Edible Toronto — Summer 2011
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Roadside Diaries
Lauren Carter

Exploring Oxford County

Ontario's rural heartland

If Ontario has a heartland, Oxford County might just be it. Rolling fields and silos in the north and tobacco kilns and sandy soil in the south signal both the area's complex farming history and its diversity of crops on over fourteen hundred farms. Agriculture is in the county's blood. On summer days, tractors slow down sideroad traffic and the honour system rules at many roadside vegetable stands. In August, the Optimist Club in the village of Norwich hosts their annual tractor pull and the dairy cow is celebrated during Cowapolooza in Woodstock, the seat of government for a county that in 1840 was the birthplace of Canada's commercial cheese industry.

On the western edge of the county near the town of Ingersoll, the James Harris Cheese Factory opened in 1865 and a year later was the site of the creation of a 7,300-pound block of cheese. The giant cheese was made by local producers to promote Ingersoll's cheese industry and was exhibited at the New York State Fair in Saratoga and in England. Their unique idea worked: Canadian cheese became a hot seller and by 1871 the county boasted eighty-five cheese factories.

James Harris's family estate has been transformed into the Elm Hurst Inn and Spa, with forty-nine guest rooms and a spa in a new wing on the 33-acre property. Numerous dining rooms on the main and second floors of the original mansion serve meals using local ingredients. You might want to visit Elm Hurst Inn and other dining establishments in September during the county's annual Oxfordlicious, which affords visitors the opportunity to savour numerous restaurants' set menus, each focusing on local suppliers (many of which can also be visited by picking up or downloading a copy of Oxford County's Buy Local! map).

The nearby Ingersoll Cheese and Agricultural Museum is an interesting place to stop. Its collection of heritage buildings includes a blacksmith's shop and a replica of a cheese factory featuring demonstrations of the cheese-making process. The gift shop sells locally made cheese products.

Exceptional cows were needed to make so much exceptional cheese, and some have been widely celebrated. One of these was Snow Countess, who lived between 1919 and 1936 and produced over 9,000 pounds of butterfat. A statue of her stands in Woodstock, around the corner from the town's fairgrounds. Erected in 1936, the life-sized replica of the black and white Holstein was created by the late Ross Butler, a highly skilled artist whose work is displayed at his former farm on the edge of town, just off Highway 401.

At the Ross Butler Studio, a long laneway brings visitors past market gardens farmed by the artist's grandson, Tom Butler. An exhibition of Ross Butler's sculptures and paintings of cattle, horses and rural scenes can be found in the barn, where his son David speaks to visitors about his fascinating father. Born in 1907, Ross Butler grew up on his family's farm in Norwich and painted what he saw.

"The county's history as the Dairy Capital [of Canada] and his art are totally entwined," says David. In the 1930s, working with American and Canadian breed committees, Ross began creating portraits of true type breeds. These illustrations were eventually used within the country's school system and earned him a reputation in the U.S. as the world's leading livestock artist. "In the agricultural community, he's something of a folk hero for illustrating the benchmark of breeds," his son relates. "They've all been bred and developed past the standards of the time so some are no longer around. For example, the milking short horn is a rare species in Canada."

The cows might have changed but plenty of milk is still produced in Oxford. In Bright, a village in the county's northeast corner, the 137-year-old Bright Cheese and Butter Manufacturing Company turns Ontario milk into butter and cheeses. Sandwiches at Dairy Capital Cheese Shoppe, a delightful cheese and gift shop and café in downtown Woodstock, are made using this local product and can be savoured on the patio across from the Old Town Hall, built in 1853 and now home to the town's museum.

County farmers' markets are held seasonally in Tillsonburg and Ingersoll on Saturday mornings and in Norwich on Fridays, as well as twice a week in Woodstock. Operating for 156 years, Woodstock's year-round Saturday market takes place at the Woodstock Fairgrounds, while the Thursday market is held on the museum lawn.

The Alexander family started selling their eggs at the Woodstock Farmers' Market in 1981. "We now have second-generation egg buyers," relates Merna Alexander. Sue Hilborn of RedBarn Berries & Veggies offers a mix of fresh produce along with strawberries grown on her and husband Don's fifty acres, and are also available as pick-your-own.

For fresh milk sold in glass bottles, visit vendor Lies Van Bergen, owner of Blue Cow Delivery, who sells Hewitt's Dairy milk sourced from local cows and also delivers to homes in the area. "A lot of customers swear the glass make it tastes better," she says. Oxford Honey and Supplies sells local honey at the market that is a blend from Oxford County bees. Owner John Van Blyderveen also offers a hive tour every Saturday morning at 11 o'clock during the summer at his store outside of town, in Burgessville.

Hans Van Blyderveen (John's brother) and his wife Maradale, whose main crops are eggplant and specialty vegetables, quickly sell out of their thousands of sweet potatoes, which are grown from slips imported from North Carolina and harvested in late summer. "The tobacco growers [in the south of the county] grow them in sandy soil and that's what I have, too," says Hans of his 22-acre farm near the village of Harley, just outside the county line.

