Visualize this: it’s a bright and sunny afternoon, and you’re being led through the woods by a man who knows the history and uses of every single plant in sight. You approach a clearing, and walk single file through a tall, tree-lined path, while the colourful maple leaves make a crisp crunching noise beneath your feet. Up ahead through a field of tall golden grass and cattails, you see a small house with a thin wisp of smoke curling its way out of the chimney. Half a dozen beautiful chickens scurry around to greet you as you walk inside to the smell of chocolate chip cookies, honey cake, freshly brewed coffee and the warmth of a crackling fire.
Believe it or not, this is not a personality test or psychotherapy exercise, but rather a vivid description of an experience I had in Simcoe County a few weeks ago.
Like many a city dweller, I have the best intentions of planning “easy” weekend escapes. But we all know it’s much easier said than done. Which is why I have to commend The Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts at George Brown College for launching a series of one day educational tours with the objective of providing food and beverage enthusiasts an insider’s view into the most innovative food and beverage producers in Ontario, including many of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance’s star #FeastON establishments. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And the best part is…all you have to do is get up early enough for the coffee and scones before the charter bus leaves campus.
Our first destination was Landman Gardens—home to a lovely Dutch family with a knack for animals, gardening, and dry stone work. The first highlight of the business would probably be the 300+ goats they raise and milk. The second would be the Blackhouse. We had the chance to experience them together when we were brought into the structure to sample some Woolwich Dairy cheese, largely made from the milk of the aforementioned goats.
The Blackhouse derives its name from the colour of the sooty thatched roofs back in the day when these structures were actually used as homes. Today, the Landman family uses their Blackhouse (which, by the way, their father and apprentices built without any nails, adhesives or other materials other than good engineering and gravity) to host home cooked dinners made primarily from their own farm ingredients. A typical menu might include mixed greens with Dijon dressing, pickles and cheese, a succulent roasted chicken, and a homemade pie. Don’t think I’m doing them a favour by advertising their menu though—the Blackhouse experience has been advertised so well by word of mouth that they are already booking well into the New Year. It’s great to see such a dynamic and honest family business.
A few miles later, we arrived at Mad Maple Country Inn, otherwise known as the scene I described earlier. Miriam is the proud owner of this bed and breakfast establishment, and a George Brown College alumnus. Everything in her kitchen is lovely and charming, and carefully non-kitsch. In the center of the room sit two large dining tables with mismatched wooden chairs covered in cushions and sheepskin throws, juxtaposed against a clean, white cabinet kitchen. We stepped up to the island to help ourselves to generous servings of wild mushroom, potato & Jerusalem artichoke soup, flaky butter biscuits (with even more butter churned and sourced straight from Alliston Creamery to slather them with), vibrant organic greens tossed in a mustard maple vinaigrette, roasted heirloom vegetables, and, the pièce de résistance—a Pumpkin Béchamel Lasagna made with Ontario cheeses and homemade duck egg pasta.
After a nice foraging walk through the forest led by Dyson of Forbes Wild Foods, we returned to the Inn for dessert and Ironwood coffee. The SOMA chocolate and cranberry cookies and the Caramel Apple Butter Rugelach were both very delicious, but the Warm Spiced Apple Honey Cake was my favourite. Notwithstanding the fact that Hugh from Osprey Bluffs Honey Company himself was present, there was lightness to the cake that I’ve only tasted in the most precise Japanese preparations, but with a rich brown sugar undertone that is distinctly Canadian. I have eaten many a good meal in my life, and many much fancier, but the effortless beauty of this is one I will likely never forget.
We drove away from Simcoe and into Caledon for our final stop at Spirit Tree Cidery before the sun went down. Here, we were introduced to Phil who gave us a tour of the orchards and cidery (by the way, the whole building is insulated with straw!) before our group headed down to the basement to taste test all of the beverages and some tasty wood-fired oven fluffy pizzas and breads. The Apple Harvest pizza with caramelized onions, roasted apples, pickled garlic scape, feta cheese and Brussels sprouts is definitely one I would recommend.
I don’t think it’s necessary to reiterate how much I appreciate local ingredients done well. None of these establishments are trying to accomplish anything ground breaking, but what they are doing individually is commendable, and important.Please note: I was a guest of The Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts at George Brown College on this tour. Visit The Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts at George Brown College’s Upcoming Events Page to peruse a future tour for yourself.