October 26, 2010

the strange world of the elk, turtle blood and deer penis

I was invited by a friend to visit an elk farm in southern Québec. Fantastic I thought. It was my birthday and that seemed perfect. Turning off the 202 (note previous blogs), we head down the old Dutch. A beautiful winding country road threading through wild and cultivated landscapes. Arriving at Wapitis Val-Grand-Bois the first thing we see are those wild turkeys. Out of the car we quietly follow them for a short distance, observing their nervy little hyper walk maneuvers. All I could think was I wish I had a sling shot or a gun. (I was later informed that it takes not only one permit but two, and that you are allowed one day and one bird.). We return back to the house, which is pretty secluded. Across the country road is the huge area for the elks, and from where we stand we can count 8. We are greeted by a tiny woman Francine, with, something I would call, curious, kind energy. Inside the boutique which is tiny room off the living and dinning room, the first thing I see is a bottle of Wapifor pills. I was in backwoods Québec, but also suddenly confronted with the intense and barely understood world of Chinese medicine. Before coming I was reading about Elk antler velvet which is said to relieve symptoms of arthritis, increase's blood flood and also said to have good results for men who lack the confidence of a firm sex drive. In traditional Chinese medicine it is only second to ginseng in importance. This naturally led to reading about even Hippocrates having recommended deer penis. Then deer penis wine. Then turtle blood. Then a ban of these products in the 2008 Summer Olympics. I thought, there must be some truth to this if they are being banned! Already, deer penis wine sounds a lot better than Coca Cola (let us think origins). And given the Chinese the benefit of the doubt with 2000 years of experience.....

But here I was in Québec. We went through the usual introductions and then instead of getting to `business' we sat down in a sort of sun room and began to talk. She and her husband Raymond bought this property 23 years ago, which in its origin was a little run down and abandoned. They took another couple of years to try to decide what it was that they would do. 16 years ago Elk came into the picture. They began with two females (with the aid of ever present Mark Hebert who was the model for all subsequent elk farmers). They built the area all the while taking their needs into consideration. Even the large forest area at the back was planned for the winter months when the elk like to huddle in the thick of the wild. The goal, she admitted was obviously less the meat than for the antlers which fetched extremely high prices from China and Korea. They slowly built their troop, cautiously because all the while they were learning what it meant to live with elks. They learnt slowly through observation, and the occasional help of veterinarians, and other members of the Association des Éleveurs de Wapiti du Québec. Raymond kept working at what is referred to as Le Shoppe but I did ask any specifics. Then came the infamous 2001, mad cow disaster. This changed everything. The borders closed. The market became difficult. There was a commercial 'antler dryer' in Gaspésie that was supposed to pan out but took a lot of time, and there is some non payment gossip surround this too. I am sure given also the lucrative nature of this kind of enterprise there is another story behind all this. So now they concentrate their energies on all the foires, marchés and artisanal markets. But at 60 years of age, they are finding this difficult. In 23 years they have never taken a vacation and were now thinking of Italy. We then moved to the products, and while describing the rillettes and terrines and elk meat I realized that I was more than famished. I really had something like an urge to run out in the field and grab one of those wild turkeys and take a bite out of one. I told her what I was going to do, and instead, telling me that she was also hungry that she had soup, some cheese (Fritz Kaiser), elk charcuterie (Saucisson Vaudois) and some raw sliced garden peppers. Ten minutes later inside of her house we are eating, talking about the pleasures of Italy, her son, Olivier who took photos for a book on beer which was to be out the next day. Then the talk of regrets. They wonder if they have failed doing what they did because nothing really seems to some of it. They had a plan and it never really materialized. This final note affected me. And at 60, they wondered was it worth continuing. I could not answer, rather thinking that it seemed that this was the essential question at all periods of our lives. We talked. (I will edit that part). There was something more profound here than what I came for. I found something more than elk meat and pills.... No marketing, no bullshit. But questions, yes. A desire to do things correctly, yes. Conscience, yes. Living correctly. Without hesitation I bought huge quantities of elk meat for the restaurant and will be back for as long as they are there. I asked about the pills but she laughed saying that I was still young and instead offered me a jar of her home made fir extract jelly (amazing with elk rillettes!) And if they really decide to go to Italy, I am more than happy for them and will definitely expect a postcard. And as a birthday it will be one of the more memorable.

