Once again, it’s time for the country to come to the city. The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is in town until November 16th. Now in its 86th year, the Royal is the largest combined indoor agricultural fair and international equestrian competition in the world, and sees over 300,000 people come through its doors each November.
And since the majority of agriculture is food-related, the fair is a great place for foodies to check out new local products, admire prize-winning produce, and see up close the chickens, pigs, cows and sheep that will eventually end up on their dinner tables.
Here are some not-to-miss high-lights:
Royal Apple Competition – after a 44-year hiatus, the apple competition has returned, featuring heritage, commercial and new apple varieties.
Produce Competition – boy, there’s a lot of different varieties of squash! Check out the winners in each category for everything from carrots to potatoes.
Year of the Potato – 2008 is the International Year of the Potato and spuds are featured throughout the fair, with a number of booths handing out free samples.
Butter sculpture – this is a favourite event at the Royal every year. We visited on the first day, so there wasn’t much progress but last year’s entries were really cool.
Royal Wine Competition – in partnership with the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation the Royal is presenting the first Royal Wine Competition. And you can’t have wine without cheese, so a cheese competition will feature the finest dairy, goat and sheep cheeses.
Honey and Maple Syrup – displays of winning honey and maple syrup products and info booths from producers associations are set up on the 2nd floor of the east annex, near the petting zoo. Visitors can learn about bee-keeping and maple syrup production.
Preserves and Grain Competitions – also in the east annex is a display of the winners of the preserves competition where jars of pickles, chutneys and jams can be admired – but sadly, not tasted. And displays of winning grains can also be found nearby.
Animal demonstrations – daily demonstrations on cattle milking, goat milking and sheep shearing. There’s also the vaguely creepy Chick-Mobile and Pig Mobiles where visitors can hopefully experience some guilt at how factory-farmed animals are housed. (Yes, I did get into an argument with the farmer displaying the battery-caged laying hens – why do you ask?)
Animal competitions – at any given time, visitors can watch cows, pigs, sheep, goats or chickens being paraded around the Agricultural Ring of Excellence. Once these animals win their ribbons, many categories also have auctions. Not for the animals themselves necessarily, but for their genetic material. Over 90% of the international visitors to the fair come to see the dairy cows and take home “the best genetics that Canada has to offer”. Obviously a part of farm life, but… don’t try to picture it.
Shopping – a large part of the Royal exhibits is a section of vendor booths. The Savour Muskoka area features vendors and businesses from northern Ontario including the Iroquois Cranberry Growers, Northwest Fudge Factory, Biz Pasture-Fed Bison, and the Upper Canada Cheese Company. There’s also a featured area that includes businesses from eastern Ontario such as Fifthtown Artisan Cheese Co., Beau’s Brewing, Copper Kettle Chocolate Company, Black River Cheese, Sprucewood shortbread and a booth featuring wines from Prince Edward County.
And in case the samples from all of these places weren’t enough, there’s also a number of dining areas within the Royal. From the upscale Vintner’s Terrace where visitors can eat local fare paired with wine to the food court area at the east end of the building with everything from good ol’ beaver tails to peameal bacon sandwiches, there’s something for everyone. There’s even a family-friendly restaurant in the east annex building featuring family-friendly grub within view of the petting zoo.
The Royal runs until November 16th at the Direct Energy Centre at the CNE. General admission tickets are $14 – $18 with a variety of special packages for the equestrian events priced separately. For more info, please visit their website.