Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lucky old me

I got to realise a long-deferred wish on Saturday, and visited Cyrus Todiwala's Cafe Spice Namaste to check out some Parsee cuisine. I read elsewhere that the Parsees are shrinking in number, because their religion, Zoroastrianism, prohibits intermarriage and conversion; you have to be born right.

Anyway, the food was very good. The starters were unusual; after poppadoms with wonderful chutneys, we had crab cakes,

beetroot & coconut samosas and some potato pancakes filled with minced beef with smooth tomato chutney. Then some absolutely astounding tandoori duck

that had been marinated in yogurt and lime before grilling, a version of saag paneer and a dish of buttered sweetcorn and water chestnuts.

Naan with chili, garlic and ginger on the side was fluffy and crispy and pretty as a picture.

The passion fruit sorbet was terrific but the toffee and apricot icecream was to slide under the table and faint for.

And the lassi was excellent also.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Liking London

A week or so ago I attended a reading by Ekstasis authors, in celebration of the Pacific Rim Review of Books. Richard Olafson introduces...

Among others, our excellent Saskatchewanian Glen Sorestad read, and so did the wondrous Yvonne Blomer.

I'm enjoying the bee-keeping course a lot. Here's how you wrap up your hives and throw them in the back of your truck to take them for a drive. If you listen closely you can hear them hum...

And now, here I am on the other side of the pond once more. I arrived yesterday and after a reviving nap and shower bustled off to the Olivier to catch Much Ado About Nothing, which was nothing short of awesome. Zoe Wanamaker, Simon Russell Beale and everyone -- all wonderful. Sets, staging, music, dancing -- all wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. I laughed, I cried, and I particularly enjoyed the reaction of the many school kids in the audience, who hooted and hollered and clapped upside down and backwards at the end.

I settled in that evening to a gorgeous box of booty from Ottolenghi - roasted aubergines with braised shallots, coriander, chili and green tahini; roasted beets with sunflower seeds, chard, chervil and maple sherry dressing; some soft, tasty new potatoes in mustard sauce; and a couple of slices of char-grilled fillet of beef with dijon mustard, coriander and honey sauce. With a glass of Barbera to wash it down. Looks like I will just miss the publication of Ottolenghi's new cookbook, but we can still catch some great recipes in the Guardian.

Carrie has sent forth the challenge to participate in NaPoWriMo over April (National Poetry Month) which sounds like an excellent idea. We poets can show those novelists what's what, eh?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Growth hormones in dairy, and National Poetry Month in Canada

Shocked by a grim if slightly dated tale about rBST - recombinant bovine somatotropin, marketed under the name "Nutrilac" - a synthetic hormone, developed by Monsanto through genetic engineering, that increases a cow's ability to produce milk – which is allowed in US dairy cattle but banned in Canada and the EU. Despite intense lobbying by Monsanto, and a made-in-Canada whistle-blower scandal, eventually further study showed cause for concern over introducing it to the human food chain: but it is even more harmful to the health of dairy cattle, who suffer greater risk of lameness, infections and sterility when given it.

Bear that in mind when buying anything containing dairy products from the US. I’m not sure if there are any regulations at all that limit the use of US dairy products in this country – the regs only say we can’t give the hormones to our cattle. A number of dairy producers in the US now label their products as hormone-free, which is causing Monsanto to protest that such claims might make consumers think the hormone-free products are in some way 'better' than those which are produced with the benefits of Monsanto's chemicals. Gosh...

More about milk another day. Meanwhile, National Poetry Month looms in Canada, and starting April 1st, the League of Canadian Poets will showcase poems by its members on a blog, whose theme is “Poetry Without Borders.”

Thursday, March 20, 2008

GM canola and alfalfa, and a little poetry news

I've been discovering some shocking things about genetically modified foods in Canada this week, and so will all of you with televisions that can be tuned to Global for a documentary on Saturday night, March 23 at 7pm (dunno if it's the same outside BC). Hijacked Future is about GM foods, but also about the stranglehold that large, profit-driven corporations are securing on the world's food supply, while we consumers blithely carry on as it it were the most natural thing in the world for farmers to be forced to buy new seeds every year instead of saving and planting their own stocks, developed for local ecosystems and disease resistance.

