Chef Dale MacKay prepares pan roasted halibut for guests at GE Café Series

Chef Dale MacKay prepares prawns for guests at the GE Café Series

Every food item had a story at this year’s Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival. Along with the sumptuous array of tastes and textures festival attendants have come to know and love, this year’s edition was an opportunity to learn about food in a new, more nuanced way. “We like to have a mix here,” says Eugene Zakreski, Executive Director of the Stratford Tourism Alliance, explaining that the event helps everyone share interesting, informative stories. Zakreski, for one, was surprised to learn from chef Todd Perrin, Newfoundland native and owner of Mallard Cottage, that fish-smoking is not a Newfoundland tradition. Consequently, Perrin doesn’t do it. These kinds of educational exchanges “help us and help everybody get a better sense in terms of the locality of food, how food is indigenous to a unique kind of geographical area or a cultural area,” says Zakreski.

By moving the festival up from September to July, Savour Stratford aimed to attract more tourists. Its extended children’s programming, which included chef Jeff Stewart’s lessons on cooking with bugs, made it a welcome place for family and lively discussion. In the Artisan Market, which weaved its way along the Avon river, vendors happily described their locally produced fruits, vegetables, cooked meats, wines, and candies, (not to mention handmade aprons and organic dog treats) to interested customers. Meanwhile, Artisan Alley revelers shared their thoughts on the efforts of Ontario’s leading winemakers, brewers, distillers, and cider producers. Coupling these wares with elaborate Ontario cheeses, as well as a tender pulled pork and slaw dish made by local PC Cooking School chefs Thomas Swolfs, Barbara Toomer and Jacob Bervoets, festival-goers were as excited to talk about food as they were to eat it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The same was true for the Savour Stratford’s invited chefs. During Saturday’s GE Café Series, a five-course lunch presented at Stratford’s Local Community Food Centre, chef Dale MacKay, classically-trained owner of Ayden Kitchen and Bar, told us that our dessert, a light yet rich strawberry poached rhubarb with vanilla cremeux and pie crust crumble, had been made with rhubarb he’d picked from his friend’s backyard. Dan Sullivan, winemaker and owner of Rosehall Run, described the Rosehall Run 2011 JCR Pinot Noir he’d chosen to accompany chef Derek Dammann’s frost village pork and mostarda, as “the purest iteration of what (his) land does”. Full of flavour and low in alcohol, this wine spoke for itself.

Later that afternoon, Dammann, co-owner of Montreal’s Maison Publique with Jamie Oliver, took to the Toronto Star Culinary Stage where he showed an audience how deceptively simple it is to prepare the delicious raw sockeye salmon with tomato vinaigrette he’d made for the GE Café Series. During a Q&A session with attendees, Dammann explained that he has a rapport with all the farmers and fishermen he works with, underscoring the importance of knowing where one’s food comes from – an awareness his restaurant tries to impart on its patrons by bringing pigs in two pieces through Maison Publique’s dining area, for example.

The importance of making this personal connection was echoed by Ruth Klahsen, founder of Monforte Dairy during Sunday morning’s Women in Food Breakfast, a panel discussion of female farmers and food producers held at The Church Restaurant. This connection might manifest itself in having a relationship with the vegetables and animals on one’s farm, or by looking a customer in the eye, proud of the product one has made and is selling. The panel passionately advocated for a shift in the way our culture values food, contending that our options for the future are few: either we choose to change food’s social value, or a global crisis will force us to do so. Hopeful that proper education will help us avoid the latter, the panel sparked an exciting exchange between breakfasters who swapped ideas over a hearty meal of scones, mixed berries, crème fraîche, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, hash browns, salad, bread, and coffee.

Later that day, conversations ranged from quiet murmurs of satisfaction to enthused exclamations of joy at The Grand Tasting – a garden party featuring the concoctions of 30 local chefs paired with 30 local food producers. Complemented by Ontario VQA wines and crafts brews, these delicacies were judged by chef Bryan Steele from The Prune; Dale MacKay; sustainable seafood chef, James Walt and Alyson Fryer of The Cookbook Store. Of particular note was Pazzo Taverna’s agnolotti with sweet peas, carrots and beets, made by chef Yva Santini who was paired with James Harrison’s Shallothill Specialty Vegg. Without any flavour overpowering another, each ingredient in this delightful pasta could be tasted, earning them a well-deserved prize for Best Vegetarian Dish. See below for a complete list of winners.

This year’s food, wine and music matched Savour Stratford’s jubilant air, reaffirming this city is about so much more than Shakespeare.

  • GE Café People’s Choice Award – Mercer Hall (Stratford), Chef Tim Larsen and Sean Collins paired with Church Hill Farm, Owen and Eva Lass; A Taste of Church Hill Farm, A Bloody Bun
  • Best Meat Dish – The Bauer Butcher (Waterloo), chef Matthew Kendrick paired with Yorkshire Valley Farms (Peterborough), Krysten Cooper; Chicken and Wild Mushroom Terrine
  • Best Vegetarian Dish – Pazzo Taverna (Stratford), chef Yva Santini paired with Shallothill Specialty Vegg (Sebringville), James Harrison; Agnolotti with sweet peas, carrots and beets
  • Best Dessert Dish – The Stratford Chefs School (Stratford), chef Margaux Whillans-Browne and Maple Morning (Sebringville), James Harrison; Maple Candy Floss, Maple Marshmallow, Maple Taffy, Maple Macaroon
  • Best Beverage – Tea Leaves Tea Tasting Bar (Stratford), Tea Sommelier Karen Hartwick; Three Mint Enhanced Tea
  • Best Beverage Containing Alcohol – Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers (Beamsville), Whitney Dillon; Strawberry Agua Fresca with Dillon’s Method 95 Vodka, strawberries, rosemary, simple syrup and lemon bitters
  • Most Creative Dish – The Prune (Stratford) chef Ryan O’Donnell paired with Chris Meeuse Farm (Union), Chris Meeuse; Seabuckthorn Rocket; seabuckthorn, raspberry, crème fraîche

Erica Ruth KellyErica Ruth Kelly is a Montreal-born, now Toronto-based writer. A staff writer at She Does the City, her work has been featured in the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and Maisonneuve, among others. Follow her @ericaruthkelly