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What is Alberta’s food story?

It is time to stop and taste Alberta’s food again like you are tasting it for the first time. That’s not as easy as it sounds because when something has been right in front of you your whole life you don’t see it – let alone taste it – for the truly unique thing that it is.

On our food tours we ask our guests what is Alberta’s food? 

Beef is the first thing they think of. They are surprised to learn that cattle have only been in Alberta for about 160 years. We explain that they are an exotic Scottish import. Before there were fences, Montana cowboys “drove” them here in search of grazing lands. Bison is the animal that was formed with this land.

There is archeological evidence that the first bison crossed from Asia over a land bridge 120,000 years ago. This animal – along with elk and deer – is our indigenous species. Bison were the staff of life for our First Nations people. They are perfectly suited to this land and improve the ecology of the land with their natural grazing patterns.

This is a great way to start people thinking differently about Alberta’s food.

Our guests know that they are going to learn something more about this place on our tours. Someone asked me recently how we know what it truly unique? Isn’t it very subjective?

The answer is yes, but we are confident in our story-telling because a process of collective thought went into it. In 2015, Alberta Culinary brought a group called Cook it Raw to Alberta to work with chefs to develop a narrative about our food. Founder Alessandro Porcelli brought an objective viewpoint and the ability to see what Alberta’s unique offerings to the world are. He corralled 14 Alberta chefs over a six month period, and mentored them through the process of really looking at what our raw ingredients. That’s the “Raw” part in Cook it Raw. He lit a spark and ignited a different way of thinking. The group was joined by seven superstar chefs from around the world who helped them take our raw ingredients and push the boundaries in the ways they cooked and presented them.

The group agreed on seven Alberta signature foods.

Those ingredients are beef, bison, canola, honey, Red Fife Wheat, root vegetables and saskatoon berries. Here is a video documenting their journey and the culmination and presentation of those foods.

A few years have passed since Cook it Raw.

We can tell you that those seven signature foods are only the beginning of the story. Our guests are savvy eaters and travellers. We love that they are adding to the narrative with their bright and informed answers.

Here are a few more helpings of what is truly Albertan food.

Mustard – One very astute guest chimed in mustard one day when we asked what grows in Alberta. We were able to tell her a big YES – this is a great food from right here. Alberta (and Saskatchewan) grows 80 per cent of the world’s mustard. The crop has a value ranging from about 50 to 100 million dollars annually. We produce up to 300,000 tonnes of mustard seed annually. Mustard is a relative of our signature food canola but it tends to be more tolerant to drought, heat and frost. While most of the mustard seed gets shipped to France and turned into Dijon mustard, a few Albertan chefs are accessing the seed and creating tantalizing tasting mustards for us to enjoy here.

Pulses – Guests are often surprised that we are also one of the world’s leading growers of pulses: peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils. It’s a three billion dollar industry for Canada and India is our biggest buyer. Sadly we often send our pulses to India, where they are packaged and then shipped back for us to buy. That doesn’t make much sense does it? We are hoping local demand will create opportunities for the development of cleaning and packaging plants right here so that we can buy our own fabulous crops.

Lots of wheat – Red Fife wheat is a heritage wheat that kept our early settlers alive. Because of its hardiness and great flavour it is enjoying a comeback. Our wheat crops in Alberta include high quality Durum (hard) wheat that is sent to Italy to become pasta.

Barley – We grow the world’s best barley in Alberta. Barley is Canada’s third largest crop, after wheat and canola and while barley is grown throughout Canada, Alberta produces the most barley of all the provinces. There are trillions of bottles of beer around the world made from Alberta malt barley. We are currently seeing an explosion in micro brewing in the province and will have over 60 micro breweries by the end of 2017 thanks to talented young brewmasters wanting to use this great ingredient at the source.

We’ve heard so many great answers when we ask this question – corn, rhubarb, pin cushion berries (I kid you not – they are a thing!), morels, juniper berries, nettles, pumpkins are just a few. If we had to eat just from Alberta we’d be okay – with some skills in preservation, that is.

It’s time to continue the story.

During the summer of 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday year,  Alberta Food Tours, Inc, gave Albertans the chance to add to the story that our friends at Alberta Culinary and Cook it Raw started. We asked our community about their favourite raw Alberta ingredients and finished products too.

We had a contest to celebrate Alberta’s food.

People posted what they were eating on Instagram with the hashtag #eatalberta150 from the May long-weekend to August 7. We picked at least two photos per day to win exciting Alberta food prizes with gift certificates from producers, restaurants and fabulous hotels and resorts.  We wanted to show the world how great it is to eat Alberta on Canada’s 150th birthday of our country and we thought there’s nobody better to do that than the people enjoying food all over this province.

Our community helped us write the next chapter of Alberta’s food story…

Want to see how it all turned out?  Just check the hashtag #eatalberta150 on Instagram. There are almost 10,000 photos to whet your appetite.