Up the ramp
To Eigensinn Farm yesterday for Michael Stadtländer’s Wild Leek Festival, a fundraiser for local women’s shelters. It was a glorious day with a cloudless forget-me-not sky and warm sunshine flooding the broad, deep dell in the maple forest. You forget how much sun reaches the forest floor when there are no leaves on the trees. There were patches of wild leeks on the northerly ridge—bright green against the grey-brown carpet of leaf litter—though most of them grow in another part of the property. To either side of the pathways little trout lilies were everywhere—just delicate single green leaves. “You can eat them, too,” said Michael, picking one each for those of us who were standing close to him. It tasted as sweet as a corn seedling.
A number of chefs had joined Michael to prepare the feast and this time they were all gathered into the one area, working with open fires of maple, apple and cherry wood or, in the case of Paul Boehmer, a massive steel barbecue, perfect for his juicy pork ribs with wild leek pesto. It was a casual, undirected day and the 200 or so paying guests wandered at will between the stations, settling at picnic tables or in the “human nest,” an open treehouse that seats 40, built by Stadtländer and his helpers a year or two ago. From time to time, musicians played but there were no stage-managed effects or surprises. It was all about the leeks and every chef dealt with them in his own way.
The first taste came from Michael’s son, Christophe Stadtländer, who had set up a table in the lane leading into the woods. He had a great basket of freshly baked, crusty sourdough loaves (the usual house recipe adapted this time to include some finely chopped wild leek) and sides of delicious smoked chinook salmon from an organic fish farm in Tofino on Vancouver Island. Lightly smoked and not at all salty, the fish was superb with the bread and a runny dressing of cream, chive, wasabi and shallot. Christophe sells the salmon to various downtown stores including Pusateri’s through his company, Christophe Fine Foods.
Across the lane was a second table where a couple of the Farm’s resident apprentices offered another treat—little pieces of Stadtländer’s ham, smoked very gently over five months without nitrates or preservatives, soft and supple and a deep Venetian red colour.
On the brow of the hill, we came upon Adam Colquhoun of Oyster Boy and his team, shucking beautiful big oysters from Totten Island in Washington State. They’re an east coast species that’s being grown in Pacific waters, explained Colquhoun, a bastardization that he did not approve of until he tasted the result. Amazingly sweet and fleshy, they were only three years old but were big enough to be taken for eight year-olds in the Maritimes. The Pacific is warmer, and winter hibernation time is much shorter, so oysters grow much more quickly in the west, said Colquhoun as he spooned Stadtländer’s mignonette of minced wild leek in sake vinegar onto the glossy beauties.
Further into the woods, Hiro Yoshida of Hiro Sushi was serving sushi of smoked Spanish mackerel marinated with wild leek greens and hot sesame oil—a heavenly combination. Chris Klugman of the Summerhill grocery store in deepest Rosedale had made a fabulous jerusalem artichoke soup with wild leeks sauteed in bacon fat as a garnish.
Nearby, Nathan Isberg of Coca and Czehoski was enjoying his first visit to the farm. “I met Michael a few weeks ago in Toronto,” he told me, “and he asked if was coming here to the Festival. I thought he meant as a guest so I said yes. It was only when I saw someone else’s invitation and read my name on it that I realized he wanted me to participate as a cook!” Though his team of helpers got lost on their way to Eigensinn and ended up in Collingwood, Isberg put together a scrumptious open sandwich, spit roasting Stadtländer’s plump, flavourful chickens, chopping up the meat with Monforte goat milk yogurt, masses of wild leeks and his own ras al hamout blend of spices, then spreading the mixture onto thick slices of dark rye bread. Isberg was having a busy weekend, rushing back to Toronto later that afternoon to cater Mark McEwan’s birthday party in the third floor party room at Czehoski.
Down in the dell, Anthony Walsh of Canoe had splayed a couple of Stadtländer’s lambs and set them up vertically beside his fire to roast-smoke them in the Argentine way for a good seven hours. The meat was juicy and fragrant, rolled around a marinated wild leek (the firm white part of the plant).
A few yards away, Jamie Kennedy and his three grown-up children were serving poutine, mixing chopped wild leek greens with grated five-year-old Quebec cheddar, scattering it over french fries then adding a rich beef gravy flavoured with the white wild leek root. Still preoccupied with last week’s thoughts about soggy chips, I asked him how come his fries were crisp. Were they the first of this year’s potatoes? They were not. But Kennedy has figured out how to avoid limp springtime frites. Temper the potatoes for a couple of weeks before using them by setting them in a cold pantry. They become starchier and therefore crisper when fried.
There were two desserts. Bryan Steele of The Old Prune in Stratford made a sorbet out of vanilla-poached rhubarb and served it with a tongue of puff pastry, crumbly Monforte ricotta and some soft spikes of the rhubarb. Stadtländer himself made an awe-inspiringly delicious Laphroiag ice cream which he served on a wooden saucer with a dab of super-intense blackcurrant sauce and a crumbly tuile.
So the lazy afternoon wore on with lots of good conversation, birdsong and sunshine. I bought a piece of speck from Stadtländer’s son Hermann. Renowned gourmet and vet, Sheldon Jafine, amazed a couple of us with inexplicable feats of conjuring and prestidigitation while his adorable pug, Lawrence, looked on approvingly. But Eigensinn Farm’s real magic is of a subtler kind, recharging the spirit, gently permeating the soul the way the aroma of woodsmoke soaked into my clothes that day.
Picture – sushi in the forest with Hiro”