The 2011 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair continues on a strong tradition of bringing local food and wine to Toronto. The Royal, which runs from November 4 to 13 (9 AM to 9 PM every day) at the CNE’s Direct Energy Centre, has a wide variety of eating and drinking options to fill the spaces between show jumping and pig auctions.
Since the mixed experience I had at the Delicious Food Show–some very good shortbread and a couple of other delicious bites but mostly mind-numbing lineups, an antiseptic environment, and a bunch of non-food food–I’ve wondered when and how food shows have jumped so far off the rails.
And there is no doubt that the current crop of massive food events are a point on the same continuum as fall fairs; thousands of consumers are invited to sample (and buy) what hundreds of producers have to offer. The Royal makes it obvious that it’s not the size or indoor venue that hobbles modern additions. So, then what is it?
While sitting at the Royal Brew House and Wine Tasting Patio it struck where I think we went wrong. Right when someone decided that the animals needed to go. At the Royal you can enjoy a flight of award-winning Ontario wine (three 2 oz. pours for $10) and then literally forty-five seconds later be walking past twelve Holsteins lined up for a milking demonstration.
Now milk and wine have little to do with each other–except of course at their delicious intersection called cheese, see the display case of ribbon-covered cheeses–but there is something reassuring and civilised that they’re allowed in the same room.
I don’t know if I was violating any access restrictions (I’m genetically incapable of reading “No Access” signs) but just past the Holsteins I wandered into a giant barn that provides temporary (and comfortable looking) stalls for more cows, in a wider variety than I can remember ever seeing. Limousin, Black Angus, Simmental, and Charolais to name just four. A sort of bovine United Nations.
I also stumbled on a hybrid pork auction and junior pig-showing competition but worried that I might accidentally bid on more pork than I could ever eat heading out of the barns, past goats, sheep, and llamas to the main exhibit space.
Having forgotten my above-the-knee riding boots I didn’t venture into the Harvest Grill but I’m told it’s under new management and I can say they’ve done a good job of establishing a fancy restaurant in the middle of the show floor.
All the way at the southwest corner of the exhibit hall is the more utilitarian food court. Bison seems to be the meat du jour and is offered in both burger and on-a-bun form. But it’s really the small-town Ontario classic triumvirate of poutine, back bacon on a bun, and Canadian-ised Chinese that dominates the food court.
Bouchard’s has a very good (if slightly salty) example of that sort of poutine which might not win any awards in Montreal but combines excellently crispy fries, real curds, and a flavourful gravy. Unless you’re splitting it more than two ways stick with a small.
Having sated by craving for fried potatoes covered in all things unhealthy but delicious I moved on to the Harvest Market just to the north. Here I found vendors selling all sorts of produce including a wide array of autumn fruits and vegetables; British baked goods; and an Ontario lamb farmer that has an outstanding lamb liver pate (a steal at $5) as the last item on his card.
I feel like I’ve only barely scraped the surface. There are a couple restaurants in the Horse Palace that I didn’t visit and I’ll have to return wine and beer tasting pavilion to sample some of the excellent suds but I think this is a good start on a guide to what to eat and drink during the nine days of The Royal.