June 27, 2010

cures just about anything including half bad white wine

Good for soar throat because of its anthocyanoids. A vermifuge for intestinal parasites. A tissue drainer for congested tissues especially the kidneys, liver and urinary tracts. Great for dermatitis, psoriasis and vasoprotective properties. Not to mention as something to use for diarrhea, dysentery and jaundice.

Driving along the 344 east along the Outaouais river, slightly sick with overwork and exhaustion I was thinking of these discussed and researched properties of the blackcurrant plant. I suddenly felt, for no more than a minute, that I was headed towards a field of miracle cure all. But in all reality it is always easier with a soar throat to see how much more food does than twisted to look pretty, to feed, to pleasure or occasionally to shut up. There is truth in the saying that `herbs do things that drugs have not yet invented.' I am heading towards the town of St-André-d'Argenteuil where there is a 32 acre blackcurrent farm called Aux Cassis d'Argenteuil. This is a young business of 3 years now. My main goal was to buy a case of their Reflet d'automne which is a 19% crème de cassis. After a blind tasting of 4 others including the ever all too common one from France, we found that Reflet was the better tasting, less sweat and more complex. Great for locally made Québec kirs, or alone on ice, or even a nice layer of jelly on an organic chicken liver mousse.

mousse de foie de volailles bio au Cassis Reflet d'Automne (makes 30)

950g cleaned organic chicken livers
200g butter plus 15 grams for cooking livers
700g cream
1/4 cup cassis plus 50ml for after
50g sugar
3 garlic cloves
4 french shallots
5 sprigs of thyme
1 tea nutmeg
1 tea four spice

Cassis jelly

1 gelatin leaf for every 100ml of cassis

1-cut butter in cubes and put in a bowl with the cream. You want this mixture to be around 15 degrees or so. The idea being to never melt the butter, but be able to mix it properly with the liver.

2-heat th 15 grams of butter in a pan(Make sure your pan is big enough for all the livers to fit in a single layer). When bubbling and hot add shallots and halved garlic, cook a few seconds, add thyme and livers (which have been salt and peppered). Colour the livers on both sides and cooking to a medium rare. Deglaze the pan with the 1/4 cup of cassis reduce. You will want rose livers, so if the liquid is not almost completely reduced, remove the livers and continue reducing liquid.

3-put livers in a blender with reduced cassis mix, thyme included. Add the sugar. Blend to a paste. leave until tepid. Pass through a tamis over a large enough bowl, then pass the cream and the butter.

4-whisk this mixture for a couple of seconds until homogeneous. Add 1 teaspoon of nutmeg and 1 tea of 4 spice, 50 ml of cassis, salt and pepper to taste. At this point you can judge whether to add more spices or not, depending on the looked for intensity. Pour into jars. Set overnight before pouring the jelly on top if using.

5-soak gelatin leaf in water. Heat a little cassis. Take softened gelatin leaf out of water squeezing out maximum liquid, add to warm cassis whisking until disolved. Add to the rest of the cassis. Pour desired amount over the chilled liver mousse. Allow an hour for the jelly to set before serving.

