Terroir Symposium: The Economics Of Local

Now that I’m in my 30s, presents have become something I treat myself to. They're things I can’t bring myself to spend on, unless it’s for an occasion. But I definitely shell out for an experience.

So I’m glad I bought myself a ticket to the Terroir Symposium as a Christmas present. What an experience!

I’ve wanted to attend for the longest time, since I first came across the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance and their partnership with “Terroir Talks”, which lead up to the yearly symposium. The idea that food producers and growers came together to specifically talk about how the environment – the geography, climate, and history of a place – was something you could taste in a product, was something incredibly inviting to me. The fact that an entire ecosystem - from governing organizations to farmers’ co-ops - existed to promote and study the role of food and drink on tourist experiences, was equally astounding. I wanted to learn and absorb everything I could on the subject.

Because, cheesy as it sounds - I feel that terroir represents who I am today.

My roots are just as firmly in Toronto as they are in the Philippines. I like thinking that I “grew up” and learned about the wider world of food in Canada, through my experiences working in the hospitality and service industry for over 10 years.

I’ve learned about the importance of sustainable food systems and opened my eyes to the many challenges around food security (both locally and within a global context). I’ve tasted a plethora of ingredients and dishes living in Toronto - many of which I’d never heard of before, plus some which I could only have dreamt of sampling (like real truffles and caviar) as a young college student in Manila poring over restaurant and cookery books.

What better place to learn than Ontario! With such a thriving, diverse food scene - as depicted in the lunch offerings at the Terroir Symposium - it’s fantastic that these flavours, these tastes, these stories around food are so easily accessible by anyone who lives near the Toronto area. As food editor Suresh Doss says, “it’s even better than Houston!”.

Here are some highlights from the day. I definitely recommend going if you get the opportunity!

What is terroir?

Terroir is often defined as “the combination of environmental factors, including soil, climate, and geography, that give food and drink their distinctive character.” Most people associate the word terroir with wine, as that’s what’s normally used to describe how the region that grapes are grown in, affect the final outcome of the wine.

While the word itself may still be a little unapproachable for some, what I love about terroir is that it’s what allows us to learn the story of a place – and how a food or wine comes directly from there. In essence, though it can be kind of intimidating – like, not something you talk about on a first date – it holds so much in its meaning, and becomes this little present you get to unwrap each time you come across a locally produced food item.

You get to ask things like, “Why do these muskmelons smell so good?”. Or say “I can’t believe someone raises pigs that look like wooly sheep!” while crushing on a beautifully carved pork chop from a specialty butcher. And you won’t sound silly at all asking questions like “What exactly is ice wine?”.

Learning what goes into the final product - from the region it’s grown in to what’s done after harvesting or processing, to get that food to your plate - is something I greatly value. It adds another dimension to enjoying dinner, particularly for people like me who can’t stop talking about food!

What is culinary tourism?

The Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance defines the term culinary tourism as “any tourism experience in which a person learns about and/or consumes food and drink that reflects the local cuisine, heritage or culture of a place; including the active pursuit of unique and memorable eating, drinking and agritourism experiences.”

Who wouldn’t want to be involved with that?

My partner and I spent a week in Prince Edward County a few summers ago, cycling around on a self-guided winery tour. It was fantastic and one of my favourite food and drink experiences to date. We took our time visiting 3-4 wineries a day, stopping at local restaurants and cafes, chatting with other people on the wine route, relaxing in a cottage by a lake for the night. Personally, I’d choose that kind of itinerary over lounging around an all-inclusive beach resort any day.

To me, making these kinds of food-focused experiences accessible goes a long way towards getting more people to understand the concept of terroir. Particularly, for recent immigrants, or even people who grew up in a different part of the US or Canada - visiting the Great Lakes, driving through acres of vineyards, and hiking through trails along the Canadian shield become incredibly appealing activities, paired with the region’s best food and drink.

Nothing beats tasting something after you’ve set foot on the land it’s grown in!

