Give me more of that old-time entertainment

Queensborough Orange Lodge

The former Orange Lodge is one of the oldest buildings in Queensborough. It’s not exactly in the greatest repair at the moment, but wouldn’t it be something if it could be restored to one of its past uses: as an arts centre for residents of the area?

One of the most striking and historic buildings in Queensborough is the tall old wooden barn of a place that for many, many years served as the Loyal Orange Lodge – the L.O.L., as the fading green paint atop of the building’s facade still says. It stands unused except for storage, and has definitely seen better days. An unfortunate renovation some years back made a bit of a mess of the original front doorways. But it’s loaded with history, and, as a column in one of the local papers reminded me rather indirectly the other day, was an important spot for entertainment in our little village back in the days when entertainment was hard to come by.

Queensborough L.O.L. showing windows

The unusual windows in the building, 16 panes of wavy old glass over 16.

As you can read in the walking-tour guide to the hamlet’s history produced by the Queensborough Community Centre, the Orange Hall (as everyone calls it) is one of the earliest buildings in Queensborough, erected in 1862. It served not only as the lodge for local members of the ultra-Protestant Orange order until the 1980s (yes, you read that correctly), but as the first place of worship in the village. Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians (though presumably not the Roman Catholics) all gathered there for Sunday services and Sunday School before their own churches were built, starting with St. Peter’s Anglican in 1871.

I have also been told, though have not been able to confirm this, that it served as a hospital during the deadly Spanish Flu epidemic that swept North America in 1918.

Back in the days of my childhood here in Queensborough, the Orange Hall was the local polling place; I believe I remember my parents going there to vote in the federal election that brought Pierre Trudeau to power in 1968, and also (dimly) them going to the hall to vote in a referendum on whether Elzevir Township (where Queensborough is located) should stay “dry” (that is, no selling of alcohol permitted) or go “wet.” (I assume this vote was brought on by a restaurateur, possibly the owner of a German place called Mother’s that opened back in the early 1970s, wanting to get a liquor licence. And I’m not sure how the vote went, to be honest.)

But the other thing the Orange Hall was used for back in the day was entertainment: dances and musical performances and travelling shows, including medicine shows. Those were the days before television and even radio, when people worked long hours and had to make their own fun; that is doubtless why every town and village had super-competitive hockey and baseball teams. Christmas pageants and church socials and card parties and quilting bees were where people gathered for a bit of respite from work and the often-hard realities of day-to-day life. The Orange Hall, which I have been inside once since Raymond and I bought the Manse, still has the stage from which performers would have entertained people of the village with songs, readings, plays and declamations on the virtues of some quack medicine or other.

The stage in the old Orange Hall

The stairs lead up to the stage at the front of the old Orange Hall, which is now used for storage.

The newspaper piece that got me thinking about all this was the Heritage Herald in the Tweed News, a column produced weekly by the tireless Evan Morton, curator of the Tweed and Area Heritage Centre. Evan was writing about an old photo that had been donated to the centre, showing a group of young men in uniform at what seems to be a First World War recruiting event at the Hungerford Township Hall in the village of Tweed. Also in the photo is a poster advertising a coming appearance at the hall by a Tom Marks. Being the diligent historian that he is, Evan had looked into this and reported that Tom Marks was a member of a vaudeville troupe that was once hugely popular in Canada and the U.S., the Marks Brothers, known as “The Canadian Kings of Repertoire.”

The Marks Bros.

A poster for “The Canadian Kings of Repertoire,” the Marks Brothers of Perth, Ont. You can find this and more photos related to this once-famous vaudeville troupe at this excellent Flickr page.

The brothers – Joseph, Thomas, Robert, Alex, Ernest, John and  McIntyre – “left the farm and took to the boards and the footlights throughout the latter part of the 19th century and into the 1920s. The brothers from Christie Lake, near Perth in Eastern Ontario, played to an estimated eight million Canadians, as well as to sizeable audiences in the United States. Their road shows, largely melodramas and comedy, kept audiences crying, booing, laughing and cheering until movies sounded the death knell for touring repertory companies,” according to a blurb about a book about them, which you can find more about here.

