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EatDrink - Late Summer 09
Melanie North

The Manic Organic's Soiled Reputation
Antony John's produce Earns Rave Reviews

These days, we are seeing growing consumer interest in the origins of the products we buy.  We are turning away from mass-produced and imported foods and embracing local and seasonal products.  For ethical and environmental reasons, not to mention quality, inquiring minds want to know:  Where did this food come from?  Who grew it? Is it organic? Is it local? Is it fair trade? Who is the farmer?  These are questions we might ask when we go to the market or the grocer, and particularly when we buy wine or cheese.  But how often do we ask our restaurateurs about the source of the food they plate?

Many chefs are now addressing these questions on their menus and that's a good thing.  Canoe restaurants in Toronto, for example, lists "Cumbrae Farms Beef Tenderloin Tartare and Yarmouth Lobster" on their menu, and many restaurants list the origins of the cheeses they serve.  The London Club offers "Goat's Cheese & Vegetable Terrine with Hand Picked Soiled Reputation Greens."  Garlic's of London is offering similar information on their menu, such as "Everspring Farm's Muscovy Duck," "Fried St. Marys Almond Crusted Chevre," and "City Farming Network's Organic Heirloom Beets."

One of the top growers and suppliers in the area of organic vegetables is Antony John, owner with his partner, Tina, of Soiled Reputation in Sebringville.  He says that too often vegetables are seen as the poor relatives on the dinner plate, and he wants chefs and diners to be given the opportunity to taste the quality, appreciate the beauty, and recognize the care and effort in growing quality vegetables.

What are the important qualities to look for?  Beyond certified organic and local food, there is the influence of "terroir."  As John says, "There is no truer expression of a region's unique combination of geography and climate than the food grown in its soils."  Perth County soil is classified as sedimentary.  Massive lush primordial forests grew up in the former glaical lakebed, then decomposed over the years and built up layers rich in organic matter.  The soil here constains the ideal ratio of clay so that it contains moisture and releases it slowly over time.  The region also benefits from the Lake Huron rains due to the prevailing west winds.  It's the ideal combination of soil and weather for a growing region.  In essence, what a Burgundy or Bordeaux region does for wine, these soils do for vegetables.  Antony John is manipulating the same variables as wine growers do and producing exceptional taste and quality in the vegetables he grows.

With a degree in Wildife Biology from Guelph University and ten years under his belt as a dairy farmer on Tina's father's farm, John decided the time had come to start up their own farm business.  Eighteen years ago he asked the question, "What is the best way to produce high quality food?" and the answer was organic.  Now, with a total of eighty acres, forty of which are Pro-Cert organic certified, he and 20 employees grow and care for fifty different crops on twenty acres, renting out the rest.  Edamame, fava beans, red and gold cipoline onions, gold and candy cane beets, Castlefranco radicchio (which turns chartreuse with a splash of red when ready for harvesting and has hazelnut undertones in flavour), purple Viking potatoes and La Ratte potatoes (made famous by renowned Chef Joël Robuchon) are some of the specialty greens and vegetables they grow in order to provide top chefs and consumers with the best of the best.

We stand in the field munching on sugar peas and fennel.  John admits that large producers, in an effort to rush their food to market, will often overwater carrots and fennel to make them bigger faster.  The unfortunate result of the excess water is less flavour.  This fennel is different, slightly more compact, more subtly sweet in flavour. Antony John is interested in crafting food, not just producing it.  He doesn't plant carrots until July in order to take advantage of the first frost of mid-September that will trigger the starch into sugar in the carrots and various root vegetables.

Every once in a while we stop to look through John's high-powered bird scope for an up-close look at the barn swallows or sandpipers.  John is an avid birdwatcher and has identified 117 species so far in his eighteen years on this piece of land.  The birds provide inspiration on several levels, as subjects for his art and a reminder that, "I am managing a farm as an ecosystem.  My job as a steward of the land is not only to produce food for people but also to increase and foster biodiversity.  For example, the birds that we see today will be in Costa Rica this winter and so what we grow here and what these birds eat will have a direct affect on the biodiversity of the land in Costa Rica, and vice versa."  John is an artist both on the land and off it.  He is pursuing his painting again after a long hiatus to get the farm up and running.  Inspired and mentored by Alex Colville, he paints both at home and in Costa Rica, and has accumulated a body of work that he hopes to place in a Toronto gallery.

We continue sampling through the rows, including some of the "weeds."  The purslane is delicious and tastes surprisingly like watermelon.  We taste lambs quarters and chickweed.  John talks about his fava beans that are just finishing.  He updates chefs weekly on what's coming and what's gone from the field.  He sows a new crop of lettuce and arugula every 7-10 days, and his crew is picking outside until December.  The farm operates year round using greenhouses and has made a commitment to restaurants to provide them with produce throughout the year.

Fourtheen years ago, John started taking cooking classes from Neil Baxter, Chef at Rundles and instructor at the Stratford Chefs School.  As a result, he learned the language of "chefdom" and what chefs are looking for in product.  He says, "In that sense, I am a part of the kitchen brigade, selecting and editing in the field.  I can get into the minds of the chefs and their restaurants and what they each want."  He is also trying to create heterogeneous variety on the farm to accommodate different chefs' styles and different restaurants' offerings.  The validation from Chefs such as Jason Schubert and Paul Harding at The Only on King is very gratifying for John.  "I'm a professional, just the same as a winemaker, but the key to raising our profile is in educating diners to ask for it [quality] at their restaurants."  Chefs like Schubert and Harding have embraced the flexibility necessary in setting their menu daily to offer the season's best produce.

John pulls a few torpedo onions, soft red in colour with an oblong bulb.  They have a flavour that is a cross between a shallot and a Vidalia onion.  I take some home to grill on the barbeque with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.  These vegetables are worthy riches.  Soiled Reputation is a supplier to top restaurants in Toronto, as well as those in Stratford like The Church, The Old Prune, Bijou and Rundles.  In London, The Only on King has been a staunch supporter and it has paid off.  EnRoute magazine named them one of the ten best new restaurants in Canada last year and concluded, "the single best dish of the year may well be the simple vegetable salad at this former dairy in London, Ontario."  Those vegetables came from Soiled Reputation.

John Sums up his feelings on his vocation:  "Having this farm has allowed me to be creative, to be a farmer and to play with the textures and colours in salads.  So it's a great combination for me.  Our name, Soiled Reputation, is a reflection of the maverick personalities Tina and I have. We always seem to be on the fringe, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Soiled Reputation is located at #4129 on County Road 130 in Sebringville and stocks a cooler of salad greens, seasonal vegetables, and Neil Baxter's sourdough bread for their weekend "homies," the dedicated foodies who want to buy direct from the farm.  Contac them at 519.393.6497.

Melanie North is Editor of CityWoman magazine and a regular contributor to eatdrink.