Culinary Festivals in Ontario
Today, I would like to celebrate the aromatic and culinary beauty of lavender flowers by exploring two lavender festivals in Ontario, Terre Bleu Lavender Farm in Milton and Neob Lavender in Niagara Falls.
I believe the true taste of a country, place or city is rooted in its people and their land. It starts with our farmers, the producer of our foods, and moves through the culinary route to the chefs, bakers, and crafters who take the food product and crafts them into various tastes and unique experiences. And the moment those creations touch our tongue and entice our senses, our excitement grows —we want to share this unique experience. So we share the food, we share the stories, the experience and form relationships sometimes based off those experiences.
Ontario is relatively small in comparison to the whole of Canada, but if you had the time to explore it, to look around and enjoy all of its food experiences and offerings, it would take you months, if not years to experience and discover the taste of Ontario. Ontario offers many festivals to celebrate culinary tourism, from food festivals, food truck festivals to craft beer festivals. There are many opportunities to celebrate and enjoy food cultures throughout the summer months.
For the month of July and August, the main culinary attraction that caught my attention were these Lavender Festivals that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Seriously. I didn’t even know there were lavender farms in Ontario, but the more I did my research, the more amazed I became. There are many lavender farms in Ontario, and Lavender Ontario keeps track of all the lavender agri-tourism destinations in Ontario.
To start off my journey through the purple road, I decided to visit two Lavender farms, Neob Lavender in Niagara Falls, and Terre Bleu Lavender Farm in Milton. Both hosting Lavender festivals in the month of July.
Terre Bleu Lavender Farm in Milton: Joie De Bleu Lavender Festival
Terre Bleu Lavender Farm and Apiary started in 2012 by Ian and Isabelle Baird, two busy professionals living in Toronto. Inspired by a lavender farm in Quebec, they made the decision to purchase a farm in Milton and moved to the countryside with their two children. To turn their dream into reality, they started planting 10,000 lavender. Today Terre Bleu is an organic family-owned farm with more than 40,000 lavender plants and eight varieties of lavender, all blooming at various times.
Located in Milton, Terre Bleu Lavender Farm & Apiary is only open during the summer months, and thousands visit the farm on the weekends to take in the scenery. Learn about how lavender is distilled into essential oils, and to purchase their high-demand lavender products. The lavender plants are harvested throughout the summer. Depending on the variety, the lavender is either distilled, or dried and then added to a variety of products such as lotions, soaps, sachets, dried bouquets, macarons, ice cream, truffles, and massage oils. All sold at their farm shop.
Over the years they have added many new features to the farm to make for a unique agro-tourism experience. Some of the new elements include an outdoor yoga area, unique farm store, essential oil distillery, an apiary, and an equestrian demonstration ring.
Terre Bleu is a large farm, and we spend a good amount of hours just walking through the purple field. Enjoying the sweet fragrance permeating the air, while trying to capture the Lavender’s beauty in photographs. With the sun beating down on us, and thirst quenching our throat, we stopped our exploration short in order to sample their lavender ice cream.
Waiting in line, I heard many rave reviews. However, I have tried Lavender ice-cream before, and although some were pretty good, a few tasted like soap. I didn’t hold much expectation, but I do want to enjoy Lavender ice cream in a field of lavender. If I had this lavender crop top along with this lavender tulle, or even this adorable mini dress, I would be frolicking for hours forcing Jose to do some glamour shots.
We finally got our lavender ice cream after a bit of a wait, and the moment my tongue touched the fragrant and cool dessert, I took every thought back and apologised for my shortsightedness. This ice cream was heaven in a cone. Not only was the fragrance enticing, the taste was a perfect balance of sweet and floral. Jose didn’t think he wanted any, but one lick from my cone was all it took for him to want one of his own. So we had to go wait in line, once again.
Many activities are offered at the farm, including equestrian events, outdoor yoga, 45 minutes guided tours, art and photography courses, and lavender-inspired cooking classes. So before you make the drive to terre bleu lavender farm, check out their website. Personally, I was content to just roam the fields and fields of lavender, enjoying my ice cream and the sun.
I took a long moment to explore the gorgeous farm setting along with fields and fields of lavenders, of varying shades of purple. The natural floral fragrance of lavender permeates the air and followed me throughout the farm as I explored its field.
I could have walked for hours. However, if you wanted to relax, there are many chairs for you to lounge around in near the outdoor yoga area. As you can see below, many people were content with just sitting on the chairs, watching fields of lavender swaying in the wind.
