I haven’t been able to do as much in my garden as I would like this spring. It’s too cold and wet. The ground is cold for the plants and the wind is cold for me. So, to cheer myself up I went to the nursery.
This might sound like backwards behaviour but I felt better as soon as I got there. I could smell the fresh cut flowers. I chuckled at the whimsical garden statues (who wouldn’t love to have a smirking dragon lying in their grass?). It was drizzling as I headed to the tables of plants under tarps; not many souls except me and a few foul weather friends.
In the end I splurged on a few plants I needed to replace – lemon verbena, globe basil and an heirloom beefsteak tomato. They were ones that are hard to find and they should be happy in my greenhouse for the next week or so. Just for fun I decided to include a few geraniums that will be my salute to Canada’s sesquicentennial.
Here at Rabbit Hollow we live a simple life. We are fortunate enough to love what we do.We live in a beautiful place, surrounded by breathtaking views, a breadbasket bounty and caring neighbours. Every season has its own beauty here, and thankfully we have moments to enjoy each one. In winter and early spring, Sundays are often the days that contain those moments. Today was full of them.
I spent the afternoon in the garden today, cleaning up some of the fall fodder. I feel an especially gratifying sensation when spring comes and I see the garden come to life. New shoots, birds singing more gaily and increasingly sunny skies all contribute to the cheery ambience. Ella and I revel in the returning glow of longer days.
This time of year also means hubbie and I have more time to cook. Sunday dinner is an important event when we can make it happen. Tonight was a prime example, with steaks, roasted potato wedges and broccoli. The truffle oil and grated parmesan on the potatoes was as elegant as asset as the wine pairing we chose from the cellar.
Whenever my husband Martin and I go on holidays, we are excited to try new food experiences. The last few years in Jamaica we have been lazy and relegated our enthusiasm to within the walls of the resort. We did enjoy trying local fruits, and traditional dishes like curried goat, jerk chicken and gizzadas (coconut tarts), but this year I wanted to kick things up a notch and rub elbows with some local foodies. I did an online search and found Zimbali Retreat, a small property in the hills above Negril that offered a demo cooking class and tour of their organic farm garden. It seemed right up our alley! I was excited and invited a couple we know who are also foodies. They had shared our Vegas experiences so I figured they would like this taste of Jamaica. We had no idea just how much fun we were going to have…
We arrived at the gate after a bumpy ride up a narrow road that bordered sugar cane plantations and an old stone church. Martin was afraid we were going to have to carry the car or abandon it if the potholes got any bigger or the road got any narrower. The sugar cane stalks knocked along the side of the car as we drove through plantation land, and as we mounted the hill a local dog lying at the edge of the road didn’t even look up. It was only a half hour drive, but I felt as though I’d been transported to another place. A short walk down a palm-covered pathway revealed mahogany beams that covered a cozy kitchen and airy sitting room, all overlooking the farm below. I felt a bit like I was visiting the Swiss Family Robinson on their deserted island! We were served a refreshing sorrel ginger drink while we cooled off. Just as we finished our last sip our tour guide arrived.
Clifford, who has been at Zimbali since the beginning (9 years ago), led us over much of the 6 acre terrain, stopping every hundred steps or so to show us another plant, most of which provided some benefit for the kitchen. We saw banana and coconut trees, pineapple plants, Caribbean oranges and grapefruits, June plums, star fruit, lemongrass, annatto, turmeric and ginger roots, breadfruit, all kinds of pumpkins and zucchini squash, beans, and then the crowning glory – noni fruit. This fruit is highly regarded as having great healing powers; the juice is said to be a cure-all. The bees on the farm love it too, said Clifford. Noni bloosom honey is his favourite.
Clifford showed us the right way to crack open a coconut (hit the 3 corners of the outer shell), and he told us about using cinnamon leaves in cooking. We learned that the bark of the mahogany trees was used to make the rich reddish-brown dye still common in Caribbean textiles. He showed us the massive African tulip trees taking over wild sections of the jungle, and how the rain brings on mango season (in May), when the fruit is so plentiful it sits in piles by side of the roads! The gardener in me was trying valiantly to remember everything he said as I tasted and smelled and strained my neck to see in every direction, absorbing every detail.
