Once a centre of Canada's canning industry, fertile Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario today simmers with tomato growers, creative chefs and winegrowers, says Alex Mead
Toronto is about eight hours’ flying time from London. You can reach Prince Edward County by car in about two hours. Currency is the Canadian dollar and the region is five hours behind GMT. Weather
in August is warm, with average highs of 25C (21C in September).
GETTING THERE Air Canada operates daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Toronto. Its leisure airline Air Canada Rouge also operates a seasonal summer service to Edinburgh and Manchester. aircanada.com British Airways also operates daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Toronto. ba.co.uk
Ontario Tourism is the official tourist board for the Canadian province of Ontario, in which Prince Edward County resides. Its website has an array of options for making the most of a trip here. ontariotravel.net/uk
Booze Boats and Billions by CW Hunt (McClelland & Stewart, £14.99). This book tells the story of the rum smuggling made during the prohibition period, and reveals Prince Edward County’s role at the very heart of it. Lake Ontario sees plenty of action, as all sorts of characters get involved in the dodgy dealing of alcohol.
Offset emissions for your trip at climatecare.org, which supports environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London Heathrow to Toronto produce 1.58 tonnes of CO2, costing £11.86.
It has been a tough competition, but there are two very clear front- runners. One has several intertwined limbs poking out at various angles – a fine example of what would happen if you attempted Twister and the Kama Sutra simultaneously. But its competitor boasts two rather muscled legs and one distinctly Linford Christie- esque attribute. The ten-strong jury can’t choose between them, so judge Vicki must decide. And she has gone for Linford.
Linford is, of course, a carrot. Specifically, one of hundreds waiting in their muddy coats to be ‘topped’ by Vicki Emlaw and her merry bunch of co-workers (the jury) at her farm, Vicki’s Veggies. When not carrying out the prestigious role of being a judge at ‘Canada’s Rudest Knobbly Carrot’ contests, Vicki is also the tomato queen in this little pocket of Ontario province, known as Prince Edward County. This is backed up by pretty much every menu at every restaurant in the region – all of them happily stating that Vicki’s Veggies are one of the producers.
Carrots, as well as potatoes, beans, onions, peas, lettuce, kale and Swiss chard may make up a good chunk of the business but it’s heirloom tomatoes that have made her a household name. With good reason, too, as she grows 170 varieties. If there isn’t a tomato here for you, well, give it a few weeks and she’ll probably have cultivated one to your taste.
What started out as a sideline to Vicki’s regular job in a restaurant, growing and selling vegetables has turned into a hectare’s worth of tomatoes alone. ‘It’s hard to pick a favourite, because they’re like my children,’ says Vicki of her tomatoes, before listing if not favourites, then certainly favoured ones. ‘I have never gone crazy for red tomatoes until I met this one, Matina – it’s so lovely and tasty. Then there’s Black Crick, it’s blackey pink, rich, dark, with heavy acid but sweet – it’s a miracle, too, because I’d been looking for a tomato like this for 15 years and then randomly found this one in our field.’
Vicki does indeed seem very maternal towards her tomatoes, even Indigo Rose, which she describes as the ‘blonde of the tomato world – pretty to look at but not much substance’. She loves Jaune de Chardonne, a beautiful yellow specimen, because it is ‘just the right colour of bright yellow’. The large beefsteak Ozark Sunrise also makes her favourites list because ‘it is the most awesome colour – deep, dark black that turns red; and not just any red but deep, dark crimson. And it’s also very tasty.’
In fact, as Vicki takes us on a tour, she stops every two vines to pick up another little gem – from tiny, sweet yellow ones that explode in the mouth to big, dark chunky fruit with enough acidity to spark a dead battery into life. ‘This is Anna Russian. She is one of my oldest favourites, I’m so glad I found her. She is an early pinky beefsteak and doesn’t look very strong but is the most reliable plant ever – one year she really saved me. We had over 100 varieties in 2008 and the weather wasn’t good and, well, it was the only one that produced for me that year. It’s also very beautiful.’ Good old Anna Russian.
