May 17, 2010

I love caribou meat, but I guess not this year

I love caribou meat and serve it at the restaurant until a client made a comment. After a bit of research I realized that there is some concern about this powerful beast. So I adopted my caribou George from WWF, fuck, we all do at one time or another. Because as we know it is not necessarily what we source and eat, but often what we are not eating. The text below is taken from Environment Canada, Species at risk. good reading for good eating.

There are many threats that directly and/or indirectly affect local populations of boreal caribou and their habitat, including:

  • habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation;

  • predation, mainly by wolves and bears;

  • over-harvesting (hunting, poaching);

  • noise and light disturbance (from forestry; oil, gas and mining operations; low-level aircraft flights; use of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles);

  • parasites and disease; and

  • changes in weather and climate.

The main threat to boreal caribou is unnaturally high predation rates as a result of habitat loss, degradation and fragmentation (the breaking up of continuous habitat into smaller pieces). These habitat alterations impact boreal caribou in many ways. Firstly, the clearing of forests and building of roads for industrial activities reduces the amount and quality of habitat available in which the boreal caribou can live and reproduce. In addition, these activities often lead to an increase in area of young forests, favouring species such as deer, moose and elk, which then increase in number. This increase in the number of deer, moose or elk in turn supports a higher number of predators, such as wolves. Finally, large-scale habitat alterations can also affect boreal caribou by making it easier for predators such as wolves to move across the landscape and prey on caribou. The resulting increase in predation can have a serious impact on boreal caribou, causing their populations to decline.

May 11, 2010

last of the fiddleheads, rabbit chorizo and the communion at le Presbytère

"...all my vital memories are of these first years. These were the days when I smelled the bread, I saw my first red poppy, the moon, the innocent seeing. Since then these memories have become iconography, the shapes even the colors: millstone, red earth, yellow wheatfield, apricots etc."

Archile Gorky

Reading this I was reminded of my grandfather, Janus, of Latvian decent who was a farmer. As a child I would carefully walk through the massive vegetable garden he grew. For me it was like a buffet, picking a carrot here, a radish there, a green onion, quickly rinsing them before I ate them. Not to mention all the wild blueberries, raspberries and strawberries which grew in abundance in and on the periphery of the dense forest surrounding our cottage. These I ate directly from the plant, until one late afternoon I saw the drunken neighbour pissing on my favorite blueberry patch. Lesson learnt. The innocent seeing. A powerful phrase.

As I drove towards the Centre du Québec region with Fromagerie du Presbytère in mind, I had a few other places I wanted to visit beforehand. I had quickly jotted the address and phone number of a company in Pierreville who pickles fiddleheads and cattails (quenouilles). Down highway thirty I decided that I would get some more asparagus from La Sublime Asperge. Why not. I pass by, but there is a shortage because of the weather. I buy a mere 5 lbs at 3.50 a lbs. Normal production he tells me is around 1500lbs a day. I leave surrounded by immense stretches of farm lands which seem to me to be vast expanses of mono crops, corn, soy, corn, soy. I thread through a few minor highways, along the Yamaska river again and see a sign announcing asparagus for sale. I U-turn and pull in. A tall young guy looking like a hockey player comes out with a friendly smile. Funny I thought, not the build, the 'type' I associate with asparagus, but then what type should be selling asparagus? He presents himself immediately as Julien and asks me my name. One of the few, and we talk. There is none of the bustle of La Sublime Asperge, or the decor. The point of sale is his garage with a fridge in the back. Nothing kitsch, no frills, no campagnaisms. I see a paper tacked to the wall. Ferme Besner Pagé, Julien Pagé, élevage de lapins, culture d'asperges. Rabbits. I taste his asparagus. It is true. It tastes like a great asparagus, but there is something more complex to the Sublime Asperge`s, which are delicious. Price too. Julien has them at 2.25 a lbs. I buy 20lbs for the resto, and a couple of lbs for home, as well as a whole rabbit and a few rabbit chorizos. In the car I tear open one of the chorizo and devour it. Beautiful. Something one realizes is worth the voyage.

