Archive for August, 2013

Pork of Yore: Pasture production means happy pigs and succulent pork

Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Pork of Yore owners Ida Vaillancourt and  Gary MacDonell raise heritage pigs on their  200-year-old farm northwest of Renfrew.

The  animals – about 100 mostly Berkshire or  Tamworth-Berkshire crosses – have access to  large mobile houses where they can take  shelter from the weather or farrow their  young. But mostly, they’re out in the fields,  foraging for grasses and leaves, and grazing on apples and wild plums from the fruit trees that dot the 110-acre property. They benefit from exercise, fresh air and sunlight. They can root, dig and wallow to their hearts’ content, and they aren’t subjected to the painful tail-docking and tooth-clipping that take place at factory farms. In other words, they get to express what high-profile American farmer Joel Salatin calls the “pigness of the pig”.

Better life, better taste

Raising the animals in a healthy, stress-free environment not only gives them a better life, it results in safe, richly flavourful pork. After years of eating ultra-lean, dry-textured supermarket cuts, customers are bowled over by the succulence of naturally raised meat, Ida says. To prove it, she lets me sample a slice of roast butt chop as well as squares of pork terrine prepared by Chef David Cooke of Arowhon Pines. I found the meat to be addictively tasty, with the colour and umami of dark turkey meat. It’s a hit with area chefs, too: Pork of Yore is a regular supplier to The Black Tomato, Thyme & Again, Indulge Kitchen & Cocktails and Arowhon Pines.

“What you feed an animal affects the taste, and stress hormones affect the texture,” Ida says. “We don’t expose our pigs to artificial growth stimulants or chemical additives, and we don’t feed them animal by-products. They eat chemical-free pasture and hay, in addition to a twice-daily mixture of locally milled grains and soy.” The pigs certainly seem healthy and happy,  following Ida and me as we tour the paddocks and gently  nuzzling the backs of our legs.


Pastured heritage pigs at Pork of Yore

More eco-friendly

Rotating the pigs through the paddocks – each paddock is at least of 2.5 acres — also helps keep the land healthy, Ida says, by stimulating new growth and returning nutrients to the soil.

Although sustainably raised meat is more expensive than what’s  in supermarket cases, its superior taste and more humane and eco-friendly production make it worthwhile for a growing number of consumers.

Industrial pork

Pork of Yore’s approach stands in stark contrast to the industrial meat system. It’s no secret that most pigs in Canada and the U.S. are housed in crowded, contaminated surroundings, and given daily doses of drugs, including ractopamine, a controversial substance to promote leanness that’s been banned in the EU, Russia and mainland China.

In the past few weeks, the Humane Society International/Canada has made headlines by calling for a complete ban on gestation crates for breeding sows. The crates are too small for the sow turn around or to lie down in comfortably, yet most breeding sows in Canada are confined to them throughout pregnancy. Not surprising, the confinement promotes anxious, repetitive behaviour in the animals, and results in sores,  abrasions and other injuries. The sows are moved to slightly larger cages to give birth, then re-impregnated and returned to the gestation crate for the next cycle.

The National Farm Animal Care Council has drafted a new code of practice calling for gestation crates to be phased out by July 1, 2024, but the Humane Society is pushing for faster action to bring practices in line with Canadian public opinion (more than 84% oppose the use of gestation crates, it says) and with the direction major food companies such as MacDonalds and Costco have already committed to.

Write your MPP about local abattoirs

As a culture, we’ve become so used to industrial farming we tend to see pasture production as a relic of the past. Not so, Ida Vaillancourt says. “In fact, it’s the historical norm and the best way to protect people, animals and the land.”

Besides buying pastured pork, she urges people to support small meat producers by contacting their MPPs and demanding a stronger local abattoir system including mobile abattoirs where those make sense. Today, most animal processing is carried out by a handful of big facilities. Consequently, producers must transport animals to slaughter over longer distances, a more time-consuming, costly process that stresses the animals and racks up extra food miles. Licensing local abattoirs, as the B.C. government has done with the Salt Spring Abattoir, would go a long way to encouraging small-scale meat producers, Ida says.

Where to find Pork of Yore products: At the farm gate, the Carp Farmers Market and the Ottawa Valley Food Co-operative. You can also call 613-649-0076 or order online from

What’s most important to you when you buy pork or any other meat: price, taste, eco-friendly production, or ethical treatment of the animal?

