A marriage of traditional farming methods and Ecuadorian cooking leads to
culinary adventures in Chatham-Kent and beyond
STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY NICOLE LAIDLER
Spence Farms is one of those places you'd never find by accident. Nestled at the intersection of two gravel roads in the heart of Chatham-Kent, it's just far enough from the highway that the silence is broken only by the wind rustling through nearby corn fields and the odd bleat coming from the barn.
Paul Spence's family has been working this southwestern Ontario land since his forefathers settled it in 1852. Today, this fifth-generation farmer is offering a unique earth-to-table experience that marries his passion for traditionally raised meats with his wife's Ecuadorian culinary heritage.
Paul Spence and Sara Caiche founded Lo Máximo Meats in 2009. They have steadily been building the business, an offshoot of Spence Farms, by doing something Paul's father called impossible—selling meat one cut at a time.
Paul spent four years as a vendor at London, Ontario's Masonville Farmers' Market, where customers lined up for his fresh-frozen beef, pork, lamb and goat. Allyson Watson was a loyal customer since day one. "I think this is a better option. The [fewer] chemicals you eat, the better," she says. The mother of two is happy to pay a slight premium for her peace of mind. "We all have to choose what we spend a little extra on. We know where this meat comes from, and I like buying from someone who knows my name."
This summer Paul is trying a new approach with the launch of a monthly distribution system that will see his pasture-raised chicken and goat delivered directly to his London clients. And he now shares his passion for meat during workshops held at The Pristine Olive Tasting Bar in London, where he recounts stories from the family farm and his experiences in corporate agriculture while Chef Yoda Olinyk of Yoda's Private Catering prepares tasty samples.
"We are also speaking with a number of London chefs who are interested in our products," says Paul, adding that customers are always welcome to stop by the farm to load up on meat and farm-fresh pastured eggs.
Paul's father spent forty-five years in the cattle business. He made the switch to cash crops like corn and soybeans after the BSE crisis of the early 1990s, although he continues to raise a few cattle for family and friends. In his dad's day, customers bought their beef by the half-cow. "One year he got stuck with some cattle," recalls Paul, who at the time had recently returned to the family farm after spending four years working for a large commercial operation. "I said I would buy two cows, take them to London, and sell them."
It was the beginning of Paul's adventures in what he calls "culinary farming."
Although Paul's meat isn't certified organic, it contains no antibiotics, growth hormones, fillers or additives, and isn't plumped like the usual supermarket fare. "We use the principals that my father and grandfather used, but also take into account that there is science in the world and more efficient ways of doing things," says Paul, a graduate of the University of Guelph's Ontario Agriculture College and bachelor of commerce program.
In Spanish, lo máximo means the absolute best, and Paul's dedication to producing superior meat starts with ensuring his animals enjoy high-quality food and a good quality of life. His chickens, Rhode Island Reds for eggs and White Cockerels for meat, are free to wander and peck within a large fenced-in area. "A true free-range chicken is supposed to have nothing restricting [it]," he notes, "but you would be surprised at how many things eat a chicken."
In addition to collecting runoff rainwater to provide water for his flock, Paul uses fly lights to harvest insects as a natural supplement to what the birds can find on their own. "It's the idea of being biodynamic, having one area sustain another," he explains.
His father's small herd of Angus cattle roam in and out of a barn built in the late 1800s by Paul's great-great-grandfather, Zechariah. They graze on pasture and are fed moderate amounts of corn and barley combined with alfalfa and hay for finishing, a diet that Paul says promotes an optimal amount of muscle, fat and marbling for a tasty piece of beef.
Goats are the most recent addition to Lo Máximo Meats. The meat is popular with the Latin and Caribbean communities, according to Paul, while chefs often order a whole carcass to butcher in-house.
Paul's interest in returning to traditional farming methods was sparked by his wedding meal, a traditional parrillada, or Latin barbeque, held in his wife's home country of Ecuador. "I can still remember the sausages, they were so tasty. When I came back to Canada I wanted to find something similar," he recalls. "The other part that intrigued me is that they eat every part of the animal. Growing up on a meat farm, it all started coming together."
In addition to providing ethnic communities access to meat not typically found in Canadian supermarkets, the couple set out to introduce less-familiar cuts such as hanger steak, beef shank and oxtail to all Lo Máximo Meats customers. Organs such as beef heart and liver, as well as tongue, are sold alongside familiar favourites like tenderloin and T-bone, and customers from far and wide visit the farm to pick up bags of freshly frozen chicken feet, traditionally used to make stock.
Paul works with several local independent abattoirs which prepare his meat to his specifications. "Every butcher shop has its specialization," he explains. "That's why we work with one for the beef, another for the pork, and another for the chickens."
In the spring of 2011, Paul and Sara launched Experience Casa Latina, a culinary event that begins with a farm tour and ends with a traditional Latin-style parrillada held in an old one-room schoolhouse just down the road. "We produce the food, but also wanted to teach people about what we are doing and how it relates to what they are consuming," Paul explains. "We wanted to let people know that there are other cuts of meats that are very good as well," continues Sara, the culinary mastermind behind each evening. "You just have to know how to prepare and cook them."
In Ecuador, meat is typically thinly sliced before being left to marinate, sometimes overnight. "We use a lot of coarse salt, cumin, turmeric, parsley and cilantro, anything that will enhance the flavour," says Sara. Salting the meat at the optimal moment on the grill also ensures that it remains juicy and tender.
In keeping with parrillada tradition, the buffet-style meal I had the pleasure of partaking in last summer included five cuts of beef—blade eye, short rib, chuck, eye of round and sirloin tip—as well as a selection of Lo Máximo Meats' famous pork sausages. As promised, even the thinnest cuts were melt-in-your-mouth delicious. "Generally, people are shocked at what our round steak or blade steak tastes like, compared to what they buy at the grocery store," Paul relates.
The meat was paired with Sara's homemade chimichurri dipping sauce. Side dishes included a selection of seasonal salads made from produce grown on the farm, and a stunning Ecuadorian yellow rice and lentil dish spiced with achiote (annatto seed) oil. Sara's creamy dulce de leche provided a sweet finishing touch.
Paul hopes more people will discover the bounty of Chatham-Kent, and invites culinary adventurers and the curious to pay him and Sara a visit at Spence Farms or join the region's inaugural epiCKure farm-to-table celebration taking place September 20 through 22. "Most people have never raised a chicken or a cow or a pig," he notes. "I'm happy to show people what we're doing, how we're doing it, and [explain] why we're doing it."
September 20 - 22, 2013
Nicole Laidler is an award-winning freelance writer and copywriter and the owner of Spilled Ink Writing & Wordsmithing. Based in London, Ontario, she enjoys meeting local producers during her weekly trips to the local farmers' markets. Visit her at spilledink.ca.