Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Community Hot Meal Program: Delicious Stratford Debut Fundraiser!

"Thanks - I think that might've been the best meal I've ever had."

These sincere words were spoken to me Monday evening by a gentleman who had just finished a hot meal of roast pork loin (with homemade applesauce!) accompanied by potatoes, salad, bread, and apple crisp for dessert. He shouldn't have been thanking me though - I just show up to help dish-out the Community Hot Meals every other Monday evening at the Screaming Avocado Cafe. He really should have been complimenting the students from the Northwestern Secondary School culinary arts program, who spend every second Monday afternoon cooking a wonderful, healthy meal for Stratford citizens in need of a nutritious hot dinner.
He could also thank Liz [above, back in between the giant fork and spoon] and Janet, the committed volunteers who orchestrate this amazing program. These women really care about the community and its food security, and their efforts in collaboration with Paul Finkelstein and the SNSS culinary arts class have certainly not gone unnoticed or unappreciated: on Monday we served EIGHTY free hot meals!! 

The grateful patrons of the Community Hot Meals program include seniors, disabled individuals, families with children, and dozens of other Stratford folks who could really use a hot meal, as well as a chance to sit and chat with other community members over a coffee or two.

There are others to thank too. Many restaurants within Stratford's culinary community have donated to the program, including: Pazzo's, Fellini's, Foster's, Othello's, Down the Street, Bijou, Tango, The Church and The Sun Room. The food community in Stratford has really taken up the slack in response to the recognition that people in our town still go to bed hungry some nights: Not on our watch!

This Sunday, other Stratford residents and visitors can pledge their support for this high-impact program. That means you!! The Delicious Stratford Debut Stroll is taking place on the afternoon Sunday, May 2nd: participants stroll from restaurant to restaurant tasting some of the dishes that will be on offer for the next two months on the Delicious Stratford prix fixe menus that will be provided at many of this city's best restaurants throughout the spring. All ticket sale proceeds go to the Community Hot Meal program!

Get your tickets ASAP and ask for me, the Local-Come-Lately, to be your tour guide! Spots are limited, and mine are being snapped up fast, so get on it!

PS: Janet, Liz and I would all like to thank Alex, [also pictured above, at left] a Screaming Avocado student who showed up and did the work of about ten people on Monday at the Community Hot Meal. Alex - you're the man!!!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Monforte Hootenanny: 'The people spoke...'

A little while back, Ruth Klahsen - Stratford's treasured artisan cheesemaker renowned throughout the province for her talent in turning sheep's milk into divine dairy products at her Monforte Dairy -  decided she needed a little help. To fulfill the high demand for her unrivalled cheeses she needed to expand her operation. But to get the funds to achieve this dream she didn't go to the bank - she called upon her loyal customers! 

Thus the Monforte Dairy CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program was created by this innovative entrepreneur. Fans of her cheese have been invited to sign-up for any of three subscription plans: the Wheel O' Cheese membership costs $1000 and gets the patron $1500 worth of cheese vouchers; the Brick O' Cheese membership is for $500, for which the subscriber receives $750 worth of coupons; and the Wedge O' Cheese membership costs only $200, providing the subscriber with $250 in vouchers. Everybody wins!

Sunday, Ruth and the folks at Monforte celebrated the success of this program by thanking the loyal community members who pledged their money to their cheese-craving mouths to the tune of nearly $400,000 (at last count). The Monforte Hootenanny was Ruth's way of thanking those who subscribed, whose funds successfully supported the creation of her new dairy right here in Stratford. After touring the dairy earlier in the day, over 800 food lovers congregated at the Festival Theatre to enjoy an afternoon of great music, pig roasting, excellent Ontario wine, and of course: CHEESE!!!
I grabbed a glass of subtle red from Chateau de Charmes winery and jumped in line to try the unique cheeses on offer. I was presented with a piece of Tome [above] and instructed to eat it rind and all - the garnet casing was infused with balsamic vinegar, which commingled with the hard sheep's milk cheese to produce a flavour that was at once sharp and aromatic. 
I followed this with a little slice of cheese heaven in the form of Ruth's trademark Toscano [above], aged for 8 months! Just when I thought it couldn't get any better, I was offered the mouth-watering 14 month version.
Things got really interesting, though, when I indulged in a cup of Buff-a-lato: rich, creamy ice cream created using waterbuffalo milk, topped with a local plum preserve. Um.... yum.

