Picture yourself in a great field, with a wineglass in hand and a cloth napkin tucked around your neck. It’s a brilliant Canadian autumn day, the air is fresh and the sun is warm, adding the final blush of ripeness to the apples hanging in the orchard nearby. The lazy, sweet sound of an accordion wafts through the air. As you walk a little further, you are hit with the heady aromas of wild chanterelle mushrooms as they are being sautéed with garlic and fresh herbs. You approach an outdoor grill and a chef in crisp whites places a mushroom on a bite size crouton of polenta and hands it to you. You wash it down with a glass of peppery British Columbian Cabernet Franc. This is the Feast of Fields.
Founded in 1988 by German-born Toronto chef Michael Stadtländer, the purpose of the event was to improve the connection between local chefs and organic farmers and raise funds to establish an organic farmers market in the city of Toronto.
When asked how he conceived of such an event, Stadtländer recounts walking in his neighbor’s forest, past a large pile of rocks, the remnants of an abandoned outdoor cook stove.
‘I saw the rocks and I imagined I was eating something cooked there, maybe a breast of quail. I could walk a little further and eat something else, perhaps some lake fish or a consommé. There wouldn’t be any plates; we could serve the food on a leaf, some bread, or a small piece of wood. We could sell tickets to the city people, to get them out on the farm. My wife and I made a home video of what I imagined and took it back to show some chefs in Toronto, who liked my idea. That’s how the Feast of Fields got started.’
In Ontario, the annual Feast of Fields has now grown to include over 100 chefs, farmers, wineries and microbreweries. Close to a thousand tickets to the event sell out at one hundred dollars each. A smaller version is held in Ottawa Ontario, the nation’s capital.
Seven years ago, FarmFolk/CityFolk, a Vancouver-based organization which works to promote eating locally produced food and improve the connection between urban and rural perspectives, started the event on the west coast of Canada.
In 1998, a second west coast Feast of Fields was started on Vancouver Island. It is this event on Vancouver Island, a region working hard to create a culinary identity that seems to have captured the spirit of Stadtländer’s original event. Vancouver Island is rich in high quality ingredients, ranging from wild foods from the forest and the ocean to locally produced pasture raised meats and artisan cheeses, local wines, ciders, and even a version of balsamic vinegar made by a local winemaker from the Modena region. The lush pastureland of the Island, clean ocean breezes and fertile soils give the foods of Vancouver Island a unique flavour, highly valued by local chefs. Threats to local farming, from the loss of processing facilities for farm raised meats to removals of large tracts of fertile land to make way for suburban development coupled with the high economic and environmental cost of importing food to an Island means it is more important then ever for groups like FarmFolk/CityFolk to educate the public on the importance of eating locally.
At the Feast of Fields, held every September, on the third Sunday of the month, Vancouver Islanders do just that. Organic farmers, vintners, brewers and chefs enthusiastically respond to the challenge of cooking local ingredients outdoors for hundreds of appreciative attendees and enjoy the camaraderie of getting together with their peers to celebrate what has become a uniquely Canadian harvest celebration.
Mara Jernigan is a chef, farmer and active member of the newly formed Slow Food Vancouver Island Convivium.
Photo: Sinclair Philip, leader of the Vancouver Island Slow Food Convivium , and his wife Federica. At the 2000 Feast of Fields, his restaurant Sooke Harbour House served ‘Octobobs’, featuring grilled local octopus with a sauce made from sage flowers.