Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How to survive the LCBO strike

What a summer it's shaping up to be! First there's the garbage strike (click here for tips on how to survive). Now LCBO workers are poised to go on strike. We could have, as Toronto writer Carl Wilson phrased it, "the stink without the drink."

For those of you unfamiliar with Ontario's arcane liquor distributions rules, the LCBO has a near monopoly. Because it has almost exclusive rights to sell booze to the province's 13 million residents (well, the ones over 19, at any rate), it's one of the world's biggest buyers.

Fret not, oh thirsty Ontarians, for the monopoly is not complete! Here are ways to slake your thirst during an LCBO strike. Oh, and as an added bonus, most of them work on a locavore diet!

  1. Drink Beer
    The strike will not affect Beer Stores (we have such creative names in this province), so domestic beer will be almost as easy to get as it usually is. The fine imported beers that the LCBO carries, however, will not be available.

  2. Visit a brewpub
    Many Beer Stores do stock very good Canadian (and some imported) beers. But if your tastes are, like mine, a bit on the snobbish side, then go to a local brewpub or microbrewery. Bartowel has some great suggestions, and they're not all in Toronto. In Toronto, my favourites (so far) are the Mill Street in the Distillery District, and C'est What? on Front Street. Please add your own suggestions in the comments. I'm always on the lookout for a good pint of ale!

  3. Go grocery shopping
    Thanks to another part of Ontario's arcane liquor laws, some winemakers have their own stores, often set up in grocery stores. These stores, such as the Wine Rack stores, will not be affected by the strike. However, they have a limited selection from one company. You'll notice that Wine Rack also allows online ordering.

  4. Visit a winery
    A generation ago, an LCBO strike would have been unbearable. Back then, local wine was awful! But today, the province isn't only producing drinkable wines, it's producing some very good ones. The best I've tasted have not been available at the LCBO stores, so it's always worth going to a winery. There are great wines to be found in batches too small for the province's liquor stores.
    I've toured quite a few on the Niagara Peninsula, and have always enjoyed the outing. There are excellent suggestions in Linda Bramble's guidebook, Touring Niagara's Wine Country (disclaimer: I worked on one edition of the book). There's also a directory of Ontario wineries to help you find one near you.

  5. Seek out the hard stuff
    The biggest problem during the strike will be getting hard liquor. Most of the major distilleries do not have their own stores. However, there are small ones that do. Kittling Ridge is probably the main one. They have seven stores in Barrie, London, the Toronto area and at their main facility in Grimsby. While I'm not a big fan of their wines, I have found some of their harder products, such as vodka, rye and rum, suitable for my highball needs.

  6. Order a Canatini
    Many apartment-dwellers, including me, are living the car-free lifestyle. While this is usually great, it does limit one's ability to traipse about from winery to winery. The solution is the home-grown martini, or Canatini as I'm calling it. Magnotta, which makes some very good wines, also produces beer, grappa, vodka, gin and vermouth. And they deliver using Canada Post.
    Yes, you read that correctly: You can get a martini delivered by mail. Well, some assembly required.

  7. Go visit Uncle Jim
    If things get really bad, you might have to dip into the dandelion wine that some strange relative makes. Or, if you want to try something really different, Downey's Farm northwest of Toronto makes all sorts of berry wines. Not my taste, but it could be a fun change for some, and it's a nice place to visit in the countryside. As always, you can make your own beer and wine (let's hope the strike doesn't last that long!), but home distilling isn't legal here...yet.

  8. Cross-shop
    There are bizarre laws in Canada about transporting booze across provincial boundaries. Folks in provincial border towns, such as Ottawa, can perhaps fill us in on how much policing there is during the strike. You can buy booze in the States (or elsewhere) and bring it back. You will have to pay duty on anything over the rather paltry limit, though.

  9. Hit the border?
    There's a rumour afoot that some of the Duty Free stores may be open for business during the strike. However, we're not sure at this point whether they will be open to the general public or just border-hoppers, as usual. This item will be updated when more information becomes available. This could be good news for folks in areas around Windsor, Niagara Falls and Fort Erie, Cornwall and Thunder Bay or Rainy Lake (is there a duty-free store at the Rainy Lake crossing?)

