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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch 33: Going Local

Jun 10, 2021

A Story By Kevin Gallagher

Nouvelle cuisine, with its emphasis on freshness and simplicity, was still a strong influence on restaurant menus when we opened Mildred Pierce.  Although Anne preferred to characterize her menus as the homey and simple style of à La Bonne Femme, fresh seasonal ingredients were still essential. 

We shopped at the Kensington and St. Lawrence Markets in the beginning, but as the volume of business grew, we began to rely on delivery by wholesalers. They would present us with the best looking produce, with little regard to where it came from. Anne might press them to bring Ontario fruit and berries when they were in season, but they often didn’t have any, preferring the large, glossy and tasteless imported strawberries to the sweet and ripe, smaller local ones. We were not yet committed to using local produce – if a spring menu called for asparagus, we would use the imported Mexican variety rather than wait until the local product came to market.

Once the restaurant service had settled into something of a routine, we started to look more seriously at where our produce, meats, fish and dairy were coming from and to try to use local sources. One of the first things I looked into was our maple syrup. The syrup we were getting had a good maple flavor, sweetness and was reassuringly labeled ‘Product of Canada’ but lacked the nuanced flavours I expected. Our blueberry-buttermilk pancakes were becoming very popular – they deserved better.

When I was a boy, my mother would get syrup from a local man, a dairy farmer who kept a small sugar bush. Each year he produced a small batch using the same methods his family had used for generations, gathering the sap in buckets and reducing it over a hardwood fire in his sugar shack. Hoping my expectations weren’t rooted in nostalgia, I got in contact with the man’s son, who now operated the farm and arranged to pick up a small supply. It meant driving up to the Ottawa Valley to collect it but it was the maple syrup I remembered – clean, complex with subtle notes of caramel and vanilla and the limestone minerality of Lanark County.

Excited by the opportunity to present flavourful local produce, we began to search out direct providers of produce, fish and game. Too busy to take their own product to market, some farmers were beginning to find brokers to deal on their behalf. They would arrive unannounced at the kitchen door with vegetables, fish from trout farms north of the city or racks of Ontario lamb.  Anne thrived on these connections, creating last minute dinner specials. 

Anne tapped into a network of foragers who came to the kitchen door as well. Cheerful, voluble Jim Giggie brought ramps, lamb’s quarters, fiddleheads and a large variety of wild herbs. He sometimes had little rainbow trout, so fresh they were still gasping. The Mushroom Lady appeared occasionally like a wraith with morels, oyster and lobster mushrooms or puffballs. She would speak quietly with Anne and leave me a little handwritten chit with her address for payment.

We were also introduced to a young couple who had bought a farm, left the city, and were pitching a cooperative program. We would make an investment at the beginning of the season and be provided with produce all summer. I was skeptical. They had no farming experience, having grown up and worked in the city and seemed to regard the whole thing as an idyllic adventure. The farm they had chosen was on rough and rocky land northeast of the city. I had my doubts about whether they would make it.

“Oh, let’s give them a chance.” said Donna, “They’re just starting out and seem committed.”

“Okay.” I shrugged.

A few weeks later, the first meager basket arrived. A six quart basket, it contained a few beans, tiny carrots and beets and reminded me of nothing so much as the baskets of seed farmers would bring to church on Rogation days in April to be blessed in the hope of a bountiful harvest. The new young farmer was earnest and apologetic – seeds had not sprouted – they needed some more equipment –  they’d like to get an irrigation system. We continued to support them over the summer, although the produce they brought sometimes made us laugh.

Anne walked into the office one day brandishing a bushy vegetable that looked slightly familiar.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Celery, apparently. They didn’t know that you have to keep it trenched to get the long stems. Here’s his explanation.” She produced a handwritten letter, a three page philosophical dissertation on the ups and downs of starting a farm. 

 “Oh well, I’ll give the celery to Ravi for soup.”

The following season, we opted out of the program but by all accounts the novice farmers did quite well, having connected with some of their neighbours for support and guidance. So in supporting them through their first year, I suppose we were doing our bit for local produce.

However, we couldn’t depend on the sporadic appearance of the brokers, foragers and aspiring farmer to ensure we had local produce for the menu, so we came to rely on the Ontario Food Terminal. Located a couple of miles to the west of the restaurant, the main buildings housed a wide range of food wholesalers and even though we often checked out the big produce suppliers, it was the local farmers selling their vegetables, fruit and flowers that most interested us.

The local farmers came early and left early, setting up in an open market area alongside the terminal and selling from their pick-ups and trailers as much as they could to the early shoppers before getting down to bargaining with the big wholesalers from inside.  It was exhilarating to arrive and see the largesse of the season spread out  – asparagus and little spring lettuces, then berries, stone fruit and peppers, all the way through to the pumpkins and root vegetables of autumn.

Cooks, drafted to help lug crates with their heads muzzy from a late night of work and revels, would come alive, enthusiastically examining the stalls and proposing dishes that could be created and specials they were convinced would sell out. They might return with cases of fava beans, making the young apprentices shudder at the prospect of the complicated prepping process – stripping them from the pods, then blanching and peeling them. A case of beans yielded no more than a small bowl of finished product.

“You know you can get these in cans don’t you?” one would say, oblivious to the paeans to the wonder of fresh fava beans from the buyer, who in turn sniffed, “There’s no comparison.” at the very suggestion.

Even Donna and Anne were not immune to the intoxication of seeing so much glistening produce. Once, they came back from the terminal with six bushels of red peppers – they couldn’t resist, the price was so good! Now, the baked chèvre with roasted red peppers was a staple on our menu, and we knew that the price of peppers in January would be five or six times what they had paid, so it made sense as long as they could be processed and stored properly. The plan was to roast, peel and deseed, dress them with olive oil and parsley, then freeze them in zip lock bags.

It took a few days, but all the peppers got packed away snugly in the freezer. What we failed to notice was that the outside of the freezer bags was damp, resulting in the mass of peppers freezing into a solid block. It was possible to pry a few bags off the top but it soon became apparent that we’d have to defrost the whole block if we wanted to use them. Anne rose to the challenge, but for a couple of weeks guests often looked slightly baffled when their server listed specials.

“Our soup today is a lovely red pepper soup. We also have a cannellini bean and red pepper dip served with Moroccan flat bread, a grilled sandwich of mozzarella, arugula and red pepper on baguette and a dish of eggs en cocotte with roasted red peppers”.

Cinematographer Derek Vanlint, a lunchtime regular, said what everyone must have been thinking, “Sounds like somebody picked a peck too many of  those peppers. Are you going to offer me a red pepper pudding for afters?”

As the initial excitement wore off, we settled into a routine that relied heavily on Vera, who was managing the kitchen prep. He could tell you at any given time exactly how many tomatoes were in the walk-in fridge, how long they’d been there and when we were likely to need more. Donna and Anne would give him an idea of what they needed, he would organize the list and make the trip to the terminal. When we shopped, we had a tendency to make hurried, impulsive purchases; Vera shopped with the eye of a new Canadian, assessing quality and price before committing, sometimes passing the produce up entirely if it failed to meet his critical judgment.

And the results were there in the soups and salads, vegetable sides and desserts. Guests might not be aware that the red and yellow tomatoes, still with the warm sun in their hearts, layered with fresh basil and dressed with olive oil that Anne laid out as a summer starter were local, but there was no doubt that they loved them.