roadside diaries
                                      picture perfect elora
                                                     By charmian christie

Elora has often been used as a backdrop for period films. It is not dif-       If you want to get carried away — literally — a hot air balloon ride
ficult to understand why. A mere 90-minute drive from Toronto and           provides unparalleled views of the gorge, the surrounding farmland
its skyscrapers, Elora’s deep gorge, rolling farmland and beautiful lime-   and the intense fall colours. Upward Bound Adventures takes clients
stone buildings seem frozen in time. The streets are lined with build-      at sunrise or sunset on an unforgettable one-hour ride, toasted with
ings that showcase the skills of the Scottish stonemasons that settled      Champagne on landing.
in the area during the early 1800s.                                            Despite a modest population, Elora offers big city diversity, espe-
   Unscathed by urban sprawl, Elora’s natural surroundings provide a        cially in the arts. The Gorge Cinema, tucked away in a 150-year-old
perfect contrast to the finely crafted architecture. Set on the banks of    stone building, features current features and foreign films in an inti-
both the Grand and Irvine rivers, the Elora Gorge Conservation Area         mate 136-seat theatre year-round. During the last two weekends in
is just minutes from the town centre. Here you can hike along the 22-       September, The Elora Centre for the Arts hosts a free, self-guided stu-
metre-high gorge, fly-fish for brown trout or brave white waters on a       dio tour, allowing visitors a glimpse into the lives and work of local
rented inner tube.                                                          artists. Throughout the year, you can admire their pottery, blown glass,
   Cyclists will want to bring their bikes and explore the Elora-           jewellery and other creations in the local shops and gallery. For details,
                                                                                                                                                         Photographs: Carole Topalian

Cataract Trailway. This 47-kilometre walking and biking trail traces        pick up the Elora Art Walk brochure at the Welcome Centre.
the abandoned Credit Valley Railway that meanders through the sur-             As you wander, take time to stray from the main streets and explore
rounding communities’ parks and watersheds. The Elora to Belwood            the quiet neighbourhoods. Victorian brick and limestone houses sit on
section of the trail is maintained well enough to be suitable for small     deliciously large lots with mature perennial gardens that threaten to
children and those in wheelchairs.                                          steal the show. The only thing missing is sidewalks.

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   Saturday mornings until Thanksgiving, stop by the “World’s Small-         school children add their own papier maché creations to the growing
est Farmers’ Market” on the grounds next to the General Store. Not           collection. Pumpkin carving and a series of fall events round out the
only will you find local produce, meat, cheese and maple syrup, you          month of ghoulish fun and, as Hallowe’en approaches, ghost busters
can catch a food demonstration and live entertainment, and sample            can test their paranormal senses during a nocturnal Lantern Ghost
down-home baking.                                                            Tour that takes them to local haunts.
   While it’s tempting to spend the day poking about the antique                When hunger strikes, Elora has no shortage of restaurants and eater-
shops and specialty stores, you’ll get a great sense of Elora and its his-   ies. You can stop by the Dragonfly Café for a light lunch of sandwiches
tory by taking a walking tour. Purchase a self-guided tour map for $2        and wraps by the river, or pop next door to 13 Mill Street for casual
at the Welcome Centre and explore at your leisure, or witness the past       riverside dining later into the evening. The menu usually features fresh
come alive with a guided historical tour. Expect to be serenaded, hear       pasta, vegetarian items and a catch of the day.
period music played on an antique banjo, and meet some colourful                Across the street is Alex’s, where the whitewashed exterior hints at
characters along the way. Although scheduled tours run from May to           the restaurant’s European roots. Inside, bursts of burnt orange ignite
September, you can book outside these dates by special arrangement.          an otherwise classic palette. Like the décor, chef-owner Alex Sgroi in-
   Come October the whole town turns spooky with the launch of               jects a bit of spice into traditional Italian and French cuisine. A firm
Monster Month, when oversized ghosts and colourful, quirky beasts            believer in slow food, Sgroi makes his own pasta and bread fresh every
hang from the sides of downtown buildings. The brainchild of local           day. With hospitality a priority, Sgroi is happy to stray from the menu
artist and set designer Tim Murton, this annual tradition was begun          to accommodate special diets. (A profile of restaurateur extraordinaire
with Murton’s own cheesecloth, wire and glue specters. Today, local          Alex Sgroi follows.)

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                                                                          Vegetarians will love the colourful and homey Desert Rose Café,              local pub with an East Coast attitude. With a wide range of menu op-
                                                                       where you can dine inside or on the back patio. While the menu offers           tions, at least twelve beers on tap and kid-friendly paper tablecloths,
                                                                       a range of ethnic vegetarian dishes, some with vegan and dairy-free             this is a great place to refuel and enjoy a view of the falls.
                                                                       variations, the café is best known for its meatless moussaka. The                  Built in 1860, The Breadalbane Inn offers an eclectic mix of food
                                                                       tiramisu is equally praiseworthy.                                               and atmosphere. While the Fergusson Room, a traditional British pub,
                                                                          Farther up Metcalfe Street is the delightful patisserie C’est Bon. Al-       provides a casual spot to relax and enjoy a drink, the elegant Maple
                                                                       though its butter tarts have earned kudos from CBC Fresh Air, it is             Shade Restaurant is housed in a glass conservatory overlooking a Vic-
                                                                       best known for its soup, made next door at Bailey’s. Drop by the pastry         torian garden. The Roots menu features slow food with a creative spin
                                                                       shop for coffee and dessert or a light lunch. If you’d rather stay out-         on local fare. Expect to see items such as boar and elk. One of the best
                                                                       doors, just ask them to pack you a picnic lunch and enjoy a stunning            VQA wine lists in the province complements the menu.
                                                                       view of the gorge in nearby Victoria Park.                                         Take a daytrip to the Grand River area, or consider spending a
                                                                          Bailey’s is the big sister to the diminutive C’est Bon. You can watch        weekend. With an abundance of excellent restaurants, miles of un-
                                                                       the world go by on the street-side patio or share a romantic meal in the        spoiled natural beauty and a calendar of events that doesn’t head south
                                                                       warm ambiance of its interior. The menu crisscrosses the globe, serving         for the winter, the region has something to offer at any time of the
                                                                       items from Asian-inspired stir-fries to Lancashire hot pots, and the            year.
                                                                       wine list keeps pace while remaining surprisingly affordable.
                                                                          Overlooking an impressive waterfall stands the Elora Mill Inn, a             Elo ra Welc om e Centre
                                                                       renovated gristmill. One of Ontario’s Four Great Mills, along with              5 Mill Street East
                                                                       Benmiller, Millcroft and Wakefield, this historic inn remains Elora’s           (519) 846-9841
                                                                       flagship establishment. The casual Gorge Lounge and Patio offers a              www.elora.info
                                                                       shady spot with a view of the Grand River, where you can stop for a
                                                                       quick bite.                                                                     E l o r a Go r g e C o n s e r v a t i o n A r e a
                                                                          Halfway between the towns of Elora and Fergus you’ll find the                (519) 846-9742 or (866) 668-2267
                                                                       Wellington County Museum and Archives. A former “poor house”                    www.grandriver.ca
                                                                       and Canada’s oldest House of Industry and Refuge, the museum cap-               Note: Tube rental is possible after Labour Day, but it is advisable to
                                                                       tures the area’s history. Unlike sprawling national collections that can        phone ahead.
                                                                       eat up an entire day, the exhibits here are compact but not watered
                                                                       down; the displays are well researched and creatively presented.                Elo ra Cata rac t Trai lwa y
                                                                       Through enlarged photographs and text, If These Walls Could Speak               (519) 843-5140 or (877) 242-6353
                                                                       tells the stories of the people who lived and worked here between 1877          www.trailway.org
                                                                       and 1949. While children will love to explore the longhouse and pi-
                                                                       oneer farm, the World War I trench has a special resonance – the faces          Wellingt on Co un ty Mu seum and Arch i ves
Photographs: Top right by Dave Wilcox, all others by Carole Topalian

                                                                       and hands of the life-sized model soldiers were molded from the                 0536 Wellington County Road 18
                                                                       grandchildren and great-grandchildren of local World War I veterans.            (519) 846-0916. ext. 221
                                                                          A few more minutes down the road and you’ve arrived in Fergus.               www.wcm.on.ca
                                                                       Historic churches and majestic limestone buildings mark almost every
                                                                       major corner. Although the town shows signs of modern development,              U p w a r d B o u n d Ad v e n t u r e s
                                                                       Fergus has maintained much of its original charm. Stroll along the              (519) 651-2859 or (800) 567-2812
                                                                       Grand River through the limestone steps of the Templin Gardens or               Note: Autumn balloon rides are very popular. Reserve early.
                                                                       browse the many shops.
                                                                          For a real taste of the area’s agricultural roots, the Fergus Fall Fair is
                                                                       held annually in mid-September. The event features a wide array of              An inquisitive palate and itchy feet keep freelance writer Charmian
                                                                       sights, sounds and smells not found in the city. Sheep herding, tractor         Christie on the go. When not on the road, she makes her home in
                                                                       pulls, pony rides and a midway make this fun for the whole family.              Guelph, where she shares a century home with her husband and more
                                                                          For something a little different, grab a bite at the Goofy Newfie, a         measuring cups than she cares to admit.

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roadside profile

 ALEX SGROI                                                                    Menu pricing at Alex’s also reflects Sgroi’s welcoming approach.
 ROMANCING ELORA                                                            With the most expensive dish set at a modest $25, customers get
                                                                            gourmet food at reasonable prices. “Some clients say I should raise
 Shortly after I arrive for our scheduled meeting, Alex Sgroi heads to      my prices, but I don’t want to overprice,” he says. “I want people to
 his office to fetch a green milk crate. Seemingly unconcerned that         come here, and not just for special occasions.”
 a busy lunchtime crowd would soon be descending upon Alex’s                   But controlling costs hasn’t cramped Sgroi’s creativity. He em-
 Kitchen, his eponymous restaurant, Sgroi takes me on a tour                braces fusion cooking, bringing a touch of Mexican heat to his clas-
 through forty years’ worth of magazine and newspaper clippings,            sic French and Italian cuisine. He sees building the menu around
 all filed within the unassuming-looking crate. Each clipping leads         local food wherever possible as an opportunity, not a restriction.
 to another fascinating anecdote and when I mention the time, Sgroi         “We need to be loyal to the local farmers if you expect them to be
 assures me he’d done his “prep” extra early so we wouldn’t be rushed.      loyal to us,” Sgroi says.
                                                Having noticed earlier         The decor reflects Sgroi’s attitude towards food – elegant but not
                                             that his bright orange         intimidating. His wife, Barbara, a journalist who specializes in home
                                             Crocs match the décor,         décor and fashion, designed the interior and created the large paint-
                                             and unable to contain my       ings that dominate the feature wall. To capture the relaxed atmos-
                                             curiosity, I ask Sgroi how     phere they decided against tablecloths, and use fresh flowers and
                                             he came to choose his          “colour to make [the customer] smile.” Barbara also selects the
                                             footwear. With a laugh,        music, which Sgroi considers as essential as spice. “The tone, vol-
                                             he confesses that it is pure   ume and type must be conducive. I don’t want the music to over-
                                             coincidence rather than        power conversation. It’s an art in itself,” he says.
                                             intentional colour coordi-        Over the years, Sgroi honed his attention to detail. He came to
                                             nation. Orange is the sig-     Canada from Switzerland in 1963 to help open the first Inn on the
                                             nature colour of Mario         Park. After a stint in the Bahamas, he returned to Toronto and built
                                             Batali, who Sgroi consid-      a list of credits worthy of any international chef. He owned Garbo’s
                                             ers to be the best chef in     on Queen Street, managed Le Provençal, “Toronto’s finest French
                                             the world. As if inspired,     restaurant,” and introduced the city to crêpes. Not a mere pancake
                                             Sgroi disappears into the      house, Crêpe Breton was designed by renowned architect Jack Di-
                                             kitchen, only to return        amond. Before settling in Elora, Sgroi also ran Thyme Hill Farm,
                                             with a Batali cookbook         situated on twenty-seven acres in Mulmur.
                                             and his own signature             Sgroi’s business credits are as distinguished as his restaurants. He
                                             straw hat.                     is the only restaurateur to hold the keys to the cities of both Buffalo,
                                                As chef and owner of        New York and Niagara Falls, Ontario. With typical modesty, Sgroi
                                             Alex’s, Sgroi knows a stel-    explains that he received this honour for getting the Toronto branch
 lar menu means nothing without hospitality. He learned this lesson         of the Canadian Restaurant Association “talking” with the New
 at a hotel school in Geneva, Switzerland that often hosted interna-        York Hotel and Restaurant Association. When asked to elaborate,
 tional diplomats. One day an elderly man asked Sgroi to help organ-        Sgroi shrugs and says he got them “to talk about ideas.” The ideas
 ize a tea party. Assuming for whatever reason that the man couldn’t        were obviously important enough to make him an honourary life-
 possibly afford their services, Sgroi admits he “discounted the man        time member of the Hotel Association of New York State.
 in [his] mind” while he took the order. When finalizing the details,          Warm hospitality, gourmet food and personal attention from the
 Mr. Rockefeller gave his name. “That’s the last time I ever dis-           chef bring diners from Oakville and Toronto on a regular basis.
 counted someone,” Sgroi says.                                              “They are guaranteed not to leave unhappy,” Sgroi says. And this at-
    True to his word, Sgroi treats every customer as a VIP. Knowing         titude also guarantees they’ll return.
 clients may have driven long distances to dine there, he often ex-
 tends his hours so they don’t feel rushed, and is happy to adjust the      Alex’s Kitchen
 menu to accommodate special diets. If people come to celebrate,            14 Mill Street East, Elora
 Sgroi celebrates with them. “I want to make sure their experience is       (519) 846-1104
 complete,” he says. Regardless of the occasion, Sgroi makes a point        www.alexskitchen.com
 of visiting every table to chat. His passionate, charming nature has
 earned him the title of “the most romantic of chefs” by House &                                                            —Charmian Christie
 Garden Magazine.

46     fall 2007          edible toronto

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