One restaurant, several design ideas – and some memories

Shelf lamps at Terroni

My photo isn’t nearly as good as I’d wish, but what I want to show you is the clever use of industrial-style work lamps to light up floor-to-ceiling shelves. In the case of this restaurant, the shelves contain bottles of wine; I’d like to try this on our bookshelves at the Manse.

So there Raymond and I were in downtown Toronto last Friday night, having dinner before attending a performance by the Canadian Opera Company. We’d chosen an Italian restaurant called Terroni, recommended by a friend and clearly, given the steady stream of people flowing into it the whole time we were there, a very popular spot. (The food was excellent, by the way. One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had: the “Don Corrado,” with mozzarella, gorgonzola, potatoes, spicy sausage and fresh rosemary.)

But what got my attention wasn’t so much the food as some elements of the decor, which gave me (in no particular order):

  • A new idea about bookshelf lighting;
  • A chance to test out some funky vintage-style stools that I’d been considering for the Manse kitchen;
  • A memory of a long-gone restaurant from our (yours and mine, I mean) collective long-gone past;
  • And a flashback to a 1970s design craze that probably never should have happened.

Here are the details:

1. The bookshelf lighting.

I’ve written many, many times before (like here and here and here) about the very large number of books that Raymond and I own, and that are going to have to find a proper home at the Manse. At the moment we have a tiny proportion of them on shelves here in Queensborough, but the vast majority are either still at our old home in Montreal, or sitting in boxes and piles in various spots in the Manse. Many bookcases lie in our future. Which might well mean owning even more of Ikea’s Billy line of bookcases than we already do.

Now, if you’ve ever looked in the Billy department at an Ikea store (you know, the place where it always ends in tears), you’ll have seen how the displays enticingly often include glass doors on the bookcases, and little track lights installed on the underside of the shelves so that there is a fetching glow on the books. Of course the doors and the lights add a considerable amount to the bare-bones cost of the Billy itself, but they do look nice – in the store at least. I love the idea of the upper shelves and reaches of our own book collection being gently lit so that people can read what’s on the spines of the many volumes.

But installing those lights – which come with cords attached – strikes both Raymond and me as a colossal pain in the neck, especially when you’re talking about many bookshelves. Why, we’d need so many outlets and extension cords and power bars that it would just be ridiculous.

(As an alternative, we once tried out some stick-on battery-operated lights that we found down in the U.S. They shed a nice glow, until the sticky got unstuck and the lights failed. Not a satisfactory experience.)

But Terroni had a clever and (I thought) attractive industrial-style lighting system for its tall shelves, which featured not books but bottles of wine. Clamped every few feet onto thin cylindrical floor-to-ceiling metal pipes were vintage-style work lamps, with their flexible necks bent so that the light shone upwards or downwards onto the bottles. My picture of them (at the top of this post) isn’t very good, but perhaps you can get the idea. I love industrial style, and I think having one or two such lights installed on each of our Billys (Billies?) would look great.

2. Those Modernica stools.

Modernica stools at Terroni

The exact Modernica stools I’d been writing about (having discovered them online) – found for real, by complete accident, just a few days later. We had to try them out!

A little less than two weeks ago I did a post (it’s here) about some great vintage-styled (and also kind of industrial-styled, actually) barstools that I’d found thanks to a blog called Dans le Lakehouse. As I wrote there, I thought they were precisely what we needed for the future counter/island that Raymond and I envision for the Manse’s kitchen, the place where the people cooking and the people watching the cooking can chat and share a glass of wine and just generally enjoy that beautifully renovated room. (Welcome to my renovation daydreams.)

What a surprise, then, to walk into Terroni and see exactly the same stools, right there in front of us! Not in the gorgeous turquoise colour that that Dans le Lakehouse author Tanya has; they were a retro orange instead. But still! What are the chances? It meant we could try them out before buying! And so we did. And found them very comfortable, just as Tanya had said – but a little bit on the loose-and-wiggly side. Which I confess worried me a bit. Can I live with loose-and-wiggly kitchen stools? Were they maybe only loose and wiggly because a steady parade of bums had sat in them every day since Terroni had opened, probably more use than ours would ever get?

