Knowing where your food is from

I found some of the best jalapeno salami I’d ever tasted earlier this week in a city butcher shop almost four hours from home.

The butcher at Primal Cuts in Peterborough – a young, tattooed woman – lit up when she described it. “It’s really excellent. I’ve been buying most of my salamis from Aaron Metzger.”

As in Metzger Meat, in Hensall, Ontario – the close-to-home origins clearly labelled in the display case.

I felt the same small burst of small-town pride I experience every time I open a Toronto restaurant menu and see “Perth County Pork” or recognize the name of a local producer. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced more frequently over the past two to three years.

Great food should always have a story – the ingredients involved, how it was prepared, the chef who created it and increasingly, where your food was grown and raised.

Where food comes from is becoming as important as how it’s prepared to consumers. And that’s great news for the farmers and producers who for many years were an almost invisible part of the food chain.

Does terroir affect taste?

So, the big question is, do restaurants and butcher shops include food pedigrees strictly because consumers find the idea of farm-raised food trendy and exotic? Or does geography and farming technique really change the way food tastes?

For my farming friends – feel free to weigh in with a comment. I’m not an expert, but I’d like to learn more.

It’s a question I’d like to put to the test this year – with a series of meals that taste test similar food from a variety of regions and farms to see if we really can taste a difference. Because like good wine, food raised and produced with at least some exposure to the elements should be influenced by things like hours of sunshine, soil minerality, air quality and dozens of other environmental intangibles.

Ontario-grown Angus vs. ‘Berta beef? Pasture-raised vs. barn-raised pork? Italian prosciutto, or the homemade version we currently have curing in the basement? Can hydroponic tomatoes ever taste as good as the ones fresh from the garden? It’s on. Watch this space for some regional food showdowns and the reviews.

You live where?

When you grow up in rural Ontario, you get used to explaining where you’re from in terms of how far it is from the nearest big city, and in which direction.

“Listowel? We’re about 45 minutes northwest of Kitchener. Never heard of it? About two hours past Toronto.”

Maybe that’s why it’s such a thrill to start seeing the names of rural Ontario regions appear on menus in those city restaurants and fancy food shops. Because it’s clear that to people who really know good food, this part of rural Ontario has a growing reputation.

When we head to the Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County this weekend (itself a great rural food region), and to Toronto later this month for a conference that includes several great meals at restaurants (I know, it’s a tough life), I’ll no longer be surprised to see names I recognize. Next time you’re out for a good meal, watch for some of our favourites, including McIntosh Farms, Perth County Pork Products, Stonaleen Farms and Willowgrove Hill.

Locally grown beef and poultry shows up on those menus too, including from Harriston Packing. Area greenhouses are also starting to make a mark – from Elmira’s Own tomatoes at Floralane Farms to bananas grown indoors at Canada Banana Farms near Wingham.

Wherever you’re eating, order local when you get a chance. See if, like us, you can taste the difference.

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