Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Racks o' Ribs at the Stratford Kinsmen Blues & Ribs Festival

On Saturday afternoon I made my way over to the inaugural Stratford Kinsmen's Blues & Ribs Festival!

Notice: This is also my inaugural video blog, so just ignore my thumb if it appears occasionally.

It was the actually perfect venue for v-blogging: allow me to share with you the quality of the music I witnessed, which has to be seen and heard to believe. And the folks from Perth County Pork Producers were cookin'-up a true feast with racks o' ribs that any die-hard barbeque fan would want to view in all its smoky spendor.

When I got there around 4 pm, I interviewed Nathan McKay, one of the organizers of the first-ever event, who explained to me the genesis of this great blues jam and its culinary connection...

First-things-first: Before I checked-out the stage scene inside the William Allman Arena, I had to check me out some ribs!

After witnessing the Perth Pork Producers' labour of love, I had to treat myself to a half rack. Tango Cafe & Grill and Foster's Inn were serving-up plates of pulled pork sandwiches, BBQ pork sausages, and of course quarter, half and full racks of perfectly-sauced, fall-off-the-bone ribs!
Then it was over to the music. I wasn't lucky enough to catch Jordan John and the Blues Angels at Savour Stratford last September, but if they're playing the Barbeque, Blues & Brews event again this year (Saturday Septmber 25 from 6 pm to 11 pm), I'm going to park myself right in front of the stage. Jordan John killed it on guitar, destroyed the Hammond B3 organ, and basically tore it up like nobody's business: the guy is going to be a star!

Things just got better as the afternoon turned into night and Wide Mouth Mason rocked the crowd. It all culminated with all of the acts taking to the stage together! The first-ever Stratford Kinsmen Blues & Ribs Festival was a full-on success as both the food and the entertainment would make anyone's blues go away!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Salad Days at the Midweek Stratford Farmers' Market

Homer Simpson once led a conga line to the catchy tune:
"You can't make friends with SA-LAD!"

Today at the Midweek Stratford Farmers' Market, I proved him wrong!

The Stratford Agricultural Society has been running the market in Stratford since way back in '55. That's 1855, which makes it one of the longest-running markets in the province. Today, the market takes place year-round at the impressive Stratford Agriplex on Saturday mornings from 7 am until noon, and as of June 16 a midweek market is being held every Wednesday from 3 pm to 7 pm.

This past Wednesday, I officially launched the summer salad season with a personal challenge: to assemble a kick-ass salad using ingredients purchased from all of the veggie vendors in attendance that day.

But first I ran into Judy Burns, the Chairperson of the Market Committee, who told me that the midweek market was ideal for those who couldn't make it to the weekend market, "A lot of people have to work on Saturday." She told me she was looking forward to the progression of the growing season, because as more produce comes out of the ground even more vendors will be attending the Wednesday market.
One vendor who you will only find here on Wednesdays is Pam Rogers from Kawthoolei Farm (aka "The Sprouts Lady"). She supplied my Farmers' Market salad with some crunchy lentil sprouts and some alfalfa sprouts sprinkled with spicy daikon radish sprouts. What I like about buying food from Pam is that I know her market efforts support a worthy cause: for ten years she has worked with Burmese refugees in Thailand offering substance abuse recovery services (for more info check out the Friends of DARE Network website).
Next it was over to the Meeting Place Organic Farm booth, where Katrina McQuail expressed a practical appreciation of the midweek market, "Farmers have to harvest more than once a week, so it's really brilliant!" I picked up some crisp green snow peas for my salad, and also enjoyed a little sample of her delicious Apple Jam.
It just being early summer, I didn't have high hopes for much selection along the line of tomatoes. Boy was I impressed when I encountered a veritable rainbow of local hothouse produce on offer by Theresa at the Red Barn market stand! I got one each of red, yellow and orange tomatoes, and my salad was suddenly bursting in technicolour!
Next it was over to the Windy Lane Acres stall, where I grabbed some outstanding fresh broccoli and a bright red bunch of radishes, both of which I was assured were "Just picked!"
I was again pleasantly surprised by an unexpected presence at Wednesday's market: the first new potatoes of the year, courtesy of Thames River Melons! I also grabbed a bunch of asparagus from them... and this salad just took a bit of a Nicoise twist!

My favourite dressing this time of year is a strawberry vinaigrette (see recipe at bottom), so I grabbed a quart of strawberries from a friendly (but camera-shy) Mennonite vendor (Perth County tip: if you want pesticide-free organic berries without paying the 'certified organic' price, always look for the Mennonites!).

Mickey McGuire's cheese stand was out of the local buffalo mozzarella they usually have on offer (I'll have to come back on Saturday for that), but some Quebec blue cheese promised to add some stinky-tang to the ultra-fresh medley I was composing. I grabbed some lovely early beets from Logan Produce (which have the added bonus of the beet tops for my salad), and a Jonna Gold apple from Vernon Orchards, and my salad was just about complete...