I posted a comment at Dans le Lakehouse, asking Tanya if she’d experienced that problem. She was kind enough to respond quickly, saying that she and her husband found their Modernica stools a bit like that too, but not so much as to bother them. She also offered (courtesy of her husband) some advice on maybe tightening up the nuts and bolts, though perhaps at the expense of the stools’ swivelling abilities. And then she gave what I think might have been the best advice: that this quirk might bother us forever, so we should find a retail outlet for the stools and check them out before we ordered them. Thanks, Tanya – and thanks, Terroni, for giving us a chance to test-drive those beautiful stools.

3. That long-gone restaurant.

Noodles (?) mural at Terroni

That mural above the open kitchen at Terroni really reminds me of the long-gone iconic Noodles.

Do any readers remember Noodles at Bay and Bloor? It was the trendy Italian restaurant in Toronto for several years in the 1970s and ’80s. Instead of the red-and-white-checked tablecloths of old-fashioned Italian restaurants, it featured semi-industrial design with a lot of neon, and high-end nouvellish Italian fare on the menu. It’s been gone since the start of the ’90s, and I could find almost no reference to it online save for this piece from the blog Torontoist, noting that it was the first place that longtime Globe and Mail restaurant critic Joanne Kates ever reviewed.

Anyway, my point (and I do have one): While I ate at Noodles once or twice back in the dim and distant early 1980s, I very probably would never have thought of it again had it not been for our recent visit to Terroni. Our seats in that latter restaurant faced the big open kitchen; and above the space where the chefs were hard at work was a 1970s-style mural featuring shapes probably intended to be stylized pasta. I took one look at it and had a huge flashback to, yes, Noodles!

Is there the slightest chance that the mural at Terroni on Adelaide came from the old Noodles?

That would be so cool.

And finally, 4. The design craze that maybe shouldn’t have been.

Wagon-wheel chandelier

This is (obviously) not the wagon-wheel-style chandelier we saw at a Toronto restaurant the other day; the photo comes from a blog called Ugly House Photos (“Phoenix [Ariz.] Houses with Clutter, Ugly Décor and Bad Taste”). But I’m sure it’ll bring back the memories for you!

People, I am talking about wagon-wheel chandeliers. Wagon-wheel chandeliers! Do you remember them? I sure didn’t – until, in looking around the room at Terroni and admiring the various vintage-style small chandeliers around the room, I noticed one very large round one (which, sadly, I neglected to photograph). “That reminds me of wagon-wheel chandeliers!” I exclaimed to Raymond! “Wow!”

He changed the subject.

Anyway: this whole little exercise seems to have been a discovery that when you buy and move back to the house you grew up in – a house that happens to need a major renovation – you tend to look for, and often find, ideas, and sometimes even inspiration, everywhere you go.

And simply because you are looking for ideas and inspiration – which means you are looking, period – you also sometimes find memories.

And even though some of those memories may be 1970s ranch-style wagon-wheel chandeliers, well, really – where’s the harm in that?

The occasional downside of living far from the hustle-bustle

Inherited Manse couch

Okay, people, picture this couch…

Hudson couch in teal

… replaced with this one. Don’t you love the midcentury style? More to the point, don’t you think the teal colour would go splendidly with our real-life midcentury curtains? (The same ones that hung in our living room when I was a kid here?)

“The world could end and you wouldn’t know it,” our Queensborough friend Marykay once said, describing what it’s like to live in our pretty little village. I think of that often when I come home to Queensborough, drive over the hill that’s on the edge of town and down into our little valley with a river running through it. When you come over the crest of that hill, and our life-size Christmas village (at least in wintertime) unfolds before you, you really do feel like the world outside could end and you wouldn’t know it. I like that feeling.

