Forging Ahead with the Ponzos

The time was ripe and he picked the fruit of opportunity. Chef Albert Ponzo and his family packed up their life in Toronto and began a new chapter in Prince Edward County.

Their new home is as bright and airy as the county outside. The rooms are modern with clean lines, earthy colours and bright, natural light flooding the space. Accents of bone and wood are an homage to the land. There are deer antlers on the mantel and the skull of a cow on the wall. On the crisp white walls are pops of colour from artwork created by their children, adding a hint of whimsy to their home. This tight-knit family is embracing their new space. 

Albert along with his wife, Sommelier Marlise Ponzo and their three children still look outside in awe and marvel at their new view of fields, forest, and a quiet, winding country road. In April 2017, they moved to their new home, which sits on a vast 63 acres. The five of them explore the property frequently and together forage stinging nettles, wild ramps, mushrooms and fiddleheads for their springtime suppers. They are a family that loves food.

The move made perfect sense. Chef Ponzo had worked for more than 15 years as a chef in Toronto, where he was executive chef at the highly regarded Le Select Bistro for ten years. He chose to use suppliers like 100km foods, who source locally. By supporting sustainable farming, and having a strong relationship with his suppliers, he was able to create a menu dedicated to Ontario’s bounty. 

Having spoken at the Terroir Symposiums in Toronto, Hungary and Tuscany, as well as being hosted at various culinary events from Newfoundland to Napa Valley, he gained a reputation for dedicating his time and energy towards advocating for the support of sustainable, locally sourced food.  

Speaking with farmers, chefs, and other proponents of sustainable food eventually lead Albert to connect with Greg Sorbara and Sol Korngold, who are reviving The Royal Hotel in Picton slated to open in 2020. Discovering they shared the same beliefs about food, Albert was offered the job as executive chef. He willingly accepted.

The menu will highlight the county’s wealth of local fare and Albert will be sourcing ingredients primarily from Edwin County Farms, which is the 650 acre Sorbara family farm. Under the tutelage of Nick Sorbara, Albert has become an apprentice farmer. The Sorbaras grow certified organic vegetables, heritage wheats, raise Black Angus cattle and have a sugar bush where they make their own maple syrup. 

Albert has immersed himself in a plentitude of activities all surrounding sustainable food. He is working with charitable organizations like The County Food Hub and Food to Share. Both are incredible feats of dedication from volunteers, famers and chefs, who come together to make sustainable food more accessible.

At home, he is getting to know his land on a deeper level. The Ponzos take walks on their property with friends and neighbours. Albert admits he is “still green”, and welcomes the expertise of locals. Surveying his vast property, he imagines how he can honour the past life of the land, while forging ahead into the next chapter. “I generally walk around and try to understand what the land was used for before and try to look for the signs which tell a story.”  With his food, he creates his own story. Nettle Triangoli is a nod to his Italian roots, using local, sustainable, fresh ingredients. Some people see nettles as a pesky weed, but Albert sees the nettles growing wild in abundance as an opportunity to forage and cook sustainably.

Albert can collect greens and vegetables from the garden and prepare a fresh meal for the family. He is a chef at ease in his kitchen, the heart of their home. With jeans on and his sleeves rolled up, he can easily tackle cooking for three children.  On the expansive white countertop, he surveys his foraged nettles and decides to make pasta. The sound of one of the kids playing drums can be heard through the walls. 

Making pasta is like meditation. The soft pasta dough is verdant and becomes translucent as he feeds it through the pasta roller. The filling is made with nettles and locally made ricotta. Garnishing the dish with morels adds earthiness and fresh asparagus brings the dish a note higher. These are the flavours of spring, and the flavours of their land.


Side dish: 

Marlise Ponzo is a sommelier and expertly pairs what Albert cooks with locally made wine. The wine she chose for Albert’s stinging nettle pasta dish is the Pinot Gris 2016 white wine from Grange winery. Amber in colour, fresh and crisp with notes of melon, it pairs beautifully with the nettle triangoli. 

I Quit and Now I Breathe

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I was a smoker for nearly 12 years. That's insane to me. I never thought I would become addicted.  I warn kids I see smoking that it will eventually control their lives. They don't believe me.

