A few days ago, I went over to a friend's house and he offered me a banana. It had been a while. Beginning with the first day of spring, my partner Alisa and I had made a commitment to buy no food or drink for home consumption that had travelled from farther than a hundred-mile radius. Well, I accepted the gift of the banana. I ate the damn thing, and wow, was it ever delicious.
Then I caught myself. Why get so hopped up about a banana? It's not as though the 100-Mile Diet has been sparse and bland. Just a week ago I was literally pouring double handfuls of blueberries fresh off the bush and into my mouth, a moment of foodie decadence as great as any I've ever experienced. Alisa and I might have started eating close to home in order to explore what a truly sustainable diet could look like, but we aren't people who get a charge out of feeling holier-than-thou. We like our pleasures real.
Below the megamart radar
As we talk about the 100-Mile Diet with various people, we hear again and again that our meals must be both spartan and shockingly repetitive. I understand where that impression comes from-the local grocery store. Living in a cargo-cult food culture, we now take for granted the fact that we can eat strawberries from New Zealand in January and might never see a Fraser Valley apple on the shelf. Take away certain global ingredients-like sugar cane-and whole aisles in the megamart might as well have vanished.
What we're finding, however, is that there is a world of local foods to be found below the radar. In fact, as we creep into the growers' high season, it's an embarrassment of riches. Even in early spring-the leanest time of year, when few fresh foods are ready to harvest-we managed to make do. This was the menu for our first official 100-Mile Meal back in March: Hothouse cucumber slices with beet, carrot and kohlrabi slaw.
Steamed kale and mashed potatoes.
Organic yoghurt with garden anise.
Spring salmon with organic sage butter.
Warm Saltspring Island brie with ground roasted hazelnuts, frozen blueberries, and a cranberry juice and honey reduction.
Fraser Valley bacchus wine and Cowichan Valley cider.
"Goodness," we thought as we cradled our bellies after the meal. "How will we ever survive?"
We don't often eat that well, of course, if only because the cost would soon leave us with only a single dining option: the food bank. But the persistent idea that a local diet can't be varied is an indication of how disconnected most of us are from the reality of living in one of the planet's richest ecological regions. Yes, the long, cold, wet spring was a challenge (at one point we ate a chickweed and dandelion salad), but only because we were starting with a knowledge base near zero.
Now, that's good
What did we eventually come up with? We ate fiddleheads, the catch-them-or-they're-gone baby ostrich ferns that are picked wild from secret sweet spots in the Fraser Valley. We discovered that the tang of dried local seaweeds is improbably addictive. Strait of Georgia shellfish, we can now confirm, are at their buttery best in the colder months-we steamed them in the impressive wines of local vintners like Domaine de Chaberton, and drank off the juices. Largely forgotten root vegetables like celeriac and sunchokes found their way to the table, along with good winter keepers like parsnips, cabbages, kale, red onions and even apples. Yes, we ate a lot of potatoes, but also bright hothouse peppers and dried wild mushrooms. There were few fruits but a lot of fruit juice, especially shots of pure cranberry that can open your eyes in the morning like a triple espresso. Hungry for protein, we got to know exactly when and where fisheries openings would occur. We kissed halibut. A later field trip up the valley revealed orchards of hazelnuts (Alisa is allergic; for me they've become a staple).
There are still red and black currants in the freezer.
As the season wore on and we became leading local experts on the qualities of various spuds, we celebrated the arrival of new potatoes, so crisp, rich and nutty that they might as well have been a whole new vegetable. We ate our first ones raw. We mourned the passing of a ruinous asparagus season (better luck next year). But the weather has been good to the berries; the rains made them fat, and now the sun has made them sweet. Even the pithy wild salal berries, beloved of bears, are juicy this year and leave your mouth with a perfumed taste. These are the fruits of spring and early summer, though plums and some local apricots are starting to turn up at the markets.
Did I mention the honey? Somewhere along the way we discovered pumpkin-flower honey, which made me wonder what that insipid stuff was that I'd been spreading on my toast since childhood.
Now, everything is changing yet again. Fiddleheads are long forgotten, and the summertime cuisine is all about the colour green: lettuces, collards and mustard greens, dai gai choi and joi choi, sweet gypsy peppers, fava bean pods the size of sausages, pickling cucumbers, even green tomatoes. In other words: Don't worry, mom, we're getting our vitamins and minerals. It's worth pausing to note that many of these foods that turn up in the markets-or in our community garden plot-can never be found in the local Safeway. All of them, almost without fail, will be more flavourful than anything you'll find shipped in from California or from Ecuador.
Whole cultural currents are beginning to turn around local foods and eating. The use of regional ingredients has become a cliché among chefs (though often louder in the saying than the doing), municipalities like Surrey, Richmond, and Delta now promote "agritourism," and the international Slow Food movement (which has a local chapter) celebrates regional eating and real, human relationships with growers and producers.
