WE EMBARK FROM Thunder Bay’s marina at daybreak, the sun rising behind the Sleeping Giant’s silhouette, waves chopping and wind nipping. A few kilometres out, we plunge our lures into a sloshing Lake Superior and cast random musings at one another, waiting for a rod to quiver. Our captain keeps cracking jokes about the dubious shapes on the sonic fish finder: “Seaweed!” he barks, then, “Bicycle!” or, “Probably a cooler that went overboard.” Eventually, the fish start biting, and later we’ll putter into shore with a rainbow trout and a pair of lake trout.
All this might not seem like a particularly spiritual experience, but then, fishing rarely does until you’re afloat. Likewise, you might not expect enlightenment from an isolated northern Ontario city. But with a cheeky nod to Jesus Christ’s miracle buffet, a local outfitter has created a three-day jaunt that amounts to taking communion from the remarkable locals.
The Loaves and Fishes Tour aims to reveal a budding culinary scene and a handful of its key proponents, as well as the raw beauty and bounty that hugs Thunder Bay. Think of it as an edible scavenger hunt. Participants are supposed to catch fish, go get cheese and bread from a couple of unique rural artisans, then deliver everything to an esteemed local chef, who’ll concoct a multi-course dinner using kitchen wits and your raw materials.
Part of this pilgrimage should be mandatory when this close to Superior’s gaping mouth: the aforementioned early morning fishing excursion with Archie’s Charters. (If you don’t hook anything but bait, you’ll also visit a commercial fisher.) And the rural artisans you’ll meet are indicative of two other Thunder Bay archetypes: industrious Europeans and culture-savvy country folk.
Derek Lucchese of Both Hands Bread (807-473-4599) embodies the latter. A social worker-turned-accidental baker (friends lauded his homemade bread at dinner parties), Lucchese hawks hundreds of loaves at the city’s excellent twice-weekly farmers’ market (from $4). He uses naturally leavened and unusually wet dough to make nine different recipes, combining ingredients like sundried tomato and basil or grains like kamut and spelt. To do so, he stokes a daylong fire inside a pastoral brick-and-concrete oven behind his country home, sweeps and mops out the ashes the next morning, then mixes and bakes batches of 40 loaves at a time (as many as 700 in a day) as the retained heat tapers from about 700°F to 500°F. A testament to his craft: Lucchese rarely has any bread left to bring home from the market.
Nestled in the stunning Slate River Valley nearby is Thunder Oak Cheese Farm, where the Schep family has been crafting award-winning Gouda for nearly 15 years. Motivated by taunts from their homeland—“You can only make Gouda in Holland,” they were told—they’ve created a charming and humble operation that their kin would surely admire. You can too, thanks to production room windows inside the retail store, where the Scheps make 15 gleaming wheels a day and a dozen flavours (and Swiss, too). The Scheps also sell imported Dutch treats, from fritessaus to stroopwaffles.
Having acquired this toothsome trio of raw goods, you’ll be guided towards Bianca Garofalo and Mike Roulston’s Lot 66 Resto-Lounge, a small, dark and handsome dining room that’s won accolades for its tapas and atmosphere since opening three years ago.
Chef Roulston let the loaf from Lucchese and some dill-flavoured Gouda from Thunder Oak work their own palate magic, complementing them with roasted garlic bulbs, butter, oil and a glass of champagne. The bread was pillow-soft and deliciously dense; the cheese’s creaminess long and lush, like an herb-infused milkshake.
Roulston trumped those first nibbles by funnelling his enthusiasm into fresh oysters, a fiddlehead salad and velvety lobster bisque with brandy, tarragon and cream—albeit a slight departure from the food tour’s theme, but nonetheless a wonderful taste of one Thunder Bay kitchen’s potential.
Then came the recast catch I’d reeled in that morning: two chubby, glistening fillets—one from each type of trout—on a bed of roasted potatoes, onions and dandelion greens. The only thing that melted in my mouth faster was the deconstructed B-52 crème brulée that came last, capped with armagnac and rich espresso.
“Summer’s short here, and so it’s fun for a few months of the year to be able to reveal a depth to the local food scene that most people don’t know about,” says Roulston. “I like being able to take real food and not mask it, but enhance it. Plus, it’s just really exciting to be a part of someone’s special day out around Thunder Bay!”