Seasonal eats: Chef Charles Part’s recipe for summer fruits in lemon verbena and mint tea

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Photo courtesy of Les Fougères

It’s the season for luscious Ontario fruits like peaches, plums, blueberries, nectarines and strawberries, to name a few. Here’s a simple dessert to celebrate them from Charles Part, chef and co-owner of Restaurant Les Fougères in Chelsea, Québec. “Steeping Earl Grey tea with herbs from the garden and a little sugar produces a glorious light syrup that doesn’t interfere with the natural taste of the fruits,” he says. “At most, we sometimes add a spoonful of lemon sorbet.”

If you don’t grow any of the fruits or herbs the recipe calls for, look for them at farmers markets or at the Byward Fruit Market.

About Charles Part

Born and educated in England, Charles Part worked in restaurants in London and Paris before opening The General Trading Company Café in London in 1979 to rave reviews. He came to this country two years later, married Canadian Jennifer Warren and with his new wife, opened and operated the well-reviewed Loons Restaurant in Toronto before relocating to Chelsea, Québec.

Since its launch in 1993, Restaurant Les Fougères has garnered national and international acclaim, including the prestigious gold award in the Grand Prix du Tourisme Québécois in 2004. In the past decade, the restaurant has expanded to include a gourmet store that features Charles’ line of homemade, additive-free take-home foods (his products are also sold through retailers in the Outaouais, Montréal and Laurentian regions).  Les Fougères is also a member of Savour Ottawa and committed to local food and producers.

In 2008 Charles and Jennifer co-wrote A Year at Les Fougères, a collection of recipes and photographs that was awarded gold in the Culinary Culture category of the Cuisine Canada Cookbook Awards. In addition, it won a Gourmand World Cookbook award, an Independent Publisher’s silver medal and a Cordon d’Or.

Finally, Charles is a veteran of Ottawa’s Gold Medal Plates competitions, winning gold in 2008 and bronze in 2011.

Summer fruits in a lemon verbena and mint tea

Prep time: 20 min (+ 2 hours to cool syrup)

4-6 servings

½ cup sugar

4 cups water

1 lemon, juiced and zested

1 orange, juiced and zested

1 vanilla bean, split

1 ½ tbsp loose Earl Grey tea

6 fresh lemon verbena leaves, thinly sliced or 1 tsp fresh lemongrass, minced

12 mint leaves, thinly sliced

selection of summer berries and stone fruits

Bring sugar and water to a boil over high heat.

Place remaining ingredients, except fruit, in a large bowl and pour hot syrup over them. Let seep until cool, then strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold.

Dice fruit. Leave small berries whole. Place ½ cup of fruit in a shallow soup bowl and ladle 1 cup of tea over the berries. Garnish with a spring of mint or lemon verbena.

What’s your favourite way to enjoy summer fruit?



Harvest season: a weekend at Ottawa farmers markets

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Harvest season is at its peak in Ottawa these days. This weekend, I soaked up some of the sights, sounds and tastes at the Carp Farmers Market and the Ottawa Farmers Market at Brewer Park. Vendor stalls brimmed with late summer produce, and farmers, food retailers, artisans and customers were out in full force. Here are a few of my photos.

Acorn Creek Garden Farm produces about 600 types of fruit and vegetables, including globe artichokes, tomatillos, hot and chili peppers, sundried tomatoes, orange and purple cauliflower, nearly 50 herbs and more than 40 melon varieties.


Carolina Foresti, owner of Carolina’s Box of Goodness, specializes in artisan brownies, custom cakes and dulche de leche (a kind of milk jam similar to caramel but more complex). A native of Brazil, she comes from a long line of pastry chefs and bakers, and creates her treats based on family recipes and French baking techniques.


Heather MacMillan of Heather’s Hearth, with husband Patrick, at the Carp Farmers Market. Heather bakes sourdough breads in a wood-fired oven using organic grain from Castor River Farm or organic flour from Mountain Path, an organic and natural foods distributor south of Ottawa.


Multi-coloured heirloom beets from Rainbow Heritage Garden. This certified organic, off-grid farm near Cobden produces 200-plus varieties of fruits, vegetables, nuts and drying beans, with a focus on heirloom types. It also offers a CSA program.


Artist and farmer Rosemary Kralik raises free-range Tibetan yak, Highland beef, sheep and goats at Tiraislin Fold, her 722-acre farm in the Lanark Highlands. Her animals are raised without growth hormones or antibiotics, on high-quality, pesticide-free local forage.