This was our first visit to Terre Bleu Lavender Farm, but we were quite blessed —all the lavenders were in full bloom. The Lavenders are harvested throughout the summer starting around the middle of July depending on the variety. It’s a good idea to confirm that there are plants in bloom prior to your visit by checking the website or their Facebook. They do update their Facebook frequently with many updates on lavender bloom progress, and current ongoing activities.
Seeing a large tour group passing by just as I was finished frolicking in the lavender field, I followed them and was led to the distillery pictured below. The knowledgeable tour guide briefed us on this truly artisanal process dating back hundreds of years: a massive copper still uses steam to create 100 percent pure lavender essential oil, which they use in most of their products. Here, about 100 to 200 pounds of lavender will distil into 500 ml of oil worth about $2,000. However, the process from dried lavender to the actual essential oil is a painstakingly slow process, thus the reason that 10 ml of essential oil retail for $45 or more.
It may take years of research and proper preparation and management to grow a lavender farm, however, once established, lavender is a resilient plant, drought-resistant and usually killed off only by dampness from heavy, wet soil. Lavender plant care is relatively low maintenance —they only need a little bit of trimming and a lot of sunlight.
Terre Bleu Lavender Farm has their own beehives apiary on the premises. The tour guide was more than happy to lead us to the apiary, but I was a bit wary of going near. So I didn’t. I think I have a pretty severe case of melissophobia. The moment a bee comes near me, I freeze automatically. It’s not something I can control and once it reaches a certain centimetre from my face, I start freaking out. Trying to run away, even though I’m pretty sure it’s not even chasing me. However, it was interesting to hear about the workings of the apiary. The bees actually take nectar from the lavender plants and produce honey from it. The bees do all of the work so that Terre Blue’s only job is to extract the delicious honey, bottle and sell them at their organic Lavender store.
To extract the honey, they first remove the honeycomb frames from the hives in their apiary, uncap the cells to open them, and then uses an extractor to remove the honey. The extractor uses spinning, centrifugal force to release the honey, and ensures the wax honeycomb remains intact so that the bees can continuously work. They then filter the honey to remove any chunks of wax or pollen, so that the product we receive is pure honey.
Lavender honey is flavourful and sweet with a unique taste, making it a very rare honey product. The cheap ones you purchase in stores are usually lavender infused honey, not actually lavender honey, so if you’re at the farm and is interested in tasting pure lavender honey, I suggest you buy one. The honey is usually sold out pretty early every year.
After a little lavender history lesson and a tour of the bee apiary, I went to the herb centre to indulge myself in some lavender infused concoctions —a pineapple and lavender mojito. It was amazingly refreshing with hints of pineapples and light floral notes that balances well with the lime. So delicious in fact that I had to replicate the recipe when I got home (recipe below).
There is a trail through the forest that leads to another lavender field. However, before we could even enter the trail, it started to pour. We were not expecting rain so it came as a surprise. We went back to the car and waited it out for a bit, but it didn’t look like it was ending anytime soon. So we left. Hopefully, the next time I return to Terre Bleu Lavender Farm, I will be able to start and finish that little forest walk.
What you need to know before you visit Terre Blue Lavender Farm
Address: 2501, Sideroad 25, Milton, Ontario (west of Toronto).
Opening Hours: The farm is open to the public from early June through to the end of August. In June the farm is open Saturday and Sunday from 11am-4pm as well as on public holidays and in July and August Friday-Monday 11am-4pm.
Admission Fee: $10 on weekends and public holidays. $15 or more during special events. Children under 2 are free. A 45 minute educational guided tours are included in the price of admission. Tours generally start around 11:30 am and occur every hour.
Cash and credit cards are accepted. Debit card, sometimes, depending on availability.
No smoking anywhere on the farm. Dogs must be on a leash.
All commercial photography requires a permit and must be booked in advance. Only handheld cameras allowed without a permit. If you want to use your tripods or other photographic equipment, a permit is required.
Lavender Farm in Niagara: Neob Lavender Festival
Located at Neob research facility in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Neob Lavender Festival hosted by Neob Niagara marks the last lavender field to be harvested into essential oil. During, and after the event, the field next to the greenhouse will be harvested into essential oil and bottled to be sold locally. And all the profits from the lavender essential oil will be donated to charity.
Although Niagara is somewhat of a drive, I am excited to support Ontario culinary tourism and this Niagara Lavender farm charity event. And food in general. At the festival, there will be tents full of culinary delights such as lavender ice-cream, lavender pizza, lavender brownies, lavender scones and lavender lemonade to name a few. All made by local businesses, artisans and chefs.
A word of advice: If you want to explore a large lavender field, go to Terre Bleu, but if you wanted more of a shopping, culinary tasting experience, Neob Niagara is a great choice. They grow their own special variety of lavender called Massuet Lavender here which has more antiseptic and respiratory benefits than traditional lavender. The staffs are very knowledgeable and excited about their products. And I completely understand, their products are amazing.
