Slow food movement grows

During the Cayman Cookout this year, several of the participating chefs mentioned the Slow Food movement, referring not only to the international culinary organisation, but also to a growing trend of eating sustainably produced foods.

As leader of Cayman’s Slow Food group, I was pleasantly surprised to see how attuned chefs are to the movement’s philosophies.

However, many people I talk with don’t know about the group and they usually ask something like, “Slow Food? What’s that?”

To answer the question in the simplest of terms, I tell them Slow Food is the opposite of fast food.

But it actually entails much more than that.

Slow Food also encourages taking pleasure in eating wholesome food in a relaxed setting and in the presence of good company.

The organisation’s philosophy incorporates the ideas of caring about the food you eat, the way it tastes, the effects producing it had on the Earth, and that the people who produced it were fairly compensated.

The Italy-based Slow Food International was founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986.

Ten years later, Cayman’s first chapter – Convivium South Sound – was formed by Grand Old House General Manager Martin Richter, who remained the leader of the group until late 2008, which is when I took over the leadership reins.

For most of the time Richter led Slow Food here, concepts like farm-to-table dining weren’t very practical to follow because local farmers weren’t producing enough and the quality wasn’t up to standard.

That changed after the opening of the Market at the Grounds in August 2007.

The Market at the Grounds

When it was first planned, it was unknown whether the market – which takes place Saturday mornings at the Stacy Watler Agricultural Pavilion in Lower Valley – would be popular enough to hold every week. It was.

The market was a collaborative effort between the Ministry of Agriculture, the Department of Agriculture and the Cayman Islands Agricultural Society.

Former Minister of Agriculture and Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts, an avid grower himself, strongly supported the initiative, but knew it had to be done differently than previous failed attempts at establishing a farmers’ market in Cayman.

“There are three basic factors needed for a market,” he says. “Quality, consistency of supply and competitive prices.”

None of those factors were really there in earlier attempts to create a farmers’ market, so part of the plan for setting up Market at the Grounds included making sure farmers were given support and access to resources like technology and knowledge.

The planning was done by a committee of stakeholders, with Mr. Tibbetts taking a key role.

Once Cayman’s farmers started growing produce that met the three factors needed, the rest was easy, since willing consumers were already here.

“Cayman’s discerning consumers have made it very clear that if [the three factors are met] that is what they would prefer,” Tibbetts says.

Errol Watler, president of the Cayman Islands Agricultural Society and a long-time farmer in Cayman, says the launch of the Market at the Grounds made all the difference.

“It created a demand for local produce,” he says. “Before that, I had problems selling most of my produce.”

In fact, to meet the increased demand for local produce, Watler, who owns Sparkies Farm on Grand Cayman, has built two greenhouses since the opening of Market at the Grounds and is in the process of building a third.

Watler grows a lot of traditional Cayman crops like hot peppers, season peppers, sweet peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, yam, sweet potatoes, coconuts, and sugar cane, as well as some of the high demand new crops like basil, rocket and romaine.

He is also experimenting with growing produce like celery, garlic and red onions.

Joel Walton, who along with his friends Kirkland Nixon and former Director of Agriculture Dr. Joe Jackman are regular fixtures at the Market at the Grounds, agrees that the turning point for farmers was the opening of the market.

“Before that, I couldn’t give my produce away,” he says.

The market was one of the driving forces behind Walton, who is more a gardener extraordinaire as opposed to a farmer, transitioning his property from an orchard to one growing more herbs and vegetables.

But he says it was more than just members of the public coming to the market that created the large demand.

“Restaurants started coming to the market and this created a marketplace for the chefs to meet the growers and develop relationships and trust.”

One of the strong relationships Walton forged was with the Brasserie Restaurant. It’s consultant chef, Dean Max, was an strong advocate of the Slow Food movement.

With Walton’s help and the vision and support of the restaurant’s owners, Lisa and Clarence ‘King’ Flowers, the Brasserie would become Ground Zero for Cayman’s farm-to-table approach to fine dining.

Restaurants jump on board

As Cayman’s farmers started growing higher quality produce, restaurants became interested in buying.

The Brasserie took the farm-to-table concept one step further at the urging of Max, who grew up on a farm and has been advocating Slow Food philosophies in South Florida for more than a decade. During the Brasserie’s annual summer closing in 2009,

Walton, landscape designer Margaret Barwick and gardener Winston Cobban combined efforts to create an on-site chef’s garden. The garden includes a screened-in area attached to one side of the restaurant, but also extends to unused areas in the car park. By December of 2009, the Brasserie was incorporating herbs and vegetables grown on site into their dishes. In addition to the produce grown in their gardens, the Brasserie bought vegetables from local farmers like Walton and others.

