Farmfair, Burgers and My First Canadian Finals Rodeo

I have to admit, the idea of going to the rodeo has never appealed to me, even if I’ve always been curious about the excitement surrounding the Calgary Stampede, and in Edmonton, the Canadian Finals Rodeo. It is something quintessentially "Albertan", but has also seemed inaccessible to me without any personal ties to a tradition that can run generations deep for many in the province. So it took Mack being extended complimentary tickets to this year’s Canadian Finals Rodeo for me to finally learn what all the fuss was about.

We headed to Rexall Place on Friday to a nearly packed house, absolutely energized for the events to come. Confronted with such a crowd, it was the first time I realized the scale of the CFR’s economic boost for Edmonton – it was clear most taking in the event were visiting from out of town.

CFR 2015

My cowboy

I was thankful for the two commentators who made sure the audience remained engaged and entertained. They were also very inclusive, taking the time to explain some of the rules and nuances of the sport, much appreciated by a novice like me.

It was easy to see the amount of training each competitor had put in to get to this level, from cattle roping to barrel racing. The bull riding finale unfortunately only saw a handful of riders reach the eight second mark, but no question they all seemed to give it their all. I can also see how the CFR builds in excitement over the course of the week, as the audience familiarizes themselves with the competitors night after night.

CFR 2015

Bareback riding

I’m glad I was able to experience my first rodeo! Thanks to Northlands for the opportunity.

Northlands also enabled us to attend the corresponding Farmfair, held during the CFR at the Expo Centre. An agricultural trade show for farmers, it is an event I have attended in the past. I used to volunteer for adult English as a Second Language classes, and as admission at the time was free, it was a great field trip to help our students learn about one of Alberta’s foundational industries.

Farmfair International

Farmfair 2015

Farmfair has since started charging admission ($5 for adults). Though I’d hope there would still be the chance for adult groups to utilize it as an educational experience, it is a reasonable cost given the breadth of events organized. We wandered through the halls, admiring the livestock and wishing we’d arrived in time to watch the stock dog competition.

Farmfair International

More animals

New to Farmfair this year was the Northlands Food Lab workshops, free with admission. The workshops focused on food skills that could be taught in an hour – cheese making and burger prep. We signed up for the latter, and joined about a dozen other participants on Saturday in the makeshift kitchen in the concourse of the Expo Centre.

Build a Better Burger

Chef Parker

Led by Northlands Sous Chef Chef Parker Regimbald, participants were shown how to make a better burger by grinding our own beef. The ten ounces of inside round we used had been donated by Sysco (of which we were reminded numerous times). While recognizing the need for sponsorship, particularly for a free workshop, it was still disappointing that the chance to highlight a local producer was squandered. Northlands has been highlighting its inroads with supporting local (with its food truck and partnership with Lactuca, among others), so this just seemed like a missed opportunity.

Making a Better Burger

Mack prepares his burger

At any rate, Chef Parker is an excellent instructor, articulate and clearly passionate about food. He offered the following tips:

  • If grinding your own meat, make sure to keep the meat cold before grinding it to decrease bacterial growth;
  • For additional flavour, grind in some pork fat or bacon (Northlands uses their house-made bacon for this purpose);
  • Make sure the patty is at least 1/3 larger than the bun you will use, as the patty will shrink during cooking;
  • Season in layers – toss in some salt and pepper as you’re mixing the meat, but also season both sides of the patty;
  • Grease the patty instead of the grill to ensure it doesn’t stick;
  • The patty is ready to be flipped once when it no longer sticks to the grill;
  • You can tell the second side is done when blood starts to pool on the surface, or alternatively, the feel of the meat is the same firmness as the area just beneath your thumb; and
  • To help the meat retains its juice, set a timer and rest the patty for 3 minutes before digging in!

It was a fairly straightforward lesson, and given the only addition to the beef was salt and pepper, it was a very tasty burger.

Build a Better Burger

Thumbs up!

Chef Parker was very happy with the response to the Food Labs, and is hoping to run more such events, even outside of Farmfair. It was a great add-on to an existing event, so it would be great to see this topic and others offered again in the future.

Recap: Dinner at the Northlands Urban Farm for Alberta Open Farm Days

Although most of the events associated with Alberta Open Farm Days last weekend took place outside of Edmonton, there were still several opportunities to engage with agriculture within the city. Cindy recapped her visit to Horse Hill Berry Farm and Reclaim Urban Farm, while Mack and I were fortunate enough to be invited as guests to attend a dinner at the site of the Northlands Urban Farm.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

Northlands Urban Farm

Lactuca, a local food producer, began as a backyard project, supplying restaurants and consumers at the 124 Grand Market. In 2014, in partnership with Northlands, Lactuca expanded their operations to a one acre site at 112 Avenue and 79 Street (about a 15 minute walk from the Stadium LRT station). This year, in conjunction with Alberta Open Farm Days, Northlands hosted a series of events to introduce the public to the urban farm, including tours, honey harvest demonstrations and cheese making workshops. The day concluded with the farm-to-table dinner.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

Beautiful setting

It was a beautiful evening for an al fresco supper, and thankfully, given the dinner would have us traipsing through the gardens, it had been blessedly dry that weekend. Five food stations had been set up around the perimeter of the farm, and guests were invited to visit each on our own time to sample a total of eight dishes.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

At the farm

Short of a brief welcome and introduction of the chefs involved, nothing more formal took place. I recognize that the staff had just led several farm tours earlier that day, but I assume a majority of those attending the dinner hadn’t been a part of them. Because of this, I thought it was a missed opportunity for Northlands to provide more information about their relationship with Lactuca, Northlands’ philosophy on local food, or, in the context of the meal we were about to enjoy, highlights of the Alberta products they had utilized.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

On-site hives

This last point was particularly glaring when we visited the stations. It became painfully obvious that while some thought had been put into creating the diverse menu, many of the frontline staff serving the food and drink didn’t have the same awareness of the focus on local. They couldn’t answer questions about the products used, and weren’t confident on where they had been sourced. I’m optimistic that because this shift has been fairly recent (for example, the Northlands food truck, 1879, has committed to using 75% local ingredients, just hit the streets in July), staff engagement can only improve from here.

