Road Trip: Cheesy Fall Fun in and Around Kitchener

There’s plenty to see and do in Ontario all year long, but there’s something different about the autumn. The air gets crisper, the landscapes become painted with nature’s most vibrant hues – and we collectively and suddenly realize that before long, ice and snow will descend anew and our ever-fleeting chance to enjoy fall’s fleeting beauty will be gone.

Without doubt, in this part of Canada, autumn is peak road trip season. And as much as seeing the changing leaves is impetus enough, it’s always fun to have a place to head toward, too.

Heading west for about an hour and a half outside Toronto leads you into farming country, where you’ll find a perfect balance of colourful landscapes and edible delights. Add in a side trip to Kitchener and you can enjoy some historic experiences and even a family play date location that’s reliable in any weather.

There’s more than enough to do here to fill a weekend or more, but my daughter and I recently distilled the highlights down to one very full day, and had a blast taking it all in. Here’s how we did it.

Oxford Cheese Trail

Those who truly appreciate cheese will know exactly what I’m talking about here: Quebec is a cheese-lover’s paradise because, among other reasons, you don’t need to work to find fresh curds. Almost on the daily, you can walk into just about any convenience store and grab a bag that’s been sitting on the counter for who-knows-how-many hours – the warmer the better since they’re never the same once they’ve been in the fridge – and dig in to their squeaky and tangy goodness.

Here in Ontario, the laws surrounding refrigeration of dairy products are far more stringent, so finding the perfect fresh curd is a lot harder. Most of the time, there’s no choice but to go directly to the source.

The Oxford Cheese Trail is just such a place. Set in the farmlands that surround Woodstock, the artisans along the trail produce all sorts of specialty cheeses, including piles and piles of curds. It’s a lot closer than Quebec for most people in Southern Ontario, so those in the know will find the relatively short drive very worthwhile.

A couple of things to note: This trip is best done on a weekday or a Saturday since most of the cheese shops are closed on Sundays. If you’re coming from the Greater Toronto Area, unless you’re based in the north end and it’s too much of a detour, I highly recommend taking the 403 through Hamilton instead of the 401 for this trip. It’s generally a lot less busy – particularly if it’s convenient for you to avoid the QEW across the bottom of Mississauga – and the autumn views are stunning for a great deal of the drive.

Finally, be sure to bring a cooler and an ice pack along so that any treasures you pick up make it home in tip-top shape.

Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese

You’d be easily convinced that you’ve become lost on the way to the first stop as you turn onto a gravel track, were it not named Gunn’s Hill Road. Though it’s deep into agricultural country, Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese is well worth going out of the way for, especially on a Friday afternoon or Saturday morning when bags and containers full of fresh Cheddar curds are stacked sky-high beside the counter. They’ll usually be gone by about 2 pm on Saturday, though, making this a logical first stop of the day.

Cheese-making is done here from Monday to Friday and runs the gamut, from Camembert-style soft-ripened to semi-soft, some infused with bold flavours like garlic or jalapeño, and harder varieties such as an amber, nutty Handeck. Your best friend can have a treat, too: Bo is the very friendly resident German shepherd, and small bags of his favourite cheesy biscuits can be found next to the till.

Bright Cheese

About half an hour up the road – or a few minutes less if you take the 401, but why on Earth would you do that when there are so many scenic backroads? – you’ll find Bright Cheese on the northern edge of the village of Bright.

This shop specializes in more traditional varieties such as Cheddar, brick, and Havarti. The cheeses are great (and if you enjoy a good hit of spice, don’t miss the sizzling-hot pepper-infused Havarti), but what stands out most here is the very reasonable prices. I picked up a grab bag for $10, which is a shopkeeper’s-choice selection of four “ugly cheeses” (off-cuts that don’t have perfectly squared corners, basically), and they come in a reusable bag that gets you five percent off your purchase if you bring it back with you on your next visit.

Once upon a time this place was known as Bright Cheese and Butter, but butter was dropped from the product offering recently because it was too time-consuming to make. However, they now stock Stirling butter instead, a brand that’s popular among local food enthusiasts, for just under $6 per pound. I picked up two, and I think the difference from what I would have paid in the city pretty much covered my gas for the day.

Curd day at Bright is on Mondays, and they not only sell them plain but also in flavours: sour cream and onion, barbecue, taco seasoning, and garlic and dill.

Mountainoak Cheese

Next, hop in the car for another 10 minutes and head toward New Hamburg to visit Mountainoak Cheese. Adam and Hannie van Bergeijk have carried the knowledge they gained from attending the famous Gouda cheese-making school in their native country of the Netherlands and put it to work here in Canada. The farm produces eighteen different varieties of Gouda made from milk that’s gathered three times daily from the 220 cows that live on-site, and you’ll still very often see both of them cutting wheels in the background or talking to customers at the till.

