Recently, I was invited back on Edible Valley to discuss our local food shed, and dealing with the rise in prices at our grocery stores. In the discussion were hosts Chef Jonathan Frazier and Darren Howlett, along with farmer Arzeena Hamir. We came up with many really great ideas about shrinking your grocery bill and food footprint. The stability in local food prices is evident and not as influenced by drought, storms, and transportation problems like the majority of the food available in our grocery isles. Cheap energy and farming that don't take into account the long term repercussions of the practices have created an artificially priced industrial food system, as we are writing IOU's for miss used resources to the future generations that we can't re-pay, to speed up our need for cheap commodities. To reverse these trends, mankind can make changes by shrinking our food shed to our bio-region, province or state, or better yet, our communities, regional districts and counties.
Several years ago I made some major life changing decisions. I began to follow a Paleo diet,(read my journey here) and food became my focus of everything I did. I recreated around food by fishing, hunting and foraging. My social circles became farmers, chefs, and small value added producers. I became a devout "Farmers Market Shopper". While all this was taking place, I began to see the diversity and quality of the food that was being produced locally. Preparedness became something important to me as well, so preserving all this bounty became another past time. Canning fish, pickles, apple sauce, salsa, and relishes. I made sausage, smoked salmon and bacon. Our kitchen soon had the magnificent odour of sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and fermented dills. This was a food revolution in our zone one. Amazing transformation from one who was scared of the market, ate grocery store meat, veg and bread, never took their biome into consideration or saw the connection to my health. With these new found skills, I knew a Comox Valley Diet was possible.
For those not familiar with the Paleo diet, also often lumped in with Primal, Ancestral, or Caveman, I will give a quick synopsis. Based on evidence and research of fossil records, scientists determined that the Paleolithic man was much healthier than we are today, void of the diseases that we are afflicted with now, like cancers, diabetes, tooth decay, and auto-immune. The Paleo diet intends to mimic the food choices available to our ancient ancestors 10,000 years ago, before agriculture became the mainstay of our sustenance. Paleo man was a hunter and gatherer. He foraged for plants and eggs, hunted game and caught fish. He didn't eat grains, which are types grass seeds better suited to be eaten by herbivores and birds, than man. As humans evolved over millions of years, up until agriculture it has been argued, that we never developed the ability to eat grains, legumes or dairy, and for optimal health we must eat meat, fat and vegetables. Low in carbs, including fruit, and sugar-even natural sugar. I find the diet really beneficial, to break the addiction to sugars and carbs. I notice improvements in digestion and inflammatory issues in my joints. Plus a more regulated blood sugar. This is a very broad definition of the diet. If you are interested in further investigation, there are loads of great resources on-line.
Now I know that many of you reading this might not agree with me about dietary choices, and that is fine. I don't believe that one can have a complete spectrum of heathy foods by the following the food pyramid eating foods grown in one region. Most of conventional foods, talking breads, pastas, and "center of the store" stuff is made with ingredients grown all over the place, so you would be missing out on a huge amount of your calories. I am talking about changing that paradigm, and improving your health by getting rid of all that crap! Although I have some experience with vegetarianism, which I think you could do okay here because of eggs and dairy for protein, vegans could be challenged. There are some farmers growing beans, but maybe not in sufficient quantity. I could be wrong on that, and hope there are. My ideal would be to have everyone eating fresh, local ingredients, cooking at home the majority of the time and breaking free of the cycles of obesity and illness related to our current food system, regardless how you accomplish it. Keeping it local is a huge step in this direction.
A book and blog that gain lots of attention was "The 100 Mile Diet", where two Vancouverites completed challenge where they ate only food grown in a 100 Mile radius around their home. I read the story and was impressed. However they had some major challenges. One being grains. This region isn't great for the growing of grain crops because of our rainfall. It is possible, but not in the quality that makes farmers target them. More of a fun experiment that a full production endeavour. Another challenge was cooking oils. Butter is available as the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island have many dairy farms. Forget any olive oil, canola oil or other seed oils, they just aren't available. Vegetable oils parent crops are farmed in the prairies. After much difficulty they made it through the year and were very happy to go out to eat at a restaurant after the year was over!
Here we have two very admirable individuals who took it upon themselves to shrink their food shed. I applaud them for this and am sure this inspired so many to take up the challenge of bringing their nutrition closer to home. One observation of this particular book, however, they didn't change their expectations of what foods they could eat. They still expected to eat breads and grains. I don't remember how much effort they put into preserving and fermenting, so probably time for a re-read. I suggest that with some changes in our expectations and eating with the natural cycles of the earth, we can more easily evolve our habits to become free of the world commodity food markets.
Here in the Comox Valley, food is everywhere! We were called the "Land of Plenty" traditionally by the First Nations. Our deep soils created by the forest, sea, rivers, and salmon. Our great climate of warm, dry summers and damp, mild winters create a wonderful place to grow food. We have somewhere in the neighbourhood of 450 farms of various sizes, from enormous dairy operations to backyard urban C.S.A's. There are shellfish farms, nut farms, yogurt factories, chocolatiers, coffee roasters, and even a bison farm. It is all here, and finding the bounty isn't hard. These days of social media make it simple to find producers doing something interesting that will temp your taste buds.
How do we do this? How do we eat in the winter? Complex answers to simple problems. You must be involved. It has to become a passion and a past time. You have to want it.
