Tuesday 1 March 2011

First Annual Blind Whisky Tasting

Research for an article on Alberta Premium Whisky for Alberta Venture Magazine inspired an evening of sipping, deliberation, and description.
Creative writing teachers and comedians were present. Official “whisky experts” declined to attend. Whisky brands were revealed after the seventh glass was finished and judged.

Results below (condensed by lost scraps of paper, illegible handwriting and repeat remarks):

1. Jaimeson’s: Chrome bite, July and Butterscotch, Snap of Pine, Slow blooming firework, Vanilla, Light-smoke—The kitten’s tongue vs. the lion’s roar--What’s his face?, A nice breakfast drink possibly accompanied with grapefruit
2. Alberta Springs: Astringent, Making-out with a relative, A punch in the face and a pat on the back, Tart as tiger tears, “Hey how are ya’?”, Lacks subtlety, Sleazy to bitter in one-straight line
3. Aberlour: Sunrise with good ideas in your head, Clear scent, Remembering a grandfather, Lemon tones, Like old whats’er-face, A walk in the woods with an old friend
4. Alberta Premium: Rummy, Sweater-Smell, Odd but not fascinating, It gets in my nose, Mediochre, Direct
5. Glenfiddich: Subtle in and out, Smooth, Age and distinction, Farley Mowatt’s cologne, Subtle arc, Nice smell
6. Makers Mark: Walking in the shower and liking who you see, Cherry & water, Complex, Candle wax and burnt caramel, Lacks authenticity, Goes downhill with each sip,
7. Dalwinnie: Light and bright, Flowers from childhood, A burning log, Strong to taste with bitter under-tones, Afternoon delight in an old leather chair, Exceptional, Classic, Smooth, Inappropriately friendly, What Dad smells like, Early afternoon delight

Afterword: The graphic-novel descriptions state, “I like #5! Ermmmmm… change my mind #2! No wait, #4.” Number six is drawn on a boot.
Also, earlier detractors of Alberta Premium warmed to the whisky’s charms later in the evening, many drinks later, with ice.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Gettin' Primal in the Big City

The New York Times did such a great article on the "Caveman Lifestyle" that I felt the need to head down there and spend a little time exploring the phenomenon itself. Luckily, I arrived just in time for a media-blitz: a Japanese camera crew, a few Norwegian reporters, and a Dutch reporter all came out to see them run half-naked in winter across the Brooklyn Bridge.
Emily Bodenberg (acting photographer for the day) and I also had the chance to check out cave-man John Durant's gorgeous Upper East-Side apartment. There, we chatted with Erwan LeCorre about the gash in his foot and his theories on comfort. John was also kind enough to show us his meat-locker.
Check out my slide-show on the cavemen, and await an upcoming piece on The World This Weekend.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

DIY Wheat

As grain farmers in Saskatchewan struggle through a late harvest, grain farmers on Vancouver Island are celebrating the success of their very first harvest.

Fifty families in and around the town of Duncan participated in a project to grow grains on a small scale. They celebrated their harvest by gathering at a local bakery called True Grain, where they had the opportunity to turn their grains of wheat into flower using the traditional stone mill.

The project is called Island Grains, and was started by Brock McLeod and Heather Walker.

Heather and Brock are new to farming (having just wrapped up their second season) and started growing grains after picking-up a book about small-scale wheat production at a second hand store. After one successful attempt, they decided to share their new knowledge, and build on it, by offering up a chunk of their land to anyone who was interested in trying to grow grains. They also set-up a series of workshops to help people through the process.

In the spirit of experimentation, Island Grains participants grew an array of heritage varieties with varying degrees of success, with different lessons learned. Plots of Red Fife—the first wheat to ever be grown with any success in Canada—grew well, but too tall and with heavy heads. The plants flopped over, and that made them difficult to harvest. Many participants enthusiastically planted an ancient grain called Emmer, which they got to taste at one of the Island Grain workshops. However, the seed variety turned out to be for winter, so plants grew into grasses, but never into full stalks.

One of the participants, Sandy McPherson, harvested a kilogram of Kamut from her plot.

