Butter Tarts, Peaches & Farm-Gate Markets
Part One: Explore Canada – Let me take you on a food journey through Niagara in Ontario, Canada…..Foodie Ontario: Butter Tarts, Peaches & Farm-Gate Markets…………..
Hugging the great lakes to the south, the Hudson Bay to the North, whilst also bordering two other Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Quebec, as well as the United States, Ontario is the most populated of all the ten provinces of Canada, and, as I discovered on a recent trip to this diverse province, it’s a veritable food lovers paradise; there are hundreds of wineries, restaurants of all styles and types, farmer’s markets, cheese companies, breweries, nurseries, farms, food trucks and the ubiquitous farm-gate stalls which offer a myriad of different fruit and vegetables, as well as home-made cakes, bakes, pickles and preserves. It seems that most of the produce on offer was grown locally too, with “grown in Ontario” being seen on over 90% of market stalls I visited.
On a recent trip to Canada, Ontario was my first stopping off place, before I travelled up, down and across this stunningly diverse and fascinating country. After a comfortable flight from London to Toronto with Air Canada, myself and my four travelling companions set off for Niagara-on-the-Lake with our lovely guide, Diane Helinski, from Ontario Tourism. We checked into the Shaw Club Hotel, which was to be our home for the next three nights, a peaceful and very comfortable spa resort hotel in the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, before heading off to meet our hosts for the weekend, TV Chef Anna Olson and her husband Michael Olson, at the magnificent Two Sisters Vineyard for dinner at Kitchen 76.……..and so our foodie tour of Ontario had started, and in some style too.
I will be talking more about my time with Anna and Michael Olson in another post, as well as sharing some of the recipes we made with Anna in her kitchen, and, I will also be writing about my visits to some of the wineries in the area too, but for today, it’s all about the food I enjoyed on my trip around Ontario – from elegant meals on a sun-dappled terrace in the middle of a vineyard, to fresh peaches, plump blueberries, unctuous butter tarts and “Canadian Dim Sum”……Ontario is rich in produce, with excellent “Farm to Table” restaurants and a wealth of artisan producers, cooks, brewers and bakers. I was particularly interested in the “Farm to Table” movement in the province, a sustainable way of purchasing food for the restaurant menu, where local, seasonal produce is preferred and where you are likely to see ingredients sourced within 10 to 15 mile radius of the eatery in question.
As well as the growing “Farm to Table” concept, I also noticed a large number of chefs were also making their own charcuterie, thus pushing the use of local and seasonal produce used in their restaurants to new limits. We enjoyed an al fresco luncheon at Vineland Estates Winery, where chef Justin Downes, had prepared an innovative array of home-cured hams, rillettes, terrines, pickles, mustards and chutneys, as part of his Chef Creative Tasting Menu; lightly pickled cauliflower tantalised our taste-buds with a pistachio and blueberry terrine which was rich in flavour and aromatic with spice – the colours were vibrant and the flavours were dynamic – it was an impeccable way to start our meal, which was paired with Vineland Estates wines. The tasting menu was described a showcasing “Niagara Cuisine” and the emphasis was on local producers, as well as home-grown herbs and edible flowers, it was an exemplary menu of sustainably sourced and creatively cooked food.
The Restaurant @ Vineland Estates Winery Chef Creative Tasting Menu:
Charcuterie Platter: Cured Meats, Rillettes, Terrine, Pickled Vegetables, and Beer Mustard
Smoked Tomato Bisque with Olive Tapenade and Pickled Fennel
Top Beef Sirloin with Cauliflower Purée, Blue Haze Cheese and Mustard Jus
New York Cheesecake with Brandied Nectarines, Blueberry Gelato and Crushed Pistachios
Food is subjective, we all like different things, and on the previous night’s visit to the Two Sisters Vineyard and their Kitchen 76 Restaurant, it was refreshing to see that the menu was unpretentious, simple and yet elegant with an Italian theme. Once again, they showcase what is called “Niagara Cuisine”, using local and freshly sourced ingredients, as well as serving their own high-quality (and award-winning) wines. We all shared two freshly baked pizzas, along with Focaccia e Olive, freshly baked with garlic-infused olive oil and house-marinated olives, as well as a platter of Salumi e Formaggi, cured meats, cheeses, marinated olives and compotes as a starter, before choosing from the main menu……my Sea Bream was moist with a crispy skin and was served with crushed potatoes and zucchini caponata, it was utter culinary bliss. I was captivated by their 2013 Unoaked Chardonnay, a wine type I’m not normally fond of, the taste and aroma of pears, peaches and green apples created a balanced acidity that went well with my fish.
