As Chef Joel tops several clay vessels of locally- harvested duck bone broth – grouped together on a grill perched inches over a blazing livefire – with drizzles of Salt Spring Island olive oil, a blast of snow comes at us horizontally and somehow makes its way inside my wool jacket and down the back of my neck. I cinch my collar tight, pull my peaked toque over my ears, and hike my thick socks past my Red Wing moc-toes and over my jeans. Bright embers escape the open hearth and extinguish in puffs of glow all around me. The rich smells of duck and smoke intermingle in the blustery cold night. Magnificent. ‘Now this is some sort of Canadiana,’ I chuckle to my TOQUE Partner Cai as Chef passes a vessel of steaming broth into Cai’s mittened hands. The cold. And fire. And wool. And broth. When Joel hands me a cup of the elixir, I let the clay vessel warm my naked fingers before taking a sip. And then I drink. The rich flavours of the concoction rouse my taste buds while the heat from the drink thaws me from the inside out. 

I look around at these outdoor environs where Cai and Chef and another dozen or so folks huddle together – near the open fire, or next to a large steel fire box, or on couches and chairs in this outdoor living room. We’re all here for one reason: to experience a most unique farm-to-table dining experience on a fifty-acre farm in Grey Highlands. The name of this magical place: Down Home. Its masterminds: chef Joel Gray and his lovely partner Hannah Harradine – kindred spirits who decided to leave the hustle-bustle of the ‘traditional’ restaurant industry in Collingwood several years back for (literally) greener pastures in the open countryside. The couple’s goal: to open an intimate dining space featuring exquisite dishes that use ingredients from area farms, thereby showcasing regional terroir and connecting guests with their food. We’re off to a good start. 

‘We acquired the farm back in 2019,’ Hannah tells me as she helps usher tonight’s group of diners from the open fire across the deep snow to the property’s original farmhouse (which doubles as Joel and Hannah’s abode). ‘Joel and I had already left working in restaurants by then,’ Hannah continues, ‘and were operating a pop-up dining experience somewhat similar to what we’re doing here – though less extravagant – at Gibson & Company café and bottleshop in downtown Collingwood.’ Their move to the farm had brought them access to a much larger stage. To entertain, of course, as they are doinghere this evening. But also to grow herbsand produce during the warmer months,and more. ‘When it’s warmer out,’ Hannah says, ‘we host these dinners in the fields.’ Not tonight, though. A winter storm is brewing, and the farmhouse offers safety – and comfort. These days, Down Home is open for dinner by appointment on Fridays and Saturdays, and will expand to Thursdays come springtime. Each night’s seating features a blind tasting menu that changes weekly during the growing seasons and monthly over the winter months. As I will soon discover, I wouldn’t mind if they didn’t change tonight’s menu – ever. 

Once our eager group has entered the farmhouse off a back patio through the place’s small commercial kitchen, we are seated throughout the home’s main floor: at two- and four-seaters in a front room; at a four-top in front of a charming fireplace (positioned next to a neatly-piled stack of chopped wood) inthe living room; at a larger harvest table in the dining room. Cai and I are seated at an island in the original kitchen – close to the small commercial kitchen where Joel and Hannah and their crew of two others have already started working magic. The cozy farmhouse seats sixteen, and every spot is occupied. The table settings are elegant, intentional. Indeed, even the eclectic mix of cutlery has been collected by Hannah over the years to serve their place here. And while it’s obvious to every diner that we are partaking in a sort of shared experience, it’s clear that each group is autonomous: just as in any restaurant setting, there’s no pressure (or even expectation) for any of us to interact. 

As Cai and I settle into our island seats, Chef Joel emerges from the kitchen to present the first course. ‘This is our allium tart,’ Chef remarks as he places dishes in front of us, ‘made with various preserved onions, birch onion cream, nasturtium, and caciotta from Secret Lands Farm – a nearby sheep farm that specializes in sheep milk and cheeses, and lamb products too.’ The tart is delicate, even whimsical – almost too beautiful to devour. As Joel heads to the next group of diners, Hannah pours me a glass of Charmat from Rosewood Wines – located on the Beamsville Bench – that she’s curated to be paired with the tart dish. (Cai, our driver for the night, refrains.) The sparking wine complements the delicate flavours of the tart perfectly, and off to the races we go. 

