Stadtländer’s urban barn dance

Michael Stadtländer came to town last night, cooking for a hundred guests under the skylight at the Wychwood Art Barns. The evening was the grand finale of this year’s Salut festival and also a fundraiser for The Stop. I was lucky enough to emcee the event and arrived early to check out the venue. Michael and his apprentices were busy in the kitchen area beside the greenhouse and I asked him how things were going.

            “Oh, not too good,” he replied. The centrepiece of the menu was to be sucking pigs roasted in the Art Barn’s new wood-burning oven, but it has not yet been fitted with a chimney and so could not be used. Undaunted, Stadtländer had borrowed a giant wood-fired barbecue from a friend up near Collingwood and his wife, Nobuyo, was driving it down in their truck that afternoon. Unfortunately a tire had burst and the truck was stranded with no spare and no cell phone.

            “What are you going to do!!?” I gasped.

            Michael just smiled. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “We’ll think of something.”

            An hour before the guests were due to arrive, Nobuyo and the truck finally appeared. She had found a phone and called a friend who by sheer chance had a spare wheel exactly like the ones on the ancient vehicle. The monstrous oven (it looked like an old industrial boiler on legs) was dragged into the Art Barns garden and fired up with maple and apple logs. Their sweet smell greeted the fans with a promise of treats to come.

            The preliminary reception was a party in its own right. We drank 13th Street’s merry sparkling rosé while Adam Colqhoun from Oyster Boy shucked some splendid malpeques and servers passed by with Stadtländer’s canapés. Little pieces of wild perch were wrapped in speck, pan-fried and served on apple crisps. Soft, creamy fresh goat cheese from Fifth Town was rolled in lettuce leaves with masses of chives and then sliced into tiny drums, topped with shaved radish. Most delicious of all was some sliced smoked goose breast served on Stadtländer’s rye bread and butter. Jamie Kennedy once joked that no one on earth smokes hams more slowly than Michael – just a thin line of cold smoke slowly rising inside the fieldstone smokehouse Michael built behind the kitchen at Eigensinn Farm. “Hams stay in there for years.” (A slight exaggeration). The smoked goose was stunning, the soft flesh ruby red, its clear, succulent fat reminding some guests of pata negra ham.

            At seven o’clock we all sat down at two very long tables and dinner began.

            The first course was a soup made with white asparagus from David Cohlmeyer’s Cookstown Greens. “I want the asparagus to speak for itself,” Michael had told me and it did, most eloquently. He had started by peeling it and using the peel to make a stock, adding a dash of cream, some pepper and nutmeg and enough egg yolk to form a liaison. He used this to bathe the asparagus spears (poaching seems too aggressive a description) and then garnished the dish with the raw asparagus tips and some parsleyed croutons made from his chewy sourdough bread. It was a geat soup – so simple but packing some surprises: the hint of nutmeg (who puts nutmeg with asparagus?) was quietly exotic while the pleasant bitterness that is part of asparagus’s profile added its own dimension. Asparagus can push a timid wine around, causing dismay, which is why the Germans pair it with invincible rieslings during the endless vernal banquets of their white asparagus Sparglfest. Stadtländer chose a different companion for the soup – Henry of Pelham’s elegant 2009 Sauvignon Blanc. Aromatically, it was a perfect match and the wine stood up remarkably well to the asparagus’s juicy, vegetal advances.

            Next up: an amazing terrine made from squab and foie gras. Looking back on the last 17 years of meals up at Eigensinn Farm, I was struck by the fact that Stadtländer almost always uses foie gras when he cooks squab. He seemed surprised when I pointed this out to him – a recurring instinct more than any kind of conscious plan. For this dish, he began by marinating the foie gras in Calvados and maple syrup then tucked it around with smoked pork back fat and cooked it slowly to create a trembling pink brick of pure deliciousness. He deboned the squab, using the bones and a little pheasant meat to make a stock which he then refined down into a consommé and then further reduced until it was a sapid jelly the colour of brandy. He roasted the squab breasts and laid them side by side along the top of the foie gras then poured on the jelly, turning it into a translucent matrix of flavour. Beside the terrine were two slices of fig brioche bread and a little salad of various young greens from Michael’s garden.