They sell two types of ticket online, an Island Hopper ticket for $5 (one sampling) and a World Traveller ticket for $20. As a World Traveller, you will receive a card listing all the different lavender samplings. And beside each sampling is a circle intended for stamps. Meaning you only get one sampling of each. Which is fine by me, 15 samplings for $20? That’s pretty sweet.
I was super EXCITED.
But when we got there at 12 pm. the World Traveller tickets were sold out. Even the Island Hopper was sold out. And they charged an extra fee of $2. I almost cried thinking about all the culinary delights I wouldn’t be able to try. However, since there’s an antique store, many pop-up vendors, artisans and a pick your own lavender bouquet opportunity. I brushed it off. Lesson learned. I will buy the online tickets if I choose to come again next year. Which I probably will. I want that lavender pizza.
On the drive from Toronto to Niagara, there were many antique shops and outdoor antique vendors along the way. We stopped by a few on the way to Neob, but seeing another antique store here, I couldn’t stop myself. There’s never enough antiquing! We went to explore the Queens Antiques for a bit but didn’t make any purchases. Everything was a bit overpriced.
Next up, we explored the small greenhouse just before the lavender field. There were some pretty flowers, but not many. It was actually a bit empty, so I was somewhat disappointed. So after a quick walkthrough of the somewhat empty greenhouse, we headed toward the lavender field.
Here I got a bit excited. To pick your own lavender, it’ll cost $5. For five bucks, you’ll receive a long plastic string, a scissor, and a demonstration on how to cut lavenders. As long as you can tie your lavender bouquet with the string, you can pick as much as you want. Perfect! I bought two strings.
I went to the brightest shade of purple I can see and sat down. The aroma of the lavender flowers was stronger as we sat and I couldn’t help myself, I dipped my face right into the lavender bush and took a deep breath. Being there, making your own lavender bouquet, surrounded by the sweet floral aroma, it was very therapeutic and calming. I didn’t even notice the time passing by as we made our bouquet. After we got our lavender bouquet, Jose and I went to explore the pop-up tents/vendors and made a few purchases before we left the festival.
Apparently, our culinary adventure did not end at the Lavender Festival, The Hare Wine Co. across the street which recently opened about 6 months ago was also doing samplings, but for FREE. A guy standing in the front yard of The Hare Wine Co., in the burning sun (poor guy), gave us two tickets to sample 3 wines each. We delightfully took the offer.
We sampled a couple of wines, bought the one we loved and went to another counter to sample some more. We took our last sample outside and enjoyed it on the patio overlooking the field. It was lovely and completely unexpected. We had not planned on a wine tasting, but it was a pleasant surprise and much appreciated.
Stopping by the Abandoned Ship: La Grande Hermine
Driving back towards Toronto, we had to stop by the abandoned ship, La Grande Hermine. It is located west of St. Catherine, perched along the shoreline of Jordan Harbour at the Beacon Hotel Marina since 1997. I like to call it the abandoned pirate ship, but it really isn’t. But if ships could talk, it would tell you an interesting story nonetheless.
The ship was built in Lauzon, Quebec, 1914 and was originally used as a St. Lawrence River ferry. It was called Le Progress, and in 1991 a wooden facade was built over the steel hull and the masts and crows nests were added to replicate Jacques Cartier’s 1535 ship, Le Grande Hermine —the largest one of Jacques Cartier’s, measuring 140 feet long. She was then, of course, renamed Le Grande Hermine, and used as a restaurant in Montreal by a businessman who unfortunately passed away before his dream could flourish.
Over the years, life took a toll on her, and after a few moves and some unpaid dockage fees, she was towed to her present location. She’s been here, perched on the shoreline of Jordan Harbour ever since. Then in January 2003, she became the victim of an arson fire, which took off all her wood finishing. Luckily she didn’t go up in smoke, and the damage only added to the rustic wonderment feel, perfect for photography enthusiasts.
It is now a distinctive Niagara landmark, a favourite fishing area and roadside attraction to many people. Over the years there have been a few businessmen/women who have shown interest in purchasing Le Grande Hermine and restoring it for various reasons. However, till today, she’s still awaiting her SOS call to be answered.
Purchases Made at Neob Lavender & The Hare Wine Co.
Although many people love the scent of lavenders in their soap, bath products, or sachets discreetly placed in their pillows, some have yet to learn its role in food culture.