“My husband and I were motivated by our desire to eat more locally,” McPherson says, “but we didn’t work too hard on growing our grains. Every now and then, we’d plan a bike ride to the plot so we could do some weeding.”

Next year, she says, they’ll grow Kamut on their own land, and also attempt Quinoa and Amaranth.

Sarah Simpson says her grain growing experience was anything but easy.

After not weeding for a month, she encountered weeds as tall as herself (5ft). She set to work destroying them, only to be told later by Brock that she’d, “weeded her plot to death.”

At the end of the season, Simpson harvested enough wheat for just one loaf of bread. Still, she says she had fun, and is going to try again next year.

Brock and Heather don’t know how much grain was produced on the collective plot, but if the yield resembled their plot of the same size, it would have produced some 500lbs of grain.

Note: One pound of grain produces, on average, two loaves of bread.

Sunday 7 June 2009


When you’re growing up, your town is just your town. Maybe as a teenager you hate it, but you probably can’t name the specific reasons except for maybe all the people you’re sick and tired of, your parents among them who’re driving you crazy and the fact that there’s nothing really to do at all. I don’t know if I ever directed my teenage angst directly at Kitchener-Waterloo, but I knew I wanted to get out. And out I got, when I was only 16.

I came back of course, and after only 6 months. The really strange thing is that living in a town of 300 people instead of 300 thousand people made Kitchener seem unbearably small. In Germany, I passed a river and sheep on the way to school. In Kitchener, I walked passed an Italian food store, over a railway track, through the parking lot of my Dad’s office and past a hospital. Just before actually entering school I had to walk through the “smoke hole,” where drug-deals were planned and girls came by with strollers to show-off their new babies.

I knew I wanted to get out, but mainly it was to get away from my parents, and to escape the possibility of going to a university whose populations was known to be made up predominately of "nerds". Many of those nerds did not speak English and were very into math. Many of those nerds went on to make a lot of money, and some even engineered technology considered partially responsible for our current economic crisis.

I left for university, came home, left again... There were some stints where I came back and the town surprised me: I realized how great the independent cinema was, and made a few new friends.

But I’ve been caught off guard by recent longings for the place. I actually found myself feeling a little jealous of the old friends who never left.

Getting back here though, I am shocked by the abhorrent urban landscape. In parts it seems the city’s greatest attempts at architecture come with the effort to make nice strip malls. There’s an organic food shop set up at a intersection of four-lane roads with tractor-trailers rumbling past in order to attract customers coming on and off the highway. There are tables with umbrellas set up so that when the weather gets better, customers can eat their deli sandwiches while soaking up the sun and watching the parking lot.

Residential neighbourhoods in this part of town actually have a certain charm: the brick houses are modest with peaked roofs with big trees out front for shade. Its not uncommon though, that this pleasant view will be marred by an overweight man cutting his grass while topless. In Paris, the man would be fined for this.

There are also a whole slew of new golf courses lined by monster homes. Each 700 thousand dollar home looks different, each is hideous in its own way. There are few trees except for those on the golf course, there’s nowhere to shop or socialize, but plenty of two-car driveways making ample room for Mercedes convertibles and Land Rovers.

It’s safe to say that after seeing all this, my nostalgia has waned. Then a friend tells me, “Get thee to Schneider’s Bush, you can find morel mushrooms under the white pines this time of year.” So I hop on my bike and ride through sprawl that feels like it will never end. I cycle past houses on pieces of land where only cows grazed when I was a kid. I make a left-hand turn past more of these houses until they disappear and give way to a Christmas tree farm and I’m almost there. There is a lone stop sign at the end of the road where I can lock-up my bike and, I step into the woods.

Almost immediately I find a mushroom, but I realize I don’t know what a morel actually looks like, and this one just looks like one of the regular white ones that may or may not be poisonous, so I keep walking. For five minutes I can hear the nearby road and I half hope I’ll always hear that road—for fear of getting lost. The sound fades quickly though, and I march on. I stop to watch a beetle who seems to be making-love to a twig, then am urged on by the mosquitoes attacking my knees.

