Tag Archives: ottawa

Restos + shops: double the foodie goodness

3 Jun

An article in the Globe and Mail beat me to this blog post: they wrote about the opening of Murray’s Market, three blocks from my house. Murray’s Market is a specialty food store, and sibling to the restaurant Murray’s Bistro.

It’s been said that Ottawa is a dull, uninspiring city, lacking heart (or culture, or beauty, or fun, depending on who you ask). Ottawa gets a really bad rap, for food and, well, for lots of things. Heck, on Monday, the area right by Murray’s Market was called tawdry.

Here’s what I think. While there is an element of truth in the stereotype, Ottawa is mostly just difficult to get to know: it’s like that shy girl at a party who looks kind of weird but turns out to become a good friend.

When it comes to food and bevvies, Ottawa is heating up: we have a few interesting chefs doing some really innovative work, and we have spawned our own local coffee chain, but I find we are still lacking great independent, simple lunch spots. I have written here previously of my love of the sandwich; things are improving in Ottawa in this department, too (with Ottawa magazine even featuring a sandwich smackdown) but it’s like sticking one sandbag in the Montérégie right now: it’s just not going to cut it. Ottawa is geographically … I believe the scientific term is …. massive, and we could gobble up lunch spots like there’s no tomorrow.

So that’s why, when I walked into Murray’s Market, I was thrilled. They sell cheese, and lots of meaty sandwiches, natch, but also boxed salads, home-made grilled cheese, muffins, cookies and local produce. Smart move!

One thing I especially love is their hand-painted wall map, illustrating with string and nails where their food comes from:

What a great idea, and what a creative way to represent this!

While I think Murray’s is  pretty cool, a quote from the Globe (“And from a retail perspective, you get that up-sell of people who are sitting in your restaurant or your bistro, going ‘Oh my God, lobster oil. Where in the world do I get that?’ ”) made me a little erm, vomitous (maybe it was the use of the term up-sell? Are my reluctant-capitalist roots showing?)

For a bit more background, the Globe mentions that “food trend forecaster Andrew Freeman is predicting the mixed business model will become one of the top 10 restaurant trends for 2011.” Examples include EatalyToronto’s Lakeview Storehouse, and Edible Canada (which expanded the other way, but to the same general end).

I appreciate the efforts of many retailers and restaurants to support local foods (I know one of the farmers who supplies for Murray’s Market, in fact), and I am so all over Murray’s Market (like a fruit fly to a glass of wine!) I was thinking a bit, though, (always dangerous) about this up-sell phenomenon. I recently finished reading The Authenticity Hoax, by Andrew Potter, and had local and organic food trends in mind when visiting the Market. Potter’s book, which is all about our quest for the “authentic” experience and the “authentic” life, contends that regardless of the science, many people prefer organic because of “framing effects,” meaning the fact that we know we are eating organic frames the experience in a way that makes it more satisfying for us.

Potter also contends that “the environmental benefits of local farming are actually highly overstated. […] In the end, moving locally grown produce around in small bundles […] is far more wasteful than putting thousands of tons of bananas on a container ship.”

Potter’s whole premise is that we are looking for sources of distinction in our lifestyle choices; moving the food discourse from organic to local was a way of “ratcheting up the stakes” for society: a kind of culinary one-upmanship in which “the shame of actually buying stuff on the open market” will eventually, in extreme cases, be “left for the lesser folks.” In case you think he’s exaggerating, think about the 100-mile diet craze, The Compact, or No Impact Man.

[Incidentally, I once did a display at work called “The 100-mile (book) diet,” which didn’t get too much attention; I guess reading locally just isn’t as cool as eating locally. Locally-sourced Canlit just doesn’t have quite the same cachet as locally-sourced carrots? Or it just doesn’t make us feel as virtuous?]

A recent article on the Sojourners Magazine blog addressed organic and local food as well, Author Joennifer Kottler announced she was planning to make some changes to her grocery store trips, including buying food close to its source and as close to its natural state as possible. She mentions friends who have purchased shares in Community Supported Agriculture, again, arguing as people do about similar programs in Canada, that this helps keep “fresh food more affordable.” Kottler does acknowledge that these options are not always available: “Please know I am very aware that the ability to make these choices is a privilege I have. And know at the same time that I am advocating for policies that will permit more of us to do the same — particularly folks who live in communities where food choices, especially fresh food choices, are severely limited.”

So, where am I going here? Murray’s is a great place, and I’m so glad it’s in my neighbourhood, offering more choice and variety to consumers, and supported by knowledgable, creative staff. I’m happy to have the privilege of choice.

Really, what I want to ask is, how do you feel about some of the larger issues at play here? What do you think about the organic and local food movements? Do you buy organic or local for all or certain products, and why or why not? What do you think about restaurants opening foodie shops?

