The 100 mile diet, 1-day challenge, Atwater market, Montréal

A few years ago, Canadian husband and wife team Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon put on their locavore shoes and decided to feed themselves food which they could source within a 100 mile radius from their home.

The couple relied on farmers markets, and local farms for most of their products, and the exercise became well known after the couple wrote about their adventures in the best-selling book : 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating (or Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally).  I hadn’t read it, so down to a popular cook book store I went. The owner laughed at me, “Man, I haven’t even bothered with that one, you just can’t do it over here, I mean can you?”   Tell Mira “NO” and her brain doesn’t quite register; surely I could do this, at least for just one day? I could forage, take out some of those preserves, butter my bread with marrow, skin a few street squirrels Girl Hunter style? Problem Number One – it’s the dead of winter. Problem Number Two – my garden is caked with three feet of snow.  Problem Number Three- whilst my palate has a renewed appetite towards meat over recent years, it rarely extends beyond the big three.

But, I was up for the challenge and decided I’d loca loca my way over to market and see what I could find. Before that, I did some mucking around on the net, and found a couple of tools to help me calculate a 100 mile radius from my house. This tool will provide you with a visual and textual breakdown of towns included in the 100 mile radius.100 mile radius map                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            The Atwater market is smaller than the larger local Jean Talon market, but I like it for this reason alone – its compact size makes shopping easy – you have one large fish store, several specialty butchers, two cheese shopees, and one bakery.  Montreal being close to the St Lawrence river, and the province being abundant in lakes, I am thinking there must be something fishy for me to find for dinner. Tough luck, whilst there’s plenty of the finned variety from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, the nearest fish did his last laps in Maine.

IMG_3520                                                                                                                                                           I keep on and meet a butcher from Saint-Vincent. “Where’s that I say?” It’s in the grid, and I buy fresh eggs (not even in a carton), some pork, lamb and beef mince (for work pot-luck pies) and a little bacon. It’s going well, but this does not complete a meal.  To the vegetable stalls, and whilst there’s loads of vegetables – most of them have accumulated several thousand frequent flier points on their way to market.    I settle on some potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes (for soup), and a kilo of apples and apple juice.  For breakfast I want to make pikelets – yet although I find some locally milled flour, its three times more expensive than what is in the supermarket.   Into the specialty food store, and there’s a proud display of Italian imported pasta, grains  – red rice from China, chickpeas from India, not a single grain from Québec.  IMG_3537

I’m getting stuck, and it looks like asides from a Jerusalem artichoke soup, which I can dress with some rosemary butter made  from the plant I have growing on my kitchen sill, it’s going to be a standard meat and potato dish.   I do yet another trip around the market, and then start thinking about my husband’s forbearers – what did they eat before there was imported chorizo and olive oils on every supermarket shelf? More so what did they do before the local greengrocer was pushed out of his shop by the big brother food corporations?   I then thought of my father-in-law, and on the rare occasion he cooked, he would usually prepare something from his hometown in Northern Quebec. That’s right slow cooked beans in maple syrup! Instead of breakfast, I’d serve the beans for dinner, but what with? Around the corner was my answer, a sausage store using biologically raised meat. I chose deer with apple and maple syrup.  I didn’t dare ask where the deer came from, so excuse me if old Bambi doesn’t fit in the map, but be happy he didn’t have to board a cross-Atlantic flight just to land on my plate. Back home, I unloaded my loot on the table, and figured I’d done a pretty good job.

IMG_3567                                                                                                                                                                       My menu would be:

  • Breakfast: Baby pikelets with apple butter
  • Lunch: Jerusalem artichoke potage with garlic and rosemary butter
  • Dinner:  Slow cooked beans with maple syrup & molasses  and deer sausage with apple.

It wasn’t too tough, but it was basic, with the biggest challenge being a lack of variety amongst the vegetables and grains.  I was happy to have a good selection of root vegetables on hand – including beets, potatoes, the chokes, and I think Quebec farmers do a good job in preserving these through the long winter months, but I wonder whether the local farmers market really is the right place for imported oranges and avocado? I had fun doing this, but seriously speaking, this is no fun and games matter.  As the world’s dependence on petroleum grows and gas prices increase, the food sold in supermarkets, and even some of the food in the market I visited today has travelled up to 1500 miles to get there. Most of the products on supermarket shelves can barely be called food – with something like 80% of packaged food containing two products – soya bean and corn, food that has been so fooled around with, it no longer resemble the crop it once was.

I live in Québec, where it’s especially tough to stay local, the winter is long, and I myself am in no way a purist, yet we can all do better.  Most cities, including Montreal do have community supported agricultural projects where people can sign up for a weekly fruit and veg basket for example.  Also, if you do a bit of research, most farmers would be happy to have you pick up your meat or dairy products from the farm itself – which if you have kids, is a great outing. There is a myriad of locavore online resources to help you plan your meals, and in my experience, preserving, saucing and growing your own is where the real fun lies – not only are you helping preserve scarce farmland, and look after our fragile environment, but you are keeping yourself healthy.  At the end of the day, I felt lighter, healthier and calmer.

