Savour Stratford is essentially built on the symbiosis of farmer and chef. Actually, the city's entire culinary scene rests on the special relationship between Perth County's farmers and the talented chefs of Stratford and the surrounding area. The Perth County soil and climate produce a wide array of fresh and delicious produce and many of the farmers take extra care and pride in producing the best they can from the land. It's that kind of dedication and fresh, top-quality ingredients that excite chefs who cook with a local and seasonal approach.
These relationships are the foundation of Savour Stratford, but nowhere is it displayed more prominently than the signature tasting event held on Sunday afternoon. As festival director Danielle Brodhagen, put it “Those authentic farmer and chef relationships are key to Savour Stratford.” Over the past couple of years festival organisers have found chefs and farmers are asking to be paired with counterparts they've met through previous festivals and have continued to work with ever since. Even more exciting is that they are now finding chefs and farmers are asking to work with someone new for the tasting in order to help develop those relationships, she added.
This year's culinary festival saw autumn weather that was a little cooler than last year's near summer-like temperatures, so hearty dishes and beverages were amongst the crowd favourites. As you might imagine Perth County's famed pork continued to be the star of many of the dishes. But there was also plenty of: local fish, fresh produce like mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, beets, lavender and berries along with local artisan cheese and chocolate. The diverse spread of the tasting was indicative of Stratford's rapidly developing culinary scene. Highlighting this David Ort and I put together a list of our top standout tastes from this year's Sunday Tasting.
Michael Di Caro's Picks
Wildstone Bar and Grill at the Stone Willow Inn and TJ's Fins and Feathers
Wildstone chef Jamie Craig drew on past culinary experiences when crafting his dish for the Sunday Tasting. Taking inspiration from aboriginal candied salmon he had early in his culinary career, he experimented to see if that technique would work with the local trout raised at TJ's Fins and Feathers—the two species are closely related. His hunch worked brilliantly creating a balanced dish that was savoury, a touch smoky and salty with just a hint of contrasting sweetness. Playing up that sweetness he served the fish on a refreshing smoked tomato and roasted corn salsa. Craig also drew on his experience cooking Mexican food and added cumin to the light and flaky phyllo cup holding it all together. If you weren't at the tasting you can experience a very similar dish of baked trout on menu at Wildstone. After cooking a one-off dish last year, Craig found that diners who had attended the tasting wanted something similar when they visited the restaurant.
Nick & Nat's Uptown 21 and Soiled Reputation
After winning the Best Meat dish for his “Porkapolooza” at last year's tasting, chef Nick Benninger surprised by going vegetarian with a dish dubbed “VeggieSaurus-Rex”. It consisted of: a breaded and pan-fried (schnitzel-style) slice of candy cane beet topped with radish-cabbage slaw and pickled hot peppers. The crispy cornmeal crust played-up the natural sweetness of the beets and provided some nice textural contrast, while the pickled peppers and slaw provided a nice spicy kick and some brightness. It was finished with some bronze fennel tips, which look beautiful and have a nice subtle licorice flavour. When it all came together the dish delivered a great contrast of flavours, textures and colours. Benninger and his team at the Waterloo restaurant work with Soiled Reputation throughout the year and they love everything that comes from the farm. One of the many reasons is the Stratford-area farm, owned by Antony John and Tina VandenHeuvel, grows such a diverse range of top-quality organic produce That gives the restaurant a great range of flavours to create their seasonal dishes around. Reflecting that philosophy everything from the dish essentially came from Soiled Reputation including the hot peppers and unusual bronze fennel.
Cambridge Mill and Eramosa Heritage Pork
This dish was a fantastic example of how great things can be achieved when farmer and chef work together with a singular focus. The Cambridge Mill, which is part of the Landmark restaurant group, made pork from Eramosa Heritage Pork the star of their dish. That was no accident. It turns out Eramosa Heritage Pork is actually a project spearheaded by Cambridge Mill chef de cuisine Cameron Bell, who works with the Smith family to pasture raise Berkshire and Tamworth pigs on their 48-year-old farm. The top-quality naturally raised and antibiotic-free pigs are served at Cambridge Mill and sister Landmark Group restaurants as part of their seasonal farm-to-table menus. Bell mentioned that the farm-to-table philosophy continued throughout the dish using local goat cheese, tomatoes from the farmers' market and red fife wheat from the Landmark Group's farm. The pork was tender, savoury-sweet and a little smoky, which worked beautifully with the tangy goat cheese, and the sweet flavour of fresh, local cherry tomatoes. The cracker base provided a nice crunch and the only non-local ingredient, a sprinkle of black olive provided, a nice background hint of salty umami.
