When the City of Temiskaming Shores signed up to host an on-farm dining experience this fall, it was a bit of a gamble whether there was enough of an appetite for that type of culinary tourism event.
“There was concern,” conceded James Franks, the city’s long-time economic development officer. “Would people pay $100 to go sit on a farm in a farming area in Northern Ontario for this experience?”
Temiskaming’s Feast on the Farm event, being held this Sunday, Sept. 17, is one of several dinners hosted in various locations throughout the year in partnership with the Culinary Tourism Alliance, an industry organization that promotes culinary tourism across the province.
Curated by chefs from the region, the dishes feature local ingredients produced in the area, and participants can tour the location, getting an inside look at the place where they’ll be dining.
In Temiskaming, which will host the first Feast on the Farm event in Northern Ontario, Franks quickly realized his early misgivings had little merit.
“We’re sold out,” he said, with a few days still to go before the event. “The plan was for 100 tickets; we’ve had to stop selling at 135.
“We’ve got a great turnout, and according to the Culinary Tourism Alliance, this is their best (Feast on the Farm event) ever, so that’s fantastic.”
This Sunday, the lucky ticket-holders will tuck in at Bison du Nord, the long-running Earlton bison farm that’s been owned and operated by the Bélanger family since the early 1970s.
Among the food served, they’ll feast on maple smoked king cole duck breast crostini and open fire-grilled Bison Du Nord bison tenderloin, with cheesecake and seasonal fruit compote for dessert.
Chefs for the night are well known in the Northern Ontario food scene: Brianna Humphrey, co-owner at Radical Gardens in Timmins; Pam Hamel, the brand ambassador with Thornloe Cheese in Thornloe; and Sean Laferriere, the owner-operator at Zante's Bar and Grill in New Liskeard.
The next day, 36 industry insiders — food producers, restaurateurs, and others in the food tourism sector — will converge for a day-long series of activities to get them talking about why and how they can use local foods, and how to connect farmers and restaurants so they can both benefit.
“The idea is to get as many of those folks in the same room at the same time so that we can see if we can build those relationships,” Franks said.
Based on anecdotal information, Franks said he figures about half the event participants are local, while the rest are travelling from southern Ontario, including a large contingent from Toronto.
Drawing people into the region from elsewhere is exactly the point of the event, he said. If they can attract people to Temiskaming for a high-quality event like Feast on the Farm, it becomes a great marketing tool for everything else the city, and Northern Ontario, has to offer.
In 25 years in tourism and economic development, Franks said, he’s lost count of the number of people who’ve returned to Northern Ontario — in some cases for good — after first attending an event that they enjoyed.
Taking a “strike-while-the-iron-is-hot” kind of approach, Franks said Temiskaming wants to build on the pandemic-era wave of people seeking to work remotely.
Appealing to people’s taste buds appears to be a great way to do it.
In other words, culinary enthusiasts might come for the braised osso buco bison, but they’ll return for the natural landscapes, the more affordable living, and less-crowded spaces.
“We know that if we get people to Northern Ontario once, they’ll come back because it’s so beautiful,” Franks said.
“And I’ve been saying this forever: you can do anything here that you can do in southern Ontario, just with less other people doing it with you.”
Earlier this summer, the city hosted eight delegates with the Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC), which had gathered in Sudbury for the organization’s annual conference in June.
During a pre-conference tour of the Temiskaming area, TMAC delegates ate at various restaurants along the way.
Though Northern Ontario met their expectations in terms of its natural beauty and outdoor attributes, Franks said they were consistently surprised at just how good the food was, often ranking their meals up with any five-star dish they’d find in a Toronto restaurant.
With Feast on the Farm, Franks is hopeful of a similar outcome: wow diners with the quality and breadth of local food so they come back wanting more.
“Every time, any event you can bring, it brings a different type of clientele, so this is going to bring foodie clientele that we generally haven’t seen before for that first visit,” Franks said.
“We’re confident that what we’re going to provide them is going to be so good that they’re going to want to come back and see the other restaurants and places that they didn’t get to experience.”