Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Arctic Charlie

It was the Monday before Christmas. I was helping out at the evening community hot meal that's held at the Screaming Avocado Cafe (the alternative student-run cafeteria supervised by Stratford Northwestern Secondary School's celebrated Culinary Arts teacher Paul Finkelstein) every other week. 

As I offered the patrons of the meal a special Christmas appetizer treat of lobster pinwheels - which had been generously donated by Chef Shawn from Simple Fish and Chips - I experienced an extended mash-up of surreal flashbacks from the weekend that had just passed. 

Visions of an urban underground supper club were juxtaposed with those of a lavish country restaurant, which all commingled with recollections of a seemingly boundless fantasy menu featuring ingredients as unlikely as horse, pig's tail, seal, walrus, narwhal and beluga whale, muskox, and caribou. Secret identities, a secret location and a not-so-secret embedded blogger added to the enigma, which was all carefully constructed and executed by a group of passionate food adventurers and talented chefs bound together by a shared desire to push the limits of Canadian fine dining.

Allow me to explain. I'll start back at the beginning...

Hopefully you've been able to check out the blog post describing my once-in-a-lifetime  food education adventure serving as a mentor with the Stratford Northwestern SS Culinary Arts class on their epic trip to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, this past October. In that post, I provided a link to the Screaming Avocados' first blog entry from the trip, which saw the gang being treated to a preview of Northern food ingredients at the home of Steve and Twyla Cooper/Campbell in Edmonton. These two enthusiasts of food in general and Northern food in particular  (check out Twyla's own food blog) prepared a gorgeous Arctic feast for us, which really helped the kids transition to the dramatically different food culture they encountered once we reached Nunavut. 

Well, it turns out that Fink and Special Agent Cooper were also working that night on concocting another, slightly more elaborate Northern feast to share with food-loving folks from the South. Paul had caught wind of a travelling, invite-only dining club out of Toronto known only as "Charlie Burger", which was quickly becoming infamous for challenging even the most adventurous palates (for example, a previous version of this "Anti-Restaurant" featured a gourmet menu composed around insects). Paul proposed that Steve and Twyla  call upon their vast network of food connections above the Arctic Circle to supply the ingredients for an irreplicable dining event for Charlie Burger in Toronto. He didn't need to plead his case very far: they were immediately in. 

All they needed now was a chef who wasn't afraid of taking-on Canadian ingredients as 'exotic' as walrus, muskox, seal and whale. Earlier this year, Paul had connected with Chef Louis, a true king of high-end Canadian cuisine. King Louis was contacted and also agreed almost instantly to come to Stratford and Toronto to make the dream of a Northern fine dining feast a reality. "Charlie" was approached (as much as a fictional, pseudonymic, mysterious alter-ego can be 'approached'), and the wheels were put into motion for a $235-a-plate meal showcasing Arctic product via a menu designed by one of Canada's luminary chefs.

And somehow, by some stroke of fate, I found myself hurtled right into the middle of this cyclonic food adventure...

It started on Friday. I volunteered to go to the airport to pick King Louis up, and brought him back to Stratford. Fink and several students from the Stratford Chefs School were waiting  at the Screaming Avocado with knives poised at the ready to begin the two days of prep required to bring his menu to fruition. Steve Cooper was also there, but left to pick Twyla and the rest of the Northern product up from the airport. I had expected to be doing dishes, but was delighted to be invited by Chef Louis to take part in the prep. The next morning I arrived and joined an expanded kitchen team that now included two former-student veterans of the Fink Food Network show and one current student from the Culinary Arts program.

I was honoured to be entrusted with King Louis' razor sharp knife and the important task of slicing slabs of marble-like narwhal skin and blubber into paper-thin pieces for a ceviche and into diced cubes destined to be fried-up nice and crispy a la bacon bits (above). I took a great deal of care in preparing  the whale exactly as Chef instructed me: these sacred Northern ingredients did not travel all this way for me to waste or ruin them.