Olive oil Analysis See also Fraud Case studies

26 Jul

(that title was a librarian in-joke, btw)

What do you look for when choosing a wine? Normally, you look for a region or a country, a particular name, and/or a type of grape. You would also consider the context: is this going to be a cooking wine, an “evening in front of the TV” wine, or a bottle to bring to a dinner party?

Now, what do you look for when choosing olive oil? That’s right, olive oil, the old staple for cooking, dipping bread, or drizzling on salads or pasta (or, if you are like my friend’s mum, rubbing on your hands before bedtime).

…..?

I thought so.

I confess I too was woefully ignorant of the intricacies of olive oil production until recently. In fact, someone discouraged me from writing this post, exclaiming, “But they’ll think you’re stupid!” Be that as it may – as a Digestive Librarians’ Digest blogger, I have a responsibility, nay, a duty, to make sure you are all fully aware of the complexities of olive oil, and of the olive oil industry.

You see, I missed the 2007 New Yorker article that “exposed the underbelly of the global olive oil industry” (thanks to Lora for sending it along after I brought this subject up with her for a blog piece). Apparently, there is widespread fraud involving misleadingly-labelled olive oil: the problem, which is ongoing, involves both misleading origin labels (olive oil labelled Italian when it is not) and misleading product labels (olive oil that is half hazelnut, sunflower, or other oils, or even pressed olive waste).

Ew! If you, like me, are now wondering who is catching up with these olive oil scam fiends, you can check in with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, who, according to the Globe and Mail (more on that article later), have caught “several companies importing oil labelled as extra virgin olive oil that was, in fact, blended with 50 per cent sunflower oil.” Observes the New Yorker, the E. U.’s anti-fraud office has set up an olive-oil task force, no less (“Profits were comparable to cocaine trafficking, with none of the risks”).

I was shaken out of my own ignorance on a recent visit to Grace in the kitchen, a lovely Ottawa store selling everything from dinnerware to espresso makers to soup mix and organic potato chips (you know I spent longest in that last area, don’t you?) They sometimes set up sampling stations for a new product, and a lineup of olive oils and tasty baguette was hard to resist. I casually sampled a bit, and promptly exclaimed, “Wow!” This was no ho-hum oil. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, heavenly. I quickly called over the husband to bear witness. The cashier mentioned that if I liked it, I should tell the guy who makes it, waving his arm at a young man lurking among the Art-is-in bread.

Turns out he was a member of the Fazari family, makers of the olive oil, rated No. 1 for value in Eyewitness Companions Olive Oil. The Fazaris were recently written up in the Globe and Mail, and their representative in Grace in the kitchen (I am so very sorry I now forget his name) patiently and engagingly described the olive oil scams to us, and the process of making real olive oil, without once seeming to talk down to us.

I learned that oil should say “made in Italy,” not “product of Italy;” the latter may mean that the oil comes from elsewhere and is only blended in the country. I learned that different olives taste differently, so you should be aware of what cultivar (variety) is being used (that seems so obvious when you say it, but I wasn’t checking it!)

We were thoroughly scandalised to discover that the oil we regularly buy is a “product of Italy” blend of who knows what; my husband asked about a local well-known Italian grocery chain as a result, wondering if we just shopped there we could steer clear of trouble. Our olive oil guide actually told us that even they carry many blended oils not made in Italy, although he did qualify that by saying they do carry some excellent olive oils. Apparently, the old “shop the perimeter of the grocery store, not the centre aisles” applies here as well: what our Italian grocer puts up at the front in the “fancy pants” section is the good stuff; what he stocks en masse at lower prices in the aisles is crap.

So as not to end on a yucky note,  and as a final treat, here is some eye candy:

Olearia San Giorgio olive oil

Olearia San Giorgio olive oil: lovely clear yellow colour

And as a reminder, here is what the Globe article mentioned to pay attention to when choosing olive oil:

  • Family’s name
  • Country of origin (“made in!”)
  • Cultivars (varieties) used
  • The address of the estate and production (these should be close together; says the Globe, “the sooner a picked olive is milled the better”)
  • Importer’s information
  • Best-before date
  • Lot number; country-of-origin, region-of-origin classification
  • Amount of monounsaturated fat (should be about 75% of total fat content)

Gourmet mac & cheese

12 Jul

When I was a little girl, Sunday lunch was a fend-for-yourselves kind of affair. After a long morning in church, my father would tear off his clericals, and he and I often sat down to a microwaved bowl of frozen mac & cheese. I know, the horrors. To this day, I occasionally cave and nuke myself one, in part for the memory, and in part because it genuinely isn’t half bad (I have it with a glass of wine now. So sue me). Luckily, my palate has also become more refined in the intervening years, and so I have expanded my cheese repertoire. I could probably live on cheese and nuts, to tell you the truth.

As with any new city, the way to get to know Ottawa is to ask around for hot tips. Or, in the digital age, subscribe to a bunch of local blogs. Thus it was via Girl About O-Town that I first read about Serious Cheese (do check out their site for tips on buying, serving and storing cheese). Ha! I thought… I am very serious about cheese! Count me in!