On our return from the tour we met the owners of the resort, Alecia & Mark. Alecia grew up in these hills, and learned much from her grandfather about the land and its secrets. She is a Rastafarian and has been all her life. Mark grew up in a military family and his travels as a youth gave him a desire for understanding cultures and experiencing life on a more simple scale. Both of them are “living the dream”, existing almost off the grid with solar power and the harnessing of rain water, not to mention that the farm provides about 70% of their food. This is not just an agritourism resort, it is a lifestyle, and their passion and sense of inner peace is evident when you talk with them.
We returned to the lodge dripping in sweat from the humidity. It didn’t matter. A quick splash of water on my face and a few sips of water and I was ready to get to the kitchen. Zimbali’s two chefs, Raymond and Rudolph, were already hard at work of course, and their counter was almost overflowing with the bounty from the farm. We were truly spoiled as it was only us and our friends there that day. We saddled up to the bar to watch, learn and eat.
The first course was a breaded fritter that was juicy and delicate, green in colour. It was served with an escovitch, a Jamaican pickle made with onions & peppers in a chili vinegar brine. Raymond asked us to guess what kind of vegetable he had used on the fritter and we thought we had it – zucchini! Nope, he said, guess again. It was the person in the group who is least a foodie who nailed it – green tomatoes. Not as firm as our green tomatoes and not as tangy, rather velvety soft and slightly sweet in contrast to the pickle. The sorrel reduction that garnished the plate was the crowning glory, refreshing and tart.
The next course was a sort of cake, like a crab cake but made with vegetables again, said Rudolph. Again we were stumped – cassava? No. Yam? (They had real yams as well as sweet potato on the counter, two very different things, and both used often in a Jamaican kitchen. Sweet potatoes are orange, yams are white – more fibery, not as sweet.) No. They gave us a few hints and we finally figured out it was cauliflower. It tasted much richer than I imagined cauliflower ever could, and was served with a banana purée and a sort of tropical succotash of corn, peppers and tropical fruit. It was delectable.
We were able to choose our main course, and I picked jerk shrimp, while Martin chose escovitch fish. Our friends had curried shrimp. They were all intensely flavoured and beautifully tender, and were served with a quick coleslaw, veggies in a seasoned coconut milk and a green plantain and banana rosti (shredded and pan-fried in a patty). Everything was prepared as we watched, even the coconut milk – we saw the coconut opened, the meat cut out and then shredded in the food processor, and the milk squeezed through a strainer.
But wait, there was dessert too! I groaned under the weight of lunch, but my enthusiasm kicked in. How could I miss out on a slice of Raymond’s banana rum cake with caramelized melons & papaya? The cake had no eggs but was not heavy, rather silky with a hint of Jamaican spices (allspice, ginger, nutmeg). Raymond explained that he had long ago mastered baking without eggs, as he doesn’t eat them himself. His skill was evident in the finesse of the final product. It was the perfect end to a real gourmand afternoon.
We hugged the chefs to show our appreciation and thanked our hosts profusely for their hospitality, all wishing we could return to stay and soak up the relaxing vibe. (I think on my next visit I might like to stay and experience a massage, yoga class, and a Rasta Tour!)
We hardly noticed the bumps in the road on the way back, being lulled into a sense of total relaxation after our retreat visit. Rain drummed on the car windows as the scenery went by in a blur. By the time we returned to our resort I had my second wind and was happy to tell anyone who would listen (and a few who didn’t seem to care) about what fun we had. I felt I had sampled a true taste of the tropics along with a healthy dose of Jamaican hospitality and respect, and having enjoyed it I was proudly displaying my enthusiasm like it was a diploma of achievement.
You might think this week that I am espousing the idea of introducing yourself to the vegetables in the supermarket (“How do you do, Mr. Potato Head, my name is Kristin”). Well, I’m not far off that tactic. I am writing in support of the “food revolution” concept that has been brought to light by celebrity chefs Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver… just in time for the students to be back in school and learning, not to mention eating packaged lunches.