Off again over the bridge at Yamaska, highway 132 east in Odanak, Pierreville region. At a stop sign I read; Channa, Arrêt, Stop. A trilingual stop sign. I look over and see a sign Indian Reserve Abanakis d'Odanak. Driving thr0ugh the reserve along the Saint Francois river with a delicate sun over everything. A sublime moment. I kept on driving expecting a sign for the fiddleheads. Nothing. I pulled over and ask a Québecois man who scratches his head and tells me that the address that I have might be the right one 'Nothing here is what it seems.' Ok. I go back to the address, someone's home and ask two guys fixing a car if this is Fougère et cie. Oui. He disappears in the house and out comes a short woman with a generous smile. The company, she tells me, no longer exists. All the labeling laws....the cost of analyzing all the products for labeling of nutritional value etc...So now she takes care with a local community center. Just as well. Nonetheless she takes me across the road into the bushes and schools me on fern plants edible and not. The one we can eat in Canada is the ostrich fern (la fougère à l'autruche) I look through the bushes, the bramble with little plants popping up everywhere, and don`t see any. The season is already finished. She shows me different varieties, and the differences meticulously explaining the differences, which one's to 'cultivate' although wild. 'those which look like a mini celeri rib are the one's we want and those we eat are the sterile ones'. They will return year after year in the same place. We walk through a fern patch which is already more than knee high. I turn and Yolande opens her hand. A fat green fiddlehead. Ah. 'These are really the last ones of the year.' We spend 10 minutes looking close to the ground for more, easier I must say than morel hunting. This year they cultivated for only 10 days. A ten day season! I was more determined than ever to find some, any. In the end I had 12. At least she tells me I have my entree when I get home. She invites me to come back next year a little earlier to pick them. As for the cattail, there are none yet, but if I gave her my number she'll call me when they are ready. Yes, I will be there. I ask her about the Channa. Québec she tells me voted to have unilingual Stop signs in 2004. The law does not apply on an Indian reserve. Pretty cool I thought.

I navigate through the web of byways and little towns consisting of a couple of houses, past another dozen villages with the Saint something name. Started thinking about empires. I was amazed to think that the world was not made up of one race or one language. Incredible that through all the brutalily of empires whether Roman, Turkish, or English... that they really never succeeded. I was amazed to think of the variety in the world, so many languages, so many cultures. There is something comforting in that, the history of resilience humanity has....this intense history of opposition seems to be humanity's real history. I turn onto the 259 south and down to Saint Perpétue. I ask around town where to find rang St-Edmond. Someone easily indicates a right at the store, and a left. When I get there it is closed. Shit. The chances one takes sometimes. Stupid I thought. Could have called. So I call. Hello, yeah, are you open, no, domage, when would you like to visit, well, uh, I am standing in front right now. Wait a moment. Two minutes later a woman comes walking down the highway to meet me. Down to business. She unlocks the store and after an elaborate ritual of changing according to the MAPAQ norms she brings out a little tasting platter. Goat yogurt, 3 day old goat cheese, a sort of strong camembert with a washed rind still with no name reminding me of something out of the Haut Savoie mountains, savoureux de biquette and délice de Fiona an incredible mix of yogurt and fresh goat cheese perfect for a dessert with maple and rhubarb. Maryse and her husband originally arrived from Switzerland 17 years ago and have been raising goat and cows for some time and began the fromagerie in 2005. Their cheeses are great, but the yogurt spectacular. No gelatin, no thickening agents, just a straight slightly acid yogurt, so far the best that I have ever tasted. I fill up the cooler with as much as I can and looking at my watch realize I am going to miss le Presbytère. In twenty they close and Maryse tells me they are about 40 minutes away. Fuck. I through the cooler in the trunk and race.

I call the fromagerie and tell the young girl who I am and if I can pass a cheese order. They close at four. Oh please, I know Jean Morin, tell him it is me, it is a tradition, somehow I am always late. She sighs. I pass the order and begin to speed. 10, 20, 30, 40 over the speed limit. J man, relax, you are in the country. Then, paf, I hit a bird. I slow down. Feeling like shit. I hate being late. I hate the thought of the bird's mate flying around maybe strangely wondering about the disappeared mate. Ok, don`t get too emotional, things happen. I cut through a few rangs, the farmer way as they say, and arrive 20 minutes late, but Morin is changing the recycling bin and waves. Inside, he pulls out a 5 kg piece of his Louis d'Or and a few beers and chat in the late afternoon sun. He is in fact one of the founder`s of Ancêtre, and realized that one of his passions was to make fine cheese. The fromagerie`s building which they bought in 2004 is the old town's presbytery which is in fact still shared with the local parish, the priest's office upstairs He giggles, full of blessings, and cutting me a piece of cheese calls it my communion. After having visited the Jura region for technique and friends from Gré des Champs he decided to begin his own. Along with his brother they were well aware what the touristic value of having a good artisanal cheese can be for the region, a region they love enormously. We talk of organic in general, and how since Québec has no real form of AOC or certification, organic at least is an assurance that many European countries have. His cows, Jersey and Holstein, are fed entirely with what they grow on their land, We drink more beer, and he brings out his Bleu d'Élizabeth, one incredible bleu cheese, creamy, less salty than most, piquant, with the right amount of rot. One of the best blue cheese's in Québec. Some clients come, and although he is closed he serves them, and that is what I realize with Jean Morin, he loves what he does. It is not simply a way to make money, it is a lifestyle, it is the fabric of life, the love of meeting others and the sharing of the effort of his vision of thing, the language of a good cheese.

