Saturday, November 26, 2011

Bletting Medlars

Yeah, there's a couple of words you usually don't see together. Or at all, really. But they are both words and they really do belong together.
photo compliments of :

The medlar is a fruit-bearing tree more familiar to those reading old English literature. The fruits of this tree are pomes, and as the word suggests, are related to apples and pears.
Medlar fruit photo from

I noticed this small (~1.5 metre) tree outside St. Saviours church and by the end of summer couldn't help but see the fruiting bodies all over it. Medlars are about 25mm to 50mm across and not quite as deep, making them an oblate spheroid.
I had no idea what the tree was, until one day Paula came by with me. "Hey!" said she, "you've got a medlar tree! You know, those fruit are supposed to be edible...." So we picked the fruit and took them home. I peeled one and tried the flesh. It might have been edible, bu tit certainly wasn't something I was going to eat. Just this rock-hard starchy thing.
So after some research (or, at least, reading the Wikipedia page for medlars), I discovered that the fruit had to be bletted before eating. Bletting is when certain fleshy fruits, after ripening, begin to decay and ferment. Much like an apple bruising, the flesh changes colour and undergoes physical changes. In the medlar, the flesh changes from white and hard to a soft, dark brown paste. At the same time, the starches convert to sugars, and the fruit becomes quite tasty.
There may be ways to hurry the process (one suggestion was freezing, but I've no back-up for that), but we simply laid the medlars out on a tea towel on a large baking tray and left them there in the kitchen. Two, maybe three weeks later I noticed some darkening patches on the skin and cut one open.
medlar part way through the bletting process
The paste is so tasty! The starches are being converted to sugars, and the hard texture is gone. We left the medlars a few more days until they were thoroughly bletted, and then Paula coarsely chopped them and boiled them down. After passing them through a jelly bag and adding sugar, they made a lovely deep transparent brown jelly that has an earthy, unusual taste that is lovely.

Monday, November 21, 2011


I don't usually do this, but with the ongoing impact of the “pink slime” story and there's a pretty good article over at The Street about the increasing use of cellulose as a filler in food, I thought I'd write a little about food additives and adulterants.
Adulterants are distinct from additives in that additives are generally regulated and accepted in use, and adulterants are added to food without the consumers knowledge. In practical terms, additives are legal and adulterants are not.
So the use of cellulose in food is legal. Cellulose is found on the FDA's GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe), and so is allowed in food products. The rise in it's use is due primarily to economic pressures to keep food costs down particularly in this period of price spikes from the speculative bubble we're in. The same with “pink slime”; mechanically separated meat treated with ammonia can be added to ground meat products quite legally. Whether we want these substances in our edible food-like products is quite another story.
Adulterants in food have a long and storied history—particularly in bread. Bread, over the years, has had plaster of Paris, alum, sawdust, and mashed potatoes added to it to increase weight or whiteness and defraud the consumer. The British Medical Journal was printing arguments about the presence of adulterants and arguing about how much they mattered back in 1873.
Cellulose is a product on the FDA GRAS list (Generally Regarded As Safe), but the increasing use of filler comes from economic pressures. Commodity prices remain strong (primarily on a bubble due to speculation) and economies remain weak, meaning that producers looking to increase or maintain margins are going to be searching for cheaper alternatives to their traditional products. And food producers are turning to cellulose to add bulk and structure to their edible food-like products.
The use of additives or adulterants (the difference is whether or not the recipient knows about / wants the additive in their food. If it is iodine in salt, that's an additive. If it is plaster of Paris being added to bread, adulterant) in food has a long history, and always for the same reason: economic pressure to supply food as cheaply as possible while maintaining profits. We've seen this with the addition of melamine to milk products in China, in order to more cheaply achieve crude protein content targets. Alum, sawdust, and mashed potatoes have historically been added to bread to increase weight or the whiteness of the flour.
Food adulteration is directly tied to industrialization; both the industrialization of food production and the migration of populations out of the countryside to the cities. Low wages increase the need for cheap food, the drive for cheap food encourages adulteration.
These days, it's the GRAS list that defines the difference between adulterant and additive. That food will have additives is taken as read, as long as the ingredients appear on the GRAS list, it's generally acceptable. Consumers often disagree, as with the addition of HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) to honey. Or pink slime to ground meat products.
Of course, there's always the option of TSP, or Textured Soy Protein. But a fairly recent study shows how the manufacturing process leaves behind a residual level of hexane. Hexane is used as a solvent to separate fats from protein in the making of soy protein (well, in all fairness, not just soy protein. Its used with corn and other plants too, for the same purpose). Mother Jones has an article on the report, along with an FAQ, and Slate weighed in with an article as well. As is pointed out, there has been little research on whether or not hexane, when consumed, is a problem. It certainly is when we breathe it, but as to eating it, well, that seems to be a lot less immediately toxic. There are even alternatives; when it comes to complex processing to create vegetarian fare, mycoprotein has to be a bit better, but not by much. At least they're not currently using a neurotoxin in the process.
But as consumers, we have to ask ourselves, just how much responsibility or concern should we have for the way our food is prepared? Do we want to eat food that is killing those who gather or prepare it? Because, if so, there's a lot more research that needs to be done before we eat various things—particularly out of the industrial food system. For example, pesticides are dangerous to both farmworkers, as this EPA pamphlet demonstrates, and their families.
We create a market for such substances every time we eat food out of the industrial food system. But, as Michael Pollen said in hisWilliams College address, the food system is a fragile thing. What we do as consumers has an impact. If we don't buy something, stores will quit stocking it, meaning fewer people will buy—creating a virtuous circle. Pollen mentions that as few as fifty complaints can get a topic onto a McDonald's board meeting agenda. Positive requests have an impact also. If you ask for more local food, you create a demand that grocers will try to satisfy—meaning more downstream demand for farmers. Anything affects the way the food system acts. It really is that fragile and sensitive. So when you see local produce in your local or chain grocery, ask for the produce manager and compliment him/her. If you don't see local cheese in the dairy aisle, ask for the dairy manager and request it. This can be the politest ruckus you'll ever raise.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Death for Innovation

