Monday, June 15, 2009

Got Any Cheese?

As a boy raised on macaroni and cheese (every Friday night) and grilled cheese sandwiches (every Sunday afternoon), I knew that to get through this summer I would need to find some good local cheese-makers.

The starting point for my cheese-quest was an article by Jennifer Cockrall-King on local artisan cheese makers. Between the three producers listed there, and a couple others I had heard of through friends, I had a nice list with which to start:

  • Eyot Creek – near Leduc, gouda
  • Natricia – Ponoka, goat cheese
  • Leoni Grana – Camrose, parmesan
  • Edelweiss Foods – St. Albert, camembert
  • Sylvan Star – Red Deer, gouda and cheddar
  • Tiras – Camrose, specializing in Greek cheeses such as feta and kefalotiri
Working through this list, trying to acquire each cheese, I found that most of them are no longer being made. My research was conducted from the chair in which I now sit, reading out-dated webpages and dialing the phone numbers that I found on them. Not crack-shot journalism, to be sure, but there were a couple of good finds. Here are my notes:

Eyot Creek – If you Google Eyot Creek, you are presented with a slough of webpages concerning an E. coli outbreak from late 2002. The sicknesses were traced back to Eyot Creek farmstead cheeses that had been sold or given away at both the Strathcona and St. Albert farmers’ markets. I could find no information on Eyot Creek dated after the E. coli outbreak. I assumed the worst and crossed Eyot Creek from my list.

[Update: I just found an article in The Leduc Representative that says Eyot Creek stopped cheese production partly because of "cost prohibitive renovations recommended by Captial Health".]

Natricia – The above-mentioned Cockrall-King article said that this Ponoka goat cheese is available at Paddy’s International Cheese Shop. I went there and asked for it by name. The girl behind the counter said that they were currently “considering” carrying Natricia, but that they hadn’t decided yet. Most likely she had no idea what I was talking about. When I got home I called the number for Natricia from an antiquated Ponoka business listing, and got the private voice mail of a Ponoka couple. Also, the url I had for the alleged Natricia website was a dead-end. Strike two.

Leoni Grana – This parmesan from Camrose is also long gone. There is a brief explanation on a forum on The Edible Prairie.

Edelweiss – Contacting Edelweiss Foods Ltd, I got the peculiar feeling that I was calling a man at his private residence (the phrase, “How did you get this number?” came up). He said that, unfortunately, he is no longer able to make cheese.

Sylvan Star – This well-known, award winning cheese is available at Planet Organics. Sylvan Star specializes in gouda and cheddar, but they also make cheese curds, if you’re a stickler for authentic poutine.

Tiras – When I called the Camrose listing for Tiras Dairies, a woman answered and pronounced the word Tiras with some difficulty. I asked hesitantly if their cheese was available in Edmonton. Of course, she replied, and gave me a list of vendors, among them Hellas Food Importers, El Safadi Bros, and Omonia Foods.
A tub of Vlahos Greek Style Feta made by Tiras Dairies of Camrose, Alberta
As a pretentious philhellene, I would like to go on record and say that Tiras feta (marketed as Vlahos Greek Style Feta) is fantastic. Unlike rubbery super-market feta, Tiras is soft and creamy, while retaining the characteristic feta crumble. Also, if you buy it in a large enough quantity, it's cheaper by weight than good grocery store cheeses like Cracker Barrel.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Local Staples: Flour and Eggs

With several farmers' markets and CSA programs around the city, fresh meats and vegetables are easy to find. Other essentials, like flour, require some gum-shoeing. This week I researched where to buy some local food-staples.
A load of Treestone Bakery traditional breadFlour - Treestone Bakery has been featured in articles, like this one by Green Edmonton, and radio reports, like this one by The Dirty Hoe of CJSR, not only for the quality of its products, but for its environmental sensitivity. The daily breads at Treestone are made with whole wheat that is farmed near Leduc and milled on-site with an imported French stone. This flour is sold in one kilo bags for $2. It is a fairly coarse grind, and our preliminary batches of pasta were acceptable, but not great.

For special breads like brioche, Treestone uses white flour milled by Sunny Boy in Camrose. Thankfully you can order some of this flour. I got 5 kg of red spring wheat for $10.

Eggs - Eggs are available at the Strathcona Farmers' Market through vendors like the Holden Colony and Sunworks Farm of Armena, Alberta. They usually sell for about $4 per dozen (compared to $2.60 per dozen at a grocery store: get over it...)

If, however, you find yourself in need of eggs in the middle of the week, when your farmers' market is closed, Planet Organics carries eggs from Purnima Farms in Breton, Alberta. Large Purnima eggs command $5.67 per dozen.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Montreal: Culinary Notes

Last week, after attending a cousin’s wedding in eastern Ontario, I spent some time in Montreal with my sister, Elizabeth. We were only there for two days, but we were able to cram in quite a bit of food. Here are some highlights.

The iconic cartoons of Fairmount BagelsMontreal Bagels
After puttering around a nearly vacant Old Montreal (it was Monday morning), we struck for the livelier Mile End, a community of the Jewish diaspora, replete with delicatessens and bagel bakeries. The oldest of these is Fairmount Bagels.

The front room of Fairmount functions as both storefront and stock room, with racks of pre-bagged bagels stacked up the walls. Behind the counter I could see two men, each rolling out bagels two at a time, one with each hand. The bagels were lined-up on long wooden sheets, then slid into the gaping mouths of the fire-breathing ovens.

We ordered a half-dozen poppy seed bagels. Immediately outside the bakery is a bench, and we sat among importunate pigeons to sample our purchase. The most obvious difference between these Montreal specimens and our usual grocery store variety is the shape. These were more slender rings, with larger holes in the middle.

