Indeed, trees define a huge part of our national identity – and our food – in this country. Speak to any foreigner about their image of Canada and it will almost universally be of “wilderness” and the wide expanse of mountains, water, open spaces, and trees.
Growing up, everywhere I turned, there were trees. There were two big spruce trees on our front lawn (at least until I was in my early teens when a drunk driver missed the corner of our street and wiped out the telephone pole and one of the spruce before coming to rest 10 feet from my bedroom window). There was the mighty elm in the rear that served as both jungle gym and home plate in our backyard ball diamond. There were the jack and ponderosa pines that littered the hills throughout the Okanagan Valley, including the hill behind our home where my childhood best friend and I would play, gather the fallen branches, and construct enormous forts and imagine ourselves transported to a medieval era. There were the larch trees, bare of branches except at the top, which my father prized as wood for our hearth … and which I spent winters dedicated to splitting and gathering. There were the many birch trees whose bark was harvested for a school project requiring me to make native-American inspired dioramas replete with birch bark canoes and teepees (I know: it was the ’70s). Everywhere there were indigenous trees and some which were transplanted. And then there were the orchards … everywhere there were orchards.
Orchards were my backyard – they were even my front yard. Across the street there was an orchard of sour cherries whose soft pink buds and white blossoms announced every spring of my youth. They filled the vista behind our front neighbours’ homes, including the family of school teachers directly across from us whose garden verged on the orchard; one night, Frank decided to raid the nearby trees to make homemade cherry wine in his basement. It is a smell and taste I’ll never forget … and neither are good memories. There were the prune trees that skirted our subdivision, remnants of what grew there before young families were planted. There were the massive Bing cherry trees which ripened right after school let out and which provided my first paying job outside my neighbourhood. And there were the apple trees, plentiful and everywhere, apples …. Apples defined my home and its history – it was, after all, Father Pandosy and his Mission that pioneered the introduction of apples and irrigation to the Okanagan and which in turned opened up the interior of BC.
If the mountains of BC are like a mother’s hug, reassuring, tight, and heartfelt close, the apple trees of Kelowna are the downy duvet keeping me safe, giving me comfort, and providing me place.
Fruit nourished me; it powered me; it provided me an identity. I grew up eating fruit that was abundant, in season, and always fresh. I knew almost instinctively when the cherries would come; the apricots; the prunes and plums; the peaches and pears … and each variety of apple in succession. I drank gallons of Sun-Rype juice and ate fruit fresh from the trees. With apples, the routine was precise: spy a tree – Spartans were my favourite – search for the perfect apple with the right amount of red and green, grasp it by the stem whilst holding the globe of fruit in palm, twist, and pull. I’d then polish it on whatever shirt I was wearing until my own face was mirrored in the skin, and I’d take that first explosive bite where the juices would burst around my teeth locked into the flesh and I’d then bite harder, while slurping the syrup and nectar, feeling the apple skin pressing into and lifting the gums of my teeth, and then with a crisp break, the mouthful of apple would enter my mouth and I would crunch the most satisfying of crunches.
That was the taste of fall for me for half my life. Oh how I wish it could have been preserved but few apples taste the same once separated from their crowded canopies.
My own immediate family, themselves products of hardworking but poor rural families, had the tradition to preserve the agricultural bounty that grew around us. Quart-sized jars of cherries, pears, peaches and strawberries filled our cold-storage room and so when fall and winter arrived, my feast on fruit never slowed. There was no limit on how much fruit my sister and I were ever allowed to eat.
But apples were never preserved. This was in large part because my father hated them, contending that too often as a child they were served breakfast, lunch and dinner. Consequently, I only knew apples in season. And, at the risk of being arrested for petty larceny, I only knew apples that came ‘free.’ At the age of seventeen or so, my grandmother, who was minding my sister and me while my parents were away, asked me to “Pick up some apples on my way home from school.” So without pause and as I often did, I stopped my car beside a convenient orchard, got out, filled my shirt with apples from a tree, and hopped back in my car and brought them home. My grandmother asked where I had stopped to buy them … to which I offered a feeble lie which quickly became the truth as her eyes penetrated me. She half-earnestly rolled her eyes and scolded me while trying to hold back her smile. I was nineteen and living in Calgary and desperate for that childhood taste when I purchased my first apple … and promptly spit it out after I took the first bite.
