Archive for the ‘Regional Food’ Category

Episode 27 – The Kill Floor


When I buy sides of pork and beef from local farmers, it is quite plainly illegal for them to be killed in an un-inspected environment. Consequently, farmers bring their meat animals to one of the local meat processors/abattoirs and for a very reasonable fee, the processor does what’s called a ‘kill & chill’. Under supervision of a provincial meat inspector, they do the kill, gutting, skinning [or scraping for pigs], and chilling of the carcass. It’s important work, and I’m guessing it’s work that most retail customers are oblivious to, for a variety of reasons. You don’t want to know. Industry doesn’t want you do know. I think we should know.

In the poultry industry, kill plants have been shut down by increasing regulation over the years such that producers must now drive their poultry to the plant in St. Paul to have their birds processed – even if it takes hours and hours to drive there. The result is highly-stressed birds and significant loss of life in transit. Ask your local poultry producer about it. For whatever reason our local red meat processors have [thankfully] not met that same fate. We need to keep it that way. We need to better understand their role in our local food supply chain. We need to support these people that do our dirty work for us – and make no mistake, it’s the consumer that demands the dirty work be done.

Another theme I wanted to address is the amount of food that goes in the bin at the processor – by request of the consumer. Stock bones, oxtail, heart, liver, tongue, kidney, caul fat, tripe, pig heads, and loads more go in the bin because we don’t want it. It’s wasteful, disrespectful, and I think we’re due for a culture change in this regard.

This episode is graphic and not for everyone, so don’t watch it unless you want to see how a cow gets killed and processed. It’s a far too uncommon look at a critical part of the process of delivering meat to the table. I will be moderating the comments liberally.

Abstinence & Seasonal Eating


Abstinence. As I get older I find the concept more and more intriguing.

I went through a stage of enjoying posh wines quite frequently. After some time, it took more and more to impress as posh wines became the norm. I found my enjoyment of them decreased, and it took more and more awesomeness to impress. Having noticed this taking place, I majorly backed away from posh wines, and now I find I enjoy them more when they do make an appearance. They’re special again. They’re not the norm. They make a moment special as a nice wine should.

Eating seasonally is forced abstinence, and I’m increasing grateful for it. Today’s example is lard. I haven’t had lard in the house since last year’s was all used up. That means that I haven’t had a tart, fruit pie, meat pie, in some time. Which makes having one again far more enjoyable than were I to always have it available. It’s a treat, rather than the norm.

The garden provides far better examples – we eat asparagus in May/June, and that’s it. Some people think that’s hardcore. I see it as sensible – eating the item when it’s fresh and local, then abstaining until it’s in season again. It’s an awfully good thing there are other lovely things to eat than just asparagus, and I’ve found that the year is a slow evolution of palette of foods coming into their own. When asparagus season returns, we’re eating it at its best which makes it tasty, but we’ve also not had it in ages which makes it that much more of an event. It’s not ‘everyday’. This forced abstinence seems to inject my life with loads more ‘special moments’ with food than before, that end up tied to time and place. In a sense, it’s largely what I set out to achieve in changing our family’s food culture.

Absence [and abstinence] does make the heart grow fonder. I’m convinced.

Hitting the Farm with Culinary Students


At their request as a consulting local food ‘expert’ [makes me cringe to refer to myself as such], I’ve headed up a couple food adventures lately with some of NAIT‘s culinary arts students. Last week was foraging for highbush cranberry – still have to write about that one. Yesterday though was a farm experience I hooked them up with out at Sundog Organic Farm. We got a tour from Jenny who explained crop rotation, their seeding schedule, infrastructure needs, etc and then hit the field to help them get some of their fall root veg put up for the winter. After a few hours in the field, we prepped and cooked lunch harvested straight from the field in one of the coolest kitchens I’ve experinced: their greenhouse. The students were left to check out the field, put together a menu, and execute it. Folks even got to go home with bags of reject carrots –  broken, too small to store, but still tasty. Good times.

This seems like an obvious connect to me: people who are passionate about preparing food hanging out with people who are passionate about growing it. That’s why I’m willing to make time away from my work and family to go assist in connecting that gap where I can. The way I see it, the talented young folks who are about to go out and become the cooks and chefs in our community have a crack at changing the culture around seasonality and locality. Perhaps that’s naive of me, but I’ve been learning that it doesn’t necessarily take many to  make a difference in their community. Some of them will design menus. Some of them will make decisions that impact local agricultural producers whether they are aware of it or not. And some of them just might go on to advocate for local, seasonal eating as well.

