The Farm in Farm to Table
WATERLOO REGION IS A HUB OF CONTRASTS.
It is home to the The Mennonite
Story, an exhibit of the Old Order Mennonites' beginnings to the present day; and in contrast,
Ctrl V, Canada's first virtual reality arcade. There is a surprising mix of attractions and experiences from the Fashion History
Museum of 10,000 wardrobe items from the 1600s to today, including contemporary Canadian designers; to romantic nature trails, rafting and fly-fishing in the Grand River; to festivals like the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany. In St. Jacobs, a horsedrawn trolley takes us to a sugar bush to tap maple syrup; and we board the Waterloo Central
Railway steam locomotive along the historic route to the St.
Jacobs Farmers’ Market, the largest farmer's market and flea market in Canada. It is a magnet for passionate chefs who value fresh produce, and farmers who harvest some of the best quality produce in the world.
“Farm to table is our backyard,” enthuses Chef Jason Bangerter. His menus at Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa are compendiums of the terroir. Renowned as a luxury spa and dining getaway, gardening and foraging are integral to this kitchen. He offers a “surprise course” in which he leads guests out along a wooded trail where, together, they pull a plant out of the ground, wash it and eat it. “Everything I prepare is inspired by the land here; by a vegetable; a leaf; a weed. I try to bring that back to life on the plate.” His cooking classes include Queen’s
Eggs cooked over a steam bath and finished with champagne and wild mushrooms.
Chef Darnell Gregg at Fistro Supper Club Bistro gravitates to the cornucopia of produce between the Galt, Kitchenerwaterloo and St. Jacobs markets, which inspire his menus. Field cucumber gazpacho with pickled prawn relish sings of summer. Delicately seared Ontario perch is splashed with apple gastrique. Roasted rhubarb with mascarpone, crunchy sourdough and delicate greens make a luscious statement: showcase one main vegetable and cleanly elevate its identity on a plate.
“Shine that wine, knock it back and you'll be fine,” Ben Murphy assures me. His Murphy’s Law
Distillery is unique and draws tourists in droves to purchase his boutique selection of moonshine.
Murphy distills from local corn and bottles in mason jars. Apple Pie Moonshine, made with cloves, nutmeg and local cider is the rage. There's also Peach Pie, White
Lightning, Cherry Bomb and Moondance, which is like sipping smooth slow heat. For barbeque lovers Lancaster
Smokehouse is “it.” The line up begins at 3:30pm, not for the blues and rock bands; it's for Texan-style short rib. This carnivorous bliss exists nowhere else. Conversation stops. We are transfixed with delight on our platter of meaty eight-inch side ribs, savoury beef brisket, colossal smoked wings and crunchy fried chicken. Along with local okra, collard greens, potatoes and green tomatoes, these pit masters prove it's not just the rub or the technique; it's the quality of meat. Southern soul food has met Ontario produce and moved in.
Chefs and farmers are neighbours here. At Chef Dan Mccowan's Red House, I order dishes of tender braised pork curry, and pulled lamb tortellini in a savoury broth of smoked pork and parmesan. The waitress whispers that the pork and lamb are from the family-run Church Hill Farm, and they're seated at the table right next to me. Sous
vide veal from nearby Delft Blue veal farm is the most tender veal I have ever tasted. Accented with charred garlic relish, this dish alone is worth a trip to Waterloo. Chef Jonathon Gushue's The
Berlin in Kitchener is a must. His craftsmanship in the kitchen is renowned. Marinated tuna might seem ordinary without his stack of six different kinds of slender radishes that he excitedly discovered at local farms. Zebra zucchini, prepared over a wood fired grill, is the star of a dish, and chef Gushue adroitly presents it with smoked trout roe and leek puree. Here is a chef who loves his ingredients, and has the imagination to reveal their singular beauty. Braised goose breast with caramelized fennel and wild arugula is yet another display of chef Gushue's wizardry in finding unique ingredients and making magic with them.
The chefs in Waterloo Region are like kids in a candy store, reaching for all the new produce that surrounds them, and defining a Southern Ontario style of cuisine based on seasonal ingredients. I surrendered myself to this glorious food and met my own Waterloo.