Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NiAGara Farm Heroes and Agvocates: Jens Gemmrich of Frogpond Farm winery

Jens Gemmrich, proprietor of Frogpond Farm winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.


If Jens Gemmrich could have one do-over, it would be his winery's namesake.

The pond behind Gemmrich's home and Frogpond Farm winery store is a beacon for jumpy amphibians, deer and all kinds of other wildlife.

But the watery hole that Gemmrich dug after purchasing his Niagara-on-the-Lake vineyard in 1996 is a magnet for something else.

Something that does this grape grower, winemaker and veritable jack of all trades no favours in his sometimes fickle line of work.

"In the winter, you have all this cold air sitting here. It creates a frost pocket," Gemmrich lamented. "Those years when it's cold, we get a lot of damage.

"It seemed like a good idea — like you can do a lot with heavy equipment — but at the end of the day, you don't improve anything."

The German-born Gemmrich, who once served as winemaker at Stonechurch Vineyards, isn't about to erect a towering wind machine or two to help his Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Vidal vines cope, either. At $30,000 a pop, it's an expense this craft winery operator, who does just about everything himself — he's even a cooper — can't justify for his 10-acre plot.

But then, Gemmrich eschews all the trappings of conventional viticulture. As the proprietor of Niagara's original certified organic winery, Gemmrich refuses to spray, over-mechanize or do anything against the forces of nature for the sake of his livelihood.

In those cold years when the pond wreaks its havoc, he cuts his losses. In 2003, that meant writing off his entire harvest.

"There was never any question," Gemmrich said about going organic. "Living here, you don't want to expose your children to (chemicals)."

Gemmrich comes from a farming family in southern Germany. They worked their vineyard there with chemicals, he said, and after reading all the warnings on the product labels, he became convinced there was a better way.

Being the first to do without those chemical helpers in Niagara, however, meant that it took some convincing for others to get on board with Gemmrich's early earth-conscious crops.

"The first crop I grew, there was no interest in bottling a separate organic wine," he said. "There was a lot of resistance."

Some of Frogpond Farm's vintages. Gemmrich also presses white and red
non-alcoholic organic grape juice.


Industry folk doubted Niagara's climate would be conducive to organic grape growing. The heat and humidity would leave the berries vulnerable to disease and needing to be doused with a chemical remedy.

Gemmrich never bought that story.

"There are challenges with everything. It's not harder than growing conventionally. You have problems and you have to come out with creative solutions for it," he said.

His most intensive work comes at the beginning of the growing season, as he sets up his vines to prevent issues from arising later in the crop cycle. He uses compost instead of artificial nitrogen as fertilizer to produce strong, healthy vines. He keeps the canopy of leaves open to keep moulds at bay and let in life-sustaining light and air.

"Some people catch every cold because they have a weak immune system so they buy every cold medicine but they still get sick," Gemmrich said. "If you have a problem with fungus, it's because the plant is weak so nature recycles it. We try to keep it strong so nature doesn't recycle it."

Others didn't buy in to Gemmrich's organic vision because they questioned the whole concept, even felt threatened by it because it could give his wines an edge, he recalled.

Jens Gemmrich in his vineyard. 
"What are you afraid of? We're a 10-acre farm," he said. "We don't do this for marketing. We do it because we actually think it's the right way of doing things."

Ten years after after Gemmrich's first vintages were released in 2001, Niagara boasts biodynamic wineries — think of it as hyper-organic farming, combining agriculture and astronomy, in addition to working in harmony with the planet — and others proclaiming the use of organic methods in their tipple production.

Having been an Opa of the movement locally, Gemmrich is just happy to see such production methods finally taking root here.

"It makes me proud of myself sometimes," he said. "It's like you stepped on a stone, it became loose and it started rolling downhill and you had a movement happening."

Since flooding Frogpond — and Niagara — with organic vintages, Gemmrich said he gets customers on his doorstep who embrace organic as a lifestyle for themselves. Others just want good wine.

When it comes to producing that, Gemmrich is as steadfast about how to do it as he is when it comes to his growing methods.

"Wines have become boring," Gemmrich said, standing in his wine shop as his flock of Guinea hens scampered through the yard outside.

Some wine regions in the world try to make their vintages taste like others, despite different growing conditions and soil, he explained. They grow the same grapes the world over, ferment them with the same yeasts and do little different throughout the entire winemaking process.

"There's similarly grown Chardonnay in Australia, California, Canada. We use the same techniques, the same oak barrels and that doesn't make sense to me," Gemmrich said. "I think it's the wrong approach to winemaking. Why do we want to make it the same? We should be able to grow Riesling here and people should be able to recognize it as Ontario Riesling."

Growing organically, without artificial interference, helps produce wine true to its Ontario roots, he added. That's also why he limits his production to just a few varieties that do well in Niagara's climes.

"If we try to do French wine... we're always going to be 1,000 years behind," he said.

Given that Frogpond is Gemmrich's handiwork, from the farming to the winemaking, is there one hat he'd rather wear over another?

Gemmrich also raises chickens, Guinea hens and sheep on his farm for his
own consumption. No farm is complete without animals, he said. 

Some days, he'd take simply being the winemaker. Others, well, it just depends on what task is demanding his attention, he said with a smile.

