Canada’s indelicate delicacies
A tour of the ups and downs of Canadian cuisine
It started and ended with a Nanaimo bar. Named after the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, it has three layers: a coconut and chocolate crumb base, a rich custard icing in the middle, and a thick wedge of chocolate ganache to top it off. It is a very Canadian, indelicate delicacy.
It was 6am, and I was jet lagged to hell, having arrived in Vancouver from London the day before. That eight hour time difference meant I had fallen asleep at 8pm and was up at 3am. Waiting for the coffee shop at the end of the road to open was a special form of torture. I had missed dinner the night before and was desperate for a sugar rush.
After I had noshed a Nanaimo bar and drunk a couple of cortados, I was buzzing like a chainsaw. I mistook the surge of energy for enjoyment. Also on sale in the coffee shop was something called London Fog, which is basically an earl Grey latte that supposedly resembles a foggy London afternoon. No, thank you.
The next day I happened upon a café that sold Beaver Tails, which is yet another sweet treat, consisting of a flattened doughnut, topped with sugar and chocolate spread. Hideous.
It’s a real shame to mess with good ingredients, and Canada has plenty. Because of the expanse of forest, it is the perfect place for foraging: mushroom berries, ramps (wild onion) and fiddleheads (a crunchy, delicate green that tastes a little like asparagus).
First stop after my Nanaimo bar experience was one of the many poutine joints for chips with curd cheese and gravy. “Poutine” is Quebecois slang word for “mess”, and it lives up to its name. It’s so popular that there is an annual National Poutine Day on 5 March. The only thing that made it semi-edible was the bread it came with.
Indigenous food has really made its mark in the mainstream. Bannock, once a staple of Canada’s indigenous people, is gloriously crisp and fluffy. Bakeries across Vancouver sell Bannock in various forms, and I much prefer it to a bagel. Try it with another indigenous dish of baked beans, which dates right back to the 1800s and is traditionally eaten at breakfast. Some versions contain boiled pork; others, molasses. I loved it.
Indigenous Canadian food is an emotive and political issue. The potlatch ceremony, practised by some indigenous communities that include feasting on traditional foods, was banned by the governments for six decades in order to enforce assimilation.
Imagine an oily, fish flavoured Haribo, and you may get my drift
There is something called “Canadian” pizza, and I do remember a friend from Winnipeg trying to convince me that such a thing existed. She used to eat pizza all the time, but mainly ordered from one of the chains in North London. True Canadian pizza is apparently less doughy than the American version, with more adventurous toppings. This includes the Cronenberg crash, consisting of a type of pesto made with coriander, tandoori tofu, mango, peanuts and red pepper. I can think of few things more repellent. I politely declined the offer of a slice at a meeting I attended, whilst the others happily tucked in.
Canadians appear to be obsessed with ketchup, on everything. The most popular brand of potato chips are ketchup flavoured. I noticed that almost everyone but me appeared to be lashing copious amounts of the gloopy red sauce onto every ingredient on their plate. I suppose something has to mask the flavour of the poutine.
Sweet flavours are very popular, but the worst example of this is candied, yes, candied salmon. It is cured in brine and oodles of sugar before being heavily smoked. It is supposed to be a taste of sweet, salt and fat, a combination I love (in many Cantonese or Sicilian dishes, for example) but this was truly foul. Imagine an oily, fish flavoured Haribo, and you may get my drift.
These culinary atrocities all faded away the moment I was served half a dozen West Coast oysters. They were pert and plump with a sweet, creamy flavour, mild brininess and a buttery finish. Served with an array of relishes, including lemon, red wine, shallot vinegar and a cocktail sauce (all of which I ignored), and a divine glass of Albariño, this was the best thing I ate all week. I followed this with a Caesars salad. Although I said an emphatic “no” to the addition of sweetened bacon bits, it contained something called “Canadian parmesan”. I have no idea whether that meant it had been made in Canada (in which case, it’s not parmesan) or simply that they were serving it there (fine by me; it was delicious).
The next day I was off to the airport, facing a nine-hour flight home. I figured I would skip the airline food and took with me something that would sustain me throughout my journey. Yes, you guessed it — a Nanaimo bar I purchased at duty free. I must be a glutton for punishment.
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