Eat This, Sip That

Where to take your dollars, thirst and doggy bags

Prince Edible Island: An Insider’s Guide to Eating Your Way Around PEI

It seemed appropriate that the first two songs we heard in our fancy Mini Clubman rental were:

Here Comes the Rain Again—Eurythmics

You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet—BTO

And, nope we hadn’t seen anything yet because the fog from Charlottetown’s airport to Summerside was like driving into a giant steam room.

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I’ve been to the island ten times now. Kim has been every year since she was probably six (insert station wagon family vacation and non-stop 20-hour drive here. Never to be repeated again. God bless planes). I never tire of the Maritime quirk: Smelt Festivals, foxes so abundant and tame that you can hand-feed them peanut butter sandwiches, Pig & Whistles (still not sure what they are, but it sounds interesting) and Bingo at every church corner.

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When you ask for directions in PEI, you often get an escort. And, even more frequently, the place or person you are looking for is a relative of some sort. We were driving blindly around Ellerslie looking for a new brewery called Moth Lane. We were expecting signage but the GPS was at a loss too. We found a cherub of a man licking a vanilla twist at the Kenny Dairy Bar (probably a relative of Kim’s) with his son. When we asked if he knew where Moth Lane was he said that he “sure do. My cousin owns it.” He was driving right past it in fact, and would happily ‘drive us there.’ And he did, finally flashing his lights 10 kilometers later at Moth Lane. We peeped our horn in thanks and drove down a road that had Kim doubtful. It seemed more like a tractor route, the kind of place where a kidnapper would take you. But, we found it, and a minute later, our direction giver wheeled in behind us and waved. Obviously he thought our honk meant we needed him.

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Sidebar: It is definitely worth stopping at any dairy bar or bingo hall to find Moth Lane on Mickie Allen Shore Road. Grab a Motor Boat’R and No Exit Pale for $6 bucks a pint. And, you’ll want a glass to go. I mean, the actual glass, not a glass of beer to go (but, that would be nice too). The branding of Moth Lane comes with a sly grin from the owner’s son-in-law. “My father-in-law’s dad always used to look for a porch light on.” He was like a moth to the flame, hoping to find late night company and a place to go for a drink. Their pint glasses read: “Drawn to the grain like a moth to a flame,” in tribute.

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There’s a dog greeter (we’re not even sure if he belongs to the brewery or a nearby house, but, he’s game for belly rubs of any length). On the upstairs patio the uninterrupted view of the bleached dunes across the Conway Narrows is probably one of the best places to drink a beer on the island.

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But, enough beer drinking. We did educational things too, like visiting the International Fox Museum and Hall of Fame. Who knew that Summerside was the hotbed of the fox farming industry? In the early 1900s there were over 8000 fox ranches dotted around the island. A pair of breeding silver foxes sold for over $35,000. The museum is a curious mix of relics, pelts, heritage and an actual tattoo kit that was used to mark the ears of the foxes in captivity. If you like odd museums, put it in your itinerary. We later learned that we could have participated in Summerside’s Fox Hunt—which involves trying to find a dozen hidden foxes (designed by Malpeque Iron Works) around town.

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What first-timers or ten-timers will notice most in PEI is the lack of fences between houses. I asked Kim, “Is it because of friendliness between neighbours or high winds?” She is 100% sure it’s the friendliness that is integral to island life. But, for anyone who has lived in the suburbs, or anywhere in Toronto, or anywhere other than PEI, really, it’s a remarkable thing to see. Even the birds live in communes.

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PEI is much like a living museum of the dying arts. This is a place where everyone still plays cards and gets together to jar pickles. There are still proudly displayed spoon collections and quilts, advertisements for lawn bowling members, strawberry socials and cut-throat crokinole matches. People still do embroidery here and bake from scratch with lard and go to church and get the daily paper (The Guardian: Covering Charlottetown Like the Dew).

We’re talking about the homeland of Chef Michael Smith (shameless plug for my sister and Harrowsmith: check out her Spring 2017 feature “FireWorks and Sticky Buns” about her edible bike ride along PEI’s Confederation Trail). The lanky, surfer-haired proprietor of the Bay of Fortune Inn and FireWorks restaurant embodies all that the island is. He’s the kind of guy who can put you under a starry-eyed spell while making apple strudel, regardless of your persuasion or feelings about strudel. And, we saw him. Up close and personal at Upstreet Brewing Company with his new summer staff. For me, it was a day of National Geographic moments. First, spotting eight foxes sunning themselves (with the kits entertaining themselves with a dead mouse) in Sherwood, next: Chef Michael Smith in his natural habitat!

