Lucky Dip – Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

In Toronto:

Chef Anthony Rose announced yesterday via The Grid that he’ll be leaving The Drake Hotel (1150 Queen Street West) at the end of the month to open a place of his own. Darren Glew, who has been at The Drake for the past five years, will take over the kitchen.

Simple Bistro (619 Mount Pleasant Road) had rolled out a new spring menu. Chef Matthew Cowan is offering up lots of tasty local fare such as rainbow trout, Grey County rabbit with prunes (put this in my belly now!), venison tartare and mushroom crepe. And brunch offers something called “The Cure” which is not Fat Bob singing Lovecats, but looks instead like the ultimate fry-up with eggs, bacon, sausage and duck confit hash.

Emma’s Country Kitchen (1108 St. Clair Avenue West) is not open yet, but hopes to be serving salads, sandwiches, soups, brunch and pastries to the folks of Corso Italia within the next couple of months.

The folks at Slow Food Toronto are looking for volunteers to help out at The Green Living Show (April 13th – 15th) at the Farm Fresh Fare area they run each year. People who help out and work a 3-hour shift will get a free pass to the show and some food tickets to try some of the food prepared by local chefs.

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Local Yokels

Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment.

I had a conversation with a colleague recently in which the subject turned to local food. Specifically, how people in the Toronto area are prone to blindly follow and buy anything grown locally despite the quality of the products themselves.

My colleague suggested that most consumers want their farmers’ markets to carry the same things that the grocery stores do (instead of the other way around) – i.e. expecting varieties of fruits and vegetables similar to the bland varieties grown in California that were mostly developed for easy shipping. They also suggested that certain local food producers create products of inferior quality; that many esteemed Toronto chefs who specialize in local food don’t actually offer a good quality meal; and that fans of local food willingly buy these inferior products or meals anyway, because they refuse to acknowledge their own sense of taste, instead deferring to local “experts” or advocates (chefs, food writers, etc.) who tell the food-lovers what to like and what to buy.

I don’t necessarily agree with all of this opinion, thus my “devil’s advocate” disclaimer – please don’t shoot the messenger – but on some levels, my colleague has a point. The argument cooked in my head a bit, because I’ve been wondering for a while – how many local products are we buying are because they’re the best products available, and how much of it is for the ideology of “supporting local”?

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Egg Head

I don’t recall eating store-bought eggs growing up. Surely there must have been times when we did, but I never really remember anyone buying them. What I mostly remember is my father coming home late from work every few weeks with a couple dozen eggs procured from a farm just outside the Halifax city limits. There wasn’t a lot of debate about why we went directly to a farm for eggs, and if there had been, I’m not sure it would have been of the “support local farmers” ilk. I suspect it was more that the eggs were cheaper than supermarket eggs, although, in retrospect, the gasoline used to go and get the things probably negated any savings.

And as a kid, I would have been hard-pressed to be able to tell the difference between farm and factory eggs, although the farm eggs (that never went to a grading station) occasionally turned out messy half-fertilized chicks that grossed out my brother and I.

As a grown-up, I buy supermarket eggs because they’re more convenient and because all three of the stores within walking distance of me carry some version of organic, free-run eggs. These are obviously not ideal in that the chickens are not free-range (aka. let outside to eat bugs and run in the sunshine) but are definitely superior in both flavour and ethics to the battery-caged industrial eggs that are more readily available.

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At the Top of Their Game

I am generally sceptical when being served game meat. Having grown up eating wild caught stuff, the flavour of the game meat served in Toronto restaurants is generally subdued. Ontario law dictates that wild game meat cannot be sold to the public, so most of the venison, rabbit, elk, kangaroo, etc., that we eat here has been farmed. Farming has its pros and cons, of course, but one of the the most noticeable differences is the lack of a gamey taste because the animals are eating controlled feed instead of foraging in the forest.

This is a good thing, in a way, because it means that people will try game meat and not be put off by the strong flavour. But folks like me, who expect the strong flavour, often find game meat lacking. What is needed, then, is for the meat to be prepared at the hands of a skilled chef who knows how to nuance, accentuate and tease out the flavours. Last night, 9 sets of those skilled hands took on the challenge.

The Ontario Game Dinner at Hank’s was a benefit for Slow Food Toronto – money raised went towards sending Toronto chefs to Slow Food’s bi-annual conference in Italy.

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Don’t Count Your Chicken Before You’ve Tasted Them

The phrase “tastes like chicken” is beyond cliché. We use it for any whitish meat that we can’t accurately describe any other way – frog’s legs, alligator, lizard – guaranteed someone trying any of these for the first time will compare them to chicken.

But what, exactly, does chicken taste like? The specimens we get in supermarkets or most restaurants are all the same breed (White Rock), probably fed with some mixture of GMO corn and other grain, raised in a barn for optimum growth in a minimal time frame, and likely pumped full of a saline solution during processing to make the meat look plump and full and heavy.

But chickens come in different breeds, and like beef and pork, those different breeds have different characteristics, in the kitchen and on the plate.

