Down On The Farm

asparagus salad

As part of the itinerary for our Stratford culinary tour, me and a bunch of other food bloggers got to spend some face time with two of Perth County's farmers, thanks to the Stratford Tourism Alliance and Savour Stratford. Early in the day, we visited the Manic Organic, Antony John at his certified organic produce farm, Soiled Reputation.

Founded in 1995, Soiled Reputation is run by Antony John and his wife Tina VandenHeuvel. The farm provides 50 varieties of gourmet greens and heirloom vegetables, grown in their greenhouses and 20 acres of land, to customers that include many of the region's top restaurants. Antony spoke to us about the richness and variety of nutrients found in the soil in Perth county, comparing it to the soil found in Bordeaux growing regions. You can hear more from Antony's chat in the video filmed by Suresh of Spotlight Toronto.

It was a lot of fun trekking through the farm while Antony spoke, stopping to listen to the sounds of the many species of wildlife that the land supports. After we stopped to pick some fragrant parsley to be used by Chef Neil Baxter in our barn lunch, we spent some time petting and feeding the farm's lone donkey, Jesús, named for The Jesus in The Big Lebowski. We also paused to sniff at the aroma of the wild boar loin being spit-roasted for us, and for Antony to throw a few more logs on the fire.

wild boar

The next stop on our tour was to the neighbouring de Martines family farm, home of Perth Pork Products. The de Martines' farm has been in operation since the 1850's, and has been selling pork direct since 1992. Like Soiled Reputation, Perth Pork Products provides many of Southern Ontario's finest restaurants with succulent and humanely raised and slaughtered pork. Just try some of the pork bellies at The Hoof Café in Toronto to see what I mean.

On this farm, Fred de Martines, a certified Swine Specialist, along with his wife and kids, raise conventional hogs as well as Tamworth and Berkshire pigs, wild boar and crosses of the three. The Iron Age pigs are a cross of the Tamworth and boar, while the Stone Ages are a mix of boar and Berkshire. While we walked the farm, stopping to feed the boars their beloved black walnuts, Fred told to us with pride that none of his crops, used to feed the livestock, were from GMO seeds.

spit roasted boar

After our visit with Fred, we headed back to Soiled Reputation in anticipation of our lunch, made with ingredients from all of the food producers we'd met thus far. Lunch, accompanied by Malivoire Wines and Stratford Pilsner, was made by Chef Baxter (Chef de Cuisine at Rundles Restaurant in Stratford) and his two sous-chefs and served in Antony's cool and spacious barn.

The first course was Perth County asparagus salad with crispy eggs, wild arugula (all from Soiled Reputation) and shaved Monforte Toscano cheese. The egg from Antony's hens was lightly breaded and deep fried and oozed out it's brilliant sunshine yellow yolk onto the greens and asparagus, creating its own kind of creamy dressing for the salad. The asparagus, one of my favourite vegetables, were so fresh tasting and cooked to just crisp - exactly how I like them. The cheese added a light sharpness to the affair that was really pleasant.

The main course was spit-grilled de Martines' wild boar on Soiled Reputation pea shoot spätzle and mustard seed jus. The meat was perfectly juicy with a surprising light flavour that was well served by the mild and tender mustard seeds. I could have eaten buckets of the spätzle. The pea shoots were amazing - so green tasting with a hint of pepperiness. I think every last one of us sopped up every drop of the jus with the delicious olive bread from Rundles.

rhubarb soup

To finish up our lunch, Chef Baxter served a Soiled Reputation rhubarb soup with rhubarb crush (like a sorbet), bits of softened rhubarb and fresh mint. It was a perfect ending to the meal; extraordinarily light and refreshing and highlighting the best aspects of the sweet-tart fruit.

Throughout the meal, we were serenaded by fellow farmer Derek Barnes, who generously took some time off from his own work to entertain us. The duet between he and Antony of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah led us into an informative and thorough tea workshop and tasting, led by certified tea sommelier Karen Hartwick. Accredited by the Specialty Tea Institute of New York, Karen instructed us on the qualities of five different Asian teas, from white to aged. Turns out I prefer the lighter taste of the organic white peony, and really reacted strongly (negatively) to the bitter, heavy tanins of the darker Yunan Gold tea.

Even taking into account the perfect weather, the gorgeous scenery, the cute animals and the outstanding food and drink, my favourite part of the day was listening to Antony, Fred and Karen talk about what they do, and what they produce. Beyond the clear passion each of these people had, the love that emanated from each of them when talking about vegetables, pigs, tea, and most importantly, the land that sustains all of these, was inspiring and, dammit yes, heart-warming. So, for the passion, the love, the care, the food, and the sharing spirit of everyone we met, I offer my thanks. Keep on doing what you do.

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