Producers, chefs partner to promote local food

Culinary tourism | Events promote local produce and help to educate consumers about agriculture

Culinary tourism, a new concept encompassing the fields of local agriculture, viticulture and aquaculture, has exploded in Ontario.

Two outdoor dining experiences in Simcoe County this summer celebrated regional tastes and Ontario heritage while also boosting the local economy and helping growers turn a profit.

An elegant dinner was served in July on the grounds of the historical military establishment Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene, which celebrated the anniversary of the War of 1812-14 and showcased local flavours such as fresh-water smelts, wild leeks, Ontario wines and ciders and, of course, maple syrup.

Event co-ordinator Kim Masin, executive director of the Simcoe County Farm Fresh Marketing Association (SCFFMA), also planned a second event in late August called Savour Simcoe.

The July dinner was an elegant, plated event, but Savour Simcoe is more casual and has won two awards from the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA).

“The day consists of tasting stations, all outdoors on the beautiful grounds at the Simcoe County Museum (near Barrie) where attendees visit food and beverage stations and not only taste delicious local food by some of our finest chefs, but they can also meet the farmers and chefs and find new places to purchase foods at farms and in restaurants and in stores,” Masin said in a news release.

Robert Reader, owner of the Explorer’s Café in Midland, has worked with grower Bart Nagel of Bulbs of Fire to create a taste for Savour Simcoe that promises “vampires beware.”

Their food sample includes a butternut squash quiche and baby greens salad, both enhanced with smoked garlic from Nagel’s Lafontaine farm.

Nagel grows almost 40 varieties of garlic and has developed a unique way to smoke it.

“It sets me apart from most other garlic growers,” he said.

He renewed his membership in SCFFMA this year because of the increased traffic to his farm that occurred after he joined the association.

“The more traffic you can drive to the farm, the less dependent you are on what other people are organizing, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Nagel said he advises other small growers to join marketing associations.

“The (SCFFMA) food map is potentially a huge traffic driver and if you have a unique product that sets you apart, people will seek you out,” he said.

“It’s an incredible (marketing) tool. I see people coming up my driveway with (the map) in their hands.”

Reader agreed that there are many benefits to joining a marketing association.

“Through the connections you make with local producers, you become aware of incredible ingredients that you never would have known were available,” he said.

SCFFMA’s social media reach means that growers’ brands are seen and promoted much further.

Outdoor dining and other events are a great way to “bring your product to people who already have an interest in good food and eating well,” he added.

The partnerships between local growers and chefs are key to the success of these culinary events, but marketing associations are the necessary catalyst.

Associations such as OCTA and SCFFMA give Ontario growers new ways to increase sales and form mutually beneficial partnerships with chefs, restaurateurs and accommodation providers such as bed and breakfasts.

Partnerships in Simcoe County frequently intersect: the Explorer’s Café worked with Bulbs of Fire for Savour Simcoe and Bulbs of Fire stocks product, such as smoked garlic pepper jelly, in chef Andre Sanche’s Midland food shop Ciboulette et Cie. Sanche is also an SCFFMA member.

Ciboulette et Cie is one of the first restaurants in the Midland area to become a Certified Taste of Ontario through the OCTA program, Feast ON.

Rebecca LeHeup, OCTA’s executive director, said the Feast ON designation means more support for local farms because restaurants such as Ciboulette et Cie must meet a minimum requirement of local food purchases throughout the year.

“The more restaurants buy locally, the more marketing benefit they get from us, and we’re here to increase that procurement and help make those connections with the local growers and producers to ensure that they can actually have a viable revenue stream by selling to the local restaurants,” she said.

Both restaurants and farmers receive help educating consumers about why they should be dining at places that support Ontario producers, she added.

LeHeup said consumers who eat at places with a Feast ON designation “are getting a more authentic taste of place, they’re supporting the local economy and food security and quite frankly, it tastes better than commercial, generic fast food.”

Getting a Feast ON designation was a no-brainer for Sanche, who uses locally sourced food in his four-year-old food shop and plans to expand this to include viticulture.

Sanche is excited about the direction his restaurant is taking, and though his current business model is lunch and take-home ready-made food, he’s planning a pilot project.

“Once a week we’ll open for dinner and, to me, it’s all about the friendship and the sharing aspect of food, and the menu will reflect that.”

Diners will order dishes meant to be shared, sit at large harvest tables, and regular patrons get to choose what the menu will include.

Sanche plans a VIP event where guests sample several beers, wines and new menu items and vote on their favourites.

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