Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventures in Applesauce

An apple a day.., originally uploaded by Nina_999.
My Baba (Ukrainian for Grandmother) has a cellar that can be accessed by a set of steep concrete stairs in her garage. When I was a child she would sometimes send me down there to fetch a jar of home preserves from the wooden shelves. It might be pickles, tomato sauce, or apple sauce--whatever was required for the particular meal at hand. I was afraid of the cellar. It was dark down there and I felt claustrophobic with the thick grey walls pressing in on me. But the trip was worth it for the opportunity to pluck one of hundreds of jars full of carefully canned food from the wall and hear the satisfying pop of the vacuum sealed top coming off. The applesauce sticks out in my mind. Baba always left it coarsely mashed so the consistency was much like apple pie filling and not at all like the over pureed mush that you find in grocery stores. Sorry Motts, but Baba has you beat hands down. It was the best applesauce in the world and to be given a jar to take home was a prize beyond measure.

It’s apple season in Vancouver and the profusion of locally grown fruit in a multitude of varieties got me thinking about applesauce. It got me thinking about breakfast at Baba’s where we would sit around her kitchen table eating her home made applesauce on buttered toast. It got me thinking about canning--how Baba would rush out to buy pounds and pounds of cheap, in season produce and put it up in lovely glass mason jars for the winter. Canning is something that people are returning to as we realize that our current food trends are just not sustainable. Yes, you can buy strawberries from California in January, but we’re beginning to recognize that this might not be a good idea if we hope to have preserve the planet’s resources for future generations. Not to mention the fact that shipping food halfway around the world means that everyone is devouring flavourless fruit more rich in pesticides than vitamins. It makes sense to buy produce when it’s in season, locally available, and at its peak in freshness and flavour. And if you want to have some of that fruit in the winter, well why not buy it in bulk and preserve it?

With nostalgia and concern for the state of global agriculture driving me I decided to embark on my very first canning adventure. I was a bit sad that Baba was too far away to act as my teacher, but she was certainly there in spirit. My mother-in-law has boiling water canning supplies and she was gracious enough to lend me her kitchen and her wisdom to help me stumble through the process. It’s not actually that difficult but requires a lot of care. My overactive imagination was cooking up a scenario in which I poison both myself and M. with botulism after serving improperly preserved applesauce. But poisoning yourself with home canning is highly unlikely--if your jars are tightly sealed and the lids are difficult to pry off when you first open them.

Canning is a bit magical actually and I found myself highly enjoying the entire process. With the jars sterilizing in simmering water and my apple harvest cooking on the stove the kitchen took on a festive air. After the jars were packed and the lids screwed on loosely the whole batch of applesauce went into the boiling water canner where 20 minutes of processing is sufficient. The heat creates pressure inside the jars which forces the air out from under the lids and a vacuum is created inside. Eventually the sealing compound inside the lids is activated and you end up with hermetically sealed jars of food. So simple, yet so incredible! As I pulled out each shining jar I was left with a huge sense of accomplishment and was already planning my next canning project.

I cracked open the first jar of applesauce last night. I was trying not to set my expectations too high but I was hoping that this applesauce might be just a little bit like Baba’s. Foods have this uncanny ability to transport you to places that exist only in memory. And so it was when I tasted that first spoonful of applesauce. Immediately I was back in Baba’s kitchen. I could feel the slick surface of her table beneath my elbows, see the particular pattern of her dishes, and hear the voices of Baba and Guido as they served my brother and I breakfast. The applesauce was so much like Baba’s I was actually a little frightened. Having that jar of applesauce sitting on my table was almost like having Baba and Guido in the room with me--they felt so close that I almost expected Baba to step into view and ask me to run down to the basement to retrieve another jar.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Cure for Whooping Cough

One Day Old
Cow and One Day Old Calf. Orkney, Scotland. Andrea Paterson. 2010

I forget what the world sounds like: The baby-bird-peeping of the planet suffocates under hoarse industrial hacking. The song is swallowed by a perpetual state of Whooping Cough.

Walking to work in the morning creates the sort of terror one might feel walking through the hospital emergency room--terror incited by the crushing cacophony of death and contagion the presses in on you until you feel madness sparking. And so it is during my ten minute journey from the bus stop to my office where I am pursued by the jarring crash of development: Debris flying down demolition pipes; the aggressive roar of dump trucks, lawn mowers, and leaf blowers; the obnoxious beep of monstrous vehicles backing up; cursing from overhead construction workers; the endless endless drone of traffic coming down Marine Drive every second of every tortured, over-saturated day.

There is no escape. Nothing can soften the mechanical symphony that only ever plays the pounding, kick-drum climax and never recedes to the sweet swell of ocean waves or the melodious flute solo of the wind.

It often feels that the most glorious sound in the world would be a one hour stretch of uninterrupted silence. Not empty silence, but the kind that holds mysteries, the kind of silence that is made up of only natural sounds, unspoiled by human interventions.

