Every region, no matter how modest, has its own food culture, its own local, quirky, insistent ways of being culinary.
Last weekend we escaped the city for a weekend, and headed up to Haliburton Highlands. Night fell as we drove, past mysterious dark lakes and cottages closed-up for the season, and the sharply jutting rocks of the Precambrian shield.
We woke to grey light, bare trees like lithograph etchings and a quiet we hadn’t experienced in a while. After yet another regrettable B&B breakfast (mocha parfait, muffins, apple bake – a hypoglycemic’s nightmare!) at the erroneously named Chalet in the Woods (try Chalet in a Subdivision), we drove curving highways and explored all manner of local.
The Wintergreen Maple Syrup Barn on Highway 121, despite the grim sign in front announcing a “Christmas Social” (in early November!), was a find. Rows of jars of pickled vegetables, jams and vinegars glowed in the pale light. I went home with blueberry wine vinegar and pumpkin-ginger marmalade.
Lambs and Ivy Antiques barn, further down the highway, was a museum of nostalgia, with books, glassware and furniture forming uneasy, unplanned still lifes. But if we hadn’t stopped there I would never have found Norm’s Smokehouse next door, complete with Norm and his pals clad in their “Haliburton dinner jackets” (their line not mine).
What’s good? I asked. I never really got an answer. Norm harrumphed, brusquely. This. Is. Wild. Local. Smoked. Fish. was all he said.
It’s neither good nor bad, in his way of thinking; it doesn’t deign to market itself. But in a word, his fish is stunning, and yet as ordinary and as lovely as the inside of the shop itself.
Our lunch destination was Harmony Farm Market just outside of Kinmount, where we got the best and simplest meal of our trip, a light flavourful quiche and a fresh green salad, served by a nervous, elegant and overdressed waitress.
We hung out and read The Saturday Globe and Mail, discussing our reluctant hopes for the new American regime, and waiting for sun that would make us want to go hiking in the cold.
We managed a slow 3k walk in the woods on the way back to our b&b. The sun was low and moody in the sky, forming lines of light from behind bare trees. Small ponds and lakes appeared before us like winking eyes, then disappeared again.
The knots in our stomachs and minds unravelled. The irony of our brutally demanding jobs is that they allow us to do trips like this and hear water rippling and fields sighing, the last sibilant whispers of fall.
Dinner was odd and yet special at the same time. We made reservations at Corner Cafe Ristorante, only to arrive at an empty joint lined with snapshots of diners past. A crusty lady in a stained white T-shirt and beige sweatpants handed us menus and said there were no specials, not now, not ever. It was Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Kitchen Nightmare. Out of the corner of my eye I realized that photos of the late Pope (the one before this one) were tacked to the walls as well and I stifled a scream.
But the rose sauce was lusciously homemade, The Girlfriend’s veal was delicious (or so she said) and Sandy, the proprieter, told us the slow and winding story of how she ended up in West Guilford, but only when we asked. There was a kind formaility to the way she served the food, and a sweetness to her offering to take our photo. There was pride in every gesture of hers, just the same way there was in Smokehouse Norm’s gruff manner.
There was love and pride and eccentricity, and all kinds of delicious, in the food of Haliburton County.