Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival: Day Two

Day One of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival was going to be a hard day to beat. But Sunday I was helping-out with a sprouting workshop at the Kids Tent, helping-out at the Three Sisters Soup school nutrition charity BBQ fundraiser, then helping-myself to a whole tent full of incredible culinary creations by over thirty of the best chefs in the Stratford area!

Like me, Don Wyness is a newcomer to Stratford. Another thing we share is an appreciation for growing food, and a desire to spread that appreciation among the younger generations. Kids just seem to love healthy food when they cultivate it themselves! Don's 'Happy Sprouting' workshop at the Monforte Dairy Kids Tent showed kids, parents - and anyone else who was interested - how to make healthy and delicious sprouts in their own home all year 'round!

All of the kids went home with the knowledge and equipment they needed to start growing their own sprouts. Don's enthusiasm for sprouts is infectious... soon we all appreciated his motto: "It's not the food in your life, it's the life in your food!"

After tending the Three Sisters Soup fundraising station for a couple of hours, I was finally ready to enjoy what can only be described as Stratford Food Blogger Nirvana: The Savour Stratford York Street Sunday Tasting Tent. Over 30 chefs paired with one of over 30 local food producers or artisans, and all sorts of VQA wine and Ontario craft brewed beers. I got one of those awesome plates that lets you dangle your wineglass from it while you pile it up with goodies, and I unleashed myself upon the feast!
Chef Shawn Hartwell from Simple Fish and Chips paired up with Purdy's Fish Market on nearby Lake Huron to create a hickory smoked whitefish pita with wasabi mayo. It tasted as good as their presentation looked!
Speaking of smoked fish, Dave Koert (above, on the right) gave what I heard was a fantastic lesson on how to smoke fish, meat and veggies in the Stratford Chefs School Learning Centre earlier that day. Dave is also the hardworking talent behind Koert Organics vegetable farm, and was paired with The Church Restaurant, who used his product to create the delectably fresh and fun Sorrel Ice Cream Sandwiches he's holding.
It being my first ever Savour Stratford tasting, there were some surprises for me. I did not expect Chef Neil Baxter of Rundles - one of the best chefs in town - to come to the tasting offering nothing more than bread and butter. Then I tried the chef's bread and house-churned butter... so simple, but absolutely through the stratosphere in flavour and execution. People were eating the butter like cheese.
I also liked Brian Holden of Humble Roots Bakery's pheasant atop (gluten free) cornbread croutons with Sheldon Berries raspberry salsa. Really creative, it tasted as great as it looked.
Farmer and personal brother-in-food Mark Lass of Lassdale Farms was paired with the chef from Foster's Inn to create the mini pork burgers with smoked local cheese he was serving. Yum.
Blanbrook Bison Farmer and Chef Patrick Morden of Molly Bloom's Irish Pub collaborated on a stellar stout-braised Bison that was incredibly moist and one of the tasting stand-outs for me.
Another stand-out for me was the dish prepared by Alexandra Santos of Alexa's Cafe in Sebringville (did I discover her a few weeks back?!?). Alexa demonstrated some above-and-beyond knife skills with her DeWetering Hill Farms pork done in Portuguese Porco Assado style with C'est Bon Goats Cheese rolled-up on top of a clever tortilla curl. Welcome to the neighbourhood, Alexa - you're a fine addition to the Perth County culinary community!
My vote for dessert of the day definitely went to Keystone Alley's Chef Sheldon Russell's Maple Gateau made with Hoover's Maple Syrup. Nice touch with the syrup-writing too!
I would be remiss if I didn't also include a shot of the Rheo Thompson  Candies orange-haired ladies, who were serving up incredible pumpkin fudge (and having a lot of fun while they were at it).

The tasting was definitely a highlight of my career as a knife and fork artist. A veritable Foodapalooza. Burning Man for Ontario foodies (maybe Medium-Rare Man?). Well-Done to everyone involved - I've never seen anything quite like it, and it couldn't have happened without a lot of hard work, community spirit, and volunteering.

To thank everyone who contributed to making the 2010 Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival such as massive success, a volunteer appreciation afterparty was held at Molly Bloom's. We were all happy to decompress after our amazing weekend, and later in the night things got nicely wild with the Tiger Lily Cabaret, which was appropriately food-themed to punctuate this incredible weekend celebrating Stratford and Perth County's unparalleled culinary bounty.

Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival: Day One

Way back in April, when I started this blog, I introduced myself with a little story about the day I suddenly decided I wanted to move with my family to Stratford. It was the Sunday of the 2009 Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival. I was sitting alone in an empty hall three hundred kilometres away, where I'd hosted an all-local and garden-fresh chef's brunch all summer - apparently word didn't get out that we were going to serve through the fall. I called my wife, who was attending Savour Stratford. She told me about the concerts, the tasting tents, the farmers market, the charity barbeque, the learning centre, and the kids tent. When she was finished telling me about her weekend I asked her, "So, how would you like to move to Stratford?"

Fast forward one year... and surpassing all my expectations, Savour Stratford 2010 was indeed one of the best weekends I've ever had (that's ever). The culmination of the Perth County culinary calendar saw the fulfillment of a great deal of hard work and planning on the part of the Savour Stratford organizers, who welcomed me into their ranks this year and basically made all my local-food-event-dreams come true.

It all kicked off with the launch party on Friday night at Foster's Inn, the accommodation sponsor for the Festival. The promise of free drinks courtesy of Chateau des Charmes (Savour Stratford's wine sponsor) and free finger food brought out a big crowd that included members of all the various Savour Stratford committees as well as bloggers, volunteers, and attendees, who were all entertained by a great band called the Blues Daddys. 
Food included sushi rolls, gourmet pizzas and  Perth-County-Piggies-in-a-Blanket (above).

