September 26, 2010

Picking your own. Garden of Eden or Avalon?

Mister Jason, this is Pierre from the Vergers Philion calling to tell you that your pear ice cider is ready. Last year I had left my coordinates with Pierre because their Poiré Gaia had sold out. It has already been a whole year already I thought. A whole year and now I can finally taste it. Outside is grey and wet. With motivation at a low I move sluggishly to the car and drive towards Hemmingford in Montérégie, the apple ice cider capital of Québec. Once I slip into the countryside on the 202, a tiny rolling highway hedged in by dense forests, orchards and farmland I feel more awakened. The colours of leaves are already changing, the balad of autumn begins.

I realize that being a stranger in the country is always easier than in the city. I am greeted by 4 generations of the Philion family who are all together in front of their boutique either playing or talking with their neighbours. Hubert, Pierre's son, represents the fifth generation of the Vergers Philion and it is he who introduced the apple ice cider 5 years ago and the Poiré 4 years ago. Together these represent about 2500 half liter bottles a year. Tasting both, which are exceptional, I noted that neither was intense in sugar nor with that syrupy texture we often find with ice ciders. I ask him why this is. Method. His is juice extracted fresh from five apple varietals which he keeps separate, he then makes his blend and freezes the juice in containers outside during the cold months on the north side of his land, which remains the coldest. I ask him about purists who say that the only true ice cider is picked off the tree. By doing it his way, he explains, as opposed to either picking frozen apples, or freezing apples whole in crates in the winter, he obtains a purer taste of the juice and of course with something less sweet. Less decomposed, oxidized notes. As for the pear, they use only Beauté Flammande. This pear variety planted 25 years ago has proved to be the most cold resistant. Difficult to say what rules will be imposed on the fabrication of ice ciders, but for now taste I suppose will dictate the market.

It is early, the orchard is quiet. Walking through the wet grass the smell of fresh apples intermingles with the brown oxidized smell of the rotting ones. The final harvest period of the year begins. Part sleep, part death. I stood there in the orchard thinking that this all this life does end. Seasons, driving skills, belching and our appreciation of dew on a spider’s web. Some people may think that these are morbid thoughts, but death is far from that. I pull an apple off a tree, a Northern Spy, and eat. Poor apples, I think. How did they receive one of the most deranged symbols known to mankind? Pears on the other hand have remained essentially unscathed. In my bible there is no mention of apples as the forbidden fruit. All that is mentioned is fruit, point. Yet, most of us grew up knowing Adam and Eve’s act as gyrating around an apple. Any walk through any of the world’s museums would indicate similar evidence. The Garden of Eden would therefore have been found in Northern Hemisphere of apple growing cultures, and everywhere else was punishment. Maybe the garden was in Québec somewhere and not along the Oronoco river as Christopher Columbus once thought! Although who the hell would walk around naked in minus 40 weather? Ok, let us not question God’s ways, but rather the strange, ominous identity apples were given. Maybe it is an extension of the butter and olive oil debate.Or a propaganda campaign against the idea of Avalon. Oh well, I began filling my basket with different varieties amazed at how the fruit grows on a tree. I was awestruck by this complex structure, these mysterious oddly shaped trees with these bright balls stuck all over them. Nature at once bizarre and wonderful, and at that moment it struck me as most bizarre.

Lobo –nice texture, toothsome, mild sweetness and mild acidity. Balanced.

Red delicious-slightly bitter, herbal with less juice than the lobo with bright red skin and shape

Yellow delicious-honeyed, sweep, crisp, good structure.

Courtland-intense apple, sweet with a little acidity.

Northern Spy-fresh, juicy, good acidity and lightly starchy.

Spartan- really juicy, crisp, refreshing, low acidity

Back at the boutique they weigh my paper bag bulging with apples. Hubert and his family is busy greeting everyone. I can see now that after telling me that after having obtained his diploma in agricultural engineering and science he worked for two 'private' companies, and that was enough experience to convince him of where he really belongs. There are families everywhere, groups of friends, tasting, picking, talking in the dégustation room, in the orchards, something incredibly alive, closer to what sustains our lives, not to mention the reassuring, empowering satisfaction of picking something off a tree and eating it other than off of a supermarket shelf.

September 11, 2010

death to the generic! The subculture of honey where varieties abound

In the boutique of Miel Morand in Saint Thomas Québec I had a sort of flash, a sort of regret, and excitement all in one instant. Although Miel Morand is at much serious honey making as it is marketing, I was thinking about Le petit Jardin de l'abeille which I visited last summer in Maria Gaspésie. Only now I realized how intense and integrating their work is. My regret was that wished I would have stayed longer and learnt more. My excitement was that although it may take me longer than other people I sometime's get it, albeit in a delayed sort of way. Whereas Morand has three varieties of honey, Trèfle, Sarrasin and Fleurs Sauvage with no presence to really explain much, Le Petit Jardin known as Au Rucher des Framboisiers has 9 to 10 and a wealth of overwhelming information. I love Morand's honey, without a doubt, but at that moment I had an urge to be back in Maria close to the Baie des Chaleurs tasting each honey as one does a wine while listening to the owner John Forest tell us about the medicinal qualities of each varietal. Forest's raw, unpasteurized, certified organic honey was incredibly tasteful, each one with its distinct character and expression. I also remember as he explained each step of the season's floral production to us that there was something defiant in his approach. This subculture, I realized, was not about the mere act of producing honey, it was about a way of living, about a way of defying the generic.

