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Giving Thanks

A prairie harvest
It has been a difficult year for Alberta farmers, but now that the crops are in, a Calgary restaurant discovers there is much to be thankful for. CINDA CHAVICH dines with the some of the men and women who live off the land
By CINDA CHAVICH, Special to the Globe and Mail

Saturday, October 6, 2001

There's a special poignancy to harvest gatherings on the Canadian Prairies. Farmers here are quiet and pragmatic about getting through another season on the land. Like generations before them, they have learned that this is a fragile place and today's successes can be swept aside tomorrow like a dust in the wind.

There are no oceans teeming with salmon or orchards heavy with fall fruits. Here in Alberta, regional cuisine is rustic, rooted in the traditions of aboriginal people and the early British and European settlers who struggled to produce enough food on these flat, endless drylands to sustain them through the long isolation of winter. This is the land that explorer John Palliser once dismissed as "uninhabitable."

That's why the mood at the recent Harvest Dinner, held at Calgary's River Café late last month, was one of subdued pride and quiet triumph. The River Café, which specializes in regional Alberta cuisine and uses local suppliers and ingredients, wanted to celebrate the harvest and thank the local growers and food producers who supply the restaurant all year long with the fruits, meats and vegetables of their hard labours. "We all love good food and this is a big part of it," says Carolyn Ramsay, a sous chef at the restaurant. "We get a lot of heirloom vegetables and unique things from the local farmers, things like red carrots, beautiful striped chiogga beets and dragon tongue beans."

These food producers are renegades in the agricultural world - passionate about the benefits of eating locally, organic farming methods and environmental stewardship. And on this night, they had much to be thankful for.

As at traditional harvest celebrations, the River Café fall supper was served family style, plates of wild dandelion greens and multicoloured heirloom tomatoes passed from one hand to the next. Many of the dishes and ingredients paid tribute to the past when tables were laden with beef and bison, root cellars stocked with hardy apples, winter squash and sandbins of carrots and beets. Rhubarb, alpine strawberries and Saskatoon berries were bottled and preserved. Sometimes, if the harvest was meagre and the winter long and severe, wild game was the only thing people had to eat. It was, and still is, a meat and potatoes society - even at this upscale Calgary restaurant.

There were platters of natural beef meat loaf with wild boar bacon, roasts of beef and bison sauced in Saskatoon berry jus and spiced rhubarb puréee, whole roasted organic chickens topped with sweet and tart cranberries.

This is a cuisine that eschews the big beef-and-barley commodity style of farming and embraces the home-made, organically produced foods that graced farm pantries and tables in the past - harvest dinners that focused on roasted fowl, freshly dug root vegetables and colourful fall pumpkins and squash.

Today's chefs are spinning those simple, old-fashioned flavours into a new and exciting cuisine. But like many chefs of her generation, Ramsay grew up with no experience of farming. In her business, food from anywhere on the planet has always been a phone call to a wholesaler away. But more and more, she is drawn to the flavour of fresh produce that comes directly from the land to the kitchen. This summer, Ramsay decided it was time to get her own hands dirty, and so she went to work in the fields with Tony and Penny Marshall, who operate a small mixed farm south of Calgary, to learn first-hand what it means to grow and harvest a crop of Alberta vegetables.

"It was good to see the challenges of growing this food. It's very humbling," says Ramsay, who worked alongside the Marshalls all summer, planting, weeding, watering and finally reaping a harvest of organic vegetables for the River Café menu. "We managed to supply the restaurant with vegetables for the whole month of August, and that's including 40 pounds of beets a week, which is amazing."

Last month's dinner was payback time. While diners passed their plates, the chefs and waiters hovered like grandmothers eager to dish out more of their prairie harvest specialties. There was a medley of designer carrots roasted in local honey, some perfectly round and orange, others long and yellow, or bright burgundy, but all with that just-picked earthy flavour of garden produce. Spherical lemon cucumbers were lightly pickled, reminiscent of the first fall dills out of the jar, and sweet cylinder beets arrived sliced into thick purple coins and sprinkled with salty goat cheese from Alberta's own Natricia Dairy.

The feast was served to ranchers such as John Cross, who inherited his A7 Ranch near Nanton, Alta., from his grandfather, A. E. Cross, an early Alberta cattle baron. Today, Cross beef is produced organically, grazed exclusively on wild pasture and raised in a low-stress environment, all factors that put it a cut above conventionally grown beef in both pedigree and price.

Alexandra Luppold was there too. Her organic garden yields an array of distinctive baby salad greens and her crop of Alberta artichokes are just now turning up in farm markets and at restaurants such as the River Café.

Another guest, Tony Marshall of Highwood Crossing Farm, is credited with creating Alberta's answer to extra-virgin olive oil - deep amber cold-pressed canola and flax oils. They make a nutty dip for the dense, chewy breads baked with his own organic grains. Other guests have contributed wild chanterelle and morel mushrooms foraged in the Rockies, birch syrup tapped from local trees, wild sage gathered in the foothills and indigenous game such as prairie bison.

This harvest has been a special one. A prairie drought began a season that ended in uncertainty of a wider kind. There was talk around the table of what to feed pastured chickens when the pasture is dry and brown, and stories of ranchers who had to sell their calves in June when another year of drought loomed. But the big bowls and platters of wholesome prairie food being passed around on this night are proof of the resiliency of the Alberta high plains - the place they call "next-year country."

Cinda Chavich is the author of High Plains: The Joy of Alberta Cuisine (Fifth House).

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