For many years my family rented a cottage in Port Franks, close to the popular summer destination of Pinery Provincial Park, and each year on the journey we would pass through the little town of Thedford whose sign proclaims that one is about to enter the “Onion Capital of Canada.” I’m slightly ashamed to admit that we always laughed a little at this unique claim to fame, and am equally sorry now that this is the one real association that I have ever made with the Thedford area.
Imagine my delight though when we recently turned down the Kennedy line – a pastoral side road reminiscent of the Eastern Townships – and discovered a quiet laneway flanked by nodding trees, the heady perfume of clover rising up in the summer heat and a complete stillness broken only by the piercing trill of a red-winged blackbird. As we progressed further, we could see the bold outline of a building which is the home of Twin Pines Orchard and Estate Winery. It was as though we had suddenly happened upon Tolkien’s Shire.
Twin Pines has been growing and evolving as a cherished family business since 1968 when Joe and Alma Vansteenkiste purchased an old ramshackle farmhouse and (with four young children under 8!) began to nurture and enhance the surrounding property by planting strawberries and fruit trees. Since that time, the property has swollen to include about 10,000 apple trees which can yield a million pounds of apples. Twin Pines is very much about family and in every aspect of the operation a family member is sure to be found, from the lovely nieces who operate the store counter, to brothers Mark and Mike Vansteenkiste who devoted about ten years to research and perfect the art of making authentic cider in Ontario.
This commitment, patience and attention to detail have certainly paid off. Twin Pines recently won “Best in Show” for their Hammerbent Red at the 2014 Great Lakes International Cider and Perry Competition, beating out over 300 entries worldwide. It also scored Gold, Silver and Bronze in other categories.
Indeed, cider is enjoying a huge resurgence in popularity at the moment. In Britain of course, cider has been revered for some time. In 55 BC after the invasion, Julius Caesar is on record as being quite partial to it himself. To this day a full 45% of all apples grown in the UK are used for making cider. (And, recent studies show that a glass of cider offers up the very same antioxidant benefits found in a glass of red wine.) On this side of the pond, cider sales in Ontario have spiked from $6 million in 2004 to approximately $60 million this year so it’s not surprising that there are now more than 60 craft cider makers in Canada.
When Mark Vansteenkiste comes out to welcome us he’s full of boyish, self- deprecating charm (he made them repeat the news twice when he was contacted about the award winning ciders this year!) and the genuine vocation for what he does at Twin Pines shines through. Mark explains that he and brother Mike have been using ‘Integrated Pest Management’ (a certification which involves knowing the difference between beneficial and up-to-no-good insects) since well before the term was even coined, and they are extremely mindful of working with nature. Mark is also understandably proud of their “Estate Winery” designation which reflects the fact that “we press what we grow.” (Incidentally, sweet cider, the non-alcoholic sister to “hard” cider, is also made here.)
Up in the loft area of the Twin Pines Cider House, in the sunlight-flooded ‘Tasting Room’, Mark sets up some glasses and explains that the cider brand ‘Hammerbent’ is actually a term for the framing style of the building, which the family constructed themselves.
Sampling the hard ciders is trickier than I would have guessed. The tastes are varied and hard to pin down which is not surprising since there are 17 British cultivars involved, from Russetts to lesser-known varieties such as Yarlington Mills and Tremletts. From the authentic twang of “scrumpy” (which moist- eyed Brits have told Mark is “just like home”) to an absolutely stellar Ice Cider with satiny texture and soft,
intensely apple flavour, it’s easy to see why Twin Pines is making its mark. There’s also Perry – a purely pear drink complete with heavenly perfume and not in the least bit astringent. My favourite turns out to be Hammerbent Red. Its assertive, full-on apple taste has a fresh, delicate sharpness. Nothing like the unfortunate ciders of my youth which could be either deeply cloying or just something to be regretted later. Mark laughs when I mention this and references a drink called the “Priest’s Collar” which involves a pint of Guinness and cider.
If you are looking for a short day trip, either with or without children, Twin Pines is ideal at any time of the year. In the autumn, it offers pick-your-own apples, and 10 varieties of pumpkins. Over 100 kinds of preserves are always on sale, still made by Mark’s mother Alma, as well as her celestial take-home-and-bake pies. Ice Cider especially would make a unique Christmas gift and at only $19.95 is very reasonably priced. There is also a sort of “secret garden” on the property as well as free wagon rides during the fall. (Hot cider donuts made available at this time are apparently addictive – and having sampled the pear-streusel pie I see no reason to question this!)
Twin Pines is a destination that will just make you feel better.
Sue Sutherland Wood is a freelance writer who also works in the London Public Library system. She lives in London with her teenage sons and a floating population of dogs and cats.
Twin Pines Orchard & Cider House
8169 Kennedy Line, Thedford
Directions and much more at:
Hours of Operation
September 1st to December 31st
Monday to Saturday 9–5; Sunday 1–5
January 2nd to June 30
Saturday 9–5 ; Sunday 1–5
July 1st to August 31st
Monday, Thursday & Friday 10–4; Saturday 9–5; Sunday 1–5
Tastings are available on weekends or by appointment.