A member of the mint family which includes herbs such as Sage, Thyme, Rosemary, Savoury, Mint, Balm and Oregano, Lavender is one of the most aromatic of all herbs. It is used by many chefs and bankers to enhance the flavours and appearances of many foods. Lavender flowers have nectar which gives us a high-quality honey loved by beekeepers and honey enthusiasts. The flowerets of Lavender can be candied and used as cake decorations. Lavender is also good in desserts and is often infused with milk to be used as the base of a custard or ice cream. And lavender shortbread cookies and scones are absolutely delicious.
Herbs de Provence
There are many different species of Lavender, but English and French lavender are the types preferred for cooking due to their intense fragrance, sweet and floral, and their flavour —also floral, but with camphor-like, piney undertones. Dried lavender is almost as potent as fresh. Used in cooking, it helps cut the richness of fatty meats and game, and it can be used, on its own or with other dried herbs, as a rub for grilled or roasted meats. It is one of the ingredients in the classic French blend Herbs de Provence, an assertive seasoning mix consisting of fennel, and/or celery seeds, marjoram, rosemary, basil, sage, summer savoury, thyme and lavender. Herbes de Provence makes a flavorful rub for meats, including steaks, or poultry that will be grilled or roasted. It is also added to some stews and is quite delicious sprinkled overripe tomatoes before they are roasted (Tomatoes Provençal).
Lavender Oil: The Healing Lavender
Besides their culinary prowess, many archaic herbalists speak enthusiastically of lavender’s use in all sorts of remedial syrups, sweet waters, potions and pills. John Parkinson, a 17th-century gardener and writer said it was ‘especially good for all griefes and paines of the head and brain.‘
Rubbing some lavender oil into the temples alleviate headaches and depression, and a few drops will delicately scent a bath. If you’re a lover of books like myself, tie 3 or more pieces of dried lavender together with a ribbon and use it to mark the pages of your current novel. Every time you start reading, you will be greeted with a sweet heavenly scent.
How to Make Lavender Oil
A lavender-scented oil, generally used as a massage oil to knead sore muscles and joints or alleviate headaches, is actually quite easy to make. Go to your garden, or a lavender farm if you don’t have one, and cut some lavender flowers just as the first flowers are opening, or even better, just before they’re about to open, and dry them. You can dry lavenders by handing the lavender bouquet in an airy shady area. Once the lavenders are thoroughly dry, strip off their flowers and buds —a fragrant therapeutic task.
Fill a clear-glass container with the dried lavender flowers/buds, and cover the flowers entirely with light olive oil or sweet almond oil, making sure everything is fully submerged. Now cap the container, and leave it in a sunny place for a few weeks (2 or more), shaking it occasionally. Finally, strain the oil into another glass container through a funnel lined with a square of cotton or cheesecloth, pressing and squeezing the flowers in the process in order to extract more scent. Personally, I always use a dropper cap for the glass container instead of a regular cap, there’s less spilling as you use it.
I loved the Lavender and Pineapple Mojito I tried at Terre Bleu so much that I’ve decided to replicate the taste. Which wasn’t too hard since they listed the ingredients on their menu. Before you start making this deliciously refreshing mojito, make the lavender simple syrup first. The simple syrup made with dried lavenders give the Mojito a slight lavender essence without the overpowering floral taste. However, the scent is just divine! Click on image to go to recipe.
Simple syrup is ridiculously easy, yet many people would go to speciality stores to purchase flavoured simple syrup thinking it’s something they can’t do on their own. The beauty of simple syrup is that it’s simple, requiring only two ingredients; water and sugar. Yet it’s delicious when added to any cocktails. And flavoured simple syrup gives dessert or cocktails that extra complexity. Most people make simple syrup in equal portions, but personally, I find that a bit too liquidy for my liking. I love my syrup thicker, so I prefer a 2:1 ratio.
This recipe is for lavender simple syrup, but you can make any flavoured simple syrup you prefer. Just replace the lavender with any herbs, whole spices or citrus rind you like. In the summer, make fresh simple syrups with the herbs in your garden such as basil, rosemary or thyme, but for the winter months, use cloves, cinnamon sticks or vanilla bean to make simple syrups for your hot beverages. They’re great any time of the year when you want an extra flavour kick in your beverage or dessert.
You can even play around with the thickness, or richness of your simple syrup. For a richer flavour, use brown sugar, or coconut palm sugar instead of white sugar. It gives it that almost caramel character to the syrup and works well with cocktails that use bourbon or rye whisky. I like using honey in simple syrup because I love the taste of honey. However, honey is too thick and won’t dissolve well in cold cocktail, but by turning it into simple syrup, I can thin it out, and use it in some of my favourite cocktail recipes. Click on image to go to recipe.