Field Trip: Hockley Valley Resort

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I wasn't quite sure of what to expect when we were invited to visit Hockley Valley Resort. We're not big resort people, in fact, that word scares me a bit. It conjures up images of badly named cocktails and hours-old buffets, so we were hoping for the best. If anything, the drive up to Hockley Valley Resort is worth the trip. We try to avoid highways, and take back roads as much a possible, and this was the perfect trip for that as it wound us along the Niagara Escarpment, through Caledon, to just east of Orangeville.

Hockley Valley is located at the highest point in southern Ontario, where the Niagara Escarpment meets the Oak Ridges Moraine. It's a very hilly landscape and the source of three major rivers, the Humber, Grand, and Nottawasaga, each flowing in different directions.

Nestled deep in a valley, the resort feels remote, and it's hard to believe you're just an hour from Toronto. As we pulled in, we noticed the ski hills past the main building and on the other side, a fence around the garden and its snow covered furrows.

John Paul Adamo, President and General Manager, is trying to make the resort more locally-focussed, and the garden was his first step in that direction. He told us that expectations were low when it was first planted this past spring, but throughout the summer it provided nearly 90% of the fresh produce for the kitchen.

This year's focus was to see how much they could grow fresh for the kitchen, next year's test, says John Paul, is to see how far they can stretch that into the winter, with greenhouses and preserving.

The two-acre garden (just under the size of 2 football fields or the size of Ikea) is their main experiment in seeing how locally they can source their food, but for what they don't grow within a few hundred feet of the resort they rely on local farmers. They support local farmers so much that they're now host to a seasonal farmer's market, and their commitment shows in the fact that they don't charge a fee to farmers who set up a booth.

As part of the effort do do more in-house, John Paul recently installed a "salumi cellar" where they cure their own traditional Italian-style meats. They source boar from just down the road and other meats as well as cheeses from Niagara.

The resort has a total of 3 restaurants, all of which are well-appointed and comfortable, but it's Tavola that appeals to us. Simply meaning Table in English, the idea is that, (season-permitting) you visit the garden with the chef and essentially pick out your meal. John Paul realizes that a lot of people just want to be served, and that's what the other restaurants are for. But for others, like us who are interested in where their food literally comes from and love watching it as it's prepared by the chef, Tavola is a remarkable experience.

We sat at the chef's table, a butcher-block bar right inside the kitchen, and sampled meats and cheeses and house-made bread as our chef, Daniel Mezzolo made some fresh gnocchi out of Reid's Potatoes, from just around the corner. John Paul showed off some garlic and preserves from the garden and talked about how they serve their water. Instead of importing it, they bottle their own in-house, still, or sparkling from their carbonation system.

The gnocchi was soft and tender and topped with oxtail that had been braised for over six hours. Dessert was tasty and consisted of three small bite size treats, first was a pineapple ravioli stuffed with local ricotta, peanuts, and orange zest, topped with a mandarin sauce. There was also a piece of Torrone, a classic Italian candy, and a delicious castagnon, a doughnut-like dessert made with flour, honey, eggs, lemon and rum, topped with caramelized condensed milk.

If you want to have an upscale dinner, then choose one with wholesome roots. You'll enjoy bread, pasta, capicollo and sparkling water all made in-house. You'll also get the company and conversation of chef Daniel. And if you have any comments after your meal, feel free to grab a sharpie and leave them on the kitchen wall alongside the others.

Hockley Valley Resort
793522 Mono 3rd Line, R.R. #1
Orangeville, Ontario, Canada
L9W 2Y8

1-866-HOCKLEY (462-5539)

Homemade Kettle Corn

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Kettle corn is my popcorn of choice, barely beating out day-old theatre popcorn. It's something we pick up a lot at farmer's markets and festivals, and it's great because it's not as sickeningly sweet as caramel corn, with a hit of salt.

We bought a hand-crank Whirly Pop a while ago, and it's all we use to make our popcorn. I think we got it from Lee Valley, which is one of our favourite places to shop. Check it out here. The Whirly Pop is aluminum and they now carry a stainless steel one which we'd prefer over aluminum, even though it's not as rusticly sexy as the original Whirly. I know Crate and Barrel carries a version too. Chances are, if we went to your wedding recently, you got one from us.

We're trying to get back to simpler ways of doing things, and popcorn is one of those things that a lot of people now assume comes from a plastic-wrapped, pre-garnished, microwaveable pouch. So we decided to change it for our kids. I don't think they've ever seen popcorn come out of the microwave.

