Friday, September 30, 2011

NiAGara Farm Heroes and Agvocates: Brock Puddicombe of Puddicombe Cider Company

Brock Puddicombe, an eighth generation farmer and newly anointed cider maker,
is the mastermind behind Sir Isaac's Premium Pear Cider. 

Brock Puddicombe has an easy fix for his pear cravings come this time of year.

The Winona fruit grower can reach for one straight off the tree when making the rounds through his sprawling orchard.

Even when pear season is but a distant memory, he'll still be able to satisfy his hankerings. All he'll have to do is open his fridge and reach for a tall cold one.

Puddicombe is busy bottling his favourite fruit as Sir Isaac's Premium Pear Cider, a liquid gold concoction of Bartlett and Bosc pears that has proven to be a silver lining to a tough blow to local fruit growers.

Turn the clock back three years and CanGro Foods Inc., the last fruit cannery in country, was slated to shutter, closing down a market for much of the Puddicombe family's pear crop.

That meant an awful lot of fruit fated for the fresh market or trees destined to be yanked from local orchards.

"We do try to do as much as we can through the fresh market but because of the amount out there, it's important to have every pear marketable," Puddicombe said.

But about 15 to 20 per cent of the crop of bell-shaped fruit isn't suitable for space on supermarket shelves, leaving tonnes without a home.

Until now.

"Instead of it going back into the ground or in the field and letting nature take its course, we press them and then put them back in the field (to compost)," Puddicombe said.

The result is a pleasant smelling cider that makes you want to drink it and won't give you a toothache or sugar headache when you do.

The idea to make pear cider had been fermenting since Puddicombe studied at the University of Guelph a few years ago. It came to him on nearly every walk to a party or stop in the LCBO where he would see British ciders on the shelves.

But the impetus to start making cider came two years ago in a post-CanGro world while taking a tour of the British Isles with his sister and winemaker Lindsay.

The duo hit up local cideries for insight and inspiration.

"It was just a matter of getting recipes, the taste profile and smells," he said.

They came home and began experimenting with different pears and yeasts, roping their staff into sampling the goods and being part of the Puddicombe research and development team.

The early samples, though, "were just like every other cider. Nothing stood out," Puddicombe recalled.

Then he narrowed down the pear profile to Bartlett and Bosc and focused on tweaking the yeast.

After three days of more samples and more math, he looked at the numbers of what would become Sir Isaac's — named for Canada's 1812 war hero, General Isaac Brock — and knew from the experience he had squeezed out of his short cidermaking career thus far that he had a winner.

"I didn't put my glass to my lips. I let others try it. I just went by the looks on their faces when they smelled it and tasted," he said.

Three months ago, Puddicombe introduced Sir Isaac to the masses and plans to press as many as 34,000 litres this year for his newly founded Puddicombe Cider Company.

By early September, he'd already sold 2,300 litres and was working on getting Sir Isaac's on shelves at the LCBO. Right now, it's only available at the family's farm, in their Puddicombe Estate Winery shop or by the bottle in a few local pubs — something that gives Puddicombe a real kick.

"When you see someone you don't know having a bottle of it, it kind of feels like victory," he said. "I don't have kids but if your kids were to succeed in something, I imagine this would be that feeling. Your hard work pays off."

Sir Isaac's six packs are stacked high at Puddicombe Estate Farm and Winery
but are selling quickly.

If you make the trip to Winona for a six pack or two, just don't mention that other fruit when sampling some.

"When someone tells me they smell apples, I almost get offended," Puddicombe admitted. "I don't want my product to smell like apples. I want it to smell like pears.

"It's crisp, it smells perfect and it's so easy going down. The palette is there. It's perfect in my opinion."

But the critic Puddicombe was most worried about convincing was his father, Murray.

The patriarch of this entrepreneurial farming family was a little reluctant to see his son pour his heart into the cider business if only because it isn't the usual drink of choice for Ontarians. Cider has only recently been gaining ground among the thirsty masses.