Saturday morning, the Festival itself kicked-off with a great outdoor cooking class led by none other than Stratford Northwestern Secondary School's Culinary Arts teacher Paul Finkelstein (aka the Food Network's Fink)! My family participated, with my little two year old Fisher throwing cheese into our egg scramble from his perch atop my shoulders. 
Is that a priceless Stacey family Savour Stratford moment or what?!? 

Apparently, I tricked Fink into taking part by forgetting to mention the wireless microphone, the fact that he was going to be teaching at the bandshell and not the Learning Centre, and a few other minor details such as the giant dance performance that served as the lead-in for his lesson. But Paul is a great sport, and he even managed a tongue-in-cheek thank-you to the Local Come Lately for setting him up.

You rocked it Fink!

Actually, Fink and I had another little project on the go for both days of Savour Stratford. Every year, the festival features Edible Embers, a charity BBQ all weekend where worthy causes can raise some funds by serving local food to the throngs of hungry attendees. As the final element of the Stratford-Wide School Garden project I worked on with the SNSS Culinary kids and nine other elementary schools in and around Stratford, we were serving a "Three Sisters Soup" at the charity BBQ. Paul's class had made the delicious soup using corn, beans and squash, the very ingredients we had grown in the school gardens!
The soup was a hot seller, and by the end of the weekend our high school volunteer Jenna (in photo above with me and Paul) had served-up enough soup to make $750 for the Stratford elementary school nutrition program!

At noon it was time for me to head over to the Monforte Dairy Kids Tent where I was presenting The Living Salad Bar along with my friend Alondra Galvez. We'd been planning for this all summer, planting window boxes full of chard, arugula, and other delicious, colourful greens months before.

Given the chance to pick, wash and spin-dry their own greens, add more colourful ingredients, then learn how to make a great dressing, the kids (and many of their parents!) went crazy for salads! Those are words you don't see together very often, so I think they're worth repeating: "The kids went crazy for salads!"

Actually, the kids also went crazy for The Salads at the bandshell's all-day concert, where the eponymous group played a rare acoustic set that saw people getting up on their feet and dancing. I also spent the afternoon checking out the massive farmers market, the Stratford Chefs School Learning Centre... and the beer tent!

After coming home for a quick nap, it was back to the riverside for the Savour Stratford party known as the BBQ, Blues & Brews event. As soon as we arrived we were greeted by the DeWetering family, who were roasting a few of their own pigs for the pork-on-a-bun that came with every ticket. Every ticket also afforded the holder six samples of amazing craft brewed beers from all over Ontario. For a review of the great beer on tap (that also includes my drunken antics gushing over a woman who I thought was Margaret Atwood) check out my brother-in-blog Matty Ian's post describing the fun time he had.

Legendary Canadian blues harmonica virtuoso Carlos del Junco was the headliner for the evening. He looked like he was having as good a time as the rest of us as he jammed with his incredible band and kept the well-fed crowd moving!

That was the end of day one of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival. When I got home, I reflected: Could it have possibly been any better? I guess I would see tomorrow...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spooky Stratford: Pubs, Pilsners and Spirits

For Savour Stratford Culinary Week, I was honoured to be asked to lead a group on the 'Pubs, Pilsners and Spirits' tour. The sold-out event was a pub crawl visiting six Stratford watering holes, and featuring Ontario craft-brewed beers at every stop. But the 'Spirits' weren't shots of liquor: they were ghosts!


Eerily enough, a figure from blogs past appeared out of nowhere and proceeded to take the amazing pics that are featured on this post: many thanks to photographer David Charlesworth for letting me use these shots. Check out his amazing farm photos at his Agri-Moments site, and check out his own blog where he showcases many of his other diverse subjects and shoots.

There is a strong historical relationship in Stratford between drinking and haunting. Stratford broke away from the governance of Perth County to preserve its drinking heritage during the days of the Temperance Movements, and the result was that a lot of people came here to get tipsy (to learn more, check out the historical plaque outside the liquor store, pictured above). Many liked the pubs of Stratford so much they never left.... even after they died.

The first haunted pub we visited was The Parlour. As we downed our pints of Buzz Hemp Beer and delighted in some gorgeous cornish pasties, I shared with the group tales of the hotel's famous ghost: a beautiful woman who whispers men's names in dark places in the basement and chases out female competitors by disturbing furniture and paintings on the wall. No kidding, I got the willies just talking about it.

Our next spooky stop was at Foster's Inn, where we learned about the resident ghost George. Hotel guests and employees report never feeling that they're ever truly alone. Two of my tour group members (bloggers from Spotlight Toronto) were staying at Foster's that very night... and I could tell they were  starting to get the creeps! Don't worry - George is one of those good ghosts!

At The Queen's Inn/Boar's Head we were treated with a lovely spread of finger snacks to nibble on while manager Sally told us a few strange and unexplainable stories she'd experienced in just the last couple of weeks.

Next, it was off to Pazzo's, where we all sensed the presence of the kindred spirit of novelist Timothy Findley, who had once lived upstairs.


At Down the Street we all got freaked-out by tales of a little girl who plays in the basement and leaves 1920s hairpins lying on freshly-swept floors. Another pint (this time of the Stratford Brewing Company's 'Common') soothed our nerves.

Finally, our tour finished in the basement of my personal gardening store of choice, Anything Grows.

