Margaret Webb explores the heart of Mennonite country, where tradition is always on the menu.
ST. JACOBS, ONT. -- It's odd to feel that you've already been to a place when you haven't, so ingrained are the iconic images of Waterloo Region's market stalls, overflowing with summer produce, and Old Order Mennonites wearing clothing that seems like it's from the 19th century.
A visit here is like falling into a scene from Little House on the Prairie - on many farms, the family vehicle is still a horse-drawn wagon. But until my first real exploration of the area, I did not appreciate that this is very nearly a locavore's fantasyland.
The cities of Waterloo and Kitchener and the surrounding townships, 90 minutes west of Toronto, have been on a 100-mile diet since Mennonites came here from Europe and Pennsylvania in the mid-to-late 1800s and established self-sufficient, mixed farms. "Local foods have never left our plate," says Peter Katona, executive director of Foodlink Waterloo, a non-profit that helps farmers forge partnerships with restaurants and retailers and sell directly to consumers.
But adapting to direct marketing outside their community has been challenging for Old Order Mennonites, who have traditionally resisted modern influences, including the Internet. And visiting foodies must also learn to interact with a culture older than Ontario yet relatively unknown to most of us.
First lesson: Mennonite country pretty much closes down on Sundays. Second lesson: The traditional lifestyle of Old Order Mennonites does not always extend to farming techniques, as many use chemicals to grow crops. Third lesson: Foodlink leaves what it calls "food politics" to be worked out at the gate, so ask questions.
Luckily, we head out on a Saturday and start with a buying binge at the Well Fed Food meat store, located on a Black Angus beef farm a half-hour south of Waterloo. A few years ago, Cindy and Mark Gerber built an addition to their house, stocked it with freezers, then teamed up with 15 to 20 farmers. "Initially people were hesitant to drive up our laneway to our house," Mark says, "but this is our means of survival. Now, we have a meet-the-farmers day in September and about 450 people drop in."
Lesson four: Bring a couple of coolers and ice, or time this visit for the end of your day. We went crazy, stocking up on dry-aged beef, wild boar, lamb and farm-raised venison.
Next up is the mandatory tour of the St. Jacobs Market, founded more than 130 years ago. There are good reasons to elbow your way through the crowded, narrow aisles, the best being Montforte artisanal sheep and goat's milk cheeses - the chocolate and red-pepper chèvre is sinfully excellent. Kitchen Kuttings offers dense (and inexpensive) rolls of summer sausage - older pork that is smoked over maple wood for one week then cured for two.
From St. Jacobs we continue along the Mennonite Highway - the local nickname for Lobsinger Line. Lesson five: Drive slowly, for not only will you pass several horse-drawn carriages, but nearly every farm gate will entice you with a different treat - free-range eggs, maple syrup, vegetables, cut flowers, fresh-baked pies, drug-free meat.
In Heidelberg, Stemmler Meats and Cheese carries fresh local meats at great prices, about 20 different kinds of sausages and summer sausage (including nitrate-free), and Old World delicacies such as jellied tongue, blood ring and pickled pork feet. You can also pick up treats for the dog - dried beef knuckles and pig ears.
From Lobsinger, head north on Hackbart Road, then east on Ament Line - keep an eye out for stunning views on your left and, on the right, for Burkhart's Greenhouses, which sells organic vegetable transplants, vegetables and hanging plants. Part of the newly launched Local Organic Food Team (Loft), the Burkharts sell produce at the farm gate and invite you to drive in to buy or place orders for larger volumes.
Just for fun, we swing east to drive through the Kissing Bridge, the last covered bridge in Ontario, and discover the Olde Bridge Place Bed & Breakfast Inn, with fantastic views of the Grand River and the bridge.
But it's time to head back to the village of St. Jacobs, for late-afternoon butter tarts and cream puffs at the Stone Crock Bakery, which also sells fruit pies, cakes and breads. Next door, the Farm Pantry carries locally famous Kountry Kitchen preserves - chili sauce, pickled beets, medley of garden vegetables, jams - made by a Mennonite woman from West Montrose. By the time we reach the adjoining Stone Crock Meats and Cheese, we're shopped out - my official reason for passing on Waterloo's local delicacy, pig tails slathered in barbecue sauce. (Lesson six: They cook up like ribs.)
We end the day with dinner at Charbries in uptown Waterloo. The boutique restaurant changes its menu seasonally to feature local foods. Owner Charlene La Brie jumps in her Ford truck to pick up produce while chef Lance Edwards freezes, cans and jams to preserve the harvest through the winter. "We tell farmers what we need and they grow it," Edwards says. "And they remind us when we're putting oxtail on the menu that a cow only has one tail."
We enjoy a tasty spring dinner - chicken breast in a balsamic maple syrup marinade, locally raised rabbit, wild boar duxelle baked in a portobello mushroom. We only wish that Charbries' commitment to local would extend to the entire menu rather than including odd items such as B.C. salmon and black cod. And that they might carry more local microbrews and Ontario wines than the scant few on their list.
I suppose, after touring through a countryside where time seems to have stood still, we're feeling a deeper kind of hunger - for a time when we could actually feed ourselves year-round with foods right from our farms.
Margaret Webb is the author of Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover's Tour of Canadian Farms (Penguin, Spring 2008).
Pack your appetite
Pick up a Buy Local! Buy Fresh! map provided by Foodlink Waterloo Region, with directions to 70 area farms and outlets.
For more information, visit www.foodlink.ca.
Foodlink's fifth annual Taste Local! Taste Fresh! picnic on Sept. 21, 2 to 5 p.m., will feature about 20 chefs pairing up with local farmers to create dishes in downtown Kitchener. For tickets, call 519-513-8998.
Well Fed Food 2132 Greenfield Rd., Ayr; 519-632-7653; www.wellfedfood.ca. Open Wednesday to Friday 12 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
St. Jacobs Market Weber Street and Farmers' Market Road, 3 kilometres south of St. Jacobs. (A Sunday market is located next door.) Open Thursday and Saturday year-around, 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and Tuesdays from June 17 to Aug. 26, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Stemmler Meats and Cheese 3031 Lobsinger Line, Heidelberg; 519-699-4590; www.stemmlermeats.ca.
4352 Ament Line, Wallenstein; 519-698-2243.
Stone Crock Bakery 1407 King St. N., St. Jacobs; 519-664-3612.
The Farm Pantry and Stone Crock Meats and Cheese
1386 King St. N., St. Jacobs; 519-664-3610.
Charbries 15 King St. N., Waterloo; 519-886-4678; www.charbries.com.
Olde Bridge Place Bed and & Breakfast Inn 5 Covered Bridge Dr., West Montrose; www.oldebridgeplacebnb.com; 519-669-9033.
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