Carole Valiquette takes me to their little boutique where we talk about the weather. The weather with agronomists is in fact very important as opposed to urbanist's opinions on the issue. This year has been a little difficult. Early frost, extreme heat, and then continuing morning frost has killed off a part of the flowers. She admits though that they are still trying to understand the relationship of the blackcurrent bushes and the land they purchased 15 years ago. A lot of preparing went into this. I look out the window at their rows of bushes in the afternoon light and saw how precocious it could be. Sometimes it rains and nobody comes to the restaurant. Sometimes you have shitty weather and there are not enough fruit. She tells me that the first few years preparing their land with cereals such as buckwheat, then they had to wait another 5 years for the bushes to produce abundant fruit. The average lifespan of a bush being 20 years. At that point a customer comes in and starts asking about the 'booze'. Carole tells them their history, does a tasting of their three products. Rubis, Rastel a sort of porto and the Reflet d'autumne. "Not bad, not bad. How much?" She tells him. He hesistates. "I don't know. Why do you people charge so much when at the SAQ I can get a bigger bottle of Schnapps for cheaper? It does not make sense." Oh boy I thought. He asks to taste again. Carole explains that they hand pick all the fruit and the final product goes through 4 filtrations. "Ya ya, but it is just alcohol after all. I mean, it is not THAT good. I've tasted better for cheaper." I ask him if his boss asked him to work for cheaper would he? "What does that have to do with anything?" He waves his hand and mumbles something and leaves. We watch him leave and I see the same attitude repeating itself over and over everywhere. This Walmart, cheaper attitude which does not seek the source but rather cultivates a strange sort of greed which in the end gives one a very strange version of the world. And although I myself could argue that it is easy to make creme de cassis, there are some who do it well, and get better at doing that. And my money goes to that, call it research and development. I cough. She pours me a little glass of Rubis. Sickness. I forget about my soar throat and think about the sickness of being a blockhead. Oh well, fuck him, artisans will stand together, and we will stand behind them.

I look out the window at the blackcurrent's blessed bush, a fruit we rarely see in supermarkets, or never except in preserves. This modest fruit, may tells us more about our condition than we think, a modest fruit which is still illegal to grow in a number of States. Not to mention that it can really enhance a bad batch of white wine!

Kir. 1 part kir for 9 parts white wine.

Leaves picked in the spring can be made into a delicious infusion. 20-30 grams of leaves for a half liter of hot water. Infuse for 10 minutes.

June 19, 2010

organic's heritage of protest against the hypochondriac's self fulling destiny

Arriving at Ferme Formido, Isabelle Forgues was already happily busy with customers. The conversation turns to childhood and the woods and the fear we were all raised with about what to eat. How we were all told that if we ate such and such a thing a bush would grow in our stomachs, or a hand would fall off. A client tells us how she remembers being so scared to eat anything in the wild, because her parents told her straight out that it would kill her. Nevertheless, she remembers seeing these wild strawberries and ate them. Surprisingly, she laughs, she did not die, and knew the pleasure of a ripe wild strawberry. But that is all fine for the wild, but what of the cultivated?

I wandered the Forgues' farmland listening to the delicate breeze over the tall grass, the sounds of crows above a tree in which a family of cattle rest in the shade, the enigmatic sound of dragonflies fliting up and down above a tiny rivulet. I stand there, in awe, at how wonderful this all is; the simple fact of being alive and part of this. It reminded me of my grandfather who was a farmer and as a child the greatest thing was the mystery of the field, of his garden. I often remember kneeling, digging through the dirt looking for worms before going fishing and that same silence which I now heard returned even if I was in another province 30 years later.

Something else suddenly returned. This week a customer at the restaurant had exploded angrily, telling me that organic did not exist, and that in a few years it (organic) would be 'exposed'. He continued telling me that organic is just a money making scheme which exploits people. Scheme? If there was any money making scheme I thought would it not be the industrial monopoly of farmland. I could not even argue with him. I was so surprised at his attack, stunned. I listened. 'You are being exploited!' he says pointing a shaking finger at me. As I am standing here on Ferme Formido's land, a certified organic land, watching the animals moving about I remember that accusing shaking finger. I began wondering exactly what organic meant. Here I see cattle walking around eating grass. On this land I feel a part of it, enjoy being in it, which immediately inspires me to write a poem or picnic, or create something to help someone....Factory farming has never really inspired anything of that. It has inspired revolt though, and disgust, sadness and a desire to overthrow it. I can only deduce that these feelings are aroused because it is not natural, normal or sane. I could not help thinking of factory farming as forcing children into prostitution. There is often a crazy argument that more people are fed because of CAFO's but I am far from being convinced. Another thing I am almost sure about is that the industrial farmer is not really thinking about feeding the lower stratum of next to no income starving humans who inhabit the planet. It is a problem more of distribution, priority and lifestyle. Anyway, feed someone something already fucked up immediately shows the level of respect that the argument has for the hungry. No, with the industrial farm we find the scorpion's bite of irony, greed pretending to defend hunger.

