Thursday, March 31, 2011

Meat and two veg!

I’m a vegetarian, at heart.

Ah, but there’s my problem. I mention ‘heart’ and immediately begin salivating about a lovely stuffed and roasted lamb’s heart: plump and juicy with a mouth-watering raisin, breadcrumb and herb filling, mmm.

I’m not so sure my wife was impressed when I presented it to her as a Valentine’s Day meal – a heart on a plate. Was that stating my undying love a little too literally?

But I applaud those who live the vegetarian lifestyle. In fact, for a good decade I was one. The trouble was meat always tempted me. That old adage about bacon sandwiches being the vegetarian’s downfall is a particularly accurate one.

The day came when I couldn’t hold out any longer. I was holidaying in France, which is perhaps the least vegetarian nation on earth. Menu choices read something like, ‘roasted meat, fried meat, grilled meat, meat of the day, or a green salad if you are a sissy!’ I ordered duck confit and devoured the succulent shreds with relish (that’s enjoyment, not chow chow) while riverlets of shiny fat ran through my beard.

So ended my life a la vegetarian. But I still had to reconcile one of my main beefs (if you’ll pardon the pun) about meat eating. The waste: that vast proportion of an animal that is discarded while we nibble on the prime cuts. If I were to eat meat regularly then I was going to eat all of it. Roasts, steak, trotter, ear, cheek and fetlock and that’s not even getting to what would soon become my favourite parts, the innards.

My descent into the gluttonous heaven, or hell, of eating what us Brits call ‘offal’ started innocently enough with a bet and couple of fries. The bet, made by my pal Lancton, was that we couldn’t eat fries.

But these weren’t the crispy golden slivers of deep fried potato that you’re thinking of. Oh Nooo! ‘Fries’ is the polite moniker given to the certain part, or parts, of a male yearling sheep’s anatomy that hang between its legs.

Bolstered by the knowledge that fries are a delicacy in the Middle East (or so the butcher told us, funny smile he had on his face at the time, though) and a healthy swig of Dutch courage (read vodka) Lancton and I set about the fries – testicles, if you will. First, we skinned each one (cue pursed lips and crossing of legs by male readers), then marinated, sliced and finally fried them. There were jokes made; about them not needing salt… Male bravado, to disguise our trepidation at what was to come.

When the time came we both drained the last of the vodka, cut into our sliced testicles and bit down hard… We needn’t have. The meat was tender, not unlike a scallop, and mildly flavoured, like the sweetest liver you’ve ever eaten. “I’ll be damned!” exclaimed Lancton. “Sheep bollocks taste great.”

And so began my journey down the least trodden path of carnivorous delights.

Now, while eating innards is not de rigueur in Haliburton, I have had the pleasure of trying local game in the form of moose, venison and duck since moving here. You see, to me, wild meat has something about it that the reared product lacks. That taste of danger, that whiff of “Whoa, that thing could have torn us apart with one swipe of its antlers”, that lingering shout of, “Feck, you nearly blew my head off!”

And so, I looked forward with eager anticipation to the HHOA Game Dinner: the chance to taste almost every animal that walks or swims through my garden, apart from the neighbour’s German Sheppard, that is. Unfortunately, fate was not on my side and so I have yet to sample the delights of beaver.

And, while I ponder wild meaty delights, I might hesitate at chowing down on a pair of bear’s balls. I’m not sure I know of anyone with a pair big enough to go out and get me some anyway!     

Friday, March 25, 2011

Food for thought

I’d give yourself an extra half hour when going to the grocery store in future, if I were you.

Not because of the slippery roads, nor the upcoming summertime tourist trade. No, you’ll spot the culprit holding up the check-out line. They’ll fidget and fuss, ruddy faced and blowing slightly as hubby stacks groceries on the conveyor while the wife frantically tries to make sure that every item they load has its corresponding coupon. Yep, I’d give yourself a while longer at the grocery store because of the coupon-crazy-couple!

The trouble is you can’t blame them. The price of food is rising faster than the water level in my backyard from all this snow melt. Cutting out the coupons will soon be de rigueur as we all feel the pinch.

