June 16, 2014

Rhubarb...for dessert or constipation?

Canada Red, Chipman, Cherry Red, Crimson Red, Egyptian Queen, Fraulein Sharfer Torte, German Wine, Glaskin's Perpetual, Hawke's Champagne, Holstein Bloodred, Linnaeus, Macdonald, Mammoth Red, Stott's Mammoth, Mammoth Green , Monarch, Prince Albert, Redstick, Riverside Giant, Ruby, Strawberry, Sunrise, Sutton, Tilden, Tottle's Improved, Timperely Early, Valentine.

These are but a few varieties of rhubarb. I find it really beautiful the first time one sees a list of the names of vegetable or fruit varieties. At first it reads like a some medieval fantasy sci-fi novel and then the idea of varieties sinks in.

now for a few fun 'facts'.....

-it seems that the pleasure of rhubarb is dependent almost entirely on sugar.

-perhaps a native of Siberia, called Rha, an ancient name or hydronym for the Volga where the plant grew wild.

-Earliest records date back to 2700 BC in China where rhubarb was cultivated for medicinal purposes (surprise surprise).

-rhubarb contains oxalate, which have been reported to cause poisoning when large quantities of raw or cooked leaves are ingested.

-we never imagined as children, armed with our packets of sugar while raiding the neighbour's rhubarb patch that there would be any other effect than something tasty, pure pleasure, never believe that they were used as anticholesterolemic, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antitumor, aperient, cholagogue, demulcent, diuretic, laxative, purgative, stomachic and tonic.

 -in a supermarket, even most outdoor markets, rhubarb is sold as rhubarb, not like apples. But somehow food has become food (unless it is tisane, or honey), and cures have become pharmaceutical here in North America. People eat rhubarb pie, but I never heard anyone mention "I am going to eat a whole bunch of rhubarb because I am constipated. No, most will call for a vitamin or a supplement, or some such liquid in a bottle (ie a controlled dosage.)

-Rhubarb is given to the Wu emperor of the Liang dynasty (reign: 557-579) to cure his fever but only after warning him that rhubarb, being a most potent drug, must be taken with great moderation.

-Rhubarb is a vegetable, but in the United States a New York court decided in 1947 that since it was consumed in the United States as a fruit it counted as a fruit for the purposes of regulations and duties.

-During World War I rhubarb leaves were recommended as a substitute for other veggies that the war made unavailable....well there were cases of acute poisoning and even some deaths.

-I once knew a guy who preferred vitamin C to a fresh orange because the fresh orange had the potential of making him fat.

-according to the NYU Langone Medical Center, rhubarb consumption can markedly increase oxalic acid levels in the urine. This could lead to increased risk of kidney stones, as well as other problems. Rhubarb leaf contains the highest oxalic acid content. The roots and stems contain less oxalic acid, but higher levels of anthraquinones, laxative substances similar to those found in senna or cascara. It is safest to use rhubarb standardized extracts processed to removed oxalic acid.

-rhubarb is part of the genus Rheum including dock, sorrel, knotweeds, knotgrasses and buckwheat.

-it is extremely difficult to find a recipe for rhubarb without sugar.

-rhubarb contains glycosides—especially rhein, glucorhein, and emodin, which impart cathartic and laxative properties ie in case of constipation, good for poopoo.

-rhubarb is never mentioned in one of the greatest history of food books History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat...unless I really missed it, or not important enough to find itself in the index.

-it was a pleasure eating rhubarb raw as a child, and still is. 

