There are few more picturesque road trips than those to wine country. I’ve been lucky to have sipped and strolled through Sonoma, Napa, Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, the Finger Lakes area in New York, Lake Erie shores, the emerging Lake Huron wine region, and of course, the spectacular Niagara area. From the escarpment benches to the Lake Ontario shoreline, Niagara boasts a magnificent wine culture. However, a recent road trip to the area showed us that there is much more to a getaway in Niagara.
Given that you cannot live on wine alone, a day spent at the Wine Country Cooking School in Niagara-on-the-Lake is an instructional — and filling — way to learn some new culinary tactics. The school opened at Strewn Winery 20 years ago. It claims to be the first cooking school in Canada located in a winery. Operated by Jane Langdon, whose husband Joe Will is the president of Strewn Winery, the classes are so efficiently organized that guests learn how to make, and then eat, a four-course meal over a five-hour visit. This is a hands-on experience. It is best to go with a friend, as teams of two have their own cooking stations where they make their own food while following group instructions. The exception is the appetizer, which is made, with variations, by teams of four people, and then taste-tested by the other participants. We made an edamame dip which took on different flavours at each station depending on the quantity of garlic added. In total there are 16 students per class led by Langdon and her team of helpers who, in a most blissful manner, whisk away each dirty utensil and quickly return it cleaned to your station. If only all kitchens had such fairies!
The menus change monthly and are designed for the intermediate-level home cook who wants an enjoyable outing, a good meal, and some instruction. Langdon’s focus is on making cooking easy. She enjoys using local ingredients. For example, we made some delicious baked pears stuffed with blue cheese for desert. As well, Langdon likes to teach guests how to make things in advance so that home dinner parties can be more enjoyable for the hosts.
Near the end of the class, everyone sits down in the dining room to enjoy the meal, with wine pairings. Tasting notes are provided by Will, who joins in for the meal.
As the weekend was still young we headed to downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. Bypassing fudge and gift shops we made a beeline for a cleansing lager. The Exchange Brewery — funky, urban, and upscale — produces IPA, porter, stout, saison and witbier. We were eager to try the Peppercorn Rye Saison. Several bottles made their way into our car. In a nod to the wine industry, beer in Niagara is often bottled in wine-shaped containers.
Our driver, sensing our interest in refreshments, next took us over to Niagara Stone Road where there are two breweries with two different atmospheres. Oast House Brewery’s barn theme is a lot of fun. Red is the signature colour: imagine barn boards and gags like “the lunch box 4 pack” of Barn Raiser Country Ale. It’s a friendly tasting room with an outdoor patio and live entertainment, and is a nice counterbalance to the seriousness of some wine tasting rooms in the area. The Farmhouse Ale series comes in wine-shaped bottles, and Rural Route is a line of canned beers that includes porters, IPA’s, ales, sours, stouts, and some specialties made with ice wine.
Just down the street in an historic former church is Silversmith Brewing Company, which has award-winning beers and delicious food offerings in a cozy setting. As you take a seat at the bar you notice a large chalkboard crammed full of names. If you’re lucky, your name is there, because a friend bought you a beer in advance of your visit. Silversmith keeps a book of names, as well. Oh! Happy day for many!
Not to be missed at Silversmith is The Black Lager, which in 2017 won Silver at the Canadian Brewing Awards, and Canada Gold at the World Beer Awards. With coffee and chocolate flavours, it’s light going down despite it dense appearance. You might be drawn to the Smokey and the Bandit lager, which is a limited release. Both go well with the goat cheese and ricotta dip and crusty bread. Many diners in the beer hall were raving about the chicken wings. All in all, a great spot to linger.
With all the tasting and eating, overnight accommodation might be welcome on this road trip. Niagara-on-the-Lake offers many historic inns and B&Bs, but consider White Oaks Resort and Spa, about 10 kilometres away from the centre of town. It is situated next to the QEW and the newish Outlet Collection of Niagara, Canada’s largest outlet mall. This large hotel has a long list of amenities including an impressive spa and fitness centre. There are three dining options. A meal at LIV Restaurant, a full-service fine-dining experience, is included in many of the resort’s getaway packages. White Oaks is just the place to melt away the excesses of Niagara’s offerings while enjoying a eucalyptus steam bath. Ideally, spend the day at the spa, after checking out of the hotel on the Sunday, before your drive back home.
The Wine Country Cooking School
339 Lakeshore Rd (Strewn Winery), Niagara-on-the-Lake
Oast House Brewers
2017 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake
The Exchange Brewery
7 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Silversmith Brewing Company
1523 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake
The White Oaks Resort & Spa
253 Taylor Road , Niagara-on-the-Lake