I forecast a corresponding run on scissors soon, so get your pair quick before they put the price up on them!
But seriously, I’m not talking luxury food items. I’m not down at Foodland hassling the deli counter for foie gras, nor salivating over their lobster tank (lobsters that are very reasonably priced, I must add). No, it’s the bread, milk, butter, cheese and veggies that are costing more.

And, still aghast from my recent trip to the veggy aisle: Celery now costs more than that king of vegetables, asparagus. What? Celery’s nothing more than water in a stick! Turnips are almost as expensive as pork. Funny that, seeing as how the only thing they’re good for is feeding pigs. And leeks! $3.99 for two, come on. Since when have they been gastronomic gold? There’s more leaf than bulb and by the time you’ve cooked them you may as well have used onions anyway.

It’ll soon be cheaper to go eat at Tim’s every mealtime. Oh, but hold on. Mr Horton has recently announced that he’ll be putting up the price of our favourite brew because the cost of coffee has escalated. Forget rolling up the rim, it’s more of a suck it up and fork out more! 

Someone has to be to blame. The Harper Government, I say. Note I use the Conservatives’ preferred method of referring to the Government of Canada. I figure if they want us to use it, we do, especially when they make a mess of stuff.

Trouble is, other than promoting rampant capitalism, Messrs Harper and Co’s only real mistake is supporting the Peoples’ Revolutions now sweeping oil rich countries in the Middle East. So, what say we stamp out the uprisings, bring back the dictators, round up the oppressed masses and squeeze really hard until oil comes out again? Hmm, great for the price of a loaf of bread, not so for democracy: nor the life of the average Libyan.

You see, oil is the culprit. Even when economists spout on about the escalating cost of wheat and other commodities, it’s always the oil required to process and transport them that’s the real killer. Even taking into account the tribulations of Gaddafi and Mubarak, though, the reality is that oil is running out. We need alternative energy sources to bring down the levitating lettuce prices and the wallet busting cost of waffles.

Aha, so Stephen and his chums are to blame, at least in part.

With or without government help, what we have to do is change the way that we source our food. Extravagances such as flying lettuce from California, apples from Egypt, Lamb from New Zealand, will have to stop. What once seemed the easiest option is now costing us as a nation. We need to grow our own. Roll up our sleeves and get down and dirty in the veggy patch.

Now, I know we can’t grow bread and milk on trees. I know we can’t cultivate cans of tuna or meatballs. But we can grow some of our own food, locally. And, if the Harper Government gets its head out of its backside, ceases these futile attempts at rebranding and does some real work… Well, it might just help instigate another revolution: one where Canadians help themselves by helping each other and becoming a little less reliant on imported goods from far away places.

“Sustainable Canada: 20% off the price of life”. I’d clip that coupon any day!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

So this is spring, Ontario

Driving the flat lands, the roads south of Lake Simcoe, the colours are flatter still. Washed out and insipid, weary and worn, the landscape stretches out before me.

I speed along poker straight roads, smudged in white and trimmed with a grey brown crust. The wind buffets the car seeking entry into my manufactured cocoon, a chink in my armour, access to my warmth, a way to reinforce the view before me and remind my senses of the bleakness that flashes by.

The bleakness of a land scoured. A panorama wrung dry of life. Picked clean of last year’s lustrous summer, divest of that autumnal treasure trove of reds and gold. Stripped even of the pristine white that is a Canadian winter.

So this is spring, Ontario.

Back in my homeland the summer is bright and warm, mostly. Autumn, winter and spring… they merge and morph from one to the next, a blur of blustery and windswept, damp and downright wet, chilly and brrrr cold. The snow falls but as quickly it is gone, the only real constant is the grey overhead. Sometimes leaden, sometimes plumped by stratocumulus, always a differing shade of monotone, pierced only briefly by watery shards of gold.

Back in England the grass at my feet keeps its green in winter. There’ll be no need to fire up the mower nor rouse the gardener but verdant blades still stretch skywards, drinking in what they can from the weak winter light. The shrubs, too, they hold a modicum of colour, a reminder of their summer pomp. And the trees… even the trees stripped bare of their leafy mantle retain a warmth, a colour in their branches boughs and bark that hints at the life hidden deep within.