I watched-on along with Steve and Twyla, Paul, the Chefs School students and the returning SNSS alumni as Chef Louis prepared the traditional Inuit ingredient of seal for his signature dish the next evening (above, being broken down, and below, as it was being cooked).

The whole team worked their butts off all day at the Avocado to get every course prepped as much as possible for the dinner the next evening. As a reward for our hard work, and as inspiration for the meal ahead of us on Sunday, Paul, myself, SNSS Principal Deborah McNair (who was also on the now-legendary trip to Nunavut) and our respective partners joined Steve and Twyla and King Louis Saturday night at the five-diamond-rated Langdon Hall, the opulent country manor outside of Cambridge, for a spectacular dinner prepared by our own friendly neighbourhood culinary genius: Chef Jonathan Gushue.

Perhaps inspired by whisperings of our own adventurous menu, Chef Gushue presented us with some of his own creations using unique and challenging ingredients. The lowly pig's tail was elevated into a Criminski, basically a croquette composed of a rillette quenelle with a crispy fried exterior (photo above).

As part of Chef's tasting menu, we were presented with a tartare (above).

Me: I'm sorry, did you say...
Server: Yes, sir, I did say 'horse'.

Considering that I'd spent the day dicing whale skin and cleaning seal for other people to eat the following night, it would have been somewhat hypocritical for me to turn down this equine offering. It was actually perfectly seasoned and unbelievably tender, certainly the most memorable dish of the outstanding night. 

The next morning it was off to Toronto. The location had been revealed early that day to the 62 lucky patrons who had been hand-picked by Charlie from among the five hundred or so who had applied to attend the meal, which was dubbed the "Arctic Culinary Diplomatic Incident". Historic Campbell House (above), located on the Northwest corner of Queen and University, was the site of this North-Comes-South dining event, and provided the perfect rustic backdrop with its walk-in fireplace and authentic Upper Canada furnishings.

With no one stepping forward to identify themselves as Charlie, it was up to Paul and Steve to host the evening and tell the story of its coming-to-be to the adventurous enthusiasts of cutting-edge Canadian cuisine in attendance.

I, on the other hand, was right in the thick of it in the kitchen, as I worked elbow-to-elbow with King Louis and two of Fink's most accomplished culinary prodigies, both of whom had taken a day off from their present cooking duties.  I have never been a part of a kitchen team delivering such an exceedingly high standard of dishes, and while I admit I made a few bumbles here and there (let's just say me and piping bags do not get along) I learned a tonne about service, plating, and what Chef called "flow" as he led us through the execution of his unprecedented menu.

It all started-off with a gorgeous roasted turbot from the Pagnirtung fjord topped with a heaping spoonful of Batawawna Bay herring roe. 

Next came a Northern spin on the smoked meat sandwich, with smoked muskox served on a mustard seed bannock alongside a pickle and a sliver of smoked whale meat.

My previous days' efforts slicing paper-thin pieces of narwhal skin and blubber were put to delicious use in this ceviche of narwhal served with wakame salad.

Cape Dorset Arctic char was served four ways: tataki, ginger cured, fennel candied, and cold smoked.

Chef Louis presented a Northern tartare of his own design, with muhamara caribou Kibbeh Nayyeh (essentially a highly-spiced Middle Eastern caribou tartare) holding-up baked mipkuzola chips (thin, incredibly tasty slices of  what might be described as muskox jerky).

Next came the walrus dish. Chef created a mac and cheese topped with the whaleskin 'bacon bits' I'd prepped the day before. On the edge of the dish was a thin morsel of the grilled Iglukik walrus meat Steve had sourced from north of the Arctic circle. In jest, a clothespin was included for those who might find the aroma of this unique meat overpowering. The walrus tasted better than I thought it would - slightly fishy and salty like roe with the toothsome texture of a well-cooked pot roast.

This was followed by the signature dish of the evening: the Qikitarjuaq bouillabaisse. This entree saw the rare combination of rack of seal, roasted muskox, and foie gras aswim in a cloudberry juice broth, and  topped with fried soba noodles and a generous drizzle of saffron sabayon.

