Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Your Host with the Most at the Perth County Food Summit

Last year at around this time, I was just about ready to start up my Stratford food blog. In preparation, I thought it would be a good idea to participate in an interesting event I'd heard about: The Perth County Regional Food Summit. I attended, and learned a lot about the challenges, winning strategies, and resources that have made Perth County such a hotbed for local food. 

I knew hardly anyone when I showed up at last year's Summit. But one year later, I can honestly say that some of the people I met and networked with on that day are currently listed among my most respected culinary community colleagues and characters, and many have become my good friends. 

And here's the kicker (this one's for anyone who thinks blogging will get you nowhere): This year I was the event MC! 

[Sorry, I don't have a pic to prove it because my blog photographer is, uh, me.]

After greeting the diverse group of about 100 people representing all areas of Perth County's foodscape, I introduced Rebecca LeHeup, director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (above), who kicked off the day in celebratory style by presenting the award for Best Culinary Tourism Experience of 2009 to the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival! Last year's event was even bigger, better and more delicious, so I think everyone in the room was thinking the same thing: repeat for the 2010 OCTA awards! Ms. LeHeup travels all around the world to see how other tourist destinations succeed at "putting food first" on their visitors' list of priorities, and she often shares stories of Perth County to illustrate Ontario's own culinary tourism success, "Everywhere I go I want you to know I'm incredibly proud of what you do here."

Eugene Zakreski (aka The Man with the Stratford Tourism Alliance Plan) addressed the crowd next, reviewing all of the amazing events and innovations that took place over the previous year in our region's food scene evolution. I even got a shout-out myself as Stratford's new official food blogger - cheers EZ!

Rebecca LeHeup returned to the stage to moderate a panel discusion that included Fred DeMartines of Perth Pork Products (above on right) and Nick Benninger of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 (left). These two have an incredible producer/chef relationship, as expressed by farmer Fred, "Nick is one of those customers you just dream about. He says, 'Bring me whatever you have.'" Chef Nick described his ever changing prix fixe menu as the key to his open relationship with his local suppliers, "It gives us control to let the farmers bring us whatever they have." After listening to Nick's philosophy of creating one-of-a-kind seasonal food experiences every night, Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 is definitely on the top of my list of places I want to eat in Waterloo, and I definitely want to hit it this spring when they host one of their extremely popular Iron Chef challenges (I hope one of the chef contestants is from Stratford!).

The kitchen at the Arden Park Hotel did a stellar job making a 'Locavores Gone Loco' taco bar lunch, where everyone got to put together their own tortilla using local ingredients. There was beef and pork from DeWetering Hill Farm, sweet pepper lamb from Erbcroft Farm, and a spicy cheese sauce using goat's cheese chevre from Monforte Dairy. The magnificent salads used beans from Full of Beans and potatoes from Neubrand Country Produce. The creative and delicious Summit lunch proved it: In Perth County, you can eat local in the winter!

One of my favourite features of this annual food summit is the semi-structured round table discussion that takes place over lunch at every table. As a moderator both years I've attended, I've found the dialogues to be insightful, lively, at times even heated, and generally very productive. It's like the room turns into a giant think tank for an hour, as everyone brainstorms about how we can make the local food experience in Perth County even better.

In the middle of these discussions we were all pleasantly interrupted by a cameo appearance by Perth/Wellington's very own Member of Provincial Parliament John Wilkinson (above)! MPP Wilkinson is also the Minister of the Environment, and he expressed his support for a more sustainable local food system generating a smaller carbon footprint. He observed that there was a lot of political impetus for the kinds of strategies we were exploring around our tables, "There is an itch, and we need to scratch it."

Afternoon saw us all splitting up to attend several breakout sessions. Tine Buechler from Ask Me Training presented a workshop entitled "How To Make the Most of Culinary Tourism for You and Your Business."

But I chose to attend the talk given by Toronto's Blogfather himself, Suresh Doss of Spotlight Toronto. Last year Suresh turned me on to Twitter, which I've subsequently used to stay closely connected to others in the Stratford food scene and to alert people when I have a new post up. Suresh told us all about the many other social media platforms we might want to check out, and kept us abreast of the latest trends for 2011 such as Tweetups where people from Twitter (aka 'Tweeps') arrange a time to all actually interact with one another and share food face-to-face!

