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.

Maple Mustard Glazed Salmon & Maple Barbecue Sauce

Because maple syrup is, well, a syrup, most people think of it first in sweet dishes like candy or fudge or cookies. However, it does add a fantastic note to savoury dishes as well.

One of the simplest recipes of which I have eaten a great deal — first prepared by my mother, later by me — is Maple Mustard Glazed Salmon from Jo Cooks. It’s basically four ingredients mixed together and poured over salmon, then baked. It’s delicious enough to serve at a dinner party, but quick enough to whip up as a busy evening meal. Maple goes well with mustard; not too surprising, really, given that honey mustard has a similar flavour profile and has been a grocery store standard for years.

Yesterday I served the salmon with one of my favourite last-minute dishes: fresh linguine (although you can use any kind of pasta, fresh or dried) with cooked spinach, cream cheese, and a little salt and pepper. I also added half an avocado on the side; my kids will eat avocado by preference over just about any other fruit or vegetable.

Maple is also great as part of a barbecue sauce. Lots of commercial sauces, such as Diana Sauce (a Kraft product) and President’s Choice, come in a maple variant. But it’s really easy to whip up one of your own! There are many recipes available online, but I am particularly fond of the no-cook Maple Barbecue Sauce on page 238 of The New Canadian Basics Cookbook (1999). It’s tangy, sweet, and just acidic enough to tenderize a tough steak if left to marinade. I wanted to fire up the grill and use this sauce yesterday, but the chilly downpours and the snow still freezing the barbecue cover to the ground made this inadvisable. I am sure that my jar of sauce will get a good workout over the coming months.

Maple Bacon Cornbread

Continuing this week’s theme of maple dishes, last night I tried out the Buttermilk Maple Cornbread with Flax recipe on page 43 of Anita Stewart’s Canada (2008). A number of the recipes I have used lately have come from this book, which I am greatly enjoying. I need to return it to the library shortly, so I have to optimize my use! Now that I’ve baked this cornbread, I have used every maple-based recipe in the book, with the sole exception of the crepe recipe on page 17. Between the buckwheat pancakes and the crepes I’ve made lately, I just didn’t feel the need to make yet another style of pancake.

The cornbread is only lightly sweetened with maple syrup, so the flavour is much more subtle than something like a pouding chômeur. Despite the syrup content, it is not a dessert quick bread; it would actually be a great accompaniment to roasted or barbecued meats, especially saucy ones. The top is sprinkled with chopped crispy bacon pieces, adding little bursts of extra flavour, although I think this bread would be great without the topping as well.

I almost burned the cornbread while baking it; I was warned by the smell, and I got it out of the oven just in time. My timer for the minimum recommended time hadn’t even gone off yet! I think that the blame for that can be placed upon my oven, which, as I’ve complained before, has been giving me issues when it comes to even, predictable heating. A new oven may be required sooner rather than later, although I shudder at the expense. I hope that I can make it last at least until the end of the summer at least, since I don’t use it much at all once the weather gets scorching.

I also cooked my corn bread in a glass dish instead of the cast-iron skillet specified by the recipe. Why? Because I’ve only got the one cast-iron pan, and it was too small. I think it turned out fine, considering. I believe that the use of cast iron is more tradition than anything else. However, using a preheated cast iron pan may create a crispy bottom crust on the cornbread that I was unable to achieve with a glass baking dish.

Buckwheat Pancakes Recipe

Buckwheat crepes (crêpes au sarrasin) are traditional in Québec this time of year, served with a generous helping of maple syrup, of course. However, that’s not the dish with which I was raised. My father learned how to cook this kind of food from his father, who, as I’ve mentioned before, worked as a lumberjack in northern New Brunswick. There my grandfather was expected to take his turn cooking for the camp. What was passed down, therefore, was not a delicate crepe, but a hearty pancake meant to fill bellies as quickly as possible, and to fuel heavy manual labour for the rest of the day.

I prefer to eat buckwheat pancakes in the colder months, saving lighter or thinner versions for the summer when the heat makes lighter meals more appealing. However, if you prefer a heavier pancake, a nuttier flavour, or if you have a sensitivity to wheat or gluten, then can be eaten all year round. Despite its name, buckwheat is a totally different kind of plant than wheat; it’s actually more closely related to rhubarb than anything else (although it tastes nothing like it).


Stack of pancakes using a 50/50 buckwheat/all-purpose flour mix.

Buckwheat Pancakes
Yields 12 six-inch diameter pancakes*

In a large bowl, mix together:
3 cups buckwheat flour**
2 Tbsp sugar
2 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
In another large bowl, combine:
3 1/2 cups milk
2 eggs
4 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
Whisk together wet ingredients until they become a smooth mixture. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients. Beat with an electric or hand mixer until batter is smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula to remove lumps.

*This recipe may be halved if desired. However, keep in mind that pancakes reheat well in the microwave, and leftovers can become a quick hot breakfast for the next day(s).
**For a lighter pancake, substitute 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour for the same amount of buckwheat flour.

The most difficult part of making pancakes, the part that takes a bit of practice to get right, is the frying. Lightly coat the cooking surface of a heavy, non-stick frying pan with cooking spray. Place the pan on the burner, turn the heat on to just a little bit higher than medium heat, and immediately pour a ladle-full of batter directly into the center of the pan. (Never preheat an empty nonstick pan.) The batter will spread out without help to its optimal thickness. Watch the cooking pancake carefully for bubbles to appear on its surface. When the bubbles pop and leave little craters behind that don’t immediately refill in with batter, it’s time to flip the pancake. (See above photo.)

The pancake should stay in one solid piece when it is flipped. The trick is to cook it slowly so that the batter is almost (but not quite) solid at the time of flipping. If the pancake isn’t cooked long enough, the top layer of batter will just slide off. If it is cooked at too high of a heat, the pancake will be burned on one side by the time it is ready to be flipped. Have patience! Buckwheat pancakes are especially thick and therefore need more time at a lower heat to cook all the way through. Cook each side until it is golden brown.


Pancake using a 50/50 buckwheat/all-purpose flour mix, topped with fresh fruit, maple syrup, and whipped cream.

Traditionally, buckwheat pancakes are served with butter and maple syrup. However, they are a great base for many toppings. If you can’t get (or don’t like) maple syrup, any kind of syrup or sweet sauce will do; corn syrup, honey, berry syrups, and artificially-flavoured syrups are fine. Dust pancakes with white, brown, or icing sugar for a classy touch. Jams, jellies, fruit butters, and nut butters are delicious as spreads. The pancakes can be topped with fresh or canned fruit, adding whipped cream if you have it. They are also a good vehicle for flavouring inside the pancake itself; for added punch, sprinkle a few chocolate or butterscotch chips or small blueberries over the batter as soon as it has been poured into the pan. You can include those kinds of ingredients in the bowl of batter itself, but I like adding them at the time of cooking so that I don’t have to make up multiple batches to appeal to different peoples’ tastes.

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.