Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Beet Goes On... with Pickles, Eh!

Growing a garden to have fresh, organic food throughout the summer is a great thing. But here in Stratford, with our frigid winter climes, it is pretty-much impossible without a greenhouse or coldframe to eat garden-fresh produce year-round. It is therefore generally believed that due to our geographic circumstances it is impossible and impractical to eat healthy homegrown vegetables in the winter. That myth is shattered by Suzanne Turnbull, the one-woman-canning-machine otherwise known as Pickles, Eh!
I contacted Suzie and told her my situation: I had a wide-row-ful of gigantic beets ready for harvesting, and there is only so much Borchtz my family can eat in a summer. I had just been informed that Suzie is going to be providing a pickling and preserving workshop at the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival's Chef School Education Tent, so I asked her if she could show me how to pickle beets so I could share a personal preview of her teaching about this important skill.
Step one: Wash the beets. Don't peel them, just wash them.
Step two: Boil the beets until they're cooked (depending on size, anywhere between 20 and 45 minutes). Drain and soak in cold water for a few minutes until cool enough to handle. The peels just slip off in your hand!
Step three: Slice the beets and layer them in sterilized mason jars along with layers of garlic and horseradish. Add pickling brine (to make this we used vinegar, sugar, salt, coriander seeds, cloves and peppercorns simmered with the stock from the beets we cooked).

Step four: Place the lids on top and secure the rings snugly but not too tight. Bathe jars in a canning pot with boiling water for about fifteen minutes. Remove, and let sit in a non-drafty spot for two weeks to allow for flavours to fully infuse. 
Besides the Pickled Beets with Horseradish and Garlic Suzie showed me how to prepare, she also taught me how to make Beet Relish with Cabbage (simmering in photo below) and Beets Pickled with Cinnamon and Cloves.
Pickling does take some time, so Suzie and I had ample opportunity to chat about her business. Suzie learned how to preserve fresh food from her mother as a matter of home economics and nutrition, "People had to do this to survive through winter and get their vitamins. We've such a different culture at the moment." I noticed Suzie was simultaneously tending: several large crock pots full of marinading cukes; a rack of vinegars being infused with herbs and flavours; tables full of cooled jars awaiting labelling; a collection of ripening vegetables; and countless other preparations in various stages of preservation. When I commented on her impressive juggling act, she affirmed, "I've always got four or five things on the go at all times."

For many years, Suzie would always give pickles and preserves as gifts. Several years ago, she asked herself, "I've always given away pickles, but could I sell them?" To test her idea, she threw tasting parties where she matched her mustards, relishes and chutneys with local food dishes. The response at these informal focus groups was overwhelmingly positive. Today, Suzie is a popular vendor at the Saturday Stratford Farmers Market and many of her 115 (and counting) products are featured at some of Stratford's most successful restaurants, including Foster's Inn where Pickles, Eh! tarrragon vinegar is their secret to the best Hollandaise sauce in town!
For the Stratford Chef School Education Tent at the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival (September 25 and 26, so get your tickets now!), Suzie will be demonstrating how to make and preserve Cranberry and Apple Chutney just in time for Thanksgiving! I highly recommend attending this free workshop: after learning how to pickle beets from Suzie, I've totally caught the canning and pickling bug! Looks like I'll be enjoying my garden's produce year-round from now on!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Factory163: Fun, Friends... and Food!

All summer my wife Lisa and I have been looking forward to one night:

Rick & Heather's Wedding Party!

Ricky is an old friend of Lisa's, and has been one of my favourite folks in Stratford since long before we began running into each other daily at the Screaming Avocado Cafe during my recent stint working with Paul Finkelstein and the Stratford Northwestern Culinary Arts kids this past spring (Rick is a teacher who enjoys a good student-made lunch). 

Heather and Rick are a fantastic couple, and when they decided to throw a party to celebrate their marriage, they chose a venue that reflected their comfortable style and vibe: 


When I arrived, I was dabbling with the idea of blogging about the event... after all, Factory163 is a phenomenal three-floor space where Stratford artists, such as my previous photographic collaborator Irene Miller, have incredible studios. In fact, just last week I'd checked-out a post from my brother-in-blog Matty Ian about an impressive art exhibit he'd reviewed there.

