Tulip Festival

Yesterday was lovely, if hot (30°C with a humidex of 36°C), so I headed out to Dow’s Lake to check out the gardens that were planted for the Canadian Tulip Festival. If a tulip festival sounds like something more apropos to the Netherlands than Canada, that’s kind of the point.


Canada 150 tulip.

There is a strong bond between the two countries, primarily because in 1945 Canadian troops participated in the liberation of the Netherlands and then helped to rebuild the country after the war. Not surprisingly, some 1,800 war brides and 400 children came back to Canada following the troops. Additionally, in 1940 Princess Juliana (who later became Queen of the Netherlands) and her two daughters, Princesses Beatrix (who grew up to be Queen for 33 years) and Irene fled from the Nazis to take refuge in Ottawa during the second World War. Prince Bernhard and Princess Juliana’s third daughter, Princess Margriet Francisca, was born in the Ottawa Civic Hospital during this period of exile. The “Canadian” princess was later baptized at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on June 29th, 1943, with the Governor General of Canada as one of her godparents.


Canada 150 tulips.

After the end of the war and the return of the Dutch Royal Family, Princess Juliana and the people of the Netherlands sent, among other things, 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada in thanks. In 1946, Princess Juliana gave an additional 20,000 bulbs, and since 1958 the Royal Family has sent 10,000 bulbs annually. The Canadian Tulip Festival has been running since 1951 and obviously not all of the nearly one million bulbs planted each year in the capital region are gifts from the Netherlands, but all of the flowers are a symbol of international friendship.


Canada 150 tulips, with the Rideau Canal and Carleton University in the background.

This year is particularly important, as it is Canada’s sesquicentennial — the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Basically, the year has been planned as a giant birthday party for the country, and the Tulip Festival is part of that celebration. Specifically, a Dutch grower was commissioned by the Government of Canada to breed a tulip especially for the occasion, with red and white petals meant to mimic the Canadian flag. I’ve read that when some people planted these bulbs privately, they came up orange or pink, but the ones planted by the National Capital Commission came up in the promised red and white. Perhaps the variation available for public purchase in garden centers was a different cultivar?

At any rate, when the weather is fine, a walk through the gardens for the Tulip Festival is definitely worth fighting the traffic downtown. My favourite spot is Commissioners Park at Dow’s Lake, although I’m told that Parliament Hill and Major’s Hill Park are also planted beautifully for the season. Of course, you can check out the art installation of 5-foot-tall painted tulips at Lansdowne Park as well.

Lobster Rolls

The weather is finally changing to something vaguely resembling summer, and this is the time of year that I start thinking about all the summer trips to the Maritimes that I made as a child, and then again as an adult. We would drive there from Ontario, and it seemed that as soon as you crossed the border between Québec and New Brunswick, the food culture changed from land to sea. Just pop into a New Brunswick fast food restaurant in order to compare: McDonald’s in New Brunswick serves (very poor) lobster rolls, and Subway serves a (reasonable) seafood sub. The culinary transition is rather abrupt, because it’s not like the terrain and agriculture of eastern Québec and western New Brunswick are at all different. But New Brunswick is a maritime province, and this is reflected in the culture and the cuisine. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a strong agricultural foundation in the province as well; with an area almost the size of Ireland with one sixth the population, there is room for multiple local industries.


Golden Fry, Shediac, New Brunswick.

Most people who visit New Brunswick head for the coast. The best value for money as a tourist is generally to rent a cottage within walking distance of the sea, or if that’s not possible, to stay in an inn or B&B within a short drive of the beach. The town of Shediac (the self-proclaimed Lobster Capital of the World) has capitalized on its proximity to the gorgeous Parlee Beach Provincial Park and has, over the years, become somewhat overdone, over-hyped and overpriced. The town almost shuts down except for the months of July and August. There are some good seafood restaurants there during tourist season — but some of the best food in town can be found at the Golden Fry (560 Main St, Shediac).


Lobster roll and fries at the Golden Fry.

The place doesn’t look like much; it’s just a small building off the side of the road, with a gravel parking lot and some plastic tables and chairs out front. It’s takeout, pure and simple — it makes me think that a french fry truck grew roots and decided to stay in one place. But oh my goodness, their food is so good! Take the lobster roll, for example. It’s a toasted, buttered New England roll stuffed to bursting with chunks of fresh, cold lobster meat. Their their fries are fresh-cut, their poutine uses real cheese curds, their fried clams are crisp on the outside, soft in the center… A lot of the fancier restaurants in town could take lessons from this place, especially since “lobster roll and fries” is a standard menu item in the area no matter where you dine.


Bouctouche Beach.

