Story by Meghan Sheffield
Photography by Jeannette Breward
Just about everything at South Pond Farms — the barn; the sweet, red goathouse; the bunkie where bridal parties spend the wedding day — hits that perfect note between sophistication and rough-hewn; elegant and effortless. The farm is on 70 acres just about an hour outside of Toronto. The century and a half-old farm house, and lovingly restored barn sit atop a hillcrest. The view is incredible — hills and forest and farm as far as the eye can see, and a sky that goes on forever.
“My vision is to create a real experience of food, based in agriculture,” says Danielle French, the owner and creative force behind South Pond Farms.
Vision is no small part of the South Pond story. Ten years ago, on a drive looking for country property, the kind she remembered connecting to in her childhood, Danielle stumbled upon the farm. Though it was in total disrepair, she saw the spark of what it could become.
Perhaps hard work is a necessary companion to vision. There are not many people, who having reached the end of a long marriage, with four young daughters in tow, would take on a year-long farm restoration in a new community. And it’s no ordinary person who is able to find her way from that place to the one Danielle finds herself in — presiding over an award-winning supper club series, a homegrown line of culinary products, a booming wedding and event business, and even the star of a reality TV show.
In spite of the list of achievements, when Danielle welcomed us onto the farm earlier this winter, on a cool, sunny day, we found a down-to-earth and hospitable host. The wood-burning oven was already warming the restored farmhouse kitchen, and Danielle almost immediately set to work on focaccia, a go-to recipe in her “cooking with wood” and bread-baking workshops, while answering questions and describing the journey that lead her to be making focaccia on this hilltop.
Danielle grew up in Vermont, as small-scale and organic farming was just beginning to emerge. Her father grew a garden and had fruit trees, and her mother cooked, and though their lives didn’t revolve around it the way a farmer’s would, the family lived with connection to their food — and sharing it.
“When you’re a kid, those things are like chores — picking blueberries and raspberries,” Danielle remembers. “But my parents always entertained, and we had people over. There was always someone at the house.”
The other half of Danielle’s education as a foodie began in her paternal grandparents’ kitchen in Michigan. Her grandparents had moved to the country in midlife, and lived a simple life that was focused on growing, preserving and making their own food. That little kitchen with it’s wood-fired oven are on display, in a framed photo in Danielle’s own kitchen.
“My grandma always cooked with fire. She baked bread everyday and she never had an electric oven. She said it tasted better, and it does, for sure,” Danielle says, bending over the retro wood-fired oven in her own kitchen to check on the focaccia. It was those childhood memories, in the kitchen with her mother and her grandmother, that came back to her, years later, when she had children of her own. The pull toward a simpler life, the nudge of a marriage coming to an end — it all lead to what Danielle calls “the leap.”
“I wanted to make a change, give the girls that feeling. I wanted them to have the same experiences that I did, and that wasn’t happening,” she says. “There was also the midlife stage feeling like ‘If I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it.’ And the girls were young enough to want to come and try it, versus them being too young and me not having the courage. We did it together.”
Danielle’s four daughters were her inspiration for creating South Pond, and now, nearly grown, are an integral part of happenings at South Pond. And there is always something happening at South Pond Farms. Workshops and full moon dinners and corporate events and weddings all year round, bringing nearly 4000 people up the long drive in 2016 alone.
Just past the midway point in her five-year business plan, South Pond is in a bit of a sweet spot — many big projects have been completed, a reality TV show about the farm and Danielle has been shot, and word is getting out; but there’s still room for growth and new ideas.
Currently, Danielle is wondering how to balance expanding the gardens to extend their capacity towards self-sufficiency beyond the herbs, garlic, and flowers they now rely on, while continuing to support neighbouring farms — and avoiding burnout. For now, a new chef, sustainable garden expansion year by year, and a focus on the unique challenges of environmental sustainability in large-scale commercial food production keep things moving forward.
As our visit was winding down, Danielle surprised us by setting the table and serving lunch. A simple but well-seasoned butternut soup, a seasonally-attuned salad, and still-warm focaccia, fresh from the wood-fired oven in the kitchen corner. Like so much of what goes on at South Pond, the meal was simple but good quality, rooted right there on the farm, inspired by the food of her ancestors, and hit all the right notes.