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The Flying Apron

Posted: Sunday, April 9th, 2017

For those of you who aren’t aware, the Flying Apron Inn & Cookery, located in Summerville, Hants County, sources over 90 percent of its ingredients locally. But for Chris Velden this isn’t anything new: “I’m always doing local, whatever is available I’m cooking with it. In Germany, you’re always getting your ingredients from the farmer’s markets.”

The German school system is very different. As a teenager Chris took the vocational path and at the age of fifteen started a three-year apprenticeship as a cook. This was mostly a hands-on education with classes one day a week. He followed this up with another six-month apprenticeship to learn about running the front of house.

After cooking for years in Germany he decided it was time for a change. ‘‘Germany got too small for me, size wise.”’ He came to Canada in 1995. “There wasn’t much beer, or wineries, or artisanal bread making then.”

Chris settled in Victoria on Vancouver Island, working as a chef. From there he spent a year and a half on Salt Spring Island. “You could not predict the swing of people. In the summer the population would swell with vacationers, and in the winter it was very quiet.”

From Salt Spring Chris began to bounce around. He spent two years in Ohio, where he met his wife, then on to Calgary, and then Vancouver. While in Vancouver he took a job as an instructor at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts. Six months into this new job he was made principal of the school, in charge of 13 instructors and 250 students.

Of course he decided to move again, and ended up in Nova Scotia nine years ago.
The Flying Apron began as pre-made meals sold at the Farmers’ Market in Halifax. But Chris and Melissa were still on the lookout for a place of their own. Three years ago they found it, an old inn in Summerville. They converted it into a restaurant and inn with five rooms.  

Chris Velden at The Flying Apron

“The restaurant is going really well,” says Chris. Besides running the restaurant Chris gives cooking classes. “We’re doing four cooking classes a month, which are fully booked. On top of that we host private cooking classes as well.”

The most exciting annual event that Chris runs is Dining On The Ocean Floor. (See the video about it here.) Twice each day the Bay of Fundy fills and empties more than 100 billion tonnes of water, creating the highest tides in the world. Burntcoat Head, in the Minas Basin,is the site of the greatest tidal range ever recorded, exceeding 16 metres between low and high tide.

This is where you get to eat – literally on the ocean floor after the tide has gone out.

As Chris explains, “It’s a six hour experience out at Burntcoat Head Park. It begins with a 45-minute foraging tour looking for local ingredients that I will use to cook the meal with. The first course is a fish soup with mussels, clams, and lobster – cooked in white wine from Avondale Sky.”

“We then take the diners on an hour and a half tour of the park. When they get back the next course is charcuterie and cheese. I make the charcuterie and use local cheeses. The main course, High Tide – Low Tide, is a butter-poached lobster tail served with beef tenderloin, succotash, and foraged greens. The final course is fresh local berries, served in lavender phyllo with Grand Marnier mascarpone cream.”

Each course is paired with locally produced wine and beer from Avondale Sky and Meander River. Meander River brews a special beer just for this event called Surf and Turf Scotch Ale. It is made using peated malt and foraged seaweed.

“After all the food is done, we sit around a campfire until the tide comes,” says Chris.

The event for 2017 is already sold out. So if you want tickets, ask to get on the waiting list.

Closing Remarks

As the interview wound down I had two final questions for Chris: Who do you think is doing interesting things [with food] in Nova Scotia? and What would you like to see changed?

Chris recommended a number of restaurants, including

  • The Bite House – a 13-eat restaurant in Cape Breton, run by Bryan Pickard
  • Mateus Bistro – a charming little restaurant in downtown Mahone Bay
  • something that David Smart has up his sleeve, starting up shortly

As to what he wants to see changed, Chris says, “I think it would be great if there were more people involved in the food scene. I know people have tight budgets. You don’t always have to go out for dinner. But just get involved in the local food community.”

“Support your local farmers. If you don’t support these guys you won’t have fresh food any more. I’d like to see more people cooking their own food and buying from farmers’ markets.”

 

Fresh Bread is Coming to Dartmouth

Posted: Sunday, April 9th, 2017

It seems fitting that we met at the newly opened The Canteen on Portland for our interview. Jessica Best, the owner of Birdies Bread Co., worked for Renée Lavallée for a number of years at her old location above Two If By Sea.

And The Canteen on Portland is also one of Jessica’s first commercial customers. The other notable restaurant using her bread so far is Battery Park.

As Jessica says, “Bread is as slow as you get. I am completely at the mercy of the bread. It’s a slow process. All I can do is guide it along.”

This story began almost a decade ago, in 2008, when Jessica graduated from the Culinary Institute of Canada. Moving back to St. John’s, where she was from, she ended up working at the now very famous Raymonds Restaurant.

While at Raymond’s Jessica had the opportunity to learn under Erin Turke, who taught her how to make sourdough bread.

From St. John’s she moved to Halifax.

Her friendship with Renée opened the door to meeting other entrepreneurs involved in the local food scene. As we sat at the bar Kathy MacDonald from Made with Local came over and said hi to Jessica.

An article by Bill Spurr in the Chronicle Herald on local grains was the eureka moment that started the ball rolling on Birdies Bread Co. The premise of the article was that because there simply wasn’t enough milling capacity in Nova Scotia, a large percentage of local grains were being exported from the province. Jessica wondered if she could help reverse that situation.

The first step was finding the grains. A search led Jessica to Jeff McMahon of Longspell Point Farm in the Annapolis Valley.

The second step was milling the grains herself, for the freshest flour possible. This is particularly important for whole grain flours. Though white flour is shelf-stable for months, whole grain flour contains far more oil and can go rancid.

With everything in place it was time to start baking bread. And selling it, which Jessica does every Saturday at the Alderney Farmers’ Market.

For the Saturday market, Jessica begins making the bread on Thursday. “I’m leaving the bread out on my porch overnight to let it proof (retard) slowly in the cold winter air.”