October 18, 2010

the buried lambs head that was not to be

I was watching workers in the Kawa Ijen region of east Java in Indonesia ceremoniously carry a lamb head to bury in the accumulated sulfur deposits on the side of the volcano. Once a year they performed this ritual to avoid unwanted accidents. I was impressed by the act. I understood it as something like a physical prayer. The ritual began because a friend of one of the workers had a dream which scared him, with many omens and demanded of him somewhere in the waking hours the need to bury the head. There was a meeting. They decided. One day, before the incredibly difficult labour of carrying kilos of sulfur stones in baskets balanced on their shoulders down the side of the volcano, they buried the head of a lamb and the rest they ate.

Driving up the Saint Joseph du Lac mountain I was wondering if I would bury my own lamb`s head. I received a call from Brigitte, one of the owners of Fromages Du Verger telling me that this years animals were ready. Last year I had put my name down in a waiting list for the yearly slaughter. The orchards are all empty and closed. A sure sign that winter is coming. I turn onto rue de la Pommeraie, a quite, rural road with a few bungalows and much bigger homes, and after a minutes drive pulled into their driveway. The one thing I note is that there already a 6 degree difference between here and the town of St Joseph du Lac. Instead of going into the boutique I decide to walk around their land first. The orchard is quiet. The whole land is surround by woods which has cut the strong wind to a whisper. The sun is intense and hot here. Beside the orchard there is the barn where the sheep are divided by age with an exit which gives onto a large pasture. A few apples are half eaten here and there. Their myriad faces stare at me with those curious eyes, ears punching out like wings. Here are a cross breed of East Friesian and Lacaune sheep. The first from Northern Germany with an extremely high yield of milk and the second from the south of France which is predominately used for the famous Roquefort cheese. The crossbreed favoured in these parts of North America. The collective murmur of burping, bleating, grunting, snorting, scratching against the wooden fences, farting and pissing takes on its momentum again. I watch them feeling somewhat intense about the fact that I was going to eat on of them. And one of them really was staring at me so intensely that I almost told him 'sorry'. Following a group of them to open pasture I notice that most of the trees have lost their leaves but there still remain a few lone apples clinging to the bare branches.

I found it incredible that when Brigitte told me that she and her husband Michel worked in the pharmaceutical industry...this was something happening more and more. Like most, they wanted to start off on their own. But the idea of continuing in their own trade exhausted them. They thought of making pret a manger meals but neither of them were cooks, they also considered wild mushrooms, but that was too much for them. Cheese on the other hand seemed to be a natural transition. They took a cheese making course at the Institut de Technologie Agroalimentaire in Saint Hyacinthe. What kind of cheese they hand to decide. They found goats too nervous and enervating, but sheep were calm and quiet, essential with very little maintenance. After having searched for 9 months for a location they had found this orchard which at that time was called Le Verger de la Tentation. They purchased it in 2007. They bought 60 head from M. Goyette in Cantons de l'Est and built a barn next to the orchard, which for two ex-pharma heads was as one can imagine quite the undertaking. Then they had to build the fromagerie. In the meantime they were able to rent a space at the ITA in order to develop their style of cheese. I listened, amazed at the sudden and so recent transition that these two have went through. The conversation veered into all the strange ingredients one finds in food. Milk powder especially. A lot of cheeses out there use it, she tells me. At 1/3 the price. More profit. Instead they took the ethical stance many are taking. She shows me the ingredient label of her yogurt-Pasteurized sheep's milk and bacterial culture. That is it. No ultra filtered milk or milk powder with how many vitamins and pro-biotic additions or whatever the trends are now. This is a solid 6% fat content yogurt. More or less the real thing.

le Pommé-firm cheese with a wax rind to remind one of the apple used in the recipe. Taste of toasted butter, subtle in taste with hints of apples and pears.

Le Bohème-firm cheese with herbal and good acid accents reminding one of a good aged cheddar. Subtle hints of pear, hazelnuts.