Soon I come to a clearing covered in tall grass sloping upwards. Except for the trees along the bottom, this place would make a perfect toboggan run. A rabbit darts under some brush. Maybe he was planning to do that anyway. Maybe he was startled the large intruder that’s stumbled out of the woods—by me.

When I reach the top I look at where I’ve come from, over what should be the city—but all I see are treetops. Where am I? Have I just walked through a magical wardrobe?

I decide to walk through another section of forest and find another, much larger clearing. The hum of traffic I’ve been living in has been replaced by a cricket symphony. A crow calls out from the far end of the field, and sweeter little birds chirp around me. I stand there for a while just to listen and feel the sun. The grass brushes around my legs and then the mosquitoes resume their attack. I move on.

This next patch of forest is different from the last. The pathways are not covered with a layer of dried pine needles. Instead I walk on hardened deep-brown mud criss-crossed with roots. It gives the impression an older forest—a deeper, darker and more mystical sort of place. The air is wet in here, and I wonder if maybe I might bump into someone at some point. But it’s pretty clear I’m alone: the only movement in this forest comes from scurrying animals or the odd bird.

Down another hill and around another corner my eye gets stuck on something bright green. I look harder and see that it’s a pond covered in moss and the sun is shining on it.

The next clearing is a farmer’s field—acres of land that used to be corn. I’m getting a bit worried now, because this isn’t what I was expecting. So I resume my former path, and try to get back to the first big clearing. I’m relieved to find it and let my legs go loose down the hill and back into the forest.

I don't hear the road here as I hoped I would. In fact, I come out to another spot that looks unfamiliar. Have I completely misjudged my path?

“Hello!” I call out, even though I know no one will answer. I briefly imagine the search party formed to find me, which they probably will quite quickly but if not, my greatest risk of death will be the mosquitoes. I hear my father’s voice chastising me for coming out here alone.

Then I see a house and rush towards it. There are two little gardens and to me the place is perfect. I walk right on the road then change my mind and go left—I see my bike 200 meters away.

Kitchener-Waterloo has been redeemed.

As I unlock my bike and put my sweatshirt in my bag, I hear a car come to a screeching halt behind me.

“Hey you!” The driver yells, “You know where the Alpine Trailer Park is?”

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Oh-La-La: Meet Natasha Cloutier

I discovered Radio Oh-La-La on Boingboing.net in the fall of 2006, and I'm not sure why I started listening, other than the fact that I love boing-boing. The podcast's creator is Natasha Cloutier, and since coming to Europe, I've been determined to meet her. I finally got the chance when I went to Amsterdam at the end of March. She's great, and she's definitely on to something. To me, she's proof that you shouldn't do what people tell you or try to make money--you should just find something you love and sink your teeth in. Have a listen, I've linked her blog in to the right...

There might be 50 thousand techno DJ’s in Holland, but there is only one Natasha Cloutier.

She spins regularly on Sunday night at a club called De Nieuwe Anita in central Amsterdam. Her audience is mostly Dutch, but the regulars, apparently, have come to learn some of the music she plays well enough to sing along.

You see, Natasha has converted Dutch-hipsters into lovers of French-rock. I’m convinced that if Natasha had stepped into one of my French immersion classrooms, she really could have turned things around for my poor, suffering teachers.

Those teachers made us listen to Roche Voisine. He grew up in Edmunston, New Brunswick, but made it big as a rock-star in the French-speaking world. Apparently he was a heart-throb in France, I was never convinced.

Some of today’s French teachers seem to agree with me about Natasha. When I met her she told me she’d been helping a teacher in California with the lyrics to LOVE by Nat King Cole:

L est pour la façon dont tu me regardes
O est le seul pour moi
V est très très extra-ordinaire
E est encore plus que quiconque que vous pouvez adorer

Nat King Cole, by the way, didn’t know French, but he learned it phonetically in order to sing.

