Tag Archives: Ontario

Stratford, Ont. – Traditional with a Twist

The city’s magnificent City Hall.

I had not been to Stratford, Ont., for a few years and this time I was surprised by some great food, chocolate (in a realm of its own) and a marvelous transportation option. Getting there was a breeze. You can hop on a $29 bus from downtown Toronto as long as you have purchased a theatre ticket. So relaxing!

Welcoming cocktails at The (Old) Prune’s Bar 151.

After the two-hour bus ride, which picked me up at 10 a.m. from in front of the InterContinental Hotel, it was time for lunch. The (Old) Prune was located in the historic downtown in a lovely old house that has been remodeled. Casual yet sophisticated, they offered locally inspired cuisine and the newest addition, Bar 151 offered creative cocktails.

Delectable garden radishes.

I sampled a number of dishes including garden radishes with wasabi butter and sea salt, mussels escabeche, and foie gras & chicken liver mousse (restaurant owner Shelley Windsor’s favorite. “I almost gave myself gout, I ate so much one year,” she confided.)

The main plate was spring pea ravioli with morel mushrooms, white sesame and wild leeks. So fresh! Dessert was a delicate chevre cheesecake with macerated rhubarb and fennel. Shelley Windsor, from Cornerbrooke, Newfoundland, and her husband Bill, moved to Stratford 18 years ago from New Brunswick. “We had an opportunity to go to Vancouver or Stratford. We chose lifestyle over career,” says Shelley. But career has taken off, too, and they now own numerous restaurants in town including Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. It’s also interesting to point out that the Stratford Chef School, renown for education some of the country’s best chefs, started off in the Prune kitchen.

Gallery Stratford, housed in the old Pump House.
An exhibit by Libby Hague featured provocative wood cuts.

My group, a number of journalists and local Stratford tourism reps, boarded a bus to get to our next destination. It was supplied via Meet Stratford Road Trips. The company offers lots of options to explore the surrounding countryside but we focused on in-town attractions – Gallery Stratford and Stratford Perth Museum. Gallery Stratford is one of Ontario’s longest operating public art galleries, open since 1967. Contemporary exhibitions focus on regional and Canadian art. Located in the former pump house, its a five minute walk from Stratford Festival Theatre and the Avon River. The gallery is open seven days a week, making it a pleasant stop before a matinee. Admission is free but donations are appreciated.

Me and the Biebs.

At Stratford Perth Museum, I walked through the front door and pop phenom Justin Bieber popped out to meet me. Well, his cardboard cutout, that is. The Steps to Stardom exhibit (which runs until November) chronicles the Stratford native’s journey to the top of the charts, starting with busking in front of the Avon Theatre to raise money for a trip to Disney World with his mom. “The exhibit opened last February and lineups started at 6 a.m. People came from all around the world including Paris, Berlin, and Australia. The Belieber Community is really strong online. They took shots, tagged them, and the exhibit grew,” notes Kelly McIntosh, the museum’s administrative co-ordinator.

If you want to be in the heart of the action, there are a couple of downtown boutique hotels to chose from including Bentley’s Lofts, bi-level loft suites, or the Mercer Hotel, with Jacuzzi tubs and faux fireplaces. Both are close to restaurants, shops and all four theatres. I stayed in the Mercer Hotel and loved being able to pop downstairs to shop on Ontario Street’s many unique boutiques.

The Common’s uncommonly delicious green Thai curry.

One dinner to remember was at The Common with Chef Tim Otsuki, a Stratford Chefs School alumnus. The menu was a fustion of Asian, Caribbean and North American dishes featuring many local ingredients. My meal in a bowl was a green Thai curry that had subtle flavours of lemongrass and just the right nip of hot spice.

Chef Eli demonstrates the proper way to dice an onion.
Getting my shallot chop down.
Voila! The perfect French omelette.

At the Stratford Chefs School Open Kitchen you can take a one-off cooking class and our group opted for a champagne breakfast. Latkes with smoked trout, French omelette, and puffed pastry with rhubarb and strawberries was a decadent way to start the day. My biggest takeaway was learning how to make a French omelette. Now I need to practice at home! Thankfully, chef Eli Silverthorne was an excellent and patient instructor.

On the chocolate line at Rheo Thompson Candies.
Mint Smoothie madness – ice cream, coffee, liqueur and tea!
At Rheo Thompson they understand the importance of the giddy up.

The sweetest part of my adventure was a visit to Rheo Thompson Candies. Traditional recipes dating back to the 1930s have made this spot a favourite for locals and visitors alike. The Mint Smoothies were to die for — I especially liked the dark chocolate version with a dark chocolate peppermint center. The company is 50 years old and was bought from original candymaker Rheo Thompson in 1992 by Christine and Mark Steed. Christine was born and raised in Stratford and is adamant about keeping her customers happy. “We don’t monkey with the traditional recipes Rheo Thompson used, especially the Mint Smoothies which we are famous for.” They also make around 150 other confections including pecan patties, humbugs and fruit jellies. Plus, now you can get Mint Smoothie coffee, ice cream and liqueur.