"I'd love to be a farmer right now because you are done for the year," he said, having just finished up several 100-hour work weeks that came with the grape harvest and pressing. "It's dark early and your day is done.

"But in the winery, there's a light you can turn on."

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wreath-making 101

My wreath, made by moi.
Other people may have had a Burl Ives song in their head.

I had the Beastie Boys' She's Crafty on repeat in my mind's ear as I headed to the farm of Rose and Ken Bartel Saturday to get crafty — something I never do, at least with any success — and make my own Christmas wreath.

I was one of about a dozen people tapping into their inner Martha Stewart who gathered in the kitchen of the Bartels' Niagara-on-the-Lake farmhouse, filled with the smells of the forest, thanks to the bunches of evergreen clippings marking each of our spots around the dining room-turned-wreath-making table.

Those remnants of the outdoors would be the makings of those quintessential Christmas decorations that take up residency on doors and windows over the holiday.

The cedar, balsam fir, Douglas fir, sweet-smelling silver fir, boxwood and its hint of cat pee, rose hips, aspen and pine cones that would soon be my wreath all came from the Bartel's farm, just off Lakeshore Road, or the surrounding area.

As she inventoried our supplies, Rose, who has a horticulture background and grows veggies for a summer CSA basket program with her husband Ken, said any trip into the woods would give wannabe wreath makers what they need to make their own festive swag.

Step one was stuffing our flat, aromatic cedar clippings into the tightly wound grapevines that would be our base. The cedar, a smell that always takes me back to the log cabin cottage my family owned when I was a child and the thick, sappy stand of towering of the evergreens acting as a wind block, served as the skirt of the wreath.


The cedar skirt for my wreath.
I shoved the sprigs into the lower half of the grapevine base, following up with the prickly balsam fir. As per Rose's advice, we gave our pseudo-wreaths a good hard shake to see how securely we affixed the fixings. So far, mine could hold up to a good wind gust, should my Christmas creation and a vengeful Mother Nature ever meet.

What I had so far looked like a big floppy — and uncomfortable — crown of needles but it definitely had a wreath-like air to it.

Perhaps I had some natural, crafting ability after all, I mused as my wreath-mates politely praised my efforts.

My fingers were now sticky with sap as I started plugging in the Douglas fir, normally the species coveted for Christmas trees because their needles are soft, and like most firs, they don't drop them easily.

But it was adding the layer of silver fir that was my favourite part. With it's long, heavy, flat succulent needles, the room was filled with a beautiful citrus smell. I could have spent the rest of my time burying my face in my creation and inhaling deeply.

With my coiled grapevine now looking pretty packed, I started to add the less scent-sational boxwood, but with its tiny grass green leaves instead of needles, it made the wreath a little more visually interesting and added a change in texture. Or at least that's what Rose told us was her reason for including it in our foliage options.

The more stuff I added, though, the less convinced I became that I had truly channelled my inner craft goddess, which I was pretty sure didn't exist anyway when I arrived at the Bartels' door.

Still, I persevered because it would have been  pretty boring to have thrown in my sap-stained towel. Next up, some prickly rose hips to add a festive splash of red, compliments of its tiny red berries and the nasty thorns that stabbed me and drew blood. Note to self: wear heavy-duty gloves next time.

Optional aspen was next and in a token act, I shoved three sticks of it strategically into my wreath. Everyone else was doing it so I figured maybe I should, too.

Me, hard at work, getting those fingers covered in sap.
But my wreath really went off the rails with the addition of the ribbon -- thanks to Rose and Ken for at least helping an all-thumbs student assemble her bows. But by this time, my wreath was looking less rustic and more Christmas kitsch while all around me, everyone else's looked like something you'd pay big bucks for at the neighbourhood trendy florist.

A few pine cones later and I called it quits. For the sake of having something I wouldn't want to donate to the birds in my backyard for a winter's nest or be the butt of holiday jokes at my house, I had to stop. That and my grapevine base couldn't handle anything more being jammed into it.

While I self-deprecatingly call it my Charlie Brown Christmas Wreath after the pathetic tree that everyone's favourite morose Peanut selected from all the other beauties on the tree lot, I have to say, I'm kind of proud of it, for a first time effort.

This despite being a little green with envy as I watched others parade their seeming perfect greenery past me on their way out the door.

Yes, the Christmas wreaths really are greener on the other side of the crafting table.
Good news, though. Rose is holding other DIY holiday decoration sessions before the big day, these ones for centrepieces. The two-hour sessions run Dec. 12 and Dec. 17 at 10 a.m. Cost is $25.

If you're interested, call her at 905-937-5252.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Canning for grades and the greater good

Some of the jars of pears picked by the Garden of Eating — Niagara and canned by tourism and
hospitality specialist high skills major students from the Niagara Catholic District School Board.
The 160 jars will be donated to Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold. 

There's a good chance Mike Gretzinger's students will never look at a pear the same way again.

After spending a good part of their fall canning 800 pounds of them, there's an even better chance these tourism and hospitality specialist high skills major protegees have a serious hate-on for the humble fruit.

And I fear, it's all my fault, since the pears, and the life lesson in canning they provided, came compliments of The Garden of Eating — Niagara and a team of volunteers who spared these pears from going to waste in the orchard so they could be eaten by people who wanted and needed them.

"It was exhausting. It was just the same," lamented Lindsay Nardangeli , a Grade 12 Denis Morris Catholic High School student.

Their kitchen classroom routine with the bell-shaped fruit consisted of peeling, coring, cutting, poaching.

Repeat.

For weeks.

"It's really messy and sticky," added classmate Katelyn Trudel. "You'd only do it 15 minutes and it felt like three hours."

For much of the fall, the small class of senior students has toiled away in a kitchen at the Holiday Inn and Suites Parkway Convention Centre in St. Catharines, canning a ton of food.

Think 70 bushels of tomatoes, 15 bushels of peaches, 20 of beans, 10 of Roma beans and hundreds more pounds of beets, onions and hot peppers.

"I just say yes when a farmer asks if we want them," Gretzinger said.

In addition to teaching his students the art of preserving, Gretzinger is giving them a lesson in philanthropy, too.

Everything the class cans, including the pears for the Garden of Eating — Niagara, is donated to local food banks and other social organizations, including the Salvation Army.

That made the repetitive, labour intensive classes bearable for Denis Morris student Josh Wallace.

"Your conscience feels better," he said.

"You feel great because you're helping someone eat," interjected classmate Shallyne Coelho.

That's something they'll do again next month when the class tackles its next major culinary assignment: preparing a turkey dinner and all the fixings for 800 people at the Salvation Army's annual Christmas dinner on Dec. 14.

Still, despite being grateful there's nothing left to seal in jars this semester, the students did admit their foray into food preserving gave them new perspective on eating well. Some of them said they would even can again for pleasure instead of grades.

"It tastes cleaner, fresher," Wallace said.

The students aren't the only ones learning, either. A chef by trade, Gretzinger said he hadn't done much canning until moving to the head of the classroom six years ago. The experience has inspired even more lesson ideas for his students.

"The last few years, we've done more and more," he said. "Even myself, I'm learning more as we do it. Now I want to get out to a farm and work .. so they can see where (the food) comes from."

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Niagara ex-pat's local food plea

By Suzanne Taylor, guest blogger, sassy foodie 

Moving to a new place is never easy, of course. There are people that enjoy it, I know, but I am not one of those people. I moved across the street once and I didn’t even like that. I am a St. Catharines girl, born and bred, and if I had my way I’d still live in my childhood bungalow, really. I’ve moved a lot in my life for someone who doesn’t like moving, and the experience does not improve with time or practice.

Upon receiving the news in the spring of 2010 that we would be relocating from St. Catharines to Owen Sound, a place I had never been, I didn’t react with great joy. I knew very little about Owen Sound except that it was northern and cold and was rumoured to have terrible winters.

But, it was the food snob angle that was my biggest hang up about this move. My husband and I are enthusiastic wine and food people, and could often be found in a Niagara winery or restaurant, eating and/or drinking something wonderful. The amazing foodie culture is what we love most about Niagara, and we spent our time eating and drinking the bounty that is Niagara, and sourcing the best local ingredients.

I started to worry when we moved to Owen Sound and I realized that if you ask a local for a restaurant recommendation, he or she would immediately name one of several local Chinese buffet-style restaurants. Pardon me while I barf.

I worried further about finding good local produce and ingredients. After all, we were members of my beloved Linda Crago’s Tree and Twig Heirloom CSA and would feel the absence of her amazing vegetable bounty quite keenly. I was used to buying my organic, drug and hormone-free meats via Pilgrim’s in downtown St. Catharines, and I sure as heck was not returning to eating grocery store meat; I’d turn vegetarian first. Ick! We’d sure as heck miss the amazing St. Catharines and Welland farmers markets, too.

Thankfully, we’ve found most of what we needed to live up here. While we usually still have to leave town to eat out the way we like to (thank you Collingwood and Thornbury!), there are two CSAs producing quality local vegetables, there is a lovely little winery producing VQA wines called Coffin Ridge, a well-stocked farmer’s market on Saturdays, a wonderful butcher just outside of town that provides me with quality grass-fed, organic, hormone-free meat, and most blessed of all, there was Around the Sound.

Around the Sound was a local food market devoted to sourcing ingredients solely for the 100-mile diet. It was, in simple terms, foodie paradise. It had everything you could possibly want to eat sourced from local producers: fresh produce, a wide variety of meats, including game meats, freezer goodies, herbs, nuts, soaps, cosmetics, honey, canned foods, jellies, jams, breads, pastries, teas, popcorn, pickles, cheeses, eggs, tofu, olive oil, flour, milk — well, you get the general idea. You essentially didn’t need a grocery store when this store was around.

It even had a little community kitchen that had just opened in the back, offering cooking classes and a soon-to-be-ready cafe. In short, it was the coolest store you could possibly imagine in a little town where gourmet food wasn’t exactly the norm. And for a couple of local eaters like my husband and I, it was paradise.

Anne Finlay-Stewart, the owner, would even get in Niagara peaches in August for a little taste of home. We were devoted to Around the Sound and shopped there every week; if there was something you were looking for, Anne would find it for you. Every week, Anne would email what was new in Around the Sound and it was always some great, delicious dinner idea or treat.

Mmm, Niagara peaches.

