Up the Garden Path: A visit to Norfolk County, Ontario’s Garden

Written by Cecilia Buy

There are three themes that run through the narratives of Southwestern Ontario: tradition, passion, and community. They are recurring motifs that can guide us to a more interesting understanding of the places we visit, the people we meet, and the food and drink that we discover. They’re all apparent in Norfolk County.

Norfolk County was probably an ideal region in which to develop culinary tourism, but the confluence of changing times and economic upheaval hastened the process.

Blessed with a sandy soil that favours horticultural crops, the area once produced about 90 per cent of Canada’s tobacco. But the economic downturns of the 1980s and 90s, and later a decline in the tobacco market, forced many farmers to reconsider their options. Some turned to ginseng, while others looked for different opportunities. Throughout the changes there were constants: love for the land and the rural traditions, and supportive community networks. Today Norfolk County bills itself as Ontario’s Garden, and is a prime producer of asparagus, ginseng, strawberries, blueberries, sweet corn, and a variety of other crops.

The county’s tourism industry was built on its Lake Erie coastline — beaches, fishing, boating, camping. Adding culinary tourism was a calculated decision implemented with the guidance of both provincial and local governments. That the results have been so successful is largely due to the community of farmers, producers, retailers and restaurateurs, and their friends, families, and neighbours.

Tourism has contributed to the economy of Norfolk County since the 1920s, when beaches like this, at Port Dover, attracted summer visitors

Wholesome Pickins offers lots more than strawberries, but now is the season. Dave VandeVelde shows off some of the current crop.

The VandeVelde farm on the outskirts of Delhi was once dedicated to tobacco. Today Jenn and Dave and their children, the fourth and fifth generations on the farm, still plant it on some oftheir 100 acres, but their main business is Wholesome Pickins Market where they sell strawberries (seven varieties) and raspberries from their own farm, as well as a range of Norfolk County products from cheese (Jensen’s) to nuts (Kernal Peanuts). The darkened beams of the old tobacco barn are still visible in the converted shop, but the gleaming kitchen is a new addition. Here Aunt Linda has put her own passion into the business and makes pies, tarts and other baked goods. The VandeVeldes take obvious pleasure and pride in supporting their friends and neighbours. As elsewhere in the county, that road runs both ways.

Carrie Woolley’s sheep live outdoors year-round, in the pasture or grazing in the orchard.

After completing studies at the University of Guelph, sixth-generation farmer Carrie Woolley joined forces, and life, with her neighbour Brett Schuyler. The Schuyler family farm produces apples, sour cherries, grains and oil seeds. And now grass-fed lamb. Both Carrie and Brett are advocates of land conservation and sustainable agriculture. Watched over by their guardian dogs, the sheep never see the inside of a barn. Spring and summer are spent in the pastures. After the fruit harvest they graze in the orchards, working as natural lawnmowers. Woolley’s Lamb can be enjoyed in restaurants from Simcoe to Niagara-on-the-Lake, or purchased from the farm and at VG Meats and The Apple Place.

The hospitable Norfolk soil has welcomed two crops that have not been part of the agricultural tradition; hops and grapes are playing roles in both the economy and tourism.

John Picard, below, owner of Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm, serves up some craft beer in the tasting area. (Photo Norfolk Tourism)

The Picard family has transitioned over time from tobacco, to corn and soy, to peanuts. Since 2006 hops have been added to the mix. After some years spent developing Picard’s Incredible Snack Food Company (the products are sold across Ontario) John Picard’s fancy turned to thoughts of beer. Today Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm in La Salette produces small batch craft beers. The brewery has become an attraction: tours of the facility are offered; beers are available to enjoy while visiting or to take home; there’s a dining room (great burgers!); and the new patio should be opening soon. The farm also produces potatoes — Dakota Pearls. They’re used in the brewing of Dakota Pearl Ale, and in the kettle chips that are made on site and available in the store.

Sample some Belgian-style beer at New Limburg Brewing Co., in the former Nixon school building.

The newest microbrewery in Norfolk is housed in an old school building in the town of Nixon, between Delhi and Simcoe. New Limburg Brewing Co. is a family affair. These Belgians (Jo Geven, Mischa Geven and Yvonne Moonen) craft Belgian-style ales that you can enjoy either indoors or on the patio, relaxing in the rural surroundings. Belgians have been settling in Norfolk County for a few generations now, but they’re not the only ones discovering the pleasures of New Limburg’s output. All beers are available for sale at the brewery, along with specialty beer glasses and other items. Yvonne is both administrator and resident artist, responsible for the stunning label designs.

Norfolk County is one of Ontario’s emerging wine regions, and gaining a reputation for bold wines. It is home to about half a dozen wineries, some of which also produce fruit wines or ciders.

The view from the terrace at Burning Kiln Winery, looking towards Lake Erie (Photo Norfolk Tourism)

Burning Kiln Winery, overlooking Long Point Bay, is another producer with roots in tobacco country. The old pack barn has been restyled and houses the winemaking equipment, a retail area, tasting bar, and in the midst of it all, a dining and entertainment area — where, if you time it right, you might be lucky enough to hear local powerhouse Felicia McMinn, or another of Norfolk’s homegrown musicians. In the gourmet food truck Chef Scott McRae of David’s Restaurant prepares appetizers and meals from local foods, including Woolley’s lamb and Lake Erie perch, that pair with Burning Kilns wines. These wines are winning acclaim — and awards — both at home and internationally.

