It’s 9:30 am and I’m elbow-deep in foie gras in a château in southwest France. Not literally to the elbows, mind you, but I’m as up-close-and-personal as I’m likely to get, thrilled and terrified in equal measure as I tease vascular tissue free from the prized duck liver. Despite the cooling armour of the castle’s thick walls, the foie gras seems to be melting under my fingers and I’m beginning to sweat. My mentor, Chef Thierry Meret, reassures me with his usual bonhomie – and a shot of plum brandy.
Read the full story in the Winter 2018 Issue of Taste & Travel International magazine.
If I could design a perfect day in food-travel heaven, this would be it:
A gentle hike on a mountain trail, overlooking vineyards heavy with fruit. A meet-up with a winemaker and a lingering visit to his cellars and tasting room. Perhaps a breezy float on the bay to take the heat out of the day. Then a long picnic lunch of shellfish just plucked from the sea.
Lucky for me, today IS that day.
Read the full story in the Spring Issue of Taste & Travel International magazine.
Know what always tells me that spring is actually on its way?
It’s not the tulips that appear at the checkout, whispering tight-lipped promises that they’ll open their hearts, if only I’ll take them home. (I do, and they prove true to their word).
Nor is it the bare patch that emerges in my garden after a long Chinook, reminding me of where my rhubarb lays sleeping. (That just makes me sad. BUT I’ve found an antidote for that, which I’ll share later on).
It’s the moment when I take my last luscious YYC Hot Chocolate Fest sip (thank you, February!) and open my browser to the listings for The Big Taste – Calgary’s annual festival for food lovers. Those ten days in March when hundreds of city-centre chefs put on their best show, with multicourse meals that remind us what a terrific food town we live in. This year, more than 90 restaurants make their pitch for your heart and mine.
But the festival’s not all signature events and gourmet dinners (though there’s plenty of those, with menus whose read is its own delicious indulgence). Our chefs and restaurateurs know – perhaps better than most – that we’ve been hurting here in Calgary during this economic downturn. So they’ve also included 3-course lunches for only $15 and $25 dollars, and Happy Hour specials featuring all your favourite and soon-to-be-favourite drinks and snacks.
So even if the belt is tight at the moment, there’s good excuse to loosen it up just a notch and treat yourself to a little morale boost. To celebrate the news that we’ve turned the corner and – though the climb is still long and slow – better times lay ahead.
To venture down to the new-kids-on-the-block like Royale Brasserie and Mill Street Brewpub on 17th; Klein/Harris on Stephen Avenue; or Provision in Memorial Park. Stave off the winter blues with a new-to-you cuisine at Hapa Izakaya (serving Japanese), Paper St. Food + Drink (featuring international street food), or Foreign Concept (helmed by Gold Medal Plates winner, Chef Jinhee Lee, and her mentor, Duncan Ly).
Maybe it’s time to check out the food scene stars that you’ve just never made it to, like Pigeonhole or Whitehall. Or to splash all-out: at SAIT’s Centennial Celebration in their spiffy downtown culinary campus – or at The Guild toasting Canada’s 150th birthday in the iconic Hudson’s Bay building .
Whether your inclination is to explore new food frontiers or rediscover old favourites, know that scores of our culinary best are working hard behind the scenes to coax fabulous flavours and colours from our province’s larders and root cellars. They’re tapping local greenhouses – and sourcing fresh crops from our neighbours in gentler climes – to remind us of what we can look forward to as the days grow longer.
They’re bringing spring back to Calgary. Time to show them a little love. It’s been a long cold winter for them, too.
AND FOR THOSE LIKE ME WHO CAN’T WAIT FOR THAT FIRST TASTE OF RHUBARB: Track down a bottle of Okanagan Spirits’ Rhubarb Liqueur – my favourite springtime discovery. In an inspired turn of crowdsourcing in 2016, Vernon’s craft distillery asked Okanagan residents if they’d like to share their spare rhubarb for a little experiment. Okanaganites responded in droves – with everything from truckbeds of rhubarb stalks in dirt, to sealed baggies of carefully-chopped fruit. Distillery staff painstakingly washed and hand-chopped all 650 pounds – to produce a spirit that’s so tart and fresh, you can almost hear the crunch. Look for it at fine liquor stores in Calgary or order it online while supplies last.