On my road to becoming a foodie, I’ve entered snobbery on a variety of fronts, from beer to trout, but my original sin was with apples. I’m not sure how many nineteen-year olds rove through farmers markets and pick up individual apples and press them to their noses as if these pieces of fruit were the fallen, perfumed handkerchiefs of unattainable damsels, but that was me. I’ve always believed that it should smell like an apple on the outside or it won’t taste like an apple on the inside. And it has been me on countless occasions instructing total strangers in markets and fruit stands on how to pick the right apples for eating, pies … or jelly.
A few weeks shy of my sixteenth birthday, I headed for Quebec as a billet and as part of my school’s French exchange program. Ironically, a good portion of the money we fundraised for the trip came from splitting, transporting, and stacking cords of wood. There were plenty of firsts on that trip, including my first kiss, but the one ‘first’ that has continued to last was my immediate love of real maple syrup.
Ah, the maple … how can anyone question the importance of trees to Canadian identity and our food identity itself when a red maple leaf adorns our nation’s flag? We didn’t choose any of numerous iconic animals; we didn’t choose sabers or celestial objects. We chose an aesthetic, mutable and ephemeral object tied to sugar. The maple leaf, green in most varieties, turns red in some varieties because of the relatively high sugar (glucose) content in these maple trees produced by the leaves and their raging photosynthesis. With the advent of fall, this sugar is stockpiled as starch in the body of the trees and in winter, this starch turns to liquid and becomes the sap used to make maple syrup.
It was almost 30 years ago that I made that first trip to Quebec … and it was 11 years ago, almost to the day, and likewise the week before Thanksgiving, that I flew from Halifax to Ottawa and thus over Quebec again. As the plane broke through the clouds I looked at the landscape beneath me and all I saw was a sea of red. I am a Western Canadian boy for who red is an apple but in that moment of peering out my airplane window I knew what it was to be Canadian and why we chose that leaf to adorn our flag. I was in awe.
A year later I chose to leave my then home in Yellowknife and I moved to Ottawa. It is a city I love as dearly as any place I’ve lived. As I’ve recalled in the nostalgia of previous posts, when I returned home to BC this past summer, I was reminded that BC will always be home and will always be in my heart. BC fills me with the cherished unconditional love of a mother for her son; that will never change. Ottawa, however, fills me with the love of a wife to whom I have chosen to commit my heart.
Ottawa is surrounded by maples … and by ultra-sweet sugar maples. From Lanark County to the south and west, the “Maple Syrup Capital of Canada,” to the Gatineau hills to the north, to the expanse of maples that pull us sweetly into Quebec and the Eastern Townships, Ottawa is at the centre of some of the best maple syrup in the world. And by complete chance, soon after I moved here, I ended up living at the bottom of a hill that housed the only working sugar shack left in the city itself. For a boy that had fallen in love at the age of sixteen with his first maple kiss, there was no better place to land.
I only need to speak to native Ontarians or my family out West to know that I straddle two very different worlds. There is part of my family that thinks I’ve betrayed a sacred trust by moving East; and there is local skepticism here that just doesn’t get why the West has been ticked off for so long and doesn’t just “grow up.” I sit in the midst of that sometimes turbulent relationship and, not surprisingly, it’s not always easy to keep my feet on the ground and know where I belong.
And so it was natural to me that when presented with the challenge to “preserve” that this is where I landed. Trees and their abundance are so integrally part of this country’s food tradition – and I have now described my relationship to the two trees that have nourished and produced so much of who I am. Therefore, it seemed no less than obvious to me that my “preserve” should include them both: maple-apple jelly, two poles of this country united in one jar, a synthesis of tastes that speak to a country vast and an identity that is common.
Since I left the Okanagan Valley so many years ago, I’ve continued to hold onto those trees and those childhood flavours and smells. They ground me. Now, when I return to my hometown, my heart winces to see apple orchards slowly disappearing and giving way to estate homes, golf courses, and the more sexy and profitable cash-crop of grapes destined for wineries growing in international acclaim. However, in this jar of maple-apple jelly (recipe follows here), those trees not only are preserved, but my present is also captured. In that mix of floral sweetness and earthy sugar, I’ve not only merged flavours, but I have narrowed the distance of this country and I have found belonging.
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On the 7th of each month, participants in the year-long Canadian Food Project share their collective stories across the vastness of our Canadian landscape through our regional food experiences. As I personally think Canadians do have a food identity, the hope of the project is that we will bring clarity to our Canadian culinary identity through the cadence of our concerted Canadian voice. I strongly encourage you to participate by visiting the many other great voices and websites out there.