Wednesday, June 22, 2011

FoodTrek: From Farm to Sea, to a Table in Richmond, BC

Eating will sustain us, but knowing more about what's on the plate is what truly nourishes us. I visited so many restaurants in and around the city of Richmond, BC in Canada, but it really meant something when you got to see where the ingredients come from. We're fortunate to live in a culture of abundance, but that concentration of selection ends up squeezing out the origin of how those choices came to be. I continued to eat and drink my way through Richmond, but it tasted so much better knowing where things came from!

Terra Nova Farm Share, how does your garden grow? Awesomely - Photo by Wasabi Prime

It's likely the Green Thumb Geek in me, but I was blown away by the Terra Nova Farm Share, which is an impressive community garden at Terra Nova Rural Park, a large public greenbelt right in the middle of residential neighborhoods in the city of Richmond. The farm share is sectored out with rasied garden beds that anyone can rent and plant fruits and vegetables, with open access to visit and tend to their spaces as they please. It's literally cultivated by the public, both financially and physically. It's not just a couple of scraggly fields in the middle of track housing -- this place is huge. It's so big, it doesn't even have an official site I can provide a link to! Terra Nova Farm Share is sort of a nexus of multiple community projects, ranging from school classes and camps, to food banks, and local chefs wanting to be more educated and involved in growing the food they handle every day.

Handmade cob oven, early currants, one of many rented garden beds - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

If Terra Nova Farm Share is like a blank canvas of potential, then founder and chef Ian Lai could be considered the artist behind its picturesque vistas. Ian guided a tour through the grounds, showing how vital a project like this is for a community, as it encourages education about sustainability and makes it approachable for all ages. The process of planting something from a seed, watching it germinate and grow, eventually yielding something edible, is a pretty profound thing. Ian's background as a chef is particularly poignant as he described how people in the restaurant industry could work with food day in and day out, but never really understand how these ingredients came to be. As a result, foods become cogs in a mindless network of turning gears, ingredients lose importance and he described the soulless cooking very fittingly as, "angry food." And so he encourages the local restaurant kitchens to get their hands dirty and grow their own ingredients. For the future generation of possible chefs and restauranteurs, the school programs get children involved, showing them how to harvest wheat, make their own flour, and make their own pizzas in the farm share's outdoor "cob" or mud oven, built by hand, decorated with found objects in the fields they harvested the mud from.

Cool bugs, disco chickens, and ah... a field of buttercups - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The tour through Terra Nova showed off other areas, like beehives which produce honey and help keep their orchards and surrounding plants pollinated. There's a chicken coop that had what I like to call Disco Chicks -- young Bantam hens with awesome feather outfits. Ian Lai showed off some of his own personal projects, like a collection of old wasp nests and beehives to show what architectural nerds insects are, and a really stunning and elegant example of the bug world, a dome of silk spun from silkworms when they resided in the half of a globe. We know clothing is made from silk, we know chicken is tasty with the Colonel's herbs n' spices, but to really see how these creatures live and flourished inevitably adds a new dimension of understanding and appreciation.

Fruit wines and honey from Sanduz Estate and out of this world puffed blueberries  - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Education ultimately leads to innovation, and Sanduz Estate Wines is one example of traditional agriculture taking a step outside of the norm. The Sandu family has a long history of blueberry and cranberry farming -- they still harvest a healthy crop of fruit, but they chose to expand and diversify their business, moving into the making of fruit wines. I know, people kind of roll their eyes or get a white-knuckle flashback of one too many wine coolers at a college party, but likely any bad experience with fruity beverages were a result of lesser quality fruit wines that used less fruit, more sugar and ultimately a big hangover. Sanduz Estate's fruit wines are made with just the fruit, generally a single type, like blackberry, blueberry, apple or strawberry, the method is similar as with grapes, using yeast and the magic of fermentation, but with their fruit winemaking process, the finished product is ready within three months, versus grape wines that can take up to a year or more to be ready. The resulting fruit wines are sweet and refreshing, with a pure, intense flavor of the fruit it's made from. I have to say my favorites were their Granny Smith and a crabapple dessert wine, which really retained the tart crispness of a fresh apple, no over-sugared appletini-flavored headache in a bottle.