But Canada. Your winter takes a heavier toll. Your snow carpeted then blanketed; an impenetrable shroud that descended silently and smothered the land. What beauty it brought. What a glistening immaculate cleansing. But in its wake, once liquefied and trickled back into that land, the snow leaves a barren scene.

So this is spring, Ontario.

Pressed hard into the earth, stripped of green, the grass lies withered. In the flat lands, field upon field, all look to me, dead. The conifers hang on to their sharpened leaves but not their healthy glow, the cold having stripped any thought of growth months ago. Maples, birch, basswood and alder, all stand naked and grey. Cold grey. Bent and bare, branches torn off by the weight of winter white. Beleaguered and embittered by the icy chill they stand waiting like deathly sentries for a changing of the guard.

As I drive nearer to home I see rocky outcrops dressed in static white waterfalls. Icicles drip where water is forced from the very granite shield on which life grips tenuously in this land in between. Like beautiful wounds, these fissures in rock leech the life source into salt spattered gullies.

Life looks bleak at the onset of an Ontario spring. But, in its deathly silence, in its bleached pallor there’s a beauty so subtle that those who don’t look and souls now immune will all but miss it. Look again at your harsh land, take stock of its bleak demeanour and marvel at these scenes that artists fail to paint. Look hard and remember what life will soon spring from this place so bitter, so unforgiving.

Smile Haliburton at your clouds of frigid breath, salt encrusted cars and slowly melting mountains of driveway grey. Take stock of the big land around you and learn again to enjoy nature’s palette of black, bone and grey.

For this is spring, Ontario.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A load of sour milk

Cheese. It’s one of my vices, along with a nice drop of single malt and fly fishing. The latter duo can quite easily be enjoyed together, I find, especially when standing in an ice cold stream on a crisp spring morning. To bring cheese into the mix, too, would be wrong, though. Wrong on numerous counts, the most prominent of which my lack of a third hand and fear of dropping any one of my triad of vices into the frigid waters.

But I don’t mention cheese as a prelude to rambling yarns of whisky soaked fishing adventures: no, I’ll save those for another time. Actually, I don’t merely mention cheese at all. “CHEESE!” I cry with a hoarse yelp that causes my voice to break and reveals my panic. The reason: cheese is so astronomically expensive here in Canada.

When I initially toyed with the idea of immigrating to Canada I weighed up the pros and cons. The low cost of petrol, sorry gas; the wonderful homes I could trade in my tiny London apartment for; the life amongst nature; the friendly people… OK, I got hung up on the pros. I just didn’t see any cons. But that is exactly what Canadian cheese is, a huge con!

Back in London, in a grocery store of the same size and type as your Independent or Foodland, I could buy a block of cheddar for quite literally half the price of a slab of Cracker Barrel. And get this; it was Canadian cheddar. Yep, emblazoned across the wax paper packaging of a piece of cheese the size of a house brick were the words ‘Canadian Extra Strong Cheddar, produce of Canada’.

Oh how I salivated at the thought. How I imagined the vast tongue-tingling mountain of cheddar awaiting me. It all made sense. If Canadian cheese was £3.00 ($4.50 to you folks) in England it must be virtually free in the Promised Land!

My mind was made up there and then in the grocers: “we’re moving to Canada,” I exclaimed to no one in particular. An old lady pushing a trolley, sorry shopping cart, looked at me quizzically. I smiled and wiped the drool from my beard.

Now, I’m no cheese snob. I don’t yearn for mouldy stilton, so blue it could run for Stephen Harper’s job; nor a nose withering fisherman’s sock of an epoisses - I’ll leave that one to the French. That’s not to say I’m a Kraft slice man either: god forbid. And the stuff that comes out of cans! It should be confiscated and burned, for I think it a worse evil than the hard drugs that the authorities dispose of in such a way. No, all I want is a good strong hunk of cheddar. Make that two hunks, enjoyed with a thick slice of homemade bread. 

And so, you can picture my horror, feel my pain, at the moment reality hit home. When, after turning into the refrigerated goods aisle – cheddar flavoured butterflies fluttering in my stomach; my trolley, sorry cart, a yawning empty vessel just waiting to be stacked high with that extra strong yellow gold - I drew up alongside the cheese display…

Where once my use of the word ‘gold’ may have been seen as a Freudian slip, now it is a down hearted, even maudlin (blame that on the Scotch) statement of fact. Why? Because here in my adopted home cheese costs more than freakin’ gold!