But I really knew it was time to throw-down a Stratford food blog when I walked through the artistically-decorated party space, peeked around the corner of the DJ booth, and discovered that the caterers for the night were none other than:

The Slow Food Perth County All-Stars! 

As it turns out, completely unbeknownst to me, some of my most talented Slow Food brothers-and-sisters-in-food had been not-so-coincidentally hired by Factory163 and the bride and groom to serve-up some fresh local flavour to the attendees of the Party of the Year!
The local goat cheese and tomato bruschetta was perfect in seasonality and seasoning with its ruby-red chunks and fresh herbs over creamy chevre.
The vegetarian salad rolls with house-made peanut sauce, balsamic teriyaki and sweet miso being offered by the circulating servers were often snapped-up before they could pass the busy dance floor!
Janet Cox and Maryann Wilson Co (above) are the two creative sisters who operate Factory163. This was in fact their first wedding event, and I don't think they could have delivered a better party! As Lisa and I were provided a special tour of this funky converted industrial space by Janet, she expressed her and her sister's desire to incorporate local food within the programming they offer, "The food thing is really big to us as a theme... we want to promote the fabulousness of local food!"
Besides the great food everyone enjoyed - which also included chicken and steak satays, pork sliders and mini beef burgers, gourmet pizzas, and carmelized apple and pear crostinis - the party also featured some killer dancefloor music (sorry, no Chicken Dance here) spun courtesy of DJ Wigs (above).  
But above all, the night was a celebration of Rick and Heather's love, and an expression of all their friends' and family's support for their great relationship. 

Which most of us demonstrated by drinking and dancing ourselves silly. Nothing wrong with that: when I asked Rick late in the night about the experience at Factory163, he summed it up perfectly, "It's a great place to have a really, really good party".

Rick and Heather, may every day be like your wedding party: full of fun, friends... and food!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Travelling at the Speed of Dinner

I was thrilled when I was asked last week to lead a group of award-winning Canadian food and travel writers through a "Travelling Dinner" - a moveable feast with delicious and diverse stops at four of our city's best dining establishments. My fellow travellers had taken-in some fantastic culinary experiences over the past couple of days on their media tour - including what was by all accounts a remarkable barn lunch at Soiled Reputation farm prepared by Chef Bryan Steele from the Old Prune Restaurant. I was asked to talk to these journalists over dinner about the fun food stuff I've been involved in since I moved to this inspiring town, like the Slow Food Sunday Market, the McCully's Community Garden [reminder: SPLAT Festival this Sunday!]; the school garden projects; and of course my little ol' Blog! I was a-drool in anticipation of the food we were going to be enjoying together, and I was really excited over the opportunity to share my Stratford stories, but most of all I was eager to see these successful food and culture writers in action and pick-up some tips from the best!
I was delighted to learn that the first leg of our restaurant relay was to be at my favourite place in town for sustainable fish and seafood, Simple Fish & Chips.
Chef Shawn Hartwell did Stratford proud, serving-up some beautiful local pickerel in both battered and grilled form alongside Soiled Reputation greens (above)... 
 ...and then treating us all to a gorgeous sample of his unique Green Curry pickerel (above). 

With this group of writers, for once I didn't have to worry about whether it was inappropriate to pull-out the pen, pad and camera in the middle of a meal - it's a reflex they all shared. A diner at another table observed our collective reporting and exclaimed, "You're all food critics? Are you serious?!?" One member of our group clarified, "We're food writers, not critics". I found insight in that statement: These folks loved the food, but just as important as the quality of the dish was the Stratford story that surrounded it - they were impressed by owners Shawn and Candace's Ocean Wise policy and commitment to using only Canadian-caught, sustainable fish and seafood product, and the soaring popularity they've enjoyed over their first year in this appreciative town.
Our travels next took us all the way across the road to Pan Tapas & Grill. I had to admit to the group, this was actually also my first time eating at Pan, although I had heard nothing but good things about their new, local-infused menu all summer.
Again, the chef and staff did Stratford proud, as we all enjoyed sharing some grilled summer vegetables,  gorgeous haloomi cheese, and a charcuterie tapas plate (photo above) that was so local everything - including the board the flavourful selection of meats and beets were served upon - came from nearby.