And so exploring I went, to meet the giant blue Beemster cow (yes, apparently everyone has to pet it; it’s instinctual) and survey the wonders of cheese (over 150 kinds!), cheese accessories (from fondue to cheese cutters to crackers and compotes) and freshly baked bread from the True Loaf Bread Co. in the Glebe.

They also serve their Serious Mac & Cheese (with bacon or plain), grilled sandwiches, and daily soup (they also make a mean coffee).

Fancy-ing up comfort food seems to be a whole “thing” these days, and this Serious Mac & Cheese is notable in this genre for its exceptional mastery of tastes and texture. Smooth, even, complicated, not excessively stringy, with a hint of spices, the Serious Mac & Cheese is a work of art. The first time I had it (with bacon, since that was all that was left that afternoon, and I don’t even especially like bacon), I very nearly wept. As described on the website, Serious Mac & Cheese is “made with an imported Elicoidali Pasta,” and is a blend of “Perron Cheddar (Quebec) and a Thunderoak Gouda (Ontario)” with “a touch of delicate spices.” Mmmmmm….

One cannot do justice to mac & cheese with a photograph, but I made a valiant effort nonetheless. Behold the wonder (and get more cheese porn from the bottom of this page):

The perfect scone

12 Jul

I have to begin this inaugural post with a disclaimer. I don’t even really like scones. Prior to being bewitched, I had only eaten one scone worth blogging about, at the garden restaurant of the Ritz Paris. It was divine, but so was the cream, and the jam, and the garden, and the whole sensory experience is, in retrospect, hard to properly untangle.

Then I moved to Ottawa from Montreal a few years ago. The thing about Ottawa is, it’s much nicer than it used to be, and much more cool than people think it is. Ottawa is that slightly stand-offish girl at a party, who looks deadly bored and is dressed in an ill-fitting suit, but who opens up and tells you about her t-shirt design business and her weekend job as a DJ when you take the time to talk to her.

What? Scones, you say? OK, ok.

So one of the first places I discovered in Ottawa was the Scone Witch. At the time, she had two locations, one in a lovely old home at Albert and Lyon (in the heart of Ottawa’s “business” area downtown) and one on Crichton in New Edinburgh (essentially a doorway and a counter-top).

Heather Matthews is indeed a witch; there is simply no other moniker for a woman who can do such marvelous things to a scone. Not to mention the play-on-words of the name of the establishment: Heather may be the witch, but among the other white magic she performs, she also makes her scones into sandwiches (or, of course, sconewitches).

The scones in question are both light and crunchy, with the perfect mix of flavours (she makes sweet ones: vanilla cream, lemon-poppyseed, orange-cranberry; and savoury ones: cheddar, herb and onion). They are never, ever dry. You can eat them on their own, and they are an adventure, or you can opt for the more traditional accompaniment of Devon cream and/or jam.

Behold my favourite, a cheddar sconewitch with tuna and black olive paste.

In addition to your regular scones (individually priced, or by the half-dozen or dozen; also available frozen or day-old) and your sconewitches, you can also get a lovely breakfast (eggs and veggies with a scone, and a tiny salad and fruit garnish), or a mealwitch. Oh, and of course you can get infinite varities of tea, strong coffee, and cool drinks (I love her even more for stocking Bottle Green drinks – why is Elderflower so hard to find in North America?)

The Scone Witch has made some changes in the (few) years since I have been in Ottawa, also: she closed down the Crichton St. closet, and opened a much larger (thank God!) location in the heart of Beechwood Village here in Ottawa, a location with lovely big windows looking right out to Beechwood (and in the same building as Books on Beechwood), featuring the same simple pale wood furnishings as the Kent and Lyon location. She also sells lovely cards, tea cosies, and assorted other crafty items, especially in the larger Beechwood Village location.

For many years, my place of employment (and some of the librarians I consort with) have used Scone Witch’s catering services for events. Nothing takes the edge off another professional meeting like a Scone Witch scone. In fact, recently, a colleague tried to entice me to an event with the promise of lunch-time catering from Scone Witch. It almost worked (perhaps thankfully, it does take more than a scone to buy me).

We almost had a Witch – Librarian schism looming, as the site for our new Central Library was intended to be the city block on which Scone Witch’s original location (Albert and Lyon) now sits. Alas, plans for this site fell through, thereby meaning librarians had to both breathe a sigh of relief and feel disappointed at the same time.

So I suppose you are wondering, did I have any scones when I was recently in England? No! Why would I bother? The perfect scone is just a hop, skip and a jump away for me! Hooray!

Scone Witch publicity:

“Scone Witch: Ensorcelant” par Christine Moisan (sur Voir.ca)

“Sweet and savoury sorcery” by Shawna Wagman (from Ottawa XPress)