Recap: 2015 Grand Taste Tour with Wolf Willow Honey, Tofield Packers and Irvings Farm Fresh

On July 12, 2015, Mack and I were guests of the second annual Grand Taste Tour, a partnership between the 124 Grand Market and Taste Alberta.

The Grand Taste Tours began in 2014 and seek to showcase some of the great local producers we are fortunate to have in this province, and to enjoy some of their bounty as prepared by a talented local chef.

In our case, Mack and I joined Phil and Robyn on the "bee bus", meaning that we would be visiting an apiary to start. Our counterparts on the "dairy bus" headed to the Breevliet Dairy Farm first, after which both groups would meet up at the second and final stops.

We learned that the 2014 Grand Taste Tour was much different, as it was self-guided, and participants had to reach the participating farms on their own. Although some might appreciate the choice and freedom of a choose-your-own-adventure tour, we appreciated the fact that all logistics of transportation and food taken care of this time around.

It took the bus over an hour to reach our first stop, Wolf Willow Honey. Their products can be found on the shelves at Duchess Provisions, but for the most part, Wolf Willow prefers to sell their honey direct to consumers from the farm or at the Camrose Farmers’ Market.

Wolf Willow Honey

Wolf Willow Honey

Doug Chalmers shared that Wolf Willow has 400 hives (with 50-80,000 bees making up each hive). He described the surrounding area as a “bee haven”, with more than 200 perennials available to their bees. That said, he does liken the collapse of bee colonies to the changing landscape after the second World War, linked to the decrease in food sources and the increase in pesticide use.

Wolf Willow Honey

Doug Chalmers

Using burlap smoke to sedate the bees, the beekeeper was able to pull up a frame for us to see.

Wolf Willow Honey

Beekeeper Ben

The bees were busy working away – did you know that a single bee makes just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey over its lifetime?

Wolf Willow Honey

Bees

We also had the chance to sample some of their honey products, which included light clover, dark clover, dandelion, creamed buckwheat and an end-of-season 100 flower blend. Mack and I would have appreciated more of a guided tasting, but then again, we’ve been spoiled with superb honey education sessions led by Patty Milligan.

Honey tasting

Mack

It was then on to Tofield Packers, a small abattoir used by Irvings Farm Fresh, among other local producers.

Tofield Meat Packers

Tofield Packers

They are committed to public education, often opening their doors to 4H Clubs, so it wasn’t the first time they’ve hosted external groups. Owner Dale Erickson was our no-nonsense guide, and though he was responsive to questions asked, a more thorough explanation of the process up front would have been ideal.

Tofield Packers

Dale Erickson on the kill floor

We did learn that they process pigs, cows, sheep, goat, bison, elk, ostrich and alpaca. While they have processed game in the past, they shy away from it because the animals are typically very dirty. On a good day, the plant can get through 7 animals.

Dale led us through the various coolers in the facility, including the wet room, where the animals are left to drain of blood and other fluids, and then the aging room, where sides are hung for anywhere from 14 to 21 days.

Tofield Meat Packers

Coolers

Tofield Packers also purchases sides of animals to process into hams, sausages and other cuts of meat which they sell out of their retail shop.

An abattoir is something every meat eater should see, to appreciate the end of a life that has travelled from a farm to your table. Tofield Packers is a great example of a family-owned facility that works with small farmers to put forth good quality products.

Before heading to our final stop, our group congregated in the parking lot to enjoy a snack. Given it was a tour sponsored by Taste Alberta, the big box store granola bars and watermelon was unexpected and ill-fitting. Hopefully snacks better aligned with the tour can be arranged next year.

Mack and I were most looking forward to the visit to Irvings Farm Fresh. We’ve been buying pork from Alan and Nicola Irving from the City Market, Old Strathcona and Salisbury Farmers’ Markets for years, and had always meant to stop by the farm to see where their pigs are raised.

Irvings Farm Fresh

With Alan

We finally had that chance, and we weren’t disappointed. The farm occupies a total of 80 acres, and this year, for the first time, the Irvings are growing their own grain for feed. The barley was surprisingly green, but the grass in an adjacent field was incredibly brittle under our feet.

Irvings Farm Fresh

In the barley field

A few years ago, when Alan and Nicola were deciding on how to expand their operations, they had a choice to make – they couldn’t do it all on their own, and had to choose between outsourcing their breeding or their product line. They decided the latter was more important, and with a facility built to process all cuts on-site, they are able to guarantee their products are free from wheat, dairy, eggs, nuts, soy and MSG.

As a result, their Berkshire pigs are brought to them at 2-3 months. Irvings raises them until they’re between 6-7 months, or approximately 250 pounds. Beyond that, and the ratio of fat to meat becomes unwieldy.

Irvings Farm Fresh

Pigs

The Irvings believe that pigs should live as naturally as possible, so provide their animals with an environment where they have the freedom to move, dig, root, sleep and eat. They self-regulate, and on that warm afternoon, most of them had sought shade to keep cool (pigs don’t sweat). That week, the farm had about 70 pigs.

Irvings Farm Fresh

In their element

Before lunch, we had the privilege of observing a butchery demonstration by Elyse Chatterton. We learned that the pigs are killed at Tofield Packers, then brought back as sides to the Irvings facility (she even pulled out the bullet from the skull of the pig!).

Irvings Farm Fresh

Elyse Chatterton

Trained in England, Elyse learned how to do everything by hand, eschewing the use of even a band saw for cuts through bone. As a retail butcher, Elyse loves the process of transforming a “beast” into attractive cuts of meats that catch a customer’s eye. She skillfully carved up several shoulder roasts (her favourite cut), and indicated that she could dispatch the entire side in one hour.

