Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hmmm, maybe I spoke too fast

There was some unsettling news on tv tonight: the province of Quebec is seeking to modify zoning laws in order to facilitate turning agricultural land into residential territory. Current laws protect farmland, and make it really hard to sell it for non-agricultural purposes. However, sprawling suburbs like Brossard in Montreal's South Shore are greedily eyeing what little farmland is left to turn it into McMansions and condos.What was even more disturbing was when the journalist interviewed people in the street: many did not see the problem in paving over farmland.

I hate to say it, but sometimes it feels like the suburbs are on a different planet.

The issue over farmland ties into this morning's edition of the Current on CBC Radio 1. I've noticed that soil has been making the headlines in the past year. Although it might not have come to the attention of the general public, after global warming, soil erosion and deterioration is right up there on the list of big concerns. Conventional farming - and gardening- practices are very damaging to topsoil. Over-use of chemical fertilizers, stripping of topsoil and peat bogs, and mechanical irrigation can lead to the thinning of fertile ground. If we do not make every effort to protect our fertile lands, how can we insure food for future generations? Especially with growing climate uncertainty.

Some politicians are, luckily, not so short sighted. Increasing concern with food safety and supply has pushed the City of Vancouver to seriously consider changing laws to allow for urban chickens. Victoria has already legalised the city birds (lucky you R!). I'm so envious. Chickens are beautiful pets, and for gardeners they provide great fertilizer, are talented weed and pest managers. And they enjoy turning the compost pile for you. What more can you ask for from a pet? Oh, and did I mention they provide you with eggs?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Counting down the days to....

It's supposed to be a gloomy day today... If it were a little later in the season it would have been a perfect day for mucking about in the garden. As it stands I can can only think wistfully about the beautiful day we had yesterday in Montreal. It was so warm that my tomato seedlings got to sunbathe for a couple hours out on the balcony.
The inclement weather announced for this week is more than a mere inconvenience: although snow in April in the east cause little damage, out west whole crops of summer fruit can be lost due a late storm. On the West Coast, the flower buds on stone fruit trees are already bulging -the non-fruiting Japanese plums might even be flowering in Vancouver- and sudden cold snaps can cause flower buds to drop. In Quebec and Ontario, the buds tend to crack open later, even in Niagara's micro climate.
So I'm crossing my fingers. Last year's record breaking snowfalls had so delayed the spring thaw that the peaches on offer from Ontario were rather sad looking.

On a brighter note: this year is supposed to be a boon year for maple syrup! The trees are already tapped, and the sap is running. The Urban Sugar Shack in my neighbourhood was officially opened on Thursday. Last year's snow made it very difficult to tap the trees, and syrup stocks are at an all time low. But Mother Nature seems to giving the "acériculteurs" (I don't know the word in English: maple grower?) a break this year.

Bonus! This means that most of the maple syrup that will soon be hitting the shelves will be this year's crop! Don't go rushing out to the supermarket, they probably have some left over from last year, wait for the outdoor stalls at the farmers' market... If you have any leftovers from last year, you should try a taste test. It might be hard to believe, but maple syrup does taste different from year to year.

Some Quebec maple growers are trying to have the syrup grading system changed. Currently maple syrup is graded from A to D: A being lighter in colour, and D being industrial grade. But this classification does not account for the maple's subtleties. It's a little long to explain here, so I'm posting a link to a Radio-Canada show that explains it all. It's in French, but well worth the effort. If you have access to Radio-Canada and are not busy on a Friday evening, Du Coeur au Ventre is a show well worth watching (Friday, 9pm).

The wild crocuses have started flowering... These cute flowers are not edible, but they are a harbinger of spring. Woodland flowers are among the first plants to break ground, and the wild crops are soon to follow!

More things to look forward to in April:

-Maple syrup
Need I say more?

-Wild garlic
You might have to go hunt for it yourself if you live near a wooded area, but Canadian wild garlic is a protected species, so it might be a safer bet to wait for the market stalls to stock their shelves. Pickers have permits allowing them to harvest limited quantities in specific areas, and some sellers grow it themselves.

-Dandelion greens
Dandelions are the bane of the perfect lawn. But green gardeners know that a perfect lawn is an oxymoron, and dandelions are good for you! All dandelion-looking greens are healthful, however that vegetable commonly found on supermarket (and market) shelves is NOT real dandelion, it's a type of chicory. It's delicious in its own right, though it's not the real thing. No farmer would be crazy enough to plant this perennial weed in their fields. So you'll have to wait for warmer weather in April to push the lions out of the ground.

As the days go by, I will delve deeper into these seasonal gems, but dandelions being the special weeds they are, here's more on them.
All dandelions are bitter, which is why few people like them... but they can be wonderful. The trick for wild dandelion is to pick them when they are very young. While supermarket stuff is fine at 30cm (12"), the real stuff should be no more than 10cm (4"). More importantly, it must not have its flower buds out yet. If your lawn is riddled with the weed, keep a close eye on it: pick them no more than a couple of days after it unfurled its leaves. Wash thoroughly, because dandelion can be gritty. Dry them, and put them in your salad bowl. Chop up some bacon, pancetta or some cured pork belly (or any fatty bit of salty meat), and fry until crisp. Pour fat and crispy bits over the dandelion, add a dash of red wine vinegar, and voilà! You've got a beautiful dandelion salad. It will go nicely with a slice of quiche.