Le Louché-like a faisel, thicker than yogurt, less salty than labne, less acid. Perfect with some fresh fruit.

Brebichon-winner of 2010 Caseus award. Soft apple washed rind, strong mushroom and toasted nuts on the nose, creamy floral almost roasted chestnut tart shell taste-pretty tasty with a Saint André de Figuière Cote de Provence Rosé 2009.

There were more and more clients coming in wanting to taste their cheeses. I could feel a bit of stress. It is only the two of them running the show. Time to go. I quickly paid for my 62lbs of lamb as they quickly described all the cuts that were already prepared for me...neck, rack, belly, testicles, but no tongue, meaning no head. Maybe it was processed somewhere into cat food or something. Walking to the car I thought how stupid it was to bury the head anyway, one could make a wonderful roast with it or stock. We all have our priorities, and I suppose mine was that I felt safer eating their cheese and meat knowing it was virtually free of anything than what it was. As for the world of the spirit, I suppose it was enough to know that they cared that much to have chosen their new profession with less greed and avarice than many other do.

October 17, 2010

highway 202, sculptures in the autumn vineyard

Like probably most Quebecois there is a strange affinity to highway 202. I realize that over the years I have travelled this 150 km stretch in bits and pieces, ever returning, ever enjoying, if not the landscapes, than the incredible amounts of artisans who line it. I was not exactly in the mood to visit much this sunday; the grey sky, dramatically windy, half of the leaves fallen off the trees, but a tiny sense of solidarity pushed me off. One does not really have to plan visits when on 202. This time I limited myself to the tiny area close to Dunham. Orpailleur, Cidrerie fleurs de pommiers and Domaine des Cotes d'Ardoise.

I have always resisted visiting the vingnoble Orpailleur, probably one of Québec's most popular wineries, but today I found myself in their large tasting room cum museum cluttered with the ABC's of wine. Out the corner of my ear I heard some people tasting, no, rather drinking. Looking around I realized that probably most of these people (a pitiful judgment based on half reliable experience) have a bottle or two of baby duck stashed in their fridges. (Baby Duck was a sparkling cheap product of the Canadian Andres vineyard which sold around 8 million bottles a year in the 70`s and 80's which was often described to please a wider range of people with relatively unsophisticated palates.) I suddenly felt surround by exactly that. I think the girls giving the tastings also, because they seemed a little broken and mechanical. In fact everyone seemed to be treated as some numbskull moronic tourist. I always found it strange when a business crosses that line of mass appeal. The one interesting product I tasted though was their Vin gris (a white made with the red grapes although Orpailleur uses Seyval, New York Muscat and Geissenheim (white). This is pale rosé wine, more pearl coloured, and described as a semi sweet grey wine. On the nose intense fruit (peaches, melons, apricots) and herbs, with a fairly round mouth feel, buttery and pleasant. Good for an apéro. The experience as in many places was equally frustrating because there are no spittoons.

Right next door was the Cidrerie Fleurs de Pommiers. This time I ask for a spittoon before any tasting started and she laughingly made the comment that she was up late too. Good start. I was taken through the tasting with La Réserve and Blanc de Pomme which were a dry and light cider which were fresh enough to drink with some raw scallops are some such thing. I was even told that I could warm it up like sake...well, sure, the low end kind! We blitzed through some fruit flavored ciders which I could tell were remnants of another age of approach to drinking(think Baby Duck) and then finally their Pommeau d'or. This is a sweet apple liqueur made in a similar way to maple syrup. An intense caramelized apple, baked pastry nose with a butter baked apple flavour without being too sweet makes for a very interesting product. They are one the few to use this method and I saw it marry well with some intense blue cheese. I am informed though that the business was sold and would be changing its names, although the Pommeau d'or would survive the purges. I spit, feeling awkward because so few do in Québec.

Not too far along route 202 I drive into Domaine des Côtes d'Ardoise. I sit there a moment not exactly certain that I want to taste anything. I notice though some sculptures in the vineyard and this motivates me. I take a quiet walk through supposedly Québec`s first vineyard. Exposed are the sculptures of some 50 artists. Walking along the tiny paths being introduced to these Québec artist is a pleasant surprise.

