Island Thyme

At the beginning of winter, many of us start getting a bit depressed. The lack of sun and the typical Christmas blues add to the pressures of day to day life. At times, even meeting with family over the holidays can seem like it’s more stress than it’s worth. What happened to the ‘joy of the season?’ What happened to the festival and the food?

Life revolves around food, but there seems to be a lack of food festivals here on the Island. Yes, we have the Feast of Fields and the Wine and Culinary Festivals in the autumn months, but what about the rest of the year? What about when things start growing again in the spring? How about in the height of summer when local greens and produce are everywhere, and yes, even in the winter when we break out the wine, preserves and root vegetables. In the rest of the world, a region and its culture are defined by the foods they eat – so why are there so few festivals around food here, and so little local culture? Surely if the entire province of Nova Scotia can have a food festival in the month of February when nothing grows, we could have more food festivals here.

Turn back the clock to before refrigeration and the advent of food trade routes – what sort of foods would be available at the beginning of the winter months? In this sort of climate, there would be very little in the way of fresh vegetables; short of the tail-end of kale and Swiss chard that might be left in the ground (because they sure don’t grow very fast at this time of year), you would have whatever might be stored in the basement and root cellar, namely root vegetables, and perhaps some of the hardier winter-storing squashes. Fresh young meat would be limited, since all but the most productive farmers would be holding on to their young herds and flocks for breeding in the spring, so you would have only the older, tougher animals, such as stewing hens, mutton and the like, cured cuts like ham & bacon, or cured seafood for protein. Lastly, you would have whatever you were able to dry or preserve during the harvest months – grains, legumes and preserves.

The list above may seem limited, but it still offers a feast for those who had planned ahead for the cold months. Ironically, everything, except for the grains, is produced here and readily available on Vancouver Island, and most is wasted. I lost count of the number of farmers that have told me that they had to throw a majority of their fruit crops into the compost because there was no one to buy them – no one would even come to haul them away for free! Stewing hens are left to die of old age because they are either ‘too much trouble’ or ‘too expensive’ to process. Beans and stews (the stuff made out of tough cuts of meats and root vegetables) have fallen out of favor because they are considered ‘poor people’s food.’

The Yuletide season is a time of reflection and a time of sharing with our friends and families the bounty that we have stored. I can’t help but wonder how much more we would have if we used everything that had been produced here. How much happier would we be if we made the time to preserve and share the bounty that already exists here on the Island?