Ginger Farm, Ontario
What is, or was, Ginger Farm? And wherefore its butter tart?
Ginger Farm today lies under tons of concrete, asphalt, and steel. Between 1924 and 1958 the site was a working farm near Milton, Ontario. Milton is a 50-minute drive west of Toronto along Highway 401, a broad ribbon vital to Ontario commerce. From Milton you can wend to Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener, London, Chatham, and finally Windsor where a bridge connects to Detroit, U.S.A.
In the late 1950s when the “401” was being planned, 100-acre Ginger Farm was expropriated by the Ontario government. A part now lies under a clover-leaf linking Highways 25 and 401. Maplehurst Correctional Facility sits atop the other part, built in the early 1970s. Initiates know it, we understand, as the Milton Hilton.
As explained in Chronicles of Ginger Farm (2009) the site was owned by Lancelot and Gwendoline Clarke who had purchased it in 1924. Gwendoline, nee Fitz-Gerald, was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, England. Lancelot and Gwendoline had married in England while Lancelot was on leave with the Canadian Army.
Lancelot, also from Suffolk, had emigrated to Canada in his teens. He had worked near Milton in farming and held other occupations before returning to Britain with the army.
As newlyweds in Canada in Canada Gwendoline and Lancelot travelled far west to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take up farming. After some years they moved with their two children to Ontario where they purchased a tract near Milton. They remained there for the rest of their lives. Gwendoline died in 1966.
In her spare time Gwendoline authored a newspaper column on farming and rural life called Chronicles of Ginger Farm. David Mitchell-Evans, a grandchild of the Clarkes, collected many of the articles for the Chronicles book.
The farm was named Ginger not because the plant was cultivated there, but for reasons that combine whimsy, a literary sense, and knowledge of life’s hard knocks. As quoted in Chronicles Gwendoline wrote in 1929:
…let me tell you, right here and now, in case there are any who don’t know it, that besides brain and brawn, it requires ginger of the highest quality and spiciest order to come anywhere near success [in farming], and the smaller the capital, the more ginger required.
It is a sign how much society has changed that “ginger” in this sense sounds old-fashioned.
Gwendoline Clarke’s Writing
Gwendoline and Ginger Farm were well-known in Ontario due to the newspaper columns. They appeared in the Free Press of Acton nearby and were reprinted throughout Ontario. The Flesherton Advance, a newspaper in Ontario’s Grey Highlands region, carried many columns.
Her writing included the war years, describing how farmers faced rising food prices and falling crop revenues. Many items were short, staples like fruits, nuts, tobacco, and coffee.
Her writing limns daily occurrences: raising crops, calving and other livestock management, the change of the seasons, the weather patterns. Occasionally she describes seeking diversions nearby, usually a movie.
Gwendoline’s writing demonstrates a lively and intuitive intelligence, practical but with a questing bent. It’s shown by her interest in the past, and desire to read more than time allowed her. In fact, she did find time to write on local history outside the column. She was perceptive about both animal and human natures, and in general expressed a live-and-let-live philosophy.
The Special Butter Tart
In a 1941 article* in the Flesherton Advance she describes a makeshift butter tart. Due to wartime conditions currants and raisins were not available to add to the egg/sugar/butter base, so she used mincemeat from a jar in the cellar. This was of course the sweetened, preserved fruit mixture prepared by Anglo-Saxon cultures from time immemorial for Christmas.
The unorthodox tart was a clear success, to the point taciturn Lancelot, whom she always calls the “Partner”, praised its qualities albeit “not solicited”.
Gwendoline explains that generally she doesn’t do recipes, to use our 2018 vernacular. As a busy farm-wife proud of her role co-running a parlous business she had little time (is my sense) to set down recipes, an activity she probably viewed as frivolous.
Still, the butter tart was so good she had to pass it on, to posterity’s benefit.
When writing recently of butter tarts history I concluded that butter and border tarts in the U.K. seemed “busier” than our butter tarts. Similar ingredients are used, but typically more in one recipe than we do. See, for example, this U.K. recipe (Mary Mary Quite Contrary’s) for Ecclefechan butter tart.
Our butter tarts might contain walnut, pecan, raisins, or currants – or none of these – but rarely all four, or even three or two. And rarely or never have I seen glacé cherry or candied citrus in a butter tart whereas they abound in U.K. examples.
(I’m referencing here the classic Ontario tradition. The individuality of cooks will always produce variations).
Maybe a mincemeat-powered butter tart reminded the Clarkes of their younger days, when pies or cakes at country festivities offered fruity burst of taste.
Gwendoline expressed the wish that her version, should it find general approval, be called the Ginger Farm Special. It never took off as far as I know, but it’s not too late! Let’s spread the word for what sounds like a fine dessert, and one with an engaging backstory.**
Readers of a cookery bent, fetch up some mincemeat and give it a try, especially with Noel not distant. Maybe a toothsome phoenix will rise again.
Note: The 1941 article in the Flesherton Advance from which image above was drawn is linked in the text. The quotation is from Chronicles of Ginger Farm (2009, published by Bastian Publishing) as identified and linked in the text (via Google Books). All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes and fair comment. All feedback welcomed.
*To view the original article in the Fulton Historical newspaper archive, search “recipes and suchlike” as an exact phrase on this page: https://fultonhistory.com/Fulton.html
**The mincemeat-butter tarts recipe is not mentioned in the 2009 Chronicles book.