Eat Local Niagara
Niagara often lags behind the latest food trends, but it’s long been ahead of the curve when it comes to eating local.
“You might like it,” said the girl at the Ontario tourist information kiosk as she handed me a Niagara Culinary Trail map. I unfolded the large map littered with dots, all identifying the region’s most delicious destinations. I found farms and farmers’ markets, local food shops, a few wineries and restaurants. I picked a restaurant off the beaten path, and with a big appetite headed into the beautiful Niagara countryside of vineyards, blossoming orchards and fertile fields.
When I walked into the restaurant, there in front of me were large jars of house-made pickles proudly displayed in the front entrance, and just behind them a chef busily preparing lunch for one of his four other customers. He looked up, and with a big smile, welcomed me. How civilized to be greeted by none other than the guy who’s going to prepare my meal! Talk about a connection to my food.
This is August Restaurant, a modest little eatery on the main drag in Beamsville; just look beyond the food, and it is very understated. The restaurant reflects the town, I thought — it’s exactly what you’d expect in this sleepy little village. I was sitting at a table in front of a bright window; it was midday Tuesday after all, and one would expect it to be slow.
Clayton Gillie was my waiter, and this man knew the menu inside out. He could tell me where every ingredient used in the dishes came from. I ordered what I envisioned to be Niagara’s quintessential sandwich. I rarely order sandwiches; I can make them at home, but I just can’t resist home-baked bread. Apparently they make all their own bread on site, from calabrese to focaccia and multigrain flatbread, and it’s really delicious.
The sandwich arrived. It was shaved Good Shepherd (the region’s favourite butcher) cured ham piled high and held together with Upper Canada Cheese melted brie, sauced up with pickled red onion relish, all sitting comfortably between two warm slices of house-made rosemary potato bread. Yum, look out Montreal Smoked Meat Sandwich.
August Restaurant is a partnership between ex-realtor Marc McKerracher and chef Beth Ashton. Beth is the quiet one tucked away in the main kitchen, while Marc is the quick one in the front kitchen prepping lunches at an incredibly fast pace while simultaneously greeting hungry customers as they come in.
McKerracher is also an avid gardener. He works a three-acre vegetable plot on his father-in-law’s 10-acre fruit farm in Fonthill. In the summer he gardens all day and works the dinner shift at the restaurant, treating his customers to the morning’s harvest. I was lucky to see him in action that day.
August is a member of the growing Niagara Culinary Trail, which now has over 100 culinary destinations that are off the beaten path. Just two short years ago this not-for-profit agricultural association began with five enterprising farmers who weren’t afraid to take the road less-travelled. They wanted to serve their customers better and provide greater consumer access to their home-grown food.
While McKerracher is not the first chef to make sourcing local ingredients a priority, he is one of the few who actually make it work. The biggest stumbling block to the local food fever in this wine-drenched region is the lack of a distribution system to get the food from the literally hundreds of farms to the dozens of chefs who want to use it. While the Niagara Culinary Trail is working on these local food issues, it can’t come soon enough for some.
Robert Aschel of Busy Bee Gardens is an herb and lavender specialist. In his working barn turned rustic retail shop, you can buy everything lavender, from culinary buds to shortbread. He’s now creating unique herb products, such as lemon soap from the lemongrass that grows in his greenhouse gardens. Aschel is also harvesting wild bergamot, an herb with the same name and similar flavour to the orange traditionally used in Earl Grey tea. He’s excited about his new local tea, and hopes the hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake will warm up to it and offer visitors a welcome sip of the region while they’re here. If not, he’s not worried; he already has a list of local food retailers who are hungry for more. It’s all about food terroir.
You can certainly taste the local terroir in the cheese. Walk into Upper Canada Cheese Company and taste samples of Comfort Cream and Niagara Gold, two very different cheeses made from daily milk deliveries from the Comfort Farm, just 10 km south. Upper Canada’s cows are a small, rare breed of Guernsey that offer ultra-rich milk. They roam freely in the good weather, leaving traces of seasonal variations that only a true cheese connoisseur can taste. These nuances create a frenzy similar to what vintage variation does in wine.
Inside the retail shop you’ll find shelves filled with creative edible products. Look a little closer and you’ll realize everything you see is grown or made in Niagara, from Gurth Pretty’s dried pear slices to White Meadows Farms Maple Barbecue Sauce. Cheesecakes is an artisan company that creates fruit infusions from the region’s flavour-rich harvests; there are even serving platters made from discarded wine barrels from Darryl Fields, the local cooper. Retail Manager Joanne Kool-Schutten claims they have over 100 different Niagara products, making this the largest local food shop in the area.
Howard Colcuk runs Alpine Nurseries on Four Mile Creek Road in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is not a road any tourist would find themselves on, but you can get to it by following the Trail map. Howard grows grape vines and fruit trees, and began planting vegetables to keep his workers busy in the slow season. Howard doesn’t consider himself much of a retailer, but I don’t know about that. On this small farm stand there are baskets brimming with peppers of every variety and heat strength. Just to the left are bushel baskets piled high with ripe tomatoes; further to the left are large cooking onions scattered around the grass, left to dry in the sun. There are different varieties of eggplant, braids of juicy garlic and an empty table with cornhusks and silk littering the ground around it. One can only imagine how high the pile of sweet corn was stacked earlier.
This is a typical farm-gate stand that supplies the locals. As I pick out some peppers, chef, college professor and husband of culinary TV celebrity Anna Olson walks up. This is Michael Olson, and he’s come to shop for local vegetables for the bakery café up the road. Apparently the Olsons have a little café, hidden amongst vineyards and perched on the brow of the escarpment with a view to die for. It’s attached to Ravine Vineyards, the only winery in St Davids.
I’m still full from lunch, but after a few more stops along the Niagara Culinary Trail I can loop back to see what decadent edibles temp me there. Checking the map for my next destination, I notice a full-afternoon fishing excursion and restaurant stop to cook up your own catch-of-the-day. With more events listed on the website, I’ll have to check it out and plan another trip.
By the way, by the time I finished my lunch at August Restaurant, the place was completely packed. The bustling atmosphere, sights and sounds were of a trendy, big city haunt on a Friday night — but of course it wasn’t; this was Beamsville on a Tuesday afternoon. What a great find!
Sites of Interest
If you are looking for information, the Niagara Culinary Trail website lists all of these members and many more. They’re building their site to include stories of each farmer, just so interested locavores can read about the people who grow the food before they drive out to meet them. They even have an environmentally-friendly program called The 100 km Kitchen that compares the distance your food travels if you purchase local ingredients versus conventional. If you’re wondering why local is so hot, they’ve made great sense of it on their website with stories of how buying local works and how good it is for us. They even have a summer-long listing of farm events and harvest celebrations. The site is a virtual do-it-yourself eat local program.
In addition to being lush with rich farmland, Niagara has a powerful infrastructure working to get locally-grown products to your table from farms stands that litter almost every corner of the countryside, community-supported agriculture programs (CSA’s), and farmers’ markets such as the St Catharines and Welland Farmers’ Market, to the online Niagara Local Food Coop.