by Robin Esrock
Canadian cuisine might not be as distinct as, say, Indian or Thai or Italian. Mirroring our culture, it’s more of a melting pot incorporating the world’s best tastes, sprinkled with a little bit of this and a lot of that. This being the highest-quality proteins and produce, and that the highest quality of everything else. One wouldn’t expect anything less of the highest-quality country.
British Columbia’s Okanagan’s orchards were bursting with juicy fruit long before the vineyards showed up with their award-hogging farm-to-table restaurants. It’s a truly delicious part of the world, especially in summer. Okanagan cherries and fruit are desired across Canada (watch out for cars braking hard to stop at roadside fruit shacks). Better to explore the region by bicycle, taking your time as you pedal your way through fetching countryside. For extra fuel, collect bottles of fine local wine in your saddlebags and fragrant fruit plucked from right from the trees.
We’ll leave the orchards to invade the blueberry bushes that line Lac St-Jean, a sparkling lake located a two-hour drive from Quebec City. From summer to fall, the region is famed for its sweet blueberries (hence the name of our 256-kilometre curated bike route, the Blueberry Route). These sweet berries find their way into tarts, pies, syrups, jams, desserts and just about everything else too. Aided by its abundant bistros, micro-fromageries (artisan cheesemakers) and pint-flowing microbreweries, agritourism has become a major draw to the region.
Further south but not far away is the region of Charlevoix, home of world-class hiking as well as the renowned Charlevoix Flavour Trail. Dozens of bakeries, cheese factories, tasting rooms and bistros make for a rather delicious expedition. Expect beer, waffles, wine, organic meats, cider and pastries, and make sure to leave your diet at home.
I’ve thought long and hard about Canada’s culinary gift to the world. Is it the quality of the seafood we possess in abundance on both coasts? Can any oyster truly touch a PEI oyster? When Australians serve up their famous rock lobster, it just doesn’t hold a claw to the succulent lobsters that patrol the Canadian Maritimes. One’s first lobster roll in Atlantic Canada is not easily forgotten. What about the smoked meat of Montreal? Sure, the pastrami is pretty good in New York, but it’s not a Montreal Smoked Meat Sandwich, and it never will be.
There is one distinctly Canadian dish I’ve ordered at restaurants in Europe, South America, Australia and Asia. Much like Guinness served outside of Ireland, this particular dish only tastes the way it should back home in Canada. I refer, of course, to poutine, that glorious combination of fries, gravy, and cheese curds. While it certainly isn’t the high mark of fine dining, poutine busts hunger in a delicious and sloppy onslaught that few appetites can resist. Outside of Canada, chefs never quite get the curds to squeak the way it should, and it will always squeak loudest in Quebec.
Indigenous cuisine adds unique flavours to our northern diet. Consider grilled bannock with saskatoon berries, served with thick venison or bison stew. Please, sir, can I have some more? Cedar smoked salmon, or sweet-savoury salmon candy, is synonymous with the Pacific coast and incredibly healthy for you too. Foraged herbs, greens and mushrooms add exciting new flavours to the national culinary palette. Talented Indigenous chefs are fusing traditional fare with ideas from abroad to create a small but growing list of exceptional Indigenous restaurants around the country.
St John’s is known for comfort dishes that warm the soul on a cold winter’s day. With its English, Irish, French and First Nation roots, local chefs use the Atlantic’s abundant natural resources to full effect. Expect fresh fish and chips, pies and stews, along with local fruits like bakeapples, partridgeberries and toutons, a fried dough dessert. Cod tongue tastes better than it sounds, especially after a local has screeched you in.
Drown everything in Canadian maple syrup (is there any other kind worth mentioning?) and wash it back with a light-bodied and fruity Gamay, the grape varietal Canada is perfecting as its own. This is especially true in and around Niagara-on-the-Lake, which Trip Advisor recognizes as Canada’s number one food and wine destination. With the country’s highest concentration of farm-to-table restaurants, you’ll find abundant fruit, vegetables, and artisan producers in this fetching region of woodland, farm, vineyard and field. Nothing lets you eat without guilt, like exercise. Great Canadian Trails’ 7-day Niagara Wine and Waterfront Trails itinerary was designed to do exactly that, taking you along the shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie to work off the day’s gastronomic indulgences – well, at least a few of them.
Food truck and ale trail bonanzas in BC, overflowing orchards in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, and don’t get me started on the world’s best mustards in the prairies. Canada is blessed, bountiful and ready to delight your tastebuds. If we eat to live and we travel to eat, then one can only conclude that ultimately, we all live to travel.
Bestselling author Robin Esrock (The Great Canadian Bucket List) is very hungry and will not write another word until he has eaten something delicious and local from the fridge.