As tough as the pandemic has been, I have discovered a silver lining – finding treasures in my own backyard.
My husband and I drove one and a half hours west of Toronto and came to the lush, rolling hills of Oxford County, known as the Dairy Capital of Canada. The towns in this region included Woodstock, and Tillsonburg and agri-activities abounded.
Swinging into Makkink’s Flower Farm, outside of Tillsonburg, I was met by owner Hilde Makkink. She showed me the bright, colorful bouquets available for sale in her farm store, but I opted for the “pick-your-own experience.” As she set me up with clippers and a bucket, I learned a bit of her story. “I came to the area 12 years ago from Holland. Originally this was a hobby farm with chickens,” she said. Seven years ago, she took the plunge and, with the help of her husband and four boys, the property is now entirely flowers. She raises 35 varieties including peonies, sunflowers and dahlias. Surprisingly, tulips were not on the list. “I know, I’m Dutch, but tulips come early and don’t last,” she explained.
Just up the road, was Bre’s Fresh Market. Bre Van Moerkere started out 12 years ago with a roadside stand, and now the market is a destination for people wanting to stock up on local produce, cheese, eggs, meat, baked goods and preserves. “She convinced her dad to plant some sweet corn for her own little market. Both sets of Bre’s grandparents came from Belgium in the 1950s and farmed tobacco and corn. Then her parents got into cash crops” explained her husband Kyle Gillespie.
Lunch was at nearby Oxford Hills Golf Course. The clubhouse was under construction, but golfers were on the links and the patio was jumping. Local chef Eric Boyar, who also owns Woodstock’s upscale 639 restaurant, created the menu and we had a delectable starter of duck confit and Gunn’s Hill Oxford Harvest cheese croquettes, followed by charcoal grilled steak lettuce wraps.
The Woodstock Art Gallery provided a taste of the region’s culture. Head of collections Nell Wheal took us on a tour of the 1879 building, originally a department store. “We feature Canadian artists, mostly from the region and have 1,900 art objects in our collection,” she noted. I was especially taken with the Impressionist-influenced work of Florence Carlyle who grew up in Woodstock in the late 1800s.
Down the street at Habitual Chocolate shop owner Philippe Lehner was creating a myriad of treats. He produces 17 dark chocolate and three milk chocolate bars made from fair trade cocoa beans from around the world including Peru, Mexico, and Papua New Guinea. “I partner with four other chocolatiers to bring in a shipping container of beans that we split. That way we know exactly where the beans come from,” he explained. From roasting and grinding the beans to packaging, Lehner does it all in his small store. His bars are also in speciality shops between Woodstock and London.
By this time, we had built up a thirst. At Upper Thames Brewing Company, an independent operation, Linden Lockhart was behind the bar and guided me through a tasting flight. “You have to try this one,” Lockhart said, pushing a thimble of dark liquid towards me. It was like dessert in a glass. “It’s our Chocolate Stout. The beer is aged with Ivory Coast cacao nibs we source from Habitual Chocolate,” he explained.
Chateau la Motte was our BnB for the night. The Queen Anne revival home was built in 1895 by Thomas Leopold Willson, the inventor of the process used to make calcium carbide. Owner Alida Joubert welcomed us warmly and showed us to the Louw Room, a generous sun-filled space with French-inspired décor and a charming little balcony.
We strolled to Finkle Street Tap & Grill for a dinner of wood-fired pizza and sat on the patio sipping wine as the stars came out.
The next morning, we drove a little outside of town to Gunn’s Hill Cheese. Owner Shep Ysselstein learned his craft in Switzerland and he sources all his milk from the family dairy farm next door. My favorites were Handeck, a Swiss mountain hard style, 5 Brothers which is similar to a Dutch gouda, and Brigid’s Brie, mild and creamy in the French style.
As well as being dairy rich, Oxford County is home to a number of other agri-businesses. At Berrylicious Fruit Farm Wendy Colcuc and husband Don grow blueberries, elderberries and raspberries. They offer a number of experiences and we had booked Picnic in the Patch. After picking a bucket of blueberries to take home, we dug into a delicious lunch of flatbread smothered in raspberries, blueberries and Gunn’s Hill cheese, elderberry-infused lemonade and a dessert of lemon/blueberry shortcake. We noticed a tractor pull up with a big load of elderberries. “The first year we harvested, 2006, we destemmed 1,800 pounds of berries by hand. Today we use machines and do 2,000 pounds in a day,” Colcuc explained.
Driving north for 20 minutes we reached Udderly Ridiculous, a dairy goat operation that offers a Taste of Farm Life experience. Cheryl Haskett, who runs the farm with her husband Greg, explained, “We started with 300 goats and now we have 1,500.” The farm also has pet lamas, alpacas and chickens. “This is Finn, and this is Stanley,” said Cheryl motioning to two young alpacas. Handing us a lead for each animal, we walked the fields to a spot where Cheryl gave us a rundown of the farm’s history as we nibbled cow and goat cheese.
The big draw for me at the farm was the goat milk ice cream. “My flavors are for foodies,” Cheryl explained. I dipped my small spoon into samples of Peachy Mango, Lemon Cream, Raspberry, Vanilla Bean Lavender, Spiced Pumpkin, Coffee & Craft Brew, and Wine & Dark Chocolate, savouring the velvety rich concoctions. Cheryl is mindful to source ingredients from local producers including Upper Thames Brewery and Habitual Chocolate. No wonder Udderly Ridiculous goat milk ice cream won the dessert category in the 2019 Grand Prix of New Products in Canada. It is now available in select grocery stores across the country.
Thinking of going to Oxford County? Your taste buds will thank you.
For more details check tourismoxford.ca
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