Thursday, September 24, 2009

Where is my mind?

I can't believe Autumn is already upon us, and here I am getting sideswiped by news that the UK wants to backtrack on the living conditions for battery chickens....

I really wanted to write about plums and apples and tuna... but I feel winded by all the running around on the net trying to find out more about the RSPCA's chicken campaign... Let me catch my breath...

Where to begin, where to begin? Fall is a busy, busy, busy time of the year for so many reasons: kids going back to school; adults going back to work after a not so restful summer vacation; and farmers are scrambling to get their crops in before the first hard frost comes down.

It's no coincidence that autumn is host to so many harvest festivals. Did you know that Hallowe'en was originally a harvest fest? The pagans believed that the gods died at this time of the year, and sent them off with a bang to thank them for the abundant crops. Then the Christians took the whole death theme and twisted it into All Hallow's Eve...

Anyway, so autumn is synonym with abundance. And the markets are bustling with activity. I've been so busy with my garden though that I haven't had time to saunter by to take pictures (sorry!)

The plums are lovely this year! I was worried that our rotten summer would have ruined the crops, but it would seem that plums are tough trees, and they've managed just fine. Though there are huge, plump plums to be had year round, nothing compares to the local fruits that are available just now (I know, I always say that, but it so true). These local beauties are the perfect lunchbox fruit, because they require no prep, and unlike the imported stuff they do not need to be messy-soft in order to be tooth achingly sweet.

There are several kinds of plums that are hardy in these northern reaches, and they are all just lovely. The dark purple, almost black, Italian plum, aka damsons in the UK and quetch (I love that name!) in France, is a nice balance between sweet and tart. Yellow plum or Mirabelles have tiny stones, and are rather sweet. Greengages are like Mirabelles, but green skinned. In Quebec, there are two local varieties that have been enjoying a bit of a comeback: the Mont-Royal (yes, it is a Montreal native!) and the Damas -a variation on the damson- which grows farther up north.

All plums make for great eating out of hand, but they also make beautiful, jewel tone jams. High in natural pectin and pulp, plums require little more than a quick wash and pitting to be ready for jamming. Though all plums make lovely jams, go for the tarter varieties as they will have a more balanced flavour. Equal parts sugar and fruit is not too much, but it can be reduced by up to half (500g sugar/kg of fruit). Plum jam is great on toast, with peanut butter or -even better- almond butter, but it also make a great condiment. As is with a nice pork roast, or mixed with a touch of mustard for poultry. Thanksgiving is coming up, so if some of you are tired of cranberries with turkey, why not try a nice plum jam?

Fall apples are finally here! I don't know about you,but I'm not too keen on summer apples: I find them too soft, and they do not keep very well either, which is why I didn't mention them when they were in season (August in case you were you were curious). Give me an autumn apple any day! Especially those that are so crunchy it feels like you may lose a tooth biting into them. Mackintosh, the quintessential Canadian apple, has been in since the beginning of the month. Next came Jonamac - a hybrid of Mac and Jonagold- a pretty apple, with its blush and golden hues, and a nice crunch. Some Cortlands have been around, and the cool nights of recent weeks are a good omen for firm apples!

Fall strawberries are in and they should be around until hard frosts (mid to end of October), so if you haven't already stocked up on berries for your freezer, now is the time.

Swiss chard and all matters of leafy greens are abundant, but if you want a real treat try to hold off until the weather gets even chillier: chard, kale and even Brussel sprouts are sweetest after they have undergone a bit of frost.

Corn is supposed to be best in September, so if you haven't overdosed on sweet corn in August, go out and buy a dozen just to see if the rumors are true. In any case, it's still great barbecue weather, so don't put away your grill just yet.

The next few things I'm going to write about are no longer thought of as having any seasonality at all, though in truth, most other foodstuff, they would be better off if they were returned to their rightful seasons.

Oysters: it was traditionally thought that oysters should only be eaten during the months ending in ER (September to December). Apparently the only basis for this kind of thinking was the lack of refrigerated transportation and the rough seas in the dead of winter. The invention of manufactured ice, followed by refrigerated trucks put an end to such practices, and year-round farming of oysters more or less killed off the idea.

Personally, I like autumn to winter oysters best: they are still quite plump and flavourful, without being fatty. Spring-summer is breeding season for oysters, and they tend to be milky (full of sperm and eggs). Some people like the fatty, almost buttery texture of summer oysters, but I kind of think they're gross... But that's just me. Each variety of oyster will taste differently depending on its place of origin, water temperature, water salinity and tidal variations. So try them all until you fing one you love.

By the way, oyster farming is very sustainable and has little environmental impact. In fact, there is ongoing research looking into combining oyster, salmon and kelp farming to reduce the environmental impact of salmon farming. Something to keep an eye on.

Another lost tradition is the autumn slaughter of pigs. Fresh pork is now available all year long, and it is a relatively cheap meat. In fact, prices are so low that pork farmers are having a really hard time making any money at present. It used to be that fresh pork was only consumed during fall and winter, and the rest of the year people contended with cured meats. The only remnant of this tradition is France's insistence on only selling blood sausages from October to May. However, if you happen to know a hobby farmer, you might be able to participate in this autumnal activity.

Finally, bluefin tuna! What with the ubiquitousness of sushi, one would never know that tuna was seasonal, yet it is. Tuna are a majestic migratory fish, and it only happens to come into American and Canadian waters at this time of the year.

Supposedly, North Atlantic bluefin tuna is being sustainably managed in both Canadian and American waters, since both countries have severely restricted the fleet of trawlers going after tuna in their own waters. Tuna in North American waters are apparently mainly line-caught, that is mano a pesce. Supposedly. Apparently. It may be true. In any case, scientists have been decrying the overfishing of tuna, and bluefins especially, for decades. And for decades the international association that sets the quotas for tuna have ignored the warnings, setting catch limits much higher than what is considered sustainable.

While bluefin tuna may be mainly line caught in North American waters, it is literally being hunted down to extinction in international waters, even in the Mediterranean. Big tuna are so valued on the market (fetching tens of thousands of dollars at auction in Tokyo) that large fisheries are investing millions of dollars in GPS systems, helicopters and spotter planes. Over the past 40 years, bluefin population has dropped by 60%, and it is believed that unless something drastic is done now, it will never recover. Both the American and Canadian fisheries are currently asking for an international ban on bluefin.

So folks, bluefin tuna is in season, but please, do not buy any. There are other -less expensive- fish in season.

Have some oysters! Eat lots of apples and plums, they're both lovely with pork roast!

Bon app'!

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