To me, though, Shediac has been done to death. The town is packed to the gills during tourist season, the traffic can be gnarly, everything is overpriced compared to the same things just out of town, the cottages are so close they’re practically town houses… For my seaside vacation, I prefer something a little calmer. This is why I’ve fallen in love with the town of Bouctouche, which is a short drive up Highway 11. Like Shediac and Pointe-du-Chêne (which also has some lovely beaches), it is on the Northumberland Strait, and as such boasts some of the warmest ocean water temperatures on the Atlantic coast north of Virginia. Unlike Shediac, it hasn’t become a tourist trap, although Bouctouche does boom in summer. It’s a little further away from Moncton, and hence from the Moncton airport, so people aren’t as likely to make the effort.


Irving Eco-Center, La Dune de Bouctouche boardwalk.


Irving Arboretum.


Irving Arboretum.

The town of Bouctouche has benefited from being where James Dergavel Irving founded J.D. Irving Ltd. (the company most well-known these days for Irving gas stations) in 1882. The company/family has funded a big chunk of the most beautiful spots in town, like the Irving Arboretum, which is packed with scenic walking and biking trails, and the Irving Eco-Centre, La Dune de Bouctouche, which contains the local saltwater beach as well as a boardwalk and hiking trails.


Buctouche river.

In addition to the coastal attractions, the Buctouche river flows through Bouctouche and neighbouring towns, emptying into Buctouche Bay in the Northumberland Strait. This means that the town also has freshwater angling, boating, and scenery.


Banana split at Le Petit Crèmier, Bouctouche, NB.

One of my kids’ favourite places in Bouctouche was Le Petit Crèmier (103 Irving Blvd), which is the local ice cream parlour. Once again, it’s take-out only, but their ice cream is great, their portions generous, and the sheer variety of what they serve is mind-boggling. It’s totally worth a stop on a hot day (or, if you’re like me, any day).


Pirate de la Mer restaurant, Bouctouche, NB

The hidden gem of Bouctouche, food-wise, is Pirate de la Mer (10 rue Industrielle, across the street from the small mall containing the Co-Op and the liquor store). There’s nothing much to the restaurant when you see it from the outside. It’s in a plain red industrial building, with a couple of picnic tables out front, and a gravel parking lot. But if you head there on the weekend or at dinner time, be prepared for up to a half an hour wait in line just to place your order, with another half hour before your food is made. The place is popular with the locals and with tourists. It is not uncommon for there to be not enough seating for everybody, which is why a good portion of their clientele orders their food to go. The amply-sized parking lot gets full fast, with overflow parking on the road. After my first visit, I would order my food a half an hour in advance or so, giving them lots of time to prep while I headed over and then waited in line. This way the food was hot and ready to go as soon as I paid.


Double lobster roll, fries & coleslaw at Pirate de la Mer.

The lobster rolls at Pirate de la Mer are mouth-watering — enough so that I make a special trip to Bouctouche to order them, even when I’m not staying in town. Their fries are crispy deliciousness, and I’m told that their coleslaw is first rate (I don’t like coleslaw). In addition, they make their own tartar sauce – they’ll give you the option between their version and pre-made Kraft stuff. Go with their version. It’s definitely not a fancy restaurant, but I haven’t had better seafood at anywhere that charges four or five times more for “gourmet” and “ambiance”. If you want to eat somewhere prettier, you can always get your food to go and head up the road to the Arboretum or the beach.


Lobster roll at Pirate de la Mer.

There is no excuse for visiting the Maritimes without indulging in seafood. Unless you hate the stuff, I guess. Or are allergic. Or vegetarian. Or your religion prohibits it. Other than that, though, there is no excuse. If you can afford to travel, then you can afford at least one seafood meal — especially since, in New Brunswick, a lot of seafood dishes are on par or cheaper than any other kind of meat. So indulge! You won’t regret it.

The Sugar Bush

Here in Canada, early March is when we start to see the first signs of spring. Generally, the snow hasn’t melted back much, so nothing green is growing, and even if the days peek above freezing, the nights are cold and bitter. There will still be a few good snowstorms. So how is it different from the rest of winter? The maple sap starts running.

It’s less obvious in the cities, where less of the economy is based on maple syrup, but a lot of private land-owners still tap their trees — even if they only have one or two. If you’re not from around here, you may not recognize the silver buckets with lids attached to the maple trees. A single tree may not yield much (it takes 40L of sap to make 1L of syrup), but home-made maple syrup is enough of a lure even for city-dwellers. Restaurants and coffee shops suddenly start featuring maple-flavoured everything, in much the same way the pumpkin spice craze happens in October.


