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”?
The first thing to take note of here is that Toronto is really quite progressive when it comes to supporting local food artisans. In terms of any kind of “food identity”, it’s a defining feature of our food scene. We herald our chefs who support local producers, and know the names of our farmers.
Not everyone agrees with the premise, of course. We’ve had writers on this site who bristled when they were told they couldn’t write a review of a restaurant in another country – it’s called TasteTO, our mandate is pretty clear – and the reply I got, that Toronto doesn’t have any high-quality restaurants, was both shocking and frustrating. In that typical Canadian lack of self-esteem kind of way, we sell ourselves short on the world stage because there are no Michelin stars sparkling in our towns.
And maybe it’s that lack of self-esteem that caused our food scene to latch onto the local movement so devotedly. Toronto measures itself against other places so obsessively, having something to call our own – like a local food movement in a city surrounded by some of the best agricultural land in the world – seems like an honour no one can take from us. And like every other social movement or trend (be it in music or art or theatre) Toronto doesn’t do things in half measures. So when local became the big buzzword, we went all in.
Which is fantastic (remember – devil’s advocate here). And gives us a unique food identity. Paris may be posh and high-end, New York may have all that awesome street food, but in Toronto, we’ve got at least one accessible farmers’ market every single day of the week. We’ve got people willing to invest in local food artisans. We’ve got a plethora of restaurants all dedicated to serving locally grown food, and of working with specific farms. In fact, I saw a comment by a food blogger recently about a new restaurant opening, in which they were disappointed by the fact that this place didn’t seem to have any kind of policy for serving local food. We are at the point where we expect such a policy to be in place, regardless of the nature of the restaurant, and where a lack of such a policy might just be business suicide.
Which brings me back to my colleague’s comment. Because what if that newly opened restaurant chose to source their products from non-local producers because they believed the quality was better? I’ll give you a moment to be aghast and curse them out. But then let’s get back to the meat of the question.
Winemakers use the theory of terroir to determine which grapes should be grown where. Soil, weather and general growing conditions all determine whether a wine will taste good or bad. For instance, syrahs grown in warm regions are preferable to those grown in cooler areas. Using the same theory, wouldn’t it make sense that a peach grown in Georgia might actually taste better than a peach grown in Ontario? Or that blueberries grown in Nova Scotia taste better than those grown here?
I know – it feels blasphemous to even type it. But while I’ll happily eat Ontario blueberries, I can immediately tell the difference between local berries and those “from away”, specifically from the Maritimes where the salt air and scrappy topsoil barely attached to the granite bedrock make for a distinct flavour that is almost umami-like in character. And my preference (sorry) is for the blueberries from Nova Scotia. Even if they’re cultivated. I’ll surely take Ontario berries over something imported from the US or Chile, but I know my own tastes enough to realize that, for me, the Ontario product is a far second place.
But does everybody supporting the local food scene have the same sense of their own tastes? Heck, do they even know that it’s okay to stand up and say it out loud? My colleague doesn’t think they do. Despite wanting to support farmers’ markets and eat locally, most people still want their produce to be perfect and unblemished like it is in the grocery stores. Most of us don’t challenge our farmers to grow more flavourful varieties better suited to our climate because we want stuff to be consistent.
Don’t believe me? OK – besides Bing, name a variety of cherry (and no, “maraschino” does not count!). Odds are, most people can’t do it without using their Google-fu. And most people wouldn’t know the difference, flavour-wise.
The bigger question though, is – why is it like this? We’re all interested in supporting local producers, artisans, chefs and farmers – not just for environmental reasons or to bolster our food identity, but to actually support our own communities. So why haven’t we taken the time to know the products that we’re buying, or determine our own tastes? I know that most of us really do believe in supporting local food, and we do what we can by shopping at farmers’ markets and shops that sell local products, as well as eating at restaurants that serve local food. But we’re taking what is being handed to us and not asking questions. Sure, we eat local, but we don’t know local. Which kind of makes the whole exercise a bit pointless.
The initial debate stemmed from a feeling that people just can’t be bothered. I want to believe that’s not the case, that my colleague is even more cynical than I am. Because most of us wouldn’t make the effort to go to market, to visit restaurants, to spend extra on local food, if we didn’t care. Just as supporting local food producers takes effort, it also takes effort to learn more about the food we eat. Simply going to market isn’t enough. We need to build a partnership that ensures local farmers are growing the best, most flavourful varieties that work the best within our growing conditions. And we maybe need to accept that some things will just taste better coming from somewhere else.
- That whole “get to know your farmer” bit? That’s about more than “nice weather we’re having, eh, Farmer Brown?” If the farmers you buy from at markets don’t identify their produce by variety – ask them. Ask the difference. If they do offer more than one variety of something, ask for samples. It’s got to be about more than lip service to the ideology – we’ve all got to be more proactive.
- Attend events that teach about varieties of certain foods so you can learn the differences between them. Slow Food Toronto puts on some great events, and Culinarium also hosts tasting events throughout the year.
- Taste every darn (food) thing you can get into your mouth. If your memory is poor, keep a tasting notebook like beer and wine geeks do.
- Be not afraid of the naked emperor. You’re entitled to your own sense of taste and your own opinions on local products. You don’t have to like something just because every other foodie is fawning over it. Dissenting voices not only make for great debate, the farmer/chef/artisan might even take your (constructive) criticism to heart and work to improve their product because of it.
- By all means support local producers, but remember that discerning diners are also looking for quality. Don’t think that by holding up that “local food” sign, we’ll forgive a bad meal.
- Use your menus to explain varieties or breeds chosen for your menu, use your floor staff to explain your choice of variety. Get everyone involved in the educational aspect of the meal.
- Embrace your role of food advocate and consider tasting menus or dishes that showcase different varieties of a specific product to help teach diners about what’s available.
- Hold dinners and events that feature local farmers and producers – and price them reasonably so not just the well-to-do food snobs can attend.
Farmers, Shops and Stores:
- Label your produce by varietal so customers can get to know the differences. Apples come in more kinds than red, green and yellow.
- Where possible, offer samples or hold comparative tastings of in-season produce.
- Offer printed literature on seasonal ingredients and varieties, encouraging customers to try more obscure varieties.
- Make an effort to grow (or carry) obscure items so customers can expand their palates.
- Grow what tastes the best, whether that is in terms of variety or knowing that something just doesn’t match the terroir.