  10. Go on vacation
    This is especially true for folks in Toronto and Windsor, where garbage strikes continue. Go to Barcelona, pick up a case of cheap Cava, head down to a beach somewhere and ride out the strike season in style.
Green Tenant welcomes your additions to this list. Please share your ideas and updates in the comments section, especially ideas that will work for car-free people.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Today's lunch: from field to table in less than five minutes

Finally, summer weather has come to Toronto. With warmth also comes an abundance of salad greens. I've taken to stepping outside to pick my lunch most days. Really, there's nothing that can compare with a freshly picked salad.

Today's delight was mostly made up of butter crunch lettuce leaves and beet greens, with a few leaves of oak leaf lettuce, a bit of giant red mustard green, a few leaves of basil and parsley, and one nice red radish.

I grew more mustard greens than I need. A little bit goes a long way, and as they mature, the greens get very strong. The giant red have a nicer texture and are a touch milder, it seems. The green ones get spiny and are quite strong, almost like wasabi. I'm thinking that I might try rolling sushi with some large leaves. I'll also freeze some for use in soups this winter.

Soon enough, I'll be producing enough of certain produce that I'll have to start preserving some, either by freezing or by canning. There's an interesting article on how to handle vegetables to maximize nutrient retention on the Oregon State University website. Because vegetables lose certain nutrients quickly, a salad this fresh is incredibly healthy. My body seems to feel better after eating one.

Oh, and that salad? It's completely organic with zero food miles and cost next to nothing. More importantly, it tasted fantastic!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Garbage strike survival ideas from a six-year-old

Like most parents, I'm frequently surprised by my kid. He's six years old and, well, to be perfectly honest, he often has better ideas than I do.

When we got home from school tonight, there was a message from a radio station that had read my post, 10 ways to survive a garbage strike. This meant that I had to start by explaining what a strike is. Thankfully, he's a smart kid. Probably also helped that we read him Click, Clack, Moo when he was little.

I asked him if he had suggestions to add to the list. Of course he did.

"I would just not use a lot of things," he said. Sensible. What would he give up? "Milk."

"Okay," I replied. "That might help, but the strike might last for weeks. You probably need milk. Lets put that on a list of 'essentials' that we can't give up." I suggested buying milk in bags instead of cartons because of the smaller volume of waste (we'd have to freeze some bags, since we don't go through too much."

Naturally, he started talking about how we could re-use the bags as garbage bags. After the strike ends, that is. (If there is a garbage strike in Toronto, that is. We'll know all too soon.)

"What else could we use less of?" I asked. He pointed at the shampoo. I conceded that we could probably be more careful about the amount we use, and proceded to wash his hair.

Then I got up to let him play in the water for a bit.

"Wait!" he called. "I've got more ideas."

I got a pad and pen and sat down on the toilet to take dictation from a six-year-old pontificating from the bath.

"If you ever get a cardboard box, turn it into something else, like a little town with a train track in it."

Right. Creative, but not necessarily a way to deal with thousands of tons of trash. Still, it could make a fun weekend project, so I'm not going to argue.

That's when he really surprised me: "Eat less candy, because that means fewer candy wrappers."

Somehow I doubt his friends will be cheering for that one.

In the meantime, I'm going to use his bath water to help the tomatoes grow and tuck my creative thinker into bed. Then I'm going to sit down and cross my fingers that the outside workers and City Hall can find enough common ground to make everyone happy.

Monday, June 8, 2009

10 steps to organizing a great walking tour

Walking tours are a great way to learn about the local environment while having fun and meeting your neighbours. In the last year, I've organized two successful ones along the lower Don River in Toronto, and am looking forward to more in the year ahead.

Organizing your own walking tour is fun and rewarding. It's also fairly easy to do. Here are some tips to help you organize one that will be a great success.

  1. Who are you doing it for?
    Start planning the walk by thinking about who will be along. If it's families, then it should be shorter, stroller-accessible and have a focus on very engaging speakers. My tours have been for journalists from Canada and the United States. This means the speakers need to be subject experts and at least one needs to be someone in a position of authority. It also means I need to tell them up-front that the tour is entirely "on the record."
    If it's a fitness walk, then it can be a longer route. The Lower Don walk I've done is about 4-5 kilometres with frequent stops to look at wildlife and discuss the river's ecosystem and plans for it. The walkers are typically 30-55 years old and are usually ready for refreshments by the end.
    All your decisions should flow from an idea of who will be on the walk, what they will want to learn and whether they're primarily there to learn or to have a nice, social walk.

