terra madre: slowing it all down

In a world of fast, slow is what we covet. Or should. Go through (if you dare) a fast-food drive-thru and look for the clock/timer near the window; it’s monitoring the entire interaction from the disembodied speaker voice to the person handing over whatever passes for food.

The fast-growing backlash to large scale unsustainable food production is the slow food movement and Terra Madre: a network of food communities focused on responsibly and sustainably producing quality food – translated, terra madre means ‘mother earth.’

It asks that we get out of our cars and take the time to live responsibly, which isn’t a big ask considering that’s exactly what we say we want to do.

On December 10th I joined 60 people at a Terra Madre dinner hosted by Miradoro Restaurant at Tinhorn Creek. It was part fundraiser for our local Slow Food chapter and part playtime for some of the Okanagan’s most rad chefs involved in the slow food movement and sustainable food sourcing: Jeff Van Geest (host), Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith (Joy Road Catering), Natasha Schooten (Terrafina Restaurant), Chris Van Hooydonk (Artisan Culinary Concepts), Brock Bowes (The Sonora Room at Burrowing Owl), and Derek Uhlemann (Covert Farms). Hell yes, that’s a lineup.

We can talk about being sustainable, eco-friendly, farmers’ markets, foraging, and <insert media buzz word here>. Whether we can support a sustainable food system comes down to how we choose to live and despite what you’ve heard it might not be possible to have it all – if what you want to have isn’t, underneath, sustainable.

It took a team of 7 chefs and I have no idea how many others to bring this culinary feast to our table. They spent valuable hours preparing what we consumed. In the type of life that many of us have constructed, that’s not sustainable with our heavy schedules – the work, kids, commuting, home repairs, caring for aging families, and <insert other obligations here>. Or is it?

We need to cultivate a new definition of success, one that goes beyond acquisition of X. It’s an entire infrastructure that needs supporting – from how we reward work to what we offer as opportunities to succeed. If we can retrofit a more mindful way of how we live our lives, everyone wins – including what we rely on to sustain us.

On a personal note, a hearty and heartfelt thank you to everyone involved in making the Terra Madre day celebration the remarkable experience it was. Each of you rock my world, regularly.

Here’s a glimpse of the awesome.

pre-dinner kitchen love: chef Jeff squeezes happiness into chef Chris, while chef Dana looks on – who seems uncertain about what to make of it.
chefs getting down to business: (l-r) Brock, Cam, and Jeff – with Chris in the background.
on this night, there is no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen. it takes a community to feed a, well… community.
chef Cam carves out a (small) space of his own. that sausage? local goat.
chef Jeff and chef Brock take advantage of a rare spacious moment in the kitchen.
the food: magnificent. the people: outstanding. it’s hard to imagine what people in large urban centres do for a culinary experience superior to this.
bodies everywhere, producing one brilliant dish after another. owner Manny waits for chef Chris to put the finishing touches on a plate.
local goat, prepared four ways. we happily enjoyed each and every one of them.
the crew, once the culinary dust had settled (L-R): Chef Jeff Van Geest, Chef Cameron Smith, Chef Chris Van Hooydonk, Chef Dana Ewart, Chef Brock Bowes, Chef Natasha Schooten, and Chef Derek Uhlemann.
the menu: ohmygawd the menu.

the rise of farm dinners

For many, the bulk of our food shopping is done in fluorescent-lit grocery store aisles with a weekly foray to the coveted local farmers market – if we’re lucky. We live anywhere from 4 to 8 process steps away from that vegetable in the ground or fruit on the tree. (don’t get me started on meat – read my thoughts about it here)

There are fewer chances to interact with food in the way we’re meant to – how we’ve been doing so for generations, until the last century. Not everyone can reside close to where our food comes from; and let’s face it, most of our food no longer comes from the farmer down the road.

With the growth of the Okanagan wine industry comes a rise in agri-food tourism. This is a good thing. It gives area farmers a chance to get their wares in front of folks who have substantial buying power – and therefore, consumer influence.

There are some folks doing it right. The Coverts are an Okanagan farm family going back several generations. Today, Gene and Shelly Covert operate the now organic farm and own Covert Family Estate winery. They get it: farmers markets, accessible and good food, mindful farming… you name it. They’re also helping change the face of wine, and I’ll bet they don’t even realize it. For consumer purposes, we’ve romanticized wine production – in the real world, farming isn’t all that pretty.

Gene’s just as likely to be out fixing irrigation as he is to be in the lab testing wine, and the last time I was at the farm Shelly was in a homeschooling session with their two boys. There’s paperwork and payroll, especially in the busy summer season when farm workers multiply exponentially, and their organic home delivery program doesn’t run itself.

So where does the winemaker dinner fit? Instead of adding to the facade perpetuated by so many, this is where the Covert family brings us in – all in – to their real world. (dressed up, yes – but farm glam, not city glam)

Weathered picnic tables line the patio, no linens required. Simple place settings reflect the afternoon sun and illuminate the dinner table. A fish is in the outdoor smoker, and a pig is roasting on the spit. Farm-fresh carrots and potatoes accompany the meal with no fanfare – just great taste.

We sit shoulder-to-shoulder and are served family-style on large sharing plates. Wine is poured, but not glorified. Guests are encouraged to sip and indulge at our own speed. The fish and pig are dressed table-side, right in front of us.

Dusk falls, and voices rise. We celebrate the miracle of pig fat – as a seasoning on vegetables or in the chewy goodness of ‘crackling’. We’re sated, and leave feeling like we’ve just enjoyed a lovely family meal. If Gene or Shelly were to ask any of us for help on the farm the next day, the answer would have been a resounding yes because that’s what family does.

As we invent new ways to remove ourselves from the mess of nature, it’s people like the Coverts who remind us why that might not be what we need. The farm dinner could be one solution to a problem we haven’t even begun to realize is staring us in the face, every day.

Pork fat is the answer – to almost any question. Here, our pig is adding juicy goodness to the roasted potatoes.
If I never see another white linen table cloth, I won’t be sad. The weathered grey of these picnic tables is beauty.
As pretty as it is, it’s not a prop – this old truck serves as a field guide for farm tours. It’s not afraid to get dirty.
The spring salmon goes from smoker to table side. No interruptions.
(l-r) Gene Covert, Derek Uhlemann, and Jeff Van Geest: the three people at the heart of feeding and watering us.
Roast pig, with potatoes and carrots (seasoned with salt, parsley, and pig drippings). Wine: Covert Farms 2007 Rosé (left), Tinhorn Creek 2011 Rosé (right). Did I say delicious? Delicious.
Two of the most badass chefs you’ll ever want to feed you.