Recap: 2016 Grand Taste Tour with Northlands Urban Farm, Brix ‘N Berries, Triple M Dairy and Tangle Ridge Ranch

At the end of July, Mack and I were honoured to be asked to be among the hosts of the third annual Grand Taste Tour. It was the second year of the event where attendees were bussed to the various farm locations, as opposed to a self-guided tour. This allows participants to meet and break bread with other folks interested in learning about local agriculture, all while taking advantage of more efficient group-based transportation.

Linda and Brittney headed up one bus, while Mack and I led another. The first stop was within city limits – a one acre lot cultivated in partnership with Northlands. The farm is a part of the Northlands Urban Farm, intended for educational purposes and to support innovative practices. 600 students from local schools have already toured the farm this year, and 26 children will be selected to take part in their junior beekeeping pilot this fall. Northlands also successfully applied for an urban chicken permit which will allow them to add eight hens to the property.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Northlands Urban Farm

We spent some time with Travis Kennedy of Lactuca, whose crops make up most of the one acre. His enthusiasm and pragmatism make him a wonderful urban agriculture ambassador. While Lactuca began its business in a backyard garden, it now has the chance to produce 200-300 pounds per week at Northlands. New challenges have come with that opportunity in the form of supply exceeding demand, so much of his focus this year has been on developing new markets for their products. Lactuca currently supplies to 15 restaurants in Edmonton and area, including Farrow and Three Boars.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Travis

Salad greens (primarily kale, lettuce and arugula) make up most of the crop. The reason these were chosen relates to their short 7 day production cycle to make the most of Edmonton’s 100 growing days, their lightweight nature (Travis used to transport his crop to farmers’ markets on a bicycle), and that all restaurants have a salad on their menu, increasing his market potential. That said, greens require an incredible amount of water to flourish – on hot days, Lactuca can use up to 7000L of water. Northlands was permitted to run below-ground water lines to help with this.

Although Lactuca does experiment with other crops (corn and French fillet beans, to name a few), they’ve embraced salad greens because they want to stay true to seasonality. They haven’t ruled out hydroponics in the future though, so stay tuned!

Lactuca relies on organic practices, using City of Edmonton compost, and Travis doesn’t mind the holes he finds among the leaves. He believes it speaks to their terroir and lack of pesticide use. That said, he recognizes that what may sell to consumers at a farmers’ market will not pass inspection with restaurants (pointing out the odd dichotomy between the success of “ugly produce” campaigns and the unchanged expectations of diners eating out).

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Demonstrating the drill-powered harvester

I was particularly amazed by the method in which they now harvest their greens. When Travis started, they relied exclusively on hand-harvesting, which is laborious and time consuming. They’ve since moved to using a drill-powered aluminum harvester, which can harvest up to 150 pounds an hour.

The group then listened to Patti Milligan, who is the beekeeper for urban hives at Northlands and the Shaw Conference Centre.

The hives at Northlands are kept primarily for educational purposes. Patti explained that Alberta is the largest honey producer in the country, due to the abundance of sunlight and flowers. In our province, clover, alfalfa and canola dominate, but Patti did mention a movement towards manipulating where bees go through timing of blooms and placement of plants. She said we should watch out for locally-sourced borage, raspberry, fireweed, and dandelion honeys in the near future.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Patti

It’s great to have such a rich resource centrally located in Edmonton, available for children and adults alike to learn about agricultural practices, especially when it is helmed by passionate connectors like Travis and Patti. Northlands is offering free public tours on September 10 – pre-registration is required.

Our second stop took us just outside of city limits to Brix ‘N Berries in Leduc County. Operated by Greg Moline and Laurie Erickson, Brix is primarily a berry u-pick garden, though they also offer limited vegetables as well.

Greg and Laurie do have off-farm income – their main work is in the area of soil amendments, assisting farmers who are looking to transition from using fertilizers to relying on other practices. They highlighted the difference between great soil and poor soil on their own land – a portion of their farm has naturally enriched number one grade soil (where they joked that seeds germinate even before they hit the ground). The Saskatoon bushes here grew without restraint, full and unwieldy. Across the field, bushes planted in the same year in sub-par soil struggled to fruit, branches spotty and inconsistent.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Greg points out the number one grade soil

Brix began with 50 acres of Saskatoons, but soon added strawberries, raspberries, a greenhouse, then a market garden. Greg shared that it has been challenging for operations like theirs to stay in business without an agri-tourism component such as Prairie Gardens. Brix doesn’t charge an overhead for consumers to pick their produce because they just focus on growing food, and perhaps because of that, they can’t keep up with the demand. In the face of several other u-picks that closed this year (Roy’s Raspberries on a permanent basis and Happy Acres for 2016), Brix has had to close from Sundays to Tuesdays this season to allow the fields to regenerate. Even then, that previous Wednesday, they found that 250 people picked the field clean in a day.

Brix 'N Berries

Linda picks some raspberries

My sisters and I, city children through and through, benefited from the u-picks we visited with our parents growing up. I’m not sure I would have been able to identify field-grown produce as a kid without those experiences, and through the relationship we had with the farmers, learned to appreciate how difficult it was to grow food for the masses. With development pressures and the work involved in maintaining a public farm, I’m sure more of these operations may fall by the wayside, but I really do hope the tide turns – these u-picks are a valuable community asset for the next generation.

Our third stop was Triple M Dairy in Calmar. Genzinus Martins runs the farm along with his sons, comprised of 180 cows. Considered a medium-sized operation, they produce 1.3 million litres of milk per year sold through Alberta Milk.

Mack and I were fortunate to have toured Bles Wold a number of years ago, and had already seen an example of a mechanized milking machine. For many on our bus however, this was their first encounter with a machine that can milk up to 60 cows per hour. The technology also monitors the health of an individual cow through a transponder in their neck, tracking their production over a period of time. Most animals supply 40L of milk per day.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Genzinus explains how the milking machine works

Genzinus was proud of their operation, as they are constantly striving to improve the health of their cows and ensuring the animals continue to produce for 4-5 years. Their cows get a two month break from milking every 12-13 months to wander the fields. He emphasized that Alberta Milk provides incentives for better quality milk, so farmers aren’t just driven by quantity alone.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

What are you looking at?

Our last stop was Tangle Ridge Ranch located in Thorsby. Vicky and Shane Horne are first generation farmers, and when they purchased 60 acres they knew they wanted to have a strong connection with consumers. Although they had experience with cattle farming, they wanted to start out with smaller animals, and thought they could find a niche with grass-fed lamb, a product not widely known in Alberta. 50% of lamb sold in the province is imported, something Vicky and Shane hopes will change in the years to come.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

The best kind of tour!

Vicky and Shane carefully selected the breeds of sheep they would raise. Katahdins and Dorpers are “hair” sheep that naturally lose their coats and thus don’t require regular shearing, with their energy going into meat instead. Without wool, believed to produce lanolin oil, the meat from these sheep breeds are much milder in flavour. Currently, Tangle Ridge raises 70 sheep per season, but want to eventually grow to a flock size of 250. They sell direct to consumers every fall through their website, and are now taking orders for November 2016.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Hair sheep

The foundation of their farm is pasture management, as they believe healthy soil is the key to healthy animals. They seeded their land with a mix of alfalfa and clover, and manage with temporary fences for rotational grazing. A portable water truck follows the flock so the animals always have access to water.

The story of Tangle Ridge Ranch wouldn’t be complete without mentioning their dogs. Virgo, Mojito and Bailey protect the sheep, circling them night and day to deter the coyotes in the area.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

A sheep dog in his element

After the tour, all guests were ushered onto the second floor of the barn on the ranch. It’s been transformed into an event space that’s used for long table dinners and private functions. With the overhead lights and mismatched chairs, it was a rustic setting that befit the closing of the day.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Barn dinner

The food is where the Grand Taste Tour sets itself apart from other farm-related events. Whereas other events focus on either tours or meals alone, Grand Taste successfully marries both for an unmatched value. Last year, they brought in Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 32 fame. This year, not to be outdone, Chef Frank Olson from the Red Ox Inn and Canteen prepared a six course meal utilizing ingredients from producers we had met along the tour. This was also the first year where alcohol was available for purchase at dinner.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Chef Frank Olson and crew cooking up a storm

To start, we sampled three Winding Road cheeses, accompanied by a compote made from Brix ‘N Berries cherries, and Coal Lake Honey. Winding Road is a small cheesiry that began selling its products at the French Quarter Market this year.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Winding Road cheeses

Pork ribs glazed with a Saskatoon berry barbecue sauce with an underlay of kohlrabi were up next, food meant to get your hands dirty.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Pork ribs

Lactuca and Sundog Organic supplied the vegetables in the salad course, made up of radishes, greens, carrots, pumpkin seeds and a green goddess dressing.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Green goddess salad

My favourite dish was the gnocchi, served with basil and tarragon from Reclaim Urban Farm, pecorino from The Cheesiry, and peas from Erdmann’s. Selfishly, I was thankful this had been served family-style, as some of my dinner companions chose not to eat their full share.

2016 Grand Taste Tour

Gnocchi

Many had been awaiting the main course – Tangle Ridge lamb was served two ways: cumin-scented meatballs, and slow roasted for 8 hours with horseradish and nettle. Perhaps it was the knowledge from the tour, but the meat was noticeably mild in flavour, outside of the spices imparted by the kitchen.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Lamb served two ways

As if we weren’t full enough, the dessert course was too good to pass up, a glorious canola oil cake dolloped with whipped cream and Brix ‘N Berries raspberries.

