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.

Slow Food Edmonton Dairy Farm Field Trip

Some Slow Food Edmonton events are all about eating, like Indulgence and Beer and Boar. Others are more about getting to know fellow members, like the Wood Fired Solstice and the annual potluck at Mary Bailey’s residence. The focus of the Dairy Farm Field Trip at the end of September was learning.

We are very lucky to have someone as enthusiastic as Valerie in the organization – she is so energetic and positive it makes my head spin sometimes. She had the great idea of arranging a group field trip to two of our local dairy farms – Sylvan Star Cheese and Bles-Wold Dairy – and ending the day with a meal at Eco Café. Seats sold out quickly, which, although priced at $75 a ticket, was a fair price given the inclusion of three meals, the tours and transportation to and from the farms.

We were up and at ‘em early – we had to be at Southgate Mall before 8:30 a.m. Thankfully, we live right on the LRT line, which made the trip fast and convenient. Our premature wake up call was made better by the two sweet and savoury scones that greeted us upon arrival, fresh out of the oven from Duchess.

I’m fairly certain it was the butter in the scones that pushed me into nap territory, but when I woke up, we had arrived at our first destination – Sylvan Star Cheese in Red Deer County.

Sylvan Star Cheese

Sylvan Star Cheese

They were a new vendor at the City Market this year, but I was familiar with their award-winning cheese from Planet Organic, and restaurants such as Madison’s Grill who have featured their product on their menus. Though I enjoy their cheese (particularly the cumin-spiced gouda and the aged cheddar), I know the price is a deterrent for us to use it as an everyday cheese. Still, I was looking forward to see their new home, with expanded cheese making (and aging) facilities.

Sylvan Star Cheese

Market

Jan Schalkwijk was our host for the tour. First, he invited us to help ourselves to samples of their cheese. Mack and I were able to try a few varieties, which was good enough for us (10 in the morning as it was), but I was hoping for a guided tasting from the expert himself – for example, running through flavours and textures to look for.

Sylvan Star Cheese

Tasting Platter

After the snack break, Jan told us how he got into cheesemaking in Alberta – essentially, because he couldn’t find good cheese here after immigrating from Holland, he decided to use the skills he had to make good cheese himself.

Sylvan Star Cheese

Jan introduces his business

Though Jan was fantastic at answering questions, I thought the tour side of things could have been better thought out – we could have started on the factory floor, for example, where the cheese is made, then worked our way to the aging and smoking rooms.

Sylvan Star Cheese

The smoker (Jan uses maple wood)

Regardless, it was a little frustrating not being able to hear our guide. Jan unfortunately does not have a voice that carries, and most often, our large group were in rooms where it was difficult to hear him due to a combination of factors including space constraints and whirring fans. A microphone – or dividing the group – would have helped immensely.

Sylvan Star Cheese

Where the cheese is made

Though I didn’t get as much from the tour as I would have wanted, it really was neat to see the humidity-controlled rooms where the cheese is aged. At the end of each of the shelves was a post-it containing the batch date – for the first sixty days, the wheels are turned once a day to prevent mould, and after that, turned once a week.

Sylvan Star Cheese

With my birthday batch of cheese!

It was also hard not to appreciate their expansive facility. Though there seem to be few employees on his team, they have ensured that they will have ample room to grow. The room below, for example, will be their new cheese aging room – it was absolutely massive, but given their increasing popularity, it’s not surprising.

Sylvan Star Cheese

Coming soon – another cheese aging room

Valerie’s post on this trip is much more detailed, particularly on this aspect of the day. She also has many great photos of the facility!

Sylvan Star Cheese

Mack loves cheese!

Before departing for our next stop, we had a nice soup and sandwich lunch, where we were able to socialize with Sherene and Su.

Sylvan Star Cheese

A tasty minestrone soup – just what I needed that morning

A half hour later, we arrived at Bles-Wold. Unlike Sylvan Star, Bles-Wold yogurt is something that I regularly have on hand – their fruit yogurt is thick, not too sweet, and is definitely more substantial than commercial varieties – and their plain yogurt is my go-to choice for salad dressings and other recipes. When we drove up to the farm, it was reassuring to see that the red barn pictured on their containers actually exists, and happens to be where the yogurt is made!

Bles Wold

Bles-Wold Dairy

This tour experience was much more organized. The group was split into two right off the bat – my group followed Hennie upstairs for an introduction to Bles-Wold.

Hennie Bos described how the company began – after many years of experience running a dairy farm in Holland, he and Tinie moved to Alberta and started a dairy farm in 1994 with 60 Holsteins. In 1996, Tinie started making yogurt, and slowly, business grew – they now have 250 cows. Their products are currently stocked in 120 stores in Alberta, and most recently, two stores in Vancouver began carrying their wares.

Bles Wold

Hennie talks to the group

It was most interesting to hear Hennie explain that yogurt is quota-based system in Alberta, which only produces up to 0.5% of the demand (rights to produce more can be purchased from other farmers). The other part of their business is producing milk, which is sold to Saputo.

We then switched with the other group, and Tinie talked about the yogurt-making process on the lower level of the barn. She said she was first prompted to make yogurt for her daughter, who was diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and had to avoid commercially-produced yogurt that contained artificial sweeteners. Using her brother’s recipe, she eventually started making yogurt for family and friends as well, and they suggested that it might be a viable business.

Bles-Wold yogurt was first sold at farmers’ markets, where Tinie appreciated the feedback from customers. She found that Canadians preferred a much thicker yogurt than the Dutch, and liked being able to choose from a variety of flavours.

Bles Wold

Menu (plain is by far the most popular, followed by French vanilla, then blueberry)

She pointed to the machine behind her where the yogurt is made: it all starts with 3.5% butter fat milk. Skim milk powder is added for calcium and milk solids, then the mixture is transferred to the double-walled machine to be pasteurized, then separated.  Cultures (from Denmark) are added, then allowed to grow for fifteen hours. The last step is integrating fruit jelly mixes (containing no artificial sweeteners or stabilizers from a company in Vancouver) to produce flavoured yogurt. The amount of yogurt they produce every week varies somewhat (depending on market need), but that week, they would be making 3000L of yogurt.

Bles Wold

Where the yogurt is made

Tinie said she would be going to Europe in October to learn more about drinkable yogurt, which many of her customers have asked about. She said she had played around with various recipes, but hadn’t yet found one that worked.

Next, we moved on to the barns – one contained the calves (one just a day old!), and another, the 250 Holsteins (and one bull!). Everyone seemed to be just as delighted to see the young cows as we were, and even better, Hennie and Tinie had set out samples of their yogurt on the table for everyone.

Bles Wold

Pet me!

Bles Wold

Mack with a container of Bles Wold yogurt

The large barn that held the adult Holsteins was a sight to see (and smell, I suppose, but by that time, we had acclimatized somewhat). Though the cows typically have access to pasture, because they were expanding the barn this year, the cows had to remain indoors during this process – they will be back outside in the fenced pasture next year.

Bles Wold

I am such a tourist

The notable features of this barn were the mechanized helpers inside – one that swept the hay back towards the cows as they nosed through it – and another behind them that we joked was a Roomba for fecal matter – a motorized circular machine that pushed manure down into the slats below.

Bles Wold

Feed sweeper (we didn’t get a photo of the Roomba, unfortunately!)

Hennie was also very proud to show off the milking machine, where two cows could be automatically milked, a process that usually takes between 5-10 minutes. Here is a link to a video if you’re interested in seeing how it works – a cow steps in, a brush simultaneously cleans the teets and stimulates them, sensors pinpoint the udders, and the machine starts to collect the milk. It really was a sight to see.

Bles Wold

The magical milking machine

Valerie really had timed everything quite well – we never felt rushed at any part during the day. We all had our fill of the milking machine, Holsteins, and of course, yogurt – and got on the bus for the journey to our last destination that day, dinner at Eco Cafe.

Bles Wold

Leaving the barn

I had heard a lot about Eco Cafe, and their pride in sourcing local ingredients (including products from Greens, Eggs and Ham). Valerie had arranged a pre-fixe meal for the group, which was included in the price of the tour.

Located at Pigeon Lake in a small strip mall, Eco Cafe was much smaller than I had anticipated (our group took over the restaurant!). But what it lacked in size it made up for in charm, with lots of natural light, warm paint colours and friendly staff.

ECOcafe

Eco Cafe

We started off with a plate of smoked prairie trout, served with cold pressed canola oil Mousseline in a corn and sweet pepper crepe, with greens and candied beets in a yogurt maple dressing. Though the dish was pleasant enough, it wasn’t memorable though I did like the dressing.

ECOcafe

Smoked prairie trout with greens and beets

The entree was delicious, however – fall comfort on a plate. The bison short rib ragout was served over goat cheese mashed potatoes with oven roasted root vegetables. Everyone around the table – Valerie, Vanja and Mack – loved this dish. The meat was unbelievably tender, and thankfully for Vanja and I, the goat cheese was subtle.

ECOcafe

Bison short rib ragout

ECOcafe

Photo op

Valerie had told us that homemade cookies were waiting for us for the trip home, so we opted not to order dessert. Instead, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs before the trip home.

ECOcafe

I always make a beeline for gazebos

The promised cookies were indeed worth the wait: the chocolate cherry hazelnut and breakfast cookies were a great way to end the day.

Cookies!

Breakfast cookies

More napping on the bus ride back, and before we knew it, we were in Edmonton again. Thanks again to Valerie (and Vanja) for all of your work in planning the trip!