Tuesday, August 25, 2009

100 Mile Beekeeping

On Monday morning I met Mark McAlpine and his wife, Shelly. I met Mark when a friend of mine told me that he had raw, local honey for sale and thought I might be interested in getting my hands on some. Where there is honey, there are bees. Where there are bees, there must be a beekeeper.

I must admit that I knew absolutely nothing about bees but have always been fascinated by them (see Blog #1).So, I contacted Mark and asked if he wouldn't mind showing me his little backyard operation. He readily agreed and I found myself walking there on a nice sunny morning in the prime of honey harvesting time.

Mark and Shelly were instantly likeable. With a cute little house, built in the early 1900's, filled with books and animals, I felt instantly at home. The backyard was an abundance of green which smelt like a fragrant mixture of damp earth and sweet honey. Shelly pointed out where there used to be a compost heap. Now it was a mess of green leaves and giant orange flowers. Her compost heap was sprouting squash and pumpkins! Tomatoes of various shapes and colours grew everywhere. I love a garden with a natural feel. Further back were tables filled with a variety of bonsais in different stages of growth. Bonsais exude a magical presence. I always feel like I'm part of some special secret when I'm around one. Then I saw them, the beehives. The beehives, just to clarify, were not like the ones you see in the Berenstein Bear books or classic Winnie the Pooh tales. What they looked like was a stack of small, wooden sock drawers, piled one on top of the other, like a poorly contructed dresser. But inside those drawers (I think the proper term is 'frames') there were no socks... only honey. Sweet and delicious honey.

Before we could do anything, we had to dress properly for the occasion. I put on what looked like a safari hat, and then pulled over mesh netting which covered my face and shoulders. Apparently bees are drawn to small black dots, much like the pupil of your eye. This is probably because they look like the iris of a flower or an entrance to something. Although I felt no fear, which truly surprised me, I happily donned the beekeepers attire. Mark's bees are Caucasian or Russian bees, and Buckfast bees. There is an interesting Wikipedia article on Buckfast bees and their history, if anyone wants to learn more.
Because it was still early in the morning, the bees were just getting up and making their way out into the world in search of nectar. For this reason, we had to smoke them out. The smoke makes them relax, which makes them easier to handle. With enough of the bees smoked out, it was safe to take a closer look.
Mark held up a plastic tray, called a super, which looks like a prototype of honeycomb. The bees use the super to build small wax cavities called honeycomb. They store their honey in the individual cavities and then seal them off. This is called capping. When a super is fully capped the bees will move up in the hive and fill more. The beekeeper has to be very careful that he does not allow the bees to fill everything, otherwise they will feel cramped and, eventually, they will swarm. Swarming occurs when the hive splits in two to begin another hive. In order to curb this swarming mentality, Mark removes frames from the hive, and replaces them with fresh ones for the bees to fill. This keeps the bees busy and us in honey.
Bees have an extremely interesting social order which, I will admit, I don't completely understand. The bees are reigned over by a queen. The queen is twice the size of the other bees and is the only one in the hive to reproduce. Drone bees (the males) are basically sperm sacks. They are there merely to mate with the queen. Come winter, they are not even allowed in the hive. Females are the worker bees. These are the bees which pollinate our flowers and make honey. They are protected by guard bees (I never asked their sex), who protect them from wasps and invading bees. Bees from other hives will invade if they sense that the hive is vulnerable. A queen bee typically rules the hive for 2-3 years, after which she is switched out for a younger queen by the beekeeper. Worker bees cannot work up to the status of a queen. A queen is simply born a queen. Near the end of her reign, a beekeeper will notice changes in the hive, one being an overproduction of drone bees (those useless sperm sacks!), as well as the underproduction of the valuable worker bees. Since the hive is a working unit which relies heavily on its workers, an overabundance of drones can be detrimental to the survival of the hive. In the winter, bees do not hibernate, but do stay inside the hive. They stay awake, keeping themselves warm by constantly moving. The bees on the outside of the hive will move into the middle, while those in the middle will move outwards, much like the penguins in March of the Penguins. Being innately neat creatures, bees' excrement will not be found in the hive, even after a long winter. The bees will wait until spring to relieve themselves outdoors. A sure sign of spring can be found in the yellow excrement in the snow on a warm spring day.
Bees are fascinating insects and, like many of Mother Earth's creature, they are in danger. Bee populations are under strain due to pesticide use, as well as cell phone towers. I have not read enough on the subject to confidently continue, but will certainly do some reading when I get a chance. Mark did tell me about a bee-related epidemic which occured some 5 years ago, now referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder. There are some interesting articles on Colony Collapse Disorder online, if anyone is interested.
After having a peek in the hive and holding up a super for close inspection, we let the bees get back to work and headed to the screened in porch for the second part of the operation. On the porch there were frames full of supers, fully capped and full of honey. Mark asked me to remove one, which was surprisingly heavy. He took what looked like a cat comb, and gently scraped the top of the caps off. Once the caps were removed, we put the super into a hand-powered honey extractor. I spun the handle, watched the honey fly out of the combs and run down the walls. Next, we poured the honey through a strainer into a large plastic container with a spigot attached to it. The honey was strained one last time through cheesecloth before it slowly filled the 1 L mason jar beneath it.
This was a fascinating and educational morning. I learned a lot from Mark and for this I am extremely grateful. I left with a litre of delicious honey, a container of honeycomb, and a big smile on my face. Mark's bees, for my curious 100 mile diet fans, collect nectar from a 3 mile radius. They're about as local as you can get!