It is difficult to manage food quality in those makeshift outdoor kitchens, so as expected, some dishes were better than others. Our runaway favourite was the seared pickerel, with roasted cauliflower and broccoli, honey glazed carrots, crispy onions, bee pollen and corn shoots. The fish had been perfectly prepared, and the accompanying vegetables minimally cooked to emphasize their fresh quality.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

Seared pickerel

Similarly, the DIY salad featured the breadth of our harvest bounty, including, of course, Lactuca’s own greens and vegetables.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

DIY salad platter

The hay-smoked chicken had promise, but was just too salty. The same could be said of the braised bacon, especially when coupled with a gouda crisp.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

Hay smoked chicken

The marinated flank steak was more successful, served with salsa verde. But Mack remarked that the corn should have been left alone; its natural sweetness really didn’t need to be masked by mayo.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

Braised bacon and marinated flank steak

I did enjoy the duo of desserts. The first was a smoked almond ice cream topped with grilled peaches, lavender and a lemon cake cookie.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

Smoked almond ice cream with grilled peaches

The second was a mixed berry tart with maple sauce and Chantilly cream. I could have easily had another; it was summer in two bites.

Northlands Urban Farm Dinner

Mixed berry tart

I can appreciate that this was the first such dinner organized by Northlands, and if they decide to host it again next year, improvements could be made. The increase in urban agriculture projects should be celebrated with events like these so that more Edmontonians can learn about the potential we have to supply food within city limits. Northlands has the unique opportunity to make farm-to-table suppers a more frequent, accessible experience. I look forward to what they may have in store for us next year.

Thanks again to Northlands for inviting us to be a part of their inaugural farm dinner.

Check out Linda’s recap of the evening here.

Recap: 2015 Grand Taste Tour with Wolf Willow Honey, Tofield Packers and Irvings Farm Fresh

On July 12, 2015, Mack and I were guests of the second annual Grand Taste Tour, a partnership between the 124 Grand Market and Taste Alberta.

The Grand Taste Tours began in 2014 and seek to showcase some of the great local producers we are fortunate to have in this province, and to enjoy some of their bounty as prepared by a talented local chef.

In our case, Mack and I joined Phil and Robyn on the "bee bus", meaning that we would be visiting an apiary to start. Our counterparts on the "dairy bus" headed to the Breevliet Dairy Farm first, after which both groups would meet up at the second and final stops.

We learned that the 2014 Grand Taste Tour was much different, as it was self-guided, and participants had to reach the participating farms on their own. Although some might appreciate the choice and freedom of a choose-your-own-adventure tour, we appreciated the fact that all logistics of transportation and food taken care of this time around.

It took the bus over an hour to reach our first stop, Wolf Willow Honey. Their products can be found on the shelves at Duchess Provisions, but for the most part, Wolf Willow prefers to sell their honey direct to consumers from the farm or at the Camrose Farmers’ Market.

Wolf Willow Honey

Wolf Willow Honey

Doug Chalmers shared that Wolf Willow has 400 hives (with 50-80,000 bees making up each hive). He described the surrounding area as a “bee haven”, with more than 200 perennials available to their bees. That said, he does liken the collapse of bee colonies to the changing landscape after the second World War, linked to the decrease in food sources and the increase in pesticide use.

Wolf Willow Honey

Doug Chalmers

Using burlap smoke to sedate the bees, the beekeeper was able to pull up a frame for us to see.

Wolf Willow Honey

Beekeeper Ben

The bees were busy working away – did you know that a single bee makes just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey over its lifetime?

Wolf Willow Honey

Bees

We also had the chance to sample some of their honey products, which included light clover, dark clover, dandelion, creamed buckwheat and an end-of-season 100 flower blend. Mack and I would have appreciated more of a guided tasting, but then again, we’ve been spoiled with superb honey education sessions led by Patty Milligan.

Honey tasting

Mack

It was then on to Tofield Packers, a small abattoir used by Irvings Farm Fresh, among other local producers.

Tofield Meat Packers

Tofield Packers

They are committed to public education, often opening their doors to 4H Clubs, so it wasn’t the first time they’ve hosted external groups. Owner Dale Erickson was our no-nonsense guide, and though he was responsive to questions asked, a more thorough explanation of the process up front would have been ideal.

Tofield Packers

Dale Erickson on the kill floor

We did learn that they process pigs, cows, sheep, goat, bison, elk, ostrich and alpaca. While they have processed game in the past, they shy away from it because the animals are typically very dirty. On a good day, the plant can get through 7 animals.

Dale led us through the various coolers in the facility, including the wet room, where the animals are left to drain of blood and other fluids, and then the aging room, where sides are hung for anywhere from 14 to 21 days.

Tofield Meat Packers

Coolers

Tofield Packers also purchases sides of animals to process into hams, sausages and other cuts of meat which they sell out of their retail shop.

An abattoir is something every meat eater should see, to appreciate the end of a life that has travelled from a farm to your table. Tofield Packers is a great example of a family-owned facility that works with small farmers to put forth good quality products.

