Looking for a memorable excursion and a chance to discover a different side of Ontario? A delicious adventure awaits anyone willing to drive a mere 90 minutes south of downtown Toronto to Oxford County. This mostly rural area is serving up some seriously sophisticated and scrumptious travel experience, as Oxford County is Canada’s cheese capital!
As I learned on a recent press trip, the Oxford County community of Ingersoll became one of Canada’s leading cheese producers in the 1800s. Not content to simply keep things local, the people of Ingersoll cooked up an incredible publicity plan — by cooking up one heck of a gigantic cheese. In 1866, dairy makers produced a gargantuan wheel of cheese that weighed in at 7,300 pounds. Then they sent it on tour to both the New York State Fair in Saratoga and then overseas to England, where it caused an absolute sensation. Ever since, this part of Canada has been an exceptional destination for cheese lovers (albeit in more modest portions). But those who are lactose intolerant, take heart! Cheese is just the beginning of what makes Oxford County such a lovely destination.
1. DIY Cheese Trail
Oxford County’s Cheese Trail is home to eight producers making 70 or so varieties and flavors of cheese, ranging from old-fashioned Gouda to lesser-known Swiss-style products that are infused with local wine and beer. Many of the participating dairies offer tours and tasting experiences, and the Cheese Trail includes a number of shops and restaurants to help you get your cheesy fix. It helps tremendously to have your own car to explore the area, but it is possible to bike to many of the stops. Cheese Trail maps are located at all participating locations plus a large number of local businesses including hotels, cafes, and museums.
Speaking of museums, Ingersoll’s own Cheese and Agriculture Museum is, of course, a Cheese Trail participant, and it’s a fun spot to learn more about the giant cheese as well as local industries. I was fascinated by how many secondary businesses were established to support cheesemaking — I guess someone has to supply things like storage materials and even the printing materials to create labels.
More Than Cheese: Soaps, Toiletries, And Crafts
If Oxford County’s Cheese Trail was about nothing but eating, I’d be a happy girl, but many of the participating stops don’t serve up cheese — and for good reason. They use dairy products for other purposes, such as producing goat’s milk soap and toiletries like they do at Wild Comfort.
During my visit, I was able to participate in an abridged version of a popular workshop they offer to make your own colorful felted covering for a bar of goat’s milk soap (Fun fact: the soap used for the felting project is composed of mini soap scraps that would otherwise go to waste). It was a delightfully enjoyable project, and while my finished products paled in comparison to that of my teacher, I was still mightily impressed by the results.
Other artisans are also part of the trail, including people like David Schonberger at Ottercreek Woodworks, who creates beautiful wooden cheeseboards.
3. Bond With Farmers — And Their Animals
The most rewarding aspect of visiting the Cheese Trail for me was the opportunity to talk with local farmers, gain a broader perspective about what it means to work in local agriculture, and even have a chance to connect with some of the animals.
Udderly Ridiculous Farm Life
At Udderly Ridiculous Farm Life, I spent time with one of the owners, Cheryl, who talked and walked me through the joys and challenges of farm ownership. As we strolled through the fields accompanied by some seriously cute alpacas, we discussed things like soil biodiversity, the delights of playing with baby goats, and a farmer’s impetus to never throw anything away. The warm, wonderful experience concluded with a delicious tasting flight of homemade ice cream made with (you guessed it!) fresh goat milk.
Thames River Melons
At Thames River Melons, farmer and dietician Alex introduced me to her chickens as well as her expansive vegetable fields. While the company’s name brings to mind fresh fruits, Thames River also offers u-pick veggies as part of their lineup, and that’s exactly what we did: headed out to the fields to fill our baskets with zucchini, peppers, leeks, herbs, and kale. Then it was back to the kitchen to use our harvest in a homemade farm-fresh brunch prepared under Alex’s tutelage. (Yep, we added plenty of local cheese into our frittata!)
4. Area Art And History
You’d be forgiven if you thought by now that Oxford County is all about eating. The farm-to-table mentality is just one aspect of life in the area. It’s also famous for its artistic heritage. In Tillsonburg, the gorgeous Annandale National Historic Site is sure to impress. This spectacular mansion is believed to be the result of an 1882 visit that playwright Oscar Wilde paid to the nearby community of Woodstock.
There, he gave a speech called “The House Beautiful,” describing how a home should be a reflection of art and a place of beauty, no matter where one looked. What he was really describing were the principles of the Aesthetic Movement.
It’s long thought that two prominent citizens, E.D. and Maryanne Tillson, were in the crowd as Wilde made his historic speech, and certainly the house they designed soon after would have made Wilde proud. Today, the restored finished product, Annandale National Historic Site, is one of the finest surviving examples of a house made in the Aesthetic style and open for visitors.
5. Culture And Heritage In Tillsonburg
If the name Tillsonburg rings a vague bell, it may be because you’re familiar with the old song by Canadian folksinger Stompin’ Tom Connors, who once crooned “Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg, my back still aches when I hear that word.” He was referencing the exhausting work of tobacco farming, an industry that was once at the heart of Tillsonburg’s economy. Alas, it’s an industry that’s also long gone, a development that brought hardship and also new opportunities for the region.
Demand for train services dried up, leaving the community with a vacant station on its hands. It’s now the Tillsonburg Station Arts Centre, home to two galleries, an arts and crafts-themed shop, and an extensive set of programming that covers everything from photography to pottery. (And, in actuality, the site is so large that it actually utilizes two former railway stations!)
Nearby, the well-organized Tillsonburg Farmers Market operates seasonally on Saturday mornings and provides a good chance to check out what kind of crops have replaced tobacco for the area’s farmers.
6. Vintage Harvard Aircraft Ride
Oxford County is a lovely spot for country drives and biking excursions, but there’s one additional way to explore the area that you might not have considered. You can see it via a vintage Harvard aircraft!
Harvards played a vital role in World War II, and local flying enthusiasts (including RCAF pilot Bob Hewitt) were determined to preserve their legacy. What started as a flying club in the mid-1980s has developed into the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association. Now a global authority on these aircraft, anyone with an interest in aviation or military history is sure to appreciate a visit. Those who are especially interested in the aircraft can even book a flight to experience the thrill firsthand! (But don’t worry; if you prefer to stay on the ground, there’s plenty to check out, and you can examine the Harvards to your heart’s content).
7. Oxford Drive-In Theater
In 2020, the Oxford Drive-In movie theater (which first served patrons in 1950) was reopened after a period of inactivity. Doing so was a response to the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but it has proved so popular that the theatre is still thriving and offering old-fashioned fun for three summers now. And it’s not just popular for movies. The site also offers a trunk show flea market on Saturday mornings.
Like all good theatres, the Oxford Drive-In offers lots of yummy treats, but in case you want more, the owners are also the proprietors of Reel Treats in nearby Woodstock. This little shop serves up vintage candy, international candy, and a big selection of flavored homemade popcorn.
8. Trillium Woods Provincial Nature Reserve
Sure, there are plenty of pretty gardens in Oxford County that would allow you to enjoy some proverbial tiptoeing along the tulips, but I argue that exploring along the trilliums is a much more interesting experience. Trillium Woods Provincial Nature Reserve offers an accessible, 1-kilometer (0.62-mile) hike that’s perfectly positioned to see trilliums bloom in May.
The floral emblem of Ontario, the flowers blooming in Trillium Woods include varieties with atypical pigmentation in their blooms and leaves. Just resist the urge to pick some blooms or wander off-path. Trilliums are a protected species across the province.