Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The future of fish

A convergence of schools of thought on fish, and some opportunities to make your views known:

Alexandra Morton is inviting Canadians to take action on proposed federal Pacific aquaculture regulations, which have been offer a 60-day public input period (page 1933 of this hefty document). Now is the time to give some thought to how you want to see Canada's Pacific coast used in future: the deadline is September 12.

Morton's views on fish farms are well known and always make interesting reading; she delivers again in this article which unpicks the politics of Canadian fish farm regulation for The Tyee.

Also chugging through its 60 day public input is this document on Canadian organic aquaculture standards. Deadline for this one is August 30.

Some good background reading on the question of wild vs farmed fish can be found on Barry Eastabrook's excellent Politics of the Plate blog, which features a review of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg. Discussing the fate of salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna, and offering thoughtful suggestions for going forward with, the book sounds unmissable.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

War on local food

There's an amazing exhibition of wartime posters about food and agriculture which you can enjoy virtually, if you are unable to visit the National Library of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland.

Back here in nambypambyland, you'd think you were in some kind of wartime, and maybe you are. Just across the Salish Sea, farmers and food producers are revolted by the behaviour of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency which has come down on a local food store in Vancouver, The Home Grow-In Grocer (which was celebrating its first birthday on my last trip to the big city) for stocking local products which (gasp) don't have bilingual (French) labelling. And various other labelling infractions, rendering many foods officially unsaleable.

Seizing perfectly good stock on such lame grounds would be bad enough, but the repercussions for the food producers are in some cases crippling, as it makes their products unsaleable until they are able to find the time and money to invest in conforming to standards which are (here we go again) in place mostly because we can't trust multinationals to tell the truth about our food supply.

And why is the CFIA picking on a neighbourhood grocery anyway, when Vancouver boasts a world of non-compliant ethnic groceries, and one of the biggest selection of Chinese and other Asian foods in the continent - many of those items not even labelled in English? I bought a jar of jam in Quebec last month that had no English on it at all; since I was in a French-speaking part of Canada I was neither surprised nor moved to call the inspection agency over it.

This is not, it seems to me, an issue of food safety: rendering a product label into French in an English-speaking part of the country is not going to make a food any safer for anyone. So why are the inspectors wasting time and money on all this? When you look at their list of recalls, you wonder how they have time to do anything but keep up with the industrial scale producers that cause most of the trouble.

Certainly I think it's important to include ingredient labelling on a product: I wouldn't normally buy anything that lacks such information, and I would agree producers should be required to produce such labels if they don't have them. Nutrition labels... I don't know; maybe. But for heaven's sake: locally-produced food in a local shop doesn't need to carry translated labels.

Canada is not the only one struggling with this misdirection of its food inspectors. The Americans do it as well. I'm sure Europe has a catalogue of incidents too, since its labelling regulations are as complex as its membership's food traditions, in cultures where those traditional foods are fighting for survival against easier-to-regulate mass-produced industrial products. And where there is a long history of attempting to balance food safety against traditional methods of food preparation and preservation. Understandable in a region where food safety concerns like BSE have created catastrophic problems for consumers. But these illnesses are overwhelmingly the product of overproduction and profiteering, not artisanal production.

One happy note in the food world is the enlightened thinking of Canada's Governor-General, who has seen fit to recognize food and drink for national honours. Sinclair and Frédérique Philip who founded Sooke Harbour House and nurtured a generation of excellent chefs, were among the recipients for the first Governor General's Award in Celebration of the Nation's Table this year. They have been tireless advocates for local and sustainable eating and have managed to deliver world-class dining in an unlikely location, a long drive from Victoria, which they've made a stunningly beautiful restaurant and b&b.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Summer on the farm stand

I've been spending a little time on the Haliburton farm stand, which has been a great opportunity to ogle seasonal produce.

Braising greens have never looked so beautiful.

Tayberries are about done now, but there are lots of raspberries, strawberries and a few red currants.

Marty, who is part of Sunbird Farms (one of the three farming operations at Hali), produces staggeringly beautiful organic flower arrangements. Here they are getting ready to go to Moss Street Market last Saturday.

And some sweet peas on the farm stand:

It's garlic harvest time. Hang 'em where you may...

Edible flowers are as beautiful an addition to the farm stand as to salads:

Our CSA veg baskets are looking lovely. Actually I think it looks like a CSA seminar.

And finally, I am a Poem of the Week poet on the Acumen website this week (see Guest Poem button). Catch me while you can...


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Folk festival

Last weekend's Vancouver Island MusicFest was the usual mix of heat and song and generally friendly and happy crowds.

Not the greatest music ever but as always, there were some highlights. Unfortunately the headliner - Roberta Flack - was at the other end of the scale, offering a late-starting, faltering Friday night performance punctuated with odd ramblings. I will go on enjoying her early moments and be grateful for those at least.

I always enjoy a bit of David Lindley, who had to cancel last year so gave us some multidimensional quirkiness this.