At the end of the day, the farmer got some extra and energetic hands to help get a bunch of vegetables stored for winter sale while connecting with the industry talent that will shape part of their future. It’s worth mentioning that getting veg out of the ground doesn’t always get done, the farms often struggling with well timed and sufficient labor – so if you’re interested in checking out your local veg farm, don’t be shy to offer yourself up for an afternoon, day, or weekend during harvest. They need a hand. Rescue some food, help the farm, and I guarantee it will be worth your time. The students in this case got to get outside and connect with where their food [should] come from, get excited about great local ingredients, hang out with some nice folks, and feel helpful. All around, all positives. Win-win-win-win-win-win.

Slow Food Edmonton Highbush Cranberry Foray


Headed out this evening to hit the urban bush with a bunch of Slow Food Edmonton members. I organized the event hoping it would be an easy, casusal way to get us like minded folk outdoors enjoying some wild food and good company – maybe even expose some folks to something new that grows in their own backyard. Turns out it was a success on all those fronts. Everybody went home with wild fruit this evening. Some folks will work with it in their kitchens for the first time. Some will enjoy it at a local fine restaurant whose chef cares enough about food to get into the bush to forage for it.

I quite simply equate the highbush cranberry to stinky french cheese – something distinctive, odorous [some compare it to stinky feet], that speaks to place and even time. Something that we should be proud of as having thoughtfully and skillfully integrated into our local food culture. I think there’s still a long way to go, especially with us younger generations. We have an ingredient of character in our own backyard, and hardly know what it looks like nevermind what to do with it.

As I’m prone to avoid recipes, I’ll point you in Karlynn’s direction re: a recipe for highbush cranberry jelly. What I can help with is its uses. It’s fine on toast in the morning, but in my opinion has met its proper fate on a plate with the wild game meats that live in the same bush. So get yourself some wild game, or even farmed elk, bison, venison, whatever, and give it a shot with some highbush cranberry jelly. It’s terroir food.

Farm to Table w/ RGE RD & Nature’s Green Acres


Farm-to-table dining, while commonplace elsewhere, is still an extremely progressive concept in our restaurant scene. When one of the most well-respected chefs in the city, Blair Lebsack, mentioned he was going to tackle serving a multi-course dinner to 30-40 guests out in the cow pasture at Nature’s Green Acres, I wanted to be there.

I find in the food service industry, ‘Local‘ normally equates to an element, maybe two on the plate being local, and it’s usually a protein. ‘Seasonal‘ often really means, ‘seasonal somewhere’. Not here. The beef, pork, and chicken was from the farm, yes, but when the farm didn’t have enough garden to supply the dinner, Blair and Caitlin got out there and built and planted garden months in advance. They foraged nettle for one of the iced teas and the ice cream, and nicked edible flowers from farm yard to include in the menu. They made butter for bread and for the pastries in the desert course. Blair chased the pig into the trailer to haul off to the abattoir, and butchered it himself. They butchered chickens, made stock for the soup, and used the livers in a terrine. He even helped the farmer rip the ancient, neglected, wood burning stove out of one of the farm’s outbuildings so he could cook on it – the entire service being done over wood fire. Essentially, if it wasn’t from the farm or a neighbour, it wasn’t on the menu.

It was an epic evening for everyone involved, I think – certainly the kind of event you don’t soon forget, if ever. Keep an eye out for more from Blair and RGE RD [the name of his new venture], as this wasn’t a one-off. Perhaps farm-to-table has finally truly arrived.

Me + NAIT = ? [Part 1 of?]


So what’s the deal with me and NAIT’s culinary arts program?

Some faculty members seriously committed to bringing in far more local food to the program approached me to facilitate. I am not being paid by them. I’m doing what I can because I think it’s the right thing to do. That’s it. But that’s about where the simplicity of the situation ends.

Surprisingly, this is a potentially complex challenge. The school has been trying on various fronts and failing. Why? Because [forgive some generalizations throughout] the food service industry supply chain and the seasonal/local food supply chain are not well connected.  Their needs differ. Industry tends to plan fixed menus for months at a time, with specific ingredients, and require suppliers to fill orders on demand. The seasonal, local food supply works more like: seasonal ingredient is available, want some? Come and get it.

So you have producers with fantastic product completely accessible to individual consumers at farmers’ markets, that are elusive to industry – a tad counter-intuitive. Seems the consumer’s willing to go get it, industry not so much. A small producer may have the best product around, but isn’t set up for [or want] distribution, and frankly needs to be on the farm farming, not driving their product around. So distribution is an industry problem. Not to say it’s the farmer’s problem – many are quite happy thank-you-very-much getting top dollar [sans trade discount or middle men] selling direct one day a week at a vibrant farmer’s market. Less headache driving product around, better margin,  more flexible consumer, more time to farm. I get it.