Forest's varieties are bleuets, centaurée, épilobe, fleurs sauvages, framboise, pissenlit, sarrasin, trèfle, verge d'or with its taste between trèfle and sarrasin. These varietals each come with their distinctive nose, taste and colour. The reason for this control is in part the immense garden that John and his wife Panyong have been planting. This passion for horticulture has brought together one of the largest concentration of melliferous plants, which is obviously reflected in the honey, and the ability to have so many varietals. One is as important as the other, knowing the plant is knowing the honey. Then there was discussion of how honey was made with incredible statistics, such as for 1kg of honey, there is a traveled distance of about 40 000km and 5.5 million flowers involved. As with most things, a good local, unpasteurized honey is everything but generic.

I told him that my favorite honey was the intensely dark sarrasin with woodsy earth tones. He smiled and told me that it was very good for my bone structure and blood circulation and as an aside whispering that it was also good for hypertension and hemorrhoids. I did not ask about internal or external application, content to know that between the wine and the honey my blood must be flowing pretty nicely.

As with the Corsican honey, the only one with an AOC, I hope one day to see Forest's honey with a similar appelation as an expression of the Gaspésienne ecosystem and his intense work with varietals.

I also remembered talking to Gilles Baillargeon, apiculteur professionnel from Ste Geneviève de Berthier, and as I was leaving his house he said to me that a tablespoon of honey a day will ensure me long life. I do not think he was trying to sell me a lifetime's supply of nectar because I had bought his last jar, but rather there it was again, that sort of cult with many beekeepers, a sort of ancient on going subculture, the subculture of honey, and I felt proud to be a partake in it.

September 5, 2010

ancient drive through and the great organic debate

Driving through the Québec countryside, or almost anywhere for that matter, I am always awestruck by the extent in which we can manipulate land. From the front yards, to the rows of trees to arable parcels and the highway we drive on. The idea of manipulation is more powerful here I believe because of the immensity of the fenced in, defined and structured space. Driving along highway 158 towards Sainte Sophie I was remembering how last week I bought tomatoes which were in bags according to type left outside on a cheap shelve at the end of someone's driveway. On the side of the shelve it was written 'Organic tomatoes'. Seeing all this in a sudden flash, without reason really interfering I slammed the breaks. I pulled the car over into some grass and walked over to this strange sort of archaic drive through. 5 bucks a bag, thank you for your honesty it read in paint on the top. I opened the mini chest on the top shelf where a few crumpled 5 dollar bills sat on a carpet of change. I put my 5 in and grabbed a bag. Back in the car I began wondering about this organic thing. The tomatoes looked great. So did all the land around me at that moment. But who the hell can look around and say this is organic? I thought that the relation of trust was in itself empowering, and is without a doubt a fundamental basis of all our relations, so although we all probably put our five dollars into the cute chest, are they being honest with us?

I pull into the driveway of Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde. It is crisp, cold afternoon, with an early September sun whispering of autumn. Cows are outside feasting on the grass either side of the main building. Instead of going in, I walk up to where the cows are. This is where all great cheese begins I murmured. They stop and stare, I stare back. I notice one who'se back is turned to me, full udders...I shake me head. J, seriously, these are not grapes! It is a cow's asshole and boobs! Too much time hanging out in the vineyards lately I suppose. Although I am sure that there are some people who would be able to tell if the cheese is going to be good by looking at...I decide to go inside. I am greeted by Ronald, of the Alary family, whose farm has been redefining itself for 4 generations now. Although no longer making raw milk cheese, they nonetheless are still certified organic which was obtained in the year 2000.

le Ménestrel-pressed, aged for 9 months with a great rusty croute, with subtle tastes of toasted hazelnuts, lightly floral. Excellent with a late harvest Sauvignon Blanc.

Fou du Roy-good barn smell on the croute, less salty than all the other cheeses, less intense taste of butter, smell of hay, taste is subtle with an incredibly creamy texture.

Courtisane-good toasted butter smell. floral in the mouth, butter and nutty, with a creaminess reminiscent of camembert. discreet and physical.

La Galette-soft cheese. Mushroom, cave and cellar scents with hints of raw chocolate. Creamy taste, cacao, bitter chocolate, herbal. Intense, alive...

Fleuron-a great mildly intense blue cheese. Piquant. Notes of a damp barn, floral, hay, with herbs present throughout. Delicious with a late harvest Vidal.

Rassembleu-a mild blue cheese I suspect with the charm for beginners.

We talk a bit of what it means to be organic. Surprise visits from inspectors, a few thousand dollars extra a year, and obviously a little more work. Talking with Ronald there was no doubt that this kind of control was absolutely necessary for the appelation. It is not because the rest of us are gullible, but we are all susceptible to being manipulated by beautiful words and scenery. A cow outside is a good sign but does not mean organic. At this point anyone can say organic, and maybe they really think it is , but in the end bullshit is bullshit, and there are people who think that their limit, even by spraying a little here and there, or some cheaper chemicals used 'very sparsely and conscientiously' constitute as enough. Advertising and words can never be enough. So although my tomatoes tasted great, with trust being an incredible thing, the question of whether they were organic constantly swelled as I was eating them. What difference does it make if they tasted so good? I could not help mocking my distrust, wishing that I could wholly trust someone's scribbled words on a painted wooden shelf on the side of the highway, but the matter is that many times it is what we do not see or read that affects us the most. In the end, if everyone was honest we would not need to have any certification, not to mention governments, mafias, police, borders, prayers or poetry, but for the time being I guess they will have to do.