Over the next couple of hours, Chef Joel and Hannah and their small (and talented) team repeat this process of presentation and pairing again and again. And every single dish and wine pairing that makes up the ten-course tasting style menu blows our minds. We’re served ‘Carrot Cavatelli’ (an expression of over-wintered carrots, brown butter carrot purée, pickled green chili and carrot chutney, and baked yogurt crisps), and then ‘Wild Caught Lake Erie Pickerel’ (with Yukon gold and Ontario turmeric velouté, confit Yukon golds, and salmon roe), each paired with a barrel- aged Chardonnay from Wellington’s Morandin Wines. ‘White Rabbit’ (rabbit loin and belly stuffed with garden-herbed rabbit sausage, charred cauliflower purée, and kale and nasturtium capers) is nicely paired with a Pinot and Gamay blend from Beamsville’s Hidden Bench Winery Estate. 

At least one component of every course is baptized on the live fire outside, which means that throughout the evening Chef Joel (and I, with camera in tow) sprint outside into the blizzard to the blazing flames. And each time I find it fascinating to watch the chef work his magic on the open fire – with mushrooms, and duck, and so much more. About halfway through the evening’s multi- course extravaganza we are presented a ‘Seabuckthorn Sorbet’ (buttermilk, bee pollen, and fennel top oil) that serves as a palette cleanser. I use this ‘intermission’ as an opportunity to stroll through the farmhouse with my Nikon – capturing details of the home and eavesdropping on our neighbours’ exclamations. 

While the snow rages outside, the atmosphere inside is warm, cozy, cheerful. A combination of instrumental hip-hop and jazz fills the space. Each table of diners seems entrenched in conversation and entranced by the food and drink. Chef Joel chats with a couple seated in the front room about the Grey County producers that he and Hannah work so closely with to source ingredients. Hannah converses with a group of four about the farm’s expansive herb and produce gardens that are cultivated each year during warmer weather and incorporated year-round into Down Home dishes. A group of eight seated in the farmhouse’s original dining room laugh about something apparently less earnest. Everyone, clearly, is having a great time. 

I return to my seat, and dinner continues. Next up: ‘Charcoaled Hen of the Woods Mushrooms’ (with black garlic and shiitake purée, pickled pine mushrooms, and broth), and then ‘Roasted Duck Breast’ (with confit duck croquette, and spinach and braised red cabbage) – each paired with Stratus Vineyards’ ‘Alto’, a blend of sixteen varietals. Once we’ve enjoyed the decadent duck, Hannah offers a cheese plate featuring three- year-aged pecorino from Secret Lands Farm, quince paste, honeycomb, and pickled green strawberries – a delectable combination exhibiting a perfect balance of sweet and sour. It’s pungent and perfect. 

‘It’s really important to us,’ Chef Joel remarks as Cai and I devour the pecorino, ‘that you know that all of the dishes you’ve enjoyed tonight have been crafted using ingredients from area farms.’ Like the caciotta and pecorino from Secret Lands, for instance. But also the duck, which is the product of Brilliant Meadows regenerative farm in Mono. And the fresh vegetables, which were sourced from Sideroad Farm – an organic-certified operation in Markdale. And, of course, there are ingredients incorporated into the dishes we’ve just enjoyed from the farm at Down Home too. Mainly preserved veggies at this time of year. And also what’s next to come: an apple dessert with a uniquely narrative name. 

‘We call this next course ‘Fallen Apple Tree’,’ Chef Joel tells Cai and me as he places the dessert in front of us, ‘because it’s made with apples from a tree on our property that unexpectedly fell earlier this year.’ This sumptuous concoction of blackened apple purée, apple cider jellies, apple butter, brown butter and rum apple cake, and winter spiced semifreddo is paired with ‘Irreverence’ from Pearl Morisette, a blend of Chardonnary, Riesling, Gewürtztraminer, and Pinot Gris. 

If the whole point of Down Home is to showcase just how delectable regional produce and meats and dairy products can be when treated with care and crafted skillfully, every one of tonight’s distinctive dishes and pairings has hit the mark. And, of course, adding a little fire doesn’t hurt. 

After Cai and I finish our desserts, we bundle up, bid our adieus, and venture out into the blustery winter storm. While our fellow diners continue conversing, laughing, enjoying themselves throughout the snug and sheltered farmhouse, we feel a bit of pressure to drive back from Grey Highlands to Guelph on perhaps the worst evening of this otherwise unusually balmy winter. We agree, as we review the great meal we enjoyed in a most unusual context, that we’d look forward to repeating just such an immersive foodie experience in coming seasons, when another dive into what Chef Joel and Hannah refer to as ‘curious dining’ would deliver another memorable evening featuring a spectacular range of delicious food meant to celebrate the ‘foraging, gardening, sustainability and small scale businesses’ that underpin the magic that is Down Home.