Perhaps I should have titled this “Confessions of a Converted Travel Foodie.” Would you like to know why I had to take a culinary tour in Toronto? First I have to make a confession: I’m not really a travel foodie. I DO love eating great food, but it just hasn’t been my priority when I’m traveling.
Bad Food Day
Let me give you an example of a recent travel day in Toronto…to set the scene:
My husband and I got up early to drive three hours from Kingston to Toronto. The motel we were staying in didn’t provide breakfast, and besides, we left so early, we would have missed it if they had! So we bought two yogurt parfaits from a convenience store the night before and put them in our motel room mini frig. That was breakfast.
We arrived in Toronto just minutes before the 10:00 am urban walking tour we’d signed up for. Two hours later, while visiting a rooftop bar for the views, we grabbed a handful of pretzels and a glass of juice. That was our lunch.
Because our walking tour went longer than expected, we returned to our hotel room with only 15 minutes to spare before dashing out for our scheduled bicycle tour of the Toronto Islands. We walked into the lounge, grabbed some gummie candies and left. That was the rest of our lunch!
Our beautiful four-hour twilight tour of the islands was enough to completely distract me from my growling stomach. About three hours into the tour, the guides handed out granola bars. I’m pretty sure I’d already burned more calories bicycling than that granola bar provided, but it did qualify as food!
IT gets worse
We didn’t make it back to our hotel until nearly 9:30 pm. By the time we’d changed our clothes, most restaurants had closed. But as luck would have it, all Tim Hortons are open till 11:00 pm. If you’re not familiar with Tim Hortons, it’s basically Canada’s equivalent of McDonalds, because there’s one every few miles. But, what the heck, we’d never been to a Tim Hortons, so at least it was something new! That’s where we ate our first real meal in Toronto. At 10:30 pm.
If I told you a day like that is not so unusual for us, you will better understand why I had to book a culinary tour of Toronto. It was the only way that my husband and I were going to intersect with great food!
Booking a culinary tour = Good food day
Enter Culinary Adventures Co with the top-rated food tours in Toronto (Tripadvisor). I was particularly interested in their “Made in Canada” tour, which would introduce us to Canadian specialties in honor of Canada’s 150th Birthday. I didn’t really know what to expect. We were just told where to meet near Kensington Market … and to bring our appetites! (That meant we should not have eaten a full American breakfast at our hotel that morning!)
Why this culinary tour?
I don’t know about other culinary tours because this was my first. But what I loved about taking a Culinary Adventures Co tour is that I learned so much — not just about food and how its made, or the inspiration behind its creation — but also about the history of Kensington Market, the owners of the restaurants or food businesses, and a little about why each food was important to Toronto. I’m not going to try to re-create the tour for you, but I’d love to share some highlights. Just enough to convince you that a culinary tour is an essential element of travel!
Plus (and this is a real bonus!) our tour was made up of super nice people, just as interested in learning more about Canada and its food as I was. So it was really fun hanging out with them. Our guide was Leo, and he was so knowledgeable, amiable, and patient (I might have been a few minutes late because I totally got lost in the Union subway station!)
We were seated at a large table next to a sunlit window in Caplansky’s Deli. Here we were introduced to Zane Caplansky, the founder of the deli. Not literally. But there was a huge poster of him on the wall, and we learned about his passion for Jewish delicatessens and the tradition of Montreal-smoked meats. His business began with a food truck called Bubby Doris, named after his grandmother. And his following just grew from there. We were treated to a BBLT (Beef Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato) with a kosher pickle, served on challah eggbread. It was mouthwatering, very tasty, and pretty filling, too. And we had just begun!
We didn’t just learn about the deli, but also a little about the neighborhood and its history. Leo pointed out this historic Toronto Fire Station No. 315 and its Victorian Gothic architecture. The landmark clock tower was built in 1878, and its interior served as a hose tower where the firefighters hung their hoses to dry after fighting a fire.
Wanda’s Pie in the Sky
Next we headed to Wanda’s Pie in the Sky. I loved the chic rustic interior! We were seated at a large table where we all sat on tall stools. We learned about Wanda Beaver, who started baking pies when she was 9 years old. She would deliver her pies, while riding on public transportation! She finally opened her own store, and has been at this location for ten years. Her specialty is vegeterian, but as the sign in her store says, “We don’t beat you over the head with it!” We were served slices of Sour Cherry Pie — both beautiful and delicious! Vegetarian, with no lard. And the perfect blend of sour and sweet plus a flaky crust that melted in my mouth!
After leaving Wanda’s Pie in the Sky, we passed some street art and the “Garden Car” in Kensington Market, and Leo happily answered our questions about why there was a car parked on the side of the street filled with plants!
Nu BUgel Wood-fired bagels
Leo took us to an amazing bagel shop called Nu Bugel. As we entered, he pointed out the stacks of wood. “That’s not just for show”, he said. The wood is used to bake (and smoke) bagels in a special 20,000-lb. oven. We learned a little about the history of bagels and the great bagel debate. Which is better? New York City-styled bagels with hardly any hole at all? Or traditional Montreal-styled bagels with larger holes? According to Roberto, the Venezuelan owner, a “proper” bagel should be able to be carried on a pole. So I guess that answers the debate!
Here, we enjoyed a Montreal bagel (honey used in the boiling water), with Ontario smoked trout, mustard, and a little horseradish jelly. Scrumptious! My only complaint? Just half a bagel instead of a whole one! (But I did need to save room for the rest of the foods we’d be introduced to!)
4 Life Natural Foods
Our next stop wasn’t a restaurant, but a natural foods store — the 4 Life Natural Foods store, in the former home of Zimmerman’s Discount Store. We learned a little about the Zimmerman family and their dedication to local, organic farmers and the culture of Kensington Market. 4 Life Natural Foods is focused on local and organic. They currently have plans to add a greenhouse on the roof, so they can grow produce for the store. Here, we sampled some locally produced cheeses: Quebec Soeur Angele cheese, Five Brothers alpine cheese from Ontario, and an Avonlea clothbound cheddar from Prince Edward province. (My favorite was the Soeur Angele!)
Fresco’s Fish & Chips
We did not come to Fresco’s for fish and chips, although I hear they have the best in the area. Culinary Adventure Co included Fresco’s for another of its specialties: classic Quebec Style Poutine — probably the one most well-known uniquely Canadian food. The french word, ‘poutine’ actually means “mess”, and I admit, Poutine does not look particularly pretty. But its mixture of french fries, cheese curds, and gravy are actually quite tasty, and somewhat addictive. At Fresco’s, we also enjoyed Ontario-created Pop Shoppe sodas, a sampling of lobster bites, and plenty of Beatles memorabilia and music. A very enjoyable stop on our tour!
By now, you can imagine we were all completely stuffed with the incredible foods of Canada. But there’s one more Canadian flavor we had not yet sampled, and it was a must — Maple!
Toronto Popcorn Company
Leo knew we were full, and he came up with the perfect remedy. Send us each home with a souvenir bag of our favorite flavor of Toronto Popcorn! They specialize in both sweet and savory flavored popcorns. We were able to try any flavors we wanted before choosing which one we’d take home with us. I’m not going to list all the flavors, but a few that caught my attention were spicy bacon and cheddar, vanilla sponge cake, cinnamon caramel, pizza, garlic parmesan, maple bacon, and maple sea salt.
Of course, my husband and I wanted something with maple! We each chose the maple sea salt and finished one bag before we left Canada. But I’m happy to report the other bag lasted a little longer. We just finished it a few days ago, and it was just as fresh as the day we received it a month ago!
Why am I converted to taking a culinary tour?
I realize now what I’ve been missing out on by leaving foodie experiences out of my travels. I hate to think of how it could have been different for me in Italy, Germany, France, and Greece. While I did enjoy some great food during my travels there, I hardly made it a priority — except for the gelato! Now I know that a foodie experience is much more than getting something to eat. It’s savoring foods, learning the history and the culture behind them, and enjoying the dining experience with other like-minded travelers. It’s a package deal!
If you are visiting Toronto (or Ottawa, Kingston, Charlottetown, Winnepeg, or Halifax), I highly recommend a culinary tour with Culinary Adventure Co. They have a bunch of different tours, based on “whatever floats your boat” — in fact, they even have a culinary tour where you paddle on a canoe to the Toronto Islands for a gourmet picnic! Prices range from about $60 CAD and up. And that’s pretty good considering you’re getting a private tour guide and plenty of fantastic food to eat for a 3-4 hour foodie adventure. You don’t have to decide where to go and what to try. It’s already been curated for you.
And if you are traveling anywhere else, I suggest you google the best culinary tour available on TripAdvisor for the city you are visiting. It’s such a wonderful way to explore and experience a city!
Note: I was invited to experience a culinary tour with Culinary Adventure Co and offered the media discount. I am so grateful for the opportunity and want to thank them for their generosity. However, my review and opinions are my own delicious reflections of the tour!
Be sure to re-pin this reminder to take a culinary tour on your next trip!