Little did we know, the otherworldly underground basement of the seemingly innocent garden store was once the keg room for Stratford's original brewery, which the building was originally built for. The brewer died from... well, from being a bit of a pisstank apparently. They say his spirit still haunts the arched basement. That might explain where all those beers went...

If you missed the Pubs, Pilsners and Spirits tour this time around, have no fear: it is being revised for Stratford Heritage Weekend (October 15-17), just in time for Halloween! I have a strong feeling that the ghost of tour-guides-past will return in the form of the ever-thirsty Local Come Lately.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Culinary Week: Food & Funny at 'A Feast of Comedy'

As part of the first-ever Savour Stratford Culinary Week Feast of Comedy event, I went down to Stratford City Hall to check-out some hilarious comedy by some top notch stand-up talent.

...and Antony John.

Just kidding Ant - you were really funny too as the MC. I particularly liked your impression of the first man to try to milk a horse:
The classy theatre at City Hall also served as a dining room for this unique event, as the folks who had floor cabaret-style seating enjoyed full table service throughout the evening. I was rescued from the balcony by a friend whose family had an extra seat at their table, and felt like quite a VIP as gourmet pizza pie from Pazzo's accompanied by beer and wine was delivered to our table throughout the night.
That was the good part of being on the floor. The bad part was that you were much, much more vulnerable to the threat of being picked-on by one of the comedians! Marc Sinodinos expressed interest in a peach-shirted audience member before revealing his identity as one of the only red-headed members of his particular ethnicity.
Mr. Sinodinos absolutely killed it ("George Clooney's hair starts to go grey and he gets a distinguished 'salt and pepper'. When I go grey I'll get 'salt and... ketchup!?!'").

He was followed by Larry Smith, who ranted to the crowd about a wide range of subjects, including today's kids' obsession with mini-TV-screens-pulling-in-on-demand-content-at-hyperfast-speeds, the trials and tribulations of trying to talk when you are a teenaged drunk, and the sourpuss who works at his local Timmy's (impersonation below).
All in all, it was a great evening full of laughs and great food. Culinary Week really hit its stride that night, as world class comedy was paired with amazing food in a unique Stratford venue to the delight of all who attended.
Even the girl in the peach shirt.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Props to Crops: The Discovering Perth County Farm Tour

Having immensely enjoyed the Stratford Garlic Festival kick-off of the first ever Savour Stratford Culinary Week, I was eagerly anticipating the Sunday program, which involved visiting some of the amazing farms that are the engine of the local food scene! I immediately knew it was going to be a great day when I arrived at the Stratford Tourism Alliance office in the morning and was greeted by Drea and Tania, two of my Slow Food sisters-in-food, and learned that they were going to be our tour guides for the Discovering Perth County Farm Tour!
Appropriately enough, our tour started with a visit to August's Harvest farm - where Warren Ham, the founder of the Garlic Festival, has been cultivating organic garlic for over two decades. 
The certified organic farm is a great example of a Perth County farm that does one thing... really, really well. He grows many different types of garlic for seed (above) as well as for eating, including the oldest form of garlic in the world, which originated in Kazahkstan (high-five, Borat). But Farmer Ham was also really enthusiastic about his recent diversification into all sorts of other vegetable crops as part of August Harvest's Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which for the first time this year has seen happy subscribers receiving a box of fresh organic veg every week throughout the growing season.
Next stop on the tour was the DeMartines' heritage pork farm, better known as Perth Pork Products. I'm very familiar with Fred DeMartines' wild boar and Berkshire & Tamworth pork, which I sell every week at the Slow Food Sunday Market as a fundraiser to send some of our members to Italy this year for the big international Slow Food convention known as 'Terra Madre'. We're proud to sell the DeMartines' product since it's pasture raised, nasty-free, and absolutely delicious. Not to mention cute - check out the baby wild boar-let in the photo above! Me and my fellow tour group members got a real kick out of feeding the boar and checking out all the happy pigs that populate the fields of this impressive operation. 
We all hopped back on the bus, which took us the short distance to Soiled Reputation farm, home of Antony John (aka the Manic Organic). After enjoying a little brown bag picnic, Antony took us for a tour of his amazing organic vegetable farm. This was my third time visiting the farm for my blog (I was there for the blogger lunch in June and did a stint as a farmhand in August), so Antony joked that I probably knew the tour off by heart. But I was as fascinated on this tour as I was the others - it's a new farm each time, since different crops are ready every month! Antony was proud of the beautiful Romanesco cauliflower that was just coming to maturity (above), and philosophized about the plant's fractal structure as a symbol for the biodiversity of the world's  ecosystem "Each floret is infinitely complicated, yet they're all interconnected to create the whole."
What happened at our next stop at Erbcroft Farm was something that the tour organizers could never have planned, but which was absolutely the highlight of the whole the experience. The Erb family has a veritable Noah's Ark going on at their farm outside of Sebringville, including chickens, sheep, horses, goats, ducks, and even a resident llama! While we were checking out their operation, we were all beckoned into the barn - a sheep had just given birth to two lambs!
When we came into the barn the proud mommy was lovingly licking her offspring clean with the help of a doting auntie, to the delight of our group!
 The final stop on our amazing tour was unique in that the farmers did not produce food, but rather produced one of the most luxurious types of wool in the world. Alpaca Acres outside of Shakespeare is the home of a herd of beautiful creatures - just gazing upon these gorgeous beasts was relaxing. Ann Clayburn (above) shared her knowledge of all-things-alpaca, including her amazing knitting and crochet creations using wool from her animals.

