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A Moto-Foodie in Ontario's Garden: Part 1

Moto-foodie Ken Aiken tells us about his food travels through Ontario, Canada. Part 1 of 2.

Ontario peanuts

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series. Find part two here.

Tobacco was once king in Norfolk County. A lot is still grown here. Peanuts are another important crop, but least you think I’ve ridden my motorcycle south of the Mason-Dixon Line I must confess this is also known as Ontario’s South Coast. Of course, this too is confusing since the south coast of this Canadian providence happens to be the northern shore of Lake Ontario, the smallest—by water volume—of the Great Lakes.

The region is known as Ontario’s Garden, an agricultural paradise that rates number one in Ontario for production of apples, cabbage, cherries, pumpkins, peanuts, green onions, strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, cucumbers, Saskatoon berries, sweet corn, zucchini, and specialty crops. It’s second for mushrooms, peppers, and cauliflower; number one in Canada for sweet potatoes; and number one for ginseng in North America. I haven't a clue as to how the local melons, pea, potatoes, soybeans, sunflower, vinifera grapes, barley, rye, and hops rate in terms of productions, but they're grown here in quantity. Add to this local beef, chicken, pork, and commercially fished perch, and pickerel from Lake Erie and you have an amazing base for an emerging locally sourced foodie culture.

In Port Dover, I meet up with Ted Willey of Norfolk County Tourism. Ted has been helping me plan this trip for the past year and it’s a pleasure to finally meet face-to-face.

Ginseng growing beneath tobacco screens.

To gain a general understanding about the region we first visit the Delhi (Dell-Hi) Tobacco Museum and Heritage Centre, where curator Judy Livingstone presents me with the historical background of the region. Written accounts go back to the era of the Franciscan explorers who not only discovered ginseng in the area but found enough wild grapes to produce sufficient wine to last them through the winter of 1639. The first gristmill was built in 1798 and the legacy of slashing back the seemingly endless virgin forest to create agricultural land began. The mid-1920’s was the start of tobacco farming that boomed in the post-WWII era. As late as 1999 this region produced 93% of the Virginia tobacco used in the production of cigarettes in Canada. The decline in cigarette sales during the last 15 years has forced farmers to seek other crops, although nothing pays as much as the golden leaf once did. Abandoned tobacco-drying sheds have found new applications in drying grapes, lavender, and hops; some types of equipment were converted for peanut farming; and tobacco screening now covers acres of ginseng.

A prime example of this new diversification into alternative crops is Ramblin’ Roads Brewery Farm on CR 37 / Swimming Pool Road north of Delhi. This is one of the Piccard family’s farms where they raise peanuts for the famous Piccards Potato Chip Coated Peanuts—peanuts roasted with a potato coating, plus a number of other flavors. They also produce Piccard’s Extreme Kettle Chips from Dakota Pearl potatoes grown on their farm. Of course, nothing goes better with peanuts and potato chips than beer, so they began growing several varieties of hops: Brewer’s Gold, Galena, Mt. Hood, Cascade, and Centennial.

Brewer's Gold hops

Their first brews were introduced in November 2012 and already have made a name for themselves. They make a Country Larger, Country Pilsner, a very smooth Country Cream Ale, and Dakota Pearl Ale (DPA). The DPA is unique in that it starts as an IPA made with Brewer’s Gold hops, but then it gets utilized as the final “bath” when producing potato chips. This does two things: it creates an incredibly smooth finish to the beer and produces a darker, crisper, and richer-tasting potato chip. DPA is one of the best craft beers I’ve tasted and the Beer Bathed Potato Chips—they make other flavors—are exceptional. Ramblin’ Roads is the only farmstead brewery that I know of and one of only two farmstead potato chip companies.

Bonnieheath Farm & Winery

Located just northeast of Simcoe, Bonnieheath Estates was once a tobacco farm, but, like so many others, Anita Buehner is moving to other crops. This is one of three wineries in the county that uses grapes—despite having an existing apple orchard—but it’s the only lavender farm. Winemaker Terry Rayner has taken a new approach by using 100% Frontenac Gris and Frontenac Rouge to produce their wines. Those I tasted are from very young vines, yet they hold promise due to their tannin and balance. Putting their current offerings in the cellar for another year would be my recommendation. Two varieties of lavender are being grown: one to be used in food and one for scent. A very nice lavender boutique is included adjacent to the wine-tasting room.

Burning Kiln Winery is the toast of Norfolk County. Despite only opening in 2011, winemaker Andrzej Lipinski has created signature wines using an adaption of the “appassimento” method of drying the grapes prior to fermentation. The hip styling of the winery incorporates the original tobacco barn on the property and the grapes are dried in slightly modified tobacco drying kilns, so this is another example of the agricultural transition that’s taking place in this region. The 26-acres of vine are maintained by hand, the grapes are manually harvested, and the wine is produced in small batches.

Burning Kiln Winery

Handcrafted wines come at a cost and the price of a bottle reflects this. Their Chenin Blanc 2010 is—like the majority of their wines— $24.95, but the Kiln Hanger-The Sequel comes in at $59.95 bottle. A Cabernet Franc that has been dried for eight days, Kiln Hanger is then aged in oak barrels for two-and-half years. It’s an interesting wine that will improve with age, but it’s my opinion that it will take a few years to make it competitive with the wines from neighboring Niagara.

Long Point Eco-Adventures is located directly across Front Road from Burning Kiln and this is where I’m “glamping.” Their spacious tents feature wooden floors, hot and cold running water, a flush toilet, a private outside shower, and electricity—fan, heater, refrigerator, and lights—plus WiFi and a luxurious king-size bed. The occupants on either side of me also have motorcycles parked in front of their tents, which is no surprise considering that it’s almost Friday the 13th and 100,000+ motorcyclists are expected to arrive in Port Dover for this rally.

Long Point Eco-Adventures

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part series. Find part two here.

Published July 16th, 2014