I found such silence standing on the sea spanning cliffs of the Orkney Islands where I recently spent my honeymoon. In Orkney the wind commands attention, pulling your hair like a teasing boy, howling in your ear like a cat in heat, then falling into a lover’s whisper. Over the cliff edge is the beckoning and deadly-beautiful North Sea, smashing the rocks to smithereens. The earth’s demolition crew is much more subtle than its freight train human imitators. The earth leaves spaces where the soul can alight, listen to the swish of grass, the lullaby of water tricking down a long cataract, the meditative “ohm” of bumblebees.

By silence I don’t mean an absence of sound but an absence of noise. Where noise is the mind-numbing, insanity producing, industrial screech of the modern world imposing its terrible order and sound is the collection of aural sensations that indicate the living nature of the earth. The wind is the earth breathing and when you have room to hear this sound you begin to hear your own breath as a counterpuntal melody.

I can’t fit myself into the egotistical run-on monologue of the fork lifts and nail guns. But in a space of natural sounds there are pauses: ellipses, commas, even full-stops where I can cozy in like a bird in a nest and find the cadence of my own voice.

Driven to the edge of insanity by the omnipresence of noise I try very hard to return to Orkney in my mind--that place where there are seabirds and the bleat of lambs, a place full of sounds that remind you that you are made of flesh not sheet metal and screws, sounds that connect you to the land and place into your cupped hands the gift of silence.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Address to a Haggis

Orkney Kirbuster Farm mus 2
Peat Fire by Andrea Paterson. Orkney. 2010

I recently returned from my month long honeymoon in Italy and Scotland and have much to tell about my sojourn. But first, since I just spent one week on the remote Northern island of Orkney in Scotland I feel that it is my duty to talk a bit about Haggis. 

Robbie Burns is probably the most famous person to grace literature with a discussion of this traditional Scottish dish. Burns suggests in his famous poem “Address to a Haggis” that it is the hearty and sustaining Haggis that gives the Scots their burly strength. He writes (this is translated from the original Scottish dialect):

But take note of the strong haggis fed Scot
The trembling earth resounds his tread
Clasped in his large fist a blade
He'll make it whistle
And legs and arms and heads he will cut off
Like the tops of thistles

I’m not going to argue that Haggis will turn you into a warrior with the strength of an ox, or fill you with unrestrained blood-lust, but I will argue that the poor Haggis is an under appreciated dish that doesn’t deserve its reputation as a vile, stomach churning concoction dreamt up by ancient barbarian hoards. I think most of the problem is semantic. Descriptions of Haggis just don’t do it justice. No one really wants to eat the guts of a sheep mixed with oatmeal and spices boiled in the animal’s own stomach, offal sounds too much like “awful” to be palatable, and the whole thing conjures up the image of a filthy Scottish housewife stuffing the cast off remains from the butcher’s bench into a horrifying sausage casing then passing it off as dinner. 

So now I have to admit this: I’ve eaten haggis. I’ve actually eaten haggis more than once because after scrounging up the courage to try it I discovered that it’s actually delicious and now I feel strongly that it should be redeemed with more appealing descriptions of its virtues. So let’s pretend for a moment that we’re all sitting in a fancy Vancouver restaurant. One of the food fusion sort of places that pride themselves on creative food pairings and choice ingredients from local sources. You’re perusing the menu now trying to decide on your main course having just devoured an appetizer of smoked goat cheese with cranberry compote served with a burnt onion crepe. The list of possibilities is extraordinary, but your eye settles upon the following:

Grass fed spring lamb delicately seasoned with fresh herbs and mixed with organic oatmeal. Served with roasted parisienne potatoes and agave glazed carrots. 

I think that people might actually order Haggis if it were described like this and the diner would be treated to a warm and satisfying meal of slightly piquant meat mixed with the nutty flavour of stone ground oats. 

Still not convinced? Okay, well consider this--have you ever eaten a hotdog? Have you ever eaten a sausage on a warm summer evening slathered in onion and mustard residing deliciously in a fresh baked bun? If so you’ve eaten parts of animals that are far more off-putting than what you’ll find in haggis, including ground up bone. The meat in Haggis if of higher quality than your average sausage and far outstrips the lowly hotdog.

In Orkney, snug in a beautifully converted Croft cottage with a view of the endless fields and the wind swept grasses I fried haggis for my breakfast. I read a story about Earl Magnus, an ancient Orkney martyr whose bones are interred at St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Kirkwall. I listened to the gale whistle through every crack in the wall and saw the cattle bracing themselves against its raw force. I watched clouds race across the sky like greyhounds and held tea in a handcrafted pottery mug in dark shades of black and blue. Fortified on Scotland’s most talked about food I set out to explore Orkney’s wild cliffs and ended the hike at the Old Man of Hoy, a massive sea stack that cannot help but be phallic, driving up from the deadly rocks of the North Sea. There was no sound but the whip of the wind and the erosive crash of waves against the precarious cliff faces. I have always felt very much at home in Scotland, haggis and all.