As we shared some sangria and stories, one of the writers expressed a personal approval of the move away from high-priced, stuffy, infinite-course chef tasting menus that were the benchmark for culinary quality in years past. She appreciated the freshness and quality of the dishes we'd been served so far that evening, as well as the honest simplicity of letting the fresh local product speak for itself.
We needed only travel next door for our third stop, which was at Foster's Inn for an after-dinner cocktail. Owner Craig Foster himself (above) mixed us each a wickedly delicious chocolate martini (featured on Stratford's new Chocolate Trail) and shared with the writers his experience as the proprietor of what has become one of the city's landmarks for food, drink and accommodation. 

Finally, it was over to Pazzo's upstairs fine dining room for dessert. It was one of the last nights of the Jazz Legends series that has been taking place at Pazzo's as part of the Stratford Summer Music Festival over the last month, and we were entertained by the brilliant bassist Dave Young accompanied by the talented Robi Botos on piano. As we listened to the duo jamming on some standards and original compositions, we enjoyed some beautiful desserts, which included a lemon tarte with blueberries that was to die for, and  still-warm donuts with honey and cream that were, in the words of one eloquent media personality, "Orgasmic".

Which prompted another writer to hilariously declare: "Someone get this woman a cigarette!"

What a great evening I had with these insightful, witty, and personable lovers of food and culture. Stratford definitely shined in the eyes of these appreciative journalists, and I look forward to reading all of their reflections on the time they spent checking-out our diverse and exciting culinary scene.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Getting my hands dirty at Soiled Reputation!

As I've spent most of the last year getting to know the people who make the Stratford local food scene so vibrant and interesting, I've noticed a pattern. Several of the folks I've met here who've chosen to 'live the life of food' saw their culinary passion ignited by the same summer job: working in the fields at Soiled Reputation farm. 

This trend made me curious to see exactly what it might be about working for Antony John (aka "The Manic Organic") and his wife Tina Vandenheuvel that inspires some people to devote their lives to the ways of the knife-and-fork.

At the Toronto food blogger barn lunch at Soiled Reputation, in which I was privileged to take part back in early June, I made a suggestion to our hosts Antony and Tina: I would come and work in their fields for a day and blog all about it! They were keen on the idea, but Antony recommended I wait until the growing season was in full-swing to make the most of the experience.

This week, figuring that the growing season was just about hitting its late summer sweet spot, I followed-up on that suggestion. I made a deal with Antony and Tina: I would put in a morning's work for them, and they could pay me in vegetables!
My first work partner was Antony himself. As we walked across his twenty acres of plantings to find the rows of shallots, he shared with me his philosophy, "I take a winemaker's approach to food." That is, rather than defining success strictly by the number of pounds of food his farm can produce, he defines success according to the quality of the food he produces. The gorgeous shallots we picked (photo above) were symbolic of Antony's commitment to quality: I have never seen shallots grown from seed like they grow them at Soiled Reputation (I'm used to seeing them grown from sets, like multiplier onions). Yes, each seed only yields one shallot - but what a shallot!!
I could (and someday might!) dedicate multiple blog posts just to reporting on Antony, who is certainly one of Stratford's most colourful culinary characters (he's pictured above with the first potatoes of the year!). Besides his unparalleled expertise as a cultivator of superior organic produce, I could report on his love for painting, and the impressive art portfolio he's created. I could report on his musical interests, having heard him sing both in his own barn at the aforementioned blogger lunch, and at the Slow Food Sunday market a couple of weeks back. I could report on his tenacious entrepreneurship, which has seen him become a top vegetable supplier for all of the finest restaurants in Stratford, as well as many in Toronto.  

