The Interview: Anita Stewart, Culinary Activist
It's the end of the harvest season in North America, and thus an opportune moment to speak with Canadian writer Anita Stewart. For decades, Stewart has been writing and speaking about the bounty of Canada. She's been dubbed the “patron saint of Canadian cuisine" by the National Post. Call her a "gastronomer" or "culinary activist" and you're on the money. Her latest book, her 11th if you’re counting, is Anita Stewart's Canada: The Food, The Recipes, The Stories (Harper Collins, 2008), a loving, photo-filled journey across that country.
But beyond singing the praises of her native land, Stewart has spent years unearthing immigrant traditions, finding great chefs and discovering extraordinary restaurants. She’s someone who seems equally at home fly fishing for salmon in British Columbia and perusing the food markets of Toronto. Long before the concept of "slow food" entered daily conversation, Stewart was an advocate of food grown and eaten locally. And of course, from a traveler's standpoint, one of the joys of going to Canada — apart from the fact that the US dollar once again has buying power at $1.20 to it's Canadian counterpart – is discovering just how amazing the food is at Vij's in Vancouver or at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. It about tasting extraordinary riesling on Vancouver Island and eating fresh seafood in Halifax, Nova Scotia.On November 12, Stewart received a lifetime achievement award from Cuisine Canada.
The award, called The Edna after culinary pioneer Edna Staebler, was presented during a ceremony at the Royal Winter Fair. I wanted to find out more, so I caught up with Stewart at her home in Elora, Ontario.
Can you give me a few examples of some truly Canadian dishes from "Anita's Stewart's Canada" that exemplify the bounty and diversity of the country.
This question really frames the book. For over 500 years Canada has welcomed immigrants who've built the second largest nation on earth. When they arrived they found a land already rich with ingredients but they also brought their own. Spices from the Caribbean, seasonings from Asia. They brought wheat and lentils and potatoes. The list is enormous. They also brought a whole series of very real food traditions which have remained intact largely because of the vast distances between the various communities stretched from coast to coast.
In Cape Breton travelers can find marvelous oat cakes and Fat Archie's and maragan sausages (if they're lucky). In my own village we have buttery Gateau Basque prepared by a Roger Dufau, a chef from the southwest of France. The ingredients are absolutely all-Canadian. Literally across the road, a former math teacher from Kashmir prepares his Masala of Georgian Bay Whitefish with Fresh Mint Chutney. Georgian Bay provides magnificent whitefish and he grows most of the other ingredients in his large backyard garden. Canada is the world's largest exporter of pulses – lentils, chickpeas, etc. In Saskatoon, smack dab in the middle of lentil/wheat/canola country, Devini Desilva makes her Sri Lankan Dahl. Dead easy and totally delicious! The Japanese community in British Columbia has been there for well over a century. They came to fish. There's Gyoza stuffed with pork and seasoned with ginger; cucumber and seaweed salad to simple baked salmon blessed with soy and ginger.
How did you become so involved in the food and produce of Canada?
That's a really difficult question to answer. I grew up knowing the importance of being self sufficient. My parents had a large garden which we'd harvest to fill the fruit cellar with preserves and pickles. Later — and I was still just a kid — Mom bought a brand new Amana upright freezer and we picked and froze all sorts of fruit and vegetables for the winter. I absorbed that way of life so when I had a family of my own – four sons within five years — and a pretty meager income, I did the same. Creating great yet really inexpensive meals became not only a necessity but also a passion. I have never understood why people would spend more on prepared foods when it's so dead easy to make one's own. I explored local production and reveled in new food tastes that I came to know were a huge part of the Canadian mosaic. The more deeply I was involved, the more I saw the issues that I still find troubling and with that knowledge in hand, and a solidifying reputation, I realized that I couldn't just sit still and be quiet. I read MFK Fisher and the opening quotation in The Art of Eating was a quote from Santayana about the 'measure of your powers'. It struck a very deep chord and I realized that perhaps I could make a difference in this vast nation that had, and still largely has, very little understanding of itself in the global culinary scheme of things.
Just as Canada is regularly overlooked by Americans for vacation plans, the same seems to be true — in fact, even more so — when it comes to Canadian foodstuffs. What is it that makes Canada unique in terms of food?
