Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Mother of All School Garden Projects!

In January, Danielle Brodhagen (co-chair of Slow Food Perth County, culinary queen of the Stratford Tourism Alliance, and all-around sister-in-food) introduced me to Paul Finkelstein. I told him I'd worked on a project the previous summer putting in an educational garden at my local elementary school. I proposed to do the same thing in Stratford, and asked him if he'd like to work with me.

It turned out Paul was already thinking about something similar, but (in true Fink style) WAY bigger.

That day, we started hatching a plan to put a school garden in every elementary school in Stratford...

By February, we had an application in for the Evergreen Foundation's Toyota School Greening Grant program. Four Stratford schools received approval for the grant (Romeo, Shakespeare, Hamlet and Anne Hathaway PS's), and we were on our way!
This week, all our winter planning finally came together. First, we constructed eight school gardens throughout Stratford in one day. This was achieved through the hard work of four Northwestern Secondary School volunteers, who busted their humps on Tuesday cutting sod, enriching the soil, and tilling the 10 foot by 10 foot plots. Thanks Adam & Erin (pictured above), and Gerry & Brandon - you guys really worked it on Tuesday! Thanks also to local farmer Mark Lass, a Slow Food brethren who drove the kids around in his truck and manhandled a tiller all day!
The next day, it was time to deliver the planting lessons to the elementary students of Stratford. Gerry, Marten, and Erin - three SNSS teachers-of-the-future - educated the schoolchildren about the Three Sisters Gardens the First Nations peoples used to plant - the original companion gardening consisting of corn in the centre, beans that climb up the corn, and squash protecting around the perimeter. Paul added a new twist to the Three Sisters, in the form of a 'Cousin': the kids also planted a few mini-rows of Red Fife Wheat, the strain of wheat that was a staple for Ontario pioneers. By the end of the day the seeds had been sown for school gardens at North Easthope; St. Joe's; Hamlet; Bedford; Shakespeare; Avon; Anne Hathaway; and Romeo elementary schools.
Soon the students will be out of school, and will take turns watering their gardens with their families over the summer. When everyone returns in the fall, every school should have a spectacular Three Sisters & A Cousin garden in their schoolyards! We're also going to all return in September to conduct a harvest class, which will hopefully include cooking lessons from a chef who is an expert in Aboriginal cuisine.

Here's the kicker (as if this story needs one!): The SNSS culinary students are then going to take all of the corn, beans and squash grown at all of the gardens and cook them into an a giant batch of delicious Three Sisters Soup. The soup will be served and sold by the kids to attendees of Savour Stratford Perth County, the town's annual food festival celebration taking place on the weekend of September 25. The proceeds from the soup sales will be allotted to the participating schools, who will use the funds raised to support their school lunch programs!

OK, we didn't quite get a garden in every elementary school in Stratford, but there's always next year to build the rest! As far as this week's project went, when I saw our community's spirit and the cooperation that took place between students, school boards and children,  it totally confirmed why I love my new town so much. Thanks to Fink, the SNSS Culinary Arts students, Mark Lass, Danielle Brodhagen, the Evergreen Foundation, and the students of Stratford's elementary schools for making The Mother of All School Garden Projects a reality - WE DID IT!!!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bradshaws: Stratford's Source for Dining in Style (for 115 years!)

Way back in 1895, a fellow named J.L. Bradshaw decided to bring a little style to the kitchens and dining rooms of Stratford. To fulfill this goal, he embarked on frequent boat trips to England, and returned with loads of china, crystal and other classy UK imports. Bradshaws became the place to go for the finest quality house and dinnerware - I'm sure many precious heirlooms passed along within Stratford families to this day originated from J.L.'s store!
One hundred and fifteen years later, Bradshaws continues to bring style to the dining rooms and kitchens of Stratford. The owners today, Carrie and Jeremy Wreford (pictured above), decided to mark the occasion of the store's 115th anniversary with a spring birthday open house that no Stratford food fan would want to miss!

Warning - the following picture is not of a teapot:
It's actually a cake!

Bradshaws sells only the best of everything, from wine glasses to cookware to specialty gourmet products and condiments. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when I learned that the teapot, pepper grinder and knife I was looking at near the front of the store were, in fact, the most incredible birthday cakes I've ever seen! As I was admiring (and eating) the frighteningly realistic cake renditions of some of Bradshaws' most popular products, I learned that the Wreford family has owned the store since 1975, with Carrie and Jeremy taking over in 2006. As Carrie cut more dupli-cake for Bradshaws' loyal customers, I asked Jeremy about Stratford's growing reputation as a landmark on the Canadian culinary scene, which he confirmed, "Stratford's really come into its own as a gourmet town."
I browsed the aisles of the beautiful store, and everywhere I looked I saw something special, from the highest-quality knives (I have a bit of a fetish for super-sharp chef's blades), to fine crystal, to cappuccino machines, to creative dinner party paraphernalia that's sure-to-impress any guest. I know I was impressed when I was presented in the kitchen section with an appetizer spoon containing a zesty pasta salad with julienne carrots, roasted red pepper, goats cheese, and featuring an Apple Cider and Garlic Vinaigrette produced by The Garlic Box in nearby Hensall. I was further impressed by the fluffy baked goat's cheese sample I tried - in fact, I bought one of the Petite Maison goats cheese baking sets being showcased (see picture above)! Even better, my purchase qualified me for a free gift of a handy little cutting board!