Tomatoes and Prince Edward County have always gone hand- in-hand. As readers with knowledge of the Canadian canned vegetable industry will know, the area is the spiritual home of tomatoes (and other vegetables) in a can. During its peak, a third of the country’s canned vegetables came from here. But those days are long gone and now the tomatoes of choice get to live out their days in a metal-free environment – free to enjoy the summer sunshine until the salad bowl beckons.
Not be confused with the much larger Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia to the east, Prince Edward County is actually part of mainland Canada, even if it clings on with just a few fingertips. With the fresh waters of Lake Ontario lapping around its 800km or so of shoreline, it’s perhaps not surprising to find such a verdant landscape on this mere stamp on the postcard that is the 19,000 sq km Great Lake. The soft white sands that form Sandbanks Provincial Park in the south of the county entice about 583,403 visitors during the warmer summer months, many of whom camp overnight.
There’s another reason to pitch a tent here too. In recent years, canned goods have been replaced by an artisan food and drink scene, creating a culinary map full of cheese-makers, distillers, vintners, brewers, bakers, restaurateurs and farmers.
Ironically, one of the most effective ways of luring campers from their fires appears to be ‘Campfire’, without doubt the biggest- selling flavour of ice cream on the 120-strong list at Slickers, a shoebox of a shop in Bloomfield on the edge of Sandbanks. ‘I tried Campfire for the first time last summer,’ enthuses one customer, as she’s served a healthy dollop of this dairy delight, ‘and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.’ She’s not alone; in the height of summer the queues snake all along Bloomfield’s high street. ‘People call it yellow crack,’ explains Slickers’ owner, Peter Pesic. ‘Around March people start to shake and keep asking us when we’re going to be making Campfire again.’
Laced with charcoal-burnt marshmallow, its sweet, smoky flavours do indeed lure your senses back to the bonfire. But Slickers isn’t just about befuddling campers with its bewitching sensations – Peter says he has about 20 flavours that never get rotated, including apple pie, rhubarb ginger and lemon chiffon.
The only thing more arduous than picking which three to have (because just choosing one or two scoops is pretty much illegal in these parts), is the process Peter goes through to perfect each offering. He bakes whole apple pies to fold into one; for another he’ll soak raisins in rum for months so that they burst in the mouth. He turns pecans into pralines, infuses bacon with his favourite maple syrup and even ensures the nuts are chopped a certain way.
When this fastidiousness ends up as a variety called Breakfast – essentially that maple-infused bacon with buttermilk pancakes and ice cream – then long may his famous flavour-fiddling continue.
Bloomfield is typical of the cute little towns that sit on the Loyalist Parkway, which cuts through Prince Edward County. With fewer than 1,000 residents, like its neighbour Wellington, the town seems full of artists and artisans. If a house doesn’t double up an artist’s studio, farm shop or antiques shop (our favourite being ‘Dead People’s Stuff Antiques’), then it is probably being wasted.
For those who want to taste the full menu of what’s on offer, Bloomfield is perfect because it allows you to have each course in a different place. Start, naturally, with the ice cream (you can’t wait for dessert to eat this stuff), then head for a gourmet burger at the Agrarian a few doors down – a 200g chunk of seriously tasty cow with a thick cheddar topping and caramelised onions. Full of ice cream, beef and cheese, the next stop for the true gourmet traveller is obvious: more cheese… and cocktails.
Which is handy, because while the Agrarian upstairs is all about quality all-day comfort eating, downstairs it combines a speakeasy with a cheese market. Offering about 50 cheeses from around the world alongside a menu of cocktails, craft beers and ciders, it’s lucky this place was at the end of our trip rather than the beginning, or we’d have seen very little else of Prince Edward County. Around the corner from Slickers and the Agrarian, you’ll find Angéline’s, a boutique hotel that’s also home to The Hubb restaurant. While contributing considerably with his own cooking, chef Elliot Reynolds also firmly believes the whole region is approaching something special.
‘I think we’re on the cusp of the county going into its golden years,’ he reckons. ‘What I see is a lot of entrepreneurs coming in and wanting to start their own business – whether it’s food or wine- related, a little art gallery or studio or food truck.’