  2. How many speakers should you have?
    This depends upon the composition of the group, its size and the goals for the walk. On my local trail, which is paved and has heavy bicycle traffic, I find that about 15 people, including speakers, will work. Beyond 20 people, I might want to split it into two groups (and thus double the number of speakers).
    In addition to a short introduction by the organizer, for a two-hour walk, I'd suggest two guest speakers. Even for my groups, which are engaged and there to learn, a stop of more than 15 minutes is probably too long. Space things out so the group pauses somewhere appropriate every kilometre or so, step off to the side of the trail and have discussions there. If it's a family walk, have activities for the kids at some or all of the stops.

  3. Choosing the right speakers
    This is vital. For an adult group, choose experts in their fields, but also choose ones who are engaging, lively speakers. A walking tour is not all about education, it's largely a social activity and a form of entertainment. Never forget that.
    While speakers can overlap in areas of expertise (sometimes they'll play off one another nicely), don't have two on the same topic. For my last walk, I had a speaker with a strong interest in ecology and history, and one who is an architect representing an official agency. Sometimes you might want speakers representing opposing viewpoints.
    For kids, put the emphasis on fun. It's a weekend and we want 'em to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine, meet some other kids and, if all goes well, absorb a bit of knowledge along the way. Don't turn nature into a classroom, open it up as a place to explore.

  4. Selecting the Route
    In most cases, go for the scenic walk. My Lower Don tours are an exception because they're designed for people who write about pollution, brownfields, redevelopment programs and so forth. Most of the time, people will want trees, flowers, wildlife. I like to start somewhere with a good view of the city or surrounding countryside.
    The route should follow a logical course. If it's a historical tour, try to arrange it chronologically through time or through an event (follow the path of a group of rebels, for existence). If it's a nature-related walk, follow the edge of a river or escarpment and avoid roads as much as possible.
    For families, keep it short. A couple kilometres at most. For a walk focused on discussion, I'd say no more than 5 km. For one that's going to be more walking and less talking, you can go a little farther. But consider having people bring a picnic lunch if it's more than 8 kilometres. Anything longer than that is more for fitness and will require planning with different goals in mind.

  5. Timing
    I like early afternoons in the sprintime for walks. But we can't always have sunny spring Sundays. Don't start too early. If you do, you'll miss out on a lot of folk who work hard all week and need a bit of a lie-in on the weekend. Don't start too late or you'll interfere with dinner plans. About 1:30 p.m. seems a good starting time to me.
    Tell people the walk starts 15-20 minutes before you really plan to have it start. This is especially important if you're organizing it around a meeting or having out-of-towners come in.

  6. Test the walk
    Scout the route once for good places to talk, good things to see, potential destinations and so forth. But walk it again, slowly, to get an idea of the amount of time it will take. People walk more slowly in groups than they do alone. They like to talk along the way. They stop unexpectedly to photograph ducks, drink water or dash into some bushes for relief.
    My Don River walks take about two hours. They're about 4 kilometres long with two stops of about 15 minutes to listen to speakers, a 5- to 10-minute introduction by me and a bit of unplanned dawdling along the way. You will have to push people along a bit.

  7. The right starting point
    Pick a convenient, logical starting point. A perfect one will have ample free parking and great public transit access. It will be relevant to the walk and highly visible.
    For the Don River walks, I've met on the broad steps of Riverdale Public Library, which is served by three streetcar routes and is close to a major highway. It's beside the Old Don Jail, which is a great starting point for a discussion of the river valley.
    Consider amenities near the start, such as washrooms, and places to pick up last-minute snacks and drinks. Also go for a spot with a good view. On Don River tours, we stroll up to Riverdale Park for a great view of the city's skyline. It's also a good place for an overview of the tour.

  8. The right ending
    A good walk has a beginning, a middle and a fantastic end. I like beer and pubs, so mine typically end at a good pub. I research these in advance, looking for a good diversity of beers (I'm a bit of a beer snob), but also at whether the place is too boozy. The food is also important. It needs to be decent quality and ideally there will be multiple vegetarian options.
    But that's not the right place to end for every walk. You might want to end at a historic site, or somewhere with an amazing view. Wherever you end, there should be good transit access (if people drove to the start, then think of how they'll get back to their cars) and both food and liquid. Everyone will be thirsty, many will be hungry.
    Absolutely make reservations in advance. If the place won't take a reservation, then find another venue. Phone the destination from the beginning of the walk to confirm numbers. Ask in advance if they'll do separate cheques.