The farms of Perth County are the backbone of our food and artisan scene, and on Sunday they were in fine form for this super-cool event. All I can say is that if the rest Culinary Week is as good as the opening weekend, then we're all in for an incredible ride!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Honey, what's that smell? Stratford Garlic Festival 2010

On Saturday, September 18th, it was Lisa and my sixth wedding anniversary. I misinformed her that the first anniversary gift is supposed to be paper, the second cotton, the third leather, the fourth fruit and flowers, the fifth wood and the sixth... garlic. OK, it's actually candy. But I changed it, since our anniversary happened to correspond with the day of the fourth annual Stratford Garlic Festival, the long-awaited kickoff of the 2010 Savour Stratford Culinary Week!
It was my first time attending Stratford's pungent annual celebration of this legendary ingredient found in good food from all around the world. I have to say I was seriously impressed! My kind of scene is a place where everyone is having fun with, learning about, and most of all eating all kinds of wonderful and delicious food, and this event included all of the above. 
Warren Ham of August's Harvest farm outside of Stratford (above) is the founder of the event, which this year boasted about 60 vendors and attracted thousands of garlic lovers from all over the place. Farmer Ham's August's Harvest booth was pumping out about a dozen different kinds of garlic all day - the success of his festival as the province's premiere garlic celebration parallels his farm's prestige as one of the most successful cultivators of organic garlic and garlic seed in Ontario.

Garlic is often assumed to be something that keeps people apart. But on Saturday at the Old Stratford Fairgrounds it brought a whole lot of food lovin' folks together. When I asked Warren Ham what it was about garlic that he loved so much, he responded without hesitation, "It just seems to attract a whole lot of weird people." No wonder I felt so at home... or maybe it was because for the first time I knew I didn't have to be concerned about having garlic breath (since everyone else had it too!).

There were garlic braids (see video above). Garlic cheese. Garlic olives. Garlic shrimp. Garlic sausages. And garlic pickled eggs... I got a jar for Lisa in honour of our anniversary.

Which she loved... is it any wonder why I adore her?

Actually, I was also able to fulfill the "candy" sixth anniversary gift after all! There was garlic peanut brittle on offer, as well as garlic fudge!

I bought a mixed bagful of interesting garlic bulbs of various sizes, colours and intensities.
I also grabbed what might  just be a lifetime supple of  garlic seed... I'm going to take the advice I received at garlic gardening expert Sonja  Day's learning session and plant my seeds this fall for next year's summer harvest.

Returning home with my pockets full of magical garlic, I was inspired to make us a special garlic-themed dish for our anniversary (that's on top of the pickled eggs, folks - I know how to treat my lady). A friend of mine sent me a link to a recipe for what might be the most hardcore - but seriously lovely, I'm not kidding! - garlic dish on the planet. Food Blog par extraordinaire Smitten Kitchen's version of a Hungarian classic known as "44-Clove Garlic Soup" produces four bowls of soup. That's 11 cloves of galic per bowl. Instead of roasting 26 cloves of garlic as directed, I took a hint from Bijou's Chef Aaron Linley's upcoming Savour Stratford Festival's  Sunday York Street Tasting Tent dish (created in collaboration with none other than Warren Ham's August's Harvest farm) and made a few bulbs of garlic confit. I simmered the garlic in the fat I collected last week from the Erbcroft Farm duck I'd cooked. Instead of chicken broth, I also made duck broth from the aforementioned duck's bones etc.
All I have to say is you would never expect eating 11 cloves of garlic in a single dish could be so utterly enjoyable! Maybe I can do a cooking demonstration for next year's Garlic Fest!

I hereby encourage everyone to join the movement to change the 6th wedding anniversary from the Candy Anniversary to the Garlic Anniversary... especially when it falls on the same day as the Stratford Garlic Festival!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Savour Stratford & Culinary Week: Ramping Things Up!

As the first ever Culinary Week preceding the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival approached, it was time to crank-up the media machine and get the word out to as many foodies as possible!

You may have noticed that the latest Fall edition of the LCBO's Food & Drink magazine (one of my personal favourite publications) featured a stellar ad for the festival!

Viewers of the popular CITY-TV morning show Breakfast Television were treated on Wednesday to a preview of the Savour Stratford Fest. First off, Live Eye host Jennifer Valentyne interviewed Soiled Reputation's farmer Antony John; she wanted to find out what was in season from one of the vendors in the massive farmers' market that is taking place at the festival. Jenn then enjoyed a sample of the dish Bijou Chef Aaron Linley is going to be creating for the Sunday Tasting Tent in collaboration with August's Harvest Farm: garlic confit with a roasted tomato salsa and pickled garlic scape, topped with creamy goat's cheese. 
The host moved on to interview a representative of wine sponsor Chateau des Charmes, as well as the owner of Stratford Brewing Company (one of the sponsors of the BBQ, Blues and Brews event on Saturday night). Finally, Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy provided a group of enthusiastic children with a preview of the ice cream making workshop that is going to take place in the Monforte-sponsored Kids Tent at the festival! Lots of people showed up for the broadcast, and viewers enjoyed a sneak peak of the enthusiasm and community spirit that has placed the Savour Stratford festival in the top ten food festivals in Canada today.

That was on Wednesday.

