Since the late 18th century, Niagara-on-the-Lake has celebrated the local tender fruit harvest.
But it wasn’t until 35 or so years ago, that the old town churches took up the cause by mounting day-long fundraising events exalting strawberries, cherries and peaches.
Today, St. Andrew’s owns strawberries in late June. St. Mark’s corners the cherry market in early July. And St. Vincent de Paul does everything peaches in mid-August.
A core staple of all three festivals is pies. Hundreds and hundreds of pies. Assembled, baked and sold by hundreds of volunteers.
Of course, the festivals offer lots of other activities to attract both residents and visitors — there are silent auctions, book sales, bake sales, jams and jelly tables, shortcake tables, bouncy castles, white elephant tables, local entertainment and on and on.
But to everyone who loves the season, it really is about pies.
Strawberries start the fruit festival parade. June’s St. Andrew’s Strawberry Festival was the 36th year the parishioner-volunteers, and helpers from outside the church, have mounted the fun-filled day.
The bright sunny first day of summer was perfect to buy fresh berries, strawberry pies, shortcake, crepes, jams and preserves. “We use 225 flats of strawberries every year,” says Lynn Hale, the festival’s communications co-ordinator. That works out to over 2,000 pounds of berries.
At St. Andrew’s, pie-making has changed over the years, Hale says. In the past, the pie-making team gathered at a local kitchen and worked together.
“Today, all our pies are made in volunteer’s homes using the fresh berries we provide and then delivered on festival day. They are wonderfully fresh, but we never know how many we’ll get!”
Hale says: “It would be fabulous if we could find a local commercial kitchen and refrigeration.”
Each of the fruit festivals is an important fundraising event that consumes the attention of most of the parishioners, for many months. “We have almost 200 volunteers, working to make this all happen,” says Julie Hunter, chair of the St. Andrew’s volunteers. “And we pull from the community, too.”
“Some years ago,” says Hunter, “we were going to cancel the festival. But the Chamber of Commerce called and said: ‘You can’t cancel, too many visitors count on it.’ So, the community has stepped up.”
Next on the calendar, cherries at St. Mark’s, on Saturday, July 6.
If St. Andrew’s pie-making is scattered among the parishioners, St. Mark’s is more like a military campaign.
Each July, in the height of the cherry season, Diane Turner buys over 1,100 pounds of cherries for the following year’s pies.
Turner, a Niagara-on-the-Lake resident for more than 20 years, took over leadership of the St. Mark’s cherry pie volunteers in 2013, after 15 years working as a team member.
“We’ve used the same recipe since we started in 1988,” says Turner. “And there are a lot of the same people doing it.”
And the pie-making routine has also remained the same.
Through the winter, the cherries are kept in local cold storage, waiting for the signal to start the month-long pie assembly process in the church hall at St. Mark’s.
“We can count on 20 to 25 people for each of the four pie-making sessions every Monday morning in April,” says Turner. “We repeat the process every week.”
Like a well-oiled machine, the process starts the preceding week. Teams of volunteers bring the now-frozen berries to Addison Hall. Another team makes the filling according to the time-honoured recipe. On Monday morning, the team makes the pastry, and the assembly team puts together the pies and returns them to cold storage, waiting for baking just before the festival.
By the numbers: 104 11-pound pails of cherries, 210 pounds of flour, 260 boxes of lard and 80 pounds of sugar.
This year, the St. Mark’s team has made 749 pies for sale, both baked and frozen — a new record.
But they won’t last long.
“People really want their cherry pie,” says Turner. “They are standing in line at 7 o’clock in the morning and we don’t open until 9. Then they literally run all the way to the pie booth.” Everything sells out by 11 a.m. – or sooner.
Turner describes the wonderful sense of comaraderie on the pie team: “You really get to know everyone. If you are a new parishioner, it’s the best way to get into the church.”
Terry Choules, head of the St. Vincent de Paul Peach Festival, says the same thing about his volunteer team. “It is a wonderful way to meet people and get to know our community.”
Recent arrivals to Niagara, Choules and his wife Sharyn, were looking for a way to get to know people. They joined the St. Vincent de Paul congregation and immediately became immersed in the Peach Festival, taking over the reins this year.
The final tenderfruit festival of the season takes place on Sunday, Aug. 11, and engages some 70 volunteers. This year they expect to sell 600 pies, both whole and by the piece.
This is the 32nd annual Peach Festival. And Choules proudly counts out the peach treats on his fingers: peach pies, peach sundaes, peach crepes, fresh peaches. “Anything peach-related, we’ve got it.”
Choules admits it is increasingly challenging for his aging fellow parishioners to make the festival happen. Indeed, for the last couple of years, they have purchased all their peach pies from a local bakery.
“We found it was just too much to peel all the peaches and make and cook the pies, all in the week leading up to the festival,” says Choules. “It just wore us out.
“We still use local peaches. And our visitors really seem to love the pies.”
Everyone loves all the pies, regardless of which oven they come out of.
Over just a few hours, on three warm summer weekends, the three churches together sell more than 1,600 fruit pies. And bring a lot of joy to tens of thousands of residents and visitors alike.
Cherry Pie Recipe
St. Mark’s Anglican Church has used this recipe for over 30 years. Try it yourself or just attend the Cherry Festival on July 6.
1-3/4 cups (425 mL) flour
3/4 tsp (3 mL) salt
3/4 cup (175 mL) Tenderflake lard
4-5 tbsp to 5 (60-70 mL) ice water
6 cups (1.5 L) pitted sour cherries (fresh, frozen and thawed or canned and drained)
3/4 cup (175 mL) sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/8 tsp (.5 mL) ground allspice
1/8 tsp (.5 mL) cinnamon
4 tbsp (60 mL) quick cooking tapioca
2 tbsp (30 mL) diced, cold unsalted butter
Mix together flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut in lard with a pastry cutter or gently with finger tips until mixture resembles coarse oatmeal. Gradually add enough water to make dough cling together. Gather into a ball and divide in half. Shape each ball into a flattened round on a lightly floured surface. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C).
Toss fruit with sugar, lemon zest, juice, spices and tapioca. Let stand 15 minutes.
Roll out first round of pastry on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin until slightly larger than an upside down 9-inch (23 cm) pie plate. Transfer into pie plate. Fill with cherry mixture and dot with diced butter. Trim edge of pastry even with pie plate.
Roll out remaining pastry slightly larger than pie and place over cherries. Fold edge of top crust underneath bottom crust; seal and crimp edge with floured fork or fingers. Cut steam vents on top. Place pie on a baking sheet.
Bake in a preheated oven for 20-25 minutes. Reduce heat to 350°F (180°C) and continue to bake until juices bubble and crust is golden, about 30-35 minutes longer. Allow pie to rest 1 hour to allow juices to set. Dust with icing sugar before serving.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2.5 hours
Total Time: 2 hours 45 minutes