If you learn one thing about the people of Canada it’s that they embrace the lot that life has given them when it comes to the elements. Whereas in England we shiver and curse the weather, in Winnipeg, when it buckets down with snow and the wind chill factor takes it down to a horrifying minus 40-something degrees, instead of getting on a plane to someplace warm, they go outside to play. Continue reading →
The last time I can remember this scent in the air was in Sri Lanka; the smoky perfume of incense mixed with the sweet smell of flowers left as offerings to Buddha. But this time I’m not in Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, there is no elephant tethered outside, no mischievous monkeys clambering the temple walls, nor gaudily-painted tuk tuks or King Coconut sellers ready to take your money. No, despite the incense and the gloriously golden glitz of the multi-armed Guan-Yin, I’m actually just a few miles from Vancouver in Richmond.
A short stop away from the Canada Line train, along the Highway to Heaven (the poetic name for No. 5 Road) you’ll find some 20 different places of worship: temples, mosques and churches co-exist peacefully together, side by side. Take a turn on to the Steveston Highway and you’ll find the most dazzling of all, the International Buddhist Temple, North America’s largest, modelled after China’s Forbidden City in Beijing and the start of my exploration into how to celebrate Chinese New Year in Canada. The festival is a big deal in Richmond, where some 60% of residents are Asian-Canadian, so before each Lunar New Year in February, the temple does a brisk business in the golden baubles and flowers trade, with the devout stopping by to purchase armfuls of each to take home and to give as gifts. Continue reading →
I was wrong about the weather. As we set off from Vancouver along the twisting turns of the Sea to Sky highway, the rain lashed down, blocking our view of one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The tail end of the Pineapple Express, a west coast storm system that had dropped what felt like a river of rain over the city in a few short days, was putting a decidedly damp start on our trip to Squamish’s Sea to Sky Gondola. I’d been excited to see far out across Howe Sound as we made our way up the Stawamus Chief, Squamish’s famous granite domed mountain. And from seeing photos, knew that it would be a knock out view when we got up there. But the rain and clouds had put paid to that. Or so I thought. We rose gently in the gondola, coming what felt close enough to touch the wet rock of the Chief, then we were plunged into a dense mist, like being wrapped in cotton wool, as we floated upwards, unable to see a thing. But then we broke through the clouds, weak rays of sun piercing through the dappled shades of grey and oh, what a sight! Continue reading →
It’s winter in Canada so what are you going to do but enjoy the great outdoors? This year, Victoria’s Fairmont Empress hotel is hosting an outdoor skating rink on its front lawn, which faces out towards the harbour all strung with festive lights. There is something rather magical about skating outdoors and it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful background than the Empress. Special events include a Christmas Eve skating session with elves, hot cocoa and cider and Sunday skates with santa. Tickets are $10/$5 per session and skate hire is $5. The rink opens on Friday 20th November and runs till mid-January. Open from 5-9pm weekdays and 1-9pm weekends.
So, now you’re in Victoria, what else is there to do?
BREAKFAST: Usually I’m not a doughnut fan, but Yonni’s Doughnuts at Discovery Coffee could be the one which changes my mind. I had a Honey Crueller, all eggy sweet and delicious, it matched perfectly with their Gob’s Magical Espresso blend. I took a bottle of the Cold Brew coffee home and had it for breakfast the next morning. Sure Cold Brew coffee may have more than a whiff of needless hipsterism about it but when it’s as buttery and chocolatey as this, well, call me a hipster and be damned.
LUNCH: Oh hurrah! My all-time favourite Vancouver sandwich, the Meat & Bread porchetta is now available at their beautiful new location on Yates Street. Taking the idea of doing one thing and then excelling at it, Meat and Bread’s empire is gradually spreading and you know what? Good. They do things right: the bread is a custom-made ciabatta roll and the meat in their legendary porchetta sandwiches is the finest grain-fed, free-range pork from Two Rivers Meats. If businesses must become chains then at least let them operate on an ethical basis. And yes, I know that Meat and Bread also do other daily sandwich specials but after two years I’ve still not managed to go through the doors and say anything other than ‘Porchetta with extra crackling, please’.
