Sweet like wine, Niagara-on-the-Lake
The skies are thick with clouds when we pull up at colonial Fort George. From the passenger seat I catch a glimpse of its palisade fence, barely a minute away through the trees. It seems like an ideal place to kick off a tour of Old Niagara. But the moment we get out of the car, it begins to rain. Heavily.
I am here to visit Jessica, one of my Salamanca flatmates. For six months we whiled away the afternoons in the kitchen, spent evenings sampling tapas on nearby Van Dyck, and “window-shopped” in the gourmet section of El Corte Inglés. “I have never met anyone who loves food as much as I do,” she’d say, munching on a Spanish biscuit. “But here you are.”
We evade the rain in Balzac’s, a micro-brewing café tucked away inside the Historic District. Jessica spots me eyeing the cakes on the counter. “You want one?” I politely decline, knowing that she’ll be the one paying for both of us. Instead I warm up over a cup of “Caffè Canadien”, a latte infused with a dash of maple syrup. The day has only just started and we are already easing into something of a gastronomic tour.
On Queen Street we stop by Kurtz Culinary Creations, a specialty jam shop selling everything from artichoke and spinach tapenade to lemon curd. Plenty of gourmet places do free tasting, but at Kurtz the stands of open jars and bread baskets take it to a whole new level. I try the onion jelly, guilt-free, before deciding that it will make the perfect gift for my brother.
At Inniskillin the air is heavy with the aroma of harvest grapes ready to be plucked off the vine. We are in the middle of Ontario’s Wine Country, so that can only mean one thing. In the cavernous tasting barn we start off with a dry, fruity Riesling, before moving onto a medium-bodied Merlot. At the Icewine counter, decorated with the latest awards and trophies, I pick a glass of 2008 Riesling. Immediately I am rendered speechless by the explosion of flavours on my palate. Delicately sweet yet refreshingly tart, it is simply sensational.
At lunchtime Jessica brings me to one of her favourite local restaurants – the bistro at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery. By a full-length window looking out onto the vineyard, we share an appetizer of sautéed escargot and pearl onions in puff pastry, drizzled in a tangy lemon and ginger dressing. This is followed by a succulent steak tartare, served with rocket, shaved parmesan and homemade garlic bread. For mains Jessica has grilled lake fish and I dig into the crispy duck confit on a bed of celeriac purée.
As appetising as it all sounds, it is dessert (pardon the expression) that takes the cake. I end up getting far more than what I asked for, a “chocolate sorbet and chocolate mousse”. On a plate crisscrossed with liberal amounts of chocolate sauce, the mousse hides a moist layer of brownie and a biscuit at the very bottom. All this is coated in a chocolate crust, and then crowned by a luscious sorbet with the texture of ice cream. I have just spent no less than 50 dollars on one sitting – but it is a price worth paying for the most memorable meal of the trip.
After lunch I have a few more hours to spare before catching the train to Toronto. Leaving the comforts of Niagara-on-the-Lake, we head south to the falls. The first sign that we are getting close is a perpetual cloud of mist rising from the gorge.
“It’s even more beautiful in winter,” Jessica tells me. “You’ll see giant icicles hanging off the sides and there’s hardly anyone else around.” We pass groups of visitors, drenched from the spray, in clear blue rain ponchos. I try not to cringe at the bright yellow bubble lifts shuttling up and down the Skylon Tower. Still, it’s not as bad as Clifton Hill, where the psychedelic mess leaves me with the strongest urge to flee.
At the edge of Horseshoe Falls I hug the parapet and peer over at its enormous turquoise-coloured cascade. The thundering mass is both hypnotic and vertigo-inducing; a marvel that still takes the stage despite all the Vegas-style development that has sprung up around it. For no less than half an hour I watch, mesmerised, as the torrent swells and churns before rushing over the edge, tumbling into the mist with a mighty roar.
Touristy as it may be, Niagara Falls still elicits its share of oohs and aahs from most visitors. But take away the falls and it lacks the soul of the other Niagara, steeped in history, sprawling vineyards and theatre festivals. Before I leave Jessica drives us to Queenston, where we pass the house of Canadian war heroine Laura Secord. On this Friday afternoon the leafy streets are dripping with calm. Our vehicle bumps along the switchbacks leading down to the old docks, until we are level with the winding river. Jessica sighs. “Maybe one day,” she motions, “I will buy a house here.”