Before heading to our final stop, our group congregated in the parking lot to enjoy a snack. Given it was a tour sponsored by Taste Alberta, the big box store granola bars and watermelon was unexpected and ill-fitting. Hopefully snacks better aligned with the tour can be arranged next year.

Mack and I were most looking forward to the visit to Irvings Farm Fresh. We’ve been buying pork from Alan and Nicola Irving from the City Market, Old Strathcona and Salisbury Farmers’ Markets for years, and had always meant to stop by the farm to see where their pigs are raised.

Irvings Farm Fresh

With Alan

We finally had that chance, and we weren’t disappointed. The farm occupies a total of 80 acres, and this year, for the first time, the Irvings are growing their own grain for feed. The barley was surprisingly green, but the grass in an adjacent field was incredibly brittle under our feet.

Irvings Farm Fresh

In the barley field

A few years ago, when Alan and Nicola were deciding on how to expand their operations, they had a choice to make – they couldn’t do it all on their own, and had to choose between outsourcing their breeding or their product line. They decided the latter was more important, and with a facility built to process all cuts on-site, they are able to guarantee their products are free from wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy and MSG.

As a result, their Berkshire pigs are brought to them at 2-3 months. Irvings raises them until they’re between 6-7 months, or approximately 250 pounds. Beyond that, and the ratio of fat to meat becomes unwieldy.

Irvings Farm Fresh

Pigs

The Irvings believe that pigs should live as naturally as possible, so provide their animals with an environment where they have the freedom to move, dig, root, sleep and eat. They self-regulate, and on that warm afternoon, most of them had sought shade to keep cool (pigs don’t sweat). That week, the farm had about 70 pigs.

Irvings Farm Fresh

In their element

Before lunch, we had the privilege of observing a butchery demonstration by Elyse Chatterton. We learned that the pigs are killed at Tofield Packers, then brought back as sides to the Irvings facility (she even pulled out the bullet from the skull of the pig!).

Irvings Farm Fresh

Elyse Chatterton

Trained in England, Elyse learned how to do everything by hand, eschewing the use of even a band saw for cuts through bone. As a retail butcher, Elyse loves the process of transforming a “beast” into attractive cuts of meats that catch a customer’s eye. She skillfully carved up several shoulder roasts (her favourite cut), and indicated that she could dispatch the entire side in one hour.

Irvings Farm Fresh

All by hand

Her sense of humour was evident throughout the demo; for instance, some have questioned whether she is able to do everything a male butcher can do. Her answer: she isn’t able to go into the men’s washroom.

Then it was time for lunch, picturesque communal tables set up beneath several trees, adjacent to a makeshift outdoor kitchen. Chef Daniel Costa (of Corso 32 and Bar Bricco fame) and his team certainly had to work in an untested environment, but in spite of this, managed to create a memorable meal that celebrated the flavours of summer.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Lunch

A plate of snappy, raw vegetables from Riverbend Gardens reminded us that sometimes, simple is best. It was followed by grilled Bonjour Bakery crostini topped by the most luxurious Fairwinds Farm goat ricotta and fresh spring pea and mint spread.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Pinzimonio (raw vegetables)

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Goat ricotta

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Spring pea and mint

We were spoiled with platters of porchetta and panzanella made with tomatoes and cucumber from Gull Valley Greenhouses.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Porchetta

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Panzanella in action

My favourite dish was the spring onion, pea shoot and whey risotto. Given risotto is difficult to make under regular circumstances, it was an even bigger feat on this stage. The whey imbued a creaminess that had me going back for thirds.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Risotto

Grilled Irvings pork loin capped off the main course. The meat was overdone for my taste, but to be honest, I’d filled up on the preceding dishes.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Grilled pork loin

But we weren’t done yet – generous chunks of two year old Parmesan, drizzled with the 100 flower blend of Wolf Willow Honey, followed suit. The finale was a silky panna cotta with honey, grappa and berries.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Parmesan and honey

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Panna cotta

I’m certain that had the menu been advertised alongside ticket sales, the Grand Taste Tour would have been sold out; a similar meal at Corso 32 would have easily cost the equivalent of the $90 ticket price. Next year, organizer Kirsta Franke has already secured the chefs from North 53 for the lunch portion; if the cost of the tour holds steady, the all-inclusive nature of the event and the high quality of the food should sell itself.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Kudos to the team behind the day

If the tour of Irvings Farm Fresh piqued your interest, you’re in luck – Alan and Nicola are participating in Open Farm Days on August 23, 2015, from 11am-4pm. Visit with the pigs, tour the meat shop, and enjoy a “simply porky lunch”.

Thanks again to Gastropost, Taste Alberta and the 124 Grand Market for inviting us, and congratulations to the organizers for a second successful tour. I look forward to seeing what’s on the agenda for next year!

Check out Mack and Linda’s recaps of the events, too!

City Market 2014

I haven’t been up early for the City Market much this season, but in preparation for a potluck tomorrow, I thought it best to make sure we had our pick of produce. Good thing too, given how busy it was right at the start!

City Market 2014

Overhead view

I haven’t written much about the market this year, a deviation from previous summers, and because of this it’s harder to reconcile that we’re nearly halfway through the outdoor market season already! On the bright side, it means we’re that much closer to some of my seasonal favourites, including green beans and field tomatoes. But in the meantime, this week saw the return of carrots, new potatoes and peas.