Natasha does a lot of lyrical, and historical explaining of the songs featured in her podcast—Radio Oh La La, Franco a Go-Go. For example, it might not be common knowledge that “My Way,” by Frank Sinatra, was originally written in French. Paul Anka is credited as a co-composer of the song, because he essentially re-wrote Gilles Thibau’s original lyrics.

What makes Natasha’s podcasts so great is the fact that she really knows and connects to the music—and she’s a natural translator. Her enthusiasm helps her audience forge their own connections with the music.

On top of dj-ing gigs and podcasting, Natasha runs her own copy-writing and translating company. She speaks French, English, Dutch and Russian all fluently.

She told me that it took her ages to actually openly appreciate French-language music. She’s an only child—so on road-trips with her Francophone mum and Anglophone Dad—she was exposed to a mix of Stevie Wonder, The Beejees, Janice Joplin, Joe Dassin, and Jean-Pierre-Ferlin. For ages, she told me, she was actually embarrassed about loving French music, but she came out of the closest when she started attending a popular weekly gig of French music in Montreal called, “C’est Extra.”

Natasha grew up all over Quebec (her Dad was in the military) but having a parent on both sides of the bilingual divide never allowed her the luxury of fitting into either culture.

“During the first referendum (1980), both French and English kids threw stones at me.”

It’s the French side Natasha says she relates to, and she told me she’s not much into heading West from Quebec, because she always feels such a strong prejudiced from English-Canadians when they hear her last name.

This doesn’t make her any more accepting of French narrow-mindedness.

“For years,” she told me, “My step-mother refused to learn English, but still went to Florida every year and relied on my father to translate. It made me crazy.”

Natasha told me this politics, this linguistic and cultural prejudice definitely played a role in her move to Europe.

The Dutch, she told me, are terrified of anything French.

“They consider it exotic, and France is just a place to go on nice holidays,” she said.

Natasha’s got a strategy going to get over this hurdle, and it seems to be working: Get the novices on board, and just get people communicating.

Thursday 23 April 2009

A Way-Too-Long Entry: Transition Town Totnes

ABOVE: Paul & Ivana Barclay's cob house.

I went to Totnes in January... so I am a bit behind in posting this. You can also listen to a documentary version of this story on Dispatches, March 23.

When you dream of the future, do you see Mad Max, The Jetsons, or something else entirely?

People in Totnes, England, spend a lot of time on that dream, and they see all kinds of things. Here are a few of the dreams I encountered on my trip to the town: vegetarian totalitarianism, alternative power for rock bands, shark attacks in English rivers, food shortages, water wars, and petroleum driven cars being preserved as monuments.

Three years ago, a guy named Rob Hopkins returned to Totnes, his hometown, in order to put his latest idea to the test. He had been living in Ireland and teaching a course on permaculture when someone handed him a copy of a film called, “The End of Suburbia.”

It’s an apocalyptic look at what happens to suburban life when there’s no more gas for the SUV, never mind the trucks and planes that ship food from other continents.

In his rural existence, growing all his own food, Rob figured he was safe from the fate of suburbanites.

“Then it dawned on me—I was living in suburbia, it just didn’t look the same! I had to drive from where I was to go to socialize, go to shops, to take my kids anywhere… it came as a big shock to my system.”

He took the film into class and made a project out of how to solve the problem of oil dependency. The result was the “Transition Town”—a concept that harnessed the creative energy of a community to create an “energy descent” roadmap.

When Rob made his return to Totnes a short time later, he started knocking on doors and talking to people he thought might be interested in the idea. He started hosting talks and film nights about peak oil and climate change, holding brainstorming sessions and workshops…

“When it started out, we had a few ideas,” Rob told me, “We put those out to people and they then went off and played around, added things, took things away, the model keeps being changed all the time. It’s something that learns from its successes and its failures all the time.”

So three years-in, there are some 300 people on board in the Totnes Transition Town project. They’ve established a local currency, a garden share project, a local food directory, and are working on a multitude of others.

A word that gets tossed around a lot in transition circles is “resilience.” Rob says it’s a word he prefers over sustainability.

