The Ontario Food Trail

It’s a little more than 200 miles from Windsor to Niagara Falls, and the drive is lovely. Country roads ramble along the lake, connecting port towns, beaches and nature preserves.
Lavender in Chatham

Lavender is a triple threat: It’s renowned for its calming properties, cherished for its scent and, more recently, sought after by chefs, who use it to elevate both sweet and savory dishes to new levels. Even more surprising is the discovery that the sandy soil along the shore in Ontario is a great fit for the sweet-smelling herb.

Matt and Kate Korpan have been growing lavender in Chatham since 2004. What initially started as a 500-plant trial has budded into an agritourism venture with 8,000 to 10,000 plants in any given season.

The couple uses about half of their crop to produce various lavender products, many of which are for sale at their online boutique. They bulk sell the rest.

But it’s the simple joys of lavender that keep Matt growing. “When the whole field is in bloom, just to look across it and there is purple everywhere and it smells great,” he says. “We do it because we enjoy it.”

Info to go: Great Lakes Lavender. 9560 Pioneer Line, Chatham; 519-397-2172,

Save the date: Check out the 7th Annual Great Lakes Lavender Festival June 30- July 1 for everything lavender, including tours, demonstrations, product sampling and more.

More to explore: Visit the Early Acres Estate Vineyard – located next to Great Lakes Lavender and owned by Matt’s aunt and uncle – for wine tastings and tours.

Don’t leave without: Lavender honey ($12.99 CAD), made with honey from hives found on the lavender fields.

The Cider Keg in Vittoria

Cider Keg’s sparkling cider is so fresh that its makers like to claim there is sunlight sealed in every bottle. The 400-acre farm has a policy of freshness that’s never skirted.

“There’s very little time between the time the fruit is harvested until it goes into our product, so you can taste the difference,” says Cheryl Peck, who owns the farm with her parents.

Though their main product is the cider – with flavors like apple, apple cranberry, apple peach, apple raspberry and apple strawberry rhubarb – they also craft apple butter, cucumber relish, salsa with cider, apple barbeque grilling sauce and the unique pie-in-a-jar collection, which is meant to be poured directly onto a crust, into a turnover or even on a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

The fruits are grown, prepared and bottled locally with all natural ingredients. “If we’re not growing it ourselves, we’re surrounded by neighbors who have raspberries and sweet corn and all kinds of different things,” Peck says.

The farm has been in the family for four generations. It’s been home to a variety of crops and even a horde of turkeys, but one thing has never changed. “There’s always been apples,” Peck says.  “That’s the one mainstay.”

 — Kelsey Misbrener

If you go: Cider Keg.
1398 Vittoria Road, Vittoria;

Don’t leave without: Raspberry pie-in-a-jar ($6 CAD).

Ginseng inNiagara-on-the-Lake

Read the label on most teas or energy drinks and you’ll see the word “ginseng.” Chances are you have no idea what this is, let alone where it comes from. Luckily, there’s a little place just outside of Niagara Falls that has all the answers.

The Great Mountain Ginseng Farm offers samples and educates visitors on how this plant is grown, its history and its health benefits. Farm manager Sherry Xu calls it “the root of a beautifully healthy life” and says it can reduce
blood pressure, increase energy and even improve fertility.

Proof that their ginseng is good? It’s even exported to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.       

Info to go: Great Mountain Ginseng. 758 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake; 866-900-0527,

More to explore: Mikreations Art & Frame Gallery sells original art from local Ontario artists. 1582 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake; 905-468-7938,

Wine in Chatham-Kent

Grab a glass of wine and take a stroll through the vineyards at this 100-acre waterfront winery. Of the many wineries that call South Ontario home, Smith
& Wilson Estate Wines may be the most scenic.
The vines grow on a gently sloping ridge that meets Lake Erie 120 feet above the water. The winery’s backyard offers an elevated view of the lake, the vineyards and Rondeau Provincial Park.

Make no mistake, though, the wine is the main attraction. Since opening in 2005, owners George and Mary Jane Smith have produced award-winning wine that has made a name for itself in the region. Only 100 percent fresh fruit goes into their product. “There’s not a concentrate involved,” George says. ”There’s nothing that’s made up that tastes like apple. If there’s apple in ours, then it came from apple trees.”