Friday, August 21, 2009

More preserving tips...

Blueberries, Strawberries & Raspberries
Perhaps the easiest to preserve, berries are a delicious treat in the winter. I'm a smoothie junkie, so there are always berries in our freezer.
Wash the berries thoroughly. With blueberries all you need to do is look for the bad ones and pick out the stems. For strawberries, I just cut the tops off altogether. Raspberries are a bit more delicate. Wash under a light spray but don't soak. Soaking raspberries makes them turn to mush really quickly. I always lightly shake the berries in a colander until most of the water comes out. Put them into large freezer bags and remove the excess oxygen from the bag using a straw or, like me, you can just put your mouth to the back and suck the extra air out that way. Probably not the most sanitary of methods but Alex doesn't care...
Freeze and enjoy later!
Beans (Yellow and Green)
Beans are also fairly easy to preserve. Simply wash the beans thoroughly in a colander. Cut off ends and cut into approximately 2 inch pieces. Blanch beans for 3 minutes in boiling water. Remove and rinse under cold water. I freeze mine in 2 person sized portions. Always date label your food; frozen blanched vegetables last up to 12 months in the freezer.
Broccoli, Cauliflower & Carrots
Once again, wash, wash, wash. Cut broccoli and cauliflower into medium sized pieces. Peel and slice carrots. Everyone will have their own method. I filled a bowl with enough mixed veggies for 2 and then blanched them in batches. Blanch for 3 minutes in boiling water and freeze in individual portioned bags or one big bag. Date label. Enjoy!
Bell Peppers (Green, yellow, white and red)
I use bell peppers when I make soup, in stews and in a variety of other ways. I've never frozen them before, but I clearly remember my mother freezing bags of them. She froze them whole and I remember finding them in the bottom of the freezer, crushed and freezer burnt. I thought I'd try something different.
Wash peppers thoroughly. Cut off tops and gut. Cut into rings. I froze them in mixed bags with a few rings of each colour. I still don't know what I'm going to do with them but they make me smile everytime I see them in the freezer. They're bright and cheerful and they're going to be delicious in the middle of the winter.
PS Peppers don't need blanching, just straight freezing.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

100 Mile Mel's 100 Mile Disclaimer

I was having breakfast with a friend this morning and we were talking about canning. He playfully mentioned that my colour treatment recipe contained an ingredient which was obviously not from anywhere around here; lemon juice. The syrup I made to keep the apricots and peaches in contains sugar, which may have been refined just down the road in Toronto, but whose main ingredient is definitely imported. We laughed about this over coffee (Yes, coffee!) and then I really thought about it... so I'm writing this disclaimer, lest other, more serious, 1oo-mile dieters come after me.


