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.
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"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."
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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/.