In a region that has always grown it’s own food, I find it amazing that Niagara doesn’t have a culinary identity. Or does it?
When we think of Italy, we think of pasta and pizza, Germany is schnitzel and sauerkraut or France, escargot and cassoulet. But when I ask people about Niagara, our identity isn’t as clear as our history could have predicted.
Ryan Crawford is chef and owner of Backhouse Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Crawford has, at different points in his career, raised his own animals, has mostly made his own cheeses, baked his own bread and is now growing his own food on his 3-acre garden plot. Whatever he is doing, he has always looked to the soil and climate of the region to define the food he serves.
Where Niagara was once the chicken capital of Ontario, Crawford claims, “vineyard lamb is now the next generation of iconic foods”. But wait. Featherstone Winery is also raising a flock of ducks and Crawford has pickled 20-litres of Niagara sour cherries in anticipation of the meal he’ll make from them. Then he wants to include some black walnuts grown down the road. He’s talking about local food, but is this a typical local dish? Crawford doesn’t like the old moniker of ‘farm-to-table’ cuisine preferring instead to use the term, ‘cool climate cuisine’. “It’s about finding out what grows best in Niagara, what gives the best flavours and developing this base of food,” explains Crawford. Like grape growers determining what grapes make the best wine in Niagara’s terroir, Crawford is doing the same thing with produce: cultivating flavours in search of the regions most delicious assets.
When it comes to flavours that can claim Niagara heritage, Catherine O’Donnell, chef and owner of Willow Cakes and Pastries talks of table grapes and stone fruit. Tender fruits like cherries, peaches, apricots and Sovereign Coronation seedless table grapes have a long and prosperous history in Niagara and O’Donnell preserves, juices and processes all she can so she can get summer flavours all year round. It’s one of Niagara’s most iconic culinary traditions.
At Willow the team of chefs puree peaches for cheesecakes, topping on tarts or filling for donuts. Fresh Niagara blueberries are frozen for compote, used to make jelly or cooked into fillings for Christmas chocolates. Cherries are juiced and used to make cherry buttercream frosting or fillings for tarts. O’Donnell is not alone in her quest to preserve the seductive flavours of Niagara’s tender fruit, over at Ravine Vineyards in St. Davids the folks there have revived their canning factory brand, Lowrey Bros.
Chef Ross Midgley has always felt that tender fruit and Niagara are synonymous, but to Ravine, it’s much more than homegrown, it’s a way of life. More than 120 years ago the Lowrey family (owners of the farm, land, winery and restaurant) once owned the canning factory, Lowrey Bros. With the revival of the brand, you can now buy Niagara only jams, pickles, sauces and canned whole fruits made from Niagara fruits and vegetables. In fact, the restaurant is housed in the farm’s original ‘canning house’. Now that’s culinary heritage!
The preserves are not only used in many dishes in the restaurant but you can also buy them in the Canning House grocery store behind the winery retail shop. “People of Niagara have been eating tender fruit their whole life and it’s become a comfort flavour for them. They may not consciously think about it, but when they eat our preserves, the flavours seem to bring up childhood memories and that’s a great thing that not many other foods can do,” says Midgley.
It’s like the pie lady on Niagara Stone Road. Each year she puts a simple table out by the roadside and sells Niagara grape pies. She uses Sovereign Coronation grapes, the seedless kind that grows in Niagara and bakes them into a pie that looks an awful lot like a blueberry pie except for the crumbly topping. You’ll know the place because of the line-up of cars on the weekends and you may think this grape pie is a delicious novelty but the reality is, that grape pie is actually part of Niagara’s lost edible history. Like Midgley says, flavours and memories: “we yearn for them”.
In addition to preserving food with a palette history, Midgley stresses the importance of supporting regional farming while cultivating a healthy local culture and family life close to home. “Local is alive and well here in Niagara. I think it always will be,” predicts a chef who like the others interviewed for this story, wouldn’t think of using anything else but Niagara’s fresh tender fruit.
Ray Taylor, the executive chef at the Fallsview Casino Resort agrees with Midgley about Niagara’s flavours and memories. Taylor talks of the pure joy one gets from enjoying a simple Niagara fruit crumble and cobbler made from peaches, cherries and apples but then he so quickly pivots to exquisite desserts crafted from Niagara’s most iconic food, icewine. “I can do from simple to exquisite because I have a clientele that demands everything from simple to exquisite,” says a chef who delights in the endless options he can create for his much loved local fruit.
But whether Taylor is making a simple cherry cobbler or an icewine laced chocolate dessert his attention to the best never wavers, “we always put away Niagara fruit to uses in all of our dishes and desserts.” Taylor brandies cherries to serve with duck, uses fruit and icewine purees on desserts and makes a luscious icewine foam for both sweet and savoury dishes. He even talks of the black walnuts grown throughout Niagara as one of his newest, most exciting foods to work with.
As I write this story it’s the beginning of October and Niagara fields are dotted with orange pumpkins, squashes and gourds, the beautiful fall vegetables that are a passion of chef and owner of The Garrison House and Zest Kitchen, David Watt. “I love the fall, the crazy squashes and the fabulous soups I can make from them. Our butternut squash, ale and cheddar soup is phenomenal,” says Watt.
Like the others in this story he also has a love affair with Niagara tender fruit but his favourite season is fall when he can work with savoury, hearty flavours. The Garrison House food is “geared to comfort food like lamb shanks with nut-brown ale. Our cooking is focused on beer. I like to do dishes that complements beer,” which brings us to another new way Niagara cuisine is evolving; from a wine region to a wine and beer region with a beer cuisine that follows.
So it seems to me that Niagara’s iconic food has always been and still remains tender fruit. If you’re thinking that’s nothing new just remember, that’s what makes it iconic! Those luscious peaches, cherries, apricots and plums are now complemented with the new generation of local foods the likes of vineyard lamb, black walnuts and an emerging beer industry.
As consumers may believe that Niagara’s iconic foods are those that evoke strong flavours and long memories, the industry is much more. Chefs are unlimited in the dishes they can create with local foods; farmers are now stretching their creative muscle and taking chances on growing new crops. Add to that the influence of culinary entrepreneurs the likes of our new brewmasters and what you get isn’t a static iconic food that represents a region. Instead you get an exquisite, creative, evolution of cuisine, culinary culture, local foods, diverse dishes and a region that leads with its palate.
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo