Sunday, August 9, 2009

chanterelles and revolution

I had a customer in the other day a customer came in and said to me, "we need a food revolution!"

She had a few too many to drink, and was an old friend, so I humoured her kindly. But she is right. She was looking back to the great food revolution in southern california, led by Alice Waters as a culinary Che Guevara. She felt it was time for southern manitoba to experience a similar revolution.

At the time, I was thinking about blogging about Chanterelles. I was also thinking about blogging about the farmer's market. Somehow, all these things started to come together for me. And although I haven't quite figured out how they all tie in together, ideas are starting to form.

John Ash, a famous chef and one of Alice Water's co-revolutionaries, said in a talk he gave in winnipeg a few years ago, that we, the consumers, have to start demanding better. (we'll hear more about John Ash's in future blogs) He said how we in the rest of the world say "it's easy to eat locally and organically in Southern California". But he describes a California before the food revolution. The food production industry was dominated by large farming operations producing food for mass market consumption. The bulk of the food farmed was destined for the canneries and the frozen foods factories. It was chefs like Alice waters and others who started demanding something better. They started talking to farmers and small time producers and making connections. They also started demanding more from their big suppliers as well. This small group of consumers changed the culinary landscape for themselves and the rest of North America followed.
And so is it time for Manitoba consumers to demand better? Our retail market is dominated by the big 3, (superstore, safeway and sobey's). The bulk of the produce we buy comes from california or further afield; even when local produce is available. Our beef comes from alberta. Even a lot of our own fresh water fish is processed in China. Looking for pickerel cheeks? Good local product. Chances are they are coming from Europe or Asia.
What's the problem? We grow the stuff, why can't we buy it? The food chain can be divided into 4 pieces. The grower, the distributer, the retailer and the consumer. The problem lies with all of these people.
Manitoba growers tend to be stubborn. It is easier to do things the way they have always been done. I once went to a free range chicken producer. I was representing a fairly large buying group of restaurants, including a major downtown hotel. I asked for free range chickens to be raised to a size the chef's could use, 2-3 lbs. The chicken farmer said, "no, I raise 6 lb birds". He explained that a lot of the cost of a chicken was in the start up cost. So I told him we would pay more per pound for the birds if we could have the size we need. "nope, we raise 6 lb birds". So I said to him, we would pay the same amount of money for a 2 lb bird as he would make for a 6 lb bird. "nope, we raise 6 lb birds.". His papa raised 6 lb birds, his papa's papa raised 6 lb birds, and be damn sure he was gonna raise 6lb birds. Growers that try to change things tend to be seen as fringe element nut jobs. Gauge the reaction you get when you talk to a conventional egg producer about Nature's Farms free run aviary system. Apparently hens liked to be cooped 3 to cage.
Distributors, as a whole, have a hard time supplying local products. They have national accounts, that need consistent supply. Why? Why can't I order local corn when it is available and get corn from georgia when that is all there is? It might just be laziness disguised as logistics. The problem may lie in the fact that the food distribution network is dominated by a few huge multinational conglomerates. And the other distributors have to compete with these huge companies. These big (American) companies have buying and growing contracts with major farming conglomerates. If FoodCorp Inc. had to pay local prairie farmers a fair price for their green beans, this would cut into their profits.
The retailers have the same problem. They need nationally available products and consistent supply. Again, I ask why? Whole Foods Markets in the U.S. are able to operate with a committment to local products. Each store would look a little different, but that is okay. If my local safeway sold Manitoba lamb when it was available and New Zealand lamb when it wasn't, I would be okay with that. Instead of promoting consistency, the supermarkets could be celebrating diversity. We would only have to convince one of the big three to do this, the other two would be forced to follow. The other option is just to stop shopping at these monster markets. Smaller, local retailers are better placed and more willing to support local producers. Shop at Vic's, DeLuca's, Marcello's meats, Gimli Fish, Tall Grass and any other corner grocer you can find.
But the biggest problem will always be the consumer. As long as we are content, nothing will change. If we don't demand local products, they won't supply them. As long as we are happy to buy organic lettuces, in gas flushed plastic bags shipped hundreds of miles on diesel trucks from southern california and think we are doing good by buying organic, nothing will change. If lamb racks that have been cryovac'd, frozen, warehoused, put on huge ocean freighters, shipped 3000 miles, warehoused again, put on diesel trucks and shipped to the supermarket warehouse to be distributed to your local grocer are good enough for us, they will be good enough for the supermarket purchasers. We need to ask, "where is this coming from?" How was it grown? Who picked it? How much packaging do we really need? Why can't we get fresh food?
So in the middle of all this walks my mushroom lady. An adorable little Croatian woman who goes out, by herself, into the woods of southern Manitoba and forages wild mushrooms. She brings me porcini, lobster mushrooms, matsutakes (if I am lucky) and most of all chantrelles. As I am cooking up these beautiful little fungi, I wonder, why can't we get better food here? It all grows here. Why are there so few artisan cheese producers? We have cows? We have sheep and goats? Why doesn't anyone raise ducks, make foie gras, raise guinea hens or squab? Why can't I find heirloom tomatoes? Why doesn't safeway sell saskatoons? Why do all the people making sausages in this province make only 3 kinds of sausage? There is more to life than pepperettes, farmer sausage and kielbassa. Why? Why? Why!
Maybe it is time for a food revolution.
You know what we need? A real market. A market that encourages competition. A market filled with diverse producers all vieing for your dollars. A year round daily market. Don't get me wrong, I love the St. Nobert Market and other local farmers markets. I was just at the Assiniboia market and found some great meat producers. But Saturday, is at the end of the week for me. I want to buy my fresh produce tuesday morning. In fact, I want to go to my local market everyday and select the fresh food I want to enjoy on any given day. I think we are the only major city in Canada which doesn't have a real year round market. We could follow the model of the Atwater market in montreal. Inside they have year round market stalls. During the growing season the market spill out into the parking lot to accomodate all the local farmers. A year round market would say to the big retailers that we are no longer content. It would challenge them to do better. A year round market would provide us with the fresh local products we need. By encouraging free competition on a small scale, it would challenge growers and producers to create new and better products. Local dairies would have a venue to sell farmhouse cheese, local butchers could create new and delicious charcuterie products. Food would get better and better.
So consumers, it is in your hands! Demand better! Buy Local! And demand better food from your local producers.
Consumers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your shopping carts.