I am not perfect. I am a work in progress. I did not start this journey in order to practice what I already know. I started this journey in order to learn and share knowledge. I want to know how the honey gets into the honeycomb, and then into the jar. I want to know how flour is milled and what potatoes look like when they're in the ground. There's so much to learn. Most of all, I want to know what I'm putting into my body and where it has come from. Wherever possible, I want to know the people who provide me with what I consume. I'd like to thank them.
So, although there are certain things that I could go without, I don't want to. There, I said it. I don't want to. I want lemons. And olive oil. And vinegars. And coffee.... delicious coffee. And spices from India. I will buy organic wherever possible. I will buy local, wherever possible. I will buy fair trade. But I won't sacrifice everything.
Just for the record, I can be pretty fanatical about something if my interest is piqued. I read so many books on Africa that my poor boyfriend started wincing when I picked up a new one. I knew it was time to move on. I do not want to become one of those patronising, old farts who complains when the rest of the world doesn't jump on the same train that they do. These changes will take time. You might even see me in the grocery store, sneaking around in the produce section, looking desperately at 'fresh' greens. I might even buy them, until I find a way to grow them myself...
Enough said. If you have suggestions, kindly drop me an email and I will consider them. In the meantime, let me enjoy my coffee... :)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Preserve Today, Consume Tomorrow

I don't want to alarm you, but winter is just around the corner. If you're considering an attempt at the 100-mile diet, now is the time to prepare, because those winter months can be awfully daunting. Being Canadian means long, cold winters, with little to no fresh produce available. Usually, during the winter months, I would rely on our neighbours to the south for fresh produce, but this year I'm preparing ahead of time so that I can enjoy local, organic produce all winter long.There are a number of different ways you can preserve food; freezing, drying, canning, and pickling. Here is a list of the things that I have preserved this year, so far: Apricots, beans (yellow and green), blueberries, brocolli, carrots, cauliflower, peas, peaches, peppers, pickles, raspberries, soups, strawberries, tomatoes, and tomato sauce. Preservation methods for each to follow...


This year I tried my hand at canning and apricots proved to be the easiest to can. I used 500 ml jars, since 1 L seemed too big and 250 ml seemed too small. Apricots will be delicious with some homemade vanilla yogurt in the winter. In case anyone's curious to know, I purchased my apricots at the Guelph Farmers Market for $10 a basket. The apricots were locally grown, and although I clearly remember telling myself that I would not forget the name of the farm that grew them, I have clear forgotten. Sorry.

To begin, wash the apricots thoroughly. Then cut them in half and pit them, but do not peel. Apricots are SO easy to handle. The pit practically falls out of the fruit, and since you don't have to peel them, the process is much easier and less messy.

Place the fruit in a colour protection solution. You can buy this in a sachet from the pickling section of your local grocery store or, like me, you can come up with a DIY home solution. I mix a 1/4 cup of lemon juice per 4 cups of water. This helps preserve the natural colour of the fruit, otherwise they would turn brown during the canning process. I tried to tell myself that I wouldn't actually mind this, but in all honesty, presentation is just as important as flavour. I couldn't proudly serve brown apricots to my friends. :)

Apricots should be preserved in a medium syrup, otherwise they'll be tart. A medium syrup requires more sugar than I've ever used in anything before! Add 3 cups of sugar to 5 cups of water. Bring the solution to a boil and then leave it to barely simmer on the stove. You don't want to boil it too long or the solution will reduce to a thick mixture of sugary goo.

Boil the empty 500 ml jars for about 5-10 mins to remove any bacteria. Pack the jar full of apricots while still hot. Pack apricots on top of each other, cavity side down. I found that the apricots naturally wanted to land on the opposite side than I wanted them to, so I slid them down a knife as a guide. Once the jar is packed full, pour the hot syrup over the top, leaving enough space at the top... about a half inch. Use a wooden spoon (non-metallic kitchen utensil) to gently coax air bubbles out of hiding. Then top with a seal that has been kept in a pot of hot, but not boiling, water. Put on the screw cap, but do not over tighten.

