Okay, it’s sort of the same thing every year – but there’s something about the Royal Winter Fair that just makes us so excited. Sure, there are parts we don’t get, like why many of the food competition winners are hidden away in the Upper Annex where most people never see them, and how McDonald’s has weaseled their way into the Journey to Your Good Heath section (sure, they pay lots of money to be there, probably, but come on!).
On the other hand, for ten days every November, the Royal is where city and country come together in a celebration of Ontario’s harvest – from giant pumpkins to many varieties of apples to jams, corn, produce and some of the most beautiful animals you’ve ever seen. Those cows bathed and fluffed up like giant teddy bears will one day be someone’s dinner, but not before they’re bedecked with ribbons to show just what good quality beef they really are.
New this year, and also hidden away in the Upper East Annex, is the Royal Harvest Market where farmers’ market vendors are offering wares for sale. Participants include Monforte, From These Roots, Sovereign Farms, Purple Daze Lavender Farm, The Wicked Bee, Zephyr Organics and more.
Also new this year is The Royal Brew House in Heritage Court. While Ontario craft beer has been served at the Royal in past years, this year it’s been given the spotlight, with the folks from the Griffin Gastropub in Bracebridge operating a pop-up pub that offers dozens of beers from around the province. Check out two new amazing winter beers – the Mocha Porter from Lake of Bays Brewing Company in Baysville, and the Double Chocolate Cranberry Stout from Muskoka Brewing Company. And if beer isn’t your thing, there are a few Ontario VQA wines available as well, including entrants from the Royal Wine Competition.
The produce competition area is tucked away in a corner, but people are still managing to find the giant pumpkins, apple displays and arrays of gourds, kales, and other prize-winning veg. I’m not sure I understand why people keep getting their pictures taken beside the produce (at least, it seemed to be a popular thing to do when we were there on Friday… “Look, it’s me and a bunch of gourds!”) but I’m happy people are finding it and taking the time to look at everything.
Both Northern and Eastern Ontario have sections of the main fair area dedicated to local agriculture and food, and there are plenty of things to taste and buy here from locally made chocolates, fish, meat and even flours and grains. I keep hoping to see an area for Stratford or Haldimand-Norfolk each year, two important areas of the province for food and agriculture that don’t seem to be represented here. The Taste-Real booth has a selection of products from food producers from the Guelph-Wellington area, but it’s one small booth that really deserves to be larger.
Not that I’m harping on the Royal, honest. There’s still lots of wonderful stuff going on every day of the fair at the Entertaining at Home stage with Cuisine Canada’s Canada Can Cook demos and competitions, as well as the Be Healthy Stage with their So You Think You(th) Can cook competition, and there are plenty of samples, info sheets and recipe cards to collect and take home.
And of course it wouldn’t be the Royal without the booths selling fudge, apple blossoms, maple syrup and other treats. There are also a number of restaurants serving higher-end cuisine, and the food court full of not-so-healthy grub like poutine and fish and chips that you eat anyway, because it’s the fair.
Meeting your food is also an important part of the Royal, and strolling among the cows, pigs, goats and sheep is a good way to learn about where your food really comes from. It’s not always pleasant to realize that the cute pig eventually becomes bacon, but it’s so important for city folks to be able to put the two together and both appreciate and respect the works that farmers do.
The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair runs until November 14th at the Canadian National Exhibition. Admission is $16 – $20. Check the website for a full daily schedule of events.