2000s Archive

The Other Niagara

Originally Published April 2005
The names are the same, but there the similarities end. The rush of excitement on this bountiful peninsula (just beyond the falls, in Ontario) comes from discovering farm stands, restaurants, wineries, and a burgeoning food scene

“Stop right here!” demanded my wife.

“But it’s just somebody’s house.”

“There’s a sign under the trees: ‘Niagara Herb Farm.’ ”

So we parked and climbed out of the car. The sun was warm on the empty road—the welcome heat of a high summer afternoon on the Niagara Peninsula. We walked up the shaded drive, past the house, and into the backyard—a wild-looking country garden with an open-ended greenhouse. A woman with a watering can waved, then trotted out to meet us, dressed in head-to-toe denim.

An hour later, we set off again, weighed down with herbs and a harvest of knowledge from Arlene Mills, the farm’s delightful owner. Raised on a fruit farm in the nearby village of Vineland, she learned all her lore from her grandmother and can explain the virtues of each of the 350 plants she grows.

Such serendipitous finds are part of the charm of Niagara, the first things that spring to mind when I’m back home in Toronto, at the top of some high-rise, and find my eye drawn to the southern horizon. There it is, faint and far away across the glittering water: Niagara’s wine country, like a line drawn by God’s green crayon between the lake and the sky.

Other people have other impressions. To truckers barreling along the highway from Niagara Falls, this stretch of lakeshore is a commercial corridor between the United States and urban Canada. To theater buffs, it’s the last half hour before they can take their seats at the Shaw Festival in historic Niagara-on-the-Lake. But to those who love food and wine, it is Ontario’s little Eden, rural but sophisticated, a land of fruit-laden vineyards and orchards, restaurants, wineries, and country markets.

My favorite way into the region isn’t from Toronto at all—it’s from Niagara Falls. Once you’ve quenched your thirst for the spectacle of the thundering waters and run the gauntlet of gimcrack sideshows, casinos, and generic hotels, head north on the Niagara Parkway, the prettiest road in all of Canada. On the right, manicured lawns and parkland tumble suddenly into the vertiginous gorge of the Niagara River; on the left stand gracious houses backed by orchards and vineyards stretching away across the plain.

Turn off along one of the silent, dusty side roads and you may find Wyndym Farm, owned by retired cop Dave Perkins. His neighbors thought he was mad when he started planting heirloom tomatoes and other “obsolete” vegetables, growing them organically. Then local chefs came to call, lured by the superb flavor of the produce, and Dave didn’t seem so crazy after all. Stephen Treadwell, the chef at Queen’s Landing hotel, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is a particularly favored customer. I’ll never forget the sweet tang of the tomato salad I ate at his restaurant one late summer’s day, the Wyndym tomatoes 20 minutes off the vine and still warm from the sun.

At the end of the parkway, the postcard-perfect town of Niagara-on-the-Lake has been flashing its skirts at the tourist trade for decades. There’s something a little saccharine about all the faux-Victorian fudge shops, gift emporiums, and horse-drawn carriages, but an older and much more interesting history lurks behind the twee façade. In the 1790s, the town was Upper Canada’s first capital, and though marauding American troops burned it to the ground during the War of 1812, many of the churches and buildings that were put up immediately afterward are still standing. Here the Loyalist past is as vivid and as carefully cherished as the glorious gardens that line the genteel side streets.

Unsurprisingly, given a centuries-old farming heritage and a climate that supports vinifera grapes, the gardens of the entire peninsula tend to the spectacular. But much more than flowers is involved. John Laidman is the forager for the restaurants of two of the region’s big wineries, Hillebrand Estates and Peller Estates. “He sometimes shows up at the kitchen door with some really strange stuff,” said Peller’s former chef, Jason Rosso. “Like West Indian gherkins grown just down the street in someone’s backyard. Or he’ll come in with mud on his boots because he’s been down in the creek cutting out the watercress. I never mentioned anything about vegetables on the menus because I had no idea what John would bring from one day to the next.”

Laidman is unlikely to share his more private sources of supply, but adventurous visitors can do some foraging of their own, and that’s where the fun really starts. You might stop by Grimo Nut Nursery, an unpretentious farm up by the lake where owner Ernie Grimo grows more than 100 different cultivars of nut trees—everything from filberts and black walnuts to rare Japanese heartnuts. Park in his farmyard, and, if he’s not busy, he’ll share lore and samples and demonstrate the machines he has invented to shell his various crops. Or drop in at Walker’s Country Market, overflowing with bins piled high with local cherries, strawberries, and nectarines, and shelves crammed with homemade jellies. The sandwiches and salads made on the premises are perfect picnic fare.

Places like these help define the vague phrase “wine country cuisine,” which is emblazoned across so many of the peninsula’s menus. The logical notion of cooking to showcase local, seasonal, impeccably fresh ingredients is nothing new (“We’ve been doing that at home for generations,” a bemused peach grower once assured me), but it wasn’t until a decade ago, when winemaker Len Pennachetti opened the restaurant On the Twenty next to his winery, Cave Spring Cellars, that it really came to public attention. Tales of Michael Olson, the chef Pennachetti hired, cycling about the countryside persuading skeptical farmers and market gardeners to sell to him directly (instead of packing their harvest off to Toronto) or to plant unusual crops specifically for his kitchen have assumed the status of legend.

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