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Three delicious days in Prince Edward County

Three delicious days in Prince Edward County

by Jeanne Horak-Druiff 13 January 2017

Jeanne Horak-Druiff explores Canada’s hippest emerging food and wine destination and discovers passionate producers, knowledgeable chefs and experimental winemakers.


There’s nothing I love more than a good road trip, so on a recent visit to Canada I had some time to spare and decided to drive up from Toronto to Montreal. ‘But why?’ said my friends. ‘There’s nothing to see on the way – why don’t you just fly?’ But as it turned out, these opinions were expressed by people who had never had the good fortune to visit Prince Edward County, one of the places putting Ontario on the international food and wine map.

About 170 kilometres out of Toronto, leave Highway 401 and make a right onto Highway 33 to cross the narrow spit of land that keeps Prince Edward County, a 1,000 square kilometres peninsula, from floating off into Lake Ontario. Driving into the County (as locals call it) is a little like stepping back a couple of decades in time. The towns and villages are full of pretty clapboard buildings and quirky shops. Farm stalls of all shapes and sizes, often with an unmanned honesty box for purchases, dot the tiny country roads. Locals are astonishingly friendly and more than once we were directed from one shop or wine farm to the next one on the basis of a personal recommendation from the previous establishment. There is a real sense of community and supporting each other – a sense of living in a more helpful, laidback and altogether more gracious era. And it is here that one of Canada’s newest and hippest food and drink scenes is emerging

The largest community and seat of the County’s government is Picton on the Bay of Quinte but we stayed in the quaint and centrally located village of Bloomfield, renowned for having some of the County’s finest accommodation, restaurants and quirky artisan stores. Before we even checked into our accommodation I made a pit stop to sample some ice cream at Slicker’s, a small traditional parlour where small batches are handmade daily. The flavour to have is definitely Campfire, a creamy toasted marshmallow flavoured ice cream, complete with those little charred black bits and smoky flavour that fire-roasted marshmallows have.

Angeline's Inn
Angeline's Inn has been family-run for the past twenty-seven years
Wine
The wines of Prince Edward County are often made by artisan, independent wineries

It’s easy to spend an afternoon browsing the small shops on the main street of the village – my favourite was Kokito, a tiny boutique store stocking an eclectic array of homewares, art and accessories, both new and vintage, and mostly designed and handcrafted in Canada. We stayed in the charming Angeline’s Inn on the village main street, a handsome red brick building that has been a family-run inn for twenty-seven years. Each of the seventeen spacious rooms (which include a timber chalet set apart from the main house in a secluded woodland setting) is individually designed and furnished with many of the quirky items I had seen in Kokito.

If you’re a sucker for a wine route, as I am, then you already have one excellent reason to visit as there are a number of independent wineries in the area. The County’s unique position, surrounded almost entirely by water, means it has both milder summers but higher snowfall than surrounding counties and growing grapes presents some significant challenges. All the winemakers we visited shared similar stories of how vines have to be ‘hilled up’ or buried to protect them from the winter cold – a process which takes up to five weeks in the autumn and another five to reverse in the spring.

Because the wine region is not as established as neighbouring Niagara, there is still a lot of experimentation going on with winemakers figuring out which grape varieties are best suited to the extreme temperatures of the County. At Del-Gatto wines, Pat Del-Gatto specialises in hybrid grape varieties – including Ontario’s only commercial planting of Pinotage, South Africa’s gift to the world of wine. Devil’s Wishbone winery, so named by the earliest settlers because of poor soil conditions, not only turned out to have great soil or vines but also provides a beautiful outdoor tasting area overlooking the rolling hills of Lake on the Mountain and the Bay of Quinte. And at Norman Hardie where eponymous South African-born winemaker Hardie makes a dazzling range of wines from grapes as diverse as Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and Melon de Bourgogne, you can also enjoy a pizza from their wood-fired pizza oven among the vines.

Artisan Cheese Co
Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co makes varieties such as Skipping Stone and Nettle's Gone Wild
Hagerman Farms
Hagerman Farms offers an incredible array of fresh vegetables

Where there is an abundance of good wine, good food is sure to follow – and there is no shortage of good food in the County. The entire area is a hotspot for artisan producers and farm gate shops, and it is easy to spend a day meandering the country roads and visiting a number of them. One name that cropped up repeatedly on menus was Vicki’s Veggies so I was intrigued to see the shop for myself. Set among established trees, the little white and green clapboard house contains a variety of vegetables grown on the farm as well as the honesty box, but it’s the tomatoes that steal the show, in every hue and shape you can imagine. For the equivalent of a farm gate superstore, Hagerman Farms just outside Bloomfield is an essential foodie stop with its imposing red barn and (when we visited in the Autumn) a dazzling array of pumpkins, squashes, apples and multi-coloured Indian corn. The County is also home to the Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company, a privately-owned dairy producing fine handmade cheeses from fresh local goat and sheep milk, using traditional methods to cater to contemporary tastes. Most of their cheeses are available to taste and I loved the quirky names such as Nude Lemon Fetish, Nettle’s Gone Wild and Skipping Stone.

Given the plethora of excellent local produce and products, it is hardly surprising that the County’s chefs have taken to heart the farm-to-table ethic and much of the food we saw on restaurant menus was locally and sustainably sourced. When I chatted to the chefs, their level of knowledge of the provenance of ingredients as well as their passion is impressive – but not as impressive as the casually sophisticated food that they are serving. Stop by the achingly hip Drake Devonshire hotel for lunch and sip some local wine on the terrace enjoying uninterrupted views across Lake Ontario. We were particularly taken with their excellent salmon crudo and beef tartare.

If you need a bit of exercise to work off the abundance of good food and wine, pack your sandals and swimsuit and head for Sandbanks Provincial Park on the west coast of the County. This is the world’s largest freshwater barrier dune formation and despite being on a bustling island, it is easy to lose yourself here. Set aside a couple of hours to explore the spectacular and undulating landscape of soft white sand, dune scrub and blue sky as you wander from sandy beach to sandy beach, stopping occasionally for a dip in the waters of Lake Ontario as flocks of Canada geese regard you warily.

Despite feeling as though you have stepped out of the rat race and into a gentler time and pace of life, Prince Edward County is easily accessible from both Montreal and Toronto so getting there from the UK could hardly be easier. Although winters are snowy and harsh, spring, summer and autumn all provide their own unique charms for visitors and whilst popular, the County still has a refreshingly authentic and relatively rustic, non-commercial feel to it. For anybody visiting Canada’s east coast interested in getting under the skin of one of Canada’s hidden culinary gems and emerging wine regions, Prince Edward County makes a delicious diversion.

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