City Market 2014

Kale from Sundog Organic

City Market 2014

Rhubarb from Sundog Organic

City Market 2014

Carrots from Sundog Organic

City Market 2014

Lettuce from Sundog Organic

City Market 2014

Peas from Kuhlmann’s

City Market 2014

Radishes from Kuhlmann’s

City Market 2014

Swiss chard from Kuhlmann’s

City Market 2014

Green onions from Kuhlmann’s

City Market 2014

Broccoli from Green Valley Farm

City Market 2014

Tomatoes from Doef’s

City Market 2014

Potatoes from Riverbend Gardens

City Market 2014

Carrots from Riverbend Gardens

City Market 2014

Beets from Riverbend Gardens

City Market 2014

Peaches from Steve & Dan’s

City Market 2014

Berries from Steve & Dan’s

City Market 2014

Cherries from Steve & Dan’s

One can only hope the gorgeous weekend weather will continue all market season. See you there!

Edgar Farms’ 2014 Asparagus Festival

Mack and I have had intentions to visit the Asparagus Festival at Edgar Farms for several years, but summer weekends are always too easily filled. This year, we made sure to book it in our calendar well in advance, and finally made it out there on June 15, the last day of their 2014 festival.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Asparagus Festival

Edgar Farms is located in Innisfail, about two hours south of Edmonton. They offer rhubarb, peas and grass-fed beef, but what they are known for is their tender, sweet asparagus. With 28 acres, they have the largest asparagus patch in Alberta.

The $5 (per adult) admission granted us access to explore the farm, take part in tours and sample asparagus-centric dishes. We started with the latter first – if not just to warm ourselves up! It wasn’t the warmest of days, with clouds threatening rain all afternoon, so creamy asparagus soup hit just the right notes. The southwestern beef on a bun was fine (especially with pickled asparagus as a condiment), but what really surprised us was the asparagus dip – the Edgar Farms version of guacamole, substituting asparagus for avocado. It would be a great use for those bags of asparagus “seconds”!

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Asparagus for lunch

Satiated, we ended up first on a self-guided tour of the farm, then joined up on a tractor-pulled group tour. The self-guided tour was marked by informative posters along the way (some cheeky in nature), and given we were the only ones exploring on foot at the time, granted us some time and space to take in the farm at our own pace.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Walking tour markers

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Mack on the farm

This was our first time seeing asparagus plants, and both of us were surprised at how patchy they appeared to be sown, with the scraggly spears of each crown shooting up at intermittent levels (Mack commented that he expected to see a field flush with asparagus, not unlike a wheat field). We learned later that the asparagus are harvested daily, and given the spears can grow up to ten inches a day, the patchwork effect made sense.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Asparagus up close

We also got to see firsthand how sandy the soil was. Because asparagus prefer warmer conditions, the sandy soil is perfect to capture and retain heat, as well as offering better drainage. It now made more sense as to why the Edgar Farms staff at the farmers’ market were always strongly recommending thorough cleaning of asparagus prior to consumption.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Taking a closer look

On our walk, we saw some asparagus pickers at work, riding a foot-controlled “asparagus buggy” built by the patriarch of the farm, Doug Edgar. The vehicle enables three farm workers to cover a lot more ground, as all of the asparagus is hand-picked.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Say “asparagus”! (the staff were nice enough to pose for the photo)

Later, on the group tour, we were told that the plants take five years to mature to the point where they can be harvested for six straight weeks. And when asked how long the perennial would continue to give asparagus, our guide cited neighbouring plants that were still healthy at over one hundred years old.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

On the tour

At the end of June each year, the asparagus are left alone, and allowed to go to fern. We were told this allows the plants to rejuvenate for the following year.

Back at the barn, we watched staff weigh and bundle asparagus, before placing it in a cold water bath to help the vegetable retain its natural sweetness.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Bundling asparagus

The farm’s commercial kitchen was located on the same facility, which allows the farm to value-add to their products and extend income past the short growing season. We picked up a handful of their frozen rhubarb and berry pies to take home (not sold at their stand in Edmonton, but can be found at the Edgar Farms/Innisfail Growers Calgary Farmers’ Market booth). The pies didn’t last two weeks in my freezer, as they were promptly devoured by my pie-loving family.

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Some of the Edgar Farms bounty

The farm also offered numerous attractions for kids – lots of friendly animals, a play area, and even an asparagus mascot!

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Goats

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

Okay, so we’re not kids, but who could resist Gussy?

The Asparagus Festival was a fun day trip, and a great way to spend a summer afternoon. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about local food – watch for dates in June 2015.

Slow Food Edmonton’s Berkshire & Beer

Last Sunday, Mack and I walked over to Yellowhead Brewery to attend Slow Food Edmonton’s Berkshire & Beer event. The evening was touted as a fundraiser for Thousand Gardens in Africa, a Slow Food International project to initiate much-needed gardens in numerous drought and poverty-stricken communities in Africa. As a result, the ticket price was much steeper than previous Wild Boar & Beer events organized by Slow Food, with a focus on education.

Berkshire & Beer

Berkshire & Beer

I struggled a bit with the thread connecting the eight different presentations together. To be sure, they all focused on aspects of food, but the divide between discussions on international projects (Thousand Gardens and Terra Madre) and local projects (Shovel and Fork and Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton, among them) was jarring. A reshuffling of the order (perhaps a gradual move from international to local, or the other way around) would have helped, but there still didn’t appear to be an overarching theme. It also felt a bit like the content functioned as an introduction to local food producers and initiatives, in spite of the audience make-up (most seemed quite familiar with the subjects already). I had to wonder if the intended target for the event was actually those newer to the local food scene – if that were the case, the ticket price probably should have been lower.

