Picture an outdoor dinner party, surrounded by the fields of a local farm, featuring food that was grown or raised within relatively close proximity, or – as the farmers might say – within spitting distance. The local residents eating the meal can pinpoint on a map of their municipality where the food came from. During the meal, the diners mingle with the farmers who supplied the food and cooked it on site with their own hands. It just doesn’t get more local or more delicious.
This was the scene of a recent event called the Chatham-Kent Table held at River Bell Market Garden in Dresden. And it is just what food author Lynn Ogryzlo has ordered – not to mention written extensively about in her award-winning book, The Ontario Table, and on her website (www.ontariotable.com). Ogryzlo’s modus operandi is to spread the word about culinary regionalism and her book is the product of years of research highlighting the bounty of our province. A group of eight farming families in Chatham-Kent have taken Ogryzlo’s concept to heart and developed their own table of local food and recipes for residents in their community to enjoy.
For the same reason we go to a restaurant, the attendees of the Chatham-Kent Table have come with expectations of enjoying delicious food. But there was more to it than that, because we were being given the chance to learn about the food that grows close to our homes. Before arriving, what would be on the menu was a bit of a mystery to me. The dishes weren’t being advertised beforehand, but the mystery was part of the appeal.
Guests arrived for a five o’clock dinner service and began filing through the doors of a large greenhouse at River Bell Market Garden. It had the feel of a rustic, outdoor restaurant but there was a buzz in the air as the diners set eyes on an immense, impressively-arranged, white table. This was the Chatham-Kent Table. There was no food arranged on it yet, but it was ready to comfortably seat just over 100 eager diners. The greenhouse could have been the venue for an elegant, wedding reception. It could have been mistaken for a sacred matrimonial celebration with an accompanying meal following the main event. But this night was different – the food was the main event, the meal was the sacred celebration. There was nothing else going on except a focus on the food being served as agricultural producers and their consumers were brought together.
These type of eating experiences are happening across Ontario to celebrate local food, events that Ogryzlo has been attending (84 to date) to provide an open and revealing way for farmers to be recognized. The municipality of Chatham-Kent is prime real estate for such a showcase of fresh produce and well-raised livestock. Co-founders of the Chatham-Kent Table, Paul Spence of Lo Maximo Meats and Joe Grootenboer of River Bell Market Garden, are farmers near Kent Bridge and Dresden, respectively, setting out to reinforce the perception of Chatham-Kent food. Produce surrounds those who have grown up in Chatham-Kent and it can sometimes be overlooked as something that has always just been there. The vision of the Chatham-Kent Table is to reintroduce the community to a hearty selection of produce and meat and to help rediscover how home-grown products can be prepared in tasty ways.
Enlisting the marketing assistance of Charlene Houle of Chatham-Kent Tourism, Spence and Grootenboer were able to generate a healthy interest in the culinary event. Given it was the first one of its kind in the area, Houle was pleased to announce that the event sold out with just over 100 tickets within 3 weeks of being available. This type of demand fully supports it becoming an annual occurrence.
They even lured Ogryzlo from her home in the Niagara region down to our neck of the woods to be the MC of the event. And who better to entertain the crowd than a passionate food columnist, culinary activist, and award-winning author. She was named 2012 Ontario Local Food Ambassador by the Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association, or as Grootengoer simply said about her – “a shameless and intense promoter of Ontario food.” In an inspiring introduction, Ogryzlo reminded us how unfortunate it is that some people take better care of their cars than their own bodies, but it doesn’t take much effort to find the most nutritious sources of food in our own communities. Engaging ourselves in local markets is the best way to take care of our community and our own health.
And now, on to the food – oh my goodness, the food. The menu everyone in attendance had been anticipating was laid out at our place settings: all the starring characters were local ingredients, all the agri-businesses represented were from towns within 60 kilometres of where we were seated. The opening dish of Zucchini Tossed Salad was coiled with strings of zucchini that were mistaken at first for pasta by many. Tossed with a vinaigrette dressing and a medley of other vegetables that were all available from River Bell Market Garden, it was a fresh and vibrant jumpstart to awaken our taste buds for the meal. A squash soup, with ingredients from Jennalee Farms near Thamseville, came next and the quality rivalled any at a top-notch restaurant, which was no coincidence since chefs at Rossini’s, a Chatham restaurant that supports local food producers, had a hand in conceptualizing the soup.
Also present at the dinner were the owners of two wineries and one brewery, all within 60 kilometres of the farm, who matched preferred pairings with five of the dishes. Our first pairing, in the form of Long Pond Lager from the Bayside Brewing Company in Erieau, came alongside a moist and delicious Lamb Slider prepared by Denver Nicklas and Jennifer Tomecek of Nature’s Flock Farm near Chatham.
Most of the dishes were served family-style, each course presented by a parade of farmers on a procession of platters from the kitchen. As should be expected at any gathering of foodies, cameras and phones were pulled out to snap photos of the scrumptious-looking dishes. At one point, Grootenboer walked by with a smirk on his face, glaring at us as we flashed pictures of the Organic Pork Stuffed Peppers and said, “Just eat it.” He was jokingly referring to the fact that he grows food to be eaten, not to be the subject of a photo shoot. On this evening, however, because of the freshness, the vibrant colours were prone to lots of pictures. This type of interaction between the diners and the farmers was another part of the event’s appeal. As Grootenboer noted in his introduction, “The farmers will be serving you, not only as a source of food, but also a source of knowledge.” We could learn firsthand about anything on our plates that was grown, prepared, and cooked by the same hands. These farmers know their food intimately. And the good thing was that the diners were being allowed to share in that with them.
