As Pacific Northwesterners and Sea-to-Sky dwellers we live in heady times. With a full-scale food-and-beverage revolution unfolding around us, we wrap ourselves in its fabric with gusto. This welcome pendulum has elevated words like fresh, slow, local, organic, natural, taste, humane, homegrown, handmade, artisan, craft, sustainable, and community to the top of a food lexicon too-long dominated by terms both instituted and paid for by profit-hungry multinational corporations — fast food, instant, convenient, artificial, processed, flavoured, sweetened, lo-fat, vitamin fortified, chemically preserved, factory farmed, genetically engineered and trademarked.
Because the latter comprise little more than a litany of experimentation on human physiology with the end result of a ruinous public health crisis, we are, quite rightly, heartily embracing the language of the former, along with the emergent locavore ethos with which it is associated. In our zest to shorten the food chain, however, we've been quick to forget steadfast advocates who've been at the root of Canada's sustainable and organic food economy for decades. Not to mention the many out-of-the-way areas in both B.C. and elsewhere where such a mindset was long ago inculcated by settlers, to be passed down as life logic to subsequent generations. One such region is Prince Edward County (PEC), Ontario, a place I happily discovered recently, and for which the word bucolic barely suffices.
PEC is an island community at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, just to the west of Kingston (Canada's first capital) encompassing approximately 1,000 km2 of lush forests, sloping fields, and limestone-rich soil, with over 500 kilometres of shoreline featuring numerous sand beaches. Indeed my only experience of it growing up in Toronto, two hours to the west, was camping trips to its Sandbanks Provincial Park with high-school friends. Naturally, these weren't tours of cultural or gastronomic discovery. These days, although the country-living wave emanating from Toronto has begun to make itself known in PEC, that same city's chefs are still able to go walkabout in an area that remains largely as rural as two centuries ago, on the prowl for ingredients both new and old.
To explore it, we put ourselves in the hands of Sandy Macpherson, a PEC homeboy and local sailing legend who was now part of the Canadian Ocean Racing Team. He'd driven us out of the historic Kingston harbour area (to which we'd sailed from Toronto with his @oceanracers team), with its Martel Towers and Old Fort Henry, following the Loyalist Parkway along the Lake Ontario shoreline to Adolphustown, from where a 10-minute ferry ride landed us in Glenora on PEC.
Glenora's 18th century stone buildings reside at the base of an escarpment, which, once ascended, revealed Lake of the Mountain, a scenic water body we'd contemplate from its lofty shoreline, while gazing in the other direction over a green tide of treetops on the Ontario mainland, as if flying a hundred metres above the Bay of Quinte. Here we enjoyed lunch at the rustic Inn on the Lake; located in an historic general store circa 1796, The Inn is a showcase for their own gardens, local farmers, fishermen and other producers. Afterward, we wandered across the road to sample a flight of craft beers at Lake of the Mountain Brewing Co. — inventive creations that included seasonal brews to fit an Eastern palate, a happy demonstration that in this age of homogenization, true regional tastes can still be found. Here, as at The Inn, Macpherson bumps into old friends and acquaintances, engendering the feeling of a large but well-connected community. Our next stop was County Cider Company, where we sampled several styles with the animated owners, including Ontario's premiere draft cider, Waupoos. Opened in 1996 as PEC's first official estate winery, the cidery grows its own dozen varieties of heirloom and cider apples, and the patio outside an old barn that serves as tasting room, store and restaurant offers spectacular views over vineyards to the water.
In the end, our afternoon visit to PEC was eye-opening and palate-titillating, but there wasn't time to see and taste it all, because there was more, so much more. Humble Bread, for instance, employs heritage-grain flours to make dense, rustic, naturally leavened loaves in a 19th century barn just north of Bloomfield. There's the organic romaine and Boston lettuces grown on Hagerman's Farm. Dewey Fishery, located in Sophiasburgh, is as old-school and sustainable as it comes, the small daily catch of perch, pickerel and a few other species lifted from Lake Ontario by trap net that allows the release of undersized fish and other by-catch. And then, of course, there were the wineries, some 40 of them, heralded by the location "PEC" appended to an ever-increasing number of vintages on menus in Canada's top restaurants. Norman Hardie Winery might boast the best chardonnay in the county, but Lighthall Vineyards has the market cornered on best food pairing, being both a boutique winery and dairy whose newest offering is sheep milk cheese, the current star of which is a soft-ripened, chardonnay-washed cheese called The Runner, inspired by the ever-oozy favourite of France's haute savoir region, Reblachon.
The winemakers, carrying on the county's long and rich agricultural history with a new crop — grapes — are likewise true pioneers proving to be just as tenacious, innovative, and passionate as their forebearers. Like Ontario's other two wine regions of note — Niagara and Pelee Island — the limestone-rich soils of Prince Edward County produce grapes with an unmistakable local minerality highlighted by other locally acquired flavours — a true terroir experience. Being on the north shore of Lake Ontario, lake effect moderates the temperature, shielding the area from early fall frosts and allowing fruit to hang on the vine long enough to develop more concentrated flavours. The big challenge is winter temperatures that dip below -24C — the point at which buds on the vines can die. To deal with this, they "hill up" the vines after fall harvest, burying them under soil and uncovering them in the spring. It's delicate, tedious, handiwork undertaken in no other wine region in Canada.
His ambassadorial duties done, Macpherson steers us back to Kingston, while I think about the gem we've just uncovered in what was once my own backyard. Earlier this year, Nikki Ekstein of Travel and Leisure Magazine wrote, "Cross Montauk, NY, with California's Napa Valley circa 1970, and you get Prince Edward County, a tiny wine-producing region that's becoming a haven for creative types." The words haven and creative both perfectly describe this place, and are terms that belong within our expanding food dictionary.
Long live the havens like PEC, sheltered from the modern storm of corporate mediocrity.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.