Monday, September 19, 2016

Transvaal Farm and C'estbon Cheese: As Goat As It Gets

"The Girls" A bevy of Rhode Island Reds.

To bond with the rural charm that defines Perth County, consider day-tripping by car and staying in farmhouses or farm guest houses. Agritourism, as it is defined most commonly, constitutes any agriculturally-based operation that brings visitors to a farm. Many agro-tourists have a strong interest in all things culinary. They want to meet the local farmers, artisans and processors and talk with them about what is involved in food production while getting an authentic taste of rural life.

In Perth County, culinary entrepreneurs continue to develop fresh takes on the farm-to-table ethos while examining the roots of local cuisine and developing new region-specific specialties and products. They characterize the entrepreneurial spirit of the modernist vanguard by re-imagining the food chain, safeguarding the terroir and adding their unique contributions to the collective Ontario culinary identity.

On a beautiful mid-September day, at the invitation of Stratford Tourism and the Ontario Culinary Alliance, I visited Transvaal Farm and the small on-farm family run C’estbon cheese business as part of the itinerary of a carefully planned FAM tour. The tour was geared to familiarize the press with many of the epic culinary attractions in and around Stratford and St. Marys, Ontario.

Down a bucolic backroad on the verge of the historic stonetown of St. Marys lies Transvaal Farm at the end of a tree-lined driveway. The pastoral 50-acre farm has been home to Cindy Taylor’s family for over three decades. Cindy and her raconteur husband Scott McLauchlan are our formidable hosts on this informative and entertaining agritourism experience. The main elements of this adventure are a guided tour by Scott of the storybook property and farm gardens, a tour and a lavish farm-to-table breakfast prepared by Cindy at the guest house, and a tour of the small-scale artisan goat cheese plant operated by Cindy’s brother, owner and cheesemaker, George Taylor.

Shortly after our arrival we walk over to the chicken coop to meet “the girls” a bevy of Rhode Island Reds, and collect some freshly laid eggs for breakfast. Although they are excellent free range foragers, McLauchlan tells us, “the girls” need some protection from the late-night wildlife interlopers that prowl the farm.

Despite the intense hot summer we’ve had, part of the farm garden is overflowing with the bright greenery of nasturtium leaves and their vibrant edible flowers. There are plenty of hardy vegetables still in the field, especially colourful varieties of ubiquitous peppers and tomatoes ripe for the picking.

Back at the Transvaal Farm guesthouse the refrigerator is stocked with samplings of fresh, milky and satisfyingly tart C’estbon goat cheese, made on the property from a neighbouring herd of goats. There is farm fresh goat milk on offer and a delicious creamy goat yogurt that is like crème fraiche – “Not without similarities to Iceland’s super-trendy Skyr,” says Ontario Culinary Alliance, Community Manager, Agatha Podgorski  –  the yogurt we are told is still in the beta stage and we are the first to enjoy a sampling. Technically, the yogurt is a cheese with full-fat content.
Transvaal Farm Guest House Interior

Cindy a graduate of the Baking Arts program at George Brown College has outdone herself by crafting a selection of high-quality baked goods made in small batches using traditional methods from Transvaal  Farm’s fresh ingredients. These are the products that Cindy takes to the St. Marys Farmers’ Market on Saturdays in season. We are the recipients of much culinary largesse that includes her baking and Transvaal Farms preserves.

George is welcoming and willing to share his story. What began as a retirement project sixteen years ago – which George hoped would be able to sustain its own costs – became a successful artisan goat cheese operation that soon showed both sustainability and profitability. George famously swapped a flock of sheep for a herd of Toggenburg and La Mancha goats, and began crafting farmstead, small-batch, cheese- by-hand, using only the milk from his own herd to create his proprietary C’estbon chèvre. 

In time, George eventually relocated his goats to a neighbouring farm. Today, once a week about 5,000 litres of goat milk is delivered from a local producer, Hewitt’s Dairy, and the process begins. Not a single item goes off the property without George’s thumbprint on it. Authentic artisan cheese can’t be mass-produced: it is limited in quantity and has specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature. 

