A Peek into Norfolk County
Ontario’s South Coast is not just a fantastic place to find delicious morsels for a day (or weekend). It has a fascinating history that includes a thorough Queer Eye-esque makeover. At its peak in the ’90s, Norfolk County was responsible for nearly all of Canada’s tobacco agriculture. In fact, tobacco was the region’s major employer until people realized smoking is the devil. Norfolk County was rocked with an identity crisis.
Everything needed to be overhauled – livelihoods, expertise, and the local persona. In many ways this scenario could have gone poorly. The federal government offered farmers buyout packages and over 1,000 farmers received funding to transition to farming different crops. Families that had been tobacco farmers for generations had to choose between retirement and reinvention. Instead of burying their heads in the sand, the community rallied and remade itself from the ground up.
Today Norfolk County is bursting with all sorts of flavours and industries thanks to the ingenuity of its inhabitants. Tobacco fields are making a small comeback due to demand in China, but today’s farmers produce a variety of crops, including ginseng, lavender, soybeans, and sweet corn. There’s also a new breed of growers, chemists, and welcoming hosts experimenting with local beer, cider and wine. Farm-to-table eating and drinking is simply everyday life.
The Best Christmas Gift
Last year for Christmas my parents gifted our family a culinary experience in Norfolk County, Ontario, Canada. Altogether there are 10 of us which makes coordinating tricky outside of birthdays and major holidays. Actually, even on those milestones one or two of our tribe is often missing. FaceTime is great, but it’s not a replacement for bear hugs, clinking glasses, and sharing clean-up duties after another epic home-cooked meal. (The irony that I’m writing this during the thick of the COVID Crisis is not lost. It’s been months without hugs from the famjam and they are high on the priority list when this is all over.) Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to a day spent together eating, drinking, and exploring local Ontario gems.
I first heard about the Norfolk region on a co-hosted edible adventure with MP Tours & Buzz Tour Company in December 2018. It took 3 words (“food and drink”) for me to agree to visit an area I knew nothing about. Winter seemed an unusual time of year to visit wine country; wine tours are for the spring and summer. Silly me. Any time of year is perfect for eating and drinking.
So, without further ado, here is where to eat and drink when you visit Norfolk County!
Sandbar on the Beach
My parents have been raving about “the best burgers we’ve ever had” for months. In fact, they’ve driven down to Norfolk County more than once, just to eat a burger. Have you ever driven over an hour to eat a burger? I haven’t.
We arrived at Sandbar on the Beach with high expectations and hungry bellies – the perfect recipe for a group that’s difficult to please. It was close to opening time when we walked in and there was plenty of room for our large party. In the summer I bet this joint fills up as soon as the doors are unlocked.
Our server was friendly, bantering as we ordered drinks and took in the humorous memorabilia. She returned with an overflowing tray of drinks that would’ve had Pavlov’s pups drooling. Being that it was midday and we were a sizable group of Canucks, someone was bound to order the quintessential Canadian Clamato concoction. Turns out a few among us were jonesing for a Caesar. Though I’m not a fan of our national hangover cure, the feast-in-a-glass was still impressive. I was told it tastes as good as it looks.
Next came the food, and I can honestly say it did not disappoint. That burger my parents have been raving about? Yup, I’d drive an hour to order one! I chowed down on a Tequila Lime Burger (pictured below), smiling the whole way. The burgers are clearly homemade, as nothing store-bought ever tastes that perfect. The thickness, the texture, the flavour…I was sold. Sandbar is a legit burger joint.
Bellies pleasantly full, and expectations surpassed, we hopped back into our rented 10-seater van, pumped for the next stop of the day. It was already a perfect start since weather predictions for a snowstorm hadn’t followed through, and sunshine greeted us everywhere.
Blueberry Hill Estates
Next up was the cozy and cheerful Blueberry Hill Estates. As with many county businesses, the folks at Blueberry Hill Estates offer a full tastebud experience and are home to a farm, winery, and event venue on Front Road in Norfolk County. My family and I enjoyed a mix and match sampling of cider and wines around a long glass table in the bright yellow tasting room. Besides their Front Road Cellars’ grape wines, they also make their Front Road Ciderworks fruit wines and hard ciders. Some of the most unique wine flavours I’ve ever tried are here. My favourite fruit wine was the Cranberry-Blueberry.
Blueberry Hill Estates is a super unique place that I hope to visit in the summer because you’re also able to pick your own blueberries! They grow more than 10 types – wild, eh? (To illustrate the extent of my green thumb, I didn’t even know there was more than one type. Anyone else out there in the same boat?) If getting your hands dirty isn’t enticing, don’t scroll past Blueberry Hill just yet! They have a market from May until September where you can purchase freshly picked blueberries.
Not only do they have blueberries, cider, and wine, but their shelves are also stocked with homemade honey, maple syrup, salsa and relish, jams and jellies, and pickled veggies. YUM! I haven’t even mentioned their pies, cookies, or tarts yet… Anyone else salivating?
By the time we left, everyone was buzzing about all of the new and unique flavours of drinks we had tried. Between the bright yellow walls, the fruity flavours, and our friendly host entertaining us with facts and stories about the farm, it was a great second stop for the day.
The land for Burning Kiln was purchased in 2007 and the winery opened in 2011. The third stop on our family taste-testing adventure had the most corporate atmosphere. However, the history of the business is fascinating and the architecture of the tasting area is beautiful. Burning Kiln was originally a tobacco pack barn, hence the name, and all of their wines are a nod to the people and industry that came before the winery.
