Every fall, I can close my eyes, inhale the air around me, and imagine, if only briefly, that I live in a vineyard rather than the heart of downtown Toronto. When the wind is right, the sweet smell of countless clusters of ripe grapes perfumes the streets of Little Italy. Hundreds of wooden grape crates pile up in front of houses, evidence that the scent is not entirely homegrown, but few backyards in this part of town, including our own, are complete without at least one sprawling grapevine.
That Toronto's original Portuguese and Italian quarter hosts so much viniculture should come as no surprise, but I didn't realize until we left the heart of the highrise concrete jungle, a place literally without backyards, how rich the urban breadbasket truly is. My favourite sign of spring is the profusion of tiny white blossoms on our neighbour's cherry tree. Any flowering fruit tree will do, however, from the pear and crabapple
trees across the street, to the apple trees that shade the patio of a nearby College Street café.
Such visions of a quaint urban idyll feed into the current rage for all things local. Locavorism, as it's come to be known, may well be the hottest trend in food and dining. Fed by concerns over product quality and environmental sustainability, locavorism has grown from a niche market to a cornerstone of modern gastronomy. At restaurants, provenance used to be the exclusive domain of wine lists, now it's hard to find a menu that doesn't gush about the origins of its Mennonite chickens or Cookstown Greens. "Local," it seems, has become the current shorthand for "quality."
If only that were true.
Yes, locally grown food often tastes superior to food that has endured a trans-continental flight, but that's not always so. Rachel and I participated in a community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiative last summer and found the produce disappointing. Our large weekly box often contained wilted vegetables in quantities too small even for a meal for two. Come fall, we were only too happy to abandon our failed experiment.
Restaurants that foresake foreign products do so at the risk of serving lower quality dishes while fostering a false sense of virtue. As an environmental statement, eating at a restaurant pales in comparison to the greenest option of all: staying at home and cooking. This has not stopped some of the highest profile names in the restaurant world from flaunting their green credentials by making token gestures like eliminating imported bottled water from their menus. Alice Waters made headlines last year by doing just this, though her push for sustainability apparently doesn't include eliminating all those bottles of imported vino from Chez Panisse's wine list despite the restaurant's proximity to one of the world's great wine regions.
We can neither forgo frequent trips to the market and grocery store nor our occasional reliance on Chile for some winter veggies, but this year I was determined to take advantage of the bounty that grows around us. El Bulli's rose petals in tempura are actually the perfect marriage of purpose and convenience. I'd been hoping to make this dish for a couple of years, but finding edible roses proved to be an obstacle I could never overcome. Even organic florists tend to hem and haw when asked if their product is safe for human consumption. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," was the typical response.
Thank God for our front yard, which has exploded with red and white roses this summer despite our (apparently benign) neglect. Our three bushes produced enough roses for a small army of blushing brides and beauty queens, let alone a recipe that calls for a mere twenty petals. The tempura batter in which they fry defies convention; it's actually leavened with yeast and left in the fridge for four hours to develop its flavours. Once removed from the fat, the petals are drizzled with a little honey and rose water then sprinkled with a grain of sea salt. The result tastes wonderful. Sweet, salty, uncannily succulent, and, yes, floral. Surprisingly, however, those floral notes come not from the rose, that, on it's own, tastes rather plain, but from the rose water garnish.
I almost missed the perfect opportunity to take advantage of our grapevines. Despite being grape lovers, we've never been overly fond of the grapes that grow in our backyard. Our neighbours, decades-long veterans of the grape growing game, insist they're unsuitable for wine, but the thick and leathery skin that surrounds their sugary flesh renders them equally inappropriate for the table. For the past two autumns all they've done is fill our nostrils for a couple of weeks with a scent powerfully reminiscent of Welch's grape juice and beckon a bevy of winged diners.
A few weeks ago, after spending part of an afternoon trimming our vine and rather shortsightedly disposing of a small bagful of leaves, I realized I'd just binned the best way to take advantage of our plant. No worries, of course, because I simply hopped back on our stepladder, and trimmed a few more leaves from our vine. My original plan was to make dolma, grape leaves stuffed with rice, herbs, and other fillings, like ground meat, but, much to Rachel's chagrin, I've never been a fan.