May 9, 2010

Cage au corn, the first asparagus and organic bikers

Mai 9th, mother's day. Woke up. Michèle is back from Argentina and New York. Familiar sounds. Cold. Difficult to get out of bed. Maybe it is the biography on Gorky I read the night before. Terrifying. Maybe it was the wine. I get up and open the curtains...of course, snow. The trees below St Joseph`s Oratory are lush and green in contrast with this dense cloud of falling snow is very pointillist, blurred and kind of annoying. Call my mom, she is great, life is great. Something that makes me happy.

Not the type of visiting a farm weather, but there always seems to be something more intimate, more physically acute with this kind of weather....

We decide to visit a few fromageries that we have always passed on previous trips in the Sorrel Tracy area and the Centre du Québec region. Highway 30, powerful landscapes of industrial and immense flat farm lands. Why bother at all visiting these places? I was reminded while driving of when I lived in Rome that I did the exact same thing, I set out every weekend to Termini, looked at the train schedule, consulted a guide book and made my way through the Italian country side to cities and small towns, searching for something, something elusive but always this movement, this physical dimension which seems to be so necessary to even every religion, we cannot ignore the body, the senses and its complex relation to our wonder, our imagination, our selves. Sorrel Tracy, blue collar town, big industrial buildings everywhere, lining the Richelieu river, brown bricks, quaint houses, balconies of another time. Hunger, that magnificent master of the human race, gives order, we park the car and wander Sorrel in search for a quick bite. The cold biting wind does not lend to a thorough search of downtown Sorrel, but then neither does its size. We settle for a restaurant which looks decent. Mother`s day. Big tables with their families. Wonderful to see so many generations at a single table. A reminder of the true fabric of any society...of any healthy society. We order, our plates come, and elements return, befuddling elements of North American life...pre-made sauces, frozen veggies, bread with an undesirable longevity. This big monumental idiocy of the prefab which has strangled so much, and here we are eating it again, like some strange tautological toxin, some constant subtle threat, hating it and eating it because hunger demands it. Maybe mass produced is cheap, but the exchange rate may be even worse.

We leave, Boulevard Friset. Fromagerie Riviera. Already we are confronted with an immense ugly building, we pass the loading docks and park near the entrance. It might as be Zellers or Walmart. Two young girls are serving customers and look like if they were selling shoes or rubber peaches it would really have been the same. I check the cheese selection. Swiss, curds, cheddar, herbed cheddar, vegetable cheddar, all sorts of fucked with cheddar...bbq cheese strips. Ok. I hear Michèle ask one if they give dégustation and one of the cashiers responds quickly, No. Ok. We have entered another universe. Generic cheese for generic tastes. Silently I am screaming against the universe and everything that is shit in it, but I hear Michèle ordering a frozen yogurt. I pick up some BBQ cheese because the idea seems so absurd that I need humour myself. Grounds for revolution. We leave, laugh, wondering what a place like that is doing on the Route des Fromages. Perspective. We pull out for the next fromagerie in Saint-Cyrille. I eat my BBQ cheese, Michèle refusing, but what the fuck I think I guess it is better than Kraft. Or maybe not. It always depends the politics behind the purchase, their policy.

On our way through the back highways we notice a sign advertising asparagus. Rang St-Thomas. We slow and turn. All these fields, real farm country and we ask ourselves what is everyone growing, to whom? We see a type of huge upright rectangular cages with tons and tons of corn in it, rotten looking, and what it was doing there? Like some strange post modern sculpture. On we go, past countless hippy and punk rock scarecrows in front of people's front yards...a mystery we have yet to solve. I catch up to a Porsche, we laugh in our crappy little car and find La Sublime Asperge which the Porsche also turns into. Kind of a bric a brac entrance whose bouncer seems to be a sculpture of an angel with her wings chopped off. Follow a little path we are suddenly in a little back room where cagettes of asparagus are being pulled out by Simon and Nicole, like some black market trading. There is a lot of coming and going, clients coming in not knowing if they want food, or salvation, a lot of confusion it seems. They offer us to eat raw asparagus, and shit they are good. But what is going on here? I see two tags on a string with colourful clothes pins reading Toque and Pied de Cochon. Ah. I understand. Tasty. I buy some for the restaurant and ask if they deliver, yes of course, and then Nicole shoots off all the top restaurants in Montréal, it seems more like a cult than an asparagus grower. There are too many customers, our questions are kind of flooded by necessity. We are processed, smiles, nice people....What I did gather is that they took over from a neighbour whose land could not take it any longer (apparently asparagus production has a 15 to 20 commercially viability) and taking her know how continued the tradition for ten years now. From May to June. Barely two months, that is the story of asparagus. But a passionate two months she tells us. Otherwise he teaches. Why not. I buy ten pounds aware that thirty Montréal restaurants are obsessed by this one place.Hype? Voodoo? Product? Something to research.

