We have a cottage up near Owen Sound – have had for the last 10 years or so. Its a wonderful place. The Niagara escarpment is at its most dramatic, with its faces of rough dolomite pushing their way skyward, interplaying with the vastness and occasional tranquility of Georgian Bay. At our place, we descend 90 steps to a pristine lake past prehistoric rock faces where you can clearly see the slithering fossilized bodies of the earliest creatures on earth.
Every Saturday, year round, the Owen Sound Farmer’s market takes root. Its an essential part of my weekends up here, a reason I’d rather come up here exhausted and late on a Friday night than wait until the next day.
Although many markets these days focus on organic, it has not always been thus. But the Owen Sound Market has historically had a better than usual representation of organic suppliers – especially in the meat department.
Here are a few bits and pieces from yesterday’s market…..
Doug does poultry – we don’t often see him at the market – perhaps because there is a chicken vendor inside the building who has been there forever and would not appreciate regular appearances from anyone else selling poultry. Doug raises geese, ducks, chickens, and…. important for this time of year, turkeys. Like a number of farmers both there and in the Toronto markets, his animals are free range, they aren’t shot up with hormones, but he has not gone the route of getting organic certification – nor will he. I’m seeing this trend all over – both with meat and produce, and I wonder where it is going to end. I didn’t see Doug there, so I asked to make sure he was doing OK (its like that at the market – its a little like an extended family. If someone doesn’t show where they regularly would, you want to make sure all is OK). He was – just taking care of some other business.
Cay and Chris are a mom and son team who have been market regulars for a few years now. Up until this year they were entirely produce. This spring they decided to get into pork – Tamworth hogs specifically. What great news that was – and it came as I was beginning to get into sausage making. It was my discussions with Cay that led to my earlier research on the freezing and refreezing of meat. I bought mainly produce today, holding out until thanksgiving when I will take 6 kilos of sausage meat and 2 kilos of shoulder (my son wants to do a pulled pork extravaganza) and get the sausage factory rolling once more.
Both Cay and I have been gradually feeling our way through this special order meat business – its new for both of us – a bit of a learning curve. Now that I know its best to receive the meat frozen, and since Chris comes to the Dufferin Grove market on Thursdays in Toronto, this should all get a lot easier. We had been trying with limited success to find a Saturday where a) I was up here and b) they had a hog taken in the week before, and c) the butcher remembered her special instructions.
Howell’s Fish in Wiarton has been a market regular forever. Much of their fish is local – whitefish, perch, trout, salmon – though yesterday I picked up a filet of Pacific Salmon. Their prices are excellent – yesterday I put down $27 for 3 large filets of lake trout and the salmon . About a year ago, waiting in the Howell line, I was chatting with another customer who let me in on a very cool tip. If you soak fresh fish in brine for about 30-60 minutes, then freeze it, it will turn out as near to being fresh as it can when you finally cook it. So my new routine with the fish is indeed to do this. I now brine them, cut them into individually sized portions, and then freeze.
Laura Buckler has a wonderfully imaginative and creative palette when it comes to preserves. She can take the ordinary and transform it into something quite extraordinary. I usually like to buy one of her new creations if she is there – which she usually is. (This does present something of a problem for me as I produce quite a lot of preserves myself – Where do I keep it and when will it get used up?) I learn from her. Not in the usual way though. She doesn’t walk me through a recipe. All I have to go on is a given preserve, and her list of ingredients. My challenge: to copy – and possibly improve on it. I guess you could say its a bit of a cooking preserving game.
Last time I was up here, she had a caramelized onion chutney and a hot lime tequila chutney. Both excellent, both with combinations I would not have thought of – the lime/tequila, and the balsamic vinegar with maple syrup in the caramelized onions. I tried both, and was successful with the onion chutney. My version of it was pretty sublime – and has become a favorite around the house. As always, I try to premise it on a ratio. In this case the ratio that worked is as follows: caramelized onions:balsamic vinegar:brown sugar: maple syrup – 4:1:1:1 by weight. But the trick is to do the caramelized onions exactly the way Ruhlman suggests in his Onion soup recipe: medium heat with a little salt and a little butter until they have sweated, followed by a really long simmer with the top off so the liquid is actually reduced, thereby pulling out the incredibly rich, complex sweetness in the onions. For this chutney, the onions were stewing away for 11 hours – it was a 2 day process. The following day I played with the proportions, (thanks to the fine and discerning tastes of my friend C) brought to a simmer, then canned. The result is rich, complex, both sweet and dark. As a small thank you I gave her a sample of my effort.
Yesterday Laura had a new creation that is one of the most exquisite jams I have ever tasted – again the product of unusual pairing: a pear-vanilla jam. It is gentle, oh so subtle – the completely unique taste of the pure vanilla pod rises to the top. As we are at the height of pear season, this is definitely next on my list to try and copy.
The Biscottiman (Bill Proud)
I don’t often see Bill at the market, but when I do, I will always get a bag of his mushrooms. He is a most remarkable man and I will treasure every time I see him there, because I know it won’t be forever. Bill forages for wild mushrooms. He knows mushrooms inside out – if you ask him what kind of mushrooms he has, you will always get their Latin name along with the mushroom’s story – something special and unique about that mushroom. So not only does he have this profound knowledge of mushrooms generally, he also knows all the local places where they grow – intimately and completely. His is a rare, deep and unique knowledge that will be lost when he finally passes. Bill is not only getting on in years, he is also afflicted with Parkinsons, which understandably affects all areas of his life, and does prevent him doing what he loves best, unless he can get someone to drive and accompany him on his foraging. I do hope for his sake, and the knowledge he possesses, that he can find someone who not only can drive him to where he wants to go, but also to be his student, to take on and embrace his knowledge and craft. Next time I see him, I will make sure I write down the name of the mushroom I am buying. I didn’t this time, so all I know is that the mushroom I bought is special in that it is a parasite of another kind of mushroom, and only appears every few years.
Farmers markets are a bit like slow food. You build relationships and this in turn builds community. It happens slowly over months and years (especially if you are a little shy as I tend to be). It only happens when you come back time after time, and your conversation slowly shifts from the basic transaction to a more in depth understanding of their business – to – in some cases – getting to know them more personally. This is special – and I can’t think of a retail environment where it happens in this kind of way – where the connection is both personal and directly with the producer, who is not simply the vendor.
There are a few other folks here I have these kinds of connections with – but either they were not there, or I didn’t need what they sell this weekend. I’ll save them for another day. Until then – go to your local market. Buy as much of what you need as you can there. Make it a habit. It will slowly but surely change your interaction with food and how it is produced.