When people think of Stratford, Ontario, they think of Shakespeare and the famous Stratford Festival‘s award winning theatres. They picture a nostalgic little town nestled in Southern Ontario, a river meandering through the green gardens, theatres and quaint shops while Swans glide by: It is quintessentially British. While these feelings of wistful tranquility are perfectly true of Stratford, Ontario, there is so much more here to entice your tastebuds, sweet tooth as well as a dose of culture. If it weren’t for driving an hour and a half from Toronto, one might feel as though they travelled back in time to the type of sentimental English town now only seen on PBS dramas. From independent brew houses to the unique Chocolate Trail to creative culinary concepts, Stratford offers a fantastic Ontario weekend away.
First of all: park. Use one of the city’s free parking lots and leave your car for the weekend. You can walk everywhere in Stratford and you will feel better for it.
Right now, Stratford is celebrating its Summer Music Festival, a multi-week festival of more than 100 events and featuring more than 350 different artists. We wandered down to Tom Patterson Island opposite the Festival Theatre for the opening ceremony followed by fireworks. The park was packed with people of all ages, some in lawn chairs, some floating in boats on the Avon River and some sitting on blankets starring into the sky. From soloists to orchestras, this annual program provides local, provincial, national and international artists in the open air bandstand or inside the city’s renowned theatre. This festival runs until August 30th.
Instead of a B&B or hotel, we opted to stay in XXVIII, private apartment accommodation just off the Avon River’s edge. Situated in an 19th Century house, the two bedroom suite was modern, sophisticated and in perfect proximity to the city’s core downtown area. In fact, there was a chocolate shop dangerously close by. With a master bedroom, two twin beds, two bathrooms and our own kitchen, all three members of our group were able to share accommodation…which is perfect for a girl’s weekend away.
One of my favourite parts of the weekend was the Chocolate Trail. We strolled through Stratford and met original chocolate artisans and producers, each allowing us to sample some of their homemade treats. We visited Rheo Thompson Candies, a 45 year old chocolate shop, famous for its iconic Mint Smoothie.
Along the trail are Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, Mercer Hall, Bentley’s Inn Bar & Restaurant and the delicious Jenn & Larry’s Brittle ‘n Shakes and Cream Cakes, where the boys behind the counter still wear 50’s style ice cream parlour hats and bow ties. We ate soft vanilla ice cream with warm chocolate fudge sauce and satisfyingly crunchy peanut brittle.
My favourite spot on the Chocolate Trail was Chocolate Barr’s Candy Inc. A Stratford tradition, this colourful candy shop is owned by the Barr’s, a lovely couple who truly love chocolate, sweets and ice cream. Not only were they enchanting, their enthusiasm for their work is contagious. As well as creating their own deliciously unique chocolates with flavours like honey and black pepper, chilli pepper and cherry liqueur, the Barr’s also make their own gelato. I dare say that theirs was some of the best gelato I have ever tasted. We sampled ‘Strawberry Smash,’ a scrumptious blend of fresh strawberries, cheesecake, vanilla and something that I just can’t put my finger on. I was in love from the very first bite and those flavours still dance across my dreams like a scene from The Nutcracker.
In order to fully explore everything the area had to offer, we decided to go foraging. While this sounds like some thing on Naked & Afraid, let me assure you that this experience was nothing of the sort. We met with Peter Blush of Puck’s Plenty, an experienced forager and now author, his knowledge of wild edibles and sustainable harvesting featured on the Oprah Network, Global TV and Taste Magazine (to name a few). He took us to the outskirts of Stratford where we picked our own wild leeks, mushrooms and beets. Peter is booked solid for the next few months as he prepares to take tourists through the woods to look for their own wild veggies. He provides tips and recipes to enjoy the full benefits of your finds.
Every quarter, Peter hosts Savour Stratford Forage and Feast, an event that takes groups into the woods to forage for wild mushrooms of many shapes, sizes and flavours. Post forage, guests return to Stratford for a VIP luncheon featuring their bounty of wild veggies. Together with some VQA wines, local craft beers (like Stratford’s own Black Swan), one can enjoy the fruits of their labour prepared by some of Stratford’s top Chefs. Tickets are $60 and are available online. Personally, this is something that I don’t want to miss.
The city is full of culinary gems, restaurants that locally source their food from produce to milk, cheese and charcuterie. From beautiful Bijou to Montforte cheese, these restaurants proudly display the best that Stratford has to offer. Restaurant Canadian Grub uses ONLY locally sourced products: If it isn’t made in Ontario, they don’t use it. That means that ingredients like olive oil, traditionally made in Italy, are not used on their menu. When they say ‘Ontario only,’ they mean it!
There is more to Stratford than meets the eye. It is a weekend destination full of culinary adventures, scrumptious sweets and melodious music. This city is brimming with culture and beauty and the inviting Stratford residents are more than excited to host you.
Pack your overnight bag and pip pip cheerio: Off to sunny Stratford we go!