Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Look at London Ontario's Culinary History

A Look at London Ontario's Culinary History


Much of London's distinctive culinary culture can be attributed to the mosaic of ethnic cultures, and no stay in our city would be complete without a visit to some of our diverse and exciting restaurants and culinary and food retailers. We have a diverse multi-cultural food community with more than our fair share of solid talent who promote our local terroir, and other rising stars who explore the latest trends and tastes of the ever evolving world of food.

London has an exciting network of farmers, food producers, food retailers, artisans, chefs, culinary patriots and restaurants who are interdependent, passionate and community-minded, who value the opportunities to work together and to partner in making London a vibrant community and culinary destination.

Here in London the diversity of cuisine is truly a manifestation of the culture and our collective culinary sensibility. Cookery and gastronomy, lodging and hospitality have historically enriched the local cultural experience. Interestingly, London has a European culinary heritage with a palate nurtured in Europe and later informed by the first nations that we can date back as far as 1826.

The term terroir has more recently become part of the wider culinary lexicon to describe the vital connection between a given locality and the food grown , raised, made and cooked there. Terroir as a concept allows us to examine "the taste of origin" as a set of cultural values about place, community and agricultural practices.

Of course, the terroir itself - the consequence of some of the most gently rolling rich agricultural land in the world, boasts of superior crops in fertile soils that range from light sand to heavy clay. The diverse terroir in Middlesex and surrounding counties of Perth, Elgin and Huron allow for a variety of habitats uniquely indigenous to southwestern Ontario. Located between the Great Lakes, Erie and Huron the area has a a moderate micro-climate and a relatively frost free growing season.

London, (fondly referred to as the 'Forest City') is actually a separated municipality, though it still remains the official seat of Middlesex County. The city was founded around the Forks of the Thames River more than 200 years ago. Prior to European contact in the 18th century, the current site of London was occupied by Iroquoian and Odawa/Ojibwa villages. Archaeological research in the region indicate that first nation people have inhabited this area for at least 10,000 years.

Thought to be London's first settler, first inn keeper and first businessman, Peter McGregor, arrived at the Fork of the Thames in 1825 and built a tavern where the corner of King Street and Ridout Street meet today. McGregor was a tailor by profession, and records show that he was engaged in many aspects related to the construction of the new village of London. Married to Lavina Pool, from Westminster it is she whom should be credited with being the actual inn keeper in the family.

In January 1827, a frame building was erected to house the first school, jail and courthouse. It has been reported that McGregor frequently escorted prisoners across the street to his tavern for mealtimes.

In 1835, the first marketplace, a frame shed on the courthouse grounds was situated opposite the McGregors tavern at the Forks of the Thames. Covent Garden Market formerly established in 1845, is the longest established link to London's culinary history.

Today, the Covent Garden continues to be focal point for the the rural and urban exchange where local, artisanal farm-fresh and quality gourmet and international foodstuffs can be procured every day of the week - it is among the city's finest selection of gourmet, ethnic and organic foods.

Twice a week (Thursdays and Saturdays) during the season an outdoor farmers' market features fresh local produce, meats (bison), and a variety of artisanal baked goods. The arts are also a focus of the Market's mezzanine where a several local cultural organizations and artists are resident – there’s even a cooking studio/kitchen.

Virtually unchanged since the last century, Eldon House is London's oldest residence. Built in 1834 for the Harris family, this historic home remained in the family until 1960 when it was donated to the City of London. Today, surrounded by the city, the house and its heritage gardens are a place of gratifying beauty and serenity and maintain its strong links to London's earliest history.

Still on record today, the Harris family journals offer us a unique glimpse into the past and provide us with an intimate perspective of life at Eldon House and to some degree London's early culinary history. Among other tidbits, important details emerge regarding what the family purchased and ate during certain eras as well as what the gardeners planted.

Amelia Harris (1798-1882) writes: Of regular trips to the Covent Garden Market with her cook (weekly, sometimes daily), of sending some of her domestic staff on the equivalent of “professional development” courses, to learn different “cultural” styles of cooking – French being a favourite.

Harris mentions city locations as in her diary entry of Feb. 16, 1859: “Distress in the country is very great. Farmers are buying wheat in place of selling it. The first soup kitchen that has been in London has been established here within the past week and it gives relief to 70 poor families...” Amelia also mentions that cooks tended to bring their own recipes and cookbooks with them when hired, and guarded them closely!"

