Bermondsey and the Cookie Factory

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The gingerbread dough needs to return to room temperature before I can sprinkle the rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough in sections until it’s only a quarter inch thick, ready for cookie cutter that will it turn it into a troop of gingerbread men, sent into the oven by the dozen. I made the dough on Sunday, slowly melting butter into a pot then adding the sugar and molasses, stirring until the sweetness dissolved into a gooey brown paste.

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The dry ingredients went into the silver bowl of the stand up mixer: flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, whisked together and shaped into a well to receive the lukewarm mixture of butter, sugar and molasses. I beat everything together with the mixer into a thick brown dough. The dough came out of the bowl as a heavy round ball to be kneaded on the counter then kept in the fridge to allow the spices to fully settle in. Leaving the dough to slowly lose its chill on the counter, I walk the next segment of the trail, up Bermondsey road in East York, which passes very close to the Peek Frean cookie factory and outlet store.

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Until James Peek and his nephew-in-law, George Hender Frean established their business, Peek, Frean & Co. Ltd, in 1857, most cookies were homemade in small batches like my gingerbread men. The most common way to create a cookie base, creaming together softened butter and sugar, was perfected in the eighteenth century and required a wooden spoon and a strong arm before the invention of electric mixers for home kitchens in 1919.

Peek Frean pioneered the production of mass produced cookies that remained dry, fresh and edible after weeks or months in transit or on the shelf. They traveled across the British Empire from Australia to India to Canada  and supplied French soldiers fighting the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Bermondsey, in south London, where the Peek Frean factory was located became known as “biscuit town.” (The word cookie came to what is now the United States and Canada via the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam – New York – who baked small cakes called koekjes).  The public was so fascinated by the mass production of cookies that the Peek Frean factory became the subject of one of the first documentary films, A Visit to A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.’s Biscuit Works (1906).

In 1949, Peek Frean established its Canadian cookie factory on the appropriately named Bermondsey road in East York. The factory was at the centre of a newly developed industrial neighbourhood. Before the Second World War, most goods traveled to market by train or ship, which explains the lakefront location of the St. Lawrence Market and the Distillery District, which we visited on previous walks. By the late 1940s, trucks were assuming the role of trains and factories and warehouses were built in what had once been rural areas outside the city. The apple orchards of East York were replaced by industrial buildings as well as new residential neighbourhoods for the families of returning veterans.

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Aside from the occasional sign reminding us that we are on the Pan Am Path, there is little evidence of a trail near the cookie factory between Taylor Creek Park and the Gatineau Hydro Corridor. There is a sidewalk and a clearly marked bike lane but few pedestrians or cyclists and the scenery is just out of view. As you walk out of the Parkview neighbourhood along Northline road past industrial warehouses (and a church that looks like an industrial warehouse) take a peek through the dense curtain of trees on your left for a last view of the Don Valley ravine that we are leaving behind.

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Once you reach the corner of Northline and Bermondsey, the cookies are easy to find. All you have to do is follow the smell of a freshly opened box of jam centered Fruit Cremes to the factory (now run by Mondelez International) and the outlet store across the road. After the overpowering aroma, my visit to the cookie outlet store is almost anticlimactic. I have been baking cookies all week and I have little need for more of them. The pair of shoppers calling out trans fat amounts mournfully as though they are reading failing grades off a report card, “40 percent…40 percent here as well,” is not making the experience any more appetizing.

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Then, I see the giant boxes of Toblerone bars, the only display policed by an intimidating looking security guard. I reach for a giant box, imagining myself attaching a Toblerone bar to every Christmas present, putting out platters of Toblerone bars for guests and generally treating the next month as one long old school Swiss Chalet festive special. As soon as I pick up a box, the security guard scowls and a watching cashier gently explains, “You’re not allowed to buy that many Toblerone bars, dear, only the small boxes are for sale and there’s a limit…” I settle for a small box of Toblerones, a box of fruit cremes and a club pack of triscuit crackers then go home to finish making my gingerbread cookies.

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There’s a Tim Hortons at the corner of Eglinton and Bermondsey. We’ll start the next walk from there and explore the linear park along the Gatineau Hydro Corridor.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to Eglinton then the 34 bus eastbound to Bermondsey road.

Further Reading: The Edible City: Toronto’s Food from Farm to Fork edited by Alana Wilcox and Christina Palassio

Next: The Gatineau Hydro Corridor

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