A region of contrasts, Waterloo is home to both the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and old order Mennonite farms where horses still provide the plowing power.
Those Mennonite farms and villages attract busloads of visitors to the rolling green hills north of Waterloo, particularly to the town of St. Jacobs, famous for its sprawling year-round farmers’ market, one of the largest in Canada. Shop for Waterloo County staples: maple syrup, apple fritters and summer sausage (a salty salami that keeps in warm weather). In a community known for its quilts and crafts, one of St. Jacob’s most unusual offerings is Hamel Brooms where traditional craftsmen make corn brooms that look fit for a witch.
If it’s authenticity that you crave, explore the back roads and villages north and west of Hwy. 7-8, between Waterloo and Stratford and you’ll make some surprising discoveries, not the least of which is Castle Kilbride: not a castle per se, but close enough to warrant curiosity. This yellow brick mansion was built on the proceeds of a flax empire. James Livingston, once a poor Scottish immigrant, became wealthy enough to have trompe l’oeil murals painted in his hallways of his new mansion. In 1878 the Berlin Daily News marveled that “the finest and most comfortable residence in the County” was built in what was then the middle of a flax field.
Baden is still a pretty modest town—even with its newly built subdivision. But like several of its Waterloo County neighbours, Petersburg, St. Agatha and Heidelberg, it is home to a historic tavern. EJ’s still boasts its original bar and pressed tin ceiling, which, according to Castle Kilbride Curator Tracy Loch, “was painted by the same artist who created the murals at Castle Kilbride. He dined at the tavern, but didn’t pay his bill, preferring to paint instead. Whether or not it’s true, we can’t be sure, but it makes for a heck of a good story.”
Snuggled into a bend in the Nith River, New Hamburg has many charms, not the least of which is its handsome downtown, a designated heritage district with a mill pond, park and what locals claim is the world’s largest wooden water wheel, although it no longer powers any of the industries in town. It’s a delight to shop for ladies wear at old fashioned Murray’s Clothes or peruse the shelves of Upper Case Books, which according to proprietor Kristen Hahn, is the old-est commercial building in town.
By contrast, in uptown Waterloo, the corner of Erb and Caroline Streets juxtaposes old and new. The vintage tour train that takes tourists on sightseeing excursions to St. Jacobs departs from in front of the Perimeter Institute. Across the road, the old yellow brick facade of the former Seagram barrel warehouse, now the Centre for International Governance, is reflected in the mirrored glass of the Balsillie School of International Affairs, proving that Castle Kilbride’s owner was only one of a long line of ambitious entrepreneurs to make their name in this region.
EAT AND SLEEP
While urban diners are rediscovering the delights of charcuterie and offal meats, eating whole hog has never gone out of fashion in Waterloo County. Witness the menu at the Old Heidelberg Inn, where plates of pigtails and trotters are enjoyed with ample mounds of mashed potatoes and sauerkraut just as they have been for decades. Washed down with a glass of the house-brewed Bavarian lager, these hearty meats have never left the menu. No fashion-forward décor at the Old Heidelberg, just a honky-tonk piano and food that schmecks. This region was after all the home of Edna Staebler, famed for her Food That Really Schmecks cookbooks. The Heidelburg is one of four historic hotels waiting to be discovered on a driving tour of the back roads north of Waterloo. You’ll find similar local delights at historic EJ’s in Baden, Kennedy’s in St. Agatha, and the Blue Moon Restaurant, a former stagecoach stop in the crossroads village of Petersburg.
Although pigtails and Limburger cheese sandwiches are old regional standbys in Waterloo, the region also has its sophisticated side. New Hamburg with a population of barely 10,000 boasts four fine restaurants, including the Puddicombe House where chef Lance Edwards makes everything from the linguine to the lemon meringue tower with lavender-scented crème Anglaise himself.
Formerly the home of businessman and Conservative senator Samuel Merner, Puddicombe House, has been lovingly restored by
proprietor Karen Cressman to its full glory. Guests now enjoy bedrooms with ceilings almost 12 feet high, canopy and four-poster beds as well as comforts unknown to the senator, including jet tubs big enough for two.
A historic former Seagram mach-ine house is now Solé Restaurant & Wine, known for its pizza oven and creative cuisine with offerings like sweet potato lasagna, conveniently located to the tour train station.
Tens of thousands of visitors flock to New Hamburg on the last Friday and Saturday in May for the Mennonite Relief Sale to bid on Mennonite quilts and snack on traditional goodies like shoo-fly pie, cream buns, sausages and more. Culinary historians take note: this year Mennonite women of Ukrainian heritage will be deep frying rollkuchen pastries in homemade fryers called “discos” after
the farm implements from which they are fashioned.
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