But that day, I was most interested in finding out what it was like to work for Antony. Farmer John expressed an approach to farm labour that valued human capital over tractors and combines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, "We're investing in people, not iron." He mentioned the multiple advantages associated with such an investment: people-power is not driven by fossil fuels, and the labour force turns around and puts the money they earn back into the local economy. In addition, the human work force is "infinitely adjustable", in that it is relatively easy to add or take away one or two people from the staff in response to workload. 

I was starting to get an idea of why people like to work here: the boss actually gives a damn about them and their community, and values his staff as the backbone of his whole operation.
My next work partner was Derek (he's on the right in the above photo), who took me out to pick some leeks. Derek is an interesting dude: he used to be house manager at the Stratford Festival, but this year he decided to trade his desk in for a wheelbarrow. As we picked and trimmed-up beautiful leeks both big and small, Derek informed me that Rake and Tillage - the band that's playing at the Slow Food Pork Party at Punkeydoodles this Sunday (August 15) - is in fact him  (guitar/vocals) and Antony (vocals)! I'm happy for Derek, as he clearly relishes getting back to the land ...and has a lot of fun doing it!

Cory (pictured above on the left) took me out next to pick some eggplant. I helped him spot some of the more well-hidden purple orbs as he told me about what it's been like working on the farm for the past four years. He showed me the thriving peppers growing next to the eggplants, and lamented last year's failed crop, "What's always amazed me is how much work goes into everything - when a crop fails it hurts!" I was amazed at how everything we were picking had a specific destination. Cory could actually tell me which eggplants were going to Bijou restaurant, which ones were going to go up for sale at the Gentle Rain, and which ones were destined for Rundles. Talk about picked-to-order!
Soiled Reputation is probably best known for the amazing mixed greens they supply year-round to stores, restaurants and those who subscribe to their weekly delivery service (who Antony refers to as his "Homies"). My last stint was with the group of girls who meticulously snip every single leaf of the greens mix on a daily basis (pictured above). As I crouched and snipped some delicate baby arugula (my back is aching a little as I write this) I learned from one diligent worker named Lindsay about how she was putting herself through homeopathy school on weekends by working for Antony and Tina. As we worked and chatted, over my shoulder I heard intense gossiping among the all-girl crew about the previous night's premier of the reality show Bachelor Pad. Clearly, one of the perks of being on the greens brigade is membership in a strong circle of female friends... who can talk about whatever they want all day!
At 11am sharp every morning all of the farmhands lay down their hoes, scissors or wheelbarrows and head over to the farmhouse for a delicious coffee break ritual, presided over by Tina. That day, she had baked an incredible peach and plum Kuchen (kind of like an open-faced pie) for everyone to enjoy along with their coffees. Keeping in mind that Tina recently won the title of Best Pie at the McCully's Hill Farm In Your Face Pie Festival, you can understand why the workers at Soiled Reputation all eagerly look forward to 11am! 

I definitely discovered what it is about working at Soiled Reputation that inspires people to devote their lives to food. As I sat alongside all of these hard workers while they enjoyed their coffee break, I felt their close camaraderie and sense of community.  Tina and Antony are caring bosses who instill their joy and passion for farming in the people who work for them. But most of all, everyone seems to have a lot of fun working at Soiled Reputation. I know I did!

On that note, I'll leave you with a video creation  from the Soiled Reputation website featuring Rake and Tillage themselves as they pull out the heavy artillery in their battle against weeds:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Garden of Homemade Delights at the Brew Garden Café

My new friend Nathan McKay - he's the organizer of the recent Blues & Ribs Fest and the person in charge of putting together the impressive musical line-up for the upcoming Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival - called me out of the blue this week with a hot blogger tip.
Nathan had recently enjoyed an incredible lunch at the Brew Garden Café in the nearby hamlet of Shakespeare, and was now on a mission to share his delicious discovery with the world! He started by arranging for a talented Stratford photographer named David Charlesworth to come and take some pictures of the Brew Garden's gorgeously-presented food and bevvies. As they were mid-photo-shoot, Nathan hunted me down and asked if I'd like to help them eat the beautiful, homemade creations they were photographing.