Stephen Hume's article in the Vancouver Sun this week previews it nicely:
"'s fascinating to observe how we appear to be collectively sleepwalking toward ... a potential catastrophe with that most strategic of all things, a sustainable, secure, equitably distributed global food supply... [Hijacked Future] takes dead aim at the question of whether it's in our best national interests as informed, intelligent citizens of a global civilization to snooze while a few giant trans-national corporations succeed in their attempt to monopolize food production."
I learned a bit about organic farming, too, and the loss of Canada's organic canola crops, both as a commercial crop and as an invaluable rotation crop. It appears that because of the (non-organic) genetically-modified canola in our fields, over 90% of all canola - including organic - has been contaminated now. This has caused a significant loss of livelihood to organic farmers, so two Saskatchewan canola farmers tried to bring a class action suit against Monsanto, on behalf of all certified organic farmers, but our very own supreme court told them in December they couldn't. The farmers are currently considering their options. Percy Schmeiser is our best documented case of unwanted GM crops intruding on private land against the wishes and intent of a farmer, and our higher courts did a less than heroic job there too. Although he's just won - wait for it - $660 from Monsanto in a small claims settlement for costs involved in cleaning the GM canola off his fields.

Thank heavens for the farmers, consumers, environmentalists and courts of California, who were able to call the USDA on its ill-judged approval of genetically modified alfalfa. Alfalfa is hardly a glamour crop, being mostly known as animal feed, but it is also a crucial rotation crop for organic farmers. In both these roles, it sits at the bottom of our food chain, and we should - must - pay attention to what happens to it, or risk losing organic farming forever.

And on the poetry side of things, if you want a little extra CanLit reading you can sign up for The New Quarterly's new e-newsletter.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 17, 2008

The difficulty of eating local

One of the difficulties of trying to eat local food is that you can't trust food labels, at least not in Canada. Last October, CBC's Marketplace broadcast an enlightening program about the meaning of the 'Product of Canada' label, which you can watch again online, in which they revealed that this branding means that 51% of the production costs (not even the content) were spent in Canada. This is allowed thanks to legislation created in 1985, when 20% of Canadian food was imported; now we're at the 40% stage, it is starting to sound downright silly, let alone outdated.

So in the example given, of Highliner frozen fish products branded 'Product of Canada', the fish may have been farmed in Vietnam, Indonesia or China and then shipped frozen to Canada for processing, becoming Canadian somewhere en route. When the program-makers went to Lunenburg, the published address for Highliner, they were told that no fishing boats had come in there for six or seven years.

All of which is problematic to consumers: they can't make informed choices, because the information they're using is flawed and misleading. They can't vote with their wallets against poor labour practices, potentially unsafe food production practices, unsustainable fishing practices, or unsound ecological practices, and they can't even support local producers because they cannot tell (from packaged goods anyway) which products are truly local.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Slow cider and fast poetry

Got to my first meeting of the Slow Island gang - in fact our Slow Food convivium's AGM, held at Sea Cider Farm, where we sipped and sampled our way through the evening, gazing out across the young apple trees to little James Island, where a couple of the young members are starting an organic farm. Quite a task, given they can't live on the island, and everything they need has to be ferried across (but all in all a much better idea than the island's last role as a TNT factory).

Sinclair Philip, Mara Jernigan and Nick Versteeg raised all kinds of issues, from Terra Madre to the destruction of Garry Oak meadows by Vancouver Island developers.

One thing Nick raised was the trade sanction wickedness Canada is doing now, which is being under-reported in the press. I suggest to all of us in this country that we drop a line to our MPs and register our dissatisfaction with the idea of Canada using trade sanctions to try to force genetically modified products on Europe, which surely has the sovereignty to decide what it allows into the farms and kitchens of its member states.

