Monday, October 31, 2011


The thing I failed to mention in the last post is that I dug up the back garden this weekend. I always have trouble doing that. It's not about the labour, it's about the loss. When I turn the soil and pull out the last herbs and tomatoes etc, I am saying good-bye to hope of renewal; it's the end, the final point of the growing season. I don't like it. And so often I have tended to avoid committing to the finality. I often leave the digging too late (which means I have a mess to deal with in the spring). (This year it's all done, and as well, I have rye seed to plant as a cover crop for over the winter. I'll let you know how it goes.)

But this year there were some great finds in the fading garden and somehow a feeling of ease about it all. I came on some heads of tender fresh garlic for example. And I pulled a number of green and growing dandelion plants. I've been harvesting those leaves all summer, since the spring, to chop up and stir-fry as part of my breakfast (rice underneath, a fried egg on top). Now pulling them out feels like a definitive good-bye.

I was due to go to Dawn the baker's and Ed's for supper the other night. So I took along some dandelion greens and garlic from my garden tidying. They had cooked merguez from Sanagan's and wanted to turn it into a form of Thai salad. So I sliced the merguez, then sliced the shallots thinly and tossed them with the merguez and some fish sauce and vinegar and lime juice, as well as some Vietnamese coriander leaves (so delicious). Then I sliced the tender young garlic cloves and fried them in a little olive oil, along with finely chopped dandelion leaves (there was a little arugula from the garden in there too). It went onto the salad as part of the dressing, both the wilted greens and cooked garlic. Wow. Something wonderful happens when you had a bitter greens to the sweetness of the lamb in the merguez.

We can safely call this fusion food, and in my view it's the best version of all: solid ingredients, meshed with some insight, and with pleasure!

All this is another piece of the Thanksgiving process that fill October, from early on all the way to Halloween. So lucky! So lovely!


There’s a guy drilling cement outside the building across the street. If I find the noise penetrating from inside my office, how much of a beating are his ears taking? He doesn’t look like he’s wearing ear-protectors. The intermittent drilling aside, it’s a beautiful day, with golden leaves fluttering against a mostly-blue sky, now softening with a little cloud cover. This evening will be fairly mild for Halloween, and dry, a blessing for the small people who will be out trick-or-treating.

I associate Halloween with Thanksgiving and harvest, partly just because of the time of year, and more specifically because pumpkins and apples (remember when apples were part of Halloween?) are such a part of harvest time.

On the weekend I drove out for the day to a friend’s place north of the city. On the way I came across an honour-system pumpkin stand loaded with huge pumpkins. The sign said, $3 per pumpkin, Thank-you!” and there was a small cash box with some change in it. I had no change, so I left a twenty dollar bill, took back three dollars in change, and lifted five pumpkins into the car. When I got to my friend’s place I told her she now had two more pumpkins to do with as she wished. No choice!. ANother is going to a neighbour. That leaves two to be carved later today.

But back to the country. Once I got there and had a coffeee, we walked out to the back of the property, a rolling twenty-five acres, very beautiful, with a small river running through it. I always say it’s the largest twenty-five acre property I know, for it’s so varied and full of lovely mysteries.

We crossed the stream on flat stepping stones then climbed up out of the valley on the far side and into sunshine that warmed us into shedding our jackets. There was work to do, for a number of the trees at the edge of a field and along a wide path were encumbered with wild grape vines. They grow and twine and proliferate, eventually weighing the tree down so much that it sickens and weakens. And of course in winter the extra twining vines mean that there’s more surface for snow to rest on, and thus even more weight for the tree to bear. So we snipped and cut and broke the grape vines, then pulled them off and left tangled heaps here and there.

The last tree we did was a huge old apple tree. The apples (no I can’t tell you the variety) were crisp and beautiful and full of flavour. Their red was in fine stencilled-like strips. The windfalls that lay under the tree made a dense patterned splash of colour, and were aromatic where we stepped on them and crushed them. The deer in the forest are eating well these days, is all I can say!

We hacked away at the grape, then gathered apples off the tree and trudged on back to the house to make a late lunch.

The apples were calling out, so I cut some of them up, squeezed on lemon and lime juice, and piled them into a small oven-proof dish. I made a mixture of oatmeal, flour, sugar, and a generous amount of butter chopped into small chunks. Once the mixture was a fairly even crumbly texture I added a little water, so that it came together, nearly, as a kind of dough. The mounded apples were mixed with some sugar and cinnamon, then the streusel-pastry-ish mixture went on top and it all went into the oven.