To all of which, I can only say: Who knew?

But also, intrigued by the fact that one of the brothers was to appear in wee Tweed around the time of the Great War, I got to wondering: might the Marks Brothers ever have performed at Queensborough’s Orange Hall? It seems at least possible, given this information provided on this page by a former curator of the Perth Museum:

“They delighted audiences in many remote towns and villages, most of them starved for entertainment, with their flamboyant performances and lavish scenery.”

Would Queensborough have been one of those “remote villages starved for entertainment” that the Marks lads visited? I’d love to know.

But anyway, the photo that Evan featured, and his findings about the Marks Brothers of Perth, Ont., got me thinking about those long-ago days when shows would come to the Orange Hall. And I’d like to share with you a delightful reminiscence of them that is included in the late Jean Holmes’s wonderful history of Queensborough and Elzevir Township, a book called Times to Remember in Elzevir Township. This story comes from the late Ed Alexander, whom I remember from my childhood days here. Thinking back on his youth, Ed told Jean and her history-gathering assistants

about the travelling plays that came to the Orange Hall. The fee was 35¢ to see the show. When he was young, if he did not have enough money to pay his admission, he walked around the block on the wooden sidewalks, with a long stick with chewing gum stuck on the end. He would put the stick between the boards and collect enough coins to pay his admission. The shows were usually medicine shows. The owners were trying to con the public into buying their medicine. It was usually described as a “cure-all.” It was a type of tonic, basically useless. 

And then it gets to the part I just love, referring to a part of those shows that apparently was especially popular with the men who worked in the small mines – gold, silver, marble, iron, lime, pyrite, copper, lead and actinolite – that once dotted this part of central Hastings County:

Along with the sales pitch, there would be songs and skits, and prizes for the most popular female. Sometimes, Mabel Chase, from the Chase Boarding-house in Actinolite, won. All the miners would come to buy the medicine and they voted for Mabel.

Ah, Mabel. Mabel, Mabel, Mabel. What I wouldn’t give to travel back in time to see her beaming and blushing with pride as she was chosen “most popular female” – once again – by the miners and others gathered for the medicine show in the Queensborough Orange Lodge.

Times to remember indeed!

Queensborough as seen by an artist

Queensborough by Bob Hudson

The bridge over the Black River in Queensborough as seen through an artists’s eye – that of Bob Hudson. This gouache is called Queensborough, 1980. Copyright, and used by permission of, Bob. Isn’t it beautiful?

Remember my post last night, featuring one of my own typically inexpert photos of the pretty scene in downtown Queensborough that features the bridge over the Black River (and my friend Graham’s collection of colourful Adirondack chairs)? If you don’t, check it out here; and after you do, I hope you will marvel at how a real artist has brought that same scene to beautiful life.

The picture at the top of this post is by artist Bob Hudson, and it is a gouache done way back in 1980, when Bob and his family lived in nearby Madoc. As luck (or fate, or whatever you want to call it) would have it, he posted it on Facebook a few days ago – and as you can imagine, I was thrilled to see it. I inquired of Bob whether it would be all right to feature his beautiful painting here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, and he very kindly gave me permission. Thank you, Bob!

I’m sure a fair number of my readers, especially those with ties to the Queensborough-Madoc area, will know Bob, or at least know of him. He and his family moved to Madoc (from the Toronto area) in the early 1970s, and he was well-known as a fine artist and potter. His family and ours (when I was a kid growing up at the Manse in Queensborough) knew each other a bit, and it is so nice to reconnect after all this time – especially over a picture of Queensborough! Bob now lives (and paints) in Toronto, but the very fact that he posted this great picture suggests to me that he has fond memories of his time in this area.