Fifteen minutes later, I was there!

The dish that had started it all for Nathan was the Bananas Fosters French Toast, served with maple rum syrup and the Brew Garden's signature salad featuring local organic greens and seasonal fruit (photo above, and all of the incredible photos included on this blog post, courtesy of David Charlesworth). I immediately appreciated Nathan's excitement: the cool bananas, crunchy walnuts and sweet, sweet sauce over savoury homemade bread rendered this lunch entrée into a dessert that eats like a meal!
The Brew Garden, as its name suggests, offers an alfresco experience similar to those found on outdoor patios throughout Europe. Three summers ago, Colleen and Charles Furbacher transformed their garden into a spacious, bright-yet-shaded venue where visitors to Shakespeare could relax outside and enjoy a revitalizing beverage, a light luncheon, or indulge in some tea-time treats. We tried a few of their cool specialty bevvies (above)... I particularly enjoyed the Strawberry Gardenade (right), but the Iced Coffee Smoothie (centre) put any coffee chain's iced-capp to shame, and the Green Tea & Kiwi Smoothie (left) tasted as refreshing as it looks. 
Colleen informed me that the large selection of teas that they serve in the Brew Garden - which can be enjoyed either hot or cold - are supplied by none other than Canada's Tea Sommelier herself, Karen Hartwick of Stratford Tea Leaves. Like she has done for so many other Stratford area restaurants, Karen has developed a tea just for them, known as the Brew Garden Breakfast Blend. 
What impressed me most when talking to Colleen and Charles was their 'start from scratch' approach to absolutely everything they serve. From the house-baked cinnamon buns (above), to the sandwiches made with homemade bread, to the warm and luscious bread pudding (created using a recipe originally created by Colleen's 'Great-Great-Great-Great Grandmother'), and all the way to the soups, quiches and lasagne served at lunch, everything - and I mean everything - at the Brew Garden was made in their kitchen. 
I took note of several more admirable qualities of the Brew Garden as I enjoyed an astonishingly lovely Brownie Sunday with Raspberry Fruit Ice (above). The menu is entirely vegetarian, and Colleen is committed to changing people's attitudes about meat-free dining, "We want to show people that vegetarian food can be really good and not bland at all!" The owners of the Brew Garden are also committed to minimizing their carbon footprint, providing compostable take-out containers and utensils. All of their suppliers are sustainability-approved, from their fair trade coffees to their organic produce. 

When an establishment is as committed to quality and culinary excellence as the folks at the Brew Garden Café are, the word gets out. You can visit their garden, located on highway 7/8 right in Shakespeare, from 11am to 3pm Monday to Wednesday, and 11am to 5pm Thursday to Sunday (and on Holiday Mondays). 
A big thanks goes out to Nathan McKay for sharing this foodie find with me... and for connecting me with David Charlesworth, whose food photos are downright mouth-watering (don't look at them too long or you might get drool on your computer!). If you want to check out David's stunning work as a photographer of the local farming and agricultural community, check out his Agri-Moments site. David also features his marvellous wedding photography on his professional site, and keeps up a blog of his own featuring even more of his diverse photo creations.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Imagine this is a church... and you're drinking [and eating!] in it!"

Last Saturday, I had an amazing seat for what those in 'The Biz' refer to as the rare and elusive "Triple Threat". 

Did you see a sensational acting & singing stand-up comedian? you might ask.

That too, but I also had great wine, superlative food and gracious service at The Church Restaurant... after which yes Sean Cullen performed a brilliantly absurd Cabaret for the Stratford Summer Music Festival that I will always remember, with amusement, as one of the highlights of my summer. 

Along with my meal that night!

The Church's owner and host Mark Craft greeted me warmly at the door and led me to a table where my camera and I would have a great view of the show (a huge thanks to Sean Cullen's management for the permission to post some footage of this performance on my humble food blog!).

