The PineSpiel Project at Michael Stadtlander’s Eigensinn Farm takes fine dining to the pine forest
Michael Stadtlander holds a pine cone to his nose and breathes it in.
Something about its aroma appears to calm the chef as he gazes across Eigensinn Farm, 40 hectares of forest and farmland in Singhampton, Ont., a small town past the wind turbines and yellow canola fields that border Hwy 10.
“When I grew up as a kid in Germany, my school was right in the pine forest,” Stadtlander says. “I have always had this relationship with pine.”
Stadtlander has put this coniferous evergreen at the centre of the PineSpiel Project, his fourth farm-totable venture at the farm.
He and his wife, Nobuyo, will host as many as 27 guests three nights a week between Aug. 12 and Sept. 18. Guests pay $350 for this “forest dining” experience. They will walk from table to table around the farm and eat the food where the ingredients were grown and cultivated.
Each of the 12 courses will feature pine, a flavour Stadtlander describes as “a little bit more floral than rosemary.”
Among the dishes are white pine needle steamed oysters, potatoes baked in a pinewood fire and topped with butter cultured under pine needles, and a Canadian Black Forest cake dessert featuring pine maple syrup.
“I want to use the pine to connect people to nature,” says Stadtlander, who came up with the concept while cross-country skiing through the farm some six years ago.
“It’s very inspiring,” he says. “Sometimes it just comes to you.”
The PineSpiel Project allows guests to walk through the menu, table to table along a designated trail.
One of the stops along the path will feature large clay masks (made by Stadtlander and his apprentices) affixed to trees as if giving faces and personalities to the trees that inspired him.
As guests work their way around the dining spaces they’ll come across a clearing with single seat tables for the oyster dish; a “tree house” kitchen where another dish will be lowered to diners below; a Japanese garden style clearing with Japanese phrases scrawled on wood including “You are with the gods,” and “Trees are god.”
Nature is the star of the show. The property is a hippie’s dream (Stadtlander admits to being a bit of a hippie himself ), where 300 chickens scratch around with a peacock and the chef’s apprentices live in converted trailers that used to store cheese.
In the garden by the pig pen, squash, potatoes, shallots, garlic, black currants and tomatoes grow. In the “Alley of Good Times” near the property entrance, Stadtlander has lined a pathway with hundreds of wine and beer bottles — remnants of past dinners on the farm. The Germany-born chef, who moved from Europe to Toronto in 1980 to open Scaramouche with Jamie Kennedy, is glad to be out of the downtown restaurant scene. Those days are long behind Stadtlander now.
“I’m very fortunate,” he says. “I have people coming to me.”
A seat at Stadtlander’s table costs $350, gratuity and alcohol not included, a price he’s sometimes had to defend to critics who’ve noted that he employs unpaid apprentices on the farm. This summer, he has had seven to 10 apprentices working on the PineSpiel Project, some joining at different stages.
“If you look at it on the level of world class gastronomy it’s actually a good price,” he says. “It’s a lot of work.”
Stadtlander began laying out the trails for the PineSpiel four years ago, but his apprentices at the time weren’t prepared to complete the project. This year’s “really great” team, who arrived in late April, has pulled through.
In June, the project was still mostly in Stadtlander’s head. Half-baked ideas and half-built tables sprinkled the forests. Stadtlander joked that the menu wouldn’t be finalized until a week before the dinners begin.
Nobuyo, the farm’s matriarch and manager, hadn’t seen any of the project’s progress, preferring to keep her distance in the preparation stages. “Otherwise, I speak too much,” she says with a laugh.
Less than a week before the first sitting, Stadtlander’s ideas have come to fruition — the first group of guests is set to arrive Friday. Rain or shine, the dinner will go on.
On the opening day of the 2012 Singhampton Project, guests withstood a rainstorm, which made it into a documentary film.
Giving in to Mother Nature’s whims is part of the thrill of forest dining at Eigensinn, where Stadtlander sees the potential in every tree he passes, pine or other.
Next might be the “Maple Project,” he says. Or perhaps something else will come to his mind as he walks his land, a constant source of inspiration for the chef, whose mind seems to be whirring with possibilities. The menu The PineSpiel Project menu features pine flavours across 12 courses.
To learn more about Eigensinn Farm and reserve a seat at Stadtlander’s table, go to stadtlanderseigensinnfarm.com. 1. Hors d’oeuvres will change from day to day but may include: lamb liver and heart skewer topped with coriander yogurt, grilled Georgian Bay lake trout glazed with riesling dill butter, cucumber stuffed with beef heart tartare and others. 2. White pine needle steamed oyster on caramelized cipollini onion and Acadian sturgeon caviar. 3. Consommé from Eigensinn Farm Peking duck and white pine. 4. Cannoli from osprey mushroom with tomato, lovage and pine. 5. Bean fritters made with pine and Creemore Springs Lager with red pepper mayonnaise. 6. Clay and pine-wrapped Eigensinn Farm potatoes, baked in pinewood fire with pine Prosciutto and pine forest-cultured harmony cream butter. 7. Smoked whitefish and pickerel sausage with four pine condiments. 8. Sorbet from Eigensinn Farm rhubarb, wild ginger and pine yogurt. 9. Japanese-inspired salad from Eigensinn Farm gardens with mozuku and pine-honey and sake dressing. 10. Over pine wood-grilled Eigensinn Farm chicken with peach-ginger ravioli and variation of Eigensinn Farm vegetables. 11. Two cheeses from Blyth Farm, made with pine. 12. Canadian Black Forest Cake à la Luebeck (his hometown in Germany). Guests will be treated to hemp and pine-maple fortune cookies at dinner’s end.
Michael Stadtlander inspects new growth on a pine tree at Eigensinn Farm in Singhampton, Ont.
Michael Stadtlander’s son Hermann is maître d’ at the farm and contributes his graphic design talents. Here, they discuss a pine cone logo for the project.
What Stadtlander has dubbed the “Alley of Good Times” is a pathway beyond the gardens that’s lined with wine (and some beer) bottles from past dinners on the farm.