Whatever ingredients are not grown at Smith & Wilson Estate Wines come from one of their neighbors’ farms within a quarter mile. “We’re very much about the local area,” says George, whose family has owned the estate since 1905.

Info to go: Smith & Wilson Estate Wines. 8368 Water St., Chatham-Kent;

Save the date: For wine enthusiasts who love music, the annual Grape Jam (Sept. 16)is the perfect pairing. This year, Smith & Wilson will host four different blues bands, including Chicago-based Wayne Baker Brooks, for an outdoor concert.

Don’t leave without: A bottle of the new North Star ($15 CAD), a Viognier white wine in tribute to the Underground Railroad. 

Peanuts in Vittoria

Nancy Racz begins her spiel by wrapping her hand around a clump of green foliage and pulling the roots free of the soil, revealing light brown pods. She pinches one open to reveal four pink Valencia peanuts nestled against each other.

“Most people think they are nuts,” she says, “but they don’t grow on trees. Peanuts are more closely related to beans and peas.” Racz and her husband Ernie have been growing peanuts — and educating visitors — for the last 30 years at Kernal Peanuts in Vittoria. Canada usually doesn’t come to mind when one thinks of peanuts, but the sandy soil and temperate climate close to Lake Erie make the area suitable for
growing them.

Kernal Peanuts was the first Canadian farm to produce peanuts on a commercial scale, and it remains the country’s largest grower. “It’s been a challenge, but really interesting,” says Ernie, who pioneered alternative methods of harvesting and drying more suitable for the local weather. 

The mature Canadian peanuts are harvested in early fall. After being collected from the field, they are washed in a rotating drum that Ernie developed to get the dirt off and then dried.
Kernal Peanuts’ yield is roasted as needed and sold to specialty food stores, farmers markets and restaurants. The farm also has its own retail shop, which is open all year.

There are at least 100 different products on the shelves at Kernal Peanuts’ store. For a taste of something sweet, there is peanut brittle, chocolate-covered peanuts, peanut butter pie and fudge. The peanuts alone come in a wide variety of flavors, including barbeque, sour cream and onion, chili and lime, hot Cajun, salted, unsalted and dill pickle.

And, there’s always the opportunity to try raw peanuts, straight out of the ground. These really are some cool beans.

If you go: Kernal Peanut. 393 Fishers Glen Road, Vittoria;

Don’t leave without: Kernal Peanuts’ Natural Peanut Butter ($3.50 CAD) is made with the farm’s Valencia peanuts, which are naturally sweet. There is no added salt
or sugar. Better yet, the oils don’t separate and require stirring if kept in the fridge. 

More to Explore: Turkey Point Provincial Park is less than 10 minutes away. Hiking trails lead to a fish culture station, a hatchery pond and panoramic views of Lake Erie. It’s also the only provincial park with a golf course.

Whisky in Windsor

Don Draper would like it here.

Here is the birthplace of Canadian Club Whisky. When Detroiter Hiram Walker decided to build a manufacturing plant, he chose the Canadian side of the river because land was cheap, there was railroad access, and there was already a strong temperance movement brewing in Michigan. The result was an Italian Renaissance-style building that cost $100,000 to build in the 1890s. 

Walker’s business decision proved to be advantageous. During Prohibition, it was still legal to make and sell whisky on the Canadian side of the border, and many people took it upon themselves to become “importers” into the thirsty American market.

The wine cellar of the company headquarters became a clandestine meeting room for infamous customers such as Al Capone. Walker’s officials took orders and sent delivery instructions in coded telegrams, examples of which are framed and hanging on office walls.

Other tour highlights include Hiram Walker’s personal miniature canon, residing in his office near the wing chairs he had built to fit his five-foot frame. He referred to the canon as being “small but mighty,” and requested that it remain in the building as long as it stood. 

The tour finishes with a whisky tasting. Canadian Club is still largely made from grains grown in the surrounding county. The original recipe hasn’t changed since Walker’s time, but new varieties have been developed. On this tour, visitors compare the flavors of Canadian Club Classic, Sherry Cask and a new variety — Dock 57, named for the shipping dock used during Prohibition. It has the sweet overtones of caramel, cinnamon and vanilla and should be available in the United States soon. — Kim Hutchinson

If you go: Free guided tours with tastings are offered from May through December. Canadian Club Brand Heritage Centre. 2072 Riverside Drive East, Walkerville; 519-973-9503,

More to explore: Schedule a tour of Willistead Manor, just a few blocks away. Built by Hiram Walker’s son Edward Chandler Walker in 1906, the 36-room mansion is an architectural gem. Tours can be scheduled by calling 519-253.2365.