Of course it’s hard to miss when you’re working with apples and sugar etc, but this was an especially wonderful treat, because those apples had such a complex dynamic flavour. The rest of them have just gone onto a pair of skillet cakes. Yum. And the hot oven, after the cakes came out, is now baking two small pumpkins, halved and deseeded and baking face down, lightly oiled on their cut sides. Once they come out and cool, I’ll lift off the peel and puree the flesh with a little extra water.

It makes a great soup, flavoured with olive oil in which I have cooked some garlic or shallots, whatever is to hand. You can include potato too, for even more thick unctuousness, but I find the pumpkin does well on its own.

Some friends are coming by for supper. We’ll take turns handing out treats to whatever kids come, and in between we’ll sip some wine and spoon up thick orange pumpkin soup. Not sure what the rest of the menu is; it will take shape as I forage through the frig!

Happy Halloween everyone.

POSTSCRIPT: A friend just called and will drop by with some tagine she made yesterday...and I forgot to mention the pumpkin seeds, the other wealth that pumpkins give us. Mine are toasting now...

Thursday, October 27, 2011


We’re still in October, and the basics seem to be staying pretty constant. The main themes of life this month continue to be art, culture, and friends, all under a chilly rainy sky. We’re not drowning in floodwaters, as the people of central Thailand are, but we too have had enough rain and dampness to last us awhile. I’m ready for some sunshine!

Meantime that warmth and optimism has to come from other sources. Just yesterday I went with a friend to a free concert at the Opera House here in Toronto. There’s a kind of amphitheatre two floors up. That's where the free noontime concerts are held. This one was by the Zodiac trio - have you heard of them? I hadn’t - who are American and French: clarinet, piano, and violin. They were terrific, and so was their program. The concert title was “Music from a Silenced Nation: Soviet Composers.” I knew Shostakovitch and Stravinsky, but the other two were new to me: Edison Denisov (one movement of an amazing sonata for solo clarinet, moody and impressionistic with slides and quarter tones, completely remarkable); and Galina Ustvolskaya, whose Trio, written in 1949, was haunting, each movement tailing off into silence, a questioning suggestive absence.

Then there’s the Chagall, the AGO show on Chagall and other artists who were born in the Russian empire and worked in Russia and then mostly in France, in the first half of the twentieth century. In my ignorance I knew nothing about many of the artists in the show. Apart from Chagall paintings and drawings, there was a wonderful Lipschitz bronze and some lovely Kandinsky’s, but it was the work by the others, called collectively the Russian Avant-Garde in the show’s title, that was new to me and sometimes took my breath away. I didn’t know about Sonia Delaunay or Natalia Gontcharova, nor about Tatin, Malevitch, Rodtchenko... If you have a chance to get to Toronto’s AGO before January 10, do go. And try to make time for two visits, because ther’s a lot to absorb.

There’s often discussion in art and literature crcles, and argument, about whether knowledge of the artist or writer is important or should even be a factor in appreciating the work. At the end of the Chagall is a long (fifteen-minute, maybe twenty-minute) film made in the 1970’s I think, when he was living in the south of France (he died in 1980 at the age of 98, a beautiful looking man). Somehow, watching him talk about his work, watching him work, and hearing about his first stay in Paris (1910-12) when he met Braque and Picasso and the other painters in that then-vibrant art community, helped me get a handle on his achievement. Until then, to me the paintings were whimsical or amusing or sad or sorrowful, sometimes all at once, and their colour and vibrancy and life-force was extraordinary, but I’d never been able to get hold of them for myself. I sat on the surface, you could say, but didn’t “get” them, most of them.

After the film somehow things fell into place: the pictures aren’t disciplined workings out of a theory or a geometry, they’re pure expressions of how he was feeling. In them there are elements of the painterly schools or techniques (the newspaper seller has a cubist feel in parts, in the papers he carries, for example), but he has digested all that others were doing and remained himself. He’s always Chagall, the man from Vitebsk, not contained or constrained by theory or specific techniques.

Now to go back and look at the whole exhibition with fresh eyes. What a treat to have the show waiting for me a few blocks away.

All this Russian art and creativity, from the AGO show to the Zodiac Trio program, is a reminder of how much the world lost in the twentieth century because of anti-Semitism and the totalitarian politices of Stalin et al. Artists were persecuted, some of them managing to flee, others not surviving. (Of the artists in the Chagall show, almost all died in France; one died in 1944 in Auschwitz; I wonder about all that got buried in history, whose work we don’t know about) It’s also a reminder, as the Zodiac clarinetist said in some opening words, that human creativity is remarkably tenacious. Even in difficult circumstances, many artists manage to produce work and to keep their integrity. They’re valuable to us all, a reminder of the larger view, the bigger horizon, the potential in all of us.