TIME FOR TEA: Silk Road Tea are based in Victoria’s Chinatown (the oldest in Canada! Take a look around on this Vine clip.), the creation of Tea Master Daniela Cubelic. I cannot say enough great things about this store! Going far beyond what you’d imagine a tea shop to sell, Silk Road have a wide range of beauty products (and an in-shop spa), shelves of wildly desirable tea paraphernalia –try going in and not immediately needing to own at least three tea pots, infusers and assorted pieces of cocktail ware – and best of all a long tasting table with comfy stools. I went to an iced tea event in the summer which was a blast and gave me so many ideas. This winter their free-to-attend workshop events include Winter Wellness classes, a tea jam-making event and learning about immune-boosting tea blends to ward off colds and flu.
DINNER: Sure, there are plenty of great restaurants in Victoria but right now I am OBSESSED with the ambrosial brisket at Hanks Untraditional BBQ. This place is a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it barbecue joint but oh my, it’s worth stopping in. All the meat comes from those super-ethical Two Rivers chaps and you can taste the quality in every bite. My recommendation? Have one of the platters with the cornbread, all warm and buttery from the oven. The pulled pork is amazing and the potato salad superb. Damn, I am actually drooling just writing this.
STAY: With Veneto, one of the finest bars and restaurants downstairs and boasting a pole position slap bang in the heart of town, it’s hard to better the location of the Rialto. The rooms are both spacious and spotless and best of all, come with a pleasing raft of extras including free wifi, vouchers for coffee and pastry from the lobby cafe, and best of all, a voucher for a cheese plate at Veneto. Very cool! Oh, and the one thing that won me over completely? Ear plugs. Acknowledging that yes, they are a central hotel and so the street can get noisy is honest, but then immediately sorting that issue out is smart. I love that.
GET THERE: I am obsessed with the float planes which whizz across the waters here in BC. I can see them soar above Stanley Park from my window and it’s always a fantastic day if I know that I’m going to be onboard Harbour Air. My advice? Don’t hang back and be polite. Immediately ask the pilot is there’s a chance that you could sit up front, as sometimes there is a spare seat and it’s the best view in the house! If not, don’t fret, you’ll still be amazed by the view from the windows. Top tip: at the Vancouver terminal downtown you can score free espresso-based drinks and tea, as well as a muffin or fruit when you present them with your boarding pass. Also, the Victoria terminal seems to have a penchant for playing excellent 80s music. Prepare to rock out before take off.
Eat at a Top Chef Canada Restaurant? Er, challenge accepted. Tucking into an award-winning chef’s delicious menu is definitely more my speed than hurtling down a mountain – or even skating down a canal. For non-Canadians, Chef Dale MacKay won the first season of Top Chef Canada in 2011, when he was based here in Vancouver but last year he decided to up sticks and move back to his hometown of Saskatoon to open Ayden Kitchen & Bar. So while I was visiting the city to merrily stuff myself with sausages at the King of Kovbasa festival, a trip to Ayden was clearly on the cards.
It makes total sense as a restaurateur to leave BC: Vancouver real estate is amongst the most expensive in North America and the space that Dale has in Saskatoon could easily fit a trio of Vancouver eateries inside; a lavish private dining space plus a cavernous basement area to prep and store. Also, whereas restaurants serving on-trend high-end comfort food with a nose-to-tail, house-made aesthetic paired with craft cocktails are a dime a dozen in Vancouver, they are something more of a rare beast in Saskatchewan.
I visited for lunch and dinner service and both times, the restaurant was hopping; a lively business lunch and catch-up-over-salads crowd gave way to couples and groups of clearly delighted dinner guests. So – what’s on the menu? Mackay is known – and rightly so – for his charcuterie; firm meaty pates, satin-soft creamy parfaits, fat-speckled and peppery salamis and juicy sausages were all sublime. In-house pickled vegetables added tartness and tang to his meaty charcuterie boards. Mackay has a deft touch with Asian flavours too, his Thai wings popped with chili but were beautifully balanced and aromatic with kaffir lime and lemongrass. Meat is locally-sourced and if the burgers I tried are anything to go by then Alberta beef need to watch out – Saskatchewan is coming for you. In a city that’s not yet known for its dining scene, Mackay is leading the charge. And where one successful restaurant opens, another – and then another – cannot be far behind. And at the end of the day, if a Top Chef Canada winner is making it work then there’s good eating to be found in the prairies.
My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own.
