By Jamie Drummond
Throughout recent years, due to working in the roles of both sommelier and journalist, I have been fortunate enough to spend considerable time enjoying the sybaritic culinary pleasures of Toronto, London, New York, and San Francisco. Because of such gastro-adventures I have often been accused of being a self-styled urbane gourmand (amongst many other much less complimentary things). A few years back I realised that I was to take my very first visit to Stratford, Ontario. With these relatively recent epicurean experiences in mind, I couldn’t help but ask myself just what could Stratford, this enclave of civility, nestled upon the banks of The Avon River in Perth County, have in store for me?
Three action-packed days later, when the hour eventually arrived for me to head back to the big, bad city, I was sad to leave. I had been exposed to the veritable food-lovers paradise that is Stratford, and I had fallen head-over-heels in love. Who would have imagined that such a relatively small rural city would have so much going on for one in search of gastronomic adventures?
Being located within some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in North America, Stratford residents have historically had such a strong symbiotic relationship with those who work the surrounding fields, that an enviable culture of food heritage has evolved. The very best way to experience the phenomenon that is Stratford first hand is to take a stroll through the city’s vibrant Farmers’ Market, where passionate, colourful, and gregarious growers and artisans alike energetically interact with both locals and visitors. It is astonishing when one thinks that this same scene has been played out almost identically since around 1855, albeit with an ever-changing cast of players, making the market one of the oldest in Ontario. The stallholders’ wares were simply too good to pass by, with a fresh selection that by far surpassed the offerings found in urban markets. Thank goodness my hotel room was furnished with a small refrigerator that allowed me to store a plethora of local meats, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses to take back home to Toronto!
Stratford’s bond with its farmers by no means ends at its historied marketplace. One simply needs to step through the doors of some of the city’s many splendid restaurants to discover how skilled local chefs have embraced the bounty of the surrounding farmlands. From the steadfastly traditional, through warm, welcoming gastropubs, to the height of the avant-garde cutting edge, the seasonal menus of Stratford’s dining establishments exhibit levels of quality, craftsmanship, and ingenuity that I find are very rarely seen outwith large metropolitan cities. Oh, and did I mention that I believe Stratford serves perhaps the best sustainable fish and chips this side of the Atlantic? It really is no wonder that so many in-the-know diners flock to this city year after year.
To borrow from Carolyn Steel, author of the acclaimed book Hungry City, Stratford’s special (and almost unique) relationship between farm and city should be known as a “Sitopia” or “food place”, from the Greek sitos (food) + topos (place). This Sitopian community truly understands that food is not only a mutual necessity but also a shared way of thinking. It is important to understand that within Stratford this culture of food heritage is not merely a nascent trend, but a way of life I believe has been evident upon any given day for well over a century. This small city’s vital connection to both the land and those who farm it is a relative rarity in our society today, and something to be truly treasured and celebrated.
As I sat upon that aforementioned late-night train home to Toronto, saying goodbye to the city I had fallen into a rather passionate relationship with, one particular question began to weigh upon my mind. That quandary was the following: should I share my Good Food revelations with the rest of the world, or allow Stratford to retain its position as one of Canada’s best-kept food-lover’s secrets?
Well, I invite you to satiate your gastronomic senses, fill your epicurean mind, and satisfy your gourmand soul in one of my favorite places to be. Stratford.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he suggests you have a read of this too.