If your schedule precludes visiting the sources of Norfolk County’s bounty, you can cheat! From coffee shops to fine dining restaurants, you can sample the goods.

Owner Heather Pond ensures that good food, fresh beer, warm hospitality, and a casual friendly atmosphere await you at The Blue Elephant.

For 25 years Heather Pond has been serving diners from Simcoe and around the region, and in 2012 she opened the taps to serve beers from an on-site microbrewery. The menu at The Blue Elephant Craft Brew House is extensive, and includes Thai cuisine as well as lots of traditional pub food and comfort fare, all with local Norfolk flavour. (The website provides a list of local suppliers.) Heather is proud of the food, and of the brewery’s output (crafted in small batches using local organic barley, wheat, hops and pure water, with no additives or preservatives) but she’s no snob. If you want to “just say OV” go right ahead. The historic building maintains many original features, offers numerous dining and drinking areas, including front and back patios, and the recently opened “Shed” — an old outbuilding that now draws one in with retro décor and comfortable kitsch.

At The Combine, sourcing locally begins in the garden behind the restaurant, here being prepared for spring planting.

You can take the boy out of the country… but you can’t always keep him out. Ryan Rivard, like many from Norfolk County, went far afield (for about twenty years in his case), and then came back home to Simcoe. (Five of those years he spent as chef and co-owner of The Bison, in Banff.) In 2013, with his wife Jennifer von Schleinitz, Rivard opened The Combine, which quickly proceeded to garner accolades from diners near and far. Sourcing locally at this restaurant begins in the back garden and extends across the county, taking in Lake Erie fish, Woolley’s lamb, Y U Ranch longhorn grass-fed beef, and the best of Norfolk’s vegetables, fruits and other products. This is satisfying and completely delicious food, and one of the most honest approaches to “local and seasonal” to be found in our region. The attitudes and processes are supported and embraced by customers, and by the staff which includes chef Marcus Myerscough and sous chef Robynne Hubert, as well as front of house team members Mykel and Amanda (who does double duty in the garden and greenhouse, as well as running her own CSA, called Sweet Pea). Jennifer’s background in the business, including time as The Drake’s Director of Food and Beverage, makes her the perfect “food and libation loving hospitality gal.” The beer and wine lists are not limited to but lean heavily towards the hops and grapes of Norfolk County producers. The enticing cocktail list also brings in local flavours, and shows not bravado, but experience. Rest assured, there is nothing pretentious about The Combine. The fact that its owners live upstairs is not the only reason you’ll feel right at home here.

Culverdene House, a bed and breakfast just outside Simcoe

No matter how fine the pedigree, every community, like every family, needs fresh blood. Among those who have come from away and chosen to take up the Norfolk County life are Joyce and Roger Humbert of Culverdene House, an 1840s home that is now a bed and breakfast, in beautiful rural surroundings just outside Simcoe. They arrived five years ago, bringing their passions — jazz percussion (Joyce) and photography (Roger) — along with a penchant for hospitality. They’ve embraced their new community — and vice versa.

Norfolk apples are eaten across Canada, and around the world. The Norfolk Fruit Growers’ Association has a high-tech facility in Simcoe, and a retail store called The Apple Place. Besides the expected (fresh and succulent) you’ll find local cider, honey, apple gadgets, and giftware. Follow your nose to the source of the appetizing aroma. You’ll be in the bakery section, watching apple cider doughnuts being made. Norfolk County’s official doughnut, a bag of these will fit in your picnic basket, but you’ll probably end up eating them while they’re still warm.

If in Port Dover, and hankering for fresh fish, head down to the east commercial basin of the port. You’ll find the Pleasant Port Fish Company in a small orange building facing the water. Take home some perch or pickerel, or whatever’s just been caught by this third generation of Lake Erie fishermen. (You can order via Facebook Messenger too.)

Also in town, on Main Street, is The Dover Cheese Shop. Owner Jenny Ball will share her enormous enthusiasm for her fine selection of cheeses — local, Canadian, and international. There are other enticements here, both edible and not, including oils, preserves, and accessories for the table. Ask Jenny for a sample of Grand Crème Delin. (Regular customers have a nickname for this very popular, and addictive, cheese.)

Lago Trattoria in Port Dover opened last year, on Canada Day. It’s from the same people who make The Combine such a great place to dine, and the focus here is also on fresh and made-from-scratch food, sourced locally as much as possible — with an Italian accent. Finish your meal with a glass of limoncello, made in-house.

If the road home takes you north of Simcoe — or if you don’t mind a very worthwhile detour — stop at Townsend Butchers. This family business sells locally raised meats fresh, frozen, and smoked. They are purveyors to a number of area restaurants (and to Culverdene House, where you’ll find some very tasty bacon on the breakfast table).

Some never leave the county. Some do, and come home again. Some arrive from other places, other backgrounds. They all pick up the reins of tradition, perhaps tread new paths. They do it to live and they do it with love. They’re a community, and they’ll happily draw you into it.

There’s lots more to do and see in Norfolk County — more breweries and wineries and restaurants, farmers’ market and farmgates, beaches, campsites (and glampsites!), biking trails and hiking trails, great places to stay, and events year ‘round. You can find details on the Norfolk County Tourism website: Happy trails!

About the author

Cecilia Buy

Eatdrink Managing Editor Cecilia Buy wears many hats with the magazine, helping guide the editorial process and ensuring the magazine upholds its commitment to readers in every way. From assigning writers, keeping deadlines met, editing the magazine and laying out pages, she keeps things rolling smoothly.