Thursday, May 8, 2008

Do You Know Your Farmer?

Author and farming advocate Margaret Webb was at Bon Appetit Cookbooks on Tuesday, May 6th to speak about her new book, Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover’s Guide to Canadian Farms. In her book, Webb takes the reader on a cross-country visit to eleven Canadian farms and introduces us to eleven very distinctive, extraordinary and passionate farmers, or as Webb calls them “chefs of the soil.”
Webb brought up many interesting questions, such as why we import apples from the U.S and Chile when we have in abundance here in Ontario and in the B.C. Okanagan; and more importantly, why don’t we hold our farmers in higher regards?
I’m well aware that the cynic and pragmatist in all of us knows the answers to these questions, (question #1: because people want cheap apples, and question #2: Farmers? What farmers?) but Webb’s approach is one of intimacy rather than an attempt at bringing down the giant industrial agricultural monster which supplies the many supermarkets at every corner of the suburban world. She simply gets to know her farmers, and that’s something, according to Webb, all of us should do. Everyone from Rachel Ray to Jamie Oliver are telling us that as savvy foodies, we should all get to know our butchers, fishmongers and cheese purveyors; so why not our farmers?
The fresh vegetable season is almost upon us so don’t be afraid to ask where the zucchini, lettuce, or garlic comes from. Farmer’s markets are obviously the ideal place to get to know a farmer, but in the name of research and to show you that such questions can and should be asked anywhere, I went to the Loblaws closest to my house where a very young man (or was he a boy?) stared at me for a while with his mouth agape when I asked him where the apples were from. Instead of speaking he started looking around no doubt for somebody to rescue him from this overly-curious man. To be fair some of the produce at Loblaws had the place of origin indicated, but not all.
I decided to leave and headed for an I.G.A. not far away. All of the produce was labeled with the country of origin (most of the vegetables are from the U.S.A., except for the bell peppers which were from Holland and the garlic which is now imported in mass quantities from China.) I asked a smartly dressed man if he could recommend any local vegetables, instead of running away, he rightly told me that it’s still too early in the season but they soon would have a whole section dedicated to local produce, some from small farms and some from the industrial farms. He then suggested a locally grown greenhouse tomato from a small producer in Mirabel called, Les Serres Stephane Bertrand, and poceeded to give me several information cards (see fig.2) that he thought might help with my vegetable curiosity. Needless to say I left impressed.

Fig.2. Vegetable information cards from I.G.A.

Those of you who have experienced the marvel of a perfect vegetable grown from pure, uncontaminated, fresh manure ejected from that happy, grass-grazing bovine will know that such vegetables do not require much preparation and handling. The tomatoes I bought at I.G.A., while not the best I’ve ever had, certainly stood on their own. Remember, quick recipes should be fast by the nature of their ingredients and not because of harried attitudes. The better the ingredients, the less you need to do with them.

Tomato and Orange Salad
Serves 2 to 3

2 large tomatoes
1 orange
20 basil leaves
Kosher Salt
Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Good Quality Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Slice tomatoes and orange and arrange in a plate with the basil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle generously with good quality first cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil. (The regular olive oil in the big rectangular tin won't work here. Go buy the good stuff!)
Have some bread around to absorb the expensive olive oil you just bought.

Note: Add some sliced fresh mozzarella cheese (such as fior di latte, mozzarella di buffalo, or fresh boconccini) and it becomes an Insalata Caprese. I sometimes like to add some lemon zest and a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar for some contrast and tanginess.

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