. Further information: Tourism Saskatoon
Picture leaving your home and your village; everything you ever knew and loved and travelling unimaginably far away, knowing that you’d probably never come back. Then imagine arriving in this new and foreign land; cold, sick and hungry after a gruelling sea journey of several weeks, then you have to spend days spent passing through immigration. Next, weak with exhaustion, you’re loaded on a train for a journey of even more days and nights with nothing to rest on but bare boards, rattling across a vast and strange country to your final destination. And when you step off the train, your body aching and sore, your new home is some 20 miles away. And there is no road. No one is there to greet you. There is nothing.
The ache of separation from home and everything familiar must have been almost unbearable.
This is the story of the Ukrainians who arrived in Canada after the 1872 Dominion Lands Act, a law which encouraged pioneers to come to the prairies to settle and farm the land there. Men over 18 and women who were heads of their households were offered 160 acres of land for a $10 administration fee. They had to stay on the land for three years, build a permanent home and farm at least 4 acres and then the land was theirs.
What they left was heart-breaking enough; ruled over by Austro-Hungary, Poland and Russia, denied education and conscripted to fight for the Austrian army, the people of the Ukraine were treated abominably by those who had invaded their country (and oh, in the light of recent events, how depressing is it to see things have not changed over the years). But they made things work, these immigrants. They faced up to the back-breaking challenge of clearing bushland and tons of rocks before they could even start to farm. The men left the women and children to subsist on the homesteads, as they took paying work in lumber camps or down the mines. But they survived and lived to tell the tale. They built communities and they made a life for themselves on the prairies. And like all immigrants, they cherished the customs and the foods of the land that they had left behind.
Which brings me neatly to a huge community centre, Prairieland Park, in the heart of Saskatoon. It’s February and minus 21 degrees outside. The wind chill factor brings it down to minus 30, and I stood outside for just a moment to try and imagine living in this without the benefit of modern clothing (thank GOD for my Canada Goose parka and gloves) never mind making it through without central heating. I lasted maybe a minute or two before scuttling inside into the warmth; my eyelashes began to freeze, my chest hurt from the cold air and what small part of my skin was exposed to the vicious cold ached from the icy wind. But just looking around the people in the room I know that their great-great grandparents didn’t just survive, they thrived. Clearly they were made of so much sterner stuff than I.
Almost 700 people are here – the majority Ukrainian Canadians – and they are here to taste food from the old country and vote on this year’s King of Kovbasa. The contest is in its thirteenth year and it’s a cultural celebration of the traditional Ukrainian kovbasa sausage. Twelve local butchers enter, and every one attending gets to cast their vote to decide who will win the trophy. It’s a prestigious contest and tasting is taken seriously. Each table gets its own huge platter of samples and there are even instructions on how best to taste the sausage; regular palate-cleansers of pickles, cheese and crackers are essential – as is immediately logging your vote on the cards provided. We’re voting on best texture, seasoning, appearance and overall winner.
This is also a fundraiser event with door prizes, a secret auction and vodka-and-pickle shots for cash donations – with money raised going to an adult literacy program, READ Saskatoon. I watch the the girls and boys in their shiny blue and white costumes bring out the trays of carefully-prepared meats to serve to each table. Later they’ll perform traditional dances on the stage, the girls whirling and swirling their skirts and the boys squat-kicking. I think about how important events like these must have been to those first immigrants; a chance to talk to someone other than your family – maybe the only chance that teenagers would have to meet someone to marry. I think about how much joy and pride is in the room and of the importance of tradition and continuity. I think about how, some days when I am missing my friends and family, I can cry just at the taste or smell of something that reminds me of home.
I understand why these traditions are so fiercely guarded, why people dress up and come out in the heart of brutal winter to gather together and to celebrate. It’s a pride that makes the butchers so competitive – being Kovbasa king really means something – this year SmokeHaus Meats of Martensville swept the board, winning in every category.
Leaving I stood outside again in the car park, the stars seemed so bright in the crackling cold of the night. To live here; to build a home, dig out a farm, carve out a life and create a community in bitter, brutal weather and then, decades later, to have your descendants dance in a toasty-warm room, full of good cheese and sausages, happy with vodka and beer is the immigrant’s dream. From unimaginable hardship to comparative luxury in just a few generations. I wonder at the strength it must have taken to make that first step and then the next and the next. The faintest flavour of such a life must have been in their mind when they closed the door of their homes that one last time and started their long journey to a new life in Canada, with the hope of better days driving them through the hardship.
My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own.