Puddicombe recalled that after a sixth night of pressing pears, a skeptical Murray asked him how much cider he planned to make.

Puddicombe told him 18,000 litres.

A glass of Sir Isaac's Premium Pear Cider.
"He said 'What?' But it was 'If you build it, they will come'," Puddicombe said.

Now Murray gives away more six packs than anyone else and is often overheard proudly telling people about his son's latest accomplishment.

"Between a father and son, you don't really say 'I love you.' You look for the signs," Puddicombe said. "He's your tough farmer."

With Sir Isaac's leaving the farm faster than an American surrender in the War of 1812, Puddicombe is starting to think about what other fruit he can convert to drinkable form.

Mostly, though, he's content to take stock of the fermented fruits of his labour.

"I want to crawl before I walk. I only want to do pears right now but there are so many peaches walking the streets looking for a home. The coolers are full," Puddicombe said. "I really wish I could run or sprint and do peaches but I really want to focus on Sir Isaac's. Not to mention the two years of research and development — I kind of want to enjoy this."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lights, camera, street food

Tamara Jensen and Adam Hynam-Smith put the finishing touches on phetchaburi fish cakes
being served from their food truck, El Gastronomo Vagabundo.

Bring an empty stomach and put it in park in Montebello Park on Oct. 3.

There, it will be filled with food by Niagara food truck — and change — drivers, El Gastronomo Vagabundo, who will be serving their gourmet street food goodies while being filmed by a crew from The Food Network's Eat St. all the while.

Chef Adam Hynam-Smith and partner Tamara Jensen are hoping to amass a crowd for the taping, but the people who gather won't just be extras in the popular TV show about documenting the best street food on offer.

They'll be helping to send a message to policy makers and street food detractors — believe it or not, there are people who don't want El Gastro pulling up to a curb in downtown St. Catharines — that people really are hungry for change when it comes to the rules that put bumps in the road at every turn for truck operators who want to serve fresh, gourmet food.

The more people who show up, the louder that message will be heard.

Lunch will be served between noon and 2:30 p.m.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Giving what the giving tree can

Tonight's crew (from left): Cheryl-Lee Wyllie, Erin Wilson (standing),
Chelsey Kovacs-Sneath with our mascot Peary and Vivian Wyllie.

Sometimes, you just don't have it in you.

I returned to the giving tree tonight and couldn't help but think that's what this old kieffer pear tree was feeling.

Last year, the Garden of Eating — Niagara picked more 400 pounds of fruit from its tireless, heavy limbs and still didn't get it all.

This year, with the help of four volunteers and one four-legged mascot dubbed Peary, we picked the tree pretty clean, save for the upper branches.

Its limbs were scaled, batted at and scoured wherever our ladders would allow us to go.

What we got was about 150 pounds. But with a cool, wet spring putting bees off their pollinating duties, which they clearly kicked butt at last year, and a drought-stricken July, this was all the giving tree had in it to give this year.

Some of our haul. 

Still, it's 150 more pounds of fruit than had we not had the opportunity to enjoy its bounty at all.

The fruit is destined for the kitchen of the culinary high skills major students from the Niagara Catholic District School Board. They will jar them for Community Care of St. Catharines and Thorold.

The next harvest happens Saturday on Scott Street in St. Catharines. If you can make it, drop me a line at

Monday, September 19, 2011

A beet beatdown

My beets before being dug up.
At 34 years old, I accept I can't be good at everything.

Despite my competitive spirit and being plied with plenty of platitudes about doing anything you set your mind to  — blah, blah, blah.

I'm certainly no good at gracefully declining challenges issued by Linda Crago. Like planting beets on July 15 when the beets I planted on May 24 were struggling just to survive.

One skill I have mastered, though, is spelling; for example, loser: T-I-F-F-A-N-Y. Yup, sounds about right, at least when it comes to Linda's Late, Great Beet Planting Challenge that saw gardening keeners seed beets mere weeks from when other greenthumbs were getting ready to harvest their spring-planted earthy orbs.