Stratford has indeed come into its own as a gourmet community, thanks in part to the style bestowed upon us over the past century-plus from J.L. Bradshaw and the Wreford family! Happy Birthday Bradshaws!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bieber-Blog 1.0

OK. There's an elephant in the room, and it's about the size and shape of a sixteen-year-old kid with a sweeped-out lid. I can't ignore it any more - if I'm gonna talk about Stratford's food scene, sooner or later I gotta talk about Justin Bieber (our town's most famous local by far). So let's do this!

My decision to "go there" re: the Beebs was prompted by a cool recent addition to the Stratford Tourism Alliance's website: the "Bieber-iffic Map to Stratford" just came out, and it points out some of the food spots JB likes to hit when he's in town!

Like Madelyn's Diner on Huron Street:
"Justin’s mom’s favourite Stratford restaurant was a popular spot for family meals out. Also a favourite spot for Northwestern students to have breakfast. Justin’s favourite dish is spaghetti though!"
I visited Madelyn's yesterday and showed them the map, which they hadn't seen yet. Everyone was pretty nonchalant about being singled-out as the favourite eatery for one of Canada's most famous families. When I asked for a comment from Adam, the manager on duty yesterday, he shrugged and complimented the Biebers for being "Nice people". When I asked him if Madelyn's was ready for a stampede of tweenaged girls coming this summer to eat at the same place as their idol, he was cautiously optimistic, "I hope so!"
No one could tell me what Justin Bieber orders when he comes in, so it was up to me to guess for myself. Hmmm....

Well, the map says that his favourite thing to eat is spaghetti and meatballs, but sorry dude, they don't serve it at Madelyn's (Justin, you might want to try Pazzo's for the best pasta in town now that you're all blown-up).

The map mentions that Madelyn's is a hot breakfast spot for kids from Justin's old school, Stratford Northwestern. But it also highlights Features, home of the belly-busting Paul Bunyan breakfast, as his favourite breakfast spot, so I didn't order from Madelyn's all-day breakfast menu.

The sign out front encouraged me to "Seas the Moment" and get some of Madelyn's fish and chips, which are known as the best in town. Or maybe I should have tried the pulled pork sandwich, a big favourite that uses local Perth County product.   

I pondered my choices as I sat on the vast covered patio that flanks the diner. A great place for a cold beer on a hot day - sorry Justin, you'll have to wait until you're 19!

Then it came to me. What would a young, funky Canadian boy chow-down on when he visits his hometown after jet-setting around the world? 

Of course: Poutine!

I ordered the poutine, and it was killer (Madelyn's version of Canada's national fast-food treasure consists of hand-cut fries, melted cheddar cheese, and tasty gravy).  

I could be wrong though, so Justin, if you're out there reading this, leave a comment and let me know what you like to order when you go with your mom and the fam to Madelyn's! Justin's fans - take a guess!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Screaming Stratford Chef School Reunion

A few weeks back, I donated some fiddleheads and wild leeks I'd foraged to the Stratford Northwestern Secondary School Culinary Club (aka the gang from the Screaming Avocado Cafe), who were leaving that weekend for Sooke, British Columbia, to complete the second half of their exchange program with Edward Milne Community School. Although the fiddleheads never made it to BC (due to a minor scandal that included an announcement on the SNSS PA system in frantic search of the missing produce!) Culinary Arts teacher Paul Finkelstein showed his appreciation by inviting Lisa (my wife) and me to the Culinary Club's May installment of the Guest Chef's Dinner Series known as the "Screaming Dinners".

Lucky us!! The Guest Chef leading the students in the kitchen this month was none other than Winlai Wong from the Spice Route in downtown Toronto, and two whole seatings were fully-booked! Thanks for the hook-up Fink!
Chef Wong is renowned for her expertise in Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisine, so we knew we were in for a evening of Asian delights. The first course did not disappoint - we shared a bowl of beautifully-spiced chicken and rice by rolling the earthy mix into lettuce wraps [above].
Hat's off to the up-and-coming chefs who were learning under Chef Wong that night - the main course was executed perfectly. A pan-seared filet of pickerel (a nice little infusion of Canadian content) was served over two scallion pancakes, with an Asian slaw on the side [above]. The flavours danced between salty-peanut, umami savouriness, cool crunch, and a little spicy zing: Screamingly scrumptious.
The dessert was a tempura banana creation [above] that was crispy on the outside and warm and luscious on the inside. I was glad to see the students in the kitchen enjoying these sweet co-creations near the end of the night: they were way too good to not save some for themselves!

