavour, and we all need a certain amount of salt in our diets.  But we are getting waaaay too much!  The culprit is not the salt we put on our food, it’s the salt that is put into processed and pre-packaged foods in the process of manufacture.  The average adult needs about 2300 milligrams of salt daily (1500 for people over 50 and 1200 for children aged 4 to 8), but the average Canadian eats between 3400 and 4000mg a day!  High sodium consumption is a leading cause of high blood pressure and some two million Canadians have high blood pressure because they eat too much salt.  According to a recent Toronto Star article, health experts say that in Canada, between 10,000 and 16,000 deaths each year are linked to over-consumption of sodium.  And we thought mad cow disease was serious!

Slow Food has always advocated avoiding fast food and packaged food in favour of home-cooked meals, prepared from good, local, fresh ingredients.  If you ever needed a reason to consider the benefits of such a diet, consider these numbers from the same Toronto Star article.  Swiss Chalet Chicken Stir Fry with Rice has 2260 mg of salt; Boston Pizza Buffalo Chicken Sandwich has 3960 mg; The Pickle Barrel Vegetable Chow Mein has a whopping 6460 mg; Casey’s Grill Pad Thai Shrimp has 2810 mg; and Pizza Hut’s Children’s Boneless Bites with Honey BBQ Sauce has 1620mg.  And these are not the worst of the offerings from fast food and chain food outlets!  We are killing ourselves by eating this stuff.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May: the Slow Life

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then it must be observed that the Slow Food Movement has lots of fans, not all of them foodies.  The Slow Food Movement originated as a reaction against everything that is meant by “fast food:” anonymous ingredients from who knows where, mass produced, assembly-line prepared, and served in a plastic, uncomfortable environment that is designed to make you leave as quickly as possible.  Add unhealthy, over-processed, over salted, and over-hyped for good measure.  Slow Food champions good, local foods, well prepared according to recipes both new and traditional, and served in a happy, friendly, “convivial” setting. 

            The Slow Food movement began in 1986 in Italy as a protest over the building of a Macdonald’s near the historic landmark Spanish Steps in Rome.  The idea of an anti-fast food movement must have touched a nerve, because there are now over 100,000 members in 150 countries who espouse its principles.  Other nerves were touched as well.  The idea of a rebellion against mass production, against our plastic environment, against unhealthy and thoughtless conformity, against environmental degradation seemed to spring from the same root as the Slow Food movement.

 Now there is the Slow Money Movement, dedicated to change the way we use our capital to invest.  Instead of investing in huge corporations with destructive practices like the oil industry, tobacco industry or other such enterprises where our mutual funds or pension plans may put our money, the Slow Money movement aims to invest in small food producers, organic farms, and local food systems.  Investors are not looking for less return on their money, but hoping to use their capital in more productive, responsible, and ethical ways.  Founded in 2008, the movement’s original inspiration was a book by Woody Tasch, chair of Investors’ Circle, called Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money– Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. 

And there is something called simply The Slow Movement, which describes itself as promoting “connectivity.”  It’s an appealing concept.  The movement wants to make connections between people and their environment, their culture, their food, their community, etc.  They promote such ideas as Slow Travel, which gets away from packaged tours that zoom frenetically from place to place (the 14 countries in 7 days concept) and concentrates on slowing down and enjoying, maybe even getting to understand something of the destination, rather than leaping from a bus to photograph it before moving on.  They also suggest Slow Schooling, a type of education that gets away from one-size-fits-all standardized testing and seeks instead to connect students to their learning… and connect that learning to the environment, the culture, the history, and the community in which the students live.  Not incidentally, they also advocate “edible schoolyards” where the students are intimately involved in the production, preparation, and serving of the food they eat.

Then there is the Slow City Movement.  It is another Italian initiative and a little different from others in that it has a formal certification body that assesses cities based on strict criteria to determine if they may advertise themselves as Slow Cities.  The criteria include environmental policy, infrastructure, quality of urban fabric, encouragement of local produce and products, hospitality, and community.  The idea is to make cities more livable, less crowded, less dependent on cars, and more sustainable.  And cities over 50,000 need not apply.

So the Slow Food movement appears to be part of a growing trend in reaction to many of the ills of 21st Century life.  Maybe instead of joining a movement, we should all just make efforts to live “the Slow Life,” whatever that may mean to each of us.