With writing deadlines pending, public trials at YYC Calgary’s new International terminal to attend, and a little Thanksgiving cooking and travel to enjoy over the past two weeks, I’m just now sorting through my notes from the Okanagan Food & Wine Writers Workshop held at the Manteo Resort in Kelowna Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
Those of you familiar with the workshop will know it’s the love’s labour of Jennifer Cockrall-King, author of Food and the City and Food Artisans of the Okanagan, who splits her time between homes in Edmonton and the Okanagan Valley (when she’s not on the road researching articles for various print publications). This was my first appearance at the Workshop – now in its 7th year – but it’s safe to say I’ll be joining the ranks of previous alumni who return regularly to the event for more.
More of what, you ask?
More opportunities to meet the chefs, growers, and winemakers who’ve put the Okanagan Valley firmly on the map of North American oenophiles and food lovers.
More engaging workshops designed for food, wine, and travel writers, regardless of where they are in their careers.
Workshops like Timothy Fowler‘s interactive session on “The Pleasure and Discipline of Daily Writing”, complete with short-but-sweet writing exercises to stimulate the creativity in anyone.
Or “How to Find Great Stories in Food”, presented by SunsetMagazine‘s Food Editor, Margo True – who took us behind the scenes of her award-winning stories at Gourmet, Saveur, and Sunset, to share her own lessons learned and sources of inspiration.
Jill Foran, Editor of WestJet Magazine, helped us hone our query skills in “The Art of the Pitch” and Jennifer Cockrall-King brought it back to the personal with “Authenticity and Connection in Good Writing”.
Woven between these plenaries were bonus presentations by Tourism Vernon, Quails’ Gate Wines, and Carmelis Goat Cheese (replete with treats, I might add).
And then there were the field trips: an orchard experience and hands-on galette-making with Hank and Darcel Markgraf representing B.C. Tree Fruits; a tasting of Kitsch Winery’s newly-minted award-winning 2015 Riesling with winemaker Grant Biggs; and Gabe Cipes’ sunset tour of the biodynamic gardens at Summerhill Pyramid Winery, followed by a 4-course gastronomic experience created by Summerhill’s new Executive Chef, Alex Lavroff and hosted by CEO Ezra Cipes.
Back at home base, the kitchens of the Manteo Resort and Hotel Eldorado took our fueling needs to new heights, with the Eldorado’s Vince Van Wieringen recreating a veritable flower garden on our lunch plates and the Manteo’s Marc Schoene and his culinary team pulling out all the stops with spectacular breakfasts, a seafood-inspired lunch, and a true Okanagan farm-to-table harvest dinner.
Kudos to you all for the generous sharing of your talents and passion. And special thanks to Jill Foran and Margo True for your positive feedback on my own new work during our 1:1 Blue Pencil sessions.
Seems the folks helming the new cafe at Bowness Park are inclined to agree.
Since the epic flood of 2013 saw Calgary’s Bow River rushing pell-mell among the cottonwoods, pushing mud and debris high up tree trunks and across the century-old picnic grounds, the road back for this well-loved park has been a long one. Last summer, after two years of reconstruction that saw roadways reconfigured, river access improved, and regional bikeways integrated, the park re-opened to the public – and to much enthusiasm for the creatively reimagined central square on the lagoon.
Now the concession that has served hotdogs and ice cream, hot chocolate and coffee to generations of paddling and skating Calgarians has made its phoenix-rise at last, with the opening of Market and – in a throwback to the 1920’s tea house that once graced the river channel – a new cafe called Seasons of Bowness Park.
But this is not your grandmother’s tea house.
With its vaulted ceiling, exposed pine beams, and honey-hued wood trim, the new venue is decidedly unfussy; evocative of a contemporary river-fishing lodge. The mood is casual and stylish, with deep blue and black accents, transparent blue plastic-and-chrome chairs, and two long plaid-and-leather banquettes placed back-to-back to divide the airy room into two. A place where you’d feel equally at home in bike shorts and a tech-shirt as in a sundress and sandals (okay, so some of you guys may not feel comfortable in a sundress and sandals). Few of the furnishings are fixed, leaving this a flexible space that can be configured for multiple uses. The feature attraction, of course, is the long lagoon view – and Seasons cafe takes full advantage of this, with a continuous stretch of windows along three sides of the building and a sunny wraparound deck that overhangs the river channel.