But every now and again that splendid away-from-it-all-ness of Queensborough proves problematic. Like today, for instance. When a nifty midcentury-style couch that Raymond and I had made up our minds to splurge on for the Manse proved to be unattainable. Why? Because: “We don’t deliver there.”

If you’re a regular reader you might have seen my post last night, a little celebration of the happy and cozy living room here at the Manse where Raymond, Sieste the cat and I spend our winter evenings. (It was also a celebration of the third anniversary of Raymond and me buying this house that I grew up in. A happy post all round!)

I wonder if, in reading that post and looking at my photos there, you remarked on the sofa (or chesterfield, as we used to call that particular piece of furniture when I was a kid). It came with the Manse when we bought it, and is a kind of puffy white affair made of faux leather. It’s old and greyed and the first time I saw it I thought it would have to be replaced immediately; but it turned out to have the great redeeming quality of being thoroughly comfortable to sit in. And so for these past three years we’ve kind of closed our eyes to the couch’s less thrilling features and just gone ahead and used it. Every now and again, though, I see it as a visitor to the Manse might, and think, “Good lord – that couch has got to be replaced!”

Gramercy couch

My first choice for a new couch for the Manse, since rejected.

I wrote about one possible replacement, which I found at The Bay in downtown Montreal, in a post here from last March. But I’ve since decided against that great-looking lime-green chesterfield; online reviews have suggested it’s not all that sturdy, which may be why it seems to be permanently on sale at The Bay. (Still, it is a great midcentury colour!)

But a backup sofa that I mentioned in that same post, and that I’d also seen at The Bay, has now become my first choice. It is called the Hudson (appropriately enough), it also features great midcentury style, and it too is on sale at The Bay at the moment. You can see one photo of it at the top of this post. Since Raymond and I were in Toronto this morning, two blocks away from the flagship Bay store at Queen and Yonge, we popped in to have a look, and here’s a photo that I took there:

Hudson sofa

The Hudson sofa, as displayed at the downtown Toronto Bay store. For some reason the colour, called pumpkin, is always used when this couch is displayed; it’s not my cup of tea, but I hope you can appreciate the funky midcentury style of this made-in-Canada “chesterfield.”

We saw, we sat, we liked it. We chose the colour: teal, to match our vintage curtains – the same curtains that hung in our living room back in the 1960s and ’70s when I was a kid in this house. Those curtains have totally grown on us – even Raymond can sometimes be heard to say favourable things about them. And now here we were buying a couch to match!

Or wait – not so much. When we made inquiries about how to obtain our new chosen chesterfield, the “we don’t deliver there” situation arose. Good lord, you’d think we lived at the end of the world!

Oh, wait a minute…

I was determined to win this. “There has to be a way,” I told the salesman, a very affable chap who clearly was trying his best to get that couch into our possession. He’d run out of ideas, but I had not run out of determination: “There has to be a way.” The salesman thought some more, and then allowed as how deliveries do go out from the Bay’s central warehouse in Toronto to its various stores – and that therefore our couch could be delivered to a regional store. And there is a store in Kingston, which is a little less than an hour away.

Okay, so – now all we need is a way to get a very large box containing our new teal curtain-matching chesterfield from Kingston to Queensborough. It’s going to be too big for Raymond’s little red truck; suddenly that plan to get a trailer – or a bigger truck – is looking very sensible.

Anyway, if you’re still with me, stay tuned. I think we’ll figure out a way to get that couch to the Manse, and I think it will look splendid. I’ll show you photos if and when it gets here. I am operating on the following principle: When you’re in a place where the world could end and you wouldn’t know it, you need a comfortable and stylish chesterfield to sit on!

The way Sundays should be

Sunday Times on Sunday

People, these are the making of a perfect Sunday: that day’s Sunday New York Times, and a Katherine’s Famous Bloody Mary. How I wish it were possible to have those every Sunday! Sadly, at least in the case of the Sunday Times, it may not be – at least until I accomplish my mission of getting the Sunday Times sold locally. Which probably won’t be easy.