I suggest taking it back to our grandmothers, or great grandmothers expectations of the foods we eat. Fresh tomatoes or strawberries in winter isn't normal. Neither are mangos, bananas, pineapple or asparagus in January. Families at the turn of the last century would rely on their larder to keep them fed during the long winter. A root cellar full of preserved fruit and vegetables from the previous summer. Livestock were kept "on the hoof" as long as possible because of the lack of refrigeration. I know not everyone can have livestock and a quarter acre garden, but we can follow those same ideas, by purchasing or foraging our foods from local resources. We have the ability to have a chest freezer and water bath or pressure canning. Fermentation bacteria still float freely around, just waiting to help preserve your bounty. We need to return to the cycles of the seasons and adapt to the length of day and availability of food, just like creatures in the wild. Feast on the bounty while it is available, put some up for the lean month, and expel less energy in the winter, so we need less fuel.
First, buy a deep freeze! This is your alternative to "on the hoof". Local Farmers generally slaughter their livestock in rotation according to the season. Our family always gets chicken in the late spring, beef in the early summer, salmon in August, and pork in October. We buy in bulk, and saving money and the concern of running out of protein. There is a certain amount of freedom in this kind of buying. I remember when we used to buy our protein weekly at the market. Missing that Saturday morning meant buying meat from the grocery store. It was slightly stressful and also made going away for a weekend a little more involved. There is nothing much I like better than having a freezer full of local protein! The choices in cuts and the price point make it fully worth doing. Plus you get the bones and offal if you choose. These add nutrient and mineral content to anything you add it to. Bone broth is all the rage these days, and is nothing more than bones simmered for a long time with a variety of vegetables, herbs and spices. Along with the talk of animal products, one of our favorite proteins are eggs. Chicken, duck, quail, even turkey. They are all delicious and full of health. There are egg coolers hidden all over the area, and it is a fun "egg hunt" anytime, not just at Easter to find get eggs.
Along with this freezer(or freezers, as we have three) for meat, it is also a great place to store berries from the summer. Berries are everywhere in the summer, so buying in bulk or picking your own, either from a U-pick or foraging, allows one to have that taste of summer even during the coldest days of winter. You can avoid the pesticide residue and footprint of berries trucked in from California, Mexico or Argentina(that kind of travel kind of defeats the purpose of organic in my opinion) by choosing local and organic in the proper season. Picking ripe fruit also means you get the best nutrition available in it.
How about other fruits? Apples, pears, plums, cherries and, if your lucky, peaches. This is where your water bath canner comes into play. All of these fruits can be easily preserved with some know how and effort. Some added local honey and water, you have saved the bounty for the lean months. A dehydrator also is invaluable for preserving fruits. We have a hard time not eating the apple chips as they are made, and pear chips are amazing! Tree fruits grow all over the place in this Valley, many of the trees are heritage, having been here since the early settlers. Interesting varieties and all shapes and sizes. You will find your favorites, like we have, and keep them a secret. Another tree crop that is probably under-utilized are nuts. Walnuts and hazelnuts in particular are very abundant, if you know where to look. Joining the local non-profit, called LUSH Valley, is a good start to connect eager pickers with tree owners who can't pick the fruit.
Vegetables, of course, are grown in huge volumes seasonally too. We are lucky to have such a great community of growers and producers locally. Buying in peak season is the best way economically for you to keep food over the winter. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, you name it, the veggies are here. I love to make salsa with local ingredients, and preserve it in jars. Another super way to preserve tomatoes is to make fermented tomato paste. Many vegetables will keep in their un-adulterated state for months, like winter squash, potatoes, onions, garlic and carrots. Buy these at the end of the growing season to help bridge that time until the fresh greens of spring appear. Fermentation of vegetables is a choice way to preserve. Locally available sea salt and chlorine free water in the base to make krauts, pickled cukes, carrots, beets, or zucchini. Once fermented these vegetables can be stored in sealed jars in a cool place for months, even years. Condiments, beverages, dairy and meats can be preserved in this fashion. I believe the art of fermentation is essential to our zone 0 resilience by increasing the nutrition of the food and re-building our damaged gut biomes from years of chlorinated water and antibiotic exposure.
Other minor ingredients in the kitchen that we often over look can also be had locally. Sugar replaced by honey. Cooking oils derived from animal fats, like lard and tallow. Vinegar can be made from apples, wine or kombucha. Local companies are producing sea salt! So many herbs are available either fresh or dried. Locally derived teas of domestic or wild herbs can also be concocted or purchased. Coffee and chocolate are two things that many of us can't do without, but the natives always traded with other tribes, so we can always make exceptions! Use local producers if you can't live without these indulgences. Dairy, while not generally accepted in a true Paleo lifestyle, is also available. The local yogurt makers do a wonderful job, plus cheeses made from Comox Valley reared cattle are available too. I would caution on conventional dairy as the cows aren't raised in the best conditions, and fed silage crops that are most often genetically modified and sprayed with herbicides, pesticides and other poisons.
Yet another sector of available foods are the wild edibles that are found in abundance. Wild mushrooms are prolific in season, full of micro-nutrients, minerals and flavour. Eating the fruit of the forest gives a certain energy to your dish. Wild mushrooms are probably my favorite item to search for and I have been doing so for over 30 years. The sea brings a myriad of seaweeds and sea asparagus. Yet more micro-nutrients and minerals, distinct flavour and plentiful. Oysters, clams, mussels and crabs are available as amazing ingredients. I could probably live on oysters! Salmon, cod, trout and other bottom fish are around too, although many restrictions exist and not available to everyone all the time, to glean an opportunistic harvest is so worthwhile. Foraging is a fun, educational and rewarding pastime that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
As you can see, living a Paleolithic style of diet in the Comox Valley, based on Comox Valley based food, is not only do-able, but quite accessible and would benefit us greatly as a whole. Not only health-wise, but economically and socially as well. Creating a system of abundance within our region, saving us from the ups and downs of the just in time model of grocery store stocking, fuel prices and topsy-turvy weather in other parts of the world. If you are interested in exploring this more in-depth, I am happy to chat about it, and pass on information if you wish to connect with growers and producers.