Looking to take a break from the daily grind and reignite your passion? Chefs, restaurateurs and anyone else embedded in Toronto’s foodservice milieu take note: departing the hectic environs of the G.T.A. for a culinary tour in Prince Edward County (P.E.C.) provides a welcome respite from reality.
Yes, the drive out of downtown is grating, bordering on horrific — depending on how many pileups jam the 401 East — but trust that the strip malls, big box stores, condominiums and commercial office space that clots together into a sprawling, bleak vista do eventually give way. And when the slow procession and industrious scenery begins to break — right around the time you’re speeding past Oshawa — the rolling landscapes of rural Ontario will sooth your city-shocked soul.
The rest of the two-hour journey is pleasant, except for a momentary relapse as you pass through Belleville, but crossing the bridge that spans the Bay of Quinte quickly leaves any vestige of urban life in the rearview mirror. The high-arching bridge is a dramatic gateway into a land rich in food, wine and committed culinary characters.
So you’ve arrived — what to do?
Prince Edward County is the ideal place to see what seasonal, regional Ontario fare has to offer. The county is full of dedicated artisans like Vicki Emlaw and Tim Noxon of Vicki’s Veggies, who organically grow 20 varieties of vegetables, from rhubarb and radishes to sorrel and swiss chard. Meet them and you’sll see just how invested they are in raising sustainable, healthful and tasty veggies that will make any dish pop with flavour. Or you can drop in to see Lino Micheti, The Accidental Farmer, who raises deliciously tender and flavour-packed heritage pork. If farms are really your thing, there are numerous small growers and orchards in the area, but don’st forget to check out Canada’s only LEED-certified dairy. At Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Co., Petra Cooper makes 27 kinds of award-winning cheeses, including sheep’s milk, goat’s milk and, most recently, cow’s milk varieties. Whether it’s fresh Chèvre, wash-rind Cape Vessey, soft-ripened nettle-infused cheese or goat’s milk cheddar, each is guaranteed to inspire a chef in limitless ways.
With such a bounty of local ingredients readily available, P.E.C.’s talented chefs create cuisine that’s inextricably tied to the region. Harvest and the Merrill Inn in Picton have been destination restaurants for a few years, but one of the newer hot spots in the area is East and Main, a quaint boîte in the town of Wellington. Executive chef Lili Sullivan (formerly sous chef at Auberge du Pommier in Toronto) puts out fresh, unfussy bistro fare that’s rustic yet sophisticated. It perfectly captures P.E.C.’s recent evolution, where a new influx of food and wine folk — many of them fleeing Toronto — are courting producers young and old and bringing that sense of place right onto the plate. Sullivan’s small menu features classics like French onion soup ($9), which is both savoury and sweet (and, incredibly, 100-per-cent vegetarian) and a prime rib burger topped with blue cheese that might be one of the province’s best ($13). Veteran restaurateurs and co-owners David O’Conner and Kimberly Humby can be seen diligently working the room, ensuring every last detail of their vision for the perfect country restaurant is considered. This is casual county dining at its best.
Those looking for a feast that’s outside the norm might consider scoring a seat at the Un Resto, which borrows from the underground dining trend that’s making headlines in culinary capitals like London, New York, Chicago and Toronto. But like most things in P.E.C., its operators offer a simple, honest and high-quality experience that’s emblematic of the growing food culture in the area. At present, the Un Resto operates during P.E.C.’s off-season only.
Drink It, Too
Of course, no trip to The County is complete without visiting a few of the many small wineries in this burgeoning wine region. Local food is the driving force in Canada’s restaurant industry right now, so top VQA wines are a must for any comprehensive wine list. And although P.E.C.’s wine industry is still nascent, it is an exciting time to plan a tour and try some high-quality wines.
Norman Hardie is one of the area’s acclaimed winemakers, putting out 3,500 cases each year. Inspired by the great wines of Burgundy, he’s dedicated the better part of a decade to creating Old World-style wines amid the wintry climate on the north shore of Lake Ontario. Hardie, a former sommelier with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, was drawn to the Hillier area for its wonderfully calcareous, limestone-rich soil that’s perfect for growing Pinot Noir. He planted his vines in 2003 and began the process of digging his winery into the natural slope of the land. It’s complete with an underground barrel chamber that boasts a sheer shelf of limestone, which naturally bleeds groundwater and keeps it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. For a taste of a signature Hardie wine, the 2007 Pinot Noir Cuvee L ($69) blends his best P.E.C. and Niagara Pinots. “Great wines are balanced with fruit and tannins,” says Hardie. “I want purity of tannins, tightness and structure in my wines.” To hear him talk about his winery and his passion for the region, click here (video by Suresh Doss).
At Keint-He Winery & Vineyards, Geoff Heinricks organically grows grapes in high-density vineyards, with a watchful eye on the lunar cycles. About a kilometre away from the lake’s edge on a stunning piece of sun-kissed property, Keint-He is among the newest wineries to open in P.E.C. Heinricks says the region has grape-growing soil that is “unmatched in North America” and is perfect for Pinot Noir. He’s also a true trailblazer when it comes of the development of The County as a wine region, being among the first area winemakers to envision its potential. In 2005, he wrote A Fool And Forty Acres, Conjuring A Vineyard Three Thousand Miles From Burgundy, about his decision to leave a successful career in Toronto to make hand-crafted Pinot in P.E.C. Heinricks and his team began making wine on the current site without any water or electricity while the winery was being built. They still use a hand-powered crusher and destemmer and all the wines are hand-bottled and hand-corked. To see just how good hand-made, organic wine can taste, try the 2007 Pinot Noir ($45) or the 2007 Saint Laurent ($42). “We feel that our terroir, soil and winemaking skill rivals anywhere else in the world,” says Heinricks. “All we need is for the world’s wine writers to get bored of what they are writing about and come check us out.”
Finally, if you’re the type of studious oenophile that would be interested to see how the first cooperage in Prince Edward County operates, you can do that, too. Pete Bradford recently quit his job in car manufacturing to open the Carriage House Cooperage, using as much local wood as he can get his meaty hands on. Click here to see Bradford talk about creating a unique barrel made from four different types of P.E.C. wood.
The passion he shows for his new career, and for his small role in making The County a can’t-miss culinary destination is easy to see. Best of all, it’s shared by almost everyone you’ll meet in this fast developing food and wine region.