Once it has proofed, she forms it into individual loaves and starts baking them off. She lines her oven with bricks to retain heat and uses a piece of limestone as a baking stone. “I feel so bad,” she says. “We inherited this lovely KitchenAid oven that I run for almost twenty-four hours straight at 500 degrees Fahrenheit every Friday.”

And it does take her almost 24 hours to bake off her bread for Saturday. She can only do three loaves at a time and bakes off over a hundred loaves each week. “I start baking Friday afternoon, and I usually finish Saturday morning around 5 a.m.,” Jessica says. “That’s when I put the croissants in the oven and then head over to the farmers’ market. I usually crash as soon as I get home in the afternoon.”

This is just the beginning for Jessica and Birdies Bread Co. This spring they’ll be moving into a retail location on Pleasant Street. With the move comes an upgrade in equipment: an industrial mixer, a two-tier steam-injection bread oven, and a new flour mill. About that mill, Jessica tells us, “It’s from Austria, and I’ll be able to mill 50 kilos an hour. I’m planning on selling the flours as well.”

Construction has begun….

About her move to Pleasant Street, Jessica explains, “We’ll be just outside of downtown Dartmouth. I really wanted to stay downtown, but most of my equipment requires three-phase power, which often isn’t available in older buildings. Though we’re a little off the beaten path, we are on the way to Lawrencetown. I’m hoping that all the surfers will stop by for a coffee and a croissant after they’re done surfing for the day.”
Check it out this spring and follow Jessica’s journey here.

Eatin On The Cheap: 1877 to Today…

Posted: Monday, March 6th, 2017

When Leanne Brown moved to New York from Edmonton to earn her master’s degree in food studies she couldn’t help but notice that Americans on a tight budget ate a lot of processed foods.

There’s been a long standing concern within the health community for those below the poverty line. Due to their circumstances, the poor take in a large percentage of their total calories in the form of low quality, highly processed foods.

“It really bothered me,” she says. “The 47 million people on food stamps [SNAP] – and that’s a big chunk of the population – don’t have the same choices everyone else does.”

The U.S. food stamp program, SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, only provides a budget of $4 a day. Leanne Brown decided to combine her master’s degree work with her passion for helping those on SNAP and wrote a cookbook filled with recipes that budgeted for their $4 allowance.

The result, Good and Cheap, is free online and has been downloaded over 1,000,000 times. A Kickstarter campaign in 2014 raised $145,000 for a print copy. The cookbook is available for purchase on Leanne’s website and she donates a copy each time someone buys it. More than 70,000 copies of the printed book have been sold.

Her book is simple and practical. Her recipes allow for endless variations and substitutions. They are also primarily vegetarian, a way to afford nutritious and flavourful food on $4 a day. Most importantly the book does not come off as either preachy or condescending. It admits to not being perfect.

Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food. This cookbook is a celebration of the many delicious meals available to those on even the most strict of budgets.  

There are several practical tips such as:

  1. Buy in Bulk: Buying larger amounts usually brings the price down. When you’re working within a tight budget, you won’t always be able to afford to shop for the future, but do it when you can.
  2. Start Building a Pantry: If possible—and admittedly this can be difficult for people living on their own—reserve part of your budget to buy one or two semi-expensive pantry items each week. Things like olive oil, soy sauce, and spices are pricey at first, but if you use just a little with each recipe, they go a long way.
  3. Think Weekly: Each week, mix things up by buying different varieties of staple foods like grains and beans.
  4. Think Seasonally: During their local growing season, fruits and vegetables are generally cheaper and definitely tastier than outside of season.
  5. More Vegetables Means More Flavour: Nothing livens up a bowl of rice like summer squash and corn! Vegetables make the best sauces: they’re earthy, bright, tart, sweet, bitter, savory, rich.
  6. Always Buy Eggs: With these babies in your fridge, you’re only minutes away from a satisfying meal.
  7. Make Your Own Broth And Stock: In almost any savory recipe that calls for water, homemade broth or stock would be better. To make broth, start by saving any vegetable bits that you chop off and would normally throw away, like onion tops, the seedy parts of peppers, and the ends of carrots. Store them in the freezer until you have a few cups, then cover them with water, bring to a boil, and simmer on low heat for a few hours.

New York seems to have a long tradition of innovative cookbook authors focused on helping the poor. Leanne Brown certainly wasn’t the first. Julia Corson, predates her by almost a century and a half.

Julia Corson was born in Boston in 1841 and opened the Free Training School For Women, at the age of thirty-three. Before this, she didn’t know how to cook. She hired  a French chef, thought to have been the celebrated Pierre Blot to run it. Two years later she had moved to Manhattan and started giving cooking classes out of her home. She called her classes the New York Cooking School and had over a thousand students a year.

There was always an air of social conscience in everything she did. She tried to make her cooking classes affordable for everyone. For her rich students she charged enormous fees, for the middle class a nickel a lesson and the poor could attend for free.

During the Long Depression of 1873 to 1879 New York’s economy declined dramatically. This was especially felt by the poor. In response, Julia Corson published a series of pamphlets including Fifteen Cent Dinners for Workingmen’s Families and How Can We LIve If We Are Moderately Poor. The following except are from Fifteen Cent Dinners.

This little book may not be a welcome guest in the home of the man who fares abundantly every day; it is not written for him; but to the working man, who wants to make the best of his wages, I pray it may bring help and comfort.

It is the similarities and the differences that are most interesting between Leanne Brown and Julia Corson’s works. The practical advice on saving is very similar, the tips used of buying in bulk and preparing versus buying have remained the same.

 

To the Wives of Workingmen :

In planning how to make the wages of the working man provide his family with the necessaries of life, the first point to be considered is the daily supply of food. If this little book shows the laborer’s wife how to feed her husband and children upon one half, or one third, or even, in times of great distress, upon the whole of his scanty wages, its object will be accomplished.

