This post about a summer getaway to the “bee school” of Ontario’s South Coast, including Aylmer and Oxford County, also appears on oswculinary.com
I sometimes wonder if bees have it all figured out. They get the importance of working together for the greater good. After all, there’s no ‘I’ in colony.
And then there’s that work ethic required to venture out on a warm day to forage and pollinate crops miles from home so another species — us humans — can survive. Granted, their reward is making honey to feed themselves, so it’s far from a raw deal.
Being able to fly, forage and make honey, which I go Winnie the Pooh on when it’s around, sounds like a dream life. So maybe in the next one for me. But for now, I’m content to be a wannabee — erm, wannabe — and marvel at the magic bees and their keepers work.
That’s what I did recently when my family and I travelled to Elgin and Oxford counties where we found sweet escape hanging out with apiarists and witnessing the ripple effects of their handiwork.
Buzzing off to Bee School in and around Aylmer
CLOVERMEAD ADVENTURE FARM 11302 Imperial Rd., Aylmer
Chris Hiemstra had no aspirations as a child to become a beekeeper, even though he comes from a family of them. He figured out early in life that he can’t outrun bees and got stung enough times to prove it and affirm his career ambitions. “I thought ‘This sucks, having bees,'” Hiemstra recalls. “I never wanted to be a beekeeper.”
Ironically, he went on to study beekeeping at university and in 2000, was beckoned back to his family’s apiary, where his father Henry also operated a store to sell honey.
Hiemstra, a gregarious guy and natural host, did some soul-searching to figure out if his family would stay the course with Clovermead or try something new. The store had always been a successful venture but a trip to Texas showed him and his family the potential of adding agritourism elements to the business.
Today the Clovermead store shares the spotlight with countless family-friendly activities, including wagon rides, farm animals — look up and see goats on the roof — playgrounds, pedal go-karts, mazes, a wild west streetscape, a “beestro” for snacks, and bee puns galore.
But at the centre of it all are the bees themselves and from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday, a beekeeper is available to introduce visitors to a queen and her hive. The emphasis of Summer Days with a Beekeeper is on teaching the importance of bees and honey production. I made friends with a drone — they don’t sting! — and had all those questions buzzing around in my head graciously answered.
Today the Hiemstras keep at least 1,000 colonies, some of which are on display in Clovermead’s bathrooms. Fear not, they’re behind glass and not remotely interested in what you’re doing.
“The thing is to entertain people and educate people,” Hiemstra says. “We believe families make strong Canadian societies so this is a place for families to come and connect.”
If you go: Sample Clovermead’s six floral honeys, including a one-of-a-kind applewood smoked honey, and 12 infused honey spreads. Have water handy for the zippy cayenne-infused edition. Bring your own jar and Clovermead staff will fill it with honey for you.
STEED & CO. LAVENDER FARM 47589 Sparta Line, Sparta
Suzanne Steed traded a career in public health to grow English or culinary lavender, and like those bees, I say she has things figured out quite nicely. Her 45-acre lavender and horse farm is a peaceful oasis in an already soothing section of Ontario’s south coast.
A path from the parking lot leads to a breathtaking lavender garden that provides purple and perfumey offerings for culinary, natural remedy and household creations. If squatters were welcome, I’d have probably never left. It’s the kind of spot, with its view, smell and busy beehives tucked in quiet corner, that leaves you feeling all is right in the world.
“I definitely recommend walking through the fields and ending up in the shop,” says Bryanne Ross, who became a true-blue lavender fan once she started working at Steed. “Some people even walk around for a second trip afterward.”
Steed turns her harvests into syrups, honeys and jams (strawberry-raspberry-lavender is a sure hit), herbes de Provence, soaps, shampoos and balms that keep bugs at bay, and linen sprays and laundry soaps. All are beautifully merchandised, making it impossible to leave empty-handed.
If you go: Grab a lavender ice cream sandwich, snag a muskoka chair and take a load off by taking in one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve ever seen. Breathe deeply, too. Not only is the view salve for the soul, the garden provides seriously soothing aromatherapy.
RAILWAY CITY BREWING 130 Edward St., St. Thomas
No summer getaway is complete without a few suds thrown into the mix. Fortunately, Railway City Brewing had us covered.
We are huge craft beer fans, even more so when we can sample the goods at the source. Railway City, named for St. Thomas being the Railway Capital of Canada once upon a time, brews four days a week. The taps run all seven days with samples of their flagship Iron Spike blonde and Dead Elephant Ale, named for Jumbo the circus elephant, who met an untimely fate on the train tracks in town.
The beer has fared better than its namesake, however. Dead Elephant has won silver at the Ontario Brewing Awards.
Railway City also does up a heady homage to the work of Clovermead’s hives. The Honey Elixir, made with Clovermead honey, is a gorgeous mahogany ale boasting notes of nut and toffee. It was my favourite of the beers we tried. A close second was The Witty Traveller, a cloudy Belgian Wit-style brew that boasted citrus and coriander. It’s was also recently named best wheat beer in the country by the Canadian Brewing Awards.
