SURF AND TURF – Ontario Story

12 Jul 2001

The tastes of Ontario are as varied as its landscape. The vast province, second largest in Canada, stretches from 41°40′ N to 56° 51′. It has over 1 million km and a full one-sixth of its surface is fresh water lakes and rivers. In fact the name “Ontario” is said to mean “beautiful water”. While two thirds of the province sits atop The Canadian Shield, the oldest rock formation on earth dating from 2000 million years ago it is also blessed with more than 50% of Canada’s Class 1 agricultural land. If the land provides the “terroir”, the seasons provide the interest. Meet a Canadian and at least once in every conversation the weather is discussed. Landlocked in the heart of the continent, Ontario has hot summers, perfect for growing the sweetest corn and juicy strawberries and icy, snowbound winters which are essential to the making of both maple syrup and icewine.

As the waters of the last great glacier slowly melted in the lakes and oceans, the first peoples followed the receding ice into the most northerly reaches of the region we now know as Ontario. For ten millennia, they built a scattered but well-organized culture. A thousand years before Christ, they had a trading system that spanned Turtle Island, the continent of North America and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

In the early 1600s three European travelers came to their land: Henry Hudson, Etienne Brulé and Samuel de Champlain. Upper Canada, as it was then called, was the trading link between the fur-trading posts of Québec and the rich river lands in the heart of the continent. The British conquered the French in the late 1700’s and soon settlers began to arrive from both Europe and from the U.S. where those loyal to the British Crown fled north during the American Revolution. By 1812, eighty percent of the population had an American heritage. When peace was finally achieved after the War of 1812, word spread and with continued oppression and famine in Europe, a flood of immigrants arrived. Sixty percent were Irish, often dirt poor and sick. The islands of the St.Lawrence River became quarantine stops and mass graves. The balance of the new settlers were Scots and English. There were few roads so waterways and narrow trails had to suffice, all leading into the bush. Some founded settlements beside fast flowing rivers and used their considerable stone masonry skills to build great mill towns like my village, Elora.

Ontario has a rich agricultural history. Scratch the surface of almost any commodity and you’ll find someone who has made it their life’s work to improve it some aspect. The made – in – Ontario success stories that have permanently enriched Canadian agriculture are legion.

In the 1830’s Hiram Ranney, a farmer from Vermont, moved to Oxford County and started making cheese with the milk production of five cows. By 1853, he owned 550 acres, more than 100 cows and shipped a 1,200 lb cheese to the London Exhibition in Great Britain. By Confederation in 1867, Ontario had at least 200 cheese factories. Cheese-making was big business. In 1893, the railway sheds in Perth was the nursery for the “Canadian Mite”, a cheese that weighed in at 22,000 lbs and was shipped to Chicago for the Worlds Fair where it crashed through the floor of the exhibit hall. In that same time frame Canada exported about 155 million pounds of cheese, most of which went to Great Britain. Today’s modern dairy farmers market about 2.3 billion litres of milk yearly…enough to fill Toronto’s Skydome, nearly twice.

In 1842 David Fife selected his famous Red Fife wheat from the seeds his brother sent from the docks of Scotland. Later in that century William Saunders, a London Ontario professor, founded the entire experimental farm system across Canada. What we now know as the Associated Country Women of the World started as the Women’s Institutes by Adelaide Hoodless in 1897 which provided support and inspiration and great recipes for rural women who at that time were not even allowed to vote. My Grandmother, Jessie Rogers, was a Charter Member of the South Grey Branch of the WI when it was founded in 1903.

Today’s dynamic agricultural research community is based at the University of Guelph and scattered across the province at the various stations it administers. At Vineland in Niagara their work is devoted to fruit of every sort. They have a huge heritage orchard along side some delicous new plum and cherry varieties. Cambridge is where the first hill of Yukon Gold potatoes was dug. At Simcoe’s research station, they specialize in everything from asparagus and apples to cole crops (the brasscia family) and tree nuts. The plant world’s most sophisticated hybo-baric chamber was recently installed at the university with representatives from both NASA and the European Space Agency. The goal? Advanced life support. At the opening of the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, it’s Director, Dr. Mike Dixon stated “The first person on Mars will be a botanist.” His most recent experiment was conducted aboard the space shuttle in zero gravity to test the germination of tomato seeds.

