Ontario's Farm-to-Table Movement

Written by Bryan Lavery

I am a dedicated reader of Sarah Elton, who tracks the culinary zeitgeist for CBC Radio’s Here and Now, and has written for The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, Maclean’s and Her book, Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians are Changing the Way We Eat, was an award-Consumed coverwinning treatise on the local food movement in Canada.

In Ontario, many cooks continue to develop imaginative takes on farm-to-table eating while examining the roots of local cuisine and developing new region-specific specialties and products. They characterize the frontline of the contemporary culinary scene by rethinking the food chain, stewarding the environment and adding their voices to the collective Canadian culinary identity.

Elton’s latest book, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, champions the movement away from global food production and presents an intelligent and engaging argument for the sustainable food movement and alternatives to the factory farming model. She travels to rural farming villages in India and China, to France, and to Detroit’s inner-city to document the transformative nature of food. This is an up-to-the-minute account of the politics and issues surrounding sustainable food production, food security and locavorism that offers some solutions.

When I go out to eat, I am drawn to restaurants that support local farmers and food artisans by procuring and featuring local ingredients, products and VQA wines. Patronizing farm-to-table restaurants makes sense because it supports and sustains economic activity on a local level.

Ontario has developed the Local Food Strategy to help increase the profile, access to, and demand for local food. The foundations of this strategy are the newly approved Local Food Act, and the recently launched Local Food Fund.

The Local Food Act is part of a strategy to build Ontario’s economy and agri-food sector by making more local food available in educational institutions, cafeterias, grocery stores, markets and restaurants. Its objective is to improve local food literacy, and encourage the demand for homegrown food, by requiring the Ministry to establish aspirational local food goals and targets in consultation with stakeholders that have an interest. The Act creates a non-refundable tax credit of 25 per cent for farmers who donate their surplus harvest to eligible community food programs such as food banks. The policy also proclaims a Local Food Week that will take place annually, beginning the first Monday in June. A reference point for defining local was created with the passing of the Local Food Act and when the Ministry of Agriculture and Food committed funding to support the development of Ontario’s new Foodservice Designation Program (OFD) in partnership with the Ontario Culinary Alliance (OCTA). The program entitled Feast ON has similarities to the former Savour Ontario Dining program, which brought together diners and restaurants who share an interest in choosing and serving locally grown and produced foods in Ontario.

FEAST ONThe new OFD Program is a criteria-based designation system, designed to increase the profile and demand for local food by identifying restaurateurs and foodservice operators dedicated to procuring and serving Ontario foods and beverages and whose particular attributes qualify their commitment to local food. Feast ON has engaged Community Connectors to support the objectives of the program by working with OCTA to gather data required to implement, manage and safeguard the OFD program criteria.

Feast ON recognizes food­service businesses committed to showcasing Ontario grown and produced food and drink. Restaurant operations in all their incarnations — from food trucks to fine dining — sourcing a minimum of 25% Ontario food products and 25% beverage products will be certified with the Feast ON seal, assuring consumers an “authentic” taste of Ontario.

In addition to the Feast ON strategy, the ministry is determining how they can differentiate, classify and market Ontario’s terroir and authentic regional products. It seems a new provincial designation system will likely include a geographic indicator certification.

This type of certification is an assurance that products possess certain qualities, are made according to traditional methods, or possess particular characteristics, due to terroir or geographical origin. Ideally, certification would be similar to the European Union-adopted systems of geographical indications and traditional specialties, and our existing VQA structure of classification for wine.

The purpose of certification is to safeguard the character and reputation of authentic foods, promote rural and agricultural activity, help producers obtain the best price for their regional products, and eliminate the misrepresentation to consumers by imitators and counterfeit products.

Asiago, Feta, Fontina, Gorgonzola and Munster are the five new cheese names that Canada has recently approved to identify for its geographic indications as part of a trade agreement between Canada and the European Union. Existing producers won’t be affected but any new cheese names introduced will need to be qualified with descriptors such as “style,” “kind” or “type.”

It seems to me that several of Ontario’s premier artisanal cheese makers have successfully differentiated their distinctive products with names based on each cheese’s unique characteristics, geographic, and cultural attributes by thinking in terms of terroir.

In Italy, certification laws re­­quire that Parmigiano-­Reggiano be made according to a specific recipe and production methods, and only within specific geo­graph­ical regions. The Parmigiano-Reggiano Safeguarding ­Consorzio pursued a company in Mexico that blatantly named its product Parmigiano-Reggiano and affixed on it identical symbols and indications to those registered as collective marks by the Consorzio.

I have witnessed first-hand the perfect example of the certification process from start to finish. I arrived early to tour one of the cheese dairy co-operatives in the countryside of the strictly designated “zona tipica” of Parmigiano-Reggiano in Italy, to watch the cheese being crafted.

The milk from the previous evening had been left overnight to separate and a portion of the cream had been skimmed off. The remaining milk was mixed with the morning’s whole milk, and then poured into large, temperature-regulated copper cauldrons. Fermenting whey from the previous day was added and the mixture heated and slowly stirred.

When the desired temperature was achieved, calves rennet (a natural coagulating extract) was added. The coagulated milk became cheese curd, the leftover liquid whey. (The remaining whey not used in the next production will be used to imbue local pigs with the unique flavour that has distinguished this region for its exceptional variety of protected Italian air-cured meats, most notably Prosciutto di Parma).

Next a large, ball-shaped thorn brush was employed to fracture the curd. Again the curd was heated and stirred. With the heat shut off, the curd set. This mass was maneuvered with paddles and cut into two identical pieces, each with enough curd to make a wheel of cheese.

The curd was then wrapped in hemp cloth and suspended above the cauldrons to dry. Later the curd was lowered into a circular wooden form, where it was pressed into a wheel. With the cloth removed, a stamp with teeth was inserted between the cheese and the mould. The teeth form a series of impressions, denoting authenticity with date and the designation Parmigiano-Reggiano.

After resting, the cheese is immersed in vats of brine and left to float. It is rotated daily for 25 days and briefly exposed to the sun before being stored. The cheese is warehoused on vast wooden shelves in climate-sensitive aging rooms, and turned over mechanically while it matures for a minimum of 18 months.

Watching this process convinced me that there is a need for geographic indicators and certification to help protect, differentiate and authenticate our distinctly unique and traditional products now and in the future.


BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large and Contributing Editor.

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.