I was excited to return, particularly to stock up on bottles I remembered from my first visit in 2018. Our host was a tall witty woman who you could easily tell loved her job educating people about the winery. Her knowledge of wine was impeccable and she fired off answers left and right to all of our questions.
We tasted a red (Cab Frank), white (Horse and Boat), and sparkling wine (Sparks), all of which are quite tasty and have a place in our wine collection at home. And by collection, I mean drawer. I’m not thaaat fancy! Remember how I mentioned that the wines are named after the people and industry of the area? Cab Frank is named after Frank, a former tobacco cureman and one of the 7 owners of Burning Kiln Winery.
Inasphere Wines is a 105 acre property overlooking the shores of Lake Erie owned by a young couple. It’s an estate winery which means that everything is done on location and by hand – that’s right, no machines! They grow vegetables (including 600,000 heads of cabbage!), as well as grapes for wine.
This wasn’t a stop on our family trip, though I did visit it briefly with MP Tours & Buzz Tour Company. It was a cold winter day, and to be honest, I don’t remember the wine from there. However, I do remember the soup we had (made from their vegetables) and it was fantastic.
Charlotteville Brewing Company
Our family arrived at our last stop for the day and hunkered down for a few drinks in Charlotteville Brewing Company‘s renovated 151 year old barn. Inside there’s a bar area with seating, high top tables, and a comfy dining table for larger groups. My siblings and their partners ordered flights of beer and compared favourites while I explored the cozy upstairs sitting area. Eventually I joined everyone and imbibed a Hounds of Erie cider while we recounted our favourite moments from the day.
Even as a non-beer drinker, Charlotteville Brewing Company has been my favourite Norfolk hangout both of the times I’ve visited the area. There is a warmth to the decor and hospitality that feels like you’re at a friend’s home. The owners, chef Melanie and brewmaster Tim, are a powerhouse duo who are partners in life as well as business. Melanie lived and worked in Italy for 7 years, is a red seal chef, brewer, and has taught culinary skills, with a focus on farm-to-table. Tim is also multi-talented, and is a professor and brewmaster. Talk about the perfect recipe for a scrumptious menu of food and drink!
One of the really neat things about Charlotteville Brewing is that everything onsite is restored, renovated, and repurposed in some way. They have a true focus on making use of materials (food included) to their max potential, maintaining sustainable practices, and expanding their creativity through the process. These are business ethics I can get behind as a customer! Did I mention that they’re also super friendly?
Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm
Ramblin’ Road Brewery Farm was the first craft brewery in the Norfolk County area. Some of you may be familiar with the famous Canadian Picard’s Peanuts. Well, John Picard, of said Picard’s Peanuts, is the brewery farmer of this unique establishment. At Ramblin’ Road, they grow their own hops, use spring water from their land, and include Canadian-grown barley and yeast to produce their craft beers. BUT! There is something even funkier and more creative about Ramblin’ Road. They make potato beer! That was not a typo. The brewers actually make a Dakota Pearl (aka potato) Ale from the starchy potato water from the production of their homemade crunchy kettle chips. Neat, eh?
I didn’t partake in tastings here because I don’t like beer, though the beer drinkers in the crowd enjoyed trying their 8 craft varieties.
Hounds of Erie Winery
Hounds of Erie Winery is a dog-friendly establishment on 23 acres of farm land owned by Mat and Melissa, a married couple originally from Kitchener-Waterloo. I have yet to visit, though I have sipped several of their crisp ciders at home. Visitors can enjoy a tasting bar, guided and self-led tours.
Bonnie Heath Estate
Bonnie Heath Estate Lavender & Winery is another one-of-a-kind enterprise found in Norfolk County. The scent of lavender and the purple decor are the first and lasting impressions you will have upon arrival. The grounds include a patio, lavender gazebo, and natural wetlands, vineyards, prairie grasses, and lavender fields to roam through. From mid-June to mid-July, Bonnie Heath Estate hosts LavenderFest while the plant is in bloom for people to learn about the farm, winery, and essential oil distillery. There is a dog on site, though other dogs are requested to stay at home.
So, Where to Eat and Drink in Norfolk County?
Whether you’re a beer drinker, cider enthusiast, burgeoning wine connoisseur, or hungry foodie, Norfolk County won’t disappoint. I’ve been twice and am hoping to visit again in the summer, whether it’s possible this year with COVID-19 restrictions beginning to lift, or in future summers. There’s nothing like enjoying delicious, fresh, thoughtful food and drink on a patio with family and friends in good weather. Thinking about it is causing my stomach to grumble and my tastebuds to water, which means it’s time for me to leave you here while I raid the fridge at home. I’m down to my second last bottle of Norfolk nectar so home delivery will have to suffice until then. Happy reading and happy tasting, friends!
From Toronto: 2 hours & 15 minutes
- Gardiner Expressway West
- Continue onto Queen Elizabeth Way
- Continue onto Queen Elizabeth Way/ON-403 W
- Keep right at the fork to stay on ON-403 W, follow signs for Hamilton/Brantford
- Take exit 27 for ON-24 S/Rest Acres Road S toward Simcoe
- Turn left onto Rest Acres Rd/ON-24 S
- Continue to follow ON-24 S
- Turn right onto Vanessa Rd/Brant County Rd 4 (signs for County Road 4/Vanessa Road/Delhi)
- Continue onto Brantford Rd/Regional Rd 418.4 kmTurn left onto Windham Road
- Turn right onto Windham West Quarter Line Rd
- Left onto ON-3 E
- Turn right onto Turkey Point Rd/Norfolk County Rd 10 (signs for Regional Road 10/Turkey Point Road/Greens Corner/Walsh)
- Right onto McDowell Rd E/Route
- Norfolk County, ON