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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Taylor Creek Park

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There is little of Taylor Creek Park on the Pan Am Path that comprises so much of the Toronto section of the Trans Canada Trail. The map encourages you to leave the Lower Don Trail by walking under the Don Valley Parkway, past a curious art installation of half submerged canoes, enter the park then almost immediately leave it by climbing the Alden steps into the Parkview neighbourhood of East York.

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Bypassing Taylor Creek Park is a mistake because it is the first place on the Trans Canada trail east of Yonge Street where it feels as though you have left the city behind and you are surrounded by nothing but trees and rushing water.

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The land along Taylor-Massey creek used to belong to some of Toronto’s most prominent families. The Taylor family, which arrived in Upper Canada from Staffordshire, England in 1821 acquired the land closer to Lower Don Trail and founded the the Don Valley Brick Works and Todmorden mill along the Don. John Taylor achieved the first major breakthrough in paper-making in 1700 years when he substituted wood pulp for rags as the raw material, winning a £1000 reward.

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On the other side of the O’Connor Bridge, named for the founder of Laura Secord Chocolates, is the site of the Massey family estate. The Masseys immigrated to Upper Canada from Vermont in the first decade of the nineteenth century, part of a wave of “late loyalist” settlers who followed the promise of free land to British North America. In 1847, Daniel Massey, a blacksmith, opened a farm equipment workshop and his company eventually developed into Massey-Ferguson, a multinational producer of agricultural implements. The family founded Massey Hall in 1894, one of the most significant cultural venues in downtown Toronto. The future King George V and Queen Mary visited Massey Hall with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1901 and musicians and world leaders from Gordon Lightfoot to the Dalai Lama have taken the stage since then.

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It’s the beginning of December but it feels more like March with mud on the paths and water rushing over the lower section of the trail that passes along Taylor-Massey Creek through the park. (There are signs reminding pedestrians, joggers and cyclists to quite literally take the high road).

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Taylor Creek park is popular with dog walkers. Even on fall evenings when the park is lit by the windows of far off apartment towers, there are dogs and their owners out for a stroll. Only on overcast weekday afternoons is the park nearly deserted, perfect for anyone seeking a solitude in a busy city.

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The path through Taylor Creek Park leads to Victoria Park station, near a recently revitalized wetland, and you may be tempted to get on the subway and go east a few stops to rejoin us at Highland Creek, the next scenic part of the trail. I am going to make a compelling argument for why we should retrace the path to the Alden steps and walk through residential and industrial neighbourhoods of East York as the dotted line on the Trans Canada trail map instructs. You see, I have been reliably informed by The Torontoist that there is a giant Peek Frean Cookie outlet store selling equally giant bags of discount cookies within steps of the Pan Am Path…

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Getting There By Public Transit: Subway to Victoria Park Station

Further Reading: Toronto’s Ravines and Urban Forests: Their natural heritage and local history by John Ramsay-Brown

Next: Bermondsey and the Cookie Factory

The Prince Edward Viaduct

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“The bridge goes up in a dream. It will link the east end with the centre of the city. It will carry traffic, water and electricity across the Don Valley. It will carry trains that have not even been invented yet.

Night and day. Fall light. Snow light. They are always working – horses and wagons and men arriving for work on the Danforth side at the far end of the valley.

There are over 4,000 photographs from various angles of the bridge in its time lapse evolution. The piers sink into the bedrock fifty feet below the surface through clay and shale and quicksand – 45,000 cubic yards are excavated. The network of scaffolding stretches up.

Men in a maze of scattered planks climb deep into the shattered light of blond wood. A man is an extension of hammer, drill, flame. Drill smoke in his hair. A cap falls into the valley, gloves are buried in stone dust.

The new men arrive, “the electricals,” laying grids of wire across the five arches, carrying the exotic three-bowl lights, and on October 18, 1918 it is completed. Lounging in mid-air.

The bridge. The bridge. Christened “Prince Edward.” The Bloor Street Viaduct.” — Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion

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Take a few steps backward on the Lower Don Trail and look up at the Prince Edward Viaduct. It’s a grey afternoon in late November with snow flurries and there are few sounds other than the rattle of subway trains passing under the bridge. The Bloor-Danforth subway line did not open until 1966 but the design for the bridge anticipated future trains. A bridge for both road traffic and a possible subway line drove up the cost to $2.5 million (35.5 million in 2015 Canadian dollars). Torontonians objected to this money being spent during wartime for a bridge to carry trains that had not yet been invented to the region east of the Don Valley where few people lived.

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The controversial bridge received a much needed royal seal of approval when it was named after Prince Edward, the future King Edward VIII. Edward is better known today for his abdication in 1936 to marry the twice divorced American Wallis Simpson but during the First World War, he was one of the most popular members of the royal family, admired in Canada for visiting Canadian troops on the Western front.

“This ideal, this mold for his outward man, was no one less than Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the Prince of Wales. The papers were full of the Prince at that time. He was the great ambassador of the Commonwealth but he also had the common touch. . .” — Robertson Davies, Fifth Business

In 1919, Prince Edward visited Toronto as part of a two month cross country tour of Canada. There are many similarities between the 1919 tour and the 2011 Canadian visit by William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Like William and Kate, Edward was praised for modernizing the royal family and his fashions were widely imitated. (In True Style: The History and Principles of Classic Menswear, G. Bruce Boyer  credits the future Edward VIII with persuading a generation of young men to trade in their tailcoats for shorter dinner jackets). Edward made the cover of Vogue magazine and his tour was one of the first Canadian national events to be captured on film.

The Lower Don Trail continues north-east from the Viaduct. Across the Don Valley parkway, the chimney of the restored paper mill at Todmorden Mills (now a heritage site) is just visible, marking the border between the old city of Toronto and the former borough of East York. The Prince Edward Viaduct brought new residents to the east of the city, first working class English immigrants then a thriving Greektown along the Danforth. Residents living east of the Don Valley complained they were not receiving the same level of municipal services. In 1924, East York became a township then a borough in 1967 before amalgamating into the “megacity” of Toronto in 1998.

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Todmorden Mills and the former Don Valley Brickworks, visible across the river as we walk along the Lower Don Trail, were both owned by the Taylor family. We’ll visit the lands once owned by the Taylors, now Taylor Creek Park, in the next walk.

Getting there by public transit: Subway to Broadview 

Further Reading:

In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

King Edward VIII by Philip Ziegler

Next: Taylor Creek Park