Toronto Life BY KATE DINGWALL | AUGUST 10, 2022

FOOD & DRINK

“We spend winters in Brazil and summers in Prince Edward County”: How a chance encounter led one couple to open farm-to-table dining destinations in both hemispheres.


https://torontolife.com/food/we-spend-winters-in-brazil-and-summers-in-prince-edward-county-how-a-chance-encounter-led-one-couple-to-open-farm-to-table-dining-destinations-in-both-hemispheres/




Zach Littlejohn was on his way up the Toronto hospitality ladder with stints working in some of the city’s top bars and restaurants and a sommelier certification under his belt. But he decided to take a hiatus from that life in 2014 and ended up embarking on the Camino de Santiago, the legendary pilgrimage through Spain. But, before he could take his first step, he met Luhana, a fellow traveller, and both of their lives changed forever. Invigorated and inspired by their conquest of the trail, Zach and Luhana returned to Toronto, got married and decided that a more agricultural lifestyle suited them. In 2017, they started Littlejohn Farm in PEC, but they didn’t stop there: in 2021, they also opened a business in Brazil, where Luhana is from. Here’s how a chance encounter led to a life of transnationalism for the Littlejohns and their growing family.


Zach Littlejohn: I was raised on a 25-acre farm in Stouffville. My dad was a veterinarian, so I grew up surrounded by animals. We also had a hobby farm with meat chickens, laying hens, beef cattle and dairy goats. It was a fairly sustainable household, and I grew up working the land.

With a childhood like that, becoming a chef was almost a natural next step. I started working in kitchens at a young age, and eventually did my culinary training at Vancouver Community College—that city was the home base for my food and wine knowledge. At the same time, I started studying wine and would later become a sommelier.


In 2010, I moved to Toronto. I worked at Bar Chef and La Société, then took a break in 2012 to go to New Zealand and work on an organic farm. The international program was called Willing Workers on Organic Farms, and it truly changed the way I understood sustainability and food production. Also, it was winter in Canada, and I wanted to get into the sunshine.


Luhana Littlejohn: I’m originally from Salvador, Brazil. I grew up living both in the city centre and at my parent’s citrus farm in the countryside.


In 2009, I moved to Belgium to work with an organization called Service Civil International. A year later, I received a scholarship to do my master’s in microfinance at the Solvay Brussels School Economics and Management at Université Libre de Bruxelles. I did my final research thesis in Beijing, China. In 2014, as a gift to myself for finishing my masters, I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago.

I was going by myself. I’m adventurous, and walking the pilgrimage trail is supposed to be incredible—a real mind, body and soul experience.


New couple Zach and Luhana on the Camino


Zach: I had finished studying wine, and I wanted to visit some European regions. I was looking for an experience that was culturally rich and reasonably priced. I had read about the Camino, and it sounded like it fit the bill. I headed to Bayonne, a small town in the South of France, but arrived late in the evening. I planned to catch the first train the next morning to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Thousands of people arrive every year at this small town in the French Pyrenees to start their journey on the Camino de Santiago.

It was too late to get a hostel room. My only option was to hang out at the train station until dawn. So I did. At 4 a.m., a bus pulled up and one person got off—Luhana. I saw her scallop shell, which is how Camino pilgrims identify themselves. We started talking.


Luhana: It was like we were meant to meet. I arrived at the train station and sat down at the stairs. I pulled out my Moleskine notebook and wrote that I was “ready to see what the Camino had to show me.”

That’s when Zach came to say hi. The moment he shook my hand, I felt butterflies and that something was about to happen. There was a magic energy there. We started walking together. Usually, the Camino is a very quiet experience. But we couldn’t stop talking.

About 15 days in, around the middle of the trail, we were dating. It was crazy. I lived in Belgium; he lived in Toronto. We had no clue if a relationship would ever work, but we gave it a shot.

Just some of the farm’s prolific produce Courtesy of Littlejohn Farm


Zach: I had planned on flying to Southeast Asia to ride out the Canadian winter after the Camino. But when Luhana asked me to come to Brazil instead, I said yes.


I was immediately enamoured. Most people think of Brazil as being nothing but beautiful beaches. But there are incredible farms and lush biodiversity throughout the regions.

I think the Camino sparked something in me. Walking through all the different little regions in Spain, I was really intrigued by the idea of agro-tourism. Every town had tiny B&Bs with chickens in the yard and gorgeous outdoor gardens. In one town, the focus is on red peppers—when it’s pepper season, the entire town comes out to char, roast and can the peppers. There’s a real community mentality around agriculture. After spending time in rural Brazil, I was stuck on the idea: How could we set up something like this in Ontario?


Four months later, Luhana landed an internship in Toronto, and later she was working in condo marketing. At the time, we were living in the east end, and I was working at the Only Cafe, a craft beer bar. It’s a nice little community with great people, but it was late-night bar life. I had been doing it for years and was looking for a different, more wholesome lifestyle. Working in bars and restaurants, you’re going home when the sun comes up. It’s a lot.


And, as our relationship progressed, we knew we wanted to be able to raise a family somewhere outside Toronto, away from the city. We wanted to raise our kids somewhere with the kinds of values, morals and activities that we grew up with. The daily routine of farm life and the way agriculture brings a community together was pretty significant to our upbringings.

But we couldn’t just move to the country. We needed to be able to create a life for ourselves. We needed to make a living.

Zach with some of Littlejohn Farm’s porky pigs Courtesy of Littlejohn FarmAnd some fine-feathered friends Courtesy of Littlejohn Farm


Luhana: We both wanted to operate an Agriculture Tourism Destination, a sustainability project that would teach people where their food comes from. We really wanted some sort of learning aspect to it. Basically, we wanted to create experiences—a way for people to connect their food directly with the land. We wanted to welcome like-minded people, business groups, groups of friends, families—anyone interested in having a completely new experience outside of the city.