Except I'd forgot the most important part - the greens! I came back full circle, as I returned to my old friend Pam Rogers for her Mesculin mix.
After assembling what was almost certainly the best salad I've ever had, all I have to say to Homer Simpson is:

You CAN make friends with SA-LAD!

Strawberry Vinaigrette:
1 cup Strawberries (washed, hulled & sliced)
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh basil (I got that from my own garden)
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch black pepper

Blend until smooth and enjoy over some summer veggies from the Stratford Farmers' Market!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

World Cup Breakfast at Molly Bloom's Irish Pub

Ah, the FIFA World Cup is back - that magical time every four years when it's perfectly acceptable for me to start drinking in the morning and continue all day! My favourite Stratford watering-hole is Molly Bloom's Irish Pub, and last Saturday morning you could find me checking out the footie with a pint in my hand, enjoying a fine breakfast in front of their brand new widescreen!
Molly's owner-operator Rob Wigan shares the World Cup spirit in a big way: he's opening at 9 am every morning during the next month of soccer action (June 11-July 11), taking advantage of the generous expansion of opening hours that bars in Ontario have been afforded due to the time difference between here and South Africa. I showed up bright and early on Saturday and we enjoyed an exciting early match between Argentina and Nigeria. 
As we watched the game I hunkered down on the World Cup Breakfast Special: two eggs any style, with bacon, toast, homefries and coffee. OK, I skipped the coffee and ordered a pint of cider.
Then another...
Next thing I knew, it was time for the big match of the day, between England and the United States. Molly's back room was filled with UK football enthusiasts, and the mood was electric as the Yanks gave the Brits a serious run for their money, ending-up in a tie game that was clearly disappointing to the soccer-mad English fans. Molly's authentic pub atmosphere was the perfect venue for a room full of rampant World Cup followers: I found myself getting caught-up in the excitement as the crowd leaped to their feet cheering at every goal opportunity and spectacular save.
It turned out that the hearty pub breakfast was the perfect meal to start off a day of drinking and World Cup revelry at Molly's. But Rob and his wife Candice (above) assured me, "The breakfast is great, but if you really want to check out the food you have to come for dinner!" I am definitely going to have to take them up on that with a follow-up blog checking-out the impressive menu they have on offer at Molly's. I just have to decide whether to come on a Monday to try their half price burger, Tuesday to chow down on some 35 cent jumbo wings after 4 pm, or Wednesday for all-you-can-eat fish n' chips!

If you want to find me during the World Cup it's a good bet I'll be down at Molly Bloom's Irish Pub from morning to night for the next four weeks. I'll be the guy cheering on Italy: Forza la squadra Azzura!!!!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Pazzo: Post-Theatre Pizza You Can't Refuse!

Leontes: O, she's warm!
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.
(William Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale)
I scooped another Stratford Festival Tweet Deal (follow Stratfest on Twitter for exclusive Stratford Festival ticket bargains) and was lucky to catch the final preview before this week's gala opening of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Having never attended a production before at the Tom Paterson Theatre (see pic above) I didn't really know what to expect. I discovered that this might be the best venue to catch a play like The Winter's Tale, which sees intense psychodrama juxtaposed with colourful pastoral romance. Tragedy and comedy infused within a single production... with both dramatic affects enhanced by the intimate, almost interactive atmosphere of this special Stratford Festival venue.
Much of the setting for this unique Shakespeare  tragicomedy was Sicily. How appropriate, then, that my number-one recommendation for post-theatre dining in Stratford is Pazzo Bar and Pizzeria, where they serve up the very best pizza and Italian food in town... alongside stellar wines!
Full transparency here: I've been a dedicated fan of Pazzo Pizzeria's Chef di Cucina Greg Kuepfer (pictured above in the Pazzo kitchen) ever since he serenaded me and my bride Lisa with a stirring a-cappella rendition of the Beastie Boys' "So What'cha Want?" at our wedding reception. So I was stoked to rap with him the other night about the Pazzo experience.