A glimpse of guests eating family-style at the Savour Ottawa Harvest Table, held at Brewer Park on August 18. At the event, some of the Ottawa region’s finest chefs prepared unique dishes with seasonal local ingredients from local farmers. This photo was taken through an arbour at the amazing Brewer Park Community Garden.


Do you go to farmers markets? What do you enjoy most and least about them?


7 ways to dig deeper into local, sustainable food

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

Brushing up your cooking skills is one way to deepen your appreciation of fresh, local ingredients. Photo by Amarpreet K via Flickr


You care about healthy food and protecting the environment. Maybe you’re a regular at the neighbourhood farmers market or you’ve joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.  But you want to do learn more, and do more, to support the growth of a local, sustainable food system in the Ottawa region.

Where to start? Here are some ideas.

1. Grow some of your own food. Whether you plant a backyard vegetable  garden or tend a solitary pot of basil on the windowsill, you’ll develop greater respect for the work involved and the harvest that results. You’ll also enjoy edibles straight off the plant or in your kitchen steps away – that’s about as local as it gets.

2. Brush up your cooking skills. Getting culinary basics under your belt, or honing the skills you already have, will deepen your appreciation of food and reinforce the importance of fresh, quality ingredients.   Knowing some simple techniques will also make it easier to prepare no-fuss, nutritious alternatives to fast food and other convenience fare.

Check out The Urban Element’s schedule of cooking workshops this fall. C’est Bon! Cooking also emphasizes local, seasonal food and offers gourmet tours of Ottawa farmers markets and local food artisans.

3.  Help bring healthy fresh food to low-income people who may not otherwise have access to them. Volunteer to plant, weed and harvest organic vegetables with Ottawa Food Bank’s Community Harvest program or glean seasonal fruit with Hidden Harvest Ottawa.

4.  Eat less meat. Not only is it better for your health, it’s easier on the environment. Meat production – mostly industrial — is set to double by 2020 due to a growing global population and increased meat consumption.

Why is this a problem? Large-scale livestock production accounts for 18%-25% of greenhouse gas emissions. More than two-thirds of all agricultural land grows livestock feed compared with just 8% that grows food for direct human consumption. And there are other downsides to industrial meat: it depletes already declining supplies of fresh water; damages forests and grasslands; erodes soil, and; produces runoff from fertilizers and animal waste that creates dead zones in coastal areas. In addition, the routine use of antibiotics in livestock production has been linked to rising levels of antibiotic resistance in humans.

Eating a bit less meat is a simple, effective way of making a difference. Check out Meatless Monday for more information and ideas   for meat-free meals.

5.  Dining out? Choose restaurants that source from local, sustainable producersSavour Ottawa lists restaurant, hotels, caterers and B&Bs that source a set minimum of food from local farmers. Some of Ottawa’s new food trucks also serve local, seasonal food.

6. Read more about the food system and ways to change it. Dip into these books from Canadian writers:

Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner, the pioneering 1986 classic that explores the history and mythology of a basic meal, touching on the environmental, economic and political implications of food

Sarah Elton’s latest book Consumed: Sustainable Food for a Finite Planet, or her 2010 best seller Locavore: From Farmers Fields to Rooftop Gardens – How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat

Jennifer Cockrall-King’s Food and the City, which looks at the rise of urban agriculture in Vancouver, Toronto and other urban farming hubs in Europe and the U.S.

7. Go to Netflix or iTunes to download some of the best food documentaries to come out in recent years. Although these films cover the U.S. and Europe, the issues they explore apply to Canada, too.  A few examples:  King Corn, Our Daily Bread and Food Inc. probe the effects of industrial food and high-tech farming. Farmageddon shows what happens when small-scale farmers who produce safe, healthy food run up against government bureaucracies. Dive! demonstrates the scale of North American food waste by following a group of friends as they dumpster-dive behind L.A. grocery stores.  The Harvest investigates the use of agricultural child labour. For other ideas, try sites such as First We Feast and Organic Authority.

Share what you’re doing to  learn about local, sustainable food. 

