Recap: 2017 Grand Taste Tour with Rock Ridge Dairy, Blindman Brewing, Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery, and Doef’s Greenhouses

Back in August, Mack and I had the privilege of co-hosting another Grand Taste Tour with Linda. Organized by Wild Heart Collective and Taste Alberta, the Grand Taste Tour was in its forth year, again showcasing some of the great local producers we are so fortunate to have in our province (you can read about past tours in 2016 and 2015).

This year, we would be visiting farms and businesses in and around the Lacombe area. Our first stop was Rock Ridge Dairy, where we were met by second generation farmer Patrick Bos and his wife Cherylynn.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Goats at Rock Ridge Dairy

Patrick’s father started Rock Ridge back in 1998, converting an ostrich farm to house the goats they would go on to raise for milk. The farm now spans 640 acres total.

Rock Ridge Dairy

We had fun with the goats

The goats mostly consume alfalfa and barley grown right on the farm, and, during the milking process, are provided with additional nutrients at the milking station based on its RFID tag. The machines are very efficient, and can milk their herd of 650 goats in about an hour.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Patrick shows us the milking machines

Rock Ridge processes about 45,000L of goat milk per week and is a primary supplier in Western Canada from Vancouver to Winnipeg. When they began, they originally shipped the milk off-site to process, but in the years since, they have acquired and created the equipment needed to not only process milk, but to also make cheese (find it under the Happy Days label). Patrick even had to repurpose a sausage stuffer in order to fill bags of chevre.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Cherylynn explains the packaging process

In 2012, Rock Ridge expanded their farm to be able to process organic cow’s milk as well. They work with local producers and process about 20-25,000L of cow’s milk a week. One of the unique types of milk they offer is from Jersey cows (labelled separately, as only one farm supplies it). The protein in Jersey milk is the same protein found in human milk, and may be easier to digest than milk from Holsteins.

Rock Ridge Dairy

Linda loved the goats, too

Rock Ridge products an be found at Blush Lane and through SPUD and the Organic Box.

Our second stop was at the Lacombe Crop Development Centre, which breeds different types of barley and wheat.

Alberta Open Farm Days

At the Lacombe Crop Development Centre

Different stations about honey, pulses, and farming equipment were set up and the group was encouraged to explore and ask questions of the knowledgeable representatives present. Mack and I learned about “winter wheat”, a variety that is planted in the fall. Although it has a lower yield, it is used to help with field rotation.

Alberta Open Farm Days

Andrea among the wheat

Next, we headed to the happy hour stop on the tour. Back in the spring, Mack and I planned a weekend trip out to Lacombe, and checked out Blindman Brewing and Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery then, but were happy for the opportunity to revisit these two vendors.

At Blindman, we were led on a tour by one of the brewery’s founders, Hans Doef. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because his father owns and operates Doef’s Greenhouses, where he worked for many years (we immediately recognized him from our weekly visits to the Doef’s tent at the City Market).

Blindman Brewing

Hans Doef of Blindman Brewing

Blindman has been on a meteoric rise since it opened in 2015. They had to relocate to their current facility to accommodate more tanks and increase their bottling capacity, as their product is now available in up to 400 locations. Their Blindman River Session Ale and Longshadows India Pale Ale are their most popular brews.

Blindman Brewing

Production tanks

Hans estimated that their beer takes two weeks from grain to glass – Blindman leaves their beer in tanks longer than other breweries because they don’t filter their beer.

In late 2016, Blindman undertook a crowdfunding campaign to help them purchase two 3,000L foeders from France that once held cognac. Their first brew, a Brett Saison that has aged in the barrels for the last four months, will be released later this year.

Blindman Brewing

Foeders

Next door at Old Prairie Sentinel, we were amazed at the transformation of the space since our last visit. In May, we learned from co-owner Rob Gugin that they had plans to build a tasting room that would allow them to serve samples of their product. The end result is stunning, incorporating wood accents into the high ceiling and a long bar.

Prairie Sentinel Distillery

Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery

In addition to high balls and cocktails made with their vodkas and gins, Old Prairie Sentinel also offers warm spent-grain pretzels to accompany those drinks.

We picked up a bottle of their Prairie Berry Dry Gin (made with 100% malted barley, as are the rest of their products) to take home.

Our final stop on the tour was the one I was most looking forward to. We’ve been regular customers of Doef’s Greenhouses for years, but there’s something special about seeing where and how the products we buy every week are grown.

Eric Doef, a second generation farmer, provided us with an overview of their year-round operations. The greenhouse spans 11 acres where they grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and lettuce hydroponically. They plant one tomato and pepper crop annually, and harvest the products throughout the year, while cucumbers require three crops a year.

Doef's Greenhouses

Eric Doef

Water is the foundation of their crops, which they draw entirely from surface ponds and collected from snow melt and rain water. When their dugouts on their property are full, they have enough water for two years. It’s mind boggling how much water they go through, however – Eric shared that on a hot day, they might use up to 400 million litres of water.

Doef's Greenhouses

Peppers as far as the eye can see

Fertilizer is added directly into the water, while carbon dioxide is brought in through tubes. Computers monitor exactly what nutrients each crop needs, and they can adjust the levels accordingly. Regarding pests, they prefer to be as preventive as possible by ordering the appropriate “beneficials” every week (e.g., wasps to eat white flies). We also saw bees which are used to pollinate the flowers.

Doef's Greenhouses

Tomatoes

The overhead lights are typically turned on in September, and though they employ LED lights for their lettuce crops, most of their other crops need the heat given off by the HPS lights. Their lamps run for up to 15,000 hours before needing to be replaced.

Doef's Greenhouses

Lettuce crops

It was a fascinating tour that preceded a long table dinner set in one of the greenhouses, one of the most distinctive settings for a meal I’ve experienced.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Greenhouse dinner

The 7-course family style meal was prepared by Chef Liana Robberecht of WinSport Canada. She prepared a beautiful array of dishes, including a smoked Alberta lentil hummus with fennel crackers that I couldn’t stop eating, and a maple bourbon potato salad that nearly outshone its accompanying proteins.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Roasted Chinook honey carrot tacos with yogurt, bee pollen, and cilantro

Given the surroundings, a salad comprised of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers sourced from Doef’s, dressed in a sea buckthorn vinaigrette was entirely appropriate, and delicious.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Salad

Alberta pulled lamb shank, served in a Sylvan Star gouda parkhouse roll was another favourite around the table.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Pulled lamb shank in Sylvan Star gouda parkhouse rolls

Chef Robberecht ended the meal as brightly as it began, with her twist on spiced dark chocolate mousse, combined with a roasted sweet pepper curd, and a fabulous carrot cake with whipped Chinook Honey cream cheese.

Grand Taste Tour 2017

Dessert

As I mentioned, it was particularly meaningful for Mack and I to tour the greenhouse because of our weekly purchases at the market. It was also great to see that the family farm will continue with Eric – and perhaps even with a third generation in the years to come!

Thanks again to Wild Heart Collective for organizing another wonderful Grand Taste Tour!

Exploring Our Backyard: Lacombe and Pigeon Lake

I’ve wanted to be more intentional with exploring the areas just outside of Edmonton, so at the end of April, Mack and I planned an overnight excursion just south of our city.

Last year on our way to Calgary, we stopped over in Lacombe. They had a charming Main Street lined with well preserved historic buildings, and we stretched our legs in a few of the small shops after lunch at Cilantro and Chive. We didn’t have time to hit up all of the notable businesses, so we made a note to return.

Sweet Capone’s

Sweet Capone’s has received some press for selling out of their specialty cannolis on a daily basis. A few months ago, they moved into a larger space just a half block down from their original location on Main Street.

Sweet Capone's

Pastry case at Sweet Capone’s

On this trip, we were finally able to give them a try ourselves. The pastry was lightly dusted and perfectly flaky, and we preferred the vanilla to the artificial-tasting lemon cream.

Blindman Brewing

Blindman Brewing has been helping to raise the profile of Lacombe through its craft beer. Located in an industrial area of the town, Blindman offers a lively, comfortable taproom where visitors can sample their various brews.

At least on that day, most of the patrons appeared to be regulars, treating the taproom as a place to meet up with friends for a pint. In addition, Blindman offers on-site sales, so many folks ducked in for growler refills or to pick up a case or two of beer.

Blindman Brewing

Flight of beer at Blindman Brewing

We were both surprised at just how many varieties Blindman produces. On that day they had nearly a dozen varieties, most of which we hadn’t seen before. Of the types we tried that day, Mack’s favourite was the New England Pale Ale, while I preferred the light, inoffensive Saison Lacombe Printemps (I’m not much of a beer drinker most days).

Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery

Next door to Blindman sits Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery. In operation since January, they’ve been overwhelmed with demand.

At present, they offer four varieties of vodka and gin, with their most unique product being the Pickled Pepper Vodka, which was made to be mixed with Clamato for a quick but flavourful Caesar. They hope to add rye and rum to their roster soon, in addition to a gin for "juniper heads". Most of their bottles are being distributed in Lacombe and the surrounding communities, but there are plans for wider distribution – Eau Claire was mentioned as the model small distilleries hope to emulate.

Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery

Varieties at Old Prairie Sentinel

Although Old Prairie Sentinel doesn’t yet have a tasting room (it’s in the works), the few minutes we spent in there with Rob Gugin were enlightening. His passion for spirits is contagious; we’ll definitely be back when the tasting room is in place.

Elizabeth Lake

Before leaving Lacombe, we stopped by Elizabeth Lake just before the rain came.

It’s a small lake adjacent to a university and a residential area, so it’s not really worth seeking out, but I liked seeing the exercise equipment integrated along the natural paths.

Lacombe

Mack humoured me at the sit-up station

They’re apparatuses we’ve seen in Toronto and Ho Chi Minh as well – it would be great if Edmonton would consider them for some of our park spaces, too.

On our way towards Pigeon Lake, our resting place for the evening, we detoured to a couple of farms.

Pik-N-Pak

Pik-N-Pack is made up of three member greenhouses in the Lacombe area that Edmonton farmers’ markets consumers would be very familiar with: Doef’s, S4 Greenhouses, and Gull Valley Greenhouses. They process, package, and market their products under the Pik-N-Pack label for wholesale purposes (you can also find these at Save On Foods, among other grocery stores).

Pik n Pak

Self-serve Pik-N-Pak

However, Pik-N-Pak’s warehouse also operates an honour-based self-serve store, open daylight hours Monday to Saturday. It’s amazing to me that stores like this still exist, but based on a sign posted on the door of the store, it’s likely they’ve experienced some issues with theft.

Pik n Pak

Picking out some goods!

We picked up some tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes for the road home, but they also had cucumbers, eggplant, hot peppers, and carrots on hand.

Brown Eggs and Lamb

Near Pik-N-Pack is the family-run farm Brown Eggs and Lamb. They also have an honour-system store for their eggs.

In addition, the on-farm store has a good selection of meat proteins, dairy products, and value-added products produced in Central Alberta. We bought a jar of Red Deer made Chai Wallahs honey, creamed honey enhanced with a blend of spices so consumers can easily produce a cup of chai at home.

Brown Eggs and Lamb

Brown Eggs and Lamb

Brown Eggs and Lamb is actually hosting a customer appreciation day in July, so if you’re hoping to explore more of the farm (as Sharman did last year), make sure to mark your calendar for a road trip!

Village at Pigeon Lake

I’ve been very fortunate to have been a part of a few off-season work retreats to the Village at Pigeon Lake over the years. It’s only an hour away from the city, but the pace of life seems much more relaxed. Mack and I stayed at the Village Creek Country Inn, a basic but well-kept hotel. I particularly appreciate that the hotel is adjacent to several other amenities in the "village", including restaurants, a grocery store, gift shop, and clothing boutique.

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Happy to be back in the village

Chef N’ Pigeon Lake

We ended up at Chef N’ Pigeon Lake that night, as the more well-known Eco Café was closed for a tasting event. I didn’t mind, as our experience at those work retreats with the catering from Chef N has been very positive. Their "uptown country" menu in the restaurant was more extensive than I expected, ranging from burgers and steaks to chicken and dumplings and steamed mussels.

I ordered the hot turkey, a fun take on turkey dinner: pulled turkey overtop a stuffing waffle, doused with gravy and coleslaw and a side of cranberry sauce. My only complaint was that the coleslaw should have been served on the side, but otherwise, I enjoyed the diner-style comfort food.

Chef N' Pigeon Lake

Hot turkey

Mack went ahead with the 8oz signature farmer burger, with sauteed mushrooms, Sylvan Star gouda, house-made bacon, crispy potato hay and garlic mayo. The patty was impressively juicy and flavourful, and though it was definitely a five-napkin burger, he said it was worth the mess.

Chef N' Pigeon Lake

Signature farmer burger

Daisy McBeans

The only hot breakfast option in the village, we stopped at Daisy McBeans the next day. Their homestyle breakfast menu isn’t extensive, but features all of the classics you would expect.

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French toast and sausage

Portions were large – I barely finished my French toast and sausage, but it is the kind of place you can linger all morning without worry.

Pigeon Lake Provincial Park

We eventually made our way to Pigeon Lake Provincial Park, comprised of day use areas and camp sites.

Pigeon Lake

Pigeon Lake in the spring

The weather was spotty (rain clouds soon rolled in), explaining the likely reason of why the trails were so quiet, but I did appreciate having most of the area to ourselves that day.

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Trails at Pigeon Lake

The trails connected us to the yurt options now available at Pigeon Lake, described as "comfort camping" by Alberta Parks (also more commonly known as "glamping" – glamour camping). They do provide convenience – beds, a fridge, and of course, ready-made shelter, but the price per night ranges from $120-165 per night – a little steeper than I would have expected.

Yurt

Yurt

We ended up taking the backroads to Edmonton, which, in addition to encountering less traffic, meant the potential for more photogenic scenes like this one.

Clouds & Hay Bales

Hay bales

While many may overlook Lacombe and Pigeon Lake in favour of the mountains, they’re worth considering for those who are time-conscious, or just looking to further explore their backyard.