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Food and drink: A tale of two dinners

A rich squash and a baby duck: their stories from start to finish

One is a Queensland Blue. Right now it's a little sprout, but one day it will produce strikingly blue-toned squash that look like silvery moons with rich orange flesh inside.

The other is a Muscovy duckling - a ball of yellow and grey-brown fluff that hatched from its mottled pale purple egg only a few days ago. Today it's as big as a three-year-old's fist but soon it will grow into a handsome bird, maybe 8 to 12 pounds, prized for its tasty meat.

Both are from suppliers dedicated to diversified food sources, and both are being raised on farms in Pemberton Valley - the squash by Sarah McMillan at Rootdown Organics and the duckling by Jennie Helmer at Helmer's Organic Farm that's been in her family for more than a century.

This is the first of several installments about these two local foods to come over the next eight months or so. The final chapter of the series will take us into the cool of fall, when Canadian farmers traditionally reap what they've sown, providing the weather and pests and predators have been kind.

Sarah and Jennie will be our "field" correspondents throughout, sharing their respective tales from hatchling and seedling to dinner plate, come what may.

To start, we present...

 

The Queensland Blue

The Queensland Blue is close to Sarah McMillan's heart.

Growing up in Sydney, Australia, her mom, who is an excellent cook, would often serve it for "Sunday roast," a traditional dinner centred around the obligatory roast lamb or beef with crunchy roasted potatoes, a green veggie and, often, roasted Queensland Blue, called pumpkin not squash in Australia.

Scientifically speaking, pumpkins are squash, or is that vice versa? But different customs beget different names, and different climates beget different eating habits: Aussies eat more fresh fruits and veggies than do we winter-bound Canucks, largely due to quality and availability.

So back in January, when the snows in Pemberton were 30 feet deep, or at least it felt that way, Sarah and her partner, Gavin Wright, were already poring over seed catalogues with excitement.

"It's my favourite part," says Sarah. "It's like being a kid in the candy store. You have all these glossy colourful pictures of all the different varieties and it's, like, I'll take one of these and one of these - it's really fun."

Usually they get carried away, ending up with more seeds than intended, 87 different kinds to be exact this year, seven of them flowers - Sarah loves flowers - and 80 different vegetables, including the Queensland Blue.

The seeds came from a small organic supplier in Sooke called Full Circle Seeds ( http://www.fullcircleseeds.com/ ) - a "seed saver" focussed on heirloom varieties, like the Queensland Blue, and other unique seeds.

Once they arrived by mail, they were mouse-proofed in containers and kept cool until it was time to plant them in two-inch cells in plastic trays in the greenhouse.

Sarah and Gavin mix their own potting soil - peat moss from Canada's north (the moss grows quicker than it's harvested, so it's sustainable); Sea Soil from Port Hardy, made from composted fish waste and forest litter; and Perlite, a water-holding volcanic rock.

When it comes to planting, timing is everything.

"Basically, we work backwards. Getting the seedlings in the field all depends on when the last frost is going to pass, how dry the ground is, and the warmth of the soil and the air temperature," she says.

This spring was cool and wet. The coolness was challenging enough, but the wetness in the heavy Pemberton soil meant fields couldn't be tilled until last week. The seeds they started earlier, like onions, have had to wait and now they're dying to get out of their "cells."

But the squash seeds were timed just right, planted only the week before last. Here they are, already germinated into beautiful sprouts, each with two fleshy, dark green oval leaves still bound together by the white seed husk on top.

Eventually they'll push their seed heads off and open up like butterfly wings, ready for the field in later May and well on their way to producing Queensland Blues.

 

The Muscovy duck

Momma Muscovy duck is Hannah; dad is George. And by the time you read this, baby duck - who won't be named because he, or she, is destined for the dinner table - will be eight days old, a ball of fluffy yellow the same colour as Hannah's legs.

Muscovy ducks are a rare breed in more ways than one. In the first place, like most of the other animals on the Helmer farm, they're there because they were on the Rare Breeds Canada ( www.rarebreedscanada.ca/ ) conservation list.

Once common on North American farms (the breed is native to Mexico and South America), these distinctive ducks, with their white squarish bodies and mottled green and black markings, red leathery faces and Mohawk-style feather tufts, are no longer used in commercial food production.

"All the reasons you can think of for a commercial farm, they didn't suit, but for us they suit perfectly," says Jennie. "They produce really well, they're really hardy, they're so friendly, they're lovely, and they are quite smart, which is handy for a duck because they don't have a lot of fighting mechanisms."

They also get along really well with the other animals.

In fact, it was the chickens who announced with their raucous cackling the arrival of baby duck and sibling, the only two of five eggs that hatched for Hannah this spring, perhaps due to the unseasonable coolness.

"She'll make a nest out of the white downy feathers from her chest, lay eggs every day for about two weeks, and then when she decides she has enough, she'll just sit there for 28 to 32 days, depending," says Jennie. "It's amazing - she'll sit there for maybe 10 hours straight, then go out at night for some water and food."

George doesn't help much but he hangs around nearby looking out for the family, and he's calm and good with the babies. Outside, a net protects all the feathered friends from their main predator - ravens.

Unlike chickens, ducks don't lay eggs every day, and they tend to lay mostly in spring, so duck eggs are not plentiful.

Almost twice the size of chicken eggs, they have a distinctive taste - not a favourite with Jennie. But some customers, mostly Europeans, go for the eggs and the rich-tasting Muscovy duck meat in a big way - something baby duck may not wish to know about at this stage.

 

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who never squashed a duck egg.

 

 




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