A sense of community and an entrepreneurial culture are important economic drivers in rural areas. Upwards of 80 percent of Stratford’s upscale chefs and restaurateurs purchase C’estbon chevre.

One of the experiences Cindy offers to farm guests is the opportunity to participate in an on-site hands-on culinary workshop. She offers workshops on preserving, home-made bread or pastry, chocolate truffles, and even making your own goat cheese. You choose which culinary experience you would like to partake in and Cindy will arrange a convenient day to make it happen.

The culinary tour of Transvaal Farm and the C’estbon cheese operations was both inspiring and informative. It reminded us of the strong links of like-minded entrepreneurs by talking about the things we all have in common — enjoying the benefits that we receive from a healthy entrepreneurial, artisan and agriculture culture. On another level it reminds us to embrace unique products that are locally conceived, locally controlled and as rich in local content as the distinctive terroir and time-honoured ways of preparing them of any given era.

4675 Line 3, St. Marys, Ontario

After garlic is harvested it needs to be cured.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Chef Arron Carley of The Bruce is Redefining Modern Canadian Cuisine

Canada 150 will be a year-long celebration in 2017, the sesquicentennial of Canadian confederation. Nearly fifty years ago the Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, Canada’s centennial celebration in Montreal, contributed to strengthening a powerful cultural unity. At the time the pavilion’s two restaurants were seen as providing a national culinary narrative. Restaurant La Toundra, operated by CN Hotels, served a Katimavik (which means “meeting place” in the Inuktitutlanguage) Special that included chilled Okanogan apple juice and “Tourtière Chateau” with buttered peas and Saratoga chips. This was followed by Coupe Innuit [sic].This conceptualization of a Canadian cuisine was viewed as an all-encompassing initiative containing regional dishes and traditions derived from the multiculturalism of the nation.

Many feel that an emblematic Canadian cuisine is an abstract concept, indefinable due to the contradictory nature of Canadian identity. Indeed, ours is a complex identity, and paradoxically includes vast cultural and culinary differences. For many years serious attempts to define a national cuisine have either met with derision or devolved into stereotypes.

If you were to ask most people about what is meant by Canadian cuisine, many would respond with the stereotypical dishes like cod tongues, prairie oysters, Nanaimo bars, poutine, tourtière, back bacon, Montreal-smoked meat, butter tarts, seal flipper pie or fried bannock – a bread introduced to First Nation communities by Scottish settlers.

For some years now chefs across the country have been redefining Canadian cuisine. Chef Arron Carley is one of them. At The Bruce Restaurant in Stratford, Carley celebrates the food and ingredients of Canada every day. Chef uses the moniker New Canadiana to describe his evolving cuisine. He notably served as a sous chef to Jason Bangerter at Luma before Bangerter became executive chef at Langdon Hall. For three months Carley interned with René Redzepi’s team at Denmark’s famed Noma. On his blog, The Noma Intern, Carley says, “The knowledge you gain from staging at a restaurant like Noma will last you for the rest of your life and is easily worth three months of commitment.” Returning to Ontario, he worked as a sous chef under John Horne, executive chef at Toronto’s Canoe restaurant, before accepting the executive chef position at The Bruce Hotel in June last year.

Carley is, no doubt, acutely aware that Stratford is a town that can be very critique-heavy. He boldly ventures where few chefs have the resources or support to go and his determination and curiosity is matched by his talent. He is unwavering in his journey to take the Canadian culinary landscape and inculcate it with both his personal style and a narrative that is receptive to the local terroir and changing seasons. Carley and a team that includes sous chef Sam Santandrea and pastry chef Gilead Rosenberg continue to re-evaluate Canadian cuisine by looking to First Nation’s food culture and what early settlers ate in the wilderness. Foraged wild ingredients are intrinsic to The Bruce’s culinary identity. Any foraged ingredient used at The Bruce Hotel is sustainably procured by either Carley or the dedicated in-house forager Phil Phillips. They like to define and reinterpret “Canadiana” on their own terms rather than emulate their mentors.

