Actinolite is forged from local love

An ode to Canadian ingredients begets a seriously nostalgic menu
Photo by Canada’s100Best

Canadian identity is fraught with insecurity. As such a young country encompassing so many cultures, we have only just started to form the roots that bind us. But what better way is there to form an identity than through food?

Toronto’s west end restaurant, Actinolite, aims to conjure that identity, and is aptly named after a town outside of Prince Edward County from which they source many of their ingredients. Their primary focus is the simple preparation of seasonally harvested, wild, local ingredients, resulting in a complex, romantic and uniquely Canadian menu.

The sparsely seated restaurant is fairly young; they moved into the two-storey corner lot at Ossington and Hallam only seven years ago. Justin, the owner and sous chef, lives upstairs with his children. I know this because he came to introduce himself before the first course. Yes, it’s that kind of restaurant.

First, I was served an appetizer. Simple enough: it was a warm slice of sourdough bread baked in-house from Ontario wheat and served with whipped miso-butter spread. I’m a big fan of bread already, so this elevated version was delightful.

My server, Krista, brought out the next dish: a small bowl of finely diced honeycrisp apples. It was both tart and savoury, with an umami, lemon verbena-infused oil base, and a cheese-textured beeswax-based fudge tossed throughout. The complexities of these flavours were mind-bending. It was tannic and sour, sweet and buttery. Only one course in, and I knew it was going to be my favourite one.

Lemon verbena honeycrisp apple salad

The courses moved quickly, four of which comprised the meat portion of the meal: B.C. squid with kelp chips and soft turnips; a single oyster with root vegetables and gooseberries; halibut and pork cheek under a blanket of cabbage, served with a spoonful of spruce tree broth; and one-month aged, rare, Blackview farm (Listowel, Ontario) duck with mini cherries.

The “local” doctrine extends to all facets of the eating experience. I could hear whispers of a Feist song over the speakers. The soundtrack was full of Canadian indie acts like Mac Demarco and Grimes.

Course after course, the flavours reminded me of family cookouts, winter beach trips, growing up in Scarborough and vacations on the west coast. At one point, I tasted charred meat that so accurately mimicked my aunt’s thanksgiving feast, I was teleported to 1999. I felt as though the chefs were intentionally playing to my nostalgia, likely by incorporating loads of butter into every plate.

For dessert, I had spent grains (sourced from Blood Brothers brewery) atop a baked pear and a heap of salted ice cream (think apple crumble pie, but strange). Lastly, a soft cake made from birch tree flour topped with a candied leaf. The birch was sourced from Justin’s family home in Actinolite, and was served as a sentimental ending to a locally focused meal.  

My meal had a lasting euphoric effect. After walking home, I sat for nearly an hour in a trance. I was completely intoxicated by the masterpiece I had just consumed. Expertly woven flavour profiles danced in my mouth for the rest of the evening. Amazingly all of these dishes were made with Canadian-only ingredients. What a way to express identity.

After all was said and done, I spent roughly $160 as one diner. Considering I had only one espresso and no wine, the bill was steep. But for a one-time luxurious occasion, it was money well spent. For those looking to dine more casually, the restaurant offers two dishes and wine as a walk-in special for $45.

Gratitude for Rob

Sharkwater director Rob Stewart’s passing hasn’t stopped his message from spreading
Photo: Team Sharkwater

Off the coast of the Florida Keys in January last year, director Rob Stewart took his final dive while filming his new movie Sharkwater: Extinction. The mystery concerning his death has been a shadow cast over the legacy of the 37-year-old conservationist behind the camera. It has become common belief that the circumstances of that final dive were not presented in entire truths. Since then, the case has become the spotlight of many investigative pieces, conversations in ecological protection communities, and of course for his family and hometown of Toronto, Ontario.

Saddled with what came to be evidentiary footage for the new film, Stewart’s parents, Sandy and Brian Stewart, assumed the duty of completing Sharkwater: Extinction with the help of director Sturla Gunnarsson and editor Nick Hector. The film premiered this year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and has held a 9/10 on IMDb and a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes since.

