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Introducing the Great Taste of Ontario

When the coronavirus pandemic first shut down most of the province back in March, two things became clear to the team at the Culinary Tourism Alliance. One: the culinary and tourism industries would need support to survive, and two: people were leaning on food—especially local food—more than ever.

“We recognized that when it was safe to start travelling again, the focus would be hyper-local,” says Rebecca Mackenzie, president of the Culinary Tourism Alliance.

“We wanted to create a program that not only helps Ontarians fall back in love with Ontario…but continue to talk about the many different cultures that are expressed through culinary experiences here.”

Working with restaurants, wineries, farms, distilleries and tourism boards across the province, the Great Taste of Ontario promotes sustainable food and drink-focused travel in a pandemic-friendly way. Starting this October and running until December 2021, people can travel by car, bike or even foot to local hotspots to try out cuisine at participating locations they haven’t been to before, or return to places they love.

The goal is to help combat our collective cabin fever while safely supporting the businesses that have continued to nourish us throughout the pandemic. Here’s what Mackenzie had to say about why Ontarians should explore their own backyard and how they can give back to the community while doing so.

Why is it so vital that people support local businesses right now?

The impact of COVID-19 and the shutdowns has had a significant ripple effect. Culinary tourism really showcases where all of these components of our lives intersect. As soon as the restaurants closed, the distributors to the restaurants experienced massive chaos—where do you take all this food when you’ve got nobody open to buy it? And then you had farmers, who were like, ‘Where do I sell my food if all the people I was selling to are now closed?’ If we want to see some of our favorite restaurants, attractions and farmers make it through the recovery period, it’s about us paying it forward to them.

What type of experiences can people expect with the Great Taste of Ontario?

The Great Taste of Ontario is showcasing farms that have an agritourism experience, but also farmers markets, wineries, breweries, cideries, distilleries, cheese dairies and bakeries. We also want to bring attention to Feast On certified restaurants.

Why is that part of the programming?

We recognize that this is a great opportunity to let Ontarians learn more about how their food is grown. There are important issues that we really need to address as a society, such as farming organically, regenerative farming and sustainable agricultural practices. We want to support small businesses as well, because so much of Ontario is made up of independent and small businesses.

The Great Taste of Ontario operates like a bit of a fun travel game. Can you explain?

Throughout the entire program, Ontarians will be able to go to Ontarioculinary.com, look at the different destinations and itineraries, and download a passport [for where] they want to go— whether it’s a Wine Country Ontario passport, or an City of Timmins passport. When they go and check into different businesses, they get points, which can be redeemed for really great made-in-Ontario products. People can also redeem their points for donations to either Second Harvest or FoodShare.

Why is giving back to food rescue organizations so important right now?

A piece within this program is recognizing that the democratization of travel is going to take a significant step back as more people don’t have the means to travel. Some people might not have the means to feed themselves well, either. We want to continue to educate Ontarians about some of the key issues in our food systems, such as food security and food access, and encourage people who have the means to give back to those who don’t.

For people who visit various Great Taste of Ontario destinations, what health and safety measures will be in place?

The program is rooted in ensuring first and foremost that not only are the consumers safe, but the business operators are safe. People should expect to be asked for their contact information for contact tracing. Also, be prepared to sanitize hands upon entry and wear masks anywhere inside. Once you’re in your seat at your table, you’re not going to be eating with your mask on, of course. But if you’re getting up to go to the bathroom… masks back on. Social distancing will still apply. We encourage consumers to look for businesses that have taken the Dine Safe, Stay Safe, P.O.S.T. Promise or have the #SafeTravels stamp.

What’s one of the best culinary experiences you’ve had lately?

I recently went to Flame + Smith in Bloomfield in Prince Edward County. They’re very focused on supporting their local farmers. I had this fabulous meal: some beautiful salads, great steak frites and a gorgeous bottle of wine. I was sitting on the patio and had amazing service. Everything tasted like the season. It was simple, beautiful food.

as part of the Great Taste of Ontario Special Report