I had my excuse at the ready for when I yanked what I hoped would be ruby red gems, though I feared — know, I knew — they would suffer a far less glamourous fate when I planted my beet seeds. I put mine into the ground a day later than others in the challenge, so if my beets came out pitiful, well, that would be why.

But what I unearthed tonight was beyond pitiful.

It was horrifically humiliating.

As in, I should never show my face at another garden club meeting again.

My beets amounted to nothing.



Except what look like tiny, dried out cat turds with sickly leaves sprouting from them. I haven't pulled the ones suffocating under my thriving endive in my backyard, just my container beets-that-weren't-meant-to-be. I wanted to spare really embarrassing myself.

No, I didn't just clean a litter box with my bare hands. Those are beets.

To think, I even gave them an extra day to grow. Yes, I cheated. They were supposed to be pulled yesterday but I knew Linda was out of the country and wouldn't be keeping tabs.

In the end, I was beaten by beets.

The moral of this story: Cheaters never win.

And avoid planting beets ever, if I want to maintain some semblance of self-esteem as a gardener.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A really big favour

I hate asking people for favours.

Really. I do.

This past week and a half, I've been turning to this site, Twitter and Facebook in search of mason jars unfulfilled for a canning project that will see pears that would otherwise go to waste go to people who can enjoy them.

It's felt a little strange. Awkward. Really, I don't usually do this. More often than not, I'm the one volunteering to carry out the favour, not asking for it.

But now, here I am with another request. I have entered one of my posts in the LCBO's Go Local Blog Challenge. It's a contest that's on right now in which people are encouraged to blog about a recent, memorable experience in Ontario wine country. Lucky for me, I had one penned about a Niagara winery, Featherstone Estate Winery, and its Meet the Sheep tour last month. Hey, I'm a sucker for a cloven hoof and a really good Riesling.

And so now, the grovelling. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to vote for my entry? I would be most appreciative. At the very least, check out all the good things people are saying about Ontario's wines. You may just discover something you'd never known about the fabulous vino being produced in our own backyards.

With gratitude,


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Getting to know grape growers: Kevin Watson

The following post was supplied by the Grape Growers of Ontario, which is doing a series of videos on the men and women growing the grapes that make Ontario's spectacular wines. To help share the stories, Eating Niagara is donating space on this website.

By Grape Growers of Ontario

What makes a good wine grape? How can you tell when a grape is ripe?
Ask Ontario grape grower Kevin Watson.

Kevin Watson is a second generation grape grower with 80 acres of vinifera grapes in
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. His dad planted his first vines in 1979. Today, Kevin and
his wife, Cathy, produce 13 varieties, from vines that include some of the province’s
earliest plantings of Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc.

In this third video from the Grape Growers of Ontario, the grapes are just reaching
veraison (that means they are starting to mature and ripen), and Kevin shares his
passion for growing wine grapes.

Each grape grower in Ontario has a rich story to tell. We want to share the stories
with you about the farms, the families and the grapes. Meet the growers and see the
care that goes into growing the grapes that produce the Ontario wines you love at

Click here to view Getting to know grape growers: The Funk Family

Monday, September 12, 2011

A pear-fect plea

The branches are loaded.

Kieffer pears are weighing them down. But if you've ever bitten into a kieffer pear, you know they kind of taste like pear flavoured sand. They're downright gritty.

But what this fruit, which is about to start falling onto a city boulevard near you and begin to rot, can't do fresh, it more than makes up for when canned. Kieffer pears are beautiful preserved.

Last year, kieffer pears made up the bulk of the 1,400 pounds of fruit the Garden of Eating — Niagara harvested. Those were taken to soup kitchens and shelters where cooks could work their magic with them, turning them into crisp and using them to accompany pork.