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Tasting notes: Order the Upstreet burger, simply stacked with iceberg, tomato, local bacon, stretchy cheese and a magical barbecue sauce. The beet and kale salad doused in a Rhuby Social (their rhubarb/strawberry beer darling) vinaigrette is very Instagrammy. Have a Rhuby on nitro (it gives it some party fizz, like beer champagne!) or 80’s Bob Scottish Ale.

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Be sure to check out The Worse Case Scenario Survival Game from the jammed board game shelf (Uno! Exploding Kittens! Battleship!) and read through some of the cards (it’s like Trivial Pursuit–even a little more trivial in comparison). Over a burger and beer we learned how to outrun a rhino (and crocodile, but not at the same time), how to eat worms, ram a car at high speeds, why you should apply meat tenderizer to a bee sting and, how to give an attacker an eye jab.

While you’re in the vicinity, be sure to check out nearby Urban Beehive Project initiated by architects Silva Stojak and Shallyn Murray. Located in Charlottetown’s largest urban garden, the PEI Farm Centre. Learn all about honey with a hands-on approach (well, not too hands-on). The plexiglass viewing panes allow you to be a Peeping Tom and see the drones and Queen bustling away, creating their wares.

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If you are seeking off the beaten Anne of Green Gables path encounters, put Glasgow Glen Farms on your custom map too. One step inside you’ll wonder why they haven’t bottled up the wood-fire pizza smell and sold it as a cologne.

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Pumping out eight pizzas at a time (140 on a peak summer day), the bearded crew led us through a divine sampling of Lady Gouda cheese (also produced here). There are 17 varieties from fenugreek to pizza to beer gouda. You won’t walk away empty handed. We ordered a Hawaiian to go with that lovely blistered crust and heaps of oozy gouda, and wedge of the beer gouda. Sensing a theme here? Saturdays are a hot mess here as locals pile in for the $2 cinnamon buns as big as at toddler’s head. Did I mention the freshly baked brioche? This is the stuff of dreams.

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As a ten-timer to the island, here are the annual necessary stops/eats:

  1. The Charlottetown Farmer’s Market. Kim would insist that you order flaky veggie samosas from Out of Africa. I’d send you to Gallant’s Seafood for a buttery lobster grilled cheese.
  2. Sugar Skull Cantina on Water Street in Charlottetown. It wasn’t open yet, but we love the co-owner’s other groovy HopYard resto: pick a vinyl, split some tapas. The Cantina will be all tacos and tequila. Say no more!
  3. Noelle and Nancy’s Malpeque mussels in a white wine broth flecked with onion and beautiful bacon. Noelle and Nancy are friends of ours, not restaurant owners, but, they’d probably welcome you in if you brought some white wine and a baguette. And Noelle would probably send you home with a jar of Maritime chow.
  4. Albert & Crown Pub, Alberton. A $7 halibut fish burger and pile of salt-tossed Cavendish fries? Simple math.
  5. Malpeque Iron Works in Summerside. Eric Shurman’s work is a marvel. If we could only bring these crows back as a carry-on!

DSCF79606. Penderosa Beach. This is why you need to be friends with locals like Noelle and Nancy who share the best kept secrets!

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7. One more thing: You need to have fish tacos at the Island Stone Pub (the storied old train station) in Kensington.

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Corn Meal Crusted Haddock, Cilantro Lime Crema, cabbage, pico, pickled onions and rocket greens. This is the whispered sweet nothings that I like to hear…

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For scavenger hunt fans–here’s your challenge. Find these:

Fox Plops, Chow and Blueberry Grunt.

And, no, it’s not a band name.

 

 

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Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Picking up in Des Moines, Iowa…a 1984 Airstream, that is.

My assignment is late. I could say the dog ate my homework, because that’s very plausible around here. Fingers could be pointed in several directions as we are currently living with six dogs who are interested in eating everything from marshmallows to corn-on-the-cob. And, probably homework.

