February, 2013

Feb 13

Canada Goose: staying warm in freezing cold Canada

Minus 26 degrees. So cold that when you breath your throat hurts. So cold that you suddenly realise that funny feeling in your nose is all the little hairs freezing. So very painfully cold that although the morning light as you crunch through the densely packed snow is breathtaking, and you want to take photo after photo, you can’t because your glove-less hand begin to hurt after about 20 seconds and after a minute it burns and aches until you have to admit defeat.

Stunning light but oh! Too painful to take many photos.

Stunning light but oh! Too painful to take many photos.

I’m from the UK and I’m completely unused to such frozen temperatures. Living in Brighton  doesn’t prepare you for the harsh conditions of the great white north, so when I knew I was going to be travelling to the Yukon and Quebec, I had a small panic – what on earth would I wear?! I had snowpants and thermals but I knew my jacket simply wasn’t up to the job. So I asked a few Vancouverites and they all said the same thing: “Canada Goose”.

I did a bit of research and they do sound like the perfect fit for me on my quest to keep everything I do as Canadian as possible. I especially liked this quote from their web site about keeping their production in Canada: “Cold weather is part of our national identity… We’re proud to have Canadians rely on us for protection in unspeakably cold conditions. We stay in Canada because that’s who we are.” I just love the idea that yes, to be Canadian is to live, work and play in really cold weather… I’ve come around to the idea living in basically sub-aqua conditions in ultra-rainy Vancouver, that if I stay at home and wait for good weather I’ll never leave the house! So I put waterproofs on and go and have fun.

It's a SERIOUS coat

It’s a SERIOUS coat

I contacted Canada Goose and explained that I wanted to do a spot of road-testing and they very kindly sent me a parka. When it arrived I realised that this was a SERIOUS coat. Canada Goose have a 5-point ‘Thermal Experience Index’ so you can work out if you need a light jacket or something for more hardcore arctic activities. My ‘Dawson‘ parka is in the ‘extreme’ category, good to -30 “field-tested for the coldest places on earth.” There is something awfully scary and exciting at the same time reading that. I slipped it on in my toasty-warm apartment, struggled with the zip (it took a few weeks to loosen up) and then looked at myself in the mirror. I liked it. I looked ready for all kinds of arctic action!

As it’s a SERIOUS coat, it’s packed with gizmos, I adore the genius addition of shoulder straps in the lining, so I can carry the coat on my back like a rucksack when I’m indoors so I don’t overheat and easily slip it on before I go outside. I got asked twice about this in the airport by curious women – it’s a really cool idea. As is the fleece in the chin guard, which if you snuggle, goes right up to your nose. I suspect I may still be finding pockets in this next year…

This guy is about to drive 1000 miles with huskies across the arctic. He's wearing Canada Goose. Case closed.

This guy is about to drive 1000 miles with huskies across the arctic. He’s wearing Canada Goose. Case closed.

So – how did it cope? Well, when I arrived in the Yukon for the 1000-mile Yukon Quest race, I wasn’t the only one Goosed-up and I think that tells you everything you need to know. All the locals had Canada Goose jackets and the tour companies hire out scarlet jackets to visitors. My eyelashes may have iced up and my fingers felt like they’d snap, but the rest of me was cosy. I could play out in the snow all day long – even lying in it for two hours taking photos – and not feel cold. I’ve learned that it’s not about bad weather, it’s about having the right clothes – and for winter in Canada that means one thing: Canada Goose.

Loving the Goose...

Loving the Goose…

Feb 13

Rainy days and Vitamin D: winter in Vancouver

Yesterday I felt like winter might almost be over. I saw my first crocus; a tiny pop of purple just around the corner from my apartment on English Bay. When I took Freddie out for his late-night walk I spotted daffodils, tightly wrapped in their buds, waiting for that warmer breath of spring air to tempt them to show off their nodding butter-yellow heads.

Purple shoots of spring

Purple shoots of spring

I went home with a smile on my face. I’d made it. Got through my first west coast winter, which had been so much harder than I’d imaged it could have been – and it was mostly all my own fault.

This was all I saw for most of January. Ouch.

This was all I saw for most of January. Ouch.

