Blessed with an abundance of local produce, and locally-produced foodstuffs, it’s no wonder Muskoka is home to top chefs like Michael Pataran of Taboo who was the 2004 international conference-centre chef of the year, and Rory Golden of the Deerhurst Resort, chosen as chef of the year in Canada in 2003. And beginning this summer the new Savour Muskoka program is bringing locally produced food and acclaimed chefs together.
“People want not just to see, but also to taste and feel what a region has to offer,” says Gary Froude, president of the Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency. “Our palates are maturing as a society.”
Behind the scenes, restaurateurs are networking with local growers in creating menus that highlight locally-grown ingredients. A driving force behind this is Rory Golden, executive chef at Deerhurst Resort and vice-chair of the Savour Muskoka association. Golden already uses the Savour Muskoka logo on select menu items, like his halibut steak in potato-chive crust made with Bracebridge spuds. Other regional tastes include wildflower and lavender honeys from Papa Jim’s Honey in Utterson, quail eggs from Huntsville’s Romanow Farms and even juniper berries that grow along Deerhurst’s golf course. “People are surprised the source is that close,” Golden says. The restaurant plans to incorporate Muskoka ingredients in all courses of their table d’hôte menu and to feature Savour Muskoka dining weekends.“The big thing in culinary tourism is anything interactive. People are hungry to tap into the skills of the chef,” says Delta Sherwood Inn’s general manager Esa Paltanen. The inn—where you’ll find Sherwood Smoke salmon that the inn smokes and serves with a cranberry chutney made with berries from nearby Bala—plans year-round interactive events, like last April’s cooking on the barbecue demo, and a flavour-filled charity fundraiser Taste of Delta Sherwood in late August.
Regional ingredients are even showing up on spa menus. Delta Sherwood’s spa uses antioxidant-rich lees from the winery at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh in its body wraps and facials. At the Inn at Christie’s Mill guests can select spa treatments that feature herbs grown on the property, and innovative uses for that ubiquitous Muskoka shrub, sumac, are in the works.
Every weekend this summer, a guest chef joins chefs Michael Pataran and Jay Scaife in the culinary theatre at Taboo Resort, Golf and Spa. Guests select ingredients, then watch chefs prepare impromptu tasting menus. The 30-seat theatre is at the heart of Taboo’s dining space, Elements, new this May. Elements also encompasses a restaurant that emphasizes market fresh ingredients, overseen by 2005 conference-centre chef of the year in Canada, executive chef Alain Irvine, and a lounge that serves chef Tawfik Shehata’s seasonal small plates menu.Fresh-market cuisine is what executive chef/proprietor David Friesen does best at Riverwalk Restaurant. “Sometimes farmers show up with something they picked a half-hour ago,” he says. “As things come in the back door, we put it on the menu.” When Savour Muskoka approached him about joining, he “jumped on with both feet.” “This is the type of cooking I’ve done for years,” he says. Guests will continue to enjoy his chef’s table, now a Savour Muskoka event. “It’s a dining experience slash cooking class slash education about where it came from,” he says. Friesen sums up: “It’s not always about fast dining up here.”
If you’re finding it tough to choose which of Muskoka’s lauded chefs to try, at Flavours of Muskoka (page 50), you can enjoy signature tastes from about 25 Muskoka chefs and as many vintners and brewers, for an all-inclusive $60 (including a $30 income-tax receipt) at this fundraiser for area charities. I call it the amazing graze, co-coordinator Gary Froude says.
Or feast at Field to Fork (page 50) on August 20 at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh. Last year, the farm paired up 10 Muskoka chefs, local farmers and Ontario wineries. The chef was responsible for creating a dish with the ingredients from their partner farm that would go well with the wine, organizer Corrie Patton explains. This family-run farm and winery also conducts tours year-round and events like themed dinners that showcase their fruit wines.
The Web site www.savourmuskoka.ca posts a list of places that feature local food and drink, information about farms that sell fresh produce, gastronomic events and more. The Savour Muskoka logo on participants’ entrances, menus and products will help foodies find that authentic Muskoka taste. And, by fall, it’s hoped that a Culinary Trail map will be available.—Anne Gibson