Be sure to check out the comment below, very smart and insightful.

If you can get your hands on fresh chantrelles (try deluca's) here are a few quick recipes.
Chantrelles, Polenta and a poached egg.
sautee chantrelles with garlic, butter and fresh parley.
add a splash of white wine, reduce
make polenta, (follow pkg direction, cook it long and slow), keep it soft like porridge
top polenta with sauteed chantrelles
top with a poached egg (one per person)
garnish with grtated parmesan.
Pan Seared scallops with chantrelle chowder
sautee onions, diced bacon. add diced potatoes and chantrelles.
Add chicken stock and simmer until potatoes are tender
add heavy cream, season with salt and pepper
dry large scallops and sear in a hot pan until golden.
serve shallow bowls of the chowder, top with scallops.

Chantrelle Pasta with arugula and blue cheese
Boil penne or other short pasta. (gnocchi would work as well)
sautee chantrelles in olive oil with garlic and a pinch of dried chilies
toss penne with arugula, sauteed chantrelles and crumbled blue cheese
(this would also be good if you added cream for a sauce)



  1. Your comments are timely, sensible, and written from the perspective of a chef. Let me touch upon why, from the perspective of a home cook, behavioral change in the consumer is so difficult.

    First of all, there is food porn. I am addicted to it, and likely, so are you. I get all these glossy magazines in my mailbox that tell me how I should be preparing Lebanese/Moroccan/Brazilian Friday dinners for eight with matching tablecloths and napkins and YES! it is achievable for the every-cook with a little advance preparation. Just do it Thursday after work. You know, after you sort the mail, prepare Thursday's dinner, bathe the kids, and put a load of whites in to wash.

    These magazines push recipe over method. The result? A confused group of foodies who are cooking Indian one night and Italian the as much as they would like to stop at DeLuca's to pick up sausage, they also need to stop at Dino's for the spices, but shit neither of those places sell fresh salmon so off to Gimli Fish....and then it all just gets overwhelming and a pizza is ordered. Home cooks need to keep it to one regional cuisine to make local shopping anywhere near possible. The food porn industry is designed to ruin our focus.