            The dressing involved a very interesting product from Niagara called Aceto Niagara. It’s made in a barn by a couple of German winemakers called Martin Gemmrich and Wolfgang Woerthle. They begin by making icewine which they then ferment into vinegar. Then they age it for years in small oak barrels, turning it into Canada’s answer to balsamic. It’s all natural and it’s the sort of vinegar – rich, viscous, incredibly layered in terms of flavour – that you can sip at the end of a meal as a digestif. Amazing stuff.

            But we didn’t drink vinegar with that awesome terrine. Daniel Lenko had raided his wine library to provide a delectable 2007 gewurztraminer, all rose petals and spiced honey on the nose but with a nice suggestion of acidity on the palate and enough weight to offer perfect balance – the wine pairing of the night.

            The party was in full swing as the next course appeared. Stadtländer had planned to cook lake trout from Nottawasaga Bay but the winds were so strong last week no fishing boats had put out. Instead, he sourced some Lake Huron pickerel and three sizeable pike from a lake near his farm. He pan-seared the pickerel in brown butter and fragrant savoury until the flesh was gloriously moist and soft. As for the pike, he filletted the fish and cubed the flesh, mixing it with egg white, salt and pepper, cream and butter (pike likes butter), shallots and a dash of kirsch, then he pressed the mixture into little dumplings which he poached in chicken stock. God, they were delectable. Everyone got two on their plates, but we all agreed we could have eaten twenty. Keeping the fish company were three fat spears of green asparagus in brown tarragon butter and a little wild rice which Michael had roasted with onions to modify its texture. We drank Grange of Prince Edward Victoria Block Chardonnay from the already legendary 2007 vintage – a rich, elegant, tangy wine that worked particularly well with those pike dumplings (moans of pleasure).

            Finally – the hour of the pig was upon us. These were sucking piglets from Eigensinn Farm – the cross of two old European heritage breeds (red wattle and black English) that Stadtländer favours. Such sweet juicy pork; such crisp crackling… And with it a jus reduced from the piglet bones. Alongside were vegetables from the farm – tender Swiss chard and wild burdock root. Michael has to uproot great patches of burdock each spring to stop it taking over the entire property. Rather than chucking it onto the compost he fed it to us, first cleaning and slicing the roots then roasting them off with sunflower oil seasoned with pepper and maple syrup. The firm, bittersweet little ovals were a clever contrast with the meat. Stealing the show, however, were some exquisitely soft ravioli filled with spinach and crushed hazelnuts and tossed in a pesto made from the green part of wild leeks picked from Michael’s wood lot. The wild leek bulbs also appeared, roasted in duck fat with a touch of maple syrup and apple cider vinegar. To drink, the great chef chose Tawse’s fruity 2008 Lauritzen Vineyard Pinot Noir – yet another triumph.

            Cheese came next – three Canadian beauties brought by the Dairy Farmers of Canada and introduced by Debbie Levy. One was a smooth, creamy Cru de Champlain from Fromagerie F. X. Pichet in Sainte-Anne de la Pérade, Quebec. Another was the semi-soft Fleur-en-Lait, made in a St. Paulin style by Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster, Ontario. The third was a fabulously nippy seven-year-old cheddar from Pine River Co-op in Ripley, Ontario. With them we tasted a spectacular botrytis-affected riesling – the 2008 from Ravine Estates, one of my new favourite Niagara wineries.

            And so to dessert, which Stadtländer paired with the tangy 2007 Cabernet Franc Icewine from Château des Charmes. Beneath a delicate little blanket of chocolate-flecked Lübeck marzipan lay a maple mousse on a layer of genoise, all topped with a kiss of whipped cream and a gelée made from Waupous apple Icewine. Très charmant – but a surprise lurked at the heart of that seemingly innocent mousse, a fabulously intense compote of rhubarb and sour cherry essence that took everyone by surprise.

