Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Savour Stratford - Tasting Awards

Those of you who know me, know that I shy away from food tasting events. The kind of events where the masses throng confined spaces to rush their movable feast of dozens of tastings at breakneck speeds before the spoils are too picked over.

Trying to juggle a plate, sometimes of an odd shape, with a wine glass, napkin and camera can be a bit tricky.

I usually prefer enjoying a chef's creations in his or her dining room, where the setting is much more leisurely and the food preparation and plating gets full attention and care.

700 tickets were sold for Savour Stratford's main event. It is the most challenging of conditions for chefs to work in. It is a tented outdoor setting. One never knows the temperature. Last year it was freezing, this this year warm enough that the wasps were keen to explore. The workstation is makeshift and confining. And the order of the day is to present a food idea that showcases one's talent, can be assembled with ease, is manageable for the taster, and can be put out as fast as the sold-out crowd descends.

So what was I doing in the Tasting Tent at Savour Stratford last Sunday afternoon? Two words. VIP ticket. The general admission was $75 - a pretty respectable price for 30 plus tastings. It also included a selection of beverages - craft beer, Ontario wines, coffee, tea. (Ottawa's Feast of Fields a few weeks earlier sold tickets for $70 and had 20 farmer-chef teams.) For an extra $40 I could call myself 'VIP'. The biggest plus for being VIP? I was graced with a 'food rush handicap' of 60 minutes to do my tortoise race at a more leisurely pace and with a wee bit of elbow room.

Some may think that $40 is a lot of money to pay for space around you but I should mention we also received a swag bag. The snappy looking black event bag itself retailed for $6. The 50 gr. spice blend by well-known Kitchen Connaisseur sells for $6.50. The 125 ml jar of Crock Pickle Relish by Pickles Eh! sells for $3.50. There were a number of winery tours and tastings certificates (harder to use for an out-of-towner like me), soap, a darling wine cup, bottle opener. I could go on. It now doesn't seem like I paid THAT much more for my head start and breathing space.

The Tasting event was judged by Connie DeSousa, Chuck Hughes, Ivy Knight, Suresh Doss, and Kris Holden-Reid. I felt they made solid choices. I tasted them all except the winner of Best Beverage.

People's Choice Award - Pickled heirloom tomato with garlic and herbed cheese on a fried wonton finished with micro sprouts
By: Chef Jamie Craig, Wildstone Bar & Grill with Miss Fosters Popcorn and Good Luck Farms

Best Meat Dish - "Porkapoluza" [Corn tortillas made with pork lard, Berkshire bacon jam, Habanero smoked Tamworth pork belly, Fermented pico de gallo, Salt-cured Berkshire loin shavings and Pork crackling] *** My choice for best over all ***
By: Chef Nick Benninger of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 with Perth Pork Products

Best Vegetarian Dish - Weth Mushroom Tostada with Tomatillo Salsa & Sour Cream
By: Chef Aaron Linley, Bijou with Weth Mushrooms

Most Creative Dish - Butternut Squash Ice Cream with Black Walnut Shortbread and David Koert's Organic Maple Butter
By: Chef Mark Brown, Stone Maiden Inn with Koert Organics

Best Dessert - C'est Bon Chevre Panna Cotta
By: Chef Rene Delafranier, Rene's Bistro with C'est Bon Cheese Limited

Best Beverage
- Ontario Savoury Herbal Tea
By: Tea Sommelier, Karen Hartwick from Tea Leaves Tea Tasting Bar

I do want to highlight one other entry.

My Personal Honourable Mention - Arincini Balls [Risotto ball stuffed with braised pork. Fried then topped with fontina and smoky tomato & bacon jam.]
By: Chef Sean Collins & Greg Kuepfer, Pazzo Restorante and Pizzeria with Church Hill Farm

Despite not being cut out for these types of events, I had a great time. I loved the food. I was thrilled that they had decent weather and not the forecasted rain. To feed 700 people in such a short time under non-traditional cooking and plating conditions, was impressive. By the time I headed out, the place was packed!

Hats off to the organizers, chefs, farmers and their teams. Savour Stratford overall was an impressive event. You are fully deserving of your provincial and national recognition. Well done.

Things I liked:
  • A VIP ticket was available for those wanting to be less crowded. For a bit.
  • The program listed the names of the Farmer-Chef Culinary Teams with the details of the dish they were going to serve.
  • The swag bag was given at the end. Nice not to have one more thing to juggle.
  • There were decent items in the swag bag.
  • There were a number of well placed water coolers
  • There was an opportunity to meet a number of the producers on Saturday and Sunday in the Farmers' Market nearby. I often feel the producers get short shrifted on these types of events. Understandably, there is so much glamour around the actual dish created, when the glory maybe should go to those who provided the raw ingredients. Because of the crowds and the need to be moving the yummies along as they are plated, there really is no time to engage in any depth of conversation with the farmers. As a result, I so appreciated being able to spend time with the producers at their stands in the market.
  • Consider providing clear signage in the Farmers' Market for those participating in the Tasting Tent. I just fell across this information in conversation with a number of them. It is an opportunity to give them some more airtime. Perhaps other Tasting Tent visitors would make a point of checking out their farmers beforehand.
  • 30 tastings is plenty. I risked not feeling well from all the richness. I skipped 5 booths just to be on the safe side. (All be it they were two teas, a coffee, jams and chocolate - I know, bad call.) There was no room for liquor on top of all of that. I didn't dare. Congrats to those who could do both. So in that sense, I did not maximize my ticket price.
  • Push quality over quantity. I felt some tastings were a bit light on creativity.
  • On the lighter side....I know this one will never fly, but here it goes. Maybe for us 'VIP's, you could load us on a golf cart at the end of the event and chariot us back to our car where we could decompress for a bit. As predicted, I was tuckered out going solid from 9 am to 3 pm. I was super stuffed. Thankfully, stone cold sober.
Interested in seeing the full selection of wonderful food tastes? Enjoy the slide show.

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