“What’s that?” I asked my cab driver, “It’s gorgeous.” ‘It’ was a silvery sculpture that reached into the sky and bought to mind flight and freedom right there on the pavement in downtown Toronto.
“It’s the Shangri La” said my driver.
“You’re kidding!” I said. “I’m staying there tomorrow.”
I can’t help myself; I get giddy with delight over a fancy hotel. Holly Golightly may have gone weak at the knees over Tiffany, but for me it’s a top class hotel that makes me think: “…the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The check-in was fast, the service with a real smile and within minutes I was leaving the airy lobby with its Fazioli piano and zipping up to my room. When you notice details like how cool the carpets are (reminiscent of cherry blossom and bamboo leaves) as you trot to your room, then you can bet that your socks will be suitably knocked off when you get inside.
I was wondering how Toronto would compare to Vancouver and the TO did not disappoint; a ludicrously huge and comfy bed, a decadent bathroom with a big-enough-for-two soaker tub overlooking the city and a satisfyingly high count of amenities from emery boards and tooth brushes to a mini-loofah and lashings of L’Occitane to raid.
I was there to check out the sister spa to the Miraj in Vancouver – this is a glossier and more sophisticated version of the great little hammam on West 6th – but the principal remained the same – and the treatment and therapist was just as good – leaving me to relax on satiny cushions admiring my equally silky skin after a heavenly steam, skin-brightening scrub and a final oil application.
Drinks in the lobby lounge later were a treat – the menus come tucked away in a little compendium of books and champagne buckets stand ready for your bubbles. I’d heard wonderful things about the Bosk restaurant, and after a slew of strictly casual fine dining experiences, it was lovely to feel that here was a restaurant worth dressing up for. Bosk may have an east coast address but it certainly had a west coast feeling with local, organic and sustainable woven through the menu and the seafood treated with loving care. A pleasingly large by-the-glass wine selection makes food pairing a pleasure – my advice? Ask the sommelier to match for you – you won’t be disappointed and you’ll definitely try delicious new things.
I travelled as a guest of Tourism Toronto and stayed as a guest of the Shangri-La– all views are, however 100% my own.
188 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3
Web: Shangri-La Toronto
There are some very cool things happening in Vancouver’s downtown east side. The DTES, as it’s known, has a bumpy relationship with the rest of the city: it’s notoriously home to Canada’s ‘poorest postal code’, it has a large and troubling homeless population and drug issues and mental health problems clearly play a huge part. But things are changing. There are some incredibly inspiring stories to be found in the DTES – I’ve written about Maggie and her doorway at Rainier Provisions before and the wonderful work that the East of Main café do – here’s a new one to add to the list: the East Van Roasters.
A coffee shop and bean-to-bar chocolate maker – the only one in Vancouver – East Van Roasters stands alone offering some of the city’s best coffee and truly delicious chocolate – but add in that it’s a social enterprise which helps women who’ve been out of the workplace for a while get back into employment and open up new avenues of training for them – then you have something very interesting indeed.
One thing strikes you as soon as you walk in: this looks like a very funky coffee shop: it’s no shabby, corners-cut kind of operation. As you walk in, you can see the chocolate making going on behind the large glass windows. It’s a fascinating process – it takes some 40 hours for the women to hand-winnow the beans – cracking the shell and removing the nib. That 40 hours of work produces enough nibs to make one 30KG batch which creates 600 bars of chocolate – and of course the nibs then have to be ground, blended with the cocoa butter and other flavours, tempered and finally turned into bars.
Once you factor in the time that it takes to grow the beans it almost makes you feel guilty that you are gobbling down years of work in just a few seconds… almost – but not quite. I tried a tasting plate of different kinds of chocolate – I love discovering new flavours this way – sampling the nibs and then the finished product. You can sip on mugs of rich creamy hot chocolate or do as I did – have an espresso made with the smooth house-roasted beans. Snap up bars, truffles and other take home treats along with aprons or cool tote bags that some of the women make – all of which goes towards supporting this innovative enterprise that makes a real difference in the lives of so many women.
When chocolate and tastes this good – and does so much good too – the only sin is not eating it.
Find out more:
East Van Roasters. 319 Carrall Street, Vancouver.