Stewart’s untimely passing hasn’t hindered his primary focus in life. His parents have stewarded his conservation group, Team Sharkwater, since his passing. His legacy endures through the lessons he taught us, and the communities that formed from his teachings. And though the conservation community has lost one of its greats, Stewart’s message continues to permeate the sea-faring world.

As anyone who knew him well will tell you, he was a risk taker. And it paid off. Despite susceptibility to disease, being harassed by fishermen, getting shot by illegal operators of finning expeditions, and all of the vulnerabilities associated with diving, he persevered. In his short career beginning at the age of 22, he managed to produce a total of four documentary films about marine life conservationism.

Stewart’s films have had a lasting effect on the way we view marine genocide. His work largely centred on the illegal practice of finning (the act of amputating a shark’s fin and then returning it to the water to die) for shark fin soup. Inspired by the documentaries, Canadian supermarket chain Loblaw’s has committed to selling only sustainable seafood.

Since his 2007 film Sharkwater, Canadian cities like Toronto have voted in an attempt to ban outright the possession, sale and consumption of shark fin soup. Many other counties have followed suit. It was Stewart’s belief that vassalage be paid by legislature, “politicians are our servants. They should have cameras in their bathrooms and all their phone conversations recorded.”

Obviously, Rob didn’t run with the pack. Tyler McLeod, a friend from Western University, remembers Rob as one who went his own way: when everyone else was concerned with college life consisting of parties and sports, Rob was already trying to save the world.

Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 2003 and a having a keen interest inphotography, he began working as a photographer for the Canadian Wildlife Federation. While on assignment, he became aware of the mistreatment of sharks in the Galapagos Islands. From then on, he dedicated his life to holding the world accountable for our relationship to ocean life.

He kept so busy his whole life that Stewart never had time to start a family. In the absence of a love life, he yearned for something more: “I tried dating somebody, but I haven’t figured that out yet. I can’t wait to fall in love and maybe start a family,” he told Toronto Life in 2013. He left behind no children to bear the weight of his death. Instead, it was the grief of his parents and sister alone to bear.

In piecing together the last instalment of Stewart’s films, Brian and Sandy Stewart were weary with the task of retrieving footage from Rob’s password protected laptop. After several tries, they were successful at unlocking it with entering the word that so succinctly summarizes Rob’s motto in life: gratitude.

We can all take a lesson from Rob. Even in death, and despite all the treacherous dealings this world has to offer, there is always room for gratitude. Be grateful to your family. Be thankful for the privilege of living. And most of all, be gracious to our planet. She needs it more now than ever before.

Wes Allen needs to call his ex

The rising Toronto musician on his new music release and the vulnerability of being an artist who finds love
Wes Allen’s new EP, Funny Thing

Taking home the award for Best R&B/Soul record at last year’s Junos was Toronto’s own Daniel Caesar. The troupe has seen a whirlwind period of touring and collaborations since. I got to catch up with Wes Allen (bassist on songs “We Find Love” and “Get You”) to talk about his time touring Freudian and about his new solo EP, Funny Thing, which dropped in the summer of 2018.

I met Wes at Broadview Espresso, a café in the heart of Riverdale, an East-end neighbourhood of Toronto. He was on time, noting that the café was on the way to his studio. Despite having just put out an EP, he’s already recording more songs in order to have a catalogue worth touring. Wes is well connected in the Toronto music scene and his association with Daniel Caesar isn’t his only stake in the city.

Born to creative and academic parents, he was encouraged from a young age to express his artistic side. As budding creative Toronto youths typically do, he applied to Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, an art-focused high school in the nicer part of the city.

Forming multiple bands in his early years, sometimes with the likeminded west-end Etobicoke School of the Arts students, eventually he became serious about his musical career and started his post-secondary education at Humber College as a bass major.

