Eat like a local—it's the golden rule to get the most from your culinary vacation. It often starts by getting far away from your hotel and heading to where the natives eat.
But as sound as that advice is, it doesn't replicate how you and your epicurean friends eat at home. For me eating like a local means getting together with a group of my closest friends and sharing the menu at a hidden gem while washing it all down with some great wine. Even in a world where blogs, discussion boards and social media networks can give you excellent advice on the best eats and drinks whereever you might want to travel, pulling off a night on the town like that remains a serious challenge.
That's where Ivy Ackerman's Butter and Egg Road comes in. Like the dear expat friend you're visiting, she knows what you like and aims to show you an authentic taste of the city that you'll enjoy. Earlier this year the affable, cosmopolitan, young professional founded a dining club of fellow epicureans who travel and find themselves craving the same special experience they have in their home cities. It all started when she received some fantastic Paris dining tips simply because she was lucky enough to be seated next to a friendly Parisian couple. That got her thinking there should be a way to curate that experience for people rather than leaving it to serendipity. Many fantastic meals, trips and much hard work later Butter and Egg Road was born.
I was recently invited to attend Toronto's most recent Butter and Egg Road dinner entitled Market Feature. The evening began with an intimate reception with some of Ackerman's favourite vendors at the Saturday morning Evergreen Brick Works Farmers' Market. Guests were warmly greeted by Ackerman with a choice of Flat Rock's crisp and lemony 2008 Riddled or Mill Street's Organic Pilsner. They spent the cocktail hour mingling with fellow guests and conversing with vendors while sampling some of their products.
Amongst the highlights was a small tasting of Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company's line-up. The tangy creamy Cape Vessey stood out, especially the slightly bitter edge to its edible washed rind. But what excited many guests was tasting the same goat milk cheddar at various states of aging. With 18 months of aging the cheddar had a mildly tangy falvour. Aged longer, it transformed into a layered, complex marriage of savoury, slightly nutty and fruity flavours.
My favourite part of the tasting was sampling the range of products from Dingo Farms in Brandford, Ontario. Dennis and Denise Harrison did not like the direction conventional, commercial livestock farming was heading. So, they made the transition to what they refer to as a natural and sustainable approach to raising livestock. That means raising grass-fed Angus cows, Berkshire pigs and heritage lambs slowly and gently in small herds much like the family's ancestors did when they farmed 100 years ago. This careful approach to farming carries through to final product with the Harrison family using local abattoirs and companies they've developed a relationship with to produce the sausages, hams and other cured meats they sell along with Dingo fresh pork, beef and lamb. It was hard to pick out a favourite item, but the porkiness and spot on curing of the Berkshire Blackforest ham stood out as one of the best I've had. The family is looking to build a retail shop at the farm, but right now the best place to taste and purchase their meats is at farmers' markets or at restaurants around the city with a farm to table focus like Cowbell.
The final vendor, Lesia Kohut of LPK's Culinary Groove, an east-end shop specialising in organic, fair trade and recently vegan and gluten free desserts, explained why the famers' market experience is important to her. “It's about community, and food is a huge way to bring people together." For her the market and experiences like Butter and Egg Road are all about making valuable personal connections with suppliers and customers alike. The savory vegan cornbread she served contained morels and thyme from vendors at the market. Her connection to Butter and Egg Road came about when Ackerman was surprised with a beautiful cake shaped like a coveted Louboutin stiletto. Ackerman was initially disappointed when she found out the lifelike replica was a cake, but that quickly turned around once she tasted it. She sought out the baker and has been purchasing Kohut's desserts ever since. “Talking to them and knowing who they are and where the food comes is something I want to share with the customers,” said Kohut.
Post market tasting attendees enjoyed a four course meal at Café Belong paired with Ontario craft beer and VQA wine. Like all Butter and Egg Road dinners Ackerman worked with the chefs in creating a menu. For this one her criteria was that it be centered around fresh, seasonal, local ingredients and that as much as possible be sourced from the Brick Works market. The exact execution and pairing of the dishes, she left in the hands of the chefs. Awaiting guests were travel inspired Butter and Egg Road place settings including: a menu, a list of some of Ackerman's preferred vendors and their wares, plus a couple of Moleskine notebook to make shopping lists and notes.
Dinner began with my favourite pairing of the meal, a chilled cucumber soup with a dried tomato from Sovereign farms. The textural match of the soup with a glass of Muskoka Brewery's Spring Oddity was brilliant. The ale's Belgian yeast and Candi sugar provided a nice compliment to the tomatoes concentrated sweetness, while its heather tips and slightly bitter hop finish played nicely with the soup's tang. The third course of poached Kolapore Springs rainbow trout was very delicate, if a little underseasoned. It was served alongside bright tasting roasted local asparagus with just the right amount of bite and salt. Anyone who had any leftover 2009 Cave Spring Pinot Noir from the previous course would've done well to try it with the trout. It's sparky acidity along with the sour cherry, beetroot and cinnamon notes really lifted the fish's natural flavour.
Aside from showing members a good dining experience, Butter and Egg Road is very much about connecting fellow lovers of great food and libations. Ever the consummate host leading toasts and making introductions, Ackerman sets the tone for her club encouraging off-line connections and conversations throughout the evening. Sitting between Ackerman and a member, both of whom I had never met, the conversation flowed easily from the dinner courses, marathon running, local restaurants and Toronto's evolving dining scene. I was even able to share some tips regarding Niagara wineries and Italy for my dining companions' upcoming trips. One of the secrets behind the easy flow of the dinner conversation is bringing together an itimate group (no more than twenty) of the right members. Just as Ackerman does her research regarding the food side of the her club, she also likes to find out a bit about potential members. One of the questions she likes to ask potential members and restaurants alike is what would they eat or cook on their last night. For epicureans, it's one of those truly important and revealing questions. After all any good dinner has a trinity of elements: good food, great drink and better company.
Those interested in joining Butter and Egg Road can apply for membership through it's web site. The next Butter and Egg Road dinner is a late night food crawl through Chinatown. Ackerman had been hard at work researching for it in the days prior to this market dinner. She is a little tight-lipped on the exact agenda, but expect a lot of great eats, a few drinks and the company of some great chefs and members.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.