Hunched over, hugging myself, when I smoked, I was a little a ball; a smoking nervous wreck. I used it as a means of escape: Escape from work. Escape from a party. Escape from family. When I smoked, I was in my own bubble where actions had no consequence and instant gratification was a treat I always deserved. It was "me time". I told myself I needed it and that it was good for my health because it calmed me down. I have low blood pressure and I joked that smoking brought it up to normal. 

Quitting took a full year of re-training my brain. I decided I wanted to quit. This is key. You have to want to quit. So many people told me to read "the book" but I didn't. Instead, I gave myself rules. I told myself: No smoking until after breakfast. This was an eye opener: I often smoked in lieu of eating and I felt better eating breakfast first. I felt better realizing that I could find the time to decide what to eat, to make it and then to eat it. Truthfully, many times after I established this rule, I would go downstairs and smoke immediately after. Once I got better at following this rule, I tried to adhere to it for all meals of the day. It was strange to force feed myself just to be allowed to smoke a cigarette after. Realizing my brain prioritized smoking over food was helpful to the cause. 

I stopped smoking while walking. I would tell myself that once I got to my destination I was allowed a cigarette. Man, did I hustle to get places after that rule was enforced. 

Mindlessly smoking was a tough one. Sometimes I would look down and be smoking but not able to remember lighting up or making the decision to smoke. Sometimes, I would start smoking then realize I had tossed my cigarette mindlessly somewhere not remembering when or where. If someone else was smoking, I would smoke. A rule I established was: Unless I was planning on smoking, I didn't smoke just because it was an option or offered. I broke this rule many times.

The more focused on quitting and stopping, the more I recognized the idiosyncrasies of an addict. This helped me too. I began to cut down. I would tally my cigarettes day by day and week by week. I went down from 15 a day to 10 to 5 over four months. Then, I was stuck on 5 a day for a long time. One before work, one after work, one when I got home and inevitably there would be more that I needed. I did need them: I was still addicted. 

Finally, a little over 3 months ago, I got firm with myself. I told people I had quit so that I was forced to adhere lest I be found out. By this time, I could smell it on other people and knew that I had smelled bad for 12 years. It clung to the air in my house. I opened the windows. I washed everything. I hid the beautiful vintage ashtrays. I threw out all the lighters. Before bed, I would sneak outside and in the dark. I would smoke half a cigarette, overwhelmed with guilt and pleasure. 

Finally, a big change in my life happened and it was the turning point. I smoked half a cigarette a day for 2 weeks and that was that. I have been smoke free since an unknown date. I'm not counting. It's been a little over 3 months. 

Now, my "me time" is spent cooking and then eating. I am off-duty to the world. I don't answer my phone, I turn up my music, I listen to the food and I breathe. 

Mex I Can

I feel like for my entire childhood, my mother was in the kitchen.

When we got home at four, we dropped our knapsacks at the door and plopped down on the couch, brain dead from a long day at school.  This was before remote controls, so one of us would squat with our face two inches from the screen and turn the dial while the other would whine, " No, go back! That one". Mom didn't interfere or take sides. She let us sort it out, but we both knew she was she was there, in the kitchen, listening.

Most days, Mom would bring us an after school snack. It was usually 'soldiers' (a peanut butter and jam sandwich cut into four long rectangles) or cheese and crackers. She probably put cucumber and carrot sticks on the plate too...but I don't remember. 

When we spread out our books and paper on the dining room table, Mom was cooking dinner in the next room. We would holler our questions and she would holler back answers. If we called her ("mmmaaaaaaaam"), she would leave her cooking and come help. 

Dinner was difficult for Mom. My sister liked cheese and hot dogs and was pretty fussy. I was a self-declared vegetarian from the age of seven, and my dad was the pickiest. I don't remember watching him eat. I remember my mom having small portions. I remember sitting across from my sister and making faces. The big square table where we sat down to dinner was too big to kick my sister under the table (though I'm sure we tried). 