Popcorn can be prepared in so many better ways. Let's look at a few.

1. In a Whirly Pop!
2. Screw spending your money on a Whirly Pop and just do it in a big pot (with a lid) that you already have. We're all for having less things fill up the kitchen.
3. But you love your microwave, so just put 1/4 cup of kernels in an uncoated brown paper bag and nuke it like you would standard microwavable popcorn.
4. Buy one of the 300 air poppers from the eighties at Value Village.

If you want to make delicious kettle corn, you'll have to cook it on the stove top, since you need to add the sugar while it's heating up. Here's how I did my first few batches.

Click here for a printable PDF of this recipe card.

Since our first try, we've melted our leftover halloween chocolates in a double-boiler and drizzled it over the popcorn. We packed it in mason jars and handed it out at Christmas. I think it was a hit.

Field Trip: Chickens in the Yard

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Keeping backyard chickens is a pretty hot topic these days. It's now legal in most U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, however, according to this list, it's legal in only five minor Canadian cities. Stories and debates pop up in Canadian media all of the time, but they seem pretty pathetic, especially when you look back over that list and see some surprising U.S. cities on it.

Jane, Jesse's mom has been keeping chickens for around 10 years. She has a great set-up in an old tobacco kiln with a dirt floor, plenty of sunlight, nesting boxes filled with beautiful straw, and a large fenced-in area outside. She keeps chickens for eggs and they easily supply all of her needs as well as those of her four kids, their spouses, and five grand-kids. The cost of keeping her flock of 10 is low, and she looks forward to visiting them every morning and evening.

Once the birds learn to nest and lay their eggs in the chicken coop, she lets them run free, scavenging for grubs and fertilizing the yard. This really reduces their need for feed and gives them a much more natural and balanced diet. Just take a look at their eggs. The yolks from their summer eggs are a deep orange and more flavourful than any factory-farmed egg you'll eat.

One thing Jesse and I are constantly educating people on are the basics of egg production. In most cases you will get an egg a day from a productive hen. There's also the fact that no, a chick won't form from an egg if you left it there in the chicken coop. Hens lay eggs regardless of the presence of a rooster. But if you had a rooster, which Jane has, those eggs would technically be fertilized. But then the hen would actually have to brood, or sit on those eggs to provide the conditions for the chick to develop. That brooding instinct has mostly been lost, and modern farms almost always use incubators to allow chicks to develop. In fact, you actually have to search out breeds that still have a brooding instinct.

So why a rooster then? Well, when Jane first picked up the pullets, or immature hens, you couldn't tell the gender, and a rooster slipped through. But he's not a bad thing to have around, since he'll establish a pecking order that without him would have seen a hen assume his position, and she'd probably stop laying eggs while she took care of business. So, if you're going to have one unproductive chicken, it's nice to have such a handsome one.

If you are interested in keeping chickens or want to study up on some theory (in the case that it's illegal where you are), a definite must-read is Keeping Chickens with Ashley English. It's the only chicken book you'll ever need and covers everything from preparing for chickens, to selecting breeds, to recipes. Everything is presented in a beautiful and logical manner. Charts organize important information into easy to read sections such as one that tells what you need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly, annual and biannual basis.

One section is dedicated to building coops and above, you can see her plans for a chicken tractor, which is a movable, floorless coop which allows the chickens to have contact with the ground and all of the nutrition it provides. Ashley keeps a beautiful blog called Small Measure and you can get the daily scoop on her flock and other enviable aspects of her life there.

Jesse is a bit of nerd when it comes to coop designs. He wanted to share a few and his absolute favourite is this vintage camper inspired coop. But there are others like the Scandinavian-inspired Kippen House, the overly-molded Eglu and the suitably-shaped Nogg. There are even some beautiful, truly architectural coops.

People generalize about the messiness of keeping backyard chickens, but like anything, it's relative. Would you keep 20 dogs in a small urban backyard? Probably not. Maybe three chickens would be perfect, and you could keep them in a modern, easy-to-clean coop. It's also exciting to see what the eggs look like. They almost never look like anything you'd pick up in the supermarket. We were particularly excited the first time we saw the deep red of Jane's Welsummer eggs. And what the hens lack in overtly warm affection, they'll make up for in toasty warm omelettes.

Field Trip: Brew Man Group

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Driving through suburban Waterloo felt unusual when you consider some of the other subjects of our blog. We're used to country roads and rolling hills, but it's this innocuous neighbourhood that hosted one of the best Field Trips we've had to date. The main idea behind our blog is to get out of the grocery store and its comfortable grip. One way to do that is to find alternative sources, but the other is to grow, preserve, or in this case, brew it yourself.

