BY CHRIS TIESSEN
The pinecone’s small. Not much more than a bud, really. I would never have noticed it, had it not been for Chef reaching up into the overhanging conifer branch and picking it from its sprig. ‘This is the flavour of the forest,’ he tells me before pinching the miniature cone between finger and thumb and squeezing its fleshy contents onto the palm of his hand. He pops the pulpy morsel into his mouth, chews, savours the flavour, and declares, reverently: ‘This is Canada.’
Bits of morning sunlight filtered through swaying pine branches dance upon our faces, arms and across the forest floor. I can’t help but interpret this instant – here, in this early morning light in this gorgeous rural setting – as something remarkable. These woods. The spring vegetation pushing through the forest floor. And the lazy Nith River meandering through wild grassy fields down the slope to our left.
Our raison d’etre: foraging for wild garlic, ramps, day lilies – and pinecones too. Truly local flavours. And this great company – Executive Chef Arron Carley of Stratford’s famed culinary institution, The Bruce Hotel, and culinary student Julian Palmer who has been accompanying Chef on these foraging excursions for the past several weeks.
Chef Arron breaks my reverie with a spicy offering from the forest floor – a shoot of wild garlic. With little hesitation, I pop it into my mouth. The pungent fragrance and spicy taste are potent – and lingering. ‘This landscape determines what we serve our guests,’ Chef tells me, ‘as it defines Canadian cuisine in general.’ While Chef chats with me, Julian locates and digs up some day lilies to accompany the pinecones and garlic that have already begun to fill the bucket he carries. ‘For tonight’s amuse bouche,’ Julian notes. ‘I’ll be dipping the shoots in house-made kombucha and then, in turn, in porcini powder.’ I can hardly wait. It’s why TOQUE Partner Cai Sepulis and
I are here, really. In Stratford. Festival City. To be fed by Chef and his team. And then to spend the night at The Bruce. But not before a day in the city.
‘Okay – we’re good to go,’ remarks Chef to Julian as he inspects the bucket’s contents. ‘We always follow the forager’s code by never taking any more than five percent of what we locate,’ he tells me, ‘to ensure the sustainability of whatever we’re gathering.’ I nod, as we head out of the woods and into our ride.
We are traveling in style. In a brand new Lexus RX courtesy of Heffner Lexus in Kitchener. In Atomic Silver. Its gleaming finish and angular lines are beautifully set off by our lush green surroundings. At the same time, its opulent interior and almost-instant air conditioning prove a luxurious respite from the morning heat. With the push of a button, the Lexus’ engine roars to life and it’s smooth sailing back to The Bruce where I drop Chef Arron and Julian and retrieve Cai so we can continue our Stratford adventure before returning to The Bruce for a dinner worthy of this elegant SUV.
The rest of the day is a blur of Stratford destinations. Traveling by foot along the banks of the Avon we pass bevies of swans, gaggles of tourists, cyclists, joggers and walkers enjoying the late morning sun. Our first destination? Mercer Hall’s Beer Hall for pints and bites. (A Crispy Tuna Sushi Roll and House Smoked Salmon Board to share). And to pop in on our pal Ren – Mercer’s part-time beer consultant.
Then a beeline to Black Swan Brewing, where Cai and I get touristy with flights: ‘Holy Mole’ stout with chilies and chocolate. ‘Grapefruit Wild Child’ Berliner Weisse. The brewery’s India pale ale. And its ‘Road Trip’ light ale. (Because the name suits.)
Next on our whirlwind itinerary is Revival House – a former-church-turned-restaurant, bar and event space on Brunswick. The place is absolutely stunning. But we can’t stay long; we still have to hit up AO Pasta – a casual, counter-service joint – before heading back to The Bruce for dinner and a nightcap. To everyone reading this: go there. Now.
As we hustle back toward The Bruce, I note the long, warm shadows cast by the setting sun over the lush festival grounds. The swans, relaxing luxuriously by the water’s edge and paying us no heed, remind me of the tranquility of the morning’s foraging. We find some early evening respite in The Bruce’s fabulous lobby before heading in for dinner. That brilliant lily amuse bouche Julian had promised. And so much more. Each dish paired with its own whisky. We begin with ‘From the Soil’ (with coltfoot, radish, Ontario asparagus, pickled mustard, and foraged goods) for me, and ‘Rabbit and Foie Gras Terrine’ (apple reduction, elderberry, chervil, fingerling crisps, and bulrush) for Cai. Our mains: ‘Ontario Lamb Loin’ (with crispy sweetbreads, green coriander, hemp seed, organic grits and mustard seeds) for Cai, and ‘Artisan Farms Beef Ribeye’ (with handeck pave, swiss chard, cippolini onions, and marchal foch reduction) for me. And dessert: ‘Mint chocolate’ (espresso dark chocolate cake, milk chocolate ganache, mint white chocolate chantily, coffee gel, and cocoa nib tuille) for Cai, and a cheese plate for me. Oh my.
Everything local to the area. ‘At The Bruce, we won’t even serve black pepper, olive oil or lemon juice in any of our dishes because these items don’t naturally grow around these parts,’ Chef tells us. ‘My team and I are adamant about showcasing what these parts have to offer. For the taste, to be sure. But also because we want to show respect for the rich culinary traditions that came before us – and to extend these traditions into the present and beyond.’
Somehow these gestures of respect, I realize, define the nature of this place. And of the culinary treasures of this city, too – whose owners, chefs and staff (Cai and I found time and again in Stratford) seem driven by a mandate not only to make and serve great
food but to do it with striking intentionality. Fresh. Local. Tasty. Creative. Indeed, this city might very well be celebrated as much for its food culture as for its festival.
The following morning, after Cai and I pack our bags into the Lexus and begin to head out of town, we make one more stop, for Americanos, at another Stratford original: Balzac’s Coffee Roasters. Yes. Balzac’s began here. On Ontario Street. And the original site just re-opened this very morning after weeks of renovations. The place – bright, fresh, welcoming – serves as an exclamation point to our dazzling culinary adventure in one of this country’s remarkable festival cities.