MORE THAN A FARM DISTILLERY: DIGGING IN TO WILLIBALD’S NEW MENU
BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘Hey! Where’d you get that gorgeous wood- burning oven?’, I ask Willibald Farm Distillery co-owner Jordan van der Heyden – a wash of curiosity and familiarity overtaking me. ‘I think I recognize it.’ I am flooded by memories of my tenure as wood oven-fired pizza and bagel maker at Kitchener’s City Café Bakery. At the corner of Strange Street and Victoria. ‘We actually got it from the former City Café Bakery location in Cambridge,’ Jordan replies. ‘For a song.’ He pauses, before asking: ‘You know the place?’ I nod reverently, and saunter slowly towards the impressive piece of equipment for a closer look.
As I pass through the threshold separating Willibald’s gorgeous dining room from its newly-minted professional kitchen, I spot
Chef Byron Hallett preparing a spectacular charcuterie board that TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis and I – along with Jordan, Willibald co-owner Cam Formica, and front of house manager Katie Irwin – will soon be enjoying together. In the early afternoon. Before Willibald’s newly-minted restaurant opens for dinner service. Cured pork belly. Coppa. Lonza. Pork rillettes. Grainy mustard, pickled beans and natural dill pickles. Willibald gin- pickled apples. Plum and habanero jam.
All handcrafted in-house. Like just about everything at Willibald. I can feel my mouth watering. Then. And now – writing this.
‘Hey man, I love your oven,’ I remark to Byron – albeit hesitantly, even sheepishly. Fanboying. I can’t help it. This is, after all, the same Chef Byron who helped put Arabella Park on the map with his playful, fanciful, elevated bar food that put so many other restaurants to shame. And now he’s here. In Ayr. Doing his thing. ‘Thanks, my friend,’ Byron replies. ‘It’sa pretty incredible piece of equipment.’ As if in sync, we both turn to the oven’s opening– zoning out on the glowing embers that rise and fall like some primordial heartbeat. He continues: ‘During the day, we bring it up to around nine hundred degrees for the pizzas. And overnight we simply let the embers die down on their own. By morning the oven’s still five hundred degrees – perfect for making our sourdough.’ Byron’s sourdough. Honestly, there may not be much in this world that I enjoy more. Add Byron’s house-made honey butter and coarse salt and leave me to die happy.
Fast forward a few minutes and I’m sitting in the distillery dining hall – a converted barn with glorious vaulted cathedral ceiling – with Jordan, Cam, Katie and Cai. Set in front of us: an array of dishes that Byron and his team have prepared. The aforementioned charcuterie board, of course. And aforementioned sourdough too. With honey butter and salt. The most glorious hunk of pork belly with brussels sprouts, purple sauerkraut, fennel mustard, sweet potato and pickled kohlrabi. Leaks and mushrooms with parsnip, oyster mushroom, onion variations, sage and garlic crouton. And a pizza straight from the wood oven: Willibald’s ‘Meatza’, topped with pepperoni, mozzarella and ‘nduja – a fiery Italian salami from Calabria with a soft, spreadable consistency.
And cocktails. Glorious cocktails. Of course. Because Willibald.
Katie’s creations: a classic ‘negroni’ with gin, campari, and vermouth rosso; an ‘early cuttings’ with rum, gin, aperol, lemon, grape and rosemary; an ‘ossington fizz’ with gin, pimms, lemon, sunflower, egg white and salt; and a ‘twice removed’ with gin, blanco vermouth, dill and lemon. The common denominator between all these drinks: Willibald’s fantastic barrel-aged dark gin.
‘This is one of the best meals of my life,’ I declare to our group as I savour a bit of the pork belly. ‘Do you eat like this every day?’ Jordan chuckles, ‘We’re only open Wednesday through Saturday, so no – not every day.’ He continues: ‘And I’m happy you’re enjoying yourself. We put a lot of effort into our kitchen program – focusing on authentic farm to table menus.’
How authentic? Let’s just say the Willibald crew doesn’t call themselves a ‘farm distillery’ for nothing. From the botanicals they grow for their spirits to the chickens they keep for eggs to the Ayrsyde Galloway cattle herd used for beef to the bees that produce honey to the herbs and spices and vegetables they use for various dishes, Willibald’s small but mighty team keeps as much as they can in-house. ‘In fact,’ Jordan tells me, ‘the only thing we don’t make here is the cheese we serve. But there are a number of great local cheese producers we’re happy to feature.’
I take a sip of my negroni – which Katie has prepared with a glorious chunk of hand-hewn ice – and look around the dining room. While the vaulted ceiling must rise at least thirty feet into the air, it does not diminish this remarkably intimate gathering space. Indeed, with room for just under forty guests on any given evening, visiting for dinner is bound to be a cozy affair. Especially with the wood-fired oven going. And the lights dimmed. ‘Do you take reservations,’ I ask, ‘or can people simply walk in for a meal?’ I’m already thinking of my return visit. ‘It’s always best to call ahead,’ Jordan tells me. ‘We’re getting busier each week.’
Just before I leave I pull out my phone. To input Willibald’s number.
1271 Reidsville Rd, Ayr