There he met Chester Hansen (producer, Funny Thing) who also plays bass in BADBADNOTGOOD, a Toronto avant-garde, jazz instrumental band known for their high-profile connections with artists such as Ghostface Killah, Kaytranada and Thundercat. But in the end, it was his friend Matthew Burnett from Humber who introduced him to the Daniel Caesar project.

Knowing the right people certainly helps, but friends alone don’t make a musical career. So how did this east-end kid rise to success at such an early age? He credits primarily his upbringing: “Just being in Toronto, being able to go to shows and see amazing musicians all the time.”

I asked him about the perceived advantages that artistic Toronto youth have over suburban defectors, “I was very privileged in that way. Especially going to Rosedale too. We were studying R&B basically from grade 9. People from the suburbs with their FOMO, they end up working harder at the beginning because they didn’t have that.”  

But Funny Thing falls into another genre entirely. It’s that soft, sleepy sort of music that’s well suited to rainy days indoors; but the blend is eclectic nonetheless. The drums on the album are indicative of Wes’ jazz background, but the melancholic lyricism is firmly rooted in indie-folk tradition.

Chester Hansen had a hand in the production naturally, so the whole album comes together for a solemn-pop Toronto sound, a classification proportionately due to acts like Alvvays, Charlotte Day Wilson or River Tiber.

If you give Funny Thing a listen it’ll become apparent that Wes went through a break-up before it came time to write it. It wasn’t long before he started talking about how he felt, calling himself out for his feelings about his past intimate relationships. I had one burning question: what did the EP mean for his relationship with his ex?

“They’re mostly about one person,” he said. “Actually well… two. But I would hope that it’s cool. There are more positive songs that I’ve written about [her] and she knows that. Maybe I should check.”

“Have you not checked?” I asked.

“Not maybe as in depth as I should. I haven’t felt any animosity. But then again, I don’t know. Maybe I should check…”

As with any break-up, you become more aware of the ways in which you’re interpersonally deficient. Wes came to face his shortcomings when writing the song “1 Kiss,” wherein he attempts to overcome some of them.

“One of the things is just being disingenuous; it’s the hardest thing. And there are times when I still catch myself doing that. I think we all [do] if you’re in a situation where you’re not comfortable, and you wanna be something you’re not. Or you’re not yet. To say that I’ve mastered that is a lie, obviously. Definitely being more aware of it. I think I’ve gotten better.” 

On completing his first solo record, “It’s a really nice feeling to have something that I did out there in the world. In terms of my day-to-day life, it hasn’t changed that much. I haven’t really been pursuing live shows yet.”

And while the EP consists of only three songs—the entirety of his online streaming library—Wes has plans for more: “I’ve been practising a lot and recording a lot more music. It was kind of sad actually. It’s hard when you finish a creative project and you put it out. You’ve been working so hard on it and freaking out about it and suddenly it’s over. Then you have to start again.”

But it has paid off. Scouring the internet for reviews of Funny Thing, you’d be pressed to find a single one bashing it. Toronto music magazine Exclaim! was the least favourable with a solid rating of 7/10. But Wes hasn’t let it get to his head. He’s just a humble guy who appreciates the journey he’s on.

“I kind of rejected bass for a little while cause I wanted to be my own thing. But the cool part about playing bass was [meeting] so many amazing people. I’m very, very blessed with a social, musical life. As much as I’m sad sometimes, I’m so lucky in so many ways. I try not to forget it.”

Keep an eye out for future performances. It would be wise to catch Wes Allen while he’s still on the rise.

Delicious and nutritious kombucha in 9 easy steps

How to make this probiotic drink for your family this holiday season

Prep 20 minutes | Total 2 weeks | Serves 8

There’s nothing worse than receiving a gift that you don’t want from someone you love. The feeling of guilt for your own lack of gratitude paired with pointless waste can be unfortunate for everyone involved.

This holiday season, I’ve committed myself to gifting friends and family with only experiences and consumable goods. Whether it’s a loaf of homemade pumpkin bread, socks, concert tickets or a day at the spa, my hope is that this will reduce the amount of waste we typically see around the holidays.

