The “Ginger Farm Special”
What was Ginger Farm? What was its butter tart?
Ginger Farm today lies under tons of concrete, asphalt, and steel. From 1924-1958 it was a working farm near Milton, ON. Milton is about a 50-minute drive west of Toronto along Highway 401, the broad ribbon vital to Ontario commerce. From Milton you can wend to Guelph, Cambridge, Kitchener, London, Chatham, and finally Windsor just before the bridge to Detroit.
In the late 1950s when the “401” was being planned, 100-acre Ginger Farm was expropriated by the Ontario government. Part of it now lies under a clover-leaf linking Highways 25 and 401. The other part sits under the Maplehurst Correctional Facility, a prison built in the early 1970s (known to initiates I hear as the Milton Hilton).
Ginger Farm, as the 2009 book Chronicles of Ginger Farm explains, was owned by Lancelot and Gwendoline Clarke, a couple who purchased it in 1924. Gwendoline, nee Fitz-Gerald, was born in Sudbury, Suffolk (England). She married Lancelot in England while he was on leave from the Canadian Army.
Lancelot was also from Suffolk but had emigrated to Canada in his teens. He worked in farming near Milton and held other occupations before returning to Britain with the army.
Once arrived in Canada Gwendoline and Lancelot went out west to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to try farming. After some years they moved with their two children to Ontario and purchased the plot near Milton, where they remained for life. Gwendoline died in 1966.
In her spare time Gwendoline authored a great many newspaper columns on farm and rural life in Ontario, called “Chronicles of Ginger Farm”. David Mitchell-Evans, a grandchild of the Clarkes, collected many of these for the book Chronicles.
The farm was dubbed 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 set out in Chronicles, Gwendoline explained 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 of how much society has changed that “ginger” in this sense sounds old-fashioned.
Gwendoline and Ginger Farm became well-known in Ontario via her regular column. It appeared in nearby Acton’s Free Press and was reprinted in other newspapers in Ontario.
Many columns were reprinted in The Flesherton Advance, a newspaper in the Grey Highlands region. Flesherton is a 2.5-3 hour drive north of Toronto. Gwendoline’s writing in the Advance covered the war years, describing the challenges of rising retail prices and falling crop revenues. She also recounted shortages of staples such as fruits, nuts, tobacco, and coffee.
Her writing limns daily occurrences – raising crops, calving and other livestock management, the change of the seasons, and always the weather factor. Occasionally attractions were sought nearby, usually a movie.
Gwendoline showed a lively and intuitive intelligence, always practical but with a questing bent, as seen by her interest in the past, or desire to read more than time afforded her. In fact, she wrote on local history in separate publications. 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 column she describes a makeshift butter tart she made. Due to wartime conditions “currants and raisins” were not available to add to the basic egg/sugar/butter filling. So she hit on adding mincemeat, meaning of course the sweetened, preserved fruit mixture laid down from time immemorial for Christmas.
It proved a clear success, to the point her taciturn husband, always dubbed “Partner”, was moved to praise its qualities albeit “not solicited”.
Gwendoline starts by explaining that generally she doesn’t do recipes, to use our 2018 vernacular. There is a mild sense of dismissal, I think, for more leisured women who have time to ponder and compile recipes.
As a busy farm-wife proudly asserting her role in running a parlous communal business, she had little time for what she possibly viewed as a (relative) frivolity. Still, this dish was so good she had to pass it on.
When writing recently of butter tarts history, I concluded the U.K. butter and border tarts seem more complex in construction than our Canadian butter tarts. Similar ingredients are used, but more of them in one recipe than we do. See for example this U.K. website’s (Mary Mary Quite Contrary’s) recipe for the Ecclefechan butter tart.
Our butter tarts typically contain walnut, pecan, raisins, or currants (or none of these), but rarely all of them, or three, or even two together. And rarely or never have I seen glacé cherry or candied citrus, whereas the U.K. analogues often feature them.
(I’m endeavouring to describe what one might expect in the classic tradition).
Maybe the multi-fruit explosion of a mincemeat-goosed butter tart reminded the Clarkes of their younger days in England, eating similar-tasting pies at festivities.
Gwendoline Clarke expressed the wish that her version, should it find general approval, be known as the Ginger Farm Special. This never happened as far as I know, but it’s not too late. Let’s spread the word for what sounds a fine dessert, and one with an engaging backstory.* I haven’t tried the recipe but I don’t doubt the Clarkes are good guides.
Readers of a cookery bent: fetch up the mincemeat and give it a try, especially with Noel not distant. If enough do, the toothsome phoenix will rise again.**
Note re images and quotation: The first image is in the public domain and appears in the Wikipedia entry for Milton, ON, here. The second image is drawn from the 1941 article in the Flesherton Advance linked in the text. The quotation is from the book 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. Said material is used for educational and historical purposes, and for fair comment. All feedback welcomed.
*The mincemeat-butter tarts recipe is not mentioned in the 2009 Chronicles book.
**It may be noted also that Gwendoline’s butter tart is a whole pie, not baked in tartlets that is. See in our previous post, under “Proximate Origins of the Canadian Butter Tart”, my discussion of the shape issue. In addition, as mincemeat frequently contains candied ginger, the Ginger Farm Special can be said plausibly to contain ginger, notwithstanding that the plant was not the reason for the farm’s name. This entry finally of real ginger to a product of Ginger Farm must have pleased Gwendoline secretly.