Maple in Dunville

Saying that maple syrup production is simple might be sugarcoating it a bit.  To make just one liter of pure maple syrup requires a whopping 40 liters of sap. Yet the Richardson family has been perfecting this process for five generations.

During the summer and fall, husband-and-wife team James and Kirsten stays busy growing berries, sweet corn, beans, tomatoes and pumpkins on their farm. But when snow starts falling, they look to the trees for their harvest. “Once the temperature starts dropping a few degrees Celsius below zero at night, that is an indication that the sap is running up the tree and is ready to be tapped,” says Kirsten.

Once the taps are in place — the Richardsons have about 1,000 of them — the sap is either collected in buckets or through a pipeline, which runs to a central collection point. Each tap typically garners about one liter in a good season. When enough sap has amassed, it is boiled down in an evaporator. Once it reaches 66.7 percent sugar, James takes it off, filters it and bottles it.

There are benefits beyond taste, too. Not only is maple syrup deliciously sweet, but it’s also full of nutritional benefits. Pure maple syrup contains significant amounts of manganese, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and

Info to go: Richardson’s Farm & Market. 131
River Road, RR#4, Dunnville; 905-774-7507,

Save the date: Richardson’s offers tours of its maple syrup operation from late February to early April, complete with a pancake and sausage brunch and a wagon ride. Can’t wait that long? Stop by this fall to pick your own raspberries and test your navigation skills in the corn maze.

Don’t leave without: Maple Butter ($7 CAD). This sweet spread goes well on toast, muffins and, of course, pancakes.

Tomatoes in Leamington

If your town’s water tower is in the shape of a giant tomato, it must hold some significance. Leamington is known as the Tomato Capital of Canada — and for good reason. In 1908, the H.J. Heinz company opened a plant in town, bringing jobs and a heritage that lasts till this day. It’s celebrated at the annual Leamington Tomato Festival, which began years ago as a Heinz employee picnic to celebrate the tomato harvest.

Save the date: The 29th Annual Leamington Tomato Festival will be held Aug. 15-19 at Seacliff Park. The five-day family festival includes a parade, live entertainment, a custom car show, the Tomato Stomp children’s village, food, crafts, a pancake breakfast, a 5k walk/run, a golf tournament, a talent-beauty contest and more. For more information, visit

Inspiration in West Lorne

Last summer, a message appeared on the stop sign at the corner of Munroe Street and Graham Road in West Lorne. It read: “Don’t STOP believing.” This phrase could easily be Grace McCortland’s motto. In 2010, she and a few other visionaries launched The Arts and Cookery Bank — at that very same street corner — after years of believing a cultural institution could take off in this small community.

The agritourism attraction – housed in a historic bank building fused to a timber-frame barn that dates to 1883 – is one part photography institute that highlights the history of the region, and one part modern test kitchen. The best time to visit is during a hands-on culinary experience, whether it’s taking a cooking class or just sitting down to an elaborate meal made with ingredients found in the surrounding farmland. 

During our visit, chef John Mairleitner of Tall Tales Café in Wallacetown was preparing gazpacho, made with tomatoes from nearby Empire Valley Farms. The cold soup, topped with crème fraiche and parsley, was perfect on a hot summer afternoon.

McCortland hopes that The Arts and Cookery Bank makes believer out of everyone who visits. “Hopefully our guests will leave inspired to try something new at home,” says McCortland, “then come back again to try something else,” she says.

She’s banking on it.

If you go: The Arts and Cookery Bank. 240 Graham, West Lorne; 519-768-9986,

Can’t miss event: Freshfest (Aug. 23) gives visitors a taste of what the region has to offer with food and beverage tastings, culinary workshops and live entertainment. $35 CAD. 750 Talbot St., St. Thomas;

Don’t leave without: Sending a virtual postcard to friends and family from the second-floor Post Card Room.

