Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Not the simpleton of fruit

I can't remember the last time I heard someone get excited about pears.

Maybe because the last time anyone did, it was in the time of the Greek philosopher Homer, judging by one of the latest entries from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture in its writing campaign about food and farming in the province.

Even in the very unscientific poll conducted on this blog a couple of months ago asking people their favourite fruit, not one person picked the pear. Strawberries and peaches, oh yes. They herald a season everyone loves — summer. But not the pear. The pear signals fall, which means winter is around the corner. When was the last time anyone was excited about that?

So what is it about the bowling pin-shaped fruit whose harvest gets overshadowed by the apple and trumped by that fruit's reputation for staving off doctors? I like pears — love the taste when they start to get that soft, buttery, melt in your mouth texture. But I maybe buy only one basket a season and I have my fill. This despite the pear needing support moreso now than ever after last year's closure of CanGro, the St. Davids plant that carved up many Niagara pears for Del Monte. Many of those pears are now trying to woo consumers on store shelves reserved for fresh fruit.

They're kind of like the cabbage of fruit. Not very exciting, but a staple, nonetheless, and a very versatile one at that. Ever turned over that container of fruit juice to read the ingredients? I bet there's pear juice in there somewhere, though it won't get much credit, if any, in the product name. Don't forget, it's also a staple in fruit salad.

Anyway, here's an ode to what might be the unsung hero of the fruit world or at least the underdog in the local fruit clan.

The Perfect Pear

Juicy and sweet, the Greek poet Homer referred to pears as “A Gift of the Gods”
By the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA)

As the summer of 2009 wanes, and much of the early season produce consumed and enjoyed, there is one locally grown fruit that is just now coming into its own - Ontario pears.

Popular varieties like Bartlett, Anjou, Bosc, Clapp’s Favourite and Flemish Beauty offer shoppers plenty of choices when looking for a tasty, juicy fruit that is high in dietary fibre and is fat and sodium-free. And there is now a new addition to the pear family. Harovin Sundown was developed by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientists and was 35 years in the making.

The Federal Government announced the name in early 2008 after more than 11,000 voters across the country pondered over five contenders: Harovin Sundown, Harovin Bounty, Harovin Gala, Harovin Pride and Harovin Prime. Typically new names include a reference to the research centre where the breeding takes place and the plant’s origins. In this case, the name Harovin is a blend of Harrow, Ontario where the Research Centre is located and Vineland, the site where it was bred.

This uniquely Canadian product is high quality and also tolerant to fire blight, a destructive bacterial disease that affects apples and pears. The new variety will also ripen later in the year in the October time frame and stores will stock for up to three months which means pear lovers can enjoy locally grown pears well past the Christmas season. Harovin Sundown is expected to be in tree nurseries by 2010 and on supermarket shelves by 2015.

Pear pointers:

• Unlike other fruit, pears don’t ripen well on the tree. Instead they are harvested by hand before they are fully mature to complete the ripening process.
• If left on the tree to ripen, the flesh of the pear will turn brown and the fruit will become soft
• A pear is 83% water and a good source of vitamins.
• About three quarters of all pears grown in Ontario come from the Niagara region.
• Two pear varieties must be planted in an orchard for cross pollination.

When shopping for pears, look for fruit that is fairly firm to the touch but has some give when pressed gently. The skin should be smooth and have no surface markings.

Pears can also bruise easily so it is best to handle them carefully and store them in the refrigerator. To get the most of out pears, eat them within a few days of their purchase as they can spoil easily.

You can learn more about pears by visiting Foodland Ontario or Ontario Tender Fruit Producers.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The shock value of mayonnaise

It's a commercial worth watching.

Hellmann's has launched an docu-mercial of sorts, with this poignant and surprising ad for its Eat Real, Eat Local campaign.

Good for a major player in the food processing world for championing such an important message. Everyone has mayonnaise in the fridge and this takes the importance of eating local — a movement often accused of being elitist — mainstream.

Still, I have to wonder if Hellmann's looks for Canadian ingredients to go into its products. I hope I'm not sounding like too much of cynic — you know, the kind of person who wonders if this was done to appeal a growing segment of socially conscious consumers who might walk past the mayonnaise shelf in the grocery store, opting instead to make their own with local eggs and local oil. I truly am genuinely interested. I'd be pleasantly surprised if it did source only Canadian ingredients or even try to. Or if it's even possible. If anyone has any insight, let me know.

Meanwhile, check this out and don't forget to heed the message.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Enschuldigung Sie Bitte

That's sorry in German — my mea culpa for not writing in more than a month, in part because I was in Germany visiting family and eating. A lot.

While harvest was in full-swing here, I was eating local in another locale and enjoying it immensely. While I can't say I noticed a local food movement like what's happening here, I did notice a lot of local food. Fruit at the grocery store was mostly from the EU. Only once did I see Chilean grapes, which, over there, struck me as odd, but don't ask to me explain why it's more odd there than here.

Each place we travelled in Germany, France (Strasbourg and Colmar) and Luxembourg, there were dedicated regional food shops. I went into one in Esslingen, near Stuttgart and was impressed. Heritage lentils, oil from poppies, noodles made with locally grown grains and handcrafted by local folks, whose individual names and addresses appeared on the packages, mustards, jams, all in flavours unique to that region of Germany, lined shelves. And the relatives I was with were familiar with it all, knowing the significance of the items to the area.