Highlights from Terroir 2018

Since I’ve got pages of notes from that day’s sessions - I think distilling some of the best parts into a few paragraphs is a good approach.  :)

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois from Dalhousie University started with an interesting statistic: that 52% of North Americans under the age of 35 are now vegetarian/vegan. This shift, he explains, is meaningful in the larger context of saving our environment; as large numbers of the population choose to remove or reduce their meat consumption, it also corresponds to a larger questioning of where our food comes from. As people ask these kinds of questions, it becomes easier to reach people who are ready for stories about the environment, or terroir, that food grows in.

“Our food fabric is changing fast,” he says. “For consumers looking for different stories, terroir is a path that enables those powerful stories to emerge. The movement has to grow.”

Hearing Chef Elena Arzak of Spain’s three Michelin-starred Restaurant Arzak was easily the highlight of my day. I get goosebumps remembering the passion she delivers her message with!

As Elena describes, “Basque food is matriarchal” and very much connected to its producers - both on the field and in the homes and kitchens of those who live in the area. Locals’ respect for products that are in season drive everyday decisions about what to eat and prepare, exemplified by the use of a “calendario de temporada” or calendar of in-season produce.

“Education is important to convince people that the work we do has the value it has,” she says. “This information on what’s local is so important - because it leads to a ‘sustainable education.’”

The need to connect and collaborate with local researchers is vital, she adds. “It allows them to tell their region’s story.”

Chef Albert Ponzo of the Royal Hotel in Prince Edward County shared his journey to learning about terroir, and how working at one of Toronto’s top restaurants for over ten years shaped his current outlook on food just as much as his cooking style. He’s a farm-to-table advocate through and through and steadfast supporter of 100km foods, Slow Food, the Feast On program by the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance and the man behind “Pigstock”, a collaborative dinner where the wooly mangalitsa pig - a heritage breed whose meat rivals the marbling of the best kobe beef - takes centre stage.

In the morning, I attended a wine tasting titled “Women in Wine” and loved every single minute of it. Along with copious (and often hilarious) notes on my sheet for each of the 11 wines we sampled, I scribbled stars next to the names of the female winemakers who shared stories of working in the fields, wineries and places where they sell their bottles. I may have daydreamed about working alongside these winemakers someday!

I really did enjoy sampling an amazing variety of Canadian wines - almost as much as writing about it. I wrote things like “Very good! Traces of apple?” for a glass of sparkling wine, “Great for summer BBQ” on a crisp riesling, “Spice scented” and “I could smell that all day” for a wine made of gamay grapes from Niagara-on-the-Lake. It had a bit of a floral nose to it, but tasted like a strong, full-bodied red wine.

I also definitely thought about Filipino dishes that I’d love to pair with those wines.

My next tasting was called “The Great Ontario Craft Brew” and, as you can guess, I loved every minute of that too. The most important thing I learned was that you could grow all the ingredients to make beer within Ontario. Amazing!

Rob Morra from Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. (located in Vankleek Hill, Ontario) and Peter Bulut from Great Lakes Brewery (located 10 minutes from where I live) led the workshop, where they debuted the very special “Yours to Discover” beer - a highly drinkable, collaborative brew between GLB and Beau’s, created just for Terroir 2018. (There really is a lot to discover in Ontario!)

For this beer, they talked about sourcing wild yeast from apples grown near Guelph, Ontario, then using that yeast to inoculate (or jump-start) the process of making beer. No wonder it tasted a bit like caramel and bananas - I guess the fruitiness of yeast swabbed from apples really took hold!

Someone asked how Rob and Peter felt about the amount of craft brewers starting their own businesses. “Does the space feel crowded at all?” he asked. They both laughed and basically said that collaboration kind of grows organically among brewers. “It helps that we all love to drink!” Peter quipped. “Our competitors aren’t other brewers, but really those consumers that we need to ‘win over’ from the big four (mainstream beers).”

I sampled a range of beer styles, from lagered ales (malty with a somewhat creamy mouthfeel), pale ales (a tinge of spicy), a drinkable summer pilsner, beers aged in wine barrels, farmhouse ales (with notes of sourness and an earthy aroma that reminds you of a barn).

At Beau’s, Rob talked about how they’ve had a designer on board since they launched in 2006; they knew that how their beer looked on a shelf would play an important part in their success - and in telling their story. And in selling beer!

