PRESERVING A WAY OF LIFE: A Canadian Odyssey

"What to seek depends on where you go."
(maxim from a fortune cookie)

      Part One

It is comforting to experience first hand that artisan foods, small farmsteads, gleaning and the art of preserving are well served in many parts of Canada. Although their supermarket shelves overflow with the usual highly processed concoctions, there are very visible signs that these are not the only options for those who wish for something else.

Our late summer vacation started by delivering our daughter, Ariel, to her new college life in Oregon. The rest of our time was to be spent in British Columbia where we planned to stay in remote areas, living in cabins, for much of our time.

Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, a capacious emporium of bakers, butchers, cheese and charcuterie vendors, and produce stalls, was our choice for supplementary provisions before we headed into the back-country. I had already packed some favorite dry-goods and home bottled victuals, and an ice chest with some fresh provisions to tide us through an expected culinary dry spell. We left the market with seedless concord grapes, white peaches and nectarines, and four-year-old Canadian cheddar.

An unexpected discovery the next morning was in Pemberton. Sturdy's North Arm Farm is the venture of a small youthful commune. They had all we could have wished for: homemade baked goods, jams from their own fruit, fresh picked blueberries, heirloom tomatoes, freshly dug Yukon gold potatoes, garlic scapes, and their own honey and apples too. We bought tomatoes, berries, potatoes and scapes, which have a texture of asparagus and a delicate garlic flavor. Sturdy's sold them by the 2 gallon bag, stuffed full for a dollar. A few bread sticks made with scapes, herbs, and Parmesan left with us as well, to serve as road food.

Farther along, by the roadside, was a cardboard sign advertising tomatoes, basil, parsley, and cucumbers for sale. All were in bunches or bags with a price list on a small table with an umbrella for shade and a soup-tin in which to leave your payment. I selected basil and parsley and left our money in the can.

Our destination for the next number of days was midway on Highway 20, which heads west from the Alaska-Canada Highway several hundred miles north of the border. The highway's final destination is Bella Coola. We would be staying in the heart of the Chilcotin region at a bed and breakfast that provides equipped cabins instead of rooms. We stopped at a general store on the way to purchase gas, postcards, and stamps and were not surprised to see an old chest freezer half-full of desiccated bread, frozen meat, and vegetables. Gracing the shelves were a few dusty cans of soup, a bottle of Mazola, bags of chips and croutons, a few onions, droopy carrots and withered cabbage, as well as shoes, sweatshirts, books, hardware, hunting and fishing gear, and "Native Crafts."

The locals, we discovered, are too resourceful and self-reliant to depend on this array. Much of their bread is home-baked and vegetables are mostly what is grown in their greenhouses. Mail delivery is three times a week. There is a local butcher who processes game, cattle, and makes sausage, hams and lunch-meat from local swine. His name is Klaus. We noticed his shop, "German Butcher", with a closed sign. Nonetheless, there were local people leaving with bags of provisions. I got in line.

There had been a huge forest fire locally. Klaus and other able-bodied locals had been off to fight it. During our conversation, I discovered that Klaus loved wild mushrooms. He mentioned that he was finding lots of Shaggy Mane mushrooms. Really? I admitted I had never found enough to try a pan-full. They grew near his shop so he offered to take me to pick some. Klaus grabbed a plastic shopping bag and we went out to the patch. The mushrooms were shoving through the sandy soil in huge clumps and, in less than five minutes, the bag was full. Gleefully we drove away from his shop with assorted sausages, sliced cold cuts, paté and Speck, a raw ham that was cold smoked with juniper and alder, and the Shaggy Mane buttons. Klaus left to go back to checking for hot spots on the Lake Chilko fire.

This area is known for its large commercial harvests of matsutake and morels, so we had planned to hunt mushrooms and fish but rain had been scant. Daily sojourns on the intricate network of logging roads and tracks failed to reveal any mushrooms. But, we were compensated for daily bumpy rides and flat tires with 18-inch orange-fleshed trout and picturesque canoe ventures on small, vacant glacier-fed lakes.

Our last day to explore the Chilcotin finally produced results. Traveling farther west and close to the coast mountains, we began to see mushrooms in abundance. Along a gravel road, we spotted what we assumed were giant puffballs. We leapt from the car and scrambled up the embankment to find humongous Agaricus augustus, a highly prized mushroom with a pronounced almond scent. Inspecting the roadsides with increased zeal led us to a further basketful. Sadly, we would only have two more nights of accommodation that would allow for cooking. We sautéed some in butter to go with dinner and packed enough fresh ones in our cooler for a generous meal, sharing the rest with our innkeeper.