Fish are meant to symbolise good fortune or luck within certain Asian cultures and it was a serendipitous fish which led me to Gastown’s newest hot spot, Bambudda. I’d seen the most enchanting dessert picture on Twitter – two fish swimming in a perfect blue on a plate – the fish were white chocolate and lychee milk tea – too pretty but I wanted to eat it! The next day by pure luck I happened to meet someone who worked there, which decided it for me: fate had stepped in so I needed to go and check it out.
I’d mentioned to a few people I was going and everyone had two words for me “chicken skin”: turns out that they do a nifty fried chicken skin bar snack that was an absolute must-have. Guess what? Everyone was right on the money. But before we get to the crunch of the food – what’s the restaurant like? Well – on a warm Vancouver evening it was heaven to sit at the open-front bar. Their floor to ceiling windows pull right back and so we sat, red lanterns bobbing overhead, drinking pleasingly intoxicating cocktails while being charmed by barman Buck Friend.
Tardis-like, this place is far, far bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside. There’s a blue-toned private dining room that has ‘family party’ and ‘fun birthday dinner’ written all over it – then there’s the date-friendly dining space that spreads back through the building. Hand-etched wallpaper (which reminded us of Blanche from the Golden Girls’s palm-printed lair but in a really good way) and cute vintage accents make this new kid on the block feel like an always-been-there old favourite.
“But what’s the food like?” I hear you roar “Tell us about the skin!” Well – it’s pressed flat overnight, trimmed of any fat, baked in the oven and then quick-fried. And it’s so damn good that I went back two nights later dragging a friend with me. Give it a judicious squeeze of the black pepper-dipped lime and you have one of the best bar snacks I’ve ever tasted.
I got to try a mini sampler of a few dishes from Chef Keev Mah’s menu: think nouveau Dim Sum – the stars for me were the perfectly-cooked scallops, a sweetly-gooey spiced BBQ pork bun and Law Bak Go, a puréed buttered mash of a radish made into a hashbrown-like wedge and served with meltingly-tender brisket. It’s strange to feel so excited about a radish but this was magnificent – I tried this on the second visit and if anything it was even better. I tried the Crispy Pork Belly, Hong Kong BBQ style with a Maple Hoisin sauce, the texture of the pork belly was everything you’d wish for: it shattered in a satisfying bite, the meat a perfect soft juicy fall-apart counterpoint – but oh! too much salt… the one bum note in a perfect symphony.
And what of the dessert fish? A little sweet for me – but they swam prettily in their drinky waters of Blue Curaçao – frankly anyone who put something this delightful on a plate deserves an award. It’s rare to be so utterly enchanted.
Also extra marks to the inspired Cold Tea-esque cocktail creation, Tsui Hang, served in a teapot, a Dark Horse rye made fragrant with salted plums, goji berries and iron budda tea – it had an infused Budweiser syrup in the mix – I adored this and to my knowledge it’s the first beer-infused syrup I’ve encountered in Vancouver. Go drink and snack at the bar, flirt with the lovely staff and then stuff yourself silly: you can’t fight fate.
I was a guest of Bambudda the first time I visited – but as ever – my words are 100% my own
BAMBUDDA 99 Powell Street, Gastown Vancouver
You’ve probably heard of the cronut – a croissant-doughnut hybrid created by Dominique Ansel for his bakery in New York City that has had foodies lining up around the block from before dawn to get their paws on the fried sugary treats.
Well, New York is awfully far away to visit for a doughnut so thankfully Vancouver smarty-pants, the Swiss Bakery up on East 3rd Ave. by Main street have been beavering away and whipped up their own version: a frissant – a fritter-croissant amalgamation. I kept meaning to go and check them out but last week I got a furtive phone call from my lovely neighbour, Sean “Hey” he hissed, “I’m in the Swiss Bakery, I can get two of each – which frissant do you want, Hazlenut or Vanilla?”
I didn’t have to think twice. Vanilla please, and when are you coming back?
Half an hour later my door bell rang and up Sean came with the goods. Oh boy. I eagerly cut it in half, snapped a few pictures and dived straight in. Crisp and sugary on the outside, it was surprisingly light and fluffy on the inside. Not greasy whatsoever and you could see the flecks of vanilla bean in the piped-in filling: always a good sign.
Sean had warned me that just one was like two doughnuts but I couldn’t just have half and leave it at that. Oh no! I gobbled the second half up and sighed with pleasure. Gorgeous. Of course, I felt kind of sick for half an hour afterwards and jittery with the rush of sugar but oh! It was worth it…
Get your frissant on: The Swiss bakery