The cheapest kinds of food are sometimes the most wholesome and strengthening; but in order to obtain all their best qualities we must know how to choose them for their freshness, goodness, and suitability to our needs. That done, we must see how to cook them, so as to make savory and nutritious meals instead of tasteless or sodden messes, the eating whereof sends the man to the liquor shop for consolation.

The food most generally in use among the masses is just that which meets their requirements. No hungry man will spend money for what he knows will not satisfy his appetite. For that reason the receipts given in this book treat of the articles in common use among the working classes, with the exception of lentils and macaroni, which are foods that I earnestly beg them to try. In meals made up of bacon, potatoes, and bread, of corned beef and cabbage, and of pork and beans, there exists an equal and sufficient amount of nourishment; but if other dishes are added to these, the variety will result in better general health and contentment.

In matters of diet variety is not only the spice of life; it is the necessity.

What is different is the shift in ingredients as America’s palate and affordability has changed. Julia Corson relies far more heavily on suet and pork fat while Brown’s recipes are primarily vegetarian. Brown’s work still reflects a generally high percentage of calories deriving from carbohydrates while Corson’s recipes are proportionally high in fat.

With the war on wheat and gluten Corson’s words are particularly poignant today. In describing macaroni, a then unfamiliar pasta she says, ‘This is a paste made from the purest wheat flour and water; it is generally known as a rather luxurious dish among the wealthy; but it should become one of the chief foods of the people, for it contains more gluten, or the nutritious portion of wheat, than bread.’

Corson, like Brown, provides the cost per meal allowing for families to plan and budget their meals. Where Brown relies on vegetarian dishes, Corson relies on second and third cuts of meats, a way to get animal protein while still being affordable. She describes in detail what people should be looking for, for each type of meat:

  1. Beef: The second quality of beef has rather whitish fat, laid moderately thick upon the back, and about the kidneys; the flesh is close-grained, having but few streaks of fat running through it, and is of a pale red color, and covered with a rough, yellowish skin.
  2. Mutton: The flesh of the second quality of mutton is dark red and close-grained, with very few threads of fat running through it: the fat is rather soft, and is laid thin on the back and kidneys, closely adhering to them.

  3. Pork: The second quality of pork has rather hard, red flesh, and yellowish fat. The poorest kind has dark, coarse grained meat, soft fat, and discoloured kidneys. The flesh of stale pork is moist and clammy, and its smell betrays its condition.

  4. Fish: Although fish contains more water and less solid nutriment than meat, it is generally useful from its abundance and cheapness; and certain kinds which are called red-blooded, such as salmon and sturgeon, are nearly as nourishing as fresh meat: oily fish, such as eels, mackerel, and herring, satisfy hunger as completely as meat; herring especially, makes the people who eat it largely strong and sinewy. Sea fish are more nourishing than fresh water varieties. Fresh fish have firm flesh, rigid fins, bright, clear eyes, and ruddy gills.

 

The similarities between the two are endless. Both recommend buying in bulk to save money, offering similar advice:

“When it is possible buy your vegetables by the quantity, from the farmers, or market-gardeners, or at the market you will save more than half. Potatoes now cost at Washington Market from one to one dollar and a half a barrel; there are three bushels in a barrel, and thirty-two quarts in a bushel; now at the groceries you pay fifteen cents a half peck, or four cents a quart; that makes your barrel of potatoes cost you three dollars and sixty-three cents, if you buy half a peck at a time; or three dollars and eighty-four cents if you buy by the quart. So you see if you could buy a barrel at once you could save more than one half of your money. It is worthwhile to try and save enough to do it.” Recommends Corson.

Brown has similar advice, though she doesn’t follow it up with a practical example. “Buying larger amounts usually brings the price down. When you’re working within a tight budget, you won’t always be able to afford to shop for the future, but do it when you can.”

The same can be said for baking bread. Brown has a number of recipes for homemade pasta, pizza dough, tortillas and rotis. Flour itself is cheap, while buying baked goods at the grocery store becomes prohibitively expensive. Or, as Corson puts it, “Homemade bread is healthier, satisfies hunger better, and is cheaper than baker’s bread.”

At the basis of both these women’s works is forward planning and practicality. Using leftovers to create new meals, buying in bulk, and planning ahead. Even reusing ingredients to create new things. Effectively using bones or vegetable peels to create flavourful stocks to be added to dishes later in the week.

Brown includes ten suggestions for turning her recipes into exciting leftovers. “Leftovers are convenient, but can seem unappealing, limp, and cold after sitting in the fridge for a couple of days. That’s why the sandwich, the wrap, and the taco are your friend. Here are just a few ideas for how to give leftovers a makeover very quickly for a whole new meal!”

This may best sum up Corson’s ethos, “In estimating the cost of these receipts I have naturally supposed that the family consists of father, mother, and children of different ages, and not of six adults; for them the quantities given would, of course, be insufficient. I allow a meat dinner every day; but in order to have this the meat itself must generally be used one day, with bread or vegetables, and the next day the breakfast must be the broth or juice of the meat, which, if prepared according to my directions, will afford equal nourishment.”

These practical guides attempted to address a problem, that though extremely severe, most people simply are unaware of. Most of us don’t worry where our next meal is going to come from, whether we will be able to afford healthy ingredients, or if we have to choose between paying for a doctor’s visit or putting food in front of our children.

Both Good and Cheap and Fifteen Cent Dinner for Workingmen’s Families are grim reminders of how many people lived and continue to live today.

 

Brooklyn Warehouse – Ten Years In The Making

Posted: Friday, March 3rd, 2017

I had an opportunity to sit with Leo Christakos, long time board member of Slow Food Nova Scotia and talk to him about his restaurants, the local food community, and food policy.

