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Eating Local at Port Hope’s Cultivate Festival

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Most people who know Port Hope will tell you it’s a beautiful place. The downtown is lined with stately 19th century brick buildings, and the surrounding neighbourhoods are a visual feast of  well-preserved heritage homes. In fall salmon run the shallow waters of the Ganaraska River, which winds through town before feeding into Lake Ontario. Port Hope’s aesthetic charms are beyond dispute, and now it’s fast developing a reputation as a culinary hotspot as well.

Last year the Cultivate Festival won Culinary Event of the Year at the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario Summit, quite a coup for a festival that only began in 2014. With an emphasis on local food, Cultivate attracts chefs, bakers, brewers, and all-round foodies from across Kawarthas Northumberland and neighbouring communities. This year’s event took place the weekend of September 21-23, with unique workshops and entertainment each day.

I was lucky enough to score a pass, but casual visitors could stroll through the marketplace and Butter Tart Tour Taste-Off area for free, browsing local food and handicrafts. The market was a mecca of sorts for butter tart aficionados, who sampled and purchased pastries from bakers eager to enter the annual Taste-Off. I noticed Buckhorn Country Mart, Cobourg’s Betty’s Pies and Tarts, and Kawartha Buttertart Factory among the hopefuls. I was also excited to see South Pond Farms selling tarts, as they usually only have their butter tarts available during the summer at their Wednesday lunches and Friday “Farm Gate Fare.” The judges had yet to assemble for the official tasting, though, so I made my way into the Memorial Park area to seek out some lunch.

A day or weekend pass was necessary to access the full slate of artisanal food stands in addition to the beverage tent, workshops, and live music. The latter took place alternately on the beverage tent side stage and in the handsome Memorial Park bandshell, where bigger acts like local favourites The Good Lovelies and legendary children’s entertainer Fred Penner performed. The Cultivate Kids play area hosted several structured events, such as instrument demos and food education talks. As a special 2018 bonus, a large Paul Bunyan statue presided over the grounds, part of the set dressing for the sequel to Steven King’s It — Port Hope was standing in for fictional Derry, Maine during filming throughout September.

Once I had the lay of the land, I got down to the business of eating. I found a pleasing diversity of options as I made the rounds: I tried some terrific comfort food from Port Hope’s own Ganarascals, with their buttermilk biscuits and southern-style sausage gravy, and delicious dill-cured gravlax courtesy of chefs Albert Ponzo and Matt DeMille. Every vendor I spoke to emphasized their passion for eating local. At the Belly of the Beast Craft Kombucha stand, brewer Dani Richardson told me even their seemingly exotic specialty tea was focused on seasonal sourcing of ingredients. “It’s kombucha of this place, so it taps into the larger fermentation tradition but it’s distinctly of this region,” she said, adding that using local ingredients had a way of encouraging the palate to concentrate on nuance rather than novelty: “It’s really great to have people get just as excited about a plain tea as they would a super experimental smoked tea with jalapeño.” It also created a sense of perpetual discovery, as no two batches tasted exactly alike.

Speaking of beverages, the beer tent also offered a range of options from producers such as William Street Beer CompanyEmpire CiderNorthumberland Hills Brewery, and the Publican House Brewery. I particularly enjoyed my sample of Black’s Distillery wintergreen-infused vodka garnished with sweetgale. Wintergreen complemented the Peterborough-produced spirit for a taste that was strong but not overpowering, almost like a liqueur but without a trace of cloying sweetness.

I made sure not to linger in the beer tent too long so I could catch a few workshops at the Cultivate School. First up were Briagh Hoskins-Hasbury and Bretton Clark of The Land Canadian Adventures, who gave a workshop on backcounty cooking. They covered the basics of how to get balanced nutrition on a camping trip, and a few small optimizations (for instance, pre-cut cucumbers don’t belong on your next canoe expedition). Danielle French of South Pond Farms drew a crowd thanks in part to her status as host of Netflix’s Taste of the Country, and brought her discerning eye to a presentation on laying the perfect table setting.

Danielle had brought some antique flatware to the workshop, and it was nice to see her emphasis on enduring quality reflected in the festival as a whole. Cultivate aimed to provide reusable plates, cutlery and cups as much as possible, and vendors were encourage to use unbleached paper products for anything disposable in order to divert waste from the landfill. Thanks to some diligent volunteers, they were successful — the festival produced only one bag of garbage in three days. That low-impact sentiment was echoed again at the merch tent, where t-shirts were silkscreened by hand right on site.

By mid-afternoon it was time for the butter tart taste-off, so I returned to the judging tent. Unfortunately I’d missed Fred Penner’s guest stint as a judge, but I was in time to ask some bakers about their technique. I couldn’t wring out any trade secrets, but several underlined the importance of quality ingredients. “No corn syrup makes a good butter tart — just brown sugar and butter, back to the basics of the recipe,” Kawartha Buttertart Factory head baker Cathy Smith explained. That recipe is quite venerable by now, as she told me the earliest reference to butter tarts was discovered in a nineteenth-century newspaper. “The three steadfast” varieties of raisin, pecan, and plain remained her most popular, though Skor and Coffee Crisp versions had their devotees.

When the winners were announced Doo Doo’s Bakery of Bailieboro cleaned up with first-place tarts in the plain and gluten-free categories. Peterborough’s Black Honey took home the gold in the Arts and Tarts category with their “Group of Seven” tart, incorporating locally-sourced honey, spruce tip syrup, gin, and rosemary leaves for a flavour and presentation that evoked the earthy tones of the Canadian Shield. Best 100-Mile Tart went to the maple tart by Warkworth’s The Bakery. A complete list of winners can be found here.

I left after congratulating the bakers, and myself for not overindulging in the samples until I felt stuffed. I’d enjoyed everything I’d tasted that day, but beyond just a weekend outing I felt I’d gained a better sense of local culinary experiences that deserve to be sought out year-round. Here’s to plenty of good eating before next year’s Cultivate rolls around.

Photos of the Butter Tart Tour Taste Off by Sarah Byrne

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