            It reminded me that Stadtländer had started his career as a pastry chef before coming to Canada in 1980 to open Scaramouche with his friend and co-chef, Jamie Kennedy. They introduced Toronto to the precepts of European nouvel cuisine and also to the idea of the celebrity chef. Young Canadian cooks hung on Michael’s every word – how did he cook green beans? How did he decorate a plate? Why was he smoking eels in the bushes below the restaurant? Never mind that Michael was only 21 years old.

            Since then, for 30 years, Stadtländer has been a major influence on the way we think about food – sometimes as a distant, eccentric figure, more recently as the fearless leader of the local-seasonal movement, as the rest of us finally came panting up behind him to admit that everything he had been saying since 1980 was true.

            In that time, he has given us the bold improvisations of his dinners at Stadtländer’s, on John Street; the wild shore-and-garden cuisine he offered at Sinclair Philip’s Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island; the amazing two-year series of nightly art at Nekah – still one of the best restaurants I have ever been to. Michael’s food there was amazing – a meticulous technique somewhere between European nouvel cuisine, contemporary North American cooking and Japanese kaiseki – all informed by an aesthetic that seemed New Age but was really closer to German Romanticism. If I close my eyes now I can still see the final presentation of exquisite petits fours served on a cold granite stone, scattered with calendula petals.

            And then, for the last 17 years, there has been the deep magic of Eigensinn Farm. I still can’t get away from describing it as Prospero’s Island – with Michael as Prospero, a magician and impresario creating culinary theatre that leaves susceptible people like me simply gobsmacked. The special events are particularly memorable – those hot summer days of wonder where we walk across the wildflower meadows and through the forest from one improvised cooking station to the next, charmed by music or actors or dancers or Sheldon Jafine’s conjuring tricks until the sun sets and the geat bonfire is lit – multi-media performance art of the highest calibre. I swear I once saw Michael control the weather, warding off an inopportune rainshower with a discreet gesture.

            Last night we brought him off his 100-acre stage, forbad him magic and drowned all his books except for his talent for cooking. Michael’s food is simpler now than it was at Nekah. The Asian and Japanese inflections have slowly faded over the years – though I still think the influence of kaiseki remains in the structure and progressions of a Stadtlander dinner. The plating has become less precise, more natural. The importance of using local, seasonal produce from his own or his neighbours’ land has grown increasingly insistent – with some perennial exceptions such as Quebec foie gras and Adam Colqhoun’s oysters.

            That bioregional integrity where ingredients are concerned lends its own rigour to Michael’s art. It imposes limitations that he can use as a structure, letting his imagination scramble all over it like a child on a climbing frame. It also gives him an incredible understanding of those ingredients, because he has watched them grow – seen them in all their seasons from seed to fruit – knows the weather they have lived through and the other plants that flourished beside them. When you feed your own pigs with fruit from the wild apple trees that grow in your own hedgerows, you build up a marvelously instinctive knowledge of what goes with what and an amazing awareness of terroir. Michael proved that again last night.

  1. What Chatto proves, yet again, is that he has the amazing palate and sensibilities to experience such an adventure as Statdlander’s epic night at the Barns and then convey thoughtful, funny, articulate streams of reflection in words. Thank you for sharing James.

  2. What an extraordinary review! The memories simply flow as I remember Nekah and before that when Michael hauled me into the kitchen at Sooke to show me how to skin a wolf eel which he subsequently served with a wild blackberry butter sauce. Thank you James! You remind me of how truly blessed we are to be alive at this particular moment of Canadian culinary history.

  3. Sometimes I wish the food-privileged would leave such delights to the rest of our imaginations instead of sharing it and filling me with regret for not being there.
    Next time Mr. Chatto, perhaps you could mix it up by bringing some hungry party crashers? The kind with cameras so we can see this feast you describe?

  4. A truly fine piece of writing and one which I enjoyed immensely. One dish I most especially would have loved to see were the “sucking” [sic] pigs. Conjures up quite a vision!

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