They are one of the few to use the Riesling grape in Québec and their white wine is exactly what this climate gives, something quite sec, acidic with little sweetness, and for a Riesling it is quite surprising. Their riesling ice wine with light tones of litchis, pears and floral, fairly sweet, lightly smoky, pears peaches and dead leaves is very good. I suddenly wished I had a spare piece of creamy blue cheese to taste it with, and as hunger imposed itself I decided to leave the rest of 202 to other hopefully many days to come.

October 14, 2010

Jean Francois Millet. A little cheese and a prayer.

All I could think about driving to La Chevriere de Monnoir was Millet. Jean Francois Millet, the famous french painter. Along the quiet morning roads in the countryside I watched the cows and sheep feeding in the fields, close to one another. I pulled over, got out of the car and listened to the strange sounds of them munching on the grass. Millet became one of the founders of the Barbizon school which was in a sort of defiance to the Romantic movement, opting more for what many saw as Realism. I stood there thinking about his paintings The Angelus and the Shepardess and her Flock which I had seen at the musée Orsay while doing culinary stages with Ducasse and El Bulli. Incredible paintings, often describing a universe in which man has a definite place. It was also a nature which was already heavily manipulated by human intervention by fraught with hardship. The Angelus, that early morning peace of prayer came back with especial intensity. That moment before intense toil which we all feel, before the difficult interaction with the free, seemingly wild motives of humanity. That particular painting seemed purged of greed and envy, or rather it captures that moment before they appear. I got back into the car and wondered at the fact that every generation has a dominant movement that we question and oppose. I started thinking of all the fast food restaurants out there and the motives behind them....

Driving into the La Chevriere de Monnoir I see a few rabbits in a large cage, some chickens, a lama in a fenced in area beyond, and a really strange looking goat. All this is a little staged, almost surreal. When I enter the fromagerie a woman is there. I ask her how is everything. Not so good she replies with a direct honesty. Why? Part of her dairy facilities burnt as well as part of the flock. She forced a smile. No one was hurt. She managed to explain to me that most of the cheese that she sells is made from the Chaput familly. She delivers her goat milk to them. This was more like a French system of fromagers.

Champagnole, good sharp taste with notes of hazelnuts, semi ferme, yet melts upon tasting. Washed rind, aged for 6 months.

Artisan Romantique, white croute, creamy to runny with a good dose of buttery bitter taste.

Prestige-goat cheese, not compact, good caprine notes with hints of pear. ashlike rind.

Fleurs des Monts-distinctly floral, Parmesan style.

There was also a smoked saucisson of chevre made by Saucisson Vaudois. A good solid smoky garlic sausage. Marie France Marchand also sells eggs from their chickens which takes the zoo like quality away from the area. Outside the crisp autumn air is chilly. I think of work, the stress of having to feed so many, to keep quality up, to worry about resto critics, the fierce competition, tense about food costs, to manage so many others with so many other interests and wandering attentions. I think of Millet's Angelus, and stand there with a little prayer, as if it were reminding me to be thankful to have tasted these cheeses, to be alive and a witness these autumnal colours, the pleasure of good crazy friends and an exceptional girlfriend.

October 2, 2010

Consumerism, what art thou?

I was reading an article about Brian Brett. Farmer. Salt Spring Island. Very small. Outspoken defender of terroir. I felt like taking an airplane right then from Montreal and meet him, roast some of his lamb and eat. In the end it seemed ridiculous to do such a thing. "You're such a fucking consumerist', my old punk rock roots were yelling at me. Yeah. Fuck. What is it? Can I help it that I want to know quality? 'Buy, buy, buy, fucking bourgeois scum!' It is true, I consume vast amounts of food, cheese, wine, beer, charcuterie, music, art etc....but, consumerism, what art thou?

I was suddenly very defensive. By myself in the car suddenly in the vast hinterland of inquiry. I mean I chase some odd shit at times, find myself with bizarre cravings and seek out with much means and energy in satisfying these whims, but I never saw these in terms of consumerism. Was the problem when it is something empty? Even the greatest products, the greatest masses may be attended, the greatest books read without any profound effect. But even so, this seems less a problem of 'consumerism' than being human, that slow, sometimes painful, act of getting it, of understanding even if a little after the fact?

