Recently I participated in a tour of Perth County with Cathy Rehberg from Stratford Tourism Alliance (STA) and Agatha Podgorski from the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance. They know how to set the benchmark of industry best practice for culinary tourism.
The initial segment included stops at Kandy Cosstick’s Kandy Cakes and lunch at Monforte on Wellington, the down-to-earth Stratford osteria which features seasonal house specialties inspired by cheeses from the Monforte Dairy repertoire.
We toured the new home of the Stratford Chefs School on Ontario Street while it was still under construction. Double storefront units are being repurposed into teaching kitchens and a 50-seat restaurant with a great street presence. The new facility allows the school to merge its teaching operations into one campus, and makes it feasible to add an additional semester in the summer months. Stratford Chef School is not only known for producing great chefs but also entrepreneurs.
The next leg of the tour included stops and tastings at the Black Swan Brewing Company on Downie Street, operated by former local teachers Bruce Pepper and Ryan Stokes. We moved on to Downie Street Burgers where we sampled the signature poutine with bacon and tomato jam and St. Albert cheese curds covered in gravy. Here we also quaffed a pint of Black Swan’s Berliner Weisse.
Next on the itinerary was Mike Heisz’s distillery, Junction 56, located in the former Pounder Brothers Building beside the Cambria Street railway tracks. We toured the distillery and tasted Heisz’s award-wining vodka, gin, and signature moonshine. You can stop by for a taste and a tour Saturdays at 11 am and while you are there you can purchase some locally crafted spirits for the holiday season.
Since one of the region’s main fortes is accommodating visitors to the Stratford Festival in season, the area has a robust culinary culture dedicated to serving them. Only recently has it been feasible for many of the restaurants to operate year-round.
Every Stratford restaurant worth its salt has owners and chefs dedicated to a balance of principles and procedures in an effort to offer a memorable and hospitable dining experience. Some restaurants and accommodators do this much better than others. Mercer Kitchen + Beer Hall + Hotel is one. Chef Ryan O’Donnell’s menus feature items that are meant to be shared communally and reflect Mercer’s passions for the craft beer movement, and for building community. Chef prepared a multi-course tasting for our party showcasing his gastronomic oeuvre. The menu itself is an education on Perth County food procurement and is designed to appeal to the local community as well as visitors. The way we eat has become multicultural which is evidenced by O’Donnell’s selection of enticing ethnic-inspired menu items.
We began our second day at Anne Campion’s Revel located in a former feed store off Stratford’s Market Square. Its tagline is “independent coffee for a revolution”. This community hub includes a custom-made communal table where we assembled for coffee and samples of delicious in-house baking. Campion explains that Las Chicas del Café coffee beans originate on a 100-acre plantation in the Nicaraguan rainforest that has been in the sisters’, Maria Fiallos’ and Valeria Fiallos-Soliman’s, family for generations. Campion bypasses the usual fair trade purveyors which require a multipart system of red tape. Instead, Campion buys her beans by direct trade which allows for a committed personal relationship with the growers. The sisters roast and package these beans at their facility in the historic (CASO) Railway Station building in St. Thomas, Ontario.
The next part of our trip was through gently rolling landscape dotted with farms on the outskirts of the historic stone town of St. Marys. Here lies the pastoral 50-acre Transvaal Farm. Cindy Taylor and husband Scott McLauchlan are the epitome of hospitality and provide an informative agritourism experience. Besides meeting “the girls,” a bevy of Rhode Island Reds, the main elements of this adventure are a tour of the farm property by Scott McLaughlan, a lavish farm-to-table breakfast prepared by Cindy at the guest house, and a tour of the small-scale artisan goat cheese plant operated by Cindy’s brother, owner and cheesemaker of C’estbon Cheese Limited, George Taylor.
Operations at C’estbon began as a retirement project for Taylor 16 years ago when he swapped a flock of sheep for a herd of Toggenburg and La Mancha goats. George began crafting small-batch cheese using only the milk from his own herd to create his proprietary C’estbon chèvre. In time, George relocated his goats to a neighbouring farm. The goat milk is now delivered from a local producer, Hewitt’s Dairy. True artisanal cheese can’t be mass-produced and is limited in quantity with specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature. Not a single item leaves C’estbon without George’s thumbprint on it.
Stonetown Cheese on Perth County Line 8 (Kirkton Road) was our next stop. Stonetown is a purveyor of Swiss mountain-style cheeses, hand-crafted by master cheesemaker Ramon Eberle. Using unpasteurized milk from farmers Hans and Jolanda Weber’s herd of Holsteins, Eberle creates three types of cheese. We are given a tour through the state-of-the-art milk receiving area, where the milk is brought to be processed and is heat-treated to 65° Celsius. The goal of using raw milk is to keep the cheese as natural as possible, so that it ripens nicely and the flavours improve with maturation. In another area the cheese curds are stirred, separated from the whey and pressed into wheels before they are brined. There are three very large and impressive maturation rooms for the aging of the cheese. The trio of stunning cheeses and other local products are available to buy on-site at the farm store. I highly recommend a visit for cheese lovers.
Next we had a casual pub lunch at down-to-earth Little Red’s in downtown St. Marys. There were additional stops at McCully’s Hill Farm and Market for a tour of the bush in a horse-drawn wagon and an overview of the maple syrup processing facilities, and at The Best Little Pork Shoppe in Shakespeare.
It is certainly invigorating to explore the bucolic countryside in and around Perth County. Drop by the Stratford Tourism Alliance for culinary tours of another kind. Self-guided Bacon & Ale Trail and Chocolate Trail tours are available all year round and tickets are available at the Stratford Tourism Alliance. There is also a seasonal Maple Trail to look forward to in March and April.
It is always inspiring and heartwarming to see dedicated culinary entrepreneurs and artisans in this area who embrace the benefits of building community engagement through food.
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.