For the summer issue of Taste & Travel, a wintry tale of a cold capital… and of its edible bounty.
UPDATE: you will note that the restaurant Sweetgrass, referenced below, has closed. Chef Warren Sutherland is now at the SmoQue Shack.
OTTAWA’S BRILLIANT BACKYARD
This is a food-lovers story about a city with the dubious distinction of being the second coldest capital on planet Earth.
A veneer of white on late April ground is as common as it is unwelcome in my hometown, but it is the frosty reality of life on the 45th parallel north. Winter is in charge here. Just one of four seasons, yes, but it’s the bully. Embrace it or endure it, the fact remains: it has its way with us for half the calendar year.
Can winter in Ottawa be beautiful? You bet. Do we not have the world’s largest skating rink on our Rideau Canal (Named a World Heritage treasure by the clever people at the United Nations who decide these things.) Can we not pull into the parking lot of a Quebec ski hill surrounded with trees in full snow blossom a scant fifteen minutes after touring Parliament Hill? Indeed we can.
Bully news for skiers and skaters, I suppose, but for fresh food seekers, the yields round here are pretty darn slim from November to May.
At least they ought to be slim. You’d sure expect them to be slim. And yet… every winter week, to the snow-dusted, pillow-lined cooler on my front porch arrives a harvest of fresh and cellared riches. Heirloom fingerlings, chioggia beets, baby fennel, French shallots, red garlic, summer and sweet dumpling squash, pea shoots, a bag of frozen-in-August corn and another of September heirloom tomatoes, microgreens, winter and salad greens – mâche, mizuna, bull’s blood beet tops, sorrel, sylvetta and rocket – delicate and sharp, sweet and bitter.
Bryson Farms is a certified organic grower, associated with some of Ottawa’s better restaurants, with a sprouting network of home deliveries, and owners of just one portion of the reported 1.5 million square feet of greenhouses in the area – all chipping away at cheating winter’s protracted grip.
And while we’re talking numbers – chew on this other (much less dubious) distinction of ours. Ottawa is a city (fourth largest in Canada) with more agricultural land within its municipal borders than any other in Canada. More than Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton. Combined.
You read that right. Combined. Ottawa, better known for its acreage of bureaucrats, has more cultivated land within its municipal boundaries than those other cities all piled together. Tous ensembles, as we are wont to say in Canada’s capital. Two thousand eight hundred square kilometres big, we are. Productive too. Those five aforementioned cities lumped together? Less than half the number of farms as has Ottawa. Those guys, together/ensemble: 549. We guys, all by ourselves/tous seuls: 1,267. (Thank you, Stats Can.)
But you can’t eat farms… Oh wait. Yes, you can.
For those seeking to bolster a recently explosive local food movement in this community, these figures and facts amount to quite a blessing. And from my perspective, as a student (and, for 20 years, critic) of restaurants, this all adds up to increasingly tastier plates in increasingly more interesting eateries.
That awareness of what rural Ottawa can bring to the urban table is not new. There were scattered islands of interest, most notably from John Taylor (chef-owner of Domus Café and of the new Taylor’s Genuine Food and Wine Bar) who was mucking around in clods of dirt years before it became fashionable to dangle the local carrot as marketing ploy.
For Thom Van Eeghen of The Elk Ranch (his family farm located twenty minutes from the Byward Market’s restaurant hub) John Taylor was ‘the forefather of regional cuisine’ in Ottawa. When Van Eeghen first started peddling his elk meat at the Carp Farmers’ Market, “No-one would touch it. No restaurant would take it. But then,” he tells me, “Taylor came calling. He wanted our product. He was putting it on his menu. It gave our meat authenticity and it opened the doors.” His pitch to other chefs: “John Taylor has our elk.” That did the trick.
John Taylor’s Domus Café was one of perhaps three good restaurants in Ottawa’s vibrant Byward Market district a decade ago. Ten years later, the Market is a destination for some of the city’s best dining out: Domus, Restaurant Eighteen, Murray Street, Sweetgrass, Navarra, Social, The Courtyard, Play food and wine – all with chefs well acquainted with what the back forty has to offer.
Michael Moffatt, executive chef of Play, and of the excellent Beckta Dining and Wine on Nepean Street, finds “Ottawa area farmers, for the most part, incredibly happy to work with people who are interested in what they do.”
“Here I have a buffalo farmer, a duck farmer, a wild boar farmer, an elk farmer, all within easy driving distance of my restaurant. That’s what I like about Ottawa,” says Warren Sutherland, chef and co-owner of Sweetgrass, (a lovely restaurant that spotlights aboriginal cuisine on the increasingly tasty Murray Street.)
That interest in what’s happening – and what could be happening – on some of those 1,267 farms has moved beyond the realm of chefs contemplating the day’s menu. When I first landed in Ottawa twenty years ago, there were the Byward and Parkdale Markets, and one true Farmers’ Market in the town of Carp. Today there are 21 and counting, most having sprouted in the past five years. (For full list, see below.)
Mushroom foragers, beekeepers, bison farmers, artisan cheese makers, horticulturists, sugar bushers, berry growers: they’re finding their way to these markets, facilitating the direct interaction between farmer and those who eat food, building community, a sense of place, a local flavour.
“Fish. It’s the only thing I can think of that Ottawa doesn’t have!” Not that Shane Colton, executive sous-chef at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier is bemoaning Ottawa’s landlocked geography. “We’re in a terrific position here. We’re meeting with area farmers constantly. They’re now buying seed and planting crops specifically for our menus.”
That was unheard of twenty years ago when I penned my inaugural review in this city. It was a restaurant called The Green Valley (now put out to pasture). On the plate: roast beef, frozen peas, cauliflower, whipped potatoes, all trucked in from parts unknown, all fairly grim. Across the street from the restaurant was a field, part of the 400-acre network of experimental farmland in this city. (Ottawa is also – did I mention? – the only capital city in the world that has a working farm at its heart, a retreat of grain filled fields, barnyard animals, greenhouses and gardens.) In 1990 I didn’t make the connection between the plate in front of me and the ground outside the restaurant window. The idea of ‘eating Ottawa’ wasn’t on any menu. It is now. And Ottawa’s backyard is bountiful, immense, and easily accessible. Right (and ripening) for the picking.