Eating food grown within the one hundred mile radius of your home has been all the rage in the last few years. We in Northeastern Ontario have been known to snort and say ‘sure that’s fine for summer’ but what are we to live on for the rest of the year? Pine needles and cedar tea?
That was my ignorance before I stopped into Maja’s Tea Garden, which specializes in healthy local food and organic baked goods. Maja’s is located in the town of Mindemoya on Manitoulin Island. Not only is it a store, a tea house and home of the ‘Mindemoya Garden Gig’, but Maja, a native of Switzerland, is a fount of knowledge of all things locally organic.
On the Menu
When first entering, you will find yourself in a compact store that sells and serves teas of all kinds. Not only your favourite flavours but also local herbs made into soothing, invigorating or tasty selections. Mustards anyone? Honey mustard, Italian mustard, hot mustard and horseradish are made on the premises. Maja also makes jams and jellies from the fruit of the bushes and trees in the back of the property.
Since maple trees are abound on the Island, it will come as no surprise that local maple syrup can be procured here, in addition to local honey. If you are looking for something a bit hearter, choose from Maja’s daily entrée selection. Eat in the beauty of her garden, or take it to go and enjoy at home. Fresh breads and sausage are also on the menu.
So far this may sound like an infomercial, but what you have to understand is that on a somewhat remote island, hours from a large population base, known more for it’s Anishinnaabe culture, fishing, camping and biking, having your choice of organic, healthy and locally grown food is quite a surprise!
For instance, when you walk the garden you will encounter many unfamiliar plants. Maja has re-introduced indigenous herbs and veggies that are suited for our climate, and add an authentic taste to her meals. A surprisingly compact area yields raspberries, strawberries, hawberries, grapes, rhubarb as well as any number of fruit trees one wouldn’t think would survive, much less fruit, this far north. Maja has quite the green thumb, not to mention enthusiasm for her craft.
Squash is a another traditional northern staple, and her patch yields all kinds, many of which she keeps in the cellar where they keep all winter. She also plants spinach in early fall, keeping it in the ground overwinter. As spring arrives, it provides the first lovely spinach greens as soon as the snow disappears. I didn’t know you could even do that! The list continues, and being a friend of the environment, Maja has a passive solar cooker, which she uses for wheat, beans, rice, etc.
Learning to Love Local
‘Up North’ as we say, one can’t survive on gardening alone, so in order to thrive and survive Maja offers courses, concerts, and creative cooking. For instance she holds ‘Gourmet Garden Gigs’ each Wednesday and Saturday from mid-July until the end of August. Starting at 6 p.m. rain or shine, you and your fellow diners are introduced to the featured menu items and are invited to chat about the food, and how it is made and grown.
This four-course meal includes several appetizers, which change throughout the seasons, as they ripen from the garden. You get to taste each one. A little sorbet, herb or berry cordial to cleanse the palate. Then comes the main course that could be bison from the Bruce Peninsula, organic chicken from nearby Providence Bay, or fish caught in local waters. Your entrée may be served with Turkish eggplant, black rice and garlic scape pesto, followed by a specialty éclair in the shape of a swan, drizzled with a rhubarb and raspberry reduction, topped with fresh whipped cream!
No matter what is served, part or all comes from their trees, bees, garden, and ingenuity. If you sample cured meats as part of your meal, chances are they come from their outdoor clay oven. After you are sufficiently suffonsified (a.k.a. full), then comes the gig part. Local musicians and those travelling the local circuit provide post dinner entertainment, while you enjoy an evening stroll in a lovely and serene green space?
Other learning opportunities include ‘Pioneer Potion’. This one-hour stroll through the garden introduces you to the plants and herbs pioneer women would grow and use for food and medicine in the days when going to a corner store wasn’t an option. It is here you will learn what those hard working ladies had to do to ensure there was food for their families. Wheat, oats and other grains and wild rice were grown, dried, ground and stored without the rodent proof convenience of Tupperware, and the seasonal bounty had to be canned, preserved, dried or cured to last through the winter and into early spring. It is an enjoyable and informative hour.
So although I am thinking that there will always be Manitoulin cedar tea on the menu in winter, I now also know a bit more about how to eat local all year long. Thanks, Maja! Contact Maja’s Tea Garden directly at (705) 377-4471.