And when prepared by professional chefs, it's more delicious than any imported produce could ever be.
When my friend invited me to a farm-to-table dinner last week, I eagerly accepted, but wondered what kind of meal we could possibly have. Farms in this corner of southwestern Ontario, Canada, are prolific producers of delicious ingredients for three seasons out of the year, but it's now early December, and there's not much coming out of the frozen, snow-covered fields.
I shouldn't have worried. The dinner was a feast – six mouthwatering courses of root vegetables, locally-raised meats, and organic grains, adorned with fine cheeses and pickled garnishes that had been harvested earlier in the season by chefs Joel Gary and Hannah Harradine.The pair met in the restaurant industry and, just this past August, quit their jobs to launch Sumac+Salt, this farm-to-table dinner project, full-time. The dinners are hosted two to three times weekly at farms in the Meaford-Thornbury area of Ontario, although most are held at the Good Family Farms, where I went. Having dinner in someone's private home (the owner is not present), with a group of friendly strangers, creates an unusual and intimate atmosphere.
When I spoke with Hannah about their decision to start Sumac+Salt, she said that both she and Joel were frustrated with restaurant industry's lack of care for ingredients and where they came from.
"It seemed crazy to us that people aren’t using ingredients grown in their own backyard, [so] we began sourcing ingredients from local farmers and having chats with them about their process."
Organic is a top priority because, as Joel explained to me while plating an eye-popping array of beets, everything starts with the soil: "If the farmers raising the animals or growing vegetables care about the soil, then everything that's raised on that soil will in turn taste better."
I had to ask the obvious: How much seasonal food is there in a place like this, where the temperature stays below freezing for nearly five months out of the year? Hannah replied that it does take a lot of planning. They rely on a "small but mighty" preservation program:
"We take fresh fruits and veg that preserve well and either modify them into a compote for example, pickle it or preserve it in sugar and usually a booze of some kind (personal preference)... We also work closely with our local organic farm Sideroad Farms, [which has] a fantastic winter storage program for squashes, cabbage and root vegetables."
Come springtime, Joel and Hannah are out in the forests and fields of Grey and Bruce counties, foraging like mad. "Not only are we itching to get outside, but it's the most interactive and fun time to forage," she told me over email. "Everything pops out with a great green colour and, with mushroom season approaching, we become super inspired with new dishes."
The dishes themselves are intricate, built with multiple layers of ingredients to achieve the perfect balance of acid, sweetness, bitterness, and fat. They are also stunning, as I experienced firsthand. Served on vintage (foraged?) china with silverware and cloth napkins, each course appeared like a work of art on the table – and disappeared far too quickly.
The experience was eye-opening, a reminder of just how much abundance does exist in this region, particularly if one is willing to put in some time during warmer weather to preserve, store, and source local ingredients. It is exciting to see this food-loving couple pouring so much effort into making these dinners and helping to wean us Canadians off imported warm-weather vegetables in the middle of winter by showing us what's possible. After last week's dinner, I snapped up a few Ontario squashes and beets at the grocery store with more enthusiasm than I would've prior to the meal.