Come for the plays. Stay for the food.
If I had my way, that would be the slogan for Stratford, Ontario, about 90 minutes southwest of Toronto. The small Canadian city (population 30,866) is known primarily in travel circles for the Stratford Festival, which focuses on Shakespearean plays but it also serves up musicals and other non-Bard entertainment. On a recent trip, my husband and I duly took in a production of King Lear with the always-watchable Colm Feore in the title role. But after that, we still had two days to explore the city, and we soon discovered that the tourist board’s three “taste trails” winding through downtown were a great way to do so.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Graduates of the Stratford Chefs School often stay in town to launch restaurants featuring produce from local orchards and dairy farms.
- Stratford’s walkable Victorian downtown overlooks the pretty Thames River.
- You’re fresh out of water buffalo milk cheese.
- Good for food lovers who also enjoy classical theater.
The three trails focus on maple, chocolate and—my favourite, I have to admit—bacon and ale. Not everything at every stop is locally made, but much of it is and most of it is delicious. Here are a few of the highlights, several of which appear on multiple trails.
Sauces, jams and chutneys
Long before the taste trails were developed, I’d been a fan of Kitchen Connaisseur, a 14-year-old shop that sells its own jams, sauces and condiments—treats like pomegranate chutney and caramelized onions with figs—as well as products from other small Canadian producers. Eat before you visit, or you may just spend far too long nibbling at the dishes of free samples. (Not that I’ve ever done that. Yeah, right.)
Rhéo Thompson Candies has been making sweets in Stratford since 1969. Mint smoothie chocolates, available in milk and dark varieties, are the store’s calling card, but you can also pick up fudge, humbugs, fruit jellies and other treats to cater to your sweet tooth.
Even Stratford gift stores feel compelled to sell at least a few gourmet treats. At Treasures, where souvenirs include Justin Bieber-themed merch (he’s a Stratford lad), you can pick up locally made cranberry-almond brittle coated in chocolate.
On a previous Stratford trip, I discovered the imported cream Earl Grey at Distinctly Tea, and fell in love with it to such an extent that I’ve been buying it by mail order for years since. While most of the store’s wares are imported (Southern Ontario not being a great location for tea plantations), it does sell a lovely line of emu-oil skin-care products made in nearby Tavistock.
Bacon mayonnaise: What’s not to like?
A bit off the beaten track—which isn’t actually far, given that downtown Stratford is quite compact—Turnbull & Stewart sells packaged goods ranging from Italian olive oil and Korean sauces to my husband’s hands-down favourite: bacon mayonnaise imported from, of all places, Brooklyn NY. A little jar will set you back $6.50…but a little dab will do you on just about any sandwich.
After all this shopping (all in your service, dear reader—you’re welcome), we needed to rest and eat something more substantial than condiment samples and chocolate. Luckily, we alighted at Monforte on Wellington, a funky café owned by local cheese maker Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy. We were a bit dubious when the charcuterie plate we ordered included water buffalo milk cheese, but it was rich and lovely, and I ended up buying a hunk of it at the counter to bring home.
That’s really just a taste (pun intended) of Stratford’s foodie attractions. You can also take a culinary tour with Flavours of Stratford, or immerse yourself in all things gourmet during the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival each July. In the off season (late fall through spring), sign up for a cooking class or elaborate wine-pairing dinner at the Stratford Chefs School.
And in this burg where food is almost as important as theater, even the birds dine well: a local farm family, distressed that tourists were feeding the iconic swans on the Thames River scraps of unhealthy bread, started packaging bags of fowl-friendly dried corn. They’re available at several locations in downtown Stratford for $2 a bag.
- Kitchen Connaisseur, 75 Ontario Street
- Rhéo Thompson Candies, 55 Albert Street
- Treasures, 151 Ontario Street
- Distinctly Tea, 18 York Street
- Turnbull & Stewart, 235 St. Patrick Street
- Monforte on Wellington, 80 Wellington Street
- Flavours of Stratford
- Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival
- Stratford Chefs School