If we had food left on our pates, Mom would divide the plate and tell us to choose a side and eat it. If we still couldn't, Dad would tell us we were not allowed any cereal or snacks later and that if we were hungry, we would have to finish our plate. 

When we had finished, it was custom (and required of us) to say, " Thank you for the lovely meal. May I please be excused?". We said it every night for my entire childhood and into my teens. 

In high school, Mom worked, so we got home before her. We'd drop our knapsacks with a thud and plop in front of the TV. She would get home, take off her coat and march on ahead to the kitchen. I remember being upset that she didn't take off her shoes when she got home. It never occurred to me she was in a hurry because she was racing against the clock of hungry growing hormonal teens.  It never occurred to me to get dinner started. I would look in the fridge and there would be "nothing to eat" and she'd open it up, spend an hour cooking/pulling rabbits out of hats and would always offer us a (healthy and satisfying) feast. 

Towards the end of high school, I would sit on the barstool at the end of the kitchen counter and watch her cook. 

When we had eaten everything on our plates and were ready to leave the table, we would thank our mom for dinner - often in unison. 

Now, in my 30s, I live alone. I work during the day and when I get home I'm exhausted. But what do I do? I march on ahead to the kitchen with my shoes still on and dive into making dinner.  

Cooking for one is hard. It's hard to tell yourself you are special enough to fuss over. But you are. I am.

I have been craving Mexican. I can't eat onions, garlic, wheat tortillas, beans or dairy, so you can imagine making Mexican seem authentic and satisfying is a challenge. But I did it. 

Because of Mama.

She taught me that it is possible to whip something up from nothing if you're got the right momentum, vision and chutzpah. 

 

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P.S.

I did go to cooking school. Cooking school taught me the rules and techniques. Mama taught me how to love to cook, how to show others you care by cooking for them, how feeding people creates a deep bond, and that sharing food can be the greatest gift given or received. 

 

 

Two Sheds, Bread and Chocolate Truffle Pie

I painted two small sheds yesterday. I had been hired to do this project a month back but I am a novice and went too slow. The weather changed before I could finish painting all the grooves. Yesterday was warm, possibly 15 degrees Celsius, and I finished painting after 4 hours. 

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It was windy when I walked home. It seems my days usually end around 3pm; That's when the sun starts going down. That's when the weather changes. I realized I hadn't been thinking about anything all day. I was focused on painting and my mind was blank. It felt like my brain was calm water lapping inside my head. 

I slept at 9 and woke at midnight to start the arduous but incredibly pleasurable task of making a mass batch of bread. It doesn't take too much effort, but it does take time and attention. I talk to the dough. It helps. I'm sure of it. 

By 7 in the morning, the bread was out and cooling and I crept back upstairs to bed for a few hours.

Just after 11, I flew out the door, late for work, holding the earrings I intended on wearing. As I descended the stairs, I prodded my ear lobe with the hook and hit something. I was already wearing earrings.  

This evening, I made a chocolate pie from scratch and with no recipe. I am mourning the closure of Bar Italia. It was a restaurant - until a few months ago - on College Street in Toronto. My parents took us there before they divorced. It was simply where our family went if we were going out for supper.  Everyone always got the same thing except Mom, who always had a hard time deciding.  

There was a chocolate truffle cake on the menu. It could hardly be called a cake. I don't think it was baked and I don't think it had flour or leavening agents. It was always the same: perfect and insanely rich. The slice was only an inch thick and maybe 5 inches long. It sat on a plate alone or there may have been a raspberry coulis underneath. Our family shared that one dessert every time. 

I went on my first date there, with a guy who would eventually propose to me when I was 16. We both used fake i.d. I don't remember what I ate, but I know where we sat and the view I had of that room. That room is etched in my memory forever. 

Later, I got a job as a cook there. It was my third job ever. I never saw anyone make the chocolate truffle cake. Someone did it upstairs but I never saw who or when they made it. 

Tonight, I channelled Bar Italia and what I have learned about cooking since and I prepared two mini chocolate truffle pies. They are in a pie shells only because I had left over pie pastry. 

I cannot eat this pie, but I will savour the memories it holds. Tomorrow, I will give it to my mom and her partner, my stepdad, Trevor.