Everyone told me that the rain and grey skies would be hard. “Take Vitamin D” urged locals, but I smiled to myself and thought well, maybe they needed supplements, but me, with my well-balanced diet? Surely not. And then came the endless days of non-stop torrential rain, serious rain – we think we have it bad in the UK, but London has around half the annual rainfall of Vancouver. HALF! And then there’s the weeks of the sun never really making an appearance thanks to late rising around 830am and early setting around 430pm and the low lying cloud covering any rays.

I felt tired all the time. Grumpy. Peevish. And then came the day when I didn’t want to get out of bed at all. I just lay there, scowling at the gloom and feeling utterly hopeless. I didn’t want to get up. What was the point? What was the point in anything?

My hero

My hero

Something about this dismal state of affairs rang a bell, I could remember reading up something about the symptoms of D3 deficiency. The exhaustion, the depression, yes – maybe this was a chemical imbalance, not me losing faith in life. I dragged myself out of bed to the nearest London Drugs (not being sarcastic – that is the name of a chain of Canadian chemists!) and bought a pack of liquid D3 and a multi-vitamin. Took a shot of both and went back to bed.

Ok, so there was less blood and I don't have that fierce bob but you know what I mean...

Ok, so there was less blood and I don’t have that fierce bob but you know what I mean…

Around six hours later something rather amazing happened. I felt like that scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma gets a shot of adrenaline to her heart. My eyes flew open, I felt flooded with energy, I felt happy and vital and alive again. And that is how it’s been ever since. I take my vits three times a week and even though Vancouver tricked me with it’s whole ‘oh look, it’s spring‘ thing yesterday (it’s beyond revolting again today), I feel fine. And more than that, I feel like I got through a rite of passage. Spring is on its way, the flowers are making their way through the cold hard earth and now, like all good Vancouverites, I know that I need regular shots of D3 to get my head back above ground too.

Yeah. So it turns out it's *not* spring after all...

Yeah. So it turns out it’s *not* spring after all…

Feb 13

Campagnolo Vancouver: essential Italian comfort food

So… I fell off the wagon. And I’d been doing so well. I’ve stuck rigidly to Canadian-only wines (yes, Canada has great wines!) since I arrived in Vancouver in September and this week I fell face-first into a crisp Italian Soave. Oops. I wanted to soak up (hic) all those amazing new varietals from the Okanagan and confining myself to a strict BC-only wine list seemed to be the best (and most delicious) way to get a crash course in How To Drink Like A Canadian. So far I have discovered that:

– I adore Joie’s ‘Noble Blend’ but I often can’t find it/afford it

– When I want a cheap-ish bottle, Jackson Triggs is usually on special at the local wine shop and does the job

– Tinhorn Creek do some of the (few) reds that I genuinely love

– Wineries like ‘Wine O’Clock’ and ‘See Ya Later Ranch’ which have silly names make seriously good wine

– That (sorry!) I haven’t yet found one sparkling BC wine that I like (I have a get-out clause when it comes to drinking champagne and cava and no, I am not going to outline my reasons as they are ill-thought-out at best, so shhh!)

Crisp ceci with a minty-chilli salad

Crisp ceci with a minty-chilli salad

And I’m only five months in. So much more to discover! But then I went to Campagnolo and everything kind of slipped away…. I blame Katharine. I was having lunch with her and – bad behaviour-enabler that she so clearly is – when we pondered the possibility of matching Italian food to Italian grapes, all my good intentions slipped away. Before I knew it I found myself with a glass of Bertani, a silly grin on my face and a mountain of food in front of me.

As photos go, this isn't great but even so it makes me want to lick the screen as the ragu was SO GOOD

As photos go, this isn’t great but even so it makes me want to lick the screen as the ragu was SO GOOD

I’ve been on such a seafood-eating trip since I arrived that I’ve barely tried any Italian food in Vancouver. In fact I fear I may becoming part-seal. But oh! I have missed Italian and they do it particularly well at Campagnolo. A salad of charred octopus along with a dish of crispy deep-fried ceci (chickpeas) spangled with mint and chilli made me realise I was in for a treat but nothing could have alerted me to the jaw-clanging brilliance of the pork ragu tagliatelle. A densely-flavourful sauce that spoke of long hours simmering on a stove, thick with ground pork and absurdly buttery, was sopped up by an eggy delicate home-made pasta. It was absolutely brilliant. We tried a few other things, but I couldn’t stop my fork snaking across the table mid-chew of something else, to get just one (more) last buttery meaty mouthful.

