STRATFORD, ON – Don’t ask anyone for directions to Justin Bieber’s house, or for that matter, any other details about the pop singer’s life before YouTube. The teen with the famous ‘do and the baby face may have grown up here, but locals have been just as proud to host their annual Shakespeare Festival, entering its 60th year, while establishing a culinary festival they hope will long outlive Bieber Fever. But if you’re dying to know the details of his life, the local Tourism Office will gladly help you out. I heard they offer maps to pinpoint fascinating landmarks, like where he had his first date, etc.
My reason for heading to Stratford over the weekend was to teach the locals a few things about pig roasting, using my trusty La Caja China boxes, at their annual Savour Stratford Festival. It was a fitting location for such a class, since Perth County is Canada’s pork capital, raising several heritage breeds like the Tamworth. Nearly every restaurant here has some type of pulled pork on its menu, a nod to locals’ taste for anything porcine.
Organizers had wanted to add something to this year’s Festival theme, all about heritage, and while it was widely known that Perth County farmers and locals used to bury pigs for roasts, this is no longer the case. Despite the wide media attention the pig boxes have received in the States, they are still relatively unknown in Canada, so it was a perfect opportunity to showcase the box and its uses for a large crowd (they expected about 30,000 people over the course of the weekend).
Paul Finkelstein – a local chef and culinary instructor at the Stratford Northwestern Secondary School - was my invaluable teammate on Saturday, securing the pigs from local farmers, getting Your Local Market Co-Op to make some caramelized onions and an heirloom tomato chutney, then having his students at The Screaming Avocado bake off some hearty, dense rolls flecked with poppyseeds for our chopped, roasted pork.
The fact that there was a team of pig roasters by the names of Finkelstein and Dolinsky was funny enough by itself. But as people strode by our booth, asking tons of questions about where the heat source was placed, what kind of charcoal we were using and how, exactly, was the pig situated inside the box, the smell of roasted pork permeated the entire perimeter of our small tent. With the rain threatening, then pouring for 10 minutes, then receding for the rest of the day, we hit our stride by 12 pm, and didn’t really look up until 3:30 pm, when all of the pig, condiments and buns had been wiped out.
The thing I love about these boxes is their ease to assemble, as well as their consistency in churning out a perfect product. Even with pigs that were pushing 100 pounds, they took less than four hours each, and all we had to do was follow the simple directions on the side of the box (and keep about 50 pounds of charcoal on hand for each pig).
Like any food festival, Savour Stratford is mostly about the terroir, or the surrounding land. Farmers came to sell their produce; local artisans showed off their roasted coffee or blended teas. Several bakeries stuffed their tables with scones, muffins and ciabattas. But there were also some products there (at a massive tasting event on Sunday in the main square) that I wished we had in the States, like this crazy-good root beer, called Babbling Brooke’s, made with burdock root, sassafras, demerara sugar and cinnamon:
While it does seem like every city, town, county and municipality does have its own food festival these days, Stratford’s is remarkably organized for a festival that’s only a few years old. Between the cooking demos, the tastings and the special dinners, it offers a number of tasty diversions in a bucolic, picturesque town that’s only about an hour from Toronto. Who needs the Biebs?