Oh … I’m a tired and sore Cream Puff! I’ve spent the entire day in a frenzy of baking. After pulling the last item out of the oven, I surveyed the destruction in the kitchen, quietly removed my apron, turned and simply walked away. I am now comfortably ensconced in our very cool basement, hoping against all hope, that a kitchen sprite will appear and clean what is the disaster otherwise known as our kitchen. Hey … it could happen!
The summer brings so many glorious gifts to us in the way of fresh fruit. But when they land at your doorstep, in the space of two hours, in the form of pounds of apricots and blueberries, suddenly it doesn’t seem all that glorious. Besides the fact that we have limited space for storage, fresh fruit tends to be highly perishable. If you don’t freeze it, turn it into jam or bake with it, you’re faced with consuming pounds of it quickly or watching a good part of overripen or worse, rot. That is a terrible thing to do to local, fresh fruit. To any fruit for that matter.
So this hot hot hot Sunday morning (curse you, July!), I dragged my Cream Puffiness out of bed, slung on an apron and got to work. Apricot tarts, blueberry coffeecake, apricot upside down cake, apricot jam … it’s all a blur. All I know is that I used a lot o’ butter, a lot o’ sugar and a lot o’ apricots and blueberries. The mountains of fruit that were sitting on our table this morning have now been whittled down to manageable hills that we’ll make short work of during the week as we grab handfuls of the stuff to enjoy for breakfast, for an afternoon snack or for a simple, sweet dessert after dinner.
While I baked, I had an interesting question on my mind. As I kneaded tart tough, I thought about it. As I whipped cream and sugar, I thought about it. The question came from Chris and Lea who run a wonderful new blog called Canada Eats. And the question is: what does Canadian food mean to me?
This type of a question, for me, is on par with the question, "What does it mean to be Canadian?" While I was born in this country and have lived here all my life, the answer is: I’m not sure. Canada is a beautiful country and I am proud to call myself Canadian. While we’re not perfect, generally speaking I love the way we live. Proud, free, modest, hard-working … these are all adjectives that apply so well to Canadians. But when it comes to food, I must be quite honest, I don’t think there is such a thing as Canadian food.
Growing up, the food on my table was exclusively "Italian." And what I mean by that is that we ate a diet very similar to what Italians eat. Pasta almost every day, fresh vegetables and fruit in the summer and preserved vegetables and fruit in the winter, bread, olive oil (lots of it), fish on Fridays, veal and chicken cutlets, meat stews, wine, milk and espresso for the kids and just espresso for the adults … this was how we ate every day. While I’m somewhat ashamed to say this, "Canadian food" was an almost derogatory label in our household and this is because "Canadian food" was reserved for food served in fast food establishments. Highly suspicious of fast food, my parents never allowed us to eat at those places. And in the grocery store, items like potato chips and pop were the sorts of things that never made an appearance in our shopping cart.
Despite their disapproval of fast food, fortunately, my parents were very open-minded when it came to trying food prepared by friends of neighbours of different cultures. A few times a year, a co-worker of my father who was Chinese would provide our family with a home-cooked feast of Chinese specialties. Regularly, my father would visit an Austrian restaurant close to work and that night we knew we’d be eating an Austrian feast. Vietnamese, Indian, Thai … we tried so many types of cuisines. But only if the food was prepared by a person my parents knew or by a restaurant that was authentic in its approach to cooking. This was because my parents knew that their Chinese and Austrian friends used fresh ingredients, many of them grown in his own garden, just like we did.
And through it all, I never once wondered what Canadian food really was. Food was food. It wasn’t the complicated affair that, in certain ways, it has become today. I didn’t actually begin to think about what defined Canadian food until the late 1990s, when some cousins visited from Italy. In our efforts to entertain them, we brought them to various Italian restaurants in Toronto that we considered to be of the highest quality. While they were pleased and enjoyed their meals, I could tell that they were a bit confused. And finally one day my cousin asked why we don’t ever go to Canadian restaurants. That question was followed by another question about what our national dish was. National dish? Canadian restaurants?
I was stuck. I tried to explain that we didn’t have a national dish. While there are certain foods that are closely related to Canada, like maple syrup or smoked salmon, we didn’t have any restaurants that served "Canadian cuisine." But as I talked, I began to realize that while we may not have one, unified type of cuisine that distinguishes us, we do have an enormous variety of ethnic cuisines that have flourished in a nation far away from the ones from they originated.
Canadian cuisine is the food of all people who are able to grow and raise the ingredients native to their homelands in their new homeland. When I survey my own neighbourhood, there is not one family in the 50 or so houses that surround mine that can trace their Canadian roots back more than two generations. That’s because most of them weren’t even here two generations ago. And yet every night, when I get home and get out of the car, I can smell the pungent spices our Vietnamese neighbour is using to get dinner ready. And I can smell the faint scent of cinnamon that my Italian neighbour has used in her almost daily round of baking. And I know that on the weekend, I will smell the distinct aroma of barbecue as the Argentinian family across the street from us uses their homemade backyard oven/barbecue that is truly a sight to see!
And while we may use different spices or ingredients, what we all of have in common is our desire to grow our own food. Every family on my street has a backyard garden where they grow vegetables. And almost all of us have at least one fruit tree. The predominant one is pear, but my neighbours also have cherry, apple, apricot and even peach. No matter where we have come from, we have all been united in Canada by our love for the land, and our desire to enjoy its gifts. And what a rich and bountiful land this country is!
The bounty that appeared on my doorstep was grown in rich, beautiful Canadian soil. My Italian neighbours a few houses down graced us with their apricots. In turn, I’ve tried to do the beauty of those apricots justice by baking them simply, in a tart shell, where their flavour will be complimented by a nest of apple sauce and an embrace of butter.
What is Canadian food? What does Canadian food mean to me?
Canadian food is the food of the world. And it means everything to me.
Fresh Apricot Tart
Adapted from Once Upon a Tart … by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau.
For the tart crust and the apricot glaze:
Follow the recipe for the tart crust and the apricot glaze used in the Alsatian Apple Tart.
For the tart filling:
- 1 par-baked tart shell
- 1/2 cup applesauce (homemade is best but if you use store bought be sure that it’s not too sweet)
- 15 to 20 small apricots or 10 to 12 large ones, washed, dried, cut in half and pitted, with the skins on (if you can, try to use fresh local apricots)
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup apricot glaze
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Spread the applesauce over the base of the tart crust.
- Arrange the apricot halves over the applesauce layer. Fit the apricots in tightly so that there are no gaps.
- Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the apricot halves.
- Bake the tart for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the crust is golden and the apricots have cooked through. Some of the apricots may blacken a bit due to caramelization. Don’t worry about this … it’s all sugary goodness!
- Remove the tart from the oven and let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Remove the tart from the tart pan and let cool for an additional 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, with a pastry brush, glaze the tart with the apricot jam.
- Serve warm or at room temperature.