By Vanessa Chiasson
A dimly lit barn, a raging storm, and the unshakable feeling that an unseen pair of eyes were upon me. It might sound like the start of a spine-chilling movie but at Rideau Pines Farm, it was actually the start of an incredible visit! The sudden appearance of a short-lived thundershower in the rural countryside had my friends and I taking cover in the farm’s market shop - and spilling over into the adjacent barn, where we eagerly crowded for a smoothie-making demonstration. And that pair of eyes? Why, they belonged to Phoebe the goat, who was shyly ducking her head into the far end of the barn to observe all the commotion!
Rideau Pines is one of an astonishing 1300 farms in Ottawa - in fact, Ottawa has more farms than Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary combined! And many of them, like Rideau Pines, are just 30 minutes from the heart of downtown - the perfect afternoon excursion for anyone craving juicy fresh strawberries. As we saw first hand, Rideau Pine’s berries are absolutely irresistible and the perfect ingredient for smoothies, along with maple syrup, sumac juice, and sheep’s milk yogurt (all local, of course!). Smoothies are easy enough to make at home but I’m a fan of Rideau Pine’s method myself - a bike-powered blender! No wonder Phoebe the goat couldn’t contain her curiosity and had to peek into the barn!
I assumed during our June visit that strawberries would be the star of the show, bolstered by asparagus and garlic scapes, but there was an unexpected crop waiting for harvest. Siberian haskap berries - feeling utterly at home in Ottawa - were thriving and ready for picking. Rideau Pines is one of the few farms in the area that’s growing them on a large scale and I can’t help but feel other producers will soon follow suit. Often described as a blueberry/grape or blueberry/currant flavour hybrid, haskaps are teeming with antioxidants and enticing flavour. Resembling an oblong blueberry, they can be used just as their look-a-likes - tossed into muffins, sprinkled over yogurt or, for top Ottawa chefs, pickled and turned into a vinaigrette.
It’s not only the short drive, the abundance of farms, and the scrumptious haskaps that’s luring the city’s top chefs to this south-west corner of Ottawa. Pardoning the pun, the fruitful relationship between the chefs and the farmers is driving repeat visits all year round. Farmers and growers like Matt, Hannah, Saundra, John, and Paul at Rideau Pines are influencing chefs by producing rare, heirloom, and climate-defying fruits and vegetables for year-round use. In turn, the chefs are asking farmers to push their boundaries and think outside the box, requesting seldom-seen herbs and crops. (Spoiler alert - keep your eyes open for borage on menus this summer, especially in iced teas and salads!).
If you miss strawberry season (and if you’re not a celebrity chef!), fear not. Phoebe and the crew welcome pick-your-own guests all summer long and into the early autumn, offering everything from raspberries and gooseberries to sweet corn and swiss chard. And if you’re more interested in touring than harvesting, pre-picked produce (along with local maple syrup and other treats) are available at their farm store for easy pick up. And you can be sure the family and their staff can point you in the right direction if you’re seeking local wine, meat, or cheese to complete your shopping list.
In a city of 1,300 farms, it’s impossible to pick just one to visit. Feasting on strawberries and haskaps has left me enamoured with Rideau Pines but if your travels take you further afield or to another neighbourhood, Just Food is where you’ll want to start. An incredible grassroots, volunteer driven non-profit, Just Food has championed everything from organizing the city’s network of community gardens to running the Savour Ottawa program which clearly identifies which market vendors, restaurateurs, and producers are verified to be using local agricultural products.
From shiitake mushrooms to heritage cows, you’ve just added 1,300 stops to your Ottawa bucket list! Thankfully, it’s a delicious challenge to undertake, one that will keep locals and visitors busy year-round.