The Slow Food Snail Trail Continues East of the Rockies….

Mara Jernigan (right) with students at the Evergreen class. credit: Pamela Cuthbert

Our two days in Calgary were action packed and inspiring. We arrived on time for lunch at one of my favourite restos in Canada, The River Cafe. That afternoon, SAIT culinary instructor Andrew Hewson and Slow Food Calgary Convivium Leader, farmer Kris Vester organized a speaking event with the culinary students followed by a dinner of several homemade sausages and winter vegetables the students prepared with the expert chef instructors at SAIT. I was delighted to see former B.C. chefs Michael Allemeir and Ian Cowley during a quick tour of the expansive SAIT facilities and beautiful new student garden.

The next day, we flew from Calgary to Toronto. I looked forward to spending a week in Toronto, it was my home for ten years. My culinary world opened up attending George Brown College in the heart of Kensington market and it was here I paid my apprentice dues. I lived in an Italian/Portuguese neighbourhood, grew herbs and table grapes in my garden and got around by bicycle for 10 years, orbiting in a small urban radius. While chefs like Michael Stadtländer and Jamie Kennedy have always been loyal to Ontario produce, the trend conscious city with close to half a million residents of Italian origin and vibrant ethnic neighbourhoods has had a food scene more influenced by big American cities than by the countryside. But Toronto has rediscovered local food. Big time!

This city has the largest Slow Food convivium in Canada, wavering around 200 members and with such a high demand for Ontario produce many new farmers markets have opened up. Many chefs are practicing charcuterie and whole animal butchery,there are food security groups and local food initiatives, artisan cheese and support for unpasteurized milk, bakers using Red Fife wheat, wild foods like ramps, whitefish and morels. But local food in this city can be expensive. Very expensive!

That’s why I was looking forward to teaching a cooking class at Evergreen Brickworks. The community environmental center and former brickworks is located in the Don Valley was restored by the well established national charity Evergreen. Long time Slow Food Convivium co leader and Terroir founder Arlene Stein oversees the facility which includes a farmers market, skating rink and several commercial kitchens and offers everything from composting workshops to yoga. I approached Brickworks and Slow Food Toronto about organizing a women’s cooking class to help low income residents to improve their cooking skills using local ingredients. Community leaders from overcrowded neighbourhoods such as Thorncliff Park and housing projects in James Town and Regents Park were invited. Knowing I would have limited ingredients in April, I decided to cook a simple, affordable lamb stew and potato gnocchi, which would be fun to do as a group and conducive to dialogue. When I sent the menu to the organizers, they let me know I would need to source Halal lamb. How the demographics in Toronto had changed! So early Saturday morning I was off on my first trip to a Halal butcher and grocer with Slow Food Toronto convivium leader Paul de Campo. Iqbal Halal, on Thorncliffe Park Drive, was busy with families shopping for the week from the large selection of local meat such as goat and lamb, exotic spices and produce. It was a place where people who cook from scratch shop. I wondered if I could teach the group of immigrant women anything at all about cooking.

I purchased two whole local lamb shoulders, and a bitter melon called karella, that Paul told me they were experimenting with growing in Ontario. I figured perhaps the ladies could teach me how to use it! Afterwards we hit the Farmers Market at the Brickworks, succumbing to direct, sustainably sourced chocolate samples from Michael Sacco of ChocoSol, homemade buttertarts and cheese from Monforte Dairy with Evelyn’s Red Fife wheat crackers. I purchased Mutsu apples for a tart tatin, white turnips from Cookstown Greens and staples like onions and leeks.

A bus with the ladies arrived at the brickworks just as I finished setting up for the class. Slow Food Toronto member, chef and mom Voula Haliday kindly offered to help me. Before we knew it, a competent group of Sri Lankan, Indian and Persian women were gathered around a large wooden counter, expertly chopping garlic and onions, cubing lamb, and peeling apples. The prep work was done in no time. Two women tackled the karalla melon with confidence. A young Indian woman in her twenties peeled the bumpy green fruit, saying the skin was too bitter. An older Indian woman left the skin on, saying that was where all the nutrition was! When we ran out of chopped onion I offered one of the ladies a local leek, which she had never used! I wondered if the group, used to aggressively flavoured curries with plenty of ginger and spices would find the stew bland. But simmered with rosemary, which none of them had tasted, and white turnips, it turned out beautifully and everyone loved it. One of the younger ladies spotted a bag of Red Fife flour I had brought from Alberta and without hesitation made delicious chapatis with flour and water. In just a few minutes everyone had pitched in to form them by hand. It was inspiring to see strong, community minded immigrant women with wonderful cooking skills, resilience and resourcefulness clearly enjoying themselves. Everyone seemed genuinely grateful when we gathered together around the table to enjoy the fruits of our labour less than 3 hours later. We blessed the food and shared stories, concluding with the spectacle of flipping the tarte tatin, which all the women wanted a recipe for!

Some of my favourite Toronto Links:


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