“Sustainability implies that you can keep everything going as it is at the moment in a kind of globalized economic model,” he says, “You just run the car on hydrogen and you stick a solar panel on the top and everything else is just exactly the same.”

When it comes to big, global systems, problems are easy to ignore. By the time they’re obvious, they’re enormous, and seemingly out of control. Localized systems bring problems closer to home and down to scale.

In his book, Rob acknowledges the struggles and hardships that existed in before highways and shopping malls, but I can’t help but agree with him in the belief that there might be a lot to learn from that era.

He quotes a passage from Great Expectations that describes the outskirts of London around 1870:

Wemmick's house was a little wooden cottage in the midst of plots of garden, and the top of it was cut out and painted like battery mounted with guns…

“At the back, there's a pig, and there are fowls and rabbits; then I knock together my own little frame, you see, and grow cucumbers; and you'll judge at supper what sort of salad I can raise. So, sir," said Wemmick, smiling again, but seriously too, as he shook his head, “ If you can suppose the little place besieged, it would hold out a devil of a time in point of provisions."

Then he conducted me to a bower about a dozen yards off, but which was approached by such ingenious twists of path that it took quite a long time to get at; and in this retreat our glasses were already set forth. Our punch was cooling in an ornamental lake, on whose margin the bower was raised. This piece of water (with an island in the middle which might have been the salad for supper) was of a circular form, and he had constructed a fountain in it, which, when you set a little mill going and took a cork out of a pipe, played to that powerful extent that it made the back of your hand quite wet.

"I am my own engineer, and my own carpenter, and my own plumber, and my own gardener, and my own Jack of all Trades…”

Wemmick’s got a pride in his home that can’t be bought at Ikea, or secured by a low-interest mortgage (which we don’t need to worry about any more).

I encountered a similar kind of pride when I met Paul and Ivana Barclay, who are in the midst of building their family home in the town of Dartington—just next to Totnes.

Paul used to work in IT for a telephone company, and until he and Ivana decided to build this house… he’d never worked with his hands before.

The house, by the way, is made of cob—earth from a hole in the yard has been mixed with straw from a nearby field to make the walls. The roof is thatched, and stuffed with recycled sheep’s wool for insulation. Ninety percent of the materials used to build this house have been imported from no more than 10 kilometers away.

Ivana says that while the house may fall in-line with many ecologically-sound principles—that’s not their motivation for building it. She says she wanted a house that tied her family to their forefathers—and this is very much like the houses that would have been built in this part of England before energy sucking steam engines.

Paul told me that before starting, he was intimidated by the idea of building his own house.

“But this is doable for anyone,” he told me, “And I can’t wait to build another.”

Paul says the family should be able to move into the house by summertime.

Paul and Ivana don't even consider themselves a part of Transition Town Totnes, but by opening up their home to curious passers-by, and using local resources, skills and support for their personal project--they definitely are. They're work proves what's possible, and that dreams can actually come true.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

A Lesson in Protest: How to Drive Away the Cops

Engage them in conversation, flatter them, and don’t take yourself seriously.

That’s what this guy did. I happened upon him, just as he was telling her that she was beautiful.

He went on:

You’re not a police officer. You are a divine human being, really, that’s how I see you. And the whole problem with this situation is you’re hiding behind that uniform, and won’t even tell me your name. We can’t actually have a proper conversation and work all this out. Seriously, what do you think of all of this?

I didn’t hear her response, only his response to her response:

She thinks I’m going to get bored of this. NO WAY! She doesn’t know my wife and kids. If I get bored of this, then I have to go home to them and read stories until they fall asleep.

Now let’s talk about lies…

At this point he pulls out a ten-pound note, and starts telling a story about how he went to the Bank of England last week. He asked the cashier for the ten pounds stirling the note is said to be worth. Of course, they offered him £10 worth of change, but refused his demand for ten pounds of silver. Hence, the note is a lie.

The whole altercation, if you can call it that, lasted for a very short time. As the guy continued to talk, every few minutes the most senior police officer came along and gave the order for the wall of police officers to move back. Eventually they were against a wall. Then they disappeared altogether.