I had the choice of ordering from the a la carte or the prix fixe menu, and went for value: $39 for a choice between two appetizers, three mains and two desserts at this venerable fine-dining establishment.
The first course was a choice between a cauliflower and green apple soup enveloping a Qualicum Bay scallop and a charcuterie plate featuring DeMartines Wild Boar. I went for the soup and scallop, and was blown-over by the combination of the silky-smooth cauliflower puree, the tang of the green apple drizzle, and the warm, lusciously chewy, but not under- or over-done scallop sitting just below the surface.
For the main course I chose a fillet of local Lyndon Farms arctic char served over a potato and almond cake with French beans and an arugula veloute sauce. The fish was delicate in flavour and texture, and elevated by the crunchy toasted almonds and crispy potato platform it was perched upon.
For dessert, I picked the goat's yogurt vanilla bean panna cotta atop toasted cocoa nib granola and Perth County honey, which came sprinkled with a handful of in-season raspberries. It's smooth-yet-crunchy texture was light but decadent... the perfect punctuation to a first-class meal. 

Before the show, I was privileged to meet the organizer of the 2010 Stratford Summer Music Festival, John Miller, who informed me that the night's performance was one of a series taking place every Saturday night this summer. Over the years, Stratford Theatre Festival performers had established a  somewhat impromptu late-night Cabaret that was hugely popular, and which eventually came to be part of Stratford Summer Music Festival, which is celebrating its ten year anniversary this season! Last week, the series featured Stratford Festival favourite  Bruce Dow; next week, John Miller himself will invite the best Cabaret performers from years past to return; and the final Saturday night Church Restaurant Cabaret, on August 21, will feature Michael Therriault.

The Cabaret began... not with Sean Cullen, but rather with a special cameo appearance by Dame Sibyl, a living legend of  the Stratford theatre  scene. The Dame was in the middle of telling us how the Stratford Festival actually began by her breaking into random people's houses and reciting monologues in their bedrooms, when she was rudely interrupted, which was clearly NOT cool in a former church:

After Dame Sibyl layed down the law, it was safe for Sean Cullen to come out and throw-down a hilarious and genuinely entertaining Cabaret set of singing and comedy. He shared Dame Sibyl's reverence for the churchly setting: "Imagine this is a church... and you're drinking in it!"

Bless his heart.

The dapper, linen-suited star of the Festival (he's playing Smee in Peter Pan this season!) proceeded to croon "Sweet Stratford", a heartfelt song that included a little skat about his favourite downtown breakfast spots:

Cullen finished his homage to Stratford with a little ditty about the scariest hotdogs in town:

In between more straight-up songs by the Beatles, Tom Waites, Sinatra, and someone referred to enigmatically as 'The Singing Detective,' Mr. Cullen made some more observations about this once-sacred culinary venue:

I think more churches should be made into restaurants:
'Thank God for these porkchops!'

Amen. The Church of Sean Cullen was in session Saturday night, and it was as entertaining and hilarious as it was delicious!

Thanks to the wonderful staff at The Church for the beautiful meal, great wine and top-notch hospitality! But watch-out for that Dame Sibyl - she drinks straight vodka onstage and has been known to rip anyone who crosses her limb-from-limb with only her bare hands and a stiff purse!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Diggin' Radishes with the McCully's Culinary Camp Kids!

Since I settled in Stratford with my family back in November of last year, I've experienced several local phenomena that produced the "Aha - we really did move to the perfect town for us!" reaction.

Like when I first walked to the end of my street, where there's a huge constellation of sports facilities, and saw a giant group of kids playing ball hockey, without an adult in sight. I immediately knew that my two boys would play there someday too, and that I would have to find a good hiding place to videotape their pick-up games without embarassing them.

Or on the last day of high school before summer holidays, when all the farm kids who attend Stratford Northwestern Secondary School drove down my street in their families' big, honkin' tractors, and proudly parked all in a row in the student lot. I realized Stratford is a unique place where agriculture is part of the mainstream culture, and where growing food is respected. That, and not to let my streetsmarts-impaired dog roam free on our road on the last day of school - some of those tractors were monster, and they were really movin'!