Nanci Griffith was a good 'un, a reliable performer who understands the importance of her backlist and gave us a good mix of old and new. I could have done without the breast-beating over the BP oilspill, though; Amerocentrism is a tiresome thing at the best of times. It gets me to musing that she and others anguishing over the inevitable could get some useful perspective with a visit to Nigeria... and if folk songs don't solve the problem, they could always sell their cars.

Some old favourites returned: Winnipeg's charming group Nathan were sweet and entertaining. The heat was blasting by the time they came on at 5pm and I was happy to view them from a few inches of shade I managed to cosy into in front of the stage.

Meanwhile, the food swung from the awful to the pretty good. My prize for the worst value meal goes to Bali, the Indonesian stand. Posing as "Vegetable Curry", this $10 Chinet platterful of rice was nothing more than tinned Chinese vegetables - palm shoots and baby corn - in a coconut curry sauce. Priced the same as their meat dishes, which is just wrong. Good profit margin for them I guess. May they burn their tongues in hell's kitchen.

Moving up the scale, I give the Gourmet Burger wagon's yamburgers a thumbs-up for presentation (I liked the paper bag wrapping) and use of ingredients from local farms and food producers. Thumbs down for pricing it ($8) the same as the beef burger.

Old reliable: Woodstock's Smokies continue to be the best I've ever had. Bavarian smokies are my choice, but the Gardener's Revenge (venison) was once again a hot seller. I don't know if the venison was local, but from what I saw wandering around the roadsides, I would guess there are more than enough deer to stock a few folk festivals.

Plastic water bottles were banned from the site, so you could refill your own from the water wagons that circulated constantly over a hot and thirsty weekend.

I've never been a fan of Kettle Corn's sugary salty combination, preferring my popcorn salted, buttered and served with movies, but was entertained to see what kit you need in order to make festival-sized batches.

The best food on the weekend was, of course, breakfast at Fanny Bay

served al fresco in the balmy morning air, in the company of an affable group of the like-minded.

Before breakfast I foraged a few berries - thimbleberries are ripe and difficult to pick, and salal berries are starting to ripen.

I was captured by a roving photographer who liked my hat (the work of Ulrieke Benner on Salt Spring Island)

Favourite performance, hands down, was Joan Osborne, singing with The Holmes Brothers. The album the music tent did not have on sale - at least not when I was there - was Breakfast In Bed, which features this cut:

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Summer reading

Just a few items of interest before I disappear up to Courtenay to the Vancouver Island Music Festival where I will be cheering the likes of Roberta Flack and Nanci Griffith in the sweltering heat.

Lots of thoughtful reading to be had on food security and related issues in recent months (would that I had time to digest every word!) The City of Victoria Food System discussion paper, published in December 2009, aims "to present a synthesis of the issues, opportunities and challenges related to Victoria’s urban food system for the purposes of providing direction for City of Victoria policy."

In April, Agribusiness Action Initiatives published A Harvest of Heat: Agribusiness and Climate Change--- How Six Food Industry Giants Are Warming the Planet.

And the NDP released Food for Thought: Towards a Canadian Food Strategy in June.

Here's a useful guide for gardeners from The Union of Concerned Scientists: The Climate-Friendly Gardener: A Guide to Combating Global Warming from the Ground Up.

And if you're in the Victoria area and fancy some poetry, here's a rare summer reading from Copenhagen-based poet, artist Heather Spears (who is also reading at 4pm this afternoon at the Metchosin Summer School of the Arts, out at Pearson College).

Poetry Reading: July 10, Saturday 2-4 pm
Graduate Student Centre, University of Victoria


Heather Spears will read from her poetry at a public event on Saturday July 10, 2-4 pm, at the University of Victoria Graduate Student Centre.

Ms Spears has received many awards for her work including the Governor-General’s Award, the CBC Literary prize and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. She has published 11 volumes of poetry as well as novels and books of her drawings. Her drawings of the Reena Virk trial are known for their sensitivity and accuracy.

Much of her poetry is inspired by her passion for peace & social justice.

She will be reading after teaching at the Metchosin Summer School of the Arts; admission is free and all are welcome.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and The League of Canadian Poets. Locally Ms. Spears is sponsored by the Gadrian Society.

Information: 250 595-7519

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Cheesy workshop

I have had a lifelong interest in what the Transition Townies nowadays call reskilling, and so I was happy to have a chance for some more information on making my own cheese. I suppose part of this is a wish for self-sufficiency, but more than that it is my belief in the value of turning my back on commercial food production wherever possible. As we've seen over and over again, the priorities of the food industry - creating food with the highest profit margin and the longest shelf life - are not in synch with basic human food priorities: nutrition and good taste.

Coincidentally, there was a review in the Vancouver Sun recently of two books (Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams, and Empires of Food: Feast, Famine, and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations by Evan Fraser & Andrew Rimas) looking at issues of food security from very different points of view, but reaching the same conclusions about the unsustainability of commercial agriculture. The reviewer nails McWilliams' logical flaw neatly by pointing out that he "doesn't properly consider that rapidly expanding food production is exactly the reason that we have so many mouths to feed in the first place" and that
If we, as a race, are committed to uncontrolled population growth, then yes, Williams is right to say that genetically engineered crops are the only way to support the nine billion people we will have to feed in a couple of decades. But the bubble will burst, because commercial agriculture devastates the soil's natural capital, and famine will result, as it has throughout human history.