This was a first for me: never seen cauliflower on a pizza before

This was a first for me: never seen cauliflower on a pizza before

The pizza crust was a trifle too thin for me but the cauliflower and sprout leaf topping was inspired. All garlicy and salty, it paired with the Soave perfectly. After I regretfully scooped up the last of the ragu sauce with a pizza crust and talked myself out of licking the plate, I discovered my new favourite dessert; a butter tart studded with toasted pine nuts, served with a splash of sweet milk. I think I’ve found my go-to comfort food restaurant. I can’t imagine any situation that won’t be immediately better after eating here.

Butter tart of pure wonder. Damn, this was delicious!

Butter tart of pure wonder. Damn, this was delicious!

Upstairs, I’m told, they take delivery each week of two pigs, butcher them, and use everything in their creations that week. Charcuterie, sausages, and yes – that amazing ragu. Love this place. Food that’s good from nose to tail and definitely worth falling off the wagon for.

Thanks to Campagnolo for hosting me – as always, my views are 100% my own.

Feb 13

The Best Crab Cake In Canada

I’ve often said that one of the things that I love most about living in Canada is the culinary discovery of it all. Not one week goes by when I don’t try a new fish, fruit or vegetable or discover a new way of cooking – or sometimes – a whole new cuisine. After seeing (and eating) sablefish on all the Ocean Wise restaurant menus, I decided to try making it at home and cooked my very first marinated sablefish this week. It was gorgeous but so expensive!  ‘Pay day fish’ @CarolynAli called it on Twitter, after giving me this fabulous recipe.  so perhaps I’ll save it just for special occasions.

But there’s another West Coast sustainable speciality that I see everywhere and had never tried before; Dungeness Crab, but after a trip to Coast, I figure I’ll not even bother trying to cook one as they have spoiled me forever by making The World’s Best Crab Cake (a title previously held by a tiny restaurant in Cork. Sorry guys, it’s time to hand over the trophy).

Look at it! All gorgeous and mouth-watering

Look at it! All gorgeous and mouth-watering

A confession: I’m never usually a crab fan; it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s more that I don’t love it, but I think I may have just been eating the Wrong Kind Of Crab. Turns out, I’m a West Coast girl all the way, as I was smitten after just one bite. So – what is a Dungeness Crab? They’re unique to the coastal waters of the pacific, they look just like a regular crab and Hiro Amano, Chef de Partie at Coast, told me that he thinks the Dungeness Crab is the “showcase fish for the crab family.” A little sweeter than say, king or snow crab, with an almost buttery flavour, this is just perfect on its own.

So why is this the World’s Best Crab Cake? Well, unlike most others this has almost no ‘filler’ at all. It’s 99% pure Dungeness Crab, bound together with a roasted-garlic aioli (no salt added) to enhance the natural sweetness and the smallest dash of panko to add a little crunch. It’s extraordinary. I went back a few days later just to have another taste as thoughts of its sweet juiciness had been swimming through my head. That second portion convinced me; this is just about as close to a perfect fish dish as anything I have ever tasted.

I’m sure there are a million things I can learn to cook with Dungeness Crab, but I shan’t ever bother replicating this. Go, eat it, but beware – just one bite may have you hooked.

I ate as a guest of COAST however, as always, my views are 100% my own.

Feb 13

Vancouver’s shore thing: the Pinnacle Hotel at the Pier

“You know, we’re spoiled really.” said my dinner date as he scooped up a handful of seafood nachos, loaded with tasty seared tuna and spicy shrimp, as he waved at the view. Vancouver was lit up before us. All glittering high rises and moonlight over the water. “Anywhere else this would be THE best restaurant in town. But here it is, tucked away on the North Shore.”

He was right. I’m slowly making my way around Vancouver and discovering its many different neighbourhoods. I’d imagined the North Shore to be The ‘Burbs. Not much happening there. Kind of quiet. Guess what? Think again.

