Millbank is one of those rural communities most people drive by on the way to someplace else. But this quiet village of around 600 residents makes a worthwhile destination for day trippers in search of authentic Mennonite cooking and some of the region’s finest cheese.
Located in the heart of Perth County just 20 minutes north of Stratford, Millbank is home to Anna Mae’s Bakery and Restaurant — a busy roadside eatery, bakery, and gift shop — and the Millbank Cheese Factory — established in 1908 and now locally owned by 90 families. Once discovered, both will have you coming back for more.
Meeting customers from far and wide is one of the things manager Janice Kropf loves best about working at Anna Mae’s. “We get a lot of visitors from London, Woodstock and Toronto, as well as the States,” says Kropf. “It’s fascinating to find out where people are coming from.” The restaurant and bakery are also popular with the local Mennonite community, whose horse-drawn buggies are a common site on the village streets.
Anna Mae Wagler was a local Mennonite woman who began selling homemade pies at the end of her laneway. After turning her kitchen into a small bakery to keep up with demand, she built the current stand-alone location in 1991. “Originally it was just supposed to be a bakery and a small coffee shop,” says Kropf. “Then someone asked her to cook a meal.”
In 2001, Wagler sold the business to her neighbours, the late Mel Herrfort and his wife Marlene. Anna Mae Wagler still lives in Millbank, and Marlene continues to own the business with daughter Amanda helping out behind the scenes. But apart from a few new menu items, Kropf says not much has changed at Anna Mae’s for more than 20 years. That seems to suit the customers just fine.
On a busy Saturday night, the 175-seat restaurant can serve up to 1,000 people. Many make a special trip for Anna Mae’s signature broasted chicken — marinated pieces of chicken deep-fried to perfection in a pressure cooker. “They come out nice and crispy, but not greasy,” says Kropf. “But it’s not a typical Mennonite dish. It’s just something Anna Mae brought in that we became known for.”
“Mennonite cooking is basic country cooking. Meat, potato, and vegetable,” Kropf explains. “It’s the way people used to cook years ago.” The simplicity is reflected in the restaurant’s short dinner menu, which offers a five-week rotating meat schedule. Features include turkey with dressing, farmer’s sausage, roast beef, meatloaf, pork chops, pig tails, and schnitzel, in addition to broasted chicken and Monday’s all-you-can-eat fish and chips. All are available in three portion sizes — small, regular, and platter.
But no meal at Anna Mae’s would be complete without a slice of homemade pie. With more than twenty varieties to choose from, it is difficult to eat just one. Apple pie, pecan, and cherry are the top sellers, says Kropf, although coconut cream is also popular. The bakery also offers a tempting selection of breads, muffins, cookies, cakes, squares and sweet buns, as well as apple fritters, donuts, and cream-filled Little Janes. And the tasty treats aren’t just popular with visiting city-folk. “Mennonites are known for their baking, but many of our Mennonite customers actually buy our things too,” says Kropf.
After dining and stocking up on baked goods at Anna Mae’s, it’s worth taking a stroll through the village to the Millbank Cheese Factory. Founded as a cooperative by local farmers in 1908, Millbank Cheese and Butter was producing 180,000 kg of cheese per year by 1933. By the mid-1980s, it sold $12 million worth of cheese and butter annually and was purchased by Schneiders, followed by Ault Foods and Parmalat. When Parmalat shut down production in 1999 the community rallied to buy back the factory.
“In September 2003 it became owned by the local community again, and at this time is owned by 90 families from the Millbank area,” says Ed Bennett, board president of Millbank Cheese and Cold Storage Inc. Of those families, 80 are “horse and buggy people,” he says.
Millbank Cheese is particularly well known for its cheddar, which is made from a traditional recipe and naturally aged. “That means there are no enzymes added to the cheese to age it,” Bennett explains. “That is something that has been consistent since 1908.”Mozzarella, havarti, marble, Gouda, cheese curds, a selection of flavoured cheeses, as well as goat and sheep cheese, are all Millbank staples.
In 2004, the company launched an organic line. It currently produces an organic Swiss and organic mild, medium, and aged cheddar — up to 8 years old — all made with unpasteurized milk. “It’s a more natural cheese,” says Bennett. “The difference is in the rules. You can’t release raw milk cheese to the market until it is aged at least three months.” In addition to selling Millbank cheeses, the factory store carries Mapleton’s organic ice cream and frozen yogurt, drug-free, free-ranged poultry products from The Poultry Place, and locally-raised beef and pork.
And while Millbank Cheese can be found in specialty food shops throughout Ontario, Bennett says many cheese-lovers make the trip to Millbank to stock up on their favourites. “Our history and reputation bring people to our door,” he says. After more than 100 years in business, Millbank’s naturally aged nine-year-old Cheddar remains the top draw. “Aging cheese is an art,” says Bennett. “And we pay careful attention to that.”
Anna Mae’s Bakery & Restaurant
4060 Line 72, Millbank ON
Millbank Cheese Factory
6974 Church Street, Millbank, ON
NICOLE LAIDLER is a freelance writer and copywriter and the owner of Spilled Ink Writing & Wordsmithing. Visit her at www.spilledink.ca