The most diverse farming area in all of Canada, Norfolk County—once a tobacco-growing capital—has become a magnet for agritourists, and is cultivating Ontario’s south coast as the hot new getaway.
Time was, tobacco reigned supreme; and farming the “tobacco belt,” Norfolk County, was based on a quota system—a piece of paper that provided entitlement to local farmers. In recent years, the government removed that system, and farmers were faced with converting all of their fields and equipment toward alternative crops. Opportunity knocked.
Alternative crop-talk led former tobacco farmers, Ernie and Nancy Racz, to peanut farming. At Kernal Peanuts, Valencia peanuts are oil-roasted and dried in tobacco kilns. It’s an efficient boutique system where shells are burned to heat the buildings, and underdeveloped peanuts are fed to the birds. Not your average range of flavours, I snack on traditional salted and unsalted peanuts; piquant sea-salt and black pepper; sweet garlic; potent dill; and two kinds of hot-and-spicy Cajun. I take to-go rich, velvety peanut butter ice cream, and decadent dreamy peanut butter pie. Nearby, Picard’s Peanuts, Canada’s first commercial shelling plant, makes a variety of unique snacks, like “chipnuts” (crispy potato-chip-covered peanuts of every flavour under the sun), and “cookie nuts,” with sweet tastes like cinnamon and chocolate-raspberry cookie-covered nuts.
Norfolk sits in a geographically perfect position between lakes. Light sandy soils allow farmers to grow tender fruits, vegetables and grains, and raise livestock. An abundance of water, ample heat and sunlight have enabled almost everything that grows in Ontario to be encapsulated in this unique and dynamic micro-climate.
On a still day when the lavender is in bloom, we hear the buzz. Bees love lavender. Majestic rolling fields of purple at Bonnieheath Lavender are harvested to infuse into honey, apple jelly and even ice wine. Herbs de Provence, lavender sugar and essential oils are also popular items that we snatch up at the gift shop. More than 27 varieties of this aromatic herb are grown here, and its perfume floats in the wind. This is the centre of a growing community of lavender.
I am surprised to learn that the highest-quality white ginseng in the world is from Norfolk County. Equally surprising is that most of the ginseng we buy at the retail level is imported. Eighty-five different grades of all-natural ginseng are grown at Great Mountain Ginseng. We add it to tea, honey, soup and smoothies to boost our memory, increase our energy, pump up our immune systems and help regulate cholesterol. Its strong flavour is an acquired taste, but it packs a nutritional punch. From ginseng and goji berries, to the fragrant paw paw fruits at Burning Kiln Winery that taste like banana cream pie, Norfolk is an exotic cornucopia of specialty produce to be discovered.
The repurposed tobacco pack barn of Burning Kiln Winery is where star winemaker, Andrzej Lipinski, oversees handpicked grapes dried in tobacco kilns to raise their brix levels for Amarone-style wines. “Kiln Hanger 2010—The Sequel” is a bold Cab Franc that’s rich with concentrated notes of coffee, chocolate and blueberry that linger on the palate. “Stick Shaker 2012” is from a lesser-known varietal, Savagnin. Its balanced acidity, with a tropical bouquet and notes of apples and honey, pairs with Norfolk County perch.
Glamping under the stars in our warm and cozy Arabian-style tent, the wood flooring, queen-sized bed and ensuite bathroom and shower feels like we’re in a hotel, but we’re in the forest. Long Point Eco Adventures offers a variety of experiences, from mushroom foraging, cooking and pairing at Burning Kiln, and hiking and zip-lining through the Carolinian Forest, to stargazing and glamorous camping. This is one of the most unique and romantic settings to experience in Ontario. Long Point is a 42-kilometre freshwater sand spit—the largest in the world—and a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Zodiac Boat Tours motors us past the tip, halfway across Lake Erie. Anchoring on the far side, we jump out to a beach reminiscent of the Caribbean, and we are entirely alone.
