In the foreground, Artichoke Asiago Squares. All photos courtesy of Irene Powell.
On a cold October evening, nothing could have been more welcoming than the sight of Anna Olson's new shop, Olson Foods at Ravine; tucked amongst the vineyards of St. David's, Ontario, the windows of the farmhouse-styled store shone warmly as we drove up the winding gravel driveway.
Though a celebration of Anna Olson's new book,In the Kitchen with Anna, (Whitecap Books, 2008) the evening was also felt to be the formal debut of the three-month-old shop, the second owned by the Food Network star and her husband (in this case also in partnership with Ravine Winery). It specializes in baked goods, fine foods and condiments, artisinal Canadian cheeses, select cookware items and boasts a small café-styled menu to be enjoyed on site, or for takeaway.
The store is expansive without feeling cavernous. The vaulted ceiling with glossy exposed beams embody the rustic elegance that seems the hallmark of Olson Foods at Ravine. A generous harvest table greeted us on arrival, tastefully adorned with seasonal flowers and an array of savoury nibbles from the book, including wedges of Provençal Tarts and slices of Brandied Pork Terrine, studded with cranberries and pistachios.
To one side of the room the bakery and deli beckons; servers are standing at the ready, offering up steaming bowls of Celery Soup with Blue Cheese. The on-site wood fired oven produced the gloriously-burnished roasted chicken on display, and is to thank for the house-made breads piled generously on the counter. To the other side of the room, backed by displays of oils, vinegars and jams, delicate cake stands present a trio of Mocha Hazelnut Cheesecakes. At their feet are platters of Lemon Cheesecake Mousse Tarts and perfectly-cut rows of Chocolate Almond Toffee Bars.
Taking it all in, we wandered the shop; handcrafted cutting boards from Stratford, Ontario were of particular interest, as were the array of salts and aromatic teas. Rainbow-hued enamelled cookware gleamed brightly from the shelves.
A wonderful compliment to the lakeside location of the original Olson's location in Port Dalhousie, St. Catharines, Ontario, Olson Foods at Ravine feels earthy and lush; well-placed in Niagara's wine region, it is a wonderful addition to the area, and is surely to become a favourite for locals and visitors alike.
Almost too lovely to eat, Mocha Hazelnut Cheesecakes.
With two bustling stores, the second season of her highly-successful new show Fresh recently wrapped up, and a new book on shelves, Anna Olson has a lot going on. I was able to grab a moment of her time to chat about food, inspiration and seasonal tastes.
seven spoons: Your new show has taken you out of a white studio space into the vibrant colours of your own home; with that, you have shifted your focus from desserts alone to foods for all occasions. How have you taken to the change?
Anna Olson: I'd have to say that I'm going back to my roots; that is, I started my culinary career not as a pastry chef, but as a savoury cook. Developing my pastry skills happened about six years after [I started] cooking. I have been a chef for almost 15 years - oops! Dating myself.
I feel this latest book shows a bit more of my complete self, not just the baker in me.
7S: Your book, In the Kitchen with Anna, follows this move to homey, accessible takes on the classics. How did you approach writing it?
AO: Fortunately the approach to writing this latest book was not a stretch of the imagination. I did not have to reach far for motivation; in fact, I took a step back to see what dishes and flavour combinations I was reaching for instinctively. I find, to get through my hectic days, I was cooking not just comfort food, but dishes that spoke to classic flavour combinations - yet with a little kick or something different to keep me interested, both in cooking and in eating.
7S: What would you consider your major influences in the kitchen? Any culinary heroes?
AO: I have the greatest admiration for chef Michael Olson, my husband. Before I knew him personally, I came to the Niagara Region to work with him professionally; I [had] admired, and still do, his commitment to using local, seasonal ingredients.
7S: With your two stores, Olson Foods at Port and the new Olson Foods at Ravine, what trends are you seeing with customers tastes?
AO: I find that customers aren't necessarily seeking exotic high-end ingredients. They want products that have a story or personal connection, and without fail it has to be a quality product. With food safety becoming a more publicized issue, knowing where your food comes from is important.
7S: Are there any particular ingredients or products that are particularly inspiring to you right now?
AO: Being seasonally motivated, I am happy as can be to cook with pumpkin, squash, onions, sage and rosemary. I do a roast every weekend in the autumn and I also eat a lot more cheese than I do any other time of year.
7S: Often you will hear chefs and cooks separate what they cook professionally, and what they cook in their own kitchen. Is that the case with you, and what is your go-to recipe at home?
AO: Since the two stores feature a great deal of familiar flavours and dishes, I'm not seeking to separate myself from them. In the day when I worked fine dining, after a service of cooking lobster, foie gras and making elaborate sauces, I would need to break away. I think that, like many chefs, the roasted chicken Sunday supper is the epitome of the perfect meal.
7S: And finally, three questions in one. It would be remiss not to ask you about sweets, as you have become so famous for your decadent creations. What is your favourite celebratory dessert? Your favourite comfort dessert? Your favourite guilty pleasure?
AO: Ah, I can never give a straight answer to that "favourite" question. Yes, I am seasonally motivated, so that shapes my favourites; I wouldn't dream of making a strawberry tart in October. But, I am very much craving-motivated when it comes to sweets ... when I want chocolate, I can think of nothing else until I get my chocolate!! And sometimes that's how the best recipes happen - by pure craving!
My thanks to Anna Olson for taking the time to speak with me; please look out for my thoughts on In the Kitchen with Anna: New Ways with the Classics early next week.
From top; freshly-baked Museli Bread, delicate bites of Lemon Cheesecake Mousse, and (with Brandied Pork Terrine in the background) chef Anna Olson's new book.