This leaves the industry in a weird position – they need specific things to meet the demands of their businesses, but the farms often don’t offer it exactly how they want or need it, or when they want or need it. And the relationship dies there. It’s too bad. The romantic notion of chef going to market to source what’s the most exciting seasonal item to put on the plate that day is good for the marketing department, but not the operations department. It’s far easier to order through a Sysco, get product in the size, quantity, and the day you want. Path of least resistance wins, local food objective fails. The good news with NAIT is they have some staff who are willing to effect some change, even if it means volunteering time to go pick up product at a local market to get the job done. Crazy idea that – chef going to market.

So for now, I’ve agreed to help them figure out what top-shelf local product is available, from whom, when. Plan is to meet with faculty in a month or two to discuss. I’ve also been asked to be involved with student tours of local farms, offering guidance with charcuterie [esp game], taking students foraging, and more. We’ll see how much of this is possible given my increasingly limited time.

More on this as things progress – just wanted to start on this topic as I know some folks [including producers] are curious. If you are a local producer that wants to supply to NAIT, send me an email.

NAIT Shifting Focus to Local Food


Nope, not from my garden. Not wild. Not from my cellar, and not even from a local farm. But indirectly, entirely about the change in tide towards local food. How, you ask?

I was invited to this meal as a guest – and there’s no question it was expertly prepared by NAIT Culinary Arts students, under guidance of super-celeb-chef Susur Lee. Others have covered the lovely lunch experience here, here, and I’m sure elsewhere.

What’s interesting here to me is that the lobster wasn’t from here [clearly, we're roughly 5000km from the Atlantic], nor the goat cheese [our local artisan producer should forgive them this time], and even the lamb was from New Zealand, which I’m sure hurts the feelings of local lamb producers [and carbon-footprint-trackers]. The dessert was a lovely visit to tropical islands – 5000km+ the opposite direction from the lobster. I know. I’m hardcore about my local food. The 8500km stretch between first course and last was hard to get my head around. What can I say, I don’t get out much.

Given the title of the post and content thusfar, you may think I’m being facetious, but I’m not. The point here is that a few days later I received an email from the cooking school, asking if I would consult, speak, and otherwise work with them as an ‘expert’ in local food. They have a mandate to source more local ingredients for their demos and menus. Fantastic. I’m meeting with them in a few days to see how I can help. I’m proud that our local culinary school has the gumption to challenge conventional institutional buying practices in an effort to embrace local foods. Good on them. May other large organizations follow their lead.

Alberta Avenue Farmer’s Market


Okay, so I was missing out. The City Market Downtown had closed for the season, and although Old Strathcona is an option for some farms, the long waiting list leaves the rest to sort themselves out. I really have a hard time getting my head around how farmer’s markets operate, to be honest. From what I can tell, politics, protectionism, and profit too often rule the day at the expense of mutual good not only in the farming community, but for our local food system that the vendors rely on. I digress.

Having had good intentions to follow some of our fav City Market vendors to the Alberta Ave Market, we finally made it out today. And I’m kicking myself a bit for waiting this long. Why?

Christine at Shooting Star Ranch is a fantastic lady. Having started in the elk antler business, they now also sell their meats to Planet Organic. I left with a couple elk ivories in my pocket – a Christmas gift my oldest daughter was supposed to keep secret. What? You didn’t know elk had a pair of ivory teeth? They do. I’m not kidding. Christine also turned Eve into a greedy capitalist while we were there [see photo]. They’re selling meat cuts, sausages, jerky, etc – my pick being the small pack of tenderloin for $6.50. Bargain. Just don’t overcook them.

Next reason: eggs. I missed our regular supply of awesome fresh eggs. I can go to a posh grocer to pay too much for relatively fresh and good quality eggs, I know – but I mean fresh eggs. In case you didn’t watch the From Local Farms episodes referring to egg freshness, check this one out. I was really relieved to hear from two local egg producers that eggs can be in the conventional distribution system for 3-6 months. I thought I was just being a snot complaining about runny watery egg whites from the box store. Turns out those watery eggs were nearly as old as the calf moose and beef we harvested this fall. Yuck.

