Day two: the Festival of the Maples and so much more
As far as I’m concerned, any day that begins with a community fundraising breakfast involving maple syrup is sure to be a great one. Pancakes and sausages at the Royal Canadian Legion in Perth were the perfect fuel to kick off our day at the 43rd annual Festival of the Maples. We had already sampled all sorts of maple delights on our first day in Perth (which you can read about here) so were fully primed for the main event. Speaking of maple delights, I’ve also got a fabulous new recipe inspired by the Taste of the Maples festival: maple syrup pie with a pretzel crust.
Originally conceived of as a way for the community to gather and reconnect after a long winter, the festival remains true to that purpose today, drawing together both locals and visitors in a tasty, fun and very family-friendly way. In case you’re wondering, Lanark County has earned its ‘maple syrup capital of Ontario’ title not by virtue of the quantity of syrup it produces, but rather by the number of small, independent producers in the region, scores of whom happily participate in the Festival of the Maples each year as the grand finale to a month of maple celebrations.
Held annually in downtown Perth on the last Saturday of April (the 2020 edition will be on April 25), there really is something for everyone at this constantly-evolving festival. I learned from Amber Hall, general manager of the Perth & District Chamber of Commerce, that if the weather is favourable, the festival can draw as many as 30,000 visitors over the course of the day. Even on a ‘regular’ weather day such as we were having (cool and a bit damp), as many as 15,000 – 20,000 will show up, but because the festival is spread out over a large area, it never feels crowded.
A lengthy stretch of Gore Street is closed to traffic and lined with booths from diverse vendors including many purveyors of maple products (and yes, there are multiple opportunities to enjoy the always-temping maple taffy on snow). The mainstage area offers live music and a fun ‘Sap-Tapping & Wood Cookie’ Challenge which features two-person teams racing to drill into an upright log, insert a spile (sap tap) and hang a bucket, as well as clocking the fastest cross-cut sawing times. Hundreds gather to cheer them on.
A quick pit stop at Coutts Coffee Roastery & Café gave us a brief respite from the damp morning. We enjoyed chatting with Sandra Coutts Teflissi, who co-owns the business with her husband Al Teflissi.
Coutts is in its 19th year of operation, having moved 3 years ago to a 175+ year old stone building on the edge of the Tay Canal called “The Sheriff’s House”, due to one of its previous occupants. It was warm and cozy inside, though the front and side decks also looked like perfects spot to enjoy their house-roasted, fair trade, organic coffee, sandwiches, soup and baked goods.
The festival also features an extensive children’s area called the Maplefest Play Park, next to the Crystal Palace (very close to Gore Street). Amber advised us that the activities for children vary from year to year; the 2019 edition included a petting zoo with the most adorable llama named Teddy, a ‘junior firefighters’ obstacle course, bouncy castles, face painting, a rock climbing wall, music workshops, Aboriginal drumming demonstrations and more. It was filled with happy families all day long.
Many of Perth’s merchants participated alongside the craft, food and drink vendors, offering sidewalk sales, samples, information as they chatted with visitors and fellow townspeople. An antique car display drew lots of attention; the shiny vintage vehicles looked particularly regal perched next to the former Code House (now Crain House) on the edge of Stewart Park.
Lunch at Rocky River Café was delicious and informative, spent in the company of Kathryn Jamieson, Heritage Tourism manager for the town of Perth. Over unique and delectable sweet southern onion rings served with maple syrup, a scrumptious wedge salad and terrific fish tacos, we learned about Perth’s commitment to preserving its past through the creation of the Downtown Perth Heritage Conservation District, designed to preserve and enhance the character of the area.
Kathryn told us about mysterious old tunnels that have yet to be fully identified but which purportedly linked various homes and establishments; we were also intrigued by her mention of the historic Perth ghost walk held annually for two nights just before Hallowe’en. We really enjoyed the casual vibe and rustic décor at Rocky River Café and would like to pay a return visit when their chicken and waffles are on offer. Another option I think I’d thoroughly enjoy would be a slice of their legendary coconut cream pie enjoyed on their spacious patio.
