Simply put, Stratford, Ont., is a place for those who want their senses stimulated. The city has played host to the internationally recognized Stratford Shakespeare Festival since the '50s, but for three days in September, the sights and sounds of thespians took a backseat to the tastes and smells of another festival: Savour Stratford.
The passing weekend marked a special year for the event, the time to celebrate the city's deep culinary history, says Danielle Brodhagen, Savour Stratford's festival director.
"Because it was our fifth year, we treated it as an anniversary and wanted to bring in the heritage aspect," says Brodhagen, adding that the city's farming community made for an underlying theme for the festival.
It's also a theme that's reflective of the city that's about a 90-minute drive west of Toronto. Much like the two-car-lane streets woven together to form downtown Stratford -- centre stage for the festivities -- there's a strong sense of connection and partnership between those who cook the food and those who grow it.
But that wasn't always the case. Despite the strong agriculture history that defines Perth County, in which Stratford's 32,000 or so locals live, the city has only recently become a top destination for gourmands. It's always been known as a place to farm, but not so much as a place to dine.
Some of the dishes at Savour Stratford 2012. Story continues below:
That changed in 1970 with the arrival of Joseph Mandel, a businessman from Britain who would later go on to open and own the The Church Restaurant & Belfry, the first of five of Stratford's founding restaurants. Eventually joined by Woolfy's at Wildwood, The Prune (formally known as the Old Prune), Rundles, and the Keystone Alley Cafe, the five restaurants created the demand for more chefs to keep up with Stratford's booming restaurant industry, which in turn lead to the creation of the Stratford Chefs School.
Fast forward 42 years and Stratford has added many more chefs and restaurants to its streets, culminating in Savour Stratford's Tasting festival, a showcase of 32 eatery-and-farmer partnerships which brought together old stalwarts — restaurants like The Church and The Prune — with the new, like dairy farmer Adam Van Bergeijk, a cheesemaker working at Mountainoak Cheese in nearby New Hamburg, Ont. who's only been in business for two weeks.
Bergeijk partnered with Lance Edwards, a chef at Puddicombe House, after the two met each other through friends within the community.
"I called Savour Stratford and told them who we wanted to work with. It's been great. A project three months in the making," said Edwards, referring to the savoury BeaverTail-like pastry he whipped up using Bergeijk 's mustard-seed Gouda. "We knew what we were working with but not the end product," said Edwards.
While many chefs chose the farmers they wanted to partner with through past relationships, others like Rene Delafranier of Rene's Bistro French And Italian Cuisine and Peggy Sheldon were partnered through Savour Stratford.
"We were looking to pair up with a chef for Savour Stratford and what [Delafranier] was looking for was fall fruit," said Sheldon, a producer with Sheldon Berries
Like Delafranier and Sheldon's first-time partnership, Savour Stratford marked an opportunity for chefs to work with farmers from the area to see if chefs could put farmer's produce on the menu outside of this event -- part of an effort to bring farmers into the culinary spotlight dominated by celebrity chefs like Connie DeSousa and David Rocco.
"It's very important that you hear the farmers' and chef's story and you get that face-to-face interaction because I want to see the farmer to be a super-star like the chef," said Brodhagen.
Whether Brodhagen's concept of fame for farmers will work remains to be seen. Her efforts are up against some big names like Justin Bieber and Peter Mansbridge, who are from and live in the city. But for travellers who find themselves in the city, Savour Stratford is a subtle reminder that the stage isn't the only place where you can find stars. The dining table is a good (and tasty) alternative.
Brian Vinh Tien Trinh is Huffington Post Canada's Travel editor. His accommodations in Stratford were covered by the Stratford Tourism Alliance.