STRATFORD, Ont. - It's well-known for featuring the works of the Bard, but local food will be the star attraction at an upcoming festival in Stratford, Ont.
The community of 30,000 nestled on the Avon River in southwestern Ontario has been a premier theatre destination for six decades. In addition to being a hub for music and art extravaganzas, performances of Shakespearean plays as well as works by other playwrights are featured at the four stages of the Stratford Festival.
But beyond being a showcase for the arts, Stratford is also home to a thriving culinary landscape that lures theatregoers and food aficionados alike.
The weekend food festival Savour Stratford promises attendees the opportunity to sample the bounty of Perth County, an area with a rich tradition of farming that also boasts numerous cheesemakers, bakeries and pork producers.
This is the sixth year for the culinary festival, which runs Sept. 20-22. The event includes tastings and lectures led by local and guest chefs.
Streets will be closed off in the downtown core, enabling visitors to hobnob with producers and local vendors. Some food trucks will offer eats.
New this year is the Ontario Artisanal Alley, which will include wares from 10 breweries and 10 wineries. Admission is free and tickets that can be traded for items cost $1 each, with vendors determining the number of tickets needed.
The centrepiece of Savour Stratford is a stage featuring cooking demonstrations with celebrity and local chefs.
"The people who are on the culinary stage and at the learning centre are guests that we bring in for the most part. There are also some local people," says Cathy Rehberg, marketing manager of Stratford Tourism Alliance.
Savour Stratford 2012, A Retrospective. Story continues below:
Puddicombe House and Moutain Oak Farm
From Left To Right: Fried candy cane beet with cabbage and carrot slaw, Punky Doodle pastry with double jack and applebutter Jack Daniel's drizzle, pork souvlaki with crispy onions
The Church Restaurant and Delmac Farm
Backstage Bar & Grill and Carson's Country Market
Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 and Soiled Reputation
Aborigional Culinary Concepts and Palace Hillside Elk Farm
Bryan Steele, The Prune Restaurant.
Bon Vivant P.C.S & Catering and Metzger Meats
The Prune and Northern Woods Mushroom
Stone Maiden Inn and Monteforte Dairy
The Westover Inn and Perth Pork Products
Rene's Bistro French and Italian Cuisine and Sheldon Berries
Beartoozies Bistro and Pub
Pazzo Risorante and DeWetering Hill Farm
Sheldon Russell, Keystone Alley Cafe
Stone Willow Inn Wildstone Bar and Grill with TJ's Fins and Feathers
Beartoozies Bistro and Pub
Pesto And Tomato Woof Fire Pizza from Bread Head Bakery
From Madelyn's Diner and Yungblut Farm
"This year, we've got — because of the theme globally inspired, locally grown — Vikram Vij coming for the East Indian approach, and Roger Mooking for Trinidadian, and Mara Salles is coming from Brazil.
Being featured as part of the Stratford spotlight at this year's fest are Tim Larsen and his chef partner Sean Collins of Mercer Hall, a downtown inn and restaurant.
Vij, who co-owns Vancouver-based restaurants Vij's and Vij's Rangoli with wife Meeru Dhalwala, will host a three-hour cooking class and lunch of Indian cuisine using local ingredients.
Award-winning author Naomi Duguid will speak of her experiences researching "Burma: Rivers of Flavor." Local chef and Stratford Chefs School graduate Jordan Lassaline, who also trains volunteers on an organic farm in Sri Lanka, will headline a talk on cooking with world crops.
Others taking part include former "Top Chef Canada" contestant Elizabeth Rivasplata and Stratford Chefs School grad Francisco Alejandri, who is relaunching his Kensingston Market food stall Agave y Aguacate in a permanent location in Toronto.
"It's been really interesting that the chefs who are coming to Savour Stratford are receiving accolades prior to it, so we're all puffed up," says Rehberg.
Tutored talks and tastings are being held throughout the weekend.
Master tea sommelier Karen Hartwick, who owns Stratford Tea Leaves, and acupuncturist/medical herbalist Michelle Stevenson will discuss health and tea tasting while master cicerone Mirella Amato will conduct beer aficionados through a sampling of some international brews. Whisky will be explained by malt maniac and sommelier Davin de Kergommeaux, while Peter and Geoff Dillon of Dillon's Small Batch Distillers in the Niagara area will discuss bitters.
Area communities of Tavistock, Millbank and New Hamburg have long been home to cheesemakers, but local chefs are now putting their own spin on small-batch production. Chef Yva Santini, who makes delicious mozzarella she serves in her Pazzo Taverna, will demystify the various types of the Italian-originated cheese and compare commercial and hand-stretched products.
Monforte Dairy's Ruth Klahsen, a graduate of the Stratford Chefs School inaugural class in 1983, makes award-winning cheese from four different milk streams — cow, sheep, goat and water buffalo — and her artisanal products are available at many markets beyond Stratford.
Monforte on Wellington, her latest venture, is a 35-seat restaurant serving a selection of cured meats, homemade preserves, pickles, cheese, Ontario beers and wines, and a few delicious daily dishes. Klahsen will be at the Savour Stratford kids tent to help children try their hand at goat milking.
A Sunday Savour Stratford tasting includes 30 chefs, each paired with a local producer to create small plates, and accompanied by wines and craft brews.