Basically, since 2003, GM-producing countries, including the US, Canada and Argentina, have been lobbying the WTO to force Europe to allow GMO imports. And in 2006, the WTO agreed that the EU had to allow GMO imports whether they wanted them or not. Unfortunately, Europe is not one country, and its 27 member states are not generally in favour of allowing GM products (-- and really, is the power of collective dissent against economic pressure from others not one of the very points of trade organisations?). The US is holding its economic cudgel off until June of this year, but Canada's deadline to have the EU comply with the WTO was February 11.

Speaking of dates, as I'm sure all the church-goers know, we'll have to get our greens on early this year, as St Patrick's Day has been moved to 15 March, by order of the Vatican, because this year's early Easter causes 17 March to fall in Holy Week. Apparently no liturgical feast may take place during Holy Week, so St Patrick had to move aside.

Last night, St Patrick's Eve, as it were, was also the reading at Planet Earth Poetry by visiting Saskatchewanian Glen Sorestad, who gave us a delightful display of his wares,

handsomely introduced by Susan Stenson

And then there were signings

and off we all disappeared into the night.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Over-fed and over here; and Alice Waters' food values

CBC's current affairs program, The Current, did a piece this morning on Raj Patel's book on food security - the access of populations to food - and global food economics this morning. Stuffed and Starved is the first book I've come across that has its own trailer: cool! It comes down hard on organisations like the WTO for helping to oil that machinery that forces small farmers off their land, allowing big business to take hold of food productions and supermarket offerings, and speaks out against 'free' trade policies that can only worsen the situation for farmers and consumers alike. My copy is awaiting my attention, as is a similarly titled book, Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America, by Harvey Levenstein.

Meanwhile, some good thoughts from Alice Waters in an interview from last October:
...every decision we make about the food that we eat has consequences. And they aren't just about people's personal health. There are consequences in terms of the healthcare system for all of us if people eat food that makes them sick. And there are environmental consequences. But I think the thing that people don't understand is that there are cultural consequences.

When we're eating fast food, we're not just eating the food, we're eating a set of values that comes with the food. And it's telling us that food should be cheap. It's telling us that food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet. It's telling us that advertising confers value. That it's OK to eat 24 hours a day. That there are unlimited resources. It's telling us that the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant -- in fact we don't even need to know. And all of those values are informing what's happening in the world around us. We're ending up with malls instead of beautiful places to live in.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Bread & Tulips

I'd heard about the charming Italian film Bread & Tulips and finally got around to watching it; I am a Bruno Ganz fan from way back so was delighted to see him here playing a depressed Icelandic waiter in Venice...why not?

And I have been thinking generally about bread, even as the price rises due to the upturn in grain prices. One thing I learned something about over last summer was bread, having escaped the horrors of Emilia-Romagna's all-crust-no-crumb-local-speciality pane comune

(and to be fair, the delicious chewy well oiled and salted focaccia, and its puffy little cousin gnocco frito/torta fritta)

and when in London indulged heavily in Euphorium.

There is a bit of a campaign going in the UK over real bread making, because it seems the industrial producers are putting a few extras in their loaves to make them appear fresher longer. Enzymes are one thing, amino acids are another (and from some questionable sources according to one writer I came across) and there is some toe-curling new jargon to learn while you're at it: doesn't 'bread improver' sound like a dandy thing to put in your dough? I guess the trick is to sort out which of these are added as nutritional aids and which as materials that help bread makers to produce a more saleable, longer-lasting product. The latter by and large seem to make the bread less nutritious and less, well, bread-like, while the former has had its share of controversies around food adulteration.

There's a British baker, Andrew Whitely, who is working hard to increase understanding about bread. He feels that some of the industrial bread-baking processes are behind the increase in gluten intolerance, and that if we were to eat properly made bread from sourdough cultures rather than high-speed leavening agents and their associated additives, there would be a substantial decrease in the wheat-related illnesses about.

I've just bought the American edition of Elizabeth David's classic tome on the subject, English Bread & Yeast Cookery, which includes lots of background on the history and tradition of grains, milling and bread-baking over the centuries as well as contemporary and historical recipes.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Bonet and no doctor

A week ago, high up on Mt Washington, the view from the kitchen window looked like this:

And down here at sea level this weekend, the view was more like this:

In other news, I got into a caramel crisis trying to make a version of bonet, but luckily found this tip sheet for caramel makers. Unluckily it didn't save the caramel from solidifying into a solid mass. It did make me think about cajeta, though, which came into my life in my school days, thanks to kind fellow students from Mexico, and this variation, Dulce de Leche.

