Friday, January 2, 2015

Sourcing your food sensibly: From Our Gate to Your Plate

For the past several months I’ve been giving pretty short shrift to one of the important facets of this little blog of mine: knowing how and where the food you’re putting in your body is grown – and who is doing it. If you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know how I feel about this, but suffice it to say that I am more than willing to make the effort to do this.

The way we now shop was driven home very viscerally over the holiday while staying with my mother-in-law and doing a lot of cooking. (We even brought our vacuum sealer!) Basically, since my MIL is getting up in years and has never really liked to cook, whenever we visit, I have been making her complete frozen meals and then vacuum sealing them so they keep extra long.

Or this?
Of course I had to do a lot of shopping in order to make what turned out to be 53 meals. There are no farmers markets in the area at that time of year, so off I went to the local Shop Rite. Since we hardly use supermarkets anymore for things other than toilet paper and the like, I was not prepared for what awaited me. Most of the fruit and vegetables were not all that terrific but I picked as judiciously as I could. It’s difficult since a lot of the offerings were prepackaged. I understand the economics of that, but buying a package and then having to pick through things carefully to make sure it’s all good is irritating to say the least.

The meat I bought was an even worse experience. I bought two pork tenderloins and a pork loin. All three were packaged by the meat packer, Hormel, one of the biggest in the US. All three pieces were covered in some kind of very thick slime which I think was applied to keep the meat smelling fresher after some days. At least that’s what I hope was the reason. Either way it was difficult to wash off and felt disgustingly greasy. At the bottom of a styrofoam try holding chicken parts, there was an absorbent pad. Now, what I bought (boneless, skinless chicken thighs) do not leak a lot, but the pad was saturated and weighed 3 ounces. Great, I paid for 3 ounces of wetness. The worst part was the chicken and pork had very little taste. Sure, I paid a cheap price, but that shouldn’t be the biggest concern when you’re nourishing yourself and your family.

Two days after returning, I had a completely different experience. We spent New Year’s with some dear friends, but before getting there we visited a very special farm: Our Plate to Your Gate (click on the name to visit their website). The enthusiastic farmer, Andy Sproston, raises heritage breeds in the most natural way possible. No feed lot herds, no concrete-floored pig barns or crowded sheep pens. His beef from Galloway cattle are completely grass-fed the way beef is supposed to be raised. His hogs (Tamworth, Large Black, and Hampshire), during the good weather, live in the woodlot at the back of his property. Chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, pheasants, and turkeys roam the farmyard. The Romney sheep spend their days out in a pasture.

We’ve visited — and purchased — here before and each thing we’ve brought home has been fantastic. Generally, what he has on offer is frozen, and I will say that someone coming directly from a place like Shop Rite might make gasp at the prices, but the quality and flavor of Andy’s meats will quickly make you realize that he actually isn’t charging all that much for the quality that you’re getting. You’d easily pay as much at a good butcher shop.

On our previous visit, I’d bought 4 hog jowls for guanciale and they’re just ready now. They smell fantastic and I can’t wait to make some carbonara or amatriciana using it. We’ve also previously purchased stewing beef and the resulting stews were the best I’ve ever made, richly flavorful and very tender. We’ve also had his Octoberfest sausages (the best I’ve tasted) and his eggs are superior to any I’ve found around Toronto with the exception of some a farmer friend will occasionally sell to us.

Everything from Our Gate to Your Plate is pastured or (honestly) free-range, the lamb and beef is grass-fed only, and the hogs are allowed to forage in the woods as much as possible. All animals are growth hormone- and drug-free. The goal is to raise everything as close to the animals’ natural habits as possible. Their meat is seriously good.

If you live in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), it’s a lovely drive to Grimsby where the farm is located on the Niagara Escarpment above the town. Take a cooler, make your purchase then enjoy a day visiting wineries and sightseeing.

If you’re interested, Andy has a few frozen birds left!
I did notice one thing on this visit: even though there are animals all over the place, it doesn’t really have that “barnyard smell” (something I actually don’t mind at all, though some do). Andy is good with his animals, very concerned for their welfare and attentive to their needs. Our Gate to Your Plate obviously gets my enthusiastic approval.

The fact that our most recent visit to Andy’s farm came hard on the heels of my distressing experience with a big American supermarket (although the Canadian ones aren’t any better) drives the point home soundly that you can find meat (and vegetables and fruit) that really are worth buying, cooking and eating. Yes, you will have to pay a bit more, but it is completely worth it. If the money is so great a concern, simply buy less.

Farms like Andy’s need our support. If you have a local farmers market, patronize it. Get to know the folks who are growing your food. The returns are far greater than the effort put in to acomplish this. Plus, the money you’re paying is going directly into the farmers’ hands, not into the pockets of middlemen and people to whom selling food is just a job. If there aren’t farmers markets where you live, search out the small greengrocers and butchers. Generally they know a fair bit about the food they are selling.

And if you’re lucky enough to have someone like Andy around, make the effort to get to know them. Your return will be one hundredfold.

[Sidebar: We bought from Andy a beautiful bone-in pork shoulder roast with skin-on for crackling. That’s going to be slow-cooked for tomorrow night’s dinner with our family. I will be taking photos and it’s going to be a feast with mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade apple sauce with horseradish (a favorite with roast pork) and the best green vegetable we can find. We haven’t decided on dessert yet. Maybe some cheese and fruit.]


Anonymous said...

Sounds delicious!

Rick Blechta said...

This roast (if that's what you're speaking about) will need careful cooking, since it's a) sort of expensive, b) over 9 pounds, and c) I haven't cooked a pork roast this big in years.

We will post photos!

Rick Blechta said...

I will still do a full blog post on this meal, but I have to say, the pork (and cracklings) turned out very well indeed. The only disappointment was the amount of fat with the roast. Weighing it at the end (since I didn't want to cut it off before cooking then tie it back on), I came off with 3.5 pounds on a 9.5-pound roast. That's a bit high when you're paying a premium price for the meat. Don't get me wrong, though: the meat had a fantastic taste and texture and the gravy was out of this world, but all the fat proved to be, as I said, disappointing. Pork shoulder roasts can have a large amount of fat under the skin, but it should be priced accordingly.