The next session I attended was "Culinary Tales: Making the Most of Media Attention". The panel discussion was moderated by Arlene Stein of the Evergreen Brickworks (on the far right), and included  (from left to right) Chris McDonnell, publisher of Eatdrink magazine; King-of-all-food-media Andrew Coppolino, who hosts The Food Show on 570News, publishes his own site Waterloo Region Eats, and also has a regular spot called Foodstuffs on the local cable television program Grand River Living; and Amy Rosen, Food Editor with House and Home Magazine and columnist with the National Post. The consensus among this panel was that everyone has a story, but some are more appealing to the media than others, so care should be taken to pitch it properly to the right channels.

After the breakout sessions we all got to socialize over some tasty offerings from some of our local artisans and shops. Liz Payne from The Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop was serving some Monforte cheese paired with a nice cold beer from Grand River Brewing (above). Other samples included preserves from Pickles, Eh!; tea from Tea Leaves Tasting Bar paired with local honey; local bacon flavoured caramels from Chocolate Barr's; and sweets from Jenn & Larry's Brittle & Shakes and Rheo Thompson Candies.

The success of the third annual Perth County Regional Food Summit was a reflection of our community's vibrant and exemplary food scene. The cooperation that takes place between farmers, artisans, chefs, marketers, media, community organizations and politicians in Perth County is what makes it all happen, and  already 2011 promises to be an even better year than ever before!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chillin' at the Judges Table on Heartburn Day!

Competitions and challenges involving food and eating have become a bit of an unexpected theme here on The Local-Come-Lately:

There was the time I ate humble pie at the 

Then there was the infamous incident with 

A few weeks ago, Slow Food Perth County joined forces with Chef Shawn from Simple F&S 
to put together an incredible roasted garlic and potato soup for the soup-making-contest-fundraiser 

But the real confirmation I've paid my 'culinary competition dues' here in Stratford finally came when I was invited to be a food contest judge!

I was honoured to be accepted as a judge for the 24th Annual Orr Insurance Heartburn Day, a smokin' chili-making-contest fundraiser held every year (for almost a quarter century!) in support of the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation

I offered the organizers my full disclosure: there was a slight conflict of interest since Slow Food Perth County had our own entry in this year's contest. I recruited the culinary talents of Phil Phillips (above being stalked by a giant heart), who many might remember as one of Paul Finkelstein's high school prodigies featured on the Food Network's Fink (or more recently for his work alongside Chef Aaron Linley in the kitchen of Stratford's premier fine dining restaurant Bijou). He put together an absolutely killer chili using wild boar and heritage pork from Perth Pork Products combined with all sorts of beans as well as some really creative ingredients like hominy, roasted red pepper, chocolate and coffee! He even had a homemade tincture of Scotch Bonnet hot peppers (which he ominously administered out of a vial using an eye dropper) for those who were looking for some serious heat! 

But Rachel Smith, Heart and Stroke's coordinator of this spicy event, assured me that  this potential conflict of interest wasn't a problem: the judging was blind and not all judges would be rating all entries.

Judging was a challenge. You didn't want to go and give one tasty chili too high points in case another one came along that you thought was better! I judged nine of the 34 entries and found a couple that were through-the-roof amazing. I hunted them down after...

Not surprisingly, the most creative chili was from Chef Shawn from Simple Fish and Chips, whose Gone 'Local' Chili had local beans, bacon and ground beef as well as Erbcroft Farm's lamb and duck (that's right folks, lamb and duck). His entry might've been described as a spicy cassoulet. In true Chef Shawn fashion, he also brought a second Jerk Halibut Chili offering. I didn't get to judge it, but I tried it later... I would have given it a perfect score.

At the judges' table, everyone was passing around one sample that was above and beyond: it had this amazing sweetness to it at the beginning, and then you were gradually taken on a journey of heat that built into a raging inferno. I loved it, but needed a towel to wipe down my forehead after. I later discovered the kitchen responsible for this big n' bold creation was none other than the Pour House! Owner Joe Gilchrist (above, with event organizer Rachel Smith) proudly accepted the award for Best Chili by a Restaurant!

Some participants put a lot into their presentation, like the Stratford & Area Builders' Association (who won best display)...

...and the Superbowl-lovin' folks from Country Bulk Stratford, who I'm sure were hoping for some leftovers for the Packers-Steelers clash the following day. 

Fred and Wilma from Dave's Diner were serving up some hearty brontosaurus chili.

