Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Best BBQ Ever: A Salute to Stratford at Langdon Hall

I like a good barbeque. 

I got some useful tips from Chef Ian McArthur back in June on how to grill great meat at the Game for Grillin' workshop at Turnbull & Stewart. All summer I've been biggin'-up the grilled lamb burgers Erbcroft Farm's been serving at the Slow Food Sunday Market. And then there was the time last week when Slow Food Perth County cooked a giant pig over open coals in downtown Market Square.

But last Friday evening, at the opulent country manor Langdon Hall (above) outside of Cambridge, I think I might've experienced: 

The Best BBQ Ever. 

Both for its picturesque setting...

...and its amazing food.
The incredible Salute to Stratford barbeque at Langdon Hall brought my official Spit-Roasted-Pig-Count total for the week to three (which in case anyone's keeping track brings my S-R-P-C for the past month to four since my friends James and Fiona also had a pig roast at their wedding early in August). 

Not one but two of the famously happy pigs raised by Mark Lass at Lassdale Farms (above left and right, undoubtedly from the same herd as our Pork Roast porker) were performing the last of their crispy rotations when we arrived for this magical night of open-air homage to the Stratford food universe and its constellation of culinary stars.

Langdon Hall's status as the premiere destination for fine dining and high-end accommodation in our region is partly attributable to Chef Jonathon Gushue's strong relationship with Perth County producers and artisans, several of whom were among the special 'Hosts/Hostesses' of the event along with one of Stratford's best chefs.
Antony "The Manic Organic" John of Soiled Reputation Farm (above, with martini) was helping serve up some of the gorgeous vegetable dishes Chef Gushue and his team created using his incomparable organic veggies. He grew the veg, served the dishes... and as if that wasn't enough he got up later and belted out a set of crooner classics!

Check out the sweet-savoury-salty salad (above) made from (Soiled Rep's) Baby Beets, (Soiled Rep's) Baby  Leeks and Bacon!

The Cheeses From Ruth station saw Monforte Dairy's cheese company owner Ruth Klahsen (above) cutting up selections of her finest goat and sheep milk cheeses for the sold-out patio crowd to enjoy paired with Langdon Hall's impeccable selection of VQA wines. 

My brother-in-food Mark Lass (above on left, beside Gushue protege on right) was the host with the most since (as mentioned) his farm supplied both of the whole pigs that were roasted that evening (clearly Langdon Hall is aware that Stratford is the home of the annual Ontario Pork Congress).

Chef Aaron Linley of Bijou is another good friend who was on-hand to serve-up the summer season's bounty (along with his beautiful ruby red Korean BBQ sauce [which he normally serves with duck but goes great with roast pork]). He's my favourite chef in Stratford (and if you think any differently I invite you to start your own Stratford food blog and bring it on).

The Sides At The Grill included the unspeakably indulgent Truffled Mac and Cheese and man-sized BBQ Onion Rings (above).

Just when I thought I had tasted everything one could possibly hope to taste at the Best BBQ Ever I came across The Hut where one of Gushue's henchmen was serving-up Cornmeal-Crusted Perch alongside Grilled Trout and 'Beer Can' Chicken (so damn good, we all knew was it destined for fine dining someday, right?).

The Stratford folks were seated at the best table on the whole patio (above), situated under a massive, sprawling, downright Tolkein-esque Camperdown Elm tree. [Sorry but there are way too many people in that picture to list/link. But the company was outstanding and we were all proud to represent the evening's City of Honour... by eating incredible food until we simply could eat no more].  

In fact, I was too full to try most of the offerings on the dessert table (above) although I was assured that the Chocolate and Espelette Cupcakes with Monforte Goat Cheese Icing were uniquely magnificent in their juxtaposition of sweetness with spiciness. I had to try the Caramel with Langdon Bacon Popcorn - one of those crazy combinations of things so good on their own they had to go well together!

The Langdon Hall BBQ Summer Series provided Stratford with the highest praise imaginable by showcasing the farmers, artisans and chefs that make our culinary community so special. The result was a night of eating I will always remember... I just absolutely loved every minute of it, and there's not much else even I can say.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

This Little Piggie Went to Market: Slow Food Pork Party!