Several months ago I did a post (it’s here, in case you’re just dying to read it) bemoaning the unavailability of the Sunday New York Times here in our neck of the woods. Not, you understand, that I expected to find copies of the Sunday New York Times piled up at the convenience stores in Madoc and Tweed so that I could pick one up of a Sunday morning once Raymond and I moved here; I was fully prepared for the unavailability situation. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Because really, is there anything better to do after church on Sunday than to cook up a late breakfast of bacon or sausages and eggs, with some nice toast spread with Stirling butter and some good tomatoes sliced or quartered on the side, and to sit down to that fine breakfast with a copy of the Sunday Times to read? (Okay, well, if you happen to have one of Katherine’s Famous Bloody Marys to sip, you’re that much better off.)

Why, there are so many sections in the Sunday Times that you can divide it up between the two of you (or more, if there happen to be more in your household) and still no one will lack for reading material during that leisurely breakfast, and probably well after it and into the middle of Sunday afternoon. (By which time, if you’re lucky, you will have been served another of Katherine’s Famous Bloody Marys. If anyone would like the recipe, just say the word and this wonderful Sunday tradition can be yours too! Oh, and after that second one, you’ll be wanting a Sunday nap.)

The Times was for years part of the Sunday tradition for Raymond and me when we lived in Montreal. We enjoyed what I now realize was the extreme luxury of having it delivered to our door. And so we’d come home from church and there it would be, a doorstopper of a great big thick newspaper, just waiting for me to divide it into two separate piles (the News, Sports and Sunday Review sections for Raymond; the Sunday Styles, Arts and Leisure and Travel sections for me; and we always found a way to share the Books section and the magazine) while Raymond whipped up Ray’s Famous Scrambled Eggs. (The best scrambled eggs ever, and maybe, if you ask nicely, I can get him to share that recipe.)

The Times is still, in my opinion, the best newspaper in the world. (Though of course the Guardian is excellent too.) And while I spend a lot of of the news-consumption time of my waking life “consuming” (okay, reading) news on my mobile phone, there are circumstances in which I still love an old-fashioned ink-on-paper newspaper. I love, for instance, the local weekly papers that I read cover to cover because they tell me all kinds of interesting things that are happening right around me here in Queensborough. And I love the ink-on-paper Sunday New York Times. Which I have not as yet been successful at bringing into the Manse on Sundays, as I vowed in that earlier post I would try to do; I’ve been a little too busy to spend much time on that mission.

But a week ago today, Raymond and I began our Sunday in another big city, Toronto, and so we were able to pick up a copy of the Sunday Times before returning home to the Manse. The photo you see at the top of this post shows our same-day copy of the paper along with a Katherine’s Famous; here is one showing Sunday breakfast the way it should be: bacon and eggs (fried instead of Ray’s Famous Scrambled on this particular Sunday), Katherine’s Famous Bloody Marys, and the Times spread all over the dining-room table. All of it just waiting for us to attack it in the course of a long and very pleasant Sunday afternoon. At the conclusion of which we’d be well-fed and would have read all kinds of interesting things written by some of the best journalists in the world:

Breakfast with the New York Times

An ideal Sunday breakfast at the Manse: bacon and eggs (and yes, I like my toast well-done), and the Sunday New York Times spread out all over the table. What bliss!

For two journalists, that really is the way Sundays should be. Which means it’s time for me to get serious about getting the Sunday New York Times within buying range of us here in the Madoc-Tweed-Queensborough area. Because I think that everybody deserves such Sundays!

Stirling butter, found in all the best places

Stirling Butter

So there Raymond and I were, in a hipper-than-hip butcher shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market called Sanagan’s Meat Locker, and what do I find but a splendid display of Stirling butter, made right here in central Hastings County!

When I was growing up here in Queensborough, my mum always bought Stirling butter because, well, it was the local butter. So did pretty much everybody else. And we never thought too much about it.

