The Great Butter Tart Road Trip
Canadians take butter tarts really seriously. While the recipe for a basic butter tart is relatively simple, people are rightfully proud of their perfect (and unique) recipes. There are competitions that challenge bakers to find the most innovative fillings beyond the standard pecan, walnut and raisin options. Past winning creations at Ontario’s Best Butter Tart Festival in Midland include a sweet potato ginger strudel tart and a passionfruit mango one. Bitter rivalries are formed over the title of best butter tart in a region. There’s even a whole festival circuit that has bakers schlepping their gooey tarts to agricultural fairs all around the country.
Want to make a day (or even a weekend) out of the dessert? In Ontario, there are two year-round road trips that will direct you right to some of the best butter tarts in the country. Both located a short drive from Toronto, the Wellington County Butter Tart Trail and the Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Tour are must-visits for a city-getaway that’s filled with delicious eats.
The Wellington County Butter Tart Trail started first, in 2006, as a way to boost local tourism and shine a spotlight on the food scene, according to Christina Mann, the taste real coordinator for the County of Wellington, which organizes the trail. Trail trekkers can drive all (or just some) of the 80km-ish length of the trail from North Wellington down to Guelph. The trail boasts 17 stops, and takes drivers past other attractions, such as the horse and buggy communities in the northern part of the county. You’ll visit bakeries, grocery stores, gas stations and other less conventional butter tart stops. “Wherever you go, they will say that their butter tarts are the best,” says Mann. “But we offer not just butter tarts but a whole farm and food experience.”
The Kawarthas Northumberland Butter Tart Tour came later, in 2011. (After a brief butter tart war, during which Wellington County sent a cease and desist letter to their competition in the Kawarthas, the two operations called a truce in 2013 and now co-exist peacefully.) The Kawarthas’ tour, which is located further east in Ontario, has over 50 stops and only features bakeries. The tour isn’t just about the butter tarts (though, let’s be real, it’s mainly about the sweet treat), but also the road trip experience itself. “A lot of people associate the tarts with their family,” says Diane Rogers, the owner of DooDoo’s Bakery and Cafe, a business that’s a part of the Kawarthas’ tour. “Going on the tour and having a butter tart kind of transports people back to their childhood. It’s a way to show your love for your family, through butter tarts.”
This summer, I had the chance to visit Wellington County’s butter tart trail and sample butter tarts throughout the region. On a rainy Saturday, I drove from downtown Toronto up to North Wellington and the various Mennonite communities in the region. My plan was to start there and work my way south towards Guelph, hitting up as many stops as I could in a day. (Here are 10 day trips from Toronto you can take right now.)
Misty Meadows Market
My first stop of the day was Misty Meadows Market in Conn. The quaint grocery store is operated by the local Mennonite community and sells fresh baked goods, including tarts, of course, but also amazing date oatmeal cookies, fresh bread and local produce. It was only noon, but Misty Meadows was already busy. I was dismayed to discover they were already sold out of my preferred pecan butter tarts. The store also offers both plain and raisin tarts, but the latter were the only ones left—and this always controversial filling was a definite no-go for me. My tip: Misty Meadows opens at 8 a.m. and it’s best to arrive early. The store is also closed on Sundays, and I’d recommend going on a weekend, not on a Saturday, like me.
Fergies Fine Foods
From Conn, I drove south to Fergies Fine Foods in Fergus, which sells pre-made frozen meals, a variety of sweet and savoury baked goods and possibly the best sausage roll I’ve ever had. Though I was here for the butter tarts, owner Miriam Foell nearly tempted me with a delicious-looking brownie—as it turns out, there’s also a brownies tour for local dessert enthusiasts and of course her shop is an integral destination. Reluctantly, I told her I was there for the butter tarts (and, yes, also a sausage roll, a curry chicken pie and a couple of locally produced apple ciders…). Fergies sells the classic pecan and raisin options, as well as a mouthwatering bacon maple flavour, which was sadly sold out. I decided to go with their specialty: a delicious bourbon pecan butter tart, which I devoured in my car. The tart was heavenly, with the rich flavour of the bourbon mellowing out the overall sweetness of the treat. My tip: come on an empty stomach—it’s not just the butter tarts at Fergies you’ll want to try. (Check out more must-try Canadian dishes—and the best places to find them.)
Belwood Country Market
From Fergus, I continued my way south to Belwood Country Market, right on the shores of Lake Belwood. This stop had a little bit of everything: a deli section, gas station snacks, fish bait and, of course, butter tarts. The market also offered a smorgasbord of flavours, including Reese’s peanut butter cups, blueberry white chocolate and raspberry coconut. After much internal debate, I chose a Skor tart. I took my treat outside, sat on a picnic table right by the water’s edge, and bit in, relishing in the sugary warmth of the fresh tart. Unsurprisingly, the butter toffee Skor went perfectly with the flakey pastry. My tip: come with friends and split the tarts so you can sample all the unique flavours on offer.
With the Grain
Finally, I drove south to Guelph to visit With the Grain, a picturesque bakery that is no-nonsense when it comes to their butter tarts: here, only the traditional plain, pecan and raisin fillings are available. Aside from the butter tarts, With the Grain also makes fresh bread, cookies and offers a rotation of cupcakes. When asked about their lack of unique flavours, Erin Wright, the owner, responds, “Why mess with perfection?” It’s hard to argue with that, especially when their pecan butter tart was just the perfect, gooey sweet treat that I needed to end my day. My tip: grab one of With the Grain’s unique loaves of bread (the cheddar garlic sourdough was really calling my name) to help soak up all that sugar.
A Perfect Day
Sugar crash aside, the adventure I had in Wellington was one of the more fun things I had done since Ontario’s most recent lockdown. I plan to go back and visit some of the stops that I didn’t get the chance to (note to self: leave earlier to beat the other tart trail followers). Plus, you can make the trip out more than once and chart a different path every time. Next time, I might try going east to west, to hit some of the more far-out stops I missed on my north to south route. (Discover the 10 Canadian road trips you need to take at least once.)
From my car, I was able to see a part of the province I rarely visit. On the drive home, with the road stretched out before me, I was reminded of my summers as a kid, sitting under a tree and licking the sticky filling off my fingers. “It just brings people joy,” says Rogers. “For a lot of people who can’t afford a big vacation, it’s a way to take a weekend away and do some day tripping and make new memories.”
Next, learn all about the surprising history of butter tarts.