Last week I was invited to Taste of Markerville by the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance, a country food fair with the focus of celebrating all things local, from the food, farmers and producers, and community. Little press had been done on the event, other than some pamphlets I spotted at Taste of Edmonton, but I thought, why not? Let’s get out of city life and see what’s out there! The website promised local producers as vendors, and a long table dinner experience with some heavy hitting chefs from Calgary. My extent of my experiences in rural Alberta was limited to an eight week rotation out in Camrose and washroom pit stops on the way to Calgary or Banff. I’ve never even heard of Markerville, a hamlet just 29km southwest of Red Deer. Jody was all up for it (I swear there’s a small town girl in her), so we loaded the car with 5 cent candies and off we went!
We quickly learned that Markerville was as small as you could get. I’m probably dead wrong about that actually, don’t listen to me. But it’s the smallest town I’ve ever been to. Population: 57. I should have made it a goal to meet all 57 townsfolk! It was the home of Stephan G. Stephansson, an Icelandic Canadian poet and pioneer, and the Stephan G. Stephansson Icelandic Society owns and operates four historic sites within the town. One of which is the creamery museum, the center of the town, our first tourist stop.
Inside was a historical story of Markerville’s settlement and creamery days…
… and ice cream at the Icelandic Kaffistofa shop! Yum! We lined up with adults and children alike for a bite of ice cream. Strangely enough, it wasn’t from Markerville, but from Foothills Creamery. That’s still local though!
Vendor stalls were scattered throughout the town for the afternoon, selling local produce, jams, knitwear, and the like. It was quaint and cozy, you could tell the community was close-knit. Everybody knew everybody!
Tables were being set up on Main Ave while we were browsing. I thought a long table meant maybe 30 or 40 people… nope! This was one long table, seating 115 diners for the evening. The event had only 35 of 110 tickets sold at the start of the week and ended up selling out (plus more!) by the time Saturday rolled around.
Appy Hour was starting behind the Creamery after the vendors closed. The market visitors seemed to thin out a bit but we were quickly joined by the evening’s diners for food. Danish Aebleskivers were made in a traditional cast iron pan. These were deliciously rounded light pancakes, served up with fruits and jam.
Hors d’oeuvres were walked around in the courtyard. Delicious! I was starting to get hungry and couldn’t wait for dinner to start.
After a short talk with a few locals, dinner was ready and we were seated. It was an absolutely amazing atmosphere! We were all thankful of the beautiful clear skies too. And lack of mosquitos!
The road was closed down for six hours (4pm-10pm), ample time for dinner. Our servers for the night were volunteers from Markerville or the surrounding areas! Kudos to them for their hard work that night. First service for a lot of them but everything was seamless for our nine course meal. Did I mention it was also paired with Sumac Ridge wines? Woohoo!
Chef Darren MacLean from Calgary’s downtownfood was one of the first of six chefs to bring about the meal to Markerville that night. Growing up in Central Alberta, he visited that Creamery Museum every year in his young school days, a big part of his development as an individual and as a chef. Respecting the food and where it comes was a key focus for the evening, and you could tell that everybody present was aware of that – the farmers, producers, locals, city-dwellers like myself alike. The meal started off with Chef MacLean’s lovely red fife and flax seed sourdough bread, freshly baked that morning.
Chef Andrew Winfield of River Cafe made an English pea gazpacho with cucumber and SweetMeadow farmstead cheese, nasturtium and lemon verbena. I could already tell I was going to get my veggie servings in for the week at this meal! Lovely flavors from the gardens!
Chef Pierre Lamielle of Food On Your Shirt (and winner of Chopped Canada) made an amazing deconstructed Bowden Farm Fresh Chicken pot pie. A lot of our dining neighbors were hesitant with the dish, thinking a traditional warm pot pie was on the menu, but oh my God, was this good. I’d take this dish over a warm pie any day! At one point, both Jody and I were asking around on people’s opinions on the onion. What on earth did Chef Lamielle do to it? It was the sweetest onion I’ve ever had in my life. We got a couple of blank stares when finally somebody spoke up and said that it was just a plain sweet onion. I can tell you this. We do NOT get that sweet of an onion in the grocery store in Edmonton. Ever. It’s amazing what fresh (and I mean fresh!) produce can do to a dish.