Berkshire & Beer

Allan Irving from Irvings Farm Fresh (I love that he has a beer in hand!)

Though I understand that the event was a fundraiser, it would have helped if the organizers were up front about what proportion of the ticket price would be donated to charity. Otherwise, I found it difficult to manage my expectations around the food that would be served, especially because beer wasn’t included. It sounds like the chef at Yellowhead had free rein on preparing the nose-to-tail dishes (made from an Irvings Farm Fresh pig), and while we enjoyed the food, it amounted to little more than a series of passed hors d’oeuvres.

Berkshire & Beer

Pork leg confit slider and pork belly on a beet crisp with daikon and carrot slaw

Of the dozen bites we tried, my favourites were the tenderloin schnitzel, topped with sauerkraut, gruyere and garlic aioli, as well as the blood sausage and red wine onion demi glaze crostini.

Berkshire & Beer

Tenderloin schnitzel

Berkshire & Beer

Blood sausage

At the root, this event was fundamentally different than the Beer & Boar events Slow Food Edmonton has offered in the past (including one, full disclosure, that I helped co-organize several years ago). I did appreciate the more formal opportunity for learning, but should Berkshire & Beer return to the calendar next year, I hope some changes are made to make it more engaging, and an even bigger success!

Kudos to Addie and Genevieve and the rest of Slow Food Edmonton’s volunteers for their work, and I look forward to reading about the progress on the garden funded by the dollars raised that night.

Discover Your Roots: Eat Alberta 2013

I can’t believe we’re already on our third Eat Alberta! The hands-on food conference, an opportunity for consumers to learn about how to grow, forage and prepare food from some of Alberta’s most knowledgeable food personalities, will be taking place again this April.

What: Eat Alberta 2013
When: Saturday, April 20, 2013
Time: 8:30am-5:30pm
Where: Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, 11762 106 Street

We are thrilled to be returning to the kitchens of NAIT, which turned out to be a brilliant venue for the event last year.

Eat Alberta 2012

Owen Petersen and his Sourdough 101 class

Our keynote speaker this year is Jeff Senger of Sangudo Custom Meat Packers. Jeff will be sharing his story of transition from an urban to a rural lifestyle, one that pulled him from his desk-bound accounting job to a labour-intensive career as a butcher.

We are happy that some of our former instructors are back to share their wisdom with a new group of students this year, including:

  • Sourdough 101, led by Owen Petersen of Prairie Mill
  • Knife Skills, led by Kevin Kent of Knifewear
  • Cheese Making, led by Chef Allan Roote of NAIT
  • Artisan Sausage Making, led by Allan Suddaby of Elm Cafe
  • Vinaigrettes: More Than Just Salad Dressings, led by Chef Elaine Wilson of Allium Foodworks

Eat Alberta 2012

Kevin Kent of Knifewear

But of course, we are also welcoming many new presenters, who will be teaching some exciting sessions, including:

Eat Alberta 2012

Making gnocchi at Eat Alberta 2012

Undoubtedly, hands-on sessions are the most popular, and past feedback has indicated that we needed a better system of ensuring a fair distribution of these sessions. So this year, we have organized different “tracks” made up of four session each, the majority of which include two hands on sessions, one guided tasting and one presentation. We know that all of our presenters are passionate and engaging, so we are confident that no matter which track you choose, you will not only learn a lot, but will have a great time in the process!

We have also added an MC to help facilitate the day, none other than Jennifer Crosby of Global TV. Jennifer is a farm girl from Northern BC, and is a regular contributor to Taste Alberta. And in place of a plenary panel to end the day, we are introducing a series of two-minute “lightning talks” as a way to connect attendees with other food-related resources and organizations in the community. At the end of the day, although we have changed a few elements this year, we stayed true to our commitment to highlighting food skills and connecting consumers with local and regional products.

Tickets are $135 each, and include 2 plenary sessions, 4 concurrent sessions, breakfast, lunch and a wine down. Tickets for Eat Alberta will go on sale next week, but in the meantime, make sure you sign up for the mailing list on the website. We will be sending out a notice to let you know when the tickets go live!

I hope to see you out at Eat Alberta!

Thoughts on Fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy

On September 30, 2012, the City of Edmonton released Fresh: Edmonton’s Food and Urban Agriculture Strategy. It was a document fifteen months in the making, drafted primarily by an advisory committee made up of fifteen members, with some consideration of public input contributed through other channels.

Although a majority of the strategic directions put forward in Fresh address food purchasing, preparation, consumption, celebration and waste, much of the discussion in the media and online has only touched upon the strategies related to peri-urban agriculture, more specifically in this case referred to as the northeast farmlands.

Mack has done an exceptional job filtering through the premise behind the land debate, and I would refer you to his blog for an overview of the history and analysis of the development question. But it is important that the food-related portions of the document are not overlooked – after all, the strategy tries to address more than just agriculture.

That said, I am very disappointed in the food-related strategic recommendations. I recognize it is easier to criticize than to create, but I did participate in the online survey and one stakeholder consultation, and am a little astonished that this was the best they could come up with. They claim if the “Strategy’s Recommendations are adopted, the City of Edmonton will be well positioned to be a leading example for municipal food and urban agriculture initiatives” (23). But if that were true, I think Fresh would have taken more risks and aspirations instead of reading as the flat, mostly vague document that it is.

Of course, much of my criticisms below can be attributed to the short timeline permitted for the development of the strategy, as well as the failure to include some of the key members of the city’s food community in the consultation process. But still, given Fresh is what the Executive Committee will vote on at the non-statutory public hearing on October 26, 2012, this is what we have to go with.

