On a recent weekend visit to Prince Edward County, I had the opportunity to experience some of the great accommodations, food and wine. I was amazed and impressed how vibrantly this region has grown since my last visit.
Our visit started with our arrival at the historic Merrill Inn. Located on a county road leading to the Loyalist route, the Merrill Inn is a historic property which was built in 1878 and is notable for its attractive gingerbread-trimmed gables. Each of the rooms is beautifully appointed with attractive linens, period antiques and updated fittings.
The aroma of fresh-baked cookies led us toward the reception at the rear of the Inn. We were greeted by owner and innkeeper Edward Shubert, who was a constant presence throughout our short stay. After visiting some of the local attractions, we headed back to the Inn for a gourmet dinner prepared by chef Michael Sullivan. The Inn’s restaurant is located in a cosy room with a view to the courtyard and herb garden. The chef uses local ingredients wherever possible, and the wine list is replete with County wines. We enjoyed a range of delightful appetizers (beet and orange salad, and delicious crab cakes), followed by main courses (such as fresh Ontario pickerel or shrimp and scallop saffron risotto) which were a feast for the eyes and the palate. And the desserts we chose (chocolate pudding and apple tarte tatin) were superb. Edward, the ever-attentive host, orchestrated the excellent service.
Our overnight stay was quiet and restful. Breakfast the next morning included a wide variety of fresh baked breads and pastries, fruit, yogurt and cereal, as well as French toast and sausages for those who couldn’t resist one more indulgence. Amy Shubert kindly provided one of Chef Michael’s recipes that appeared in the June's Savvy eZine (a mini magazine that all subscribers of Savvy Selections recieve with their wine), featuring Black Prince Winery.
Prince Edward County has a long history of settlement, and of various forms of agriculture. There is evidence of winemaking as far back as the 1850s, with vineyards now growing on former fruit orchards. And a tradition of cheesemaking, which includes a number of local cooperatives, is being taken up by newcomers such as Petra and Shawn Cooper, owners of Fifth Town Cheese. We spent an interesting couple of hours visiting Fifth Town’s dairy and tasting their cheese.
Petra led the tour of the dairy, which was opened less than a year ago, in July 2008. She is rightfully proud of their Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) status, and of the wide variety of handmade artisanal cheeses they produce. She indicated that their ‘green’ certification applies not only to the buildings, but to the cheese-making process, which is very energy intensive, and requires the disposal of significant amounts of waste water.
Eighty percent of the building is made with foodgrade recycled or recycleable materials. An example is the building shell, constructed of “durisol” blocks which are made with recycled wood fibre and green cement. They do not harbour moisture, as the insulation is within the block, and they are fireproof. Other environmental initiatives on the 20-acre site include a geothermal heat pump which preheats all their wash water, solar panels and a small windmill which generate green power, and a 10,000 litre cistern which captures rainwater. A constructed wetland acts as a natural processing facility for whey and waste water from the cheese making process. In addition, they grow hay and alfalfa which are used as feed for the goats and sheep raised by their farm partners.
Petra indicated that their facilities are regularly inspected by CFIA (Canada Food Inspection Agency), but that since their cheeses are handmade, they have little risk of listeria infection as this bacteria tends to grow inside machinery. Their sophisticated pasteurizing room provides for flash pasteurization of all cheeses for exactly 17 seconds. Petra indicated that their longer term goal is to make raw milk cheeses as well, but this must wait for suitable milk from their producers.
Their aging caves are constructed of cement covered with mounds of earth. Geothermal tubes were installed within the raw cement walls to allow some heating in the coldest months of winter. Otherwise, the caves naturally maintain a temperature range of 12-15 degrees to allow aging and the formation of natural rinds. High humidity (85-95%) and periodic air changes are also required for natural aging of the cheeses. Soft ripened cheeses spend 7-14 days in the caves, while hard rinds spend a minimum of 3 months, and up to 9-12 months.
After learning about the cheese making process, we were ready for truck bed tasting with Andrew Laliberte (Cheese Somelier) in the milk receiving area. We tasted 5 cheeses, from the soft creamy bagel chevre to the 7-month aged Fellowship hard rind cheese. Each was matched with a complementary wine, such as The Grange of Prince Edward County's Trumpour’s Mill Pinot Gris VQA with the Lighthall Tome cheese (one of our purchases!). Andrew discussed the three sources of the distinticve flavors in cheese: primary, based on the material you use (in this case goat or sheep milk); secondary, created by the processing method (for instance curd cheese, versus feta-like cheese, versus cheddar); tertiary, the aging process (examples such as soft-ripened cheese or hard rind cheese). He also expressed his opinion that most cheeses are best matched with white wines, although some of the older, harder cheeses will match with red wines like Pinot Noir.
If you’re a lover of cheddar cheese and you’re in the County, don’t miss a visit to the Black River Cheese Co-operative, which offers a wide range of mild, medium, old and extra old cheddar, as well as flavored cheddars and cheeses from other local producers. We selected a 6-year old cheddar from among the many types of cheese, as well as some delightful thin currant oatmeal biscuits produced by County Crackers.
Thinking of matching our cheese to a suitable wine, we headed out to a relatively new winery in the County, Sugarbush Vineyards, owned and operated by Sally and Robert Peck. Sally is a wonderfully outgoing woman with a young family and a passion for her new vocation. Neither she nor husband Rob had any grape growing or wine making experience when they decided to move back to the County from Alberta (Rob is a native son). They had visited the Okanagan 10 or so years ago, and so the dream of owning their own vineyard began. Says Sally, “It seemed so romantic, but when you start working in the vineyard, you realize that you’ve become a farmer!”
They have a large property with 8 acres under vine (the vines are now 7 years old), and opened their tasting room about 2 years ago. They have planted only vinifera varietals, including Gewurtztraminer, Chardonnay, Gamay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. This year, they will be receiving their first 2 oak barrels, and plan to age their Pinot Noir in barrel. The tasting completed, we left with bottles of the aromatic Gewurtz and the fruity, well-extracted Gamay.
If you’re planning a trip to the County, we recommend a stay at the Merrill Inn. If you need any suggestions of County wineries to visit, contact us and we will provide you our 'must visit' list of wineries and restaurants to visit.