A recipe for extreme local eating

Freelance article written on December 3rd, 2011

A recipe for extreme local eating: pork and lamb shepherd’s pie with roasted brussels sprouts.

Vancouver residents, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon ate nothing but locally produced food for a whole year and wrote an award-winning book about it: The 100-mile Diet: a Year of Eating Locally. While their approach is probably a little too extreme for the average consumer to keep up for any length of time, it is probably not too much to handle for just one meal. Is it possible to create a delicious meal in December using only ingredients that come from Vancouver Island? How hard would it be to find all these local foods and what would they cost?

French-trained culinary expert, and respected jazz musician, Louise Rose set out to answer those questions. She improvised a recipe for shepherd’s pie and roasted brussels sprouts that draws from the soil of Vancouver Island and nowhere else. Rose is a local-food enthusiast and a member of Slow Food Canada, a non-profit organization that opposes fast food and supports local food traditions. She is actively involved in the culinary community of Victoria.

Whether or not you believe it is good for the environment, the economy or your health, a one-meal-stint of pure local eating will boggle your mind. It will open your eyes to the influence of the seasons, the effect of the local climate and it will introduce you to the people who grow and produce food.

The first eye-opening reality of using locally grown food is that peppercorns do not grow in this part of the world. Therefore a purely local meal cannot use black pepper. Other foods that don’t grow here are olives, rice, coffee, bananas and many spices. This means olive oil and Worcestershire sauce are out.

The next wake-up call of local eating is that it is practically impossible to find locally grown herbs for sale in Victoira in December. Around here, plants only grow at certain times of the year, based on the hours of sunlight and amount of heat they require. Eating locally means eating with the seasons. Those seasons can be stretched out through the age-old practices of drying, preserving and storing certain foods through the winter. Locally grown produce available in December includes potatoes, squash, cabbage, brussels sprouts rutabaga, beets, apples, pears and other plants that don’t require a lot of sunlight and warmth or that can be harvested in the fall and be stored in cool dark places. Frozen local berries are also available. But not herbs.

The only way to purchase locally grown herbs for a meal in the winter is to grow them yourself, find someone who dried some in the summer, or if you are comfortable with the art of cold-calling, phone Brian Hughes. Hughes owns Kildara Organic Farm in Sidney, which among other things, provides every Victoria Thrifty Foods with organic salad greens. Hughes says he will happily provide almost any local food item a consumer could want. Just phone his 30-acre farm with your food needs and if he does not grow it or raise it, he will know someone who does.

The most hard-hitting reality of shopping for locally produced food is the cost. The grocery run for this shepherd’s pie will cost almost $90.00 ($25.00 is for the bottle of blackberry port). Why is locally produced food more expensive than imported food that travels around the world to get here? According to Michael Mockler, director of produce operations at Thrifty Foods, the higher prices are a result of several factors of growing food in Canada. We have more expensive land, higher costs of labour, shorter growing seasons and smaller volumes of crops in Canada compared to the U.S.A, Mexico, New Zealand and elsewhere. “B.C. apple growers are in a bind,” says Mockler, “because the consumer wants the cheaper apples from Washington.” “Reluctance to buy locally is pervasive,” says Rose. “this generation wants an agricultural land base that grows food for them for next-to-nothing.” She says it is a paradox that those same people have no interest in joining the Land Conservancy or contributing to the work of the local grower.

It is not only possible, but it is also enlightening to prepare a local meal on Vancouver Island in the cold month of December. It does, however, take a lot of effort. You will spend close to two hours consuming fuel and emitting exhaust while you drive between the six locations specified in the recipe.

So, why go to all this trouble to eat locally? Hughes says there is a health benefit to eating food that grows in the same region as you live. “Locally grown food breathes the same air, and is exposed to the same amount of the sun’s radiation as the people who live in that region,” says Hughes. Perhaps it is this connection to your food that is the ultimate reward of eating locally. You must eat to live, so eating locally connects your life to the earth that provides for it. It feels good to bite into a pear while standing on the soil in which it grew. It feels good to eat a shepherd’s pie made from animals and plants that were thoughtfully raised by Vancouver Island men and women with whom you could have a face-to-face conversation or bump into at the gas station.

Side Bar:

Instead of buying butter, try making your own in just 20 minutes. The only ingredient is 35% cream. Seal about a cup of cream in a jar and start shaking. First it will turn to whip cream. Keep shaking! Remove the lid and check the appearance of cream periodically. Eventually, liquid (buttermilk) will separate and chunks of butter will form. Pour off the buttermilk and enjoy your home-made butter.

Side Bar #2:

Kildara Organic Farms in Sidney grows Bramley Seedling Apples, which are considered the ultimate cooking variety in the U.K., using seeds descended from the original 200-year-old Bramley Apple tree in Nottinghamshire, England. These apples can be purchased at Fol Epi Organic Baker at 101-398 Harbour Rd. Most cooked apple dishes require cinnamon and other ingredients that are not locally produced, so you will have to forgo being a total purist if you want to enjoy an apple dessert.

Recipe and list of retail locations:

Extremely Local Shepherd’s Pie in December

Extreme Local Shepherd's Pie in December

Louise Rose improvised this meal and generally rejects conventional recipes. She encourages experimentation and catering to individual palettes. Measurements were added after-the-fact as a rough guide.

Combine all the gro of garlic (crushed and chopped), 3/4 tsp. of the salt, 1 tbsp. malt vinegar, 2 tbsp. port and 1/2 cup of the blue cheese. Use butter (not olive oil) to grease frying pan and cook until no longer pink. Peel, quarter and boil potatoes (consider leaving some of the skin on to increase nutrition). Mash potatoes along with 1/4 tsp of the salt, 1/2 cup of cream, 2 tbsp. butter and 1/2 cup of the blue cheese. Place mashed potatoes on top of cooked meat in a baking dish and bake until potatoes are golden brown. Grease a cooking pan with butter and spread out the quartered brussels sprouts. Drizzle with 1 or more tbsp. of melted butter. Warm on the stove top then bake until they turn brown. Just before brussels are ready, drizzle 1 or more tbsp of the port into the hot pan. If you can get your hands on locally grown parsley or green onion, you can finely chop one of these and sprinkle on top of brussels to serve.

You may miss carrots or peas in your shepherd’s pie (they are out of season), but the herbs and blue cheese give a delicious twist to this old fashioned dish.

Kathy Alexander – 2011