Written & Photographed by Annie Chu
Originally posted on ChuOnThis.ca
Have you ever had one of those Monday mornings where you’re scrolling through your social media feeds and it seems like everyone around you had the Best Fall Weekend Ever? You know what I’m talking about.
Susan and her family found the best apple cider at the biggest pumpkin patch and Matt and his wife found the best hiking trail and piping hot chilli served in the freshest bread bowls. At lunchtime, they both coincidentally bring in fresh apple pies and gleefully compare the levels of nutmeg and cinnamon used, and wonder out loud whether these farm pies could ever as good as their respective grandmothers used to make.
As much as you want to hate on these people, you can’t. Deep down, everyone wants to have the best fall weekend ever.
Two weekends ago, Eric and I managed to craft as good of a fall weekend as we possibly could in Wellington County (mostly in Guelph and Elora). We did something similar last year in Durham Region, and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve become quite good at maximizing Fall’s offerings outside Toronto’s perimeter.
To start off our trip, we un-ironically drove to Whole Foods and ordered handcrafted pumpkin spice lattes. “Yes, you might be doing the whole basic thing right now, but I’m telling you, our pumpkin spice lattes are a lot better than you-know-where’s pumpkin spice lattes” our barista jokingly encouraged us. That reassurance was good enough for me. We hopped in the car, turned on the radio, plugged in “Guelph Farmer’s Market” into the GPS, and proceeded on our hour-and-a-half drive.
Guelph is a small but lively city that reflects its university culture well. There is a strong focus on agriculture, sustainability, music and literature that can be felt throughout its various bookshops, community centres, cafes and restaurants. The first and only other time I’ve ever visited Guelph was last summer when I attended the epic music festival known as Riverfest Elora. Zandra and I opted to stay in Guelph and take the shuttle to Elora for the duration of the festival.
The Guelph Farmer’s Market is a must stop on any trip to the city. Most of the market is indoors, and many of the vendors have been there for many years. The hot doughnuts were absolutely intoxicating and worth purchasing in dozens. Goat cheese, kale, baked goods and fermented vegetables? I checked all of these staples off my list. Eric’s Fall farmer’s market list usually includes a lot of apple-based products. He ended up purchasing a few bottles of hard apple cider from each of the vendors who were offering it.
For lunch, we walked over to Miijidaa Cafe + Bistro, which is one of only three Feast ON certified restaurants (recognition of dedication to sourcing and cooking with hyper-local Ontario ingredients) in town. Together with The Wooly Pub(which I did not have a chance to visit) and the Borealis Grille & Pub, these three make up The Neighbourhood Group, a self-proclaimed “group of restaurants with a difference” and a certified B Corporation. None of these establishments are particularly fancy, but they are all fiercely loved and respected by the locals.
Miijidaa has an Indigenous-Canadian driven menu with a creative, laid-back vibe. I ordered the Elk Scotch Egg ($8.99) served with a light green salad and pickled cranberries (an excellent choice) and their Hay Smoked Arctic Char ($12.99) with braised kale stems (a little bit too abstract of a dish for my liking). Eric ordered the Cured Pizza ($13.99) with wild salmon gravlax and celeriac puree served with a side kale salad (a perfectly balanced lunch option).
Dinner at Borealis Grille & Pub later that evening was similarly low-key. The outside of the restaurant is quite unassuming, but the inside is bustling with happy chatter over beer, wine, and wholesome, locally sourced food. The main dining room features a giant chalkboard sign listing all of the producers and suppliers of their proteins and vegetables. I ordered a satisfying 28-day aged striploin ($29.95) served with rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes and an arugula and charred grape tomato salad. Eric ordered their Old Smokey Burger ($17.95) with beef sourced from one of my favourite beef suppliers, YU Ranch. It was a really nice, comfortable restaurant and a place I would definitely frequent often with a group of friends or family if I lived in the area.