If the first two restaurants impressed me, then I was seduced even more by the local “Farm-Gate” market stalls – wherever we travelled in the Niagara region, we saw them by the side of the road – some were just wooden tables piled high with ripe fuzzy peaches and glossy sun-glow nectarines, with crates of corn-on-the-cob straddling the crooked pathway to someone’s country home, whilst others were like small Farm Shops with covered tables and inside cafés with deli’s attached…….the first one we visited was also a well-known and renown winery in the St. Catherines area of Niagara; Whitty Farms is more a farm shop than a farm-gate, but they still had several trestle tables outside, where heirloom tomatoes of all names, shapes, colours and sizes were stacked high in baskets, crates and charming little punnets with handles. Inside, 13th Bakery & Marketplace, as it is called, there are cakes and bakes, artisan cheeses, preserves, flowers and local gifts on offer, as well as the famous Butter Tarts, that I had heard so much about. It was a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of all things culinary and locally produced.
This is where we were all treated to our first taste of a Butter Tart, and it was definitely love at first bite; there is much debate about what defines a perfect butter tart, and just like all regional bakes from all over the world, everyone one has a mum, grandmother, sister or aunt who makes the best tarts – it seems that they are divided into two schools, those WITH raisins and/or pecans and those that are just butter tarts with no extra embellishments…..then there is the “stiff and firm” school of “butter tart lovers” and the “gooey and runny” school of “butter tart lovers”, it’s a complicated business and can divide families apparently! Having tried three or four different varieties, I can now tell you that I am firmly in the plain and gooey butter tart club, and having badgered several Canadian friends for recipes, I shall be sharing my “definitive butter tart recipe” on Lavender and Lovage soon.
Butter Tarts are so popular in Ontario, that they even have their own tourist destination activities, namely The Butter Tart Trail and The Butter Tart Tour! There are also Butter Tart Taste-Off contests too, like I said, it’s all deadly serious in the world of the Canadian Butter Tart. Along with the Butter Tart Trail, visitors can also visit several more foodie trips, such as the Chocolate Trail, the Bacon and Ale Trail (a personal favourite of mine!), the Maple Trail, the Pumpkin Trail and the Apple Pie Trail……I DID tell you that Ontario was a foodie’s paradise! For those of you who may be curious about just what goes into a Butter Tart, here’s Anna Olson’s recipe, which looks as if it will be a “gooey and runny” kinda tart although it does have pecans added.
As well as tasting butter tarts at Witty Farms, we also had a wee degustation in the winery next door, 13th Street Winery, but, I will be reporting separately about that in my Wines of Niagara post. And so it was a bit of cheese tasting next, at the Upper Canada Cheese company in Jordan; here, I was able to sample some of the regions best cheeses, including one I had already fallen in love with, Blue Haze, a smoked blue cheese that is made by the monks in Abbaye Saint-Benoit, Quebec, where I was lucky enough to visit a week later whilst travelling around the Eastern Townships. The making of this cheese is a join effort, as it is…..”hand-made in Quebec then shipped to Cayuga, Ontario for smoking over a mixed blend of Ontario hardwood”…..we tasted the cheeses that were made in-house, all of them made with Guernsey cow’s milk, which is extremely rich and adds a wonderful flavour and texture to the cheeses:
Niagara Gold is a washed rind, semi-firm cheese fashioned after recipes developed by the Trappist Monks of the Loire Valley.