Vintage Stirling whey butter wrapper

Here’s something funky the internet just coughed up: a vintage wrapper from when the Stirling Creamery produced whey butter under the name Hastings (rather than Stirling). This takes me back to my childhood days!

When I returned to this area a little less than three years ago, I was delighted to learn that the Stirling Creamery was very much still in business in the pretty little central Hastings County village of Stirling and that it was still – sorry; I can’t help myself – churning it out.

One of the first issues that Raymond and I picked up of the excellent Country Roads magazine featured an article (by a local writer and blogger who was subsequently to become a good friend, Lindi Pierce) on the storied past and successful present of the Stirling Creamery. (Unfortunately that article doesn’t seem to be available online, so I can’t share it with you.) Raymond and I have been faithfully buying Stirling butter ever since our arrival at the Manse, and we have often remarked upon how good it is.

And we aren’t the only ones! In the past couple of weeks, I’ve spotted Stirling butter for sale in the trendiest of trendy Toronto food shops, at the St. Lawrence Market and in Kensington Market. Not, mind you, as one of several kinds of high-end butters for sale: as the only butter for sale to the foodie connoisseurs. That is pretty impressive.

Need more convincing of how great our local butter is? Check out this article from the Toronto Star that notes (among other things) that a while back Saveur magazine named Stirling one of the world’s top 30 butters.

Oh, and I would also like to point out that the gorgeous new packaging that Stirling butter came out with just a few years ago (which you can admire in my photo at the top of this post, and even more here) was designed by our friend Mimi Maxwell, a Toronto designer with a strong connection to the Queensborough area. Isn’t that cool?

Stirling Creamery

Here’s a nice photo of the Stirling Creamery, right in the heart of the pretty village of Stirling. The photo comes from a brilliant blog I’ve just discovered called Seasonal Ontario Food (seasonalontariofood.blogspot.ca), which is filled with recipes to help you eat locally and well.

Now, lest you dare to say (as I probably would have in my childhood here, when my mum was first buying Stirling butter) “But it’s only butter!” – let me tell you about my days living in France. The French are positively reverent about their butter, I learned; often they will visit a high-end cheese shop to purchase freshly made salted or unsalted butter, rather than buy it in a supermarket. Half of a good baguette sliced horizontally and slathered with top-notch butter is considered a treat. And with good reason! I learned while living there how good butter can be – and have had a taste for the good stuff ever since.

A taste that, I am delighted to say, is fulfilled in world-class style by our friendly local creamery. Aren’t we lucky?

Local sausage, local wine – what more could one ask?

Potter Settlement wines

Winemaker Robin Johnson and his assistant from Potter Settlement Winery, which is very possibly the first winery in Hastings County and is located not far from Queensborough, set out their wares at the Feast from Farm event in Tweed a couple of weekends ago. Raymond and I bought the first bottle of their product ever sold!

St. Lawrence Market

Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market last weekend: overcrowded and overhyped, if you ask me. I’ll take smaller local markets any time.

Raymond and I were in Toronto last weekend, and visited the much-vaunted St. Lawrence Market. Now, both of us had been there in the past – but it was the rather distant past, so it was kind of like it was all new. All around the place were signs proclaiming that National Geographic had named it “The Best Market in the World.” Man, typical Toronto “we’re world-class” attitude. The St. Lawrence market is perfectly all right, I suppose, but (on a Saturday morning, anyway) it is wildly and most unpleasantly overcrowded. And you know what? When it comes to gorgeous super-local produce and general friendly ambience, it has nothing on Montreal‘s Jean Talon Market. Trust me on this. (And the next time you have a chance to get anywhere near Montreal, go visit Jean Talon. As should National Geographic, by the way.)

Anyway, my point here is not compare big farmers’ markets in Montreal and Toronto. I’m actually trying to lead you in to a story about a different sort of market, a much smaller and more local and quite exciting one, that Raymond and I visited one recent weekend.