Elliot is certainly doing justice not only to Vicki’s lovingly grown veggies (he’s a customer, obviously), but also other artisans in the area, including the local distillery, 66 Gilead – using its whiskey in a smoked trout dish with asparagus, watercress, almonds, shallot emulsion and a plum confit.
When you have dishes as good as Elliot’s southern fried sweetbreads and his ‘half roasted bird’ – so delicious even the chicken would want it this way – then it seems only fair to give them a wine to match. It is here that Prince Edward County has come into its own, also being the reason behind the area’s emergence as a hotspot for Canada’s gastronomic trendsetters. About 20 years ago, viniculture was little more than a plaything for one or two enthusiasts, but today there are close to 40 vineyards. They’re not serving up the kind of yellow rainwater that passes as wine in some developing wine countries either, they’re producing tipples with minerality: lemony, buttery chardonnays and well-balanced riesling with just the right amount of acidity. Pinot noir is flying off the shelves, as are the sparklers with which they share their grapes. If Niagara thought it had this part of Canada sewn up on the wine front, these days it’s definitely looking over its shoulder at what’s happening in Prince Edward County.
Winemaker Norman Hardie is among those turning the heads of oenophiles across Canada. ‘I was always looking for an area that had the perfect combination of clay and limestone, which is the foundation of flavour for pinot and chardonnay,’ he explains, ‘and somebody suggested Prince Edward County. Nobody else had even heard of it. As soon I saw that first cutaway of land, when the highway dipped and I could see the soil, I thought “OK, this is what I’ve been searching for, what’s the catch?”’
The catch, it turned out, was that during winter Ontario gets cold, really cold. ‘We hit -38C last year and considering -25C is the complete death knell of vines, you can imagine what damage that could do,’ continues Norman. ‘Anything colder than -30C is exceptional but even if you get -25C for eight seconds it can do the damage; it doesn’t have to stick around. It’s like going to the Caribbean on the first day – you don’t need long in the sun to go bright red.’
To counter the problem, Norman’s team effectively buries the vines for the cold winter months – it’s a method that has paid dividends, because he now produces about 9,000 cases a year, split between riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir. Fear of losing a crop helps all of the county’s winemakers to stay honest, reckons Norman. ‘Our winters are so harsh that the quality of viniculture has to be really good basically because we’re all scared witless [of losing the vines].’
Winemakers like Norman are succeeding in spite of the unforgiving elements, and this in turn is helping the region look forward to the ‘golden years’ Elliot predicts lie ahead.
For an area so renowned for its association with the canned food industry, it’s fitting that this farming community is now offering the quickest route in farm-to-fork eating around. Take, for instance, Thyme Again Gardens, a bed and breakfast in the east of the county, run by Lori and Lorraine. They share their 40ha with cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, a donkey, a llama and Clyde the dog. Offering just three rooms in their home, they serve up one of the best breakfasts around – with current and former farm residents helping to provide key ingredients. ‘We try to keep as much bacon as we can for the bed and breakfast,’ confirms Lori, ‘but there’s been a big, big call for the bacon lately.’
Locals buy food coupons from Lori and Lorraine and can then use them throughout the year to purchase whatever fruit, vegetables or meat is in season. Everyone in Prince Edward County is getting in on the act and, far from dissuading people, the likes of Vicky, Lori and Lorraine are actively encouraging everyone to grow their own. Vicky’s annual heirloom tomato seedling sale is a major event on the local calendar, with food trucks on site to feed hungry tomato enthusiasts eager to grow their own Jaune du Chardonne or Debarro Black. But is it a good thing telling people how to grow what you sell?
‘It has not been bad for business at all,’ insists Vicki, ‘it’s been the total opposite. We do tell people how to grow them but the best thing is they then have too many tomatoes and give some to friends, who freak out about the colour and taste. Those friends tell two friends, who tell another two friends and so on – and then they all come to my tomato tasting in September.
‘Before long, word about our heirloom tomatoes spreads far and wide, and that’s the only way that they are going to not become endangered species – we’ve already lost too much.’