Unfortunately, I opened my email at 5 a.m. on a cold April morning this year to learn that Around the Sound had been destroyed by fire the night before, thanks to careless smoking in the apartments above the store. (Smoking inspection can only be described as Rather Lax in Owen Sound; the apartment building we moved to was missing its No Smoking signs unless I phoned the region and voiced an urgent complaint).

Anne and her staff lost $24,000 of stock in this devastating fire and are still trying to sort out their insurance claim as of this writing. The building it was housed in is set to be torn down as it is beyond any kind of repair.

To date, Anne and company have not found a suitable new store location, as there is very little zoned for grocery in Owen Sound that is affordable and they haven’t got the cash to restart the business from scratch.

Anne estimates that she invested $50,000 in setting up and promoting the store, paying wages, advertising. That money is now essentially lost and she doesn’t have any willing investors helping her to get her business back on its feet.

In order to recreate Around the Sound, she would essentially have to work for free for a long time to recoup the lost money and nobody can really blame her for not wanting to do that. Right now the future of Around the Sound is very much a mystery, unless there are willing investors, which is hard to come by in a town without much industry and a lot of small businesses, who are interested in having the store return. The local government has not been very helpful in Around the Sound’s plight and are mysteriously silent on the subject when asked about it. I’ve tried.

Thankfully, there is a local movement afoot to help rebuild the store, under the direction of a local naturopathic doctor, Kathleen Finlay (no relation to Anne), to help Anne repay the store’s debts before setting about rebuilding. There is a contest to win a gift card for whoever finds the store’s new location. No easy feat — I’ve suggested three locations myself and none are suitable!

To date more than $7,000 has been raised, including an incredible $1,000-donation from the local farmers union.

So, my beloved Niagarans, whom I miss very keenly, I implore you. If you are interested in helping an amazing 100-mile Ontario food business devastated by fire return to work and in turn support 130 local producers, farmers, bakers, cooks and gardeners, you can make a donation to their cause by snail mail only. Cheques must be payable to Anne Finlay-Stewart and can be sent to 642 3rd Ave. East, Owen Sound, ON, N4K, 2K1.

I realize it’s a ways away from you all, but you are always welcome to visit me up here on the bay, and you’d be making a donation to a truly amazing store, and in turn, making a soul donation to a pair of relocated Niagara foodies who sorely miss their cool 100-mile food market and want it back something awful.

Click here to read Suzanne's other guest post Muhziks* make the people come together

Getting to know grape growers: Trevor Falk

The following post was supplied by the Grape Growers of Ontario, which is doing a series of videos on the men and women growing the grapes that make Ontario's spectacular wines. To help share the stories, Eating Niagara is donating space on this website.

Trevor Falk, a Niagara-on-the-Lake grape grower with his son.


By Grape Growers of Ontario

“You might say that wine runs in my blood. In the 1930s, my grandfather was one of the first farmers to recognize the Niagara region’s grape-growing potential and in the 1970s, my parents became pioneers in the industry. Even as a boy, I looked forward to the day I’d take over the family operation, and I’ve already got plans for the fourth generation of Falks”.

Trevor Falk is an Ontario grape grower from Niagara-on-the-Lake, featured in the latest video from the Grape Growers of Ontario. The videos have followed the grape growing season from early spring in Prince Edward County with grower Debra Marshall, through berry formation at the Funk Farms, veraison with Kevin Watson, beginning of harvest with the Mitchell family and now take a look at harvest with Trevor Falk.

Get to know our Ontario grape growers and see what goes into growing the grapes that produce the Ontario wines you love on Facebook. 



Click here to vist Getting to know grape growers: Gord Mitchell
Click here to vist Getting to know grape growers: Kevin Watson
Click here to visit Getting to know grape growers: The Funk Family

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rumours of the demise of supply management…greatly exaggerated?

Shutterstock image
This post is from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, written in response to recent news reports questioning the fate of supply management in Canada for dairy, eggs and poultry as Canada considers entering the Trans-Pacific Partnership to bolster trade relations. It's a good followup to a post I wrote early arguing why we need supply management in agriculture


By Bette Jean Crews, federation president


Farmers across Canada were alarmed with the media reports of Prime Minister Harper’s recent decision to consider joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the potential cost to Canada’s agri-food industry.

In recent trade discussions at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Leaders Summit, Mr. Harper’s remarks were interpreted as a shift in his government’s economic and trade policies with the application to join the TPP. Media reports suggested the demise of Canada’s supply management system.

Trade Minister Ed Fast recently assured Parliament that the government won’t sacrifice farmers in the supply management sector to participate in the TPP trade talks. That restatement of the Conservative campaign promise provides reassurance but the agricultural community across our country remains vigilant, as we always are in trade negotiations. 

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), on behalf of our members, supports supply management as a viable and profitable farm system that provides consistently priced, high quality products to Canadian consumers like milk, cheese, chicken and eggs.

Both Minister Fast and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz have said the Conservative government will stick to its 2011 campaign promise to protect the industry. Farmers are prepared, as always to work with them throughout the negotiations to ensure they can keep that promise.

Countries currently participating countries in the TPP – New Zealand, in particular – are expected to apply considerable pressure to eliminate supply management in order for Canada to expand trade opportunities with the Asia-Pacific markets. However, all countries entering such negotiations work to protect sensitive sectors of their economies.