Today Eldon House is open to visitors year round. A welcome sign of warm weather and lazy afternoons, the tradition of outdoor summer tea at Eldon House  teas on the elegant lawn of London’s oldest residence. Reservations are recommended by calling 519.661.5169.

In this part of Ontario, there is a sound agricultural heritage and tradition of the production of wheat, barley, oats, corn, soyabeans, fieldbeans, sugar beets, turniups, potatoes, pears, plums, grapes a full range of small fruits and berries.

In fact, a must-see culinary heritage destination is located on the city's edge just north of Masonville. The Arva Flour Mills have been operating since 1819. Mike Mathews is the fourth generation of his family to be involved with the business. Purveyors of high quality whole wheat, unbleached, pastry and organic flours, the historic mill still uses water power from Medway Creek. eatdrink writer and contributor, Sue Moore tells us, "The location of the Mill itself on the banks of the Medway River is as tranquil and idyllic as a Constable painting. Geese and ducks glide silently along the millpond in rows, many of them advanced in years." The mill offers a variety of other related products such as cream of wheat, cracked wheat, grains, cereals and spelt.

Historically, pasture and hay comprised the largest areas of Middlesex which was mainly used for livestock pasturing and production. Pigs found on area farms in the 1850's and 1860's included two large breeds, Berkshires and Yorkshires (whose weights were recorded in excess of 600 pounds a piece.) heritage breeds that can be found on diners plates in any number of our restaurants that offer a  truly farm- to- table philosophy and an exceptional dining experience.

By 1877, there were six cheese factories located in the area, and dairying began to play an important role in local local farming practices. By the 1880's there was a poultry boom which led to more turkeys, geese, ducks and guinea fowl, as well as chickens being raised on the local farms.

Canadian beer has become a growing part of the national culture especially in recent years with the addition of a number of microbreweries and craft brewers. Today, the Canadian beer industry plays an interesting role in the Canadian National Identity. London has a storied history of early brewmasters that became Canadian staples. It was Thomas Carling who first established the brewing company that bears his name in 1840. His home-brewed ale, was of such quality and popularity that he renounced farming for full-time brewing. That brewery was a humble proposition - a few kettles, a horse to turn the grinding mill and six sturdy men to work on the mash tubs. It is said that Carling started by trundling his wares through the streets of London, on a wheelbarrow.

Established in 1847, you can still experience a guided tour of the other famous hometown brewery, Labatt's. Immigrating to Canada in the 1830s, John Kinder Labatt initially established himself as a farmer near London. Eventually investing in a brewery with a partner, Samuel Eccles, they launched "Labatt and Eccles". After Eccles retired in 1854, Labatt acquired his interest, and renamed the business the "London Brewery". Labatt was aided by his sons Ephraim, Robert, and John. After his death his son John Labatt purchased the brewery, which like Carling, eventually grew to be one of the largest in Canada. Today, the tour takes place at the Simcoe Street brewery - the very location where founder John Kinder Labatt started brewing his beer here in the city more than 160 years ago.

The processing of sap from maple trees into maple sugar or syrup was another important cash crop. And in the winter and early spring that tradition continues today at the Kinsmen Fanshawe sugar bush. This annual sugar bush runs each weekend every March and during the March break. There are hayrides, guided tours, demonstrations and a sugar shack and pancake pavilion for delicious pancakes, sausages and pure maple syrup.

If you really want to get a close-up look of London's culinary history there is often something cooking at the family home of local London artist, Paul Peel's family house at London's Fanshawe Pioneer Village. In and around the Village, interpreters and volunteers can often be found bringing the taste of turn of the 19th century life, baking breads, biscuits and seasonal pies with produce and fruit from the Village's orchards and organic gardens. The heritage gardens showcase the fruits and vegetables grown in Middlesex County communities from 1820 to 1920.

The historic past of early London comes to life through daily reenactments of 19th century trades and farming methods, domestic chores and social interaction by costumed interpreters. On special event days, ride around the Village on a wagon pulled by horses or a vintage tractor. Stop by the Pioneer Village Café for a heart-warming lunch featuring homemade soups, salads and breads all made on the premises with heirloom fruits and vegetables and other seasonal and local ingredients.

Arva Flour Mill 
2042 Elgin (off Richmond), Arva 519 660 0199

Fanshawe Pioneer Village
2609 Fanshawe Park Rd.E., 519-457-1296

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