Chef does not use lemons, black pepper or olive oil in his kitchen. Instead he uses indigenous alternatives with complex flavour profiles. Catkins, the bitter buds of the green alder plant, are what Chef uses instead of pepper. The Bruce has its own in-house bakery run by Chef Ian Middleton, an apiary, and a culinary garden in the back of the hotel with heirloom vegetables and forgotten herbs like rue (herb of grace), angelica and bronze fennel (which is actually black). This allows Carley to make a powerful culinary statement. Chef uses birch syrup in some of his dishes for an intense sweetness and depth of flavour. Carley likes to live and breathe his ethos.

The Bruce’s most iconic dish “Spuds in Dirt” is Carley’s way of paying homage to the ubiquitous poutine. Chef uses mini marble potatoes that are compressed by beer and cedar jelly (made from the juice of young cedar tips) and slow cooked sous-vide. The potatoes are tossed in wild leek vinaigrette and then buried in a mixture of peanuts and sumac. The spuds are then topped with dehydrated smoked beef fat, cowder (a powder of dehydrated marinated beef, sea buckthorn and black garlic,) and a pudding made from Glengarry’s Celtic Blue Reserve. The dish is finished with fried rosemary and burnt herb and ale jus.

Picture wild ivory salmon from the pristine waters of the Queen Charlotte Islands with goose barnacle, snap peas, beluga lentils, wild ginger broth, sea asparagus, Ontario edamame, fennel purée and kelp oil. Another signature dish is the Quebec Cerf du Boileau, venison striploin with charred and brined carrots, golden beets, reindeer moss (it’s actually funghi), Saskatoon berries, green alder jus (reminiscentof black pepper) and beet purée. At a recent tasting the house-cured charcuterie served on a locally-procured walnut board included lardo, saucisson, coppa, confit of beef tongue, pig’s head terrine and cold fermented Mennonite summer sausage.
The modernist plating techniques at The Bruce are acutely complicated with numerous components – emulsions, foams, ferments, sauces, powders, vinegars, berries, herbs, mosses and painterly smears – layered and aesthetically presented in ways that are both balanced abstracts and edible topography.

Carley is also an aficionado of older Canadian cookbooks. He recently introduced me to The Northern Cookbook, edited by Eleanor A. Ellis and illustrated by James Simpkins. The book was initially published in 1967, as a Centennial project by the Education Division, Northern Administration Branch, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.

This interesting canon on indigenous cookery offers guidance on nutrition along with recipes that are sometimes out-of-touch with the availability and seasonality of certain ingredients. “The purpose of this book is to record facts about some of the wild game, game birds, fish, fruit and vegetables available in Canada’s north (which includes not only the Arctic and sub-Arctic, but the northern lake and forest regions of all the provinces), and to suggest methods by which these foods may be prepared and served. To include recipes for all of the indigenous foods would be a mammoth task, but I have tried to include enough to be representative of a cross section of this vast land…,” states the preface by Ms. Ellis.

Interesting recipes include Arctic muktuk chowder (the traditional Inuit/Eskimo and Chukchi meal of whale skin and blubber), reindeer bourguignon, and casserole of seal served with fiddleheads or fireweed leaves. Among other dishes are sweet pickled beaver, partridge paprika, ptarmigan with orange ice, smothered muskrat and onions, moose chili con carne, elk burgers and Newfoundland seal flippers.

Each region of Canada with its own indigenous people has used their resources and traditional food preparations to develop unique versions of these dishes. Canadian chefs like Carley are acknowledging that Canadian Cuisine can be defined by its ingredients as much as by its traditions. We have come a long way since the Katimavik Special. Now the idea of the New Canadiana needs to percolate through the population in much the same way as the idea of eating locally and sustainably has done.

The Restaurant at The Bruce
89 Parkview Dr., Stratford,
Open Tuesday–Saturday
Lunch: 11:30 am–1:30 pm
Dinner: 5:00 pm–close
Lunch is served Sunday and Monday in The Lounge.
The Lounge is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as late night.