I am so happy to be able to show you this picture. And it makes me think – and not for the first time – how wonderful it would be if we could put together even some of the many artistic works that have been done in, and inspired by, our historic and pretty hamlet over the years. Here is a post that I did quite some time ago that tells about the Schneider School of Fine Arts that was located in the nearby Elzevir Township hamlet of Actinolite back when I was a kid, and from which groups of artists would regularly come on excursions to set up their easels and paint scenes of Queensborough. Oh, to be able to find even a few of those paintings and sketches now!

But you know, now that I reflect on it: maybe the serendipity of Bob posting that picture and giving me permission to share it when I found it, and thus giving me occasion to ruminate (as I now am) about somehow finding and showing Queensborough-themed art – maybe this is a start! Could we make it happen?

I feel a Queensborough Art Day coming on…

Questions on the road to town

Great house in ActinoliteOne thing journalists do constantly is ask questions about what they see and hear. They can’t help themselves, you know; and those questions are what lead to interesting stories that other people will want to know about. This morning on a leisurely drive to Tweed – one of the two villages (the other being Madoc) that constitute “town” for us folks here in Queensborough – I found myself in full journalist mode, asking myself questions about a number of things that I saw. They are questions to which I do not yet have answers; but I am hoping that you readers will be able to provide some. Here they are:

Question 1: What’s the story on that great house?

Every time I drive through the hamlet of Actinolite, which lies between Queensborough and Tweed and is in fact the only community in Elzevir Township aside from Queensborough, I admire the magnificent and unusual stone house that you see pictured at the top of this post. It’s perched in a great spot on a hill overlooking the hamlet, and it’s really an extraordinary-looking – and obviously historic – place. I’d love to know the story behind who built it, what that golden-coloured stone is and where it came from, and who has lived there over the years.

Question 2: Was this house (or this site) once the Green Acres restaurant and campground?

Green Acres?

From way back in my long-ago youth here at the Manse, I remember a commercial operation that was called Green Acres on the west side of Highway 37 on the way to Tweed. (I imagine it was named after the television show that was hugely popular at that time, but I could be wrong. Remember Arnold Ziffel, the pig?) I could not recall what exactly Green Acres was, but was enlightened thanks to a mention of it in Evan Morton’s Heritage Herald column in the Tweed News a few weeks ago. A Tweed resident had brought in to the marvellous Tweed and Area Heritage Centre, of which Evan is the tireless curator, a 1958 copy of the Tweed News that he’d found in the attic of his house, and Evan shared some of the tidbits from it in his column. One item was:

Toronto man has acquired “Green Acres” … Norman De Piedro of Toronto, brother-in-law of James Mayo, of Jimmy’s Drive-In Restaurant, Actinolite, has purchased the Green Acres restaurant and cabins on No. 37 Highway, just south of Actinolite … The DePiedros expect to have the premises open for business within a week.

Now, my question (aside from: Jimmy’s Drive-In? Never heard of it) is this: every time I pass by the house in my photo, or at least the site that this house is on, I get the feeling that it was Green Acres. Was it? Oh, and hey – does anybody have any photos of Green Acres (or, for that matter, Jimmy’s Drive-In) when it was in operation?

Question 3: Was this ministry that ministry?

Ministry of Northern Mines and Development

All the time I was growing up in Queensborough, there was an office of the Ontario Ministry of Lands and Forests – the name was later changed to the decidedly less poetic “Ministry of Natural Resources” – somewhere in the vicinity of Tweed. I was never at that office, and in truth have never been sure of where exactly it was, but I know that the operation was a fairly big employer in the area at that time. These days there is an office of the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, which I know only because of this sign that I pass when travelling to and from Tweed. One of these days I’ll take the time to drive in and see what’s doing at that office, but in the meantime, my question is this: is the setup now occupied by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines the same one that used to be the Lands and Forests?