On Thursday, I was asked to accompany a group of Paul Finkelstein's Stratford Northwestern Secondary School Culinary Arts students (aka the Screaming Avocado gang) to be on the CHCH Hamilton TV news channel early Friday morning. On our way, we realized that we'd forgotten a frying pan and cooking oil, which were both pretty important for the corn fritters that the kids were preparing on camera. Through the miracle of modern technology (cell phones & GPS) we were able to locate a frying pan and oil en route without even missing a beat. The kids killed it, and I had an absolute blast sharing everything I knew about the Festival that I've been working on for the past half year!
So here's the breakdown of events for Culinary Week and Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival:

Saturday, September 18: Garlic Festival
Sunday, September 19: Garlic Festival, Perth County Farm Tour, City Hall presents Ratatouille.
Monday, September 20: Shake Your Martini Fundraiser, Gallery Stratford
Tuesday, September 21: Women in Food; Beast Restaurant Chef Scott Vivien at Screaming Avocado Cafe for Tents for Pakistan Fundraiser.
Wednesday, September 22: Feast of Comedy, City Hall Auditorium
Thursday, September 23: Pubs, Pilsners and Spirits haunted pub crawl
Friday, September 24: Documentary Foodland at Factory163; Launch Party, Foster's Inn
Saturday, September 25: Savour Stratford Saturday; BBQ, Blues & Brews
Sunday, September 26: Savour Stratford Sunday, York Street Tasting Tent w 30 chefs/producers (including Screaming Avocado gang & Bijou Chef Aaron Linley!)

When something is as good as Savour Stratford promises to be, it's important to spread the word. After this week, half of the civilized world should have our festival on their radars, so all I can say at this point is:


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Field-to-Table, Part Two: De Wetering Hill Farms and Alexa's Café

Last post I shared my experience visiting Erbcroft Farm just outside of Sebringville, where I purchased a duck from their farmgate, took it home, and then roasted it all up nice and crispy.This post, the field-to-table theme continues, but this time instead of following an ingredient from a local family farm to my kitchen, I am following one from a local family farm to the kitchen of a great nearby restaurant.

The properties of De Wetering Hill Farms are, like the afore-posted Erbs' farm, located just outside of Sebringville. I first visited their beautiful farmhouse on the main property, where Teresa Ann De Wetering offered me a much-needed education on the ins and outs of pig farming on the scale of the relatively small family farm. Unlike factory-scale pig farms, the De Weterings purchase their pigs rather than raise them for a food corporation. Teresa Ann suggested that this kind of autonomy in production created a sense of obligation towards the livestock, "By owning something you actually care about it." The family farm pork operation is a production pig outfit with a difference: the feed the De Weterings provide for their piggies contains a mix of probiotics, kelp, and a mineral mixture, all of which provides them with what they would be missing nutritionally from convention pig feed. The pigs are raised in clean rooms that are not crowded at all. They're raised hormone and antibiotic free. Richard De Wetering expressed the equation for healthy pigs: "Good air, good feed, lots of water. There are no shortcuts."

Healthy pigs equal tasty pigs, as my subsequent lunch with the De Wetering family at Alexa's Café in Sebringville confirmed!
Alexa's Café (photo above) is located right in the middle of the hamlet of Sebringville, which is about ten minutes out of Stratford if you go west along Highway 8, and a mere two minutes from the De Wetering's home operation. Situated in an extremely well-maintained historic former hotel (trivia: both my wife Lisa's parents and the parents of Bijou Chef Aaron Linley met at this precise location back in the day when it was Lucky's Bar), the restaurant Alexandra Santos opened last November is a local family-scale eatery that uses product from local family-scale farms. But the difference between the food served by Chef/Owner Alexa and all of the other restaurants in the Stratford area that feature local ingredients is that she combines them with her culture to create really excellent Portuguese-influenced cuisine.
Alexa used the De Wetering Hill Farms pork to create an authentic Portuguese dish for me called Porco a Alentejana (above), a beautiful combination of savoury pork with delicate clams served alongside a brilliant salad featuring fresh organic spinach.
Bifana is a Portuguese-style seared pork cutlet served on a bun (above). Once again, I found that the enhanced flavour of the pork from the healthy pigs at De Wetering Hills Farms was actually noticeable.
I tried a waterbuffalo burger (above) for the first time ever at Alexa's, also sourced from local product. The burger was unexpectedly moist and light. Waterbuffalo farm = future blog post? Definitely. Alexa also regularly features Angus Burgers made from De Wetering Hills Farms Red Angus beef...

Which brings me to the third, post-lunch stage of my visit to the De Wetering Hill Farms operation. Their use of the plural "Farms" in their name is entirely accurate, as in addition to the main family farm they also have a nearby property where they pasture-raise their herd of twenty Red Angus cattle. In the late summer and fall, Teresa Ann and Richard also introduce nine lucky "Orchard Pigs" of mixed heritage breeds to share the pasture with their naturally-raised beef.
You don't see a massive Red Angus bull blissing-out with a bunch of beautiful porkers very often, but they live in harmony in the De Wetering's scenic apple orchard pastures.
To taste for yourself the flavour of good pork when it's in the hands of a talented Portuguese chef, come to the Savour Stratford Sunday York Street Tasting Tent. Alexa's Café has been partnered with De Wetering Hill Farms for the centrepiece event of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival, and together they have planned a pork loin appetizer that is sure to impress. Alexa's Café is also part of the exciting From Field To Chef showcase of local, seasonal Perth County ingredients on prix fixe menus at fine restaurants in and around Stratford. Beginning Septembrer 15 and running until the end of October, you can enjoy three courses at Alexa's for $40, including an entree featuring medallions of De Wetering Hill Farms pork!

There might be no better place in Ontario than Perth County to appreciate the culinary excellence that can be achieved when strong relationships exist between local producers and chefs. I'm looking forward to visiting a whole series of Perth County farms providing amazing ingredients for area residents and restaurants at the Perth County Farm Tour taking place this Sunday, September 19th as part of the first ever Culinary Week leading up to the incredible Savour Stratford festival weekend!