This year, there will still be plenty of kieffers for local kitchens in need of fresh food but I've received an incredibly generous offer to have the culinary high skills specialist major students from the Niagara Catholic District School Board jar pears from Garden of Eating harvests to donate to the food bank.

Problem is, while I have hundreds of pounds of fruit just about ready to be picked, I don't have the mason jars.

So, this is where I start begging. If anyone has any old jars that they no longer use — I'm looking for anything that is 500 millilitres and up — let me know. I will gladly take them off your hands. They will be put to good use, which is providing people in need with healthy, delicious local fruit that they can eat long after pear season passes.

I've already had some kind folks offer up a couple dozen jars but more than that will be needed. I figure there are at least 700 pounds of pears in my future.

If you have a closet overflowing with mason jars unfulfilled, please drop me a line at I will drive for jars, too. My tiny Toyota has a big trunk and can selflessly carry my frame and a heavy load if need be.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A spoonful of summer

Fresh tomatoes about to be roasted.
They are the perfect couple.

Summer summed up in one bite.

Tomatoes and basil. Like peas in a pod.

Eating a garden fresh tomato epitomizes the season more than anything else. Even more than my first bite of a peach after a year's longing for the fruit synonymous with Niagara. I imagine tasting the sun's rays in each bite  of red, yellor, orange, brown and green tomato — some sweet, some acidic, all of them juicy.

Basil is just like the cherry on top.

Easy. Summer. Food.

But this year, in addition to filling up on Caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella, I've taken to roasting my tomatoes whenever the occasion calls for it — or at least, whenever I can make the occasion call for it, which, lucky for me, is whenever I want. And that's been often.

Chopped, drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and into the over on 450F for 40 minutes, turning once and letting the skins brown. It's heaven and it's versatile, from tossing them with pasta topped with fresh basil to this simple tomato soup that induced lip-smacking  and self-congratulatory back slapping for a job well done in the kitchen.

And all because I wanted to take the easy way out of dinner, as I'm often wont to do at this time of year.

Roasted tomatoes, out of the oven.

All it takes is one hour — though most of that time can be spent sipping wine and relaxing — and five ingredients before slurping spoonfuls of summer.

Roasted tomato soup
Serves 4-6

Two to three pounds of tomatoes, roughly chopped into no more than halves or quarters depending on size of fruit
2 tbsp olive oil
1-2 good pinches of salt (use more if using more tomatoes, otherwise you can season soup later with more salt)
1 small onion
1 bunch fresh basil
1 hot pepper (optional)
4-5 cloves of garlic smashed (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

Toss the tomatoes with olive oil and salt in glass roasting dish. If you like, add a hot pepper and/or a few cloves of garlic. Roast in oven at 450°F for about 40 minutes or until tomatoes are browning, stirring halfway through roasting time.

In the meantime, cook a small onion until translucent. Add cooked tomatoes and basil leaves. Blend in with a hand-blender, let simmer for 15 minutes, salt  and pepper to taste and serve. Garnish with a sprig of basil if you want to really impress.

The soup.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tomatoes 101

I never knew tomatoes until I got to know Linda Crago.

She's humble to a fault and so will probably chide me for what I'm about to write, following her latest edition of her Tree and Twig Tomato Bash, a celebration of all things tomato.

The event was bigger and better than last year. More chefs showing off their creative — and tasty — culinary prowess. A Mother Nature in a better mood. Larger crowds of curious food and gardening aficionados to sample 101 varieties of tomatoes. And one woman who brought everyone together.

I've told this story on this site before but it was six years ago when I made the decision to go vegetarian that a co-worker at the newspaper passed on Linda's email address to me.

Linda grows vegetables, has a CSA. Might be up my alley, my co-worker said.

My co-worker was right and I immediately hammered out an email practically begging to be part of the Tree and Twig CSA, proclaiming my love of Swiss chard and my disdain for celery.

I had no idea what I was getting into back then. I had only wanted to support a local farmer and get good food in the process. But I figured I'd get your garden variety of vegetables in my weekly basket.