That’s the warmth we find in art and music in this chilly damp weather.

Other warmth comes from the glow of the leaves, still clinging, many of them, despite the rain and winds. The huge maple out my back window, a squirrel high-rise, is a blend of red and green against the sky, wind-tattered at the edges of its generous canopy.

And then there’s Diwali, the festival of lights, which was last night. We aren’t Hindus, but we did have tiny candles lit and other lights on. It was dark and chilly outside but the house was full of welcome conversation as we talked and ate mostly leftovers with good friends in the warmth of our shared humanity.

AND AS FOR THE DETAILS: We ate well, in many stages, with a backdrop of roasted pumpkin (I was cooking small pumpkin halves to soft, to then puree them for soup), very autumnal altogether. The "menu": dal with cauliflower, reheated with some water and olive oil, and thickened with leftover rice, comfort food at its best; leftover Italian sausage from Sanagan's, sliced fairly thinly, wok-fried to reheat and tossed in the wok with leftover tubetti; multi-colourd fresh carrots cut into sticks, for crunch; and fresh rice to take care of the lovely sauce on some leftover Thai chicken curry, red curry, small pieces of chicken, and delectable. For afters I simmered chopped Grey County apples in brown sugar and a little water, then served them with a dollop of very unsweet stewed damsons and a long lick of maple syrup.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


I just got word that the City of Toronto is proposing to sell several Toronto Community Housing buildings, all the ones in my neighbourhood in fact, as a short-term money-raising scheme.

terrible idea.

I just sent a letter to the CEO and another committe member, and this is what it case anyone else wants to send a letter too, opposing the idea:
Dear Sir and Madam:
I am a long-time resident of Henry Street. I moved onto the street as a tenant in 1983 and .. I have been a home-owner on Henry Street since 1984. I raised my children on the street, sent them to the local pubic school and to University Settlement House for after-school programs (and now they are at the University of Toronto), and I am a customer at many of the businesses on Baldwin Street.

All of this is to say that I am anchored in this community and I know my neighbours and my neighbourhood.

The proposal that Hydro Block and the houses on Beverley-Dundas currently operated by Toronto Community Housing be sold is expensive and short-sighted. All studies confirm my experience here, which is that mixed neighbourhoods, made up of people of many backgrounds and from many layers of the socio-economic spectrum, are healthier and cost less in all kinds of ways, than separate homogeneous enclaves of the wealthier and the less well-off.

My children went to school with kids from Hydro Block and the Beverley community, and that was good for all parties. There's a social cohesiveness to an integrated neighbourhood that produces peaceful community, reduces violence, and makes schools productive and again lower-cost.

The proposal that a one-time sale, and hence a one-time cash-in, of these properties is good for the city is, frankly, ridiculous. It will raise social tensions, as people lose their housing, and it will create ghettos where we now have integrated communities.

We know from some of the ghetto-like enclaves in the suburbs that such social isolation leads to violent crime, high drop-out rates in the schools, and much higher costs in terms of policing and other security issues. But the highest cost of all is the human cost.

People of all walks of life should continue to be entitled to live downtown, with easy access to all that is there. The handicapped
people who live on the top floor of the Hydro Block are especially in need of housing that is easily accessible to shopping and transit, but so are the families that now thrive in the Beverley-Dundas houses.

The Hydro Block, and the Beverley-Dundas houses are a model of how the city should be handling low income housing. And the neighbourhood is a model of lively safe streets, productive schools, and flourishing community.

Please vote against any proposal that includes the sale of Toronto Community Housing. It's an expensive and short-sighted measure. It may be designed to raise revenue, but it will in fact do the reverse, for it will have a huge price tag: both money costs (to be born by taxpayers) and human costs (to be born by those least able to defend themselves).

Thank-you for taking the long view, rather than grabbing at short-term band-aids.
Yours sincerely,

I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


The leaves are drifting down in the drizzle, with pouring rain and high winds promised. Already the sidewalks near ash trees are paved with little golden leaves. But many trees will be stripped bare before their leaves have had a chance to thrill us with colour. Last year's autumn was such a spectacular one, I suppose we can't complain if this year is an off-year.

