Exotic Spices meet Local Food

Right this moment, I’m waiting for the motor on my spice grinder to cool down so that I can make another batch of curry powder to take to our local farmer’s market. In a much earlier post, I wrote about the challenges we face balancing our desires for local, organic, sustainably produced, and healthy food that doesn’t break the bank. Our part of the world is considered marginal for agriculture. It is cold, cloudy, windy, damp, and rocky. In the summer, everything starts late and finishes early. We get our asparagus in late June, and strawberries don’t come into season until mid-July. For local eating, we’ve got to get creative.

Although I’m a transplant to Cape Breton, I grew up in Newfoundland, an even more marginal, even more geographically isolated place. I lived in a household in which food was very important, and we ate a fairly cosmopolitan diet (by 1970’s standards), but we were limited in our options. This was before Just In Time everything raised shipping and distribution to a dubious art form and January mangoes became standard fare.

All this is by way of saying that, although I count myself among the ranks of the food-curious, my expectations when we arrived were tempered my upbringing. I don’t think I even had had spinach until I was an adult, and I finally realized why when we moved here. By the time spinach is shipped to the east coast of Canada and then trucked across another island, it’s already in pretty rough shape, and might have two days left in it. After a long stint in the ag-heaven of southern Ontario, though, I had become a fan. In our sheltered temperate yard there, the soil was good and  food sprouted in crazy abundance wherever we dropped seed. Spinach only takes 28 days from seed to baby leaf, so I thought I had an easy solution. It’s a cool weather crop, how perfect! (thought I.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t count on our spring weather, which goes: cold, cold, cold, rainy, rainy, rainy, HOT, cold, cold, rainy, HOT, cold… at which point the spinach seedlings whimper in their sleep and bolt to make seed before they DIE. Last spring I swam in the river April 4, right before my greenhouse blew away in a blizzard. Then we had two more months of frost, immediately followed by a glorious eight weeks of summer. Poor, poor plants. They never stood a chance.

The quest for spinach was the first step on what I am considering my Absurdly Slow Food diet. If I want something locally grown that isn’t on the normal list, first I need to learn to grow it. Four years in, I have mastered Shanghai Bok Choy and the use of floating row covers to protect brassicas from the ravenous cabbage moth. We have harvested a wide range of greens, and have learned to substitute baby chard (or that frilly one that I don’t know the name of) for spinach in most recipes. I have divided black currants, thus quadrupling the harvest. We have coaxed two strawberry plants to generate babies, and last summer had enough for a snack of one berry per person every night for about 2 weeks. We have great hopes for our strawberries this summer, involving shortcake and jam. I have pruned apple trees, planted three rounds of asparagus, and drowned about 1000 market-bound cilantro plants when I miscalculated exactly how much standing water there was on this property. This much:

At least my kids can play in the canals. And the tomatoes never dry out.

In various fits of optimism and extreme season-extension, I have planted dozens of plants of okra, watermelons, cantaloupes, and chili peppers. From that list, I got three okra pods and 2 chili peppers, on the plants we kept in pots in the house. In the summer of ’09,* in my second year of trying, I managed to get five fennel bulbs, but it took about 150 plants. Sigh.

I had grandiose plans of growing herbs and spices, raising bees, and making soaps and lotions with the fruits of my labour. But before we can plant anything we need to truck in compost, decompact the soil, solve drainage problems, and build raised beds. It’s incredibly labour intensive. (Here’s a hint for free: don’t try to start a farm in a swamp.) Here is our year three garden:

It was wonderfully abundant, and we still have snap peas and green beans in the freezer. There are beehives, but one of the two was empty the last time I checked, and we still have yet to score any honey for our efforts. As you can tell by the story so far, if we had to eat what we can grow, we would have starved to death several years ago. Which brings me back to the spices.

Another thing that exists in abundance in southern Ontario is Asian grocers. Oh, how I looooove the smell when I step into an Asian grocery store, of whatever denomination. While I was touring the world in a teacup that is Toronto, I fell in love with all things spicy. I never met an “international” food that I turned back. Jamaican Jerk Chicken, Goat roti, gongura pickle, all things Thai, things made with more than one variety of dried mushroom, and/or more than one kind of seaweed, injera with 9 kinds of Ethiopian veggies… I even ate the chicken feet and the tripe at The Perfect Chinese Restaurant. I was, in short, spoiled rotten. And then I moved back east. The nearest Asian grocer is now 500 km away. (That’s about 300 miles, for my American friends.) Forget the restaurants. For a woman of my persuasion, it is to weep.

Enter the internet, stage left. Specifically, enter the ability to access wholesale organic fairtrade spices at Mountain Rose Herbs. They have a really nice discount if you order many, many spices. Spices by the pound.** You might be able to see where this is going, and it ends at the farmer’s market, being “the spice girl”***. I consider this part of a three pronged approach. 1) Figure out how to grow as many things as humanly possible, given reasonable constraints of effort and energy. 2) Add in the lightest ingredients that don’t grow well, if at all, without extensive inputs. 3) Make it possible for lots of other people to do the same thing.

Yes, structural change is necessary. Political action. Go for it. The regulations I encountered just trying to slice a tomato to make into a sandwich to feed to somebody else floored me, and eventually made me give up. I cannot jump those hoops. But here are some things I can do to help right now: grind another batch of curry powder. Put up another greenhouse. Make sure that the fairtrade items make it here. And, last but not least, teach somebody four more things to do with potatoes.

* Please secretly read that as aught-nine, in whatever accent your grandfather had. It would please me.
** You will never, never, never use a pound of bay leaves, just in case it is a question that keeps you up at night.
*** That’s not what I call myself, but it is apparently how I am known around town.

One response to “Exotic Spices meet Local Food”

  1. Do you really want that aught nine pronounced with a Burtt’s corner accent? lol. I for one, applaud all efforts to bring spices to our neck of the woods. One step at a time ….