[Life Au Lait]

A Year In The County with Chris Braney

Cidermaker, councillor, musician, historian, builder of walls and eternal jokester Chris Braney takes Lonelle on a year-round adventure on his Hillier farm.

Chris Braney’s most hapless chicken is bicycling her feet in the air as I raise her dramatically into the rays of the glorious autumn sunset. In my best Carmen Twillie voice I belt out the famous introduction to the new lion prince from that 1990s Disney classic. Chris is laughing at me, but this is the first chicken I’ve ever picked up and I want to mark the occasion with some pomp. For a moment, she’s framed magically against the orange sky, above the rows of vines, heavy with ripe fruit, then her patience for my amateur dramatics ends and she flaps her wings fiercely. Cured of the desire to connect with farm fowl, I release her and she flees the scene, returning to the other Rhode Island Reds in her feathery clique.

It’s September in the County and Chris’s Cold Creek Farm is an illustrated children’s storybook come to life. Easily one of the most beautiful properties in the County, the oh-so-softly rolling land is accented with long, low dry-stacked stone walls, a grand and historic parsonagecum- family home and an authentically appointed barn that all serve as the focus of the property. Further afield, a young orchard supports the farm’s celebrated cider, an established vineyard lends fruit to some of the County’s best wine, and a fledgling hobby farm houses the sweetest animals that rush to greet their visitors.

“I wanted to create a time capsule of a small historic farm with character,” Chris tells me. “I’ve always served on cultural heritage and historical committees, and Prince Edward County is the rural renaissance of Ontario; it’s steeped with the old farms and period buildings I’m drawn to.” With the arrival of fall, the Braneys and I have officially shared twenty-six seasons of beautiful occasions and celebrations on their farm, but we first met at Enid Grace’s dinner table in her old café. Seated beside me, Chris pointed at my dark nail polish asking, “Is that OPI’s ‘Lincoln Park After Dark’?” Minutes later, we were belting out Frank Sinatra and giggling hysterically at his mischievous storytelling. He told me several times that he had a photographic memory and over the many exquisite courses, we bonded. More than once I was certain that Enid regretted her seating plan.

It was early 2007 when Chris, Silvia and their two young daughters, Madeline and Erin, officially landed on County soil. “It was The Toronto Hunt’s wine legend Marcel Bregstein who introduced me to wine in my early twenties and pointed me in the direction of the perfect Burgundian soils and terroir in Hillier,” Chris says, as we sip his 2022 Cuvée Madeline, a deep golden-yellow farm cider that drinks like a wine. It’s rich, full-bodied and rustic, with light fruit and floral notes and maybe a bit of spice at the end. We’re sitting on sofas in the beautiful old barn. Steely-blue swallows with their distinct tails, swoop in via the big front doors and out again through the wide window that frames Cold Creek’s apple trees in the distance. “We came intending to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” Chris says gesturing towards the acres of healthy vines outside, used for Closson Chase Winery’s annual Cold Creek Vineyards release. “Then, on a trip to County Mayo in Ireland to see where my family originated, I experienced the fabulous ciders made in Ireland, England and France.” I look at Chris; the corners of his mouth are turned way up. “On the way home, Silvia looked at me and said ‘Chris, I know that look – what are you thinking?’” I laugh, knowing that these are the ideas that feed the great Braney stories. “I’ve always trusted my gut and I knew at that moment that my destiny was to create these ciders at the farm using apples that thrive along the north shore of Lake Ontario.”

In fact, there were many signposts pointing towards this destiny. Chris grew up on a small orchard and worked at Cameron Watson’s famous Highland Creek orchard and ultimately moved to a region that is historically known for its apples – some varieties of which were established in the 18th century. “I have always been fascinated with apples,” he confesses. “My mom and aunt fondly remember my first Hallowe’en, when I was three. I dumped my candy haul, more excited to find the apple in my bag – I pronounced it yapple.”

WINTER | Winter on Cold Creek Farm is beautiful. “In early November I work on the cider fermentation, prepare the animals for the winter months and winterize the farm equipment,” Chris recounts. “December is spent preparing for our Victorian Christmas dinner and decorating the Parsonage while playing Christmas music and watching The Little Drummer Boy and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Ah, the bookends of Chris’s personality, I think. “The end of December brings the NFL playoffs and the hope that my Buffalo Bills finally win a Super Bowl,” Chris says. I want to be supportive, but talking about sports isn’t my thing, so I relate a Sean Connery joke I’ve told him a hundred times before about an early morning tennis audition and we giggle like children and move on.