It’s a long article (sorry), we spoke for over two and a half hours.

Act 1: The Backstory and Beginnings

Since its opening a decade ago, Brooklyn Warehouse has continuously been ranked one of the best restaurants in Halifax. It’s the brainchild of the father and son team Leo and George Christakos. Since then they’ve opened another two restaurants: Ace Burger and Battery Park Beerbar & Eatery, to rave reviews.

To say it’s in their blood would be an understatement; it’s really a major part of their family story or ethos. George will be the third generation to work in the restaurant business.

It all began when Leo’s parents arrived from Greece in 1956; that’s why there’s a reference to “1956” everywhere in their shops. Leo’s father; known as “Mr. George” and George’s namesake, had worked as a waiter in Greece and quickly found similar work in Canada. Within a year in Canada, he’d opened his first restaurant. By 1977, when he retired, he had opened three, along with helping other family members do the same. It’s the classic immigrant tale.

Leo can still remember, as a kid back in the ’60s, peeling potatoes in the back room, and later still; when his dad switched from farm potatoes to something new and very convenient, McCain’s wholesale frozen fries. Up to that point they were hand-cut, but to save time and money he switched; it was simply more affordable. In a twist of irony; Ace Burger has won “Best Fries” year after year, for their daily hand-cut fries.

For a while, Leo got out of the food business, studied graphic arts at NSCAD, and later went on to open Blowers Street PaperChase; a newsstand in 1986, with his brother-in-law, which they eventually expanded into a popular downtown cafe. Around 2003, Leo decided to get out of self-employment and work for someone else for a while; which didn’t last long; he soon had the itch to be his own boss again.

George (right) and Leo (left)

At about this time, George was attending engineering school and had just landed a manager’s position with the newly revamped Armview Restaurant, after working at Opa! Greek Cuisine as a waiter and studying for his sommelier creds. He wanted the same thing as his dad – his own restaurant; to be his own boss.

They decided on a family road trip to Brooklyn, NY, that they would partner-up and make it happen; and in 2007 they opened the Brooklyn Warehouse at the corner of Almon and Windsor.

At the time, it wasn’t where you would expect to find one of the best restaurants in Halifax. It was a risk, for sure, being off the beaten track, some distance from downtown and no other casual dining rooms nearby. But it thrived. Named the Coast’s Best New Restaurant in 2008, it has continuously been ranked in the top three restaurants in one category or another ever since; raking up over 60 awards to date, along with other regional and national awards – like Taste of Nova Scotia’s Prestige Award and Gold Medal Plates.

What is it like running a father and son family business? According to Leo; “Tough. Good. Great! I’m full of big ideas; I get an idea and I want to run with it. George is more methodical; he says, “hold on, Leo” – he puts numbers to the idea, comes up with a plan. He executes with style!”

It’s all about execution.

Act 2: The Burger

Ace Burger

Four years into Brooklyn Warehouse, Leo and George wanted to do something different; something cool and simple. They wanted to do a pop-up restaurant over a weekend. They built the idea around one of their most popular menu items at Windsor Street; the Brooklyn Burger. The idea was to run a quintessential burger joint for three days in someone else’s kitchen! The venerable Gus’s Pub, located on the corner of Agricola and North, was looking to outsource their kitchen. Dimo, the pub’s owner, good friends with Leo, just happened to mention this during a camping trip together. That was it! George and Leo decided this would be their pop-up location, and the rest is history.

From their website:

Ace is literally a business inside a business; started as a popup and due to popular demand was invited to come back and take over Gus’ kitchen permanently. Ace Burger is based on the classic burger joints of the 40’s and 50’s; made popular with tasty, simple, handcrafted eats from local ingredients; farm to table cooking.

Some may not have noticed, but Ace has a seasonal menu. It changes some items based on what’s available from here throughout the year. Leo says, “We don’t use tomatoes at Ace at all, because they still typically come from somewhere else year-round. We might preserve sun-dried tomatoes in the fall, or prepare homemade ketchups and other preserves when tomatoes from here are available, but there are no tomato slices on hand as a regular condiment; typical for other burger shops. This raises an eyebrow or two from customers; but that’s a good thing – it makes people think!”

“I remember shopping at a supermarket one day, and there were these funny-coloured tomatoes.” Leo pretends to pick one up, turning it left and right. “It was so dark-red, and hard as a rock. I looked at the sticker to see where it was from and it said Israel. Israel! It’s summertime and we’re importing tomatoes from across the world.”

Leo told me, “There’s a map of NYC framed at Ace Burger, with thirty-eight pins on it. We went to thirty-eight restaurants there before opening Ace. Not only New York though; we also went to Toronto and Montreal. The trips weren’t just about burgers, though. We wanted to see what was working in these towns. We spent most of our time avoiding the tourist areas and went into neighbourhoods like Williamsburg and Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Park Slope – where people lived. In Toronto; the College Street area, the Junction, Trinity/Bellwoods. When in Montreal, we got away from Rue Ste-Catherine and checked out the Plateau, Mile End, and Little Burgundy.”

“In New York we found this burger joint in a hotel lobby. You walked down this hallway and the restaurant was hidden behind these heavy black curtains. On the outside it was like every other hotel lobby, quiet and proper. On the inside, behind those curtains, it was crazy busy. The place was packed. All they were serving were burgers, fries, sodas, and shakes. That’s what we wanted to do.”

“The same thing happened in Toronto. We came across this hole-in-the-wall place on King Street, now called Big Smoke Burger. It was this tiny space, maybe 500–600 square feet, but it was packed and had a line out the door. Small, simple, straightforward menu with combos and local, hand-crafted pop . . . that’s all.”

Act 3: The Beer and The Bar

For a while Leo and George had been eyeing Dartmouth. But the perfect opportunity just never came along. Zane Kelsall offered them the second floor of Two If By Sea (which eventually became Renee Lavallee’s, “The Canteen”). They just couldn’t see the space working for what they had in mind.

