Words by Tracy Wan, a freelance writer from Toronto. Article content was produced by Globe Content Studio.
Life in Canada is marked by a variety of seasons. After ‘mud and allergies’ and shortly before ‘summer,’ there is a brief sliver of time called ‘hope.’
For city dwellers, this micro-season feels like a rebirth. We flock to the nearest patio and forget to wear sunscreen. We don shorts in temperatures other countries would deem foolish. Everything seems ripe with possibility.
This year, ‘hope’ coincided with the Victoria Day long weekend, when my boyfriend and I decided to drive to Niagara from Toronto, in optimistic pursuit of the season’s first harvest of fruit.
It felt like the opening weekend for the whole peninsula. Everyone we met was in a great mood, chatty and kind. Bunting flags fluttered in the breeze. Sandwich boards erected roadside cheerfully declared “OPEN for another amazing year!” Hope was in the air.
There was also reality to contend with: While most of the fruit farms I had earmarked on Google Maps were open and ready for the season, the fruits – so I was informed ruefully by their vendors – were not.
A visitor to one of Niagara’s strawberry farms enjoys the seasonal bounty.
The strawberries and cherries will be the first to ripen, in June, when visitors to certain Niagara fruit farms will have a chance to pick their own. Then come the raspberries and blueberries in July, followed by the stone and orchard fruits in late summer. By October, the curtain falls on Niagara’s fruits for the year
What fruit was in season the May long weekend? Well, it depends on how you view rhubarb.
As a food writer, I was humbled. This is the truest meaning of eating seasonally: to wait for the harvest to be ready for you, not the other way around. I’m used to going to the grocery store for strawberries in January, and finding them. Picked from a farm thousands of kilometres away, of course. To be a locavore – or to attempt it – is to accept that one cannot eat according to one’s whims, while knowing the food is worth waiting for.
At Romagnoli Farms, I opted for two bushels of local apples – Honey Crisps and Red Princes – from last year’s harvest. They had been stored in a cold cellar over the winter.
Back in the car, I bit into one of the Honey Crisps, and any reservations I had about buying six-month-old fruit dissipated instantly. It was thin-skinned and snappy against my teeth, with a texture and succulent sweetness that wholly lived up to its name. “This might be the best apple I’ve ever had?” I said out loud, suspicious of my own superlatives. My boyfriend, who had just taken a bite himself, confirmed with a silent nod.
Maybe it’s all in my head, or maybe there’s something to it: Eating produce exactly where it was harvested is just better. There’s a purity and unrivaled intensity of taste. It’s as though the experience is fullest at the place of harvest, and every kilometre traveled results in a commensurate loss of flavour – like water leaking from a bucket. I’ve had my fair share of Honey Crisps in my life – Ontario ones, even – but none quite like this. Humbled twice in one trip, I thought to myself. Maybe it was going to be a different kind of fruitful
Though the year’s fruits had not yet arrived on the scene, there was the presence of fruit everywhere we looked in the region. At Hildreth Farms in Beamsville, I spotted a wall of ruby-hued jams from last season’s fruits; at Bizjak Farms in Vineland, jars of canned peaches and pears, and apple cider, too.
The Niagara Peninsula, after all, produces the majority of Ontario’s tender fruits, and it is affectionately referred to as the fruit belt. When we stopped for lunch – two light plates of barbecue at Smoke and Moonshine, in Beamsville – the strawberry whiskey lemonade I ordered came with whole strawberries floating in it. “We make this in-house,” our waitress told us with pride.
To be in Niagara too early is better than too late; armed with a loose sense of a harvest schedule, I found myself pencilling in weekends to make the trip back. First in July, when the berries find their colour. Again in August, which heralds the arrival of my favourite season in Niagara: peach season.
You can find any peach you like in Niagara: juicy yellow peaches, sweet white peaches, perfume-y donut peaches. Every year I buy a basket or two with the ambition of making a custard tart or an upside-down cake, and every year I thwart my own plans. (Speaking of which, mark your calendars for Aug. 13, when the Annual Peach Festival turns Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake into a festival of peach-y delights.)
The best way to experience a Niagara peach, I’ve learned, is to devour it while standing over the sink, juice running down your arm. It’s worth waiting for.