We are a young country and rather than absorbing our immigrant communities over the past five centuries, many of those Diaspora have remained intact. Consequently, we can taste the world but we do it, as I've written so often, on our own terms with our own ingredients which spring from ancient cultures around the globe. We have well connected agricultural research communities which have not only given the world iconic foods like Yukon Gold potatoes and important crops like OAC 21 barley which was the standard for malting barley for over 50 years. Most of barley that is the foundation of the current resurgence in American micro-brewing can trace its lineage back to OAC 21. Similarly Marquis wheat helped to open up the American mid west in the early part of the last century simply because it was sturdy and more cold tolerant. You are also growing canola, the world's healthiest oil, which was hybridized by researchers in Lethbridge, Alberta and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In tourism terms, the local food movement has blossomed all across the nation. Truly spectacular ingredients are being cultivated and in some cases, wild-harvested.
Meanwhile, our chefs community are beginning to hit their stride. I was recently at a Canadian Chefs Congress, a rather free form event on a 100 acre farm, north of Toronto. Some of the dishes which were served make my mouth water even as I type. All the food was cooked over open fires. There was a Prairie "chowder" with smoked pike and wild rice; Great Slave Lake caviar with wasabi, musk ox tartar, Wild Arctic char gravlax; duck and chanterelle galantine with pickled chanterelles and organic radish seed oil dressing; bison hump and Saskatoonberry pierogies with spruce shoot and calendula creme fraiche.
The finest dish of all came from a New Brunswick chef, Chris Aerni (above, with wife Graziella). He marinated weir-caught Passamoquoddy Bay herring and layered them with a warm fingerling potato salad and topped each small serving with a bit of good sour cream and Canada's first short-nosed sturgeon caviar. This is why I say that Canadian food as exotic and as sexy as any on earth.
The story of Canadian wine is very similar to that of the U.S. Till the 1970s, it was plonk. However, in that decade, a young entrepreneur, Donald Ziraldo, applied for a cottage winery license here in Ontario. With his partner, Karl Kaiser, they founded Inniskillin Wines in 1975. Internationally we became known for our ice wine but in the background, dozens of other wine growers, many who were originally from Europe, were ripping up the labrusca grapes and planting vinifera from around the world. In concert with this rapid growth and it's attendant experimentation, came the Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA), our system of appellation which guarantees that the contents of the bottle is from the region/vineyard/grower. The wine regions of Niagara and the Okanagan in British Columbia were the first. The growth was rapid and good.
Today, although our production is smaller than other jurisdictions, much of it is exceedingly high quality. If you come to Ontario there are some vineyards that you simply must not miss… Stratus, Henry of Pelham, Clos Jordanne, Southbrook, Chateau des Charmes, 13th Street, Featherstone (where they trim the vines with sheep and keep the birds off the grapes with two falcons). In B.C. you must journey to Mission Hill Family Estate Winery, just south of Kelowna which is the most dramatically beautiful winery in the nation. Their terrace restaurant, best enjoyed on a summer's day, overlooks the valley. Ossoyos, a hot dry town at the south end of the valley, is the tip of the Sonoran desert and hence has some stunning reds. Burrowing Owl (above) is among the top of my current list mainly because one of the top chefs in B.C. Bernard Casavant has recently hung his toque in that winery's kitchen and is often viewed as the culinary godfather of B.C. cuisine.
The growth in the local food movement across Canada is absolutely stunning. It's changing at light speed and is integrating both established food traditions and new ingredients.
I'll begin in Atlantic Canada. St. John's Newfoundland has an ancient food culture that's being ramped up by a crew of young chefs and also on oil boom offshore. Prince Edward Island is very quickly coming into its own with a plethora of regional specialities. from spectacular oysters and mussels to cheeses and a couple of micro-distilleries. Nova Scotia has a solid Scots community on Cape Breton. There are Germanic influences in Lunenburg and the Halifax Farmers Market is one of the best in the nation. Southern New Brunswick, around St. Andrews, is coming into its own. Check out the Rossmount Inn.
Regional cooking flows through Quebec. The Charlevoix has its Route des Saveurs and well-ensconced artistic community. Quebec City (with another food route on the Ile d'Orleans) is arguably the most beautiful city in the nation. Every gourmand must eat once in his/her lifetime at L'Eau a la Bouche, a Relais Gourmand restaurant/inn located north of Montreal. Chef Anne Desjardins and her husband Pierre Audette, have created an extraordinary, art-filled dining experience with a wine cellar to match (see photo above).