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation is drive the equivalent of across Canada and back in mileage. Instead, we drove to and fro to Prince Edward County looking for a house or a patch of land that never materialized. So, we widened our radius, and though we came closer to our ideals, we were even further from where we started. Perth, Jasper, South Frontenac, Westport, Sharbot Lake. Crotch Lake, Green Lake, Black Lake, Otty Lake, Mississippi River, Elbow Lake.

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In the middle of August we pulled out the driveway of our 155-year-old stone cottage one last time. The Rogue was packed to the gills with the three awkward but happy plants, pantry leftovers, camping gear, stuff to take to China in November, a handful of books I had to review for the Vancouver Sun, Kim’s golf clubs and my favourite high tops.

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In the days before we moved we were stuffing everything else into a storage pod that now sits in Ayr. We drank champagne on a daily basis and ate a lot of strange combinations, trying to unload our fridge of condiments.

We went to a funeral, a wedding, Prince Edward County, Walkerton and Uxbridge all in the same week. And packed and moved and landed at our friends’ farm weary but liberated. Untethered. We were free to a good home and they figured with six dogs, five cats, nine horses, a pig, 30-odd chickens and two bee hives—two more in the mix wouldn’t rock the boat. And, it is like being on a boat here. In particular, Noah’s Ark.

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Anyway, life has shifted from stuffy shifts at the steel mill and the spa to becoming instant 4-H members, chicken coop painters and chief honey and rum cocktail makers. Perks: the resident bees kicked off their inaugural season by producing nearly 18-liters of spun gold and we get to do quality control of their Just Hitched Honey Co. We live in a fancy barn with wi-fi and Netflix and have more bonfires than the average caveman.

So, despite our carsickness from extreme real estating, we volunteered (or invited ourselves I think) to join one of Caberneigh Farm’s owners, PJ, on a road trip to Des Moines (Yes, we had to look it up to, and only recently have I been able to pronounce it correctly), Iowa to retrieve an Airstream that her late brother-in-law willed to her. PJ’s sisters, Christine and Colleen were already on the road days before us, hitting every national park and fall fair and kettle corn stand between California (their start point) and Des Moines.

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In addition to earning her 4-H badge in feeding beet pulp to the horses and learning how to wrangle truly free range chickens, Kim had a crash (with no crash) course on Airstream parking and manoeuvering. However, her practice Airstream was PJ and Nicole’s cutesy 19-foot Bambi model (Bambi is Barbie-sized). We (Kim and PJ—I was the designated backseat driver and snack procurer) would be towing a 28-foot 1984 Sovereign Airstream back to Canada. In, like four days. PJ had work commitments so the 2,218 mile road trip would be a tasseled corn field blur.

But, of course we would make time for the odd American diner or two. The kind where road construction crews file in still wearing their neon vests first and eat pie with ice cream BEFORE they order lunch. Kim and I were quickly introduced to Americana courtesy of PJ, a Cali-bred expat. “What’s a wet burrito?” Basically a burrito buried in cheese sauce. (*need fork and knife). “What’s a patty melt?” Hamburger patty loaded with melted cheese and onions and sandwich-fied between slices of rye bread of all things.

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At our first stop at Perry’s Village Corners in Lansing Michigan we had onion rings so greasy-good we didn’t need to apply lip balm for the rest of the day.

Nine hours after roaring out the farm driveway in Uxbridge in the Dodge Ram we left the keys with the valet driver and enveloped ourselves in the posh surrounds of the Renaissance Blackstone Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. (EXTREME highlight: the bowls of hickory-smoked bacon in the VIP lounge at breakfast. Now we know why half the guests were padding their pockets with it).

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The air was as thick as breathing cotton candy as storm clouds sat behind the Tribune building, Gotham City-style. This is how you do Chicago in sub-12 hours.