Field-to-Table, Part One: Erbcroft Farm Duck

Why didn't anyone tell me about the unbelievably useful webpage that lets you search specific farms to find local food in Perth County?!? Apparently, it's been up and running all summer... but I just learned about it last week! You can: 1) search for what is in-season/locally-available on any particular month, or 2) search the names of local producers, or 3) search by product to find out exactly where you can find whatever locally produced food you want, from kohlrabi to yogurt to elk!

So I fired up the ol' Savour Stratford Perth County Producer/Product search and thought I'd give it a tough one. I went to the product search, and selected "Duck". I was immediately reminded that Erbcroft Farm near Sebringville raises duck and sells them from their farmgate. I just met Tim and Luann Erb a couple of weeks ago at the Slow Food Sunday Market, where there was a bit of a stampede to buy their lamb, perhaps fueled by the incredibly aromatic and delicious lamb sausage samples they were offering to marketgoers. They'd mentioned to me that they also raised chickens and eggs for farmgate sales... and duck.
Fortuitously, not two days after I performed my duck search I was checking out my-food-peeps list on Twitter and one post instantly caught my eye. I've enjoyed following Luann's frequent Tweets about life on the Erbcroft farm all summer (follow them yourself at @Erbcroft). But on the day in question, Luann's tweet stated that the following Tuesday their most recent batch of ducks were going to be available at their farmgate. I messaged Luann to tell her to reserve one for me, and made a plan to come visit their family farm.
I brought the whole family along for a little farm tour. The kids were delighted by the flock of ducks that truly have free range of the whole farm (above is a photo of a Rouen duck, with Muscovy ducks in white). The sight of lambs frolicking in the pasture made me appreciate the wealth of vibrant family farms we have here in Perth County. To feel this appreciation for yourself, I encourage you to check out photographer David Charlesworth's Agri-Moments photo album of his own visit to the Erb's farm.
Tim and Luann (pictured above with their Pygmy Goats) found that once they started producing eggs, chickens, and lamb for themselves, everyone they knew wanted some too! Besides their farmgate sales, they now also have a market stand at the Mitchell Farmers Market, where every Friday you can purchase freezer lamb and their delicious lamb burgers. Erbcroft Farm is going to be one of the stops on Culinary Week's Perth County Farm Tour, taking place on Sunday, September 19th. Maybe they'll let participants pet one of their newly born lambs! They've also been paired with the chef from the Wildstone Bar and Grill of St. Marys for the Savour Stratford Sunday York Street Tasting Tent, where I've learned the collaborative dish they'll be presenting will be a duck confit.
I'd never actually cooked a duck before, so I decided I would stick with the basics and just roast the small Rouen I selected from the farm freezer at Erbcroft. I called upon the folk wisdom of Grandma Internet and found a few recipes that all seemed to have the same advice: there is a layer of fat that surrounds a duck, and in order to get that crispy skin a well-cooked duck always has, you poke holes in the skin at one inch intervals, place the duck on a rack, and place the rack over a roasting pan. As you cook the duck for a few hours at 375F, the fat drips out of the holes and into the pan, leaving nothing but crisp skin and dark, rich meat.
I discovered Erbcroft Farm as the best source for free range duck in Perth County through an online local food database search engine. I was informed that the ducks would be ready for me in a week by following a family farm on Twitter. I came home and found some really excellent guidance on how to cook my duck online. Then I wrote all about it on my blog.

Isn't the digital era a great time to be a Perth County foodie?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bijou: Every Dish is a Daily Special When It's Created by Chef Aaron Linley

A lot of restaurants have daily 'chef specials', often conveyed via a chalkboard describing two or three dishes that are not permanently on the menu, but are available on that particular day.

At Bijou Restaurant, there is no permanent menu. Chef Aaron Linley isn't one to settle into a fixed culinary routine: he changes his menu every day in response to what is fresh, seasonal, and locally available, performing an unbelievable daily improvisation that calls simultaneously upon his mastery of French, Asian and Italian techniques and ingredients. If you were lucky enough to dine at Bijou everyday (and in my books that's about as lucky as a person could get), you would never order from the exact same menu twice. Every dish Chef Linley and his wife Bronwyn (who met at the Stratford Chefs School) serve at their intimate, family-run "Culinary Gem" is a daily chef's special, and the ever-changing chalkboard menu reflects Bijou's philosophy of originality, creativity, and spontaneity.
Bijou's entrance is tucked away in the laneway just behind Wellington Street, which right away gives you the feeling you are entering a place that is out-of-the-ordinary. The feeling persists as you walk in and  immediately encounter the open kitchen where Chef Aaron and his busy kitchen crew are performing their alchemy of the day.

For our pre-dinner cocktail my wife Lisa and I tried Bijou's cosmopolitan, made with berry-infused vodka. We're really looking forward to attending the Shake Your Martini fundraiser for Gallery Stratford (taking place at Gallery Stratford on Monday, September 20 at 7pm), which is being held as part of Savour Stratford's first-ever Culinary Week. Bijou and Pazzo are providing  hors d'oeuvres at this swanky, 1920s-themed event, and as if that's not exciting enough Bronwyn Linley herself will be showing us all how to make our own creative vodka infusions at home!

I think Chef Aaron saw Lisa and I lingering in front of the chalkboard, trying to decide between dishes that all read like a dream. He made it easy for us by generously sending over samples of a couple of the dishes we'd really been tempted by, but hadn't picked.

The shrimp and mussel ceviche that arrived unexpectedly at our table was eye-openingly piquant and lip-smackingly tangy and a great start to our dinner - thanks Chef! 
For her starter, Lisa ordered a soy and sake marinaded rainbow trout (almost like an Asian gravlax, photo above) atop a slaw of jicima, avocado and sesame that was beyond delicious. My own starter was a velvety onion soup a-swim with succulent poached spot prawns. One word: killer.