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Jerusalem artichoke potage with roasted garlic and rosemary butter dressing.                                                                                                

8-9 Jerusalem artichokes 

2-3 medium-sized potatoes

a liter and a half of vegetable stock

two knobs of butter

Sprig of fresh rosemary

2-3 bay leaves

3 cloves of garlic

Method

Peel and dice the potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes, place in saucepan and cover with vegetable stock. Add in the bay leaves.

Bring to boil, and then simmer until vegetables are cooked through.

Take out the bay leaves, and then purée the vegetables and stock in a blender with a knob of butter.

Put back into saucepan.

Finely dice garlic and rosemary, and then in a small pan, melt the other knob of butter and lightly sauté the garlic and rosemary (1-2 minutes).

Serve soup with the rosemary butter garnish.

For information on Atwater market, visit: http://www.marchespublics-mtl.com/English/Mission/

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From Market to garden. How growing your own can help save the planet.

From Market to Garden. How growing your own can help save the planet.

One of the great things about my local market, Marché Jean Talon is that come Spring, many of the fruit and vegetable vendors use their market stalls to sell young seedlings to be taken home and planted in the hope of harvesting your own bit of market fodder.

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A market stall selling vegetable seedlings. In a few weeks time, the plants will be gone and the first summer vegetables will take their place.

My gardening experience started early – most Australian backyards are quite large, so growing up my Dad would plant rows of different fruit and vegetables and then get us kids to help him out with the planting, watering, weeding.  There was also a chicken and duck coop, which provided the garden with a steady supply of nutrient-rich manure. Years later, my parents left the suburbs and started a market garden, and would often relImagey on my siblings and I to help get the harvest ready for market day.

Growing up, I wasn’t always fond of gardening. I couldn’t understand the fuss, considering how much easier it was getting your greens from Woolworths. Then, years later, as I started to work in aid and development and would return home after having spent time with Vietnamese rice farmers struggling to make do, or refugees around the world who had been forced from their homes and were now either growing or raising their dinner in a space as big as my bathroom, I began to appreciate this thing called gardening.  My husband and I bought a cottage with a piece of land a few years ago, and I am fortunate not to have to rely on my small garden for my livelihood, but meeting and working with these people has fostered a respect of where our food comes from and more importantly how difficult it is for many people to feed themselves. In the past decade, the effects of climate change have caused havoc with already poor nations, and there are growing numbers of rural persons who are either being forced off the land, or stay and struggle whilst they to try to find and preserve enough water for their needs as drought becomes more of a commonality rather than occurrence, take gambles with alternative food sources, or sell off productive assets when harvests fail.

In many countries, both developing and non-developing, the soil has been so over-worked and depleted that it is no longer arable.  In very simple terms, healthy soil comes from alternating what you grow, avoiding pesticides and using compost. Maintaining a garden gives off oxygen, helps reduce erosion and keep temperatures moderate. The average kitchen produces almost 100 kilos of waste each year, by keeping a compost bin, and then adding this to the garden, we create soil that retains water, drains better and provides nutrient-rich plants that can withstand harsher climatic conditions. Plants also attract wildlife, which are threatened because the plant kingdom is failing them, and the plant kingdom is failing because mankind is letting it down. You don’t need a degree in agricultural science or even to be a humanitarian to understand the simple adage of what goes around, comes around, and today, more than ever before, it’s those of us that do have more, who need to be mindful of those who have less, as sadly, our earth cannot sustain us like it has done so in the past.

This doesn’t mean we all have to uproot ourselves and go back to land. Earlier today, I had stepped on my city balcony to bring in some clothes and noticed a neighbor planting cherry tomatoes in an old bucket, another was growing spinach in a plastic recycling bin, and several other balconies were sporting pots full of different herbs. We can all do our bit, whether it’s in a balcony box or on a farm.

Plant your own backyard garden

I used an area of 3 metres long and 1.2 metres wide. I filled it with black earth, about five buckets of compost and some peat moss. It’s amazing how much can grow in a small place. Here I have tomatoes, swiss chard, spinach, fennel, squash, zucchini, radish.

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My vegetable garden.

Plants need to be exposed to at least 6 hours of sunshine. I planted taller plants such as tomatoes to the western end, to avoid shading the other plants.  Asides from the tomatoes, most of the plants don’t actually need a lot of room, and when the lettuce and radishes (planted to the East of the plot) are picked early in the season, it will leave room for spreaders such as squash and zucchini.  Because I eat a lot of salad during the summer, I also have an additional plot just for salads such as chicory, rocket, mesculun, as well as flower pots for herbs and edible flowers.

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In an old washing barrel, I planted fingerling potato, and kept a separate garden box for lettuces.

For some tips on small-space gardening, read my article in Readers Digest, or have a look at the books written by Canadian urban gardener Gayla Trail.  Want to know more, but don’t know where to start? I began by reading novelist Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Mineral about her year spent living off the land, and more recently have got to know the work of maverick farmer Joel Salatin, otherwise known as the High Priest of Pasture who will get you running for cover every time you go near a Coles, IGA and yes even the old Woolworths supermarket.

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The first of the swiss chard. Ready to be sautéed with some olive oil and garlic.