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.

2 comments:

  1. Welcome to the blogosphere, Dahlia! Good to see you here! I've been on the lookout for rhubarb, but haven't found any yet, although I haven't been to the farmer's markets recently (we get an organic box, so maybe I'll get a bunch in the next delivery.) Looking forward to following your quest!

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  2. So happy to hear from you! Glad to know you're getting an organic box. Aren't they just lovely?

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