The Ottawa Citizen / Saturday, July 27, 2002
Byline: Julia Elliott / Source: The Ottawa Citizen
This story requires a couple of confessions. First, I have never bought an organic vegetable. Second, before I arrived at Bryson Farms west of Shawville, Quebec - where organic is the only game on 20 acres - I downed a Jersey Milk chocolate bar for lunch. Am I a sugar maniac? No. Was I defying the healthy ethic of organic? Maybe.
Whatever, after I tasted an organic strawberry smoothie in a modest farm house on Bryson Farms, I was ready to walk its fields until my thongs caked with wet clay loam.
Stuart Collins, who with Terry Stewart operates the farm, was my guide, and a real trouper. When I inadvertently walked on a row of vegetables, the former Texas civil lawyer pointed this out - quietly. When I drilled him about the weeds - white cockle, scotch grass and lamb's quarters - that flourish with no chemical foes, he mused that the article would focus on weeds, with only a sidebar on the farm's bountiful collection of some 1,100 organic vegetables.
This, however, I could not do. I couldn't ignore the banana-shaped tomatoes, 50 varieties of heirloom potatoes (including fingerlings - those tiny potatoes that dress fancy restaurant plates), beans, carrots, cauliflower, kohlrabi (all in purple, my favorite color), patty-pan squash so small they looked like exotic buttons, pink celery, and 120 varieties of baby leaf salad greens including arugula - a vegetable that Stewart, a former 20 year agricultural adviser with the Ontario Ministry, was unaware of before the operation got going. Many of the farm's vegetables are miniature, grown for their easy use.
Nature's whims play a major role here. Tomatoes and special salad greens grow in greenhouses, but Collins and Stewart grow most of their veggies that old fashioned way, in open rows. Weather worries are a constant, as are the weeds. Many get smothered with thin, dark green plastic that stretches tightly around plants like Saran Wrap. A cultivator, Rototiller and human hands with a hoe snap the others.
Both in their late 40s, Collins and Stewart got into organic farming four years ago as an experiment. On the 500-acre farm where Stewart grew up, they started with organic vegetables grown from mainly organic seed or old seed imported from France, Italy and elsewhere.
Organic seed is simply seed from organic crops. Old seed is "seed like your grandmother used to grow, that producers nowadays do not grow because they're not as productive as the hybrid varieties, or as easy to grow", explains Collins. Simply put, old seed, much of which is organic, tastes great but requires an onerous hunt to find.
On Saturdays, Bryson Farms brings its flavours to the Organic Farmer's Market at Parsifal School near Bank Street and Heron Road. The business supplies several Ottawa dining tables, including those at Rideau Hall and Juniper and Domus restaurants. Some 100 private homes get the latest weekly produce left in coolers on a back porch. This one-year old service, available during the winter this year, offers various size baskets; one to feed two costs $35.
Talking about organic vegetables lacks something in the translation if you can't taste them. So I chose two vegetables out of the sea of exotics at Bryson Farms and took them home to kitchen. I wanted to serve them to four dinners guests and together determine the vegetables' rating on a "RAVE" meter. That way I could find out if these organic veggies really had an edge on taste.
First I chose Golden beets. I liked their colour (a paler shade of vermilion) and I liked their small size. Since they're not much bigger than acorns, I didn't have to risk hurting my hands cutting them into bite-sized pieces, and because they were right out of the garden, I didn't have to peel any thick skin.
I also took along some Epicure potatoes grown from old seed dating back to 1897; they looked like small white potatoes. Collins encouraged me to take many more vegetables, but I drew the line. I wanted to cook two veggies properly; more I could not manage.
For advice, I turned to the Bryson Farms Web site, www.brysonfarms.com, and clicked on "great recipes". (Anyone who buys organic vegetables seems attracted to recipes that demand more than a sprinkling of salt and pepper and a butter dab.) I chose "rosemary potatoes" and "baby beets with beet greens".
Basically the instructions for the potatoes were; Scrub; cut into 1/4 inch slices; spread on paper towels to remove starch; and arrange slices barely touching, on a baking sheet with an olive oil sheen. After painting a little more oil on the potato slices, and topping them with a dash of salt, pepper and dried rosemary, I popped the tray into the oven, which was preheated to 400F. After about 35 minutes, the potatoes were done. The RAVE meter rating? Good to very good, with a light uncomplicated taste.
The beets required more effort. I don't cook beets and only down the odd beet pickle. Golden beets - without the bleeding of the red variety - were a breeze to handle. The recipe called for a scrub and steam until tender, about 15 minutes. After the beets cooled, I slipped off the skins and tossed the beets with a bit of olive oil, fresh lime juice, dill and cilantro. Easy.
Dealing with the beet greens was only a marginal challenge. I discarded the stems and any bruised or torn leaves. Then I plunked them into the steamer for five minutes and used them to line a serving dish. I arraigned the beets in the middle.
At the dinner table, everyone liked the beets. One guest felt they were basic beets, while the rest spoke of a less strident, sweeter taste when comparing the golden beet with the traditional red. I fell into this camp, thinking of sweet parsnips - not Jersey Milk chocolate bars - as I downed my little treat.
Julia Elliott writes for Style Weekly