We are in explorer mode as Joanie and I set out to Willow Hall on the Burr Road on a winter’s night that holds the promise of spring. Exploring, because I had recently sold my own Cressy House and wanted to reconnoitre other possible home sites in the County.
We have been invited to a Banish January Blues dinner at the home of Cynthia Peters and her husband Brian Ford. She, of From the Farm Cooking School fame, and he of financial wizardry reputation.
We leave early to allow for running some of the back roads in Ameliasburgh to scout possible rehabilitation projects for ourselves. Cynthia has promised a Jamaican food theme in anticipation of warmer weather, and knowing the delicacies that wait, we want to arrive hungry and on time. From the Farm Cooking School is reputed to have the finest table in the County.
The handsome red brick farm house, Willow Hill, stately in its classic Ontario gabled silhouette, sits nicely off the Burr Road, separated by a dry-stone wall Brian built himself. A wrap-around galleria gives the home a look of rural gentility. Brian and Cynthia are house proud and everything about the property reads loved and looked after. It is one of those homes, English country style, that reveals itself slowly with room after room of surprising depth and design flourish. Surrounded by fields and undulating pastures, the home reeks of serenity. The original section of the heritage home, built of board and batten, was built by Lemuel Pearsall in the 1830s as a homestead for his family and their hop growing business. In the 1850s a red brick centre hall addition was added to the front of the house. Brian and Cynthia made Willow Hill their own in 2004.
If you live anywhere in the County you are a neighbour and think nothing of traversing several townships for good food and good company. Cynthia greets us in a chic black dress and red sandals – her nod to our Caribbean aspirations. The other guests arrive, Jonathan and Corrine from Milford, James and Suzanne from the Quaker Road, and Judith from Waupoos, as Brian prepares champagne and pineapple cocktails at what I like to think of as the longest bar in the Quinte – a 20-foot counter rescued from a general store in Napanee.
As a previous visitor to Willow Hill I ask for an immediate tour of the kitchen, which is traditional and modern at the same time. Bursting with bubbling pots and primitive antiques like old butter churns and a Mennonite wood bake oven, the worksite is anchored by a professional gas range and shelves overflowing with books and recipes, including copies of Cynthia’s own The Art of Herbs cookbook. As a food writer and critic, Cynthia is a regular contributor to numerous publications and websites.
A back-to-the-wall pine cupboard with a collection of Royal Doulton coffee sets inherited from Brian’s family stands proudly in the corner.
Cynthia started her From the Farm Cooking School when she and Brian first moved to the County. Building on her experience as founder of The Spice Sisters, a personal chef business in Toronto, the school focuses on small groups in her kitchen learning the art of seasonal cooking using fresh local ingredients. From the Farm is a sort of gateway for city dwellers seeking culinary adventures in the County, and typically includes tours of local farms, producers, and wineries.
Brian assembles the guests around the harvest dining table as Cynthia serves red lentil and carrot soup with curried sweet potato and phyllo bundles. He welcomes us by recounting the story of how he wooed Cynthia while living in Toronto. He is very much the romantic at heart. Turns out they are both accomplished piano players and they played their favourite pieces to each other over the line on their first phone conversation. His Gershwin, hers Carole King. After a 30-year career as an Ernst and Young partner, Brian, a chartered accountant, reinvented himself as a business-risk-services gun-for-hire, most recently as CFO of a public life sciences company based in Montreal. Nowadays he hangs out his shingle as Petersford Consulting and is often seen at the Belleville train station commuting to Toronto.
Well past the scallop and shrimp cake second course and into the braised oxtail with pearl onions main course, James, who has known our hosts the longest, stands to toast Brian and Cynthia. “I live in the rearview mirror,” he says by way of introducing the story of how he first met the couple 20 years earlier at a Crescent School reunion where he was the long time academic director.
Throughout the evening guests pepper Cynthia with questions about the preparation of the Caribbean dinner menu which never strays far from the limelight. Especially the dessert – a banana cake with butter rum sauce under a scoop of coconut and pineapple ice cream.
We all shift into the living room where Cynthia takes up the keys at the baby grand piano. Brian, who has been tending the fire all night, throws extra logs into the open hearth. We are engulfed by wave of apple scented warmth. We all join the lyrics to Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow, some more lustily than others. In full throat, James announces, “Food is great but music essential.” Jonathan, Irish to the core, starts dancing in a syncopated rhythm somewhere between Riverdance and Bruno Mars.
Fresh snow has started to fall. On the way out, I ask our hosts what secrets of a successful marriage they would like to share.
“Sharing laughter every day,” Cynthia offers. “And respecting each other’s differences.”
“Good five-year planning,” Brian adds. “And let it evolve.”
As I bid adieu, he adds, “We aren’t so good at short term planning like what we’re having for lunch.”
Photography by Alan Gratias