At Blair Townshend’s Ontario Popping Corn, tobacco kilns are converted into popcorn kilns where kernels are dried directly on the cob. Pop-A-Cobs are whole cobs ready to be popped. GMO (genetically modified organism)-free corn is sold under the Uncle Bob’s Popping Corn label; traditional yellow corn is organic, and all the coloured kernels—Shamue Blue, Strawberry Red, White Cloud and Purple Passion—are free of pesticides, chemicals and added fats. Each cob is hand- selected, and even flavoured corn, like dill pickle or sour cream and onion, are gluten- free. At home, we watch the kernels pop off their cob as it rotates in the microwave. Popping corn has never been more exciting.
“It’s not the farming you practice, it’s how you practice your farming,” says John Gorzo of Sprouts for Life. Quality control over hydroponic sprouts, living greens and traditional greens is airtight. Ready-to-go salads are certified organic, Local Food Plus, and are entirely GMO-free. Delicious medleys of fresh vegetable proteins include red clover, radish, alfalfa, kamut, adzuki bean, lentil, canola, garbanzo beans, fenugreek, mustard sprouts, pea shoots, and sunflower greens. Leaving no carbon footprint, Gorzo also controls a weekly cycle of direct delivery of customized orders to guarantee freshness.
Jason Persall is committed to purity, and through ethical farming and cold pressing, his Pristine Gourmet ensures maximum quality in flavour and aroma of 100-percent pure virgin Canadian canola, soy and sunflower oils. No chemicals, no preservatives—the soybeans are certified non-GMO, and are tasty and snack-able edamame. The soy oil is nutty and viscous, which makes for elegant garnishing or poaching. “Not your supermarket variety canola oil,” this robust canola is perfect for drizzling overtop salads or for marinating meats. A taste of sunflower oil is like liquid sunflower seeds. Summery and light, it is absolutely nutritious. These are all non-GMO products, however, with canola oil, “we intend for it to be non-GMO, but we can’t verify it. You just can’t these days, because it’s everywhere,” Persall says.
Across North America, as the wind blows from one field to the next, GMOs have generated passionate controversy. “I’m not convinced GMOs are necessarily bad,” shares Persall, “but how they’re marketed, the lack of transparency; it’s a control issue.” It’s an issue that’s becoming a problem as farmers are getting cornered. For Gorzo, “with GMOs being introduced, it’s eventually going to cause everything else to be impure, because of what happens to the land and cross-pollination.” For now, at least, when we buy produce from Norfolk County, we can rest assured it is exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Great local produce and growing tourism demand a high-end restaurant. At The Combine, our candlelit dinner on the veranda reflects the bounty of the region. Perch tacos with butternut aioli are a scrumptious confluence of textures. From out of the brick oven comes steaming hot carbonara pizza with caramelized onions, bacon, reggiano and a sunny-side-up egg—it’s one delectable bite after another. Tangy grass-fed Longhorn short rib from award- winning Y U Ranch is balanced by rich and full-flavoured Sylvan Star Gouda polenta.
Down the road is the cozy Culverdene House B & B. Built in the 1840s, this Loyalist
brick home, shrouded by tall trees, is a trip back in time. Country comfort and hospitality immediately settles us. We are in good hands. Our private breakfast is a display of local produce: poached free- range eggs, meaty grass-fed beef sausages, fresh seasonal fruits, and warm fresh bread with a selection of tangy jams and ketchups made in-house from ingredients growing on the property.
The local movement is consumer-driven and quality control is the main priority. For Ontario Popping Corn’s Blair Townshend, “The local thing is working, but the supermarkets still haven’t gotten it.” Townshend is one of a growing chorus questioning why supermarkets do not have a “Canadian-only” content area, or why local produce is not exempt from listing fees that make “buying local” more expensive.
We need to support our local farmers! One Ontario farm alone grows enough food to provide for 120 Ontarians each year, and yet, the fruits of their labour are bypassed for ballooning imports from countries with less stringent food-safety standards. This puts enormous stress on our own farming industry. While still Canada’s largest producer of tobacco, Norfolk County is also becoming Ontario’s horticultural centre. It is the number-one producer of asparagus, sweet corn, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, strawberries, sour cherries, ginseng and pumpkin in all of Canada. Discover Ontario’s south coast, and buy local.