Greg's into his second theatre season as the chef downstairs at Pazzo. When I complimented him on the Pizzeria's authentic Italian menu he gave praise to his whole team, "It's a collective effort." Greg anticipated my interest in the use of Perth County product in the Pazzo kitchen, which he celebrated, "We use as much local as possible." I was impressed to learn that the menu perpetually includes a risotto featuring a local, seasonal vegetable... like the asparagus and fiddlehead risotto that's been on-offer throughout the spring. 
But in the spirit of The Winter's Tale's Sicilian setting, Chef Greg recommended a primo starter in the form of a traditional antipasti plate (pic above). This was perfectly paired with a wine  recommended by personable Pazzo co-owner Lawrence McCabe: the spiciness of the house-marinaded eggplant caponata and the hot Calabrese salami was pacified by a chilled Echos Rosé from the Niagara Peninsula. Being unfamiliar with the ways-of-the-rosés I was enlightened by this wine's versatility accompanying the dish's dynamic combination of olives, cheeses, marinades and Italian meats. I was excited to learn that my rosé education can continue all season, as Pazzo's will be featuring a different Ontario VQA rosé every month!
The Sicilian theme continued as I was presented with the Don Corleone pizza:  bacon, pepperoni, roasted red peppers and basil on the crispy, thin crust Pazzo is so well-known for. Truly, a pie I couldn't refuse! This time Larry recommended a glass of Flatrock Pinot Noir, "The perfect summertime wine, not too overpowering, and a really good example of the Ontario pinots that we have available." I had to agree... The smooth vino and bold 'za complemented each other eloquently: another great call.

I was reminded why Pazzo Pizzeria is so popular with the post-theatre crowd, as well as with the locals year-round. It's got great food and wine, an atmosphere that is unpretentious yet polished, and a team that includes some of my favourite Stratford food personalities. While I loved the Don Corleone, one thing I also appreciate about Pazzo is the create-your-own-custom-pizza checklist every diner is provided with. Offering everything from asiago cheese to prosciutto, to arugula to portobello mushrooms, everyone is empowered to liberate their inner pizza chef.

Thanks go out to Larry and Greg for an outstanding taste of the best post-theatre food and wine Stratford has to offer. Pazzo Pizzeria serves up the Italian until 12 midnight every night (except Mondays) during the festival season. And, of course, bellissima lunch and dinner.

PS: I also look forward to kibbutzing with the Pazzo team at the McCully's Hill Farm Community Garden Co-op throughout the season-in-progress... They're growing their own giant tomato sauce garden right beside my own plot: it doesn't get much more local or authentic than that!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Slow Food Sunday Market: Good, Clean, Fair... and FUN!

This past Sunday, I spent a fun day helping-out at the inaugural Slow Food Perth County Sunday Market. 
I'm already a huge fan of the Stratford Farmers' Market (which takes place every Saturday at the Stratford Agriplex/Rotary Complex from 7:00 am to 12 noon, and Wednesdays from 3 pm to 7 pm). So I was thrilled to learn that another market would be taking place in town on Sundays, and that it was being run by Slow Food's Perth County Convivium according to the organization's guiding principles of "Good, Clean and Fair" food.
When I got there in the morning I helped a few of the new market's exemplary producers set up their stands. Tim from Creton's Garden Fresh Produce & Herbs set up a canopy to accommodate his marvelous array of starter plants (pictured above), which included herbs, heirloom veggie and perennial seedlings.
Antony John from Soiled Reputation organic vegetable farm arrived soon after, fresh from speaking about his art at the Perimeter Institute the evening before. Antony braved the morning's elements au naturel (see photo above), and of course had his famous greens on offer, as well as some delectable bunches of rapini and some starter tomato plants of his own.
I have to say though, as a die-hard garden dude (see my previous posts), meeting Rick and Allan from Anything Grows was a real revelation. Those guys got it seriously goin'-on when it comes to out-of-the-ordinary vegetables. They were selling beautiful bunches of garnet-stemmed Bordeaux Spinach (see pic above) alongside racks of fascinating seeds and remarkable starter plants, which included such novel varieties as Ground Cherries and Climbing Spinach. You just don't see this kind of cool stuff at your everyday farmer's market!
The market included some passionate organic growers who truly appreciated the opportunity to connect with the Stratford foodie community. Dave from Koert Organics was feeling downright patriotic with an assortment of greens and rainbow-coloured radishes (see pic above). When I asked grower John Burtenshaw what he thought after selling-out of wintered local leeks he expressed his gratitude for the new market, "It's been worthwhile." As a nice addition to the Stratford growing contingent, a Niagara fruit farm was in attendance with the first Ontario strawberries of the year. I bought a quart but it didn't make it out of the market... so I got another on my way out!

I personally manned the Slow Food information stand for the day, which might have been the most popular booth due to the fact that I was giving out samples of cheese produced by our generous host, Monforte Dairy. The Slow Food Sunday Market will be taking place in the Monforte parking lot weekly (at their brand new location at 49 Griffith Road). I had so much fun I volunteered to run the Slow Food booth every week for the whole season! Find me next week by following the smell of strong (and sustainable!) coffee...

Farmers' markets are my kind of scene, and this was one of the best I've ever experienced. The sky's the limit for the Slow Food Sunday Market, as it promises to just get better and better as the season progresses and more and more producers jump on board. So come on out next Sunday morning and enjoy the good, clean, fair and fun vibe for yourself!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bloggin' With the Best!

