Eating local - the defining food trend of the past 10 years (at least) - has outlasted molecular gastronomy, molten chocolate cake and the whole low carb thing.
But is the local movement showing its age? Are we sick of 100-mile types and $6 quarts of righteous, low-carbon-footprint green beans that are tough as old oak? Has eating local, in short, become annoying?
Some of the time, yes, says chef David Kinch, whose restaurant, Manresa of Los Gatos, Calif., is regarded as by many as the height of central coast cuisine (which, in Los Gatos, is hyper-local).
Mr. Kinch, who was in Toronto this week to take part in the Terroir culinary industry symposium, is especially wary of restaurants where "the locavore aspect is the overriding principle." Quality, he said, "has to be part of the celebration."
"Trends can be quite damaging," echoed English celebrity chef Fergus Henderson, whose cookbook Nose to Tail Eating ended up becoming extremely trendy. "It leads to too many bad imitations." Henderson inspired a small army of imitators when he opened the St. John Bar and Restaurant, in 1994, and he will likely gain many more with the forthcoming launch of the St. John Hotel in West London, where he plans on serving a baked bean dish with what he describes as "sort of a pig's head bacon."
The Terroir Symposium is about eating local, eating nose-to-tail, and eating sustainably, but above all about "the pleasures of dining," according to chair Arlene Stein. And the message seems to be catching on. Now in its fifth year, Tuesday's sellout event welcomed nearly 500 participants. The invited guests also included Mitchell Davis, a New York-based food writer and vice-president of the James Beard Foundation.
This past Sunday, the three guests were seated around a table at Langdon Hall, a hotel outside Cambridge, Ont., sipping flutes of sparkling rosé from Niagara's 13th Street Winery. They were about to embark on an epic day-long tour of Canadian gastronomy conceived by the restaurant's chef, Jonathon Gushue, who, in a feat of even greater Canadianness, bruised his ribs while shovelling his driveway and couldn't be there in person. Were they about to eat good local or bad?
Inspired by a recent trip to Noma, in Copenhagen - a restaurant that has changed the meaning of local with ultra-nearby ingredients like lichen, moss and seaweed - Mr. Gushue began with capelin-and-ice-wine-infused panacotta with Lake Erie caviar. Mr. Kinch deemed the dish "fascinating," calling it "the most interesting thing I've had so far on both trips to Terroir." Mr. Henderson was similarly impressed by an elk pie. Canada had inspired him with visions of big animals, and he deemed the pie "fantastic."
So far, so good.
Next stop, Monfort Dairy in Stratford, Ont. This state-of-the-art fromagerie was built by Ruth Klahsen, who funded her venture by selling $450,000 in cheese futures. On a tour of the aging room, Ms. Klahsen's perfectionism was on full display as she lamented cracked wheels of Saler (a new cheese still in the experimental stage) and mini-logs of Gaperon colonized by an alien fuzzy mould.
Out in the hall, Trevor Gulliver - Fergus Henderson's voluble business partner - told her what her problem was. "You need a flock," he said, claiming that great dairy farming is an inherent part of great cheese making. Good local, it seemed, is about ensuring quality at every step of the process.
Or is it? Mr. Davis disagreed, pointing out that Italy's famous wheels of Parmigiano aren't made by the folks who milk the cows. Good local, all of a sudden, was about working with producers who adhere to rigorous standards. Ms. Klahsen sided with Mr. Davis, saying she was going to ask her sheep farmers to stop feeding the animals silage (fermented hay), which causes gas to build up in aging cheeses.
Everyone agreed that the Monfort cheeses, which were sampled alongside glasses of Jackson Triggs Vintner's Edition Bin 93 Chardonnay, were delicious. "The cheeses are 200-per-cent better than they were last year," enthused Mr. Kinch, who was partial to a soft goat's cheese with a grappa-rubbed rind called Indiscretion. Mr. Davis liked a hard sheep's cheese called Toscano, while Mr. Henderson had one word for them all: "Fantastic."
The lesson now, if there was one, was give local food time. As Mr. Davis later put it in the car, the Italians have traditions going back centuries while, by comparison, many of our own are barely out of diapers.
At a farm just down the road, 20 chefs from Langdon Hall and Stratford Chefs School were getting started on dinner. The farm is owned by Mark Lass, whose family has tilled the same stretch of Ontario terroir since the 1850s. Guests stood in a geothermally heated pottery studio sipping bottles of Stratford Pilsner while servers brought out steaming mugs of rabbit and mushroom stew and grilled skewers of Lass's milk-and-grass-fed rosé veal (now that's local).
One server appeared bearing a plate covered in thin, glistening slices of mystery meat. "The colour is darker than cooked beets," said a stumped David Kinch.
"It's elk!" proclaimed Fergus Henderson, still in a big animal frame of mind.
"It's seal," said Mitchell Davis.
The seal, which was raw, didn't taste as fishy as people expected. "It smells like the inside of your wife's handbag," offered Mr. Gulliver. "And the taste goes on longer than you want."
The northern theme continued at dinner: Wild arctic char from Rankin Inlet served in seaweed butter was followed by platters of muskox tenderloin and grilled caribou shank - two meats that suggest that the whole point of eating local isn't about carbon footprints and well-meaning farmers so much as evoking a sense of place.
The caribou made Mr. Henderson almost giddy. "It's flesh," he said. "You can taste that it roamed. It ran free!" The big animal craving, at long last, had been slaked.
Dessert was, if anything, even more boreal - pine needle sponge cake with juniper berry cream. It may sound fancy, but according to Mr. Gushue, the cream is nothing more than a crème Anglaise with dried juniper berries substituted for the vanilla bean. (The trick is to soak them in Earl Grey tea to take off the edge.)
Outside, as guests drove away on local roads, Mr. Henderson summed the day thus: "I've had two beasts I've never eaten before - muskox and caribou. And seal! Goodness, three beasts!"
Then he tapped his belly with both hands and said, for perhaps the 15th time that day, "fantastic," which seems to be Fergus Henderson's way of saying he had fun. And that, after all, was the whole point.
Mark Schatzker is the author of Steak: One Man's Search for the Tastiest Piece of Beef.