Grand Taste Tour 2016

Canola oil cake

Thanks again to Kirsta, Amy and the rest of the Grand Taste Tour organizers for a fantastic day full of learning and great food. I’m looking forward to next year already.

Culina at the Muttart Conservatory

When the Muttart Conservatory finally reopened after over a year of renovations in June 2009, there were high hopes the revamped Ela Euro Cafe, located at the front of the facility (and thus could be accessed without paying an entrance fee), would help draw residents and others to the evergreen oasis. Given its prime Cloverdale location, and really, the fact that it is the only food establishment in the immediate area, Ela Euro should have been a slam dunk.

While the space was bright and functional – a bank of windows and a large enclosed patio – the food couldn’t have been much of a draw. I can’t say we stopped by all that often, but on two instances we were at the Muttart, the cafe was empty.

Before: Ela Euro

As a result, the City’s new partnership with one of Edmonton’s most recognized and upstanding local chains was probably a most welcome one. Culina Muttart, the restaurant’s third outpost, opened on December 2, 2010 in the Ela Euro space. In addition to offering their comforting fare (that highlights some of the area’s best producers), the staff will also be utilizing the Muttart’s greenhouse space to grow herbs and greens for the restaurant.

Culina at the Muttart

After: Culina Muttart

On Monday night, Mack and I attended the launch of Culina Muttart. After the full-on tasting at ZINC’s fall menu launch, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. It turned out instead of a sit-down event, the evening was an informal one, set up reception style, which suited the casual cafe space perfectly.

Culina at the Muttart

Culina Muttart

It reminded me very much of the Meet the Locals Festival at Planet Organic – producers set up at tables along the periphery of the room, offering samples of their wares. Brad Lazarenko, Director and Executive Chef of Culina, said that the producers represented a range of relationship lengths – from Spring Creek Ranch, who they have sourced from for over five years, to EnSante, a brand new supplier.

Spring Creek Ranch

Kirstin Kotelko of Spring Creek Ranch slices up some beef

Meeting and chatting with the producers was a great way to really get a sense of the philosophy behind Culina’s food (which was probably the purpose of the evening), but it probably wasn’t the best way to find out what to expect at Culina Muttart, in terms of the menu and plating of dishes.

Yellowhead Brewery

Leon Hunter of Yellowhead Brewery

That said, there was one dish served, a salad featuring quinoa, Sylvan Star gouda and a Mighty Trio Organics dressing (made specifically for Culina) that is actually on the menu. The salad had great texture, and at the very least, made me feel less guilty for the meat and cheese consumption to follow.

Culina

Salad with Mighty Trio Organics dressing

Shayne and Vicky Horn of Tangled Ridge Ranch, a lamb producer, were new to us (we loved the title on Shayne’s business card that read, “Flock Master”). The slices of lamb they served us were incredibly tender and moist – I hope that same preparation ends up on the Culina menu (Tangled Ridge currently only sells whole carcasses).

Tangle Ridge Ranch

Shayne and Vicky of Tangled Ridge Ranch

Speaking of sheep, we also had our fill of sheep’s cheese (and air dried charcuterie) from Brian and Rhonda Headon, of The Cheesiry and O Sol’Meatos. Mack especially liked the cardamom salami.

The Cheesiry

Samples from The Cheesiry

The Cheesiry

Brian and Rhonda of The Cheesiry and O Sol’Meatos

Shame on us that this event was the first time we ever tried any of The Jam Lady’s products. Though we know they are a veritable City Market favourite, we always passed Donna by because we do really like the August Organics jam we always have on hand. After trying a few of her preserves and mustards however (the curried mustard is like nothing I’ve ever tasted), I know we will be loading up on a few jars very soon (her products are also available at Culina Muttart).

The Jam Lady

Bohdan and Donna Borody, aka “The Jam Man” and The Jam Lady

Guests were also invited to tour the pyramids, with interpreters pointing out the edible plants in each biome. We chose to tour the temperate pyramid, and while we learned a few things (Mack and I had no idea that seasons were induced in each biome – hence, spring in the temperate world), we were really hoping for a peek inside the greenhouse space to be used by Culina.

Feature Pyramid

The feature pyramid – all decked out for Valentine’s Day

Though the restaurant is currently only open for lunch on weekdays and brunch on weekends (during the Muttart’s operating hours), staff are working to possibly extend the restaurant’s hours into the evening, which would be particularly handy once the days are longer. Stay tuned!

Thanks again to Kiri and the rest of the Muttart staff for organizing this event – it was great opportunity to meet with some of the producers and taste some of the products that will be featured by Culina Muttart (a few other food bloggers have written about the event also: check out recaps by Liane, Twyla, Chris and Brittany).

Culina Muttart Conservatory Cafe
9626 – 96A Street
(780) 466-1181
Weekdays 10am-5pm; weekends & holidays 11am-5pm