Friday, February 26, 2010

Seedy Saturday

My first Seedy Saturday last weekend! The convention centre in Victoria was mobbed by earlybirds who arrived to browse the stands for seeds and information about all aspects of growing food and flowers.

Food was big, of course, and some interesting things on offer. A couple of places (Carolyn Herriot's Garden Path, and Sooke Harbour House) offered a small and special tuber, Oca (Oxalis Tuberosa) which hails from the Andes is gaining some popularity in these parts for its ease of growth and its sharp flavour.

The mushroom growers were there, offering inoculated logs for sale; there was a talk about mushroom growing by local expert Justin Napier of Oystercatcher Mushrooms, which offered some revelations about the nutritional value of mushrooms (one point was that they offer vitamin D, and the content of that is related to how much sunlight they absorb).

Mason (blue orchard) bees were topical - a couple of places to buy the houses, and a talk by Steve Mitchell of Bee Haven Farm.

Yum! Jerusalem Artichokes (sunchokes) were on sale for eating and growing.

The dynamic duo of Brock McLeod and Heather Walker (Makaria Farm) were selling beans and grain and gave a talk called Growing your own pancakes (organic grains on a small scale). They're running a grain CSA this year which sounds like a wonderful thing.

And the tireless farmers of Haliburton Farm were selling seeds, seedlings and the benefits of getting involved in a community farm.

I attended a crowded workshop on fruit tree pruning, by Philip Young who keeps the trees of Glendale Gardens in shape. Time was as always too short to cover everything we wanted to know but we got some good advice about winter and summer prunings, tools, tree renovation, and the difference between pruning for growth and pruning to encourage fruit. Recommended manual: The American Horticultural Society Pruning & Training by Brickell & Joyce.

Carolyn Herriot did a brisk trade in seeds and tubers, while promoting her latest book and eponymous talk (The Zero-Mile Diet)


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Spring at Haliburton Farm; and the approach of the Enviropig

Out at Haliburton Farm, the seedlings are growing, some of them destined for the Seedy Saturdays that have begun on Vancouver Island.

The farm ducks are hard at work keeping the edible pests down...

and the last of Farmer Ray's giant beets are going to feed happy animals somewhere in the area.

And once again Margaret Atwood's prescient novel Oryx & Crake comes to life. We won't be eating pigoons just yet, but Enviropigs are on the Canadian horizon. It seems that genetic engineers are attempting to address the complaints of people living near factory farms by reducing the pesky smells of too many pigs being reared inhumanely. The obvious solution (reduce pig numbers) is no fun, so the industrialists prefer to splice mice genes into the pigs. Kind of misses the point... it won't give the pigs better diets or living conditions, and it certainly won't make those sewage lagoons disappear. All we end up with is the thin end of a wedge that will give us food animals created by lab rats: same issues as GE foods... do we have the faintest idea what other changes might have been triggered by this genetic manipulation, and what might that do to the bodies who consume them, today, tomorrow or next generation?


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Deconstructing Cargill

Busy times. Let's try to catch up.

A week ago last Sunday, a talk by Jon Steinman,

out at Muse Winery, was an attempt to draw together the gist of several years' worth of radio (Deconstructing Dinner). He illustrated some of his concerns by deconstructing one of the agricultural multinationals who control the full spectrum of our food supply in Canada: Cargill. (The Deconstructing Dinner program upon which this is based: part 1 is here and part 2 is here.)

Cargill was established in 1865, in Minnesota. In Canada its headquarters are in Winnipeg. Here are the pies in which you'll find its fingers:

Beef: Cargill owns 40% of the slaughter capacity in Canada (one of two companies that control 80% of capacity). It operates only two facilities: High River Alberta and Guelph, Ontario, which between them slaughter 5,400 cattle each day. Narrowing the field of operation in this way is undoubtedly cost-efficient for the company, but it shows very clearly the risks to consumers: any problem in one of those plants has grievous repercussions for consumers and meat producers alike, a point proven by the Maple Leaf experience, where we saw how large was the reach from a single production plant. And how great could be the financial repercussions for the company.

Animal feed: Cargill owns Nutrena, the largest feed company in the world, which makes pet food as well as feed for horses and pigs, chickens and cattle; and in 2000 they bought out their competitors, Agribrands Purina (not the pet food Purina, which is owned by Nestle).

Plant breeding: Cargill owns Renessen, partnered with Monsanto, producing such delights as genetically engineered corn. 'Nuf said.

Fertilizers: Cargil is the largest phosphate producer in the world, operating with agricultural firm IMC Global as Mosaic, and is the second largest potassium producer.

Natural gas: Cargill is one of the world's major traders and transporters of natural gas (an essential element in fertilizer production).

Salt: Cargill is the world's largest salt producer and sells such products as water softener as well as manufacturing, agricultural and the Diamond Crystal retail salt brand.

Grain: Cargill commands 17% of the world's grain trading.

