Conductor’s Choice – A Culinary Experience on Rails was truly an eye-opening event to the abundant culinary talent in St. Thomas and Elgin County. It included a day-long tour to different foodie destinations in the area and ended with dinner and a show at the Elgin County Railway Museum. Guests had the option to experience just the tour, just dinner, or enjoy the full day of events.
The tour began at the historic CASO Station for a brunch by Fanshawe College’s culinary students and St. Thomas’s own coffee roastery, Las Chicas del Cafe. Maria Fiallos of Las Chicas chose her Don Rey’s Viennese roast to serve guests – a popular roast that she describes as a “crowd pleaser” because it has good body and works well either with sugar and cream or black. Accompanying the coffee were muffins, scones, and yogurt parfait made with as many local ingredients as possible by students in Fanshawe’s culinary program. Living Alive Granola and apples from Berry Hill Fruit Farm completed the event’s first meal. Guests spent some time in the elegant train station before boarding the Port Stanley Terminal Rail for the journey to Wildflowers Farm.
The ride through beautiful Elgin County featured a few more local gems en route – Railway City Brewing and Salt & Pepper Meals. A beer tasting of The Witty Traveller was paired with a sample of Salt & Pepper’s coffee-rubbed pork crostini drizzled with a chimichurri mayo.
The train stopped at Whyte Station at 12 PM and guests walked the short distance to Wildflowers Farm, a nine-acre organic family farm owned by Chuck and Jane Magri. There was no shortage of things to do for the hour and a half scheduled at Wildflowers – from bee tours and tea talks to listening to St. Thomas musician King Jeorge’s smooth, soulful melodies. Several exquisite food pairings were also offered at this stop. The Windjammer Inn teamed up with Wildflowers Tea to create Kapha tea brined and smoked duck topped with pickled peaches from Great Lakes Farms, all on La Houlette de Vie Bakery’s Wise Walnut Bread. Helm Baked also partnered with Wildflowers to create mini tea-infused cupcakes featuring the Pitta and Simplicity blends, which produced a hibiscus-forward cupcake with raspberry buttercream icing and one with flavours of chamomile and a vanilla bean buttercream icing – all gluten free.
After a fulfilling farm experience, guests boarded the train for the final time to wind through Elgin County’s lush forests on the way to Port Stanley. During the journey, Seed Confections served their melt-in-your-mouth macarons and Railway City Brewing paired it with a taste of their Barrel Reserve Tart Cherry Wild Ale.
A snack of Barb’s Brickle from the Storehouse and some time to wander around Port Stanley was followed by a bus ride to one of Elgin County’s scenic wineries, Quai du Vin. Jamie Quai, owner and winemaker, greeted guests and began a tour of the vineyards, processing area, fermentation and barrel rooms. His fascinating talk was complemented by several wine tastings, including Quai du Vin’s 2016 Signature White and Aurore Muscat. In the barrel room, a delightful creation made with organic vegetables from Orchard Hill Farm was waiting – sweet corn pudding including three cheeses, topped with a roasted tomatillo salsa.
The last destination on the Conductor’s Choice tour was the Elgin County Railway Museum, an important piece of St. Thomas history and a stunning setting for the final event. Built in 1913-14 to house the Michigan Central Railroad repair shops, the 52,000-square-foot building was a perfectly on-theme venue, complete with locomotives throughout and a 5700 steam engine backdrop. Set up in front of the steam engine was The Pairs, a folk pop group from London that consists of three classically trained vocalists and a former punk rock drummer. Their moody blend of harmonies and rhythm added to the dramatic atmosphere, especially alongside the immersive performance by Zero Gravity Circus. An aerialist swung from the ceiling, suspended by silks, while characters on stilts and a classic policemen and bandit trio wandered among the tables.
Dinner was served by students of Fanshawe’s Artisanal Culinary Arts and Culinary Skills programs with the help of program coordinators Patrick Hersey, Josie Pontarelli, and Troy Spicer. Pontarelli called it “a celebration of local food,” with most ingredients coming from local sources such as Fresh From Our Fields, Debackere Farm Market, Common Ground Farm, Celtic Ridge Farms, Springwater Packers, McKechnie Foods, Clovermead, Steed and Company Lavender, and Cole-Munro Foods. Gourmet choices like smoked trout tacos, French style fingerling potato salad, smoked pork shoulder, wild rice and grain salad, beef sirloin steak, and BBQ chicken were featured. Pontarelli was pleased that the students had the opportunity to see the hard work that goes into an event and receive instant feedback on their creations.
Elgin Harvest brought their own touch to dinner, complementing the variety of food with their authentic wood-fired pizza made with sourdough crust and local vegetables, some grown at their own farm.
Sarah Noble, Manager of Railway City Tourism and coordinator of the event, said she was excited to see the culinary tour come together and witness the many guests from out of town experience our community for the first time and really embrace it. She credits the success of the event to the many local food creatives who partnered with Railway City Tourism to make this culinary experience happen. She explained in her speech, “I wanted to see people discover these gems and take stock of how fortunate we are to have such a diverse food culture here. It’s growing and driving forward to serve the community in new and exciting ways. This day-long culinary adventure was only possible because these people believe in what they’re doing and wanted to share it with all of you.”
Guests certainly noticed and appreciated the work that went into the day. Andrea Sauer experienced the full event, from the CASO Station to the Railway Museum, and described the day as “perfect” and “seamless.” “All of the pieces of the puzzle fit together so beautifully. I really feel that everybody has put their heart into it and it’s been a great experience.” Like many guests on the tour, she had not visited many of the destinations before and felt that “it really opened your eyes to St. Thomas and what St. Thomas has to offer.”
Many expressed their hope that the event would happen again next year. Fortunately, Noble says there is room to grow. “This year we used one train car, maybe next year we can use two.”
Keep up with St. Thomas’s food scene on social media with the hashtag #tasteofstthomas and by following @railwaycitytourism.