A break in the rain and a golden view of Vancouver

A break in the rain and a golden view of Vancouver

I got there on the ferry bus from the terminal downtown. It’s a pleasant 12-minute trip across the water and I’m guessing if it wasn’t bucketing with rain, it’s a lovely view. The rain held off for a few minutes when I hopped off the ferry and looking at the city from the other side made me see with fresh eyes how gorgeous it is. On the way to the hotel I stopped into the Lonsdale Quay market place which really reminded me of the indoor markets in Paris, something about the metal shutters and artistically-stacked fruit and veg, I guess. After wandering around and making a mental note to come back with shopping bags another day, I checked into the Pinnacle Hotel at the Pier.

My room was big and I loved the huge tub with its glass-wall shower which faced onto the bedroom. Very steamy! Floor to ceiling windows gave a show-stopping view of the city. I sat on the bed and tried to make out my new apartment building, it’s nice to finally start to recognise the skyline. All settled in, I went to explore, and discovered one of the largest hotel pools I think I have ever seen, on the third floor – flooded with natural light and a big gym too.

Hard not to just stare... and stare...

Hard not to just stare… and stare…

We had dinner at Pier 7 , which has Executive Chef Dino Renaerts, ex-chef of Diva at the Met (one of Vancouver’s best) at the helm. I tried the Dine Out menu, three courses for just $28, which was spectacular value for money, I loved the braised beef short ribs and hope they weren’t just a Dine Out special… People always talk about hidden gems, which are often in full view, but after raving about the food to other Vancouverites who’d never heard of Pier 7, perhaps this really is one after all. Maybe these North Shore-ers are on to something

New day dawning over the city

New day dawning over the city

After being led deliciously astray by sommelier Alain – a guy who knows far too much about wine and wants you to try every drop – I reeled my way back to the hotel and kept the curtains open as I curled up in bed so that I could see that view. In the early morning at dawn it just got better.

The Pinnacle has a huge patio which they have open in the warmer months and I’m already making plans to head back on that ferry and get a heaped plate of those amazing seafood nachos to enjoy with a few cocktails and watch my new city light up as the sun sets.

I stayed and ate as a guest of The Pinnacle Pier and Pier 7. My views are 100% my own and I am definitely going back once it stops raining!

Find out more about Vancouver’s North Shore

Feb 13

Vancouver Hammam Heaven at the Miraj Spa

One of my favourite spas in the world is La Mosquée in Paris, it’s in (as the name suggests) the Mosque on the left bank and is a series of beautiful marble-tiled rooms, each hotter than the next, where you steam and soak, take an icy-cold plunge and then steam and soak some more. It’s a traditional cultural ritual and I found it surprisingly reassuring to be in a room of (mostly half-naked) women of all ages, shapes and sizes. However, it can be a baffling experience; there are no instructions. You get handed slips of paper which you exchange for a ‘gommage‘ (a body scrub) or massage but there’s no real system of how or when that happens.  And although, yes, I wound up with a soaking wet towel and shredded wet paper slips (you’re meant to leave them in your locker till you need them) and was a tad alarmed by the brutal scrubbing I got from an elderly Arab lady (which I genuinely feared would leave me nipple-less), I really enjoyed my afternoon there.

You can't take photos in La Mosquée - but here's its entrance just to give you a sense of how exotic & gorgeous it is

You can’t take photos in La Mosquée – but here’s its entrance just to give you a sense of how exotic & gorgeous it is

So when I got chatting with Surinder, the owner of Vancouver’s Miraj spa, I was delighted to find out that her spa was based on her own experiences at La Mosqueé. I went to check it out one rainy day last week. It was cold and grey and miserable outside. I stomped down to West 6th Avenue in my rubber boots feeling like I’d never get warm again. I left feeling like I had an all-body halo glow and positively skipped off down the road. What happened in between? All good stuff…  however, it’s definitely a more North American version; instead of a shared hammam space, this is a solo adventure into spa-ing.

The Miraj experience starts by showering and then slipping into a cotton kimono. I had a hamman guide, Adria, who took me into the incredibly hot steam room (120 degrees Celcius) and explained things to me. I lay on the cool marble and felt my achy muscles melt in the intense heat. Candlelight flickered in the steam and as I began to sweat, I felt myself relax. After 20 minutes, Adria came back to collect me for my black soap gommage. I took off my now-soaking kimono and laid on top of it as Adria scrubbed my body with exfoliation mitts. This is definitely the bit where any shy people might feel a bit weird, but Adria was so matter of fact that I suspect even the most body-non-confident person would feel relaxed in her company.

