I’m always a little hesitant to share foodie discoveries here – you know that feeling of wanting to keep something to yourself – but sometimes you come across something so special that you can’t help but want to share. Case in point, Chatham-Kent, Ontario.
Those of you who live in Ontario might be scratching your head and thinking “Chatham-Kent – a foodie discovery”? Well, yes that’s what I thought when Neil and I were recently invited to spend a weekend meeting some local producers from the area and attending the annual CK Table dinner. We were honestly a little skeptical but after spending time chatting with the farmers and local business people, we can see why Chatham-Kent is slowly becoming a destination for foodies.
Bayside Brewing is a family and friends affair. Started by microbrew enthusiasts Ken Royal, Nancy Cowan, Frank Thompson and Josette deBrouwer, Bayside grew out of a passion for beer and a desire to give back to the community – they wanted to create a venture that would use local talent and create employment. They purchased in-house brewing equipment from a bar in Windsor that was closing down, then took over the run-down former Lakeside hotel to create Bayside which today incorporates a microbrewery, a retail area, tasting room and BrewPub. It’s certainly a place where folks feel passionate about beer and a wonderful tale of people pursuing a passion and working hard to make it happen.
Neil and I were both surprised to learn of a couple of local wineries and were intrigued to check out Smith & Wilson Estate Wines. (permanently closed) Located in the middle of the Lake Erie North Shore viticultural region, vines here enjoy the most sunshine in Canada. Smith & Wilson has been growing grapes for wine production for over two decades, but only started making their own wine within the last decade (both from their grapes and others’). With over 25 wines, there’s lots to choose from! As the region is prime agricultural land for fruit growers, they still have a selection of fruit wines as well.
The tasting room certainly was busy when we arrived…
We got to try a fair number of the wines that afternoon, chatting with George Smith the winemaker as we tasted. During the time we were there, many customers came and went – on their way to a party, heading to friends’ for dinner or simply cooking something special themselves. A lot of people already knew what they wanted – obviously regular customers – but many asked for pairing recommendations which were happily offered by George and Mary Jane.
It’s a friendly place, one where you won’t feel intimidated about wine knowledge or wine pairing. Lots of friendly advice and information available without the attitude you can sometimes get at larger wineries. And the wine? We felt that while some focus could benefit the operation (it’s hard to make that many different types of wine!), they do have some fine everyday reds; the Double Barrel, Two Cabs and Pinot Noir “all show varietal tipicity” according to Neil and are recommended.
We headed out through the cornfields to Delhaven Orchards.
A family-owned and run farm, Delhaven consists of 400 acres and grows apples (16 varieties), peaches (12 varieties), sweet cherries (6 varieties), pears (3 varieties), apricots (4 varieties), nectarines (3 varieties), strawberries (6 varieties), kiwi (trial crop/future product), soybeans, tomatoes, corn and wheat.
Delhaven store about 600 bins of apples in coolers known as cold storage rooms. The temperature is maintained at 32˚F. (apples freeze at 29˚F). We were surprised to hear that in these cold storage rooms, apples will stay fresh and crisp until January or February. For long-term storage of apples they use Controlled Atmosphere (C.A) rooms. In these rooms most of the oxygen is drawn out of the room to lower the rate of respiration of the apples. After 90 days these apples can be removed from the rooms where they will taste as crisp as when they were picked off the tree. This process allows Delhaven to keep and sell quality apples virtually all year long – they store about 1000 bins of apples in C.A.
One thing is for sure, there’s nothing quite like an apple fresh off the tree!
Honestly one of the best maple syrups I’ve tasted – from Giffin’s Maple Syrup Products in Blenheim. Don Giffin and his wife Jean welcomed us into their home (they have a tiny tasting room at the front) to learn a little about the process of making maple syrup.
According to Don’s impressive judge’s bio on the Royal Winter Fair Maple Syrup and Maple Products page, Don and Jean started making Pure Maple Syrup over 30 years ago. Their business has evolved into a modern, CFIA certified professional enterprise with about 3,500 taps used in Sinclair’s Bush during the sap collecting season. In 1997-8, they won the World Champion Trophy at the Royal Winter Fair for all grade classes of Maple Syrup. In 1999-2000 they won the Corbett Trophy for the highest points in Maple Value Added Products, including Maple Butter, Maple Candy, Maple Jelly and Maple stirred Sugar. They have also produced a “Simply Maple” cookbook and a film outlining techniques for making maple products. They presented this film at a satellite training school in New York State University, New York. They instruct Value Added Production of Maple Syrup Products throughout Ontario and received the 2000 Ontario Maple Syrup Award. Don is a member of the Ontario Maple Syrup Producers Association for Ontario, serving on various committees for many years and remains as a committee member within the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. And to go with all these accolades? An amazingly smooth maple syrup. We came home with a large tin – it’s not often I find a maple syrup I like as much as this one.
Our day in Chatham-Kent was coming to an end but we had one more stop…
A perfect partnership of agriculture and cuisine, the CK Table celebrates the quality and diversity of food produced in Chatham-Kent. Local chefs and restaurants pair with producers to present an array of fine meats, fruits, vegetables, herbs, wine, and beer all grown and produced locally! It was a lovely evening where we got to mingle with the farmers and producers themselves as they served us our 7 course dinner, all paired with local wines,, beers, cider and even chocolate milk!
The following morning, before heading back to Toronto, we were treated to a wonderful Ecuadorian breakfast at Paul Spence’s farmhouse. Paul and his wife, Sara Caiche, who hails from Ecuador, run Experience Casa Latina – authentic Latin American Cuisine and Culture – offering farm tours, a meat workshop, a Latin-style barbecue and salsa dancing right in the heart of Chatham-Kent. Who would have thought? The perfect hosts, Paul and Sara are passionate about showcasing not only Sara’s culture and heritage but also the local producers and farmers (of which Paul is one – he also runs Lo Maximo Meats). Read about Paul and Sara’s Experience Casa Latina on Edible Toronto and read about Paul in The Chatham Voice.
Our weekend in Chatham-Kent left us so impressed with the quality of products available in an area not typically known as a food-lover’s destination. But more than that, we were struck by the passion of the farmers and producers. We were struck by their modesty (on more than one occasion, we were asked why we wanted to visit the farm or why we wanted to chat with the producer) – many of the folks seem unaware that they are part and parcel of a burgeoning industry – culinary travel. Chatham-Kent feels like Stratford, Ontario or Prince Edward Country, Ontario must have felt 10-15 years ago before they really became known as food destinations. When you visit, you feel like the area is on the cusp of something very special. I truly hope the local farmers, producers and tourism folks can harness this potential because I think Chatham-Kent has a lot to offer the culinary tourist. With folks like Paul Spence, the team behind CK Table and the passion of the local farmers and producers, I have no doubt that one day I will visit Chatham-Kent and say “I told you!”
Disclosure: Neil and I attended the CK Table dinner as guests of Paul Spence/CK Table. We had the opportunity to visit all the places mentioned in this post thanks to Paul Spence and Brandon Houston who acted as our tour guide for the weekend. I was not further compensated for writing this post and all opinions are my own.