Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of WestJet Magazine
Head chef Matthew DeMille works hard all week in the kitchen at the Drake Devonshire Inn in Wellington, Ont.—the hip new country cousin to Toronto’s Drake Hotel. But today is his day off, and he’s up for a picnic. We hop in the car and make for his favourite visitor-friendly farms, fisheries and wineries in bucolic Prince Edward County to gather local delicacies for an outdoor family feast.
“I love Henry,” declares DeMille as we park outside the 19th-century barn just north of Bloomfield, where Henry Willis, of Humble Bread, makes his loaves. “Henry has a chef’s mindset and a county warmth.”
Willis greets us with bear hugs, grinning in shorts, T-shirt and apron, a bandana wrapped around his head. Inside, his wood-burning oven is smoldering, and the smell of freshly baked sourdough permeates the air.
The baker pulls a couple of dense loaves out of the oven for us—they’re rustic-looking, naturally leavened and made with heritage-grain flours.
“You don’t see these anywhere else,” says fifth-generation farmer Sarah Caley, who talks as fast as she weeds. She’s standing in the field, clutching a freckled romaine lettuce with green crimped leaves. She pulls red and green romaines from the earth, as well, then a couple of lush-leafed Bostons, and hands them over.
We pass potato fields and a creek bordered by great ferns and delicate lily of the valley on our tractor ride back to the car. It’s easy to see why Caley is so in love with her place of work.
“I’m going to let these beautiful lettuces shine with a simple fresh lemon juice and maple vinaigrette, with maple syrup from the County,” says DeMille, planning his picnic menu out loud.
A bouncy spaniel named Bacon is first to greet us at Lighthall Vineyards, a boutique winery and dairy in Milford, on the south end. We’re here for Lighthall’s newest offering—sheep milk cheese.
“Everything’s so creamy!” says DeMille as he sits on a log with winemaker Glenn Symons and cheesemaker Heather Robertson, nibbling on cheese.
DeMille selects The Runner for our picnic—a Chardonnay-washed soft-ripened cheese, inspired by the oozy French-Savoy Reblochon. “It picks up a little oak from the wine,” he says.
When DeMille tells me we’re visiting a fish packing and processing facility next, I’m surprised to find that it’s located in lush forest. We’re in Sophiasburgh, on the northeast shore, just off the Bay of Quinte. Fourth-generation fisher Kendall Dewey and his wife, Joanne, are laying this morning’s catch on ice: there’s perch, sunfish, crappie and pickerel from Lake Ontario.
It’s the pickerel we’re after. Dewey caught it sustainably with a trap net, harvesting the pickerel and releasing by-catch and undersized fish.
“Pickerel is substantial and meaty, but it goes well with a nice crisp salad,” DeMille explains. “And, when you buy from Kendall, most of the time the stuff you eat in the afternoon was caught the same day in the morning.”
Our last mission is to find a wine to pair with our picnic feast.
“Pickerel is a white fish, but it’s flakey and rich,” says DeMille, as we turn up a dirt road to Norman Hardie Winery. “And Norm’s Chardonnay is similar: it’s light and crisp, but also substantial.”
On his patio overlooking the vines, a sun-beaten Hardie pours us a sampling of Chardonnay. “Our wines are very European in style, mainly because we have these incredible limestone clay soils—just like Burgundy,” he explains.
We pause to sip, savouring the toasty and mineral notes of the full-bodied Chard. “The less you intervene, the more the wine tastes of the soil and the place,” says Hardie.
Taking advantage of the Drake Devonshire’s lakefront and creekside location back in Wellington, DeMille finds a peaceful spot to lay a blanket for his county picnic. DeMille’s wife, Erin, his son, Leo, and his eight-month-old daughter, Audrey, join us for an afternoon in the sun.
We tuck into fresh Hagermans greens drizzled with maple vinaigrette; Lighthall cheese-topped tartiflette—a luxurious French Savoie-inspired peasant dish of potatoes, onions, lardons and Chardonnay-washed, soft-rind sheep cheese; roasted and flakey Kendall-Dewey Fisheries pickerel; a simple sun-ripened County tomato salad; and satisfyingly dense slices of Humble Bread rustic sourdough loaf.
To wash it down, the grown-ups sip a glass of Norman Hardie County Chardonnay—the grace note to a perfect autumn day.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Toronto 94 times a day from 20 Canadian, nine U.S. and 21 international cities.