Tours of the facility can be arranged by appointment; we happened to stumble in at the precise moment when one was about to begin, so they squeezed us in. My daughter was entranced as she learned about the entire cheese-making process, from gathering and pasteurizing the milk to separating the curds and whey, creating perfectly uniform cheese wheels, and brining, coating, and storing them until they’re ready to be sold.

There are plenty of favourite flavours to be discovered here: in our house it’s a toss-up between smoked chilli pepper and black truffle, but their gold and wild nettle varieties are perennial bestsellers. They also sell curds occasionally, and fresh gouda curds are a unique treat: they’re nuttier and firmer than cheddar curds with a very pleasant bite. There’s no set schedule for them, though, so you’ll just need to pay a visit and try your luck.

Exploring Kitchener’s History

Once we’d had our fill of cheese, as much as we probably didn’t need it, we stopped for lunch. My daughter and I have dietary restrictions, so we end up at the golden arches far too often because it’s easy for us. But if you have no such concerns, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you seek out one of Kitchener’s many traditional German restaurants. This area was originally settled by Germans and is still home to many people of that ancestry – in fact, the city of Kitchener was named Berlin until 1916, when World War I tensions rendered such connections to Germany unseemly to some locals. If schnitzel and potato salad are your comfort food, this decision might save you the cost of a plane ticket – or put you in more of a hurry to get one, depending on how you look at it.

Woodside National Historic Site

In the north end of Kitchener, a Victorian mansion sits tucked away in more than 11 acres of forest and holds a special place in Canadian history. For seven years, Woodside was the home of a teenage William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was this country’s longest-serving prime minister as he spent a total of 21 years in office between 1921 and 1948. He championed such programs as unemployment insurance and family allowance, which were instrumental in setting the tone for Canada’s social support systems.

In a fascinating twist, Mackenzie King’s parents were not especially affluent; his father was a prominent lawyer in Berlin, and people of social standing were expected to live to a certain standard in those days. The family rented Woodside and spent their time there living above their means to put up the necessary appearances.

The house was occupied by other tenants once the Mackenzie King family left, and it eventually fell into disrepair until it was restored in the 1950s and added to the Parks Canada roster of historic sites. Today, apart from school groups, the house is only open to the general public between Thanksgiving and Christmas each year, which makes paying a visit an ideal excuse for an autumn drive – particularly if your kids are collectors in the Parks Canada Xplorers program as mine is. She delighted in trying out the old-fashioned games, both indoor and outdoor, learning more about how children lived in Victorian times, and enjoying the fall colours from the red chairs and the on-site hiking trails.

(And if you’re a fan of surreal educational shorts as I am, you mustn’t miss the introductory video, which features a talking $50 bill – which has a likeness of Mackenzie King on the back, so it’s not completely out of left field – and a barbershop quartet of Sir John A. Macdonalds.)

Weatherproof Family Fun

Bingemans

We capped off our day by meeting good friends for an afternoon of amusement at Bingemans. This massive entertainment facility sees all kinds of use, especially in the summer with its concert stage and water park, and it’s also the home of Kitchener–Waterloo’s annual Oktoberfest celebrations (another Kitchener stronghold with roots in its German history).

For our visit, we stuck to FunworX, which is a warehouse-sized complex chock-full of busy-making activities for kids, including a three-storey climbing structure with slides, a ball pit, and foam ball cannons, a sprawling arcade, and a bowling alley with a Boston Pizza inside – or is that a Boston Pizza with a bowling alley inside? Either way, you can bowl and eat pizza for dinner at the same time, which our kids thought was pretty fantastic.

We had loads of fun and will definitely be back, but there are a few caveats. If your kids are young enough to be fully entertained by the climbing structure, then this makes for an affordable day out. Once the arcade and bowling get involved, though, it can get expensive quickly. It’s also very loud and busy with flashing lights and sensory overload everywhere, which isn’t for everyone.

Apple-picking at Chudleigh’s

If laid-back outdoorsy is more your speed and the weather is good – or even if it’s not, since that sometimes helps keep the crowds at bay – finishing the day with some apple-picking at Chudleigh’s Farm is another option. This classic apple orchard operation is on Highway 25 just north of the 401 – so it’s on the way home if you’re headed back to the GTA – and somehow has managed to turn itself into a big-time farming business while retaining its small-town charm.

My daughter is perpetually drawn to feeding the goats at the petting zoo and going on the pony rides (which only operate on weekends). But my favourite part is that, no matter how busy it gets, it never seems to be impossible to find a quiet aisle out in the orchard and hand-pick your favourite apples while gazing out into nothing but colourful trees and sky.

This is another activity that can add up quickly for larger families – there’s a per-person cover charge if you want to access anything other than the farm store, and it’s not cheap – but it offers such a unique experience that in our home it’s quickly become an essential autumn mainstay.

And hey, there’s nothing better than fresh-off-the-tree apples to go with all that cheese you bought earlier in the day. Bon appétit!

Curds and way too much merriment. 10/25/2018 10:00:00 AM