Boil jars in a large pot of water for 25 minutes,

making sure that the water covers the lids. When done, carefully remove without moving contents, towel off excess liquid, and store in a cool, dry place overnnight. Label with contents and date. Boiling times for 1 L jars are 30 mins. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The End of Food by Thomas Pawlick

I recently picked up this book and was SUPER excited about what it might have in store for me. The opening chapter caught my attention right off the get-go. Chapter one was about the tomato. Not the ones you find yourself smelling at the farmer’s market while dreaming of its endless possibilities; rather, the tomato that you find at the supermarket. You know the tomato I’m talking about… the one that looks like all the other ones in the pile. They’re all roughly the same size. They’re very firm. They have no unsightly marks or bruises. When you cut into them, the walls are so thick that the tomato doesn’t even lose its shape. And, finally, there are no fruit flies hovering over them, even on the warmest of days.
That’s how Thomas F. Pawlick caught my attention. I knew exactly which tomatoes he was talking about and I had wondered the very same thing. The chapter goes on to tell you just how those tomatoes got to be so uniform and what sort of nutritional value they offer the consumer (not much). This is followed by stats on other fruits and vegetables. So far, so good. Nothing too shocking here.
The following chapter, however, starts to dig deeper into our factory-like food system. With sections on antibiotics, acrylamide, arsenic, dioxins, bovine growth hormones, genetically modified food stuffs, Mad Cow, pesticides, E. Coli, and other shocking possible food contaminants, this section proves much harder to swallow, so to speak, than the first section. By the end of this chapter I’m afraid to eat anything, lest it grew in my backyard under conditions I had some control over. I found myself hoping that the author would ease up for a bit and inject some humour into his text. That hope did not help me to prepare for the information contained in the following chapters.
The following chapters focused on the damage done to the environment, the manipulation of consumers and farmers by giant corporations, and the kinds of conditions the animals we eat are forced endure before they land on our plate (a particularly rough section for the weaker stomachs).
As a consumer, there are certain things that you think you know, and some of them you even come to accept (ie. pesticide use), and then there are things that are so horrifyingly wrong, that no one wants you to even know about them. Once you do know, however, they are hard to swallow and even more difficult to ignore. I am telling you about this book because I think it contains information that, while difficult to digest, is important for your health, the health of the planet and the future of mankind.
Thomas Pawlick’s text is well researched and fairly well-written. My only criticism (and it’s a BIG one), is that I think it may have the opposite effect than desired. The reader has to wade through 180 pages of shocking details. There is no break, there’s no humour injected to make it easier to handle, and there is no sense of hope. With the solutions being a mere 40 pages long (and still riddled with more depressing facts), a less dedicated person would have put the book down, guilt-free. I found The End of Food to be so overwhelmingly depressing that it took me 2 weeks to read its 256 pages (keeping in mind that 33 of those pages are notes). Twice, I was disturbed to the point of tears, embarrassingly, while at work. If ever I had the opportunity to meet Thomas Pawlick, I would suggest that he put solutions at the end of each section, lest the less hopeful readers give up on both the book, and humanity. That being said, I did learn some new information from Pawlick's research and he did get me to make one major change; I will no longer be spending my hard-earned money on meat from the grocery store. If there is a local farm that supplies hormone-free and anti-biotic meat, from animals who have been fairly treated, I will be paying them a visit soon.

For those of you who have already read books on the food industry, this text might be a tad redundant. For those of you starting out, this book might be a tad too shocking and hopeless. For those of you, like me, somewhere in the middle, you'll find The End of Food to be somewhere in the middle of redundant and informative. A good read, none-the-less.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

St. Jacob's Market

This morning my friend and I took a trip to St. Jacob's market to pick up some local produce, scoop up the last of whatever berries we could find, and check out what else was available. Before going, I wrote a letter to the director of St. Jacob's and asked if there were particular vendors we should be looking out for if we were looking for local and organic. She assured me that, although most of them are not listed as "certified organic," they were indeed organic. The vendors who sell fruit and vegetables at the market must also be growers themselves. She urged me to ask questions, which I did, when necessary.

