Once the sun goes down, it is very, very dark behind Dundurn Castle. I know this because I visited the Castle last Friday night to enjoy a very special event — a “pop-up” dinner called “The Grand Feast.”
The feast took place in a tent set up on the lawn on the bay side of the castle and — as it happens — during the evening it became necessary to brave the lightless expanse outside to make use of the facilities inside the building. It was a rather haunting but very charming experience to wander through the shadowy castle in the semi-darkness with only a few guides about — a completely different ambiance from the usual guided tour. And as I returned to the outside, into the blackness, I stopped to gaze in astonishment at the brightly lit tent. It was brilliantly illuminated from the inside and one could look through the transparent panels on the sides to see the guests talking and laughing and, of course, eating and drinking. More than anything, the tent resembled an elegant cruise ship, sailing along through the night, filled with happy tourists.
The vision of the tent, floating through the darkness, made me realize the potential and the sheer specialness of the “pop-up” experience. It’s a concept that combines good eating and good company with a sort of paradigm shift. Like travelling to a new country, you see the usual through new eyes. The pop-up dining experience, which owes its conception and execution to Hamilton’s Dave Hanley, has been a source of delight now for a couple of years and continues to grow in popularity. It is an experiment in entertainment that creates the feeling that guests are taking part in some sort of fantastic performance art piece.
This is not to discount the importance of the actual dining. At “the Grand Feast”, for instance, the evening was designed to showcase VG Meats. The VG in VG meats stands for Van Groningen, the name of the family that owns and manages the company. Maegan Baird, Marketing and Communications Manager, explained that the family- owned business was started after the Second World War by the grandfather who immigrated to Norfolk County from the Netherlands where he had learned butchery skills. The business has grown (VGmeats.com) and is now run by the four grandsons.
The meat is all sourced from small herds from local farms. It is Angus beef from cattle born and raised in Ontario and the company is involved in every process, including animal breeding and genetics. There are no added hormones to the beef and the animals are not fed antibiotics. Everything is done with meticulous attention to detail. Maegan told me, for instance, that each piece of meat is given a tracking number so that the place where the animal was raised, its age and what it was fed are fully traceable. It is even given a “tenderness” rating that can be accessed with an app’ called Meat Mentor. The company sells its meat from its website, but also has a full service butchery in Stoney Creek. They are hoping to integrate fully into the Hamilton market and currently the meat is available at Longo’s grocery stores.
At the feast, the meat was treated with the respect which it deserves — five courses by four chefs. A delicate terrine and piquant dessert by VG Meats own Chef Greg Noonan; fall-off-the bone, braised short ribs by Chef Mark Farrugia from La Piazza Allegra; incredibly tasty flat iron steak prepared by Chef Jonny Blonde of food truck fame; and a grilled “28 day” New York strip loin by Chef Paddy Townsend from Spencer’s at the Waterfront in Burlington.
There are photographs of the courses on Maegan Baird’s blog
if you wish to tantalize yourself with desire. I’m not really sure which course deserved highest marks, I think the chefs were all showing off and presenting their finest. But by the time they placed the strip loin in front of me, I had decided that I wasn’t going to eat it because I was feeling very full. I took one bite — cutting through the meat which was like slicing through butter with my fork — and then, I ate the whole thing. I later found out that this was the same beef that had been featured on this summer’s LCBO Food and Drink magazine (page 74). I should also mention that the food was very neatly paired with craft beer from Nickel Brook Brewing Company and wine from Rosewood Estate Winery.
“The Grand Feast” was sold out and, if you missed out, the next Pop-up dining experience will be announced on the website in mid-May. I will leave you with the recipe for the Van Groningen’s perfect grilling steak.
The Boys’ Grilled Strip-Loin Steak
adapted from LCBO Food and Drink magazine, summer 2015
2 bone-in strip loin steak, 2 inches thick
2 tsp coarsely ground sea salt or to taste
1 tbsp grape-seed oil
1) Pat the steaks dry with paper towels. Season both sides of the steak with salt and allow to sit unrefrigerated for 1 hour.
2) Pat the steak dry again, rub with grape-seed oil to coat.
3) Preheat one side of grill to high and the other side to low. Sear steak on hot side of grill 3 to 4 minutes per side or until well-browned. Transfer to the low heat side of the grill and continue to cook to desired doneness, about 10 to 15 minutes longer. (Try to keep grill temperature around 350 F.)
4) Remove from grill and rest the steak for about 7 minutes before slicing.