As in the past eight trade deals Canada has been involved with, countries will engage in negotiations knowing each others’ gives and takes. Supply management in Canada is not a give. OFA will work with our partners across the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to ensure our industry is thoroughly engaged in the negotiating process and all partners in the value chain have the opportunity to speak on behalf of our industry.

Together, we will continue to watch this situation closely and address concerns as they arise.

Meanwhile, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the (media) rumours of the demise of supply management are greatly exaggerated.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More than a fleeting affair: my love letter to a bottle of Sauvignon blanc

The Foreign Affair Winery's 2009 Sauvignon blanc.
I hate Sauvignon blanc.

Well, as rule, I do. I have a feeling this is an admission that will leave me blackballed or labelled some kind of heathen among the wine wizzes in the world or at least here in Niagara.

As a mostly beer girl and self-professed Riesling fanatic, it's not Sauv blanc's bone-dry, cheek-clenching acidic ways that put me off.

It's just that every time I have a glass I'm reminded of my cat Otis. He's a good cat, who occasionally does bad things. And, quite frankly, I don't want to be reminded of the big O's missteps outside his litter box when I'm quaffing vino.

Wine should be an escape, it's flavours, aromas and sensations as it moves from glass to tongue to gullet to belly and beyond, taking me elsewhere: a fresh cut lawn, a fruit orchard, a living room warmed by a fire. The last place I want to be transported to with every sip is back to the harsh reality that is Otis's litter box or occasionally my bath mat, depending on his mood. It's a smell that seems synonymous with this varietal with roots in France's Loire Valley and now the poster tipple of New Zealand.

Yes, there's Sauvignon blanc's vegetal characteristics worthy of being lauded but I'm usually too grossed out to really appreciate them or any other pleasantries it may boast.

Until now.

Last weekend, I lucked out and got on the guest list for The Foreign Affair Winery's release of its 2009 vintages.

Foreign Affair is tucked away behind the government buildings on the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre campus, a backdrop for some spectacular wedding photos and some of the most fascinating agriculture research in the world.

Foreign Affair is known for its Amarone-style wines, in which some of the grapes go through a partial drying process called appassimento. It concentrates the sugar and flavours in the berries and has its roots in Italy.

Last weekend, my husband and I made our rounds through this winery with a man cave feel — a classy man cave with a touch of whimsy, thanks to the faux moose head that greeted us at the door — and I had my curiosity, piqued long ago by stories I read about this place, sated.

And, after tasting five new releases, the handiwork of winemaker Ilya Senchuk complemented by morsels prepared by Chef Jan-Willem Stulp, it was the Sauvignon blanc I loved the most. Not the Riesling, though I did leave with a bottle of that, too. No, it was a bottle of my (usually) most hated varietal that I reached for first before heading to the cash register.

In my usual bumbling inarticulate way when talking about something I know so little about — c'mon, you hadn't figured out yet that I'm a little green when it comes to my whites and reds — I managed to spit out how much I liked the Sauvignon blanc to Senchuk.

"It's really good," I struggled to find the poetic adjectives that wine writers always have at the ready.

And finally, I just said what I meant and meant what I said. "Thank you for making a Sauvignon blanc that I can drink."

Turns out, Foreign Affair's edition, with a quarter of the grapes having gone through the appassimento drying process, has no reminders of Otis. It was its hints of vanilla and minerality that stood out. No cut grass, either. Just goodness, unlike any other Sauv blanc I've ever tasted.

That's exactly what Senchuk was trying achieve. He was trying to get away from that New Zealand style that seems so pervasive, even here in Niagara, he explained.

Works for me because for the first time ever, a bottle of Sauvignon blanc now has residency in my wine rack.

Don't get me wrong. I don't love Sauvignon blanc now. But it is safe to say, I love Foreign Affair's.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Why we need supply management

Poultry is a supply-managed commodity in Canada.

It was a crack made often enough during interviews with some farmers that it almost became a cliche.

'Too bad beef/peaches/pork/(insert Niagara crop here) isn't a supply managed commodity.'

Sometimes it was said ruefully. Others merely joked as they lamented the awful year financially that was playing out for their crop when I'd do my annual checks on the season that was. Sometimes, those words were laced with downright envy of farmers who benefit from supply management.

Supply managed produce is different from most commodities, where price fluctuates from year to year or more frequently, depending upon what happens elsewhere in the world. If there's a bumper crop of wheat, say, in Russia, well, farmers here likely won't make as much money on their wheat, especially if it's a bountiful harvest, too, because there's more supply than demand.

If one nation experiences drought, then prices farmers elsewhere receive will go up as demand for that crop increases. Such is life on the world market.

Supply management means supply and demand being more in line with each other. Quotas are set, dictating the amount of a commodity that's marketed. What's demanded is what is produced and vice versa. It means stable pricing for the farmer, often set in advance of a particular crop year, taking into account input costs, so the farmer's finances aren't a big question mark. In short, it means more restful nights for those farmers who produce supply-managed commodities.

In Canada, that's poultry (the meat and the eggs), dairy and tobacco, though, to be honest, I'm not sure if the quota system for golden leaf has been dismantled entirely. I lost track after leaving Norfolk County seven years ago, though the domestic tobacco industry virtually went up in smoke soon after.