After dinner, I asked the Guest Chef what it was like working with the Screaming Avocado students, "I love the energy. Their all professional, passionate, and focused." As I was speaking with Chef Wong, I learned the night was a bit of a Stratford Chef School reunion: Paul and Winlai both graduated in 1997, where they were the star students of Dean Elieff, who now teaches Culinary Arts alongside Paul at SNSS (and who was our gracious host for the evening). Seated with Winlai, Paul and Dean was former Chef School Director Elisabeth Lorimer. When I asked her to comment on the illustrious achievements of her former students and teachers she spoke like a true matriarch: "They were all like my kids. I'm very proud of them."
Keep at it, Culinary Arts Clubbers - maybe you too can attend the Stratford Chef School, become the executive chef at one of the most successful and hippest restaurants in Toronto, and return to be a Screaming Dinners Guest Chef yourself some day!
PS: To keep abreast of the fun food stuff going on at the Screaming Avocado, give Fink a follow on Twitter, username: paulfink.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Celeb-Spotting at the Gentle Rain

This week I joined my sister-in-food Laurie Knechtel at the Queen’s Inn, where we gave a talk to a group of retired directors of the Ontario Children’s Aid Society about the Slow Food movement and how its “good, clean, and fair” values can be applied to our food choices today. Given the lively discussion, which included one former director's heartfelt lament for the lost frogs of Elgin county among other unlikely digressions, I think our message really hit home with this conscientious group. I have a feeling a few of them went shopping for some sustainably-cultivated local food before they left Stratford...
Luckily for them, they needed to look no further than just a couple of blocks away from the Queen’s Inn: The Gentle Rain Natural Foods, a true jewel in the Stratford food scene crown, is tucked away on the downtown side-street Rebecca Avenue. Outside of the Stratford Farmers’ Market, this is probably the best place to score local produce in this town, and the best part is it’s all organic. Definitely Slow Food approved!
We encouraged those who attended our presentation to take the “10 percent challenge” and make a conscious effort to eat local and organic at least once out of every ten meals. I felt obliged to live up to our own recommendation, so it was off to The Gentle Rain...  
Where I was delighted to find that fresh, local asparagus is in season!
After grabbing a bundle of the tender green spears I continued with the local/sustainable theme and got myself a paper-bagful of organic shiitake mushrooms from Weth Mushroom Farm near Goderich. A dozen free-range eggs from Gold Hen Acres and I had myself the fixings for a 100% local and sustainable omelette!
As I was talking with Michelle, the manager of the Gentle Rain, about the exceptional nutritional qualities of their asparagus (which I’m told has to do with the unique soil in which it’s grown), I observed a familiar face in the produce section: star of stage and screen, Colm Feore! I’d heard a rumour that he was a fellow fan of the Stratford food scene, so I approached him and asked him what it was about shopping at The Gentle Rain that appealed to him. He told me he liked being able to come to one, central location to get “all kinds of good, organic food”. But he also mentioned that he wasn’t a one-store man, “I’m a promiscuous shopper in Stratford”.
Ever considered joining Slow Food Perth County, Mr. Feore?  

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Delicious Stratford Stroll

Yesterday I had the pleasure of leading a group of over twenty food lovin' folks on a tasting tour of six of Stratford's most popular restaurants. The Delicious Stratford Debut Stroll served two main purposes: to raise money for the Community Hot Meal program [see my previous post] and to launch the Delicious Stratford fixed-price menu promotion taking place at many of the town's restaurants throughout May and June [see post of my own early preview at Down the Street]. Secondary purposes included: drinking Ontario wine and eating amazing food all afternoon with loads of fun fellow-appreciators of the Stratford food scene!

I greeted my group at City Hall and handed-out the schwag-bags that all participants received. My followers had a little extra prezzie from the Local-Come-Lately in their bags: enjoy the fiddleheads and wild leeks my friends!

Then it was time for the stroll! We sauntered over to our first destination: The Parlour. There we were each poured a blessedly-frosty glass of Buzz Red Hemp Ale from Cool Brewery in Toronto. An equally-frosty shot glass arrived containing a spicy chilled gazpacho with lime and coriander sorbet. We then had a taste of a smoky pork belly confit served over a spoonful of creamy polenta and pickled fennel. We all agreed: if the rest of the tour was to be as good as this first stop we were in for a tasty day!
Next stop: Down The Street [see menu board above]. Owner Susan Dunfield greeted the group most convivially with a glass of Malvoire Guilty Men, accompanied by one of the culinary highlights of the tour: five spice Berkshire Pork from nearby deMartines' farm served over a crispy thyme potato rosti with apple cider cream sauce. The group concurred: Wow!