Related posts: Hidden Harvest Ottawa; Community Harvest grows fresh produce for Ottawa’s hungry; 8 reasons to grow your own food; Ottawa’s new food trucks boost sustainability; Join a CSA in 2013

Food read round-up: GM alfalfa, endangered bees and misleading food claims

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Butterfly gathering pollen from flowering alfalfa
Photo: C. Wainwright, via Flickr


Genetically modified (GM) seeds, the wholesale use of herbicides and pesticides, deceptive product marketing and labeling: however you look at it, the industrial system that supplies much of the world’s food doesn’t  inspire confidence.

What can consumers do? Support local food producers. Push for more effective regulation. Above all, keep asking questions about how food is produced, and hold food companies, retailers and politicians to account.

Farmers seek environmental assessment of GM alfalfa from Ontario government:  The Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) approved genetically modified (GM) alfalfa back in 2005, but it wasn’t legal to grow it until recently.  In April 2013, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz allowed registration of one variety of GM alfalfa, leaving the door open for biotech companies to put their seeds on the market.  Forage Genetics International is already pushing to introduce the seeds in Eastern Canada.

Many farmers and other groups oppose GM seeds, citing risks such as contamination of non-GM crops and the loss of exports to markets (EU, Japan) where GM crops are not accepted. Given the federal government’s stance, two Ontario farmers have asked the provincial government to conduct an environmental assessment of the seed before it’s sold here.  They made the request under the under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which allows residents to request an assessment if they believe a new commercial activity could have a negative effect on the environment and economy.  It’s the first GM-related request made under the bill and was prepared by individuals and groups concerned about the risks of GM alfalfa, with supporting evidence from the Organic Agriculture Protection Fund, the National Farmers Union and the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN).

The request argues that the GM crop would irreversibly contaminate the environment, promote herbicide-resistant weeds, encourage more herbicide use, and hurt farms, farmers and the food supply. A widely planted perennial, alfalfa flowers several times each season and is pollinated by a variety of insects, significantly raising the risk of contamination from GM varieties.

Ontario forms new working group to support bee health: As reports of declining bee populations continue to make headlines, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has announced that her government would form a working group to study bee health. Made up of beekeepers, farmers, representatives of food agribusiness, scientists and government officials, the group is to develop and release a plan to protect the bees by spring 2014.

As I wrote in an earlier post, the EU has banned several insect nerve agents known as neonicotinoids,  which have been linked to the decline in bees and other pollinators. Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency is re-evaluating neonicotinoid use but won’t issue a report until 2018. Given the urgency of the problem, Premier Wynne has asked the report date be advanced “significantly.”

Labels often hide food fraud: Despite the trend toward a more farm-to-fork transparency, it’s almost impossible to control the amount of food fraud that goes on every day, writes Clare Fischer Guajira in Food Fraud: Labels on What We Eat Often Mislead. Whether it’s done to persuade consumers to buy, or to increase the producer’s bottom line, food adulteration – passing food off as higher quality than it is – occurs on a global scale.  (Think last year’s horsemeat scandal in Europe, the arrests earlier this year of Chinese traders selling rat meat as lamb, and a U.S. report stating that one-third of the fish sampled in a national survey was mislabeled.) Given limited resources and a complex global food system, more stringent regulation will only do so. In the meantime, experts advise consumers to ask lots of questions, buy from reputable sources and be suspicious of rock-bottom prices; if retailers can’t give you satisfactory answers, go elsewhere.

How food companies use nutritionism to sell more products: We’ve seen them on grocery shelves: heart-healthy chocolate chip muffins, probiotic ice cream, and water with added vitamins. Known as functional foods – they’ve been engineered to offer what their manufacturers claim are health benefits.  The functional food trend is rooted in an approach called nutritionism, described by food policy expert Marion Nestle in as reducing “the value of a food…to its single functional ingredient. This logic…fails to consider the complexity of food composition and the interactions amongst food components.”  In other words, vitamins added to a bottle of sweetened water aren’t going to give you the same benefit as consuming them as part of whole, unprocessed food.

In “That’s not natural or organic: How Big Food misleads,” author Gyorgy Scrinis digs into the way Big Food uses nutritionism to sell products and how product labeling helps or hinders consumers in making informed food choices. Scrinis argues that not only have food corporations become the main promoters of nutritionism, but, since the 1980s, they have come to control the nutritional agenda, pouring millions of dollars into political lobbying and directly funding scientific studies on specific foods and nutrients.  In addition, by engineering back into food the nutrients that processing removed in the first place, the industry sidesteps questions about the fundamental quality and value of its products.

What food stories have you been reading lately?