Last Thursday, my neighbor and I huddled onto the bus downtown, talking about – what else? – the weather.
“I can’t remember it ever being this cold this late,” I said. “-21 wind chill in April? Give me a break.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “In Dutch, we have an expression: ‘April does what it likes.'”
If the Dutch are right, then this month is the most oppositional-defiant bully to ever shove Alberta into a snowbank. Over the Easter weekend, several communities endured record low temperatures. And the forecast is calling for more snow. Even the most relentlessly cheerful of my friends have begun to post increasingly pessimistic Facebook memes, questioning what we could have done to deserve getting kicked around by winter this long.
So I was in the mood for an escape when I saw a post on the FB page of Winding Road Artisan Cheese late last week: “Fancy a drive in the country this Sunday? Head Cheese Maker, Ian, will be participating in Serben Farms’ Tasting Day.”
I had met Ian when I went to an Alberta food producers’ market just outside of Edmonton on a freezing cold afternoon last January. He had told me then that he was planning to partner with a sausage-making neighbor of his in the spring, so I assumed this tasting day was the great unveiling. When I saw in the FB post that Ukrainian food would also be on offer, I knew that, come spring storm or high water, I would definitely fancy a drive in the country on Sunday.
I headed out on Highway 28 northeast of Edmonton, warmed by an old albums radio show, the chipper voice of Google Maps, and a sun that wanted it to be spring.* Although the fields and ditches were still buried in white, the pavement was bone dry and I wasn’t in any hurry, much to the irritation of the Dodge Ram trucks looming in my rearview mirror. The turnoffs for the towns along the way read like a personal history: Gibbons, one of the 13 Alberta towns where my mom grew up; Waskatenau, Radway, and Redwater, where my church young people’s group conducted Sunday services when their minister was unavailable; Lamont, where I sometimes had lunch the year I taught in a one-room school on a Hutterite colony.
An hour or so later, the Google lady announced I had arrived at Serben Farms, just as I spotted the balloons bouncing in the spring wind and the barn red building behind them.
A woman in the lot waved me into a parking spot right in front of the door. I assumed she was an employee but she was just waiting for a friend to come out of the store.
“Wait until you taste what they’ve got!” she said. ” You can make a whole meal on samples!”
The place was abuzz with farmers and townspeople nibbling and chatting and loading up on products from the well-stocked shelves and refrigerators. The mayor of Smoky Lake was shaking hands, and the local press was out in full force, conducting interviews and taking photos.
I headed straight for the sausage table, where I gobbled down samples of at least 6 different flavors, including such inventive pairings as ginger and green onion, rosemary and garlic, and mustard and ale. New plates were consistently arriving sizzling hot from the kitchen in back of the store, but I restrained myself and moved over to the cheese display.
I had discovered Winding Road’s Highland Hall variety last January, a creamy, Camembert-style luxury. This time, I found their German butter cheese is also delectable and added a package to my take-home pile at the front counter. I also tasted some of Serben Farm’s pickled vegetables, the carrots providing a pretty and pungent complement to the cheese.
Moving over to the Ukrainian food table, I listened to cook Judy Makowichuk give advice to a woman about how to assemble aesthetically appealing cabbage rolls. Luckily, my in-laws have always kept my Ukrainian food cravings satisfied so I was less interested in learning how to make the recipes than in tasting the results – for reasons of scientific comparison, of course. My research on the perishke, a type of bun topped with cottage cream and dill, was inconclusive during the first clinical trial, necessitating a second round of data collection.
Warmed by the food and good will of the vendors and other samplers, I rounded up my purchases and headed for home. I decided not to listen to the weather forecast, my mood, at least for now, matching the sun in the big old Alberta sky, water-paint blue and whispering spring.
*I borrowed this line from an Instagram post by Edmonton author Thomas Trofimuk.