And finally, Question 4: Why doesn’t somebody buy and reopen this former antiques and collectibles emporium?

Bridgewater Trading Corp.

I still remember the first time Raymond and I drove past the Bridgewater Trading Corp., right after we started visiting this area and were considering buying the Manse. It was a sunny day. I saw the sign and the fairly expansive setup of buildings from afar, and my heart leapt: an antiques emporium! Raymond and I love those places, and visit them whenever we can – often when we’re on holiday down in New England. (They have great antiques barns there, from which have come many of our treasures – see posts here and here and here, for instance – including a made-in-Canada vintage wooden toboggan.) What a thrill to find one in Tweed!

But alas, it was not to be. The Bridgewater Trading Corp. was closed (I don’t know when) and was for sale. And four or so years later, it’s still closed, and still for sale. That makes me sad every time I go by it, and it made me sad again today. I just know how much fun Raymond and I could have looking through the vintage wares (including the junk, of course) that a multi-vendor facility like that would have.

So final question: Future Tweed antiques-emporium operator, are you out there?

Small-town politics with a friendly smile

Election signs in Queensborough

“Downtown” Queensborough was not immune from the election signs that have blanketed the countryside for the past two or three months. Happily, by the end of the day yesterday – the day after the municipal election – they were pretty much all gone. As it happens, every candidate whose sign is in this picture, which I took a month ago, was elected on Monday night. Congratulations to them!

Well, Ontario’s municipal elections are finally over. Yesterday morning as I was driving to work, I saw a man collecting election signs from the side of the road and loading them into his pickup truck, and I had to restrain myself from getting out of the car and racing up to shake his hand in gratitude. I think I speak for pretty much everybody when I say that after what seemed liked six months of looking at those signs all along the highways and byways of pretty Hastings County, I was thoroughly sick of them.

And then late this afternoon I had another very pleasant post-election experience, this one even more pleasant because it was unexpected. There I was in the fading daylight, raking up the leaves from one section of the Manse’s yard, when an unfamiliar pickup truck (I think I know all the pickup trucks in Queensborough by now) stopped in front of the house and a young man got out and headed toward me. I didn’t recognize him from a distance, but when he said, “Hi, Katherine!” I realized it was newly elected Municipality of Tweed Councillor Jamie DeMarsh. He’d driven up to Queensborough from Tweed, where he owns a small business, to say thank you to the voters!

People, I have to tell you that’s a first for me. Usually politicians, or would-be politicians, are all over you when they’re running for office, what with the telephone calls and the door knocking and whatnot. But to come around to the relatively small number of voters in our little hamlet, right after the election, and say thanks in person? How nice is that?

Jamie DeMarsh

Brand-new Municipality of Tweed Councillor Jamie DeMarsh. I could tell from my conversation with him today that he is excited about his new responsibilities and is raring to get at the job.

Jamie and I had met at the recent all-candidates evening held at the Queensborough Community Centre, which I wrote about here. As I told him this evening, he spoke very well that night, and I am pretty sure picked up a few votes thanks to his obvious interest in the issues that matter to the people of our little hamlet, which is a very small part of what I like to refer to as the Greater Tweed Area. This evening he told me he’d been sick that night with a really bad cold, which to my mind made his performance all the more impressive.

We moved on from that to a fresh discussion about some of the issues that matter to the people of Queensborough. What a treat it was to have the ear of one of our municipal representatives! Right there on my front lawn!

Jamie told me he is determined to be an accessible councillor, and will make visits regularly to our hamlet and the others (Stoco, Marlbank, Thomasburg, Actinolite) in the larger municipal area to see what’s on voters’ minds and stay in touch.

At the end of our 15-minute conversation – when I had to get back to my leaf pile because it was getting dark – I was, let me tell you, feeling pretty darn good about rural politics. About one of my elected councillors knowing me by name, knowing the local issues that matter to me – and taking the trouble to stop by and say thanks. And obviously when he stopped by he didn’t even know whether I had voted for him.