That’s why I’ve decided to make kombucha for friends and family this Christmas. Kombucha is a probiotic tea beverage that is full of minerals and vitamins. It’s a healthy replacement for people trying to kick the habit of drinking coffee or soda. While it can be bought at most grocery stores, it’s usually very expensive (upwards of $5 a bottle) and only available in so many flavours. Which is why you’re much better off making it at home! With only a small amount of equipment, you can have a batch ready within two weeks.

What you’ll need:

Instructions:

1. Get a scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) and some starter tea either from a friend or a kombucha retailer. You’ll need at least 1-2 cups of starter tea to acidify your batch and keep it at a safe pH level. Otherwise, your batch will be prone to mould.

2. Choose your tea. You need a black or green tea that is free from flavours and additives. Additives can inhibit scoby growth. Herbal tea will not work. If you want flavoured kombucha, learn how in the second stage of fermentation.

3. Brew the tea and sugar mixture. Boil 2L of filtered water and add 6 tbsp. of loose-leaf black tea. Allow the tea to steep for at least 10 minutes. Add in 3/4 cups of organic cane sugar. Do not substitute sugar for artificial sweeteners, agave, or honey. The scoby needs sugar to grow.

4. Pour tea into your brewing vessel using a strainer. Make sure you get all the tea leaves out. Next, pour in 5-6 cups of cold filtered water. The water should cool the hot tea to room temperature. Your scoby needs temperatures between 20°C and 30°C to live. Use a thermometer if necessary.

5. Add your scoby and 2-3 cups of starter tea. Wash your hands before handling your scoby. Now your batch is ready for the first stage of fermentation. Seal your vessel off with cheesecloth and an elastic band. Put the vessel out of direct light and leave it there for 7-10 days. Resist the temptation to peek inside during this time and don’t agitate the mixture or stir it. Leave it alone it work its magic.

6. After a week, your first stage of fermentation is done! While the kombucha is ready to drink, there are more steps involved if you want it to be carbonated or flavoured. Either way, you want to remove your scoby and put it into your second vessel with 1-2 cups of the kombucha you just made. This can be used for your next batch! Make sure to stir the kombucha well to mix in any solids that have settled at the bottom of your vessel.

7. Add your flavours! Juice, whole fruit, cuts of ginger, herbs and spices can all be added at this stage. I like to add 2 tbsp. minced ginger and 100% pure cranberry juice. If you want to add juice, use about ¼ cup. Be aware that adding high-sugar juices will make the kombucha fizzier. This is because the yeast and bacteria feed on it and convert it to carbon dioxide.

8. Seal your bottles and prepare for the second stage of fermentation! Again, keep the batch out of direct sunlight at room temperature. This time, leave the bottles for no longer than 4 days. If you used high-sugar flavourings, this process will take less time.

9. Once the bottles are ready, pop them in the fridge. The cool temperatures slow the fermentation process to a virtual halt. After they’ve cooled, test open one over the sink. The carbonation can make a fizzy mess upon opening. Experiment with your next batch to work out these kinks. But for now, drink up!

From animal rights to combatting ableism

How a change in lifestyle directed her empathy from one injustice to another

By Allie Gregory

While I helped Caleigh Perrett move into her new apartment, I sat down with her to talk about life. Nestled between scattered boxes packed with clothes, kitchenware and books, I asked her about the changes that brought her to her new outlook on social justice issues.

You’ve been involved with many animal rights organizations over the years. Can you speak to that a little bit?

I was lucky to work for Lush [a vegetarian beauty company], where they empower their employees to speakup for what they believe in. I had opportunities to meet incredible people, like Rob Stewart [of Fin Free], who I was lucky enough to host in Toronto; organizations like Fur Bearer Defenders in British Columbia, specifically talking about Canada Goose… Not many people realize the torture that those animals go through and how relaxed our laws are when it comes to animal cruelty.

