26 Aug 2010

Terroir

"Les québécoises goûtent mieux" proclaimed the headline on a big billboard with a group of attractive, smiling young women. Maybe it was because I was already pretty exhausted by the time I ran past it on a recent jog, but it did take me a moment to understand what exactly the message was. No, they did not advertise the tastiness of the local beauties, but indeed that of the spécialités du terroir, the foods grown in Québec. The smiling girls, supposedly, are the happy housewives snapping up the regional delecacies flooding the grocery stores these days.

I had thought that the demand for locally grown foods was a typically European thing. The very notion of terroir with its countless nuances is quintessentially French, and in tiny Switzerland the two grocery chains go to great lenghts to create a sense of regional roots. Smetimes they trace foods back to a particular farmers, with the link to the farm's webcam duly printed on the carton of eggs or the pound of cheese you're about to buy. Many small farms also sell their produce directly to end consumers, frequently from little road-side stalls where you help yourself and just drop a few francs into a box. Jt's all made to be so comforting, familial and trustworthy that the tongue-in-cheek Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss points out how happily the Swiss pay double for potatoes grown on the south and not the north bank of the Rhine. In the Swiss mindset, domestic produce is vastly superior to foreign stuff. And thanks to absurdly high import duties, the price difference remains much smaller than market conditions would really demand. God forbid imported foods could actually compete based on a lower price: Let's not put the Swiss' preference for their own farmers to the test, shall we?

North America, by contrast, is the land of huge and faceless agro business, where chicken grows in wings, breasts and nuggets and milk comes from the milk factory. By and large, my Canadian grocery shopping fits this pattern, with the same humongous but bland vegetables and fruit being available at about the same price all the time, as if the year knew no seasons. And indeed it barely does, at least not in the fields of Florida or California where my bell peppers, salads or blueberries are usually grown. (For comparison, a fennel from California's Central Valley is about as local to Montréal as food from Saudi-Arabia or Kazakhstan would be to Zurich). As long as the stuff is cheap, nobody seems to care much. The organics section at my grocery store is one small rack by the back wall, barely visited by the cart-pushing masses hunting for the bright special deal signs.

For a brief period in late summer though, all that changes. When the harvest from Québec's short nordic summer is in, all and sundry remember how they've always been committed to local produce, and the grocers miss no opportunity to brag about how relentlessly they work with small agricultural cooperatives to bring us the region's best. Granted, they may have sold you "extra-fresh" strawberries since April, and will still do so at Christmas, but clearly now's when they really mean it. Many of my local friends jump for joy, extolling the qualities and rich flavors of blueberries from Lac St-Jean, carrots from Abitibi-Témiscamingue and apples from Estrie. Never mind that they show little or no concern for regionality as they munch their way through the rest of the year.

Granted, some of this has to do with the climatic particularity of Canada: Unlike in the more temperate regions of Western Europe, the harvest season here is compact: By the time the cherries and strawberries are ripe, so are the grapes and the pears. Only a single crop of most veggies can be reaped from fields each year, round about this time as well. With the exception of seafood, game, corn and wheat, it's now or next year. Hence, traditional cuisine has been heavy on preserved foods, storable fruit, smoked meats and so on, with people beefing up on fresh stuff in late summer when there's plenty to go round. Today of course, nobody really goes back to compote and sauerkraut come November, thanks to the greenhouses in Kazakhstan California.

So bonjour, my mouth-watering sweet Québecoises, of course I'll snack on you while I can!

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18 Aug 2010

Reunion

Summer is an excellent time to visit Montréal, and over the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure of hosting a number of friends visiting from overseas. Not only was it nice to see them and to show them around town, I also felt a soothing sense of comfort in welcoming these "old" friends to my "new" home. For a while, as we were sitting in my living room, playing cards and having coffee, it felt almost as if I was back in Europe. That sentiment will likely grow stronger still when my former flat mate arrives at my place in two weeks' time. He'll no doubt recognize the half of our shared household that has not remained at his place, and I am looking forward to temporarily sharing my home with him again.

First though, a reunion of a different kind was in the books, for last Thursday, I hitched a ride south with my visiting friends, who had stylishly crossed the pond on the Queen Mary 2 in July and were now headed back to New York to end their North American tour. Our joint mini road-trip (in a maxi SUV) took us to Boston, a drive of approximately 6 hours from Montréal. Thanks to the excellent company, and an overnight stop in Burlington, the distance was perfectly manageable and pleasant. We even found time for a stop in Concord, thereby adding the state of New Hampshire to my palmares (and its quarter coin to my friends' collection).