Comfort Cream is a camembert-style soft, white bloomy rind cheese with a silky, creamy, golden interior.
Maple Smoked Comfort Cream
Maple Smoked Comfort Cream has been cold smoked with maple chips to create a one-of-a-kind cheese.
This fresh cheese is loosely modelled on both a Cypriot style cheese and, more precisely, a Scandinavian bread cheese. It has a deliciously salty flavour and squeaky bite
Nosey Goat Nanny Noir
This cheese is truly unique. Made in the Camembert style, this surface ripened cheese is rolled in vegetable ash and then left in our ripening room for four weeks before it is ready for consumption.
Nosey Goat Camelot
Camelot is a semi-firm, washed rind goat cheese. Its rind is deliciously salty while presenting a cheese that is both delicate and fresh tasting.
Our next stop was at Inn The Pines, a charming little farm-gate stall situated in a wooden chalet style hut, with chickens clucking about, as well as wheelbarrows piled high with seasonal sweet corn. As well as fruit and vegetables, the stall also sells its own free-range eggs and home-made preserves……..as it was late summer/early autumn when we visited, there were crates of potatoes and pumpkins, as well as over 35 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, peaches, plums, blueberries, strawberries, peppers, courgettes and fresh herbs on offer. Cheryl and Barney, the owners, made us very welcome and chatted about their life on their small-holding.
No trip to region would be complete without a visit to Inniskillin Winery, where we were treated to an evening of ice wine and fine dining; Chef Tim McKiddie, is a Niagara native who uses his cooking expertise to create seasonally inspired menus for Inniskillin’s onsite culinary activities and private events. Menus feature local ingredients enhanced with herbs and vegetables freshly picked from the winery’s on-site garden, and were treated to a gastronomic feast of wines, ice wine and some very creative recipes for a special tasting menu…….each course was paired with TWO of Inniskillin’s wines, an ice wine and a normal wine, and so when I sat down at the table, I was surprised to see EIGHT wine glasses ready to be filled to accompany our meal.
Most countries, counties and indeed provinces offer Farmer’s Markets, and Niagara is no exception, so, along with Anna and Michael Olson, we visited their local market in Welland; Welland Farmer’s Market……open every Saturday from 06:00 am to 12 Noon, it’s a vibrant, thriving market with a long history dating back to 1907. I saw flowers, herbs, hand-made gifts such as cards, lavender bags and linens, along with fresh orchard fruits, peaches, chillies, peppers, aubergines, sweet corn, blueberries, strawberries, pumpkins, gourds, tomatoes, jams, jellies and preserves being sold, as well as hot food stalls and stands. There was a hum of activity, with people scurrying between stalls, whilst chatting to friends and producers and swapping recipe ideas. One Italian lady we met was buying a couple of bushels of aubergines, and there were many more deals being struck between customer and producer. If you are in the Welland area in Niagara, this is “must visit” authentic market, with no frills, a proper market for all.
My final “Foodie in Ontario” recommendation, is Luckee Restaurant in Toronto, run by SuSur Lee, a local character, it offers the most amazing Dim Sum, with a Canadian (Western) slant. Classed as “Nouvelle Chinoise Cuisine”, the restaurant features classic dishes and dim sum from the culinary traditions of Guangzhou, Hunan, Shanghai and Szechuan regions, which are regularly updated. Luckee is a short walk from Chinatown, where I visited briefly before enjoying a “blow-out” Dim Sum lunch with the Olsons. Nearby Chinese bakeries of note, is the amusingly named Ding Ding Pastries in Spadina Avenue, Chinatown; as someone who lived in Hong Kong for many years, I can tell you that the pastries, buns and breads in Ding Dong are very authentic and fresh, and you can see the bakers hard at work through a glass screen at the end of the shop.