Finally, little profiterole pastries filled with a rich cream made from caribou fat were appropriately formed into the Northern symbol of the Inuksuk.

When dessert was finished, the kitchen crew was called into the dining rooms where we all received a standing ovation alongside King Louis, Fink and Steve and Twyla. The meal had satisfied the most adventurous of Toronto tastebuds, and I think Charlie (whoever you are) would agree that the meal's success was attributable to a  holistic combination of storytelling, culture-sharing, and inspired culinary creativity, all presented in an environment that was stimulating and historic.

As I reflected upon the whirlwind events of the previous weekend while helping out at the free community meal that following Monday, I felt incredibly privileged to have taken part, particularly from the front line perspective of the kitchen. Although eating walrus and whale is certainly not for everyone, I mentally applauded those who accepted the challenge to open their minds and their mouths to try the Northern foods upon which the people who reside above the Arctic Circle have survived for millennia.

I will probably never have another weekend like that again. That is, unless Steve and Paul follow through on the next plan they're hatching...

Next Arctic Culinary Diplomatic Incident stop: James Beard House in New York City!?!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Warming-up With Some Scotch and Chocolate!

I'm an honourary Scotsman. 

I lived in Scotland for an entire year while attending the University of Edinburgh for my postgraduate studies. Well... almost an entire year: I had to return to Canada a month early and finish my thesis here because I spent all of my money at the pubs. Let's just say I wholeheartedly embraced my host country's culture...

I also married into a Scottish family. The Fisher clan of Mornington Street (aka my wife Lisa's family) are proud Scots. Their patriarch, Ian Fisher, is in fact one of Stratford's leading bagpipers. You may know him as one of the bagpipers who pipes-in Stratford's swans as they return to the Avon River each spring, or as one of the kiltwearing pipers marching at the front of the Stratford Police Services Pipe Band.

Personally, I will never forget the image of Ian playing the bagpipes as he walked Lisa, arm in arm, up to our wedding ceremony. 

So when I discovered that there was going to be a Scotch and Chocolate tasting at Foster's Inn, I immediately signed up, and I knew exactly who to take with me! It was the perfect early Christmas present for my kiltwearing, bagpiping (and of course Scotch drinking!) father-in-law.

On Saturday, December 18, Ian, myself and about fifty other Stratford whisky lovers warmed-up at Foster's Inn by sampling a series of seven different types of fine Scotch. 

The Scotch enthusiast who led us on our tipple tour of Scotland was Esther Williamson Brown (pictured above, comparing tasting notes with Ian), who grew up in Fife and Dunbar but only discovered her love for her home country's famous distillate years after moving to Canada. 

There was more to this tasting than just savouring single malts, however. The Scotch selections made by Esther Brown were paired with chocolates chosen and presented by none other than Kristene Steed, the owner of Stratford's legendary confectionary Rheo Thompson Candies (pictured above). 

Esther and Kristene put together the pairings based on the flavour notes of their respective choices. No milk chocolate was to be found that afternoon: only the boldness of dark, slightly bitter, semi-sweet chocolates were able to stand up to the multilevel flavours of the Scotch varietals. The effects of the seven different combinations on the palate were complex, diverse, and very pleasant indeed. 

Esther gave us all a little Gaelic lesson, and we raised our glasses and wished each other slante mhath, or 'good health'. The first pairing was a Balvenie doublewood 12 year old single malt with a semi sweet bud consisting of 60% cocoa. The whisky reflected its Speyside origins in its honey and vanilla flavours with hints of the oak casks (once used for sherry) in which it was aged, and agreed eloquently with the nutty sweetness of the chocolate.

But it was the second Scotch - a 10 year old by Springbank - that really got Ian's attention. He experienced an explosion of smoky flavour he described as true excellence. Both of us were even more impressed when we tried it along with an orange peel chocolate bark from Rheo Thompson, the fruity flavours of which brought out the subtle citrus tones in the Scotch.  

As the samples progressed the room definitely got warmer - and louder! I enjoyed the crunchy, bittersweet Kenyan coffee  bean chocolate bark that was paired with the Famous Grouse blend. For our final offering, we all enjoyed Esther's own favourite Scotch, a peaty but floral 12 year old by the Highland Park distillery in Orkney, which combined beautifully with the nutty flavour of the almond bark chosen by Kristene. 

Ian and I left Foster's with a warm glow and parted ways to do some Christmas shopping. I don't know where he went, but for me it was straight to the LCBO & Rheo Thompson  Candies for the second half of his Christmas present: a bottle of Scotch from Springbank (the Highland distillery responsible for his favourite sample of the day), and some orange peel bark from Rheo Thompson!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Slow Food Perth County: Terra Madre Day & the Sunday Market at Anything Grows

Last week Slow Food Perth County had some celebrating to do.

Firstly, December 10, 2010 marked this year's Terra Madre Day, which sees the global Slow Food network holding events to promote good, clean and fair food all over the world.

To honour Terra Madre Day, a few of the members of our Perth County convivium who attended the recent Terra Madre Conference in Turin, Italy, this past October were invited to Revel Caffe (50 Wellington St., Stratford) to talk about the event, show some slides from their trip, and discuss the insights they gleaned from their experiences.

The folks at Revel really embraced the spirit of the Slow Food movement that morning, serving up delicious savoury pastries made using organic local product.

Revel patrons could enjoy a pumpkin sticky bun (made with Soiled Reputation organic pumpkin) with their favourite cup of Las Chicas coffee, which is fresh roasted in London, ON, by two sisters using beans straight from their family's plantation in Nicaragua. In support of the Slow Food commitment to food security, the coffee was free for those who brought along a food bank donation.

The handmade turnovers made using Monforte Dairy's signature Toscano cheese and artisan Italian prosciutto (above) could not have been more appropriate considering the theme of the upcoming evening, as our Perth County crew talked all about the amazing time they had together in Italy while attending the international culinary equivalent to Burning Man (how about "Roasting All Afternoon Over an Open Fire On a Spit Man"? Maybe not...).

You want to see prosciutto?

Here's a pic of curing hams (above) taken by Slow Food Perth County's farm chair Mark Lass.

We all envied the picture of Emily Chandler and Laurie Knechtel hangin' with a couple of serious Italian prosciutto artists (above).

It wasn't just about gorgeous artisan Italian pork products, though... There was a global marketplace where people from around the world shared tastes from their respective food heritages and traditions (above).

Slow Food Founder Carlo Petrini (above) inspired the crowd to continue their efforts in support of a more authentic approach to eating and food production. 

It was a really enjoyable evening as our Slow Food delegates got to share the amazing energy and inspiration they all clearly experienced at the conference with other interested members of the community. 

So Terra Madre Day was the first thing Slow Food Perth County had to celebrate this past week. The other thing was the official rolling-out of Slow Food Sundays at Anything Grows (235 St. Patrick St. in Stratford, pic above).

Stratford's gardening mecca Anything Grows has a new section devoted to local, organic and gourmet foods (above) located in their historic cellar (which was once the keg room of Perth County's original brewery, below).

On Sundays all winter, Anything Grows has invited Slow Food to host an indoor, winter version of the successful market we held all summer in the back lot of Monforte Dairy. This past Sunday, I filmed the market and its vendors as everything was in full swing (including jazz guitarist and friend-of-the-market Stephen Smith). [By the way, my apologies for referring to Brian Holden of Humble Roots gluten free bakery as 'Brian Sheldon' in the video - I think I'm still drooling from his unbelievable co-creation with Sheldon Berries from the 2010 Savour Stratford Tasting Tent].

Even though it was a snowstorm outside, we still had a great turnout as most people were able to come to the downtown market on foot!  

Slow Food Sundays at Anything Grows will be taking a brief holiday hiatus for Deecmber 26, 2010 and January 2, 2011. But there will be a full market this Sunday, December 19, 2010, and Lindsay's Bakery and other interested vendors have been welcomed to set up shop downstairs on Thursday, December 23 for all those who want to stock-up on seriously great baked goods etc. for Christmas.