Another unexpected pair of plates suddenly showed up at our table courtesy of the Chef: Aaron's a longtime friend of Lisa's, and I've had the pleasure of hanging-out for some late-night patio drinks with him and Bronwyn many times, so I think he wanted to spoil us a bit now that we finally came to their restaurant! Both of us savoured every bite of the Chef's treat of crispy duck leg with oyster mushrooms, French lentils and baby bok choy stewed in wakame broth. 

For her main, Lisa ordered the seared sea scallops 'bourguignonne' with bacon and mushrooms in red wine. Perfectly cooked and seasoned, it was a stellar interpretation of what happens to be Lisa's favourite flavour combinations. 
Bijou is known as the place where local product is showcased in fine-dining style, so I went for the Lake Huron pickerel with shiitake mushrooms, pea shoots and edamame, which had been simmered in a sweet yet savoury broth of Chinese rice wine, soy and anise (photo above). The Suppliers Hall of Fame on Bijou's website reads like an all-star team of Perth and Huron County producers, so it was not surprising that my all-local entree was of the highest quality imaginable, both in its ingredients and its execution.
Bronwyn is Bijou's pastry chef, so there was no way we were skipping dessert! Lisa and I shared a duo of peaches, composed of slow roasted peaches with orange caramel and frozen peach parfait (photo above). There is nothing either of us like better than in-season Ontario peaches, and this dessert was the perfect way for us to enjoy this lovely and fleeting ingredient before it soon disappears.
I often interview the owners and chefs at the restaurants I visit for my blog, but in this case the simple-yet-spectacular food really spoke for itself. The only thing Aaron and Bronwyn are into more than food is their family: Chef Aaron left to get home in time to tuck his kids Hazel and Liam - who are responsible for the great art on the walls of Bijou (see photo above) - into bed. 

But before he went home, I had one question for Chef Linley. I'd just learned that Breakfast Television is coming to Stratford next week for a live broadcast preview of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival. Of course, the festival organizers want to show-off the absolute best of the chef/producer teams who will be sharing their co-creations with attendees of the festival's Sunday York Street Tasting Tent, so Chef Aaron has been asked to provide a sneak peek of what Bijou will be making in collaboration with August's Harvest farm. I wanted to know: what was he going to be serving on TV next week? But, as his ever-changing menu board attests, Chef Linley isn't one to plan too much ahead, so he didn't have a definite answer for me. He did hint though that he was leaning towards a dish involving roasted tomato, garlic confit and goat's cheese. 

Anyone who wants to come and be part of the audience for Breakfast Television's preview of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival are encouraged to set their alarms early and come to the Stratford Band Shell on Veterans Drive at 6:30 am on Wednesday, September 15th. You will be able to share in Chef Linley's spontaneous creation, as well as shop for local food at the mini farmer's market being set up for the broadcast. Coffee from Balzac's will be provided for free along with mini scones from Let Them Eat Cake. Bring a lawn chair and a travel mug and come down to the riverside - I'll see you there!

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Fish Story

I love to fish.

Fish Story #1: I once caught a three pound largemouth bass and decided to keep it for dinner. While I was filleting it, I noticed it had an abnormally large stomach. When I cut it open, there was a bird inside.

This week, the irresistible desire to hang a "Gone Fishing" sign on my door struck me.

Fish Story #2: When fishing with my wife a few years ago, I hooked into a fifty pound (minimum) channel catfish. We were in a canoe and had no net. After towing us around the whole lake for forty five minutes, the leviathan finally rose to the surface beside our unstable vessel. Wobbling, I attempted to lift it up by the fishing line for a picture, but its immense weight out of water snapped the eight pound test monofilament immediately... and all we got was a shot of  swirling foam.

I've noticed the name "Lyndon" included in the description of many local fish dishes on several menus in Stratford this past year. On the Delicious Stratford Stroll, the Sun Room Restaurant's Lyndon smoked trout sweet potato crepe was one of the highlights of the tour. When I attended the Stratford Summer Music Cabaret at the Church Restaurant, I was as impressed by the delicate Lyndon Arctic Char I was served as I was with the hilarious performance by Sean Cullen. 

Fish Story #3: My son's first name is "Fisher". This was in honour of my wife's wonderful family (Fisher being her maiden name), but as a lifetime angler, the literal meaning sealed the deal for me. It's a uniquely beautiful first name for a uniquely beautiful two-year-old boy... and he's lived up to it: he caught his first fish two weeks ago!

So in response to my craving to cast my line, I pulled out my flyfishing gear and headed east along Highway 7/8 to New Dundee (on the Stratford side of Kitchener/Waterloo) to try my luck at the Lyndon Fish Hatchery Public Fishing Pond!

Fish Story #4: Once, when I was flyfishing on a windy day in my early teens, I was trying to back-cast with way too much slack line out on the water. My Royal Coachman dry fly was blown over, and slammed into my face. The barbed hook was lodged into the tiny space between the ridge of my nose and my eye (i.e. it missed being embedded in my eye by less than a centimeter). I tried as hard as I could to get it out myself, even resorting to pliers. Finally, I had to ask my mom to drive me to the hospital (so embarrassing for a teenaged boy), where a doctor poked the hook back out through a fresh hole in my nose, cut off the barb, and then slipped it back out. Followed by a tetanus shot.