I sat in the grass next to a cow wondering if I was just another uber bourgeois shit head mouthing off privileges? Comfort's guilt? Already it is something I thought, because I would never sit next to a factory farmed cow covered in its own manure. I remember being among peasants in Serbia on their farm and there was a respect they had for the animals that I find hard to describe. When we ate I was surprised at how good everything tasted. When I asked them about organic they looked at me as if I were a little insane. Perhaps I wondered as I listened to the cow chewing the grass, organic is just as crazy. Organic at base is a reaction, towards normalcy, but it is a reaction nonetheless. Its existence is in fact conscience asserting itself. This conscience is protest and is timeless. Protest is the one thing that every human shares along with food and sex. Our choices are a form of alliance, a questioning discourse, and of course a protest.

Back in the boutique which is a converted B abattoir with the carcass tracking line still overhead, we talk. Isabelle, an extremely kind and strong woman comes from a line of agriculturalists. She learnt butchering techniques from her mother. They bought the farm from her parents, and went organic by observing. They used to have dairy cows and when they fell sick they began to ask some questions. Instead of injections and pharmaceuticals they looked to nature. A small detail she tells me was that they bought their feed which was already all chopped up and mixed. They began to feed them whole hay, deducing that the act of chewing and digesting must help. They planted their own feed. She remembers seeing a dairy cow at 5 years who looked already old and worn out, yet a natural lifespan is 20 to 25 years. There was something wrong. They began to work their animals less. In essence they began to care immensely for every stage of life, and try to make that situation better when they can. Pharmaceuticals she suggests may be a thing constantly burying the real problem, our relation to nature. In this course a strange logic of hypochondria is born, and then slowly begins to fulfill what it sees as its destiny. We talked for another hour, about it seemed everything and anything, which aired out the week's folly, once again strengthening my convictions. Whereas in France there is the AOC, which follows strict guidelines, the only counterpart that we have in Quebec for the moment is the organic label, with its reminder of its human dimensions. And the more we learn, the less we fear, and enjoy one of our life's greatest pleasure's, eating.

For more info http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/factoryfarming/ or for a good read the Omnivore's Dilemma, The Grapes of Wrath, Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. Or visit Formido farm on Saturdays, click on photo for address and times.

June 13, 2010

the sweet power of the flower

Standing there in the field in front of a few long rows of strawberries I mention the smell of manure. 'Ah oui' Louise says 'il va pleuvoir ce soir ou demain matin' (As in fact it did rain in the morning.) If it smelt stronger, she adds, it would rain in a few hours. She points across the road where there is a pig farm. All this connected in a way that I saw the pig shit, the wind, the rain as some firm, unshakable fact; as if Italo Calvino's essay Quickness suddenly came alive. I was also confronted with the wild strawberries of my youth, and these carefully cultivated, structured sweet patches. I was confronted with the question of how does a strawberry get to be a strawberry.

Louise and her husband Guy Rivest have owned the farm since 1982. They bought from Guy's father who has owned it since 1946. I randomly ended up at their farm in St-Roch-de l'Achigan coming over the hill from Rawdon after buying a bison heart for dinner tonight.

Grilled bison heart all purpose brine (makes a lot, but needs to be cold before using, so always best to have a stash in your fridge which is great base for pig head, tongue, duck or guinea hen legs (5 hours), cornish hens etc...adjust the herbs, spices as you wish.)

6 liters water

750g salt

100g sugar

10 peppercorns
few sprigs of thyme

few crushed juniper berries
few bayleaves
(or whatever aromatics you want to use) bring all ingredients to a boil. Chill. Clean the heart, removing fat and anything stringy. slice nice 'steaks' about a quarter inch thick. Pour a little brine, just enough to cover for an hour. Remove, rinse under cold running water. Pat dry. Ready to grill. Cover with a little oil and a little freshly ground pepper (I avoid salt because it has already been brined). Grilled best rare. Serve with a fresh parsley root and caper salad.