December 1, 2013

on the necessity of being a bee part 1

Visiting La Grande Ourse organic miellerie this summer in Abitibi near Amos Quebec I began to understand how complicated this honey thing is. Looking around, forest, fields, forest, fields, small towns with very few GM crops. That is good when wanting to be certified organic. One of the owners explained to me that unfortunately that was changing due to enormous canola plantations which are popping up around the 4-5 kilometers radius from their hives. They are not certain to receive their certification in 2014 because of this. Not surprising, the impact of one affects the other, so it is with water, so it is with air, so it is with bees. In Vanishing of the Bees, a 2009 documentary film by Hive Mentality Films & Hipfuel films, directed by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein, we follow the sudden disappearance of honey bees from beehives around the world known as Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD. There is no absolute conclusion in the somewhat gloopy documentary, but it does hint strongly to a link between neonicotinoid pesticides (neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine)and CCD. 'Neonicotinoids, developed in the 80s by Shell and followed up in the 90s by Bayer, are a relatively new class of insecticides that share a common mode of action that affect the central nervous system of insects, resulting in paralysis and death'. (http://www.beyondpesticides.org/pollinators/chemicals.php) There is no absolute scientific data at present making this link, but I would think that logically, somewhere, if you have an insecticide which fucks with a bug's nervous system and kills the fucking thing, and seeing that bees are insects and have a nervous system well... This issue is not of simply being certified organic, but of product and environment safety in general. Perhaps also that when we deal with bees we are dealing with something different. Something pure. Something hard to define. That idea behind the honeymoon. Bees are omnipresent in every religion. There is something pure about honey but also the bee. Cheyenne creation myth says that the first people lived on honey and wild fruits, to never be hungry. Zeus was fed on honey and milk as a child. Bees were rumoured to have landed on Plato's lips as a child, as bringers of truth. There is a connection in Hebrew between bees and the Divine Word. In the Qur'an there is the 'Sura of the bees'. Not to mention John the Baptist or the ancient Hebrew promised land flowing with milk and honey while a mixture of the two was given after baptism and first communion in Christianity. According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the tears of the sun god Ra landed on the desert sand. So forth and so on....there is definitely something going on here, a powerful presence we cannot most probably cannot afford to ignore.

November 10, 2013

a must on everyone's top ten books to read...NOW!

This summer I noticed a particular spike in dairy ads in Montreal. Butter, milk etc...mixed with images of grilled lobsters and fun and family. Strange, I thought, because the ads did not come from any particular company, just a reminder to not forget about dairy in general. Around this period I was in my favorite bookstore Olivieri and saw Elise Desaulniers book Vache a lait, dix mythes de l'industrie laitiere. Here is a vegan presenting us with ten myths surrounding the dairy industry. Precise, well written,these are serious arguments to consider. Anyway,one thing is for certain, vegan or not, we know that those annoying pictures of idyllic pastures and families in the countryside drinking milk, or two girls sitting on a fence doing the same, or...in our age of hypermedia we know that these images are there to manipulate our sense of nostalgia, yet we know they are strange, they are stupid...but somehow they are still persistently with us. Here I include the publisher's summary. "Cet essai dénonciateur met en cause la consommation excessive de lait au Québec. Il n'est pas surprenant que les Québécois se classent dans le top 10 mondial des grands consommateurs de lait : nous en consommons en moyenne 84 litres par année. Nous avons réellement pris à cœur le slogan « Un verre de lait, c'est bien, mais deux, c'est mieux ». Mais à qui profite le second verre de lait ? À nous ou au producteur ? L'industrie laitière, le secteur d'activité agricole le plus important au Québec, jouit depuis toujours d'une perception positive. Mais la prépondérance du lait dans notre alimentation et notre attachement aux produits laitiers n'auraient rien de naturel ; ils seraient plutôt le résultat de grosses campagnes de communication et de lobbying. Serions-nous les vaches à lait de l'industrie ? Élise Desaulniers précise, raconte, dénonce. Elle souligne que le lait que nous buvons n'est pas celui que nous pensons boire, et encore moins celui que nous buvions il y a quarante ans. Elle enquête sur la Fédération des producteurs de lait du Québec, s'interroge à propos du Guide alimentaire canadien et du bien-être des vaches laitières et révèle la difficulté pour les jeunes fermiers d'accéder à la production commerciale."

August 7, 2013

bog Labrador tea, the du Labrador, Nordic bay leaves....

 An erect, aromatic shrub that grows to one meter with twigs densely covered with long, soft hairs (villous). The narrow, leathery leaves are 2-5 cm long, alternateand evergreen. The leaves are dark green above with edges that curl under along the margins, and there is a dense mat of orange-brown hairs on the underside. Numerous white flowers in tight clusters bloom from May to July. Each flower has a small five-toothed sepal tube with five separate petals, and 5-7 stamens.The fruit is a small,fuzzy capsule tipped with a persistent style (Marles et al. 2000; Pettinger and Costanzo 2002; Pojar and MacKinnon 1994). Sexy! An extremely beautiful plant, to the eye and the touch. With the added evergreen meaning that this tiny plant's leaves can be picked in the minus 40 degrees Celsius of deep January.

