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. 

Ten Years

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I am not one to reminisce. I don't have (many) regrets and rarely am I nostalgic for the past. This summer, however, has thrown me back to ten years ago. I didn't even realize it has been ten years since I worked in Italy. 

Ten years ago, I spent the summer between my first and second year at chef's school in Italy. I worked in Tuscany for three months and the property was situated on the highest point in Chianti. I remember seeing the twinkle of Sienna in the distance to the south, in late afternoon when the sun cast yellow over the hills, and illuminated ancient buildings in the distance. 

I had an Italian boyfriend and we would go for scenic drives on my days of ( which were few and far between). Driving through Tuscany, I insulted him by remarking how similar the landscape was to Canada's. He hadn't been to Canada. Now, in Trent Hills, I am reminded of Italy. 

Last month, when I picked the red currants I was transported back to La Petraia. I had worked at the agritourismo with four other chef students from Canada. We started each day at 5am by feeding all the animals. After that, we harvested. I was always happy to harvest the red currants. The tall bush provided shade from the famous Tuscan sun, and it created a curtain of privacy from our demanding boss. Under the shade of the red currants, I sat and harvested alone in peace, or while chatting to the farmers in broken Italian.  

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When the sun was too hot to bare, we had our lunch with the farmers in a little shack in the shade. Our afternoons were spent leading cooking classes, and then serving Michelin-quality ten-course meals. We left work at 9 or 10pm most nights. We got home, drank vodka and ate salumi. We did it again and again and again. 

In our final month, there was a drought and our town's well dried up. Nobody had water. We all began counting down the days. Mail I sent never reached Canada. The train operators went on strike. All our bunnies died of a mysterious disease. We weren't paid a penny for our work. It was a really hard time but I look back at my time in Italy fondly. It was my introduction to Slow Food and life as a farmer. 

My time overseas ten years ago projected me forward to where I am now.  With no awareness it was happening, I feel like everything in Italy and since has put me on a course to be here in Warkworth. It is as hot as Italy and this summer, it is as dry as it was there too. I am tougher for it. 

I have been working on a farm two times a week and I love it. We take breaks in the shade and eat ripe cherry tomatoes off the vine. Today, Bruce handed me a beet he had pulled from the soil. I ate it and again a memory of Italy flashed before me: I remember biting into a beet back then and thinking how exquisite and sweet it was - not at all dirty tasting. It was the same today: a burst of sweet flavour and not at all dirty. Italy taught me how to be in tune with food. 

A few weeks ago we had a duck on the farm and I was reminded of Jack, the duck I had adopted as my own in Italy. On slaughter day, I hid him. I had forgotten about Jack. Like I said, I don’t often reminisce. He was a loner duck, rejected by the rest and just like Lucky Ducky here in Warkworth, better suited as a pet than a meal. 

I will try to find the journal I kept in Italy. I want to look over it and see my dreams and predictions, my hopes and fears. It is comforting to know ten years have past so quickly. Back then, ten years into the future seemed like a lifetime. I pondered where I would go and what I would do with my life. I would never have dreamed I’d be working on a farm and writing. I also thought I’d be married and have children by now. 

But I am right where I should be, doing exactly what I want to do. I wonder where I’ll be ten years from now. I wonder how much will stay the same and how much will change. I wonder what I will remember and what I will forget.