The main courses were served family style, which only made everybody feel closer than they already weree. That’s one of my favorite things about family style meals. It makes you actually become a family (even only temporary) and promotes discussion about the food and the community. Our dining neighbors were so lovely, some living only a couple miles down the road (hello to E & F if you’re reading!), others meeting us half way from Calgary (hi H!), and even Elna Edgar, owner of Edgar Farms (if you haven’t heard of their asparagus, you need to get yourself to a farmer’s market, ASAP). I even bumped into some of Calgary’s biggest food bloggers and foodies, foodkarma (+Dongbu San!), Anna’s Appetite, and Miss Foodie for the first time! Loved that we met halfway inbetween Calgary and Edmonton!
Chef MacLean started the mains off with a sous vide pork belly, complete with a Nixon Honey glaze (drools!), charred sweet onions, star anise, crispy pork rinds, and a Moroccan spiced potato salad. The potato salad took your palate to a completely different world that the countryside we were in, delicious nevertheless! It was a major contrast to the refreshing, light, flavors of the previous dishes.
Chef John Jackson of CHARCUT and Jessica Pelland of Calgary’s upcoming sister restaurant, charbar, delivered a “Lamb Ham”. Take lamb. And ham. And make it into a sausage round and slice. That’s lamb ham. Or ham lamb. Shelling peas and pickled potatoes (whaaa?) and a dill sour cream accompanied what was my favorite dish of the night. Who would have thought to pickle potatoes? And those peas. To die for. Our table (or closer diners anyways, we’re all at one table technically) became highly skilled in picking up peas with tongs really quickly! Earlier in the day I had bumped into Chef Connie Desousa (the other half of CHARCUT and Top Chef Canada competitor) and her newborn daughter in the washroom. I was so starstrucked, I actually became speechless. CHARCUT is of the best restaurants in Calgary and a favorite of mine, and that’s actually all I managed to get out of my mouth. If you’re reading this Chef, it was an honor meet you, despite the awkward setting.
Moving on! The grilled beef tenderloin by Chef Duncan Ly was the winning dish for many diners that night. It was a traditional plate, served with brown butter roasted carrots, and mustard greens with a salsa verde of herbs over top. So thankful that everybody else was busy taking photos of the beautiful plates as well. Makes it less awkward for me! Fellow diner, Greg, even offered his modelling hands to showcase the dish! The beef was a perfect medium-rare on our end of the table, moist, and outstanding.
Chef Andrew Winfield ended our mains for the night with a jerk marinated and charcoal roasted pork loin with black currant glazed and smoked beets. It was a heavy contender with the chicken pot pie and lamb ham for my favorite dish of the night. I use to be averse to beets but in the past few years I’ve come to love them roasted or smoked. I still have an issue with borsch though. Anyways, for every beef tenderloin lover at our table, there was another pork loin lover. The two most traditional and rustic dishes of the night were local winners.
The evening was so much fun, filled with great conversations with our new friends and great food. Dessert for the night ended with Chef MacLean’s strawberries and Sichuan peppercorn shortbread, cracked green Sichuan pepper, miso anglaise, Fiasco strawberry stracciatella sorbetto. A couple of raised eyebrows around the table were quickly replaced with wide smiles. The Sichuan peppercorns and pepper components were there, but subdued by the amazingly sweet strawberries from Markerville Berry and Vegetable Farm. Yummy! It was a fantastic way to end the night.
Thank you so much to Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance for inviting me, and an immense amount of gratitude to the farmers and producers in the area for their outstanding products. The chefs did an amazing job transforming the ingredients into the dishes of the night and the volunteers and Markerville was the definition of hospitality! This was the first year a long table dinner was held, although Taste of Markerville is in its second year running. Such a great experience and one that I hope everybody gets to experience once in their lifetime. Local food, local chefs, and don’t forget, the locals. 🙂 See you all again next year!Taste of Markerville