Lie back and enjoy the gommage...

Lie back and enjoy the gommage…

I turned over for more scrubbing, then stood up and was sluiced off with warm water. My skin felt as smooth as the marble I’d been lying on. I’d booked in for the basic hammam, gommage and 15-minute Orientale massage. Next visit, I’ll book for something longer as after all that heat I bet I could get a great deep tissue massage. The 15 minutes really felt like just a soothing application of oil.

Then rest and take tea on the silky cushions

Then curl up on the silky cushions and sip tea

Massage over, I put on a fresh cotton robe and headed to the lounge area to sip a glass of sweet mint tea and nibble on a cake. I’d love to do this with a girlfriend and you can book the hammams for two. Sunday is couples day so if you want to take your parter along, that’s the time to do it. I flicked through a glossy magazine and felt a million miles from the cold, wet, cross girl who’d stomped in an hour or so earlier. Miraj recently opened in the Shangri La hotel in Toronto and I’m definitely checking that out when I finally make it over there, but in the meanwhile, I feel happy that I’ve found a piece of my beloved Paris, right here in Vancouver.

Thanks to Miraj for hosting me – as always my views are 100% my own.

Feb 13

Food and drink adventures in Yaletown Part 2: Minami

Launching a successful sushi restaurant in a city with more sashimi and speciality rolls than you can shake a chopstick at takes something special. Down in Vancouver’s Yaletown, Minami has hit on a neat solution to keeping things fresh with ‘aburi sushi’ – a method of blowtorch-ing the topping. I went to see what it was all about.


Sit at the counter and watch the amazing action at Minami

As an Ocean Wise sustainable seafood restaurant, I was already eyeing up Minami favourably, but as I walked in on that cold Vancouver night, I was greeted with a chorus of “Irrashai Mase!” which means ‘welcome’ and I soon felt warmed up –  and no –  it wasn’t just from the kick-ass Katana cocktail.

It’s mesmerising to watch the chefs prepping at the sushi counter. I sat, goggle-eyed with admiration as they created plate after plate of toasty-topped nigiri, which thanks to a smart little gizmo which you pack with rice and tap, was all perfectly rectangular. While I watched the chefs work their magic, I started off with a single oyster, topped with a lemon sake foam. I usually like my Vancouver Island oysters naked (apart from the smallest squirt of lemon), but the foam was a deft touch – giving a small but intense flavour burst.

As chef prepped my flame-finished sushi, I tucked into sustainable salmon sashimi.

As chef prepped my flame-finished sushi, I tucked into sustainable salmon sashimi.

I’ll confess I had my doubts about the aburi: flame-finished sushi, really? But it turns out I had nothing to fear; it was gorgeous, the topping had a faint charcoal flavour which worked beautifully with the rice and fish.

Aburi sushi - flame-finished and mouth-wateringly delish.

Aburi sushi – flame-finished and mouth-wateringly delish.

I’d been recommended to try the sea urchin; sandy-orange and curled on top of a wedge of rice, it’s maybe not the prettiest sushi on the block and I’d never ordered it in a restaurant before. “When it comes to some seafoods you have to fight preconceptions – forget the looks; if it tastes good, eat it!” advised the manager Patrick as I hesitantly raised my chopsticks. I gingerly bit in and savoured its flavour; creamy and tasting of the ocean.  This was fresh from Vancouver Island too, where the icy clean waters make for excellent sea food. I wound up not eating the rice, so delicious was its pure clean flavour.

Sea urchin - feel the fear and eat it anyway!

Sea urchin – feel the fear and eat it anyway!

It’s one of the things that I’m loving most about my time in Canada – so far, every week I’ve managed to try something new to eat or drink that I’ve never tried before. I went for a look around Minami’s funky interior and peeked out to the patio. It was, of course, raining (it basically rains from October till April in Vancouver, I’ve been told!) but I imagined sitting in the summer sun, tossing back more of those delicious oysters and a whole plate of those tasty sea urchins. I can’t wait.

I ate as a guest of Minami but my views are 100% my own.

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