So. On to the cheese. It has been workshop central around here. In addition to last weekend's forest gardening workshop, I was also able to catch the excellent David Asher Rotsztain on one of his teaching forays from Mayne Island. He gave an afternoon introduction to cheesemaking at the Victoria Native Friendship Centre, and showed us just what a piece of cake it is to make your own cheese.

In the three hours available, he demonstrated a quick and easy cheese (paneer) which involes only milk and vinegar. For all cheeses, he recommends raw milk if you can get it, and if you can't, to use unhomogenized organic milk (Avalon Dairy makes this in BC) as homogenization affects both flavour and the milk's ability to set (it breaks up the fat molecules). The resulting cheese, once drained and either crumbled or formed, can be mixed with flavourings - he used garlic scapes and smoked chilli peppers -

or sliced and fried (it does not melt like rennet-based cheeses). Because it's not made with rennet, it's suitable for lacto-vegetarians.

Rennet of course is an enzyme found in the stomachs of infant mammals and in traditional cheesemaking it comes from calves, lambs or kids depending on whether you're making cow, sheep or goat cheese. A moral issue for consumers of dairy products, the fact is that male calves and kids are the unwanted byproducts of milk production, and if you're harvesting the rennet at least you're at least gaining some value from killing them, rather than the straightforward "shoot shovel and shut up" process that many dairy farmers are obliged to follow when there is no market for the male offspring (dairy animals are not usually suitable as meat animals) but infinite demand for milk.

We took a look at curd cheeses, made with rennet, and in particular cheese curds and camembert-style cheeses. Rotsztain warned against using rennet tablets from Junket, which he believed is genetically engineered (as is 90% of commercially prepared cheese in North America, in fact) and sources a natural rennet (BioRen) from a cheesemakers supply company in Ontario.

He'd started the process off an hour before we got there, so the milk had had starter culture and rennet added and was allowed to sit warming by the stove's pilot light while coagulation carried on. We had a good demonstration of testing for a good set. One method is the clean break, in which (after you wash your hands!) you poke one finger through the surface. You should get a "popping" sensation as it breaks the surface.

Slowly sweep your finger back up towards the surface.

There should be resistance as the curd holds its shape

until your finger breaks through, cleanly.

Another method is to gently press the surface of the curd to see if it will pull away cleanly from the sides of the pot.

Once satisfied you have a good set, you need to cut the curd, vertically and horizontally, and if you're really keen and think you can get the pieces evenly sized, diagonally as well.

Then the curds just sit around separating from the whey.

They need to be tested to see how firm they are.

before pouring off some of the whey

and filling the moulds. Here are two ways of filling a cheese mould. The official way

and the hands-on way.

The curds drain in the mould and shrink dramatically during the process. Soft cheese are left to drain naturally, while firmer cheeses are also pressed. Commercial moulds are all plastic, although it may be possible to find stainless steel. Traditional strainers made of woven reeds, unglazed pottery or wood are verboten in plastic-loving commercial production of course. One more reason to make your own.

This one was taken out very early (time being of the essence) but it had already shrunken considerably.

Making cheese curds,

beloved of poutine-eaters, involves an extra step, namely cooking the curds, gently,

until they are firm. They are then washed

and drained and salted, ready for use.

Here's what is used to innoculate blue cheeses:

It is a piece of sourdough rye bread that has been wiped with blue cheese. You dissolve it in water and brush it on your cheese to have a blue rind cheese; or poke holes in the cheese and then innoculate if you want blue throughout. Rotsztain had a lot to say about using your fridge as a cheese cave, including the suggestion that you can innoculate cheeses in your fridge if you want to turn them blue.

The last form of cheese again required no rennet. A cheese with no name in North America, it's the simplest and most common: known elsewhere as labneh, quark, fromage frais, queso fresco, formaggio fresco or just plain old farmers cheese, it's basically just yogurt that is strained and hung for 24 hours. Rotsztain uses a silk scarf

and recommends using anything except what is sold as cheesecloth in our supermarkets. You need something that has a fine weave and can be laundered.

We also discussed Kefir, which is a wild bacterial culture used to ferment milk and other products. It's the basis for lassi and makes a fine starter for cheese products (curd cheeses require both starters and rennet); easier to maintain than yogurt starters which must be replenished periodically. You need to start with kefir grains (which have nothing to do with grain)

which you put into milk and 24 hours later you have a kefir drink (lassi) that can be salted or flavoured. You can also put them into juice or sweetened tea (I'm thinking this is what was behind the fermented hibiscus tea I enjoyed at the Ethical Kitchen back in April). The result is probiotic and feeds the bacteria in your gut. The grains are fed and nurtured much like a bread starter, and can be shared with friends.

And after all that... we had cheese.