Phil Buhler demonstrates a flight of beer fantasy.

A working man’s kind of place, Jobsite Brewery, is also very family friendly and served great wood oven pizza. Opened last August , the location used to be a lumberyard and inspired the name. The two owners are also agricultural construction dudes (need a manure pit installed?) and converted the site into a brewery in a scant two months. Phil Buhler and Dave Oldenberger view beer production similar to construction. “We love producing a product and seeing people enjoy,” explains Buhler. A cute touch was the different coloured construction nails you use to pick out the beers for a flight. My favourite brew was the Impact IPA with delighful grapefruit notes.

Ash Moore demonstrates the art of the pour at Junction 56.

Junction 56 Distillery is the place to go for creative spirits. Along with vodka, gin and whiskey, they make a Fireshine liqueur with cinnamon, the Rheo Thompson Mint Smoothie liqueur and a rhubarb gin. Owner Mike Heisz worked at Blackberry as an engineer but got tired of making lists of people to lay off. “I wanted to work for myself,” he says noting that now he uses an iPhone. The distillery opened in 2015 and now offers 15 products, five of which are available in the LCBO – vodka, gin, black raspberry gin, Rheo Thompson’s Mint Smoothie (soon to come) and Moonshine.

Being a chocoholic, I couldn’t resist doing Stratford’s Chocolate Trail. For $30 you get six vouchers to trade for delicious treats in various shops. At the MacLeod’s Scottish Shop I scooped some chocolate chip shortbread, at Buzz Stop a quarter-pound bag of Bavarian Chocolate Coffee, at Rheo Thompson four Mint Smoothies, at Olive Your Favourites an aged dark chocolate Balsamic vinegar, at revel coffee cafe a mocha coffee/steamed milk concoction, and at Treasures a jar of Nith Valley Apiary’s cocoa honey. Chocolate heaven!

Chef Ryan O’Donnell at Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall shows off one of his Asian-inspired creations.
Our server (another Ryan) was in charge of the dessert flights.

Dinner my last night was a Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall. Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell is an afficiando of Japanese fusion cuisine and some of the small plates I dug into included Karaage fried chicken pieces, crispy tuna sushi roll, pulled pork toastada with spicy BBQ sauce and a Spider Dog 2.0 with flaming chorizo sausage, Desserts are pretty amazing here, too.

The fantastic Festival Theatre where Billy Elliot was playing.

Theatre is what Stratford is really known for, and that night I witnessed a performance of Billy Elliot at the Festival Theatre. It was top-notch and the actors received a standing ovation.

The beautiful Avon River.

As I climbed on the 11 p.m. bus, that picked me up right at the theatre, I looked forward an easy trip home. But that night the Raptors became NBA champions. Many downtown streets were closed for the jubilant crowds, so the driver dropped us off at Islington subway station. No complaints from me, the subway was still running and I avoided traffic jams.

Stratford is a dining delight, a cultural treasure and beautiful, to boot. Definitely worth the two-hour drive from Toronto. Especially when taking the special Stratford bus!

APPLE OF MY EYE: Come October, from Creemore to Meaford, the shiny red fruit is ripe for the picking.

There is nothing more glorious than a colourful fall day in the country. I know this because I recently took a trip to the south shore of Georgian Bay and into the Beaver Valley. We were following the Apple Pie Trail, visiting orchards, kayaking, imbibing local brews and noshing on fabulous, locally produced fare. My parents once owned a farm in this area and nostalgia rushed in as we drove the country roads and gazed at the fiery fall foliage. My yearning for remembered walks through forest and fields and was fierce.farmerspantryapples
Following is a little overview of my apple-y adventure.
“My mom was famous for her apple pies,” explained Bob Giffen at Giffen’s Country Market, just outside Creemore. His wife Mary decided to enlarge their orchard market and now you can stop in for a fresh slice of delicious, crumbly pie. I started out with the butternut squash soup which was silky and flavourful. After lunch, Bob took us on a wagon ride to see the orchard. “Our family started the farm in 1939. We have 130 acres of apple orchard and we pack and ship the fruit to local stores including Sobey’s, Foodland and Food Basics,” he told me.giffinlunchboxapples McIntosh, Empire, Spartan, Honey Crisp, Gala, Crispin and Ginger Gold can be found in the orchard. The family also started making cider a year ago which is $12 for three liters. Sold in tetra pak boxes, it lasts up to three months after opening. The market is open year round since after picking, the apples are stored in oxygen-free rooms that are kept at 38 degrees F. “Oxygen causes ripening, so without it our apples remain fresh. When we bring them out it’s like they are right off the tree, explained Laura, Bob’s niece who is in charge of the operation’s marketing.

Bob Giffen checks out the orchard on a classic 1954 Case tractor.

