It probably makes me a bad Torontonian, but after living here for 2 decades, this is the first year I’ve been to the Royal Winter Fair. I’m not sure why I’ve never bothered before, other than as a young adult it just didn’t have enough punk cachet, and as a vegetarian, it made me sad. But this year I had an excuse, so off we went on Saturday evening to check it out.
In many ways, it was not what I expected.
First up, it’s very horsy. I’ve got nothing against horses, but the horse competitions are a huge part of the event. And can be ever so chi-chi. Sure there are plenty of vendors selling saddles and harnesses and gear and things with pictures of horses on them, but there’s also a restaurant set up with $40 entrees and a wine tasting area so the folks dressed in the $10,000 Isaac Mizrahi gowns (hey, the Globe and Mail says that’s what people will be wearing this season!) don’t have to feel like they’re slumming it.
On the opposite end of the dining spectrum is the massive food court area where an obsession with back bacon seems to be prevalent at many booths. There’s also a Foods of the World area (well, except South America and India) where visitors can eat Chinese gyoza (yeah… I don’t know either), Montreal smoked meat, crepes or perogie; none of it especially appetizing.
Of course, there are plenty of samples to be had in amongst the vendors where there is cranberry fudge, bison pepperoni, wine samples and free bags of potatoes. This year the Muskoka region was featured with a variety of products such as maple syrup from Maple Orchard Farms, cranberries from the Iroquois Cranberry Growers, and Thunder Oak Cheese. Also present were the folks from Savour Muskoka who represent a number of culinary products from the Muskoka region. Some other items that wowed us were the Canadian North Petit Cremes (a cross between a truffle and a petit four) from CJ Pies and More in Warren ON, and Upper Canada Cheese Company from Jordan Station.
The usual suspects such as the Egg Producers, the Dairy Farmers of Canada and Agriculture Canada had info booths alongside the Organic Council of Ontario, the Ontario Greenhouse Growers and a number of booths promoting farmers and farmer’s markets. We were confused by the inclusion of the Golden Arches, whose booth proclaimed the real and naturalness of their burgers and fries.
I can’t see why anyone would want clown food when there were such interesting displays of produce to enjoy, and we continued along, ogling squash and carrots, exclaiming at the butter sculpture, and taste-testing the HW614 pear, a new hybrid that won’t be available commercially until 2015. Visitors have a chance to sample the pear – there are 20,000 being handed out over the ten days of the fair – and to help select a name. The fruit itself is yellow with a slight pink blush, is firm (and apparently travels well) and has a note of honey.
The thing I noted most about the Royal Winter Fair is what was missing. While whole buildings are dedicated to heartier animals such as horses, cattle and goats, there were few pigs to be seen outside of the “Pig Mobile” and the only chickens were a handful of pullets behind glass.
Harbouring a long-time secret wish for a little chicken coop full of Crested Polands (those are the chickens that look like they’re wearing a big feathery hat), I was disappointed to find no fancy chickens at all. We checked the schedule and saw that the poultry competitions were set to take place on the 7th and 8th, but were further disappointed to learn that the chickens are not accessible to the public. The fear of bird flu has caused organizers to keep the poultry segregated, brought in only for the poultry competitions. My only opportunity to get a glimpse of a Rhode Island Red, a Buff Silkie Bantam, a Black Frizzle Cochin or a Top Hat Special would be to return for the competitions and watch from the stands.
I also expected cooking competitions – pie contests, best jam and preserves, maybe some quilts. My experience with Winter Fairs has been much more country-oriented, having grown up on the Atlantic Winter Fair in Nova Scotia with my Ontario experience being the Norfolk County Fair in Simcoe held at Thanksgiving. This was a very citified country fair indeed.
That’s not to say the royal We didn’t have a great time, with plans to return next year. We headed home with a bag of Ontario-grown millet flour from Terza Farms, some very fine Ontario cheese, and a couple of bottles of really nice Ontario wine (Chateau des Charmes Cabernet Merlot 2004 and Rosehall Run Cabernet Merlot 2004) from the onsite LCBO shop carrying only Ontario wines (some not available in regular rotation), along with some fudge, maple syrup, and free PEI potatoes.
As we headed to the exit at the Go Train station at the foot of Atlantic Avenue, we stopped to let some cattle pass. A number of pens had been set up at the western end of the CNE grounds to allow the animals to be exercised. There, under the Gardiner Expressway, cars whizzing by overhead, a gorgeous pair of cows stood idly munching hay. The country really does come to the city.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair runs until November 11th. Adult admission is $18, Horse show tickets include general admission and cost $36 – $70.