What Fresh is missing

  • Recognition of work already being done: Mack and I never expected to have What the Truck?! mentioned in Fresh given it only began in 2011, so it was a surprise to find our festival acknowledged in the recommendation relating to enlivening the public realm. As a result, it is an even larger failure of the strategy to omit two other longer-standing volunteer-based groups working towards food production and food recovery. The first, the River City Chickens Collective, proposed a backyard chickens pilot to City Council back in 2010. They were rebuffed because of the forthcoming development of the food and agriculture strategy which would be considering this, among other potential urban agriculture ideas. The resulting recommendation in this strategy, developed two years later? “Examine opportunities for citizens to keep bees and raise hens” with the specific action reading, “Partner with local non-profits to assist in the evaluation of the implications of allowing urban backyard hens” (33). The Collective is not only in the same place it was in 2010, but Fresh doesn’t even go so far as to recommend backyard hens; instead, it chickens out with a loose directive of further study. The second relates to “Develop partnerships to assist in the redistribution of healthy, fresh and high-quality surplus food” (46). Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton (OFRE) has been run by dedicated volunteers since 2009, gleaning excess fruit from backyards and donating a portion of that surplus to charitable organizations. Fruits of Sherbrooke, with a similar mandate but a smaller catchment area, started in 2011. It would be natural to link them to the recommendation of expanding existing gleaning initiatives, but both OFRE and Fruits of Sherbrooke are conspicuously absent.
  • Stronger emphasis on food skill development: if one of the underlying objectives of Fresh is to help increase the demand for locally grown and raised produce and proteins, it is logical to conclude that encouraging food skill development (i.e., how to cook and prepare fresh foods) is vital to achieving that goal. We know that we are failing to provide basic food preparation education to young people, which leads to a greater reliance on processed foods. Although this is not an easy problem to tackle (and involves broader issues such as commodity subsidies, food deserts, and income disparity), Fresh barely acknowledges the importance of food skills. The sole recommendation reads, “Work with the Edmonton Food Council and various partners (such as NAIT, the University of Alberta, and Northlands, among others) to provide multiple learning opportunities on key food and urban agriculture topics and initiatives” (28). What does “work with” mean? Would these “multiple learning opportunities” be affordable and accessible? Although NAIT and the U of A have permitted rentals of their facilities for food skills sessions run by Eat Alberta in the past, they have never offered reasonably priced sessions to the public on their own accord – how would the City propose to change this (e.g. with grant incentives)? Not only is this recommendation vague, but it appears the committee did not take the time to articulate the implications.
  • Link to food justice: although the broader definition of food security is somewhat addressed in Fresh (i.e., the ability for an area to feed its citizens in the event of an interruption to the food system), none of the strategies highlight food justice and how those with low or fixed incomes can access local food. Save the recommendation relating to the gleaning and redistribution of surplus food (46), the strategy is strangely silent on this issue. I understand it is difficult to represent all possible interests and perspectives, but it is curious that not a single recommendation explicitly targets the empowerment of food insecure individuals and families.
  • Opportunities to learn from and celebrate immigrant and Aboriginal food culture: given the growing number of immigrants choosing to settle in Edmonton, and the increasing population of urban Aboriginals residing in our city, it is a glaring omission that there are no recommendations that encourage learnings from either of these minority groups. There is a nominal mention of “Engaging…immigrant group associations to participate in celebrations and events” (43), but it fails to address that many of these small organizations are struggling to operate, and without support aren’t readily able to take on new initiatives. Enhancing our knowledge of diverse food practices and acknowledging the wealth of experience in our community should be a pillar of the strategy, not a token, an idea reinforced by Kathryn Lennon of the Multi-Cultural Health Brokers.

What Fresh is lacking

  • Action-oriented, clear language: what most struck me in my first reading of Fresh was its lack of a backbone. The committee was charged with making recommendations, which City Council can, in theory, accept, reject or modify. So I wasn’t sure why, in countless instances, where recommendations could have started with direct, action-oriented words such as “create” or “partner” or “initiate”, we instead are left with non-committal recommendations such as “Explore the creation of an Edmonton Food Charter” (25) or “Identify urban agriculture opportunities in existing and developing neighbourhoods” (32). To me, the weak language is a greater indication that the strategy as a whole needs to be reworked.
  • Big, thought-provoking ideas: was it too much to hope for that the food and agriculture strategy could excite people? Get Edmontonians thinking about the possibilities, or at least generating a healthy debate among citizens? I recognize that many of the recommendations were inspired by other cities, and while I am not arguing for a reinvention of the wheel, Fresh could have included at least a few more creative, off the wall suggestions. Instead of the non-binding “Encourage developers to provide land and infrastructure for urban agriculture” (32), how about recommending that the City force developers to earmark green space for community gardens, or pledge to double the current inventory of community gardens? Or, while it might be a start to “Increase local food purchasing within City of Edmonton operations” (40), wouldn’t it be great if Councillors led by example and committed to “go local” one week every year by ensuring at least one meal per day was primarily made up of locally-sourced ingredients (similar to the Transit Riders Union of Edmonton’s week-long transit challenge). Even more revolutionary, offer some sort of economic incentive through a tax break for restaurants that source at least 20% of their ingredients from local farmers (thereby encouraging demand for local product, perhaps even allowing restaurants to lower menu prices because of the incentive). Sure, such ideas may not ever pass through Council, but they would at least spur discussion, necessary to engage citizens on these issues.
  • Addressing the ambivalence towards supporting local: Fresh seems to take for granted that at present, the vast majority of Edmontonians do not support local businesses and producers, or at least do not deliberately do so. Yes, we have made great strides in the past five years, especially in the local restaurant scene, but for every new small independent that opens, several more chains pop up in the city. Or, as Jennifer Cockrall-King pointed out in a recent panel discussion, spending at farmers’ markets is estimated to be a measly 1% of food household expenditures. Arguably, there are other means to access farm direct products (e.g., CSAs, produce box deliveries), but as a whole, I think it is safe to say a majority of Edmontonians source groceries from a large grocery retailer. Oft-cited deterrents for not supporting local farmers include cost (something Kevin Kossowan has debunked), convenience, and selection, but there is another reason at play that isn’t often discussed. While Mack and I were in Portland last month, we were blown away by the level of pride demonstrated by the locals about their food community at Feast, a festival highlighting the bounty of Oregon. From farmers and winemakers to salt miners and chefs, it was incredible to witness such an embrace and ownership over local proprietors. Edmontonians by nature are a self-depreciating bunch, quick to play down our assets and draw attention to our flaws. Worse, a majority remain strikingly indifferent towards supporting the home grown producers and independent businesses that are unique to our city. We truly do need to heed strategy 5.5 of growing local food supply and demand (39), but how? None of the recommendations address the fundamental question of how to cultivate the pride that ultimately translates into solid financial support for the local food economy.

