A Cooperative Harvest

Denman potato co-op effort reaping the benefits of community teamwork.

Metz credits the success of the restaurant, then and now, to the holistic approach she has always taken to preparing and cooking food. Prior to living in Courtenay, she and her family resided on Maurelle Island, a boat-access only island northeast of Quadra, for 12 years.

“I have a very strong and unconventional foods background from there because we were growing all our own foods. We had our own flock of dairy sheep and were making all our own cheeses and doing all our own meat processing, sausages and hams. There’s practically nothing I haven’t made from scratch.”

“Because of growing my own food for years, that has always been my vision for this place—to have a real sense of being connected to the land. That’s why it’s in a house and that’s why we have the garden.”

And what a garden! Squash blossoms abound, hiding their secret bounty; tomatoes overflow onto pathways as kiwi, fig, apple, pear and cherry trees elbow each other out, all vying for their place in the sun.

According to Metz, they used to grow a lot of vegetables on site, but that is getting more difficult because the fruit trees have gotten so large over the years.

“We put all the trees in ourselves and we use the fruit in our margaritas and desserts. Now that’s the way that lots of people are approaching food with the whole slow food, organic and local food thing, but for us it’s always been that way. That’s my relationship to food and I just wanted to give people that experience.”

And she also wanted to give them a taste of Latin American cooking. She knew before they started that the restaurant would have to be Mexican, having done a lot of travelling down south.

“I’ve probably spent a year there altogether, and I really like the food when it’s good.

People will say, ‘Oh this is much better than what I have had there.’ But, of course, I am emulating the best Mexican food that I have had, like the one in 20 meals where you say, ‘Oh my God, this is so wonderful!’

“What I really I love is the complexity of the cooking and the cultural blending of both the Aztec and the Spanish,” adds Metz. “So I am really comfortable with the food. Also, we didn’t have anything at all in Courtenay in terms of Mexican and it is one of the major types that people like to eat. So it made sense for us on a couple different levels.”

When the restaurant first opened they featured a seasonal menu—spring, summer, fall, winter—but that made it very difficult for Metz to ever get away. Because there is always a certain amount of staff turnover in the restaurant business, it meant she was doing training every three months. Now they have a standard menu with a daily fresh sheet, which allows them to take advantage of the various seasonal foods.

Metz says they have good relationships with many local farmers and fishermen, so they feel they truly have access to the freshest, highest quality ingredients available. They also use organic products whenever possible, particularly for the staple items like beans and tortillas.

A quick look at their menu and you can almost feel the heat of the roasted poblano chiles just waiting to be quenched by the sweet tang of an icy blackberry margarita. Even though their appetizers featuring various authentic dips and tortillas as well as local seafood and shellfish with piquant sauces beckon, it’s the traditional dinners that really get the taste buds going. And it’s their Molé con Pollo for which they are famous.

According to their menu, “molés are the soul of fiestas and celebrations… a masterpiece of kitchen alchemy.” The sauce for their signature chicken dish features a blend of four different chiles, nuts, seeds, onions and chocolate. While none of the other dinners feature chocolate, they all have their own unique flavor combinations, including a couple of award-winning vegetarian dishes. For those of us who have trouble narrowing down the options, they also have a nice selection of tapas to sample, including taquitos, tamales, quesadillas and chimichangas, which can be shared on a platter or eaten alone with a couple side dishes.

Obviously, one should plan on saving room for at least one of the spectacular Mexican desserts. While the traditional flan and fresh fruit meringues are always crowd pleasers, the batter-fried banana with caramel sauce and the ancho chile chocolate ganache truly are rare treats to be savored slowly, preferably with an organic Mexican coffee.

Of course, if you just can’t squeeze in a dessert, you may just have to finish the meal off with one of the 25 varieties of tequila they have on hand. Just one more reason (or maybe 25 more reasons) why they have garnered an appreciative clientele over the years.

But it’s not just customers who are drawn to Tita’s, they are also known for being a great place to work. Just ask Heather Standish. She started as a server more than seven years ago, eventually became the manager, recently bought into the business and is now the other owner.

Both parties are excited about the new partnership. While Lisa and Martin are hoping to have a little more freedom to pursue overseas volunteer activities, Standish is happy about being a bigger part of a business that makes a difference in the community.

“It’s a fun place to work. You feel like part of a family, not just a cog in the wheel, and it’s a worthwhile place to be,” says Standish, “and I think the customers really pick up on that, too. Plus, I get to have fun experimenting with new margarita flavors, so that’s a real perk!”

