Taste trails, arts trails and wine routes lure us into this stress-free zone, where our first stop is the town of Hillier. Turning onto Greer Road, we spy the Norman Hardie Winery, known for elegant Pinot Noir. It is lean but aromatic, with complex clay and limestone influences. A modern barn in the country is the perfect setting for Hardie’s simple, basic style of winemaking. “Grow great grapes; steer the wine,” he tells me. The limestone soils enable distinguished wines, as evidenced by Hardie’s County Chardonnay (it displays “minerality” and ripe citrus notes) or Chardonnay Cuvee L, in which Hardie blends 35-40 percent Prince Edward County grapes with 60-65 percent Niagara grapes in oak barrels for a signature sophistication of lime, minerals and stone fruit with a full mouth true to the terroir.
Wine and food share an intimate relationship, so Hardie is building a dry-mason pizza oven and planting an organic vegetable garden to entice us to stay longer and absorb the culture. Across the road is Rosehall Run Vineyards, where Jamie Kennedy collaborated on a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir – the county’s most popular varietals – to pair with his seasonal menus. The Sullyzwicker is a smooth blend of Ehrenfelser, Riesling and Muscat Ottonel that is floral, crisp and sweet – a delicious pairing with summer and spice. Sullyzwicker Red blends Gamay, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir for a gentle, medium body, with fragrant, ripe fruit; and the ruby-red Cabernet Sauvignon is a soft bouquet of berries, oak and cloves. There is certainly a distinct quality from the limestone in these county wines, but integrating the oak without overpowering it enables this. Neighbouring Casa-Dea Estates Winery is welcoming, but, first, the life-size chess set in front requires a few moves. In the wine boutique, we sample a lively Pinot Gris, a blending of two vineyards that produces refreshing textures of stone fruit, citrus and minerals. A medium-bodied, lightly oaked Cabernet Franc displays a range from berries and currants to spice, and with each sip, we appreciate that adjacent winemakers can have such different styles, making it all the more worth a visit to each one. Casa-Dea is also a lovely spot to sit and admire the area’s tranquillity.
A short drive leads us to Closson Chase, where small yields of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sell out quickly. Generally known for high-quality Chardonnays, Closson Chase, one of the first to plant here, is at the forefront of developing the Prince Edward County wine industry. Reflecting their organic vinification, these wines have clarity and represent the higher end of quality in the region. Moving toward biodynamic production, the French oak barrelling and limestone-rich soil under the vines maintain their complex essence into the glass. Wines from their vineyards in Beamsville are also available here.
What better way to appreciate these wines than to have a tutored wine and cheese tasting at Fifth Town Artisan Cheese Company? Like the wines we’ve tried, selections of artisanal cheese from its twenty varieties are found on all the restaurant menus. Located at the other end of the county in Waupoos, Fifth Town is the only Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified manufacturing facility in Canada. After touring their sustainable production of geothermal technologies, solar panels, and bio-wetlands, we are poured five County wines to match with cave aged, hand made cheeses. A sampling of fresh, washed rind, soft ripened, hard, and limited edition cheeses are produced from sheep and goat milk, without any hormones or antibiotics. The concept is “to integrate traditional methods and contemporary tastes with local terroir”. The pairings are a perfect marriage of sophistication and taste, and I watch in amazement as my lactose intolerant partner eats up every last nubbin.
Another farm whose name I have seen at specialty food shops is Vicki’s Veggies. We stop by her heirloom-seed sale and are handed a catalogue of 250 different types of tomatoes. I take home the purple calabash, reputed to be ugly and rich. Using biodynamics, hard work and love to nourish the soil, Vicki’s priority is “to produce food for people concerned with their health and the environment.” Her produce is also on all the county menus. On our way back to town, we visit Buddha Dog. Established in Picton as an experiment in social economics, Buddha Dog’s ingredients are local, seasonal and handmade: the hot dogs are organic and come from the butcher; the buns come from the baker; the cheese comes from the dairy; and the sauces, of which there are more than 150, come from the recipes of local chefs. Encapsulating this concept is an old joke: “What did the Buddha say to the hotdog vendor? ‘Make me one with everything.’ ” The community is involved in every bite.
