Eating local: What’s in your basket?

The contents of this week's CSA basket from La Mauve, a coop in the Bellechasse region, southeast of Quebec City

It was Ruhlman that started it.

Mark Ruhlman is one of my favorite chefs. The book on Charcuterie he wrote with Brian Polcyn is what helped me start making dry-cured ham and other things like bacon and chorizo.

I follow his tweets, and this morning, he started a very civilized game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours by asking people to send him pictures of their own CSA basket to compare with his. He’s been reporting on his season of community-supported agriculture baskets for the last dozen weeks, sharing impressions (like his hatred of green peppers), recipes and evaluations, and today, he got into a comparative mode.

I’m glad for his suggestion. I was looking to write a piece about the pleasures of eating locally in the summertime, and this was the little nudge I needed, I guess.

From the picture above, you’ll see that tomato season is in high gear around here, with cherry and field tomatoes coming in regularly and in generous amounts. The hot season is already yielding large cauliflowers (and brocoli), last week, and an impressive oak-leaf lettuce, one of my favorite kinds. There are also cucumbers, swiss chard (semi-hidden under the lettuce), carrots (almost totally hidden by the lettuce) and leeks, which I’ll probably turn into a salad with shrimp and a soft-boiled egg. Our CSA basket comes from La Mauve, a coop of local producers that includes cheesemakers and livestock farmers, which means we also get meat (in this case, veal cutlets and sausages, at the bottom of the picture). We can buy extra stuff at the delivery point, and this week I added some lovely organic apple cider.

The coop system allows small local producers – especially meat producers – to find a viable outlet for their production, in a context where  they would have a lot of trouble fitting into larger-scale systems. All the vegetable and fruit producers (and I believe all the cheese producers) are organic-certified. The meat producers sometimes aren’t (because of the prohibitive cost of certification at their scale), even though they apply the same specifications and are audited by the coop. Through collective planning, this also helps providing year-round baskets, which include a fair bit of root vegetables from November to April.

In the six years I’ve been a member, the quality has improved constantly, and so has the diversity, as producers improve their products through an effective mentoring system and as concerted planning helps ensure that different farmers provide different things at different moments. We’re very happy with it – although not everyone in the family likes sunchokes and turnips as much as I do, especially by late winter. It’s where I get the hams for curing – and generally, tomatoes and basil for a winter reserve of tomato sauce and pesto.

My first harvest of potatoes and string beans, in late July - the first of three solid ones, this year

I’d certainly recommend it, as I also recommend planting a vegetable garden, if you have any kind of room in your backyard (or even on your balcony), or access to community gardens. It’s a great connection to the season, a good kind of obligation, and if you get good at it, a decent contribution to your meals. My tiny garden (less than 10 x 10 feet) has already produced about five pounds of potatoes and as much beans, and already enough tomatoes to make enough spaghetti sauce for a family of five. And that’s only part of it.

It’s not like I was about to be self-sustaining, but the local input from my own garden is satisfying and fun – and even cost-effective, since my hourly rate is so reasonable. The local input is of course much more significant with the CSA basket, at very reasonable cost and with positive socio-economic impact on the nearby rural communities.

Of course, as a New York Times article pointed out last spring, eating locally isn’t an absolute guarantee of better environmental impact, especially when energy-intensive methods like greenhouses are involved in the cold season. Which is why the seasonal aspect is so important, and all the more important the further North you are, in North America.

In the summertime, though, eating local makes absolute sense in many different ways. I couldn’t do without it, anymore, and I’m looking to improve the amount of local food I eat through timely preserving and freezing. For me and my family, it’s as sensible as it’s fun. And tasty.

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