Canada's best food books - 2008

Karl Wells
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Toronto's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair closed up shop this week for another year. Over 300,000 visitors checked out the 86-year-old event during its 10-day run. The fair has been described as: "the largest combined indoor agricultural fair and international equestrian competition in the world." (Yes, that's so, "in the world.") The equestrian events are eagerly anticipated and well attended. The agricultural show, as you might expect, is filled with a variety of exhibits that in one way or another relate to farming. For example, you see lots of food displays featuring farm fresh fruits and vegetables (from pears to parsnip.)

Of course, most traditional farming is about food. In this case we're talking about Canadian farming and Canadian food. That's why no one should have been surprised by the active participation of volunteers from Cuisine Canada and the University of Guelph's Canadian Culinary Book Awards at this year's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. This year's award winners were announced at the fair and honoured at a gala reception hosted by some of Canada's best chefs. I received an invitation to the gala because I was one of the judges for this year's Canadian Culinary Book Awards.

Karl Wells helps pick Canada's best food books. - Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

Toronto's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair closed up shop this week for another year. Over 300,000 visitors checked out the 86-year-old event during its 10-day run. The fair has been described as: "the largest combined indoor agricultural fair and international equestrian competition in the world." (Yes, that's so, "in the world.") The equestrian events are eagerly anticipated and well attended. The agricultural show, as you might expect, is filled with a variety of exhibits that in one way or another relate to farming. For example, you see lots of food displays featuring farm fresh fruits and vegetables (from pears to parsnip.)

Of course, most traditional farming is about food. In this case we're talking about Canadian farming and Canadian food. That's why no one should have been surprised by the active participation of volunteers from Cuisine Canada and the University of Guelph's Canadian Culinary Book Awards at this year's Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. This year's award winners were announced at the fair and honoured at a gala reception hosted by some of Canada's best chefs. I received an invitation to the gala because I was one of the judges for this year's Canadian Culinary Book Awards.

Cuisine Canada

Cuisine Canada is an organization dedicated to promoting the cuisine of Canada in much the same way the James Beard Foundation promotes (primarily) the cuisine of the United States. The Cuisine Canada - University of Guelph Culinary Book Awards are our equivalent to the James Beard Book Awards. It was an honour for me to participate in the selections. I was a member of a small panel of fellow food writers and chefs chaired by the founder of the Women's Culinary Network, Marilyn Bentz Crowley. Our task was to select the Top 3 English language Canadian Food Culture books for 2008. Gold and silver medals would go to first and second place respectively, honourable mention to third.

Of the nine books nominated in our category, here are the books that made the Top 3 in the Canadian Food Culture category:

Gold - "A Year at Les Fougeres" by Charles Part and Jennifer Warren Part.

Silver - "Menus from an Orchard Table" by Heidi Noble.

Honourable Mention - "Icewine" by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser.

My friend Rene Enguehard of St. John's, a cuisinier and cookbook author, was a judge on the French panel. Rene and his colleagues selected the following as best in the French Cookbook category:

Gold - "Stefano Faita, entre cuisine et quincaillerie" by Stefano Faita.

Silver - "Serge Bruyere: ses recettes originales et revisitees" by Anne Desjardins.

Honourable Mention - "Apollo: ceci est un livre de cuisines" by Giovanni Apollo.

'A Year at Les Fougeres'

Fifteen years ago Charles Part and his wife Jennifer Warren Part sold their restaurant in the Beaches area of Toronto and moved with their kids to Chelsea, Que. in the Gatineau Hills. There they opened the outstanding restaurant known as Les Fougeres. Fifteen years later they have produced a beautiful book, "A Year at Les Fougeres" that chronicles a year at their restaurant. It's divided into 12 sections for each month of the year. Along with seasonal recipes you learn about their lives and their food philosophy. At the beginning of the section for January they write: "The new winter menu will involve comforting soups, deeply satisfying braises and casseroles, curry and cassoulet, caramelized root vegetables, big wines, hot desserts, dried fruits and cheeses as well as our homemade condiments and preserves.