Irvings Farm Fresh

All by hand

Her sense of humour was evident throughout the demo; for instance, some have questioned whether she is able to do everything a male butcher can do. Her answer: she isn’t able to go into the men’s washroom.

Then it was time for lunch, picturesque communal tables set up beneath several trees, adjacent to a makeshift outdoor kitchen. Chef Daniel Costa (of Corso 32 and Bar Bricco fame) and his team certainly had to work in an untested environment, but in spite of this, managed to create a memorable meal that celebrated the flavours of summer.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Lunch

A plate of snappy, raw vegetables from Riverbend Gardens reminded us that sometimes, simple is best. It was followed by grilled Bonjour Bakery crostini topped by the most luxurious Fairwinds Farm goat ricotta and fresh spring pea and mint spread.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Pinzimonio (raw vegetables)

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Goat ricotta

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Spring pea and mint

We were spoiled with platters of porchetta and panzanella made with tomatoes and cucumber from Gull Valley Greenhouses.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Porchetta

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Panzanella in action

My favourite dish was the spring onion, pea shoot and whey risotto. Given risotto is difficult to make under regular circumstances, it was an even bigger feat on this stage. The whey imbued a creaminess that had me going back for thirds.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Risotto

Grilled Irvings pork loin capped off the main course. The meat was overdone for my taste, but to be honest, I’d filled up on the preceding dishes.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Grilled pork loin

But we weren’t done yet – generous chunks of two year old Parmesan, drizzled with the 100 flower blend of Wolf Willow Honey, followed suit. The finale was a silky panna cotta with honey, grappa and berries.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Parmesan and honey

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Panna cotta

I’m certain that had the menu been advertised alongside ticket sales, the Grand Taste Tour would have been sold out; a similar meal at Corso 32 would have easily cost the equivalent of the $90 ticket price. Next year, organizer Kirsta Franke has already secured the chefs from North 53 for the lunch portion; if the cost of the tour holds steady, the all-inclusive nature of the event and the high quality of the food should sell itself.

2015 Grand Taste Tour

Kudos to the team behind the day

If the tour of Irvings Farm Fresh piqued your interest, you’re in luck – Alan and Nicola are participating in Open Farm Days on August 23, 2015, from 11am-4pm. Visit with the pigs, tour the meat shop, and enjoy a “simply porky lunch”.

Thanks again to Gastropost, Taste Alberta and the 124 Grand Market for inviting us, and congratulations to the organizers for a second successful tour. I look forward to seeing what’s on the agenda for next year!

Check out Mack and Linda’s recaps of the events, too!

The Little Things: Corso 32

Corso 32, like MRKT, is a new breed of restaurant. Led by a young chef with a bold vision, the establishments are stylish without being pretentious, embrace local producers when possible, and have adopted a communal table, signifying the importance of the restaurant’s community of patrons.

Corso 32, notably, is also pushing the terminology envelope, with the following statement on their menu: “A few things to add to your vocabulary: arancini is a crispy rice ball,  pappardelle is thick pasta ribbons, poipette are meatballs and tesa is our house-cured pancetta.” I admire their quest to expose diners to what might be unfamiliar words; it simultaneously demands respect and elevates how one thinks of their cuisine.

It is also important to mention the idea of roots, which Corso beautifully shares through its inspired Italian fare as well as with a life size image of Chef Daniel Costa’s family, which looms on one wall (“Corso 32” is the the address of his family’s home in Italy).

For these reasons, my sister and I were really looking forward to our dinner reservations at the restaurant two weeks ago. Unfortunately, a few things prevented our good experience from being great.

The menu was small, but offered a solid range of choices (which, from the looks of it, will change on an ongoing basis). We ordered the arancini ($10) to share (a dish we were familiar with from Lit), and had split opinions. Amanda thought it was much too salty, but I loved them – the perfect bar snack, they were hot and crispy, the breaded shell giving way to a melted cassia cheese centre.

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Arancini with mushrooms, pancetta and caccia (apologies for the terrible pictures)

For my main, I ordered the crispy gnocchi ($17), which, in hindsight, was my mistake given our appetizer – something featuring a broth or sauce would have been a nice change up. I did enjoy the interaction between the slightly spicy notes with the bitter black kale however, but I think I prefer my gnocchi enveloped in a creamy sauce, which usually enhances its silky, pillow-y nature.

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Crispy gnocci, black kale, pecorino and spicy crumbs

Amanda was happy with her entrée, the rib steak ($25), which had an almost buttery texture. She also liked the dish accompaniments, arugula and shaved celery root (her first encounter with the latter).

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Rib steak with shaved celery root & arugula salad

Food aside, two things marred our experience: first, Amanda had to ask for her drink three times before receiving it, all while we watched our server walk past our table delivering drinks to the party seated just behind us. The server did comp her soda, but given our placement near the bar, the misstep was even more puzzling.

Second, although we ordered our entrees immediately following the two top beside us, they received their plates a good fifteen minutes before we did. This wouldn’t have been an issue normally, except that a party of four with a reservation for 9pm was waiting eagerly for our table, hovering in the makeshift lobby beside us. At 9pm, Amanda and I were just finishing our plates, while the couple next to us had already reached their dinner’s end and were preparing to leave. Our server did offer up the dessert menu, but we couldn’t have comfortably dallied any longer.

Corso 32 has received glowing reviews elsewhere (in the Journal and Vue Weekly, as well as from Marianne and Chris) – I hope my next meal there is just as positive, in all aspects.

Corso 32
10345 Jasper Avenue
(780) 421-4622