While the food strategies are less contentious than those surrounding land use, they are no less important. New York-based chef Gabrielle Hamilton remarked at an event recently about “poor little food” – how food is being asked to cure all societal ills, from environmental concerns to health and family morale. But the truth is, food is a unifying factor that can ignite positive change.

If Fresh is passed, I remain optimistic that moving forward, a body like the Edmonton Food Council could help further articulate the actions that need to be taken by the City, particularly with regards to food skill development and partnerships with existing organizations. Food can be that spark for change – we just need to set the right parameters for it to help us enrich our community.

Recap: Farming in the City Guided Bus Tours

On August 26, 2012, Mack and I took part in the Greater Edmonton Alliance’s Farming in the City guided bus tours. Organized to increase awareness about the pristine farmland we currently have in Edmonton, in an effort to ensure it remains farmland as City Council considers the Food and Agriculture Strategy on October 26. Though it wasn’t our first time in the area (we took part in the Great Potato Giveaway and have been to Riverbend Gardens in the past), it was a different experience to visit the farmland as a part of a collective group. Tickets were just $10, quite a steal considering the day they planned for us.

We took the LRT to Northlands, a partner for the tours. For an event about promoting sustainability, it was odd that the organizers only had signs directing those who drove to the pick-up site, and not for those who took public transit. We couldn’t see the buses from the mouth of the LRT station, so did a fair bit of wandering around the massive Northlands parking lot before we came upon the site.

Farming in the City

Our ride

Anyway, we were happy to discover the first bus of the day was full (8:30am on a Sunday morning wouldn’t have been our first choice, but with Blink: Urban Picnic to follow, it was our only option). It also turned out the rest of the buses were equally well subscribed, to the point where the organizers were turning people away! In total, around 400 people took part in the 10 bus tours throughout the day, quite a feat considering the number of competing summer festivals going on.

It was also a particularly impressive volunteer effort, with enthusiastic, dedicated members of our community lending their time to this cause. Our tour guide, for example, is a student attending the University of Alberta.

Farming in the City

Volunteers like Joveena helped run the event!

The bus took us through five different farms in Edmonton’s north east, though we only stopped to visit three of them. The first of these stops was Horse Hill Berry Farm.

I never knew this little gem of a u-pick farm existed! David and Jackie Clark grow half a dozen varieties of raspberries on ten acres, and are open from late July to late August every year.

Farming in the City

Jackie Clark of Horse Hill Berry Farm

We were actually there on their last weekend of operation, but could still spot many juicy berries between the brambles ripe for the picking. Jackie encouraged us to not only wander the neat rows of raspberry plants, but to help ourselves to the fruit!

Farming in the City

Neat rows of raspberries

Farming in the City

Raspberries!

Our second stop was Norbest Farm, a potato farm. Owner Gord Visser was on hand to greet all of us as we departed the bus, and had a surprise for the group – fresh hand cut fries made from his potatoes!

Farming in the City

Another batch for the fryer

Farming in the City

Mack loves his potatoes

We were also able to each take home a bag of potatoes, so we could further taste the kind of produce the land supports.

Farming in the City

Spuds

Last but not least, our final bus departure took place at Riverbend Gardens. We were given an hour at this lush farm, which seemed to give everyone a leisurely opportunity to explore a part of the fields, take in the gorgeous views and enjoy the free corn that was being handed out!

Farming in the City

Riverbend Gardens is located right next to the North Saskatchewan River

Farming in the City

Will stop for corn

Farming in the City

Janelle chats with Global about her farm

Farming in the City

Kale!

Farming in the City

Among the cabbage

Riverbend Gardens has 120 acres of farmable land, and currently sell their produce at 7 farmers’ markets in Edmonton. But special for that day, owners Janelle and Aaron Herbert set up a produce stand right at the farm, so attendees could not only see the variety of vegetables grown, but to also purchase some to try for themselves!

Farming in the City

Produce stand

Farming in the City

Freshly picked veg

It was a great way to spend three hours on a summer morning – getting to know our farmland, our farmers, and some other Edmontonians who are committed to preserving our city’s food future. Thanks to the Greater Edmonton Alliance for putting this event on, and to all of the volunteers for making it happen!

You can take a look at the full photoset here. If you want to get involved, take a look at Friends of Farmers.

