Deep Roots

A trip to Italy inspries 44 Albertans to refocus on clean, fair—and life-alterningly tasty—local food.

By dee Hobsbawn-Smith

In October 2008, in a crowded speedskating oval in Torino, Italy, I spent five days in elbow-to-elbow conversation about food. This was no surprise—in Europe, “food” is routinely used in the same mouthful as “culture.” I was at Terra Madre, a biennial international food conference dubbed “the United Nations of food.” The Alberta contingent—some 44 of us in total—were nominated by local Slow Food chapters. My 7,141 companions at Terra Madre were chefs, farmers, musicians, youths and writers from 153 countries around the world.  

Local rancher and environmentalist Ted Buchan was there, too. “I shed a bunch of preconceptions [about food] in 2004, on my first trip to Italy,” he says. “We all belong to organizations, we all attend meetings. Terra Madre—and the Slow Food movement—spells something larger.” Buchan’s ranch, Four Creeks, abuts Peace River Wildland Provincial Park, west of the town of Peace River. It has been certified organic since 1991, but Buchan has been “green” since age 13 when he witnessed his childhood waterway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, become a toxic soup. “I’m part of a small group in Alberta, and I feel like a voice in the wilderness,” he says. “It helped to see that the Slow movement ties in perfectly with ‘organic’ and ‘environmental’. ” Buchan believes that the biggest change to come from Terra Madre so far is an increase in awareness of food security issues at a grassroots level. 

Adjacent to Terra Madre was Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto, an enormous food show offering workshops and forums. The Salone’s heart was a maze of lanes and booths offering tastings of traditional fare from around the globe. Albertan Terra Madre delegate and master butcher Klaus Schurmann operates Old Country Sausage in Raymond with his wife, Mary Lee. He spent most of his time in Torino in the “meats and cured meats” lanes of the Salone, kibitzing, exchanging recipes with his European peers—mostly for the classic old-world air-dried salami known as cervelat—and absorbing affirmation with the information. 

“Klaus enjoys knowing that what he is doing is right,” says Mary Lee. “In Alberta, he’s worked for so long in a vacuum. By finally returning to Europe, he discovered that all this time, he was being true to his food traditions. The circles get bigger and bigger.”

Terra Madre delegates had access to headsets that delivered simultaneous translation into eight languages during speeches and panel presentations, which focused on the big issues—water, bio-fuels, genetically modified organisms, climate change, community gardens, artisanal food production and sustainable kitchens. Outside of the formal meetings, individuals were on their own in markets, booths, the lunchroom and amid the sea of humanity that was the main congress. 

Conversations invariably began with “What do you grow?” and moved to “What do you cook?” Sign language sometimes sufficed; Polish women served me slices of poppy seed buckwheat cakes, and African women told me about their villages and their sorghum fields. Our only common ground was our human connection and the food in our hands. 

Staging an event such as Terra Madre requires multi-level co-operation, as rare in Italy as in any other multi-government jurisdiction. In 2008, 300 Torino families and 200 towns and villages in the province of Piedmont opened their doors to delegates. Dozens of Albertans slept in hotels, in homes and on agriturismo farms. Buchan and I were part of the Alberta crew that slept in a 16th century Cistercian monastery, Casa Regina Regalis, in Vicoforte, an hour south of Torino. Twice a day, buses filled with Terra Madre attendees wove through town to the Lingotto Oval, Torino’s Olympic legacy and site of the conference events.

Outside the meeting rooms, squatting vendors occupied the centre of the great hall. I drooled over beaded jewellery on the wrists and throats of Swazi women farmers and pearl-like heirloom Dehradun basmati rice at the Navdanya Foundation booth. Navdanya, which means “nine seeds” in Hindi, was formed by Slow Food co-founder and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva. It works with more than three million Indian farmers, promoting seed banks and developing organic agriculture. 

