I grew up in an Italian household, where tomatoes were a really important part of our diet (surprise!). Some of my happiest memories revolve around tomato canning time, in early to mid-September in Montreal when the weather was just starting to turn with the yellowing leaves, and my father’s thoughts were ambling their way toward wine-making. But not yet. First there were the tomatoes to be dealt with. Hundreds of pounds of them, gathered from our own garden, from tomato U-Picks on the outskirts of Montreal, and if all else failed, from the Marché Jean-Talon. It was there that since 1933, Italians who couldn’t grow enough themselves would haggle en masse and in whatever mix of languages and dialects they could manage, for bushels of tomatoes, red peppers, garlands of garlic and tree-like branches of basil for the Sunday (and Thursday… and sometimes Tuesday or Wednesday) tomato sauce.
And there were deals to be had, my friend.
This farmers’ market is still going strong, although largely yuppified, according to my mother (no, she didn’t use the word ‘yuppified’), as the local food movement continues along its rarefied ’boutique’ phase. My mamma recounted how last week she witnessed throngs of young people at the market (unheard of when I was growing up), but each of them had just a few carrots, a pepper or two, or (gasp!) a croissant. And so many new restaurants. “What are they doing there?”
But she managed to get her tomato and pepper fix just the same, as there really is a lot of food still grown in southern Quebec, available at decent prices when the time is right. The idea of eating local all year round was entrenched in our community, as with many others in those days. There just wasn’t a viable alternative for both price and flavour. And here’s a badly kept secret: there still isn’t.
That said, I wish we had that amount of seasonal food here in Powell River, where the norm is still growing small or buying mostly ‘just-in-time’ produce, and at much higher costs than I was used to at Le Marché. There just isn’t the mass quantity to be able to sell for less, of course, and it’s that familiar situation: growing more food here isn’t viable for farmers when they have to compete with chain stores with their buying power and low prices for imported produce (even if it lacks in flavour and comes with the carbon footprint of a Sasquatch). This will change, and my concern is that it was happen a lot faster than we’re prepared for.
On that note, last weekend, Skookum Food Provisioners Cooperative hosted a tomato canning work party at a local church kitchen. A dozen or so local foodies got together to can 200 lbs of tomatoes bought in bulk through the sorely missed “Vitamin Express” fruit truck. Nicole Narbonne and Will Langlands led the party through the steps involved
- sterilizing the pint jars and lids
- adding the lemon juice and salt to the jars
- lightly scoring and then scalding the tomatoes (c. 40 seconds),
- popping them into icy water,
- peeling , coring and cutting them into 4-6 sections,
- carefully packing the them into pint jars, cleaning the rims and putting on the lids
- pre-warming the jars, and finally
- canning them in boiling water bath for 45-minutes.
(Find a complete how-to from another source, with pictures here)
Enjoy the last few days of this year’s official 50-Mile Eat Local Challenge period, but really– put up as much local food as you can for the seasons ahead.