Dinner in Wellington is at East & Main Bistro, the junction at which a who’s who of the food and wine community can be found enjoying the fruits of their labour. In the room on this night are five winemakers, as well as some of the farmers. “You’re very likely to be sitting beside someone who is responsible for the food that’s on your table,” shares owner Kimberly Humby. The meaty Arctic char with Sullyzwicker Red reduction and fluffy quinoa pilaf with currants and pine nuts has robust flavour. The skin is so cracker-crisp, I could snack on just that. Straight from the chef’s farm, plump free-range chicken with Riesling and rosemary jus, accompanied by roasted garlic and goat cheese mashed potatoes, encompasses the county esthetic. Three giant scallops dusted with spices that dance on the tongue are presented with forbidden rice risotto, shrimp and carrot-ginger emulsion. Black rice used to be for nobility; now, it is for everyone, but I am not sharing.
A restored 1860s farmstead, The Waring House is right in the centre of the county. Staying here, we note the integration of environmentally conscious features and the individually decorated rooms, but perhaps more importantly, this was – without equivocation – the most luxuriously cozy bed and pillows I have ever enjoyed. In addition to the five-course tasting menu at Amelia’s Garden, The Waring House also offers year-round cooking classes and tasting tours at its Barley Days Brewery. A step outside to the fresh country air begs for a walk along nearby trails. There is plenty of hiking and biking to do here. Our first adventure is the panoramic natural wonder of Lake on the Mountain Provincial Park. This freshwater lake sits 60 metres above Lake Ontario, with a beautiful view of the Bay of Quinte. It is believed to be a collapsed sinkhole, but its depth is not fully known and there is no apparent source of water. A mystery.
A staple in the Picton community is the popular gastro-pub Currah’s Café, & Catering. Casual and unpretentious, the specialty is seafood – and a wide selection of county wines. Plump pan-seared sea scallops with lemon and Cajun mayo and a “Black & Bleu” salad of AAA strip loin with caramelized onions and blue cheese are local favourites. The menus are seasonal, but we skip right to the seafood platter of lobster tail, crab legs, charcoal shrimp and wild-mushroom risotto with truffle oil. Our server suggests Chardonnays from the county that, due to their minerality, pair so perfectly. (Currah’s also runs a grill at Sandbanks Provincial Park.)
Time stops when dining at Blumen Garden Bistro. We wander through the garden along the gravel path with a glass of wine, in the sun and breeze, while the chef prepares our meal: fresh local seared perch, finished in Chardonnay, with a ragout of vegetables in a puffed “beggar’s purse.” It’s a delicious and romantic experience whether in the afternoon or evening; it’s as though they are catering to us in a way I could not have planned. “We try to do what we ourselves would like to find,” says chef/owner Andreas Feller.
As a nightcap, a chocolate truffle and champagne body wrap with a beer pedicure is on tap. Overlooking Picton Bay, the Claramount Inn & Spa‘s beautiful colonial revival mansion of decorated suites is venerated for its wellness spa with a range of therapies from simple to exotic, emphasizing water, plants, exercise, nutrition and relaxation. A short walk from the Claramount is the famed Harvest Restaurant, where chef Michael Potters – regularly seen as the host of Chef Worthy – has earned the admiration of those who appreciate his respect for technique and his passion for field-to-table “county cuisine.” We don’t dare go to Prince Edward County without dining at Harvest and sampling his charcuterie of house-made p‚tés and terrines. Seasonally inspired and locally sourced, Potters’ dishes are works of art and reflect his leadership in the potential of reconnecting to the land and those who farm it. He marinates sweet-and-sour pink trout, with macerated shallots, raisins and organic sprouts. He presents county lamb and candied lemons, stewed apricots, roasted peppers and navarin sauce with the deliberate finesse of a virtuoso. Potters’ menu “changes with Mother Nature.”
