Do you know Niagara-on-the-Lake?
No? Well you can probably guess a couple of things about it at least – that it’s near Niagara Falls, and that it’s on the shores of a lake! That’s all I knew too, but last autumn I visited for myself, and discovered a lot more.
What I came away with, as well as an appreciation of the warmth of the local population and the beauty of the landscape, was some serious envy about the quality and variety of fresh produce grown here. Readily available directly from the farm, at farmers markets and in local stores, it’s put to fantastic use by local producers, restaurateurs and home chefs.
Inn the Pines Farmgate Shop
Very much a farming community, many of the farms have a farmgate shop – exactly what it sounds like, a shop or stall from which farmers sell direct to their customers just yards from where the produce is grown.
We stopped at Inn the Pines in St. Catharines to admire their produce, watch happily squawking chickens enjoy freshly harvested corn on the cob, and chat to owners Cheryl and Barney Barnes – that’s Barney posing on the back of his pickup and feeding the chooks. As we learned a little about some of the produce they grow and sell to both restaurateurs and home cooks, an elderly couple arrived to buy corn by the barrow-load, deftly peeling away the husks which will no doubt be thrown onto a nearby compost heap and bemused by my request to take a photo.
There’s something rather special about buying produce direct from the farmers; one of the things I can’t help but envy, as a London-based city slicker.
Whitty Farms & 13th Street Bakery
Whitty Farms is another local farm just outside St. Catharines, and like Inn the Pines, has been handed down through the generations. Today, it’s the turn of Doug and Karen Whitty, and just like Inn the Pines, customers can buy direct from the farm.
But there’s another treat not to be missed alongside all the fresh produce and that’s the output of 13th Street Bakery. Their butter tart may be a contender for best in Niagara, if not all of Ontario or indeed the entirety of Canada; if anyone is looking for someone to do a more comprehensive survey, point me at the application form right now!
Butter Tarts are a much-loved treat across Canada and there’s hot debate on just what a good butter tart should (and shouldn’t) be. A basic butter tart has a filling of butter, sugar, syrup and egg baked in a flaky pastry casing, often with the addition of Canadian maple syrup. Purists eschew the addition of pecan nuts or raisins, let alone anything more exotic . It’s less clear cut whether ‘traditional’ allows for a firmer or softer filling but the ongoing argument is a good excuse to taste as many examples as possible.
The Whittys, with their friends John and June Mann also set up 13th Street Winery at the same site, more of which in an upcoming post.
Upper Canada Cheese Company
Another favourite stop for me as a cheese addict, Upper Canada Cheese Company in Jordan Station is a small local creamery producing a range of cheeses from the milk of local Guernsey cows and goats.
We tried a selection including Niagara Gold, a semi-firm washed-rind based on traditional Loire Valley cheeses, Comfort Cream, a camembert-style soft bloomed rind cheese which is best when super ripe, the maple-smoked version of Jordan Station, another semi-firm cheese and Nanny Noir, a goats milk camembert-style cheese rolled in vegetable ash and allowed to ripen for four weeks. We also tried an experimental new blue cheese – great flavour but some more work needed on the texture.
This is everything you want of a cheese shop – great cheeses and very helpful staff happy to give tasters and help every customer find just the cheese (or cheeses) they need.
White Meadows Farms Maple Shop
Maple syrup is produced across quite a swathe of Canada and I had already tasted and purchased a lot of it during the few days I spent in Montreal and Quebec, before heading down to Niagara. (So much, in fact, that my case was overweight and I had to post a box of goodies home to myself, thus instantly rendering my bargainous purchases into some of the most expensive maple syrup ever!)
But I was still keen as maple-mustard to visit White Meadows Farms and sample their four grades of maple syrup, and to taste their range of maple syrup products – sauces and mustards, vinegars and salad dressings, maple sugar and maple butter (maple syrup boiled until it’s dry and whipped into a spreadable form, respectively), fruit and maple jams, and of course, traditional maple candies.
Maple syrup, made from sap collected from maple trees, is graded by colour into Light, Medium, Amber and Dark. Canadian maple syrup must be 100% maple sap, and the finished product must have a sugar level of 66%, achieved by boiling natural sap to evaporate the water content which thickens the consistency and concentrates the sugars. The boiled syrup is then filtered before being packaged for sale. The colour is governed by the sap, with early season sap usually producing the lightest finished syrup. Dark is harder to find, as it’s produced right at the end of the season when the sap is at its richest and the strong flavour is not to everyone’s taste.
Dark proved to my favourite, and I bought a few bottles to bring home.
Welland Farmers’ Market
Wellands Farmers’ Market is not as huge as the amazing markets I visited in Montreal and Quebec but it’s the perfect place to buy local produce, and there’s a great selection. However, I was focused on just one main ingredient, after our hosts chefs Anna and Michael Olson set us a cooking challenge! More on that cooking experience in an upcoming post…
The best thing about the market, aside from the top quality produce itself, were the very friendly stall holders, keen to tell us about their goods and to welcome us to their town.
The market consists of two main buildings dating from 1919, and some outdoor marquees as well. Alongside fruits and vegetables you can find fresh meat and eggs, charcuterie, local honeys, fresh baked goods, cheese, chocolates, flowers and wine.
Kavey Eats visited Ontario as a guest of Destinations Canada. With additional thanks to Anna and Michael Olson for being our hosts, and Diane Helinski for being our tour manager and guide.