Waterloo Region is a hub of contrasts. It is home to the The Mennonite Story, an exhibit of the Old Order Mennonites’ beginnings to the present day; and in contrast, Ctrl V, Canada’s first virtual reality arcade. There is a surprising mix of attractions and experiences from the Fashion History Museum of 10,000 wardrobe items from the 1600s to today, including contemporary Canadian designers; to romantic nature trails, rafting and fly-fishing in the Grand River; to festivals like the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany. In St. Jacobs, a horse-drawn trolley takes us to a sugar bush to tap maple syrup; and in Elmira, we board the Waterloo Central Railway steam locomotive along the historic route to the St. Jacobs Market, the largest farmer’s market and flea market in Canada. It is a magnet for passionate chefs who value fresh produce, and farmers who harvest some of the best quality produce in the world.
“Farm to table is our backyard,” enthuses Chef Jason Bangerter. His menus at Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa are compendiums of the terroir. Renowned as a luxury spa and dining getaway, gardening and foraging are integral to this kitchen. He offers a “surprise course” in which he leads guests out along a wooded trail where, together, they pull a plant out of the ground, wash it and eat it. “Everything I prepare is inspired by the land here; by a vegetable; a leaf; a weed. I try to bring that back to life on the plate.” His cooking classes include Queen’s Eggs cooked over a steam bath and finished with champagne and wild mushrooms.
Chef Darnell Gregg at Fistro Supper Club Bistro gravitates to the cornucopia of produce between the Galt, Kitchener-Waterloo and St Jacobs markets, which inspire his menus. Field cucumber gazpacho with pickled prawn relish sings of summer. Delicately seared Ontario perch is splashed with apple gastrique. Roasted rhubarb with mascarpone, crunchy sourdough and delicate greens make a luscious statement: showcase one main vegetable and cleanly elevate its identity on a plate.
“Shine that wine, knock it back and you’ll be fine,” Ben Murphy assures me. His Murphy’s Law Distillery is unique and draws tourists in droves to purchase his boutique selection of moonshine. Murphy distills from local corn and bottles in mason jars. Apple Pie Moonshine, made with cloves, nutmeg and local cider is the rage. There’s also Peach Pie, White Lightning, Cherry Bomb and Moondance, which is like sipping smooth slow heat.
For barbeque lovers Lancaster Smokehouse is “it.” The line up begins at 3:30pm, not for the blues and rock bands; it’s for Texan-style short rib. This carnivorous bliss exists nowhere else. Conversation stops. We are transfixed with delight on our platter of meaty eight-inch side ribs, savoury beef brisket, colossal smoked wings and crunchy fried chicken. Along with local okra, collard greens, potatoes and green tomatoes, these pit masters prove it’s not just the rub or the technique; it’s the quality of meat. Southern soul food has met Ontario produce and moved in.
Chefs and farmers are neighbours here. At Chef Dan McCowan’s Red House, I order dishes of tender braised pork curry, and pulled lamb tortellini in a savoury broth of smoked pork and parmesan. The waitress whispers that the pork and lamb are from the family-run Church Hill Farm, and they’re seated at the table right next to me. Sous vide veal from nearby Delft Blue veal farm is the most tender veal I have ever tasted. Accented with charred garlic relish, this dish alone is worth a trip to Waterloo.
The chefs in Waterloo Region are like kids in a candy store, reaching for all the new produce that surrounds them, and defining a Southern Ontario style of cuisine based on seasonal ingredients. I surrendered myself to this glorious food and met my own Waterloo.