Over the past several years, many tobacco farmers have turned their sandy soil to other uses, including sweet potatoes and ginseng, and the federal government invested $300 million in 2008 to help more of them abandon tobacco growing. But south of the town of Norwich, rows of shed-like tobacco kilns still speak to this once-strong industry. They remain on the property of Goossens Trout Farm in Otterville, which has been in operation since 1963. Raised in spring water, the fish are farmed without the use of additives, hormones or antibiotics, and are available at the farm gate and on the plate at local restaurants including the Manse in Tillsonburg and Eric Boyar's SixThirtyNine in Woodstock. "Eric does amazing things with our fish," says Sue Goossens, a water-colour painter who shows her work at their country property.

Southwest of Otterville, Tillsonburg was once know as the heart of the tobacco industry and serves the area's large population of farmers. Visitors to the community can explore the downtown and dine at restaurants using local producers, including The Manse, housed in a former church manse, and Niko's Eatery and Bar. A hidden gem in the area is the Annandale House, a historic site that's definitely worth a visit.

Built in the 1880s, the Victorian mansion was the original residence on a 600-acre model farm created by E.D. Tillson, the town's first mayor and inventor of a technique for making oatmeal that was eventually acquired by Quaker Oats. What sets the house apart is its astonishing interior design.

In 1882, Mary Ann Tillson, E.D.'s wife, attended a lecture in Woodstock called The House Beautiful, which was given by legendary Irish writer and poet Oscar Wilde. Wilde's appreciation for the Aesthetic Art Movement inspired Mary Ann in the decoration and furnishing of her home. A century after her death in 1911, the wealthy housewife's three-story mansion continues to showcase this decorative art movement with its ornate and colourful painted ceilings, stained glass, furniture and wall coverings.

Back in Woodstock, walk around the town's heritage downtown before stopping in for an extraordinary meal at SixThirtyNine, a restaurant whose twenty-something chef, Eric Boyar, is thoroughly committed to sourcing local food. At the chef's tasting bar, watch the kitchen staff, including sous-chef Jonathan Brown, who "worked tobacco" with Eric in their youth. "I grew up working on farms – my grandfather had one, and my uncle," relates Eric, who owns the restaurant with his mother, Pauline Bucek. "One of the things we wanted to do from the beginning was pay homage to all the work [food producers] do. Years ago that's what we relied on and it's just better quality."

Eric's plates are artfully presented, incredibly flavourful, and change often as he uses his creative flair to showcase seasonal ingredients. Eric transforms standard beet and goat cheese salad into duck prosciutto with beet and apple-cider ice cream, goat cheese and candied walnuts. "I try to do something different," Eric enthuses. "We like playing but at the end of the day we just want to serve good food."

After dinner, head out to experience one of Oxford County's unique entertainment options. Take in a show at the Walters Dinner Theatre in Bright or at one of the other live theatres in the area. Or head to Ingersoll to catch a concert of celebrated folk singers at Stonecroft Farms, a heritage Berkshire pig farm whose pork products are marketed under the Black Bow Farms label. Put on by owners Kevin Rivers and Allyson Mac- Donald, the Stonecroft Folk summer concerts will include Ireland's Kieran Goss and Garnet Rogers on separate dates in August, held in the living room of the couple's century farmhouse at Stonecroft Farms, which is also the base for Allyson's mobile veterinary medicine practice.

For travellers thinking ahead about nightcaps after settling in for the night, make a daytime visit to Birtch Farms and Estate Winery, located on a county road just north of Woodstock. Here, fifteen varieties of fruit wines are made and include award-winning Montmorency cherry, as well as northern spy and old-fashioned elderberry. Owners Bob and Dyann Birtch and their family use only Ontario fruits in their wines and "95 percent comes from a 30-mile radius," according to Bob. Visitors can pick their own apples in the orchards or pick up some homemade pies. County honey, maple syrup and meat, including Stonecroft's Black Bow Berkshire bacon, are also available at the family-owned-and-operated business.

At nearby Bon Air Bed and Breakfast, which offers simple, yet very clean, accommodations, the back garden is surrounded by vegetable beds and barns and is a great place to spend a summer evening. When the stars come out, climb the winding staircase into the silo-turned-observatory to get a good look at the galaxy through the owner's high-powered telescope. Guests wake up to a lovely breakfast made using products from host Danielle Kennedy's farm, including fresh eggs, tomatoes, herbs and other vegetables. Hawthorn Valley Farm, near Tillsonburg, is a native plant nursery, nature preserve and B&B with four kilometres of trails winding through its river valley and wildflower meadows. After a hot summer day journeying Ontario's heartland, you'll welcome a refreshing rural rest.

Lauren Carter lives in Orillia, Ontario, where she continues to daydream about the astonishing food at SixThirtyNine in Woodstock. Visit her at www.laurencarter.ca.