I searched high and low for an alternative before stumbling upon sardines. Rachel and I both adore oily fish, and this dish is fantastic (see recipe below). I stuffed the gutted bellies of our sardines with a mixture of diced preserved lemon, parsley, and ground black pepper. After boiling the grape leaves for one minute, a process that muddies their normally vibrant green colour, I wrapped them tightly around the sardines, leaving only the head of the fish and part of its tail exposed. After ten minutes on a hot charcoal grill, all that's left to do is split these little swimmers open, sprinkle them with sea salt and drizzle with some freshly squeezed lemon juice. We savoured their juicy flesh against the contrasting crunch of the grilled leaves on a lazy Saturday evening spent in our backyard with a crisp white wine. It was heaven.
Of course, growing your own food isn't all wine and roses. I must confess to lusting after our neighbour's cherry tree. Not only are cherry blossoms gorgeous, but cherries rank among my favourite fruits. Besides, the branches of their tree stretch into our yard, forcing me to duck just to walk the path to my front door. I take that as a clear sign that their tree pines as much for me as I pine for it. How, then, to get my hands on some of those cherries? Guile's not my forté, so I asked. After careful consideration, we were given permission to take some delicious cherries.
There is but one problem. These cherries aren't so delicious. After reading so many descriptions of people picking and eating ripe fruit directly from the tree and being overwhelmed by the experience perhaps I expected too much. The typical palaver involves "tasting sunshine," or "feeling Mother Nature's juices drip down your chin" and other such nonsense. These "sweet" cherries tasted like nothing of the sort; instead, they made me yearn for a taste of the California cherries I've actually enjoyed so far this season.
Two out of three ain't bad, I guess.
Besides, the summer has just begun, and I hope Little Italy's patchwork of backyard farms produces a bumper crop. Yesterday I passed a humble backyard garden down the street. It's tended to by an elderly Portuguese man who takes obvious pride in his work. His tomato vines are slowly spiraling their way skyward, and, tucked in a corner, the vibrant orange and yellow of the season's first zucchini flowers signal yet another opportunity to feast on an uncommon delicacy. I'm sure this gardener cares not one wit for culinary trends, and he's probably never even heard the term "locavore," he just yearns for the simple pleasure of rediscovering each year the flavours that have comforted him his entire life.
Grilled Sardines Wrapped in Grape Leaves
This recipe can, of course, be made with jarred grape leaves preserved in brine. If you have access to a grapevine, follow this guide to selecting leaves. We prefer the wonderfully smoky, lightly charred taste imparted by charcoal grilling, but I'm sure this recipe works equally well cooked on a gas grill or roasted in the oven.
Making preserved lemons is a simple process, and the results enhance the flavour of any number of dishes. We use Eric Ripert's recipe from A Return to Cooking. The recipe from Chez Panisse Fruit via 101 Cookbooks is very similar.
12 large grape leaves, rinsed
8 sardines, gutted, cleaned, and scaled
1/2 preserved lemon, rinsed, flesh removed, and finely diced
16 sprigs Italian parsley
salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Using scissors or a knife, remove the stems and any thick, attached vein, being careful not to cut the leaf in two. Cook the grape leaves in a pot of boiling water for 1 minute. Remove from the water, separate carefully, and lay flat on a tea towel to dry.
Preheat outdoor grill to 230C (450F).
Lay leaf vein-side up, using pieces of any spare leaves to patch holes. Lay sardine diagonally across the leaf, so its head extends just beyond the tip of the leaf. Stuff the chest cavity of each sardine with parsley and preserved lemon, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Fold one end of the leaf over the sardine and tuck it firmly under the fish, then roll the sardine until it is tightly packed in the leaf. Repeat with remaining sardines.
When grill has come to temperature, place sardines over direct heat and close lid. Flip after 5 minutes and continue grilling, covered, for 3-5 more minutes, until sardines are fully cooked but still moist.
Serve immediately with additional salt, pepper, and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to taste.