Instead, they decided to put their resources into adding a four-season patio onto Brooklyn Warehouse, doubling their seating. Just after breaking ground on the patio space in 2010, the owners of Nectar Restaurant in Dartmouth, called. “They wanted to move on and offered us their space. We were just too tight financially and time-wise to do anything right then: we asked them to keep us in mind if they didn’t find someone else. They kept calling every year after, seeing if we were ready, or still interested.”

While running Ace Burger, Leo and George got to know Peter Burbridge from North Brewing Company just down the street. Peter convinced Gus’s Pub to stock his beer, eventually brewing their own Gus’s 65m, a Belgian blonde. Not long after, Peter approached Leo and George. “He wanted to open a second retail location in Dartmouth and wanted to know if we were interested in partnering up with a food element. George and I looked at him and said, ‘Well, don’t we have the perfect location for you.’’’

“Battery Park had some unique challenges from the get-go. After opening, we kept hearing, “why do you open at 2 pm and not for lunch?”, and  “why are you closed on Tuesdays; what’s up with that?” We have good reasons for what we do; from the beginning we wanted to complement the other businesses in the area, not compete. We told Zane and Renee that we were opening a new restaurant next door and let them know we wanted to help grow the area; we didn’t want to take away from what they were doing. We wanted it to be collaborative. We wanted to be a part of the community they built, not disrupt it.” So, we eased our way into the neighbourhood; into their marketplace.

And it’s worked.

 

Food For Thought

“There needs to be a shift from the way these strict regulations are interpreted and applied; put trust back to the small scale producers. We take responsibility for everything that comes out of our kitchen, it’s on me to make sure it’s safe.”
That’s what Slow Food is all about. Good. Clean. Fair.

Was It Through Poetry or Food That Italy was United?

Posted: Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Though the process was begun in 1815, Italy wasn’t the nation state that we think of today until 1871. That’s rather a short history as a country. Prior to that it was a collection of city states, with their own rulers. Rome, Naples, Florence, and Venice were all in essence their own countries. And because of this they all spoke their own languages. There was no guarantee that an Italian from Florence could understand someone from Milan.

In 1861, only 3% of Italians were able to speak standardized Italian.

Even with the fall of the Roman Empire, people on the Italian Peninsula still spoke Latin. Over time the language began to evolve and change. Out of this change emerged ‘Vulgar Latin’ the seedling that would become Italian. It was ‘vulgar’ because it was spoken by the ‘Volgo’ the poor and uneducated portion of the population.

The popularity of Vulgar Latin spread eventually transitioning from a spoken language to a written one as well. The earliest texts of what we would now call Italian were written between 960 and 963 C.E. and were legal formulae known as the Placiti Cassinesi.

The Italian language adopted by the state after unification was based on Tuscan, which was the language spoken mostly by upper-class Florentines. Though this story has its routes in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

Dante's Inferno

The nine layers of hell

Linguist Tullio De Mauro has pointed out that in the 1300s, 60% of the essential or basic vocabulary of Italian – the two thousand or so words we use most often- were already in common use. But Dante Alighieri decided to write the Divine Comedy in Italian and not Latin. Dante’s work left us with the a lexicon that included 90% of the basic vocabulary of what we think of as Italian today.

This is one view on the origin of modern Italian. Dante wrote the Divine Comedy in Florence where the language spoken was Tuscan. Tuscan was the language of the aristocracy. When Italy unified Tuscan was chosen as the official language of the state and so eventually became the official language spoken by everyone. Case closed.

Or is it?  

There is a fascinating counter-story. It happened a little after the Italian unification. Pellegrino Artusi was an author and tried to get his cookbook of recipes published, but couldn’t find a publisher who was interested. Instead he published – La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene or The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well – on his own.

La Scienza in Cucina e l'Arte di Mangiar Bene

Just a thousand copies at first, but the book caught on and before Artusi had died over 200,000 copies had been sold. It was read throughout Italy and was one of the first popular books read by a large section of the population.
Dante might have formed the basis of the Tuscan language, but Artusi made people actually interested.

The Grainary

Posted: Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

The Grainary

I needed flour. I’d been buying two kilogram packages of Speerville flour from the Local Source, but it cost over $10 and I was through it within two weeks.

I needed a better option. In frustration I bought ten kilograms of Robin Hood Flour. It just wasn’t that good. My bread tasted off, my pizza stuck to the cookie sheet, I wasn’t happy.

For weeks whenever I ran into people and the subject of food came up I would ask them, “Do you know where I can buy really good flour in bulk?”

I’m a member of the North End running group that meets every Wednesday night at North End Brewery for an easy and fun six kilometer run. The first run of the month ends with a social, this time at the Lion’s Head Tavern.

I started chatting with Ben about food. I don’t know Ben or anyone’s last name. We got on the subject of frying, he has jars of cooking oil under his sink for whatever he needs. Whether it’s meat, fish, falafel he has got it covered.

It seemed like an opportune moment. I decided to ask him The Question, ‘Do you know where I can buy a lot of good flour?’

And finally I had a lead. The Grainery.

The Grainary

Located on Agricola two blocks north of the Commons

For those of you like me, ignorant of what The Grainery is, it is a non-profit cooperative that is 100% run by volunteer members.

They can say it better than I can:

The [Grainery] Co-op format promotes community involvement which allows prices to be kept low, so that people of all economic backgrounds have access to healthy organic food. In addition, we strive to reduce environmental degradation by purchasing items in bulk with minimal or compostable packaging and provide the opportunity to refill products where possible.

 

I went on their website, scrolled to the flour section and began ordering. White flour, whole-wheat flour, and cornmeal. Then I waited. And waited. For about a month I hummed and hawed over when my order would arrive. They order in bulk to lower costs, but only place an order once enough have come in from individual customers.