RGE RD 135 Dinner @ Nature’s Green Acres

Farm to table dinners seem to be all the rage lately, and rightly so, as people try to find ways to better connect with the food on their plate. Chef Blair Lebsack, formerly of Madison’s Grill, has been running a series of farm to table dinners for over a year under the RGE RD banner. Last summer, Nature’s Green Acres hosted an elegant dinner, cooked and served out on the pasture for a lucky party of 30. The event was so well received that this year, that number doubled, and Mack and I were among the diners fortunate enough to attend. We reserved our tickets back in May, and though $150 might seem pricey at first, it became evident that all the effort behind a truly local dinner was worth much more than that.

On a clear Saturday afternoon, we drove about two hours east of Edmonton to Viking, the location of Danny and Shannon Ruzicka’s farm, Nature’s Green Acres. We arrived just in time to grab a cold lemonade before Blair officially welcomed the group.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Blair and Caitlin

To get a feel for the farm, Danny first treated us to a horseshoeing demonstration, as he is a trained farrier.

Range Road 135 Dinner

It was definitely harder than Danny made it look!

Shannon then took us on a brief tour of the farm. She showed us their Cornish rock hens (aka “redneck lawnmowers”, in Shannon’s words), kept in mobile chicken pens. She told us that when they first decided to increase their chicken yield, they tried using large, truck-drawn pens which ended up being disastrous. They ended up losing 600 chickens that year, due to stress from overcrowding and the fact that some animals were run over in the shifting process.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Mobile chicken pens

She then brought us to a fenced off area home to twenty Tamworth pigs. A heritage breed, this type of pig is at home rooting and foraging in the wild, and as a result, have free run of about an acre of bush. That said, Shannon and Danny do put out feed (a mixture of wheat, peas and barley) and water for the pigs.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Tamworth pigs, in all their copper-coloured glory

In addition, Danny and Shannon raise grass-fed cattle, and unlike the chickens and the pigs, they came to us! Our dining arrangement was in the middle of their pasture after all, but they didn’t seem to mind sharing the field for a night.

Range Road 135 Dinner

No tipping

Shannon also showed us the small garden where she, Blair and his partner Caitlin grew most of the vegetables that would be served at our dinner. So unlike the popular 100-mile catchment area for local food, this dinner really emphasized the variety of what can be grown and raised on a single property.

Range Road 135 Dinner

The garden

Before leading us to the dinner table, Shannon showed us some of the tipi rings that are scattered across their farm. With a buffalo jump also located on their property, it is no surprise that at one time Aboriginals would camp overnight in the area.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Shannon shows us the tipi rings

Then came the big reveal: two gorgeous communal tables draped in white tablecloths, set amongst the pasture. Behind the tables was a cob oven (built just for this occasion) and the rest of the makeshift kitchen.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Table at farm dinner

Range Road 135 Dinner

Seated

The five course menu encapsulated summer. We started with a salad of fresh clipped greens with marinated beets atop a sheep’s cheese custard. The custard was the star, creamy and light, adding an interesting element to a typical starter.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Fresh clipped greens, marinated beets, sheep’s cheese starter

Mack and I both selected the free-range chicken breast as our favourite dish of the night. Though it probably was the most “pedestrian” of the dishes, the preparation was outstanding. We couldn’t think of the last time a dish as simple as this wowed us – the meat was tender, and the chicken skin was crackling crisp. As one of our dining companions noted – chicken skin should be the new bacon. We also enjoyed the bed of simple but delicious carrot and zucchini slaw.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Chicken breast, carrot & zucchini slaw

A different palate cleanser was served next, in the form of a basil popsicle. Mack isn’t a huge fan of the herb, but wanted to ask for seconds.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Basil popsicle

The wood roasted Landrace pork was a definite favourite among our table. A piece each of loin and belly was served with pea and onion gnocchi and stinging nettle pesto. It’s probably sacrilege, but I felt the cuts were just a little too fatty for my taste. That said, the meat itself was moist, and the gnocchi the perfect accompaniment.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Landrace pork, pea & onion gnocchi, stinging nettle pesto

The grass-fed Nouveau Beef braised shanks and roasted loin was not a delicate dish. The generous meat portion was served with a warm potato salad and a beautifully smoky tomato-corn dressing.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Braised beef shanks, roasted loin, warm potato salad

Instead of a formal dessert plate, our dessert of Saskatoon berry galette with rhubarb ice cream was instead served on a branded wood tile. Why? To save on dishes, Blair then invited all diners to toss their “plates” into the fire! The galette itself, still warm(!), was crispy, buttery and just sweet enough. I don’t typically enjoy rhubarb ice cream, but the combination with the Saskatoons and raspberry granola worked well.

Range Road 135 Dinner

Saskatoon berry galette

Range Road 135 Dinner

Mack readies his toss

A peek into the makeshift kitchen really made us appreciate all the work behind setting up this al fresco dining room. Everything had to be transported to this location – from the tables and chairs themselves to the dish and flatware, to the water and wood!

Range Road 135 Dinner

The cleanup begins

Congratulations to Blair, Caitlin, Danny, Shannon and the rest of the RGE RD team for pulling off this dinner. They not only achieved their goal of providing us with a taste of the farm, but also in creating community – we definitely enjoyed breaking bread with those around us at the communal table!

Range Road 135 Dinner

Enjoying the company

Here’s to more RGE RD dinners to come!

Range Road 135 Dinner

The end of a beautiful evening

You can take a look at our photoset here, and make sure to check out Valerie and Kevin’s posts – much more timely than my own.