From conversations with friends in Canada, it seems there are two reasons people make the day trip from Toronto to visit Stratford, Ontario:
- Theater: For decades, the town has hosted a renowned Shakespeare Festival that draws tourists from across Canada and the US Northeast. At the same time, the municipality’s support for the arts has fostered a strong, creative community that makes the region a great destination for lovers of theater, music, and art.
- Bieber Fever: Stratford is Justin Bieber’s hometown, so die-hard fans go to the town to visit his favorite old haunts.
But that’s not why I went to Stratford.
I went there for the food.
Alongside the vibrant cultural community, the town of Stratford and rural community of Perth County is a great culinary and agritourism destination–a great place for people who love to eat. The town’s many restaurants and local agricultural producers offer many ways to experience this food culture. When I went to Canada for TBEX, I took a foodie-themed day trip from Toronto organized by Visit Stratford.
Stratford’s “Tasting Trails”:
One of the easiest ways to sample these local specialties is by trying one of Stratford’s three different specialty-themed Tasting Trails: Chocolate Trail, Maple Trail, and the Bacon and Ale Trail. For $25, you can buy a ticket that allows you six tastings at various downtown shops and restaurants on the theme of your choice. Pick up a brochure that outlines the participating businesses and choose six to visit for a unique, themed tasting. I visited a few stops on each trail, including:
- From the Maple Trail: Let Them Eat Cake to try a light-as-air, maple mousse-filled sponge cake
- From the Chocolate Trail: Revel Cafe to try their chocolate mocha, created with direct-sourced, fairly-purchased Nicarauguan coffee and sustainable chocolate.
- From the Bacon and Ale Trail: Molly Blooms Irish Pub to try their loaded baked potato soup (featuring Perth Pork’s double-smoked bacon) served with a sample of Mill Street Brewery’s Organic Lager
The self-guided tasting trails are a really fun way to explore a community, and I’d love to see more culinary travel destinations do this.
Another way to experience Stratford’s local food culture is by visiting one of several local food producers that offer free tours and tastings by request.
Perth Pork Products is a family-run, heirloom pork producer that raises rare breed (Berkshire and Tamworth) pigs and wild boars. The de Martines Family has run the operation since 1979, and they shared their respect for their animals and their dedication to crafting quality, pork products.
We toured the ground and got to meet one of their youngest generation of piglets…
The humane treatment of their animals was apparent and comes from a dual purpose of respect as well as bottom-line considerations noting that treating their animals well leads to higher-quality meats. As a mostly-vegetarian, I abstained from sampling their wild boar and heirloom sausages, Kevin agreed that he could taste the love.
Monforte Dairy: We visited this artisanal cheese producer that has a tasting room just outside of town. Owner Ruth Klahsen shared her passion for crafting tasty cheeses and quirky habits of opinionated conversation with consumers and an uncompromising perfection. Surprisingly, she even dissuaded us from buying a cheese she didn’t think was perfect (though it was quite good, to me). Monforte creates more eclectic offerings than some of the other dairy producers I’ve visited, in that they work in four “dairy streams”: Cow, goat, sheep, and water buffalo. They even produced an experimental batch of horse milk ice cream that I was really excited to try, but it turned out they had just run out. That crushed me.
We liked Monforte so much that, later that week, we visited their stand at Toronto’s Saint Lawrence Market to pick up more cheese.
Restaurants and Bars:
If you’re somehow able to pace yourself and still have room for a dinner, Pazzo Taverna is a great place to end the day. This riverside restaurant serves sustainably sourced seafood and (for vegetarians like me) the most tender, perfect gnocchi I’d ever had. Chef Yva Santini set a goal to create a restaurant that evokes memories of the Italian family restaurants she visited as a child.
Mercer Hall is another great restaurant, with a locally-renowned bar. They feature stops along the Chocolate Trail for a wine and dark chocolate pairing, and also the Bacon Trail for their fabulous Bacon Caeser, which was a highlight of our day.
When To Visit:
The ideal time to visit would be the weekend of “Savour Stratford”, an annual celebration of local food that features tastings, chefs’ demonstrations, farmers markets, and stalls featuring up and coming culinary artisans. It’s usually held in September. Check their website for more information.
Of course, any time of year is fine for the downtown tasting trails, but farm visits will be more difficult in the Ontario winter.
How to Get To Stratford:
By car, Stratford is about one and a half hours from Toronto, and just over two hours north of Buffalo, NY. It costs about $20 CAD to get a Round Trip bus ticket from Toronto to Stratford using the Stratford Festival chartered buses (check here for schedule). These buses, equipped with free Wi-Fi, have 2 daily departures during the peak summer festival season and one departure between May and October. Via-Rail provides rail service to Stratford all year round.