Of all the harbingers of spring – new blossoms, sunnier skies, and baby animals – none is as innately and literally sweet as the new batch of maple syrup. If you find yourself in the Central Counties from late March through mid-April, you’ll want to join in the celebrations of the return of nature’s sweetener. This year’s Taste of Maple event has something for everyone – whether you’re a family looking to reconnect with wholesome days gone by with a horse-drawn maple farm tour, a couple in search of a romantic meal at a hidden gem, or a group of friends looking to nourish your artistic or culinary side with a class.
This past weekend I hit the road and toured several of the Taste of Maple offerings in Erin and Orangeville. Given my particular interest in culinary adventures and local ingredients, I decided to take an afternoon cooking class at the Friendly Chef in Erin, followed by an amazing dinner at the Barley Vine restaurant. In between, I had to stop by a chocolate shop and a cidery to pick up some sweet and savoury maple goodies for the drive home.
The Friendly Chef
The first stop on my Taste of Maple excursion was The Friendly Chef in the charming town of Erin. Offering local food and wine tours, catering, and prepared food from this main street store front, Chef Pam Fanjoy leads hands-on workshops in a special teaching kitchen. The classes are based around themes – often seasonal – including several maple syrup menus this time of year.
Proving maple isn’t just for desserts and breakfast foods, our class menu featured candied maple bacon to top up a baked potato and stuffed pork tenderloin with a maple-sweetened sauce. The six class members gathered around the prep table to work together in dicing, sautéing, and searing our meal – all with Chef Pam’s expert guidance. We learned more than just how to follow her recipes, but also key techniques (such as how to trim a pork tenderloin) and how to properly plate food like a professional.
Chef Pam leads a friendly, informal class, where participants are encouraged to ask questions, volunteer their own ideas and experience, and get their hands dirty. There’s certainly a wide range of topics discussed in class from great local suppliers and restaurants to new gourmet products on the market. Great discussions spring from Chef Pam’s wide ranging background in tourism, culinary service and arts, social work, and community gardens. (She helped bring the community garden concept to Ontario while working at an Ontario food bank and has incorporated cooking classes into therapy with individuals with eating disorders.)
Needless to say, there were lots of happy exclamations when we tasted our creations: “This is the best bacon I’ve ever had!” and “I’m definitely making this sauce at home.” Though we had a few bites of our meal to try there, we also got to-go packages with a full meal to take home. A gourmet, ready-made lunch is not a bad way to start the week!
If you like the sounds of a maple crumble tart with cream cheese icing or a deluxe Belgium waffle brunch dish, there are two more maple classes coming up at the Friendly Chef on April 6 and 13.
Chocolate, Baking, and Cider
With a savoury meal tucked away from my cooking class, next on the agenda was picking up something sweet. Debora’s Chocolate right next door to the Friendly Chef was just the ticket. A special melt-in-your-mouth, limited-time truffle has a delicious secret ingredient (okay, not that secret – it’s bacon from the butcher next door). As soon as you bite into this treat, the maple bacon filling comes oozing out, so you’ll have to quickly pop it in your mouth (not that you’ll complain). The Chocolate Shop in Orangeville also has some great maple treats, including maple butter cream chocolate truffles.
Next up, I headed off the beaten track to one of the best hidden gems in Ontario: the Spirit Tree Estate Cidery. With a stunning stucco façade and a lofty, warm interior, this cidery has that high-end winery feel. Along with their amazing selection of hard, sweet, and sparkling ciders and wood-fired-oven breads, the Spirit Tree has a couple maple-specific offerings. Saddle up to their casual, yet chic bar in their café for a maple walnut scone washed down with an iced cider cocktail in a maple-rimmed glass.
The Barley Vine
Orangeville is becoming known as the place to go for an affordable, but memorable meal to end a satisfying day trip in the Hills of the Headwaters. One of the new kids on the main block is The Barley Vine Rail Co. A converted nineteenth-century railway station, the Barley Vine offers everything from housemade pub fare (bison burger) to comfort food with a twist (lamb shepherd’s pie) to gourmet plates (butternut squash gnocchi).
After a day exploring maple events, classes, and shops across the region, I had worked up an appetite for the three-course maple tasting menu currently on at The Barley Vine. You start with scallop appetizer, elegantly presented on a long plate where each tender scallop is placed on a bed of pulled pork with a dollop of creamed parsnip. For mains, you can choose from salmon or duck, each sprinkled with bacon and walnuts and served with a mustard-maple vinaigrette. Both meats were perfectly moist and cooked to perfection. The Barley Vine is known for its small plate desserts – each only $3 and designed for ordering several to share. However, you may not feel like sharing when you dip into the soft panna cotta topped with a generous spoonful of thick maple syrup (from Old Country Farm in Dufferin) and a maple-leaf-shaped ginger cookie.
If you want to try all the region has to offer when it comes to restaurants’ maple ingenuity, you’ll definitely want to come out to the Orangeville Dinner Series on April 7 (buy tickets in advance). You get a five-course chef’s menu, with each course featuring maple syrup and found at a different local restaurant, including Mono Cliffs Inn, the Barley Vine Rail Co., One99 Restaurant, Soulyve, and Ray’s 3rd Generation Bistro Bakery.
Must-Attend Events on Now
There’s more than just great dining and cooking classes at A Taste of Maple. Of special interest to families, there are the quintessential maple fests in Orangeville (complete with food and craft vendors) and at the Island Lake Conservation Area (with all-day breakfast, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and tours of the maple bush). For a full listing of participating stores, events, and restaurants, visit the Central Counties website.
If you’re looking to celebrate all aspects of one of Ontario’s most notable culinary exports, look no further than Central Counties’ A Taste of Maple. There’s something wholesome, historic, educational, delicious, and sweet for everyone.
Caitlin Carpenter is the Founder of Days Out Ontario, a trip planning website and travel blog. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.