Each wave of immigration brought new foods. Today, we can taste the world but we do it on our own terms and often with our own ingredients. Holland Marsh, a 9,500 acre salad garden north of Toronto, was populated by Dutch farmers whose skill in building dikes allowed them to reclaim the fertile, black soil. In Kitchener, once known as Berlin, German is still widely spoken. Great rye breads and sausages abound. The Finnish community that settled in Thunder Bay, at the tip of Lake Superior, at the beginning of the 1900’s still shares its suola kala (salt fish) and nakkki (Finnish sausages), viili (clotted milk) and piirakka (filled sour rye dough). The German Mennonites of Waterloo County set their tables with smoked pork chops and homemade sauerkraut while the Russian Mennonites of southwestern Ontario dine on cabbage borscht and plumi moos (stewed fruits).

First nations still celebrate with many powwows that span the province. From Manitoulin Island to Brantford, these summertime events are a showcase of “modern” native foods. You can feast on thick corn soup, bannock topped with butter and jam and fresh strawberries crushed into juice to make a refreshing summer drink while watching drumming and dancing competitions.

There is nowhere better to begin an exploration of Ontario foods than at the farmers markets of the province.( ) There are over 100, many dating back to the 1800’s. Vendors are there often carrying on family traditions. Ontario’s farmers markets are vibrant and growing. They are where one can find both new and heritage ingredients from summer’s finest Harrow Delight peaches to that perfect Christmas goose.

Ontario has a number of regions in the province, only recently identified in culinary terms and even then only marginally accurate. They are best defined in sweeping terms by geography and the huge climate differences between the most southerly point in Canada (Pelee Island) and the tundra of the north. All across Northern Ontario people harvest the land. They collect wild leeks in the spring and blueberries in the summer. There is an abundance of wild game, from moose and deer to rabbit, beaver and raccoon. There are many species of fish with pickerel to the bony northern pike. At the other extreme is the hot, flat land near Leamington and Windsor. One part of lakebed, this is tomato country …there are none better in Canada. Manufacturers such as Heinz have had canning facilities there for decades. You can feast on muskmelon, still warm from a farmer’s field and so juicy you have to hold a napkin under your mouth. There are tiny Lake Erie perch and one small company that harvests golden whitefish caviar. Moving east to Niagara, you find every variety of fruit imaginable from kiwi and persimmon to peaches and perfect pears. The wine industry is thriving so there are many great dining experiences that allow visitors to sample any number of regional specialties. Eastern Ontario is home to the province’s newest wine region in Prince Edward County. This is also where the remnants of the old cheese industry have been linked by a “cheese route”.

With such bounty, it may seem odd but nonetheless, the struggle for culinary identity continues. The United States plays a dominant and dominating role and we are inundated with American-based fast food chains and multi-national companies that do little to support our local or even our national agriculture. Many, including our large grocery chains and hundreds of restaurants, still measure the quality of their food by how much they can import rather than by how close to home it’s grown. It’s a rare menu indeed that honours regional ingredients. However, it is not all doom and gloom. . Thankfully, there is a movement towards local consumption. Even though we have steak houses that trumpet USDA beef , we also have family owned operations that are proudly Canadian. The small chain of Neighbourhood Pubs is dedicated to serving Ontario’s great craft beers. Local ingredients – from the best cheddars to bison meat – make up a large part of the casual menus. There are fabulous restaurants like The Patriot and JKRom in Toronto and those based in Niagara’s wine-growing region. There is no question though that it will be a while before Ontarians have the privilege of truly dining locally unless, of course, they take on the ideals of the Slow Food philosophy and return to our magnificent — and delicious — roots.

Anita Stewart is a freelance journalist and food activist


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