Ages ago, on the homestead, summers and especially autumn were very busy times. Harvesting, preserving and getting everything ready for winter was more than enough to keep everyone busy. But when the cold days of winter came, there was less to do and this was the perfect time for brewing. The barley, harvested in autumn, was malted and brewed into large batches of beer to last right through to the next harvest.

I knew I had found the right house. It looked identical to the next one, except for one feature. It had what looked like a drug lab out front. Neil Partridge came out to greet me and introduced me to his makeshift boiler and mash tun. I first met Neil at Spirit Tree Estate Cidery a few weekends ago when we were visiting them for the blog. He worked there for the summer and just happened to drop in. He was telling Tom, one of Spirit Tree's owners about winning a home brewing award when I asked if I could come by next time he was brewing.

Neil first tried brewing at home a couple years ago which turned out to be "a disaster." He didn't try it again until this year when he actually had the room as well as some reliable, albeit still make-shift, equipment. He calls himself a "partner brewer" with his roommate Dan, and this day they were working on batches 15 and 16 - a burnt orange scotch ale for Neil and a strong dunkelweissen (dark wheat beer) for Dan. By partnering up, they can help each other with their batches and fast track trying different brews.

A quick lesson in brewing: Beer is generally made with four ingredients. Malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. Barley is malted by allowing it to germinate, or actually start growing which releases enzymes. The germination is then halted by roasting the grains, and the more they're roasted, the darker they, and the resulting beer become.

The barley is then run through a mill and cracked open. The now exposed starches are released when soaked in hot water and the enzymes from the malting process digest it into sugar. This sweet liquid, known as wort is strained off and is the base of the beer. The wort is then boiled to stop the enzymes while hops are added to balance out the sweetness and also act as a natural preservative. It's then transferred into a fermenting vessel to which yeast is added. The yeast converts the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Once the yeast has digested most of the sugar, it becomes dormant and settles while the liquid on top is transferred to another container to age.

After aging, commercial brewers will then take the beer and carbonate it, however Neil uses a more traditional method called bottle conditioning. He adds a tiny bit more sugar at bottling so that the remaining yeast reactivates to produce a little more carbon dioxide in the sealed bottle.

Neil's other roommates, Ilya and Stuart, and a new helper Jon, round out the group that calls themselves the Brew Man Group, although they have been recently considering a change to the Yeasty Boys. The rest of the guys help out at every step of the way and earn their share of the beer.

Watching Neil, it was clear he had not only a passion, but also a skill at brewing. He's still young, but at every stage he tasted and knew exactly what flavour he was looking for. At one point, he spent a surprising amount of time with a blowtorch finding the right amount of burn flavour in some melted sugar and orange zest to add to his brew.

Neil's stout, which he calls (ahem) NightingAle was very good. The head took a little while to settle, but it was delicious. It won him a best stout, and second best overall in a recent Canadian Amateur Brewers Association (CABA) contest, which isn't too bad considering there were entries from all across the country.

One day soon, I hope to brew my own beer and I'll be sure to have Neil weigh in so it's not only drinkable to me. It was really inspiring to see a group of young guys all pitch in on a project like this. I wouldn't expect home brewing to cross their minds, but it did, and I was very impressed with what they could craft out of some old kegs and a Gatorade cooler.

Field Trip: Dearsley's Meats

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Instead of being a dreaded task, grocery shopping has become something we love to do every Saturday morning. Especially when, as far as the kids are concerned, it involves a free pepperette. Every second week we make an effort to get to Dearsley's Meats just outside Ancaster, Ontario, near the old hamlet of Copetown. We take the scenic route, which is a series of gravel and "closed" roads along the edge of the escarpment. It's a spectacular little drive that helps you forget those days of looking for a parking spot at the supermarket on a Saturday morning.

Dearsley's Meats is a local, family owned and operated butcher shop that first opened in 1914. Gary and Darlene Dearsley are the 4th generation to run the business that was originally known for their sausages and head cheese, but Gary has since switched the farm over to beef.

Although not certified organic, their cows are naturally raised, hormone and chemical free, and happy. The Dearsley's grow their own feed and hay and the cattle get plenty of oats, corn, molasses, and grass in the pasture.

Because of government regulations, their cows are slaughtered at Millgrove packers in Waterdown before being brought back to hang in the cooler at Dearsley's for 14 days. They butcher their meat and sell individual cuts, but are also happy to take custom orders. You can even order a full or half cow for your freezer.