SPRING | After the new vintage cider is bottled and the spring lambs are delivered, Chris can be found napping in the den with his three Kunekune pigs – Piper, Peppa, and Persephone. “They’re funny little girls who snore away in the new bedding straw,” he says. “It’s Charlotte’s Web here at the farm, where the animals live out a full and enriching life,” he goes on, describing their symbiotic relationship. “Food waste is rare at the farm – everything goes to the pigs, Nester the donkey, Millie the Boer goat, Charlotte the sheep – who lived in the house as a lamb – and the fourteen chickens made up of eight Rhode Island Reds and six Blue Marans.” The utter cuteness of this picturesque existence makes me guiltily reflect on my earlier Lion King ritual, and I pray that it hasn’t negatively impacted the quality of that chicken’s paradisal life. “Early May brings the arrival of my barn swallow families,” Chris continues happily “who come back year after year from their long flights from South Texas and Mexico to nest under the dark cool space underneath my 1880s barn.”

SUMMER | After fifteen summers, the Braneys’ end-of- summer barn party and corn roast is a County institution. “Family, close friends and neighbours gather for music and fresh, roasted County corn. Winemakers bring their latest vintages to share with the close-knit community attendees,” Chris says. “Music has always been a constant in my life and daily routine. Classic jazz, yacht rock and country rock – I’ve been fronting bands as a singer-guitarist since my teens and now some great musicians and I practise in the barn every Monday at sunset and then play an epic gig at our barn dance. It’s such a high to live the rock ’n’ roll dream with these folks once a year.”

Chris parties as hard as he works, and as Cold Creek Cider enters its fourth season, he’s already developed a reputation as a maker of note. “I’m passionate about producing old world ciders aged in French oak barrels, using the apples that thrive in the County – Northern Spy, Cortland, Delicious, Empire and Spartan,” he says. “It’s important to me that my ciders provide a sense of place and an experience.”

It’s a hot day today and we’ve sheltered in the old stone cellar. The door is wide open to let in the breeze and the late afternoon sun throws a wide shaft of bright light across the floor, hiding the rows of barrels bedded farther in from our unadjusted eyes. Chris lights one of the candelabra sconces on the wall and we sneak a first taste of the upcoming fall cider. The sounds of hundreds of barn swallows chitter-chatter away in the adjacent room. “‘All Hallows’ Eve’ is a pumpkin cider aged in a Kentucky bourbon barrel purchased from the County Cooperage in Cherry Valley,” Chris says, freeing the juice from the thief into my glass. “It’s being released as a special fall reserve.” Already it’s delicious, with notes of pumpkin spice, bourbon, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

“I wanted to create a time capsule of a small historic farm with character.” CHRIS BRANEY

FALL | The cooler weather provides the context for all sorts of meaningful work. “The miles of stone walls throughout Ireland, England and France are rural artforms,” Chris says when I note the undulating structures around the farm. “My family built them for hundreds of years and when I built my first wall, I was in a trance – it was in my DNA. I’ve built other dry stone projects around the farm like my pizza oven and a couple of mystical cairns.” He laughs, adding, “The old Celtic pagan roots come out when I have a fall bonfire with friends near my cairns – something about the light and energy emanating from the stone – like Claire in Outlander.” I laugh and shake my head. Chris is the master of pop references. He’s also the king of Hallowe’en – his favourite day of the year. From sharing ghost tales and stories of unusual happenings at the Parsonage, to toasting with his pumpkin cider and showing off his master pumpkin-carving skills and pyrotechnical prowess around the bonfire – this is his element.

“Harvest brings about so many culinary experiences,” Chris details. “The light is incredible from sunrise to sunset with dry, mosquito-free walks to take in the colours of the landscape. We have Thanksgiving dinner with our large family, celebrate Wellington Pumpkin Fest … and it’s the season of football.” A high school athlete, Chris can’t resist the footnote. He and Silvia were teen sweethearts and married nine years later. Chris was drawn to community service and was elected in his early twenties as a Trustee with the Scarborough Board of Education, then served with the Durham District School Board. When Silvia retired, he decided to run for Council in Hillier and was thrilled to be elected – it was a chance to bring another element of his polymathy home and years of political experience to the community he deeply cared about.

Every year in the County brings unexpected challenges and delights – but traditions are the touchstones of our culture. “The calming effects; seasonal changes; the smells of the cows next door; fresh cut grass; no traffic; listening to my animals; being able to see the stars and the moon; seeing crops instead of big city buildings; relaxing by a bonfire at sundown; community pride; farm-to-fork dinners with friends – these are our years in the County,” Chris says. “Though, it’s always a sad time when the swallows leave to migrate south for the winter.” He looks wistfully at the sailing birds overhead.

“But they always come back,” I remind him, smiling.

“They do,” he says.

Story by:
Lonelle Selbo

Photography by:
Tara McMullen

[Fall 2023 departments]