May everyone enjoy and share good, clean and fair food over the holidays!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Leviathan: Me vs. The Mammoth Lobster Sandwich at Simple Fish and Chips!

I get a lot of great tips for my blog adventures from following Stratford food folks on the social media site Twitter.
Here are a few you might want to follow yourself:

Slow Food Perth County @SlowFoodPerth
The Stratford Chefs School @StratfordChef
Paul Finkelstein @PaulFink
My Stratford Brother-in-Blog Matty Ian @MattyIan
Monforte Dairy @MonforteDairy
Soiled Reputation Farm @ManicOrganic
Savour Stratford @StratFOODFest 
McCully's Hill Farm @McCullysFarm
 How about me? @LocalComeLately

A little over a week ago, an eye-catching tweet was posted by another prolific contributor to the Stratford food twittersphere, Chef Shawn Hartwell of Simple Fish and Chips (give him a follow @SimpleGood4U). Shawn and his wife Candace were marking the one year anniversary of their wonderful fish and seafood restaurant's opening on Saturday, December 4, and he was inviting his loyal customers to come and help them celebrate it with some music by local guitar/vocalist Christine Brine and some birthday cake and snacks. I immediately retweeted the message to all my followers along with a promise that I would be there! After all, Simple Fish and Chips was one of my first blog subjects way back in April (I enjoyed their Oceanwise approved fish and chips after presenting at the local Green Party AGM). And since then I have become an even bigger fan of their amazing Canadian-caught fish and seafood dishes, particularly Shawn's creative specials such as jerk spot prawns and green curry pickerel.

A few days later, another tweet by Chef Shawn came across my radar: "A challenge is announced for all you seafood lovers!! Who can eat our 'Mammoth Lobster Sandwich?!' Rules: if you eat it all... You don't pay!"

And at that moment, this blog post was born. 

I accepted the challenge - after all, lobster is my absolute favourite thing to eat, and I've never been one to shy away from attempting feats of consumption (see my post from the McCully's Hill Farm In Your Face Pie Eating Contest back in July). 

My family and I arrived right in the middle of the Simple Fish and Chips one year anniversary party (I needed my cheering section for this one). Chef Shawn took me back to the kitchen and assembled, before my eyes, the biggest freakin' lobster sandwich this world has ever seen:

At this point, I was starting to understand why Chef Shawn was so confident that no one would be able to finish The Mammoth.

But I had three things going for me: I love lobster, I was hungry, and Chef Shawn makes a mean sandwich!

Please note: The above video has been edited, mostly to cut-out footage of my eyes bulging out of their sockets as I tried to consume the 2 lbs. of lobster atop a whole loaf of bread, a head of lettuce and a slathering of garlic butter. I took so long that the hardrive on my video camera became full. But a loyal supporter of mine (my lovely mom-in-law Wanda) captured my pathetic surrender on her phone:

You win, Shawn! Happy anniversary to you and Candace! And thanks for being my favourite spot for sustainable and delicious fish and seafood in Stratford.

I now have some advice for all you folks out there who have viewed this post and who still think you would finish this ridiculously huge lobster sandwich and then ask "What's for dessert?" Please be my guest and take on Chef's Shawn's "Eat it all and don't pay" challenge for yourself while it's still available. But based on personal experience, my money's on at least half the sandwich going home in a doggy bag!

A doggy bag it was for me, and I left with my tail between my legs. Later that night my wife Lisa pretty much downed the half I didn't eat - maybe from now on I'll let her be the official Local-Come-Lately extreme eater! 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Olive oil - It runs in the family!

This week, I attended another great Stratford tasting session (see my Beer & Cheese post from last week, and come to Scotch & Chocolate on Saturday, Dec. 18!). This one was a free olive oil appreciation seminar held at the foodie-shop-come-lately known as Turnbull & Stewart, located at 439 Erie St. For the past couple of months, I've been rubbernecking as I've driven past this new spot for high quality & cutting-edge kitchen appliances and gourmet food. When I learned they were hosting an evening of olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting, I was glad I was finally going to see the place from the inside! 