Zach: We spent a lot of time browsing online real estate postings in Prince Edward County. We needed to find a property with topsoil because we wanted to grow gardens. We found old soil surveys of the area and picked out a few microcosms of the county that were perfect for growing. In February of 2017, we found something. It didn’t look perfect online, but we drove out to Picton to see it and had this gut feeling. It was going to be a lot of work, but we saw the potential. By June, we made the move.

As part of the experience at Littlejohn, guests help to make their own mealsWho doesn’t love a branded tote?


Littlejohn Farm technically started as a B&B. The property was previously used as a group home for people with disabilities, so it was set up with individual rooms. We flipped some of the rooms and spent the first year renting it out to tourists. Then we realized that we needed to offer amenities, so we got a municipal limousine licence and started running wine tours. Workshops followed: sourdough bread, then pickling and preserving, charcuterie and cheese making.


Luhana: Now, we operate full experiential tours for anyone who wants to explore what our land has to offer, be it corporate team building, regular tourists or small weddings. We focus on hands-on experiences, giving guests knowledge they can take away. Every single guest gets a lesson plan, a Littlejohn Farm experience booklet, apron and tote bag. Guests participate in the process of creating their own meal that they will later get to eat.


The people pictured here had a hand in making whatever they’re enjoying in this photo

The meals depend on what’s growing at the moment—the season dictates what ends up on the plate. In the spring, we typically have lots of leafy greens, fresh herbs, early beets, carrots and radishes. We love to showcase the beauty of individual vegetables using classic European cooking techniques. For example, different beet varieties individually prepared and paired with fresh cheese, lemon balm, wildflower honey and lavender shortbread. When it’s squash season, we’ll chop them off the vine as a group, fry them and serve them with crispy pickerel and stone-ground polenta. We also love fresh vine fruits with poached mackerel and seaweed pesto. We try to grow foods that I grew up eating in Brazil—sweet potatoes, biquinho peppers and okra. We only have three and a half acres, but we plant smart and we’re able to grow and raise most of our food. It’s not a lot of land, but we could technically produce enough food for our whole neighbourhood if needed.


Littlejohn Farm’s first harvest experience Courtesy of Littlejohn FarmAnd here’s a slightly larger gathering

Zach: We also host a Harvest Experience, a full-blown ode to the harvest, with live music and a chef’s menu. We want people to be more connected with their food and more appreciative of where their food comes from, so we love celebrating life and the bounty of the season.


Luhana: In the beginning, I made Zach promise that, despite running a farm, I would be able to see my family in Brazil at least once a year. In early 2019, we decided we would go for two weeks. It turned into a few months. We don’t run experiences at Littlejohn Farm during the winter, so why not?

And then we decided to do something with one of my family’s properties in Bahia.


My grandfather was a tobacco farmer. He had this beautiful building he used as a lodge, a place to entertain buyers. It’s a 19th-century colonial-style mansion with old-world decor and an open courtyard. My uncle had taken it over and turned it into a beautiful hotel. Unfortunately, he passed away in early 2019, and during the pandemic, the rest of the family made the decision to close it down for good. It’s one of the area’s most iconic buildings, and it was completely closed and unused.

Zach preps for an event at their Brazilian offshoot of Littlejohn Farm Photo by Leonardo FreireSpeaking of dinner… Photo by Leonardo Freire


Zach: It was a shot in the dark. Working with family, we reopened the property. We invested in equipment so we could run a dinner series. We didn’t have a lot of money to do it—only what we had made from our business in Canada—so we tried to do everything we could by ourselves or with the help of willing and able family members.


The process included removing layers and layers of old vines, polishing the antique furniture and building raised beds, installing kitchen equipment and designing a layout. If we couldn’t build it ourselves, we tried to only have new pieces made by local artisans. We have one artist who built a beautiful trellis and another who weaved baskets from the cipó vine, a local abundant product. We wanted to show what’s native to the area while preserving the heritage of the building and respecting the local culture in every way possible.

Learning how to weave baskets from locally grown cipó vine Photo by Leonardo Freire

There are tons of tropical fruit orchards and vegetable groves in the region. There are also a lot of beef farms nearby and local dairies. But we were transplanting our concept in a completely new country—we had no clue how people would receive it. There’s not really anything like Littlejohn Farm down there. We wanted to bring an elegant experience, something farm-to-table that shows off the region. We’ll roast meat over a big traditional fire but serve things like bone broth with brioche and a whole array of Brazilian dishes.


Our Brazilian business is still relatively small—we host just 40 people at a time or private groups. It’s basically the same model we’re doing in the county: make a small number of guests happy and show them what we do, then send them out into the world.


They have four-legged friends here too Photo by Leonardo Freire

Now, we’re spending winters in Brazil and summers in Prince Edward County. From a chef’s point of view, it’s so exciting. The temperature is perfect for growing vegetables and fruit. And I’m learning Portuguese. So is our daughter, Flora. And our son, who is on the way, will one day too.


When we’re in the county for the summer, it’s winter in Brazil, so we close that business down for the season. Luhana’s father is trying to get the main building converted into a museum—it’s already a heritage site. Hopefully, we can come up with a full local food program to go with the museum.


Littlejohn Farm aims to pay respect to the regions we are in, the city and the countryside. In both Brazil and Ontario, farmers and producers are so proud to show what they have to offer. We’re glad we can be part of that.


The whole fam. Not pictured: a soon-to-arrive baby boy