Worldly food takes root in On­tario

Lo­cally grown ‘world crops’ in­clude daikon radish, okra and Chi­nese green onions


Chef Rob Gentile is tick­led pink. Or, rather, green.

He’s fi­nally found an On­tar­i­o­farmed source for an ob­scure — in North Amer­ica, any­way — plant called agretti. Iden­ti­fied by needle­shaped leaves, the bright-green suc­cu­lent is more at home in sea­side soils in Lazio, Italy, where it is also known as salt­wort and friar’s beard. In Ja­pan, it is known as land sea­weed.

Agretti be­came a dar­ling for food­ies when Bri­tish chefs be­gan clam­our­ing for it a cou­ple of years ago.

Agretti-ma­nia par­tially caused a short­age in the U.K., af­ter a bad year re­sulted in a short­age of seeds.

Find­ing a lo­cal source for the plant is the kind of dis­cov­ery that makes Gentile as ex­cited as a child on Christ­mas morn­ing. The plant is grown by Trend Aquafresh in Ni­a­gara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

“Ev­ery time we can get it, we use lots of it,” says Gentile, who cooks for Toronto’s Buca restau­rants and is a part­ner in King Street Foods.

“Throw it in sal­ads, sautée it . . . it adds won­der­ful salin­ity and flavour. It’s great with pasta and clams, and pairs nicely with eel and crab.”

He de­scribes it as “salty and aro­matic and veg­e­tal in flavour.” For some, it’s sim­i­lar to spinach. “Any time I can make that con­nec­tion, an Ital­ian in­gre­di­ent grown here in Canada, I get re­ally ex­cited. Cana­dian-grown in­gre­di­ents are by far my favourite, be­cause they’re so damn fresh. The in­gre­di­ents are real. You know where they came from, you know what the sea­son is. When things are im­ported, there’s al­ways an un­der­ly­ing ques­tion mark.”

Trend Aquafresh is a hy­dro­ponic and or­ganic farm grow­ing salad greens, herbs and fish on 1.6 hectares in a fully sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­ment with zero waste. It is one of many small and in­no­va­tive farms serv­ing a de­mand for lo­cally grown foods from around the world.

These “world foods” or “world crops” are get­ting more at­ten­tion lately, as in­ter­est in ex­otic (or, more cor­rectly, non-na­tive) foods has grown in re­cent years.

“About five years ago, I was do­ing some trendy Jan­uary cleanse and I had to ask my gro­cery store, Fi­esta Farms, to get a cou­ple of things for me,” says Ceri Marsh, a Toronto cook­book au­thor.

“Chia seeds, acai pow­der and hemp hearts — the kinds of things you’d nor­mally only find in a health-food store. Now, there is a full aisle ded­i­cated to su­per­foods at Fi­esta. And I don’t even think peo­ple con­sider them spe­cialty items any­more.”

Much of the con­sumer de­mand for these foods comes from new Cana­di­ans. An es­ti­mated 60 per cent of the growth in fresh pro­duce sales is be­ing driven by new­com­ers and their pref­er­ence for veg­etable-cen­tric meals.

Ear­lier this year, Jeff Leal, On­tario’s min­is­ter of agri­cul­ture, food and ru­ral af­fairs, ear­marked $1 mil­lion for the Green­belt Fund to al­lo­cate to projects to help in­crease aware­ness of lo­cal food, with an em­pha­sis on world foods.

Grants from the Green­belt Fund sup­port lo­cal food ac­ces­si­bil­ity. For ev­ery $1 in­vested by the fund, lo­cal food sales in­crease by $13. Over­all, agri­cul­ture in On­tario con­trib­utes $35.4 bil­lion to the prov­ince’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct.

World crops are seen as a way to in­crease those num­bers. The Uni­ver­sity of Guelph es­ti­mated in 2012 that the mar­ket for world crops in the GTA rep­re­sented about $60 mil­lion. That es­ti­mate has since risen to $80 mil­lion.

“On­tar­i­ans have di­ver­si­fied their di­ets and broad­ened their taste buds to in­clude foods from around the world over the past cou­ple of decades and they con­tinue to look for new food op­tions,” says Kathy Macpher­son, a vice-pres­i­dent at the Green­belt Fund and the Friends of the Green­belt Foun­da­tion.

“Hav­ing lo­cally grown and raised world foods is a real plus: con­sumers know they are fresh and safe, and farm­ers can ex­pand what they can grow and raise.”

Chef and Ge­orge Brown Col­lege pro­fes­sor Bashir Munye ob­tained a grant from the Green­belt Fund to cre­ate a lo­cal food guide to help On­tar­i­ans of African her­itage to iden­tify and ac­cess lo­cally grown African crops.

“As a So­mali per­son, I need to ac­cess food that is held within my DNA — okra, ginger, turmeric, peanuts, callaloo — world crops that are lo­cally grown,” Munye says.

“Not only it is eco­nom­i­cally and en­vi­ron­men­tally im­por­tant, but (it) is also a so­cial im­per­a­tive if we want to foster di­ver­sity.”

While we’re start­ing to see more of these world foods on gro­cery store shelves, it can take a con­sid­er­able amount of time to get them there. Leal’s Bring Home the World ini­tia­tive is meant to give world foods a boost, with the ul­ti­mate goal of in­creas­ing On­tario’s ac­cess to lo­cally grown foods and re­duce reliance on im­ports. On­tario grows more than 200 foods al­ready, and Leal is com­mit­ted to in­creas­ing that num­ber.

For one, he sees this as a nat­u­ral re­sponse to On­tario’s di­verse and grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, driv­ing the need for lo­cally grown and cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pri­ate foods.

At On­tario’s Vineland Re­search and In­no­va­tion Cen­tre, world crops have been a fo­cus since the cen­tre opened about 10 years ago.

Amy Bowen leads a team look­ing deeply at con­sumer in­sights and mar­ket in­tel­li­gence to in­form re­search into the kinds of foods that have a po­ten­tial lo­cal mar­ket and, im­por­tantly, have the abil­ity to be grown in On­tario.

“What got this project started was re­al­iz­ing that, with Canada’s chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics, there would prob­a­bly be dif­fer­ent food of­fer­ings that we could grow and pro­vide lo­cally ver­sus im­port­ing into the coun­try,” Bowen says.

“We started this project around 2010, try­ing to un­der­stand what veg­eta­bles con­sumers are in­ter­ested in. We made a com­pre­hen­sive list . . . and started plant­ing them to see how they would per­form, and we also looked at the cost of pro­duc­tion. Be­cause it’s one thing to be able to grow them, and another to be able to pro­duce them in a way that is sus­tain­able and prof­itable for the farmer.”

“Any time I can make that con­nec­tion, an Ital­ian in­gre­di­ent grown here in Canada, I get re­ally ex­cited. Cana­dian-grown in­gre­di­ents are by far my favourite, be­cause they’re so damn fresh.” CHEF ROB GENTILE


Egg­plant grows at the Vineland Re­search and In­no­va­tion Cen­tre in Lin­coln, Ont. The cen­tre has been fo­cus­ing on world crops since it opened about 10 years ago.

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