A PRINCE OF A COUNTY. Ontario’s Prince Edward County
A PRINCE OF A COUNTY. Ontario’s Prince Edward County
Ontario’s Prince Edward County has gone from being virtually unknown a decade or so ago to winning the attention of foodies and wine connoisseurs near and far. The area’s allure in the past had been its giant sand dunes, quaint towns and nature trails. Now chefs and winemakers are flocking here to set up shop and take advantage of The County’s fertile appeal. Fast on their heels are the tourists.
I wanted to attend Chef Jamie Kennedy’s Saturday Farm Dinner Series this summer and had to delay until September in order to get a room in The County. This small farming region that juts into Lake Ontario south of Belleville is so popular, accommodation books up months in advance as I discovered.
The Drake Devonshire Inn, a 13-room boutique hotel with a restaurant and bar is the country sister to hip Drake Hotel in downtown Toronto. Built in a converted 19th-century foundry, it’s got city folks buzzing with excitement. I couldn’t find a single weekend available on any date I tried but then that worked out to be a stroke of luck. I ended up booking at the newly opened Wilfrid Boutique Farmhouse and it was terrific.
This 1850’s restored farmhouse is on four acres of farmland with century old barns, a vegetable patch and laying hens running about the place. Hosts Frank (a chef/sommelier) and Nancy (a designer) are fun, warm and welcoming. Frank had a restaurant in Quebec so the breakfasts are well beyond the norm - really delicious and expertly prepared. We loved the fresh eggs from their own chickens so much we begged a dozen off Frank to take home.
Our room, The Double Suite, had two bedrooms, a large bathroom with big walk in shower and plenty of space to sprawl out. At night Frank lit a big bonfire outside where we sat with him and fellow guests chatting away while darkness fell, our conversations assisted by local spirits and wines.
And great wines were not far away: the place is in walking distance from three award winning vineyards Exultet Estates, Lighthall and Long Dog. The spirits (Duck Island Rum, Pine Vodka and Gilead Brandy) we picked up at Gilead Distillery, a 20 minute drive away.
The Jamie Kennedy dinner was held at Chef’s J.K. Farm in Hillier on the west side of Prince Edward County about 40 minutes away on country roads. For that we took local taxis.
The evening began at 5 p.m., with a chance to walk around the organic gardens and fields, up to the vineyard ridge (planted with pinot noir). Sparkling wines, canapés and Chef Kennedy’s famous irresistible fries were served as we wandered around.
As usual Chef Kennedy brought creativity and service excellence to the table. Anyone who has ever dined at his highly popular former restaurants in Toronto namely Palmerston, JK ROM, JK Wine Bar, JK at the Gardiner and Gilead Cafe + Wine Bar, knows how good his food can be.
This summer Chef Kennedy turned his focus back to his County farm to draw inspiration from the landscape and the bounty that thrives in its unique terroir. Every week was a different interpretation of fresh ingredients and local beverages selected from the fields, streams and lakes of Prince Edward County. While we (60 customers) were seated at long wooden tables in a rustic atmospheric barn our superb dinner was prepared and cooked outside (despite a severe thunderstorm that knocked out power in a nearby town). The last dinner of this series is October 8, but Chef will be doing this again next summer so stay tuned.
The soil here is special. It’s more rock than earth and winters are so bitter in this rural region that vines must be buried or “hilled up” every fall. Kennedy told me he failed to do that last winter and lost his entire crop. Nonetheless farming has deep roots here. Empire Loyalist settlers over two hundred years ago were the first to break ground in the area and in the 1870’s there was even a winery in Hillier.
What makes the area so special is the stony soil on limestone bedrock. County winemakers swear this gives a cherished minerality to the taste of the wines. Many of the world’s famous wine regions are equally renowned for their rocky soils such as the stony fields of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the steep slippery slate slopes of Mosel and the brown slate and rocks of Spain’s Priorat which add a magical taste to the local wines.
It is Ontario’s newest Designated Viticultural Area (VQA) - the youngest officially recognized wine-grape growing region in Ontario – and it now boasts over 30 wineries open for business this summer. In 2000 there was just a single apple based winery, County Cider. Waupoos Estates winery which opened their doors in 2001 officially made the first wine from grapes since Empire Loyalist days.
I visited County Cider on this trip as I know that their cider is delicious. Set on the brow of the Waupoos escarpment and nestled amongst their pretty Shingle Ridge Vineyard, their patio has a gorgeous view of Lake Ontario. During the season May to November The Patio Restaurant serves wood-fired pizza, charcuterie, salads, soups and dips. As it happened the day my husband and I showed up, the sun was shining and a jazz band lead by singer Miss Robin Banks was playing. Divine. As is the whole PEC experience.