A kitchen garden in the city provides organic produce for upscale dining and non-profits
The farm-to-table movement leaves its mark wherever and whenever it presents itself, but it is even more impressive when it is a bridge between free enterprise and social enterprise.
That alliance never tasted as good as it did in late September at a lunch for local food-industry folks held at Hacienda Sarria, a lovely and idiosyncratic Spanish-inspired villa that serves as a multi-purpose restaurant and events venue just about exactly where Union Street runs out of room near the expressway.
The social enterprise component is downtown Kitchener’s Working Centre, which includes St. John’s Kitchen, Queen St. Commons Cafe and Maurita’s Kitchen.
The Working Centre runs the roughly 1.5-hectare Working Centre Market Garden on land that was sitting unused behind the Hacienda.
An open-air harvest lunch in the garden was the brainchild of Hacienda creator and entrepreneur Ron Doyle.
He can give you all the details of how the land was transformed into such a beautiful garden with hundreds of dump-truck loads of soil being dumped and thousands of interlocking bricks meticulously laid.
But Doyle really wants to direct you to the fact that it was the staff and volunteers of the Working Centre, lead by Joe Mancini, and other community-invested volunteers who did all of the work to create Hacienda Sarria Market Garden.
The garden’s goal is to teach the skills of urban food production, offer fresh food to those participants in the project and make the garden sustainable by selling the fruits and vegetables of their labour.
The staff and volunteers work hard to tend the garden in which no pesticides or herbicides are used. In addition to several retail locations, the garden also sells its produce to Marisol Restaurante and Maurita’s Kitchen.
Growing herbs such as basil, cilantro, parsley, dill, sage and thyme, the garden is, as the label on a bag of their spinach attests, “a volunteer-driven community project that offers superior quality produce while demonstrating, promoting, and sharing knowledge about urban food production.”
The garden is also home to fresh flowers and produce that ranges from arugula, beets, chard and microgreens to radicchio, spinach and tomatoes.
Once you’ve had a very fresh tomato, it is difficult to accept the mealy, trucked-in rendition.
Is this a new idea? Not really, but it’s a good example of one that is robust, vibrant, and substantial, in addition to being beautiful.
As a testament to the restorative power of such community initiatives linked to food, just look to the terrible decline of inner-city Detroit. That city has seen hundreds of vacated properties and hectares of abandoned and unused land.
But what pops up in a city that was once among the ten most-populated metropolitan centres in the United States? A network of urban farms tended by the citizenry.
So, having had a summer of building and growing since the Hacienda garden launched last spring, Doyle wanted to get the word out on the produce that is available, as well the opportunities that the venue offers for people who want to learn gardening skills.
He invited chefs Nick Benninger of Uptown 21, Peter Martin of The 41, Jeff Ward of Marisol and Paul Cummings of Indulge Natural and Organic Kitchen.
Arriving at the Hacienda’s kitchen mid-morning, the chefs toured the garden. Inspired by the colours and bounty, they collected what they wanted to use and set about creating a garden-to-table meal.
The result was stunning both in its aesthetics and fresh flavour, which were just as unique as the event itself.
Ward whipped up a cannellini bean and kale soup with a hint of chorizo. Benninger riffed on the Florentine classic panzanella with a bounty of tomatoes, fried bread, herbs, greens and a creamy goat-cheese dressing. Martin made an open-faced tomato, arugula and cheese BLT. Cummings cooked just about the prettiest and creamiest multicoloured beet risotto you could imagine.
Just over 40 chefs and restaurateurs from the region gobbled it all down under a dramatic fall interchange of bright, warm sunshine and fluffy, passing clouds.
Restaurants need regular and high-quality proteins and produce to serve to their customers, and they often need a lot of it.
That could be a market for the market garden.
For now, though, a venture like the Hacienda Sarria and Working Centre Market Garden could prove to be a niche supplier of healthy, fresh food for a variety of customers.
Even better, on this day the lunch represented a relaxed communion of chefs and a sharing of resources and energies between a business and a social enterprise that benefits the entire community — and makes for tasty eating too.
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Andrew Coppolino is a
food writer and broadcaster.
Visit him at waterlooregioneats.com.