I had embarked on the bonet project because I have been reading Slow Food Revolution (very slowly) and was charmed by the amount of bonet consumed by the movers and shakers while they were forming the Slow Food movement. The book, naturally, lists the menus from important meetings during the movement's early years, and enumerates as well some of the many, many fine wines consumed by what was from the outset a group of dedicated diners who were curious about wines, and evolved into eco-gastronomes along the way. And provides an early draft of the Slow Food Manifesto, which originally began:
The culture of our times rests on a false interpretation of industrial civilization: in the name of dynamism and acceleration, man invents machines to find relief from work but at the same time adopts the machine as a model of how to live his life. This leads to self-destruction; Homo sapiens is now so consumed by the cycle of production, consumption, and overconsumption that he has been reduced to the status of an endangered species... The fast life has been systematically proposed for or actually imposed on every kind of form and every attitude, as if in a risky attempt to culturally and genetically remodel the human animal...
Well, I'm doing what I can to live slowly. Unfortunately one of the things slowing me down is trying to replace my abruptly retired doctor with a new one, only this town is extremely short of doctors, and I've yet to find one who can take me on. Where can they all be? Why aren't they flocking here? Evidently they are nowhere to be found in this country, as there are shortages of them across the country.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Bee here now

So yes, I started a bee-keeping class this week. I don't have bees, have no immediate plans to get any, but was curious because although I have always eaten honey I didn't really understand how it was produced. My classmates were a mixture of current and aspiring bee-keepers and honey-eaters like me.

We started things off right with a tasting (creamed, orange, mesquite, fireweed, salal & blackberry, plus a little jar of French honey-- whose label said 'product of Italy') and then had a review of the equipment needed. Essential items include a smoker and a hive tool, for prying the lids off after the bees have sealed themselves inside with propolis. We admired different styles of veils and bee-wear (it's white because the bees dislike anyone in animal colours - brown, black etc. - but don't mind white or bright colours) and looked at different ways to configure and prepare the hives.

I found a bee blog to keep me interested between classes. And a blog that has photos of dogs in bee costumes (hey, is the internet useful or what?), and Bonnie passed along some information from Darryl Hannah's website about Colony Collapse Disorder, which our instructor (a former hive inspector) thought had a lot to do with pesticide use in the US. It's not as much a problem on Vancouver Island (though we'll learn more about it later) which interestingly has had a bee quarantine in place since 1986, since this is a honeybee bee breeding stock area. (Incidentally, who knew that bees are currently the only insects that are artificially inseminated?)

Meanwhile, here on the Island, it's nearly fruit blossom time, which means we need mason bees (honeybees don't wake up round here till the end of May or whenever the temperature hits a steady 12.4c), also known as Blue Orchard bees. They are smaller, gentler and sleepier than honeybees; they do their thing with the fruit trees and then go for a long nap in a hole pre-drilled (by someone or something else) in some wood which they seal up like, well, masons! You can make their nests for them by drilling holes 5/16" in diameter and 4" deep, spaced ¾" apart in blocks of wood.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Food: let's celebrate!

By now I am sure that you are all well into your own celebration of this the International Year of the Potato, but in case you haven't got everything in place, here's a handy list of world-wide events you can still catch. What to do after that? Well, it can be a busy year if you let it.

Europain 2008 is coming up 29 March-2 April; sounds uncomfortable but delicious. Maybe closer to home (for some of us) it would be worth checking out the Seattle Cheese Festival May 16-18. How about joining the Nicosians for their annual Cherry Festival in June? Or there's also the Prague Food Festival June 20-26. Stavanger, Norway holds its annual Garlic Festival in April, and this year is also hosting the real life rather weird cooking competition, the Bocuse d'Or Europe July 1-2: real life meets reality television. July 4-13 it's time for the Ledbury Poetry Festival, which has spawned a poetry trail in a Herefordshire Orchard.