Once we reached Boston, the sentiment of being happily reunited got yet another boost: In the hotel lobby, my mother, my sister and her boyfriend were waiting for us. My sister had just completed a language immersion course in Beantown (it's about as good an excuse for an extended vacation as my 2003 French immersion in Montréal was, given the accents) and the rest of the Swiss gang blocking the hotel entrance had decided to seize the opportunity to discover the city following somebody with at least some local insight. For my mum, this constellation also provided a rare opportunity to see both her stray children in one go (or, as the frequent flyer would say, she wasted a chance to take two transatlantic trips instead of just one!), all while walking in the footsteps of her childhood idol, a chap named after a large New York airport.

So there we were, a group of 8 Swiss of various ages, all excited and merry to be there and none with a firm plan of what to do. Apart from a shared interest in spending those greenbacks on the latest fashion, we were all pretty unambitious - which did not facilitate the agreement on a shared itinerary. In consequence, we primarily spent time drinking coffee, dunkin' donuts ;-), walking around town and chatting, splitting off into smaller teams and re-uniting for meals. With their strong social component, these were delectable even if the food as such did not overwhelm - Respecting some culinary preferences in the group, we stayed away from the clam chowder and lobsters I had hoped to eat.

Sitting there at a crowded dinner table, looking at this diverse group of people all happily assembled in some American metropolis, not only did it dawn on me that my "little sister" had in fact grown up to be a proper adult (she even masters a foreign language now!), but also that this sort of reunion may become normal should I continue to live abroad. Short but intense gatherings, dominated by a feeling of catching up and sharing memories, with the location serving primarily as a backdrop, and not as the purpose of the trip. I'll probably have to go back to Boston to "see" the city. And I will definitely have to go back to Switzerland to see my mum and sister!

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9 Aug 2010

Key envy

Have you ever heard of key envy (aemulatio claviscorum)? If not, you probably own a car. For key envy develops in humans worrying about their slight and anemic keychains. Without one of these alluring all-access, turn-on-the-lights, rev-up-the-engine remote controls standing out from between your home, cabinet and office keys, you are an at risk patient. And if you live in North America, where key envy is much more prevalent and more contagious, you should definitely boost your immune system.

I have recently started developing the first mild symptoms of key envy, probably promoted by warm summer days, alluring national parks in driving distance, and a stream of visitors zipping in and out in rental cars.

But worry not! I am happy to report that I have found a potent cure, even before having to resort to the Canadian health care system. It is courtesy of the STM, which is usually not known for being particularly useful. In this case, however, they offered me - as one of their loyal annual pass holders - a healthy 75% discount on the wonder drug that beats key envy. Naturally, I jumped on the opportunity: As of this week, I hold a key to the city's Bixi bike-sharing system.

The key contains a chip, which in turn stores my annual subscription to the system and allows me to take out any of the 5000 Bixi bikes, from any of the 400 stations scattered across downtown Montréal, and ride it for up to 30 minutes at a time for free, before returning it to the same or any other station. Should my lack of training make my journey with the 3-speed contraption between 30 and 60 minutes long, a moderate fee of $1.50 will be charged to my account, but the cost quickly rises for any useage of more than an hour. So clearly, I am meant to pedal my way from A to B, and then return my bike to a station for the next user while I go about my business. Once I am ready to return or move on, a new 30 minute Bixi ride is only a turn of the key away. Never do I have to worry about storing, locking, or (god forbid) fixing a bike - the Bixi system takes care of all that.

Thanks to Bixi, my mobility strategy for hops within the city center has changed, and I now frequently find myself foregoing the hot and sticky metro in favor of a refreshing bike ride. Being mostly flat, and increasingly lined with bike paths, Montréal is reasonably rider-friendly, although it still has a ways to go to catch up with my former hometown.

Bixi has been a resounding success and in this second season of Montreal operations, it has expanded dramatically. By next season (Bixi hibernates in the winter months), there will hopefully also be stations around my office, allowing me to ride to work. And in the meantime, Montréal is cashing in on selling the Bixi system abroad. Melbourne and Minneapolis have been the first cities to lauch their own versions. And as if to prove that it doesn't take a city starting in M, London has joined last week with an impressive 6000 bikes.

So fear not, city dwellers near and far. Bixi is here to cure you of your key envy. But be careful: This cure is an addiction in itself!

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