Field Trip: Spirit Tree Estate Cidery

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ever since we decided to part ways with the supermarket, we've been forced to become a lot more resourceful. The store shelf is a comfortable place, but when you look beyond it you'll always find some great surprises. One of those came during our September Feast of Fields trip in the form of a beautiful, dry, hard cider from Spirit Tree Estate Cidery in Caledon, Ontario. It was a nice find, since I love the idea of hard cider, but I've been disappointed with the stuff at the liquor store. Everything they stock seems more like alcoholic juice, than a true hard cider. So when you find a drink with lots of heritage, that's made in the traditional way, it feels (and tastes, and then feels again) good.

In my mind, cider should be a whole food, just freshly pressed apples. No refinement. But when you read the ingredient list on the store-bought cans, there's always added sugar and colour and other things I can't pronounce. That's where Spirit Tree is doing it right by simply pressing apples-their apples-and letting that cider ferment. No additional fructose needed.

Tom and Nicole who own and run Spirit Tree sold the family farm as the sprawling Greater Toronto Area began to threaten. They bought this land a few years ago with a plan in mind and immediately planted a huge orchard. Since it's been established, they've had to supplement their cider with apples from other local orchards. But as their orchard matures, the whole production chain will become wholly in-house, from grower to retailer.

One of the first things that you notice when you arrive is the beautiful post and beam construction of the building. It feels ancient and modern at the same time and the thick, straw-insulated walls provide beautifully deep sills.

Nicole introduced me to Tom, who was busily filling the massive wood-fired oven with breads of all different shapes and sizes. Two-kilo farmer's loaves and pumpernickels were browning alongside baguette épis each going in at a specific time that Tom seemed to have a clock-like instinct for. I was entranced with the loading and unloading of the oven as Tom illustrated the science behind slicing the tops of the loaves with his curved razor blade and explained to me that I've probably never eaten real pumpernickel before.

I quickly realized that the most interesting part of my visit revolved around the wood oven. Not that the cider isn't important, it's just that this pickup truck sized, 550-degree, concrete and brick oven in the middle of the kitchen is hard to ignore.

I asked Tom where the fire box was, and he pointed inside the oven. I didn't see any fire, so I asked what was up. "Oh, it's been out for a long time." With it's size and the thickness of concrete and brick, the oven stays warm for hours and Tom doesn't start baking until the fire is long gone. In fact, it takes so long to cool down, he'd have to wait days before doing any masonry work.

Finally we got to the cider. I was introduced to their full lineup starting with their regular Pub Cider. It's a beautiful cider, but I was really fond of the special batch of extra dry that they were sampling. I also tried their Ice Cider and what they call their Estate Reserve Cider, which is essentially an apple wine. Then Tom took me down into the cellar and let me try their test batch of Rosé Cider, which is still fermenting. It's their Estate Reserve, but with an added blush from crabapple.

The beautiful thing about Spirit Tree, is that there are two great people behind it who are passionate about carrying on ancient traditions. Their technology is beautiful-straw bale insulation and an oven that uses no electricity and would be easily recognized by an ancient Roman. Every technique in the kitchen has been slowly mastered for thousands of years, and Tom and Nicole are doing a great job of keeping them in action. My only hope is that places like this become a viable alternative to a section at the grocery store. I'm thoroughly jealous of the people who live nearby, and I'm already planning the detour route for our next trip up north.

Make sure you visit their website and find the photo gallery of the construction of the main building and most amazingly, the wood oven.

Field Trip: Endangered Cows

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Endangered cows" may seem like an oxymoron since, according to an old 1996 census I found, there are over 1.2 million dairy cows in Canada. Another statistic that'll help you figure out where I'm going is that 96% of those cows are of the Holstein breed. That's a massive majority.

Holsteins are a majority because they are far and away the most productive dairy cow that has ever existed. In 1957, the average cow produced 15 litres of milk a day. That's a lot of milk! The modern Holstein, on the other hand produces an average of 28 litres a day. Which kind-of blows my mind.

Is it ok that 96% of the cows in Canada are Holsteins? I'm not sure. I'm definitely not an expert in the field, but I have a feeling most creatures benefit by sharing genetic differences rather than amplifying genetic similarities. And while I imagine the majority of Holsteins are perfectly healthy, I've heard many stories of difficulties related to overbreeding.

I borrowed a book from the library a few months ago. It was a beautiful overview of all of the cattle breeds. I brought it to my parents' house and my mom, who's looking for a manageable dairy cow, was intrigued by a cow called the Canadienne.

The ancestors of the Canadienne were sent to Québec by the French government in the 1600s. These cows originated in the Normandy region, which is probably why the Canadienne has a Jersey look to it. These cows that came to Canada survived the winters on a natural selection basis, essentially creating the hardy Canadienne breed, which stands up to our winters very well and can be officially called the only breed developed in North America.

The Canadian government discouraged farmers from breeding the cows in favour of higher-producing imports, and until a breed society was formed save it in the late 1800s, the Canadienne was nearly extinct. The numbers rose substantially, but due to milk production that couldn't keep up with newer breeds, the numbers dropped down to around the 1000 head currently present in Canada. Of those 1000 less than 250 are purebred females (Brown Swiss genetics were introduced in the 70s as a bad attempt to soup-up the breed). Realizing they are a treasure, the Québec government has given them a "heritage" designation, and there are good programs in place to bring a healthy purebred population back.

