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.
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.