Bob Giffen checks out the orchard on a classic 1954 Case tractor.

Side Launch Brewing Company in Collingwood was named Brewery of the Year at this year’s Canadian Brewing Awards. And rightly so. Their beer was delicious. I am not a wheat beer fan but what I tasted there was outstanding. What tickled my tongue were flavours of bananas, cloves and a touch of lemon. Yum! Apparently brewer and co-owner Michael Hancock owned the now retired Denison’ Brewing Company of Toronto imprint and the wheat beer is a rebrand of the Denison’s version.sidelaunchwheatbeer
On the Apple Trail it’s not only about eating and drinking. At Bonnie Dorgelo Jewellery & Paintings you can admire lovely apple paintings and even invest in lovely silver apple pendants. Her shop/gallery is housed in an old school house and has been open since March. Formerly in Collingwood, the new shop is filled with light and if you are lucky you might even run into the artist herself.bonnie-dorgelo-jewellery
How do you say spahh? At Scandinave Spa Blue Mountain, with sign language, since there is no talking. It’s a good thing. Moving from steaming pool to frigid plunge, from sauna to outdoor lounge chair, the Nordic water treatment was absolutely blissful. I felt like a piece of cooked spaghetti after an hour-and-a-half dipping and drying.scandinavefall-overview-2
Dinner was at Azzurra in Collingwood. We started with a teaser antipasto plate of pickled beets, pickled beans, prosciutto, olive and dried tomatoes. Then came the real highlights – sweet potato gnocchi with caramelized apple,azzurragnocchi followed by fresh Georgian Bay whitefish and roasted Brussel sprout with smoked bacons. Heavenly.azzurrawhitefishazzurrabrusselsprouts Dessert wasn’t bad either – a sample tray of plum crème anglais, oatmeal cookie with vanilla ice cream and apple crumble.azzurradesserts I had no room left after such a feast!

Here’s a shot of the elegant yet rustic Westin Trillium House at Blue Mountain. Sinking into the pillow-top bed, dreams of apples raced through my head. It was a luxurious place to sleep after a hearty day on the trail.westintrilliumexterior
Breakfast at the hotel restaurant Oliver & Bonacini? I kept to our theme – oatmeal with cinnamon apples.appleoatmeal
At T&K Ferri Orchard, I wasn’t sure if I was looking at apple trees or vines. From far away they looked like tall tomato plants. Up close, there were definitely apples.tkspinling2 “We use a method that is popular in Italy, where there isn’t much space. It’s called spindling. The main trunk is trained to grow high, the branches are pruned and the fruit is thinned, resulting in fewer but bigger apples,” explained Karen Ferri, adding that this method produces excellent fruit with little spoilage. The 22-acre orchard, which uses no chemicals, supplies Pusateri’s and Longo’s with primo specimens. I bought a bag of Cortlands that were as big as my head.farmerspantryappletree
Donkeys, chickens, rabbits and goats greeted us at Farmer’s Pantry, near Clarksburg. The orchard and petting zoo are big with school groups who come to see the animals, pick apples and cavort on various play structures. Adults like to peruse the shop, which is filled with produce, pottery and gift items.farmerpantrydonkey
An apple pie that challenged Giffin’s was to be found at Blackbird Pie Co.in the Beaver Valley. Made with Northern Spys, it was gooey and filled with cinnamon. The crust was firm, yet flakey. Hard to say which was better. They also offered an assortment of scones, biscuits, tarts and other fruit pies. Definitely worth a visit.blackbirdpieman
Time to work of the calories! Free Spirit paddling fitted us up with kayaks, paddles and life vests, then launched us on the Beaver River, which was shallow (waist deep) and had a pleasant current running in our direction.beaverriverkayak Paddling past farmers’ fields, orchards and bucolic cows, we enjoyed the warm afternoon sun as it lit up the eye-catching fall foliage. Rentals are available from spring through to Thanksgiving and cost $30 per hour.
I never thought I’d see a winery in the Beaver Valley since it can get quite cold and snowy in winter, but Georgian Hills Vineyards took up the challenge, found a pocket of temperate micro-climate and came up with some very nice vintages. The 12 acres of vines produce Riesling, Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc and the reds include Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir, and Baco Noir.georgianhillsflight Their sweet options include some very tasty dessert wines including Ida Red Frozen to the Core and Baked Apple Frozen to the Core.
How do you like dem apples? Crunch!

Fall in Ontario

Here’s an advertorial I recently wrote for the Globe & Mail…ExloreOntFallFinalPage copy

Explore Ontario Culinary Travel Special Report

Farmer'sMarketI compiled and edited this special culinary report — EOC.FINALFinal[1] — on southern Ontario for the Globe and Mail. Thank you Michele Sponagle (Relishing the Past), Doug Wallace (Back to the Garden) and Liz Campbell (Savoury Sanctuary) for your contributions!