You were always into animal rights, but your position with Lush amplified that. You were the manager for Queen Street West, and then that changed. What happened?

I was 24 years old. On the side of operations I could do it, but when it came to working with a team and building and organizing, it became a lot. There’s only so long you can do 60-hour workweeks. I kind of lost myself in the hustle.

So then you moved on to manufacturing. But you injured yourself while you were working and had to go to the Workplace Safety Insurance Board (WSIB).

Yes, I injured my shoulder and my lower back quite badly. I couldn’t sit, stand or lie down. The WSIB is supposed to be there to help protect employees. But they’ve had a history of people taking advantage of them to the point where they basically don’t believe you. They told me that I was fine and I should get back to work. That’s the hardest thing. When you’re being honest and they’re treating you like you’re just out for money. Looking at me, you can’t tell. I’m not using a mobility device. You can’t see the pain but it’s there. When I was diagnosed, it was very humbling for me, looking at my behaviour and how I previously contributed to ableist ideas.

So you did eventually get a diagnosis…

My initial injury was in November. It wasn’t until end of August that I found my current doctor. He finally diagnosed me with fibromyalgia. Some doctors believe that it’s the memory of pain; that it’s connected to a fight or flight reaction within your body. It’s generally believed to be triggered by accidents.

I really had to start pushing for myself because there is no test for it. Blood tests, MRIs, cat scans. You have to rule out everything else first. It causes fatigue, widespread pain, and difficulty concentrating. When I finally got the diagnosis it was bittersweet.

What you would suggest people do when a friend is diagnosed with a chronic illness?

Saying, “I’m here for you if you ever need help.”

Being patient. [These days] I only have so much energy. I could make plans with someone and then the day comes and I’ve got nothing. I’m just an empty tank. Understanding that when someone is having to bail on plans, it’s not a reflection of your friendship or of them as a friend. 

Could you describe what like an average day for you would look like now?

I live a very routine life. I’m asleep by 11, up by eight (you need more sleep; the condition affects your REM cycle). I have my morning medication, breakfast, and then relax. I do stretching, exercising and weights. Then try to work. I got a position [at Shopify] because it was remote. It gave me that ability to be in my pyjamas at work if it was too painful to put on a bra that day.

What do you see going forward with this new life of yours?

I can’t expect 100 percent of myself 100 per cent of the time. Persistence is the most important thing to me. I will get up every single day and I will try again. I was able to work three hours today. That’s it. Can I go out tonight? No I can’t. But tomorrow I’m going to get up again. You could be sad and stay down or you could get mad and get back up again. I think that is the most important thing.

Toronto’s College and Spadina intersection and the ever-changing face of our city

Figure 1. Spadina LRT line – Spadina Ave. lookingsouth at Spadina Cr. and #508 Spadina Ave. 1984. Toronto Archives.

During the last heat wave of the year, I took off on my bike and headed to the Toronto Archives to do some research on my favourite dead venue, the Silver Dollar at College and Spadina. The attendants at Research Hall ushered me in, where I was given an account number and a card, and told to leave my belongings in a locker. Once inside, I accessed documents in the archives via a Records Request Form, which you can fill out by hand or by computer. One of the nice attendants showed me how to use the advanced search options, which made finding files very easy.

I quickly found one file I wanted from the stacks. It was a series of photographs of Spadina Ave. in 1984 (see fig. 1). I was lucky enough to find a shot facing south from Knox College with the Silver Dollar in full view. There it was, the same as it looks in my memories.

But what I was really looking for was more difficult to find than I had hoped, because I was looking for something to surprise me. I wanted to find a clue to lead me to something curious or quirky from the early years on the inside. The building was demolished this year (see fig. 2) and I’ve been feeling sentimental. I wanted to know more about my cherished venue. So I focused on what changed around it over the years until its untimely death.

