11 OCT 2016: Most hotel owners boast about their rooms. Not Ben Samann who bought Viamede Resort in 2010 at the age of 27. People come to the resort for the food, the experience and the views, not the accommodation and he’s okay with that.
It’s not that the rooms are bad. My room in the hilltop lodge was large with new wood floors, a jet-air tub and a gas fireplace. It wasn’t five star, the décor was plain, but it was fine. However, some of the cabins on the property do need lots of TLC to perk up their rustic character. Sämann pushes on with continual small improvements.
What turns Sämann on and all his foodie guests is the dining experience. He’s passionate about offering the best food in the Kawarthas and puts his energy and money behind this goal. The property has a 1600 square foot vegetable and herb garden, maple groves to tap for syrup, and every year raises eight heritage pigs, along with ducks, chickens, quail and turkeys. Viamede’s gardener farmer Jarrod Craig hand picks the animals, maintains the gardens and keeps the bees.
Guests are encouraged to visit the gardens and animal pens. They also see much of the bounty on their plates. Our byzantine food regulations prevent the resort from serving up the chicken eggs (they need to be officially graded), but they do use those from the other birds. At the end of the summer all creatures get eaten. Sämann offers a programme that shows kids how to gut and feather fowl. He believes we gain by knowing the origin of our food.
With the onsite farm and 165 acres of wilderness property, Chef Kevin McKenna makes locavore come alive at Mount Julian, the resort’s fine dining restaurant. I knew of Chef McKenna at Earth Rosedale, a top new Toronto restaurant in its day. His skill in the kitchen made him a two time James Beard House invitee and it shows in the amazing tasting menus he creates at Mount Julian.
Guests can choose from a five, seven or nine course tasting menu and add in wine pairings if they desire. I went for the nine course and it was so perfectly portioned that I was satiated but not stuffed at the end of the meal. The theme was tomato – as the resort’s heritage tomatoes were ripe and ready.
They appeared in clear tomato soup, panzanella salad, on the ice cider trout dish, the Lake Erie pickerel as tomato butter, as a fresh accent to 50 Shades of Rabbit, as a jam with the maple smoked rib eye and as a sorbet to cleanse the palate. They weren’t in the wild blueberry with chocolate crème fraiche dessert.
Paired wines included Southbrook’s Whimsy a fortified sherry like tipple, a 100% Prince Edward County Chardonnay from Half Moon Bay, Grange Gamay Noir also from PEC and Chateau des Charmes Late Harvest Riesling from Niagara.
The next night was an extravaganza of another sort. In November of 2015, Sämann and his Chef launched “The Gathering”, held every three months or so. This night was the fourth in the series and it was a crazy fun evening. The theme was a casual family-style boil-up and country harvest dinner.
Over 100 people ponied up the $95 for a three course meal with drinks. Chef and staff put butcher paper down the middle of our huge communal tables and then poured out the food onto it. Boiled corn, potatoes and sausages, roasted whole Ontario white fish stuffed with spice-fried sunfish and wild leek coleslaw. It was help yourself and pig out all you want.
Speaking of pigs, then out came the roasted Tamworth pigs’ heads along with knives to slice away at the cheeks, crackling and juicy fat at will. To wash it all down, bottles of pear and apple cider from Prince Edward County’s County Cider were plunked on the table.
The resort is planning to stay open all winter for the first time this year. To lure guests, they are offering specially priced all-inclusive mid-week packages with round-trip shuttles from Union Station and group discounts. If Stoney Lake freezes over, there will be ice fishing and with snow – snowmobiling and cross country skiing. To warm up afterwards, there’s an indoor pool, sauna and steam room.
While Sämann tries to turn away people with high expectations on the rooms, he certainly tempts the taste buds of the culinary tourist and has their tongues wagging.
Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.