 I'm not sure that I agree with all of Joe Cunnigham's column over at the Pincher Creek Voice. But I do know that he has certainly identified the problem. At least Joe was producing a value-added product that he could ship around the world. When we were producing fresh veg, we couldn't save product from day to day. We had to sell it same day or forgo any possible profit on it.
This really is an excellent column from someone who has been in the trenches of small production. It is clear that we need a second food system, distinct from the international industrial one we live with now. One that supports small producers, local producers, and artisanal producers.  Anyway, let me introduce you to Joe Cunningham:
  I spent the last ten years of my life as a small food producer. It was an interesting journey. I say “was” because I have recently gone into semi-retirement from the gourmet smoked fish business my wife, Janice Day, and I operated here in PIncher Creek. Most Pincher Creekians do not know there was a fish producing business in Pincher Creek for ten years and it gave me a chuckle every time I watched the reaction of someone here finding this out for the first time. They werenʼt ill-informed - how would they be expected to know?  Ninety-nine percent of what we made went to specialty stores and expensive restaurants in Calgary and Banff. It had to.

Iʼm not being flippant. For years we agonized over pricing our products high enough to stay in business. Eventually we settled on a pricing scheme that placed us at roughly double that of similar category, however inferior, supermarket products. We were successful! ... well... sort of. You see, we grew at a reasonable rate, got rave reviews from all over the planet (some food writers going so far as to say we made the best cold smoked product in the world), operated on a mean and lean budget, were courted by Alberta Agriculture, and were proud of the little innovations and inventions we came up with to make our small operation work as efficiently as possible. Hereʼs the catch - we didnʼt make enough money to justify continuing, on a purely economic basis. We were living near poverty so we could continue experiencing the personal, cultural and artistic gratification of making something of intrinsic value while living a lifestyle with an element of independence. Although by the time we had worn ourselves out we were selling about
$115,000.00 worth of stuff a year, we werenʼt even clearing minimum wage for our efforts. Somethingʼs gotta give eventually.

Itʼs the same story elsewhere. Over those ten years Janice and I got to know a lot of other small food producers in Alberta, and elsewhere - vegetable growers, apiary owners, makers of sauces, condiments and frozen gourmet food, ranchers, bakers, cheese makers, coffee roasters, and oyster growers ...etc., etc., etc. Their experiences were related to us in an endless stream of commonality and challenges. At least we werenʼt alone.

Read the rest of this excellent column at The Pincher Creek Voice.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Pulled Pork

Just attended the Friday lunch at the The Centre for Co-operative and Community-Based Economy up at UVic, something I've been doing for a couple of months now. It is one of those things that reminds me that I have an intellectual life as well as an everyday life—and that's a good thing. Sometimes I forget, as the days fill up with the clutter of activities around dogs, the Kitchen and the basics of staying alive. Lunch at the Centre reminds me that I have been trained to think critically and to communicate my thoughts clearly. I may be a bit out of practise, but that doesn't mean giving up on who I am.
One of the things I love about attending is that it gives me the chance to cook for a group that is bigger than just Paula, and smaller than the crowd at the Kitchen. There is a lunch supplied, but I'm welcome to supplement it, which I have done by making soup and stew a couple of times. Today was a slightly larger group than usual, about 20, and I pulled out some pork rib trimmings and made pulled pork, which were served on a slider bun from Portofino bakery. Apparently the pork was flavoured properly, as there were no leftovers (and I saw at least one person make it through three servings—very gratifying!), and after lunch I was asked a couple of times for the recipe. This is really gratifying, as it lets me know that I'm not just getting good at cooking for my own taste, but that my taste translates into good flavours for others palate.
So, as promised, here's my Cheap and Easy Pulled Pork recipe.

Bernie's Pulled Pork (easy version) 

Start with a cheap bit of pork. I found rib trimmings at Real Canadian Wholesale Club out in Esquimalt for about $2/kg, and I bought a lot. You know, because it was cheap and only about half of it was usable meat.
Braise the meat. Braising is cooking meat in a wet environment in a closed container. So toss the meat in a roaster or a foil-covered pan (the roaster is better). Add a braising mix; I used balsamic vinegar (75 ml), white wine (250 ml), tomatoes (six or so plum) a couple of bay leaves, some salt, pepper, star anise, cloves, whole allspice, some rough-chopped carrots (scraped), celery, and probably a couple of other things I noticed laying around. The wine and vinegar and tomatoes are essential, for their acidity, but everything else is random and optional. Put the lid on the pan and place it in a 175° C (350° F) oven for a couple of hours. Take it out when is smells great and is falling apart.
Don't throw away the braising liquid—it is incredibly flavourful! Strain it into a pot, toss the hard bits, and boil hard until the volume is reduced by half or more. Taste. Yeah, that's umami. Normally you'd use it as a sauce on the braised meat, but today is different. Put it away for tomorrow.
Shred the pork. Pull it off the bone and tear it between two forks. You're pretty much done. Put the shredded pork in a pot—I like to use a slow cooker. Now dump a bottle of BBQ sauce over it. I used Bulls-Eye Guinness flavoured for today's, but that's not essential. Whatever you have or is cheap is fine. It just saves you having to make your own. Mix the sauce and meat together and begin heating it up. Taste it. It's probably too sweet, so add a bit of balsamic vinegar. Keep flavouring it until you're satisfied. I used a little Lee and Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce with the balsamic, and some fig and balsamic glaze. Don't go overboard, but don't be afraid. You're looking for the perfect marriage of sweet and acid to bring out the umami of the braised shredded pork.
Let the whole pot simmer at about 70° C (160°F) for a while. Keep testing. If there's any left, serve on a fresh bun. Accept compliments.

Want to do the complex version? Make your own BBQ sauce without using any prepared ingredients (like ketchup). There you go.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Intense (ive) Agriculture

Two innovative projects popped up on my radar (thanks, Jeff!) involving urban farming this week. One is a storefront farm in Hackney, London, called FARM:shop, and the other is Riverpark Farm in New York City.
Both are responses to the fallout from 2008 and the ongoing international economic crisis sparked by American corporate criminality. In Hackney, the number of disused storefronts has sparked a municipal initiative to fill them at least temporarily with art projects and the like. Something and Son took a look at the cubic footage they had available, and created a café/workspace/venue/ and an intensive food production space.

Honestly, Something and Son has the air of an art installation, talking about how their “displays” change with the seasons. They claim to be the world's first “urban farming hub” (whatever that is supposed to mean), but the ideas they've used involving food production are not all that innovative. FARM:shop's food production is directly descended from the work of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI), which, from 1971 through 1991 conducted a major research and education initiative on a farm in Massachusetts. They explored green-housing/aquaculture synergies, formulated the 90-day-compost plans used by most gardeners today, and rigorously documented their work. They even built one of their “Ark “ projects in Prince Edward Island, testing their theories in a less hospitable clime.
The New Alchemists weren't the first either, building on both academic and farm-based work that had gone before them. But, thankfully, they were a part of the 60s diaspora that documented their work,leaving behind not only a record of their work, but a group of people still pushing forward environmental design.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Community Garden

About six months back, Paula finally got a spot in the University of Victoria's Community Garden. By the end of August, they were ready to move the garden to its new location. And since then, gardeners have been busy preparing things for the next growing season.

The garden is located in what was nothing more than a grassy field for years. Pipes have been laid for water, and after the plots themselves were laid out, the sod was lifted in each of them. The best thing about the garden is the two metre high deer fence around it--there are a lot of deer on campus.

Paula and Ben, our son, originally laid out the beds in the new plot. Formal raised beds are new to me--on the farm, we used a rotary tiller to break up the earth and then used a hilling blade to hump it into a rounded long mound. As you can see, here we have a much more formal series of boxes--each lined on the bottom with landscape cloth to discourage anything from working its way up from underneath.
The boxes are spaced so that they are slightly further apart than my feet are long--enabling me to stand between the beds.Each had a layer of leaves laid in, and then covered with a mixture of compost and topsoil.The recent rains seem to have compressed the soil a bit.
The old strawberry garden was moved a week or so back, so Paula planted some of the extras in the one bed. This still needs to be mulched.

I salvaged what was left of a soaker hose that had been run over by a lawnmower (not by me!), and cut it into shorter pieces to fit in the beds. I found some L and T fittings at Rona and laid the hose out until I ran out. So far, this bed and the strawberries have hose in them, and the third bed and the empty space are still waiting. But I got a clockwork timer today (spring driven) that will enable us to turn the water on and leave.
The polytunnel hoops are 25mm electrical conduit held in the D holders for the next size up. The conduit came in three metre lengths--longer than I wanted-- but once I bent them into their holders, it didn't seem necessary to shorten them. Poly clearly still has to be installed....
The fourth space in the plot isn't being ignored; it is slated to have a cold frame built for it. Among other things, we're hoping this gives us a place to overwinter herbs.
Its strange to imagine overwintering anything. Out on the prairies, most everything is planted in May and out of the ground by mid-October at the latest. Here, things are different. Up the peninsula, someone is successfully growing citrus trees. Kiwi fruit are farmed nearby. Here at the bottom of Vancouver Island, the temperate rainforest is modified by a local micro-climate that gives us even milder weather. A lot of rain in the winter, sure, but seldom snow, and even less seldom, -20C. I've never gardened out here, so this year looks to be very experimental.

Summing It All Up Neatly

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Rice Shortage

A few years back--about 2008--there was rice rationing in the US and a great fear of rice shortages around the world. This lead to a certain amount of panic, particularly in Asia where citizens have traditionally consumed 70-80% of their calories in rice. The story of what actually happened is a combination of non-transparent markets, panic, reasonable actions on the part of governments, corrupt actions on the part of governments and their officials, reasonable actions on the part of consumers, screwy international trade activity, and just a general mess.
NPR ran a great story on the "crisis" and thankfully it's available in a podcast of the show Planet Money.

There's also a short interview with economist Peter Timmer on their website. But what is interesting are the lessons learned from the crisis. If you listen to the whole story, you hear that the lesson that the WTO and  Western economists take away from the "crisis" is exactly the opposite of the lesson learned by the governments involved. The interesting thing is, both sides appear to be right; open markets and transparency are good, but food security is a necessity. The problem is, neither side can see that maybe both lessons need to be learned.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Behind the Scenes

The New York Times posted a lovely little video of food porn in the making. It's not the full monty on how its done, but it does give some insight into the work of food stylists.

It does give some suggestion as to why what you make doesn't look the same as what you see in Gourmet or Cooks or on the Food Network.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Good News / Bad News

The good news: an application to develop a 25,000 head pig farm has been turned down by a municipal council. It may not be the death knell for this particular farm, but it is a significant set-back.
The bad news? Regretfully, this took place in South Derbyshire on a greenfield site west of the historic village of Foston. Industrial pig farming is still alive and well in North America.
And really, it is absurd; there have been a numbert of studies in Canada that show that mega-farms like this actually damage the local economy and lower a municipality's tax revenue when adjacent property values are lowered because of the mega-farm.

image sourced from The Guardian
When I raised pigs, I worried about not having farrowing crates for my sows (as in the photograph above). What I discovered is that pigs have perfectly good instinctual behaviour that keeps them from laying down on their young--which is what the farrowing crate is supposed to prevent. Pigs will walk in an ever-tightening circle before laying down, pushing their iglets into the centre of the circle. Then, when they are certain that ll the little ones are in a heap, they flop down to the outside of the circle, at which the piglets charge to attach to a nipple. Just like only bored and overcrowded pigs will bite each others tails, so docking isn't necessary. Pictures like the one above are artifacts of imposing an industrial production model in place of natural behaviours.