Feast from FarmIt was a special event called Feast from Farm organized by the economic-development and promotion folks at the Municipality of Tweed, and it was held outdoors in downtown Tweed, in a park right beside pretty Stoco Lake. It wasn’t huge; there were about 15 booths featuring products from the area, everything from home baking and jams to pickled eggs. There were also four booths where chefs were cooking up samples of local products, two where beers from local microbreweries were featured, and – most exciting of all, as far as I was concerned – one featuring what I believe is the very first winery in Hastings County. It is called Potter Settlement Winery, and happily for us here in the Queensborough area, it is very close by – just a jog down Potter Settlement Road, which is in the vicinity of the hamlet of Sulphide, not far from Tweed. I just think it is the coolest thing ever that we have our very own local winery. Prince Edward County, look out!

I have been hearing bits and bobs about Potter Settlement Winery (here is its Facebook page) for the past two or three years, but learned that they were still in the building stage, working toward their first harvest and first year of wine production. Well, guess what: this is the year! At the Feast from Farm event, winemaker Robin Johnson was offering tastings of the first two wines, a red called Marquette Rouge and a white called Frontenac Gris. Since trying out these local wines was the primary reason Raymond and I attended the event, we beetled over to the booth and did just that. And were very impressed! We bought a bottle of the Marquette Rouge, and guess what: it was the very first bottle they’d ever sold!

On the front page of the Tweed News the following week, there was a photo of Robin Johnson at the event and a writeup about it, and in it he was quoted as saying they’d sold their first-ever bottle of wine there. Raymond and I are very proud to have been the buyers! It is stored in the wine cellar, perhaps permanently since it’s such a one-of-a-kind thing; I think we’ll have to stock up on more bottles for actual consumption.

Sausages from Seed to Sausage

At the Feast from Farm event in Tweed, visitors were served up sausages (with great sauerkraut and mustard on the side) made at Seed to Sausage in Sharbot Lake. Yum!

The other highlight of the Feast from Farm was no less than the best sausages we have ever tasted. They came from an operation based in tiny Sharbot Lake, Ont. – about 45 minutes due east of us on beautiful Highway 7 – called Seed to Sausage. Neither of us had ever heard of it before, but you can bet we will be paying attention from now on. Seed to Sausage makes sausages (of course) and also salami, pancetta and a variety of other kinds of smoked meats. What they were serving up at Feast to Farm, alongside some good mustard and splendid sauerkraut, was a sausage that included – get this! – cheese curds from Empire Cheese of RR#5 Campbellford. (The best of the local cheese factories, we are reliably informed by locals who know their cheddar cheese; you can read my post about Empire here.) Now, I love sausages, and enjoy buying ones made with interesting ingredients like shallots, wild mushrooms, white wine and herbs – even curry. But I’d always steered away from sausages mixed with cheese products, because that seemed like a weird combination. But man oh man: the Seed to Sausage cheese-curd sausages were absolutely the best ever. I cannot wait to stock up on some!

(Seed to Sausage supplies high-end restaurants, and operates a store in Ottawa. There’s also a retail outlet in Sharbot Lake, but after this coming long weekend it’ll be closed till the Victoria Day weekend in May 2015. I think I need to talk them into setting up shop in Madoc or Tweed.)

Anyway, there you have my foodie report, and information on where to get great Hastings County wine and brilliant Frontenac County sausages. I promise that if you check them out (and support fantastic small producers into the bargain) you will not be disappointed.

Actinolite boy makes good – good food, that is

Actinolite Restaurant

The atmosphere at Actinolite retaurant is warm and inviting. And if the Globe and Mail’s fine-dining critics is to be believed (and I think he is), the food is astoundingly good. Read on… (Photo from actinoliterestaurant.com)

When I referred to Actinolite in last night’s post, it was to the hamlet of that name not far from Queensborough (Actinolite and Queensborough being the only two “towns” [i.e. population centres, though in both cases the population is less than a hundred people] in Elzevir Township) where I’d nabbed my most recent yard-sale find. But in looking up Actinolite for a hyperlink, I found something delightful about the other Actinolite, the restaurant of that name in the heart of Toronto.