At a recent tasting event at Victor Restaurant, participants got to clearly see the difference between breeds, and the phrase “tastes like chicken” no longer applies.

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Toronto’s Terre Madre Day

Over the past few years, Slow Food activists have taken part in a bi-annual event in Torino, Italy called Terra Madre. First held in 2004, the event brings together food activists from around the world in a giant conference and marketplace where people can exchange ideas and information. There are conferences, symposiums, dinners and markets, all with a focus on sharing ideas about how to promote sustainable food. Terra Madre takes place during the even-numbered years (2006, 2008… another coming up in 2010), and this year, Slow Food decided that it would be a good idea for individual convivia to hold local events – both as a great way to support local food producers, and because, well, not everyone can afford to get on a plane to Italy.

Organized and paid for by Slow Food Toronto (monies raised at the Picnic at the Brickworks allowed them to pay participating farmers and producers to take part, a rarity in the world of markets and trade shows where the producers usually have to pay to participate), this year’s Terra Madre Day took place at the FoodShare warehouse.

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The Flavours of Summer Are Set to Shine at Harvest Wednesdays

harvestjulyravioli

It has spawned countless copycats, and has earned Chef Marc Breton a local food hero award from the Toronto Food Policy Council. It brings together farmers and local food producers with the people who eat their food. It has created friendships and communities, and has taught urbanites how easy (and delicious) it is to eat with the seasons.

Harvest Wednesdays is back for its fourth year, offering up dishes made from locally grown produce, as well as locally-produced meats, cheeses, wines, beer and more.

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The Charms of the Farm – Why a CSA is the Best Way to Enjoy the Harvest

harvestparsley

It’s almost April, and everywhere you turn people are planning their gardens – mapping out plots, ordering seeds. It’s enough to make a yardless city gal a little bit jealous, and I know I’m not the only one experiencing garden envy.

For those of us who can’t grow our own food (or who have ambitious plans in April that never seem to include weeding in the 30°C temperatures of August), the next best thing is to find our very own farmer who will do it for us – weeding included.

Spring is also when farmers start planning their upcoming growing season and is the perfect time for customers looking to get involved with a Community Shared Agriculture(CSA) programme to find a farmer to work with.

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Farm to Home

slowfaircow

After the long hard winter we’re just now starting to see the back of, there were times when I almost believed that it wouldn’t end – that it would be perpetual winter forever. Fortunately Mother Nature takes care of things, and just like it has for every other year since the beginning of time, spring has arrived. Which turns the heads of farmers and gardeners to one thought – planting.

 

Since many of us city-dwellers don’t have access to a yard in which to grow our own vegetables, we rely on area farmers to keep us well-stocked with nature’s bounty. And as we become more in tune with the philosophy of eating locally and supporting local growers and producers, we city-dwellers need a quick and easy way to do that. While farmer’s markets are always a delight to visit, many people just don’t have the time, or else don’t have any way to haul their swag home.

Recently more and more smaller local farms have been setting up Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) programs in which customers can buy a share of the farm’s output for the year. Depending on the farm, customers can either pick up their weekly box of goodies at the farm, or else the farmer will make deliveries to a pre-set drop-off point a couple of times a week. But how are we city-folk who want to join a CSA supposed to find one? Drive around in the country, stopping at every farm we see?

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The Local Food Scene – Who Does What? Part 1

whodoesberries

Although asparagus season is actually still at least a few weeks (okay, months) off, I keep trying to convince myself that any day now, I’ll run up to that display in my local supermarket’s produce section and the tag will say “Product of Ontario” instead of “Product of Peru”. Of course, when local asparagus becomes available, we’ll all know it – so many local organizations have popped up over the past few years to advocate for local food that they’ll be fighting to tell us all who has the first, best and cheapest asparagus around.

Despite working with and writing about many of the various regional food advocacy groups over the past couple of years, I still have a hard time remembering who does what. Which means that the average consumer in the Toronto area is probably even more bewildered than I am. Here then, is a brief primer, separated by category, of the various organizations, what they do, and where you can find them.

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Building the Green Link

The folks at Slow Food Toronto have issues.

This past Monday, February 26th, they met at Hart House, along with a variety of local farmers, food purveyors, chefs and media to discuss how to best deal with them.

The issues being, of course, how to set up links between small local farms and the restaurants and consumers (aka. co-producers) who want their products.

A panel consisting of farmers, farmer’s market organizers and restaurateurs discussed the hurdles faced by everyone in ensuring local produce made it to local plates. Speakers included Stephen Alexander of Cumbrae’s; Susan Benson of the Culinary Tourism Initiative; Pamela Cuthbert, food writer and Slow Food Toronto founder; Anne Freeman of the Dufferin Grove Market; Jamie Kennedy of Jamie Kennedy Kitchens; and Mark Trealout of Kawartha Ecological Growers, as well as panel moderator Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council.

With a goal of forging partnerships between local growers and both restaurants and farmer’s market customers, the panel took turns speaking on various initiatives to increase awareness and dialogue.

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