Asperges au beurre bio et oeuf cuit dur ...kept simple

10 very fresh knife cut green asparagus quick blanched for 2 minutes
2 tbs organic butter
2 diced hard boiled eggs
pinch of merquen

put a tbs of the butter in a hot pan (medium heat) until it bubbles, add asparagus with a little fleur de sel and cracked pepper and cook gently until heated through. Remove, putting 5 on each plate. Add the other tbs of butter to the pan and add the diced hard boiled egg, pinch of merquen. Spoon mixture evenly over the asparagus with the butter (use some good bread and soak up the remains in the pan!) Delicious!

Out of Saint Aimé, cross the Yamaska river, beautiful, yet looks like an agricultural river. Would probably not fish in it. In Amerindian it means 'where rushes grow'. Michèle spots another cheese place nearby, Coop Agrilait, Fromage St-Guillaume. In the 1940's she reads, around fifty dairy farmers group to form the Coop of Agrilait. This is good I thought. This kind of empowerment. Controlling production and sales as a group instead of simply being an employee. I'd love to create a Coop, always weary of the lazy though.... I still have no cheese for the cheese plate at the restaurant, and when we pull into the address and realize that it is also a gas station and hardware store, perhaps it will have to stay that way. We walk around, once again, cheddar, swiss, grain cheddar and something called Fromage pour grillé. Cheese to grill, or grill cheese. All surrounded by the same crappy junk food you would find anywhere, and shovels, and propane, but then again a coop is better than a multinational. I buy an aged cheddar and the 'grill cheese'. We ask for directions to Saint Cyrille, lovely people.

Fromagerie Lemaire. Same type of building. Big. They have a cantine. Oh fuck. It is going to be more poutine cheese. Sure enough. Same kind, same types, same odor, same marbled cheddar, same strange floors. Promising the same selection of 'fine cheeses', but the truth I guess it really is who you are addressing. At the counter I notice a package of Lemaire instant powder gravy for poutine. Under it cans of St-Hubert BBQ sauce. We smile awkwardly to the young workers on the other side of the counter. Dispirited, feeling out of place we leave without buying anything. Back in the car I start thinking, they have been around for 52 years...and fresh cheddar is tasty. I get out and return, buy some fresh cheese, something which they are famous for. Pretty good, nothing out of the ordinary, but pretty good.

Off again. Fromagerie Ancêtre. On the other side of the St Lawrence river from Trois Rivière. Organic. Walking in we found the same formula as the previous fromageries, cheddar, swiss, grainy, but this time organic. Three couples walk in, bikers, all with Harley Davidson jackets...talking about how organic is making life better for everyone. 'Tabarnak, c'est juste plus normal. Christ j'ai vu sur Youtube des affaires foqués.' And that could very much sum it up. Organic does not mean elitist either. I bought a case of their organic butter and a bit of cheese reassured that a great alliance was taking place without much else being said, it felt like the right place to be, and although I did not have a cheese plate for the week, it did not matter; I'll make some déclinaison with asparagus or some such thing, but on second thought when found this fresh perhaps simply sautéed in some organic butter may be just right.

May 2, 2010

Pilgrimage to Notre Dame de Lourdes, the blind man and the bison

Although I was driving on land I was thinking about water, huge bodies of it with its hidden abyss beneath. I pictured myself suspended on the water`s surface in a state of wonder and terror with everything beneath me that I could not see, half known, half imagined....Overwhelmed by being a living creature. Overwhelmed that a pumpkin should exist, by watching a raven with its head buried in a dead raccoon`s guts, by our need for food. I need more cheese. I am doing a little gig for the English consulate for election night and was thinking of raw milk cheese and then something from a bison farm La Terre des Bisons. The thing about the consulate is that they are people that you want to share these discoveries with, people with interest, with taste, a great couple. People one would love to see more and more of in positions of power. Oh well, suffice it with luck to be able to do this with them anyway.