Monday, April 2, 2012

April: Soup’s On!

Through the chilly days of winter (yes, there were a few chilly days this past weird winter) comfort food comes into its own. Pot roasts and cassoulet, roast chicken and turkey, dumplings and pastas, root vegetables and hearty soups: these are the meals that have provided Canadians with cold weather sustenance through the years.

Now that spring is here, we begin to transition to lighter fare in preparation for the salads and barbecues of summer. One of our favorite springtime meals… call it a transition meal… is soup with fresh bread and cheese. We have several favorite soup recipes, but at this time of year when colds and flu are so prevalent, our favoured concoction is garlic soup. We are convinced that the spicy version that we make wards off colds, flu, and other winter/spring maladies just as effectively as it wards of vampires. Even people who are not really big fans of garlic (poor souls) will enjoy this soup; we have served it to guests who had no idea it was garlic soup, even though they were sipping a broth with a whole head of garlic in it!

Another favorite is Borscht. Valerie specializes in this recipe, based loosely on the soups she remembers her Ukrainian grandmother making. It is thick, with large chunks of beets and vegetables and meat, and is always served with a large dollop of sour cream. This winter we enjoyed an evening at a Ukrainian New Year’s party (Malanka), but were shocked when the Borscht that was served was a thin pink broth with no chunks of anything… and no sour cream. I guess, as with so many traditional recipes, variation is the norm and there is no agreement on what the standard should be. (At the same dinner there was a heated argument on cabbage rolls: thick or thin, with meat or without, tight or loose.)

The best summer-time soup in our repertoire takes advantage of all the lovely local veggies at the Pelham Market, but can be a welcome treat at this time of year, using some imported produce along with winter vegetables and some frozen produce. It’s Soup au Pistou, the fragrant vegetable soup from the South of France.

Garlic Soup
1 litre of chicken stock (preferably home-made)
1 head of garlic, separated into cloves, peeled and cut in half
1 dried hot pepper, crumbled, or a teaspoon of hot pepper flakes
4 slices of day-old sourdough or country-style bread, crusts removed
Put the garlic cloves and the pepper into half of the chicken stock and simmer until very soft (about 20 minutes).
Meanwhile, tear the bread into chunks and immerse in cold water until it is soft and gooey. Squeeze the water out so that you are left with a paste. Pour the garlic and chicken stock into a food processor and process, adding the bread paste a bit at a time. When it is smooth and consistent, pour the mixture into a pot, add the remaining chicken stock, and heat. Season to taste and serve hot.

Soup au Pistou
¼ C olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, minced
4 leeks, trimmed and minced
4 carrots in ¼ inch rounds
2 ribs of celery in ¼ inch pieces
2 potatoes, cubed (about ½ inch dice)
2 C navy beans (soaked overnight, drained, and rinsed)
12 C water
1 lb. frozen or canned tomatoes
2-3 young zucchini in ½ inch rounds
½ lb. green beans, cut into ½ inch pieces
½ lb. pasta… either small pieces, or broken up into small pieces
Pesto… garlic, basil, and olive oil paste available at food stores, or (better) home-made.
Heat the olive oil and add garlic, leeks, carrots, celery, and sauté until softened (7 minutes). Add potatoes and navy beans. Cover with water, add tomatoes, and simmer for about 40 minutes. Add the green beans, zucchini, and pasta and continue simmering until the pasta is cooked and
the vegetables tender… about 20 minutes.
Serve with a large dollop of pesto.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

March: Poverty and Nutrition

It has been well established that our planet produces enough food for all of our seven billion plus humans. If you take the number of calories produced and divide by the number of people, there are more than enough calories available to satisfy the requirements of everyone. The fact that many people in the world are malnourished is due, then, to a problem of distribution. While many attempts are made to improve the distribution of the food supply, both by governments and NGOs (Non-governmental organizations), many people worldwide do not get the nutrition they require to function properly. The United Nations estimates that more than one billion people suffer from hunger.

The latest edition of the magazine Foreign Policy is devoted entirely to food: “Inside the geopolitics of a hungry planet.” I highly recommend this issue to anyone interested in understanding more about the enormously complex issue of food. Enormously complex? Surely the solution to hunger is simple: “give poor people access to more food!” The articles in Foreign Policy point out just how wrong that simple solution may be.