Left to right: my Nan, the host family’s child, me, and my little brother, at the sugar bush.

One of my fondest childhood memories is of visiting a sugar bush. I couldn’t tell you if we did it once or many times, or if I even seemed to appreciate it at the time — but it’s an event that stuck in my memory.

Now, a sugar bush is not the same thing as a sugar shack, which is a rough translation of the Québecois cabane à sucre. From page 10-11 of Anita Stewart’s Canada:

In the maple forests, les cabanes were the quarters for those harvesting the sap. There was a wood stove for cooking and keeping warm. With cast-iron frying pans, the traditional foods of les cabanes à sucre evolved to satisfy the enormous appetites. Fèves au lard (pork and beans), liberally sweetened with maple syrup, simmered on the stove-top. Potatoes were fire-roasted, and eggs were poached in syrup. There were thin crêpes made form sarrazin (buckwheat flour). Ham and bacon, both requiring little refrigeration, were fried, and omelettes were cooked to go with them. Syrup was poured over everything. And the workers didn’t just make syrup — they boiled down sugar, fermented partially boiled sap into maple vinegar and even made maple wine.

The tradition of visiting a cabane à sucre is still going strong to this day. Not surprising, as maple syrup is one of our biggest crops — according to Wikipedia, Canada produces about 80% of the world’s maple syrup, and the province of Québec accounts for 85% of that total. Here on the Ontario/Québec border, many of us cross the river to visit Quebécois cabanes, although there are a number of them on this side as well.


Left to right: my Nan, the host family’s child, me, my little brother, the host mother, my father, and my mother at the sugar bush.

However, there is a great deal of difference between a cabane à sucre and a sugar bush. I visited many cabanes as a child, mostly as school field trips, and they didn’t stick with me the same way my visit to the sugar bush did. A modern cabane (especially one open to serve the general public) is part of a commercial maple syrup enterprise. The building is large, snug, and well-appointed. Often you can pay a flat rate and eat as much maple syrup, pancakes, baked beans, breakfast sausages, and bacon as you can stuff into your face. They are used to having a huge number of people cycling through the place in the spring. If you are lucky, they will offer tours of the facilities.

A sugar bush, on the other hand, is just the actual forest with the tapped trees. There is no fancy building with extensive cooking facilities. If you’re invited to one of these, you have to know the owner. They are often on private land and are not part of a commercial enterprise. Any food cooked is over a campfire or on a camp stove. A sugar bush is rustic, outdoors, and, to a kid, much more interesting. I remember getting to wander the woods, peek into the sap collection buckets, build things out of sticks, and tromp through the mud and slush. Then it was time to eat fresh-cooked pancakes and bacon and sausages doused in fresh-made syrup. Then we explored some more. We came home that night filthy, stuffed to the gills, and absolutely exhausted. It was wonderful.


Thing 1, Thing 2 and I making tire in the quickly-melting snow.

Unfortunately, we no longer know anyone who owns a sugar bush, so bringing my kids to one is not an option. To my surprise, their schools have never arranged for a field trip to a cabane à sucre, so I think I will have to take them to one sometime soon. But with the snow on the weekend (hopefully the last one of the season) I was able to at least make tire with them this year.

Tire (from the French word le tire meaning taffy pull) is pronounced pronounced like “teer”, not like the rubber things you put on wheels. It is the absolute simplest way of making maple candy. Basically, you boil the syrup, then pour it over clean snow. (Full instructions at TheKitchn.com.) Now, I don’t actually own a candy thermometer, so I had to straddle the line between “not hot enough” and “burnt”. I think I came down a little bit too much on the “not hot enough” side, so the tire didn’t end up as solid as I’d like. Also, the day had warmed up a bit and the snow I’d set out plates for the night before was more slush than anything else. The kids didn’t care. It was still maple syrup deliciousness.


Thing 2 holding her tire.

It’s not necessary to use a wooden craft stick to eat the tire, but it’s much less messy that way. Just roll the candy around the stick when it’s still a little bit warm, and ta-daa! Instant lollipop. Oh, and you can totally used shaved or crushed ice if you don’t have clean snow. The fresh snow part is tradition, but it’s not 100% necessary.

Moncton Market

Spring has been exceptionally slow coming around these parts this year; we had a snowstorm last Friday, and the forecast is for more snow this coming Friday. Daytime temperatures have been just above freezing, while at night it has been dipping just below zero, so our snowbanks aren’t melting back very quickly. And it’s only a few days until the beginning of April!


A handicraft booth set up outside the Moncton Market building; there are many tables outdoors when the weather is nice.