In my last post - mostly about the Mega Quarry and fabulous Foodstock - I said I'd write soon about some encounters I had in early October. The month started with Nuit Blanche, and I guess that first of October event was a preview of what my month has been since: a composite of often-chilly weather, friends old and new, and serendipitous encounters with people and art and food and new ideas.

A couple of days after Nuit Blanche I took a day flight to London on Air Canada, a huge treat, and headed into town on the Tube to stay at my cousin's flat near Victoria. There was time the next day for lots of conversation with him, and a visit to the British Museum as well as wanderings through Bloomsbury and Covent Garden and more.

The following morning I took a train to Devizes to visit a friend I'd met travelling in Burma. She took me to Stonehenge (I'd never been, so missed the hundreds of years when it was freely open; it's now visitable but only from a distance). The winds blew cold and fierce, across Salisbury Plain and the shifting sky was dramatic and beautiful, so that Stonehenge held its own, even with polite little fencing around it. There were lovely sharp shadows, intensely green rounded hills, and the wind, always.

The market in Devizes, which is on Thursday mornings, was charming, nd loaded with the best of English and Scottish fresh food, from raspberries and strawberries (yes really) to quinces; and from Whitby crab to Shetland scallops. We bought lots of scallops, still with their beautiful orange roe, and cooked them lightly with a little olive oil and garlic for supper. Not shabby at all! But even with that caliber of competition, the winner in the memorable food competition in Devizes for me was the butcher's shop Walter Rose's. It's stunning, small, beautiful, and with an astonishing selection of meats. I bought a pork pie, a deceptively simple-looking pork pie. And I have to say that the taste and texture of it haunt me still. What word to use besides delicious? succulent? perfect?

Back in London on Saturday, I headed out early to Borough Market, almost a cliche destination for food tourists. I'd been warned that it would be crowded, but early on Saturday it was anything but. The website is great, by the way. I ate fresh oysters - bracingly chilled and briny - from Mersea Island (in Essex); bought some Extra virgin olive oil from Greece, and some olives; ate a pain au chocolat, and then another; and also bought a delicious slab of Comte, aged 22 months, to take to friends.

Fortified(!) by treats I walked to the Tate Modern to see the newly opened Gerhard Richter retrospective, just dazzling and amazing, especially for someone like me who hadn't been very clued in about his work before. Here's the link to info about the show It's on until early January. And of course there's lots else to marvel at at the Tate Modern, if you have the stamina.

In the next couple of days I got to another two exhibitions, one on Degas at the Royal Academy, info here; and the other at the V&A, a huge retrospective view of the movement in art and architecture, music and design, called Post-Modernism. It was so enlightening to realise a little more about where aesthetic and design elements arose that we now take for granted. Here's a link to info about the show.

As if all that weren't enough, I had fun with food people too. One, whom I'll call Mrs Lemur, has a wonderful blog called The Lemurs are Hungry, here. I'd stumbled on it awhile ago, and made a couple of comments, so then we agreed to meet while I was in London. Have a look at the blog, which gives recipes that Mrs Lemur makes, often Thai or other Asian, always clear and interesting. Good writing generally. I met Kay Plunkett-Hogge, who is deeply knowledgeable about Thailand, having been raised there, and writes and teaches, also based in London. Her blog and website are here, lively, opnionated, wide-ranging.

I had the pleasure of a making a foraging expedition with the wonderful Anissa Helou, whose book on Offal has just been re-published. We headed north to Baldwin's, a butcher in the far north of London, north of FInsbury Park somewhere, in a largely Turkish and Kurdish area. Before the shopping we had to fortify ourselves with lachmajun, hot and delish. The butcher was very sweet, and also had a fantastic array of lamb and sheep and sausage and more... We picked up the order Anissa had phoned in, which included testicles, heads, a whole young lamb, brains, tripe, and more. Anissa needed it all to prepare a feast the following day. She wrote about the tripe in her blog Anissa, which I think all food people should bookmark.

I know, you think I've said enough about all this food and art and stuff in London. I have just a few more: I was so happy to be able to spend time with Jake Tilson, whose book about fish and seafood and a lot more besides - In at the Deep End - is now out. The writing, recipes, design, typography, art, and photographs are his - a spectacular achievement. His website is here. His partner, the amazing Jennifer Lee, is a ceramic artist, and her website is here. It's a place to marvel at her work...