Eating locally throughout the winter is going to be an interesting adventure, one that I am not sure I am fully prepared for. I'm trying my hand at canning and freezing this year, something I have never attempted before. What this means is LARGE purchases of produce and a lot of work in the kitchen over the weekend. As it is, I have already frozen 5 large bags of blueberries (I found a 6L basket for $20!), 2 large baskets of strawberries, and blanched 5 bags of mixed yellow and green beans. I purchased two baskets of mixed heirloom tomatoes (delicious!), 2 large zucchinis, a bag of mixed wild mushrooms, a large bunch of carrots, a bunch of beets, and 2 boxes of mixed sweet peppers. We checked out some of the local cheese vendors, and ended up with a brick of Gruyere and another of Asiago. I also picked up some local ground beef and beef tenderloin, hormone and anti-biotic free. Finally, I got a large jar of delicious buckwheat honey which was produced in the Saugeen region. All of this for about $80... it sounds like a lot, but it's going to be worth it in the middle of the winter.

St. Jacob's is open on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays. There are many, many produce vendors who sell their produce at various prices, so have a look around before you settle. There are cheese vendors, meat counters inside, and bakers. Some vendors sell hand-crafted foods, such as pickles and jams. Others sell hand-crafted items, such as quilts. Check out the quilt shop on the way in. When we went in there were two adorable old ladies quilting upstairs. They informed us that it takes 1000 hours to make one quilt! You can see it in their work though. Every stitch is done by hand and the quilts are beautiful.

If you're looking for somewhere to get your sweet corn and peaches when they're ready, this is the place to go. Enjoy!

Friday, August 7, 2009

One more reason to eat locally...

Somewhere in the middle of June, during peak strawberry season, my co-worker and I were discussing food... something that we do nearly everyday since we're both passionate locavores and environmentalists. We were discussing the ever-tenuous subject of produce sold in chain grocery stores. It seems that, even at the height of Ontario's strawberry season, there are fewer and fewer Canadian berries on the shelves. Whenever I see "Grown in the USA" on the little sticker, I eye it suspiciously and wonder what that really means. Where did this piece of fruit come from? How far did it travel to get here? Were the people who picked it (assuming it was picked by a person) get paid/treated fairly? Were they trying to sell me a genetic science experiement? Why did it look so perfect and uniform? Even though they looked good, did they have any nutritional value? What kinds of chemicals were sprayed on it? What effects did these chemicals have on the environment around them? And what about our health? And why is it, when I pick up this produce, all these thoughts run through my head but none of the answers are ever available? No one knows; they just blindly throw the fruit in their cart, making choices based on aesthetics rather than sound judgement.

After this vehement discussion between my co-worker and I, on Sunday, June 21st, 2009 (just a few days later), right on the Toronto Star's front page, was a picture of a gigantic, perfect-looking strawberry. The article, From California to Ontario: Our love affair with the techno-berry," followed a container of strawberries from the field where they were grown in Watsonville, California, to the home where they were feasted on in Burlington, Ontario. This article is important because it answers all of the questions posed above, and it gives readers one more reason to choose the not-so-perfect looking Ontario strawberry during its season. Beauty is, afterall, only skin deep.

