By Grace Evans, Slow Food Toronto Youth Delegate
For five days at Terra Madre, we’re talking about food all of the time; how to protect it, promote the good stuff, prevent the bad stuff, how to help people get it. We’re also eating it.
I ate a lot that week. We all did. Here are six things I ate that I am still thinking about:
1. Side-of-the-road sandwich
Maybe not what you were expecting for the first entry? Well it was amazing. As the Canadian delegates sat on the bus parked at the Opening Ceremonies before heading to our hotel in Rivalto, many of us were hungry. Some of us had been traveling for hours. Jetlagged and ravenous, we were crushed when the promised packed lunch from Slow Food did not materialize. With people’s temperaments struggling against their growling stomachs and unforgiving jetlag, there were some sad, tense moments on that bus. Until a few beautiful things happened.
Lisa, from Edmonton, wandered up and down the aisles offering people bread and olives that she had. She and Sara (Vancouver) attempted to communicate with the Italian bus driver to ask him to stop someplace for food enroute to the hotel. He agreed and brought us to a florescent-lit sandwich stand beside a gas station. Rosie (Toronto) used her Italian to help tired people order and the two lovely, patient employees at the sandwich stand sold us whole bottles of wine and big, hot, filling sandwiches with meat, cheese, sautéed peppers and onions. The experience turned a busload of cranky strangers into a laughing, roadside dinner party.
2. Polish mead
I was wandering the Terra Madre market place one morning, feeling a little lost and hesitant about approaching producers and tasting their food. I ran into Eben and Carolyn (Calgary), and Lee (Invermere) who, with urgency in their eyes, promptly began leading me to tables and pointing to different foods. “You have to try this!” they’d say, pointing to a vat of underground fermented polish cabbage, or poppy seed studded strudel. They were so concerned that I try everything they’d already tried that they ended up revisiting many of the tables they’d already visited.
We spent a long time in search of Polish mead that other Canadians had been talking about on our bus, and finally found it. We lined up at the table in front of brown, green and stone coloured ceramic jugs and the producer gave us each a taste of sweet, spiced and aged meads, describing their fermenting process. We tasted together and compared notes; it was my own private culinary school field trip with three knowledgeable, enthusiastic chefs and access to a vast array of food from around the world. I learned a lot about food and taste, and about the kind of cook I’d like to become someday.
3. Nzoia River Reed Salt
I can’t remember who it was that offered me some of this grayish brown salt from the palm of their hand. But they poured it into my hand and as I touched my tongue to it gently the salt almost exploded into my mouth. With a sensation like some kind of mouth-coating candy, or Pop Rocks, it dissolved and flooded my mouth with saltiness.
The Bukusu community in western Kenya uses this traditional method for producing salt from an aquatic plant called the muchua plant, a thin reed, that grows in the waters of the River Nzoia. They burn the reeds on a slow fire for two or three days and mix the ash with water, which they filter and boil in a large pan on a fire. The leftover salty mixture is dried in banana leaves overnight. Reed salt is a Presidium because the process for making it is very labour-intensive, and because large-scale deforestation has caused river levels to drop, reducing marshy areas where the reed likes to grow. I encountered so many unfamiliar items like this that drew me out of my food knowledge and dropped me somewhere entirely different and new.
4. Raw milk
One bright morning, I headed to Eataly, an Italian food market, with Bryn and Beth (Saskatoon) and we sat down to have an espresso with a shot of hazelnut-chocolate mixture. We were sitting in the middle of sunlit Eataly when Lia (Halifax) and Heather (Edmonton) came by with a very large glass bottle of cold milk. Heather had filled the jug with cold raw milk, something that has been legal in Italy since 2004.
It was only the second time that I’ve tried raw milk before and the creamy, rich milk was the perfect complement to the hot, syrupy hazelnut espresso. Canada’s Food and Drug Regulations require all milk sold in Canada to be pasteurized, but the campaign is ongoing to legalize the sale of raw milk. By the fourth day of Terra Madre, bumping into Heather and Lia in Turin felt like running into old friends. Being from far away parts of Canada didn’t feel all that far after I’d watched Bryn check out a chestnut roasting oven, or heard about Beth’s breast milk advocacy, or learned about chef life from Heather and Lia’s cool job with the Atlantic Film Festival. We were just sharing stories over a cup of raw milk, as friends do.
5. La boite a Nougat
I still think about the candy maker who made this nougat because of his obvious pride in his work, like so many of the Terra Madre producers. The soft, fluffy and chewy nougat is made with fair trade raw cane sugar and pure lavender honey from Provence by a man named Yves-Robert Tolleron. Rumour was that his wife was upset with him for giving out too much nougat as samples! Watching him bring a fat, puffy brick of nougat out, slicing a thick slab off and portioning out a piece, studded with nuts, was addictive. His big smile and pride in his work made his table a popular one. My favourite was recommended to me by his smiling son-in-law: a hunk of nougat with Aztec berry and dark chocolate twisted through.
All of the vendors at Terra Madre take tremendous pride in their work; it has made me think a lot about being proud of your work. It is one thing to tell people to “love what they do,” but another to focus in on being proud of your own good work. As someone early in my career and still figuring out what it is that I want to do, I feel focused by this idea. Regardless of what I think I might want to do one day or what I am doing right now, I can always take pride in my work. The nougat-makers, mead-brewers, cheesemakers, meat-curers, spice grinders and producers of Terra Madre were all happy to show you their work and have you taste their food, and it is their pride that left the biggest impression on me.
6. Prosecco at Caffe Platti
My travel companion, Voula (Toronto), took me to a special place that she had come across during her first Terra Madre in 2010. It was a cold day when we visited Caffe Platti, and the bright, warmly lit windows were framed with dark wood and filled with gold foil wrappers, glossy chocolates and platters of sticky roasted chestnuts dripping onto one another. We passed a bustling counter with beautiful cases of sandwiches and pastries on our way to the ornate dining room. We sat in the very centre beneath high ceilings, ornate walls, large windows and old mirrors; it was like being inside a glittering Easter egg. Voula ordered us two glasses of prosecco and our waiter brought us small plates of little square sandwiches and tiny pieces of pizza. It is common, in Italy, for an establishment to offer a small snack, like sandwiches, or some bread, cheese and charcuterie, with a glass of wine. The pretty room, the sparkling wine and small sandwiches, and getting to know her more and more throughout our travels together, made me feel like Voula was giving me a gift of her special place.