Finally, I am always happy to see Richard Jung and his family. I had supper with them on my last night in London, which was extra-welcome because it was Thanksgiving Day in Canada. No, we didn't have turkey, thank heavens (not my favorite food at any time). Richard made all the wonderful natural-light studio shots for Hot Sour Salty Sweet; HomeBaking; Mangoes and Curry Leaves (where his black and white location shots also featured); and Beyond the Great Wall. I'm hoping he's available to shoot for Rivers of Flavor, my new book, about Burma. Meantime you can admire his work here.

I've come to the end of this link-littered post. Thanks for your patience: I so much enjoyed the opening out that my trip to London gave me that I wanted to pass it on.

And now I'm back in Toronto and listening to pelting rain outside. I'm happy to be snug and warm, grateful for the comforts and familiarity of home.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


It’s chilly this evening, as we pass the halfway mark in October. Perhaps I’m feeling the chill a little more because I’m tired this evening. It’s been quite a day.

I woke early, at around five (because I’m still a little jetlagged), then drove out of the city headed north. Foodstock, an event designed to raise money and awareness to help stop the Mega-quarry that is being planned for a huge area of farmland north of Shelburne, in Ontario, took place today. There are many problems with the quarry, among them its scale and also the fact that the quarry is planned to be so deep that it will destroy the water table of an area that is the source of many rivers.

So this is serious. It’s a food issue, an agriculture issue, an environmental health issue. The land has been assembled on behalf of a large US company; those who sold were told the buyer was planning to farm. Now what?

Well some locals, chefs and food people and others, decided to fight the Mega-quarry, and to do that by holding a huge event. They sure succeeded. Latest estimates are that 28,000 people came out to “Foodstock”. It’s an unimaginable number, when you think that they travelled on country roads to get to muddy fields, where they parked, then walked miles in the harsh wind to a forest, where at last they found chefs stationed under trees serving all kinds of different foods, all freely available for the suggested entry fee of ten dollars. The generosity of the chefs and farmers and others is hard to comprehend. The chefs work to make a living, and so do the coffee and tea people and other purveyors who were there, and the farmers who donated produce. And all of them were donating their livelihood to the cause.


Now the next thing is to figure out how to stop the Mega-quarry once and for all. Definitively.

In the meantime the sight of people from near and far eating pulled pork in a freshly made tortilla; or Monforte goat cheese on an artisanal cracker from Evelyn’s Crackers, topped by saskatoon berry jam, or crabapple tkemali; or Hungarian goulash served in freshly boiled cabbage leaves; or black cod on rounds of daikon from Sakura; or buffalo prosciutto (a whole beautiful leg of it) from Buca; or the stunning rillettes from a place in Collingwood (sorry I forget the name, but dazzling, young people of the best kind); or “Ontario Salad” a mix of many ingredients, fresh and lively and local, one of my faves of the day; or chowder served in a carved out bun/roll; or fresh oysters shucked right there by guys with stamina to burn; or sunchoke soup; or warming pasta e fagioli; or Jamie Kennedy’s fries, made with potatoes grown on the farm we were on; and then lots and lots more; was just wonderful, because everyone was so pleased to be there.

In between the cooks there were musicians: singers, guitarists, drummers. It was like a medieval fair on steroids. We were in a hardwood forest, with the scent of fallen leaves perfuming the damp air, and you could see the colour and movement as the crowds walked along paths in the distance, peopling the landscape.

In the middle of all those people queueing for food and eating or serving it, there was Michael Schmidt of raw milk fame, looking a little gaunt in the face. Why? because he’s on the fifteenth day of a hunger strike (he’s on water and lemon juice only). He’s trying to get the government to shift its crazy and destructive stance on unpasteurised milk. Raw milk in Ontario is treated as toxic and dangerous (while processed meats routinely sicken people with no-one criminally charged). There does seem to be something wrong with this picture, no?

In any case, there was Michael, a non-eater surrounded by a horde of people enjoying the best the province has to offer.

Meantime in the City of Toronto the Wall Street protest continues to take shape; and today the Marathon happened, thousands more people not protesting, not out eating, but instead running their hearts out.

Maybe the whole city feels like I do tonight, a little windblown and weary! Time for a hot bath, or a nip of Scotch perhaps? I have bought a new-to-me single pot Irish whisky, 12 years old, called Redbreast. That’s what I’ll start with, followed by a bath.

And in the next few days I’ll write about what I’ve been doing in the more-than-two-weeks since I last wrote here. There are pork pies in the story, and offal, there are double-decker buses, as well as thoughts of change and evolution. At this falling-golden-leaves time of year there’s the exhilaration of colour and dramatic skies, and the pang that they signal the fact that cold weather and shorter days are upon us.