And then it finally did.

The Grainery is located on Agricola Street about two blocks north of The Commons. Tucked away in a tiny store front beside Hali Deli, it’s easy to miss. The volunteer staff are wonderful and eager to help; they even helped load the flour into my car.

The first thing I made that night when I got home was cornbread. I think the difference in between the Speerville cornmeal and the grocery store stuff was even more extreme than the flour. Speerville’s cornmeal was a totally different texture, size and colour than the stuff from Sobey’s.
If nothing else the taste has sold me. It tastes like corn. Rich in flavour and with a hearty texture I don’t think I can ever go back.

Spruce Beer

Posted: Sunday, February 5th, 2017

The story of Spruce Beer is as old as Canada itself. At least European Canada.

Cartier

While on his second voyage during the winter of 1535 Jacques Cartier and his crew were stranded near Quebec City. Their ships were frozen in ice and they wouldn’t be able to return to France until the spring.

With a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables available Cartier’s crew began to succumb to what we now know was scurvy. Almost the entire crew became sick. It was only with the help of the local Iroquois that Cartier’s crew survived.

They taught Cartier and his men how to brew a tea using the branches of a coniferous tree that they called Anneda. His men got better. They started calling the tree, not Anneda, but ‘Arbre de Vie’ or ‘Tree of Life.’

Scurvy is caused by a deficiency in vitamin C. Coniferous trees are a good source of vitamin C which is why Cartier and his men got better.  The body is able to store 1,500 mg of ascorbic acid (vitamin C). It is used up at an average rate of 3% per day. After three months of vitamin C deprivation, the stores become largely depleted.

The exact identity of the Anneda tree has been lost. There are a number of trees that it could have been; eastern white cedar, white spruce, black spruce, eastern white pine, red pine, balsam fir, eastern hemlock or even juniper.

There is evidence that the Scandinavians arrived at the same discovery themselves and were already making spruce beer in Europe. “Ancient Scandinavians and their Viking descendants brewed beer from young shoots of Norway spruce, drinking the beer for strength in battle, for fertility and to prevent scurvy on long sea voyages.” However, it is hard to say if this knowledge ever reached the English or French.

The exact date which spruce beer caught on is unknown. But by the middle of the eighteenth century it appears both British and French troops had adopted the practice of adding spruce to their beer in an attempt to prevent scurvy.

By 1749 we know that the French were making spruce beer. Perh Kalm a Swedish-Finnish botanist who visited New France left an account of the production of spruce beer.

“After having put the cutting of the pine into the water, they lay some of the cones of the tree amongst it, for the gum which is contained in them, is thought very wholesome; and makes the beer better….. While it is boiling they take some wheat, put it into the pan over the fire, and roast it as we do coffee; till it is almost black; all the while stirring, shaking and turning it about in the pan, when that is done they throw it into the copper with some burnt bread.

Rye is as fit for this purpose as wheat; barley is better than either, and Indian corn is better than barley. The reasons given me for putting this burnt corn and bread into the water are first, and chiefly to give it a brownish colour like malt liquor; second to make it more palatable; third, to make it something more nourishing.

When it has continued boiling till half the quantity only of the water remains in the copper, the pine is taken out and thrown away, and the liquor is poured into a vessel, thro’ a sieve of hair cloth, to prevent the burnt bread and corning from mixing with it. Then some sirrup is put into the wort to make it more palatable, and to take away the taste, which the gum of the tree might leave behind. The wort is then left to cool after some yeast has been put into it, and nothing remains to be done until it is tunned up, but skimming of what, during fermentation, has risen up upon the surface; and in four and twenty hours it is fit to drink.”

Fort Louisburg

In 1757 John Knox noted that New England troops when they captured Louisbourg (Cape Breton) in 1745 were supplied with spruce beer. “This liquor being thought necessary for the preservation of the healths of our men, as they were confined to salt provisions, and it is an excellent antiscorbutic: it is made from the tops and branches of the Spruce-tree, boiled for three hours, then strained into casks, with a certain quantity of molasses, and, as soon as cold, it is fit for use.”

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Though it’s hard to say whether the New England troops were simply consuming spruce beer found at Louisbourg or whether they had made it themselves, it is clear that the British the consumption of spruce beer took off during the Seven Years War also known as the French and Indian War to Americans. In 1759, General Amherst recorded his own recipe for spruce beer.

“Take 7 pounds of good spruce & boil it well till the bark peels off, then take the spruce out & put three gallons of molasses to the Liquor & and boil it again, scum it well as it boils, then take it out the kettle & put it into a cooler, boil the remained of the water sufficient for a barrel of thirty gallons, if the kettle is not large enough to boil it together, when milk-warm in the cooler put a pint of yeast into it and mix well. Then put it into a Barrel and let it work for two or three days, keep filling it up as it works out. When done working, bung it up with a Tent Peg in the barrel to give it vent every now and then. It may be used in up to two or three days after. If wanted to be bottled it should stand a fortnight in the cask. It will keep a great while.”

Spruce beer would enjoy over a century of popularity, not just in North America but also in Europe. In 1769 a book, The London Practice of Physic, listed spruce beer as a treatment for scurvy giving the following recipe.

“Take twelve gallons of water and put therein three pounds and a half of black spruce, and boil it for three hours; then put to the liquor seven pounds of molasses just boil it up, strain it through a sieve when milk-warm, put to it about four spoonfulls of yeast to work it; it soon becomes fit for bottling, perhaps in five or six days.”

Benjamin Franklin

Even the American founding fathers became interested in spruce beer. Benjamin Franklin first came across spruce beer while in France during the American War for Independence. He began experimenting with it on his return at the end of the war and his recipe for spruce beer survived.

