You’re not supposed to wave your fork around at the table. Especially when you’re a guest, and it’s only your first course. But I was, and I was asking a rather impertinent question: “What exactly is this?”
“Wild purslane. It just kind of showed up,” replies my host. It’s really good, but so is everything else in my golden beet salad. I am eating in the dining room of Tina Vandenheuvel and Antony John, at their farm Soiled Reputation. We have just begun a three course meal, most of which was picked (or in the case of their chicken, plucked) out of the fields we can see out the window. This is serious local eating, and Soiled Reputation is at the vanguard of Stratford’s culinary renaissance. The farm was Vandenheuvel’s family’s. Her parents raised dairy cattle, and after the two met fell in love as undergrads at Guelph, she started bringing him back.
The plan was never to return to the farm, let alone grow some of North America’s fanciest salad fodder (“I like animals, and considered becoming a vet” says John with a shrug). It was another passion, for painting, and a trip to California that got the couple into organic greens. “I thought if I grew salad, I could take the winters off…” Both John and Vandenheuvel erupt into laughter and roll their eyes. I turn to look out the window at four enormous greenhouses. “Except for a few tough weeks in January and February, we’re picking all year,” Vandenheuvel explains. Remember that next time someone says locavorism doesn’t work in a Canadian winter.
The conversation is animated, and less about Soiled Reputation’s beginnings than about the artisanal direction agriculture and food production is finally taking after decades of steady industrialization. I arrived at this farmhouse’s table on the initiative of Culinary Stratford, an initiative of the Stratford Tourism Alliance. We had just visited Ruth Klahsen at Monforte Dairy in nearby Millbank (see Lara Rabinovitch’s story on Monforte here), who despite making some of the best cheese in Ontario, may have to close down her shop. The problem? A landlord who is demanding a steep rent increase. Doesn’t sound like a big deal. Yes, it would be inconvenient to move to another facility, but that’s the free market, right? Wrong. Because Montforte can’t just move anywhere, it needs a properly inspected and approved facility, which costs big money. The rules are there to monitor big food processors (like, ahem, Maple Leaf), who have no trouble paying the costs and know full well that smaller, artisanal producers can’t. The irony is that Klahsen is filling every order and her cheeses are more popular than ever.
Klahsen figures she can keep going up to her January 31 deadline, but she’s already cutting back production of cheese that need to age, and has to release her shepherds at some point. I am buying as much Monforte cheese this fall as I can, and praying she can keep making cheese next year.
Monforte’s problems aren’t the only ones to affect Perth County recently, John explained. The area is famous for its pork, and many farmers got into the pork boom of some years ago. As soon as the market dropped, many were over leveraged and some local farmers turned to suicide in the face of ruin. “The only way to get out of these problems is to add value,” says John. He is hopeful, as younger generations of farmers see the success of farms like Soiled Reputation. John sells his greens and vegetables to every one from Jamie Kennedy to passersby at the local farmers market. If you live in Stratford, he’ll even deliver them to your door. “The old mentality was ‘I just want to farm, let the other guy take it to market’,” he says, “But you have to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re selling to. Think about what the chef wants. Think about what the public wants. And add value.”
On the way out, we pass by a converted clothes dryer for the fresh picked lettuces and a cooler with bags headed for Stratford, Toronto and Niagara. In the fields dozens of university students are picking small greens. Working the field for the summer has become a hot student job, as the good food revolution spreads across campuses. We are tempted to join them in the sunny field, but we have another farm to visit.
Perth Pork Products, like the name suggests, is a hog farm started by the de Martines family, who emigrated from Holland about 30 years ago. It’s a pretty old laneway that takes us up past the house to the first of two barns. I have to admit I wasn’t quite ready for the aroma of a few hundred pigs and their waste, but I got used to it pretty quickly and enjoyed a quick tour.
Unlike much hog farming these days, the de Martines’ barn actually has windows, and there’s a spot where you can look into the pigs and see them set about their piggy business. Perth Pork operates a little farm stand (which sells, arguably the best bacon in the world, which is serious added-value, if you ask me). Since their customers kept asking to see their pigs, they decided to create a kind of observation deck, and the whole things very charming and worth a visit. (See www.perthporkproducts.com)
But their regular pigs are no longer the star attraction among the chef, high-end butcher and foodie set. It’s second generation farmer Mark de Martines’ Tamworth pigs that are causing a buzz in Stratford and Toronto. If you see this rare breed on a menu, or at a butcher’s, in Toronto, it may well be form here. Tamworth’s fatty succulence goes beyond Berkshire, and it’s the hot new rediscovered breed. Mark’s pigs live in an open air shelter with a large grazing field, with lots of mud to wallow in. They are very happy pigs.
Equally happy (I think) are the de Martines’ herd of wild boars (!), which have an enclosure near some woods at the back of the field. The de Martines’ are excited by the new varieties of pig they’re raising, and seem to enjoy the challenges of making it up as they go along. Apparently getting a wild boar to do what you ask to is not terribly easy. The market for these meats continues to grow, and the hairy boars are right at home in Southern Ontario’s continental climate.
Soon it was time to go, and head into Stratford proper for a few nibbles. But that’s another story… Stay tuned!