Pazzo Ristorante Bar and Pizzeria next: Owner Larry McCabe treated us to a glass of Cave Springs Dolomite Riesling (available only in restaurants) paired nicely with an artichoke-riccotta puff pastry and a pork rillette. We're coming back for jazz during Stratford Summer Music!
Next, over to the Church Restaurant and Belfry (for my first time!). Here we received the dish that was the unanimous standout of the tour: a dessert interpretation of "Stratford in Springtime" [see photo above], in the form of an edible garden composed of sorrel ice cream, coconut snow, and salted caramel 'stones' that crackled with pop-rocks when you put them in your mouth! As a gardening freak, I loved that one before I even tasted it!

It was to Foster's Inn next for my group (who were all getting slightly tipsy after four or five drink samples!). Here we were treated with an absolutely delicious baked potato, along with a fruit smoothie that they serve as part of their popular breakfasts. And more wine of course, this time from Harbour Estates, which we took along as we toured the  beautiful, high-ceiling rooms upstairs!

Finally, our experience culminated at The Sun Room Restaurant where owner Carly Flanagan showed off her hip new decor while presenting us with a really nice sweet potato crepe filled with smoked local trout accompanied by a glass of Flat Rock Twisted Chardonnay. What a great way to end a day of eating seasonal, local food, drinking outstanding Ontario wines, and making new friends!

The event couldn't have been more of a success. Everyone was a winner yesterday: the tickets sold out completely, which means we raised enough funds for the Community Hot Meals program to operate for two years! The six participating restaurants - who need to be thanked for donating all of the food and beverages for the event! - were able to showcase their Delicious Stratford menus to the foodie community. And the participants... we all had an amazing afternoon sampling the exceptional dishes that will be on offer at incredible values for the next two months during Delicious Stratford. 

What a day!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

As I Love It!

Orlando: I almost die for food, and let me have it.
Duke Senior: Sit downe and feed, and welcome to our table.
(William Shakespeare, As You Like It)

I lucked-out and scored a ten dollar "tweet deal" ticket to the Stratford Festival's preview of Shakespeare's pastoral comedy As You Like It on Friday (follow "Stratfest" on Twitter to keep yourself in the loop for future deal announcements).

I didn't just like it, I loved it.

As a rare treat, the Artistic Director of the Festival (and Director of this particular production), Des McAnuff, took to the stage and informed the crowd that this was the first time the cast had performed the play in front of an audience. The most famous line from As You Like It could not describe McAnuff's commitment to theatre more appropriately: "All the world's a stage." His brilliant production had it all: wrestling (no kidding!), boisterous singing and dancing, dynamic scenery, wonderful acting, lots of laughs, and even... some food!

OK, the production was at 2pm, and I had only eaten a late breakfast, so I admit that I might have had food-on-the-brain even more than usual. But my growling stomach was teased by the sight of a giant green apple hovering above the stage in one act. In a later scene, Duke Seniors' Robin Hood-esque band of merrymakers roast a deer on stage. By the end of the production, I was on a mission to satisfy my hunger.
Fortunately, right around the corner from the Festival Theatre is a store dedicated to nothing but my personal favourite food: cheese. 

The Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop on Ontario Street is cheese heaven. The proprietor, Liz Payne, is as knowledgeable about cheese as Des McAnuff is of theatre. When I asked her how she liked being the new Big Cheese in Stratford, she told me it was probably the perfect place to have set up shop, "It's a real foodie town".

The setting of As You Like It is Arden Forest, a mythical place composed of both French and English characteristics. Inspired, I challenged Liz to recommend a French and an English cheese to satiate my craving.
First, Liz presented me with an Applewood Smoked Cheddar with a paprika-dusted rind from Britain (pictured upper right). Delicious! Second, she let me taste a creamy French brie with truffles inside (pictured lower right). Delicieux! 

As I was enjoying my samples, a fellow entered the store asking if the "Red Dragon" was in. As Liz cut him a wedge from the newly-arrived scarlet wheel, she let me have a taste of this Welsh cheddar with mustard seed (pictured lower left). It tasted like a cheese sandwich with gorgeous dijon, so I got a piece of that too! Liz wouldn't let me leave without trying something local. I took home a piece of light-yet-flavourful C'est Bon goat's milk cheddar (pictured upper left), and my cheese feast was complete! 

A final recommendation: If you're attending a 2pm play, plan to have lunch and dinner at one of Stratford's many dining establishments. You can check them all out in the 2010 Culinary Guide, where on pages 6-7 you can read the intro by none other than The Local-Come-Lately!