Picking Labrador tea or the du Labrador in Abitibi recently added another dimension for me; the culinary one. As opposed to its dried leaves the fresh ones emit the combination of bay leaf, marjoram, thyme, mint, pepper with a hint of pine needles. I was not thinking as Hudson Bay Company's writer Edward Umfrewille (1954) wrote in 1790 about the Indians and Europeans of Canada and how they used the tea medicinally: “Its virtues are many; it is an aromatic very serviceable in rheumatic cases, strengthens the stomach, relieves the head and  also promotes perspiration. Outwardly, it is applied to gangrenes,contusions, and excoriations; in the latter case the powder is made use of.”, but rather chowders, chocolate, ice cream, carrots and lamb shank.

Hudson bay tea, James tea, Indian tea, swamp tea, marsh tea and Labrador tea...a simple search does not give a first nation's term and the Latin mentions Groenlandicum and not Labrador . It is said that the Ojibwa gathered the leaves from spring to autumn for a beverage tea, enacting an ancient custom, the Hoh, Quinault, Quileute, Klallam,and Makah still gather and steep the leaves and drink the resulting tea as a refreshing beverage. Others write that that is more a 'white man's version' where the drink was originally medicinal, not tea time. Whatever the case may be, it grows in the Northern hemisphere very abundantly as with the psycho mosquitoes when picking them! Eaten raw it is delicious and is an excellent replacement for pepper, oregano, thyme, bay leaves, mint, and pungent spices. A complex tasty aromatic wild Nordic herb which I think has been marginalized by its noun tea...think of it sometimes as a great replacement for bay leaves in a rich chanterelle chowder! 

May 12, 2013

the great Canadian canned catfish conundrum

9% of Canada is covered by freshwater. While I will not site anything 'precisely' here, there are about 32000 lakes larger than 3square km. Canada has more lakes than the rest of the world combined...meaning above 60%. There are between 2 and 3 million lakes in Canada. About 70% of Canada's fish output is salmon, nothing shocking there, but with 155000 tonnes of fish and seafood outpout from Canada and salmon representing about 116250 tonnes of that...well.....

What I find strange in owning my restaurant Renard Artisan Bistro in Montreal which specializes in local food and products is that it is incredibly difficult to get local fish and seafood. My mussels come from Iles de la Madeleine, and I point this out because you will never find Quebec mussels in Montreal! Mussels in this city are all mostly from PEI. I get farmed lake trout from a few sources in the regions (and really not easy) and met a few fishermen in the Lac St-Pierre with all their barbottes, esturgeons, ecrevisses, etc ( with no deliveries). There are the usual lobsters, crab and Nordic shrimp, with the odd North coast Turbot. My seal meat is controversial and yet local...but....oh boy....

walking in a supermarket here you would think that we lived at the end of the world, with all that salmon, tuna (and mostly canned...second mostly consumed fish in the US!) pangasius, tilapia, and still more Cod, frozen sardines and basa fish the implication is almost is that there are only 10 varieties of comestible fish in the whole world. 

of course the client is in the end the moving force towards what is sustainable, and well....

,well, all this is disturbing. The major exporters of freshwater fish in Canada, which amount to 11204 tonnes (whitefish, perch and pickerel , come from Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, small figure from the world's leading freshwater country. I rarely see it here. What strikes me in Canada is that is that we commercially consume very little freshwater fish, and in Quebec I rarely see any of them in our poissoneries (Montreal), and if there is rainbow trout it either comes from the US or China. The fact remains that if we are in the age of sustainable fisheries, it logically follows that in a country such as Canada we would eat more lake fish...or at least vary our diet when considering these choices. If you really gave a fuck about eating sustainable seafood, then eat local catfish. Meaning that in a country with over 60% of freshwater in the world and 200 varieties of freshwater fish therein, the natural inclination and leadership of a real sustainable movement would be towards these tasty lake fishes, but for now it is all wrong.

Moving away from the world's most consumed fishes and seafood I think, as someone living in such a country is even more important than buying some Chilean farmed sustainable certified fish (probably the largest producer of farmed Atlantic salmon! and they are on the Pacific coast, you see where this is going.....) or whatever make you feel good. Canada should go further, especially with so many resources....and education....

we shall sea.....