Ruth truly spoiled us yesterday. When I spoke to her about the event, she was clearly a little overwhelmed by all of the support she has received. I congratulated her on the recent news that the Ontario government would be contributing a 6 figure grant in support of her local food efforts. 
Ruth explained Monforte's success in three simple words:  "The people spoke."

Foraging with Slow Food Perth County

As a new foodie in Stratford, I was immediately advised to join the Perth County 'Convivium' for Slow Food. Yesterday, while taking part in the Slow Food foraging workshop, I experienced the essence of that movement: there is perhaps no food more "good, clean and fair" than that which we find in nature. In Perth County, some of the most sought after gourmet ingredients are found right under our feet!
Peter Blush [above] is an expert forager who was kind enough to show the lucky participants some of the spots where he collects morel mushrooms, the tender shoots of the ostrich fern known as 'fiddleheads', and the seasonal delicacy wild leeks. 'Lucky' because, as one forager commented, Peter didn't even make us wear blindfolds while leading us to the productive locales! It is a rare opportunity to be told exactly where to find morels. I have a feeling in a couple of weeks I might be bumping into some of my fellow foragers in the bush as we try and retrace the steps that lead to the fruitful morel and fiddlehead spots Peter pointed out to us.
The great morning we spent tromping around the countryside culminated with a stellar lunch showcasing foraged ingredients, created especially for us by none other than Chef Chris Woolf from Woolfy's at Wildwood restaurant, who was also a knowledgeable participant in the workshop. His wife Mary presented us with a wild leek and potato soup tinged slightly green by the wild leek tops. The strong flavour of the wild leeks was harnessed skillfully by Chef Woolf, who clearly knows as much about cooking with these unique ingredients as Peter knows about finding them. A gorgeous, moist fillet of arctic char followed, garnished with several whimsical fiddlehead spirals and drizzled with a splendid wild leek pesto [below] that motivated us all to find more of these ingredients ourselves. The dessert was a creamy-sweet maple mousse made from syrup that appropriately came from nearby McCully's Hill Farm, where our adventure had earlier begun.
All of us who participated in the workshop are indebted to Peter for sharing with us his secret foraging spots and to Chef Woolf for showcasing the local tastes of spring with such a dazzling array of dishes. I will see you all in the bush in the upcoming weeks, and remember: if you bring anyone else along make sure they're blindfolded!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Down the Street: A Delicious Stratford Sneak-Peek

Ten years ago this month, my wife Lisa – a glam fashion model at the time – showed-up in Stratford with me, her new, rag-tag writer boyfriend. The very first dinner date we ever had together was at her favourite restaurant, Down the Street. I still remember it vividly. I couldn’t take my eyes off her… but somehow I’m able to recall exactly what we ate that night: we both had a velvety goat’s cheese lasagna followed by my first taste of a dessert my one-day-bride-to-be told me was called ‘crème brûlée’. I remember gazing across the table at her during this sumptuous meal and thinking:
How the hell did I get so lucky?!?’
We told the story of our first date to our friend Susan Dunfield, [pictured above at left, Lisa at right] the owner of Down the Street both then and now, when we returned Friday night to celebrate the tenth anniversary of that fateful evening. She wasn’t surprised in the least, “That’s what this place is. It’s about meeting and romance.” Apparently, we aren’t the only couple whose early passions were fanned by the comfortable, hip atmosphere that continues to characterize Stratford’s most seminal bistro/bar.

This spring, throughout the months of May and June, it will be easier than ever for the locals, theatre folk, and tourists who congregate at Down the Street to experience its amazing menu and ambience. Delicious Stratford showcases the tastes of spring on offer at fifteen of Stratford’s best restaurants, where for the next two months three-course set menus for lunch and dinner will be on offer at incredible values starting at $20 for lunch and $35 for dinner. Last night, Lisa and I got a delicious sneak-peek at the fresh, local, springtime fare Down the Street will be sharing with diners who choose to take advantage of this outstanding prix fixe opportunity over the next couple of months...