Stratford has come a long way in the culinary world from its humble beginnings when the theatre festival started in 1953. Tourists had few choices when it came to dining or sleeping, says Rehberg.
Now there are roughly 75 upscale bed and breakfasts in the area, with gourmet breakfasts featuring local ingredients. People can often walk to theatres and the plethora of restaurants geared toward serving area ingredients.
It's thanks to the vision of the founders of the Stratford Chefs School and restaurants like the Old Prune, Rundles and the Church Restaurant that set the stage for the rise of the culinary scene.
"(With the seasonality of the theatre) they were having trouble finding and keeping good staff because you need the training to understand the food that you're serving," says Rehberg.
"(As a) result of that, a number of graduates from the Stratford Chefs School like being in Stratford and choose to stay here. So we've got a number of restaurants that have chefs that are graduates of the chefs school."
The 5 hidden gems of Stratford, Ontario. Story continues below:
It's hard to imagine how a river can be a hidden gem, but it's all about the timing with the Avon River. On the right day, the river can be be a perfect backdrop for a family photo, a picnic spot or a place to sit for peace and quiet. The river runs through the Shakespearean Gardens for those looking to take in the city's greenery, and those with a yearning to join the ducks and swans on the river can rent paddle boats to explore the areas inaccessible by foot.
The city's developed something of a culinary reputation in Canada over the last 40 years. There's no shortage of local food and the farmers that grow them. But another factor in the city's growing rep is due to the Stratford Chefs School. The school has produced some notable alumni like Mark Cutrara from Toronto's Cowbell and Carl Heinrich, the winner of season 2 of Top Chef Canada. But visitors don't have to be aspiring chefs to check out the school. The school offers a lunch and dinner series, where students partner with local restaurant stalwarts like Pazzo and the Prune, starting in October.
Google "Stratford, Ontario" and one of the top hits that'll pop up on the screen is the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The city has been a destination for theatre enthusiasts everywhere for years, but lesser known is the city's musical component. Walk along the streets of the downtown core and you'll be greeted with buskers, microphones and guitars (some even with amps). While tourists can get their share of music on the streets, there's also the Stratford Summer Music Festival, a month-and-a-half long fair that fills the city's music halls, churches, bars and pubs with a classical, folk, and jazz.
Visitors looking for a caffeinated-kick to start their day can't go wrong with a trip to Revel Caffe — though you might just miss the store unless you're looking for its wooden, screen door. Inside, guests are greeted with a glass display of sweets and baked goods, followed by a line of thirsty patrons that wraps along the cafe's narrow galley-like shop. Chalkboards make up the menu, scrawled with various coffees, teas, and speciality cold drinks. The space is limited — bordering on cramped at times — but the service is friendly and moves with machine-like efficiency that's a sight to behold, as Americanos and a soothing tea lattes are being made to order. The online community has also taken a shine to the place for the same reasons.
To the disappointment of chocoholics, Stratford's Chocolate Trail isn't actually a trail made of chocolate, despite the name that sounds like it was pulled from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Instead, the trail consists of a self-guided tour for anyone looking to explore the city and satisfy their sweet tooth at the same time. Travellers choose eight shops from a list of 20 stores that range from a kitchen supply shop to an actual candy maker, and sample each place's take on chocolate. Those who aren't busy eating their weight in cocoa can also speak with the chocolate makers and learn more about their techniques.
Anyone visiting Stratford during the off-season can also partake of many epicurean delights. From the second week of October through the first week of March, students at the school hold prix-fixe dinners Tuesday to Saturday. There are lunches too — usually Thursday to Saturday — and you can bring your own alcohol and pay a corkage fee.
Rundles Restaurant offers cooking classes in the spring and there are Saturday afternoon tastings hosted by various establishments. Try your hand at candy making, pairing tea and chocolate, tea and honey, stinky cheese and dark beer, or scotch and chocolate.
The tourism alliance has put together three year-round self-guided tours offering local sweet and savoury treats — a chocolate trail, bacon and ale trail and a maple trail.
Each pass costs $25 and includes six tickets (five for the bacon and ale trail), which can be exchanged at participating businesses for items like chocolate truffles, maple pecan brittle or bacon sandwiches. Tickets can be purchased online or from the Stratford Tourism Alliance office at 47 Downie St.
At Slave to the Grind Espresso Bar, where you can get a chocolate or a maple treat, there's a small plaque showing that inventor Thomas Edison lived there. Stratford was originally a railway junction, and the inventor worked there as a telegraph operator for the Grand Trunk Railway. Medical innovator Norman Bethune also made Stratford his home.
Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky didn't live in Stratford, but he scored his first goal in competitive play there for a team called the Nadrofsky Steelers in the 1967-68 season at age 11.
You may see celebrated residents walking around Stratford. News anchor Peter Mansbridge and his wife, actress Cynthia Dale, actor Colm Feore and singer Loreena McKennitt all call Stratford home.
Perhaps the most famous is pop star Justin Bieber, who has a plaque with his name on it outside the Avon Theatre. He occasionally visits his hometown and there is a "Bieber-iffic" map to Justin's Stratford available for those who want to visit some of his favourite places.
If You Go ...
Savour Stratford runs Sept. 20-22. For a schedule of events and tickets, visit www.visitstratford.ca/culinaryfestival/.