Eat Alberta 2012: I do, and I did.

What happens when 100+ curious, food-loving Albertans get together for a day of hands-on and educational food sessions? A whole lot of food-love, that’s what.

April 14th, 2012 was the day of the 2nd Eat Alberta conference hosted by NAIT, and organized by a whiz-bang team of local food supporters consisting of: 
Suzanne Dennis,
 Ming Franks,
Valerie Lugonja,
 Mack Male,
 Nicole Schroth,
 Allan Suddaby and
 Sharon Yeo.  The presenters’ list read like the family tree of a Bon Appetit sire and a Cordon Bleu dame. With a roster like that, ticket buyers knew this was going to be one heck of a food extravaganza, and it was.

The day got off to an early start with breakfast and coffee held at Ernest’s.  Conversation flitted from table to table as attendees introduced themselves to each other and compared their class schedules. Choosing classes was no easy task. How can you choose between learning how to make sausage and learning how to make gnocchi? Or, would one really give up beer tasting for gleaning knowledge on safe mushroom foraging? Choosing the wrong beer could be disastrous! How about the art of baking sourdough bread? Is that more important than making cheese? One cannot live on bread alone you know, and who hasn’t wanted to learn how to cook bison properly? What about the knife skills needed to carve, slice and dice that animal.

At 9 a.m. all attendees assembled for the morning keynote session to listen to Shannon and Danny Ruzicka of Nature’s Green Acres farm talk about “Life on the Back 40”. We learned of the importance of moving animals from pen to pen in order for the land to renew itself; we leaned of how sensitive chickens are to change and what social animals they are; we learned of the importance of raising animals on grass instead of grain and without hormones and antibiotics; we learned that Ruzicka’s pigs don’t wallow in their own poop, preferring the spa-like attributes of good clean mud and water, and lastly we learned why Danny doesn’t like bees.

This is NOT Shannon and Danny, but I didn’t take a picture of them at the conference, so consider this a stand-in photo.

Most importantly we learned that people like the Ruzickas work hard not only to put conscientiously raised food on their own table, but on the tables of Albertans as well. Hopefully now, more people will understand why someone like award-winning Chef Blair Lebsack supports this young farming family and why his Range Road 135 Field to Fork dinner on their property last year was a phenomenal success.

 By 10 a.m. we were off to our first class, The Art of Sausage Making with sausage master, Allan Suddaby.
The Intense, Passionate Suddaby

I had, through the food community, heard about Suddaby and was aware of people’s adoration of the man, but I had no idea the level of knowledge he had, nor the passion he possessed for the product. Eat Alberta was wise in choosing this presenter for a class. We learned about the meat, the casings, the technique of stuffing and the science behind everything sausage. About two minutes into the session I became a Suddabite. One hour was not enough to soak up this man’s wit, skill and expertise.

Contemplative, yet daring to go where no sausage maker has gone before
Class two was chosen to ease away the stress and undo hardships of all that early morning sausage learning. Our second class was Beer Tasting with CBC beer columnist, Jason Foster.

I don’t know why more people didn’t sign up for beer tasting in the morning slot.  A low class enrolment in the early session meant more beer for those of us who put a lot of thought into scheduling.

Jason Foster in action
I went into this class with what I thought was a lot of beer knowledge, so, I was surprised to find myself leaning in, intently listening to Foster explain the differences between ales and lagers, hops and malts, and why Czech beer tastes so good. I learned that I don’t like super-hoppy beer but could see it being more palatable say, if it was served with bacon and eggs in a morning session. (Maybe next year?)
the view from my desk

Fortified by sausage and beer, we headed to the dining area to have lunch. Us foodies needed more food, and NAIT stuck to the theme of local by providing lunch made with local products. Nicely done.

After lunch we found our way to our next scheduled session: How to Make Mozzarella. If you have milk, a pot, a thermometer, and a tablet of rennet, you too can make cheese—it’s really that simple. However, I was a bit busy tweeting and texting and my curd neglect resulted in a pathetic blob of white “stuff”. NAIT’s Chef Alan Roote, a very kind and patient instructor, said this of my cheese: “Well, I’ve seen worse.”  Bless him.
Doomed cheese?

We put our mozza balls into ziplock bags and placed them in the cooler to set until we could take them home at the end of the day.  When I opened the cooler door and saw everyone else’s perfect cheese balls lined up, I have to admit I was tempted to exchange mine with Carmen Cheng’s (@FoodKarma) whose mozza mound looked like it came straight from Italy. But somehow, through the miracle of science, cooling, and absolute fluke, my cheese transformed into a rather tasty, somewhat toothsome oblong mass of mozzarella.

 Our final class: Bison with Blair Lebsack where Lebsack had three cuts of bison on the go: brisket, sirloin roast, and striploin steaks. A huge pan of root vegetable hash was caramelizing its way to glory while Blair instructed us on the finer points of bison nutrition, versatility, trimming and cooking methods. I love Lebsack’s unwavering level of food integrity, his skill, his creativity and his commitment to conscientiously raised foods. I vow to have more bison on my table.
Blair Lebsack trimming bison striploin
Cutting into bison brisket

By 3:45 we waddled into the final session where a panel of food warriors (Shannon Ruzicka, Amy Beaith, Kevin Kossowan, Jeff Senger, Allan Suddaby) expounded on How to Survive a Zombie Apocalypse using personal methods of food preservation, caching, fermenting and storage techniques. It has to be said that no one on the panel has yet encountered a zombie, but I have no doubt that come the day of the Apocalypse, we’re all better off now knowing what to do to survive.  In all seriousness, we learned that it doesn’t take much to sustain oneself either by growing one’s own food, or trading with others who do. It takes commitment and heart; two things Albertans have a heck of a lot of.

Warning: Members of the Panel Are Not as Docile as They Appear
After all that learning it was time to “wine down”.  The Eat Alberta team organized one last event to cap off the day with a wine and food pairing, giving attendees one last chance to compare notes and revel in what they had just experienced. Spectacular wines from Ex Nihilo, Barr Estate Winery, and Birds and Bees were paired with beautiful food mini-bites. The wine down was so wonderful that no one wanted to leave. It was one of those “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” happenings, but home we went, our heads and bellies full of knowledge and food.

And all that for $125. I’ve been to conferences where I’ve learned less and paid more, and where the food was hardly fit to eat. Thanks to the organizers, the presenters, the volunteers and to NAIT. For those interested in next year’s conference, keep your ears on the foodvine; tickets are going to be one hot item.

Speaking of tickets, be careful where you park. Right, Kevin?

Steve, aka Johnny Lawyer on the Spot, tending to a “Much Ado About Nothing” parking incident.
Much more erudite blogposts on Eat Alberta have been posted. Please check out my fellow food bloggers: Sarah at A Random Sampling, and photographer-extraordinaire, Maki, from In My Element.

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