Day one: discovering drink makers and food finds in Perth!
I recently decided that one of my very favourite things about travel is the educational opportunities that present themselves whenever you step outside the geography and routines of daily life. You don’t have to travel far to find new people and places to learn about, as a recent three-day trip to Lanark County, less than an hour from Ottawa or Kingston, proved. Although I have passed through many times enroute to visiting family and friends in the area, it had been a long time since I had wandered the streets to soak up the town of Perth’s many charms.
With the scenic Tay River flowing through the centre of town plus an appealing mix of boutiques, cafes, art studios, pubs and restaurants, I learned that there’s lots more to see and do in Perth’s downtown heritage district than I previously realized. While the many limestone buildings hint at Perth’s storied past, rest assured that the town has made significant progress since its foundation as a military settlement just over 200 years ago. With its natural beauty and lovely architecture, Perth has been crowned ‘prettiest town in Ontario’ and has received numerous heritage awards as well. Calling itself the wedding capital of Eastern Ontario, Perth is one of the jewels of Lanark County (known as the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario).
A quick walkabout immediately upon arrival perfectly illustrated the ‘pretty’ point. Anchoring the town is Stewart Park, donated in 1947 by Mrs. Jessie Stewart, in memory of her husband, Honourable John Alexander Stewart, a prominent local businessman and, later, federal cabinet minister. One of the conditions of Mrs. Stewart’s gift was that an admission could never be charged for entrance to the park or any event held there. Since 1992 it’s been home to the annual Stewart Park Festival, a free, three-day offering of music concerts and other activities geared to all ages that takes place on the second last weekend in July and draws upwards of 30,000 visitors. In the park you’ll also find walking trails, picnic spots, lush trees, picturesque bridges and an impressive statue of famed local equestrian Ian Millar astride his horse, Big Ben.
Many of the town’s aforementioned limestone buildings were constructed in the 1870s by Scottish masons who brought their skills and tools when they immigrated and helped shape the settlement’s character. While the textile, grain and lumber mills that helped the area grow and thrive may no longer exist, Perth’s two breweries and a distillery now harken back to industries of the past. With an abundance of greenspace and opportunities to play on land and water, recreation is also a big part of the fabric of life in Perth, so much so, in fact, that the small town whose population is currently 6500 people has produced 40 Olympic athletes!
So what else did we discover on day one of our trip to Perth and area? First and foremost, that it’s a town which is soon likely to become extremely well known far beyond Lanark County for the calibre and impressive diversity of its food and drink offerings. Lunch at Fieldhouse started our visit off on a delicious note. The little four year old café’s new owner, Sarah Young, offered us a meal that was brimming with fresh flavour and bright colours, served up in an environment that was cozy and welcoming.
The roasted squash soup with a drizzle of maple syrup on top was a perfect starter, followed by the generously-sized Diablo (a gluten-free chicken, vegetable and rice noodle bowl), steak sandwich and ‘gourd-geous’ roasted veggie sandwich (both of which were served on soft, warm crusty bread). While we barely had room, we couldn’t resist trying Sarah’s famous cruffins which are muffin-shaped croissants, baked to perfection and boasting flavourful fillings. Our favourite featured a chocolate cream filling and raspberry topping; I’d go back in a heartbeat to try the maple cruffin (or any other flavour, for that matter). The cruffins are a signature item for Fieldhouse but all their house-baked goods looked terrific.
I can imagine their little patio is a big draw on a warm afternoon. Sarah may have only a few months of running Fieldhouse under her belt but with her passion and culinary experience – including at Perth’s the Stone Cellar Restaurant – she is sure to enjoy continued success.
Our next stop was Top Shelf Distillers, where we enjoyed a tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable assistant distiller, Garrett Kean. The thriving craft distillery is proudly reviving Perth’s 200 year old spiritmaking tradition.
As Gareth – a Perth native and biochemistry graduate who also holds a Graduate Certificate in Brewing Science from Bishop’s University (yes, you really CAN study beer at school!) – walked us through the complete distillation process, we learned that prior to Prohibition (1918-1920), Perth had four distilleries. One of these managed to stay afloat despite the two year ban on producing, selling and consuming alcohol because its owner was good friends with the town pharmacist. As a result, many townspeople possessed prescriptions for alcohol! We also learned that Canadian whisky began to deviate in the 1800s from traditional Scotch whisky (typically made primarily with malted barley) with the introduction of rye, which was added to boost the flavour. Although most people refer to Canadian whisky today as just ‘rye’ (or ‘rye whisky’), most varieties are not, in fact, made exclusively from rye.
Top Shelf’s commitment to locally-sourced ingredients (grain and corn come from within a one-hour drive of the distillery) is impressive; so too is its three-step filtration process which is just one of the reasons that its products have found an eager following for their great taste. Another neat aspect of Top Shelf’s operation is their #moretrees program whereby for every bottle of spirits sold at the LCBO, at the distillery or via their online store, they plant a tree within 100 kilometres of the point of purchase.