Region of Lanaudière. L'Assomption, L'Epiphanie, Saint-Gérard-Majella, Sainte-Marie-Salomé, Saint-Paul, Saint-Thomas, Saint-Pierre, Saint-Charles-Borromée...this has to be the highest density of towns by the names of Saints in the world. Then I arrive at Notre-Dame-de Lourdes. A little town of 2000 people. I probably would have never had a reason to visit this town if it was not for my pilgrimage to the Fromagerie Du Champ à la Meule. I pull into the drive way wondering about the sick, the disabled, people living in fear of some immediate catastrophe, those who don't and will never have enough . Out of the car there is only silence. I can smell freshly mowed grass. I think how fortunate some of us are, like now, about to taste some raw milk cheese, which is senseless compared to most of the world's sufferings....I think about Bernadette Soubirous and all those Marian apparitions she had back in 1858 and how the town of Lourdes changed forever, apparently 2nd to Paris for density of hotels. Impressive. I suddenly began to appreciate a thing like having taste buds, transmitting all those wild colours of taste to me, for better or for worse.

Du Champs a la Meule begun in 1995 by Martin Guilbault. Raw milk, artisan cheese. We start with the Fétard, semi ferme, washed rind with Maudite bière. Slightly bitter, creamy, pungent. Rich, firm, with a hint of earth, roast butter and subtle aromas of fruit. To my left through a window the room where they mix their milk, an ubiquitous sight now in most fromageries. There is nothing there though. I would prefer to see the cows which now belong to their neighbour. It always seems to me that these little windows were put there as a rebuke to the paranoia of the MAPAQ. Anyway. Next La Terre Promise, like an emmenthal, more subtle, piquant, butter and almonds aged minimum 4 months. A great complex cheese. Then the Victor et Berthold duo. First a 2 month and then a 4 month reserve. The first, pate presser non cuite, hazelnuts, butter, floral with herbal whispers. Creamier texture than the two first. The 4 month is slightly more pungent with obvious intensification of taste. These would do very well for the consulate. I buy a few kilos asking M. Guilbault's niece if there was a grotto or something celebrating Soubirous` visions. Not really, closer to Rigaud or somewhere. I leave. The sun is being swallowed a dark gangs of clouds.

Driving along this country road there is a feeling of tranquility. I remember the insular feeling of driving up the mountains in France in Haute Savoie to taste Reblochon cheese. Intimate discoveries which taught me just how much a land and people could do. These were locals outside the marketing racket, a racket in which we each now feel an inevitable pull to learn, perfect....To crack me out of these wandering thoughts I see a blind guy walking along the highway. What he did out here I could only imagine.

I turn onto Rue du Lac Marchand and then onto a semi dirt road. Meet with Josée and her husband. We talk a little at random, a flux between the personal and the professional. They bought their lands in the early 90`s as a form of investment and rented them out. But this would not even cover the taxes. They began with some chickens and veal but then slowly started thinking about other markets. They needed an animal which was a little independent, they thought emu, ostrich but they were a little too demanding since they both worked in Montreal still. They started with 3 bison. People would pass and ask if they sold meat. They did not. Slowly the idea took form, first by selling another farm`s bison meat and then as soon as they increased their heard to sell it themselves. We talked for an hour and I realized that in a culture where mass production and low cheap food became expected, I see people reacting against what these two were doing, with no real experience beforehand. This meant redefining a land, a region, and also the self. I bought some steaks and asked if I could take pictures of the heard. Of course, but don't get too close or put your hand out. They look sluggish but can be quite aggressive. Then they told me that they can run up to 50 or 60 km an hour. Something I would have never thought possible.

Bison in the rain, a low rain alternating between a mist and a silent pour. This powerful force we call Nature, with its incredible beauty, devastating mindlessness, the solemness of it, this sole force of its kind, of each region and its effect on our perception. Incredible that these beasts were once almost driven to extinction. Everyone is talking local this and local that, and it seems to me that the cow is much more foreign and ill adapted to this climate than the bison. They stand there in the drizzle, no longer really a testament to human greed which almost drove them to extinction although the wood bison, larger, are still on the endangered list in Canada. Strange also I thought that one of these were going to be broken down and shipped to my restaurant. Powerful beasts. I had a renewed respect for them. Lightning. A deep low thunder rolls as if across the tree tops. The rain falls harder, they look unaffected. I run for the car happy again to have met people who are inspired to do it a little differently, and caring.