I'm not going to waste my time retyping the article. Instead, I've attached a link, in case you missed it. I knew there was a reason that I eyed those strawberries so suspiciously. This summer, for the first time, I vowed only to buy strawberries (and other berries) from local farmers so I can ask all those questions myself. Please make sure to see my follow-up on Marcy's berries, after I asked what exactly was sprayed on the beautiful raspberries I purchased last week. I should have asked before I bought them.
Check out this video of the strawberry's journey: http://www.thestar.com/videozone/653244

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Food Inc., the movie

Food Inc. is playing at the Bookshelf Cinema tonight (and tomorrow night), in downtown Guelph at 9 pm. This documentary exposes the bittersweet truth about America's food industry and the protective agencies (the USDA and the FDA) that are supporting it. Featuring interviews with respected authors, such as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Food Inc. should be on every concerned consumer's must-see movie list. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Summer Berry/Thunderstorm Adventure

I've been whining a lot lately about getting berries before it's too late. I just can't justify spending $13.99 for a large bag of frozen mixed berries at Metro or Zehr's when I don't know where they have come from, I don't know what has been sprayed on them or what has been put in the soil to help them grow, and I don't know how far they've travelled to make it into my smoothie. Furthermore, they all look the same. They're the same size and the same colour. This isn't natural. So, I had the idea that I would find somewhere local that sold berries exactly how I wanted them. They're not cheap, these berries, but they're oh-so-good. I'd almost forgotten what 'real' berries tasted like.
So, when I finished work this evening, Alex and I headed out to chase a storm and stumbled upon a strawberry shaped sign that read "Marcy's Berries", and off we went.
On the Guelph-Wellington Food map, Marcy's Berry's is #55. Located at 747 Valens Rd., Puslinch, it was a bit far for a Tuesday night in a thunderstorm, but I insisted and Alex folded. It was a good 20 minute drive, but we found the stall, just off the side of the road at the Valens townline. After begging Alex to drive me so far for 2 pints of raspberries and some pictures, I didn't have the heart to ask if they sprayed anything on the precious lode. After tasting each type of raspberry carefully, I settled on one and purchased 2 pints at $4.50/pint. I would email the farm this evening to inquire about their practices (which isn't easy to do, by the way). How does one inquire about such things without sounding accusatory? I should note that Marcy's Berries also sold new potatoes, peas and jams.
I felt guilty that we had driven so far for 2 pints of raspberries. I was just beginning to think of myself as the Carbon Bigfoot of Guelph, when I thought that maybe the trip wouldn't be such a waste if we made some more stops in the area. After looking at the map, I noticed #58, sort of on the way home, at the Flamborough-Puslinch townline. According to the Eat Local Map, Tigchelaar Apples and Berries has a farm gate stall that is self-serve and open all hours. I love these little stands and I love driving in thunderstorms. After another 15 minutes of driving, we located the farm. Much to our dismay, there was no gate stall and it was not open all hours. There was a sign that listed hours of operation. A little dejected, we headed home.
I still really, really want to find somewhere to purchase a ton of berries, enough to freeze for the winter. If anyone has any suggestions for me, please comment here.

Small sacrifices?

I lay there late last night, thinking about sacrifices. What would I be sacrificing if I fully committed myself to the 100 Mile Diet? You see, I'm still weighing out the pros and the cons. I nudged my boyfriend in his sleep. "Maybe we could make a rule that we only have to follow the 100 Mile rule if it's something that's available within those 100 miles. Maybe, just maybe, we don't have to give up everything," I whispered. He mumbled something inaudible, a motion of support for whatever I was rambling on about... but does that make sense? Or would that be cheating before I even started?

Here's a few of the things that I don't know how I'd live without:
olive oil
soy milk

If anyone has any ideas, please post them here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Baby steps...

In order to get more information about what's out there in the 100 mile radius, I decided to spend today contacting local businesses and farms, requesting information about what they do and how they do it. I'm hoping to get the opportunity to meet some of these people in person. I'd like to learn just how organic farmers keep pests off their plants. My basil looks more like swiss cheese than the fragrant, leafy herb it's supposed to look like. I'd like to try my hand at beekeeping and see honey that's still in its comb. And I've always wanted to learn more about wild mushrooms.
Here's a short list of the one's I'm most excited about visiting:
Hawkin's Honey
Arva Flour Mill
Grimo Nut Nursery
Wylie Mycological Ltd.
Greenfield's Organic Farm

In the meantime, I'm waiting for responses so we can begin the 100 Mile journey....
See you soon.