Supply management also means steep tariffs on imports, making it less lucrative for other nations producing the same commodities to try to break into the Canadian market. 

Having reported on agriculture for 10 years now, I support supply management.

That's not to say it isn't a system without its problems.

For starters, quota is through-the-roof expensive, making farming of these commodities — and the security that producing within a supply-managed system brings — a pipe dream for many. Young dairy farmers, for example, need millions to buy in and their parents aren't willing to let the farm go for a song, even to their own children. It's cost prohibitive for the next generation of farmers to enter the field.

Shutterstock image of a turkey.
Supply management also limits choice for consumers. Enter the disclaimer: I don't eat meat and I don't consume cow dairy. I do buy eggs outside the quota system, from a farmer who has a couple dozen birds she treats like pets. But when the Turkey Farmers of Ontario moved to ban outdoor access to birds, effectively ending large-scale organic, free-range turkey production three years ago, I couldn't help but feel that decision was based on science that padded conventional producers' bottom line and not the sounder findings with regard for animal behaviour and welfare, or consumer preference.

The decision basically sent the message to consumers that they aren't smart enough to decide what they want or what's best for human or animal. Those who want organic turkey can still find it, but the search is much more difficult and the options few and far between. More times than not, it means settling for the questionable Butterball in the grocery store because there really is no choice. (Hey, there's always Tofurkey).

In the animal welfare department, there's room for improvement in supply-managed commodities.

But I also believe that, in a country without a national food security policy, supply management provides some level security, at least in its respective commodities. So it was with some serious trepidation that I absorbed the news this week that Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Canada's formal interest in joining the Trans Pacific Partnership.

If Canada joins up, it could mean the end — or at the very least, some serious loosening of the rules — of supply management, which has long kept us from being part of this current quartet of trading partners.

That doesn't bode well for our food security. Right now, the dairy and poultry on our store shelves is produced in Canada to meet Canadian demand. When you pick up a jug of milk, you don't have to worry about it coming from China or even the U.S. That moo juice came from within your local milkshed, within roughly 100 kilometres of where you live.

Ditto for poultry and eggs — no imports at the butcher counter, though the cuts may be from farther afield than that glass of milk you drank today.

Scrap supply management, though, and those farmers will deal with the same uncertainty that beef, pork and grain growers deal with when it comes to the prices they're paid for their hard work. That means serious peaks but also despairingly deep valleys, depending on what goes on elsewhere. Talk to a pork farmer about the mass cull of swine just a few years ago to get that industry in line with demand after the bottom fell out and you won't hear any happy tales.

The loss of supply management will also mean more meat, eggs and dairy from places where farming rules and regulations — ultimately, food safety — isn't as strict as it is here. Yes, there are more food recalls now than ever before but when was the last time you returned a litre of milk because it was laced with high levels of lead or took back that dozen eggs or broiler you bought for dinner? In Canada, you'll be hard-pressed.

More simply put, do you want to drink milk from China? If I hadn't already stopped drinking the stuff because of an allergy, that would certainly make me lose my appetite for a tall, cold glass of it.

So yes, while joining the Trans Pacific Partnership might mean more job security for those toiling away in our factories producing widgets, what good is that if the safety of our food supply is put at risk? Sick factory workers are no more productive than unemployed ones.

At the moment, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association has launched a PR war against supply management. The argument for scrapping it: it will mean cheaper poultry and dairy for restaurateurs and, ultimately, consumers.

But at what cost will this cheaper food come if supply management is done away with? We're so used to paying less than what our food is worth that we are spoiled as a nation and clueless, to boot. We have no idea the true cost and value of our food.

If the prices paid for supply-managed commodities are more akin to fair prices, why are we so afraid of paying that? Why are we so afraid of farmers earning a fair wage?

Even if supply management was scrapped and CRFA members reaped the benefits of cheaper chicken, less expensive eggs and marked down milk, don't think for a second those savings will be passed on to you, the diner. It means more profits to line restaurateurs' pockets.

And again, I play the food security card. How do these dining establishment operators expect to have enough of those crucial ingredients for their eggs Benedict or rubber chicken dinners if one of our supplying countries ever shuts its doors to us to take care of its own people first?

Why should we support local restaurateurs if they don't want to support their local farmers? The CFRA needs to remember we're all in this economy together.

Though supply management is not without its faults, Canada needs to ensure that its farming future includes maintaining those quota systems we already have in place.

Otherwise, it will be more than the beleaguered beef farmer or fruit grower lamenting not having it. We as Canadians will all rue the day we let it be plowed under.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A food and wine love that runs ravine deep

It's like delving into your favourite genre of novel.

You know what to expect: a story to engage and engross you. But just when you think you have the storyline figured out, there's a plot twist to throw you for a loop.

And so it is when sipping on a glass of Ravine Vineyard's Sand & Gravel Riesling (Riesling being my favourite kind of wine).

It's like picking up the latest chick lit release and the protagonist doesn't get the great guy or the fabulous job. Nope, she lives an average existence like the rest of us.

Totally unexpected. Just like this wine, which starts off sweet and easy like honey, then gives you lime and even a tiny hint of diesel as it goes down the gullet. Delicious and unpredictable, and, like a page turner, keeps you coming back.

But like this wine is akin to a really good book, Ravine, itself, is like the big, comfy chair you'd climb into to read it.