April 14, 2013

ail des ours (Allium ursinum) bear's garlic

 The first time I had ever picked wild garlic was in the woods near Lake Annecy in France where I was working as a cook in a hotel in Talloires. This is a famed region for edible wild plants made popular by the three michelin starred chef Mark Veyrat. We would stand awestruck in the middle of an incredibly bright leafy floor, feet buried in green, a shock of colour which burst out from the dull spring surroundings. Nothing could be easier to spot or pick. Snip, snip and the intense smell of garlic and chives would fill the air, stain the fingers and frazzle the mouth.Enormous bags were filled in no time. Back at the restaurant we would transform them into pesto, the season's first soups and intense spring salads.

In Quebec, the 70's and 80's witnessed a boom in interest and picking of bear's garlic. Somewhere up to 6 million plants were pulled up, snipped, chopped, salted, boiled, even sold in local grocery stores, in other words, consumed. Add to this the unregulated abusive commercial interests and this plant was doomed. I could see how this could happen given the ease and speed it took in France to fill our bags.

Since march 1995 ail des ours or ramsons, buckrams, wild garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, wild leek, bear's garlic (take your pick) is protected under article 16 of the act respecting threatened or vulnerable species with a minor exception. Outside of protected zones one can pick a maximum of 50 bulbs a year for personal consumption. Let us say the equivalent of 200 grams.

Standing in the middle of a sugar maple forest, abundance meets restraint as it should, as with most things wild, and I contented myself with a few plants, a wild garlic soup at home, and as for my restaurant Renard artisan bistro, well I am happy nonetheless to work with a west coast variety, equally delicious, with their intense pungent garlic and sweet chive taste to celebrate the coming of spring.  

February 10, 2013

Moulin La Pierre-a history of quality.

 Way back yonder, let us say, somewhere in the Darker Ages and earlier, before all the other things that happened, it is said that white flour was coveted by all, and consumed by the few, the rich. Among the ancient Romans, different bread 'qualities' corresponded to social hierarchy. Slaves and the poor ate coarse loaves of mixed grain bread, fabricated out of whole meal stretched with bran.The middle classes got  bread made with less-processed wheat flour, often cut with milling waste. The whitest, softest loaves of labour intense sifted wheat flour were reserved for the upper classes. Even if I had invented these facts, we know that there is truth to them in every society, because the history of bread and flour is really a history invention, greed, scientific discovery and survival which pretty much amounts to the history of humankind.

During the Middle Ages, white flour was seen as being healthier than dark flours. The fact for this benefit was that by processing the flour, the mold and fungus in the grains, which led to several diseases, were eliminated. Processed white flour could be kept for much longer having lost much of the fatty acid of the germ which would quickly oxidize and give that distinctive rancid taste and smell.

Let us move to Canada where it is now mandatory to enrich white flour. Through scientific evidence it was realized that highly processed and industrial overheating of  wheat created flour practically devoid of any nutrition. And for most humans, no nutrients equals useless.

"The standard for flour (also known as "white flour", "enriched flour" or "enriched white flour") in the FDR requires the mandatory addition of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid and iron. The addition of vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, magnesium and calcium is optional. All white flour sold in Canada for food use, whether for use in further manufacturing or for sale directly to the consumer, must be enriched. Consequently, all foods sold in Canada that contain white flour must be made with enriched white flour. The sale of unenriched white flour or its use is not permitted in Canada. The only exception to this requirement is white flour sold for the production of gluten or starch."   Candian Food Inspection Agency.

Let us move to Moulin La Pierre, St-Norbert-d'Arthabaska,Quebec, one of the last privately owned old water mills which is run year round. In operation since 1845, moulin La Pierre reminds me of the many churches a little outside of Rome...where there are less banal tourists, and a little more faith and integrity. The setting is beautiful, but I cared for that less than the WAY they transform their organic wheat and grains.

Rene Simard and Daniele Huberdeau are the 20th owners. They took over in 1996 from LaPierre who decided to retire. Rene was already working in a boulangerie, bought LaPierre's flour which was already certified organic, they knew each other well, and....the rest is...now. They kept the name but added a space to La Pierre.

The method. Ground on Sylex of about 4 feet in diameter, a heavy Siliceous rock with a 100-125 rpm grind which is slower than say granite at maybe 300rpms and the much faster metal rolls of industrial method but by not overheating the grains, the resulting flour retains much of its nutrients. This has always been the case for many artisans and the organic, bio dynamic and the slow food process...time. This kind of common sense backed with a quality product, backed by an inherit respect for others seems to me the values most people seek.

