Though it may technically be spring, typical Prairie winters are stubborn and relentless, often not loosening their firm grip on the outdoors until well into April. Yet, with warmer weather and fresh spring air in sight, plenty of us get excited to eat lighter, brighter fare. As nice as this feeling is for you and me, early spring is a dreadful time of year for a chef in a city such as Winnipeg, Saskatoon or Calgary.
Cooking through the winter is tough for a truly locally minded chef, but, with supplies of cellared ingredients such as carrots, turnips, apples and cabbage dwindling, early spring is even worse.
Not surprisingly, it’s the clever chefs - the ones who legitimately stick to cooking regionally - who spend much of the fall preserving anything and everything they can to help them last from November to April.
At River Café in Calgary, executive chef Matthias Fong took multiple steps in the fall to prepare a varied pantry that could last the restaurant until the 2018 growing season begins. He and his team dried a variety of herbs such as bergamot, lemon verbena and tangerine marigold - all of which are grown on-property in Prince’s Island Park. Mr. Fong used their garden chives and nasturtiums to make 30 litres of vinegar, and took the time to ferment ingredients including dill, plums and hot peppers. He also preserved 150 litres of fruit and prepped large batches of cauliflower purée.
The brassica might seem as hardy as its cousin, cabbage, but cauliflower doesn’t last much longer than six to eight weeks when stored properly by growers, so Alberta-grown cauliflower (along with vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts) are long gone by March.
Mr. Fong admits it’s a frustrating time of year, as both chefs and diners can get relatively sick of eating remaining winter produce. But it’s an ingredient rock bottom that really sees earnest chefs rise to the occasion.
“It forces us to find new ways of preparing what is available and highlighting those ingredients with our pantry of preserves with hopes of continuing to provide our guests an enjoyable dining experience,” the chef says.
Mr. Fong also notes that many reliable Alberta greenhouses such as Broxburn and Gull Valley Greenhouses have become equipped to offer steady supplies of things such as tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplant.
“Growers are becoming increasingly ingenious and have been able to supply us consistently through the winter months, though these ingredients tend to take a supportive role over the winter.”
One of Winnipeg’s most vocal local food advocates, chef Ben Kramer, does not have a traditional brick and mortar restaurant, but runs a variety of dinner events throughout the year as well as a boutique catering company. Due to Manitoba’s unforgiving winters, Mr. Kramer says that the costs of heating a greenhouse can be fairly prohibitive, and seems dubious of the environmental impact of the ones that attempt it. As a result, chefs in his region aren’t able to rely on these indoor growers the same way Alberta might be able to.
With Ontario next door, there is no shortage of greenhouses to look to when he needs something a touch fresher for one of his dinner menus. Kramer clearly recognizes the need to source outside of his local zone when necessary, but is quick to note the excitement that comes with living in a part of Canada that has four pronounced seasonal shifts. Looking out west, it’s sort of always spring in Victoria, right?
“In the fall we work like mad to preserve as much as possible. As the cold season approaches, I get excited to cook richer foods and in the spring I feel like a little kid,” Mr. Kramer says of waiting for fiddleheads and chives to pop out of the ground come April. “We have such distinct and extreme seasons in Manitoba that it’s hard not to get excited.”
With similarly harsh winters in Saskatoon, co-owners of The Hollows and Primal, Kyle Michael and Christie Peters, have taken fresh produce matters into their own hands, and operate a fruitful basement garden of sorts at one of their restaurants. Thanks to grow lights and an impressive aquaponics setup, the chefs are able to grow all sorts of greenery, including spinach and Swiss chard, and herbs such as dill and basil in their own restaurant.
To compliment what small amounts of produce they are able to grow in this resourceful way, Ms. Peters and Mr. Michael go to extensive lengths to can, dry, freeze, ferment, preserve and smoke anything and everything from their off-site garden plots before winter arrives.
“We try really hard not to buy anything from abroad, especially at this time of the year,” Ms. Peters explains, citing increased costs. “We like to be creative with what we have, and try to reflect the truth of the seasons in the region we are in.”