To accentuate the gardens, in January 2010, the Brasserie started its Harvest Dinner series, which feature only fresh in-season produce and, as much as possible, locally produced or caught meat and fish. With its own fishing boat – the Brasserie Catch – the restaurant’s catch of the day is truly whatever was caught that day.

The Harvest Dinners, which are served outside in the Brasserie’s screened-in garden area, have proved so popular they are held monthly from December through April, Cayman’s peak harvesting months.

Soon other restaurants were following suit in using local produce. Even restaurants with the highest quality control standards – like those at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman – started buying locally. Before that, its restaurants were air-freighting in high-quality produce – at great cost – from farms in the US.

Patrick Panton of East End Garden & Gifts, who has concentrated on growing produce for two years on a property in Bodden Town, says about 40 per cent of his sales are to restaurants, particularly some of the newer ones.

“They’re bringing in chefs from abroad where fresh is the big push,” he says.

One of the newer restaurants where fresh is the big push is Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink in Camana Bay, which opened in June 2010. Its consultant chef, Michael Schwartz, is a strong advocate of the Slow Food movement and is in fact a member of Slow Food Miami.

Watler says Sparkies Farm is now selling to many of Cayman’s restaurants, including some of the longer-established ones that serve local food, like Mango Tree, Champion House II and Welly’s Cool Spot.

Organic and sustainable Growing

Most consumers know that organic growing means that synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides are not used in the growing process.

Sustainable growing takes organic further and is sometimes referred to as ‘beyond organic’.

Walton practices organic growing, and actually goes beyond that, at Plantation House by using a variety of techniques to try and outsmart pests and coax higher yields.

He says the transition to organic took three years on his property, and was expensive.

He bites the bullet and pays $60 for 40 pounds of fish meal fertiliser rather than paying $15 for 50 pounds of inorganic fertiliser.

He supplements the fertiliser he purchases with compost from his 16 compost bins, which he jokingly says use the “throw and rot” method.

He uses manure – chicken, cow and rabbit – as well as coffee grinds and egg shells in his compost mix.

To fight pests, Walton uses a variety of strategies.

After he mixes fresh composted organic materials into his soil in July, he solarises the beds by wetting them down and then covering them with sheets of clear plastic.

The beds heat to above 156 degrees, killing all the pathogens, weeds and soil pests like nematodes.

Walton also tries to confuse pests by planting different things next to each other to give a variety of scents, plant heights and leaf textures.

Walton does usesome natural pesticides, like neem oil and bacillus thuringiensis – known as BT – but these aren’t insecticides that kill pests on contact.

He doesn’t grow certain plants like hibiscus and hot peppers “because they’re natural pest attracters” he says.

“There’s no one magic bullet, no one solution to all your problems,” he says of the battle with pests.

“You have to accept the fact that you will lose some of your crop. There’s nothing wrong with losing some things, but they won’t take it all.”

Walton’s realistic approach to growing organically also accepts the fact that some of his produce – like leafy plants – might have “a few holes in them” from iguanas, agoutis or insects.

“But everything needs to eat,” he says.

Clean and biodiverse

The Slow Food movement also includes philosophies of producing food in a way that is good for theEarth and fair to the people producing it.

The concept of sustainability is complex, but at its core is the idea of producing foods ecologically responsibly so as to minimise the adverse effects on the earth and ensure future supply.

Because consumers are a part of the equation, Slow Food sees them as co-producers, in that the decisions they make when they purchase food – whether at home or in a restaurant – can affect the decisions of those in the supply chain.

Another important aspect of the Slow Food philosophy is biodiversity, which basically advocates eating a large variety of foods, ideally grown locally, so as to protect the earth from overproduction of particular species, something that often leads to damaging blights and other ecological problems.

Biodiversity dovetails with preserving food culture, another Slow Food aim.

For instance, 50 years ago in the Cayman Islands, people ate more off the land and sea than they do today, meaning they were often eating whatever was available at the time.

Since different things were ripe at different times, the foods became part of the seasonal culture of the Islands.

The Slow Food movement advocates the preservation of food culture, and in Cayman, the convivium’s events try to reflect the foods available freshly at the time.

Enjoyment and health

Slow Food also advocates taking enjoyment in food, wine and eating.

Part of that is the concept of taking time to enjoy food rather than wolfing down a quick meal. This concept is typical of European cultures, where evening meals in particular can last two or three hours.

The Slow Food movement also includes a sense of fellowship when it comes to food, drawing on a bygone era where almost all meals where eaten in the company of others.

Slow Food chapters are called ‘convivia’ – convivium in the singular – a world closely related to the English word convivial. Convivial in turn has connotations of friendliness and feasting in the company of others.

Rather than having people sit at tables of two or four, Slow Food’s events in Cayman seat people at large tables where they can enjoy each other’s company.