Susan started with a marvellous wine recommendation that was seconded by our server, Abby (who also happens to be Susan’s daughter!). We sipped a bottle of Malivoire ‘Guilty Men’, a deliciously blended Niagara VQA, as we sampled a series of stunning apps: a brash blood orange, beet and arugula salad with local feta from Monforte Diary; savoury local shitake mushrooms surrounding fresh greens from nearby Soiled Reputation farm; and an indulgent poutine made with Monforte cheddar and porcini jus.
For our mains, Lisa had an asparagus and tomato linguine served with a creative mint pesto (Susan told us this dish is only going to get better as the local asparagus arrives this weekend!). I had the pan-fried Lake Huron Whitefish [see pic above] served in a vadouvan-scented tomato broth over turmeric potatoes – strong flavour profiles that worked together for me in a big way.

And for dessert, what else? Crème brûlée! 

Like Lisa, Down the Street just seems to get better and better as time goes by. As I looked over the table at her last night while enjoying this incredible preview of the dishes that’ll be offered for the Delicious Stratford menu, I once again found myself asking:
How the hell did I get so lucky?!?
PS: Sign-up soon for the Delicious Stratford Debut stroll on Sunday, May 2nd and request the Local-Come-Lately as your tour guide - there are only 20 participants for each guide, and my spots are being snapped up fast!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Simply Sustainable!

On Sunday I made a presentation about my food gardening activism [see my previous blog post] at the annual general meeting for the local Green Party chapter. I met some friendly eco-folks (including the leader of the Green Party of Ontario) and even signed a few up for the upcoming community garden co-op!
As I packed up, I decided my choice for Stratford take-out should reflect the theme of the day, which was sustainability.
Luckily for me, my favourite fry joint, Simple Fish and Chips (located right downtown at 118 Downie Street), is the most sustainability-conscious restaurant in town!
First, Simple subscribes to the Ocean Wise program, which was developed by the Vancouver Aquarium to empower restaurants and consumers to identify fish and seafood choices that protect rather than assault the world’s aquatic health. When you see the Ocean Wise logo (above) – as you do throughout the menu at Simple F&C – you can enjoy your fish supper without wondering how much sea habitat and by-catch was sacrificed in its harvesting.

Second, all of their take-out containers and utensils are made from recyclable or biodegradable materials. The forks are made from cornstarch, so when I’m done I can just throw ‘em in the compost!

Third, most of the fish they serve today comes from Canada, and owner/chef Shawn Hartwell tells me that coming soon all of the fish they serve will originate from this country. Supporting Canada’s sustainable fisheries has never been so delicious!

The Chef’s Special couldn’t have been more appropriate: I ordered a perch and pickerel combo, which owner Candace Hartwell informed me came from nearby Lake Erie. When I asked her to comment on the Ocean Wise seal of approval, she expressed concern for the sea-world ecosystem, “It needs a chance to replenish itself.”  

One more notable thing about Simple Fish & Chips: they offer gluten-free fish and chips for those who are sensitive to wheat products. Having tried this option, I can honestly say that the gluten-free batter might be even better than the traditional kind! 

I am envisioning line-ups out the door of Simple Fish and Chips this summer: finally, a place we can find high-quality fish and chips without the sour taste of environmental guilt!
Maybe Shawn and Candace can present at the Green Party AGM next year!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

McCully's Hill Farm: Insert Your Garden Here!

Since 1847, McCully’s Hill Farm has been producing food for the local community.

This year, for the first time, they're opening their gates to produce food with the local community.

I’ve been working alongside my sister-in-food Sara Bradford (the manager at McCully’s) to organize the first ever McCully’s Hill Farm Community Garden Co-Op. We’re inviting all you landless, would-be-food-gardeners to join us and cultivate your own 10’ x 10’ garden plot (5’ x 10’ half-plots are also available). There is no financial cost for having a garden, but everyone has to contribute part of their crop to be sold at the McCully’s vegetable stand, with proceeds going to support the project. We’re having an open meeting on Thursday, April 29th at 5:30pm to talk about the project with people who are interested, and the plan is to break ground on May 1st!
I went by McCully’s yesterday to pace the field off where the gardens will be located, and let’s just say that there’s enough room for everyone (and then some)! We all definitely have some serious work ahead of us... but I really think this empty field can become a gathering place for like-minded local food enthusiasts who appreciate that the ‘community’ part is just as important as the ‘garden’ part.