You gotta admit, Slow Food Perth County is on a bit of a roll. We pulled-off the Canadian Youth Terra Madre back in May, when kids from different areas of the province and country came together at McCully's Hill Farm to have a good time around food. Then there was the recent coup that saw the reclamation of downtown Market Square by the Slow Food Sunday Market, which just seems to get better and better every week as more and more produce keeps coming out of the ground. But this past Sunday Slow Food Perth County staged what can only be described as a truly sensational feast as the entire city was invited to the market for the annual Pork Party!! 

Did you smell something delicious wafting in the air late Saturday night? Was it smoky, or even... bacon-esque? That wasn't a barn fire on Pork Road - it was the Slow Food crew roasting a huge pig on a spit right smack dab in the middle of downtown all night long!

As it happened, on the weekend the Stacey family enjoyed a visit from my good friend Tyler and his family. Tyler (on left with "water" bottle) and I have been bros for almost twenty full years and late-night hijinks have been standard practice throughout those two decades. I couldn't have picked a better wing-man to help with the slightly twisted task of cooking a giant headless pig over open coals at midnight in the middle of Stratford's downtown, which every Saturday night turns into a somewhat chaotic Entertainment District. When I told Tyler (who was visiting Stratford for the first time) that we were going to spend the night roasting a pig he thought I was talking about  something along the lines of a farm party - he hadn't expected to be swarmed all night by downtown inebriants asking hilarious questions like "Dude, are you guys selling hotdogs?!?"

The roaster was fired-up around midnight, and although Tyler and I hung out until after 3am props need to go out to the die-hards Brendon Lyoness and Liz Mountain who stuck it out all night, turning the foil-wrapped 150 lbs. pig a quarter turn every half hour for ten hours. The pig was cooked perfectly by the time the market kicked off at 10am and Mark Lass (on the right, he raised the pig on his farm!) helped haul it over to the serving table...

...where Phil Phillips (above on left with Liz on right) picked up his knife and began expertly carving up lunch. 

The sliced pork was piled high into grill pans full of fantastic sauces including the Korean BBQ sauce donated by Bijou Restaurant, Pineapple BBQ sauce by none other than Chef Neil Baxter of Rundles and Smoked Cherry BBQ sauce by the Sunday Market's own Dave of Koert Organics. Paul Finkelstein (above, centre) helped serve-up the melt-in-your-mouth porky goodness alongside Farmer Lass and Gotta-Love-Her-She's-Still-Awake Liz.

Emily Chandler was helping people to choose from among the three types of fresh-baked bread provided by the brand new Downie Street Bakehouse and Your Local Market Co-op.

Dessert was a trio of peaches from the market's fruit vendor Bizjak Farm, sheep's milk ricotta from the market's cheese vendor Monforte Dairy, and cake by the market's stellar Lindsay's Bakery.

The whole Slow Food family was there for this annual celebration of real Perth County food! Danielle Brodhagen (above right) held down the ticket sales and Laurie Knechtel (above left) spent the afternoon doling out the spicy coleslaw donated by Shawn from Simple. Fish and Chips

Laurie was interviewed by the Beacon Herald, and I could not agree any more strongly with her comments on what the paper deemed a "succulent success":
Knechtel said the group wants to dispel the Slow Food movement's image of being a bunch of elitists eating expensive food. She said the low prices for Sunday's roast and the accessible location showed what the Slow Food movement is really about and noted that visitors loved the experience.
"The feedback we've received is that they love the food, but what they love even more is eating together as a community,"

The general feeling of community conviviality was enhanced even more by the opening-up of a big can of bluegrass yeee-haah courtesy of the Blurry Pickers.

And of course, no Slow Food Sunday Market event would be complete without a performance from our resident crooner Antony "The Singing Farmer" John (aka The Manic Organic of Soiled Reputation Farm).

