By Rebecca LeHeup
Executive Director
The Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance

One of the highlights of my exciting career as Executive Director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance is the opportunity to discover all that our vast province has to offer. While I had been to Elgin County in the past (for their Savour Elgin Festival last September) it was a brief visit. Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to make a return visit to the destination two hours southwest of Toronto, and to be honest, it went far beyond my expectations!

The first stop on my two-day Savour Elgin tour was at Heritage Line Herbs where I was greeted by owner/operators Deb and Tom Benner. Deb and Tom are former tobacco farmers (22 years in the industry) who had a vision to stay on the farm and repurpose their gorgeous property and farm buildings. In 2002, they purchased a potted herb business and crew their customer base over 25 per cent in the first year. They added value to the business by putting in greenhouses, a tea room, beautiful herb gardens and a great outdoor kitchen facility where they host cooking classes and demonstrations. In addition, they expanded their products to include dried herbs and have created products such as “Better than Salt” which is actually a very tasty alternative to salt!

There is nothing better than learning about food – how it’s grown, the best way to prepare it and of course, tasting it! An afternoon spent with Deb and Tom gave me a chance to do all three!  I start my tour off with a glass of Deb’s famous lavender lemonade – so delicious that she won’t part with the recipe! Deb had a fabulous meal planned and together, we prepared tabouli, grilled Portobello mushrooms, salmon baked in basil and a salad – all prepared with fresh herbs from their farm. The meal was delicious! Several of the dishes I was taught to make have become some of my favourites to prepare this summer!

Heritage Line Herbs offers cooking classes (for up to 20 people per class) and does a delightful authentic High Tea every day through the peak season (June to mid-October). The High Tea is $17.95 per person and reservations are required (24 hour advance notice). Deb incorporates herbs from the farm in every element of the tea from the sandwiches and desserts to a wide variety of teas. She shares her knowledge of herbs in two volumes of “Cooking With Herbs” which can be purchased in their boutique.

The second stop on my Savour Elgin tour was Rush Creek Wines. The winery, which is nestled along the North Shore of Lake Erie, crafts a variety of fruit wines with the majority of the fruit coming from the family farm. They have 57 acres and grow black currants, raspberries, elderberries and gooseberries. Owner and founding member of the Fruit Wines of Ontario, Wendy Flintoft gave me the “Complete Winery Tour” and shared not only her wonderful fruit wines with me but also the history of their business. Wendy, her husband Kim and their daughter’s craft more than just wine on their farm, they have crafted a lifestyle and a fabulous culinary tourism experience!

In addition to their unique wines, they have pick-your-own berries, a corn maze (open August to October) and a picnic area equipped with a BBQ for public use. They grow close to 5000 pumpkins each year for use at their annual Harvest Festival (September 24&25, 2011) where they give each visitor a free pumpkin and have fun family activities including a pumpkin-carving contest. Recent winners of the Premiers Agri-Food Innovation award for their Strawberry Chocolate wine, Rush Creek Wines exemplify creativity.

Moving along to St. Thomas, home of the final resting spot of Jumbo the Elephant, I stopped into Railway City Brewing Company. This Ontario Craft Brewer is making some amazing beers (this is coming for a girl who doesn’t have a natural penchant for beer)!

Using locally grown varieties of hops they craft an Ironspike Blonde, Cooper and Amber Ale, and their famous Dead Elephant Ale. During their Thursday Night Sessions you can participate in a tasting of their seasonal beers such as “Coco Loco”, which are typically a one-off brew.

The sessions take place once a month and cost $5 to attend. As their Cooper Ale has become a favourite of mine and is only available at their brewery (the Dead Elephant Ale and Ironspike Blonde Ale are available at select LCBO’s) I’ll be sure to visit St. Thomas often!

With still more of Elgin to taste, I checked into the Kettle Creek Inn in the quaint village of Port Stanley and made my way over to the Windjammer Inn for dinner. Owner/Operator Kim Saunders made me feel instantly welcome. With a great amount of pride and passion, Kim gave me a tour of the five-room inn. Kim, a former Torontonian, escaped from the hustle and bustle of the city to Port Stanley to fulfill a life long dream to have a place of her own where she could be connected to the land and the community surrounding her. Kim’s dedication to fresh, local and seasonal is best experienced through a meal at the inn where she takes great care to offer VQA Ontario wines to perfectly match her fare. I guarantee that it is worth the drive from anywhere to experience the Windjammer!

Up early on my second day, I took a walk along the beautiful Big and Little Beaches on Lake Erie before joining Jean Vedova, co-owner of the Kettle Creek Inn for breakfast. The inn is home to 10 rooms, 5 suites and a restaurant. My suite was gorgeous – it had a king size bed that I almost got lost in and a brilliant Jacuzzi tub! Jean’s love of the hospitality industry (she and her family have been in business for 28 years) was instantly obvious. A founding member of the accommodation association, Ontario Finest Inns, the Kettle Creek Inn aspires to the highest level of service.

Not one to spend time lingering while on a culinary adventure, I made my way to Lavender Sense. Proprietors Pam and Jesper Andersen greeted me on the grounds of their beautiful property. I leisurely toured the gardens and the lavender fields, and learned more about the couple and how they got into the B&B and lavender business. Inspired by health and wellness, Pam and Jesper delight in hosting guests and teaching people about the culinary and healing properties of lavender. Their boutique offers a wide variety of lavender products from preserves and infused honey to teas, herb blends and giftware. They also offer pick-your-own lavender and host a number of workshops and demos throughout the year.

Last, but certainly not least on my Savour Elgin tour was a visit to the newly established Arts & Cookery Bank, a fabulous destination for any culinary tourist to Ontario! This community developed, not-for-profit venue was home to the former 1914 Bank of Montreal and an 1883 timber frame barn. Referred to as “a regional cultural destination” the Arts & Cookery Bank celebrates the rich history of West Elgin, Dutton-Dunwich, Newbury and Southwest Middlesex communities. They have paired living history through photographic arts and technology with a hands-on learning experience in The Bank’s Cookery: a chefs dream kitchen! This venue is perfect for a corporate retreat as they offer team-building experiences in the kitchen hosted by guest chefs that create menus using local, seasonal products.

Joined by a dozen of the venues volunteers and guest Chef John Mairleitner (Chef/Owner of Tall Tales Café), I took part in one of their team cooking classes “Cooking on all Burners” where we collectively created a menu of summer Gazpacho Soup with Blueberry garnish, Arugula & Blueberry salad, Herb-Seared Chicken Breast with Blueberry-Lemon Compote and Bluegrove’s Blueberry Brittle over Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Tart – you guessed it – we were in the height of blueberry season! Everything was absolutely delicious and I had a blast making it!

With my trip to Elgin County over I left with one distinct impression of the region – it’s absolutely delicious! In two days I barely covered the Savour Elgin experience. Other stops I will have to return to visit include Quai Du Vin Winery, the Green Frog Tea Room at Pinecroft, Killer Desserts & Café in Port Stanley, Mad Hatters Tea Room, Ruby’s Cookhouse, the Empire Valley Farmers’ Market, Farmgate Market, Horton’s Farmers’ Market, Clovermead Bees & Honey, Great Lakes Farms and Steed and Company Lavender. Perhaps I’ll fit a visit into some of them when I return to St. Thomas to attend the Savour Elgin Festival and top up my supply of Railway City Ironspike Cooper Ale!