Prince Edward County is an island, a mere causeway away from the mainland in Lake Ontario. This is the fastest growing culinary region in the country with a small cadre of top flight chefs, a developing wine scene and lots of pretty back roads to get lost on as you find the next food experience.
Niagara, as I've already commented up, is all about wine but also the Italian and Mennonite traditions. This is the most temperate region in the nation and in the farm markets and road side stands you'll find figs and persimmons; paw paws and walnuts. The Ottawa Valley around our national capital, has some great farmers markets — we have the market tradition for well over two centuries here in Canada.
Journey west. Around Winnipeg there's solid Icelandic culture as well as Russian Mennonite and move west across the Prairies and hit Calgary. This is a happening city because of the oil boom and even with the decline in commodity prices, the restaurant/ingredient scene is very strong. Look for the tabloid, City Palate, as a guide.
West through the mountains and you get to Okanagan wine country and west to the B.C. coast. Vancouver is our response to San Francisco. If there are two restaurants to visit in that city, they're Tojo's (Japanese) and Vij's (East Indian). Finally southern Vancouver Island and the Cowichan Valley is lush and has a character of its own. The food at Sooke Harbour House reflects the extraordinary wealth of ingredients likely better than any other in the region.
I know you're active in Slow Food, so I was wondering if you could name some restaurants around the country that exemplify the Slow Food philosophy?
The Slow Food philosophy is really not much more than supporting your local growers and honoring their ingredients. It's the good cooking that began in our home kitchens centuries ago being transposed into the restaurant scene and adopted as a personal philosophy. It's culinary common sense. But I'd like to throw in a caveat, particularly since we've been inundated by people expounding on the 100 mile diet. Local food generally is excellent for all the reasons we know. But we should not be bamboozled by a trend when, indeed, there is often lousy local food, too. In my 20+ year career, I've kissed a lot of frogs to find these few handsome princes. Rossmount Inn, St. Andrews by the Sea in New Brunswick; The Inn at Bay Fortune, Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island; in Quebec, L'Eau a la Bouche, Ste. Adele (photo above), Bistro Champlain in Ste Marguerite and Les Fougeres, Chelsea, Quebec; Harvest Restaurant, Picton, Ontario, Merrill Inn, also in Picton, Ontario, Fraser Cafe and Domus Cafe in Ottawa, Canoe in Toronto, The Elora Mill Inn, Elora, Ontario, Ancaster Old Mill, Ancaster, Ontario, Treadwell, On the Twenty, Picone's all in 'the Niagara'; Calories, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, The River Cafe in Calgary, Bishops, C Restaurant and Tojo's in Vancouver and of course, Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island.
More than the restaurants though, the resurgence of our traditional farmers markets has made it possible to source locally. No matter where one heads in Canada, the key to a successful dining experience is usually to find the nearest farmers market with a healthy farm community supporting it and find out to which restaurants the vendors are selling.
Tell us about the World's Longest Barbecue.
You'll remember the BSE crisis in 2003. When the U.S., Canada's largest trading partner, closed its borders to Canadian beef whole communities were devastated and some have never recovered. It was a horrendous situation.
At the same time I was reading John Ralston Saul's The Unconscious Civilization. In it, he wrote that "Real individualism is the obligation to act as a citizen. The has nothing to do with conformism or obedience to interests outside the public good. The very essence of that individualism is the refusal to mind your own business." Those words were the motivating spark. It seemed to me that I could help our agricultural community by rallying my friends in support of Canadian beef. I tried to translate the crisis into something positive. I asked them to step up to their barbecues on one date, at one time, in every time zone on earth and barbecue Canadian beef. Then we simply shared our stories on line to one another. The barbecue began at our embassy in Beijing and continued around the globe to Victoria, British Columbia. We've done it every year since then on the first Saturday of August – a long weekend in many parts of the nation — and it's turned into a rather voyeuristic look into the kitchens and back yards of Canada. My goal is to create a national food day for Canada…and have a lot of great foodie fun on the way.You can read more about it at Flavours of Canada.
Is there a good source for Canadian cooking schools or wine tastings or festivals?
No, there's not but I hope to pull together such a list in the near future for my website. It's an important concept but the country is so huge, it's also very difficult to do so I'm sure that's why no one has tackled it.
For more on Anita Stewart, visit anitastewart.ca