    The second reason, which is intimate with the first, is that no one knows how to really cook anymore. Not in the Italian Momma or the Indian Auntie sense of 'a dash-here-and-a-pinch there'. If it doesn't come in a box, we need a recipe to cook it. So while it might be lovely to stop at the market to pick up produce, the average consumer will not know how to cook what they buy without porn. (To add to that, the food industry has us thinking that we are inadequate if we serve our green beans steamed with a little butter and salt, rather than with browned butter and toasted hazelnuts...what if I don't happen to have hazelnuts around, for christ's sake..).

    So to summarize thus far: we are buying too many different things, and even the things we buy, we don't know how to cook without Ruth Reichl leading us each step of the way.

    And then I come to the third reason: our only daily market, The Forks, sucks. After a visit to Italy I went there for my weekly shop, intent on buying local whenever possible. It was so dismal I actually went up to the office to complain. I absolutely do NOT understand why any edifice with 'market' in its name would sell dessicated limes, slimy salmon, and green lamb. At the 'fruit stand' there were peppers which had reached their prime....10 days earlier. That said, the folks at Fenton's and Tall Grass are doing a great job.

    You hit on the Slow Food/Omnivore's Dilemna paradox by mentioning our climate. As much as I love the notion, I also love to eat fresh produce year round. So without powering up the greenhouse, I'm really fresh out of luck in Winnipeg in January. I'll start shopping at Sobey's again, and it will become my habit, because after all, they stock the granola bars that I have become fond of. (Why not make my own, you ask? I work.). The consumer is a creature of habit, and since our winters outlast our summers, we all get used to the grocery store.

    But on the whole, Alex, I agree with your comments. We are an agricultural province so it is dizzyingly stupid that we can't buy what we grow. If someone builds the market (or even, hires a manager at The Forks with the slightest love of food), I will come.

  2. The dominance of recipe over method is quite annoying and very limiting. I here people describe dishes they made, and it is never a free flowing description of what they created, but a verbatim recital of ingredients lists and ordered steps. I used 1 tbsp of this and 2 tbsp that. This methodology severely limits the home cook, because they feel stuck if they don't have all the right ingredients. This methodology also makes cooking feel like work, which it really isn't. We, the food industry, should be teaching cooking technique and flavour profiles. And any recipes should be described as ratios, not actual amounts. If you know that 1/4 cup flour thickens 2 cups liquid, you can make any sauce using any liquid.

    Second, the seasonal excuse for the year round market is lame. Montreal is in a cold climate and does not have year round produce, but they have a year round market, 3 in fact. The markets has butchers, bakers, cheese purveyors, groceries, spice merchants, and in the winter the produce is imported. And the produce is beautiful. What makes these markets successful is competition. There are multiple butchers, multiple produce sellers, multiple cheese shops. They are all competing for the same consumer dollar. They are forced to do an excellent job. At the Atwater market, where there are probaly 8 different butchers, I counted the number of fresh sausages sold at just one of these butchers. He had 60 varieties of fresh sausage, not including dried, cured or smoked charcuterie products. The problem with the Forks Market, is not the management's love (or absence of love)of food, it is that the forks is set up to resist competition. There is one produce guy, one butcher, one bakery, one cheese shop, etc. They don't have to do a good job. Some choose to, but there is no competion driving them to excellence. I remember in the Padua market, how there would be many produce stands selling only tomatoes. The same product, at roughly the same price, and each tomato seller trying vigourously to convince you that his tomatoes were the best.

  3. I am glad the you concur with the importance of method over recipe. You don't cook the potatoes for 12 minutes, you cook them until they are done. If you don't know what a done potato tastes like, then you need to think more about your fundamental ingredients and less about what you are saucing them with.

    I had never considered the lack of competition at The Forks to be the source of such mediocrity, and I think you have a good point there. But again we have to consider the role of management in perpetuating the mediocrity. As a restaurant owner, you know that you must be constantly vigilant about quality and consistency. You would not serve me slimy salmon, because you know I would leave unhappy and then tell all my friends. If you are a manager at The Forks, you should patrol those stands every day, looking for products of impeccable quality. Or at least products that would pass a food inspection. If you don't know what salmon is supposed to look/smell like, then you should hire someone who does. Responsibility also falls on the individual vendors: why would you open a fruit stand if you don't love beautiful fruit? And back to your conclusion in the initial post: consumers do need to speak up. I'm sure at your tomato market, competition was a major influence on quality. But would the Italian Mammas tolerate moldy tomatoes? No. There would be a riot.

    A related and heartening bit of news: Vic's is looking great these days.