Its a given that German wines are unlike French wines, British cheeses are different from Greek cheeses because in Europe it is easier to accept regional differences in food. North America not so much. More so in the States than in Canada perhaps, but is there really a difference between Niagara Region wines and Prince Edward County wines. Can Ontario produced foods be identified by their terroir, can place have a taste? Angela Podgorski, community manager for the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance says yes, place matters.
“There are regions that are known for things better than others. If you go up to Collingwood its apple country so they are known for ciders and apple pies. It’s the largest concentration of orchards anywhere . . . Oxford County is the dairy capital of Canada and there are quite a few cheese makers out there, doing beautiful things with grass-fed dairy. Wine regions are very distinct. The wines you get from up north are going to be completely different from the wines you get in the Niagara region where its warmer. We definitely have it. Its not as developed or celebrated as it is in parts of Europe or South America but it is happening,” she says.
Some of it is happening because of the work the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance is doing. OCTA isa not-for-profit agency connecting local food producers and developers “from the farm up” with each other. By building communities first among growers, chefs, processors, restaurateurs, accommodation providers, government and others, OCTA can develop food tourism for an area, promoting a unique experience, a sustainable economy and most importantly telling its culinary story, its taste of place. But first they find the right story.
“Before you start promoting you need to do the development work, its not enough to just start telling the story,” says Podgorski. “One of the biggest problems in this province is what I like to call the ‘Shiny Brochure Syndrome’. Communities will spend a whole bunch of money they might not have, on a shiny brochure and distribute it everywhere and draw people from everywhere to come visit their area. But once there it doesn’t live up to the pamphlet. It’s really important to create those community connections, work with the stakeholders, make sure that customer service is up to snuff. If there is a sign on the door that says nine to five there is actually a person sitting at that table from nine to five. If someone is going to drive for two hours and they get there and its closed when they said they would be open, that sense of disappointment spreads like wildfire across social media,” she says.
Doing the development work is their (locally sourced) “bread and butter” says Podgorski. She says it can be frustrating to deal with government officials who measure success in column inches, tweets and overnight stays and don’t get the development angle.
“We get excited when there are internal communications and systems in place to source local food and farmers are getting paid on time versus other people might feel success is more people are visiting the area and media is talking about it,”says Podgorski adding OCTA gauges both and not one over the other.
More are seeing the economic benefits of engaging residents as well as tourists but its about a 50/50 split among economic and tourism developers at the present she says.
“There are two kinds of developers in this province. The ones that spend all their dollars on marketing and will never understand and then there’s the ones that totally do. There are government grants and dollars available for the ones who do understand it. The government is supporting the initiatives. We have had massive support over the years. But there are always going to be the people who just hire a marketing firm and do all the marketing and that’s going to be enough,” she says.
To ensure that their marketing delivers on their promise OCTA has created its Feast ON Certified Taste of Ontario program. An accredited business can use the Feast ON designation in the telling of their own story and also to access OCTA social media and digital channels, events, partnerships and summits. OCTA also have a searchable data map on their website with profiles of the accredited businesses. Categories include Food Trucks, Takeaways, Cafes, Bars, Diners, Casual and Fine Dining and Bistros. Feast ON businesses can be searched for within a certain radius and location allowing people to build an itinerary of places to visit across the province or they can follow suggested trails already mapped out such as the new self-guided brewery route created in partnership with Greenbelt and the Ontario Craft Brewers Association.
“(Feast ON) is a program we run that celebrates chefs and restaurants that are sourcing locally,” says Podgorski. “What was going on for a long time in this province was that people were saying they were working with local farmers but not really doing it . . . its a way for people to find local food, to celebrate chefs that are actually working with local, to discover new producers and to showcase that taste of place and what makes Ontario eating and drinking so unique.”
For those who still think Ontario does not have its own food heritage Podgorski says the history is still being made, stories have yet to be written.
“Canada and Ontario, in general, is still in the midst of finding whats so special about us, it’s identity. Some people think poutine and canoes, moose and bears. We’re still pretty young, still trying to figure out what we all about, unlike most of the other food countries you would travel too. There’s a unique sense of discovery and development as you go along because every time a new business opens that’s doing something unique with food in this province they’re literally writing our food identity which is pretty exciting.”
Its exciting too for a foodie to have locally sourced experiences with the real possibility of being the first to experience them. Thats a win/win for all and a story worth sharing.