Once I got in the store, I only wished I'd stopped-in sooner! This is my kind of shopping spot: full of big, shiny kitchen toys and all sorts of top quality cookstuffs, from implements like knives, to countertop appliances like coffemakers, and all the way to great recipe ingredients like Italian rice kits for authentic risotto. I spoke with Ken Dakin, the owner of this new culinary retail gem, (pictured above on the left), who informed me that he was neither "Turnbull" nor "Stewart"... or maybe he was both, since these were the last names of his two Scottish grandmothers, whose respective cooking powers earned them equal homage on the business name of their food-loving grandson.

I noticed a couple of gentlemen setting up for the tasting session near the back of the spacious store. I introduced myself, and started talking to Angelo Tramonti, the President of Sarafino foods. Angelo told me about the food company he runs with his dad, and how their specialty was incredible olive oil, which they imported from a family Olearia (olive-oilery) in the southern Italian province of Calabria.

I am half Italian. My grandpa immigrated to Canada from Calabria to marry my grama, whose family was also from Calabria. My mom Stella was one of nine Tedesco children. I knew the town my grandpa and grama's families were from - in San Giorgio, the Tedesco name has long been associated with the local brands of perfume and spirits. 

I asked Angelo Tramonti the name of the town in Calabria where his family's olive oil business was located.
He told me San Giorgio.

I told him that was funny, because that's where my family originated from. I told him I was half Tedesco, and described my Italian family's history in Canada. 

He smiled and shook his head in disbelief.

"Are we related?" I asked.

He nodded with a grin. It turns out his dad is cousin to my grandfather's cousin.

Angelo and I aren't just paisano, we're famiglia!

Love and passion for food runs throughout most Italian families, and clearly ours is no exception. Angelo is one of two certified olive oil tasters in Canada (and the other is his dad). The session he led was highly informative and interesting, as the dozens in attendance learned about the 8,000 year history of this fabled oil, which has been used in everything from bathing kings to currency to nursing infants.

Angelo's olive oil brand, Olearia San Giorgio, is the real-deal, which you can really appreciate when you taste it under the guidance of an expert. Apparently, the olive oil industry is awash with inferior, highly refined , dubious products made from mystery mixes of all sorts of non-olive-oils, some of which are barely fit to be burned as biodiesel. The oils from Olearia San Giorgio, however, are truly pure extra virgin or virgin products, as the olives are grown, cold extracted using no heat or chemicals, and bottled by the family producers in Italy. Their extra virgin L'Ottobratico is a monocultivar, which means that it was made using only one type of olive. It was my favourite, with a peppery kick. 

Their L'Aspromontano virgin and extra virgin blends were both spectacular and full of just wonderful clean flavours, as was the sample of organic extra virgin Angelo let us taste, which was served in little shot glasses presented upon a gorgeous serving board made of olive wood from the family orchard.

We also sampled a range of really nice balsamic vinegars from the Modena region of Italy (the location that also brought us such Italian food treasures as Parmasean cheese and Parma ham). They were all beautiful in their acidic-musky-fruitiness, especially the final one we tried, which was syrupy and fit for drizzling over any fine Italian dessert or great salad (which, we learned, is served as the last course of an Italian meal, not the first, to maximize the digestive benefits of olive oil and balsamic).

Most of the samplings were enjoyed as dips for breads, which were served up on nifty cutting boards created by the local family woodworking company Windbreak Farm, many of which were creatively composed of several different kinds of reclaimed barnboard. The boards were concaved on one end to accomodate the vessels for the oils and vinegars, which were handmade by local potter Chris Lass of Wild Violet Pottery. Chris has been selling her wares at the Anything Grows Slow Food Sundays market, and will be stocked up with special dipping bowls, salt holders, plates and bowls - perfect Christmas presents! - over the next two Sundays. The products created by both of these talented local artisans are also for sale at Turnbull and Stewart, which is definitely worth a look if you're shopping for any food loving folk.

I grabbed a bottle of  L'Ottobratico for myself. I am so happy that I now have a brand of world-class olive oil to which I will forever remain loyal - thanks Angelo! I look forward to visiting the orchard  in Calabria someday with you (now there's a blog post).