Instead, I got Linda's garden variety veggies and that meant stuff I'd never heard of. Tomatoes in every shade of the rainbow. Cucumbers in odd shapes, sizes and hues. Chard galore but leafy greens I never knew existed. I thought kale only came curly until I got a basket with dino or lacinato kale, red kale and  others I ate before learning their names. The point is, I've never eaten better and every year, Linda always exposes me to something new. Something good. Something that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

Yes, there are other people growing heirlooms, but not like Linda.

Linda opened my eyes to all the good things that can really grow but, typically, aren't because people either don't know about them or have been living in a supermarket, five-types-of-tomato bubble. On Sunday, she expanded horizons once again, showing about 60 people the tomatoey goodness that exists in her small corner of Niagara, why she's passionate about growing upwards of 700 varieties of tomatoes — diversity is important and Linda's farm is like a living seed bank — and how good the eating can be when you have fresh, beautiful food and the creativity of some of the region's most talented chefs putting their spin on Linda's flagship crop.

Chef Mark Picone, flanked by chefs Scott Hunter of Commisso's Fresh Foods and Peter Blakeman of Niagara College, scooped up beautiful basil sorbet into a sumac cone with a tomato jelly cube inside.

Chefs Jay and Nicole Sawatsky of Mahtay Cafe in St. Catharines served up sweet tomato basil cheesecake to be washed down with a gorgeous tomato iced tea.

Chef Kevin Maniaci of Jordan's Inn on the Twenty dazzled with his panzanella piled on paper-thin eggplant parm slices.

Keefer Mansion chef Shawn Murphy plied us with his play on green tomato and corn salad.

Raw chef Marlie Centawer surprised with her tomato and basil served on zucchini crackers with an unbelievably creamy cashew cheese.

My contribution was a repeat performance of my tomato cake and the dashing of any romantic notions people had that it might be a secret family recipe or that I, in fact, may just be a baking guru. Alas, I have the Farmer's Almanac to thank for making me look good.

It was impressive display. And the good thing is, if you missed out, Tree and Twig Tomato Bashes are annual events. You can catch up on the nightshade soiree that was thanks to Susan from Niagara Watch, who captured to event and the woman behind it on film.

In the meantime, here's to the tomatoes of 2012.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Sustainability Series: Farmland Protection

For anyone wanting to fill up on talk of food security and farmland protection, ideas will be served up Wednesday at Market Square in St. Catharines.

Climate Action Niagara is hosting a speaker and film series about sustainability and kicking it off with a talk about food security, focusing on farmland protection and the greenbelt.

The event starts at 6:30 p.m. with music by Vox Violins and food from local restaurateurs before Shiloh Bouvette of Environmental Defence and Gracia Janes, a member of the Region's agricultural task force, take the podium at 7 p.m.

Here's a description of what both women bring to the food security table, from Climate Action Niagara's news release: 
Shiloh Bouvette, Program Manager for Environmental Defence: The Ontario greenbelt has much to offer Ontarians, from the Niagara grape growing and tender fruit area to Holland Marsh, the Oak Ridges Moraine and more. Environmental Defence and the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance are bringing a virtual tour of the greenbelt to Niagara. Using a gigantic greenbelt map, we'll show you all of what there is to explore in the greenbelt.
Gracia Janes, OMC (Ontario Medal for Citizenship): Niagara’s own founding member of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands in 1976 and member of the Niagara Regional Agricultural Task Force. Her Ontario Medal for Citizenship is for her work protecting the very unique Niagara fruit lands with the late Dr. Robert Hoover and the late Mel Swart MPP. Gracia will speak to possible options for farmland perpetuity that also provides for farmers.
Here are some of the issues the duo will address when it comes to Niagara's farmland: How do we protect it? What does the Greenbelt achieve? What is the soil capacity? How much land is needed to keep us food secure? Which land should be protected?

There will be a discussion period so bring your questions, too. One worth asking might be why no farmers are on the panel.
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