There really are foods that taste so much different from their imported and (most likely) out of season counter parts. Strawberries top my list, but they are closely followed with sweet corn, tomatoes, and asparagus. Plain and simple: imported varieties taste nothing like what they should; full of starchiness, firm and crunchy texture, lack of aromatic qualities, more often than not they are grown for durability rather than taste. I understand desperation in the middle of February, but why would you buy California strawberries when Ontario strawberries grown on Howe's Farm are available just a short bike ride away in the middle of June?
Another case in point - peaches. Ripe, juicy, sweet, tender, will-bruise-at-the-slightest-bump, delicious peaches are just starting to ripen here in Elgin County. There is no doubt the Niagara region can produce a wide variety as well as high quality goods for the country (and the world), but why not eat what's grown close to home? As long as you demand high quality, great taste, friendly service, and the quantities are enough to meet demand, why wouldn't you support your neighbours and enjoy the fruits of their labour?
Last year was horrible for many fruits and vegetables in parts of Ontario. A late frost, followed by severe storms in the spring of 2012 left many farmers with ruined crops. It was a short season, (if you can call it a season at all), for cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, pears, plums - any tree fruit really. For those that did make it to market, I personally found much of it to be of sub-par quality. The peaches would be rock hard and then all of a sudden be rotten within a day. You either had to suffer with under-ripeness or premature decomposition...a rock and a squishy place.
Not this year though!
By golly gee they taste better than I remember. Peach & Jalapeno Salsa is on my to-do list, of course, but since the fresh peaches are tasting mighty fine, I feel they are worthy of a flavour-combination from out of this world, something to make your heart skip a beat (any Yo La Tengo fans out there?), something that reminds me of hula hoops, something - basil.
I spent my early cooking days in London, Ontario, then moved to Stratford, Ontario, to attend the Stratford Chefs School. I worked my ass off, played just as hard, and ultimately left after graduating with honors, becoming a teaching and office assistant at the school for two years, and serving 3 years of my apprenticeship working at The Old Prune Restaurant (now called The Prune) with some fantastic chefs.
A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure to finally make it up to Niagara-on-the-Lake to visit a couple of former co-workers from The Prune: Ryan and by surprise, Brett.
You see, there is a gap in my cooking career. I took a few wrong turns, mixed up my left foot with my right, and didn't want to pursue a professional cooking career here in Elgin County. Why? Because honest-to-goodness I had/have no desire to serve frozen chicken fingers from the deep fryer or another salad topped with Kraft ranch dressing. Meat doesn't always have to be served with potatoes, either. I didn't work 90 hours a week and revolve my life around feeding sourdough bread starters so I could come back home to prepare lemon wedges for caesar salads. I don't want to. Don't get me wrong, I love a Caesar salad occasionally, but goddamn if you make me put bottled dressing and fake cheese on top - it isn't food!!! And sadly, much of the food was (will I be blackballed if I say, still is?) like that in the area. The rest of the province is kicking their heels up about the difference between local and certified organic and in St. Thomas it is test-food-central for fast food joints. I realize I may come across as snobby, but I don't think so - just edi-cated.
My point is: quality, local, made-from-scratch. No one is perfect, and at times we all slum it a little bit (did I really write that??), but that stuff is my exception - not the rule - in my lifestyle.
I made it to Niagara. Ryan was the sous chef at The Prune while I was an apprentice, and he was also my friend and neighbour. I learned A LOT from Ryan, and not just how to make a killer Manhattan. I remember front porch sitting, grocery cart riding 25th birthdays, "the beets aren't tender enough!", Roxanne, garbage bag walls to prevent fish scales from getting on my vegetables, "DROPPING TROUT", criss-cross bike riding (I always lost and fell off my bike), maraschino cherries, and most of all - Ryan's enthusiasm and knowledge when it came to butchery.
Brett was my partner in the pastry department. I was his assistant, and I have no doubt we drove everyone nuts when we got into our 'mode'. We cut & taste tested each strawberry to see if colour made a difference in Moss Berry berries, we had contests to see who could whip a sabayon with one arm the longest, we listened to the bread crackle when it came fresh out of the oven, we synced ourselves up to spread and bake tuiles, we brought the Farles home salt and pepper shakers - and a bike rack.
Ryan and his wife, Bev have developed a brand under the name "Gastrohomestead". The original intention was to develop a farm to table restaurant with everything sourced on sight, inspired by style of Chef Standtlander. From my visit I have learned they are continuously working with Tawse Winery to develop their current and a future winery complete with a kitchen built from the-bottom-up by Ryan. The same values as Gastrohomestead will still be adhered to as evidenced by the vegetable gardens, animal pastures, hospitality, and cuisine.
I had a chance to eat at both Ryan's pop up digs and at the restaurant where Brett is Sommelier and I was absolutely thrilled with my entire gastronomical day. Oysters, roasted cauliflower risotto, deep fried ravioli, fantastic wine...they were all amazing. I ate well.
What made me stand back and really pay attention to flavour though were the dishes I could clearly see and taste were influenced by the chefs and from where they came from: chicken liver mousse, preserving, smoked trout, frangipane...peach & basil.
Ryan, Brett, and I were all trained under the guidance of Chef Bryan Steel of the Old Prune in Stratford. Bryan himself was trained across Europe and in Toronto at the Windsor Arms Hotel along with other notable chefs such as Michael Stadtlander and Jamie Kennedy.
What I'm getting at is that the influences trickle down - as much as we are all our own chefs and develop our own styles and techniques, we all learn it initially from some where.
I know those flavours for those familiar dishes I enjoyed in Niagara. No, I couldn't replicate them because that is where the chef's style comes in to play, but tasting them again was a delicious memory to remind me of where I was raised and where I was trained.
Ryan had made a heart-skipping apricot crumble dessert with crushed meringue and basil foam. Because it was plate-licking worthy, I couldn't wait for the peaches to ripen close to home so I could create my version of Bryan Steel's peach and basil dessert.
Perhaps the peaches are finally ripe enough, perhaps I am finally ripe enough.
Ps- I wasn't joking about ripeness - Congratulations to my parents, 44 years married today!
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.