On one side of their house she tells me is argyle soil, and the other where we are standing more sandy. Both are good, but give a slightly different fruit, and with hundreds of varietals to choose from, she is content with six at the moment work well in this part of Québec. I never thought of strawberries as being as diverse as apples. Nonetheless, here were the first strawberries of the year which are usually a bit more acid. This year though these are sweeter because of the extremely hot weather that we have been having. Hot it is. 30 Celsius, and hungry I was began hearing things all upside down turned over. She mentions Face de chat as a common disease in strawberries. So what causes this Fesse de chat I ask feeling like I was being let in to some arcane dimension of the Fraise. She looks at me patiently, Non, Face, pas Fesses. Cat ass disease sounds better than cat face disease anyway I thought. This is the most common problem that she has, the tarnished plant bug. Another is a paradisaical insect which lays its eggs in the center of the flower which turns it into no more than a white walled nest. No strawberry flower, no fruit. And innocently I was thinking to myself, amazing. I was really in awe. I pointed to a thing that looked like a Chinese green bean. No, she laughs, that is the runner, a part of the plant which slinks between the others and finding a spot will plant itself and will grow into new plants. It is true that staring at the patch the only thing one wants to see is a big fat red strawberry, but the more she talked, happily teaching, the more this jumbled patch became for me a very powerful structured entity. Strange to feel so lost in front of something as simple as the strawberry.

Inside the boutique was the usual alcohols and jams but then there was something even more interesting, a strawberry stem jelly which you can taste along with the other products. How the hell does one think of that I ask. It has the smell of cooked butter, floral, hint of strawberry. To the taste there is a slightly bitter herbal taste with of course the intense presence of strawberries. Interesting. Grandma, Louise tells me. She collected all the handwritten recipe books of her grandparents as well as those of her husband's. And in fact this recipe she found in her husband's grandmother's cookbook. I asked if that was normal, the family cookbook. Absolument. Most family's at one time had their own 'cookbook' which was passed on. Something has happened between then and now, and between those two points there has not been more than 60 years. Something fucked up happened and most of us are left trying to retrieve that elusive `something` even if is in new packaging. She offers a me strawberry. A good dense full taste of strawberry. In the intense sunlight it makes sense. I tried to picture all the manipulating in the kitchen I could do, all the recipes, but somehow, with finger on the stem and eating them fresh it cannot be challenged, nothing I think can replace the simple pleasure and physical feeling of eating a freshly picked strawberry.

How long did her strawberry season last I ask, about a month and a week, and then for them the season is over for strawberries. There are other varieties (info below****) which can go into the autumn but at la Ferme Guy Rivest they choose an intense month with quick freezing a good part. They prefer to begin their production of jams, syrups and alcohols early. One thing is for sure; this artisanal element is stronger than I had otherwise thought. These passionate people are dedicating themselves to something more than selling products. After tasting another strawberry Louise tells me she used to teach people with disabilities. In fact, she is far from the first to tell me that they used to teach, or were a nurse etc...bref, trades in which a large amount of caring should be involved. And this caring at the fundamental stratum of any society is perhaps a pretty good indication of its general health.

****Three general groups of strawberries exist:

As the name suggests, June-bearing varieties bear all of their fruit in June. You can purchase early, mid, or late season varieties, but all that means is that they will produce sometime in early, mid, or late June. These plants grow quite large and develop long runners, so they work well in a dedicated strawberry patch, where their runners can grow into new plants. These produce a large crop all at one time. June-bearing varieties won't produce fruit until their second season of growth.

Ever-Bearing: Ever-bearing strawberries produce fruit from late spring until early fall. They will regularly develop fruit, but never very much at any one time. The plants stay fairly small, and don't produce vigorous runners. With ever-bearing varieties, you'll be able to harvest berries in your first season.

Day-Neutral: Day-neutral varieties regularly produce fairly decent crops of berries from spring until fall, with a fairly large crop in the fall. The plants stay small, but produce vigorously. The only drawback to day-neutral varieties is that they don't do well in areas with very hot summers. As with ever-bearing varieties, day-neutrals will produce berries in their first season of growth.

info taken from Colleen Vanderlinden article on Organic gardening.

