Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's Julia Child all over again!

The Grand Theatre is in the heart of downtown London and tonight Jon and I are here to see TO MASTER THE ART (of French Cuisine). It’s the live theatre version of the Julia Child story. Even from the grave, Julia Child has risen to raise the profile of cooking and eating – she is my hero!

Actress Sara Machin Gale played Child and did an amazing job walking us through Child’s obsession for food and passion for Parisian life. It’s a tasty fairytale that foodies can’t get enough of. If you’re an obsessed foodie you must see this play. On the surface, it’s a celebration of French culinary culture and cuisine but its messages run deep. I was especially drawn to the similarities I see among modern day foodies and Julia; the endless days of pure bliss spent in the kitchen whether the recipes work or not; the husband with the never-ending patience for eating the same dish over and over again while we go through the journey to perfection; and the way friends and family commune around the table in celebration of good food and better conversation.

Some days I feel like it’s a mirror image of my life. While Julia cooked, the aromas of the food flooded the theatre and everyone’s palate was whet with the anticipated flavours husband Paul Child was about to eat - pure culinary theatrics!

TO MASTER THE ART highlighted the culinary cultural differences between the French and the American. So if you’ve read this far, I’m going to guess that you’re like me – living in between the French and American culture. We’re a different breed you and I, we have a undying passion for food like the French yet we live in North America - specifically Ontario. It’s the passion for food that inspires us to be particular about the quality of food and about its origins, we want to meet the people who grow our food and learn everything about it from how to judge the best to preparing and sharing it. It’s not enough to eat to fill our bellies, we want it to mean something to our lives and our world and we want it to be the best it can be.

These are the qualities that inspired The Ontario Table. It’s a do-it-yourself eat local cookbook, but that’s North American talk. What I really wanted to call it was Mastering the Art of Ontario Cuisine. If it were called Mastering the Art of Ontario Cuisine would you think of it differently? Nah, this is North America after all.

Back to the play, perhaps some may see TO MASTER THE ART as a chic flick but to me it represents so much more. It’s a lifestyle to aspire to, a palate to cultivate and through these lessons we begin to indulge in the finer things in life. Julia – you still have it girl!

The Grand Theatre, TO MASTER THE ART is a must-see play for everyone!

A Bite of Heaven in St. Thomas

I was at the Horton Farmers’ Market in St. Thomas, Ontario and someone handed me what looked like a flat sugar donut. It was almost hot and the insides squished warm cream into my mouth while the soft apple inside caved so lusciously to my bite and it all finished with a sweet and crunchy ending of the coarse cinnamon sugar outside – oh, yummmmmm.

They call these little pillows of heaven apple fritters - somehow that just doesn’t do this amazing market pastry justice. The young girl selling them doesn’t understand my over excitement as she stands over dozens and dozens of them, ready to sell them to market shoppers. It’s a local delicacy and they’re well known to those who live in St. Thomas.

Baker Jacques Vanrign takes pride in being the inventor and his process is rather labour intensive. As the girl describes it I’m reminded of making ravioli.

Large sheets of sweet dough are rolled out, slices of fresh apple are placed inches apart across the entire dough surface. Next a spoonful of Bavarian cream and a dab of almond paste is placed on top of each apple slice and a top layer of dough is placed overtop. Next the dough is gently pressed down to separate the apples and they’re cut out with a large, round cookie cutter. The apple fritters are then deep fried and covered with coarse sugar with just a kiss of cinnamon.

They sell for $1.25 each, wrapped in a napkin and customers walk around the market shopping, visiting and eating the fresh, seasonal, heavenly apple treat. Other than market day, you can buy them at The Dutch Bakery in town.

It’s the season for Vanrign’s exquisite bites of heaven so get to St. Thomas and buy them by the dozen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

It's Apple & Fruitcake Season

It’s mid autumn and I’m at the St Mary’s Farmers Market. The colours are brilliant orange, crimson and green. Apples, pumpkins and squash amuse the children while moms walk around with bouquets of fresh kale to make the latest delicious, kid friendly kale chips. The sun is shining, the air is brisk and Joan Brady of Smoky Hollow Farm Market offers up steaming cups of coffee, tea and hot apple cider for market shoppers.

As I stood there warming my hands around a porcelain mug (yes, Joan is happy to do the dishes!) of hot cider a little 4-year old boy came up, ordered 2 chocolate chip cookies and handed over his loonie. “He comes here every week and buys the same thing,” Joan smiles, “it’s their family’s tradition to come to the Saturday morning market.” The boy takes his purchase and runs back to his mom who is chatting a few yards away with neighbours. Farmers’ markets are great community gathering places.

Mary Szabo of The Nutty Baker and her daughter Anna are at the St Marys Farmers’ Market every Saturday morning. A former hog farmer, Mary is now an avid baker and each week her loyal customers look forward to her scones, mini loaves, cheesecakes, muffins and cookies. She’s sells quickly.

In the far corner of her table I notice a pile of dark, almost black, mini loaves. The sign says Christmas Cakes. I could hardly believe my eyes. Just over Thanksgiving and deep into Halloween party planning I’m looking at Christmas cakes – like the summer harvests from the fields, I’m feeling like I just can’t keep up!

Yes, along with apples, pumpkins, squash, beets and leeks, Mary explains it’s also Christmas cake season. Mary, I’ve learned is the St Marys Queen of Christmas Cakes. The little cakes are dark brown and filled with loads of dried fruit, nuts and spices.

For anyone who loves making traditional Christmas cakes you know that this is the time of year to bake them because this little edible icons of holiday cheer needs time to brew, ferment and mature. So Mary’s customers buy them and take them home to finish them off. Some of them brush the little cakes every few weeks with dark rum, others prefer to drizzle it over top. Either way, it’s a secret ritual that starts now and ends when the cake is cut and shared on Christmas day.

To store fruitcake for the next 2 months it needs to be wrapped up tightly, placed in and air tight container and stored in a cold cellar or refrigerator until the holiday season.

Mary’s Christmas fruitcake is so popular she’s sold out by the end of market day and so she’ll bake another 2 dozen for the next week knowing some of her customers who were disappointed today will be back.

So what makes Mary’s fruitcake so delicious? She’s not telling, but would explain that she arrived at her recipe by blending the best parts of 5 or 6 (she can’t recall exactly) different tried and true fruitcake recipes. The best fruitcakes in Mary’s opinion has almonds, lemon rind, vanilla and rum. “You just can’t skimp on the quality of fruit and oh yea, lots of butter.” Mary also says you need to have patience for the longer you feed it and leave it, the better it gets. Happy fruitcake season!