Exploring "Hidden Flavors Of The Philippine Kitchen" In Toronto

From October 1-4, 2017, the "Hidden Flavors Of The Philippine Kitchen" food tour took place in Toronto. It was the third stop of a five-city North American tour by Amy Besa and Chef Romy Dorotan of Purple Yam Restaurant, in partnership with the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.


Why was it significant to be involved with these events? Because, simply put - it felt amazing to be part of something bigger: a community of Filipino-Americans and Canadians, (re)discovering food traditions and learning about foods from the Philippines.

That we got ingredients I myself had never tasted while growing up in the Philippines was revelatory. It came with intense excitement - that we would taste these vinegars and heirloom grains, these sweet and savoury preserves with an incredible depth of flavour, that people in the Philippines have used for generations in their cooking. Sampling native spirits, coffee, chocolate, honey, nuts that many Filipinos, even in their homeland, may not know of or get to taste for a variety of reasons - beyond amazing!

As a proud Filipino-Canadian, it was undoubtedly an enriching experience that I will forever be thankful to Amy and Chef Romy for. And the best part of all is that my experiences are by no means singular - not by a long shot.

After the events wound down, I chatted with other people who helped bring the “Hidden Flavors of the Philippine Kitchen” food tour to life in Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and Toronto. In a sense, it felt like we were kind of bound together by this search for what makes us who we are today - as migrants to North America, as Filipinos in heart and soul. Exploring our hyphenated identities - knowing we are where we are today because of what our families have done and gone through - is a similar story in many ways to how these nearly-forgotten ingredients from the Philippines are now finding themselves back in the hands of people telling today’s story of Filipino food across the globe.

The history of adlai grains (a type of millet), tapuy (rice wine), danggit (dried fish), macapuno (coconut sport) and palapa (a toasted spice mix) - among so many - are those waiting to be told.

Storytellers of Filipino Food - A Meet and Greet With Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan

Even simply knowing Tita Amy is quite a big deal. I first reached out to her in 2016 to send a short blog post I wrote about their book “Memories of Philippine Kitchens”. To my delight, she responded! Soon after she shared their plans for embarking on this culinary tour of five North American cities, to bring little-known (and hardly served) ingredients and food products to chefs and restaurant goers in the US and Canada. That this kind of a food tour - very much the makings of a documentary - was about to happen, thrilled me to no end.

In Toronto, Amy connected me with Socky Pitargue and Maripi Leynes. Altogether we spent several months reaching out to Filipino-Canadian chefs, restaurateurs, food producers and industry/media supporters. Our goal was to bring these movers and shakers of the local food scene together, to spark conversation on the challenges and opportunities of bringing "hidden Filipino flavours" into the mainstream.

We sampled things like:

  • Native Philippine vinegars, such as mulberry vinegar, nipa palm vinegar (sukang sasa), sugarcane vinegar (sukang Iloko) and various coconut vinegars (like the traditional sukang lubi from Cebu, a balsamic-style vinegar and dark mother-of-vinegar gels)
  • Condiments of very high quality, such as the best fish sauce (patis) I’ve ever had, fermented shrimp paste (bagoong), preserved Tagalog garlic bulbs and a chutney made from nata de coco (coconut jelly)
  • Spice blends such as palapa, made with toasted coconut meat, chilies and spices from Mindanao province
  • Pickled fruits and vegetables, like the addictive dikiam na manggang pajo made from tiny, tart pajo mangoes
  • A bevy of sweet preserves, such as pure macapuno (coconut sport), caramelized bananas (made from different varieties - each with a different sweetness!), preserved santol (cottonfruit), candied kamias (bilimbi fruit) and jams made from sapinit (wild Philippine raspberries) and mangosteen
  • Natural sweeteners like nipa palm syrup and honey from three different provinces, each carrying the distinct terroir of their land
  • Various dried fish, a staple in the Philippine diet
  • Heirloom grains such as the ominio (purple mountain rice) and adlai (Job’s tears), along with pinipig (toasted young rice grains) and taro flour
  • Native spirits and alcohol, such as tapuy (rice wine), basi (sugarcane wine), aged Philippine rum, tuba and lambanog (made from coconuts) and native liqueurs of calamansi, dalandan and cacao
  • Single-origin Philippine chocolate and coffee from the provinces of Benguet, Negros, Davao and Bukidnon

We invited not just people in the food industry, but also those who could help raise awareness of Amy and Romy’s advocacy toward preserving these largely underused, undervalued and fast disappearing ingredients. 