But Jamie, I’ll let you in on a secret: I did. I was impressed by what you had to say at our all-candidates night – and I’m even more impressed now. Here’s to a good four years of municipal governance, with our politicians staying in touch with the people they represent!

What is “North of 7”?

Highway 7

This photo of Highway 7, which I took this very afternoon, gives you a sense, I think, of what a geographical divide it is between “the fat south/with inches of soil on/earth’s round belly,” as the poet Al Purdy put it, and the “lakeland rockland hill country” of the Canadian Shield, as Purdy also said. Note the rock through which the highway had to be blasted.

If you’re a regular, or even occasional, reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse, you’ve probably noticed me using the phrase “north of 7” with some regularity. If you live in or are from the Queensborough area or quite a wide swath around it, you will be instantly familiar with the phrase and know what it means.

But I always keep in mind that it probably doesn’t mean a thing to readers from elsewhere, and so every time I use it I try to get in some kind of an ever-so-brief explanation – often something as simple as noting that “7” refers to Ontario Highway 7.

So I thought it might be useful, both for readers and perhaps especially for me, to try to give a once-and-for-all explanation so that every time I say “north of 7” in future posts I can just link back to this one (for those who are puzzled and want more information) and so that I won’t have to explain it every time.

Okay, so what is “north of 7”?

Well, to begin with – and the main reason why I use the term so often – it’s where Queensborough is, and thus by extension where the Manse is. Living here makes Raymond and me by definition north-of-7 people.

And yes, “7” is Highway 7, or, if you want to get all formal about it, “The King’s Highway 7” – though why ownership hasn’t been transferred to the current female monarch, who has, after all, been ruling for sixty-two years, is kind of beyond me. I have many times linked to the Highway 7 section of the very interesting website The King’s Highway (thekingshighway.ca) that is put together by Cameron Bevers, who has a vast interest in the geography and history of Ontario’s highways. If you’ve never gone to those links I urge you to check them out: go here to get not only some quick facts about Highway 7, but also an excellent recounting of its history, and here to see some great historical photos of it.

But why does being “north of 7” constitute a state of being that is so different from, say, “south of 7” (or, for that matter, “north of the 401,” or “north of Highway 2“)?

Well, I’m no expert in this stuff, but here’s my take on it. People, if you have information to add, or a different perspective on this locally important subject, please share your knowledge in the comments section!

Basically, in Hastings County, Highway 7 (which runs east-west) is the unofficial yet remarkably accurate demarcation between the rich (agriculturally speaking) lands to the south, down to Lake Ontario, and the Canadian Shield. North of 7 is where the soil thins out dramatically, where rocks and lakes and evergreen trees take over from wide-open fields and big, flourishing farms. Yes, there are pockets of reasonable soil and some nice farms north of 7; but they are relatively few and far between. For the most part, north of 7 is a different kind of country altogether.

It is the country that poet Al Purdy so memorably described in his poem The Country North of Belleville. (You can read all about that poem, and read the poem itself, in my post here). Except when Purdy was talking about “bush land scrub land … lakeland rockland and hill country” he really was describing “the country north of 7” more than “the country north of Belleville.” (I think the latter title just sounded better to him, and it is very possible that more of his potential readers would have twigged to “Belleville” in the title than to “7.”)

“This is the country of our defeat,” Purdy says, taking on the identity of one or all of the would-be farmers who tried to make a go of it in the land north of 7 after it was opened up in the 19th century. It is, he says,

… where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picknicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries’ rubble
                backbreaking days
                in the sun and rain
when realization seeps slow in the mind
without grandeur or self-deception in
                noble struggle of being a fool…

As it happens, there is a just-published book on the very subject of Hastings County north of 7 being “the country of defeat” for early pioneers. It is called The Trail of Broken Hearts (you can read all about it here), and it is by Paul Kirby, a writer and publisher who has done an enormous amount to explore and share the history of Hastings County. The Trail of Broken Hearts of the book’s title is the Old Hastings Road, which I wrote about at length here and which is the perfect symbol for the tough times that people of past generations have dealt with in the land now known as “north of 7.”