Courses are often served family style, adding an unpretentious, communal feel to dinners.

Slow Food is also about producing and eating nutritious, wholesome food.

On a recent visit to Cayman, Farmer Lee Jones of the Chef’s Garden farm in Huron, Ohio, told Slow Food members that there had been a 3,000 per cent increase in certain kinds of diseases that are known to be linked to diet.

“It is our personal belief that there’s a direct correlation with the way we’re farming and the health of the world,” he said.

Dawn McTaggart makes breads and other baked goods using freshly milled whole grains and other natural ingredients and sells them at the Market at the Grounds and the Weekly Market at Camana Bay on Wednesdays.

At the markets, McTaggart tries to educate people, taking the time to explain – and show through visual aids – how bread, once the staff of life, has been robbed of most of its nutrients through mass production.

Freshly milling the wheat she uses for her bread allows it to retain its nutrients, she says, noting that when wheat is milled in advance, it loses 20 per cent of its nutrients to oxidation in three hours, and 90 per cent in just three days.

McTaggart only uses a handful of natural ingredients to make her bread and she notes that commercially-made breads contain a host of chemical ingredients.

“Look at the ingredients listed on a bag of commercially made bread and see how many you can pronounce,” she says.

McTaggart says she and her husband eat a two-pound loaf of her bread every day and recommends people eat at least four or five slices daily.

“Your body will just say ‘thank you’.”

Fair prices

Farmer Lee Jones produces sustainably grown micro greens and other high-quality produce that gets shipped to restaurants all over the United States and even to Cayman. Speaking at a recent Slow Food event at Joel Walton’s Plantation House in Cayman, Jones noted the damage chain supermarkets did to the quality of produce grown in the US.

Because the business model of supermarket chains focuses on buying produce at bulk rates to reduce costs to the consumer, farmers concentrated on yield size instead of quality. Small independent grocers, who bought from farmers for quality, were soon pushed out of business because their costs were higher than chain grocers.

“Farmers are rewarded for how cheap they can produce,” he says. “We are rewarding the wrong things.”

Price is therefore an important aspect of the Slow Food philosophy in that it advocates producers being paid a fair price for the food they produce, even if it is more expensive to produce good, wholesome food.

The herbs, greens and vegetables grown by the Chef’s Garden are comparatively expensive and the only way the business can sell its products is by marketing directly to chefs, who appreciate the high quality of the tastes, textures and looks of its products. Whether the Chef’s Garden can be successful long term in a world where price is so important, remains to be seen.

“Ask me in 30 years,” Jones says.

David Cross and his wife Jackie sell low-fat sausages made by their company Caribo’s and sell them not only at Cayman’s farmers’ markets, but in the grocery stores as well.

Cross, a butcher by trade, only uses natural ingredients, shunning common additives like gluten, meat substitutes, MSG, dairy products and artificial colours.

He says making sausages this way costs more, which means a higher price to the consumer.

He says some commercial outlets what him to sell the sausage for as little as $2.50 per pound, something he just can’t do for the quality he’s producing.

Cross produces more than a dozen different sausages aimed at Cayman’s multicultural palate, and Caribo’s continues to get more recognition from residents.

Although he doesn’t use local pork for his sausage production, Cross said he’d ideally like to do that and is exploring the possibility.

However, price would be key to using local pork because he’s wary about doing anything that would increase the costs of producing his sausage.

At $10 for a 1.5-pound try of jerk chicken sausage or $6 for a one-pound loaf of whole grain bread, eating healthy and wholesome foods isn’t cheap.

The Slow Food movement advocates eating wholesomely and paying a fair price for foods.

That often entails paying more, a difficult proposition during times of economic downturn like these.

Movement growth

Today, Slow Food has grown into a global force, with 100,000 members in 1,300 convivia, plus a network of 2,000 food communities practicing the sustainable production of quality foods.

In its 20th anniversary year in 2009, more than 1,000 Slow Food events took place on Slow Foods Terra Madre – Mother Earth – Day on December 10th.

In 2010, the Cayman Islands South Sound convivium held a Harvest Dinner event at the Brasserie to celebrate Terra Madre Day for the first time in its history.

The Cayman convivium has grown so quickly – adding more than 50 members in four months – that it had to stop taking new memberships at the end of February this year.

To keep things interesting, a lot of different kinds of events are held in Cayman, and even the dinner events try to educate attendees on some aspect of food or wine.

A true test of the members’ resolve will be the proposed “Breakfast at Dawn” event at Plantation House that will feature, among other things, corn just picked off the stalk.

Corn flavour starts breaking down almost immediately after its picked and those who haven’t tasted corn cooked immediately after it was picked haven’t really tasted corn.

That’s the kind of learning experience Slow Food tries to give its members in Cayman.