Alice Waters is a chef in Berkeley, California. She started The Edible Schoolyard project twenty years ago, and it is now thriving in communities across the U.S. Students not only eat the food from the garden they plant but they learn science lessons and social studies concepts through the garden as well.
Jamie Oliver has worked with schools in the UK and U.S. to try and improve the quality of school lunches and educate families on eating healthy and realistically on their budgets. He has founded The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation to encourage people to educate and inspire people about cooking and eating well.
Stephanie Alexander is a chef and cookbook author in Australia. In 2009 she wrote The Kitchen Garden Companion for families to learn how to grow and use edible crops in their everyday eating. Her food education program through The Kitchen Garden Foundation now works in over 800 schools across the country.
All these projects and others like them prove time and time again that kids can enjoy good wholesome food, and it’s not harder or more time-consuming to prepare. Families can maintain good food habits with food education and children learn better when they are well nourished. So why don’t we do more of it? It seems the focus is often not quite on the mark… Alice Waters had this to say when asked about some of the mainstream improvements being made in school system lunch programs:
“Although many school districts are trying to improve the food they offer, the results have been unsatisfying”, she said. “It’s useless to coat frozen chicken nuggets with whole-wheat bread crumbs and fill vending machines with diet soda.”
Education about food is something we all take for granted, and unfortunately this is a topic we are all starting to fail, not just in terms of children but for adults, too. I think Alice Waters’ frustration is very valid and deserves attention even here in Canada, as we have much the same situation. I know not everyone can enjoy their own garden, or maybe not even get to the farmer’s market, but does that mean they shouldn’t see local food? And when I say local food, I don’t mean KFC from the local outlet (tongue firmly planted in cheek here – no offense to KFC).
Our world has changed from when my parents were kids, and certainly from the day of my grandfather’s stories – most food is bought in large chain stores now, and most things are available year-round. Many foods that people buy now have a list of ingredients as they are already in some degree prepared. I think to some degree we have lost sight of the importance in knowing our food, or at least what is in it. Did you know that some form of refined sugar is in most processed foods, even savoury ones like spaghetti sauce and soups? I am not saying sugar is the source of all evil, but since we are eating more if we are eating what is in those cans, we need to remember that when we eat the rest of our food. Personally, I like my sugar in dessert and I like herbs in my spaghetti sauce. (I know that a spoonful of sugar with tomatoes is a good cook’s secret, but that is one spoonful per recipe, not per serving.)
The technology we have today does offer us advantages. We can preserve things in tetra boxes or packaging with preservatives. Machines in factories make prepared meals cheaper so busy families can eat on the fly. Maybe in the not-too-distant future they will think of ways to make spaghetti sauce grown on the vine, and they will feed tuna mayonnaise so lunches could be even easier to make – maybe they could even slice it and freeze it with bread on either side so that your tunafish sandwich was ready to go!
Do I sound ridiculous? Well, I am sure if I asked my grandfather how he felt about the packaged products we eat continuously, he would think the current state of affairs was ridiculous too. A large portion of our population is overweight and unhealthy because of the food they eat – or perhaps I should say because of the food they don’t eat. We can fix the situation, but it does take all of us to do it. Kids should know that putting fresh fruit on their yogurt is healthier than eating flavoured yogurt. They should understand that a 12 ounce can of soda usually has the equivalent of 12 teaspoons of sugar in it (the recommended daily limit). They should know that food comes from farms and gardens, not supermarkets and factories. We should all get to know our food, and that does mean re-introducing ourselves to the ingredients (the ones we can actually pronounce in the packages).
So, take your kids grocery shopping and engage them in the process. If you don’t have kids, do the work yourself. Step out of your usual routine and try a new meal, or try to cook from scratch one day a week – make it a group project! Encourage children to eat raw fruit and veggies for snacks instead of prepared fruit leather or granola bars. Let them taste ingredients as you cook; get them excited about food. And if you have a garden at your school, ask about it. If it’s not being used, how could you start using it? Maybe next year it could have some new shoots!