We like to travel along Oxford County’s concessions and back roads to rediscover the terroir and pastoral landscapes and to stop at the farmgates in season. Just outside Woodstock, situated in the rolling hills just off Highway 59, is Shep Ysselstein’s Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese operation and his family’s well-established, third generation dairy farmstead. Bo, the Ysselstein’s affable canine will likely greet you upon arrival. Prepare yourself to walk in the shoes of a gifted local cheesemaker, while attending Affinage 101, a new hands-on culinary experience in Oxford County.

We were given hairnets and disposable shoe coverings before heading in to get a hands-on, behind-the-scenes look at how Ysselstein crafts his award-winning Swiss-style artisan cheese. The wheels of cheese are stored on long wooden shelves in climate-sensitive ageing rooms. We washed the hefty wheels of cheese in order to keep them moist, turned them over, and washed them again allowing the cheese to gain additional flavour. Using a double-handed cheese knife, the affable Ysselstein, cut into the wheels in order to taste the cheese at the various stages of ageing. We were guided on how to judge the quality of cheese, and rate the various flavour profiles, textures, and anomalies.

Later we prepared a trio of cheese fondues. The insides of the pots were rubbed with garlic cloves, white wine was slightly heated with cornstarch over portable burners, and then three different varieties of cheese were grated and individually stirred into their own fondue pots. We ate the communal fondue by dipping fresh bread (from Woodstock’s new bakery, Two Guys and a Whisk) into the melted cheese. There was time to socialize with other participants, sample different cheese varieties and savour the fondues.

On display at Gunn’s Hill’s newly renovated showroom are tree-to-table charcuterie and cheese boards, handcrafted with sustainably-sourced local wood by Dave Schonberger of Ottercreek Woodworks. In 2018 Schonberger won the Innovative Experience of the Year Award from Southwest Ontario Tourism for his “From Tree to Table – A Build-your-own Board Experience.” This experience includes a guided walk through Carolinian Forest, an artisanal workshop where you can craft your own live-edge charcuterie board, and a tasting of local cheese and charcuterie.

Affinage 101 and “From Tree to Table – A Build-your-own Board Experience” are both good examples of authentic experiences which enable visitors to forge deeper connections with regional food stories. When led by knowledgeable guides, participants become interactively immersed. Experiential tourism offers a value-added, hands-on activity that changes the visitor from a consumer to a participant, enriching the experience, and often creating longer stays and increasing revenue.

Joanne Wolnik, Tourism Project Development Manager, SWOTC. Photo: Phong Tran

Last November a culinary experience with an invitation to be creative about tourism was branded as “Planting the Seed for Experiential Tourism”. It is being marketed for team building experiences and convention attendees later this year. This experience was crafted with Melissa Du Luca of Tourism London, Joanne Wolnik of Southwest Ontario Tourism Corporation (SWOTC) and Forest City Cookbook creator Alieska Robles. We asked participants to attend with a spirit of adventure and prepared to be enlightened by culinary professionals. Designed to inspire participants and to think about creative collaboration and innovation, the experience included certified tea sommelier and nutritionist Michelle Pierce Hamilton, owner of beTeas and The Tea Lounge; chef/owner Brian Sua-an of Reverie, London’s 12-seat tasting restaurant; chef/owner Thomas Waite of The In Home Chef; and Paul Spence, Chatham-Kent’s local food champion. 

Modernist Apple with Edible Soil by Chef Brian Sua-an of Reverie

More recently, I facilitated a Slow Food-inspired evening on behalf of Lavery Culinary Group. My colleague and nephew Nick Lavery emceed the event, with a craft beer pairing by Nate Torrresan of Forked River Brewing Co. Speakers Gary Rowsell and Emanuela Frongia provided an impressively nuanced discourse on the Slow Food movement. Frongia spoke of the Canadian Ark of Taste (think of Noah’s Ark for food), which comprises an archive of foods threatened by agribusiness, standardization and environmental degradation. Photographer Phong Tran offered expert advice on creating Instagram-worthy food photos with your cellphone.

Experiential dining events are all about innovation, often featuring restaurants pop-ups in non-traditional spaces. For both the “Planting the Seeds for Experiential Tourism” and Slow Food-inspired dinners, menus included less familiar indigenous ingredients such as custardy pawpaw, tart quince, nutty Jerusalem artichokes, local chestnuts and the honey-like tasting Jesuit pear, prepared by farm-to-table observant farmers and chefs.

We learned how experiential tourism is changing the landscape of visitor experiences in travel and tourism in Canada by “experiential guru” Celes Davar, of the award-winning boutique experiential tourism company Earth Rhythms. Davar and his wife Susan are dedicated to fostering customized immersive travel experiences. Twenty new trailblazing experience-development coaches emerged from the “Train the Trainer” course facilitated by Davar, all grads of his “Unlocked & Inspired” training program provided by SWOTC. 

Among the grads were tourism innovator and Oxford County chocolatier Cindy Walker, certified tea sommelier, and self-styled “Queen of the Ganache.” As owner/head chocolatier of Ingersoll’s Chocolatea, Walker crafts small-batch chocolates with innovative flavour pairings and procures a carefully curated selection of teas. Participants assume the role of the chocolatier and step behind the counter to craft a dozen of their own multi-flavoured truffles in her “Truffle Camp” workshops.

Walker guided the Culinary Learning Tour for the SWOTC 2019 annual conference. We were transported by school bus to Heeman’s Greenhouse where we met Susan Judd, a partner in Ride the Bine, who provides local beer, wine and cider tours with co-owner Amanda Dooney. Chief Daymaker Will Heeman was on hand to provide context and an engaging overview of Heeman’s family owned and operated greenhouse and strawberry farm. We tasted and transplanted different herb varietals to take away. A honey tasting experience was presented by Tom Heeman, with an explanation on how bees make honey, the different varieties and the variations in colour, taste, texture and aroma. Tom is the driving force behind Heeman’s honey production and has a solid background in agronomy and biological controls along with industry experience, having grown up on the farm. The honey was paired with different types of cheese for a taste comparison. Chef Shauna Versloot, coach/owner of The Live Well Community, spoke about a recent trip to Italy as well as balsamic vinegar. The tour ended with a competitive make-your-own sundae with strawberry preserve and balsamic glaze topping.

Davar stated, “In the hands of local storytellers, passionate gardeners and in the warm, humid and green environment, we had a tropical holiday for a winter’s afternoon. That’s how we change tourism, one experience at a time.” 

This summer, my colleagues and I will be helping to host a range of customized food-focused and cultural experiential walking tours options that will be on offer in Downtown London. You will be able to experience the Forest City in a new way, and indulge all of your senses with an insider tour by a local culinary expert. Watch our social media channels for more information.