For a Cask containing 80 bottles, take one pot of Essence [of spruce] and 13 Pounds of Molasses. – or the same amount of unrefined Loaf Sugar; mix them well together in 20 pints of hot Water: Stir together until they make a Foam, then pour it into the Cask you will then fill with Water: add a Pint of good Yeast, stir it well together and let it stand 2 or 3 Days to ferment, after which close the Cask, and after a few days it will be ready to be put into Bottles, that must be tightly corked. Leave them 10 or 12 Days in a cool Cellar, after which the Beer will be good to drink.”

Another American recipe comes to us from Amelia Simmons, American Cookery, published in 1796.


“For brewing Spruce Beer. Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour, in one gallon of water, strain the hop water, then add 16 gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissolved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins [baker’s yeast], then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bottle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.”

Around the same time spruce beer was becoming ubiquitous with the British Navy. Scurvy was a common issue for sailors on long sea voyages. Records from Captain Cook’s voyages showed that he made spruce beer on both his second voyage to New Zealand and on his third to Alaska using local varieties of coniferous trees. His recipe survives and is still being made by Wingram Brewing Company in New Zealand.

We at first made our beer of a decoction of the spruce leaves; but, finding that this alone made it too astringent, we afterwards mixed with it an equal quantity of the tea plant (a name it obtained in my former voyage, from our using it as a tea then, as we also did now), which partly destroyed the astringency of the other, and made the beer exceedingly palatable, and esteemed by everyone on board. We brewed it in the same manner as spruce beer, and the process is as follows. First make a strong decoction of the small branches of the spruce and tea-plants, by boiling them three or four hours, or until the bark will strip with ease from the branches; then take them out of the copper, and put in the proper quantity of molasses, ten gallons of which is sufficient to make a ton, or two hundred and forty gallons of beer. Let this mixture just boil; then put it into casks, and to it add an equal quantity of cold water, more or less according to the strength of the decoction, or your taste. When the whole is milk-warm, put in a little grounds of beer, or yeast if you have it, or anything else that will cause fermentation, and in a few days the beer will be fit to drink.”

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From Then Until Now

The manufacturing of spruce beer was particularly prevalent in Nova Scotia. Due to its poor climate for growing the traditional ingredients of beer; barley and hops – a substitute was needed. Spruce trees were highly prevalent and molasses from Britain’s colonies in the Caribbean was both readily available, cheap, and gave the spruce beer a colour and taste comparable to traditional malted beers.

Spruce beer remained popular for over one hundred years until the middle of the nineteenth century. A large contributing factor was the British Navy’s shift away from spruce beer to using citrus, primarily lemon and lime, for the prevention of scurvy. The price of grain which had been historically more expensive also began to decline making traditional beer making less costly.

Though the tradition of making spruce beer in Nova Scotia was never fully lost it did drastically decline. Most breweries stopped producing it. Only homebrewers kept the tradition alive. That was until the last couple of years.

Spruce Beer:Garrison

Garrison Brewery’s master brewer Daniel Girard wanted to give making spruce beer a try. He’d heard about spruce beer from his grandfather. When he approached Brian Titus the owner of Garrison he was initially turned down. “Not gonna to do it. No,” he said. “This is not going to be the beer that takes this brewery down.”

He eventually gave in and they’ve been producing it as a seasonal addition ever since. On the Garrison website they describe the beer as “North America’s oldest beer style brewed with local Spruce and fir tips, blackstrap molasses and dates. Dark amber and brown colouring. Aroma is a comforting mix of spruce boughs, caramel malts, molasses and dates.”

It’s a strong beer at 7.5% alcohol. It’s heavy and the taste of the molasses and dates are definitely the strongest flavour notes. Though, it does have a nice piney or citrusy hint that isn’t overpowering and balances well.

Spruce Beer

Garrison also ages their spruce beer in rum barrels. This version of the beer has an alcohol percentage of 11%. It has a similar flavour profile as their regular spruce beer but with some spicer notes caused by the rum.

Both are worth trying.

Footnotes

  1.  Don J Durzan. Arginine, Scurvy and Cartier’s “Tree of Life”. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 2009.
  2. Hodges RE. What’s New About Scurvy? American Journal Clinical Nutrition. 1971;24:383–384.
  3. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Oxford University Press, November 2012.
  4. Russell M. Magnaghi. Upper Peninsula Beer: A History of Brewing Above the Bridge. Arcadia Publishing, Apr 27, 2015.
  5. John Knox.  Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760 (volume I).
  6. Geoffrey L. Hudson. British Military and Naval Medicine, 1600-1830. Rodopi, 2007.
  7. Jeffrey Amherst. Journal of General Jeffrey Amherst, Governor-General of British North America.
  8. The London Practice of Physic.Printed for W. Johnston, London, 1773.
  9. Russell M. Magnaghi. Upper Peninsula Beer: A History of Brewing Above the Bridge. Arcadia Publishing, Apr 27, 2015.
  10. Ed Beaglehole. The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery II The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772–1775. Cambridge University Press, 1961.
  11. Ed Beaglehole. The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery III The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1776–1780. Cambridge University Press; 1967.
  12. Garrison Spruce Beer Is a Relic From Nova Scotia Pioneers. TheStar.com, February 7, 2012. https://www.thestar.com/life/food_wine/2012/02/07/garrison_spruce_beer_is_a_relic_from_nova_scotia_pioneers.html
  13. Garrison Brewery. http://www.garrisonbrewing.com/show/the-beer/2.

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Hooked Halifax

Posted: Sunday, February 5th, 2017

How did I miss that a ‘Hooked’ had opened in Halifax? The first time I came across a

Hooked Halifax1

‘Hooked’ was in Toronto, it was 2012, and I was working remotely for a consulting firm.  

To break up my day I would grab my fresh vegetables from the St. Lawrence farmers’ market and on Saturdays I’d buy my meat for the week and a fresh loaf of Blackbird Baking bread in Kensington market at Sanagan’s butcher shop, with its beautiful displays of fresh meat on the left side and a deli on the right. There were fishmongers to the west of Sanagans but I was hesitant to try them. A strong fishy odour wafted out of the stores and it was Ontario.