The other meat in the shop is all natural and locally-sourced. They get mennonite pork from Arthur delivered 2-3 times a week and chicken from St. George. Their eggs come from Carlise, but on Saturday, if you arrive early enough, you can get some free range eggs from around the corner. We always grab two dozen.

They have a selection of cheese that they get from the Kitchener/Elmira area. I thought it was pretty neat how they sell their meat to Weils bakery in Westdale, who makes meat pies and other prepared dishes, and then sells them back to Dearsley's to sell in the store.

This past weekend, we picked up a partially cooked, bone-in ham. Darlene convinced us that it would be delicious, and she sure was right! Normally you have to place an order for a bone-in ham, as they are usually butchered to order. However, because of the time of they year, they have a couple available in the store every week.

Life moves a bit more slowly when you start looking for better ways to source your food. You can't go 120 km/h down the road to Dearsley's Meats, and you can't storm in and think that everything you want will be in stock. We now know to call ahead to put our name on some free-range eggs before we come, and to order a turkey a good two weeks before christmas. They operate in a different world than the timeless 24-hour supermarket. If you don't think about your food before you come, you might just miss it.

Turkey Note: If you would like to place an order for a Christmas turkey this year, be sure to have your order in by this Saturday!

Dearsley's Meats
1154 Power Line Rd E
Ancaster, Ontario
(905) 648-3560

Starting with Seeds

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What was it that made me grow a plant in our yard, and from nothing more than a seed? Is it a primal need to be a provider? I'm not sure, but it's a spectacular feeling when you pick the fruit of a plant that you started from a speck on your windowsill. Even if it's a tomato the size of a grape, and is one of only a handful on the only plant that matured in your barely fertile, mostly shaded soil.

That first year was a totally pathetic attempt like most pathetic first attempts at anything, but we're going into our fifth year of a steep learning curve and look, we've already planted a couple hundred bulbs of garlic. It feels pretty good.

After buying random generic packets of seeds at the grocery store or Home Depot, I did some digging and found out that William Dam Seeds is a beautiful 15 minute drive from our house. I visited after reading an article about heirloom vegetables and picked up some tomato seed. They have a huge variety of untreated seeds, including an organically-grown selection - it's worth the drive.

When I was young we ordered big bags of sweet corn seed, and each little kernel was a bright candy pink. This "treated seed" is coated in a pink dust that is usually a mix of anti-fungals and other anti-microbials. I wasn't allowed to touch them without gloves on or breath the dust that came out of the hopper as my dad poured a bag into the seeder. I don't know how necessary treating seed is in all cases, but I'm happy I can let my son help out when we're starting seeds without worrying.

To fill in the gaps that a larger seed supplier can't fill are people like Laura Watt, who sells organic, heirloom seed under her company's name, Cubit's Organics. She started sourcing and saving rare varieties of heirloom seeds and then started selling them to friends and eventually everyone through her online Etsy store. Laura is among many who fill a great niche with organic, heirloom seeds-varieties that your great-grandparents would recognize before industrialization's massive cull of "inferior" varieties. All you need to do is take a look at her store and be blown away by the shapes, colours and varieties.

This summer I met a gentleman named Garrett Pittenger who works with Seeds of Diversity. It's a Canadian organization that connects growers and seed producers across Canada and works to maintain diversity in our plants. Garrett explained that part of the importance of this is our climate. If you wanted to grow chili peppers in Canada, it'd be smart to pick a variety with a shorter growing season, or one that can tolerate cooler temperatures. But if you grab a packet of chili pepper seeds off of the wire seed rack at Home Depot, chances are they've been shipped from Mexico or the southern U.S. and have never felt our climate in their genetic history.

This isn't a horrible thing. William Dam's seeds are sourced from all over the globe and they select their product to work well with our climate. It's also an amazing thing to be able to find something online you've never heard of before and give it a try. But sometimes a variety exists that has worked with our seasons and become frost or short-season tolerant and Seeds of Diversity's mandate is to make those varieties more accessible.

So am I a wierdo to think that seed catalogues are the best holiday reading? I do feel a little out of place reading them on the GO train while I commute to work, but the promise of growing something you've never tasted before makes the catalogue a bit of a treasure hunt.

Visit William Dam Seeds, and Richter's Herbs, and order a catalogue. Visit Cubit's Organics and support a small, local producer or find a variety and see who grows it from Seeds of Diversity. Or let us know if you have a favourite seed supplier or a favourite heirloom.