June 5, 2010

a quick fix of artisanal goat cheese in Laval.

Fine rain. A healthy grey Sunday rain. The trees are plump with many shades of green. A spring day of laziness. The house smells of the fresh whole wheat bread I made in anticipation of buying some fresh goat cheese.

Fromagerie du Vieux Saint-Francois in Laval. Close. Along the 440 east past every possible chain restaurant, store, bank you can think of, then off onto highway 25 and suddenly one finds oneself on Milles-Iles road in a semi rural, semi wealthy, farmland slash suburban slash small town community. I pull into the fromagerie, a small little building among houses, a bike path, tress. I could bike here. The 39km diet.

Suzanne Latour, the owner, tells me that she never did a stage or studies with a master for cheese making. It was mostly trial and error. Back in 1996 when she began the fromagerie the MAPAQ did not require you to take a course. It was a lot less regulated. Now is not the same, as everyone is now obliged to have certification if one wants to continue. Probably a good thing within reason.
Before 1996 she only sold milk, and made fresh cheese and yogurt for family consumption. When it came to refining a few of her cheeses she turned to some students from Institut Technologique et Agroalimentaire de St-Hyacinthe where she herself had graduated. 'I guess one has to be a little crazy' she tells me. Yup, especially since neither her mother nor her father owned a farm. Real trial and error.

Fleur de neige-a goat feta, in brine, not too salty, hints of hazelnuts and almonds.

Samuel and Jérémi (the names of her two boys)-kind of a goat cheddar, very mild with a soft texture.

Sieur Colomban-goat aged in a wax coating (like a gouda). Mine is dated the 5th of Jan 2010. Creamy texture, almonds, smell of butter, subtly herbal.

Le Lavallois-soft, ripened Camembert style, creamy center, scent of moist underbrush, mushrooms, autumn leaves.

Ti-lou-a slightly ripened cheese, lightly salty, buttery. Good toasted on croutons.

Le petit prince-soft fresh non-ripened cheese, great on home made toasted whole wheat bread. Creamy, fresh acidity.

fresh whole wheat bread (adapted and interpreted from Rose Levy Beranbaum)

1st part

160g bread flour

140g whole wheat flour

2g instant yeast

12g honey

380g tepid water


2nd part

300g bread flour
2g yeast
mix dump on top of part one and cover.

Leave to ferment for 2-4 hours. This develops the taste we love in a good bread.

add 10 grams of salt and knead together for 5 minutes, shape into a ball. Cover (I leave the ball in a metal bowl and cover it will a plate.) Let rise in a warm place for an hour. Should double in size. Deflate, fold as if folding a dishtowel, remake a ball, cover and let rise for another hour.
Deflate again. Fold dishtowel style and roll it creating a sort of log that you place in a prepared bread pan.

Cover and let rise in a warm place for 45 minutes. Heat the over to 425F.
Mist the bread with water, toss in the oven on a baking stone. (Throwing a cup of ice in a hot pan which is already in the over helps), or you can mist the bread and the baking stone a few times. Cook for 10 minutes until a little golden then turn the oven down to 350F and cook for 30 minutes. Invert bread onto a cooling rack and eat immediately while crunchy and warm. Or save it for fresh goat cheese and ice cider!

I began to wonder about what it meant to be an artisan. Suzanne is happy with the size of her business. A small family farm, a business which sells about 60% of their products at the cheese counter. When I think of all those chain restaurants not far from here lining the highways and boulevards of Laval and Montréal, being here suddenly makes sense. And artisans, like talent, and like individuals, vary. Because that is what an artisan is, the expression of a human individual, the personality which finds itself doing what he or she does, not simply as a job, but as a way of life.

Nonetheless, someone would say, what the fuck man, it`s Laval! Well maybe so but short of grazing your heard in a children's park in Montréal it does not get any more local than this. Thank god for people who are a little crazy.