AND we love the taste of their flour in our homemade bread and pastry shells at Renard Artisan Bistro, and love even more the comforting fact that again we have met people who care, not only for their product, but for general well being of the rest of us, and that is something the history of humankind has always had trouble dealing with.  

January 6, 2013

Elk, a question of identity

They say that Cap Saint-Ignace was where the last wild elk in Quebec died. That was between 1830-40. It is said that the last Eastern Elk was shot in Pennsylvania in 1877 and officially extinct in 1880. All this due to over hunting.

  Presently, in Quebec, there only exists farmed elk, which is sold mainly for its antlers, then canned hunting and then for its meat. Next to no elk farmer in Quebec will or has made a living off of selling only the meat. The main reason and boom for elk farming (perhaps unfortunately) was the Asian market for the velvet antlers which ranks number two to ginseng in importance in traditional Chinese medicine. Big money. Most elk farmers who specialized in velvet antler made a living without needing a second income. That was prior to the year 2000 marked by a string of mad cow disease, all that encephalopathy freaky spongiform suffering stuff and the spread of the disease in elk and deer on the west coast. Borders closed, markets slowed, velvet in the Asian market became suspect.  

Renard Artisan Bistro used to work with Wapitis Val Grand Bois. They sold and went into retirement. Sad. I called another farm from the Association des Éleveurs de Wapitis du Québec (Certified pure blood elk), Gaston Bouchard asking for elk meat and he replied "non," laughing " il y a trop d'argent a faire..." Sarcastically saying there was too much money to be made in elk farming. Ok. There was obviously something strange here. Another producer I had stayed with a couple years back in St-Charles Garnier on my way to Gaspesie had also sold. Another 'farmer' told me that he did not really care about the meat and if I wanted to deal with it to call the abattoir, his main income being, antlers aka pills. I recently found myself in the fields with Lucien and Jocelyne of Ferme les Wapitis des Beaux Pres in Aston-Jonction talking about why is elk more expensive than other meats, and why everyone is struggling to sustain their living. 

Almost 18 years in the elk trade, original founders of the Association des Éleveurs de Wapitis du Québec begun in order to protect the industry of pure bred elk from those who were crossing deer and elk and selling at elk prices, (the buying price of elk being 6 to 8 times higher than deer usually), and still struggling to make ends meet but happy. Caring. Working in a system much dominated by chicken, pork, beef...all subsidized by the government? The protection of quotas? More questions. They grew up in the North, as in a 15 hour drive up into the tundra, used to eating caribou meat. When they returned back 'south' they approached the MAPAQ asking about caribou farming. 'Farming!? What you need is a zoo permit! Find another animal." they were told and so elk it was.    

The Beaupre family are a couple who have had 8 children and are happy; humble and happy to share. Something I struggle everyday to appreciate, attain, and keep within my own circles. Nonetheless, their story is one of beauty, struggling to keep their elk farm in existence, working in the four corners of Canada, a family living apart, living together, almost living at the edge of the modern industrial world, poised perfectly at that junction where most of us ask the most important questions of ourselves and our community. In a society where intensive industrial farming is the norm and will not change anytime soon, it is possibl watching elk in their vast space, observing their behaviour, that something will be lost when it is replaced by steel and concrete walls. It is not a question of the pumped up, fucked up, legless battery chicken because there are so many poor people to feed, because rich people are buying the same birds, it is a more a question of norms established, reasons behind them and government regulations. Many more questions.

When cheapness should not dictate out better judgement, the fact is that almost everybody wants things inexpensive, especially food. We should all remind ourselves (because we are modern and educated) that with cheapness comes a price, hidden but everpresent. Elk meat for the moment is marginal, not very subsidized, meaning that it will definitely be more expensive (or as some would say representing the true cost of living), meaning you won't see it on any fast food restaurant any time soon... but on Renard's menu it has become a must, and most probably because of its relation and natural voice in what many have called the slow food movement. And again another question arises, would we ever want to see elks bear the same burden as the so called modern cows, pigs and chickens? And yet the big market for elk is for its antlers and not the meat....and yes,again,  so many more questions.....