All the kids got to have fun climbing all over the Orr Insurance antique fire engine. 

Ultimately, however, it's not the judges' preferences that matter: the People's Choice is the most coveted award of the day. This year attendees voted for the Stratford United Church as 2011's best chili. One of the folks who came up to accept the award took the mic and proclaimed, "We were finished 8 gallons over an hour ago. One guy came up to us and asked, 'If I give you four tickets, can I lick the bottom of the crockpot?!?'"

Later that night at home, as I reflected upon my first experience as a cooking contest judge, I started to feel something creeping up in my chest. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, but there was no denying it: I had myself a serious case of heartburn!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

On the Road with Fred From Perth Pork Products

Every Sunday the Slow Food Market connects our community with an exemplary local producer: Perth Pork Products. We are, after all, in the heart of Ontario’s pork country, and Perth Pork Products, run by Fred and Ingrid DeMartines near Sebringville, farms the finest pasture raised piggies around. The folks who attend the market eagerly anticipate the resident cooler-full of heritage breed cuts like Wild Boar Bacon, Tamworth Pork Chops, and Berkshire Ribs. But this week, I got to see how popular Fred and his products really are by accompanying him on one of his weekly runs to Toronto, where his products are revered by many of the best restaurants, chefs,  and butcher shops in the city. 

I met Fred at the farm at 6:30am and we hopped in his refrigerated truck and hit the road. A snow storm the previous day caused Fred to miss his first ever scheduled delivery in the 4+ years he’s been delivering his product in person. Fred prides himself on his face-to-face customer service, and attributes the popularity of his family farm's meat to his willingness to hand deliver custom orders of his unique heritage breeds, “If you want to be successful you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do something a little different. That’s why I got into raising Wild Boar, I said ‘Hey, this is something different.’”

First stop was the Walnut Hill Farm processing plant near Gadshill just outside of Stratford. This is where Fred gets all of his carcasses processed and packaged into the various cuts requested by his customers, which includes all sorts of smoked and cured products. Also located on a family farm, a place like this is Ground Zero for the current controversy over the struggle to maintain small abattoirs and processing operations in Ontario. The owner of the plant was in the middle of taking apart and hosing down one of his stainless steel meat cutting machines when we arrived, which I was told happens several times a day. There are incredibly strict rules that govern such an operation, including frequent inspections that literally place the facility under a microscope to ensure total hygiene. From what I gather, the issue is that the stringent regulations have sent many small abattoirs/processors out of business, while larger industrial meat packing facilities seem to be somehow exempt from the same scrutiny, which resulted in widespread illness and even deaths recently during the infamous listeriosis outbreak. I was impressed by the diligence of the Walnut Hill Farm operation in maintaining cleanliness and adhering to regulations by the letter.

Next stop was the kill plant. 

Fred sends his animals to Reist & Weber’s abattoir every Saturday, where they are afforded a couple of days to rest before they are culled – a technique Fred developed after learning from a chef about the importance of letting cooked meat rest to enhance tenderness. 

I asked one of the hardworking Mennonites who run this operation if they work with many farmers like Fred who drop-off pigs, then pick-up and deliver freshly-killed carcasses on a weekly basis, and he assured me, “There’s no one like Fred.”

As we were driving to the first drop location, Fred prepared me for a day of pleasant conversation with truly appreciative professionals, “I only work with nice people.” I experienced this right away when we walked into Brady’s Meat & Deli in Waterloo to deliver several boxes containing all sorts of sausages, bacon and other cuts. Liz from Brady’s joked about Wild Boar, “It’s just a pig with an attitude, right?” When I asked her if there were other farmers who delivered to their door in person I was once again assured, “Fred’s the only one who brings it right in.”

Our first restaurant stop was at The Old Mill in Ancaster (above). Chef Jeff Crump is an alumni of the Stratford Chefs School, and continues to use Perth County product in his incredible dining rooms overhanging the Escarpment. Fred told me a great story of how the Tamworth heritage pork breed was inducted into the Slow Food Ark of Taste at an event that took place in this spectacular venue. After eating Fred's Tams and declaring it the best pork he ever ate, Italian Slow Food founder Carlos Petrini told him he should call himself a "Master Pork Farmer": it's been written on the PPP website ever since!

Next stop was Parkdale, where we delivered to The Drake Hotel /Cafe via the funky-graffiti-covered back alley. The Executive Chef told me they had a lot of farmers who delivered to their back door, but Fred was special: Perth Pork Products recently secured the contract to supply The Drake with 160 lbs. of bacon a week!