Not that there was a Highway 7 in pioneer times, of course. As I wrote here, the local section of the highway was built during the Great Depression as an employment project. Here is a wonderful photo of that time, which I have thanks to Keith Millard, a descendent of an early family here in Elzevir Township, the Kleinsteubers:

Highway 7 under construction, 1932

Highway 7 (in the Actinolite area, a bit southeast of Queensborough) when it was under construction in 1932. (Photo courtesy of Keith Millard)

What is interesting is that when it came to constructing that roadway, the powers that be, whether consciously or unconsciously, did lay it out in a path that demarcated two different ways of living.

But I think it’s fair to say that “north of 7” isn’t just a geographical thing; it’s also a state of mind. Longtime residents have told me they remember the days when if you lived north of 7 – say in Queensborough, or Cooper, or Eldorado, or Bannockburn, or Millbridge, or Gilmour, or maybe way up north in Coe Hill or Ormsby or Bancroft (where the writer of the excellent blog Living North of 7 [livingnorthof7.com] is based) – some people from south of 7 would look down their noses at you. You might be considered the Canadian version of a hillbilly, in other words. And l think there is no doubt that over the years, some hillbilly types have chosen to live in these relatively remote and undisturbed parts. But so have people who just want to get away from it all; if you want to be left alone, this traditionally has been a pretty good place to do it.

I don’t know whether any misguided people south of 7 still look down their noses at those of us who choose to live north of 7. But I do know that times are changing, and areas that were once seen as remote and forbidding are becoming ever-more-sought-after by people – and I’m not talking hillbillies here – who want to live, even if only part of the time, in a place that is quiet and beautiful and unspoiled. Like this:

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So yeah, I think “quiet, beautiful and unspoiled” pretty much sums up north of 7. And I know I am far from the only person who is very proud indeed to call “north of 7” by another term. That would be: home.

The local history that a turnip slicer can turn up

Wm. Garret & Sons Foundry

A glimpse into the local industrial past: this advertisement for the Wm. Garrett & Sons Foundry of Tweed was discovered thanks to a cleanup operation on none other than a turnip slicer.

People, have you ever heard of a turnip slicer? I’m guessing that for most of you the answer is a pretty clear No. And that was my answer too, until just a couple of days ago. That was when I got an email from our friend and resident of neighbouring Madoc Township, Grant Ketcheson, about some interesting local history that has recently emerged – all because of a turnip slicer!

The turnip slicer in question – and more on what the deuce a turnip slicer is all about anon – was an antique that had been owned by Grant and that he recently donated to the O’Hara Mill collection. Now, I’ve written about the O’Hara Mill before (here, for instance), but to refresh your memory: it is a remarkable site just outside Madoc, containing lovingly restored pioneer buildings, beautiful grounds and gardens, and an impressive collection of pioneer-era farm machinery and tools. The next big event at O’Hara Mill is Heritage Day, coming up Sunday, July 27:

O' Hara Mill Heritage Day 2014

So anyway, the turnip slicer apparently needed some cleanup work. And that cleanup work revealed the information that you see atop this post: that it had been made right here in the area, in the village of Tweed. And to boot we now have a photo of some of the fine people who worked at its place of manufacture, the Wm. Garrett & Sons Foundry.

Grant’s restoration correspondent was able to discover that the company “began as a foundry in 1869, operated by Wm. Garrett, first in Actinolite and then in Georgetown (Tweed ). The foundry burned in 1891, taking the Methodist Church with it.” I will add for my own part that Actinolite is a hamlet just north of Tweed that was once a very busy industrial centre (mining and so on); and it is also the only community aside from Queensborough in the former (extremely rural) township of Elzevir, now part of the Greater Tweed Area. Also: I was interested to learn that Tweed was once called Georgetown, something I’d not heard before.