So should mom get a Canadienne? It sounds like a good idea. I think it'd be nice to have a cow that's as native as possible, that stands up to our winters, and from what I hear, has a beautifully rich milk. And since they don't produce a ton of milk, maybe she should just spring for a couple!

Field Trip: Our CSA Box

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

During the summer it's pretty easy to skip the supermarket. We had our garden, Jesse's parent's garden at the farm, and our local Farmer's Market. When everything is in season, it's hard to think ahead. It's a bit like living paycheque to paycheque. And then the Canadian winter fires you in October.

So on top of canning a lot of food, we signed up for a fall CSA box. Community Supported Agriculture is a beautiful and logical way to get out of the supermarket. You simply subscribe to a farm's CSA program and you're guaranteed food, while the farmer is guaranteed money for the length of your term. Some farmers will work with other local farmers and producers to fill in the gaps with other essentials like bread, eggs, and dairy.

We signed up for a fall food box from Plan B Organics (which doesn't require a term for their fall shares) They are a multi-farm CSA, meaning that the food in our weekly box has been grown and sourced from 12 certified organic farms in Southern Ontario. They do include some tropical foods in the box, but you can opt out, as we did, and the difference is made up with more local food.

There are different options to receive your share. You can pick up at the farm, or have them deliver it to one of dozens of drop-off spots from Niagara to Milton to Toronto. There's one about a kilometre away from our house. You can also have it delivered to your door for a fee.

With two little ones, and a husband that often works late, it's sometimes tricky and exhausting to pile the kids in the car, unload them at the grocery store and push them around for an hour while trying to figure out what to get for the week. So everyone, or maybe it's just me, thinks it's a treat to pick up our ready-to-go groceries without taking the kids out of the car.

Last week I didn't do as well as I should have with all the food, as it isn't typical stuff I'd buy. I still have a spaghetti squash, acorn squash, some greens, and leeks that I have to use up. This week's box includes apples, carrots, mushrooms, cucumber, potatoes, turnip, onion, bok choy, red kale, a leek and butternut squash.

It’s not a seamless transition when switching from a shopping cart to a CSA box. There’s a bit of timidity when being suddenly introduced to new vegetables and some serious withdrawal from being hooked on a season-free world. We’re making the changes slowly and steadily, and soon we’ll totally kick it!

Goober Peas

Friday, November 5, 2010

A plant that we were pretty excited about this year was our peanut plant. To grow it, we simply opened the shell of some unroasted peanuts and planted the nuts in the ground. We planted three and we figure some animal got the other two, but one plant matured just fine.

Peanuts aren't really nuts in the traditional sense like walnuts and other tree nuts. They're actually a part of the legume family. The plants are very similar to soybean plants, a pretty common crop around here, but with one striking difference. Instead of the pod being above ground, they're below. But not like potatoes, coming from the root. The peanut plant sends down the pods from tentacles that burrow into the dirt from the plant above ground.

That fact is one of the things I love about putting this blog together. A lot of people eat peanuts every day, but no one I've talked to knew how a peanut plant grows.

We left the plant as long as we could before the risk of frost, and finally dug it up last weekend. They prefer a sandy soil, which is perhaps why ours didn't do as well as it maybe should have. It has to be loose so those tentacles have an easy time. We got about 12 peanut shells, literally a handful of nuts. they have been drying the past couple days, and maybe tonight we will roast them in the oven and have a taste. It's hard to eat them when you have so few. We just keep saving them.

And, if we ever want to make peanut butter, we're going to have to plant more than one.

Field Trip: Planting Garlic

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

So we planted our garlic a couple weeks ago. It's quite exciting putting your first real crop into the ground. It's going to teach us patience since we have to wait all winter until we see any action, and then again until late summer until we can harvest. The world we live in, in which you can buy 5 heads of garlic for $1 that was grown and shipped from China, makes it hard to see what actually goes into growing a bulb of garlic.

We planted our garlic at the Senko Farm. Jesse's dad tilled the ground for us and the kids had fun helping with the planting. We broke the bulbs up into individual cloves and planted eight different varieties, in just over 2 rows that were about 70 feet long. If all goes as planned, which, knowing nature it probably won't, we should have around 200 full bulbs of garlic this time next year. The great thing about planting garlic is that this year was an investment. We had to buy the cloves to plant, but next year, since we planted a lot we should have more than enough to eat and share with friends as well as have enough to break up and plant for the following year's crop.

Our plan with the garlic isn't to become farmers and sell garlic. At least not yet! With a bit of generosity from Jesse's parents, we're planning a larger garden at the farm that can sustain us from next summer right through until the following summer. The plans call for building a real, old-school root cellar that can store a winter's worth of food. There'll be a lot of preparation next year, but it'll be a motivating goal to meet.

The nice bit about this is knowing exactly where the bulk of our food is going to come from. And it'll be about as local as it can get. We're pretty excited. Although the steps seem small, and sometimes insignificant, we are slowly learning and working our way toward a more self-sufficient life.

We didn't really go too deep into garlic in this post, since we went pretty deep in an earlier post when we bought the seed garlic. If you haven't read it, or need a refresher, find it here.