We’re standing on the front porch of Mad Maple Country Inn just outside Creemore in Southern Ontario, where Forbes is about to lead us on a foraging tutorial through the forest behind the inn.
I tell him I grew up here, in Simcoe County, and that my parents now live less than 30 kilometres from where we stand now.
“So you must know a lot of what grows around here,” he says.
It’s said with sincerity, but it’s not until I replay it in my head later that I ask it of myself with a bit of sarcasm. That’s because, truth be told, I don’t know what grows in the land that I called home (still, in many ways call home even though I’m a Toronto resident now). I know we grow potatoes and corn up there, but that’s only because I went to high school with the children of potato and corn farmers. I know, of course, that Ontario boasts lots of farmland, but beyond the basics I see in the grocery store – and even much of that shipped in from California and Mexico, even when it’s in season here – I don’t really know the variety of what grows here.
This lack of connection to our food, a trait shared with much of the population, is at the heart of the growing culinary movements of slow food and 100-kilometre diets. It’s also at the heart of George Brown’s new line-up of culinary day tours, such as the one I’m on right now. Put on by the college’s Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, the tours are meant to offer food and beverage enthusiasts an insider’s view of some of the most innovative producers in Ontario.
“We wanted to take our loyal continuing education following out of the classroom and straight to the source,” explains Tony Garcia, director of academic operations, CHCA services, continuing education and partner engagement. “Where better to address the what, when, where, how and why of artisan food and beverage production?”
The experiential tours visit farms, restaurants, wineries and more throughout Ontario, all with a focus on eating locally and sustainably, bringing us back to the food of our land.
Forbes doesn’t have to be brought back. He grew up in a family of foragers and lives off the grid. His father settled in Simcoe County at a young age and fell in love with the region and its bounty, but was disappointed that the common diet in cities as close as Toronto didn’t incorporate more native produce. His grandmother, another forager, was deeply passionate about mushrooms. And so as a child, Forbes would go on walks in the woods with his family, seeking out precious finds like wild leeks and chokecherries.
“Every hike was an adventure,” he says. “Hikes became like treasure hunts.”
Today, Forbes’ family owns Forbes Wild Foods, a collection of preserved foraged foods and condiments – everything from wild mushroom mustard to barberry jelly. “It’s about honouring the culinary traditions of Canada,” he says of foraging.
Over the next hour, Forbes guides us through the woods in this region atop the Niagara Escarpment, pointing out plants that many of us recognize, but didn’t realize were edible: the flowerheads on cattails can be grilled with butter and eaten like corn-on-the-cob; cedar needles can be brewed into tea; maple leaves can be fried; milk weed pods can be stuffed like a ravioli.
Back inside, Mad Maple Country Inn owner Miriam Streiman is tackling the end result of foraging: cooking up a hearty winter meal made entirely with locally sourced ingredients. Streiman is a George Brown graduate who realized her passion for slow food while studying Italian cuisine. Today, alongside her husband, Neil Epstein, she runs a bed and breakfast, cooking classes and workshops, including a very popular sausage-making session that’s said to be straight out of Nonna’s kitchen.
The inn is all country charm, with cozy couches, big windows, a fireplace and a wrap-around porch complete with a rocking horse swing and a bonfire pit out back. It’s the kind of place that sucks out city stress the moment you land on the property – while also fuelling your appetite. In the bright, airy kitchen, Streiman is serving up our lunch of roasted heirloom vegetables, pumpkin béchamel lasagna, and a wild mushroom, potato and Jerusalem artichoke soup. Everything is made with local ingredients from producers such as Alliston Creamery, Monforte Dairy, and K2 Milling, the flavours bursting with freshness.
At dessert, one of our lunch mates tells Streiman that the spiced apple honey cake we’re eating (the recipe by local beekeeper and honey-maker Hugh Simpson of Osprey Bluffs Honey Company) reminds her of the Japanese honey cakes she adores — not too sweet, flavoured in a way that’s hard to find among most North American desserts. Streiman looks so touched by the praise, I think she might cry. It’s a display of how passionate she is about her inn, about the region, and about good, local food.
You can find that passion prevalent throughout Simcoe County, in places such as Landman Gardens and Bakery in Grand Valley, which is also dedicated to serving up local food in a cozy setting — and is another stop on our tour. The family-owned business started as a cattle milking farm, but sold off the cows after getting into stone masonry. However, it wasn’t long before the family missed having animals around, and they re-opened as a goat milking facility. Much of their milk goes straight to nearby Woolwich Dairy, another locally operated business, known for their award-winning goat cheeses.
But besides just producing goat’s milk, Landman Gardens also specialises in preserves and baked goods, all made by owner Rebecca Landman and her small team of two to three people. Homemade pickles, jams, chutneys and pies are all available for taking home from the bake shop (I highly recommend the tomato-apple chutney). But the ready-to-buy treats aren’t the only star of Landman Gardens. That honour goes to the “Blackhouse” – a stone building inspired by traditional Scottish dwellings, and the site of Landman’s dinner parties. Guests can book intimate homemade, locally sourced dinners for up to 16 people, served inside the cozy confines of the tea light-lit Blackhouse. “It’s about bringing people closer to their food,” explains Landman.
We huddle into the Blackhouse, which is surprisingly warm despite the bitter wind and first snowflakes of the season falling outside, and dig into platters of Woolwich cheese and Landman preserves: creamy brie, earthy Tre Fratello, sweet pumpkin maple butter and tangy chutneys. We savour each bite as we’re walked through the textures and flavours of every piece of cheese. It’s a reminder to slow down, to let tastes linger before jumping into the next bite to eat. As someone who frequently eats on the run (muffins and coffees to-go are frequent breakfasts for me), I need this reminder. I end up eating so delicately that I realize I’m still snacking even after most people have finished their plates. Even so, after I swallow the last crumb of cheese and we start to move on, I wish I had just one more bite to devour.
We finish up our tour beyond Simcoe County, amid the rolling hills of Caledon and just a few steps away from the Cheltenham Badlands. Here, Spirit Tree Estate Cidery is churning out a mix of traditional and experimental ciders from their some 5,000 trees and 35 types of apples. Among their more avant garde offerings: a dry-hopped cider infused with Chinook and Cascade hops, and their Estate Reserve, a non-carbonated cider that’s aged in toasted oak casks.
I confess I’m not much of a cider fan. I tend to prefer smoky over sweet, opting for stouts and porters and full-bodied red wines most of the time. But I can’t deny that these ciders are good, particularly the dry-hopped that leans just a bit closer to beer, and the Reserve, that’s like a syrupy-free dessert wine. I like it so much, in fact, that I leave with a bottle to add to my collection of hardy reds.
By the end of our day touring my home county, I’m exhausted and a bit in awe. Growing up in a small town, I had often looked to Toronto as being a more refined, more inspired, more exciting place. Forests, marshes and fields were just swaths of land, of no interest to my city-bound teenage self. Now, as an adult, I of course recognize the importance of the land that nourishes us. But more than that, if I could step back in time, I’d tell younger me to appreciate that her home is far more than she sees, and that there are exciting things happening in her own backyard.
The writer was a guest of George Brown College, however the college did not review or approve this article.