Music and Food. I have spent my life dedicated to these two pursuits. These are the cornerstones for humanity. They distinguish us from the kingdoms of other animals. Before words, it was music and food that established the constructs of human culture. These are the parts of culture shared by all peoples, of all times. They are pre-language. The modern celebration of these noble arts is everywhere, but seldom are they the focus of a singularly well-planned event. The Arboretum Festival held on Rideau Pines Farms took it’s first steps of transforming it’s illustrious past into a forward thinking celebration.
Quietly, Arboretum has left the confines of the Ottawa cityscape to the pastoral landscapes of a well established farm and country side. Last year, Arboretum held a sprawling 68 band festival, with workshops and chef’s in tow, to a much more downsized, intimate, and joyful festival tucked just outside of Ottawa, in North Gower. Rideau Pines Farm has been a family owned and operated Fruit and Vegetable farm for over 30 years. The Vandenberg family rescued an abandoned dairy farm and turned it into a pick your own fruit and vegetable haven. Today, Rideau Pine Farms services fresh produce to the finest restaurants in Ottawa. Some of the best places to eat in Ottawa, take daily deliveries from the farm.
At one time, back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, Ottawa was a food waste land. Nothing of any real consequence was going on in terms of food dynamics. As a chef myself, it was the main reason I left the city. If you wanted to cook on a serious level, Ottawa was not the place to be. Little did I realise that at this time, some of the foundations for the vibrant food scene that we enjoy today were being laid. Slowly, what has emerged is a vibrant, locally driven, food culture that has entrenched itself deeply enough to be the new rigour. Most festivals have woken up to the importance of food in relation to music. More and more variety is offered on festival sites.
Arboretum takes this to the next level. The number of food vendors were small at this years fest, but you could just as easily make your way into the extensive gardens to pick your own fruits and vegetable, or journey up into the farm’s store front market to buy local honey, maple syrup, and a wide variety of super crisp and fresh produce. The on-site vendors included late night superstars Two Six (Ate), House of Targ’s Pierogies, Sea Sells Sea Shells Oysters, Elliott Gosselin’s Great Glebe Garage Sale Taco’s, and Dash Mobile Cookery Truck. There was some super fresh corn on the cob, that could be washed down with a fine selection of Beyond the Pail Ale, Top Shelf Distilled Spirits or followed by an on draft Buchipop Kombucha. My personal favourite was the Blue Barn Roasters whose hot or cold locally roasted coffee kept me going over the weekend.
The vendors were rotated out over the weekend, and depending on the time of the day the selection varied. The longest lines were reserved for House of Targ’s 9 pm to 2 am pierogi blow out. Having the late night sweet spot on Saturday proved to be the only line up of the whole weekend. The festival was kept to a perfect number of attendees, which allowed a smooth transition from stage to stage, and a real feeling of hanging-out-with-friends vibe. Smiles were everywhere. The crowd that gathered were in high spirits, where kindness, and courtesy was the rule and not the exception. This felt like a house party, more than a festival. The change of venue made for an audience that really wanted to be there. A bus shuttle service from city centre helped the mostly millennial crowd have access, with no need for a car. The shuttle service was a great success, and organisers should be honoured for this forward thinking approach of how to get people around safely.
The venue has a “build it and they will come”, past. As with any destiny, the right forces needed to partner up to make the best out of disparate talents. The last great unforgettable ice storm made ruin on the farm of a section of great red pine trees. From this loss, Matt Vandenberg (one of the sons of Rideau Pine Farms who started working the land at 3 years old), chopped, milled and constructed what was the structural foundation of the event sight.
Out of these trees came an incredible bar, stage, and other small outhouses. Tucked off the road, and beside the open fields, was a concert venue as intimate and as inviting as you can imagine. The main stage easily held the festival goers, and was framed by the handcrafted bar on one side, a small group of trees on the other, and food vendors towards the back. Another sitting area that doubled as a outdoor late night movie theatre was a few feet away. The landscape throughout the farm was accented by temporary architecture and whimsy, especially striking were the floating umbrellas hung from the trees. The second stage was a second floor of a barn that was beautifully lit by the suns rays pouring in from between the opened slats of the aged barn wood. The third stage was tucked well behind the farmhouse, down a long path that opened up to a pond. The Pond stage had to be put on hold as the rain soaked land would not have faired well with all the foot traffic. This late night stage performances were transferred to the “After Party” on the main stage. A wonderful aspect of keeping the number of performers to a reasonable few (about 20 acts), was that the show times were staggered perfectly so you could jump from show to show and not miss a thing.
Rolf Klausener, the main force behind Arboretum and his local band The Acorns, recognized the value of Matt Vandenerg’s (and families) work and envisioned a rebirth of the original Arboretum Festival… one built on the notions of intimacy, friendship and togetherness. Pulling back and making a festival smaller may seem to be counter intuitive in a time where bigger is seen as better, but this is what makes Arboretum 2017 such a great success. The music felt like a personally curated show. Rolf was clearly the tastemaker here, with a unity of musical sounds and genres playing out. The aesthetic was personal, and this lead to the feeling like we were at a giant house party. The festival was like a mixtape, driving with the top down along a country road, on a sunny day, with trees a green, and bountiful fields. Along with Vandenbergs opened arm welcoming, a warmer, more personable event could not have been imaginable. In this case, smaller was way better.
The Vandenbergs, the musical acts, Rolf Klausener, and food vendors mixed openly with the attendees, the goats, pigs and the chickens. A real scene stealer was the one horned 2 month old baby goat Willy. I found him wandering around on the Friday night show, seemingly undeterred by the people invading his home. After brief talk with Paul Vandenberg, I discovered Willy was an escapee, penned up earlier, this baby goat was ready to get down with the extended family vibes. His compatriot, an older goat Phoebe seemed equally chill, and eventually the two found their way to the front of the farm, and were the unofficial greeters of the festival.
Tucked along the fence by the store front the goats held court outside the pen of the most magnificent pig, Florence. This six year old sow was named after Florence the Machine, and recently birthed a set of piglets, all named after music artists and celebrities, like Kevin Bacon, Chris Farley, …. the infectious humour and charm of Matt underlies his love of land and music, as he enthusiastically gave a run down of the farms animals and operations. There are few people in this world that exhume joy and love, and Matt has this in spades. His mother, Barbara, enthusiastically related a story of how an informal meeting between Matt and world famous Chef Jamie Oliver ended up with a day long romp through their farm, complete with television crews catching Jamie Oliver driving tractors, and picking produce. Matt’s infectious personality was undeniable, familiar, and unstoppable.
I can only hope that Arboretum will continue along this pathway, and hold more festivals on Rideau Pine Farm. Keeping it small will be a challenge. It is only a matter of time before people start to hear about this great festival’s new direction. In a way Arboretum is going back to their roots, where throwing a great party, with great music, with great friends, was only bettered by an even nicer venue.