I also knew we'd moved to the right place when I visited McCully's Hill Farm for the first time back in February, and learned about their Farm and Culinary Summer Day Camps for kids. Talking with manager Sara Bradford about the fun and educational food and cooking activities kids experienced at the Culinary Camp, I wished my little guys were a little older so I could've enrolled them. At the same time, I started thinking-up some programming, hoping Sara might let me teach 'the youth' about local food and gardening, which is one of my passions. 

This week, that hope came to fruition as Sara graciously allowed me to take her group of seven foodigans for a whole morning!
The first activity I prepared for the kids was the "Local Organic Veggies versus Grocery Store Imports: Taste Test Battle!" Each of the campers was given one taste sample of cucumber, tomato, cantaloupe, celery and carrot from a local organic farm, and another from the supermarket, and was asked to mark which one they thought tasted better (see photo above). A lot of them indicated that they liked both samples: what can I say - these Culinary Camp kids like their grub! When I asked the children to tell me some of the benefits of eating food that's locally and sustainably grown, one little girl astutely answered "That way the food doesn't have to come on a truck, which means it won't burn fuel and wreck the environment." This was responded by another camper, who challenged, "Are you insulting truckers?!" Kids say the darndest things... I wasn't touching that one (nothing against truckers, but why ship something we can grow right here?). Luckily, the superior taste of the local organic produce was enough to earn the preference of the campers.
Next I led the troop over to the McCully's Hill Farm Community Garden Co-Op (see pic above), which I am proud to have started this year with Sara and her mom Carolyn. Good news - it's thriving!

I presented each of the kids with a sheet that contained a series of pictures on the left - 1) plum tomatoes, 2) cucumbers, 3) green and 4) yellow zucchinis, 5) purple pole beans, 6) fennel bulbs, 7) leeks, 8) tomatillos, 9) basil,  and 10)  red hot chilli peppers. On the right beside each pic was a space for them to indicate the plot numbers where they found each of the items in the Community Garden Scavenger Hunt!
Giant daikon radishes were not items on the scavenger hunt... but my buddies Aidan and AJ found one in my garden plot (above) and the photo shoot began!
Maya and Maia (or is it Maia and and Maya?) proudly hoist the scavenger hunt trophy!
'Danger' is Oscar's middle name. Seriously, it is - so I made sure he was careful where he pointed that thing!
The one thing the McCully's Hill Farm Community Garden Co-Op has been missing all season is a great big sign proudly letting everyone know of its existence. The Culinary Camp crew changed all that as they each took a 'plot' of their own on the new sign, which they all filled with painted vegetables (above)!
I'm not sure who had more fun, the kids or me, and I thank Sara and the McCully's folks for giving me the opportunity to take part in this years' Culinary Camp. I should mention more great food events involving McCully's this summer and fall. The S.P.L.A.T. (Savour Perth Local Annual Tomatoes) Festival is happening there on Sunday, August 29. Slow Food Perth County will be providing heirloom tomato tastings that day, and Pazzo's Pizzeria will be dishing-out pizzas made on-site featuring vegetables from their own Community Garden plot! And look for McCully's Hill Farm to be one of the highlights on the Perth County Farm Tour that's taking place  on Sunday, September 19, as part of the Culinary Week lead-up to Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival! At the Savour Stratford Tasting Tent on Sunday, September 26, McCully's Hill Farm has been partnered with the chefs from Pazzo's!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Basking in the Local Glow at The Sun Room Restaurant!

Happy First Anniversary to The Sun Room Restaurant!
Now, some long-time residents of Stratford must be puzzled: 
"But... The Sun Room's been around for much longer than a year, hasn't it?!?"

Yes and no. 

Yes, The Sun Room has indeed been operating in Stratford for many years, and has long been a favourite of visitors and locals alike. 

But it's only been over the past year, under its new ownership, that it has truly come into its own as one of the best spots in town to experience local cuisine elevated to the heliosphere. 