One could then return to Canada and attend the South Cariboo Garlic Festival August 16-17. After that, go Really Wild in Wales 30-31 August, and then down to Chichester for the Totally Tomato Show Sept 6-7, and back up to Ludlow Sept 12-14 (unless you are going to the excellent Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery) and across to Galway to celebrate some oysters September 25-28. Or round off the month with a visit to Sweden to catch Öland's Harvest Festival 2008 September 25-28 and the Kivik Apple Market, September 29-30.

After that, you'll want a little rest before Chocaday celebrations on October 12, and then make your plans for Eurochocolate 2008 in Perugia October 18-26, which should give you time to nip up to Torino to catch Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre which run concurrently from October 23 to 27. Then on to Austria for Salon Suisse des Gouts et Terroirs October 29-November 2. November 14-15 it's the Clayoquot Oyster Festival in Tofino. On November 24 there'll be tears before bedtime if you miss the Zibelemärit, the onion market in Berne.

In other news, giving some support to world-wide moves against bottled water, Venetians are giving up mineral water for Lent, which I guess won't win them any friends in the Global Bottled Water Congress. Won't bother the hibernating cod or dieting teenagers who've just been told again they can't skip breakfast.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Omega 3 & 6 fatty acids

Goodness, here it is March. Where did that come from?

And here are some February crocuses.

The more I read, the more complicated the world seems. Recently I've been reading about Omega 3 fatty acids; there was a helpful article in the Times a little while ago that shed some light on one part of the puzzle - the difference between 'good' (EPA and DHA) and 'bad' (ALA) Omega 3 fatty acids, and the tendency of vitamin supplement marketers to blur the distinctions between them.

The 'aha' for me was discovering that the ideal balance of Omega 3 and Omega 6 in our diet should be about 4 (Omega 6) to 1 (Omega 3). Today's diners are more likely to be in the 20 to 1 range, thanks to the transition that Michael Pollan describes as a catastrophic shift of our "western diet" from leaf- to seed-based feeding.

The outcome is that it's harder all the time to get enough Omega 3 in our diets, since it comes mainly from green leafy vegetables and cold-water fish, and our diet is increasingly heavy on cereals such as wheat, corn and rice, and we eat more meat than we should (beef is a special case -- but more about that later).

More problematic still is the question of whether or not fish is a good thing to be eating nowadays. Between over-fishing and dangerously high mercury levels in some fish, it's hard to know what to do. There's a helpful chart in an exceedingly helpful article called Mercury in Fish vs. Omega-3 Fatty Acids Health Benefits that clarifies many of the questions.

Someone had told me they'd heard mackerel was particularly bad for several reasons, but it turns out that King Mackerel is bad; Atlantic Mackerel is ok. From a mercury point of view, at least. But how do you know what you've got when the tin in your hand simply says "Mackerel"?

I'd been shocked to read in The Omnivore's Dilemma and again in Not on the Label about the alarming transformation in beef of 'good' Omega 3's into less helpful Omega 6s through the beef industry's switching them from grass-eating animals to grain-fed meat products. It's true even for a cow that 'you are what you eat', and by eating Omega 6-laden grain, the cow's flesh becomes likewise heavy on the Omega 6, and therefore so does the meat we consume.

By the same reasoning, we should be wary of farmed salmon - once a favoured source of Omega 3s - that are fed corn and other grains instead of their Omega 3-rich natural diet. (But then the natural diet - requiring anywhere from two to five kg of fish (as feed), depending on whose statistics you read, to produce one kg of farmed salmon - is also unsustainable.)

An otherwise thoughtful article about salmon farming by Cameron MacDonald in the Globe & Mail (Feb. 23 Focus) fell a bit short, I thought, by not discussing these health implications when promoting grain-fed salmon as the solution to the destructive practices that harvest the fish that go into the fish pellets being fed to farmed salmon in BC. But then, as the author rightly says, eating wild salmon isn't helping either in these times of over-fishing.

Eat less of all meats and fish, I guess is the only sustainable answer. Eat mostly plants, as Pollan says.

And here he is: