How local can you go?
It's easier than you think to set your table with products from Quebec - even beyond this glorious harvest season
SUSAN SEMENAK, The Gazette
Published: Saturday, September 22
There's a plate of juicy heirloom Cherokee Purple and beefsteak tomatoes, sliced thick, and nutty arugula leaves, just picked. Someone's brought crumbled chèvre from a cheesemaker in nearby Les Cèdres. Afterward, homemade pumpkin loaf is passed around.
Farmer Alison Hackney and a half-dozen helpers have gathered for lunch in the shade of an old tree on her rambling property in Senneville, a leafy enclave at the westernmost tip of Montreal Island. We're 20 minutes from downtown and the din in the distance is the non-stop roar of traffic from Highway 40. But at La Ferme du Fort Senneville, an eight-acre organic farm that's been in Hackney's family since the turn of the last century, the farmer and her workers have spent the morning harvesting leeks, tomatoes, purple beans, lettuce, eggplants, spaghetti squashes.
This is one of the last remaining farms on Montreal Island. It yields enough produce to fill weekly orders for 122 Montreal families who buy shares in Hackney's harvest, with enough left over to sell at the Saturday morning market in Ste. Anne de Bellevue - and for the farm workers' traditional Wednesday feast under "the lunch tree.
In the last few glorious days of summer and early fall, Montreal's markets are veritable cornucopias of local food. The zucchini is petering out and the green beans are just about done, but as long as there's no early frost, the tomatoes will be lovely for another week or so. The squashes, cabbages and carrots will be around a good deal longer, and the best of the apples are still to come.
But just how local can you go in a big city like Montreal, set in a northern climate that buries us under snow and ice from December to April?
Eating local, it turns out, is easier than you think. Local producers and food activists say it's possible to eat (mostly) local all year long, thanks to technological advances in seed planting and produce refrigeration, and a growing network of local producers of award-winning cheeses, meats, produce, even bread, condiments and wines.
"All year long we have cheeses, milk, eggs, flour, seafood and charcuterie. All of it from Quebec," notes Isabelle Drouin, whose family runs Les Saveurs du Marché at Jean Talon Market. In their seven years in business, they have expanded their inventory from 2,000 products to more than 7,000 items.
"Quebec has a proud tradition of small, artisanal producers of everything from jam and vinegars to sausages and flour. And now more than ever, there's a greater multitude of choice in what they are making."
It helps, notes André Plante, director-general of the Quebec Market Growers Association, that Montreal is surrounded by some of the richest black earth in northeastern North America. Ninety per cent of Quebec's growers are located within 60 kilometres of Montreal in places like Sherrington, St. Rémi, Hemmingford and Ste. Clothilde - even as close as neighbouring Laval, which boasts two dozen vegetable growers. So close they're all within the 450 area code.
"We're in a beautiful basin of rich black earth, and even the micro-climate here in southern Quebec is favourable to growing many vegetables, with our earlier spring thaw and new technologies that allow growers to seed earlier using plastic mini-nurseries in the fields," Plante said. "The high quality of our produce, especially our lettuce and green onions, our cabbages and potatoes, is recognized as far as New York and Boston."
The supermarkets are quick to go to their large-scale foreign suppliers once the local harvest begins to dwindle. But Plante says Montreal-area growers produce enough onions, potatoes, carrots, celery, squash and apples to feed local appetites all year long. Cabbage, for instance, can be harvested right up until early December and keeps well in refrigerated warehouses until the following May. Quebec potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions and squashes can all be stored for many months without significant loss to their quality or nutritional value.
Even in the dead of winter, Montrealers can eat local tomatoes, lettuce and herbs - greenhouse or hydroponically grown, that is.
Local organic meat is available year-round at specialty butchers. Even at Maxi and Loblaw stores, there's a new section in the meat counter reserved for veal and pork under the President's Choice label that's Quebec-raised, grain fed and antibiotic-free.
