Forget Provence. Culinary tourists with a conscience are demanding goodies closer to home. Say, just down the road. Margaret Webb reports on the boom in gourmet travel in Southern Ontario and explores the hinterland’s next foodie frontier.
In 2007, the Oxford Dictionary made “locavore” its word of the year after four San Francisco food activists attempted a month of local eating - an experiment that ignited a rash of conferences, books such as The 100-Mile Diet and such desire for carbon-footprint-friendly produce that some markets can’t find enough farmers to keep up with demand.
Now urbanites who have never set foot on a farm are also going straight to the source. Chefs at the recent Terroir conference in Toronto regaled audiences with their adventures tracking down rare heritage pork and heirloom tomato seeds. And they used words such as “intimate” and “personal” to describe their connection with the countryside.
It comes as no surprise, then, that all this interest has sparked both an agricultural renaissance in Ontario (which possesses 52 per cent of the class-one farmland in Canada) and a boom in hinterland culinary travel. As anyone who has ventured beyond the sprawl of the Golden Horseshoe well knows, there are now countless taste trails, wine routes and farmers markets catering to locavores on weekend pilgrimages.
But Southern Ontario is also going further, carving itself up into bite-sized regions that hint deliciously at the food and wine appellations of France. The new challenges for intrepid gourmets: classifying the flavours of standbys such as Niagara and Prince Edward County - and keeping up with new foodie destinations.
Perhaps the newest belles at the culinary ball are Grey and Bruce counties.
Two hours northwest of Toronto and six hours west of Ottawa, this area’s natural highlights – Georgian Bay, the Niagara Escarpment at Tobermory, Blue Mountain and Lake Huron - have long made it a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts.
Then Michael Stadtlander’s Eigensinn Farm, often hailed as the best restaurant in Canada, started enticing foodies to ski country. Stadtlander is an extreme locavore. His farm is not only a pastoral setting for his restaurant (where dinners run around $275 a person) but also the source of much of what he serves: fresh produce and herbs and succulent suckling pig.
But now the counties are establishing their own culinary reputations as well. There are roadside vegetable stands (especially along Highway 26) and endless varieties of meat on offer - natural and organic lamb, bison, emu, venison, elk and Wagyu beef.
There are also a plethora of farmers’ markets. The tiny town of Meaford, a half-hour from Eigensinn Farm in Singhampton, has not one but two. Handy for tourists, the outdoor municipal market runs Friday evenings through the summer and is a great place to buy fresh Georgian Bay trout. The 100-Mile Market, more like a corner store, operates year-round from Thursday through Saturday, with a selection of local meats, dairy products, dry goods and grains from Grass Roots Organics.
Mario Fiorucci, co-owner of Toronto’s The Healthy Butcher, has forged countless relationships with organic-meat farmers in this area. He suggests that visiting a farm “brings a completely different perspective to what you’re eating. There’s nothing better than making that connection with your food, to see how healthy animals are raised and good produce grown, to understand what you should be eating.”
Most tourists heading to cottage country bypass Barrie, located just an hour north of Toronto on Highway 400. But Simcoe County, where I grew up, has been an agricultural centre since at least 1846, when the year-round Barrie Farmers’ Market was founded (my great-grandmother used sell butter, cream and eggs there) and it’s still worth a visit.
The Saturday Farmers’ Market, now located on the grounds of the new City Hall and with a great view of Kempenfelt Bay, is anchored by a few good organic producers - beef and venison from Nicholyn Farms, veggies from McBride’s, hummus dips and treats from Bite Me caterers. The market picks up considerably through the summer and fall, though, when suppliers such as Carpe Diem Orchards come to town with as many as 18 varieties of apples.
Also downtown, Garraway’s Bistro features as much local produce and fruits as Chef Jim Garraway can get his hands on. The talented chef worked in Whistler and on Vancouver Island before returning to his hometown of Barrie to open his own restaurant, but a restless vitality remains in his cooking. Menus change more often than the seasons. In the summer, watch for intensely flavourful homemade sorbets, sauces and compotes made with Barrie Hill Farms fruit.
Just a 20-minute drive outside the city, Barrie Hill Farms has gained fans for their strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. You can buy berries at the on-farm fruit stand or catch a wagon ride to the patch to pick your own. Since transitioning from tobacco in 1977, the farm established the largest highbush blueberry patch in Ontario. They celebrate seasonal flavour in the old-fashioned way with an annual Blueberry Pancake Festival, this year on July 26 and 27.
Cookstown Greens, also on the menu at Garraway’s, is located a half-hour south of Barrie. The farm tried valiantly to keep a roadside stand open last year but ran out of produce. And no wonder. The founder, David Cohlmeyer, has been bringing a chef’s sensibility to farming for 20 years now. On the chill spring day I visited, his greenhouses were blooming with edible violas, marigolds and, of course, his famous mixed greens, which sold “like crack cocaine” when he set up a stand at Toronto’s Brick Works Farmers’ Market last summer.
Cohlmeyer sees the boom in agricultural tourism as an opportunity to educate consumers. And that starts with soil. “Banks once used soil fertility to determine the value of your land,” Cohlmeyer told me. “Now, soil fertility isn’t considered a value.” And yet, it’s good soil that enables him to grow healthy vegetables organically, without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Soil fertility, he said, is our fertility: we’re inextricably linked.
He then handed me a Chandler strawberry – it burst in my mouth, provoking sweet longing for the community strawberry suppers of my youth. Cohlmeyer chuckled: “People want the flavour of a region, which means food. Life is more satisfying when people participate in the flavour of a culture.”
That is getting easier with determined food activists and farmers working together to rejuvenate foodie culture in the countryside, staging such culinary extravaganzas such as Prince Edward County’s fall harvest supper. But I’m racing ahead of myself here. That’s another weekend adventure.Margaret Webb is the author of Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover’s Tour of Canadian Farms.
Grey and Bruce Counties
Eigensinn Farm 449357 10th Concession, Singhampton; 519-922-3128. Seats 12. Two months advance notice is recommended for reservations.
100-Mile Market 55 Trowbridge St.; Meaford; 516-538-1522. Open year-round Thursday to Saturday. Meaford Municipal Farmers’ Market Meaford Harbour; www.meaford.com/farmersmarket.html. Open Fridays from 3 to 8 p.m. from June 6 to Oct. 10.
Barrie Farmers’ Market Collier and Mulcaster Sts., Barrie; www.barriefarmermarket.com. Open year-round Saturdays 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Garraway’s Bistro 31 Maple St., Barrie; 705-725-8015; http://www.garrawaysbistro.com. Mains start around $23; Signature menu starts at $50..
Barrie Hill Farms 2935 Barrie Hill Rd., Barrie; 705-728-0571; http://www.barriehillfarms.com. The fruit stand and pick-your-own operate daily. Produce updates are posted online.
Cookstown Greens 6331 Line 9, Thornton, Ont.; 705-458-9077; http://www.cookstowngreens.com. Pre-order produce or visit the roadside stall in summer.