While here in Canada a bottle of good whisky – not the crap you folk mix Coke – is on par with prices back in Blighty. While fly fishing gear is considerably cheaper and access to water in which to use it isn’t controlled by some jodhpur-wearing, plumy voiced aristocrat. Cheese, that soured milk staple, has been priced out of reach of the common man; and me!

And so, as I take a break from casting my nymph, from seeking out that elusive trout, I’ll take a dram to warm my cockles. I’ll pluck a hunk of crusty bread from my pack and I’ll ponder my life here in Canada. A life so full of wonder but a life blighted by the price of cheese.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Take your marks. Set. Shuffle!

The Ontario Senior Games, an Olympics for oldies: get serious. A bunch of senior citizens tottering about on skates, HA HA HA. Over 60s playing ice hockey! Oh don’t, you’ll make me laugh so hard I’ll pee myself.

I was game for a laugh. I was at the front of the queue for tickets. Oh, hold on, there were no tickets. All events were free to watch. I suppose they had to be when the youngest competitor was 55! Gee Ontario, you really know how to put on a sporting spectacle (that’s event, not reading glasses).

London on the other hand - capital of my homeland, shining beacon amongst world cities – is hosting the real Olympics next year. You know, the one with real athletes, elite sports folk, the cream of the crop. Olympians who execute their chosen sport at a level that us mere mortals can only dream about.

I like many others am in awe of these athletes and, if I weren’t living in Canada, I’d be elbowing my way to the front of the queue for tickets to the Olympic Games 2012.

Hmm, tickets that I have to register for now, a year and a half in advance, without knowing exactly how many I can buy, or just how expensive they’ll be. Tickets, which once I’m registered I’ll have no say in the row or seat allotted to me. Tickets that I have to pay for even if I change my mind tomorrow… Free to watch, touché Haliburton you got me there.

Oh yes but I’ll be ensconced in one of the wonderful new stadiums constructed especially for the London Olympics… on land grabbed from small businesses under compulsory purchase orders and built at vast expense to British tax payers. Haliburton didn’t even build a new bus shelter. Didn’t cost you folk anything either though, did it.

But the 2012 Olympics will leave an amazing legacy to youth: Permanent state-of-the-art stadiums and training grounds for the elite athletes of the future, so the London Mayor tells us. Have you seen the London Mayor! I’m starting to doubt my hubris, here.

Ontario, Haliburton, your Senior Games have now been and gone, quite literally. There’s not a shred of physical evidence that they were even here but a few short days ago. I saw them though, as did many other local folks, and that’s what counts. I saw the Alpine Skiing. I saw the above mentioned old fogeys fling themselves down the slopes, ski suits and skin flaps fluttering in the wind, at speeds that would frighten many a skidooer. I can’t ski. I was suitably impressed.    

I’ve met the legendary gravel voiced Mr Ted Vasey a time or two in the village and I watched him and his fellow ‘Over 55s’ battle it out in the hockey arena against their provincial rivals. There was no smirk left on my face after witnessing the speed of skating feet and crunching blows of tackles in that game. I can safely say I’m in awe of these hockey playing seniors now. And, if Ted growls next time we meet you won’t see me for dust.

And so the tale goes on. I can’t play volleyball. I’m terrible at badminton. Nordic skiing is a beautiful and strenuous art that one day I hope to be mildly proficient at. Bridge, nope, can’t play that either, although physically I may stand a chance against some of the players!

While London will glow in the world spotlight for a few weeks next year, the political and financial turmoil that the Olympic Games will wreak; the transport headaches, hotel price hikes, right royal rip-offs that will be endured; and, the potential multi-million pound white elephants (velodromes, equestrian arenas, gymnastic halls, handball stadiums) that the country will be left with will leave Brits asking was it all really worth it?

Haliburton, on the other hand basks in the glory of a neat, trim, well run Senior Games, done and dusted with everyone still smiling. Good on you all, I say.

But, watch out predictive skaters. I have 15 years to master skating and learn to tell the time. Then, I’ll be vying for a medal!