So that’s all well and good. But now back to the very important question: what is a turnip slicer for? (Aside, that is, from its obvious role of slicing turnips.) I mean, who used a turnip slicer? The pioneer farm wife in her kitchen? But would any family, no matter how large and how dependent on root vegetables for winter sustenance, have actually needed a special tool to slice turnips with? Those were the questions I had when I first heard about Grant’s turnip slicer. (Which in all likelihood is technically a rutabaga slicer, but where I grew up one calls rutabagas turnips, as do I. Here is a little piece on the difference between rutabagas and turnips.)

Turns out I was way off base in my surmises about the use of a turnip slicer. It was very much a farm implement, and a big one at that. Here’s Grant on the subject: “You and Raymond together could probably not load this turnip slicer in his Little Red Truck. This thing is heavy and has a crank handle and slices large turnips into thin slices to feed to cows. I have operated one or at least sneaked under to get a slice of turnip to eat.”

Aha! So this was turnip slicing on a near-industrial scale, turning a crop that grew easily and cheaply into bite-size pieces for the cattle. It all makes perfect sense. If Grant remembers using one (or at least sneaking a piece of raw turnip from one), such machines were in use into the middle of the 20th century, which is interesting. I wonder: does anyone feed turnips to cattle any more?

And now that I think of it: that’s the kind of question that for some reason I never found myself asking back in my not-so-long-ago city days. How things change!

***

A late addition to this post, hot off the presses! This week’s edition of the Central Hastings News carried a story (it’s here) about Heritage Day at O’Hara Mill that included a photo of Grant and the turnip slicer. So now, people, you (and I) can actually see what such a device looks like. Here it is:

turnip slicer

My appreciation to the Central Hastings News and reporter/photographer Diane Sherman for this photo. Diane’s caption: Heritage Day at O’Hara Mill Homestead in Madoc Township is the biggest event of the year. Volunteers Grant Ketcheson [addition by KS: Grant is at left] and Dave Little talk about what needs to be done to restore a turnip cutter into working order.

Actinolite boy makes good – good food, that is

Actinolite Restaurant

The atmosphere at Actinolite retaurant is warm and inviting. And if the Globe and Mail’s fine-dining critics is to be believed (and I think he is), the food is astoundingly good. Read on… (Photo from actinoliterestaurant.com)

When I referred to Actinolite in last night’s post, it was to the hamlet of that name not far from Queensborough (Actinolite and Queensborough being the only two “towns” [i.e. population centres, though in both cases the population is less than a hundred people] in Elzevir Township) where I’d nabbed my most recent yard-sale find. But in looking up Actinolite for a hyperlink, I found something delightful about the other Actinolite, the restaurant of that name in the heart of Toronto.

The chef-owner of that restaurant is a young man named Justin Cournoyer, and he comes from – you guessed it – our Actinolite. When he opened his establishment on Ossington Avenue in 2012, he named it in honour of his hometown.

Raymond and I had the pleasure of dining at Actinolite in February 2013, and I reported on it here. (It was the night we attended a fundraising event in Toronto for the Al Purdy A-frame project; you can read my latest update on that project, wherein I actually get my hands dirty, here.) We found it a beautiful, welcoming place with excellent food and nifty cocktails – and that’s pretty much what all the early reviews said too. But in my internet travels last night, I discovered that since then Cournoyer has kicked it up several notches (to borrow and tweak the signature phrase of another famous chef). What I landed on was a rave review – and I mean a rave review – in the Globe and Mail from just last month about what Actinolite’s chef is up to now. The headline is “One of the most essential places to eat in Ontario, if not in Canada.” Wow!