The result-above and beyond the reduction of greenhouse gases produced in global shipping-is support for a local economy that is also being propelled toward organic and sustainable practices. (This, in turn, opens the fields to even more rarified and complex production methods such as permaculture, which attempts to design permanent, high-yielding agricultural ecosystems using as little land as possible.) The pattern is based on a straightforward rule: it is easier to make ethical decisions about sustainability and animal husbandry when you can walk onto the farm and see for yourself. Distance is the enemy of awareness.
But enough about all of that. There are a lot of Big Issues associated with the food system, and there will be time to write about several of them here as the 100-Mile Diet continues. The point of this dispatch is to forget about the politics and . . . rhapsodize. Eating locally is a grand adventure. It has taken us to 40-year-old family fish shops and introduced us to people who have grown their own soy beans for homemade tofu. It has left us calling our mothers to find out how to wash and cook whole-grain wheat. Best of all, every time I open the refrigerator to come up with something for dinner, I feel like a pioneer.
Let's see, I've got radishes, blue potatoes, sage, clams and garlic. Recipe books are plumbed. Old standbys are transformed. And isn't that how cookery as distinct as those of Tuscany and Provence, not to mention the coastal First Nations, evolved? It is hard to imagine those cuisines emerging in today's global culture-does oolichan grease go with durian fruit?-but as we move closer to home and follow the seasons, we'll see innovation start to happen at the speed of necessity.
Why not try your hand? Alisa and I are eating locally for a year, but the same experiment can work for a night, a dinner party, a potluck. This we can guarantee: you will begin to change the way you think about your food. And maybe that dinner will turn into breakfast, lunch and beyond. All of which, I guess, is my long and winding way of saying that I don't really miss bananas. If a friend offers one, I'll take it. I'll take it for exactly what it is-a treat from another world.
Here's a day's worth of local eating. Please note that I'm just an ordinary, three-meals-a-day cook-not a chef-so what you're getting is far from perfect. Improvements on these recipes, or 100-percent-local recipes of your own, are more than welcome. -J.B.
1 cup grated potato
3-5 green onions, chopped
1 cup of "character" (see below)
1 tbsp melted butter
salt and cracked hot peppers
In a large bowl, toss potato (good baking or mashing varieties such as russets are best), green onions and "character" (whatever is seasonal and at hand, such as crumbled cooked salmon, roasted red peppers, sweet corn, wild mushrooms). Lightly beat eggs; whisk in melted butter, as well as salt and cracked peppers to taste. Pour over the potato mixture and stir together. (Add a third egg if the resulting batter seems too thin.) Heat a lightly buttered skillet to medium-low. Spread the mixture into "pancakes," cook until golden, then flip and cook on the other side.
Local notes: All of these products are locally available, especially at farmers' markets (except salt; we still have old stocks of salt on hand, and will work to find a local source as that disappears-any leads?). We buy organic within reason, and only purchase organic animal products. If you have further concerns over the care of local laying hens or dairy cows, most local farms welcome questions and arrange visits. And yes, hot peppers turn up at local markets. I have a bagful from Surrey.
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1 lb (500 g) arugula
2 cloves garlic
1/3 to 1/2 cup crushed, roasted hazelnuts
Salt and cracked hot peppers
2-3 tbsp butter
First, prepare whatever it is you might want to put your pesto onto-local choices include potatoes boiled to just off the crunch or whole-grain Red Fife wheat. Set aside one cup of cooking liquid. Next, finely hand-chop all ingredients but butter. Toss with the potatoes or wheat berries. Add butter and enough cooking liquid that the pesto clings like a sauce. Warm on the stove until just heated through, then serve.
Local notes: The best arugula I've ever eaten is local-leaves so young and tender one grower said calling them "baby greens" was not enough. He called them "micro greens." Garlic and arugula are readily available, the latter especially in spring and early summer. Hazelnuts are grown in the Fraser Valley.
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Fanny Bay Pie
6 medium to large oysters
1 cup celery
1 onion (or 4-5 green onions)
2 cups boiled potatoes
salt and cracked hot peppers
In a small to medium skillet, melt enough butter to sauté. Add onions and celery (or substitute celery for another seasonal vegetable, such as green beans or carrots). Cook slowly until tender. Meanwhile, hard-boil the eggs. Set aside the liquor from the oysters and then cut the oysters into the skillet using scissors. Turn up the heat to medium-low and fry oysters until they curl. Remove from heat and turn out the mixture into a greased pie plate. Roughly chop the boiled eggs and stir them in. Season to taste with salt and hot peppers, and moisten with the oyster liquor. Cover the "pie" with mashed potatoes (prepared as you wish, with or without butter, milk, etc). Bake about 20 minutes or until contents are bubbling and potato crust is lightly browned. Spread chopped parsley over the top and serve . . . we ate it with a salad and gooseberry wine from Westham Island Estate Winery.
Local notes: All ingredients should be readily available. Strait of Georgia oysters can be found at reputable fish shops.
Read the rest of the 100-Mile Diet Series.
Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon will be writing twice a month for The Tyee about their attempt to eat well on the 100-Mile Diet. For more information on finding locally produced food visit the web site of FarmFolk/CityFolk.
Have your own wholly local recipes to share? Post them below.
Read more: Local Economy