In a bit of overkill, I loaded up on duck eggs from Red Barn Pekin Ducks [seen in picture, and a bargain], Green Eggs & Ham, and chicken eggs from Ma-Be Farms. Perhaps I over did it, as I’ll be back next week, but I know that I won’t be holding them for 6 months, so I’m not too worried about the freshness going south if I have to sit on them for a while [no pun intended]. For the record, the Red Barn Pekin Duck eggs have seriously goopy whites. Goopy sounds bad, but as the antithesis to the hated-runny-white, goopy in this case is fantastic.

Ma-Be Farms. Never heard of them. They sell so much variety I didn’t know where to begin chatting about their products. So I bought eggs – $3/dozen. Then we chatted bison. Turns out they have to sell their bison at $10/lb, as if they can’t charge that, they are better off selling it to foreign markets who will pay that or better. I was glad to run into another farmer [first one, John Schneider of Gold Forest Grains] who, in the face of the easier, profitable route of selling abroad, chooses to work harder to keep their product available to locals. Well done.

They have grass fed beef that are finished on grain. They have pork. And lastly, chickens. Pastured chickens whose pens are moved daily. I was shocked. Although you see it around [Serben Free Range, Sunworks, Nature's Green Acres], it’s still not the norm. $15/5 lb bird. Again, bargain.  He offered to hook me up with Hutterite chickens that were significantly larger for the same price. “Are they raised the same way?”. “No, they’re barn raised”. I told him I’d be willing to pay far more for his pasture raised birds than for barn raised birds.  We fell in love with Nature’s Green Acres’ birds this summer, but they’re long sold out. So next week, I’m picking up some chickens from Ma-Be.

Then there was Smoky Valley Goat Cheese and Green Eggs & Ham – two producers from the City Market that we miss dearly in winter. Holly had a new ’bouton’ version of the St. Maure, and Mary Ellen had a surprising amount of lovely greens [baby kale, arugula, mustard greens] given their recent greenhouse freeze up.

I have a CSA share with Smoky Valley Goat Cheese and am a Futures member with Green Eggs and Ham – both worthwhile programs that I’ve enjoyed thoroughly, and have even given as gifts. And speaking of community ag, I happened to run into the nice lady who heads the Alberta Ave Market, Carrie [sp?], who is busy organizing one of the coolest community garden concepts I’ve heard of: getting neighbours and friends in the community to grow produce in their yards for sale at a community table at the Alberta Ave market. A market booth of neighbourhood yard food. Brilliant. This is the kind of meaningful innovation in food that gets stifled when markets get too big. I dearly hope they pull it off, and already offered some of my excess herbs for their table next season.

So while the Alberta Ave Market is indeed small, we had a great time on our first visit, and will be back. What it lacks in size it has in intimacy and small-town vibe. And now I don’t have to eat crappy eggs through the winter.

From Local Farms – Sunworks Farm


My time with Ron Hamilton of Sunworks Farm left me drowning in fascinating content – making this the most challenging edit to date. Ron and Sheila have been at this game longer than all the others I’ve covered so far, and have achieved a level of success in the organics business that places them as leaders in their industry. Being the biggest also makes you a target for criticism, and it seems like one of the emerging local ethics-of-food debates is whether one can get this big without compromising values. Ron addresses scale, growth, ethics, feed, conventional vs. organic practices both outdoors in the summer and in-barn in the winter, among many, many other topics.

I find feed interesting – and specifically the quest for farmers to achieve high-protein diets required to build meat without the use of soy. Ron says the roasted soy they use has 38-40% protein while the next best protein source, peas, has 20-22% if conventional, and  18-20% if organic. Problem is, much more than 15% peas in the ration doesn’t agree with the chickens’ tummies, and makes them sick. Another feed element that helps is alfalfa meal at 18% protein, also offering a greenness to the flavor of the meats. It currently comprises 12% of the ration. But the challenge remains: how to get birds to put on meat fast, with the use of local feed. I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that Ron knew all this stuff off the top of his head, you might too if you had to feed 8000 lbs of it a day to your birds.

One of the many new frontiers for Sunworks Farm is a brand new value-add facility where they’ll capture current waste products [chicken livers, wing  tips, etc] into patés, stocks, and other prepared foods on a large scale. I love the idea – more locally produced organic products, they can reduce waste from the animals the already produce, and it creates a new revenue stream for them in the value-add game. They also have a new facility with giant drum composters to handle waste they generate, turning it into healthful-for-the-land compost, and continue to build innovative facilities as practicality requires. It’s an exciting time in the world of Sunworks Farm, and they’ll be a key player to watch as the regional, ethical, and artisan food industry moves forward.