The review (which you can find here) by the Globe’s restaurant critic, Chris Nuttall-Smith, explains that last fall Cournoyer decided to change the menu at Actinolite so that all that is served each evening (it’s not open for lunch) is a seven-course or a four-course tasting menu. In other words, you don’t get to choose what you’ll eat, only which of the two menus you’ll have; then you turn it over to Cournoyer, who explained to the Globe that his focus is on “cooking the Canadian landscape.” (Click here to see the most recent menus.)

“His cooking,” the critic reports, “builds odd, exquisite, deceptively simple-looking montages from Quebec pike and grilled wild knotweed, from Arctic flowers and Ontario pork, from salty, assertively maritime Gaspé lumpfish roe and soft strips of local rutabaga, and freshly set cheese the texture of clotted cream. The food is odd, inspiring, beautifully executed, even magical in places. It’s Canadian cooking as I’ve never tasted it.”

Justin Cournoyer and Claudia Bianchi

Justin Cournoyer and his wife and partner in Actinolite, Claudia Bianchi, at their lovely restaurant. (Photo from actinoliterestaurant.com)

Here’s more from the critic’s dining experiences there, with a refence to our Actinolite (“Actinolite North,” as Cournoyer apparently calls it):

“Mr. Cournoyer dressed a small, painterly dish of glazed red local beets with wild fennel and radicchio leaves that he’d cooked with honey and then baked until they were translucent red-orange, more stained glass than cold-hardy green. They were gently bitter, true to radicchio’s character but also crisp and sweet and buttery, eerily similar in flavour and texture to a great croissant.

“There was a shard of meringue on the plate, white and innocuous looking. My dinner mate and I bit into ours simultaneously. The flavour was distinct, herbal, ruddy green like dried leaves, sweet and marshmallowy like meringue but also the slightest bit musty. The chip had been flavoured with lichen that Mr. Cournoyer foraged in his hometown. My friend’s eyes popped wide open. ‘It tastes like the north!’ he said.”

That’s not the only mention that the review makes of Cournoyer’s local (to us here in Queensborough) background and inspiration:

“The chef, who is 36, grew up hunting game birds and deer, fishing for pike and foraging wild edibles on Eastern Ontario’s Skootamatta River – Actinolite is named after his tiny home town … With enormous respect to Mr. Cournoyer, he still has a bit of the small-town Eastern Ontario boy about him. An undershirt was showing at the collar of his chef’s whites, and his hair was short on top but a little longer in the back, the way hockey stars and Cancon rock legends wore it in 1987. He’s not a conformist. I suspect that’s part of what makes him such an excellent cook …

“He set down two plates, each one draped with a sheaf of leafy greens that had been quickly wilted with butter. The chef had driven out to Hastings, Ont., that morning to pick up the greens, he said: collards, mustard, tatsoi and three types of kale. They had overwintered in a greenhouse, their flavours deepening and turning sweeter with the cold. Three small lamb’s sweetbreads had been set to their side on each plate in a tidy golden mound.

“The smell rising off those dishes was extraordinary: nutty-sweet brown butter and bitter, peppery greens and the golden, softly gamey, almost milky scent of pan-seared sweetbreads. There was a woodsy, soft-fruit smell, also: juniper from his home town, Mr. Cournoyer said.

“ ‘It’s really simple,’ he told us. No, it really was not.

“I’ve never had better greens or more incredible sweetbreads. I can count on my fingers the dishes I’ve had in my life that were as humble and as delicious as this.”

(I’m sorry, people, but I am close to drooling over my keyboard as I type this.)

The review concludes:

“Mr. Cournoyer was right. If you could eat Canada’s landscape it would taste a lot like this … I’m not sure how much more strongly I can say this: you ought to get there, now.”

Not bad for a local boy, huh?

I believe it is time for Raymond and me to make a return trip to Toronto – and to what I shall from now on refer to as “Actinolite South.”