Canola: Cargill operates the largest canola oilseed crushing plant in the world, in Clavet, Saskatchewan (selling under the trade name Canola Harvest).

Eggs: Cargill supplies most of the food service (Sunny Fresh) egg and breakfast products in Eastern Canada through its Kitchen Solutions brand.

Sugar: Cargill is partnering with Imperial Sugar Company to build the world's largest sugar refinery, in Louisiana.

Malting: Cargill is a partner in Prairie Malt and is one of the two companies that control 75% of malting in Canada.

Chocolate: Cargill owns the production and processing of chocolate, and brands like Peter's, Gerkens Cocoa, Veliche and Wilbur.

That's some of what they own. They have many other interests including cotton, grain (through AgHorizons), High-Fructose Corn Syrup and other corn derivatives, frozen desserts, and ethanol.

And that's only one company. Which is one extremely large reason why it feels safer to buy from small producers whenever possible.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

More milk; lady carpenters; syrup of a different stripe

In my continuing quest to understand the elusive factors in meat production and climate change, I came across an archived broadcast of BBC journalist Simon Parkes' investigation into the carbon footprint of milk in Britain. It's an interesting story and the factors that affect methane production are not always what you might think. (Download RealPlayer if your media player has trouble with .ram files)

On Friday I was attended Kate Braid's reading at Planet Earth Poetry. She's published two books this past year, and she treated us to readings from both: Turning Left To The Ladies - about her past as a construction worker; and A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems. Making reference to the passing of PK Page, she also read Page's poem, "The Filled Pen" and another by Rumi.

And on Saturday I attended some of the Big Leaf Maple Syrup Festival in Duncan, which was positively mobbed by visitors of all sizes, and who wouldn't be drawn by the twin attractions of sugar and train rides? I missed out on the train, but took in the syrup tasting, held in the old school house at the Forest Discovery Centre

hosted by Mara Jernigan

for Slow Food, using this Maple Products Flavour wheel as a guide to aromas and flavours. We sampled half a dozen local syrups and one Easterner for comparison.

A producer panel gave us a chance to hear from some of the Sap Suckers, who spoke about the ins and outs of tapping maples, as well as evaporation,

bottling and hygiene issues. One of the best we tasted, I thought, turned out to be a science project by a local schoolgirl!

It's a different flavour from the commercial maple syrup, which is smooth and sweet with no real aftertaste. This stuff has more complex flavours, and, I thought, quite a bit of green twig on the finish. As the participants attested, many of them voting for the Eastern version, we tend to prefer what we're used to, and if that is a fairly bland sweet taste, that's what we'll go for. Bitterness is a hard sell in North America, which doesn't feature much from that part of the palate in its cultural preferences. The flavour wheel itself was developed around Quebec syrups, so maybe it needs a couple more spokes for Western ones.

Friday, February 05, 2010

More fishiness

Fish are ever-topical these days. Last week's BC Supreme Court ruling that froze out new fish farm licenses for another 10 months is a victory for those opposed to the farms on the grounds they are insufficiently regulated to protect the ocean environment, and in particular the wild salmon whose numbers are shockingly low for reasons that many believe are tied to sea lice infestations from the farms. The predictions of possible extinction for pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago are still out there, so the federal government's takeover of fish farm regulation had better make for some swift improvements.

One of last year's Slow Food newsletters included an article about seafood sustainability by Victoria-based fish expert John Volpe, who puts his finger on the problem (or one of them): "Seafood often remains a blind spot in the otherwise educated consumer’s knowledge base."

A few articles to shed a bit more light, including one about trawling; one for chefs, from the Culinary Institute of America; one about oysters; and one from the New York Times (still free for the moment) about balancing health with seafood sustainability.

There is a lot of information out there about climate change's effect on the ocean which is worth knowing about; I predict the dual ills of warming and acidification will soon put those all-you-can-eat seafood buffets of yore into the history books alongside the excesses of Rome.

On a more positive note, thanks to Marci for pointing me towards Todmorden, West Yorkshire, which has a dazzling website showing off the town's efforts towards sustainable food production. One of their projects is aquaponics, which combines food and fish in a truly virtuous circle of water. Check it out:

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Food & migraines

In my many years as a migraine sufferer, I have more than once been subjected to tedious, if well-intentioned lectures on the general theme that, contrary to what I might know about my own body, my migraines are entirely due to food allergies.

So I was pleased to read in a back issue of The Skeptic a piece called Unconventional Migraine Treatments, about the widespread misapplication of research into migraines and food allergies. The author, Peter Adamson, unpacks the research in a widely quoted but monumentally inapplicable study called “Is Migraine Food Allergy?” (a sampling of only 88 children - and no adults) which misappropriators use
to ‘prove’ that allergies trigger or cause migraine. (The ambiguous use of allergy in the title permits... use [of] the traditional broad definition, namely ‘unusual sensitivity’, which allows them to include food intolerance.)... None mentioned that the children studied had ‘severe and frequent migraine’, that almost half of them also ‘had behaviour disturbance (mostly hyperkinetic)’, that over a third had rhinitis and 16% had epilepsy.