Even more interesting than tasty fruit wines is their newest innovation -- puffed blueberries. Sanduz Estate has some NASA-like equipment behind the quaint, charming wine tasting area that's transforming their blueberries into delicate crispy snacks that are almost like a round blueberry cracker, but it's 100% berry, baby. No additives or extra flavors, they have this incredible machine that dehydrates the berries in an atmospheric chamber that literally boils the moisture so quickly out of the fruit that the shape remains and you have these funky dried fruits that are intensely flavored but crispy like a chip with a wicked-long shelf life -- two years, they were saying. Puffed blueberries are such a new product, you can't really go online and buy them yet; the best way to get a bag is to go to the winery, or just wait until a celebrity gets wind of it, as this is a trendy food waiting to blow up. It's so sci-fi the way they're made -- I think if MIB's had a favorite snack, this would be it, and they'd have offered puffed blueberries to E.T. who would have liked them way more than Reese's Pieces. He would not have phoned home, he'd have stayed here. Because even his planet didn't have puffed blueberries.

Punch your timecard and hit the line when you're visting the Gulf of Georgia Cannery - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Moving from land to sea, I had the opportunity to experience the past and present of Richmond's fishing industry. In the booming era of salmon fishing, there were over a dozen large canneries lining the Fraser River near Steveston, a maritime neighborhood of the city. One cannery remains, built in the 19th century and preserved as a historic landmark. You can visit the Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site and walk through their museum, which is full of exhibits showing methods of fishing, from artifacts once used by First Nation tribes, to commercial vessels like the large-netted seine boats still used today. Restored equipment once used in canneries for the preparation of the fish are set up to tell the story of not only how a salmon went from fins to a tin can, but the people who endured real hardships to keep the cannery moving and ultimately grow the city. There are really sobering exhibits like a set of overalls chemically stained and burned to shreds from the use of lye in the tin can processing, and a gruesome plaster cast of a hand that was mangled by the machines. The most shocking exhibit of all is the old scale that's calibrated to show price per pound of salmon, at least for a century ago, and you can weigh yourself to find out how much you're worth. For all the endless eating I had been doing, let's just say I'm worth a small fortune in salmon. But jokes aside, the museum is as much a symbol of a foundation-building industry as it is a testament to the human cost that  is a harsh price to pay for progress.

Boats in the harbor and ruh-roe, it's urchin! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

People visit the Fisherman's Wharf in Steveston for its quaint, picturesque charm, but I think visiting the cannery is almost a prerequisite, as you appreciate the sense that ghosts of true fishermen persevere along those pier docks that still have locals selling their fresh catch right off the back of their boats. Many of these boats in the docks are independent and family-owned, and they sell their catches directly to the restaurants right by the water. Much like a produce farmers market, this is a fishermans market, with fresh, sometimes still-live catches. The walkways are busy with locals buying fresh-caught salmon, sea urchin and at the time, still-moving spot prawns, which were in season during my visit. They were beautiful, translucent candy-striped little critters, getting ogled by hungry customers taking full advantage of buying what was fresh and in season.

The most fresh and sometimes still wriggling catch of the day - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

It was a really enriching experience to take a break from just eating and get into the cultivation of what  ultimately winds up on our plates. Seeing skeletons of industry, the early stages of what could become "angry food," and then seeing the pursuit of traditional, as well as cutting-edge methods and community action persevering today left me with a really hopeful sense of a sustainable future. This is just one picture, in one city in the world, but I do hope it's seen as an example of thriving stewardship that other cities can take inspiration from.

Okay, okay, I'll get back to the tasty eats -- I've got one more post detailing my calculated resettlement into the Steveston area of Richmond, based on three simple elements: cupcakes, coffee, and Spam. Stay tuned! And if you're like, "Shut up, Wasabi, I'll just go there myself," then you're in luck - Tourism Richmond has a contest where you can win your own food adventure.

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  1. The Terra Nova Sharing Farm has a website. It's at

    1. Thanks for the site share! It sounds like Terra Nova is involved in a lot of different programs which have their own sites, so I'm glad there are different ways for people to involve them in people's lifestyles! I really loved the garden share idea and I'm still dreamy-eyed over that oven they built from the ground-up!


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