The quest for great food and drink leads to many innovative, hands-on culinary experiences across southwestern Ontario. The region offers a treasure trove of ways to appreciate the passion and artistry of local producers.
Experiential tourism is flourishing as people look for meaningful encounters with what they eat, says Shep Ysselstein, owner of Gunn’s Hill Cheese, a small artisan cheese maker nestled within the rolling hills of Oxford County.
Gunn’s Hills is catering to this growing demand by giving cheese fans a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to create award-winning cheese.
In its Affinage 101 workshop, guests have the opportunity to wash rounds in the aging room, taste cheese at various stages of maturation, and finish with a tasty fondue.
“People really love it,” Ysselstein says.
“It’s an authentic experience that gives them a chance to do something unique.”
At Chocolatea in Ingersoll, owner Cindy Walker allows those who have signed up for Truffle Camp to come into her kitchen and roll up their sleeves to uncover the secrets of artisan chocolate making. This activity involves plenty of sampling, of course, and the opportunity for guests to assemble 12 of their own creations.
“Everyone enjoys getting their hands literally covered in chocolate,” she says.
The truffle-making workshop also gave Walker the chance to share her passion for local ingredients, like cream and lavender, and the partnerships she has formed in the area.
“I am a very hands-on person, so it only made sense that I offer what I love to do,” she says.
Vanessa Stewart, owner of Vanessa’s Bees, echoes the sentiment.
The apiary tour and honey-tasting activity her company hosts at Long Point Eco-Adventures, in Port Rowan, has been getting a lot of ‘buzz.’
Guests of all ages have had the chance to slip into beekeeping suits and explore the inner workings of beehives.
“They come away with a new appreciation for such a tiny little bug with a bad reputation – thanks to stings,” Stewart says.
“The stories of honey bees' natural history and behaviours are really impressive and participants are quite fascinated by what they learn. They’re also surprised to find out that honey from different plant species have varying flavours.”
Sharing her knowledge and raising awareness of the contribution bees make is important for Stewart.
“I want to provide an opportunity for more people to understand bees and what they provide for us.”
Bringing attention to environmental issues is also something that motivates David Schonberger, owner of Ottercreek Woodworks, in Burgessville.
The From Tree to Table experience takes guests on a guided walk through the Carolinian forest before heading to the workshop to design and make their own live-edge charcuterie board with expert guidance on how to use a variety of woodworking tools.
“It gives me a chance to shine the spotlight on the important role of the forest,” Schonberger says, “and … why it needs to be preserved.”
The response from guests to his experience has been overwhelmingly positive, Schonberger says. In fact, he recently earned Ontario’s Southwest 2018 Innovative Experience of the Year award.
He says many participants leave comments about memories that working with wood evokes. “[The experience] leaves them with a full heart,” he adds.
I am a very hands-on person, so it only made sense that I offer what I love to do.— Cindy Walker, Owner, Chocolatea
For those seeking to learn more about the culinary and cultural highlights of London, one of Ontario’s largest cities, try Experiential Walking Tours.
Throughout the tour, a local culinary expert tells the stories and history behind a city that has earned a reputation as a dynamic destination for food lovers.
“Visitors appreciate the fact that we go the extra mile to connect locals and visitors to homegrown artisan, small-batch products or an authentic hands-on gastronomic experience,” says Bryan Lavery, whose company Lavery Culinary Group created the tours.
Attendees enjoy curated culinary experiences, such as pop-ups, a tasting tour of Covent Garden Market that concludes with a cooking class, or an interactive tour of the Fork of the Thames.
Another destination with a rich history is Windsor. The Drinks of Walkerville tour traces the city’s roots with an exclusive hands-on tour of Hiram Walker & Sons. Participants are invited to sip four types of whiskies inside the J.P. Wiser’s Brand Centre and understand why the city is called ‘Whiskeytown Canada.’
Visitors appreciate the fact that we go the extra mile.— Bryan Lavery, Owner, Lavery Culinary Group
Then it’s off to Walkerville Brewery for a look at the brewing process and a visit to local hangout F&B for a sampling of two craft cocktails that are prepared by an expert mixologist.
Beer enthusiasts looking to learn more should sign up for Brewer for a Day at The Grove Brew House, a craft brewery in downtown Kingsville. Join the knowledgeable brewery team and be put to ‘work’ learning, eating and tasting, plus lunch or dinner and a beer flight.
Participants leave with more than just memories. They’ll take home a 20-litre keg, or a 10-litre equivalent in cans.
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