Not one mentioned the authors’ caution:
However, we cannot securely extrapolate to other groups of patients, such as those with infrequent mild migraine or adults.

Nor did they mention the authors’ warning:
Diets are dangerous and socially disruptive, so such treatment should be adopted only when the symptoms are severe and only under experienced medical and dietetic supervision.

AACHs having cited this ‘proof’ that migraine is caused/triggered by allergies, then prescribe their favourite, often very restrictive, diets to migraineurs of any age.
(AACHs = alternative and complementary healing systems and their practitioners).

That line about diets being socially disruptive is hugely under-discussed, I feel. Food allergies and intolerances are endemic in our neurotic and chemicalized culture, and many of the resulting diets - paralysing in their restrictions, and making dinner party pariahs of their followers - are, IMHO, the work of quacks who manipulate the anxiety and desperation of people struggling to stay afloat in this anxious and desperate world.

This is not to dispute that there are very real allergies and intolerances to foods out there, but I think the terms are over-used, and, as explained above, inappropriately used, at worst by some "practioners" to make money from vulnerable people. I also believe writers like Felicity Lawrence who propose that allergies and intolerances may be caused by eating processed foods, not by the pure form of the food; she made this argument memorably about commercial bread in her book Not on the Label. You'll hear the same argument from Red Fife Wheat growers. I think the toxins present in chemical fire retardants or plastic cookware or fast foods deserve a wide berth, instead of heaping blame on good quality, nourishing food.

To those who have suggested to me that I try cutting back on wheat or dairy or tomatoes or whatever the latest dietary demon is in order to see if it helps my migraines, my answer is and will always be that I would prefer to live a normal, sociable life, eating what I please. And what I please does not include most fast or processed foods. It does include wine, cheese, chocolate and coffee in varying amounts which I do not find cripple me consistently or even occasionally. Even if there actually is a food issue at the root (which I doubt) (I choose to blame my ancestral fellow-sufferer, name of Granny, and all the grannies before her) I am prepared to suffer a day or two a month for a mostly normal life. That's maybe 25 days of discomfort against 340 days of enjoying my food; not a bad ratio.

And if I am to enjoy my food when eating out, I'd like to do it without being deafened by my neighbours or have conversation drowned in "ambient" dance music. And at last! Someone has pointed out the acoustical failings of contemporary restaurant design. Of particular value is this list of pointers if you want to make sure of a quieter dining experience:
  • Sit in tables in alcoves, which provide a barricade against sound waves.
  • Avoid sitting by the bar or kitchen.
  • Avoid sitting near large parties, who tend to talk louder.
  • Ask for additional light and look at your dining companion. Without realizing it, we read lips.
  • Ask management to turn the music down, even if you get dirty looks. Not only does this reduce noise, but people will then talk more softly.
  • Look at photos of the restaurant ahead of time. No carpet or tablecloths and boxy dimensions should raise red flags.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Okara, and GE-free shopping guides

It's a byproduct, it's a food, it's a fertilizer..? Okara is all of these things. It's made up of the solids left over from tofu and soy milk making, and resembles cottage cheese. It starts to sour and then rot fairly quickly so is perishable if you're planning to eat it, as many Japanese do. It is rich in iron, low in fat, high in fiber, and also contains protein (not nearly as much as whole soybeans of course) as well as calcium and riboflavin.

Raw okara needs some preparation before using, both because it's relatively flavourless on its own and because the proteins need cooking to become digestible. It should be steamed or baked or toasted for 25 to 45 minutes, or fried in oil for about 20 minutes until thoroughly cooked, and then cooled before using. It's very light and crumbly once cooked, and still pretty flavourless.

You can add it to baking, use it as a substitute for nuts or ground beef; there are recipes around for okara falafel. I added it to some potato-vegetable pancakes last night, and it was good. There's a useful-sounding blog out there, Okara Mountain, which has many more ideas.

Here's a video on home tofu making, (and another one on making your own soya milk at home). The astute will notice that both tofu and soy milk begin the same way, and it is in these early steps that the okara is produced.

Okara is also a great soil enhancer if added to your garden or compost in the spring. If you leave it too long and it starts rotting in the bag, it will, as one of Haliburton's farmers put it to me, stink like a dead deer, though when spread over a garden and loosely raked under the leaf mulch, I haven't noticed a smell. But that decompositional tang, certainly discernable to the canine nose, might explain why old Anton has developed quite a fondness for it, so I have to watch him closely until it rots down. I hope I am not attracting other four-legged browsers in the meantime.

And further to an earlier post which featured a Genetically-Engineered Foods Shoppers' Guide from The Center for Food Safety, here's one for Canadians, thanks to our friends at Greenpeace.

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