Despite the weather, it’s technically spring, and spring to me means the start of the farmers’ market season. Technically it’s a little early for that; we’re not getting fresh produce for a little while yet, unless it’s from greenhouses. And yet I find myself thinking about all the great markets I’ve been to, and yearning for a chance to visit them again.


The main hall (Con Simon Memorial Hall) on an unseasonably-cool summer day.

One of my favourite markets to visit while on vacation is the Moncton Market in Moncton, New Brunswick. We seem to end up there on at least one weekend every time we visit the city. It’s not specifically a farmers’ market, although it does have a large selection of fresh local produce (when in season), as well as deli and butcher booths. There is also a food court and a huge number of handicrafts for sale.


Main hall.

The Moncton Market runs all year long, and actually is set up in its own proprietary building that was built in 1995 (although this market has existed, in one form or another, since the late 1800’s). Saturday is market day, but the food court is open all week long for lunch. Due to its downtown location and proximity to office buildings, particularly government offices, there is a brisk lunch business.


Main hall.

In addition to the main hall, there is a second, later-built hall (Festival Place) and a bay area, all of which are packed with vendors and customers on market day. Festival Place is sometimes rented out for other events on non-market days. There is also a culinary center on the premises, although I’ve never seen it in use. Every time I’ve been there, it has been used as a seating area for the food court.


Accordion player in the main hall.


Maple syrup and maple candy are pretty much prerequisites for any Canadian market.

There is often live entertainment throughout the market. There may be a single busker in the main hall, a duo in the secondary hall, and an entire ensemble on the stage outside — so there’s always entertainment. Thing 2 could happily spend her entire trip to the market sucking on a maple lollipop while she watches the performers. Thing 1, on the other hand, would rather hunt down a gourmet cupcake seller. Me, I’m on the lookout for fresh, local food to bring home for dinner.

Of course, part of the fun is to pick up some breakfast or lunch at the market while you are there. I am partial to the fresh-cooked crepes and waffles; the lineup is always long, but the food is cooked fresh to order, and the delicious portions are substantial.


Fruit-covered crepe drizzled with chocolate hazelnut butter, raspberry syrup, and whipped cream. Photo by my mother.


Classic crepe with banana, chocolate hazelnut butter, and whipped cream.


Waffle with berries, apples with cinnamon-sugar, and whipped cream.

Around here, the winter (indoor) version of the Lansdowne Park Ottawa Farmers’ Market runs on Sundays from January 8th to April 30, from 10:00am to 3:00pm, in the Aberdeen Pavilion. There’s nothing specifically stated on their website, but the outdoor summer market usually starts sometime in May. The Cumberland Farmers’ Market has their Spring Market on Saturday April 8th from 9:00am to 3:00, but their main season doesn’t start until mid-June.

I can’t wait for summer market season to start again. Come on, Ottawa… Thaw!

Kappabashi Market Memories

Given how many food photos I take and post, starting long before I began writing this blog, it’s really no wonder that my friends noticed. I was on a real kick for quite some time about noodle soups — especially udon and ramen. So this was a fabulous gift that I received this past Christmas:

Nope, it’s not a bowl of udon with an egg on top (although I’d totally eat that); it’s a miniature that has been made into a key chain. Here’s a better picture for scale:

I don’t use key chains often (I find that they get caught in my pocket), so I think I’ll take off the chain and turn it into a necklace. That would totally fit my sense of style (or lack thereof, you can judge for yourself). If you’re interested in one of your own, I think that my friends ordered it from LittlePinkBox on Etsy. No, I wasn’t snooping for prices, I wanted to see if they had any more!

I took the extreme close up with my new Easy Macro Lens on my cell phone, which was another part of the gift. Do my friends know me or what?

The tiny noodle soup bowl reminds me of my 2005 trip to Japan, specifically the Kappabashi Market in Tokyo, which is easily found by looking for the giant chef’s head statue. It’s a shopping district that caters to restaurateurs and chefs, although so far as I know all of the stores are also open to the public. If you could use it in a restaurant in any way, you can find it there. Chopsticks, lacquer-ware, knives, kitchen gadgets, cutlery, utensils, dishes… You name it. Oh yeah, there are also a few shops that specialize in ultra-realistic fake food.

In Japan, a very common way to advertise a restaurant’s wares is to have replicas of the food that they make set up in rows in the front window, usually alongside small placards that state the name and price. This is an indispensable tool for foreigners like myself who read very little Japanese and have difficulties with a text menu (pointing and saying, “This one please,” works well), but it’s not a marketing tactic aimed specifically at that kind of clientele. It’s just generally an attractive kind of display and effectively attracts customers. I wanted to bring all kinds of this food home as a souvenir, but it was out of my student budget at the time. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to make a return visit.