Exploring the inspiration of Canadian culinary art

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

According to Toronto's Alan Young, American and Canadian cuisines are comparable.

"Both are bland, lacking in creativity and loaded with fat," he says, "with the only difference being that Americans serve much larger portions."

Having just returned from another visit to the Great White North, I can tell you he's as wrong about his own cuisine as he is ours. There's far more to Canadian food than back bacon and maple syrup though, syrup figures prominently in the national diet.

Canada, after all, produces 80 percent of the world's maple syrup and they don't reserve it just for pancakes. They put it in everything.

In wintertime they even ladle it over fresh snow and eat it. Perhaps Calgary's Will Ferguson wasn't being entirely facetious when he observed, "Give a Canadian a jug of maply syrup and they are in hoser heaven, splashing it all over anything within striking distance: pancakes, waffles, ice cream, small pets, patio furniture, in-laws, etc."

Though Canadian cuisine may start with maple syrup, it surely doesn't end there. The country has introduced lots of foods to the world. For example, there's the butter tart, invented in northern Ontario; the Nanaimo bar, a cookie that takes its name from a fishing village on Vancouver Island; beaver tails, paddle-shaped doughnuts popular along Ottawa's Rideau Canal, the longest skating rink in the world; poutine, an unlikely combination of French fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds originally from Quebec, and Canola oil.

In addition there are foods not invented in Canada, but perfected there. Canadian wild rice from Manitoba, for instance, is considered to be among the best in the world. So too are potatoes from Prince Edward Island. The same goes for beef from Alberta, salmon from British Columbia, scallops from Nova Scotia, and foie gras from Quebec.

Given such diversity it isn't surprising that Canada, a country covering five time zones, has no one archetypal dish, let alone a uniform national cuisine. Rather, its cuisine is thoroughly regional, inspired by local ingredients and by ethnic immigrants.

In the maritime provinces you'll find both French and British seafood traditions honored; in the French-speaking province of Quebec you'll find French cooking techniques applied to New World ingredients. In Ontario, with its three-quarters of a million lakes, you'll find whitefish, pike, and trout, as well as great Cheddar cheese, and a strong German influence.

In one part of British Columbia you'll find traces of Victorian England and in another, shades of modern Asia. In the Prairie provinces you'll find wild game, wild fowl, and wild berries (like the Saskatoon berry), fine wheat, oats, and barley, as well as a markedly Ukrainian and Scandinavian flavor.

Thus, while in Alberta I experienced one of the newest trends in Canadian cooking, Rocky Mountain Cuisine. First created less than ten years ago by chef Alistair Barnes, it features regional ingredients in artistic presentations with Swiss and Austrian touches.

Whether it was the caribou medallions at Emerald Lake Lodge, the Digby scallops wrapped in buffalo prosciutto at Pyramid Lake Lodge, the B.C. salmon at the Maple Leaf Grille in Banff, or the maple wild rice pudding at Calgary's River CafZ, I found the mountain-inspired cuisine to be, well, inspiring.

In 1853 Henry David Thoreau wrote, "What I got by going to Canada was a cold." These days visitors to Canada get very well fed.

Rotini Pasta with Venison Strips

When I was served this wonderful dish recently at Deer Lodge on Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada, I just had to have the recipe. Fortunately, the chef complied with my request and wrote it out for me in his own hand.

Ingredients:

1 and 1/2 pounds venison steak

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup chopped shallots

1 pound oyster mushrooms, sliced

2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

1/4 cup red wine

3/4 cup cream

8 oz. rotini pasta, cooked and drained

salt and pepper

Directions: Cut steak into thin strips and sautZ in oil over high heat until browned. Remove meat from pan, add shallots and sautZ until soft. Add mushrooms and cook until soft. Add tomatoes and cook until soft. Add wine and bring to a boil. Add cream and continue to boil until slightly reduced. Stir in pasta and venison, season with salt and pepper, and serve.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 on your FM dial. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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