If you go: Tour of the brewery’s new digs for $5. You get a 45-minute blow-by-blow of brewing, four samples and a bottle opener to help you enjoy the haul you’ll take home.
Overnight: Enjoy Cottage Life at Pinecroft
Cottage life was the catchphrase of our weekend thanks to an 81-year-old log cabin being home base for our getaway.
We stayed at Pinecroft, a retreat tucked away in a stand of forest on the periphery of old tobacco farms turning over a new leaf with vegetable and cash crops.
Pulling into the laneway at Pinecroft was like crossing the threshold to Narnia. Under a towering canopy of evergreens, and overlooking a picturesque pond dotted with lilly pads, Pinecroft delivers on its pledge of “A little Muskoka serenity.” We stayed in Art’s Retreat, a section of the cabin that’s named for Pinecroft founder Arthur Caverly. He built the humble abode in 1934 so that his wife Selma could spend her Sundays reading in the peaceful presence of nature. Caverly also planted 85,000 pine seedlings, dug the 2.5 acre pond with a team of horses and, I’d say, won at showing his love for another human being.
Today Pinecroft is run by Caverly’s granddaughter, Brenda Smith, and her husband Paul. They’ve mastered hospitality with the addition of their Green Frog Tea Room, where huge plates of French toast, fresh fruit, eggs, biscuits, tea and coffee were served to us each morning. The tea room is open for lunch, too, and the staff are amazing at keeping you comfortable and substantially fed.
Pinecroft is also known for its pottery, selling earthenware made on site. Workshops are also offered for those wanting to try their hand at their own clay piece de resistance.
The sweet side of Oxford County
OXFORD HONEY AND SUPPLIES 385296 Highway 59, Burgessville
John Van Blyderveen is a bee whisperer. It’s a role he’s had to ace with an apiary bordered by corn fields that grow as much controversy as feed for livestock.
In 2006, Van Blyderveen nearly lost all his hives. He’s certain it was due to the use of neonicotinoids, a pesticide linked to mass bee deaths that’s used to treat the corn seed planted in the fields that surround his apiary. The troubling event put him in a tailspin to rebuild his livelihood and prompted him to start waxing scientific to hundreds of visitors each summer about bees’ vital role in human food production and how we must save them.
He tells his Beehive Story in his screened viewing gallery every Saturday at 11 a.m., June through August, with the hope of inspiring aspiring beekeepers while educating others about the importance of living in harmony with nature.
Van Blyderveen’s passion for bees has drawn thousands in the seven years he’s given weekly demonstrations that allow viewers to get up close, safely of course, to working hives.
Not only does he sell the honey made by his bees, Van Blyderveen also processes and sells the liquid gold for others producers. Those who leave his Beehive Story wanting to become beekeepers themselves can stop by his shop for all the supplies they need. The rest of us who prefer to leave it to the experts can buy a jar of flavourful cold-processed honey instead.
“I like flamboyant flavours,” Van Blyderveen says. “I love blueberry honey. I find it addictive. If I could, I’d put 100 per cent blueberry honey in my jars.” If you go: Don’t leave without a jar Van Blyderveen’s buckwheat-blueberry blend. It’s a rare and bold version that resulted from bees pollinating blueberry patches near a buckwheat field. It may not happen again. Lip gloss and hand cream made with propolis, an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral bee byproduct that results from the forage from gum-secreting trees mixing with bees’ body acid is a prize find, too.
JAKEMAN’S MAPLE PRODUCTS 454414 Trillium Line, Beachville
Sweetness abounds in these parts and you can find more of it at Jakeman’s Maple Syrup, a fifth-generation tree-tapping, sugar shacking operation.
The National Post has twice deemed Jakeman’s syrup the best in Canada. It’s a point of pride the family says loudly and proudly in their store housed in the old Sweaburg General Store, which the family moved to their property nearly 40 years ago.
Not only is the store where you score a bottle of that most Canadian elixir, there are tons of the family’s personal collection of antiques to take you back in time, too.
The Jakeman family has been making syrup in Oxford since 1876, when George and Betsy Anne Jakeman left Oxfordshire, England for Oxford County. They began tapping trees soon after their arrival to have a sugar source for their family. It’s a skill they learned from First Nations peoples living nearby.
In 1919, a business plan was born when Ernest Jakeman bought an evaporator. Today, the syrup operation is run by Bob Jakeman, his wife Mary, and their sons Chad and Devin. Together, they boil thousands of litres of their own sap and blend the results with syrup from 100 farmers from throughout Ontario. It’s then marketed globally, including far-flung Australia, Japan and Mexico.
Chances are, you may have already sampled the sweet goods from Jakeman’s. Their syrup is also sold in gift shops at Canada’s major airports, ready to serve as last-minute tokens of Canadiana to offer those we visit abroad. But if not, gas up your car. It is some of Canada’s best after all. There’s also maple popcorn, maple butter and maple icewine to tempt you.
If you go: There are four grades of syrup to choose from, ranging from delicate extra light to robust dark. Grab your favourite and at home, break bread into a bowl with milk and drizzle with syrup. “It’s really good,” Bob Jakeman promises. “It’s the way my parents did it.” I won’t discourage you from drinking it straight from the bottle, either.