Pulling in to the yard at Eigensinn Farm on Friday night I realized it had been more than ten months since I was last there. It felt like two weeks ago, which is partly because the days skip by bewilderingly quickly when you’re both busy and old and also because last summer’s visit—to the Heaven on Earth project—was so vivid and extraordinary that details were burned onto memory’s hard drive. This time, though, was just a regular dinner in the dining room of the farmhouse, my wife and I at one table, two other couples at theirs, a party of five from Vancouver. The evening light was bright in the room, which looks less serene than of old, mostly due to 13-year-old Hermann’s paintings crowding the crimson walls. Some of them are remarkably beautiful; all of them show a precocious eye and an innate kinetic energy. I guess it’s inevitable he would have talent.
If you’ve been to Eigensinn, you’ll know the routine. Park, admire the livestock wandering around the farmyard, go in through the mud room where an old dog barely musters a smile of greeting, go into the dining room where Nobuyo Stadtländer, charming as ever, takes the wine you’ve brought for ice-bucket or decanter treatment. You nod and say hello to the other guests. If they’re first timers they may seem a tad hesitant. This is probably a very special occasion, and they’re torn between acknowledging a bond with the other guests and anxiety that the longed-for magic and intimacy of the evening may be jeopardized by unwanted socializing.
The tables are impeccably set—white linen, vintage cutlery, a candle mounted on a flat piece of granite and protected by a blackened bedspring (nothing is wasted here). Then Stadtländer’s bread arrives—thick slices of sourdough in the folds of a napkin. It’s warm, moist with a crunchy crust and heavier than bread has a right to be. Soft butter sweetens its rich tang.
Already I’m beginning to buy into the Eigensinn mood. Something to do with the long two-hour drive, the roads getting smaller and emptier as you get deeper into the country and farther from Toronto—green fields and woodland for the last half hour. We overuse the word “pilgrimage” but it does spring to mind here—the time and effort required, the sense of shedding the stressful rhythms of urban life. Bread is always laden with primal meaning and this is such very good bread…But it’s too early in the evening to let the critical faculties roll over and show the submissive belly. We still want to be wooed.
The first course arrives—six little one-bite treats arranged on a weird horseshoe-shaped plate made by Stadtländer’s friend Steve the Potter. Let me list the dainties. A gorgeous creamy Colville Bay oyster cringed with a tiny amount of sake and rice wine vinegar. Beside it, a morsel of lightly smoked black cod, moistened with a little borage-scented cream and topped with shavings of radish, also subtly smoked but with its own clean radish-like heat. Next to that is a teeny mound of lobster salad, the lobster chopped up with chive, chervil, celeriac and (I think) a little cucumber in a creamy dressing—all very fresh and herbal. Herbs also rule the next amuse, silky raw fluke seasoned with tarragon, parsley and Okinawa lemon. Number five is a sliver of the house-smoked ham on a triangle of bread. Number six is a postage stamp of cured sardine—its fishy intensity balanced with cilantro and crushed wild ginger, softened with a dot of olive oil, all served in a clam shell.
No one does soup better than Stadtländer. Tonight, it’s an opaque brown concentration made from the shells of Dungeness crab, spiked with cumin and wild ginger (wow factor off the map). There are enoki mushrooms in there too, giving the illusion of solidity, and, lolling about on the fringes, two or three miniature canneloni filled with crab meat and coriander leaf. A single shrimp has been very briefly grilled, its peeled tail divinely juicy. I use a teaspoon to get at the sticky liquids inside its pink cuirasse.
Course three: I guess it’s the salad course and there are some soft, sweet leaves of various lettuces grown on the farm. Miner’s lettuce leaves ring the plate. So do small stout slices of squab breast, the meat given a faintly woodsy flavour by some momentary exposure to smoke. Two or three white asparagus form a bridge over a pool of iced duck consommé, sweetly ducky, almost a jelly at this temperature, and on top is a perfect little piece of seared foie gras. The room falls silent as each course arrives and people eat.
“How come Stadtländer’s your number one?” people ask me. “You have to drive all that way. It’s a flat rate of $250 a head and you have to bring your own wine! The place is decorated with shells and bits of rock and driftwood like some kid’s collection…” I’ll get to that. Meanwhile those first three courses provide some of the answer.
Course four features three different Georgian Bay fish—a bite each of whitefish, lake trout and golden perch. You have to concentrate on the differences—nuances of texture and flavour—and not be distracted by the little mound of fresh pea and chive risotto beneath them or by the succulent green asparagus or by the sauce—a fennel-flavoured clarified butter.
And now the sorbet. Served in the sawn-off punt of a wine bottle set upon a heap of wild ginger plants and wild flowers, it’s a small, dark purple ball of superintense blackcurrant-and-rum sorbet topped with wild ginger that has been blessed with an unction of maple syrup.
Time for a breather. First one couple, then everyone troops out onto the small patch of lawn at the side of the farmhouse. There’s just enough of the dusk left to see the animal bones tucked into a cairn like some pagan altar. People are murmuring, content. A warm June breeze sighs in the trees. A guy reaches for a pack of cigarettes then tucks it away again when Michael appears to say hello. He looks fit and tanned. He and Nobuyo just got back from a holiday in Spain where they ate at elBulli. “So? How was it?”