Sad experience has demonstrated that handing out food to impoverished people creates a dependency on the handouts and actually destroys whatever local agricultural production exists. Even providing seed and agricultural implements is risky, since that, too, creates a dependency. On the other hand, letting people starve while they figure out how to feed themselves sustainably is not a humane option, especially in regions of the world where agriculture is either impossible or extremely risky.

There’s another interesting complexity to the problem as well. Experiments and studies in various regions of the world have shown that when malnourished people are given access to cheaper food or more food, they actually end up with less nourishment. How is this possible? The magazine cites a couple of examples. In China, people who subsisted on rice (in the south) or noodles (in the north) were given subsidies to allow them to buy more of these staples. Instead, the study revealed that they actually bought less rice and noodles with their increased buying power, and purchased tastier foods rather than more food, thereby continuing to be malnourished… but presumably happier about it.

In India, while wealth has increased per capita at a staggering rate over the past decade or two, the caloric intake of the average Indian has actually declined! There are many possible explanations for this, but the fact serves to point out the complexity of the problem.

A Moroccan labourer living in a mud-floored single room hut, subsisting on one or two meals a day at a level of nutrition that is well below accepted limits for malnourishment, told the authors of one of the articles that his television and cell phone were more important than food! Rural Indians starve themselves for years in order to save up for a lavish, extravagant wedding for their children.

It’s fine to tell someone that statistics collected over many years clearly show that if she eats better her children will be born healthier, she will have more energy to do better work, and her quality of life will improve… over a decade or so. But faced day to day with supplying food to her family, she is unlikely to think in the long term and will opt for more immediate gratification, whether that means buying meat instead of rice or saving up for a TV instead of buying nourishment that might have a positive effect in ten or twenty years. Can people really be blamed for skimping on already meager nourishment and opting instead for temporary escape from grinding poverty?

The answer to the problem of world hunger is as complex as the problem itself, but can be summed up in one word: education. When people understand that there is a direct relationship between getting enough of the right food and health and prosperity… even though that direct relationship may take years to reveal itself… only then can efforts to feed the poorest and most malnourished begin to have an effect. And the challenge of educating the poor to make better food choices is not limited to the third world.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

February: Winter Veggies

In a global marketplace, we are spoiled for choice. Asparagus appears in our supermarkets all year long, never mind that it comes from several thousand kilometers away and isn’t anywhere near as good as our fresh, local variety. Likewise lettuce and greens of all types, green beans, and peas, tomatoes, and so on. There really isn’t much need to change what you cook, regardless of the season… which, in a rather perverse way, is too bad. The proliferation of imported year-round vegetables means that we don’t put the emphasis that we once did on using winter veggies.

These are vegetables that either come into their most flavourful best during the colder months, or ones that store well and are available to us from late fall right through into spring. While most are root vegetables, there are some, like Brussels sprouts, that are sweetest and most tasty when harvested late. All of them pack really impressive health benefits, adding important vitamins (especially C), minerals, and fiber to our diets.

Winter meals tend toward comfort food: slow roasted affairs that fill the house with delicious smells long in advance of the meal. Winter vegetables are perfectly suited to accompany slowly roasted or braised meats. Many, like parsnips, carrots, Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes), beets, and potatoes can simply be tossed into the pan with the chicken or lamb or beef or pork and left to cook in the juice of the meat. Turnips and sweet potatoes (boiled and mashed with brown sugar or maple syrup and butter), Brussels sprouts (steamed and then finished in a light sauté with garlic and butter), and broccoli (steamed until just done to preserve crispness and bright green colour) add both colour and flavour to the plate.

Parsnips are a particular favourite of mine. Their nutty, sweet flavour is the essence of comfort food. The later they are harvested, the better they get, as the starch in the root turns to sugar when exposed to cold temperatures. Gardeners who cover parsnips with a layer of soil in the early winter can harvest their crop right through into early spring, and the longer they wait, the sweeter the result.
Sweet potatoes do not like the frost and have to be harvested as soon as the first frost kills off the stalks, but in southern Ontario, we have an ideal growing season for them. In fact, sweet potatoes are a commercial crop here, and Ontario sweet potatoes are available in stores and markets. They store very well and can be kept for up to a year in cool, dry conditions. I like them for the colour they impart to winter meals, which can tend toward white and brown, as well as for their sweet flavour.