While I was there, I met some kids who were signing-up for summer camp. They were unavailable for comment, since they were busy feeding grass to the goats and climbing on the tractor tire playground, but Christopher’s mom Jacqui told me her son’s been attending McCully’s day camp religiously for years, “He’s a farm boy at heart.” Everyone knows farm boys have to eat: for one four-day summer session McCully's is offering a culinary day camp where the kids learn about local food and how to turn it into yummy stuff like pies! Don't forget to bring some home to mom, Christopher!

In the store, we got some maple chunk ice cream and I bought my favourite bean soup mix along with some local honey-butter. It struck me that this place is the heart and soul of the Stratford and St. Marys local food scene. I’ve got the feeling I’m going to be a bit of a regular around here...

Speaking of which, I’ll be returning to McCully’s on Sunday, April 25th for the Foraging Workshop that Sara’s organized through Slow Food Perth County. Expert forager Peter Blush will be leading us on a hunt for fiddleheads, wild leeks, and if we’re lucky we might even find some morels! Just don’t ask me to pick any stinging nettles Peter: I know they’re delicious but I have extensive firsthand knowledge of why they call it the Devil’s Club (ouch!).

Get in touch with Sara at McCully’s if you want one of the last two spots available for the foraging workshop (or if you have any questions about the garden co-op): 
Call or e mail at

Monday, April 12, 2010

West Meets East in Stratford: It All Starts With the Kids

Paul Finkelstein (aka Fink) isn’t about Paul Finkelstein.
He’s about food; he’s about education; but most of all, he’s about the kids.
Appropriately, then, this first blog post isn’t about Paul Finkelstein. It’s about the kids from his Stratford Northwestern Secondary School’s Culinary Arts program (the gang who make a healthy lunch from scratch every day for fellow students eating at the alternative cafeteria ‘The Screaming Avocado’). And it’s about the kids from the Culinary Arts program at Edward Milne Community School. They just flew in from Sooke, British Columbia, to take part in a delicious exchange program: they’re going to be immersed neck-deep in Ontario’s food scene all week, simmering Sous Vide as they attend the Niagara Institute, visit Toronto’s historical markets and innovative restaurants, and ‘live the food’ in Stratford.
It’s Saturday, and there are three workshops taking place at the Screaming Avocado. The first is a lesson in Chinese cuisine, as none other than Ken Gene (from Stratford’s takeout Mecca Gene’s Restaurant) arrives to teach the students how to make Kung-Po Chicken. When I asked Penny from Edward Milne School what she liked most about the hands-on cooking session, she told me she appreciated the opportunity to exercise her creativity, “Each one was unique because we got to make our own choices for ingredients!”
Next, Stratford local Brendon Rooney – a blossoming food educator with a natural talent for teaching – came to coach the kids how to make sushi rolls. One proud BC student named Taylor presented me with a vegetarian maki she had created herself: Brendon, I just hope one day you will teach my own children to make me such fine offerings.
Finally, talented pastry chef Wendy Farkas (see pic at top) came to teach the kids how to make the cutest little miniature fruits and vegetables out of Marzipan (a confection made of almonds and sugar that can be fashioned and adorned with edible paint to resemble almost anything). I noticed that Troy from Sooke was already a bit of an expert hand at this exercise: he explained that making the little models was just like making scenery for the role playing game Warhammer 40,000. But tastier, right Troy?
Seeing the kids from BC working alongside their assigned “twins” from Ontario made me appreciate Paul’s approach. It’s not about him. It’s not about his haircut [Jamie Oliver, that one’s for you!]. It’s about youth in Canada working together to develop skills that will make this country an even yummier and healthier place in the future.
Good luck with the rest of your week, you lucky little foodigans! And may the Stratford kids have as great a culinary experience as the BC crew did here when they go to Sooke later this month!
PS: Look for the Screaming Avocado gang and their new friends on Breakfast Television the morning of Tuesday, April 13th. And at the "East Meets West" dinner being held at the Screaming Avocado @ SNSS the evening of Wednesday, April 14th!