Watershed Country Chef, Douglas George Hope, has cooked his way around the world, yet his greatest journey was travelled right here, in our backyard.
Chef Douglas George Hope spent his childhood on the move, staying on farms and military bases around the world. It was a way of life that stuck. “I was part of the team that opened Canoe in Toronto in the mid-nineties, then I was off to Australia where I stayed for the next 12 years running my own restaurant. “But,” he explains, “in 2000, the recession hit Australia hard, so I decided to return to Canada.”
Over the next two decades, he cooked in British Columbia, Kawartha cottage country, and with Silversea Cruises, and throughout all of it, Warkworth was a place he was drawn to and it was where he would eventually settle. “My family, my ancestors are from around here: Hope Mill, Crosswinds, Gore’s Landing, Keene. I love this area.” He was impressed by the concentration of artists, artisans – he’s a fan of Frantic Farms – public art, boutiques, gourmet foods and he loves that farmers still drive tractors into town. So, in 2016 he took over the tiny space on Main Street. It was a total gut job, and he did it himself: updating the electrical system, building the tables, even turning wooden dishes, and crafting the serving trenchers from lumber harvested and milled on his farm, a short drive from the restaurant he named ’Sper, which is Latin for hope.
’Sper Farm sits on 12 acres, ten of which are forested and two that have been cleared for gardens and buildings, even a lumber mill. There are 110 sugar maples for tapping, there’s a sugar shack, and plans for an orchard. He and partner, Tina Bastas, forage the fields and forest for the wild produce used at ’Sper. Their modest but charming farmhouse overlooks an abundant kitchen garden where they grow all the herbs for the kitchen, and the coops and barns where heirloom turkeys, ducks, goats and one alpaca thrive.
Hope’s ethos is ‘local and from scratch, nose to tail, leaf to root’. The couple make or grow much of what is served at ’Sper, from the bread to the vinegar to the live-edge serving boards. But ’Sper is about more than fine food, it’s a place that runs on community, sharing, and indeed, hope.
New Year’s Day, 2019, while visiting family in Belleville, Hope went into cardiac arrest. It took six minutes for the EMS to arrive. At the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma, allowing him to stabilize before undergoing a triple bypass. He was hospitalized for 21 days, and couldn’t work for three months. A nightmare scenario for anyone, a deathblow for a self-employed farmer and restaurateur. But that’s when Hope and Bastas witnessed just how mighty a small rural town can be.
“It’s because of this community that we are where we are now.” says Hope, “The community really rallied around us. Everyone helped in any way they could. Neighbours left notes in the mailbox offering help; some dropped off gas and gift cards; a Go Fund Me campaign was initiated. Many folks didn’t even ask what we needed, they just showed up to plow the snow, or care for the animals. They knew what needed doing and did it.” ‘Sper reopened the last week of March, 2019, and Chef Hope recalls, “It was slower than I would have liked at first.” The compassion shown by the community had proven to be something of a double-edged sword. “Some folks said they didn’t want to stress us out by making us too busy at the restaurant, but being busy is just what we need!” For Chef Hope, growing real food and feeding his community is the best medicine of all.
’Sper Pumpkin and Cheese Gnocchi with Pesto
“This is a light, northern Italian gnocchi I loved eating when I was travelling through Piedmonte, Liguria, and Lombardy. It’s quick and easy to prepare, and melds well with simple sauces such as pesto or just some really good olive oil. With this recipe, leftover cooked pumpkin, squash, or mashed potatoes can be turned into a dish that melts on the tongue and I find that irresistible!”
Ingredients 1 c. mashed baked butternut squash 1 c. mascarpone or quark 1 free-run room-temperature egg 4 free-run room-temperature egg yolks ¼ tsp. nutmeg Zest of 2 large washed lemons 1 1/3 c. grated Parmesan 1 tsp. kosher salt 1 c. all-purpose flour (approximately)
Directions Preheat oven to 350℉. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, and bake directly on the middle rack until soft enough to mash with a fork – anywhere from 25-60 minutes, depending on size. Set aside to cool somewhat. When cool enough to handle, use a large spoon to scoop the flesh out from the skin. Into the bowl of a stand mixer or large bowl using an electric hand beater, add the squash, mascarpone or quark, egg, egg yolk, nutmeg, lemon zest, Parmesan and salt. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy – about 1 minute.
Gradually beat in the flour, about ¼ cup at a time, until the mixture becomes a thick but pliable dough. You may or may not use all the flour called for in the ingredients list.
Set a large saucepan of salted water over medium heat and bring to a simmer.
