Early April seems a cruel month to hold a fundraising banquet at an historic inn aiming to remain authentic to its glory days in the mid-1800s.
Oh boy, root vegetables with dried fruit and sauerkraut, I said when the mailed invitation from west-end Toronto's Montgomery Inn arrived.
The theme of the evening hosted by the Inn, Slow Food Toronto and others was advertised as "putting by," a reference to the once standard family and folk tradition of making jams, jellies, pickles, pie fillings and so on to preserve foods picked at harvest time to last through the long cold winter.
But some 20 local artisan cheese makers, butchers, brewers, vintners and syrup and mustard makers stole the show. They supplied the prosciutto, pork rillettes, smoked fish cakes, cranberry and rosemary compotes and ox-eye daisy capers on the appetizer plate as well as the sparkling cider and Pilsner beer that went with that course.
Artisans also produced the salted herbs that went with the pea soup and the dark ale that followed.
They brought the makings for the entree of pork sausages with fennel seed and orange zest (saved from Christmas stockings, no doubt) that went with the red wine.
And they came through with dessert, a cheese plate with hickory nuts and wild mint honey, as well as the ice cream and birch syrup, all digested with spoonfuls of ice wine and cherry aceto. All this we devoured in the tea room of the Inn, a city-run museum that features culinary history. This evening was a funder for the restoration of Montgomery's historic oven.
A little craft goes a long way to turn relatively plain and plentiful local foods into a feast. This isn't necessarily organic dining, but it is in the slow food tradition: sustainably produced anti-corporate edibles cooked up with a gourmet emphasis, served in aid of conviviality and dedicated to preserving local cuisine.
As someone who grew up on canned peas and frozen beans, it's taken me a while to grasp that the artistry of putting by with smoking, curing, drying and fermenting can actually add complex tastes as well as nutrients to food, not just preserve them beyond their best-before date.
For slow food advocate Julia Rogers of Cheese Culture, one of the evening's sponsors, it's "the little-guy-versus-big-guy kind of thing" that makes this tradition so appealing, an idea that may come as a surprise to those who think slow food is about the rich taste of rare foods. The comeback of these folk professionals in the dining world is like the first sign of spring in an authentic and emerging food system.
Chefs are the superstars of this world, including ours tonight, Tonia Wilson, who chefed for the Canadian Embassy in Italy, where slow food was born. But behind the chef is a galaxy of artisans, some of them farmers who add value to their crops or milk by processing them. Others run tiny operations in small towns and cities. They are the large-scale job-creation project of a new local, high-taste food culture, the fast crowd of a slow food system.
To call them entrepreneurs would be to miss the point. It assumes that the only people who show economic initiative and practice economic innovation are members of the business class.
The extent to which entrepreneurship is equated with business, while farmers, NGOs and government workers are excluded, is a measure of the power that industrialized models hold over our sense of what's possible in an economy.
Artisans are folk entrepreneurs rooted in a tradition that identified work as a calling and vocation that expressed a person's inner character, and therefore as a suitable vehicle for a person's passion for excellence.
They were the keystones of early industrial economies until about 1914 - making the first phase of the Industrial Revolution go round.
Agency and resilience were bred in the bones of artisans, a group that old-time social historians (including me) rediscovered as a historical force years ago, long before I ever thought I'd be meeting them at dinner.
Although they did beautiful work (anyone who marvels at the homes and public buildings built from these craft traditions knows what I mean), they couldn't get no respect from the established order.
In the case of food artisans, they were expelled from the mainstream food system as fossil-fuel energy became dominant over the last hundred years. Coal and oil - cheap to produce but costly to workers' health and the environment - reduced the high energy costs of canning and freezing foods. This made the curing, smoking, air drying and fermenting of local foods uncompetitive.
It's estimated that in standard store-bought edibles there are seven times more calories of fossil fuel energy than food energy, but we never pay the full price of these foods.
Quick and dirty government subsidies and regulations mean there are no charges for the disease and pollution that result from such preserving methods. Hence, the sticker price on canned and frozen foods will always be lower than on artisanal foods.
Artisans, by definition, spend little on energy but lots on labour and knowledge - not exactly the modus of a mass and homogenized society.
In days gone by, their feisty ways made them seem uncontrollable, a cardinal sin in a society hell-bent on imposing discipline and uniformity.
That was the basis of the famous complaint of long-time French president Charles de Gaulle. "How can anyone be expected to govern a country with 246 cheeses?" he once complained.
Respectfully and carefully, Monsieur de Gaulle.