Blueberries in Lowbanks

Fields of fresh blueberries, strawberries and raspberries are ripe for the taking at Blueberry Knoll Berry Farm. Visitors can drive right up to the patch, pick their berries, put them in their vehicle and then check out at the farm’s stand on the way out, says owner Brian Young.

“There’s nothing much more gratifying than seeing a little toddler come out with their face all smeared up with berries and grinning from ear to ear,” says Young.

Up until about six years ago, Young was discouraged about his blueberry farm. High business costs and the turbulent Canadian climate always made it difficult for him to compete with the cheaper berry costs of grocery chains.

Thankfully, that has changed. “People are more conscious of their food,” he says. “They appreciate it and you feel that when you’re explaining how we do things.”

Knoll Berry Farm.
1091 Hutchinson Road, Lowbanks; 905-774-7732,

Don’t leave without: The Tri-Berry Pie ($12 CAD).

Mushrooms in Simcoe

Chinese immigrants Shirley and Jason Su grow zucchini, Chinese eggplant and jalapenos at their farm in Simcoe, but the real prize comes in the form of fungi: oyster and shiitake mushrooms.

Mushrooms are a risky crop. They are grown indoors at 54 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 percent humidity. “They can easily get a disease,” Shirley says. “If you’re not careful, everything is gone.”

Local chef and owner of The Blue Elephant Restaurant in Simcoe, Heather Pond-Manorome uses mushrooms from Su’s Farm throughout her menu. “Shiitake mushrooms are really mushroom-y, they are very strong and they are a denser mushroom so they impart more flavor,” she says.

Info to go: Su’s Farm. 555 Windham 12 Road, RR#7, Simcoe; 519-428-2188,

More to explore: Take a short drive and enjoy a stroll through the Waterford Antique Market. 80 Alice St., Waterford; 519-443-4064,

Don’t leave without: Mushrooms! (Oysters $5 CAD per pound, shiitake $6 CAD per pound.)

Honey in Aylmer

A beekeeper scoops a swarm of caramel-colored honeybees onto a piece of newspaper. He shakes the winged insects until they become disoriented, but not enough that they grow angry. They’ve lost their queen. She’s been separated from them, her children. She’s buzzing by herself in a small plastic “queen cage” which is tied around the chin of someone who doesn’t fear the insect.

The beekeeper then brings the lost worker bees over to the chosen bee beard-wearer. The bees smell their queen’s pheromones, and buzz over to her, seeking comfort. They pile by the hundreds onto the ears, neck, shoulders and chest of the person. The tiny legs tickle, but there is not a single sting.

Honeybees don’t attack unless provoked. And this is the Bee Beard competition, a yearly event at Clovermead Bees & Honey that attracts more than 300 guests eager to watch four daring teams strut down a catwalk with a swarm of bees on their faces. There will be no aggravating of the insects, for reasons beyond obvious.

Clovermead sells 18 different types of honey and  also aims to educate people about the often misunderstood honeybee. “Wasps give honeybees a bad name, because honeybees generally don’t sting,” says Christy Hiemstra, who owns the farm with her husband Chris. 

Before 2002, the Hiemstra family strictly sold the honey to outside stores.  But in the last 10 years, the husband-wife bee duo turned the business from a production facility to a tourist destination. Now it’s an 11-acre playground with 30 activity stations. From a 40-person jumping pillow (a bounce-house without walls) to the Bee Line Zip Line, Gem Stone Mining and Super Bee Rope Swings, the farm provides hours of entertainment. “Our goal is just to create a family fun experience, hopefully, and educate at the same time about the world of honeybees,” Hiemstra says.

If you go: Clovermead Bees & Honey. 11302 Imperial Road, Aylmer; 519-773-5503,

Bee there: The annual Bee Beard Competition will be held July 28, at 2:30 p.m. The beekeeper with the heaviest and most attractive bee beard will receive a plaque engraved with a honeybee.

Don’t leave without: Cinnamon honey spread ($7.99 CAD), which is great on toast, sandwiches, ice cream, pancakes and French toast.

More to Explore: Visit Heritage Line Herbs less than a mile down the road for 180 varieties of organically grown fresh potted herbs and dried herbal blends. 53443 Heritage Line, Aylmer; 519-866-5577