I’ve been meaning to make the trip to Orillia – a place you can’t miss about an hour’s drive north of Toronto en route to Muskoka’s cottage country – for many years.
The reason, of course, is food – in this case, one of my absolute favourites: butter tarts.
It must be almost 20 years ago that I conducted one of my famous taste tests as food editor of the Toronto Star. The embattled edible was the butter tart. One of the judges – all experts in this all-Canadian confection – was the well-known Canadian artist Charlie Pachter.
There are few people – and I am one of them – as opinionated about butter tarts as the outspoken Mr. Pachter who is known, among other things, for painting Canadiana. This includes moose (I guess that’s both singular and plural), our national flag and the butter tart.
So on a recent hot, sunny Sunday, my trusty boyfriend Ross, who two years ago drove me along the Butter Tart Trail in this province’s Wellington County, stopping at bakeries along the way in search of the ultimate butter tart – all in aid of a piece I was doing for CBC’s flagship radio show Q with Jian Ghomeshi – was up for this new adventure.
Until now, my search for the best Ontario butter tart has yielded two winners. That Toronto Star taste test gave the prize to a once famous spot in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood called Griffith’s. It closed some years ago. Dianna’s butter tarts made by ace baker Dianna Weirmier and sold at the farmer’s market on Saturdays in Stratford, are also delectable with a light, flaky lard crust and a not-too-sweet, perfectly soft, slightly runny filling, all mandatory for a top-rated tart.
I have checked out many others reputed by some to be terrific: those sold at the farmer’s market in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, Marty’s in Bracebridge and Grumble’s in east-end Toronto which is the re-incarnation of the former Beaches landmark, Griffith’s. All were underwhelming.
So last Sunday’s visit to Orillia was nothing short of uplifting. The butter tarts at Wilkie’s are, in a word, superb.
Located on that city’s main drag, Wilkie’s Bakery is a small, modest, old-fashioned bakery that’s been owned by the Wilkie family since 1970.
The main attraction among the small selection of other plain baked offerings is the house specialty: butter tarts. An aside: their Chelsea buns are deservedly famous. We bought a batch and they are wondrously sticky, chewy and sweet.
Gerry Wilkie, son of the founders and the man who has run the bakery since 1991, was not there that steamy afternoon as he works mornings – the important time in any bakery. He told me the family butter tart tale when I phoned him upon my return home to Toronto.
An article in the Toronto Star in June, 1981, listed Wilkie’s butter tarts among the 100 best foods in Canada. That, says Gerry, “put them on the map.”
Today, fans of their confection come from far-flung places in Canada and the U.S. to pick up six-packs at $4.75 a pop. On summer weekends, they sell a whopping 300 dozen. There are three kinds: plain, raisin and the Wilkie’s invention “well done.” That came to be – and it’s my favourite – by happy happenstance when someone overcooked the tarts “in the hot corner of the oven” and the caramelized, bordering-on-burnt offerings were a hit with some customers.
Gerry also attributes his tarts’ appeal to the “flaky lard crust” Amen say I. And the perfectly gooey filling ain’t bad either.
Wilkie’s Bakery, 169 Mississaga St. E., Orillia: 705-327-7163.
For more info on its debatable origins and much more about the butter tart, check out the following:
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