There are Spotlight Toronto assignments that I know will require me to remain relatively inconspicuous. Stay out of the way, ask questions, take lots of photos and notes.The sight of Chef Ryan Crawford’s decades-old brown pickup with a bed full of almost a thousand pounds of Tamworth backed up to the kitchen door at Stone Road Grille announced that this would not be one of those occasions.
We lugged the three slaughtered and quartered pigs (each over three hundred pounds) with hooves or snouts balanced precariously over our shoulders inside and hefted them onto whichever of the spotlessly clean, stainless steel, flat surfaces we could find in the compact space.
While I was doing my best to not literally groan under the weight of so much pork a wasp, angry at losing a delicious opportunity for al fresco dining, stung my neck. I thought I had shaken her off until I realised she was continuing the vigorous attack along my back.
I must have cut quite the image as I tried to subtly dispatch the attacker that had found its way down the blood-stained and flesh-spattered (the pigs’, not mine) t-shirt by rubbing my back against a doorjam. From my perspective it’s probably best-case that you’re picturing a sheepishly annoyed bear.
Back to the matter at hand: pork. Throughout the day I heard about the interconnected series of decisions that marks this pork as miles different from the commodity product sold in supermarkets.
To preserve both the whole cheek and jowl section of the head (for guanciale) and the pointy end of the loin that meets the shoulder (for capicola), the carcasses could not be sent through the usual band saw routine. Instead, Ryan and sous chef Steve work with their sharpened-to-a-prison-shiv boning knives to break the animals down one at a time, graciously invited me to help with the cutting.
The story behind the pigs is, like the restaurant, essentially very Niagara. Originally chef Crawford bought charcuterie from Mario Pingue, then switched to making it all in-house, and recently decided to go even further up the chain by raising his own pigs. The operation is a collaboration with Paul Harber, the chef behind Ravine Vineyard’s well-regarded bistro.
Returning to the butchery lesson, my hands continued their dirty work by partially boning and trimming legs for prosciutto. To discourage microbial growth it’s important that the hind quarters only have convex surfaces and therefore need to be shaped roughly like a drumstick. That’s easily said but difficulty done when the fat you’re being asked to carve away is some of the most delicious bits of a pig that someone else has spent half a year raising.
One of the primary benefits of their “whole hog” charcuterie programme is that the off-cuts from the leg I was working on will find a home in another preparation–maybe eventually on the same plate.
This “use the whole animal” clause of their philosophy ties nicely into the “waste nothing” one that dictates that all the restaurant’s food scraps (except pork) make up the pigs’ entire diet.
I’m also not surprised to learn that Chef Crawford spent time as an instructor at the Stratford Chef School. From my reluctance to trim his desired amount of fat from the prosciutto legs to demonstrating how to spin-tighten and tie a two-foot length of genoa salami, his patience runs deep.
I’m not sure what I expected as I waited for Ryan at the beginning of the day in his chef room. It’s the sort of space where I could see Anthony Bourdain feeling comfortable. (Appropriately, Bourdain-buddy David Chang’s Momofuku cookbook stands out as the newest– and yellowest–among a collections from the Time Life vintage. There might be no better way to relate the tiny room’s grungy authenticity than to re-share the story that Harvey Keitel spent a week eating and running lines there during a movie shoot.) What I found was a passionate commitment to quality and some really delicious food.
Around two o’clock and near the end of my time there I got to try the charcuterie plate (naturally on my feet and between other tasks) that featured such highlights as coyly spiced white pepper salami, intensely unctuous duck prosciutto, a curry kielbasa that didn’t take as a dried salami but worked great poached, and rich but also lightly-textured chicken liver mousse.
Throughout 30 Days of Ontario Wine we’re helping you to choose what to drink; but remember, it’s just as important to eat well. To that end, it is difficult to do better in Niagara than heading to The Stone Road Grille and having their charcuterie plate and their Weekly Beast matched with several glasses of Niagara’s best.
Stone Road Grille
238 Mary St. in the Garrison Plaza, Niagara-on-the-Lake (avoid my rookie mistake: the sign says “Rest” and “Stone Road Grille” is in finer print)