We hoped that by bringing these food products to the table, literally, in Canada - our guests would leave with tangible memories of what those foods really tasted like and how they might incorporate those flavours into their restaurant and pop-up dinner menus.

A Culinary Demo at the George Brown Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts

Together with two chefs from their Purple Yam Restaurant in Manila, Amy and Chef Romy next held a culinary demo/public forum on bringing these hidden flavours of Philippine cuisine further to light.

Guests sampled their Sous-Vide Beef Shortrib Adobo, prepared with a native Philippine vinegar and local Canadian beef sourced from nearby St. Lawrence Market, along with a savoury pilaf using adlai grains.

We tried a dish called Kulawo, made with charred eggplant and burnt coconut cream. Very rich and tasty! I loved learning about this distinctly Southern Tagalog technique of first burning coconut meat until it literally turns black, then squeezing it to extract coconut cream. Though I was born and raised in that part of the Philippines, I’d never had this particular regional specialty. Their sous-chef, Raphael Cristobal, explained that in their restaurant kitchen they “burn” the coconut cream by broiling grated coconut meat in a 400 degree oven, then finish off by torching the browned, crisped coconut even further. Ang sarap. There’s an irreplaceable sweetness to burnt coconut that you just can’t get any other way.

Finally, we sampled Chef Romy’s famous Mangosteen Ice Cream. What a pleasant end to the tasting!

Culinary Cities of the World: Manila - A Four-Course Dinner at The Chef’s House

I looked forward to the following night pretty much the entire year. That dinner was quite extraordinary!

We had Cabcab, a Visayan specialty made of mashed cassavas dried into thin wafers, generously topped with the Kulawo we sampled the night before. There was homemade bagoong on the side - briny, funky and delicious.


And Bicol Express - oh my - which I kept helping myself to heaping spoonfuls of. It was rightly spiced (read: not overtly bursting with chilies) and so full of linamnam (a Tagalog word that closely translates to umami).

Next was Oyster Kinilaw, from Malpeque Bay on Prince Edward Island. Chef Romy sealed his take on transforming oysters from Canada’s east cost into a dish with distinctly Filipino flavours, using a "bath" of watermelon ice, citrus and sorrel, elegantly served and topped with slivers of bright red radishes. It's the perfect example of how conversations around how "authentic" or traditional a particular dish is, sometimes isn't even necessary - particularly when the flavours work so beautifully, and you begin with the best ingredients available.

The first main course was a plate of the Shortrib Beef Adobo - just as delectable as yesterday, this time with a full serving to myself! 

It came with a side of adlai grains and vegetable pinakbet.


There was Banana Leaf Wrapped Fogo Island Cod, a perfectly cooked, incredibly aromatic catch, sourced from the equally beautiful yet stark island of Fogo, along the mystical shores of Newfoundland and Labrador. How you could taste their pristine waters, and perhaps dreamily, even the quietness of that landscape in a bite…delighted me to no end. Unwrapping the charred banana leaves let out a smoky whiff of air, spiked with coconut cream and a subtle hint of coffee. Was I now in the tropics? That delicate cod, studded with Canadian high bush cranberries, oyster mushrooms and leeks, was easily my favourite dish of the evening.

Finally, we had the Pili Maple Syrup Tart - a dessert crafted by Chef Romy and his team specially for this dinner, served no place else before. As some of you may know, I really have a thing for chocolate - seeing cacao trees and tasting Philippine chocolate while standing on the land they grow in really transforms you! Tigre Y Oliva’s 80% Dark Chocolate paired so wonderfully with maple syrup. Topped with ice cream made from unadulterated, pure macapuno that even Chef Romy finds difficult to source in the Philippines, it’s a dessert to fly across the world for.

It’s the kind of thing to savour and wish you could instantly have more of, but also maybe not, because there’s something innately gratifying about how special this is - and how this kind of marriage between a Canadian and Filipino flavours just works.


For more photos from our "Storytellers of Filipino Food" event, find us on Facebook or visit Cambio Market's blog here!