For vegetarians, I would dice some lovely sourdough, toss it in a flavourful oil (a nice olive, walnut, hazelnut, or even toasted sesame oil) and salt, toast in the oven. In a pan, heat some more oil, but do not let it smoke. Pour the hot oil over the greens, toss with warm croutons and some vinegar (raspberry would be nice, or brown rice vinegar with the sesame oil). Mmm yum! The hot oil or fat wilts the greens and rounds out the bitter edge.

Enjoy dandelions while the weather is still mild, because when the sweltering heat hits, these greens turn unbearably bitter. When that happens, be ruthless and tear them out of your lawn. Supermarket dandelions can be eaten the same way. A word of warning: dandelion is not called "pissenlit" in French for nothing. True dandelion is a diuretic, though most adults should be able to control their bladder enough not to"piss in bed", if you have kidney problems you should limit your consumption.

Bon app'!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Spring is here!

March is fast coming to an end... For gardeners in the most of the Northern Hemisphere, this marks the end of the Hungry Gap: that's what we call that period of the year when the garden is still sleeping, and food production is at a minimum. Thus the 'Hungry Gap'.

For foodies, the gap goes mostly unnoticed since lovely things are available imported throughout the year. However, this time of the year marks when we can start eating fresh, local foods again... and start hunting the farmers' markets.

Although my passion is food, my aim is not to turn everyone into a foodie or even a gardener: my aim is to reconnect with the yearly cycle of the seasons. Supermarkets are a great convenience, the food is always plentiful and good deals are to be found there, but asparagus are available year-round, as are strawberries and corn on the cob. And that's just wrong! Some fruits and vegetables are more perishable than others, all the more reason they should only be enjoyed in season and locally. We all know that a tomato in winter -even a locally produced greenhouse billiard ball- will never taste the same as a sun warmed summer tomato.

Those who tend a garden are inherently atuned to Nature's cycle: from seed to harvest to compost, everything comes full circle. But not everyone has access to a bit of soil, and there are quite a few brown thumbs out there. However, everyone can eat seasonally, even if one only has access to a supermarket.

Eating seasonally available, local foods is not only delicious, it is also green. It allows us to reduce our food mileage, and it helps local farmers. Why is it important to help small farmers? Because it protects precious habitats, and it insures food security. It also safeguards old varieties of foods: small farmers tend to produce a large diversity of fruits and vegetables, varieties that bigger, commercial producers often shun.

Although I can only speak for what I know of my region, the story is more or less the same for most of North America's large cities. The island of Montreal used to be dotted with farmland: up until thirty years ago, small local farm provided for most of the produce consumed on-island. There used to be a local melon and good eating grapes growing in many backyards. Ten years ago there were three working farms left, and farmland off-island were being sold at a premium for condos and shopping malls. Things are changing: renewed interest in local and organic produce, green living and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) are helping farms survive.

I hope you will follow me in my journey to rediscovering the four seasons through food.

Things to look forward to in April:

-Greenhouse rhubarb
Sometimes hard to find in Montreal, but likely to be found in New York, Toronto, and most certainly at Granville Market in Vancouver (perhaps the season is already finished out West), greenhouse rhubarb is definitely an early season treat. It differs from regular garden rhubarb in that it is forced indoors in poor lighting, restricting the production of chlorophyl: the stem are thus bright pink instead of mottled green. Though the taste is no different, the colour is superb.

-First spring lettuces
In Quebec, we are lucky to have acces to beautiful, local salad year-round. Greenhouse production is doubly interesting (and green!) because salad production is often done in conjunction with fish farming: the lettuces are used to filter the fish waste and shelter the spawn. But there is something special about spring lettuce. First of all, the variety! Greenhouse lettuces are usually of the lolorosa, curly or boston variety (Romaine is rarely local in Quebec), but spring lettuces are multiple! And usually baby sized. Secondly, the flavour: say all you want about organic vs conventional agriculture, but soil if of the utmost importance. Lettuce is mostly water, so its flavour components are dependant on the soil it grew in: good, organic soil tends to have more trace minerals than heavily fertilised soils. Either way, open fields are more likely to be remineralised by Nature than are covered strips of land. So enjoy field lettuces! Personally, I'm not a big fan of lettuce, but I do like a good spring salad in April.

-Fiddleheads
They'll be making an appearance at the end of the month...

-Spring lamb
I'm a vegetarian, so I'll probably be a little off on the meat and fish calendar. But I love to eat, and I want everyone to love their food too, so I will try to mention meat and fish from time to time. Lamb.... oh! when I used to eat meat, lamb was one of my favourites! I can't say enough about this lovely meat: it has personality, nothing like bland chicken. If you've only ever tried it once, and did not like it, I think you should give spring lamb a chance. It's pricey, but it is a special treat. Spring lamb, a.k.a. milk-fed lamb, is just that: it's very young, and it hasn't tasted grass yet. The flesh is pale and the taste is MUCH milder thatn regular lamb. And you probably have to find a good butcher to get your hands on it. The stuff found in the frozen aisle is not spring lamb, and it usually comes from New Zealand (food miles!) Lamb, especially milk fed, is best cooked to medium, even medium-rare, otherwise it will be too dry.

-Smelts
Smelts are small fish, not babies. Full-sized they're about 15cm (6inches) long. The season is coming to a close, but if you live in a region with access to a northern coast (New Foundland, Quebec, Ontario), you might be lucky enough to get your hands on a few fresh ones. They're really inexpensive, and delicious eaten whole and deep-fried.
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