I took a bite. Before I could taste the dough, the texture had already seduced me. It was dense and chewy, but yielding, not tough in the slightest. Finally the pleasant sweetness washed over my tongue. The grocery store bagels I was raised on required toasting and cream cheese, or ham and mayonnaise, or at the very least butter. This Fairmount bagel was emphatically not just a conveyance for other foods.

In most Canadian cities, the butcher, the fishmonger, the fruit vendor, and the baker all live in one place: the grocery store. The streets of Mile End, however, are filled with fromageries, boucheries, boulangeries, and patisseries. Some of these words were familiar to me from elementary school (“J’aime le fromage”), others were more mysterious, suggesting medieval guilds and farmstead root cellars. Charcuterie, for one, which I later found out encompasses the many methods of preserving pork: curing, smoking, and drying to make products like sausages, bacon, and ham. We also came across stores offering viande fumée, smoked meat, but I was holding out for the real deal, the landmark Schwartz’s on St-Laurent. That would come later. I am a patient man.

The St. Hubert Chicken logoRotisserie Chicken

Unbeknownst to the rest of Canada, one of the most popular dishes in Quebec is rotisserie chicken. There is, for example, a popular rotisserie restaurant chain called St. Hubert’s which has a friendly cartoon chicken on its logo. My first taste of the slow-roasted bird came while walking on St-Viateur, at Serrano Bar-BQ. I’ll admit that “Serrano Bar-BQ” doesn’t sound like the most authentic of Quebecois establishments, but there was a line of francophones starting at the till and stretching out onto the street. Following the well-worn advice to eat only in places packed with locals, my sister and I stood in line, not entirely sure what to expect or order once inside. Everyone who trickled out of the place had a large, crusty bun with pulled rotisserie chicken inside, so our choice was essentially made for us. There were two types listed on the chalkboard menu: cuisse and poitrine. Having no idea what either meant, I ordered “cuisse,” and Elizabeth “poitrine” (the harder of the two to pronounce). I received dark meat, Elizabeth white. (I later asked a friend who attended French emersion in Calgary what exactly these two words mean. He couldn’t recall the exact meanings; he only remembered that he heard them frequently in his sex-ed classes. They mean, respectively, thigh and breast, or chest.)

It was one of the more memorable sandwiches of my privileged, sandwich-filled life. The bun was perfectly crusty, but easy to bite through, giving way to chicken that was tender without being (too) greasy. And simple yellow mustard, lettuce, and tomato to garnish. This meal, too, was enjoyed on a sidewalk bench, under a hot sun.

That night we ate dinner at L’Hotel Nelson, in Jacques Cartier Square, a restaurant famous for its garden patio, live jazz, and crepes. I tried the veal blanquette.

I looked up the term "blanquette" once I was back home: "The French term for ragout of white meat (veal, lamb, or poultry) cooked in white stock or water with aromatic flavourings.” –Larousse Gastronomique)

A light, crisp crepe exterior, creamy sauce, tender veal, aromatic onions and carrots, and nutmeg. To drink I had a rousse (the Quebecois word for a red or amber ale). I embarrassingly can’t remember the brewery name. It was good, though: an even caramel flavour with balancing hops. Dessert was a limoncello sorbet.

Naturally we needed to have poutine before we left. Wikitravel had recommended a place called La Banquise (“The Ice Floe?”). On entering, several factors conspired to make me love this restaurant, specifically, and Montreal, generally. La Banquise has a bright, quirky interior, similar to some of the Nelly’s restaurants in Calgary. It is open twenty-four hours a day, which, as far as trendy hangouts go, is completely unheard of on the prairies (unless you think casinos and Denny’s diners are trendy). And, as a coup-de-grace, a live Janis Joplin recording was playing.

Elizabeth and I tried two classic poutine variations: poutine italienne (with bolognaise), and poutine chou (with coleslaw.)

Let’s get our facts straight. Poutine is French fries with cheese curds and gravy. Usually the hot gravy is poured over the fries and cheese, to soften the curds.

If, however, you order “poutine” in any chain restaurant (Boston Pizza comes to mind), you will get French fries and gravy, topped with mozzarella and thrown under a broiler to melt the cheese. The result is stringy, pizza cheese and soggy French fries.

These plates, though, were the genuine article. The curds lose their characteristic squeak once they're heated, but they retain a satisfying chew, and don’t spread around the plate to rob the fries of crispiness. I washed my plate down with a Cheval Blanc white beer.

Smoked Meat

To complete our homage to delicious, delicious saturated fats, that night we ate at Schwartz’s. It was pouring rain, and we had to wait in line outside, under an awning. We were seated at a table for eight, with three other people occupying the opposite end. When the sandwiches were first brought out, their dimensions surprised me. The slices of rye bread were about the size of my wallet. The meat, however, was piled about as high as the bread was wide. It was dry but tender, peppery, and delicious. Poutine still in our stomachs, Liz and I forwent the fries and ordered an acidic slaw. The wall beside us was plastered with newspaper reviews and magazine articles, all salivating over Schwartz’s. The funniest clip I saw came from a skiing magazine profiling the slopes of New England. It told skiers that the best place to eat when visiting Vermont was Schwartz’s, in Montreal.

I noticed that several Francophones ordered their meat and bread on separate plates, and then constructed their own sandwiches, or simply double-fisted the two ingredients.

There were a few other local food customs that I didn’t get to experience, like “apportez-ing” my own “vin”.

Maybe next time. And there will be a next time.