The maze-like corridors of the Salone were lined with canvas-covered booths heaped with food for sample and sale. This was truly “slow” food, as it was impossible to hurry—shuffling step by step through the flow of humanity at high tide, I found the best cookies I’ve ever had: lush green S’s of pistachio meringue, so perfect that I braved the tides the next day to buy more. Across the seething walkway were glasses of Amarone, stalls surrounded by dangling lengths of chorizo, impeccable rounds of aristocratic blue-veined Gorgonzola, and jamoneras, special meat slicers for jamone Iberico, air-cured ham made from black Spanish pigs. Scott Pohorelic, executive chef of Calgary’s River Café, was entranced by jamone Iberico, and constantly cradled slices in his hands. “It’s life altering to realize that pork can taste so different than pork,” he says. And, almost as an afterthought: “It tasted so good! I can’t get it anywhere else!”

Pohorelic attended Terra Madre in 2006 and 2008. The first trip offered validation: “It was OK to be a chef shopping local and talking about saving the world.” In 2008, the gathering moved onto fertile ground and offered inspiration. “Now, chefs are doing things with growers and urban gardens, in schools, starting recycling programs,” he says. He thinks Alberta has a long way to go to catch up with culinary traditions, especially in cheese-making. “Sadly lacking,” he says. A careful kitchen manager, he hoarded a piece of parmesan made with milk from a Modenese white cow. “I made it last six months,” he says. “And I still have the rind.”

Pohorelic takes his stewardship role seriously. A string of 40 to 50 local producers keep his kitchen rich in seasonal delicacies. In tangible terms, attending Terra Madre aided him in better defining what he was looking for—not just local food, but good local food. “Chefs have a lot of impact on how food is raised. We decide for a lot of people what they are having for supper.” 

Slow Food is a global movement with some 100,000 members in over 150 countries, including two Alberta convivia (chapters) and 250 members province-wide. Slow Foodies believe that food “should taste good, that it should be produced in a clean way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or our health, and that food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.” The movement champions culinary underdogs, protecting nearly 300 traditional foods—or presidia—from extinction by mass production or high-speed life. Not just any food qualifies. It must be a breed of plant or animal with cultural importance, or an artisanally made product produced to stringent standards. 

Chef and pastry chef Rebecca Pearse, the vivacious owner of Nectar Desserts in Calgary, haunted the presidia booths at Terra Madre. I bumped into her every day as we queued for another serving of presidia gelato. The most popular stall in the presidia served silky, intensely flavoured gelato, made from presidium ingredients—coffee, strawberry, chestnut, hazelnut. Pearse loved hearing people saying “Try this!” while holding something unusual in their hands. “Like sausage made from woolly sheep,” she recalls. “It was like a paté in a casing—greasy and mysterious. The Polish guys with the honey wine were little alchemists who spend all their time tending to their bees and making potions. Magic.”

…dangling lengths of chorizo, blue-veined Gorgonzola, air-cured ham made from black Spanish pigs.

There were many other treasures: Sicilian Alcamo melons; sweet, perfumed, juicy, perfectly ripe, €8 each and worth each mouthful. Tibetan yak cheese. Tiny sweet Tortona strawberries of the ancient Muscat variety whose cultivation dates to the 16th century. Mauritanian bottarga, mullet roe gathered by nomadic fishers. The biggest surprise: jars of Italian lard infused with herbs and caramelized vegetables. Jerry Kitt, who raises pastured pigs on his Peace Country First Nature Farm, gathered up six jars of the lard after his eyebrows shot through the roof on the daily bus trip back to the monastery. “Pork lard? This good? Maybe this is what I should be doing as a value-added product back home,” he said as he scraped the jar clean with a hunk of bread. The bread had a history too—historic Canadian Red Fife wheat (Canada’s lone presidium) rendered into crusty, dense, chewy Italian-style bread.

Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, in his Terra Madre speeches, reiterated his belief in the need for consumers to recognize their implicit role in the food production equation; he calls consumers “co-producers.” Such a distinction connects us to our place in the world, according to Pearse. She recently decided to begin using cold-pressed organic canola oil from Highwood Crossing in Aldersyde in her bakery. For her, what arose from attending Terra Madre in 2008 was as simple as a decision that being part of a community means supporting local industry. 

“Choosing what I spend my money on should not be just [about] flavour or money, but a value judgment of what is important to me: community,” she says. It’s ironic that it took a trip to Europe to solidify her appreciation of place. “My perspective has shifted to embrace good local food. I just want to support my local farmer, but there are so many facets, anyone who offers an easy answer is not looking at all the issues.”

John Mills is one of the rare “twentysomething” farmers in a province where the average age of farmers is 55. Mills, 28, attended Terra Madre in 2008 as part of the inaugural international “youth” contingent that represents the hope of the future—bright new faces who see the value of small-scale agriculture. Mills lives and farms with his parents on Eagle Creek Farms, near Bowden, and although part of a traditional mixed farm, he doesn’t view himself as part of mainstream agriculture. Some people at Terra Madre “bashed” the conservative agricultural mindset that predominates in Alberta, Mills says. He believes that Alberta growers developed a right tilt as a protective—albeit isolationist—response. 

“I’m no activist,” he says. “I see myself as working with like-minded people to develop systems and models to share alternatives, not to say ‘you’ve been doing it wrong,’ ” He has adopted new sun-trapping practices in an attempt to grow heat-loving melons alongside the vegetables, flowers and garlic he supplies to Innisfail Growers. Three years ago, he adopted on-farm tourism to stimulate business, building mazes in corn fields and sunflower stands. 

In 2009, Mills is threading his way through the maze that leads to on-farm change. “Going to Italy solidified my goal of being a sustainable farmer,” he says. “At Terra Madre, I saw the whole world at my fingertips. But realistically, changing an established situation is not as easy as it sounds. It is not out of reach. I have to take small steps.” In particular, he remembers three Italian dishes with the clarity of a Renaissance painting: “Hundred-year-old balsamic vinegar like candy!” he sighs. “And pickled garlic. Freshly made pasta and pesto. I can still taste it. The intensity of the flavours: that’s what I want to copy on my own farm.”

Attending Terra Madre was reassuring. It reminded me—in picturesque, inspiring and flavourful ways—that we are not alone, that Alberta chefs and growers are part of a global community. Being in the midst of 7,141 people who actively care about their food, soil and families is a unifying experience in hope. As Vandana Shiva said, “Food is the living web.”

Sometimes it takes time for changes to settle into the bones and the soil. Mary Lee Schurmann came back to Alberta, slowed her pace of life and now has time to think and breathe. Others came home from Terra Madre similarly inspired, committed to making their own small changes in their own ways. Chef Wade Sirois, co-owner of Forage in Calgary, embarked on ambitious plans. “The local consumer is being left out of the equation, and needs information,” he says. Sirois has been to Terra Madre twice. His second trip, in 2008, reinforced the importance of taking action. He chose to begin educating the local public, and now offers Slow Food “kitchen parties,” as well as a one-day conference, Local 101, that puts producers on the stage. “Who’s your farmer?” he writes on his website. “You know your doctor…”

They loved hearing “Try this!” from people holding something unusual. Like woolly sheep sausage.

One of the most moving presentations I heard at Terra Madre was given by a teenaged American, Sam Levin, who told us about his school’s garden, called “Project Sprout.” Amazingly, on the first day of harvest, 76 students ordered and ate salads in the school cafeteria. Sam’s conviction that his generation would reunite humanity with the Earth brought me to tears. Part of the magic of living is the resurgence of faith, often from the hands of youngsters or within simple, everyday occurrences. From small seeds, gardens grow; out of the mouths of babes comes real wisdom. 

I am not a grower; I no longer make my living as a restaurant chef. How does this surge of humanity have relevance to me, and me to it? Aside from the larger picture—we all eat—there’s another link: those of us who do not grow food are yet as intimately connected to the earth as growers. We truly are all co-producers. I believe that with every dollar we spend, we make known our beliefs and values. In a society that has opted for money as the final arbiter, our spending habits are indeed a clue to knowing ourselves. 

dee Hobsbawn-Smith is an award-winning gastronomy writer, poet, chef and educator. She lives in Calgary. 


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