April, 2013

Apr 13

Gulf Island hopping with BC Ferries

I’m a huge fan of slow travel. Not accidentally slow, like a replacement bus service or a delayed plane, no, the kind of slow that lets you get a sense of distance from A to B, the kind of slow which allows you to spot birds and spy wildlife along the way, maybe even time to see the sky bruise and sunsets blaze. Definitely the kind of slow where there’s plenty of time to watch out of the window and wonder. So, yeah – I was all set to enjoy travelling by ferry around the Gulf Islands, which lie some 20 miles off the coast of Vancouver’s Tsawwassen harbour.

This is an awfully cool way to arrive anywhere.

This is an awfully cool way to arrive anywhere.

I hopped aboard a range of different BC ferries on my travels between Vancouver and the Galiano, Pender and Salt Spring Islands – from huge multi-deck modern gleaming commuter ferries serving up sushi in the canteen to tiny single deckers without so much as a snackbar.

Getting there:
Take the Pacific Coach line bus from Vancouver’s Central bus station. This is the easiest option by far if you’re heading to Victoria as the bus drives onto the ferry and drops you off downtown. No need to stress about luggage, you can leave it all on board – plus the bus has free wifi. However, I was taking the Galiano boat, so needed to change. Fortunately my driver Larry was an absolute peach. He escorted me to the luggage area, tagged my bag so that it would be put on the right ferry (it was!) and showed me where I could get some food and a coffee.

Nerdy, but I adored this and have far too many photos of it.

Nerdy, but I adored this and have far too many photos of it.

I was impressed by the ferry market building – the floor is a highly polished ocean and islands map of the area – a gorgeous detail that I bet gets mostly missed. You could happily spend an hour browsing the stores, snacking on anything from burgers to sushi, or drinking organic Salt Spring Island coffee beside the fireplace here. It’s a far cry from any ferry terminal I’ve been to in Europe.

There. Don't you feel relaxed just looking at that?

There. Don’t you feel relaxed just looking at that?

But back to the ferries. It’s a restful experience, rain or shine, you pass through glorious scenery that I would happily have paid to drift around simply as a pleasure cruise. Mossy-looking mountains, impossibly green forests, startlingly golden beaches, and here and there a house built up on the shore that just begged you to imagine living there, watching and waiting for the pods of Orca whales come sailing through, each April to October.

Clouds finally lifting...

Clouds finally lifting…

It was drizzling as I went to Galiano Island. The sky was grey, the sea a gloomy kind of gun metal and no one apart from me was on the deck. I watched a gull showboating on the breeze, squinted in the distance and tried to work out which island was to be mine for the next few days. I walked around the ferry, past the solarium, with its sun-trap seating and imagined what it would be like in the summertime, the ferry bustling with day trippers and holiday makers. Feeling the sun on your face and the tang of the saltspray on your lips. Heaven. But it was March and it was drizzly, so I wrapped my scarf around my face and enjoyed the solitude, waiting for the clouds to clear.

 I travelled as a guest of BC Ferries and Pacific Coach Lines – but my views are 100% my own.

Apr 13

Homesickness hits: bring on the Balti Challenge

Being British seems to make most people assume that you are a raving tea addict. When I talk about the rare times I’m homesick, Canadians imagine that I am craving oceans of Earl Grey, that I am wistfully musing about a pot of PG Tips… but nothing could be further from the truth. Home, for me, tastes of curry – Balti, to be precise. A sag aloo Balti, fragrant with spices, with just the right hit of heat, eaten with a buttery, garlic-y naan bread. Heaven. But, guess what? Turns out that they don’t have Balti in Vancouver.

Ask a curry fan about the origins of the Balti and you’re asking for a l-o-n-g drawn out debate. Is it an Anglo-Indian dish? A Pakistani one? Or is it simply a type of curry named after the shallow handled dish that it’s served in? I think that it combines elements of all those things but one thing I’m sure of is that I’m missing them like mad.

Hands down the best bhaji I've eaten in my life

Hands down the best bhaji I’ve eaten in my life

I was expecting the curry houses to be overflowing with fine Baltis; after all – Brits are everywhere here, one of the largest immigrant communities in fact – and Baltis are incredibly popular back home, but no, no Baltis at all. So I asked on Twitter if anyone knew of anywhere that might help and hurrah for the Palki restaurant who stepped up and offered to try to make my curry dream a reality.

Delighted, I headed off to Palki on Commercial Drive. Unlike many traditional British Indian restaurants, the Palki has a modern Zen-like feeling with plum-coloured walls, water features and a bright airy interior. While I was waiting for the balti to be prepared, I snacked on the best onion bhaji I’ve tasted since Naffees in Leeds in 1989. Crispy, spicy and not a doughy cake like so many are – these are reason enough to pay a visit.

Let the games commenceTheir first Balti attempt arrived and smelt heavenly – but the texture was wrong and it had too much heat. I tried to explain as best as I could what I was looking for to Sharath, the incredibly patient manager, and he disappeared off into the kitchen to discuss it with Chef Shiv Singh. Balti mark 2 arrived and although the texture was better, it was still missing something. I’ll be perfectly honest – I take my hat off to the team here for trying to create a dish that I haven’t eaten in almost 7 months, that they may not have experienced either! Chef Sigh is an experienced and talented chef from Uttar Pradesh and I love that he tried his best to whip up an Anglo-Indian creation, as explained by a British non-chef.



So – third time turned out to be the charm; not too spicy, not too hot, the perfect slow heat and texture – this was the food equivalent of Goldilocks’ ‘Just Right‘! I scooped up a judicious helping with the delicious garlic naan, and savoured the aromatic taste of home. If you’re craving a Balti, or fancy trying one, unless you can get a ticket back to Britain, this is absolutely your best bet. Sharath said that they’d be adding the Balti to their menu – I couldn’t be happier to have made a mark on the Vancouver food scene in a more spicy way.

Thanks so much to everyone for being such good sports and getting stuck into the Balti challenge – go see them & try for yourself.

I was a kind of annoying guest of Palki – who sends food back so much?! – but my views are 100% my own.

Palki Restaurant, 1130 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC V5L 3X2

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