Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ontario Terroir - The beginning of a journey

MacDonell Farm, 1898, (Courtesy of the Ontario Archives)
The archival photo above shows a late-nineteenth century farm in Southern Ontario. Just look at the variety of free-run birds on offer, including turkey, leg horns (or maybe Bantams)  and likely Rhode Island Reds. There also appears to be a few cockerel running about there, pecking and scratching till their heart's content. I can only wonder how amazing one of those birds would be, roasted up with local butter and freshly dug root vegetables. Images like this make me think about the past in my region.

The history of Ontario, and most notably our food, is a bit of a blank spot on my culinary map. And likely this is the same for many other cooks who live here. It is one thing to know from whence one's food came. It's another to know the story of how it got here.

An attachment to history seems much stronger in the U.K. I envy my mother-country for this virtue. On that note, I've been watching an illicitly downloaded BBC program on my laptop lately called Victorian Farm. It documents the travails and trials of three modern-day people living on a British farm in the Shropshire countryside, made to resemble the mid-nineteenth century. No electricity, no factory-made anything, just hard-grinding, hand-made everything.

What caught my eye initially was some of the cooking they were doing. Perhaps because food is so important to me, I am genuinely fascinated by culinary history. But it became more than that; to watch these people plod through the daily hard graft of peasant life a mere 150 years ago filled me with a not insignificant amount of guilt. Guilt that stems from how easy we have it now, and how often I find myself complaining whilst I probably shouldn't be.

Yet there is another part of me that envies them in a strange way. Every item of clothing, every stick of furniture, and the very roof over their heads were made by their own hands. Imagine if all the work we did actually resulted in some form of improvement to our lives. How grand it would be to say "I worked all day and now I have a roof over my head to keep me dry". Instead, in the modern sense, I go to my job, work all day doing something that really has nothing to do with my life, and come home with a pay cheque, that I then hand over to someone else to do these kinds of jobs - or to machines in factories that churn out all our modern conveniences with no skilled hand involved at all. In the past, the work filled one's day. There was no time to sit and reflect, to become anxious and to worry about what your neighbours might think about you. The purity of this kind of life resulted in ruddy, robust people with nary a pinchable ounce of fat on the bodies. A century ago it was the rural poor who lived longer than the affluent townies. (although not to be romantic about it, their life expectancy was only about 40 years and a staggering 1 in 4 children did not make it past their first birthday - how depressing)

This is not to say that I want to become part of a Marxist commune populated by artisans and farmers, or to be magically transformed to the Victorian era to "enjoy" the purity of all that hard work. What I am saying, in some small way, is that a little history can broaden ones horizons. To be perfectly frank, when I was taught this stuff in grade school, it simply didn't have the resonance it has now; as a forty-year-old father of two, I think I'm a more thoughtful pupil.

What a Marxist Commune might look like...or a 19th Century Ontario farm - dig the pigs
(Courtesy of the Ontario Archives)

Nevertheless, this sense of history brings me back to the subject that is probably more à propos to this blog, and that is food. So what is the legacy of Ontario cuisine? Is there even such a thing?

Well, to my mind, how could there not be? Think of the amalgamation of cultures and peoples who have called Ontario home. The First Nations people who brought us things such as the 'Three Sisters', otherwise known as 'companion planting' of vegetables that symbiotically benefit each other. Truly, the first Ontario peoples who, despite being written off as 'stone age' by less enlightened historians, were known to successfully develop large-scale agriculture, create food trading routes and markets, and were so good at hunting and trapping game, that their methods were adopted by the European colonists and have changed little to this day. Or think of the fusion recipes like bannock and pemmican that resulted from a mash up of Scottish and Native Canadian recipes; indigenous cooking and preserving methods fused with ingredients such as wheat flour, barley and spices introduced by the Scottish who made up the main labour force of the original Hudson Bay company. From there you get the French influence of not just France, but new France, and proving to remain dominant in Upper Canada after the end of the seven year war, of course, is the British influence. This was followed by the influence of U.S. Southern slaves, newly emancipated in Canada through the underground railroad. Or the imported labour who helped build the Grand Trunk railroad, many of whom came from Asia, while most left when the railroad was finished, some decided to stay and introduce their exotic cooking styles to the locals. There is also a rich tradition of the German Mennonites, attracted to the fertile earth of the Niagara region, immigrated in great numbers from Pennsylvania in the 1800's, bringing with them cheese making techniques that to this day are part of Ontario artisan cheese production.

If I haven't put you to sleep yet, than I rejoice at the fact you find this as utterly fascinating as I do.

As I have spouted many times in this blog: Ontario has rich and fertile soil, maple trees brimming with sugar, rivers and lakes that pulse with the life of a dozen fresh water fish species, birds of fine eating in many shapes, sizes and tastes, and pork that literally named my home city (Hog Town) and a dairy tradition that goes back three hundred years. Why indeed would we not have our own cuisine, our own food culture, our very own terroir as the French call it? I say yes.

Yes, indeed.

I know that butter tarts were invented in Ontario, Barrie to be precise. A truly local recipe. But what else is there? I see a visit to the Library in my future. You know, real books. None of this Google nonsense. Someone, somewhere at some point in the past, must have written a cookery book set in this province. I will find it and report back forthwith.

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