The company just released its first ever batch of Perth Whisky (after three years of barrel aging) that was flying off the shelves during our visit. They also produce Reunion Moonshine – a 100 Proof un-aged whisky – plus five flavoured varieties of moonshine (including a maple flavoured one!) as well as gin, vodka, liqueurs and cocktail bitters. The distillery is also planning to shake things up (pun intended) with its first ever Ontario Moonshine Festival, taking place May 25, 2019. The event, to which they have invited other distillers, will feature drinks (of course) plus food, live music and other activities.
Continuing in the theme of following Perth’s historic industries, we next visited Perth Brewery, founded in 1993 by Terry Steeves, an avid home brewer who was, at the time, also enjoying a flourishing career as an architect. “My friends kept tasting my beer and told me I should open a craft brewery,” said Terry, who now runs the much-expanded brewery with his wife Cathy and son Jeremy. With a focus on brewing fresh, all-natural quality beer from locally sourced ingredients, the Perth Brewery has forged a strong following across Ontario – and beyond – thanks to the great taste of its products. On the day we visited, there were twelve styles on offer in the taproom and we learned that the brewery is now producing an impressive 40,000 to 45,000 litres per month, having undergone multiple expansions to increase their capacity and satisfy the demands of hundreds of LCBO locations, restaurants and pubs. Even the farm animals that get to eat the spent grain from the brewing process are big fans of Perth Brewery!
We enjoyed small samples of a number of Perth Brewery’s creations – all of which are preservative free and considered gluten-free for most dietary requirements. We particularly liked the Calypso IPA, the award-winning O’Canada Maple Ale (brewed in collaboration with Lanark County’s Temple’s Sugar Bush), the Hopside IPA, the Easy Amber and the Mocha Stout.
In honour of the Festival of the Maples taking place the next day, we were pleased to visit the Stone Cellar Restaurant for their five-course Maple Flavours menu. As if that doesn’t sound festive enough, we learned that it was the restaurant’s 22nd anniversary that night, a truly impressive milestone that seemed to lend an extra sparkle to the atmosphere in this beautiful establishment.
It was nice to speak with co-owners Peter Blier and Chef Jamie Troutman throughout the evening; their knowledge, warmth and professionalism are key reasons why The Stone Cellar continues to be one of Perth’s most popular fine dining establishments.
Our first course was playfully called ‘Granny Soup’ and it was a velvety smooth puree of Granny Smith apple, roasted squash and just a hint of maple syrup, perfectly paired with Huff Estates’ Riesling. The second course was a sublime salmon tartare (ceviche style) with maple cream, micro greens and crostini, paired with Oyster Bay’s Sauvignon Blanc. I have to confess I was tempted to lick the rustic slate upon which this dish was served. Next up was fragrant, flavourful roasted pork tenderloin with a soy maple glaze plus perfectly roasted vegetables and an adorable, tiny fried quail egg on top. The Mission Hill Pinot Noir pairing was an ideal match. By course number four, we were getting very full, but soldiered on as each dish was too delightful to resist. A small glass of Perth Brewery’s Easy Amber accompanied a ‘Beggars Purse’ which was a rectangle of filo pastry filled with local Balderson cheese, maple and a touch of bacon then deep fried. It was rich, decadent and delightful. The meal’s sweet conclusion was really impressive, consisting of a brownie crumble with maple bacon walnut ice cream and amaretto-soaked ‘drunken’ blueberries. This was served with a quintessentially Canadian beverage: a shot glass made of ice filled with a mixture of Crown Royal and maple syrup. In case you are wondering, there is no photo of this course because I got too excited and dove in without thinking.
I’m eager to go back for Chef Jamie’s unique, intriguing Group of Seven multi-course culinary adventure, in which he combines elements of this iconic Canadian group’s art with delicious, locally inspired cuisine; each course is served up with a copy of the painting the dish is meant to represent.
Combining powerful vocals and energetic guitar and keyboard playing, he belted out a string of covers that had the whole pub singing along with exuberance.
When we returned to the Perth Best Western Plus Parkside Inn and Spa after our full day of delicious discoveries, we were grateful not only for the abundant comfort of our spacious room, but also the tranquility the hotel provides. Located right beside Stewart Park, it’s a modern and immaculately clean hotel that offers all the amenities including an onsite full-service spa, pool and steam room. It was impressive to find a mid-size hotel (54 rooms plus seven more at their White House century-old guesthouse next door) that blended small-town charm with chic, contemporary style. Come to think of it, that’s an apt way to describe much of Perth today!
Stay tuned for two more posts on our delightful Lanark County discoveries. The first covers Perth’s fun, family-friendly Festival of the Maples and more local food finds and the second is all about a stay at the luxurious Clyde Hall Bed & Breakfast in Lanark.
Stay tuned for more Lanark County stories…including the tale of the Mammoth Cheese!
Note: We were invited to visit Perth and Lanark County as guests of Lanark County Tourism. Opinions, as always, are my own.