Saskatchewan


2
Jul 14

Challenge #6: Eat at a Top Chef Canada Winner’s Restaurant

dale1Eat 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.

dale2It 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.

dale3I 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

. Ayden Kitchen and Bar

 


16
May 14

Challenge #5: Float in Canada’s Dead Sea

Because if someone tells you that ‘Canada’s Dead Sea’ is a few hours drive away, well, you just get in a car, right?

manitou_opt-2

I’ve been a little obsessed with Manitou Springs ever since I first read about it, it’s a rarity; there are only three lakes in the world that have this particular chemical composition and the others are in Israel and the Czech Republic, but Manitou Lake is right here in Canada. There are 27 different kinds of mineral salts in the water; it’s particularly high in magnesium and sulphate and what all these naturally-occurring chemicals reportedly does is make the water buoyant and, according to the legend of the Cree First Nations – also rich with healing properties. Of course, winter in Sakatchewan is no time to go for a dip in a lake but thanks to a pool and spa complex you can skip the bitter sub-zero cold and soak up the benefits all year round.

manitou3After an hour or so driving the arrow-straight Yellowhead Highway which neatly cuts across all four western provinces, I turned off towards Watrous and after a few minutes was flooded with a sense of deja vu. I heard a distant rumble on the horizon and slowed down and then I saw it: a freight train which seemed like it was a hundred cars long. I jumped out into the minus 20-something  bone-numbing chill and watched it pass. It was as I listened to the clickety-clack of the rails on the track that I realised I had been here before. Four years ago, crossing Canada on the “Canadian” train from Toronto to Vancouver. I watched the train disappear into the distance and thought about what a different life I led now compared to the girl on that train then.

manitou6When you’re feeling contemplative, the best thing to do is listen to country music, and of course, the prairies had radio stations to suit. I drove along singing songs about cowboys and cheating hearts, no other cars on the road following the train line and my memories. Yes! Here were the huge grain silos that I’d snapped photos of from the window of the train. In the dead of winter, the fields heaped high in snow, it seemed impossible to imagine the fields golden and green again. But the sun was bright and the sky impossibly blue. I pulled over again to watch the powdery snow snake across the road in the wind.

manitou2And I finally got to see my first ‘wild’ creatures as I turned down the narrow road lined with high trees a mile or so away from the lake and the hotel. I slammed on my brakes as dozens of white-tail deer galloped and skipped across the road, leaping gracefully over a fence to the fields beyond. Yes, they were ‘only’ deer but they were so alive and vivid, their hooves clattering across the road, seeing them felt like a rare joy and treat.

But yes, the question I know you want answered: can you really float in the water at Manitou Springs? Is it ‘Canada’s Dead Sea’? Well, yes, you can; it’s somewhat unnerving to lie back, floating easily on your back and then try and sit up, I kept flipping back, as though I was held up by unseen hands. My skin and hair felt gorgeous afterwards and after talking to a few of the many seniors bathing in the pool, it’s a popular spot for easing arthritis and other joint pains. The hotel, like the pool, is fairly utilitarian, but most importantly, spotlessly clean. It’s not an “upmarket spa” or a “boutique hotel” at all, but what you’re here for is to experience the pool and its seemingly restorative waters and really, this is the only show in town to do that.

manitou5I tried a couple of the signature spa treatments, one with therapeutic mud from the lake and another using mineral salts – honestly, I’m not sure I’d recommend them, unless you don’t mind traipsing from your treatment room, naked and covered in mud or salt, wrapped in the bottom sheet from your couch, before taking a brisk walk through the reception before hosing yourself clean in a toilet with a shower. Call me a picky princess, but I’m not a fan of that so until they build a shower IN the treatment room, I’d suggest you stick to treatments which don’t require you leaving the room as the therapists were good but stymied by the lack of decent facilities.

Manitou4The lake was covered with snow when I visited and I trudged outside for a walk to see what it was like. Cars have to be plugged in at the mains in freezing climates like this, you need a block heater or it’s likely that your car simply won’t start. I stomped past a row of plugged-in cars on down to the lake. The snow was deep, I was almost immediately up past my knees and it was hard to walk, but I could imagine this place in the summer; I saw past the bandstand thick with snow and the ice cream stall closed for the season and imagined that same blue sky and bright sun beating down on waving fields of golden corn and prairie flowers instead of reflecting the endless snow.

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism Saskatoon/Saskatchewan and Manitou Springs Resort Hotel & Spa and but as ever, all my words are 100% own.

·  Manitou Springs [Official Site]

·  Tourism Saskatoon [Official Site]

· Tourism Saskatchewan [Official Site]

 

 


26
Mar 14

Saskatoon and the King of Kovbasa

Image courtesy of: http://www.doukhobor.org

Image Courtesy Of Doukhobor

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.

Yevshan Dancers

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. sas8

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.

The contestants

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.

sas9This 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.

sas4I 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.

The winners

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. sas3

My trip was made possible by support from Tourism Saskatoon, but – as ever – my words are 100% my own. 

Further information

Tourism Saskatchewan

Ukrainian Museum of Canada

 

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