It is, without a doubt, one of my favourite places to eat and sip in Niagara.

Perfect is the best way I can describe this quaint, comfortable St. Davids winery where I can easily while away an evening over a bottle of wine or linger over a simple yet stunning meal (have the puttanesca mussels) and leave well-fed, drunk on the pure bliss of time spent surrounded by beauty and soothed by spectacular vino.

My husband and I have celebrated milestones here over dinner and a bottle for under $75 — experiences really that if it weren't for the bill telling us in black and white, we really couldn't put a price on.

My love for Ravine and all its rustic yet sophisticated glory was only reaffirmed recently at the winery's launch of its new and less expensive Sand & Gravel line of wines, the name a nod to Ravine Sand & Gravel, the quarry once run by earlier generations of the family tending the land here.

It boasted a spread of food, served buffet style, with no corners cut, wine that poured freely and generously, and a genuine hospitality that gave real warmth to a chilly night.

Though this shindig was in a tent set up for special events overlooking row upon row of vines, rather than the bistro where my Ravine moments are usually set, whatever the occasion, Ravine is always a place that leaves me marvelling at the flawless yet unpretentious way things are done here.

Grilling at Ravine on the bed of an old quarry truck. 

From the old quarry truck, permanently parked, its bed turned into grill, the battered and banged up tables and desks-tuned eating surface surrounded by mismatched chairs to the packing shed re-incarnated as a bistro and the re-built Woodruff House that serves as the tasting room, everything gives the impression of having a story. And, in most cases it does. Usually a really interesting one, to boot.

Best part of all, none of it is forced. It just is what it is.

The Harber family, proprietors of this most endearing spot, have been connected to the land for five generations, since 1867 when David Jackson Lowrey moved to this pristine piece of land from Vanessa, near Delhi, and, two years later, planted one of the first commercial vineyards.

Scratch beneath the surface and there's a story that gets richer and more layered. More Niagara.

The farm's foundation is actually a channel of the Niagara River, where the thundering waters cut a swath more than 22,000 years ago, carrying and creating the elements that would make for spectacular soil, perfect for growing wine.

It's a fortuitous tale that even the most talented scribes could be challenged to pen, if left to draw it from their own imaginations.

A storied place that has secured a chapter in Niagara's food and wine tome.

And one that will be more than a footnote in my own.

A bottle of Sand & Gravel Redcoat-turned-centrepiece at the recent launch
of this new line of Ravine wines. The label is the door on the quarry truck
doubling as barbecue, pictured above.

Ravine Vineyard Bistro on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 7, 2011

A match made in a soup pot

Tomatillos.


It conjures the same feelings as bumping into an ex-lover.

The one that got away.

The one, who, after enough time has passed and the not-so-good moments are forgotten, evokes only fond memories and nostalgia — 'If onlys' and 'What ifs.'

Maybe there's a chance.

So you put the past behind you and give it another shot. And then you remember why you ended it in the first place. That you were better off apart.

This pretty much sums up my relationship with the tomatillo.

Those husky fruits that aren't quite a tomato and definitely not a sweetie like a gooseberry or ground cherry tease me into thinking about what could be, then dash hopes, leaving me confused and disappointed. Fall after fall, this what we do, the tomatillo and I.

The first time we were introduced, thanks to a bunch showing up in my CSA basket several years ago, I didn't quite know what to make of them. It certainly wasn't love at first sight.

Once I was set straight on this staple of Mexican cuisine, I had happy visions of salsa verde in my mind's eye.

Just me, a bag of corn chips and bowl of chopped tomatillos, cilantro, onions and hot peppers. Really, could it be more perfect?

But despite my best efforts, things never really went smoothly. It was awkward, actually. The salsa would turn into gelatinous goo, congealing and never being the juicy, flavourful chip dip I could buy in the grocery store or eat at my local Mexican restaurant.

Disappointed, I'd move on. Winter would come and I'd be distracted by root vegetables. Come spring, I had asparagus to take my mind off my disappointment. When tomatoes began ripening, tomatillos seemed but distant memory.

But then fall would come again and there they'd be again, offering themselves up for another try. And try I would, only to have a similar experience.

More congealing. More salsa verde that just wasn't what I expected. More hopes shattered.

I began asking people for advice and getting furrowed brows in return. Not even a single platitude was thrown my way to give me hope. (This weekend, though, someone tipped me off to what might have been causing such strife: the tomatillo's naturally occurring, bountiful pectin).

It seemed obvious. Clearly, it was me and not the tomatillos.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't just couldn't change the tomatillo and the resulting, goopy salsa verde.

It was getting too hard to carry on like this when I found another pound in my CSA basket a couple of weeks ago. This was no happy reunion. I feigned indifference at the sight of them and tucked them into the back of my fridge. I briefly thought about trying to rekindle things but there was no point.

The heartbreak of salsa verde another failed attempt that I churned out just a few weeks ago, was still too fresh. These latest tomatillos could rot for all I cared.

And then, the tomatillo and I had a moment over lunch in a downtown St. Catharines cafe when I asked what the soup of the day was.

Tomatillo, I was told.

I was skeptical but curious. I'd never had tomatillo soup before. Never even heard of it. Maybe this was the way the tomatillo was meant to be — at least my tomatillos, anyway.