Congrats on the Slow-Food-flash-mob for putting together such a great event. There is another grassroots group in Stratford that's advocating to turn Market Square into a public green space, and after Sunday I have one recommendation for that redesign: Build a permanent community cooking area because we're going to put-on this event every single year from now on! 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Savour Stratford: The Pool Party!

Mid-summer last year, I blogged about the most delicious meeting I had ever been to, which was the 2010 Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival all-committees get-together at the farm of Mark Lass, located in the countryside outside of Stratford at Punkeydoodles Corners (although the pin-point location of that meeting might not be totally relevant I always get a kick out that crazy place-name: "Punkeydoodles Corners").

The 2011 Savour Stratford Festival (check out the hip new website!) is only a month and a half away - this year it is taking place on Saturday September 24 and Sunday September 25. Last year, the SSPC Culinary Festival won the Ontario Culinary Tourism Association award for 2009 Culinary Experience of the year. This year, the best food festival in Ontario just gets better, with all sorts of new features, venues, programs, and celebrity chefs. And to keep everyone up-to-date on all the plans, Savour Stratford now has it's own blog (three guesses who's on the Communications Committee).

Last year's meeting was the best there ever was. This year's all-committees meeting was just as good as last year's food-wise - and there was a swimming pool!

Brendon Lyoness (aka the grower behind Caveman Crops) brought along a salad featuring his homegrown beets, lettuce and basil along with some local goat's cheese from C'est Bon. Brendon heads up the Farmers Market committee - over the entire two days of the Savour Stratford Festival a vibrant market takes place featuring the local harvest produced by the area's best farmers and artisans. This year for the first time the exemplary vendors from the Slow Food Sunday Market (including Caveman himself) will have their own space at the festival at Erie and York Streets!

The SSPC Culinary Festival's Assistant Director Amanda Cortes was at the party with her dad Rich, who brought along a chorizo and bean bake that was spicy in flavour, smooth in texture, and topped with some cool fresh cheese. 

Latin flavours with local ingredients was definitely the theme of the pool party, and also included the salsa fresca from Your Local Market Co-op. Tasting Tent organizer Drea Kerr told me the market-fresh salsa will be part of the dish YLMC will be serving at the pinnacle event of the Festival, the Sunday Tasting Tent, where they have been appropriately paired with the Stratford Urban Farming Experiment (along with Drea, another one the folks who started the YLMC is Heather Walker, founder/coordinator of the Stratford Urban Farming Experiment). 

You might recognize the Entertainment Committee's Nathan McKay from Justin Bieber's movie Never Say Never, where he was interviewed about the early musical career of his one-time neighbour (looks like he met a new corn-eating prodigy in young Henry, above). Nathan heads up the Entertainment Committee and has booked a stellar musical line up this year, including Emm Gryner, Dayna Manning, and Stratford Star's Jake Stern.

The entree for the evening was an incredible Beef Tongue Taco prepared by Savour Stratford founder/director Danielle Brodhagen's talented partner, actor Paul Amos. I've had this dish a couple of times and I absolutely love the kick of the Mexican spicing and the toothsome texture of the chewilicious beef tongue (mmmm, tongue - the taste that tastes you back!). Paul will once again be one of the volunteers cooking and serving at the Edible Embers Charity BBQ (he raises money for the Actors Fund), where for the first time students from the Stratford Chefs School have been loaned as consultants on each charity's menu. 

Danielle proclaimed that the entire party had been fed by an offal cut of beef that cost them all of $2.50 from the aforementioned Lassdale farm. It's fitting that one of the presenters at the Stratford Chefs School Learning Centre is renowned cookbook author Jennifer McLagan (of Fat and Bones fame), whose new book Odd Bits - How to Cook the Rest of the Animal focuses on cooking with parts (I'm sure there are some more creative ideas for cooking with tongue in there!).

I visited Ruth Klahsen from Monforte Dairy earlier that afternoon and picked up some ice cream that was made with the same sheep's milk she makes her cheese with. Ruth will be teaching kids how to make their own ice cream every hour on the hour throughout the festival at the Monforte Dairy Kids Tent. I've started growing all sorts of crazy greens for this year's Return of the Living Salad Bar for the Kids Tent - it's going to be twice as big for 2011 and will also run throughout the whole two days (or as long as there are still greens for kids to pick and eat)!