  9. Be prepared
    During the walk, you are responsible for the walkers. Carry a small backpack containing water, sunscreen, band-aids (aka "sticking plasters") or a first-aid kit, a cell phone, a bit of money and anything else you think someone might need. As the organizer, it's your job to remember what the walkers will forget.

  10. Marketing
    Let people know about the walk. I like to organize them for out-of-towners, to introduce people to something interesting in my city that they won't otherwise see. Thankfully, this means that a lot of the marketing is done by conference organizers.
    But there are other ways to publicize. If it's mostly for friends, use email, Twitter, Facebook and so forth. If it's for the broader community, you could put up posters at logical places and call the local newspaper (if you've done the walk before and have good photos, make them available). Also contact relevant groups, such as local nature clubs, service organizations or historical societies. They'll often have great suggestions, can provide speakers you hadn't thought of and can let their members know about the group. There are also sometimes lists of local walks, such as the Jane's Walk website.
The key is to plan ahead, be prepared and have fun. Good luck, and let me know how your walks go!

Check out My Web of Life for tips on creating nature walks for kids.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lower Don River walking tour

We're finally into a spell of nice weather, and that means it's time to get out and explore the city. What better way to do it than on foot?

To get to know the local environment, I like to organize occasional walking tours. Last weekend's tour, organized with fellow SEJ member Saul Chernos, was in Toronto's Don Valley. The Don is often described as Canada's most urbanized and polluted river. It's also one with a rich history that is undergoing tremendous changes.

Lower Don River walking tour route
Our walk began on the east side of Riverdale Park, where there's a fantastic view of the Toronto skyline. There are also views north to the Prince Edward Viaduct, which is just south of historic sites such as Todmorden Mills and the Brickworks.

We walked down into the valley and joined the trail at the footbridge in Riverdale Park. As we strolled along, John Bacher told us about the valley and its history and environment.

Our particular group included writers from various parts of Canada who were in town for the MagNet conference. Most are members of the Professional Writers' Association of Canada, so there were plenty of questions for our guest speakers.

The Mouth of the Don
As we continued down the river past Queen Street, we heard from Brenda Webster. She works for Waterfront Toronto and was with us to discuss plans to change the mouth of the Don River and redevelop former industrial areas such as the docklands and the West Donlands.

The redevelopment plans are inspiring, particularly the plans to create new wetlands at the mouth of the river.

It was a beautiful day, and the local wildlife was out in force. There was a close, and thankfully fairly cute, encounter with a raccoon. Lots of redwinged blackbirds with brilliant crimson flashes on their wings. The usual assortment of robins, finches, sparrows and mallard ducks. A couple walkers even saw a black-crowned night heron. Despite the pollution, there were plenty of fish jumping, minnows swimming and cormorants diving.

A fine end
The walking tour continued across Lakeshore and into the docklands. We followed the edge of the Keating Channel, which today serves as the mouth of the river. A jovial group welcomed pints and nosh at the Keating Channel Pub, which has a patio right at the point where the river's water flows into Toronto Harbour.

We'll be looking forward to organizing other walking tours in the future. They're a great way to get to know your city and its environment, and a pollution-free way to enjoy a day.

Click here for tips on organizaing your own walk.

Want to walk, but not organize the walk yourself? Check out the list of Jane's Walks near you.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

First salad of spring

I'm lucky. I live in a wealthy society, in a modern era in which I can get fresh greens all year long. These include nice, tasty mixed salad greens in the middle of February.

That said, they pale in comparison to last week's salad of fresh greens. It was the first salad of the year from my garden, and it was wonderful. The greens were full of flavour, especially the peppery arugula (which is known in the UK by the much cooler name "rocket") and the mustard greens. The leaves on my standard mustard greens develop a slightly hairy texture when they get bigger than a couple inches across, but the giant red mustard greens don't seem to do so.

The radishes are abundant. I've two varieties, and the first ones are a rich purple on the outside, creamy white on the inside, with a mild flavour. They were well-suited to the salad, which my six-year-old son shared. I can't wait until he pulls up his first purple carrot.

Readers: the squirrels are wreaking havoc on some parts of my garden. Companion planting will probably help, and I got a lot of good advice from How to Grow More Vegetables, but those companions are just sprouting. Any tips?

For my season's initial ideas for the garden and some handy links (including an interactive planting calendar), click here.