Last night, I basked in the local sunlit glory that is The Sun Room today. Accompanying me at dinner, to my Sunny Delight, were: my wife Lisa; my brother-in-blog and good friend Matty Ian; and none other than the owner of The Sun Room Restaurant herself, the visionary Carly Flanagan! 
All three of my dining partners were in fact long-time friends from school days in Stratford. Lisa and Matty (pictured above) used to make-believe they were Princess Di and Prince Charles back in the day on Mornington Street in 1981 (luckily, they've both fared much better!). Carly, Lisa and Matty all attended Stratford Central High School together in the '90s. So as soon as we sat down, I was immediately absorbed in the comfortably familiar vibe shared by these three great friends as we celebrated together the first birthday of today's Sun Room.

Matty Ian actually wrote about the redesign of the new Sun Room in one of his blog posts from earlier this year. At that time, he graciously refrained from reviewing the food, leaving that job for me: "Now I won't go into menu details as I will leave that up to 'The Local-Come-Lately' Stratford food blogger to review." I won't go into the design details either, but I will tell you that the environment in The Sun Room is welcoming and comfortable yet stylishly refined. This is doubtlessly the tone intended by the [re]designer, Carly's husband Ryan Flanagan, a talented set-creator for the Stratford Festival (if you liked the eye candy at this year's production of Peter Pan... Ryan did that).
But now let's talk about the redesign of the Sun Room's menu. Carly (pictured above with a stellar breaded  C'est Bon goat cheese and prosciutto over arugula starter) took over the George Street restaurant after studying its ins and outs as an employee for a year and a half. She liked what she saw, but she also had an eye for some groundbreaking improvements, "The Sun Room has such a loyal following, I didn't want to change everything. But I did want to go a lot more local." Locally-sourced product dominates the menu and wine list, with about 80 percent of the food served coming from the immediate region, and 75 percent of the wine Ontario VQA.
I started with a perfectly seasoned asparagus and potato soup. I loved it, but I have to admit I was eyeing-up my dining mates' dishes with a little envy as Carly enjoyed the aforementioned goat cheese/prosciutto creation, Lisa took pleasure in the smoky seared scallops with bacon app (pictured above), and Matty partook of what he swears to be the best Caesar salad in Stratford.
The mains were a fantastic showcase of our region's midsummer culinary climax. I had the Panko crusted Lake Huron pickerel over crisp peas and a lemongrass cream sauce. I absolutely loved the freshness of the dish, its careful presentation, and the complementary flavour combinations. But again, I found myself looking enviously over the table at Carly's entree choice: the seared strip loin of Renecker's Palace Elk aside fresh local veg (mmmm... new potatoes) and drizzled with a red wine jus. I think my new rule is that if I ever dine with the owner of a restaurant, I'll have what she's having. Carly let me have a taste and it was just magic - the meat was perfectly done and not gamy at all, right in step with the delicacy of the veg.

I enjoyed the company as much as the meal. I think I love the people of Stratford as much as I love the food here, and these three are the cream of the crop! As we enjoyed our meal and wine, Matty told us all about the very first Stratford Pride weekend he is organizing for October 22-24 (that's gay pride, not civic pride, although the two don't have to be mutually exclusive anymore in Canada's queerest town). There's a fundraiser at Molly Bloom's August 26, and so much more... check out Matty Ian's Stratford Pride blog post to get the deets from the organizer himself!

Carly talked enthusiastically about her plans for the future, which include a patio for next year. She also let us locals know that as a "a thank you for the people who loyally support us through the winter", the Sun Room is currently offering some great deals: on Mondays, all of their heaping stir-frys are available at great value for $12 bucks (you get to pick your protein and the type of noodle you like, so I will see you all there every Monday!). From Tuesday to Saturday, after 7:30pm tables ordering two entrees get the second one for half price!

Maybe I'll have the elk with a side order of elk...

Thanks to Carly for the wonderful evening of local dining, wining ...and redesigning! I look forward to coming back to celebrate the 'new' Sun Room's birthday many, many times!