Transfer gnocchi dough to a large piping bag with a plain round, fairly wide nib. If you don’t own a piping bag, one can be made by cutting off the corner of a large freezer bag.
Holding the bag of dough over the pot of simmering water, gently squeeze the dough from the piping bag about an inch or so at a time, cutting each length with a knife and letting it drop into the water. Do this in batches small enough to not crowd the pot. The gnocchi will sink, then as they cook, will bob to the surface. Once gnocchi are floating, cook for 3-4 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, small sieve, or Chinese spider (skimmer), transfer the cooked gnocchi to a colander to drain. Transfer drained gnocchi to a serving bowl and gently toss with pesto until well coated. Garnish with some freshly grated Parmesan, if desired. Serve immediately. Serves 6-8
’Sper at a Glance
- “We raise it, we grow it, we cook it!”
- ‘Sper is pronounced Spare.
- ’Sper’s seasonally inspired menu changes at least every week and serves only Ontario wines.
- Open Friday and Saturday nights for dinner, and Sunday for brunch.
- Friday is a la carte; the ever-changing menu is posted on ’Sper’s Facebook page. Walk-ins are welcome.
- Saturday’s menu is prix fixe and is by reservation only. Sunday is open for an a la carte brunch. Walk-ins are always welcome.
- ’Sper seats 16 around one long harvest table. Make some new friends!
- Cooking classes are available at sper.ca.
Derick Greenly Summergreen
Tree Crops and Mushrooms
Derick Greenly is the third generation on his family’s 75 acres of pasture, orchard, and woodlot near Warkworth, but it might not have been so. He left the farm for several years, travelling and busking – he’s a star on the Celtic harp scene – but he was drawn home.
“When Grandfather died, I started thinking about my roots, but I was discouraged with traditional farming. Travelling had exposed me to other farming methods and that opened me up to possibly coming back to farm. What I do now is miles away from cash crops and a conventional dairy herd. This way allows for creativity.”
Greenly grows gourmet mushrooms – lion’s mane, chestnut, hen of the woods, shiitake, oyster – as well as fruit and nut trees. He began growing mushrooms as an offshoot of forestry, a way to utilize small bits of wood by inoculating them with spores. Now, Greenly’s mushrooms are grown in compressed blocks of locally milled hardwood sawdust: maple, hickory, oak, and birch. “It’s exciting when I try a new, oddball species, I know Doug will be interested and he’ll make something great with it.”
Roaming Valley Farms
“It’s always interesting!” There’s a hint of sarcasm in Laura Easter’s voice. “On a small farm you wear many hats: veterinarian, mechanic, bookkeeper, gardener, and manager.” Sarcasm aside, Easter is happy. “I always wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps. I went away to study agriculture at Guelph, but it’s the day-to-day, getting my hands dirty that I love!”
With father David Glover, and brother James, the trio is the sixth generation to farm in Northumberland, producing organic dairy, beef, pork and chicken on 900 acres in Warkworth.
“Our beef is grass-fed from start to finish – no grain – we grow our own organic hay. They’re outside all year long, even winter.” says Easter. And, the animals live longer, developing more texture. “It’s real beef, with a rich – almost gamy – flavour. It’s a strong flavour that’s not for everyone, but I really love it.” Chef Hope is a fan, he uses the whole animal nose to tail.”
And the seventh generation? Easter says, “Between my brother and me, we have five kids all under six. I sure hope one of them will continue farming this land.”
Black Tractor Farms
Bruce Weir grew up on a farm in Creemore, but as many farm kids do, he left to forge his own successful and stressful 35-year career in photo and video production. And stressful it was. When flying home from a business trip – he’d been in Calgary shooting footage for Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame – he suffered a heart attack at 30,000 feet.
It was a wakeup call. Time to walk away from his fast-paced lifestyle, and get back to his roots. So, in 2013 he and wife, Jill Proudfoot, started farming in earnest, producing heirloom vegetables and keeping 14 bee hives on one and a quarter acres just outside Warkworth.
Today, at 63, life is slower for Bruce, “But,” he says, “I still work really hard, it’s just a different kind of hard. It’s physical, it’s good; I’ve lost weight and feel healthy; I feel way stronger and younger than when I was producing and editing.”
Along with produce and honey, they’re ramping up their line of tasty things in jars – jams, chutneys, pickles. “This is really Jill’s baby. Right now we’re using the certified kitchen at the Masonic Hall in Warkworth, but we’d love to have our own on-site kitchen one day.” www.blacktractorfarms.com