Friday, December 3, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as a "Beer & Cheese Tasting"!

Do you feel it? 

I feel it! 

It might be because my three-year-old son Fisher just discovered Santa Claus, and doesn't talk about anything else all day from the moment he wakes-up (especially after recently sitting on his preschool's float for the Stratford Santa Claus Parade, above). But... I'm pretty sure the holiday season is officially upon us!

And with it, a whole series of great tastings on offer by Savour Stratford. 

By the way, I hope everyone heard the 2010 Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival recently won the Ontario Culinary Tourism Association's award for this year's Top Culinary Tourism Experience! We're Number One! Congrats to my friend (and unofficial mentor) Danielle Brodhagen, the Festival's founder, and everyone else who worked so hard to make this celebration of our local cuisine the premiere foodie event in the province (in your face Applebutter Festival!). If you missed SSPCCF, or just want to relive some of the event's award-winning-food-festival-awesomeness, check out my September postings from Day One and Day Two.

Savour Stratford continues to provide unparalleled opportunities for unique and informative tastings sessions over the holidays. I attended a great one this past weekend...

Now, I don't know about you, but two of my favourite words are "Beer" and "Cheese". How happy was I, then, when I came across them side-by-side on the Savour Stratford Holiday Tasting schedule. Could it be true?

"Yes, Virginia, there really is such a thing as a 'Beer & Cheese Tasting'!"

Liz Payne of the Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop knows everything there is to know about all-things-cheese. The Big Cheeses of the industry are working on establishing an official title for an expert in cheese  appreciation - probably "Maitre D'Fromage". Whatever they decide to call it, Liz will undoubtedly be one.

Her challenge: to pair three Creemore Springs brews with three complementary cheeses.

I sat alongside two-dozen-or-so fellow appreciators of cheese and beer in the back room of the Milky Whey, in which sits a giant harvest table that was perfect for the Saturady afternoon event. The first pairing saw us sampling a Creemore Springs Pilsner accompanied by a generous wedge of asiago from Wisconsin. Whenever I've used asiago, it's been for cooking, e.g. grated over/into something Italian. I couldn't recall ever just hunkering-down on a big ol' piece of this strong and intense cheese, but it really held its own aside the mellow-yet-flavourful beer. Good call Liz - the beer made me appreciate the cheese, and the  cheese made me appreciate the  beer!

A Dutch Gouda followed, paired with Creemore Springs' flagship Lager (one of my own perennial favourites). The sharp, nutty cheese again stood up to the mid-hoppy beer flavour in a most agreeable way. I didn't think my beer of choice could get any better... until I learned the perfect kind of cheese to eat with it!

We in Stratford are spoiled by the presence of one of our province's premiere artisan cheese houses - Ruth Klahsen's Monforte Dairy.

Liz paid homage our local Fromagerie specializing in sheep and goat's milk by pairing Monforte's  signature pecorino, the aged cheese known as "Toscano", with the superlative Ur Bock from Creemore Springs (if I recall "Ur" means "the best"). No namby-pamby soft cheeses at this tasting: Liz assured us that creamy, stinky cheese like brie and camembert would not work with bitter beers. No one was arguing with her choice of Monforte's sharp, straight-ahead cheese as a great match to the highly-flavoured bock.

If I had to identify one highlight from the event, however, it would be the Cheddar and Beer Fondue that Liz created before our eyes and then invited us to partake in. She melted a pile of  bold yet creamy Quebec cheddar into a pot-full of Creemore Pilsner and dijon mustand for bread dipping. So good, I think it's going to have to become a Stacey Christmas tradition.

The next event in the Savour Stratford holiday series is on this Saturday (December 4, 2010), with Foster's Inn hosting a Wine and Chocolate tasting with Chateau des Charmes VQA wines paired with prefect sweet selections from Rheo Thompson Candies. I'll see you all at Foster's two Saturdays later (December 18, 2010), where we can enjoy tasting some Scotch and Chocolate togetherl!