But back to the “blow-out” Dim Sum Lunch at Luckee Restaurant……..we were treated to basket upon basket of steamed dumplings with spicy sauces, cooling fruit cocktails and fragrant green tea. Lobster, crab, mushrooms, beef, pork and seaweed came in encased in deep-fried packages as well as meltingly soft and fluffy dumpling parcels……
……the table was completely filled with fragrant baskets and bowls of enticing rice, noodles and stir-fried vegetables. With thanks to Anna and Michael Olson, and SuSur Lee who treated us all to this Chinese feast of epic proportions. Some of the dishes we enjoyed were:
chicken & shrimp dumplings with scallop
CHAR SIU BAO
bbq chinese pork
STEAMED CRAB CLAWS WITH SHRIMP MOUSSE
CRISPY TARO & TURNIP CAKE
SPINACH & MIXED VEGETABLES
rice roll with soya juice
CHICKEN CHEUNG FUN
rice roll with tofu, ginger, green onion &
DUCK & TOFU SKIN ROLL
STEAMED STICKY RICE IN LOTUS LEAF
lap cheong, chicken, shrimp &
SAVOURY CRISPY RICE DONUT
filled with chicken, choy poh, chinese chives, jicama & shrimp
CHICKEN POT STICKER
chives, cabbage, black vinegar ginger dip
BRAISED BLACK PEPPER
But, what about Maple Syrup I hear you asking. Well, yes, I did visit a rather amazing little place in Niagara, called White Meadows Farms, where all types of Maple Syrups are stocked and sold; The Maple Sweet Shop offers maple syrup tastings to try before you buy in this little shop of pleasure…….situated on 2519 Effingham Street in St. Catharines, we also tasted maple butter, maple cream, maple sugar, maple pop-corn, maple candy and maple vinegar. They also sell butter tarts, maple syrup ice cream and maple syrup jelly, as in jam. They offer maple syrup in all grades, and we tried all of them, my favourite being the Amber grade:
A delicate, sweet and buttery, syrup with gentle maple undertones and clear gold in colour. We use our light syrup to make our maple sugar candies. It is also often loved on yogurt, or drizzled over desserts like ice cream
Our most popular ‘table’ syrup, we serve the Medium in our Pancake House and recommend this grade for anyone purchasing syrup as a gift due to its familiar, distinct maple flavour and golden colour. We’ve found when most people think pure maple syrup over pancakes or waffles, they’re thinking of the Medium.
This versatile syrup is dark amber in colour and holds a robust maple flavour. A great choice to pour over pancakes for anyone wanting more maple body, Amber also holds its flavour well when used in oven-dishes like squash, as a meat marinade, baked into pastries, or drizzled over desserts.
Almost black in colour with a bold maple flavour, this syrup is often considered too heavy over pancakes, but ideal as a glaze for cooked meats, a marinade, or to add a maple boost to baked dishes. Its dominant flavour holds strong when pent with other ingredients. Try the Dark as a flavourful substitute for sugar in any recipe.
I hope you have enjoyed this first post about my trip across Canada, my next posts about Ontario will be published soon, and will cover:
Cooking, Breakfast and Dinner with Anna and Michael Olson
Waterfalls, Wine and Vineyards of Niagara
Following on from Ontario, you will be able to read about my time in Quebec, on the ViaRail train across Canada, Manitoba, Vancouver, the Okanagan Valley and Whistler, so do keep popping by. My full itinerary is here:
You can catch up on my social media shares about my Canada trip here:
Main Hashtag #ExploreCanada
FaceBook: Karen Burns-Booth
FaceBook Page: Lavender and Lovage
Disclaimer and thanks:
I was the guest of the Destination Canada, Keep Exploring Canada and Ontario Tourism, as well as various hotels, provinces and restaurants that I will mention in my individual posts: all my flights, transfers, train journeys, accommodation and meals were included, as well as all trips, excursions and special cookery sessions with local chefs. With profound thanks to all the people and organisations that looked after me and made my trip so memorable and exciting.
This trip could not have been possible without the following people and organisations, as well as others already listed above: