Tag Archives: Sandbanks Provincial Park

The Great Canadian Cheese Festival

3 Jul

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A few weeks ago, I posted a reader’s offer for discounted tickets to the Great Canadian Cheese Festival.

Naturally I had to venture up to Picton, in Prince Edward County, to check it out myself; let’s put the delayed report down to an epic cheese and wine coma.

The festival calls itself the “biggest artisan and homestead cheese show in Canada”, and 36 cheesemakers turned up to show off their produce, all made with the milk of Canadian cows, goats, sheep and water buffalo, using no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives, and no modified milk ingredients.

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I was there on the first day of the weekend-long cheese-fest. There were so many samples being thrust politely in my direction, it was hard to know where to start, but the rich, creamy Maple Dale “aged” (Canadian for “mature”) cheddar was a big hit, as was the Dandelion wine jam by Henderson Farms, based on nearby Wolff Island.

Major Craig’s Inc put together a hearty charcuterie plate, and the four cheese wood fired pizza by the Flatbread Pizza company ensured that we didn’t go short of a square – or, rather, circular – meal.

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Prince Edward County is, of course, famous for its wineries, so there was plenty of booze to keep everyone merry. The Waupoos ice wine cider was the perfect cooler in the sticky end-of-Spring weather, but the Pinot Gris by solar-powered Redtail Vineyards, and the draught beers by Church-Key Bewery were also appreciated. Luckily, I had a designated driver.

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There were also cute goats:

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And a one-week old bull; the farmer raved about its breeding, I was mainly impressed by its eyelashes:

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After filling our chops with rich food, it would’ve been rude not to show off our expanded bellies at nearby Sandbanks Provincial Park, which boasts the world’s largest freshwater sandbar and dunes.

The park’s beautiful enough in the winter, but it’s even easier to admire its transparent water while wading knee-deep in the absurdly warm lake, or lounging on the rippled white sand.

Sandbanks Provincial Park

Sandbanks Provincial Park, courtesy of Kate Brown on Flickr

I’m slightly in love with Prince Edward County, so the cheese festival was the icing, or maybe the mascarpone, on the cake.

What’s weird is that, despite being just over two hours from Toronto, tons of city-dwellers have never been to Prince Edward County and, in some cases, seem unsure as to where it actually is. It’s a lovely corner of Ontario well worth a daytrip or weekend break not only for its beaches but also for its wineries, cycling, camping and – as I now appreciate – cheese.

In search of wine

4 Dec

You can’t find a bottle of plonk for much less than $15 (£9.30) in Canada. And if you can, you probably don’t want to drink it.

It took me months to come to terms with this, and many fruitless hours of searching the shelves for a label cheap enough to sustain my midweek wine habit. There are certain rituals to which I’ve become accustomed over the years – just like the Queen, but her vices probably don’t involve £4 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc.

The high prices suck. But a seasoned expat offered some sage advice when I first arrived, concerning  relocation-related annoyances: “Don’t think of it as stupid or backwards, just see it as different.” Wise words.

The history bit

I was surprised to learn that the reason for the hiked-up wine harks back to the prohibition era, when bootleggers compelled the authorities to enforce strict controls over the sale of liquor which, to this day, is regulated by provincial agencies.

In practical terms this means you can’t pile wine into your supermarket trolley or pick up a quick bottle from the all-night offie – you can only get it from official Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores, or from wineries. You can’t even import more than a case of wine from another province within Canada. This means there’s a monopoly, which means high prices.

You’re probably thinking: “That’s stupid! Backwards!” No, no, remember: Just “different”.

The LCBO also has a paternalistic mission to curb alcohol consumption and it claims the mark-ups generate revenue for health and education services.  Others argue the government would save more money by axing a $300m a year bureaucracy and privatising liquor retail sales.

But this long pre-amble, whilst fascinating I’m sure, is just background info. It helps to explain our trip to the Prince Edward County wineries last weekend – the original point of this post.

Prince Edward County

PEC’s a two-and-a-half hour drive north east of Toronto and, since the early 2000s, has attracted a growing wine industry thanks to its rich soil, cheap land and the temperature-moderating effect of Lake Ontario.

It’s also home to Sandbanks Provincial Park, which bills itself as “the world’s largest fresh water sand bar and dune system”. Also known as a bloody big beach:

Sandbanks Provincial Park Prince Edward County

December probably isn’t the prime time to visit Sandbanks

There are now over 30 wineries, most of which are pretty small – too small to get their products onto LCBO’s shelves and, since selling elsewhere isn’t an option, their customers have to go to them.

Attracting bus loads of wine fans in the winter, when the more established Niagara region’s closer to Toronto, isn’t easy, so they came up with the “weekend wassail”. This sounds like something from a Thomas Hardy novel, but there was no sign of mead, peasants  or ill-fated heroines. Instead, there was lots of free (woo!) wine, rum balls, s’mores, mini beef Wellingtons, spiced cider and carol singing.

Prince Edward County wine map

Where to go

The fact the wineries aren’t overly commercialised made for a really personal experience – maybe slightly too personal in one case, when the two of us were forced to sing a carol of our “choice” in exchange for wine and my husband chose the famously easy-to-sing Good King Wenceslas. The owner was good enough to reward my tuneless mumbling with a fruity Chardonnay. I don’t normally enjoy Chardonnay, but the ones in PEC seemed to be less oak-ey and crisper than normal.

Naturally we treated ourselves to a few choice bottles…well we were bound to be getting some sort of discount, straight from the supplier, right?

Our stash

Our stash

Lots of the wineries are clustered together in the west, and it’s possible to tour them by bike. I might save that for a weekend when it’s not minus 6.

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