Once I started fishing on the large public pond, my craving to hook into a lunker was satisfied almost immediately, as I landed a three pound rainbow trout within ten minutes of casting right where owner Lynn Robert Rieck told me to go. I was flyfishing with a barbless hook (I've learned my lesson), so it was easy to release my worthy adversary without even taking it out of the water, and start casting for another!

Fish Story #5:  While I was fishing at Lyndon Trout Farm, two gentlemen from Norway and their Canadian host caught 15 trout in 2 hours, and kept 10 of them. Because it's a trout farm, there's no catch limit at the Lyndon Public Pond, and you don't even need a fishing license!
The friendly Norwegians I met (one is pictured above with the first Canadian fish he ever caught) loved the experience. "It was more than we expected - you say on your blog that the Norwegian fishers were happy! We'll be back!"

Fish Story #6: The owner of the Lyndon Public Fishing pond was telling me and the Norwegians about the luck of the draw, "The fish are not choosy. You'll see a little girl haul in a ten pound fish and her dad struggling to catch anything!" As if on cue, a little girl along the bank started screaming to her grandpa to grab the net, and promptly landed a four and a half pound rainbow trout!

Unlike most fish stories, I actually got that last one on video:

Like Lynn told me, the public fishing pond is "A safe place for experts and non experts alike."

Perhaps the greatest fish story of all, however, is the story of the Lyndon Fish Hatchery. Started only ten years ago, the adjacent system of rings, sluiceways, tanks and springs - all bearing thousands of trout in all stages of development - is now the breeding stock source for over half of all trout raised and eaten in the province of Ontario. The operators have a close relationship with Guelph University, and the entire facility is a real life laboratory where the cutting edge techniques in aquaculture are being pushed to the limit and tested. This means that the most sustainable practices in the industry are in place at this impressive facility, which includes the use of feed that is predominantly made of plant protein rather than entirely out of fish meal.
While I was flyfishing, I hooked into an acrobatic two and a half pound rainbow trout (above) that was so tuckered out by the time I finally landed it I decided to keep it. Owner Lynn cleaned the fish for me and put it into a bag, which he then placed in a styrofoam cooler box.

When I got home with my catch, I immediately contacted my Slow Food Sunday Market friend Dave Koert (of Koert Organics), who has been smoking local trout himself and selling-out at the market for weeks. "Smokin' Dave" will be providing a workshop on how to smoke fish, meat and vegetables in the Stratford Chefs School Learning Centre at the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival at 2 pm on Sunday, September 26th, so I knew I could count on him to teach me the recipe for smoking trout (fortuitously, I have an electric home smoker). Following Dave's instructions, I combined some pickling salt, brown sugar, lemon juice, and soy sauce mixed in water to create a brine that the fillets were cured in overnight. Then, it was into the smoker for four hours.
So as my final fish story, I have to say I had a great morning fishing at the Lyndon Public Fishing pond. And I enjoyed some beautiful smoked trout the next day! Although the Lyndon pond has been open seven days a week throughout the summer, now that September's here public fishing will only be open on weekends. But if you're just after some frozen Arctic Char, or feel like letting Lynn do the fishing and smoking for you, they sell vacuum sealed fillets on-site all week long.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Attack of the Tomato Killers at SPLAT!

On Sunday, McCully's Hill Farm held its second annual Savour Perth Local Annual Tomatoes (S.P.L.A.T) Festival. Although a large proportion of the tomatoes that are being grown in the McCully's Community Garden Co-op have been threatened by blight (booo!), a veritable rainbow of heirloom varieties were nonetheless available for attendees to taste along with pairings of local cheeses courtesy of nearby C'est Bon goat cheese, Monforte Dairy, and the Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop.
The heirloom varieties available for tasting included the day-glo-orange Persimmon; the exotic Green Zebra; the yellow Golden Queen; the small, dark Chocolate Cherry; and my favourite, the Rose (which looked like a conventional red, round tomato, but had an extraordinary juiciness and flavour that was better than any tomato I'd ever tasted).
When paired with the creamy fresh cheeses on offer, and sprinkled with just a touch of salt, the raw tomatoes alone were certainly cause to celebrate the late summer season.
But that was really only the beginning! Larry from Pazzo's Pizzeria & Ristorante (whose chefs have a large plot in the Community Garden) was serving up some beautiful Margherita pizza with a thin crust and fresh mozzarella, drizzled with chili oil. This went really nice with the Stratford Pilsner beer and/or the chilled Ontario VQA wines that were available, especially on such a hot day!
These oven-roasted tomato and C'est Bon chevre tarts created by the McCully's team were destined for an early demise... in my belly.
But I think my two favourite samples at this feast-of-all-things-tomato were the C'est Bon Billy Jack quesadilla with fresh salsa, and the green tomatillo gazpacho (which was cool at first, then spicy, then cool again when you took another sip, and then spicy, ad infinitum...). It was all gorgeous - with an emphasis on "gorge".

No McCully's festival would be complete without some messy food madness (if you missed it, check out the previous post with video of me getting humbled at the In Your Face pie eating contest in July). While the giant hillside vegetable catapult is reserved for the farm's pumpkin season Fall Harvest weekly celebrations (I can't wait to get out the heavy artillery!), on Sunday kids and adults were invited to take aim at a big bull's-eye with some hefty, overripe tomatoes. For all the tomato rights activists out there, McCully's manager Sara Bradford assured us that all of the smashed tomatoes that landed in the basin under the target would be used to make some of the amazing tomato-based preserves they sell  at the McCully's store (their heirloom tomato ketchup is highly recommended), and the rest of the massacred tomatoes would be fed to the goats! I'll leave you with a video of some kids getting their SPLAT-on: