Food is a many-splendored thing, so the more we learn about it, the more we discover new ways to look for it, and come to appreciate why the centre of gravity for food thinking keeps lurching in different directions.
This year’s Earth Day is time to name and celebrate a signpost on the latest lurch – foods of locality, a term introduced to me a few years ago by B.C. food theoretician Lenore Newman and Welsh food analyst Kevin Morgan.
Food locality is many long strides removed from the nutritional lens that governed our view of food for most of a century – seeing it as a passive resource to be mined and used for strength, health and human convenience, as philosopher Martin Heidegger might say.
It’s also several steps removed from local food, so recently the cause du jour, and even terroir, which added French “savoir flair” to the special taste that comes from the soil, grime, sweat, and ancient heritage of a landscape and the special government protection that goes to a European artisanal food lucky enough to have terroir coursing through its veins.
The European concept of terroir originated in the French wine industry in the days when wines were know for the place they came from (Bordeaux, for example, or Champagne) instead of by the grape seed – a trend that came from upstart California winemakers out to dethrone the French hold on the industry. Nowadays, terroir is big in Europe because it is an allowable form of protection that governments can provide to farmers resisting competition from cheap imports. Europeans governments spend freely to support their farmers efforts to hold on to quality markets that attract tourists and protect beautiful and vibrant countrysides, a viewpoint which no major North American government has yet embraced.
Anyone who’s been to Italian Slow Food gatherings courtesy of some level of Italian governments knows the marvelous lengths they will go to in support of their farmers, artisan producers and food culture. The tradition started some 300 years ago when an early French dirigiste government ordered cooking with herbs in a effort to reduce imports and localize taste buds by weaning people off imported Asiatic spices.
I want to see this term imported into the waistland of North America bulk food traditions, and the new word I want to try out on the new world is cultoir (pronounced cultchwarr).
To some extent, “cultoir” just adapts terroir to the inclusiveness of a New World continent — where age-old traditions need to include indigenous Aboriginal legacies, as well as age-old traditions from the Diaspora of recent immigrants who make up well over half the North American population.
The differences between Europe and the western hemisphere ensure that cultoir rather than terroir will heat up food politics here.
Off the top of my head, I can give three examples of foods that come from the cultoir of my hometown, Toronto.
One is maple syrup tapped from front and backyard trees, inspired in large part by a budding new Toronto NGO, Not Far From the Tree, which has enough attitude to take it a long way. The syrup is nutrient-dense, to be sure; a paper presented March 30, 2011 to the California annual conference of the American Chemical Society documented 54 compounds in maple syrup that produce anti-oxidant and cancer-fighting properties.
Syrup is local in its location, to be sure, and will surely bear witness to local terra firma. More than that, it comes from the cultoir of Toronto, which is buzzing with ways to make neighbourhoods buzz with food that’s real, authentic and a vehicle of self-expression, personal development and self-exploration, not just an item of consumption. FoodShare is doing the same thing with promotion of local urban honey.
Another product of cultoir is a certain kind of chocolate.
The person who gave me my first taste of locality in chocolate from faraway lands is Michael Sacco, founder of ChocoSol, the upstart Toronto chocolatier who brings fairly-traded chocolate back from favorite spots in Oaxaca, a centre of Indigenous Mexico where Sacco learned to blend green economics and culture in his misspent youth.
Sacco and his merry crew can be seen plying their artisanal chocolates exclusively at farmers markets across Toronto. They get into farmers markets because they have localized their goods not only with their chocolate-making labors but also with made-in-Ontario ingredients and concoctions, including hemp seed and amaranth — a super-nutritious grain developed by Indigenous people in Mexico, and once widely grown in Ontario, especially in a small town called Amaranth.
Sacco’s worldy connection with Oaxaca comes from the heartland of Toronto as surely as maple trees do.
For Sacco, what matters is that foods are inter-cultural, introducing relationships of mutual sharing – the opposite of foods exclusive to one culture or territory.
A third kind of cultoir was served up to me by Sodexo executive chef Suman Roy at a downtown celebration of his new book, From Pemmican to Poutine: A Journey through Canada’s Culinary History.
Roy (who I worked with for many years at the Toronto Food Policy Council) cooked up finger food snacks made from Ontario elk, topped by Ontario goat cheese, enlivened by cumin and chile powder from his native India. “This is my perception of how food in Canada can develop,” he told me, “not as immigrant foods or even fusion foods, but as foods that express the Canadian mosaic.”
The elk is not only Ontario-grown; not only fed on local and native grasses and brush rather than less healthful grains of Indo-European origin; not only celebrates Indigenous heritage; not only is topped by cheese from Ontario goats, rapidly increasing in popularity as more farmers begin serving newcomer and immigrant customers; but also has another taste that’s part of Toronto Profundo – spices from the India diaspora.
After explaining this dish, Roy started swooning as he recalled a recent meal of sweet potato fries smothered in elk ragout and cheese curds. “To die for!” was all he could say.
Could Ontario or Canada or Toronto or any government in North America ever include a reference to food in a ministry or department of culture? Could any of the above ever celebrate, cherish, protect or promote the producers of such foods?
This is the challenge of cultoir.
(This has been adapted from the original version in April 14-20, 2011 NOW Magazine, to provide background for readers outside the Toronto scene.)