Even though there is now another owner on the scene, there are no plans to make any big changes. “We’ll be carrying on as is because it’s a formula that is working,” says Standish. “We will just keep putting an emphasis on fresh, healthy and local food.”

One thing they are hoping to start this fall is tequila tastings. Standish says that tequilas should be treated like fine wines. With their distinctive aging and fermentation processes, there are many flavors and subtleties that people can learn to really appreciate.

“We are working with a tequila rep right now to arrange a dinner where there would be different tequilas to go with different tapas. So hopefully that will come together soon.”

With or without the tequila, spend some time in the warm embrace of Tita’s and you are sure to feel the magical enchantment of food made with passion and love.

Located at 536 – 6th Street in Courtenay, Tita’s Mexican Restaurant is open daily from 4:00 to 9:00 pm, and 10:00 pm Fridays and Saturdays.

For more information call 250-334-8033 or visit their website at www.tita.ca.

SPUDS potato co-op members show off the fruits of their labors at their first harvest day at the end of September.

SPUDS potato co-op members show off the fruits of their labors at their first harvest day at the end of September.

Photo by Andrew Fyson

You’d need to have spent the last couple of years locked in the warehouse of a big-box supermarket not to have noticed all the interest in local eating. The locavore movement, bulimics
as it’s sometimes called, is big news and big business.

Books with titles such as The 100-Mile Diet, Food Not Lawns, and Animal Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life, all about eating from one’s own region, are bestsellers; farmers’ markets are thriving, and restaurants based on local ingredients are proliferating.

On the one hand, the eat-local trend is a powerful social movement, a logical response to the threat of climate change, and a grassroots-led restructuring of the food economy. On the other hand, sometimes it can seem like a calculated new marketing ploy aimed at stimulating consumption, with zealous foodies driving their SUVs for hours through the countryside hunting down locally-produced heirloom tomatoes.

A group of Denman Island residents have brought the local eating movement back to its roots with a project aptly nicknamed SPUDS, which celebrated its first harvest this September.

SPUDS, which stands for Sowing Potatoes Underground for Denman Sustainability, is a potato co-op—a remarkably simple idea revolving around a simple vegetable. Co-op members—in this case, approximately 30 individuals or families—get together regularly to plant, water, weed and eventually harvest a field of potatoes. The bounty is shared among the 30 members.

This is not just about local eating; it’s about growing your own food, beyond the borders of your own garden, as a community. Potatoes by the people, for the people.

“Developing a local food system is the most responsible thing we can do with our lives at this point,” says Peter Janes, one of the founding members of SPUDS. Global warming, financial collapse, the loss of agricultural land to residential and industrial development, the environmental damage caused by chemically-dependent factory farms—all these phenomena point to the desirability of developing reliable local food sources.

The case for producing food locally becomes even stronger with the application of full cost accounting, says Janes. This term refers to an approach that looks at the hidden costs of producing goods and services, including social and environmental ones.

“There are so many costs that are not factored into traditional economic thinking—if we did full cost accounting for a bag of potatoes, we’d need to add in pollution costs, transportation infrastructure costs, habitat destruction, the effect of chemicals. Typically these are not considered because the economy doesn’t put a value on them.”

An oft-quoted 1980 study from Iowa University shows that the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles before it hits our plates; this has only increased since then. This means that a lot of fossil fuels are burned for a typical dinner.

It also means our access to food depends on a complex, and therefore vulnerable, network of distributors and transportation.

“One of the things our group talked about was the reality that food production has shifted to the United States from Vancouver Island,” says Corinne Bjorge, another SPUDS founding member.

“Eighty years ago, the sparsely occupied areas of Vancouver Island were responsible for their self-sufficient food supply. Now, with the competition created by produce from Mexico and California, and the false economy created by cheap fossil fuel, local food production has dropped severely, and our bio-region has about a three-day supply of produce, should there be a major interruption in transportation.”

Although it’s easy to believe we will always be able to drive to the grocery store to pick up our sustenance, this may not always be reliable, says Veronica Timmons, also a SPUDS founder. Timmons has been reading about the state of the world’s oil supply, and what she’s found is not reassuring.

“We’ve used half of the world’s oil in the last 30 years, and there’s half left. In North America, we’re using it up awfully quickly, and now China and India are growing at an amazing rate and they wants lots,” she says, crediting James Kunstler’s book, The Long Emergency, for these statistics.

“Oil is going to get more and more scarce and more and more expensive.” Inevitably, she says, our social and economic systems will change dramatically. “It might become very valuable to be able to walk over to the farmer’s field rather than drive to the supermarket.”

She acknowledges that these may sound like exaggerated doomsday messages, but asks, “What if only half of it is true?”