Thursday, March 15, 2012

In praise of buying locally, part 3: Who’s running this show anyway?

It’s probably pretty clear by now that I have no time for agri-business. The idea that it’s somehow better for all of us to get our food from farms with thousands of acres under cultivation or thousands of animals kept in huge sheds where they never see the light of day and live out their time standing on concrete is something that we should all be concerned about. We won’t even get into how I feel about genetically modified grains.

Agri-business and the supermarket industry have worked hard to convince us that this is all okay for our food supply. Mostly, it’s under the banner of “we can bring you food cheaper”, knowing full well that everyone can be seduced by a bargain. The fact is that we currently pay less per capita for our food then at any other time since Canada switched from mostly being rural and people grew most of their own food. But is cheap food necessarily a good thing?

In my last post, I told you of a man with a vision. Potatoes are about the last thing that could be expected to inspire passion, but there are people who believe that bringing well-raised, tasty and nutritious food to market is really important. When you’ve eaten some of Bob Taylor’s potatoes, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

With our increasingly global society, another change to food has crept in: you can now buy almost anything anytime of the year. Every week at the market, I see asparagus which is primarily a spring crop. Mid-winter in Ontario where I live is not the time to see it, but we do. After doing some digging, I found that a lot of it comes from Peru. After tasting it on numerous occasions, I can believe it was trucked here – slowly. It is not fresh. It is not what I consider asparagus.

This member of the fern family is supposed to be plump and tender, a rich dark green and have an earthy smell. The stalks should be tender almost to the bottom. At the height of our local asparagus season here, it is just that. In November, you get thin stalks, sometimes fairly desiccated at the ends, and a light green color that speaks of long transport. The taste you get is a faint echo of what asparagus should taste like. My feeling: why eat it?

It’s the same with most fruits and vegetables eaten out of season. My wife absolutely refuses to eat sliced tomatoes (the big ones) before late July or after the first major frost. I’m the same way about apricots (which I adore) and will only eat locally-grown ones, preferably bought directly from the farmer. Buy them in a supermarket and all you’ll get are mealy, hard yellow things that bear no resemblance to what an apricot should be. The problem with both these items is their short availability. For tomatoes, it’s barely three months on a good year; for apricots, it can be as short as three weeks. What’s a lover of these two foods to do?

My feeling is that you go nuts and eat your fill when you can get the best. Eat them because of their taste. From May to June, we buy a lot of asparagus. In July through to late September/early October, we have our garden supply some the most luscious tomatoes you’ve ever eaten. We often serve them at two meals a day. The same goes for strawberries, cherries, melons… I could go on and on. We also buy the freshest ones possible. That usually means avoiding supermarkets, even at the height of the local season.

Why? Because they get their produce through middlemen. That extra layer in the purchasing pipeline can add days and miles to the freshness of your fruit and veggies. Buy from a grower or someone who has a working relationship from a grower. Back in the good old days, farmers would come right into town and deliver to stores and restaurants. That’s increasingly rare these days. If you don’t want to take the time to source your food directly, find a good green grocer who does.

Each person has to make a decision on how they eat. For many, dollars and cents have to rule the day. The option of more expensive food is not a realistic one. But for others, we do have an option and we should vote with our wallets. We can also vote with our time. Find a local farmers market or a green grocer who understands that providing the best produce is important. Buy locally. Pay a fair price, preferably directly to the farmer. That’s the best way to assure they’ll be around next year. And the food…well let’s just say, you will be amazed at how good it can taste.

So as we get into spring, look forward to early goodies like local radishes and tender young lettuce, strawberries, fiddleheads, garlic scapes, baby spinach, and asparagus. When they’re available, go nuts. One of our favorite spring treats is sliced French breakfast radishes (the long ones with the white tips), placed on the best baguette we can find, spread with some sweet butter. I know it sounds weird but the taste is beyond lovely.

As a matter of fact, I planted a row of these radishes in our garden yesterday. I’m taking a flyer here since snow in April is not unknown in these parts, but what’s the worst that can happen? They’ll die. So what? I can always plant more (and will anyway). If we’re lucky with our weather this year, the Blechtas will be eating homegrown radishes by mid-April.

Now that’s living!


Anonymous said...

Oooooo! fiddleheads & puffballs from the Rouge valley! sauteed in butter, or -- better still -- in ghee!

Rick Blechta said...

Fiddleheads are a wonderful part of spring. And they’re free – if you know where to look. We have a jealously guarded spot up in Caledon where we can find a good crop.

Can’t say I’ve ever had them sautéed with puffballs, though. That sounds fantastic!