The chef-owner of that restaurant is a young man named Justin Cournoyer, and he comes from – you guessed it – our Actinolite. When he opened his establishment on Ossington Avenue in 2012, he named it in honour of his hometown.

Raymond and I had the pleasure of dining at Actinolite in February 2013, and I reported on it here. (It was the night we attended a fundraising event in Toronto for the Al Purdy A-frame project; you can read my latest update on that project, wherein I actually get my hands dirty, here.) We found it a beautiful, welcoming place with excellent food and nifty cocktails – and that’s pretty much what all the early reviews said too. But in my internet travels last night, I discovered that since then Cournoyer has kicked it up several notches (to borrow and tweak the signature phrase of another famous chef). What I landed on was a rave review – and I mean a rave review – in the Globe and Mail from just last month about what Actinolite’s chef is up to now. The headline is “One of the most essential places to eat in Ontario, if not in Canada.” Wow!

The review (which you can find here) by the Globe’s restaurant critic, Chris Nuttall-Smith, explains that last fall Cournoyer decided to change the menu at Actinolite so that all that is served each evening (it’s not open for lunch) is a seven-course or a four-course tasting menu. In other words, you don’t get to choose what you’ll eat, only which of the two menus you’ll have; then you turn it over to Cournoyer, who explained to the Globe that his focus is on “cooking the Canadian landscape.” (Click here to see the most recent menus.)

“His cooking,” the critic reports, “builds odd, exquisite, deceptively simple-looking montages from Quebec pike and grilled wild knotweed, from Arctic flowers and Ontario pork, from salty, assertively maritime Gaspé lumpfish roe and soft strips of local rutabaga, and freshly set cheese the texture of clotted cream. The food is odd, inspiring, beautifully executed, even magical in places. It’s Canadian cooking as I’ve never tasted it.”

Justin Cournoyer and Claudia Bianchi

Justin Cournoyer and his wife and partner in Actinolite, Claudia Bianchi, at their lovely restaurant. (Photo from actinoliterestaurant.com)

Here’s more from the critic’s dining experiences there, with a refence to our Actinolite (“Actinolite North,” as Cournoyer apparently calls it):

“Mr. Cournoyer dressed a small, painterly dish of glazed red local beets with wild fennel and radicchio leaves that he’d cooked with honey and then baked until they were translucent red-orange, more stained glass than cold-hardy green. They were gently bitter, true to radicchio’s character but also crisp and sweet and buttery, eerily similar in flavour and texture to a great croissant.

“There was a shard of meringue on the plate, white and innocuous looking. My dinner mate and I bit into ours simultaneously. The flavour was distinct, herbal, ruddy green like dried leaves, sweet and marshmallowy like meringue but also the slightest bit musty. The chip had been flavoured with lichen that Mr. Cournoyer foraged in his hometown. My friend’s eyes popped wide open. ‘It tastes like the north!’ he said.”

That’s not the only mention that the review makes of Cournoyer’s local (to us here in Queensborough) background and inspiration:

“The chef, who is 36, grew up hunting game birds and deer, fishing for pike and foraging wild edibles on Eastern Ontario’s Skootamatta River – Actinolite is named after his tiny home town … With enormous respect to Mr. Cournoyer, he still has a bit of the small-town Eastern Ontario boy about him. An undershirt was showing at the collar of his chef’s whites, and his hair was short on top but a little longer in the back, the way hockey stars and Cancon rock legends wore it in 1987. He’s not a conformist. I suspect that’s part of what makes him such an excellent cook …

“He set down two plates, each one draped with a sheaf of leafy greens that had been quickly wilted with butter. The chef had driven out to Hastings, Ont., that morning to pick up the greens, he said: collards, mustard, tatsoi and three types of kale. They had overwintered in a greenhouse, their flavours deepening and turning sweeter with the cold. Three small lamb’s sweetbreads had been set to their side on each plate in a tidy golden mound.