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of accompanying fifteen members of the Toronto Food-Bloggerati on an unforgettable Stratford/Perth County culinary adventure. Over the last few days, the Toronto bloggers have published some great posts communicating their indelible impressions of this delectable day. They've expressed their perspectives in words, video and photos... I'm going to cite/link their blogs to reflect the snout-to-tail success of this progressive media event!  

Suresh Doss from Spotlight Toronto immediately gets full props for organizing the Toronto bloggers to make this unprecedented trip together to Stratford... and for putting together a brilliant video collage of our day. If there's one person who knows how to work Twitter and social media to mobilize food folk, it's Suresh (follow his prolific, mouth-watering Tweets @spotlightcity). What a turnout!
I began the day with my new Toronto taste-buds at the new Stratford site of the community-supported Monforte Dairy. Although cheesemaker Ruth Klahsen herself was at-market, we all somehow felt her presence watching over our artisan-cheese-loving group (see pic above) as we enjoyed an informative and affirmative tour led by Ruth's right-hand-woman Maureen Argon. After browsing the new facility, which we learned should be up-and-running this week, we were presented with a dairy-based morning snack that struck blogger My Daily Bread as a well-balanced  Perth County breakfast offering: 
...together the subtle tang and almost sinfully rich creaminess of the 4% MF yoghurt lifted the roasted flavour of the nuts in the granola and balanced out the sweetness of the dried cranberries.
Next, we all set off to Soiled Reputation organic vegetable farm in nearby Sebringville for a little rap session with famed farmer Antony John (pictured above). He schooled us on the region's soil, which naturally provides the perfect growing medium for his unsurpassed greens and produce.  As the Toronto Tasting Notes blogger's post observed, Farmer John:
...spoke passionately about the continuity of life and land, from fungi in the soil to bird life, crops, "weeds", pets, farm animals and human staff. "If this was a wine region, this would be Bordeaux," he said proudly. 
Just a stone's throw away from Soiled Reputation is the deMartines  pig farm (aka Perth Pork Products). Farmer Fred deMartines generously guided us all through his sustainable heritage breed pork operation, which includes resident populations of Tamworth, Berkshire, and Wild Boar. Fred answered our questions while flinging out shovelfuls of black walnuts for the boars to crunch on - it's not everyday you get to talk to the farmer responsible for some of the finest porcine product around! The Eat. Live. Travel. Write. blogger expressed admiration towards the hospitable lifestyle afforded to the residents of the deMartines operation in her post:
The heritage animals are raised humanely in and out doors with the heritage breeds raised as they were historically on pastures and in the bush-lot. 
Then it was time to eat!
I think we might have enjoyed the perfect springtime starter on Saturday. The atmosphere was a laid-back barn feast accentuated by the lilt of a singer/guitarist-in-residence. Rundles chef Neil Baxter presented us with a Perth County Asparagus salad over Soiled Reputations arugula and some Monforte Toscano shavings. Atop all this was perched a poached Soiled Reputation egg that had been breaded and lightly deep fried. As the yolk broke all over the salad and I tasted the crispy coating, I spied one of the farms' chickens through a nearby window... and thanked her. Smoky spit-roasted boar from Fred's farm followed, served over a pea shoot spatzle and drizzled with a jus of mustard seeds that were downright caviar-esque as they burst in my mouth. Dessert was a tart seasonal rhubarb martini with a dollop of rhubarb sorbet. Soiled Reputation produce and Perth Pork Products à la Neil Baxter in a barn full of witty food lovers... just when I thought lunch couldn't get any better, Antony himself got up and belted-out a few soulful tunes! Check out all the photos posted on Flickr by blogger Bon Eats and you'll get the picture.
After lunch, the uniquely-Stratford culinary barn experience continued as we were treated with a cupping session led by the acclaimed Canadian tea sommelier Karen Hartwick, proprietor of Tea Leaves Tasting Bar and Shop in town. This was a real hit with the Toronto foodies and their razor-sharp palates - if Karen ever wants to pass her vast knowledge of all-things-tea along to an apprentice I think we all know who she should connect with (check out the twitpic posted by potential tea-tender prodigy  @popNina)!

I unfortunately had to bail before the tour's confectionery culmination at Chocolate Barr's Candies, where the bloggers got to make their own caramel corn. I checked out some of the pictures posted by Laurendoesthis, a blogger from blogTO, and it certainly looks like they all had a sweet conclusion to the day's adventure!

As I've reviewed all of the blogs, tweets, video and images that have been posted over the last few days by the most-appreciative denizens of Toronto's online food beat, I again feel the urge to pinch myself. Am I just dreaming, or is this place food-blogger-heaven?!?