After lunch we paid a quick visit to Perth Chocolate Works where we saw handcrafted chocolates being made and sampled their rich, delicious hot chocolate. This family-owned business was founded over 20 years ago on Manitoulin Island; the Perth shop is their second and is located in the beautiful and historic Code’s Mill building which includes a gorgeous interior courtyard. The chocolates we brought home were devoured very quickly.
We spent an enjoyable hour touring the Perth Museum, housed in the elegant Matheson House, a National Historic Site. The stone dwelling was built in 1840 for the Honourable Roderick Matheson, wealthy merchant and a senator in Canada’s first parliament after Confederation. Four rooms – a parlour, dining room, drawing room and warm, cozy kitchen – have been carefully restored and furnished to reflect the lifestyle of the Matheson family who owned the house for 90 years.
Debbie Sproule has worked at the museum for 29 years and was an incredible source of information during our visit. We enjoyed hearing the tale of the ‘Mammoth Cheese’, a 22,000 pound wheel of cheddar crafted in Lanark County and delivered to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. My mouth fell open in astonishment when one of the other museum staff members produced an archival box which contained a carefully preserved fragment of that 126 year old cheese.
The story of Canada’s last fatal duel, which took place in Perth on June 13, 1833, was made all the more vivid by the presence in the museum of the pistols used by the two young men, who were rivals for the affection of a local school teacher. I also enjoyed seeing the local sports hall of fame as well as the ‘made in Perth’ inventions in the museum. The building also houses an impressive geological collection, including a vast number of specimens accumulated by Scottish-born, Perth resident Dr. James Wilson (1798-1881). He became such an expert on Lanark County geology that when his Edinburgh schoolmate, William E. Logan, was engaged as the first director of the Geological Survey of Canada in 1842, Wilson was one of the first people he asked to give him the lay of the land. This informative brochure might be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about Perth’s geodiversity.
Our last stop before departing Perth was the delightful Bistro 54, a 15 year old Italian restaurant owned and operated by Dave Andoff and Nicola Green. Cozy and casual, the space is small but cheerful and we were made to feel very welcome. Italian music added to the ambiance and we enjoyed watching the chefs in their ‘scratch kitchen’ use the freshest of ingredients to produce dishes bursting with flavour and texture.
The bread with a house-made tomato vinaigrette was a delicious starter, as was our order of bruschetta with pecorino, arugula, soppressata and sundried tomatoes. Our main course, Anatra Affumicato, consisted of radiatore pasta with thinly sliced smoked duck breast, roasted garlic, onion and cauliflower, arugula, pine nuts and a rich broth. The dish impressed us both with its rich, complex flavour and contrasting textures.
As we departed Perth after our full day enjoying the Festival of the Maples to head to Clyde Hall Bed & Breakfast in Lanark, we realized that two days in this charming town was not nearly enough time experience all Perth has to offer. You can read all about our time at Clyde Hall here.
I’ve already made a wish list of things I’d like to go back and experience in Perth; it includes:
- A water-based adventure with Perth Outfitters
- The first Ontario Moonshine Festival May 25
- The Stewart Park Festival July 19 – 21
- Perth Ribfest July 26 – 28
- The 22nd annual Perth Garlic Festival August 10 – 11
- The 10th annual Kilt Run August 17
- The first edition of Freedom Fest August 17 -18
- Barns, Farms & Wicked Chefs August 24 (the annual Summer Party fundraiser for The Table Community Food Centre
- The 174th annual Perth Fair August 30 – September 2
- The weekly Perth Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings from Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving weekend.
Stay tuned for part 3 of this adventure involving a wonderful visit to the town of Lanark and a romantic, historic B&B there.
Note: We were invited to visit Perth as guests of Lanark County Tourism. Opinions, as always, are my own.