By Heather Heagney

It was a crisp fall day as I made my way to White Lake, Ontario to meet with Chef Matthew Brearley of Castlegarth. This was not unfamiliar territory for me, as like Chef Brearley, I hail from this neck of the woods. They say you can’t go home again, but sometimes a journey leads you right back to where you began for a reason. For Chef Brearley and his wife Jenn, I believe that reason is the local food movement.

Upon my arrival, we packed up the dogs Hagrid and Jessica and drove down the road to the family farm. It was a five minute drive  — now that’s local. Castlegarth literally means “castle garden” in Olde English. The garden farm helps provide the restaurant with a local food focus, but the name itself also pays homage to his grandmother’s property in England, after which the farm itself is also named.

This time of year Castlegarth farm is mostly reduced to what is grown inside the solar-powered Covered Garden, and the cows have come in from the pasture, but Matthew is still harvesting greens and other vegetables for the restaurant. As he picked salad greens for that night’s service, we discussed the importance of local food. He is very inspired by the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto, and has hopes that Ottawa will also evolve to that level when it comes to promoting local, sustainable food and making it accessible to all.

60% of the beef served at Castlegarth comes from the family farm, where they raise grass-fed Hereford/Limousin cows. The farm garden also provides a variety of organic vegetables, fruits and grains such as: asparagus, Saskatoon berries, melons, beans, tomatoes, tomatillos, potatoes, lettuce greens, hay and wheat.  Inside the Covered Garden, Matthew showed me some unique beans they are growing, some for cassoulet, and some that originated in the Basque region of France. As we left the farm and the contented cows behind and headed back to the restaurant, I felt very inspired to see the organic, local, seasonal food system that is happening at Castlegarth.

Supporting local farmers and food producers is at the heart of Castlegarth’s philosophy. Currently they support 5 local farmers and a host of local food producers as well as providing much of their bounty from the farm. “It’s what this place is all about”, says Chef Matthew. Castlegarth also uses non-GMO oils from Pristine Gourmet, their own special blend of organic, fair trade coffee beans from Equator Coffee Roasters and sustainable fish from Whalesbone. They also just recently received their Oceanwise certification, so all of the seafood they serve is sustainable.

Although he didn’t always know he wanted to be a Chef, the seeds of food passion were already sprouting for Matthew as a young boy. He has several childhood food memories, from baking with his grandmother to visiting a classic French restaurant that served filet mignon and cherries jubilee; but it was the story of the experimental sweet potato and banana casserole that he surprised his parents with at the age of nine that really made me smile.

Two Matthews in the kitchen; Chef Brearley on the left.

After leaving small town life, Matthew attended university for a few years before realizing he wanted something else from his career. He then attended Food and Beverage School in Belleville, and on his first day there, he realized he had made the right choice. “This is it”, he said. After graduation he enrolled at Stratford Chefs School and it was there that he honed his culinary skills and gained a full understanding of the restaurant world. One Chef also became two at Stratford, as it was there that he met his wife Jenn, who is also an accomplished Chef in her own right. Two small children and a restaurant later, and Matt and Jenn are holding down the fort in White Lake, providing Ottawa valley diners with a local, sustainable culinary option.

Castlegarth’s food shop is a recent addition to the business, but it is already gaining popularity. The food shop features products made in-house, local cheeses and Ontario’s Own products. Perfect for people on their way home from work, dinner party foodies and cottagers, the charming country-style shop provides lamb shanks, pastries, soups, cheeses and other local and gourmet foods. Soon they will also be selling their own whole wheat flour as well as wheatberries, both of which come straight from the farm.

When asked about his role in the local food movement in Canada, he stressed that food is evolving in this country and it is important for him to be a part of this movement. He mentioned a recent book purchase, Coco by Phaidon, which features 100 contemporary Chefs,  and not one of them are Canadian or from Canadian restaurants. Brearley thinks this needs to change.

Sitting down in the restaurant a few hours before I was set on returning to dine, Chef Brearley and I continued our chat about local food. The face of local food is changing in Canada with farmers retiring and abbatoirs disappearing, but Brearley hopes that we continue our tradition of being an agriculturally rich country. “We must not forget that our land is designed to grow food on”, he says. “It should be local first, then organic. Buy what’s closest to you.” For the Brearleys, it’s not just about food, it’s also about supporting the local economy and creating a sense of community. This year they participated in Anita Stewart’s Food Day. “It was really exciting for us with Chefs and producers all together”.

Matthew is humble, yet inspired: “Castlegarth is in a little corner of the Ottawa Valley but it’s still part of the food movement.” After an afternoon with Chef Matthew and enjoying his delicious local food that evening, I couldn’t help but be reminded of two other local food pioneers, namely Chefs Kennedy and Stadtlander. It was actually Chef Stadtlander who originally inspired Matt to go local: “Years ago I heard him being interviewed on the radio and thought to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do’.”

That evening at Castlegarth I enjoyed a comforting pumpkin soup, a gorgeous duck breast and some succulent poached pears for dessert. Local, delicious fare, reasonably priced and humbly served in a charming old country house. I’m certainly glad Chef Brearley came home again.

Heather Heagney is a small town/big city girl who has split her time between Ottawa and Toronto. Having served in the food and drink world as everything from a Barista to an Event Manager, she now serves up food passion on her blog, After the Harvest. With a focus on environmental issues, she does what she can to promote local, sustainable food, but she still admits that there’s nothing like a good guacamole, even in the dead of winter in Ottawa, where she currently resides. Read more from Heather at her After The Harvest blog.