VANCOUVER — The bearded Garlic Guy at Granville Island Market looks as if he’s been standing here since the 1970s pitching his organic garlic. The name of his one-man enterprise is Oddball Organics. He grows 19 kinds of garlic and mixes the cloves into sauces ("Nuclear Nectar," for example) that he sells on Granville Island, a peninsula south of downtown Vancouver.
A few meters away, Jérôme is displaying organic specialties. "We have everything here," he says pointing his finger across the selection. "Lamb and date, beef teriyaki, duck à l’orange sausages. Or would you like to try the smoked bison meat sausage?" Salamis as long as your arm hang over his head. The selection at the Oyama Sausage Company is overwhelming, delicious — and, Jérôme guarantees, everything is made from local ingredients.
The market is part of a foodie tour organized by Edible Canada in Vancouver, a local outfit that binds sustainability, nature-consciousness and pleasure in a fun way — a strategic orientation relatively uncommon in fast-food-crazy North America. Then again, Vancouver is not typical: The city has been green for a long time and intends to get greener. In fact, its goal is to become the most environmentally friendly city on the planet by 2020.
Vancouver's Greenville Island Market — Photo: Alan Turkus
Green before it was cool
The city of some 600,000 people on Canada’s Pacific coast has been successfully forging green ideas for decades. In 1971 a small group of peace activists left Vancouver in an old fishing boat and headed for the Aleutian Islands. They intended to stop a planned American atomic test explosion off the coast of Alaska. They named their expedition Greenpeace. They didn’t make it to their destination, but their unusual action made the protectionists famous.
Four decades later, Greenpeace is one of the world’s most influential environmental protection organizations. David Suzuki, Canada’s best-known environmental activist, taught at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for nearly 40 years. And Sea Shepherd — the organization that stages spectacular actions to draw attention to the plight of whales and other ocean creatures — also calls Vancouver home.
The Ocean Wise program devised by Vancouver Aquarium demonstrates that less aggressive actions can also be successful. It’s been up and running for nine years, and it certifies suppliers and restaurants that buy from sustainable fisheries. Started as a local project, nearly 500 companies in Canada today proudly feature the program’s laughing fish seal on their products and menus.
Take, for example, Vij's, one of the finest Indian restaurants in North America. On a delicate mound of wheat pilaf sit pink shrimp covered with coconut and fenugreek masala. The dish smells fantastic, but the taste surpasses all expectations. "It’s hard to believe that most of the ingredients don’t come from Bombay, but from local organic producers, isn’t it?" asks Meeru Dhalwala, restaurant co-owner.
Vij's in Vancouver — Photo: Facebook page
Dhalwala has been committed to sustainable gastronomy for years. The shrimp can only be fished from the Pacific off the coast of Vancouver at specific times, and supply is carefully monitored. The wheat? From Canada, of course. The fenugreek is grown in Vancouver.
Dhalwala has been running Vij with her husband since 1994. "When we started out, we focused on how our food tasted," she recalls. "Where the ingredients came from didn’t really interest us."
Save the perch
The change came two years later when a guest pointed out that deep-sea perch, a menu item, were threatened with extinction. "That was the first time I heard the words sustainability and fish in the same sentence," Meeru Dhalwala says. After that, the couple paid close attention to the provenance of the fish, meat and vegetables used in their dishes and adjusted the menu to accommodate local, seasonal ingredients.
Vij’s supported the Ocean Wise program from the start. And when Vancouver food critic André LaRivière in 2007 created the Green Table Network — which helps restaurants organize themselves in an ecologically sensible way — Vij's was the pilot restaurant. "Whether or not an establishment meets Green Table Network criteria is something that is controlled by an independent provider," LaRivière says. "That’s important in terms of credibility with guests so that they know that every Green Table-certified restaurant fulfills the same environmentally friendly measures."
Julien Fruchier is also pursuing a green idea. From his office high over the historic Gastown neighborhood, he can see the whole harbor. Vancouver’s Grouse and Cypress Mountains rise up on the other side of the bay. "I believe that life here on the West Coast teaches one to value and protect the environment," Fruchier says. "The original inhabitants of British Columbia strove to live in harmony with nature, and I think that inspired our understanding of environmental protection."
Vancouver harbor by night — Photo: colink.
With his three-day beard and tousled hair, the 42-year-old looks more like an activist than an entrepreneur. In 2011, he bought the rights to the Green Zebra Guide, a coupon booklet that makes it possible for Vancouver residents to save money when they buy ecological products.
The lifestyle booklet has since been renamed Life: Vancouver. "We want for everybody to be able to live here sustainably, both locals and tourists," Fruchier says. "So we make it cool and easy to live a healthier, happier and greener life on less money."
He also suggests visiting Stanley Park, a green 400-hectare (988 acres) oasis only 20 minutes on foot from his office. For those who prefer to cycle, there are numerous bike-loan stations. The 22-kilometer (13.6 miles) promenade along the shoreline has a cycling path that leads all the way around the park.
Vancouver continues — again, atypically for North America — to be massively committed to green. Mayor Gregor Robertson’s "Greenest City 2020" campaign aims to make Vancouver the world’s greenest city by 2020, with carbon dioxide emissions and water use reduced by a third, and garbage by one-half.
The traffic system is being changed to encourage both residents and visitors to use public transportation, walk or cycle as much as possible. "It’s up to each individual to do his or her bit, to give this some thought and come up with new ideas about how we want to live our lives in the future," says Robertson.
On the market tour, we bought some garlic products, and now it’s time to take the aquabus that connects Granville Island with the mainland and downtown Vancouver. The ferry is electric-powered, of course. What else?