I was on highway 251, which disappeared, as did the asphalt, and I slowed the car down to watch 20 odd wild turkeys doing who knows what on the dirt road. I turned the engine off. The smell of wood smoke was in the air. No signs, no billboards. The only sound were the turkeys and the leaves agitated by a small wind blowing through the area of Sainte-Edwidge-de-Clifton. Or is consumerism simply defined as everything we consume, or take, or have that is beyond our needs. The thing which remains is sorting out what we need. I watched the wild turkeys and wished I had a gun. What a meal I thought. They begun to slip into the woods. I was impressed by how incredibly camouflaged the suddenly became. Standing on the dirt road I looked around at the vast spaces, wild and cultivated which felt like the edge of humanity, the edge of civilization. Part wish I guess. I remember reading in Fast Food Nation how one soft drink firm 'needed' to sell 25% more drinks in order to meet sales projections. Projections! This feels like only part of it. In order to sell those drinks was more aggressive marketing so people drank more.

I continue down the road, and find myself at Fromagerie La Germaine. Well...less fromagerie and more farm. Réjean Theroux makes cheese yes, but there is not much of a boutique to speak of, there are none of the kitchy trapping of agrotourism here. A lot of bric a brac, paper with a futon in the entrance. No music, no young girl at the counter. No counter. No perfectly placed angled coloured something to influence my buying choices. No major highway, he tells me, so next to no one visits. Lots of land, his own hay, 30 odd cows and a desire which led to commercializing his first cheese in 2000. How did you get into the cheese I ask him? Do you have a formation? These questions are always slightly unfair because we can often find a disguised formulaic answer which fulfills our demands. Réjean loves cheese. He also knows as every other cheese maker that you make perhaps 4 times the money than your sale of milk. Like selling grapes and selling wine. He has a little formation, and made up the rest with conseillers which have helped him in producing his three cheeses (I purposely avoid saying perfecting because we all are in that state...) . When I asked about the choice to go with Raw milk cheese his answer summed everything up 'It just seems obvious.' That is the great thing about......there is little of the marketing, next to no bullshit. He is not 'selling' something. Humble? Honest? Simple? Innocent? He brings up some cheese and we do a tasting off a kind night stand. We start with the Caprice des saisons, his first cheese which is Camembert style. Rich, creamy, butter and butty notes, slightly woody, mushroom scents. All I could think of was that this was cheese. Straight, simple delicious cheese. The second was his Caprice des Cantons, a washed rind. A nice orange reddish rind with smell of hazelnuts and a complexity of sub herbal notes. He suggests trying a similar cheese but in his opinion a little dryer, in a sense a defect, but to compare. These are always the privileged moments, to share in the understanding of why one product is the way it is. The 'defectuous' one was less aromatic although the rind looked redder, more developed. He explains that humidity got to it too quickly, the time of aging was disturbed. Next, Réjean's Brie. It tasted just like that, a really good Brie. In large part this is because of the raw milk. When I think consumerism out here, on this farm, I thought of all the shit cheeses out there, all those overly manipulated, processed and reprocessed oblong shapes we find everywhere. A packaged yellow and orange kind of lie. I knew I was not going to define what consumerism meant but this was a beginning; to cherish something, like artisanal cheese, and then to protect it.

We do not do this alone. I thought of Brian Brett on the other side of the country, fighting to protect small farms versus factory farming. "It's a labour of love. I'm not even going to talk about making a living; I'm just talking about making real food. Let's start with that premise, and then worry about making a living!" Brett said in an interview by Joanne Will. Réjean takes me to see his cows, and especially the hay that they just finished harvesting and are storing for the winter. He talks about his father's farm which was near here, he talks about his mother who the Fromagerie is named after, he talks about his land, all of it excited, intense, which seemed to say, see if we all had the chance to do what we loved, imagine what we could do? We shook hands and I left remembering that all those years of punk rock were greater but we never ate very well, and now I do. I still express a certain anger towards the big corporations, but only this time I have the means to support the other side.