We drove up to Dundas past Ossington and delivered three whole 'BBQ' sized pigs to The Black Hoof and its across-the-street satellite Hoof Cafe. These spots are known as leaders of the Toronto tail-to-snout carnivore movement, and Fred's product is their go-to for heritage breed, pasture raised pork.

Fred honoured me with an official Perth Pork Products butcher coat, and I started slinging half carcasses into The Healthy Butcher on Queen Street West. Later in the day, we also dropped off some product to the Healthy Butcher on Eglinton.

We made a drop at St. Lawrence Market for White House Meats.

Our next stop was at Gilead Cafe, home base for  Jamie Kennedy Kitchens. Chef Boris (known as Toronto's master of charcuterie) and Fred (above) were talking me through some porcine anatomy when JK himself walked in! It was an unexpected pleasure to meet this culinary icon who was recently appointed the Order of Canada for his efforts in defining Canadian cuisine. But that's just the kind of company Fred keeps...

We unloaded pork at some more butcher shops and food stores, like the Friendly Butcher on Danforth (above)...

... and the all-local mecca The Culinarium on Mount Pleasant (above)...
...and Olliffe in Rosedale, where the butcher George celebrated the mixed breed 'Tamshires' he regularly gets from Fred, "It's the best pork we bring in, it's got the best characteristics of both the Tamworths and the Berkshires."

Chef Stephen of L'Unita on Avenue Road was happy to get a pig's head, which he told me he planned to debone, roll up, cook and turn into ravioli.

At Quince restaurant on Yonge Street the chefs were appropriately using Fred's sausages and smoked ham hocks to create a Winterlicious Dutch menu (Fred and Ingrid moved to their farm from Holland back in 1979!).

What I love about Toronto is its diversity. The best part about blogging is coming across amazing food in formerly unknown places; the last stop on our tour saw Fred taking me to the "J-Town" plaza in Markham. 
The "J" stands for "Japanese", and the Famu Butcher Shop features the most incredible Kobe and Wagyu beef I've ever seen.

The owner told me "I wouldn't sell anything I wouldn't eat myself" and her standards are seriously high: she cuts Fred's Berkshire pork into wafer thin slices for use in Asian hotpots, and was one of the biggest deliveries of the day!

My day with Fred was full of insights into the link between conscientious pork production, personable service, and strong industry demand. Fred and his wife Ingrid (who recently took on the full time job as the administrator of  the Perth Pork Products empire) are great examples of how a family farm can survive and thrive by connecting culinary stars with premium product processed and cultivated on a small scale. 

In fact, the DeMartines' product has gained such a great reputation they attracted the eye of farm-to-fork television celebrity Chef Lynne Crawford of the Food Network Canada's Pitchin' In. This Monday, February 7, at 10pm Fred and his family will be featured on a new episode of this popular field-to-table show, so tune-in and continue to see for yourself why all of Toronto's top culinary institutions eagerly await Fred's delivery every week!

Postscript: The wild boar episode of Pitchin' In was great - Fred, Ingrid, Yvonne and Mark all clearly had a lot of fun with Chef Lynne. If you missed it, check it out online here!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Michelin Men: Stratford Chefs School Guest Chef Alexandre Gauthier

"If there was ever a year to be at the Stratford Chefs School it's this one."

This past Monday, I was invited back to the Old Prune as a media guest of the Stratford Chefs School's Executive Director Kimberley Payne. I absolutely loved the Mexican dinner designed by Oaxacan Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo and executed by Student Chef Simon Briggs the week before. And after this second incredible dining experience in less than a week, I could not agree more with Kimberley's statement above.

The thing I love about the Chefs School Dinner Series is that the Old Prune turns into an entirely different restaurant every week (or even a few times a week). Before Christmas, Italian Chef Riccardo Camanini turned the restaurant into a platform for his stylish and sophisticated cuisine. Last week, thanks to Chef Pilar, Stratford finally had an authentic Mexican restaurant, however fleeting. This week the Prune was transformed into a French auberge by Chef-In-Residence Alexandre Gauthier from Le Grenouillere in a town called Montreuil-Sur-Mer in France. Our student host narrated the story of how Chef Gauthier returned to take over the kitchen at the family-run seaside inn at the request of his father, who  was lamenting the recent loss of their coveted Michelin Star status. Today, the restaurant has regained its Michelin Star ranking under Chef Alex.

The aforementioned Italian Chef Riccardo has remained in Stratford into 2011 to study English, and continues to contribute to the learning experience at the Chefs School. He was also in the kitchen on Monday. He's also a Michelin Star chef. So by my count the students at the Stratford Chefs School were learning under two Michelin chefs on the same night, which is something Kimberley assured us was unprecedented.

'Us' consisted of myself and three kindred food-crazy-blogging-and-Tweeting spirits who braved some wild weather to drive up to Stratford just for this special dinner... then drove back to the GTA right after! One word: Respect!

We all raised a sparkling glass of as-yet-unreleased 2007 Cuvée from the night's sponsor Huff Estates Winery (located in my old stomping ground of Prince Edward County) to toast the making of new friends. The  student host for the evening described Chef Gauthier's style as one of meaningful contrasts and juxtapositions, like 'crunchy vs. soft', 'hot vs. cold', and 'light vs. hearty'. We were also told to expect some improvisations and creativity, à la jazz, as the kitchen was riffing without recipes.

The first dish offered generous slices of garnet-coloured beef carpaccio topped by a pile of tangy apple ribbon folds and an egg mousse foam. The contrasts were already evident as the crisp apple complemented the velvetiness of the beef and the creaminess of the mousse.

Myself and fellow blogger Christine Cooper of coopSpeakEats were invited into the kitchen to take some shots of the students and their French mentor in the thick of mid-service. I got a pretty good pic (above) of the chefs-in-training sending out the second course - a white bean puree with foie gras, croutons and garlic butter that was about as rich and indulgent as I could imagine. Christine was able to snap some truly superlative photos of all the beautiful dishes, which are presented alongside a well-penned write-up in her own blog post describing this memorable meal.

The third course was a vivid, vibrant mid-winter taste of spring-to-come in the form of Pea Gnocchi with Fresh Peas, Powdered Dry Peas, and Pea Broth. Again, the softness of the gnocchi set off the crisp crunchiness of the raw pods. The green-on-green visual was stunning and artful as only French cuisine can be.

OK, so to quote my previous Chef School Dinner Series blog post, in which I described the  Pickerel Fish Tacos  served on Chef Pilar's stellar Mexican menu:

Hands-down the best thing I've eaten in 2011 (and it's going to be a tough one to beat).

Well, as it turns out I discovered my new Best Dish of 2011 less than one week later: What are the odds?!?

The Crispy Veal Tongue with Creamy Wheat Polenta, Pesto and Caper Butter (above) was some seriously un-awful offal. The two-inch-thick bovi-lingual medallion was seared to a caramel crisp on the outside, and after biting through this toasty exterior we encountered this gorgeous, creamy, pâté texture on the inside. This dish had to be tasted to be believed: the caper butter provided a saltiness that brought out the meaty flavour and toothsome consistency of the veal tongue. Let's not understate how amazing this dish was: It is the current and undisputed title-holder for the Local-Come-Lately's Best Dish of 2011!

We all got to get out hands a little sticky with a palate cleanser consisting of straight-from-the-comb honey with lemon.

This was followed by a vertical dessert consisting of a white chocolate silo filled with citrus cream and  surrounded by mandarin slices. The crunch of the white chocolate tube was perfectly balanced by the cream within. Did I just write that? This is definitely starting to slip into Food Porn territory...

Finally, the petit fours appeared in the form of two types of Bon Bon (translation: Good Good) strips: white chocolate and orange or caramel. Could I have both?

I have a lot of respect for John DiBattista, the Student Chef who executed that night's complex and  heady dinner. From what I gather, he left an existing business and career to become a chef (which makes him a role model for my fellow diner and blogger Jennifer Hall [aka thefashionistafoodie

Echoing the conclusion of my previous Chef School Dinner Series post, if you are in Stratford and you haven't taken advantage of one of these dining opportunities, make sure you go before it's all over next month! As my third dining companion that evening- Chef Rossy Earle from Belfountain Inn in Caledon - posted on Twitter under her @PanCanCooks identity: Dinner was really exquisite, I loved everything about it!! Rossy, Christine and Jennifer all traveled back and forth on white knuckle roads to attend this unique dining opportunity: once again, I feel so lucky to be Stratford's food blogger, since I got to walk there!