This tour drives you out of Toronto to a maple syrup farm

Rural Route Tour Co. introduces city-dwellers to rural Ontario's small-batch producers. We go on the Taste of Maple tour to Elliott Tree Farm and GoodLot Farmstead Brewing for maple syrup and beer.

Even though I grew up outside of Toronto, the longer I live in my Liberty Village condo, the easier it is (and I’m quite ashamed to admit this) to believe most of everything happening in the food and hospitality world, is happening in the city — or a city. That, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tamara Stefek, once the director of communications at the Shangri-La Toronto, traded the glitz and glamour to return to her rural roots. The Norfolk County native started a tour company, Rural Route Tour Co., aiming to introduce city-dwellers to the culinary scenes and hard-working makers outside of Toronto.

Rural Route Tour Co. maple syrup farm tour | Tamara Stefek smiling in a snowy forest

Rural Route Tour Co.: What is it?

“I started Rural Route Tour Company with the goal of being a different kind of tour provider,” Stefek tells me. She offers full-day trips out of downtown to the York, Durham and Headwaters regions. Focused on local, small-batch producers, her tours will almost certainly introduce you to something you haven't tried before.

Stefek forges strong, personal connections with dozens of the best small-batch producers outside of the city. Then, she creates an itinerary for guests, complete with samplings, meet and greets with makers, chats about food culture and lots of laughs. She works with lavender farmers, beekeepers, beverage producers, restaurants, and even museums and historic sites for her tours.

Stefek is also your tour guide and driver for the day. When I meet her for the Taste of Maple tour in late February, just outside the Fairmont Royal York, she’s standing beside her tour van, grinning and waving. She seems even more excited for the day than I am.

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Taste of Maple Tour: The experience

Stefek gives me a hand clambering inside the van. I’m greeted by the shining faces of only a handful of other eager foodies — these tours are intimate. I shamble to the back, settle in and charge my phone in the built-in port as Stefek slides into the driver’s seat and peels out towards the Gardiner.

We drive for about an hour to Erin, Ontario before arriving at Elliott Tree Farm. As the name suggests, this is a Christmas tree farm during the holidays; rows of evergreens, still in the throes of adolescence, huddle together on a few patches of farmland.

Rural Route Tour Co. maple syrup farm tour | The rustic dining room at Horse Barn Canteen
Rural Route Tour Co. maple syrup farm tour | Farmer Fred wearing his cowboy hat and glasses

Next, we tuck into a hearty pancake and sausage breakfast with buckets of Elliott Tree Farm amber maple syrup inside the Horse Barn Canteen, a stable-turned-restaurant. It’s adorably rustic, with dining tables sequestered in former horse stalls (all named after Santa’s reindeer), walls adorned with old-timey photos of farm animals and a retro gas pump. The pancakes are plump and comforting; the maple syrup is smooth, fresh and viscous. It's some of the best I've ever had.

Once our bellies are full, we trudge behind the barn towards Elliott Tree Farm’s sugar bush. Farmer Fred ushers us to gather around; sporting a cowboy hat, overalls, sunglasses, a red neckerchief and a wily grin, he’s quite the character.

Fred walks us through how the farm harvests their sap, and then boils it to a precise temperature to transform it into maple syrup. Most of the sweet stuff you'll find in a grocery store is overcooked, he explains — only through small-batch production can the highest quality be achieved.

I sip fresh sap; snack on maple taffy, poured on a trough of snow and curled onto a popsicle stick; then slug back shots of syrup. The subsequent sugar rush is formidable.

Rural Route Tour Co. maple syrup farm tour | Maple taffy being scooped up from a pile of snow
Rural Route Tour Co. maple syrup farm tour | Buckets collecting sap from a maple tree

From there, the group walks over to the farm’s Maple Syrup Museum to explore maple syrup harvesting tools. Special attention is paid to maple syrup's roots as an Indigenous ancestral food, and the methods Indigenous Peoples have historically used to collect and cook tree sap. Here, there's also a gift shop with all sorts of goodies and full syrup bottles to purchase.

Rural Route Tour Co. maple syrup farm tour | Indigenous artifacts at the Elliott Tree Farm Maple Syrup Museum

The second and final stop is GoodLot Farmstead Brewing in Caledon, Ontario. As Stefek drives us there, she points out rural Ontario’s vistas and even a flock of wild turkeys milling about on the side of the road.

At GoodLot, uber-friendly brewers Phil and Gail Winters treat us to a flight of golden brews (with one dark and delectable stout) plus a few charcuterie boards prepared by chef Phil DeWar who caters food for GoodLot.

It's a jolly atmosphere, and a musician soon starts crooning into a microphone near the front of the brewery. The Winters wax to us about their brewery journey, carbon net-zero brewing process and their lively summer music series while we sip and snack. This bit of the tour doesn't have a connection to maple syrup, but it's a privilege to try great beer and meet the people behind the tasty pints. 

Rural Route Tour Co. maple syrup farm tour | A row of cans from GoodLot beer in Caledon, Ontario

Taste of Maple Tour: The verdict

All in all, the Taste of Maple experience lasts around seven hours and is a fun introduction to rural Ontario's bounty, and a chance to try and buy some of the tastiest maple syrup you've ever had. Stefek buses us back to Toronto and surprises the group with a goodie bag of (you guessed it) more maple syrup, GoodLot ale and a sweet maple cookie.

Taste of Maple Tour; $223 per person,