There isn’t much left to identify the Northcote area of Renfrew County, originally made famous by author, broadcaster and storyteller Mary Cook.
Cook grew up there in the 1930s and built a massive audience with her cheery reminiscences and down-home tales of adventure on the farm. By all accounts, Northcote, just outside of Renfrew, was once a vibrant farming community with all the basic services and home to several tight-knit families. Cook even guided crowded bus tours to Northcote to see first-hand some of the locations described in her books.
Today, though, there is little that remains of the community. “We haven’t been able to find any evidence that it still exists,” says the Roadside Thoughts Gazetteer, an online encyclopedia of communities and places.
Fortunately, another entrepreneur is now trying to put Northcote back on the map. Andi Marcus, who identifies as a “gourmetologist,” certainly doesn’t come from a farm, but instead is a true city girl and former cosmetics exec who grew up in Europe. Marcus once pitched her company, Mistura Beauty Solutions, to CBC’s Dragon’s Den and is a former OBJ Forty Under 40 recipient.
Her current venture is trying to make an impact as sizable as Mary Cook’s from what was once a battered stone farmhouse on Northcote Rink Road. Marcus has already made her getaway a destination for many people and wants to increase the draw.
And Marcus isn’t just telling tales. She’s offering “farm fresh and fancy” dining and overnight stay experiences under the banner The Babbling Gourmet. Why babbling, she’s asked? Pretty simple, she says: “I tend to talk a lot.” She then launches into a long description of her dinner parties, sleepovers and private chef services.
In fact, Marcus has trademarked a new concept she calls DineOver, which takes the bed and breakfast concept and reverses it. Under the concept, overnight stays are an extension of lavish dinners that bring in food lovers and oenophiles (wine connoisseurs, for the rest of us) from far and wide for all-inclusive stays. Marcus says her food selections take “farm-to-table gastronomy to the next level.”
She feels the concept will soon become a growing trend. “I see the overnight stay, or DineOver as I have affectionately named it, as an extension of the dinner parties we host here … not the main objective,” she says.
The move six years ago from Ottawa’s posh Rockcliffe neighbourhood to the Briscoe farm in Northcote was predominantly for financial reasons, Marcus explains. After experiencing the ups and downs of running Mistura, she sold the business to a Kingston-based company. It became the catalyst for a “lifelong dream come true.” Prior to the move, rampant big business stress had begun to take a toll on her mental and physical health.
She heard through contacts that Bob Briscoe planned to demolish a 3,000-square-foot house he no longer had use for that sat on 350 acres of cropland he had plenty of use for. It’s not uncommon for farmers to remove empty homes when they expand their land holdings.
Marcus went to see the heritage stone gem and cut a handshake deal to transform the house for guests in return for paying the hydro, renovations and upkeep. Briscoe installed a new furnace and Marcus estimates she invested $100,000 to inject a “rustically elegant vibe.”
Meal ingredients are sourced locally with the establishment’s kitchen garden providing organic vegetables throughout the summer. Cost of an overnighter in one of three guest suites, including multi-course dinner and breakfast, is $150 per person. Weekly rates can be arranged.
Now comfortably ensconced in their new gig, Marcus and husband Hayden have become active locally, sitting on the board of the community centre and participating in the Renfrew Victoria Hospital fundraising drive. To accommodate more diners, they are renovating to create a 12- to 16-seat bistro and commercial kitchen at the farm. The Babbling Gourmet also offers food stations, buffets and cocktail party catering for up to 100 guests, both on- and off-site.
And while Mary Cook hasn’t visited and guests don’t read aloud from her books about Northcote while reclining in the large living rooms, it could happen someday!
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