“The smell rising off those dishes was extraordinary: nutty-sweet brown butter and bitter, peppery greens and the golden, softly gamey, almost milky scent of pan-seared sweetbreads. There was a woodsy, soft-fruit smell, also: juniper from his home town, Mr. Cournoyer said.

“ ‘It’s really simple,’ he told us. No, it really was not.

“I’ve never had better greens or more incredible sweetbreads. I can count on my fingers the dishes I’ve had in my life that were as humble and as delicious as this.”

(I’m sorry, people, but I am close to drooling over my keyboard as I type this.)

The review concludes:

“Mr. Cournoyer was right. If you could eat Canada’s landscape it would taste a lot like this … I’m not sure how much more strongly I can say this: you ought to get there, now.”

Not bad for a local boy, huh?

I believe it is time for Raymond and me to make a return trip to Toronto – and to what I shall from now on refer to as “Actinolite South.”

A celebration of Al Purdy

On display at the Al Purdy Show: a papier-mâché rendition of Al. Perched on the bar. Unfortunately I do not have the name of the artist, but perhaps a reader can help me out.

On display at the Al Purdy Show: a papier-mâché rendition of Al. Perched on the bar. Unfortunately I do not have the name of the artist, but perhaps a reader can help me.

A week ago tonight I was doing something that I hardly ever do: visiting Toronto. Raymond and I were among the capacity audience at Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music for an evening celebrating the life and work of poet Al Purdy, one of Canada’s greatest poets and one who truly heard, and conveyed, “the voice of the land.”

(One of the first things I did when I started this blog about the Manse was to seek permission from Al’s publisher to reprint my favourite of his poems, The Country North of Belleville; that post is here. The country north of Belleville is precisely where the Manse is.)

The Toronto event was a fundraiser for a project that I have written about before, notably here: the campaign to preserve the humble A-frame house that Al and his wife, Eurithe, built in the late 1950s in Prince Edward County, and put the house to future use for a poet-in-residence program. As admirers of Purdy’s work, of vernacular mid-century architecture, and of Prince Edward County, Raymond and I were happy to support the cause.

"A happy makeshift vision" is a nice description of Al and Eurithe's A-frame, a place of pilgrimage for generations of Canadian poets. They came to talk poetry with Al, and they stayed for beer and Eurithe's spaghetti. This was a display at the Al Purdy Show in Toronto Feb. 6.

“A happy makeshift vision” is a nice description of Al and Eurithe’s A-frame, a place of pilgrimage for generations of Canadian poets. They came to talk poetry with Al, and they stayed for beer and Eurithe’s spaghetti. This was a display at the Al Purdy Show in Toronto Feb. 6. Note the photo of Al outside his beloved outhouse at bottom right.

It was a terrific evening of poetry and music featuring the likes of Gordon Pinsent, George BoweringDennis Lee, Dave Bidini, Gord Downey and Margaret Atwood. (You can read Michael Enright‘s interview with Atwood on the occasion here, and my thanks to my pal Jim Withers for sending me that link.) But you don’t need me to tell you all about it; if you’re interested, here is an excellent report from the Random House of Canada blog Hazlitt. (My thanks to my friend Lindi Pierce for drawing that article to my attention. Lindi, the mastermind behind the wonderful Ancestral Roofs blog on Ontario architecture and heritage, has also started a blog called In Search of Al Purdy – Lindi being a native of Prince Edward County and a literary sort, she has been a big supporter of the A-frame project.) And if you’re interested in learning more about the A-frame project and donating to it, you can do that here.

It’s kind of fun to rub shoulders with a large roomful of literary folk; it’s not something we do all that often. I liked the fact that a lot of them (though not all, by any means) were pleasantly rumpled. “Rumpled” is my kind of people. And I’m pretty sure that it would have been just the word to describe how Al would have looked, had he been there. Which, come to think of it, he was.