I don’t know what led me into Hooked – it was totally indistinguishable from the store on either side, set back from the sidewalk with a large awning hiding half the windows. But walking in was a revelation. It smelt fresh. The fish, neatly arranged on beds of ice, was labelled with a name, where it was caught, and by what method. It was new AND it was revolutionary.

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I shopped there and at the Leslieville location for the next few years. Even after moving to London, my mom and I would make pilgrimages to Hooked, with a cooler  of ice, whenever either was going to Toronto.

I’ve since learned the backstory of how ‘Hooked’ was started by Dan Donovan and his wife, Kristin. At 34, Dan needed a change from working on Bay Street. He did a short stint at Jamie Kennedy’s ‘Palmerston Cafe’, fell in love with food, enrolled at the unique Stratford Chef School – which has its own story, graduated, and worked at Jamie Kennedy’s Wine Bar.

Kennedy had to sell off the Wine Bar to avoid bankruptcy during the 2008 financial crisis but Dan already had started to think about a  business that sourced fish caught in a sustainable manner, that knew its fishermen, knew how the fish was caught, and hoped there were people who wanted to eat that kind of fish.

This from Dave Adler of ‘Hooked Halifax’, now open at 5783 Charles Street just around the corner from Local Source.  In 2010, while working for the Ecology Action Center marine team,  he was involved in developing their Off the Hook initiative. The program was a co-op with Digby County fisherman, designed to connect local, small scale fisherman directly with consumers through a subscription program. A few years and iterations later,  the community-supported fishery has wrapped up. But the NS market for sustainably-harvested fish appears to have grown, and consumers now have access via ‘Hooked Halifax’ and ‘Afishionado Fishmongers’.

Chinook, Sockeye and Hatchery Coho

On my first visit to ‘Hooked Halifax’ I picked up a pound of line-caught haddock. I soaked it in buttermilk before breading with cornmeal and flour. I served it on potato latkes with sautéed red cabbage and a dill sour cream. It was delicious.

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6th Annual Slow Food NS Spring Supper – May 2, 2015

Posted: Friday, April 10th, 2015

Spring Supper 6 Poster-page-001After five extremely successful years, Slow Food Nova Scotia returns with its 6th Annual Spring Supper on Saturday, May 2nd. Billed as the down home, no fuss, culinary event of the season, this year’s dinner will feature nine of the region’s top chefs working together to bring you a multiple-course, locally-sourced Nova Scotian church supper unlike any other.

This year’s attendees are in for a treat and a bit of a format change-the firstcourse will feature an hour-long oyster reception highlighting select Nova Scotia oysters featured on the Slow Food Ark of Taste shucked by the producers themselves-Sober Island oysters, Malagash oysters from Bay Enterprises Ltd. and Big Island oysters from ShanDaph. Three of the evening’s chefs will prepare rounds of decadent hors d’oeuvres accompanied by sparkling wine and local craft beer. Guests will then move to take their seats in the main hall to enjoy a three-course, family-style meal paired with Nova Scotia wines. Local food producers, farmers, winemakers and foodies alike round out this incredible evening. This event is open to the public.

Tickets are $90 for Slow Food Members and $120 for non members. If you join Slow Food at the Supper we will discount your new first year membership by $30 for an individual membership and $60 for a couples membership (This night only!) 

 

Tickets available online at TicketPro: The coupon code  for Slow Food members is

Participating Chefs/Restaurants include: Mark Gray (The Brooklyn Warehouse- Kitchen Lead), Chris Velden (The Flying Apron Cookery), Rob Reynolds (EDNA), Andrew Aitken & Sarah Griebel (Wild Caraway Inn), Dave Smart Craig Flinn (Chives Canadian Bistro), Andrew Farrell (2 Doors Down) & Kristy Burgess (Lion & Bright) all rounded out by contributions from Charcuterie Ratinaud French Cuisine.

 

The Details:

  • When: Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
  • Where: Christ Church Community Center, 61 Dundas Street, Dartmouth
  • Tickets are $120 each for the general public ($90 for Slow Food members) and are available online at Ticketpro. Tickets are also available at all TicketPro outlets in Nova Scotia.
  • Ticket price includes the multi-course dinner paired with Nova Scotian wines & beers
  • Reception 6:30PM Upper Level, Dinner 7:30PM Seated Lower Level

Mushroom Foraging event September 20th

Posted: Thursday, August 28th, 2014

IMG_2135-1024x682 Mushroom Foraging Event September 20, 2014 IS FULL

Keep an eye out for our next event

Slow Food Nova Scotia will be hosting a mushroom identification and education session led by mushroom expert Mr. John Crabtree. Mr. Crabtree will lead the group along the Mi’kmawey Debert Interpretive Trail, a National Historic Site of Canada.

The mushroom hunt will begin at 10:00am (sharp) at the trailhead, so you should plan to arrive by 9:45am. For those who are interested, an optional lunch (at own expense) will be offered at Bistro 22, 16 Inglis Place, Truro at 1:00pm http://www.bistro22.ca/. Mr. Crabtree will extend the foraging session for those opting out of the lunch and would like to continue with the hike.

 

When:  Saturday, September 20, 2014 10am-1:00pm (or longer)

Where: The Mi’kmawey Debert Interpretive Trail located about fifteen minutes from Truro on Highway 104.Take exit 13 then north onto MacElmons Road, then veer left onto Plains Road. The trailhead is on the left, 2 km from exit 13.

Cost:  $10 for Slow Food members; $25 for non-members (join Slow Food at the event for an immediate discount!)

RSVP:  mikeokeefeslowfoodns@gmail.com by September 17, 2014 and confirm whether you will partake in the optional lunch.