I have never been a big fan of beets, but have discovered that if they are prepared right (see below), I not only tolerate them, but often come back for seconds. And they are definitely worth cultivating a taste for, as they are one of the most “cardiovascular friendly” of all foods, providing anti-oxidants in both the root and greens that lower cholesterol levels and provide protection against coronary artery disease and stroke. They are reputed to offer anti-aging qualities as well!

Here’s my favourite recipe for winter root vegetables, taken from my well-worn copy of Michael and Anna Olson’s Inn On the Twenty Cookbook.

Root Vegetable Confit
Note: while there seems to be a lot of oil used here, very little remains with the vegetables, and using oil rather than water concentrates rather than evaporates the flavour. Keep the oil to use over again.

Preheat the oven to 350, and place each of the following vegetables in its own container: 2 sliced carrots, 2 sliced parsnips, 1 diced celery root, ½ diced rutabaga, 2 diced beets. Distribute 2 Cups of vegetable oil evenly over the vegetables and add salt and pepper. Cover the dishes with foil and cook each until tender. Celery root takes about 20 minutes, parsnips about 30, carrots and rutabaga about 40, and beets about 50. Drain the oil and set the vegetables aside until you are ready to serve them. To serve, heat the vegetables together (except for the beets) in a large sauté pan, season to taste, and sprinkle with thyme. Heat the beets separately, as their colour will bleed into the other vegetables, and toss with the others just before serving.

Monday, January 2, 2012

January: The French Resolution

My New Year’s resolution this year is to improve my French. After repeated visits to France and Québec over the last decade or so, I pride myself that I can “get by” in restaurants and shops, and have conversations at a fairly basic level. I’m happy that no longer do waiters and tourist guides and store clerks immediately switch to English as soon as I say “Bonjour.” However, I have long been embarrassed that most French people speak English better than I speak French… and I come from a supposedly bilingual country, they don’t!

Of the most active members in our Slow Food Pelham group, at least half are francophone, either from Québec or France. Of course, they are all fluent in English, while the English speaking contingent are either unable or unwilling to participate in a French conversation. (There’s an old joke that there are three kinds of Canadians: tri-lingual Canadians, bi-lingual Canadians, and English Canadians.) When our group gets together for meetings or other events like our lamb roast or special meals, general conversation is in English so that everyone can take part. Even though it is necessary if we are going to enjoy each other’s company (and we do), it seems somehow unfair that half of the group is speaking a “second language” all the time.

Of course, the connection between the French and food is well established. In the western world, French cuisine is acknowledged as the choice of gourmets and the standard by which fine food is judged; the English language is riddled with French words that have to do with food. From crêpes Suzettes to foie gras, from béchamel to baguette, we use French terms for the finest food. A quick survey of the cook books that cram the shelves in our kitchen reveals that more than a third are dedicated to French cooking, whether Julia Childs’ thick tomes on the art of French cuisine, or one of Patricia Wells’ many books (Bistro Cooking is a favorite), or little specialty books like Sarah Leah Chase’s Pedaling Through Provence, they contain the most delicious recipes in our repertoire. (Which reminds me, for some reason, of George W. Bush’s famous overheard comment at a summit: “You know the problem with the French? They don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” But I digress).

So, I am going to tackle French with a renewed vigour in the new year, and not just my French cooking. When we spend two or three weeks in France or Québec, my French naturally improves, but over the intervening year, I lose much of what I gained. The challenge will be to make the time and effort to continue to improve, rather than lapse and have to start all over. Making the time and effort… that’s what New Year’s resolutions are for.

On our visits to the South of France, we always stop at a sandwich stand and enjoy Pan Bagnat, a delicious sandwich served in the area around Nice.

Cut a crusty bun in half lengthwise and rub each half with a cut garlic clove. Coat the bread with wine vinegar and olive oil, then stuff the sandwich with the following ingredients, finely sliced: lettuce, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, tuna, cucumbers, anchovies, peppers, radishes, green onions, basil leaves, and pitted black olives. Let the sandwich sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour before serving to let the juices soak into the bread. Bon appétit!