Vicki may be talking about her beloved tomatoes but it could also apply to the region as a whole. The closure of the last canning factory, in 1996, took Prince Edward County to an all-time low, but at the same time those first vines were beginning to grow and with them the future of this beautiful part of Canada.
In fact, for a region whose main source of income once came from the capture of vegetables in little tin prisons, they are now doing more than anyone to celebrate the release of the amazing flavours of Ontario. If it all tastes half as good as Vicki’s tomatoes, Norman’s wines and Lori and Lorraine’s bacon, then it won’t be long before the first Prince Edward on everyone’s lips is the county and not the island.
Where to Stay
More of a mini complex of accommodation options than a single hotel. There are five compact rooms in the main house, dating to 1869, smart chalets and even a two-storey self-contained home from home. Doubles from £62. 433 Main Street, Bloomfield, 00 1 613 393 3301, angelines.ca
Drake Devonshire Inn
Brand-new, shiny boutique hotel – opened in May this year – with eclectic art throughout, a lake-front location and a dining offering promising to cater for all modern tastes. Doubles from £146. 24 Wharf Street, Wellington, 00 1 613 399 3338, drakedevonshire.ca
The Merrill Inn
With 13 rooms and a restaurant that is a clear favourite among the locals, there are plenty of good reasons to visit this elegant, boutique hotel in Picton. Worth staying just to get first dibs on chef Michael Sullivan’s cooking. Doubles from £115. 343 Main Street East, Picton, 00 1 613 476 7451, merrillinn.com
The Waring House
Great location just off the main highway, and 49 comfortable rooms across five buildings. There’s casual dining (wings, burgers, fish and chips) and good beers to be had at the Barley Room and a more refined offering at Amelia’s Garden. Doubles from £65. 365 Sandy Hook Road, Picton, 00 1 613 476 7492, waringhouse.com
Thyme Again Gardens
A bed and breakfast on an organic farm that offers reflexology treatments, there isn’t a more relaxing place to be than at the home of Lori and Lorraine. Doubles from £58. 403 Smokes Point Road, Carrying Place, 00 1 613 394 1139, thymeagain.com
Where to Eat
Price are for three courses, excluding wine, unless otherwise stated.
Agrarian Bistro and Speakeasy
English chef Neil Dowson offers
the best casual dining upstairs (amazing corn on the cob, giant burgers, mussels in curry broth), while downstairs cheese and cocktails make
for the best night out. £16. 275 Main Street, Bloomfield, 00 1 613 393 0111, agrarianpec.ca
Blumen Garden Bistro
Slightly more on the classic side of things with sautéed sweetbreads, seared foie gras and beef tartare all on the menu. You certainly won’t go hungry here. £28. 647 Highway 49, Picton, 00 1 613 476 6841, blumengardenbistro.com
East & Main Bistro
Try dishes like applewood-smoked, bacon- wrapped pork tenderloin; or Prinzen Farms’ chicken stuffed with goat’s cheese and sundried tomato, and wrapped in double-smoked bacon. With a wine list fiercely loyal to the local makers, it’s the perfect place to try a drop of everything. £24. 270 Main Street, Wellington, 00 1 613 399 5420, eastandmain.ca
Among the vines of Waupoos Winery, enjoy well- presented plates of old favourites that will perfectly match your glass. 3016 County Road, Picton, 00 1 613 476 8338, waupooswinery.com
Norman Hardie Winery & Vineyard
Some of the county’s best wines, and artisanal wood-fired thin-crust pizzas have made this place the talk of the town. The best ingredients (especially when there’s Chase Farm chicken), cooked simply, with a chilled glass of riesling. 1152 Greer Road, Wellington, 00 1 613 399 5297, normanhardie.com
Brilliant sommelier Laura is the perfect host at The Hubb. Combined with chef Elliot’s imaginative, creative small and large
plates, it’s the hottest ticket in town and for all the right reasons.
£24. Angéline’s Inn, 433 Main Street, Bloomfield
Alex Mead and Roderick Field travelled courtesy of Ontario Tourism and Air Canada. Visit ontariotravel.net/uk and aircanada.com
Photography by Roderick Field
This article was published on 25th August 2015 so certain details may not be up to date.