Beautifully restored, Angéline’s Restaurant and Inn revives the charm of its 1869 foundation with such colour and artistry that every little accoutrement in the guest suites is something to admire. Dining rooms are boldly painted in deep blue, yellow, lavender and purple and showcase the wall sconces and chandeliers of Canadian artists. Chef Sébastien Schwab presents a trio of soups of market-fresh ingredients – asparagus, beet and cabbage – that comes in glass flutes to reveal their true colour and flavour. He crushes coffee beans to encrust halibut, finished with county cider emulsion, parsnip purée and vegetable brunoise. His dishes are imaginative, generous yet delicate, and the talk of the town. Angéline’s offers workshops in art, wellness, feng shui, cycling and wine tasting. Our bicycle rentals were coordinated at the inn through Bloomfield Bicycle Co. Fitted with helmets and water bottles, we made our way to the giant sand dunes and wide, shallow beaches of Sandbanks Provincial Park, the largest freshwater bay mouth sandbar system in the world. Our Tour de Prince Edward County took us past farms, through county country and into wooded paths toward a gorgeous, soft, sandy beach that we would have more readily expected to find in the Caribbean. The sand dunes are hot and reminiscent of the Sahara. Hard to believe we’re only a couple of hours east of Toronto.
After returning our bikes, we head to Slickers, where ice cream is handmade in-house using fresh local ingredients. The list of 12 kinds of chocolate ice cream is tempting; the apple-pie flavour consists of freshly baked apple pies smushed into the creamy mix; and the peanut butter and honey is addictive.
In order to fully appreciate the county, it must be said that so many of these boutique wineries and restaurants are run by husband-and-wife partnerships who packed up their successful careers in Toronto to be closer to what they believe in and love to do together. Culinary matrimony thrives at The Bloomfield Carriage House Restaurant and its Marshmallow Room bakery, where Scott Kapitan cooks and Jacqui Vickers bakes. The menu changes weekly but stays within the same flavour profiles of the season and of Kapitan’s cooking. His technique is French, but the product is local and organic. Impressively economical in preparation, his dishes are clean and expressive. When I taste the duck, naturally brined and roasted with tobacco jus, I believe I am enjoying the very best quality. Kapitan knows you don’t need to smother a protein with sauce; if you have the very best product, you want that product to show. Accompanied by a quail torchon, boned and rolled in pistachio, with asparagus, and foie gras seared on a potato crisp, there is no limit to Kapitan’s imagination and care. Complex flavours animate every dish. He also does his own charcuterie. Wild boar, elk paté, rillette and salami can be wrapped up at the bakery for a lunch to go. For dessert, it’s the Marshmallow Room, Vickers’ labour of love. In addition to her artisanal breads and scones, she makes her own preserves, chocolate bark, crystallized rose and violet petals, lavender, paprika and vanilla sugars and, of course, marshmallows: vanilla, peppermint and coffee. I wait with the anticipation of a six-year-old for the big, warm cookies of chocolate and gianduja to come out of the oven. An adjacent tea room is available for tea tastings from more than 100 different types of loose-leaf teas. It is hard to tear myself away.
Dining throughout the county, we were very surprised by the gentle pricing. Anywhere else, the dishes we enjoyed would have cost a fortune, but, here, I’m told, the prices are determined by the locals who will not pay more, and the tourists who expect to pay less. While there is no shortage of sophistication in Prince Edward County, as a food and wine destination, it is so accessible – and a near utopia for foodie and art fans, encompassing 32 wineries, 27 art shops and galleries, antique shops of eclectic oddities, various artisanal workshops, festivals of food, wine, art and jazz and chefs who are all-stars of gastronomy, respecting each other, supporting each other, doing what they love. – Adam Waxman