Rather than despairing of the lack of fresh local produce we see and delight in a different range of possibilities and techniques. Indeed, we love the distinct seasons we have. We cook, eat, drink, dress, play and move around differently in every season and we are all the richer and happier for this."

Celebratory tone

I loved the celebratory tone struck in "A Year at Les Fougeres," backed up by the evocative photographs of Andrew Van Beek. Van Beek spent a year making the photographs, faithfully visiting Restaurant Les Fougeres every month to document what was happening there. His camera missed nothing, be it sizzling Quebec foie gras on cast iron, beautiful scenic forest surrounding the restaurant, an amazing poached egg with pancetta, surrounded by fiddleheads, asparagus, morels and Parmigiano Reggiano or the restaurant's chefs on hands and knees picking herbs and vegetables from the nearby garden. A Year at Les Fougeres is a joyful book that promotes Canadian cuisine with intelligent recipes and passion. It is well deserving of its gold medal.

'Menus from an Orchard Table'

Well deserving of its silver medal is Heidi Noble's important book, "Menus from an Orchard Table." I say important because it's a reflection of where we are as a society dealing with issues of food safety, food costs and sustainability. (It's not a preachy book either.) Noble and her husband, Michael Dinn, operate Joie Winery and Farm Cooking School in Naramata, B.C. The cooking school regularly hosts what's called an orchard dinner.

Most ingredients on the menu at these dinners are procured from within a hundred miles of their Okanagan Valley home. In his forward to Noble's book the leader of Slow Food Canada, Sinclair Philip, writes: "We can no longer justify being so dependent upon exotic foods which are airlifted, barged, or trucked in from far beyond our food sheds. Local is the only sustainable alternative."

Delicious recipes

"Menus from an Orchard Table" not only contains menus and descriptions of Noble's special dinners. It also contains some delicious recipes. The text makes these meals sound absolutely irresistible. She describes some of the preparation for an early fall orchard dinner this way: "The last tomatoes of the year went into a delicious roasted tomato soup to begin our final Saturday Night Orchard Dinner of 2005. Cam and I braised a pork belly in apple juice from the orchard and served the belly pieces crispy on top of braised purple cabbage with a side of apple and sage compote. It was a dish designed to signal the beginning of harvest."

This is a book that not only gets you cooking. It gets you thinking seriously about using, as much as possible, local ingredients - pork, beef, poultry, fish, vegetables and so forth. I was very pleased with this book and with both choices for gold and silver this year. In fact, five of the nine books nominated were serious contenders for top medals. In addition to the three already mentioned were: "Polenta at Midnight - Tales of Gusto and Enchantment" in North York by Glenn Carley and "Apples Under the Bed," edited by Joan Coldwell. There's no doubt Canada's culinary book scene is alive and flourishing.




BRAISED PURPLE CABBAGE

The following recipe from Heidi Noble's "Menus from an Orchard Table" is published courtesy of the book's publisher, Whitecap Books.
Ingredients:
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, chopped in small dice
1 large head purple cabbage, cored and thinly sliced
1 firm cooking apple (like Granny Smith, Spartan), peeled, cored and finely diced
1 tsp salt, or to taste
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 bay leaf
3 whole cloves
1 Tbsp grainy mustard
1 1/2 cups (375 mL)
dry red wine
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 maple syrup
1 cup peeled chestnuts (optional)
Method:
Heat the butter in a large pot. Add the onion and sautÉ over medium heat until translucent. Add the cabbage and apple, mix well, and then add salt to taste, the garlic, bay leaf, cloves, mustard, wine, vinegar, and maple syrup. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 1 hour until cabbage is tender.
Remove the bay leaf and adjust the seasoning to taste. If you're using chestnuts, add them to the pot with the cabbage and apple. Serves 6.

Organizations: Royal Agricultural, University of Guelph, James Beard Foundation Culinary Network Joie Winery and Farm Cooking School

Geographic location: Canada, Toronto, United States St. John's Beaches Chelsea Gatineau Hills Quebec Naramata Okanagan Valley North York

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