The contemporary feel extends to the lunch menu as well. With grab-and-go sandwiches, salads, and snacks covered off by the take-out counter at the adjacent Market, the team at Seasons cafe have opted for what they term “casual fine dining” – an array of globally-inspired tapas and skewers, beautifully-plated salads, and mains that run the gamut from paella fried rice to fried chicken to steelhead trout with pasta (There’s also a signature burger and ribs).
I chose for my lunch the Canadian Falafel plate (made with black and white beans and garnished with herb purée and sumac yogurt, $10)) and a half-order of the Chèvre Chaude salad (toasted goat cheese on artisan lettuce greens, with a vegetable medley and herb vinaigrette, $10). The three falafel balls were perfectly-crisped on the outside, as was the panko-crusted mild goat cheese, and the salad’s vegetable medley on this occasion included tasty shavings of fennel and Asian radish.
In the interest of the most complete research on a single stomach, I chose a sampler platter from the dessert menu, which included bite-sized servings of chewy brownie, iced coconut parfait, and cheesecake with berry compote and honey ($8). A selection of cheeses is also available, as well as French press coffee and local teas by Grounded (the Velvet Mint rooibos proved smooth and sublime).
The dinner menu expands the lunch offerings with selections of pork, steak frites, shrimp, gnocchi, and a choice of seasonal sides. Just this weekend, the cafe launched its Saturday and Sunday brunch, offering elevated renditions of the usual suspects: eggs, French toast, pancakes, fruit, and breakfast hash.
Seasons has an extensive wine list, a short curation of craft beers (from Canada, the U.S., and Europe) as well as seasonal beers on tap, and interesting cocktail options designed for summer sipping. For those who prefer to bring their own bottle, wine corkage is available for $15.
The staff at Seasons are attentive, welcoming, and notably thrilled to share this new Bowness Park experience with you. With its emphasis on casual fine dining as opposed to chips and burgers, the reincarnated tea house is a bit of a risky venture among the wagon-pulling, football-throwing traditional park crowd. But those simply looking for a caffeine fix or a quick bite will find their needs met by the friendly baristas at Market, with a full display counter of fresh and tasty choices (open 10 am to 8 pm daily). And in the under-served restaurant market of Calgary’s NW quadrant, Seasons of Bowness Park may well be a happy venture that’s been far too long in the making.
I’m already planning my next date night there with my Man, to watch the light play golden over the water and the mother ducks – both feathered and human – shepherding their young ones off to bed.
Like many Calgarians, my distrust of our local weather runs deep.
(Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio how quickly the weather changes around here. But wait – he thought he was experiencing something new…).
Little wonder, then, that when hundred-year-old high-temperature records were falling like poplar pollen in April, I was seized with the conviction that our city would soon exhaust its miserly annual quota of warm summer evenings.
Call me paranoid, but the feeling was unshakeable. So on a balmy Friday just ahead of a predicted weather change, I made the carpe diem decision to cycle against the flow of bike commuters to meet my Man downtown for date night. We’d been itching to try out the new Al Forno Bakery & Cafe near the intersection of the Bow River pathways and the 7th Street cycle track. As luck would have it, my Man had ridden his bike to the office that morning. The plan called for hauling our bikes back home on the C-train if we lingered past daylight or imbibed too heavily.
Sadly, the Man was delayed for an hour past the appointed rendezvous – leaving me no option but to settle beneath Al Forno’s skylights with a glass of red wine, a bowl of warm marinated olives, and a good book (do I know my Man or what?). The cafe buzzed with happy-hour revelers, laptop-absorbed writers, workweek-debriefing couples, and girls-night-out new moms, and a steady stream of nearby condo-dwellers pushed through the door for a takeaway meal or a coffee to go. By the time my Man arrived, every seat in the house was filled by others who, like us, were drawn by the wine and beer specials and the intriguing list of housemade pastas and bakery-fresh flatbreads.
