Southern Ontario

Southern Ontario boasts a network of concession, county and side roads that criss-crosses gentle hills, pristine farms, hamlets and coppiced groves. Come mid-October maple’s fiery reds and poplar and birch’s flaming yellows turn gradually to shades of russet before dropping their leaves. Hay bales and sheds piled with pumpkins, bushels of sweet-tart apples and jars of clover honey grace farm driveways. Small town markets groan under chard, beets, squash, turnips, apples, crusty breads, homemade pies and sausages.

On a recent family visit to Bracebidge, north of Orillia, I ventured not once onto the nightmarish multi-lane Highway 401 or the crowded 400, choosing instead, to meander the back roads in and around the Caledon Hills.

Agram Meats on Trafalgar Road, north of Oakville is one of the finest butchers I’ve come across. I stop, every visit, for sausages, free-range chicken and whatever else catches my fancy.  A perfect coffee stop is the Glen Oven Café in Glen Williams for a superb Cheddar scone, and a fine dark roast from a fair trade coffee roaster in Guelph. Following the Credit River, the wee towns of Balfontaine and Terra Cotta provide a delightful break to catch a breath of air. This trip I came suddenly upon Spirit Tree Cidery on a side-road outside Cheltenham. This was one lucky find. Luckily “near-urban farmer” owner, Tom Wilson and wife Nicole Judge are in the house.  We have a lovely chat.  Opened barely three weeks when I dropped by, the cidery and wood-oven bakery was already scrambling  to meet the local demand for handcrafted breads, including a hefty “miche”. (See Nov/Dec issue of EAT for the article on miche). Right now sweet ciders (non-alcoholic) are for sale. In the spring of 2010, the couple will offer hard apple ciders in English pub style (about 5 per cent alcohol) and French bistro style (about 8 per cent alcohol). As it turns out Tom and Nicole hope to get input and inspiration from Vancouver Island Merridale Cider’s Janet Docherty and Rick Pipes.  Beyond bread and cider Spirit Tree carries Ontario Cheeses and locally harvested red-fife wheat from Owen Sound’s Grass Roots Organics. Anyone heading back to Toronto area should check out Spirit Tree’s

Lunch is at Steen’s Dairy Bar counter in Erin Village where bacon sizzles on the grill, and the two gals behind the nine-stool counter tear leaves of iceberg lettuce and slice tomatoes as needed for old-fashioned made-to-order beef burgers, pea meal bacon and clubhouse sandwiches. The priciest menu item is $4.25. Dessert is a must have slice of apple pie or choose from one of many or the housemade ice creams listed above the grill. The pumpkin ice cream, made only in autumn, was out of this world. (The dairy bar in Thornhaven about ½ hour south of Barrie on Hwy. 27 serves, too, “hand-scooped” ice cream from the Sealtest cooler, and 50’s style waffle ice-cream sandwiches…and great all day bacon, eggs and pan-fries)

Creemore is another of my regular stops—for beer. Now owned by Molson, the brewery still turns out one of Ontario’s finer brews.

This visit four of us ventured to Huntsville, about forty-five minutes north of Bracebridge to check out The Farmers’ Daughter, a modern-rustic grocery and café. And what to choose from all the homey dishes? The Cornish pasty, an enormous cabbage roll, a slice of sweet potato pie, or a heaping bowl of vegetarian chili. A date square for the road? We ordered the lot.

One day was spent exploring Niagara’s side roads. A visit to a local prosciutto producer, kindly arranged by Chateau de Charmes Paul Bosc, proved to be not just a lesson in curing nitrate-free and water-free hams, but also delicious. And I whipped into Anna and Michael Olsen’s Foods at Ravine Winery in the quaint town of St. David’s (Anna Olsen hosts Sugar and Fresh on Food Network Canada. Michael is a renowned chef and teaches at Niagara College)

Locals and tourists alike who only zip back and forth on the uber-highways are missing out on quintessential southern Ontario. Its grid of rural roads provides the culinary traveler with something unique and wonderful. On your next visit, take time to tour the back roads. Who knows what’s around the bend – a rural bakery, a country market or a sausage maker, a tiny winery, or…


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