David Ort's Picks
Mercer Hall and Church Hill Farm
The magic words here are: "pork six ways". That's what filled the muffaletta-like sandwich that stood out for me and eventually won the nod from the judges for best meat offering. On this sandwhich the pork is all house-cured at Mercer Hall and comes from the free-range and ethical pork programme at Max and Vicki Lass's Church Hill Farm. Rustic pieces of various house-made pickles were the perfect counterpoint to such a meaty morsel.
Rheo Thompson Candies and Steed and Company Lavender
When it comes to pairing chocolate with another flavour I'm usually very hard to please. In other words, if it's not joined by mint or peanut butter I'd rather have the dark stuff, straight up. In this case, though, the floral and delicate notes in the 72% chocolate were enhanced and complemented by the lavender-infused jelly that was made with Steed and Company product. Both were tied together and held in check by a small dollop of cheese from Montforte.
Beer from Silversmith Brewing
Both at the BBQ, Blues, and Brews event on Saturday night and then again at the Sunday tasting I was thrilled to try a few new (to me) beers from two local breweries. Silversmith is one of two new breweries that started their beer-making operations in Niagara-on-the-Lake this summer and they brought both their wheat and black lagers to Stratford. The weiss is bright and refreshing and shows the traditional notes of clove spice and orange zest that other brewers have to add as adjuncts–Silversmith uses only the four traditional beer ingredients. The black lager brings the roasted coffee and burnt sugar flavours of a stout, but is refreshing and light on its feet.
In addition to the beers David has covered here, we also have rundown of some standout wines that were poured at the tasting. With 34 unique dishes and outstanding beverages from the 18 Ontario wineries and craft breweries it's a hard task to single out a favourite. But that's exactly what a group of expert culinary judges as well as the attendees are tasked with doing at the tasting each year. Here's a list of this year's winners:
People’s Choice: The Prune and Northern Woods Mushrooms' Smoked Mushroom Tart with house made herbed ricotta, delicata squash and red pepper relish
Best Meat Dish: Mercer Hall and Churchill Farms' Muffuletta Sandwich – Pork done 6 ways: coppa, rillette, prosciutto, country ham, black-strap molasses ham, pig's head mortadella.
Best Vegetarian Dish: Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 and Soiled Reputation's Veggiesaurus-Rex a.k.a. Cornmeal crusted beets with pickled hot peppers, cabbage-radish slaw and bronze fennel tips
Best Dessert: Madelyn’s Diner and Yungblut Meats' Bacon Butter Tarts
Most Creative Dish: Pickles Eh! and Loco Fields' Tomatillo corn & black bean salsa
Best Alcohol Beverage: Silversmith Brewery's Black Lager
Best Beverage: Tea Leaves Tea Tasting Bar and Peter Blush Foraging's “Savouring Stratford Digestive Tea Blend” featuring foraged stinging nettle, locally grown lemon balm, fennel seed and two year fermented pu-erh
At an event like the Sunday Tasting, which features small bite-size tastes from 34 restaurants and partnering farms, it's best to come hungry and curious. Over the three hour tasting (four if you opt for early V.I.P. entry) there's plenty of time to sample every dish if you're up to it. Spread out over three tents in Stratford's Market Square this year's tasting never felt crowded or rushed, which is a testament to the festival's organisers. But what really separates the Savour Stratford Sunday Tasting from similar culinary events is that both the farmers and chefs have the time to interact one-on-one with attendees and seem to thoroughly enjoy it when they take an interest in the dishes or the farm. So if you've never been to Stratford and want to get a taste of what its growing culinary scene is all about keep Sept. 20-22nd free for next year's Sunday Tasting because if it's anything like this year's it's sure to be another great one.
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.