The servers proved amiable and well-versed in the vino offerings, and the twin delights of gorgonzola/pear and potato/bacon/rosemary flatbreads had us planning a return visit before we’d finished the final bites. When we eventually unlocked our bikes in the pink and orange twilight, weekday worries had dissipated along with the day’s heat. A quick calculation of daylight and blood-alcohol levels deemed us fit for the journey home, so we decided to forgo the C-train option. Forty minutes later, we cycled into our driveway just as darkness descended – a happy reminder of how, even in April, our city is blessed with a long and lingering dusk.
Bike Month made its annual launch in Calgary this week – which got me thinking about other great food and libation venues that are easily accessed from our nearly 800 km of cycle paths. As an unabashedly fair-weather cyclist who rarely ventures beyond the Bow River bikeways, I offer up my favourite trailside pit-stops below.
(The more devoted cyclists among you would no doubt cast a wider net – so please do add to the conversation with your own recommendations.)
And let’s get out and enjoy the summer! We’ve got firm assurances from Dave Phillips (Environment Canada’s ever-popular-and-rarely-wrong Senior Climatologist), it’s going to be warm and dry!
Nothing matches the leafy island location of this city-centre icon for a stellar weekend brunch. And I’ve lost track of how many times the cafe has appeared on lists of our country’s top restaurants for its thoughtfully-crafted farm-to-table Canadian cuisine. Procrastinators who’ve been shut-out of Calgary’s annual Folk Music Festival know that come July the cafe’s patio also provides some great unofficial ringside seats to the folkfest along with your meal.
Simmons Building (East Village RiverWalk)
Another addition to Canada’s Top 100 Restaurants list – though it only opened last year – is charbar, serving up meaty Argentinian-inspired cuisine from its wood-fired grill, as well as an array of vegetarian small plates for the herbivores among us. Sharing the gorgeous unconventional spaces in and around the historic Simmons Building are Sidewalk Citizen, with its artisanal sandwiches and overflowing pitas, and well-loved local coffee roasters Phil & Sebastian (who offer tours of the roasterie on Tuesday mornings). But the cherry on top is the oh-so-cool patio of rooftopbar@simmons with its unparalleled view of Calgary’s river panorama (and some tasty bar bites and gelato sandwiches, to boot).
Hose and Hound Pub and Gravity Espresso & Wine Bar (Inglewood)
Okay, so these two Inglewood favourites are not officially on the bikeways. But just a short detour off the river paths up 11th Street S.E. lie the sunny patios of two of my fondest places to lock up my bike and while away an afternoon. The Hose and Hound‘s location in 1907-built Fire Station No. 3 lends quirky historic decor to a pub-centric menu and craft beer tipples, while across the street at the Art Block the neighbourly welcome I receive along with my pinot makes Gravity my top choice of venue to write my first novel.
Heading west out of downtown, the river valley’s treasures turn to nature more than structure, but this cozy breakfast place-cum-Asian cafe-cum coffee klatsch is a welcome destination for weekday lunchers and Sunday morning caffeine-seekers. Operating out of a former Robin’s Donuts location since 2002, this family-owned venue offers bubble tea as well as wine and beer with its eclectic menu – and a stone fireplace to curl up near when my pedalling gets interrupted by a sudden hailstorm.
What would a westward cycle be without a stop at Angel’s (whose full moniker is larger than the diminutive interior of this aluminum-sided portable)? More than a source for sandwich wraps, home-baked goodies, coffee, and ice cream, Angel’s is also a godsend of pathside aid. They’ve got bike repair tools (supplied by Bow Cycle), first aid equipment (courtesy of Calgary EMS), and other emergency supplies – from battery chargers for stranded drivers to duct tape for hapless rafters.
Bowness Park Cafe (Bowness Park)
This old urban park, beloved to generations of Calgarians, will complete its phoenix-rise from the 2013 floods this summer – with a new wading pool for the little ones and a lagoon-centred sound system reminiscent of the park’s early-1900’s heydays. The miniature train will be back, too. Top of my discovery list this season will be the new grab & go market and full-service restaurant – Seasons of Bowness Park – scheduled for a soft-opening one day very soon. Can’t wait to check it out!
So tell me – where are YOUR favourite bikeway fueling stops in Calgary?