From 2010-2018, I passed this corner nearly everyday, and spent as many Wednesday evenings as I could listening to the house bluegrass band, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, while sipping on four-dollar Jameson’s whiskey. That was a ritual that started in my early twenties among coworkers, and came to an end in a weeklong frenzy of concerts in April 2017, put on by the Dollar’s then-promoter Dan Burke. The neighbouring Hotel Waverly, which was home to several of my regular customers, was also shut down. The building in which I served those customers, a couple blocks east along College, was demolished in April of 2018. The area was certainly seeing a wave of change recently.

In April 2017, Toronto city council decided that the developers who acquired the Silver Dollar lot, Fitzrovia Real Estate, are responsible for restoring the Dollar, as it is a heritage building (though, sadly not the Waverly despite it being the new building’s to-be namesake). As planned by Kirkor Architects + Planners, the new Dollar is to be a fixture nested inside the first floor of their proposed 15-storey residential building. I must say, I’ve been feeling cynical about the restoration, as I’ve seen so many venues in the city die recently. I hope for the best but expect the worst when it comes to developers in Toronto.

Figure 2. Screenshot of Google Street View – Northwest corner of College Street and Spadina Ave. 2018. Google.

Unfortunately that has become a trend for Toronto’s dive-y venues in recent years. The El Mocambo on the south side of the intersection has been shuttered for years (though vague plans to resurrect it, as with the Dollar, have been made); the purple-bricked Kathedral and the Big Bop over at Queen and Bathurst, punk and dance venues respectively, closed their doors in 2010 to make way for CB2 (and a paint job). Only time will tell what the restoration holds for College and Spadina.

Figure 3. Truck carrying passengers during streetcar strike, northeast corner of College Street and Spadina. 1919, Toronto Archives.

In my search for information from the inside of the Dollar, I fell short. Though what I did findwas evidence of its existence much further back than I expected. The archives had a lot of photo documentation from the street. Most of which seemed requisitioned by the TTC for track construction plans. But what came with those photos were indications of the changing face of the intersection, and the city. For instance, the building that stood on the northeast corner in 1931—what is now home to the 7/11—was a Tamblyn’s drugstore. The chain, which had 63 locations in Toronto, and was sold to Loblaw’s in the ‘60s, has since all but disappeared. When it became a 7/11 is unclear (although Google Street View can date it to as early as 2007).

I was also able to find negatives documenting the intersection in 1964. From those files, I learned that three banks once occupied the corners of the intersection: the Royal Bank of Canada and the Toronto Dominion Bank in 1964 (fig. 4), and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in 1972 (fig. 5), This explains stoic architecture and the unnecessarily high ceilings in both the current Burger King and Rexall that have replaced the TD and RBC over the years (although, Rexall on the southwest corner was formerly an entirely different structure in 1919, see fig. 3). The CIBC is still in the same location as 1972, and will soon be the neighbour to the Fitzrovia development, as it was with the Waverly to the north.

Figure 4. Spadina Ave and College St. 1964, Toronto Archives.
Figure 5. Corner of Spadina Ave. and College St., looking north-west. 1972, Toronto Archives

Half a block to the east on College, the CampusOne residential development replaced all the units at 252 College between 2014 and 2016. Since 2014, there had been rumours circulating in my workplace at 205 College (at Beverley, another block east) that we were to move into the storefront of that new development, but instead the unit was leased to a McCafé. What will become of the lot at 205 since it was demolished this year is yet to be seen.

Also in 2014, Tribute Communities began construction on the high-rise residential development at 297 College right next to Kensington market. The space was occupied by a parking lot previously. There was talk of Wal-Mart taking up a lease in the retail space on the first floor, but the majority of Torontonians adamantly opposed that. Instead, the space is occupied by a grocery store, the so-called Independent City Market (a guise of Loblaw). The community still gave no warm reception to their new neighbour, as Kensington residents have fought for years to keep corporate retail out of the market.

What is to come for the neighbourhood is yet to be seen. I have high hopes for the intersection though I’m not holding my breath. But as with anything, especially in Toronto, the only constant is change.