Of course, the soup was perfect. None of the performance issues tomatillos had with me seemed apparent in the spicy batch of pureed green gems. It had its tell-tale tangy taste with a kick but no congealing.

I was convinced it was time to try again and so that night, I came home to set about souping up those tomatillos I shoved to the back of my fridge. Good thing they store well in cool, dry conditions.

It was time to repair this relationship.

I went online in search of recipes and like a good therapist, they offered up challenges that would make or break me and the tomatillo once and for all.

The how-tos had meat or dairy in them, both no-nos for me. But I was confident that with the combining of some directions here and tweaking of others there, I could make tomatillo soup that was truly my own. That would bring out the best in me and my tomatillos.

It did, with its heat, tang and smokiness. It was a powerhouse in the flavour department even if the colour was more akin to a prop in The Exorcist, making it an unappealing food photo subject. Still, it didn't turn into gelatinous goo and I didn't even scrub their sticky green and purple skins very hard.

It just felt... easy. Finally.

Let's just say the tomatillo and I, well, we're on again. We're tight. And I don't foresee that changing anytime soon.

Spicy tomatillo soup

1 lb tomatillos, husked and roughly chopped
1 onion chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 chipotle peppers or jalapenos
4 cups of vegetable broth
A shot of hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco,
Salt to taste
Drizzle with a chipotle-infused oil if using jalapenos
Cilantro

Combine tomatillos, onion, garlic and peppers in a saucepan over medium heat. Cook until  juices are drawn out of tomatillos, about 15-20 minutes, and the mixture becomes saucy.

Add vegetable broth and bring to simmer for another 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree.

To kick up the heat, add hot sauce to taste and/or drizzle with chipotle-infused oil to add a bit of smokiness if using jalapeno peppers instead of chipotle peppers.

Garnish with a pinch of chopped cilantro and serve.

Friday, November 4, 2011

La tea en rose

My cup of wild rose hip tea.

My husband golfs.

I forage.

We decided that both activities would be our own — we wouldn't feel obliged to invite the other along, nor would we feel offended if we got snubbed so the other could spend time doing his or her respective pastimes — after I dragged Steve on a hunt for wild garlic in spring 2010.

The allure wasn't there for him as I wrested the tiny bulbs from the ground. While I felt what I imagine it might feel to win the lottery — OK, maybe not the grand prize but something — Steve was bored.

"You don't have to take me with you anymore," he politely told me when I finally stopped, seeing him languish while I loved every moment.

So, I'd venture out alone, slicing into the earth to uproot wild carrots and the like while he made every effort not to slice his ball on the golf course.

But admittedly, there are some places that concern for my safety has kept me from exploring and harvesting on my own. Hey, I was a reporter. I know where the hot spots in St. Catharines are and unfortunately, they're some of the most beautiful and loaded with wild foods.

This week, though, I could tame those fears, thanks to forging a foraging friendship on Twitter with @foodsnark, who lured me to locales I'd only written about in police pick-ups with a photo of branches tipped with bright red rose hips.

With baggies in hand — his, stoop and scoop satchels snatched on a recent trip to Germany — we headed into uncharted territory in search of a fruit that has been the apple of my eye since my trip to Deutschland in May. That's when my aunt Sigurn enlightened me to all the edible parts of her hansa rose bushes, including the hips.

My haul of rose hips.

We hunted for those berry-like seedpods loaded with future generations of flowers, tons of flavour and vitamin C levels that make an orange green with envy. (Rose hips are also touted for fighting infection in the kidneys, bladder and urinary tract and boast vitamins A, B, E and K).

Mine were destined to be seeded and dried for tea. Foodsnark's would be reincarnated into a Gewurztraminer-rose hip jelly. Jam and syrup are also options for these oblong lovelies that are more pulpy than juicy, more tangy than floral and dullards in the scent department, compared to the blooms that bore them.

Tonight, I enjoyed my first cup of rose hip tea. I made sure I breathed deeply, swished every sip in my mouth and gazed fondly into my cup at the floating fruit, now rehydrated and sweetened with honey.

I don't usually drink tea like fine wine but this stuff begs for it, if only because of the work involved. Rose hips are demanding divas.


Seeding rose hips is a labourious and delicate process.
They're small and packed with tiny seeds and hairs that have to be removed because they can cause stomach irritation. What's left is a mere shell of the bulbous fruit that beckoned me to wilderness unknown in the first place.

To say this was a tedious task makes it sound more exciting than it was. It was a long process, seemingly fruitless as it took more than mere moments to get just half a small cookie sheet filled with my now flattened, seeded flower pods.

After an hour in the toaster oven on 150C, I had what looked like scraps of sun-dried tomatoes but would be the makings of my next cup of tea. And the fun isn't over yet. I have more than half my hips to process. They're in the freezer for a day when motivation is running high.

But tonight I steeped the dried fruits of my labour (leaving them in my cup for maximum flavour), added honey and savoured the offspring of a flower that has as much substance as beauty. It was tangy and tart. Refreshing.

With each sip, the tedium of seeding seemed more worthwhile, fading to (almost) forgotten. Yes, I'm seeing that part of the experience with rose-coloured glasses.

That's what happens when you sip homemade, wild tea en rose.

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