Culinarium is the sort of word you'd expect to find in the dictionary. But do a quick search and you'll realize it isn't. Instead, it's a name of a newish store on Mount Pleasant - one that, no shocker here, specializes in things of a culinary nature. Or, specifically, Culinarium is a gourmet food store that's all about local, Ontario-sourced products. They even have a motto - All Ontario, All the Time.
Inside the well organized store, there's fresh corn and tomatoes from Norfolk County, blackberries from the Niagara Region, garlic from Perth and baby arugala from Middlesex County. Well, that's this week anyway. The fresh produce, of course, is seasonal so on any given day there's no telling what you're going to find. Good thing the store's staff keeps their web site updated, constantly informing customers when new shipments of the latest stuff is coming in.
On the shelves are also an assortment of harder to find (and local) non-perishable goods including the oh-so-tempting Jerk in a Jar, chipotle aioli, raspberry vinegar, Manitoulin Island chili sauce, Mrs. McGarrigle's Canadian Maple mustard and an assortment of other products.
There's also fresh cheese, frozen meats, certified grassfed beef and pasture raised lamb. The latter two are available through the store's Meat Share Program where customers can sign up to get what could be a season's supply of meat, all from a single animal.
Of course, eating like a locavore (and a gourmet one at that) won't come cheap. Don't go here looking to save a buck. This store is all about selection and quality, plus fun stuff like cooking classes, tastings and other events.
Working around the clock to keep Culinarium humming since she opened it in March, owner Kathleen Mackintosh was good enough to take a bit of time to fill me in on some more details about the store.
Why did you decide to open Culinarium?
It was a matter of Ontario pride really. British Columbia and Quebec are excellent examples of provinces that are proud of the food they grow and produce. A friend and I got talking and realized that although Ontario has a great food and agricultural sector, many Ontarians lack awareness of it and tend not to celebrate it. We decided it was time for Ontarians to become acquainted with all the fabulous food in their own backyard and so the Culinarium concept was born. We set out to provide a community centre for foodies where we could celebrate all things local.
Why did you choose Mount Pleasant as the location?
I love the area, the community is very supportive and food savvy. It seemed the right place to create a gathering place for local foodies to celebrate with each other around local food. I also happen to live in the area, so it just felt right.
What have been some of your most popular products so far?
It's hard to narrow it down to just a few. We have fantastic Cinnamon Honey and Blueberry Honey from Clovermead Apiaries in Aylmer Ontario, We carry an amazing Canola Oil from Pristine Gourmet in Waterford Ontario. Boreal Birch Syrup is popular. People love to taste it and give it for hostess gifts. A few of my personal addictions are La Natura Salsa Verde and Willowgrove Hill Side Bacon. Ontario cheese is also very popular with our customers.
How often do you have events in store? Are there any planned for later this year you're particularly excited about?
We host six to eight events each month. I'm excited about all our events...after all as the head foodie at Culinarium I get to plan whatever I like. In my previous life I was a recipe developer and as such I am particularly fond of our tastings. They are designed to offer our customers the opportunity to develop their tastings skills just as professionals do.
How many different local farmers do you have relationships? Do you get goods from them directly or do you work with a smaller group of distributors?
Yikes I'm not sure, I've not counted. In most cases we deal with farmers directly. Either they drop off their fresh produce to our backdoor or we meet them at farmers markets around the city to pick up their goods. In some cases we travel out to the farms to pick up our orders. That's always a lot of fun. We have relationships with a few small farm-direct distributors too. These are small co-ops or regional folks who have taken it upon themselves to create markets for their local produce.
Can you tell us about any unique or unexpected challenges you've faced in opening or running the store?
The 12 million hours it takes to run a store is bit of a surprise. I can't remember the last time my brain turned off or I didn't work a 16 -18 hour day. To say I'm obsessed would be an understatement. One of the greatest unexpected rewards is the support we receive from our customers. They are loads of fun.
Some of them bring us in recipes to taste, or send us photos of the recipes they've made with the food they purchased from us. We've had quite a few of them bring in samples of products they like from rural regions in Ontario and ask us to carry the product. We get a tremendous amount of joy from the relationships we've built with our customers over the last six months.
Do you anticipate it being tougher to stock local goods and produce during winter months?
Without a doubt we will have a smaller selection of fresh produce available in the winter, but the great thing about Ontario food that so few people think of is how diverse it really is. Our shelves are stocked with frozen fish, meats, fantastic artisan cheese, preserves, pop corn, nuts, grains, dairy etc., and this will all still be available in the winter. Ontario food is far more than just fresh produce.