In 15 years, I have never heard Michael utter a word of criticism about another chef or restaurant. Now he struggles a little to describe the molecular experience of elBulli. “It was interesting…” The dish that left the most lasting impression was a parmesan foam served in a styrofoam box with a ziplock plastic bag of various seasonings that the customer was invited to sprinkle onto the foam, pinch by pinch… “It’s good to try different things. The two dishes I enjoyed most were actually the two most conventional.” But that styrofoam presentation seems to be troubling him. Hard to think of a substance more antithetical to the Eigensinn principles. As a contrast, he spent this morning with Steve the Potter making special ceramic dishes out of clay from his own pond for this summer’s chef d’oeuvre, a challenging chapter of his life he calls The Islands Project. In a nutshell, he, Nobuyo, son Hermann and a small team have been fixing up the school bus he acquired a couple of years ago and converted into a mobile solar-powered kitchen and studio. Come mid-July, they’re leaving for points west, returning after Labour Day to reopen Eigensinn Farm to the public.
“Where will you go?”
Michael purses his lips. First stop, Fort MacMurray, Alberta, to cook a solar-powered dinner in the heartland of the oil industry. A culinary protest against fossil fuels? Maybe. Then on to B.C. and the Gulf Islands. There he has many dinners planned. One on a beach with Vikram Vij as co-chef. Another with the local oyster supremo on Marine Island—they plan to build a castle out of driftwood—and another, and another. Each event will be filmed and edited by Michael into a video adventure—“a comedy,” he says. If a TV network doesn’t pick up the idea, he’ll record them onto DVD himself and sell them at the farm.
I have a million qu
estions, but it’s time to go back inside for the main course—one of Eigensinn’s sucking pigs. I’m in the middle of a nerdly rant about the oft-repeated error by which sucking pigs are called suckling pigs (sows suckle their young; piglets suck from their mother—a “suckling” pig would be a brood sow) when Stadtländer’s sous-chef enters the dining room to show us the meat in question— a rack of ribs and a slab of the belly, both crusted with crisp dark brown crackling. He takes it away again so the pork can be plated in the kitchen. We each get one chop, topped with a meli-melo of the piglet’s kidney, lovage, green onion and golden beet braised in apple cider. Next to it are small mounds of spinach and Swiss chard—the juxtaposition a lovely opportunity to compare and contrast leafy greens—firm little roast potatoes that redefine the flavour of potato and a pork jus. Before the plate is empty, Nobuyo appears to give everyone a little cube of the crisp-skinned belly. Why not put it on the plate to begin with? Because it’s extra special as a late arrival.
The Vancouver five are merry as grigs at the big table, sitting back, their own unabashed bellies like a low range of hills between them and the table. The room has come into its own as darkness falls, lit by 15 candles and the curious globe of woven driftwood, feathers and shells that hides the single overhead electric bulb. Mozart (who began the evening, calibrating our minds into a logical calm the way a crystal wand can polarize the body’s more discreet energies) has given way to murmuring jazz.
Time for the cheese. Three raw milk Quebec treasures: rich triple cream Riopelle; wake-up-call blue Ciel de Charlevoix; a gooey goat cheese patted with grey ash. A taste of fresh pear, a sliver of dried fig, some toasted raisin bread.
And then dessert. A triptych. Here’s a pale mound of something with the texture of panna cotta but uniting Michael’s German past and Canadian present, made with Lubeck marzipan and maple walnut, surrounded by sliced strawberries perked up by a rhubarb reduction. It’s gone in a trice but I wish I had met it in the cold, analytical light of morning and given it the full CSI inspection. Part two is a rhubarb hazelnut meringue cake with a dot of chantilly cream. Then there’s orange-thyme ice cream with a little vanilla and lavender as back-up aromas paired with kirsch-soaked cherries and a sprig of chocolate mint. And dancing over it all is a brittle tuile of orange thyme and hemp seed.
And then it’s over. Coffee or tea. The shy presentation of the bill (the figure scrawled on a napkin because the computer is down).
Back at the place we’re staying, the Pretty River Valley Inn, I sit outside in the warm night breeze and try to assess the last three hours. Is Stadtländer still my number 1? Technical scan…It was a flawless meal except for the lobster salad element of the first course where the lobster was lost amidst other flavours. Lefty slow-food quotient: unimpeachable. What didn’t come from Eigensinn’s own 100 acres came from the vicinity, except the Quebec foie gras and cheeses and the oyster and lobster from the Maritimes. (Okay, also the shrimp and the crab, the rice and the rum, but you get the point). Environment: magic. Having dinner in someone’s home will always trump some downtown salon as envisioned by a collective of very-good-bearded-young-designers-who-wish-they-were-working-in-New-York, provided the home belongs to a philosopher artist who understands the resonance of folk art. Also we’re in the country where wind and trees and soil and piles of fieldstone have the edge over sidewalks and cars.
Mostly it’s because this dinner, as always, is an uncompromised expression of Michael Stadtländer’s mind. I have enjoyed studying his aesthetic over the decades. The waxing and waning of the Japanese influence (especially where presentation is concerned), the interesting elision of nouvelle German and North American tastes, the way he has consciously allowed himself to be seduced by local ingredients while at the same time using his cosmopolitan experience and talents to coax the very best out of them. The intellectual integrity of his work. That dish with the three Georgian Bay fish might have been more spectacular and flavourful with salt-water species, but it would also have been less meaningful. The piglet came from his farm. A piglet from Cumbrae or some other reputable supplier would probably have tasted as good, but this piglet carried all the emotional weight, the consciousness of the karmic responsibility of slaughter and butchery that most restaurants strive to disguise. Michael was there when the sow dropped her litter. It’s the slow food ethos in action.
Urban restaurants spend a lot of time, money and energy on the value-added stuff—luxe décor, gorgeous staff, finely tuned muzak…At Eigensinn Farm, you enter a different kind of world, sharing an ongoing adventure. If the food were mediocre then it would be folk art—fun but artisanal rather than artistic. But the food is so very good…Some people don’t get it when I say an evening at Eigensinn is the same as if Duke Ellington asked you up to his apartment and then started noodling on the piano, or if you went back to Shakespeare’s house for a game of charades. I guess you just had to be there.