Stewarding an Almaguin Terroir – by Greg Waters

I have been an Almaguin Highlander for over 19 years. Prior to arriving, I had little intention—and even less inclination when landing in 3 1/2 feet of snow—to stay for very long. The plan was simple, spend three weeks crafting a mosaic stone floor at Northern Edge Algonquin, then return to sunny Southern Ontario to garden, cook and eat. It was within the first week, however, that environment and happenstance collided and coalesced in a manner that led me to pull-up my urban roots and transplant my soul into the backwoods of the Almaguin Highlands.

In one way or another I have been involved in gardening and cooking for almost 40 years. My family and most of our neighbours, kept small vegetable and flower gardens in at least one corner of their suburban back yards. It was commonplace that the bounty of these gardens, and food in general, was celebrated as the highlight of the neighbourhood block party. Which street won the annual baseball game was quickly forgotten once the afternoon rivals tucked into Walter M.’s eight- hour wood-fired rotisserie chicken. Being a part of this food history informed my later pursuits as a gardener and a cook because it nourished my soul. In particular it was the authenticity of the social relationships that underpinned these experiences which added a dimension to my eventual gardening and cooking that was somewhat akin to the “muscle memory” achieved by repetitive physical practice. In my case, however, I believe it went a little deeper, even so far as to suggest that I have soulfood in my bones.

Soon after relocating in the Almagiun Highlands and moving to the nature retreat at the Edge, I planted a garden. Not much grew, and for a few years I spent more time swinging a hammer and paddling a kayak than I did sowing seeds and caramelizing onions. Although my building and guiding pursuits yielded many and varied rewards, they lacked the sense of spatial and temporal rootedness which I craved. Bearing witness to the surrounding landscape and the changing seasons was not enough. I sought to engage in the terroir of the place that I was making my home. As fortune would have it, events twisted and intentions conspired in a manner that led me to embrace gardening and cooking in a manner that nourished my soul. For this round, I possessed a greater sensitivity to regional and seasonal particularities. More significantly, I sought to garden and cook as a steward in relationship to the land and—equally important—to the folk who where seeking similar connections.

To be sure, my sense of terroir has as much to do with sociology as it does geology, botany and meteorology. Imagining the landscape and its inhabitants as a duality, instead of separate—and at times desperate—entities allows me to offer a taste of place that reflects the specifics of region and season as well as provide a simultaneous snapshot of the varied personalities and endeavours of the folk responsible for growing the ingredients with which I cook. To be sure, at least ninety percent of the ingredients with which I cook are nurtured by the hands of others. Given this, I seek to establish relationships with as many growers and producers as possible. In my experience, partnership provides for fuller flavour profiles in the food that I prepare because it allows for the possibility of a deeper connection to the grower. When stories of their successes—as well as trials—are shared, I am afforded the opportunity to create menu items which reflect what works and—what does not—in the context of their pursuit of a livelihood.

As of late, I have been considering my relationship to food without reference to what is often heralded as “sustainable.” Rather than attempting to shore up the current state of affairs, my point of departure is to ask what can I do to regenerate my connection to the land from which I seek to draw physical and spiritual sustenance. From this vantage, the question is not “What do I want to grow, source and cook?”, but alternatively, “What will this land allow me to have without harming the generations who shall inherit the consequences of my choices?”  So with every seed that is sown, trip to a neighbouring farm, or wood-fired pizza creation, I endeavour to steward an Almagiun Terroir in a way that leads to the regeneration of my connection to this place and its people.

Gregor Waters is the co-founder/co-owner of Stonemote Cottage (an “offthegrid” food stand, experience & event venue, est. 2009, located 2km east of South River). In symbiosis with his pursuits at Stonemote Cottage, Gregor serves as a steward at Northern Edge Algonquin, where he has been building, gardening and cooking since 1997. For the past 6 years he has held the chair of the Near North Locavores and for the last 3 years has volunteered with the South River Agricultural Society’s “100 Mile Dinner” and “Taffy Pull”. Since committing to penning a few of his half-baking thoughts for this article, he has considered a more extensive exploration into the notion of regional terroir, taste of place and the folk that make pursuing such endeavours worth the effort. 

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