That's not how Les Jardins Dauphinais does business. These days, more than three-quarters of the products on the shelves of this greengrocer's store at Lachine Market are local. But even in winter, manager Mathieu Deschênes stocks local, alongside the mangoes and pineapple on the shelves. It's not so hard: He buys vine-ripened Savoura beef and cherry tomatoes from Les Serres du St. Laurent, with six greenhouses around Quebec, and Boston lettuce, basil, thyme, chives and other fresh herbs that are grown hydroponically, in floating rafts, at Les HydroSerres Mirabel in Ste. Sophie. Vergers Paul Jodoin near Mont St. Hilaire provides him with apple, cranberry and carrot juices, and his suppliers' warehouses are filled with MacIntosh, Spartan, Lobo, Cortland and Melba apples that keep crisp and sweet when stored at 0 to 1 degrees C.
"Next June, you can still be eating a Cortland apple nice and crisp," Deschênes insists. "But long before then, we've usually become blasé. We're craving other things."
Deschênes says more and more of his customers are asking for local produce. They are aware of the environmental and social costs of importing food over long distances. But often, they balk at paying the higher prices that local products command. For instance, Quebec strawberries sell for about $2 a pint. In winter, though, strawberries from Mexico go for only 99 cents a pound. A head of local hydroponic Boston lettuce costs $3, while its imported equivalent from California might cost one-third of that. And Deschênes says today's consumers are "lazier" than their counterparts a generation ago; they want their lettuce washed and bagged and their carrots already peeled. So they opt for the washed mixed greens from California instead of the local Romaine, dirt clinging to its leaves.
"People have gotten used to paying less and less for food from elsewhere," he said. "And they want their produce to look perfect."
What consumers too often fail to consider, he said, is that Quebec growers can't compete with Mexican or South American growers, who pay low wages and don't face the same stringent environmental standards.
Chef Nancy Hinton - a local-food proponent who runs À la table des Jardins Sauvages restaurant in St. Roch de l'Achigan, near Joliette, with her boyfriend, François Brouillard - says "locavores" come to the movement for different reasons.
"For me, it's about all of those things and also about community. About supporting the people around me who work hard and care about what they do and take care of nature."
There's more to it than lofty principles, though. Isabelle Joncas, program director of Montreal-based Équiterre's community-supported agriculture program, says encouraging sustainable local agriculture will require a major behavioural shift from consumers. We have to replace "What do I feel like eating tonight?" with "What is there to eat?"
And eating local takes creativity and advance planning. For instance, Joncas got together with a friend last week to make and freeze batches of ratatouille from the eggplant, peppers and zucchini that were in her weekly produce basket. She's shredded and frozen beets for her famous chocolate beet cake. All summer, she's been making jam or freezing berries to eat in winter. And she scours cookbooks looking for new ways to treat old standbys.
"The thought of eating boiled cabbage all winter is unbearable. But that's not what eating local has to be. Sweet and sour cabbage happens to be delicious. And there are thousands of recipes for potatoes, beets and celeriac."
Joncas says she's not so fanatical that she's ready to forgo clementines and lemons, coffee and cinnamon. But she's doing what she can, buying her produce from a local farmer, seeking out organic meat from Quebec and eschewing imports when the local equivalent is readily available - even if it costs more. And she makes it a point to demand local products from her local grocery stores.
"Eating local should not be about being boring and strict and self-righteous. It should be about eating well, taking care of the Earth and giving thanks to the people who grew the food."
HOW FAR HAVE THOSE INGREDIENTS TRAVELLED?
The local-food movement has been gathering impetus for several years now. "Eat local" is the new bumper-sticker slogan for environmentalists and gourmets alike, or "locavores" as they are sometimes called.
First there was the 100-Mile Diet, the blog and bestselling book from Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who chronicled their year-long attempt to eat only foods grown and produced within a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver apartment. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver weighed in this summer with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the non-fiction narrative of her family's move to a rural life in Virginia, where they eat only food they grow themselves or buy from their neighbours.
In Montreal, Équiterre, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable living, has seen its network grow to 90 farms providing food for 8,600 families in the 11 years since it began hooking up local organic farmers and city dwellers. Many of them now supply produce, as well as organic meat and poultry, all year long. Most have waiting lists of prospective customers hoping to sign up for a share of their crops.
Isabelle Joncas, program director of Équiterre's community-supported agriculture program, says the campaign to promote local food could use a boost from food retailers and the government. At a conference this month on globalization and food, local producers called on the province to introduce mandatory labelling of food products with the country of origin.
Joncas says she'd also like to see the three major food retailers - Loblaw, Metro and Sobeys (which operates IGA stores) - promoting local food more keenly.