This article was published in The Globe and Mail on June 14th, 2008.
I’m thinking that Sir John A. Macdonald, who launched his law and political career in Picton, Ont., (some would say his drinking career too) would be proud of the food, wine and farming culture exploding in the surrounding countryside of Prince Edward County. Especially the wine industry. And I’m certain that he would have started his tippler’s tour of the county at the first estate to secure a winery licence here, in 1996 – which isn’t a vineyard, but an apple orchard.
Sir John A. would have more than a passing interest in the County Cider Company: He once held the mortgage on the property, which now boasts the largest selection of European cider apples in North America. But he would have stayed for the drink – three sparkling hard ciders and an astonishing ice cider inspired by icewine.
Like icewine grapes, Russet, Ida Red and Northern Spy apples are left hanging on the trees long after the harvest to be baked by Indian summer, then chilled by fall frost and winter winds. Cider master and owner Grant Howes then distills those wizened apple pies into a sweet golden elixir that is surprisingly refreshing, with a zing of raw apple – well worth the trip to sample it at the source.
The County Cider Company is housed in a lovingly restored stone barn – an area landmark – perched high atop a limestone cliff on the shores of Lake Ontario. The outdoor patio keeps lunchtime crowds happy with pizza topped with county ingredients and baked in an outdoor wood-burning oven. Shaded by apple trees and cooled by breezes off the lake, you can enjoy the view across the water. Or, with a cider or two, you can be transported back to the American Revolution, when United Empire Loyalists streamed north to settle this peninsula, which became an island when the Murray Canal was cut to connect the Bay of Quinte to Lake Ontario.
This is our first trip to the county in some years. Despite the buzz about new wineries, we discover that traditional farming remains the backbone – and beauty – of this area, about two hours east of Toronto. The county has enjoyed boom times in the past – the Barley Days of 1860 to 1890, when farmers grew wealthy selling barley to the Americans during the Civil War and reconstruction years; the first half of the 1900s, when they grew vegetables and fruit for canning factories. But after the canneries left in search of year-round harvests farther south, farmers struggled. Now they are adapting again, this time partnering with chefs, wineries and a non-profit marketing organization, Taste the County, to create a premier culinary destination.
Attracted by the burgeoning wine industry, a wave of chefs has moved here – most recently Jamie Kennedy, who bought a farm and plans to open a field-to-plate restaurant. Chef Michael Potters and his wife, Karin, opened Harvest Restaurant in 2003. And last year, Karin opened the Pinch Gourmet store in Picton, the perfect place to pick up deli meats and cheeses for a picnic at Sandbanks Provincial Park.
What the chefs discovered, in Michael’s words, was “fantastic food and farming” – fifth-generation lamb growers, naturally raised and chemical-free beef, vegetables that arrive at restaurants just hours out of the ground, fresh fish from the Bay of Quinte. “For a select group of farmers here, doing things sustainably isn’t a trend,” Michael says. “They’ve been here a long time and it’s the way they’ve always farmed. So you want to take advantage of that, cooking with the seasons and great ingredients.” He calls it county cuisine.
Oddly, there is no public farmers market. But with a Harvestin’ the County map, you’ll find plenty of vegetable stands and on-farm produce and meat stores.
A must stop is Vicki’s Vegetables, a few kilometres west of County Cider in Waupoos. Vicki Emlaw, a ninth-generation farmer, is locally famous for her organic greens, veggies and rare heritage tomatoes – she grows more than 100 varieties – which she sells each summer at her roadside stand.
Next door, her aunt, Pat York, started preserving the county’s fruits and vegetables as a way of feeding her four sons on the family’s dairy farm. Now, Pat’s Jams is a thriving cottage industry. She built an addition on the back of her house to showcase her 140 or so jams, chutneys and relishes.The new Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company is also located in this corner of the island, but Petra Cooper’s multimillion-dollar dairy and educational facility isn’t scheduled to open until Monday, so we scoot into Picton to try a selection of her goat and sheep’s milk cheeses at Pinch Gourmet. But the cheese is sold out, the samples gobbled up. All that is left is a taste test of cheese recipes Cooper was refining.
Next door at Buddha Dog, co-owner Andrew Mackenzie found himself so swept up in island life when he first visited that he started scheming of ways to stay. He and his business partner, Andrew Hunter, invented what they call the 100-mile snack, a mini hot dog made from county beef and topped with local ingredients. It was an instant hit with the summer beach crowd.
As we down one slathered in Black River maple cheddar, Mackenzie tells us why the county is, well, the county. “Even though the mainland is just 100 yards away in some places, you have a sense of an edge to your world. Everyone’s in this together.” We tuck into another dog topped with mustard infused with maple syrup.
Yes, our visit has coincided with the first harvest of spring, from Canada’s oldest agricultural crop. In the morning, we hitched a wagon ride back to Ron Hubb’s sugar bush for his 31st annual pancake breakfast. The event is now a mainstay of the Maple in the County Festival, one of the area’s many culinary events.
What is astonishing about a county festival is that nearly every business lends its support. Even tourists feel the community’s passion to create something special here. Wineries have opened early to offer tastings of maple-infused dessert wines. Barley Days Brewery serves up Sugar Shack Ale; along with its flagship beers, the brewery adds one brew a season made from county harvests such as pumpkin and cherries. And restaurants, running their own Countylicious food festival in conjunction with the Maple weekend, serve up maple-themed dinners.
We manage to tuck back a few meals at some of the county’s top restaurants: the Waring House, which also has an inn and runs a cooking school with hundred-mile classes; and the Merrill Inn, where Sir John A. hung out in the drawing room in his day.
Once again, I sense his curious presence, but how surprising should that be? The cozy restaurant at this inn has one of the best listings of county wines – ciders included.
Margaret Webb is the author of Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover’s Tour of Canadian Farms (Penguin, Spring 2008).
Pack your bags
County Cider Company
& Estate Winery County Road 8, Picton; 613-476-1022;http://www.countycider.com. County’s tasting room and store are open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from May to November. Lunches are served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co. 4309 County Rd. 8, Picton; 613-476-5755;http://www.fifthtown.ca. An outdoor environmental sculpture show runs all summer.
Pinch Gourmet 7 Elizabeth St., Picton; 613-476-4404. Open Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays until 7 p.m.
Buddha Dog 172 Main St., Picton; 613-476-3814. Open Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays until 5 p.m.
Harvest Restaurant 106 Bridge St., Picton; 613-476-6763;http://www.harvestrestaurant.ca. Dinners Wednesdays to Sundays from 5 p.m. Brunch on Sundays.
Merrill Inn 343 Main St. E., Picton; 866-567-5969;http://www.merrillinn.com. Rooms start at $179.
The Waring House Highway 33 and County Road 1, Picton; 613-476-7492;http://www.waringhouse.com. Rooms start at $145.
Vicki’s Veggies 81 Morrison Point Rd., Milford; 613-476-7241;http://www.vickisveggies.com. The roadside stand is open daily during daylight hours.
Pat’s Jam’s 113 Morrison Point Rd., Milford; 613-476-6929;http://www.pec.on.ca/patsjams. Jams are $4 to $6.
The Harvestin’ the County map gives directions to more than 80 farms.http://www.harvestin.ca.