But before dinner, I should backtrack and walk you through our farm adventures that day. One of the main reasons we chose to travel over the weekend of September 30 was to ensure that we could participate in the Taste Real Rural Romp. This is an annual organized event that encourages families to maximize their exposure to the food and bounty of the Harvest Season in Wellington County. Anyone who wants to participate is offered a map (also available online) of all the farms and markets in the area who were doing something a little special just for this weekend. From cider tastings to corn mazes, there was something for everyone.
After we had our fill at the farmer’s market, we drove over to Eramosa to visit the well-established Thatcher Farms (which includes a butcher shop, bakery, lots of farm animals, and a farm market). You could smell the sausage and fresh baking from a mile away. Thatcher’s approach to the Rural Romp was to open up their entire back kitchen with a wide selection of generous samples of almost every prepared food they had available for sale. Their sausages and sausage pies were definitely highlights. They also partnered with Spirit Tree Cidery to create a little cider sampling for the adults while the children played with the animals and a giant farm slide.
We also visited the behemoth that is Strom’s Farm and Bakery. If you want to see what “Canadian Fall Activities” looks like on steroids (in the nicest way possible), this is it. This place has corn stalks and pumpkins (of all sizes and shapes) for days. They have a large, admission-only section for families who wanted to participate in their corn maze and farm games. They had a guy selling freshly popped popcorn. They had a partially-covered dining area serving hot soup, chilli, coffee and hot chocolate. Most importantly, they had butter tarts. I think Eric and I must’ve stood in line for about 30 minutes to get ours. Even though the line was short, the bakers simply could not keep up with the frantic volume of requests of ravenous visitors who were dying to get their hands on one (or two dozen) of Ontario’s most decadent treats.
As we sat there eating our hot butter tarts and drinking our coffee on a bench in the middle of the pumpkin patch with corn stalks waving and wagons rolling all around us, we couldn’t help but laugh at how over the top we had become.
After an overnight stay and breakfast at the fabulous Airbnb known as the EverGreen Ranch, we drove into Elora. Self-described as “Ontario’s most beautiful Village”, picturesque Elora is surrounded by rolling hills and defined by the Grand and Irvine Rivers and the Elora Gorge (a must-visit).
Riverfest Elora 2016 had some amazing food truck festival food so we never had the opportunity to eat anything in the village itself. All I really remember about last year in this village was dancing to the beats of electro-robotic performances in a legion hall after party and running umbrella-less through the torrential downpour only to be turned away at the incredibly popular and lively Elora Brewing Company because everyone else had the same idea.
On this trip to Elora, we were greeted with a perfectly blue sky and a delightful breeze. When asked if they could point us to a restaurant with outdoor seating by the river, one of the lovely gentlemen wearing his Horse & Hound polo above informed me very precisely that I had two options: The Metcalfe Inn if we wanted something a little more simple, and The Cellar Pub & Grill if we wanted something with a touch more ambiance. We went with the latter. The Cellar really is a wine cellar, and boasts a generous patio overlooking the river. Have you ever had a soup and salad with a few swans swimming all around you? You should try it sometime.
Elora was also hosting the annual charity Horse and Hound Parade this weekend. It’s rather short and sweet (one of the kids beside us exclaimed “are you sure that’s it??”) but it is a nice moment that really brings the village together.
Where else in Ontario can you get this kind of charm? If you’re seeking a cute and idyllic Ontario afternoon, Elora is perfect.
It’s Monday today, and I’m sitting in the office knowing that I did the whole “Fall thing” justice. I might have run out of butter tarts for now, but I have enough kimchi, elderflower jam and sauerkraut from this trip to last me through the next few months. I can’t wait to do it all again next year.
Getting there: Driving to Wellington County is the easiest way to get to and around the area, but you can easily take the GoTrain to Guelph from neighbouring areas as well.
Where to stay: The EverGreen Ranch is located about a 10-minute drive from Downtown Guelph and was a great AirBnB accommodation choice for us this weekend. If you’re looking for something a little more indulgent, the Walkerbrae House or London House are popular and tried-and-true choices.
For assistance planning your trip: Check out the guides at Guelph Tourism or Culinary Tourism Alliance, or check out the fun Taste Real Rural Romp map we were following. For more Feast On establishments or ideas, click here to see the rest of my posts relating to the culinary certification.