Captain Caaaaave-maaaaan!
That's really just the beginning of the amazing programming that's going to be on the table at this year's festival. Celebrity chefs Connie DeSousa (Top Chef Canada finalist) and Chuck Hughes (of the Food Network Canada's Chuck's Day Off) will both be at the event (tickets for Chuck's Friday Night Pre-Party are going fast) and there will be a Best Chef challenge in the all new Culinary Theatre in the brand new Market Square downtown festival venue. 

For more of a preview of this year's version of the best food festival in Ontario come to City Hall this Monday August 15 at 4 pm where the funky new poster designed by accomplished Stratford illustrator Jack Dylan will be unveiled.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bakery Breadheads at Pazzo: "Daylight! Another day begins!"

On Friday, for the first time in my life I showed up somewhere at 6:30 am and felt like I was late.

That's because Master Pastry Chef John Bex and his team at The Bakery At Pazzo had already been working for hours by the time I turned up to receive an early morning lesson in breadmaking from one of the best.

Chef John Bex is well known as the Master Pastry Chef instructor at the Stratford Chefs School, where he's been teaching students the art and science of baking for over twenty years.

This summer Chef Bex took on the baking duties for Pazzo Pizzeria (downstairs) and fine dining Ristorante (upstairs) when they were all moved next door to Pazzo's brand new Ontario Street bakery. The bakery also supplies restaurants like Bijou, Down the Street and The Annex with the best bread around. And the house-made bread, pastries, sandwiches and desserts are all available to the public via the store, located right in front of the open-concept baking space. 

I found out that the secret to having Stratford's best bread is to do almost everything by hand and with a lot of care - no wonder one of the bakers had been there since midnight! I recognized this committed denizen of the graveyard shift as a recent Stratford Chefs School grad named Simon Briggs who'd cooked a Mexican dinner alongside Pilar Cabrera Arroyo I had the pleasure of attending this past winter. Simon and current Chefs School student M.J. were dusty with flour by the time I arrived. Chef Bex introduced them with a term I had not heard before, used to describe those who answer the call to work in a bakery:


He then proceeded to guide me through the process of making the small and large loaves of focaccia bread they make at the bakery every day. [The experience of "playing the piano" on the focaccia dough kind of reminded me of the time I learned how to make bannock bread in Nunavut]:

While we waited for the focaccia to bake Chef treated me to breakfast with one of The Bakery's absolutely incredible croissants. Fluffy on the inside but nice and crusty on the outside, like the perfect croissant should be. Chef described how he made them every day by hand-rolling pounds of butter into some dough: "It's butter suspended in flour". 

The foccacia loaves I helped to make were dimpled (from all the piano playing), perfectly browned and both seasoned and textured with salt when they came out of the oven:

The store opens at 8 am sharp, and the moment the door was unlocked three people immediately arrived to get a coffee and a fresh baked pastry.

The pre-office coffee crowd has some great choices for breakfast, including the aforementioned croissants (they also make them with double smoked bacon & mozzarella!?!)  muffins, scones and gorgeous Brioche with Basil Oil, Fennel, and Roasted Red Pepper (above).

At lunch The Bakery has been setting folks up with picnics to take along the river - a great idea for people who want to catch Stratford Summer Music events such as the riverside Barge Music performances, which take place only steps away.

And to top it all off The Bakery also stocks their shelves with some of the best ingredients from around the world... I told the manager, my friend Alondra Galvez (also am alum/instructor from the Statford Chefs School), my story about Oleara San Giorgio, the beautiful olive oil that connected me to my unknown cousin last year - The Bakery has it!

The Bakery at Pazzo is a phenomenal place to grab a bite to eat or a loaf of bread to take home. The entire operation is run by Stratford Chefs School instructors, alumni and students (it will be the site of Chef John Bex's SCS pastry lessons this winter), and the Chefs' attention to careful preparation, handmade techniques, and the alchemy that is baking really shines through in everything they create.