September 2004 Edition
Canada's Cuisine

Across the country, Canadians have created culinary traditions all their own

by Patricia Nicholson

What is Canadian cuisine? Is it grilled salmon fresh from the Pacific Ocean? Or is it Alberta beef? Fiddleheads in springtime? Or the famous lobster suppers served at St. Ann’s church in Prince Edward Island? Is it the sweet treats unique to Canada, such as butter tarts and Nanaimo bars? Or the Saskatoon berries and bakeapples prized for pies and jams? Is it handwritten recipes passed down from the Acadians? Or exciting fusion cuisine served in urban hotspots? Well — yes. It is.

Canadian cuisine embraces all of those things, and so much more. Don Monsour, chair of product development for the Canadian Tourism Commission, prefers to talk about the cuisines of Canada, rather than Canadian cuisine.

"There isn’t one cuisine for the whole county," Monsour says. Instead, the cuisines of Canada are diverse, regional, fresh, local and linked to the culture and history of the individual regions, he says. They are borne of the rich palette of ingredients and traditions from coast to coast.

Some of the "traditional" foods eaten by early Canadians are deserving of praise for reasons other than taste. Rappee pie is notable not so much for its table appeal ("It’s not the most tasty dish," says Heather Mackenzie of Taste of Nova Scotia) but for its frugal ingenuity: it used the grated potatoes left over after making starch for the laundry, Mackenzie explains. Modern diners seeking Acadian tastes are better off sampling chicken fricot or butterscotch pie.

Pemmican — a concoction of dried buffalo meat, fat and berries — was a staple for native people, settlers and voyageurs because of it kept forever and packed a nutritional wallop. But, as Brad Hughes of Where Winnipeg magazine says, "Nobody in their right mind would serve pemmican at home or in a restaurant because it’s just awful." Hughes adds that contemporary chefs are now using traditional, indigenous ingredients to create modern dishes.

For others, indigenous ingredients are only a small part of Canadian cuisine.

"Canadian food is the food that we cook in our own foodways, in our own cultural voice," says Anita Stewart, founder of Cuisine Canada and author of The Flavours of Canada.

Stewart organized Canada Day 2! The World’s Longest Barbecue, held on July 31. The event encouraged people across the country to grill the best regional foods. While there was plenty of typical backyard fare (burgers remain a barbecue favourite), menus also reflected the country’s diverse culinary traditions: salmon, shrimp, bison burgers and plenty of fresh veggies hit the grill. Judson Smith, executive chef of the House of Commons, planned a pan-Canadian menu that included wines from British Columbia, Alberta skirt steak, Ontario organic chicken and veggies, P.E.I. potato salad, field tomatoes with crumbled Quebec goat cheese, and Niagara fruits.

For Stewart, the biggest misconception about Canadian cuisine is that it is sometimes perceived as boring. "It’s anything but boring," Stewart says. "It’s fantastic." ¨

The East

"We celebrate food," says Taste of Nova Scotia’s Heather Mackenzie. "We can’t wait for that first taste of maple syrup, or the first strawberries."

With 400 years of Acadian traditions, this part of Canada boasts some rich history, including The Order of Good Cheer, which was founded in the 1600s by French settlers during the very difficult first winters. In order to keep up morale, the men took turns putting on feasts.

"It is the first social club in North America, and it still goes on today," Mackenzie says.

Modern travelers to the region, she adds, are looking for seafood: fresh lobster, scallops and haddock, and smoked salmon. And the indigenous blueberries, which are the area’s largest agricultural export crop. When Nova Scotia hosted the Canada Day festivities at the Canadian Consulate General’s residence in Los Angeles last summer, they wowed the guests with smoked salmon, scallops, lobster, and a newly created drink called a Bluenoser: champagne tweaked with a bit of blueberry juice.

Quebec

Quebec boasts a long and proud culinary tradition that includes such celebrated customs as tourtiere, Montreal smoked meat, and the springtime rite of visiting the sugar shack to eat maple syrup taffy on wooden sticks. One of the most notable developments in Quebec is the variety of exquisite cheeses produced in the province. From the famous Oka, and the rich blue cheese made by Benedictine monks at the Abbaye Saint Benoît du Lac, to Chevre Noir (named for its black wax rind) and the raw milk cheeses lovingly made by local cheese artisans, the province is a cheese lover’s paradise. This unique bounty is celebrated every year at a cheese festival in Warwick, Quebec.

Ontario

Less than an hour’s drive from Ottawa, the town of Carp is home to the largest farmer’s market in eastern Ontario. You’ll find fresh seasonal produce, and pickles, preserves and jams. Pick up some honey to accompany fresh-baked bread and peruse the muffins and butter tarts, or an organic carrot cake decorated with such ornate frosting that you might photograph it before eating it. But you can also pick up bison or elk meat, local beef, and sausages made from venison or emu. A garlic festival is held here every August.

Ontario is also home to the Niagara wine region, a major producer of the golden delicacy known as ice wine. Canada is the world’s largest producer of ice wines, according to Anita Stewart’s book The Flavours of Canada.

The Prairies

Where Winnipeg magazine held the Good Food Manitoba event for three years, and plans to transform the celebration of regional cuisine into a culinary awards program. It focuses on indigenous ingredients from the four regions of the province: prairies, forests, wetlands and lakes. Bison, pickerel, wild rice, mushrooms and berries figure prominently in regional cuisine. Brad Hughes says that more than 100 restaurants in Winnipeg now serve bison — up from about 10 a few years ago. As with every region in Canada, cultural influences play a big role. "I was at a sushi restaurant and they served bison sashimi. The Jamaican place has bison rotis," Hughes says.

Lake Manitoba pickerel is probably the most prominent menu item to be found in these parts. "Almost any sit-down restaurant will have pickerel on the menu," Hughes says. It can be prepared in many different ways, but Hughes says the classic is pan-fried with lemon and butter.

British Columbia

"In B.C., we’re blessed with all the attributes of the landlocked provinces and have the advantages of waterfront," Monsour says. British Columbians harvest not only the waters of the Pacific coast, but also the orchards of the Okanagan Valley and the vines of the province’s wine regions.

B.C. diners have access to many varieties of salmon, fresh from the sea, and it has become a mainstay of B.C. hotels and restaurants. "We have some of the best salmon in the world," Monsour says.

But even within B.C., Monsour says there are several distinct cuisines, from the coast to the rockies. Travelers to B.C. now seek out culinary experiences, such as winery tours and mushroom hunts.