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Alberta gardens helping revitalize interest in forgotten prairie foods

Author: Julie van Rosendaal

Julie is a Calgary-based cookbook author, food columnist, food writer, editor, and eater of all things delicious.


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Although Alberta isn’t generally thought of as a gardening haven, it has some unique qualities that make it a great place for growing produce. An abundance of sunny days and cool nights make up for a short growing season by helping develop the natural sugars in many fruits and veggies, making for some of the sweetest asparagus in the spring, followed by corn and carrots in late summer and fall.

These qualities are being rediscovered thanks to a resurgence of interest in back-to-the-basics eating – a food renaissance in which chefs and home cooks have gone back to planting backyard gardens, keeping bees and putting up their own preserves. Eating locally and seasonally has evolved beyond learning what grows well here to what varieties of edible plants are indigenous to the Alberta prairies –those crops that were cultivated centuries ago and helped shape our culinary history and present food culture.

Fort Calgary
Many visitors to Fort Calgary, the interpretive centre on the site of the city’s original building, are unaware of the community garden out back, which has come more into view as the area around it has developed into a pedestrian and bike-friendly parkspace. It represents the original garden planted by the North West Mounted Police in the same spot in 1883, which was maintained by a police officers and prisoners to feed themselves until 1914.

Today, horticulturalists at Fort Calgary continue to cultivate heirloom species of rhubarb, chard, beans, spinach, raspberries and other edibles that would have been planted there more than 100 years ago using only hand tools. With a functioning 1910 windmill on site that originally pumped water at nearby Pump Hill for the Patton family's Fairview Market Garden, the community garden not only tells the story of what the NWMP troops cultivated, grew and ate, but of the history of the early market gardens around the city. Fort Calgary’s garden is open to the general public during the growing season (there are no firm hours of operation, just watch for someone tending the garden). At harvest time the produce is distributed to charities around Calgary.

The Deane House
Across the river, the historic Deane House, originally built in 1906 for the last commanding Superintendent of Fort Calgary, also carries on the tradition of Cpt. Richard Deane, a passionate horticulturalist who loved to tend his extensive gardens. The home was moved across the river in 1929 and now houses a restaurant brought to life by Sal Howell, a well-known chef and founder and proprietor of River Café, which is famous for using more than 100 different edible species grown in and around the grounds of the restaurant. At the Deane House, a small garden out back is planted with edible indigenous plants including juniper, gooseberries, saskatoon berries and cherries.

Howell, a longtime advocate for local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients, worked with horticulturalists and volunteers at Fort Calgary to continue nurturing our culinary history – and to keep it growing.

Saskatoon Pie
Native to the prairies and a member of the rose family, saskatoons were an essential food source for indigenous peoples, and are still foraged today – mostly for the sake of making pies.

Pastry for a double crust pie

5-6 cups Saskatoon berries (fresh or frozen - don't thaw them)

1/2 cup sugar

3 Tbsp. flour

zest of a lemon

2-3 Tbsp. butter, cut into bits

beaten egg or cream, for brushing (optional)

Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Divide the pastry with one piece slightly bigger than the other. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the larger piece to a circle about an inch bigger than your pie plate; drape it over the rolling pin and transfer to the pie plate, pressing it gently to fit, letting the sides hang over. Roll the other piece out to about the size of the top of the pie.

In a small bowl, stir together the sugar and flour. Put the berries into a medium bowl and add the sugar mixture and lemon zest; gently stir to combine, then pour into the pastry shell. Top with bits of butter.

If you like, cut the second piece of pastry into strips and make a lattice top; otherwise, lay it over the pie, brushing the edge of the bottom crust with a little beaten egg first, if you like, and trim and crimp the edge. Cut a few slits in the top to let steam escape.

Bake for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350°F and bake for another 50-60 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Let cool before slicing.

Serves 8


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