Eleven years ago, when I was still living in Toronto, I had a very different relationship with food than I do now. I was a decent cook (nowhere near my mother’s calibre though), could follow a recipe, get a bit creative, enjoyed hosting dinner parties, and ensured that my family ate relatively well.
Then I moved to Stratford, and everything changed.
The first thing was the accessibility of fresh, local food from the Stratford’s Farmer’s Market. I was so used to shopping in grocery stores that seeing beautiful, natural, sometimes dirt encrusted vegetables were almost a novelty to me. I had of course been to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto a number of times, but I lived uptown with no vehicle, and at that time, farmer’s markets weren’t nearly as prevalent in the urban centres as they are now. Through the Stratford Farmer’s Market, I learned how to talk to my farmers, ask questions, and forge relationships, because now they were my farmers; I supported them, they supported my family. Community.
Then I was introduced to Community Supported Agriculture models through Monforte Dairy and I decided to support these artisans directly with my dollars, supporting their businesses and my palate, and I became part of that community.
Soon after came the introduction of the Slow Food Market and the vendors with their delicious wares, and then my membership in Your Local Market Co-op, and further CSA support for Simple. Fish & Chips and Revel Caffé. And they became part of my community as well. Friends, restauranteurs, business partners, farmers, purveyors, educators. My shopping habits have changed so much that now my groceries are about 50% local, 50% grocery store. Way better than the 10% average the Ontario Agriculture movement asks of Ontarians.
Then these worlds coalesced with the birth of the Savour Stratford Culinary Festival. Hands down, bar none, my favourite weekend in Stratford. On principle, it’s the only event that I refuse to volunteer for in Stratford. My husband and my children all know, that is my weekend. I am off duty to eat, drink and be merry. Oh, and how I have done that, each and every year since its inception.
Now, my love affair with great food, good drink and passionate creators of great food experiences continues, grows and changes, just like all good romances. Now, it’s going through another renaissance through the experience of learning from some of the most creative, passionate chefs in South Western Ontario with the GE Café Chef Series, Celebrating Ontario’s Terroir.
In early January, I was invited by the Stratford Tourism Alliance team to participate in the inaugural event of the GE Chef Series, hosted by the Local Community Food Centre and Chef Aaron Linley of bijou restaurant. Knowing the exceptional experiences curated by the Savour Stratford team, I anticipated another immensely successful event and I was not disappointed.
The day began with an overview of the dinner party menu by Chef, who answered questions on the fly about sourcing food, talking to your butcher, and procuring artisanal items. This is the kind of knowledge that you can only really get by being with face to face with a Chef, especially one that celebrates the producers and artisans available in Perth County like Aaron does.
It’s quite the experience, being surrounded by friends and strangers, all brought together by a desire to learn and immerse oneself in great food. For me, this kind of gathering is the essence of community.
After reviewing the menu, and teaching us some of the methods we would be using, we were split into teams to focus on each course of the meal. We were learning from Chef, as well as many others that were brought to the Local CFC that day not only about the equipment, but the way to properly prep our dishes, from timing to presentation.
On the menu for the day was:
Bacon laced scallions with romesco sauce and local goat cheese
Rainbow Trout ‘en papillote’ with cabbage, tomato and lime
Ancho Chili and cider marinated Quail with duck fat potatoes and Moroccan eggplant salad
Green apple tart tartin with sour cream ice cream and caramel
Finally, it was time to eat and enjoy the fruits of our labour. Chef sat with us, and we all enjoyed each course as it was matched with a beautiful wines from Lailey Vineyard.
What more can I say about a perfect Sunday afternoon that blends community, knowledge and delicious food?
Aaron Linley, the Chef/Owner of bijou restaurant in Stratford is a wonderful teacher, and the whole flow and presentation of the day was a production in grace by the team at the Local Community Food Centre and Stratford Tourism Alliance.
I’m not only grateful for the opportunity to have participated in the first of the series, but for the knowledge and insights shared by Chef. A Sunday afternoon to remember, indeed…