It stuck me in my travels how much more Europeans are connected to their food than us in North America. It was so easy, no matter where we were, to find distinct regional fare: all kinds of smoked meat piled on a mountain of sauerkraut in Strasbourg, flammekuchen, which is like German pizza but sans cheese and with cream instead of tomato sauce, in Zweibrucken, Rosti in Colmar. And the wine. Oh my goodness, the wine. The offering of a wine from Burgundy in Strasbourg or Colmar, the heart of the Alsace wine region, was about as foreign as it got.

The same was true in Germany, where in Trier, there were offerings from the Moselle Region, while in Bingen, it was the vines along Rhine providing us with our wine.

Why would they put anything else on the menu? They're proud of what of they have to offer the thirsty and the hungry, and know that they do food, wine and beer well. And eating is always an event, unlike here where it seems to be more of a chore that's rushed through so we can get on to other more important things than nourishment in our day.

Even my 96-year-old Oma still cooks things from scratch, labouring over Schnitzel, potatoes and cucumber salad, while turning her nose up at the tofu Schnitzel option I had discovered in town — not because it was tofu but because it was a processed, ready-made, convenience food. I'm sure it was the only of it's kind to ever take up space in her refrigerator.

It all made me think how unfortunate our approach to food is. Not to sound self-righteous but really, it's kind of sad. We're missing out on a lot in our fast food, pre-packaged, ignorance-is-bliss culinary existence.

It also had me wondering what I would feed someone from France or Germany to give them a sense of regional fare here. Outside of a peach and some VQA wine, I'm drawing a blank. (Any suggestions out there?) What are our culinary traditions, exactly? What is Canadian food? Is it the eclectic fare common on menus, influenced by Canada's multiculturalism? Is it in a box in your grocer's freezer section? Why don't VQA wines appear exclusively on restaurant menus? Despite The Economist calling Canadian wines passable plonk, I've tasted local wines that should make us proud of our winemaking heritage, short as it's been thus far. Are we suffering from a culinary identity crisis? If we had stronger, more defined food traditions, what effect would that have on us? Would we be healthier? Would farming be more profitable? Would defining what it means to be Canadian be easier?

The wheels don't stop turning, even on vacation. But it just shows the muse food can be — and sense of people and place it can provide.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The locavore myth

Pardon the absence from the blog. Unlike my co-writer, I didn't go on my honeymoon. I simply experienced a computer crash.

First things first.

Our next Lettuce, Turnip and Wine gardening meeting will be October 6th at The Wildflower. Meeting to begin at 6:45, however I'll be there at 6 p.m. to dine and wine and if anyone cares to join me (and Holly), come early.

Last meeting we whined about the gardening year it has been and enjoyed a nice glass of Gewurtztraminer, my absolute favourite. This meeting we will discuss gardening options and approaches as the winter approaches. I would also like to have a bit of a discussion about local food, and the local food scene in Niagara. Bring opinions! We also need to talk a bit more about Seedy Saturday in Niagara as it appears Lettuce Turnip and Wine is running the show...yay!

Now onto other topics.

A gardening friend, who depends on growing for her income, said to me the other day that she was anxious for a frost. That tells you the kind of year it has been and I feel the same way. Rain, cool temps, tomato blight. Aargh! One beauty of gardening is this reprieve after a poor year, but really when your income is dependent on a good year, winter is little comfort.

She is going to consider her options carefully this winter, as am I. Is there money to be made as a small market gardener?
Some crops are clearly more lucrative than others but some crops are fickle, as are the markets. And with the absolute unreliability of the weather, optimal gardening seems possible only in a green house.

On to some interesting topics gleaned from the pages of ACRES USA, a great Eco-Ag publication. An interview with James McWilliams is particularly interesting. McWilliams is a prof at Texas State U and considers the local food movement elitist and misinformed.

He believes that the problems that we face in terms of food production are global problems and cannot be solved at all by the local food movement. He states "When I see locavores just focus on local, local, local — when that is the defining issue of this movement of incredibly intelligent and activist -minded consumers — it frustrates me because i think there are much bigger questions that need to be asked."

He goes on to say that we need to look at sustainable agriculture on a larger scale, look at the efficiencies that do exist in an industrial model of agriculture, and figure out how these two systems can work together in a more effective way.

He also says we need to look at land use. As an example, he says that locavores would be all for local grass-fed beef being in their diet. But he says the bigger question is, should we be eating beef at all. "What kinds of sacrifices should we be making as eaters that go beyond buying local?"

It is far less important where your food comes from than your food's carbon footprint and how the land was used in producing it. The fact that your food is local has very little impact on the environment. More important is WHAT you eat. He believes if we don't begin to look at this on a global scale, the world is certainly going to see an increase in famines and ecological devastation.

To read the complete article, see ACRES USA, May 2009, Volume 39, No 5.

Other notes of interest in my Sept 2009 ACRES USA:

Genetically modified ice cream is now on the market. Unilever has created a product that is 50% lower in fat by adding ISP (Ice structuring protein) originally isolated from an Arctic fish, but now produced in a lab by fermenting a GM yeast. Yum.

On the same page, we see the fact that US and Canadian Organic equivalency is finalized and an article about the purity of organic being questioned. It appears that organic products can contain 5% approved non-organic substances but that the approved list has grown from 77 to 245 substances. These are mostly all synthetic substances creating a flood of processed and packaged "Organic" food.

In a desire to grow the organic industry, many certifiers are setting their own standards, creating a haphazard and confusing system. A bill has been put forward to look into the effectiveness of the US system, but in the meantime, consumers are left to wonder. Alternatives are springing up, touting themselves as cheaper alternatives to organic — those labelled "natural" — but of course we don't know what that means either!

What a tangled web we weave.
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