The stuffed red peppers were filled with a delicious pork mixture from Gelro Farms in Ridgetown. Rock and Stephanie Geluk raise a Pietrain breed of pigs under certified organic guidelines and the delicious flavour of the meat is in part due to the harmonious ecological way their farm is run, along with the climate and local grains of the area. Early Acres Estate Winery near Chatham paired this pork and veggie combo with a Gewurztraminer.
The Smoked Quail Breast, paired with Buckhorn (Baco Noir) from Smith and Wilson Estate Winery in Cedar Springs, was a hit at the table and Scot Ryckman from Nipissing Game Farm in Muirkirk was happy to share how it was prepared simply on a grill after marinating in sun-dried tomato dressing. A surprise to most of us was the fact that Chatham-Kent is the second largest producer of quail in Ontario. Also surprising were the sweet potatoes served with it, grown on the farm of Jim and Ruth Clark along the north shore of Lake Erie. Not the type of vegetable typically associated with the corn- and soy bean- rich cropland of southwestern Ontario, but having them close to home made them that much more delicious. The minerals in the soil add to the rich colour and distinct flavour.
Ogryzlo provided commentary between dishes, not only about the local farms being represented, but also the philosophy she has been harvesting for twenty years as a food writer. Most notably, the $10 dollar challenge she expounds through her website: “If every household in Ontario spent $10 a week on local food, we’d have an additional $2.4 billion in our local economy at the end of the year.” Her book was also a hit at the event. Those who purchased The Ontario Table were asked to sign a tablecloth with inspiring words about the local experience. It was becoming known as the province’s longest tablecloth and making countless appearances at these type of events.
The next course came from Lo Maximo Meats; this offshoot business of Spence Farms near McKay’s Corners has taken a unique approach to the meat they supply by bringing a Latin American perspective to the cuts of meat they offer to customers. This results in using more and wasting less of the animal being butchered. In keeping with the Latin American angle of their business, Paul and Sara Spence created an Ecuadorian Beef Stew, Seco de Carne in Spanish, with outstanding flavours in a rich sauce that surrounded moist morsels of their steroid- and hormone-free beef. It was paired with a sip of Across the Tracks wine from Early Acres Estate Winery.
Murmurs of satisfaction arose from the table as each dish made its way from the kitchen. The scene was particularly satisfying for Spence, the visionary behind the event, who brought together the farmers to showcase what they offer. All of it being enjoyed by 100 Chatham-Kent locals who were delighted by what was being served. It was the perfect setting to encourage discussion about culinary regionalism; there was inspired talk around the table about how to get the recipes for the great dishes, and how to secure the excellent produce and meat from the farmers after leaving this large table and returning home to fill our own family tables with daily meals.
With the sun setting in the background, glistening through the panes of the greenhouse, a dessert plate was served with a pairing of Winter Crush ice wine from Smith and Wilson Estate Winery. In keeping with the Latin roots of Lo Maximo Meats, Sara Spence (originally from Ecuador) baked an authentic dessert, called Alfajores, from her home country. A delectable bite of fluffy pastry filled with dulce de leche crème that had been reduced for six hours. Previously imported from Ecuador for sale in their side business, Ecuadorian Senses, she has mastered the family recipe to bake them herself in Canada. Also on the dessert plate was a Lavender Shortbread with Crème Fresh and Berries. The idea came from Matt and Kate Korpan of Great Lakes Lavender, just outside of Chatham, making sure their product gets it due in the culinary world. Lavender is typically associated with other home, bath, and garden products, but it rightly lends itself well as a flavourful recipe ingredient to add floral notes to a dessert.
Grown or raised so close to where we were eating (several of the vegetables literally right in the ground only steps away from the table) the deliciousness of the meal cannot be mistaken for anything less than freshness. It was like a gala event, albeit with a rural backdrop; not with top models and haute couture clothing, but gorgeous produce, plump cuts of meat, and sparkling liquids in wine glasses. There may have been plates, cutlery, and well-presented dishes, but this was far removed from a traditional restaurant experience. This was dining at its most elemental. The plants, vines, and roots that grow the vegetables on our plates were surrounding us, the dirt they grow in was beneath our feet, and the sun that nourishes them was shining down on us.
Proceeds from the event will be donated to Growing Chefs! Ontario, a non-profit culinary program in London that educates children about all aspects of food, from growing to cooking to nutrition. Chef Andrew Fleet, founder of the program, was on hand providing a level of expertise in the kitchen. At the end of the meal, in his closing remarks to show his gratitude for being the beneficiary of the evening’s proceeds, he reiterated that even though he was the only trained chef on site, his role was limited to coordinating the flow of the kitchen. He was in awe at how the farmers managed to cook and plate on their own. There were sometimes harried questions along the way (such as the best way to carry three plates in one hand from kitchen to table) from the farmers who had never been servers before. As at most restaurants, the kitchen was out of sight to the diners, and we can only take Fleet’s word that the flurry of activity of the farmers being out of their element was worthy of a show on Food Network.
Ogryzlo may have been the celebrity at the event and Fleet the only trained chef, but the focus of the evening was on the farmers who had banded together to design, cook, organize, and serve their products in a way that showcased a cornucopia of regional culinary treasures. There’s a quote on the eatdrink facebook page that is credited to Brenda Schoep that says: “My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, and a preacher, but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” Our gratitude goes out to the Chatham-Kent farmers for bringing us all together to relish and talk about food from our community, and for continuing to provide it to us for our own family dinner tables.