The only constant is change, we have been told by great thinkers over the centuries. They were probably not considering the municipality of Chatham-Kent in particular. But the universal can be specific, and change is indeed spreading across the region’s agricultural and culinary landscape.
Since the 1990s, when agencies like the Canadian Tourism Commission began promoting the link between tourism and cuisine, communities have been embracing culinary and agricultural tourism, as well as the related movement toward more sustainable food systems. In Ontario changes have swept the province, from beginnings in Toronto and Niagara.
Support and encouragement have come from all directions: from federal, provincial and civic government agencies; from groups like Slow Food; from partnerships between farmers, producers and restaurants; and from consumers.
The development of agri-culinary tourism often has consequences beyond the obvious economic benefits: growing attendance at farmers’ markets (in British Columbia, there has been a 147 percent growth in farmers’ market sales since 2006), increased farmgate sales and food box programs; expanding local food production and processing, including more community and urban vegetable gardens, and more food entrepreneurs entering the marketplace; and development of food and nutrition education among children, youth and adults.
In some instances these things can be the tail that wags the dog — tourism and economic development agencies become more willing to support and participate in programs and initiatives when they can see the populace participating in activities that have the potential to benefit the community at large.
The Municipality of Chatham Kent (Kent County and its municipalities merged in 1998) is heavily agricultural. The region is Canada’s top producer of a variety of crops, has some of the country’s largest freshwater commercial fishing ports, and is home to a growing number of wineries and craft brewers. Yet, until recently, there have been few initiatives to promote the region through agricultural and culinary tourism.
Convening a farm-to-table dinner is one tried and true way to stir up community interest. Such events allow the development of direct connections between farmers, producers, restaurateurs and consumers. They sometimes involve a fundraising aspect, and can garner community-wide publicity.
In 2012 Paul Spence and Joseph Grootenboer, two area farmers, undertook to organize the first Chatham-Kent Table. Over 100 guests enjoyed a locally sourced meal, prepared and served by the farmers from whose fields the products originated. They did this with the help and support of their families, the participating farmers, and some welcome sponsorship that arrived at the eleventh hour.
As things organic tend to do, the concept of the Chatham-Kent Table developed. Word spread, the idea became more familiar, and better understood, and more people were prepared to offer support both financial and practical. This past September the second annual Chatham-Kent Table was held (at Parks Blueberries, on Longwoods Road near Bothwell).
About 127 guests were welcomed with a glass of Pearl sparkling wine from Smith and Wilson Winery, and enjoyed appetizers under the late afternoon sun. Gazpacho salsa, quail crostini, sausage and red pepper skewers, and fresh fruit tartlets with berry compote were offered by the same farmers whose land had produced them. This year the kitchen staff was made up
of uniquely skilled volunteers including some from one area restaurant (James Street Eatery). Comfort and Soul, James Street Eatery, Portuguese Canadian Social Club of Chatham, Zee’s Bistro and Rossini’s Restaurant, Chef Sunny and Parks Blueberry Kitchen staff were the culinary establishments that prepared locally sourced farm products. Farmers and producers provided the service and the added entertainment of interacting with guests for the evening.
Courses included Pear and Goat Cheese Salad, Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup, Southern Style Catfish with Sweet Potato Casserole, Roasted Chicken and Honey-Glazed Carrots, Roasted Lamb and potatoes, and a quartet of desserts. Pairings were provided by local breweries and vineyards, including Bayside Brewery, Early Acres Estate Winery, and Smith and Wilson Estate Wines. Sweet apple cider from Delhaven Orchards and Harmony Organics chocolate milk were also offered. (Scroll down to view the full menu, including suppliers and chefs.)
Growing Chefs! Ontario, following the example set out at last year’s event, was again selected as the event’s fundraising recipient. The focus of this organization is food education among children and youth. Based in London, GCO recently ran its first program outside the London area, at Tecumseh Public School in Chatham. Marc Gammal, Chair of the Board, was master of ceremonies for the C-K Table.
The tail is wagging the dog. Last year’s Chatham-Kent Table got the word out, excited interest and stimulated conversation. The benefits of promoting local food production attracted restaurateurs, more sponsors, more participating farmers, and more support from individuals and organizations. Writes one of the founding farmers: the sponsors, the municipality (Chatham-Kent Tourism) and [participating] restaurants…are very special organizations that stand out from their peers in understanding the importance of local food, and catching the excitement of the food we dedicate our lives to producing.
The farmers came up with the idea, and their initiative, cooperation, and plain hard work have turned a concept into growing campaign.
Images courtesy of Anita Holmes, Chatham-Kent Table and The Cooking Ladies http://www.thecookingladies.com