  1. Be sure to walk the perimeter of the Tribune and check out all the rocks that have been embedded in the walls from Antarctica to atolls in the Philippines.dscf5353
  2. Go to Howell’s and Hood’s. Drink indie beers (they have over 100 drafts and crafts like Colorado’s silky amber Sawtooth. Order the hot pretzel bites dusted in cheese powder and served with a dangerous beer dip. They are the equivalent of Adult Timbits. The resto was named after the architects who won the 1920s ‘best office building’ design competition. You’ll see why, and you’ll also see why you’re happier to be drinking Sawtooths instead of working.dscf5357
  3. Follow the crowds to see the city’s calling card at Millennium Park. The “Cloud’s Gate” silver jellybean is an Instagram magnet. If you have more than 100 Facebook friends, there’s a solid chance that you’ve seen someone’s selfie cartwheel in front of it. You can’t help but take over a dozen pics here. It’s like the Grand Canyon of city photo ops.dscf5340dscf5345
  4. Go marvel at the Harold Washington Library (named for the city’s first African-American mayor) on 400 South State Street, not too far of a stray from the Magnificent Mile. If you have time, you can scan and 3D print yourself. The imposing brick building is presided over by angels and menacing owls. Look up and out!
  5. PJ would insist that you go to Garrett Popcorn Shop. It’s the Chicago mix (sharp cheddar and molasses-swirled caramel popcorn) that leaves the uninitiated in a trance. Everyone glazes over upon entry, sucking in the sweet, buttery-infused air. We left with a 3.5 pound bucket of the coveted corn for PJ’s sisters, and take-home for Nicole.
  6. Visit any downtown convenience store. America is light years beyond Canada in the snack department. We’re talking birthday cake ring donuts, cherry-flavoured turkey jerky, Payday and Heath bars (previously only witnessed on The Price is Right where contestants had to guess the price of random grocery items). They have suckers called Dum-Dums that come in flavours like banana split, s’mores and root beer). Whoppers (malt balls) are still a big thing and speaking of Whoppers, Burger King is also marketing Whopperitos (a burger-burrito marriage).
  7. Go to Billy Goat’s Tavern for a pint. It’s the parking lot tavern made famous by Saturday Night Live (that “cheezborger no cheese” skit). Here you can order three pints for $10.25. That’s the price of one beer at Howells and Hoods. The secret beer cafeteria is day-glo and still serves up liver and onions or steak and eggs for locked in ‘70s prices.dscf5379
  8. It’s a hot topic—Chicago loves their deep dish but we are thin crusters and were politely directed to Bar Toma by the Renaissance hotel’s “Navigator” (concierge). It’s a tourist draw but for good reason. As a total abomination of traditional Chicago-style pizza we had prosciutto and fig thin crust with Patio Crusher wheat beer. Take that. But, we would go back and work our way through the shortlist of local faves: Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Connie’s Pizza.
  9. Drive past Wrigley Field (despite construction). Home of the Chicago Cubs it was built in 1914 and is as classic Americana as pancake houses, Dunkin’ Donuts, Red Roof Inns, Cracker Barrels and Bob Evans.dscf5405

Chicago to Des Moines

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After sleeping like rockstars at the Renaissance, we had to get back to the task at hand. Tally ho to Iowa. Down the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway to Indiana. Past the 1-844.getsnip billboards for no-snip vasectomies. Or, “If you die tonite will it be Heaven or Hell? Dial 1-888-the-TRUTH.

It was corn for the next 600 miles. Field of Dreams was filmed here for a reason. We only stopped to gas up and look at the shelves and shelves of pork rinds, jalapeno-infused beer, 7 layer-dip Combos (those delicious baby pretzel-stuffed things) and 30-packs of Old Milwaukee  for $13 (though Kim is still suspicious of her deal on beer. For 43 cents a can, could it really be real beer or near beer?). For the same $13 you could buy an ENTIRE sheet of Rice Krispie squares.

We also made time to stop at Trader Joe’s as I see a steady stream from friends in Nashville and California who brag about it. It’s a gourmand grocery store—like Whole Foods, but, smaller, with carefully curated good things. For example: peanut butter and jelly YOGURT. They sell apple and chardonnay sausage. Moose Drool beer. Specula Cookie Butter (like peanut butter, but crushed and whipped ginger specula cookies instead).

We crossed the Mississippi River (which I can spell properly thanks to a recess rope-skipping song I think) and somewhere between there and the Hilton we ruptured the oil line to the turbo booster and were bleeding oil. (Crisis averted and semi-resolved at Firestone, but, the truck stayed in the bay overnight and we nervously contemplated how we might tow the Airstream back without a truck).

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The Airstream exchange between the sisters was emotional and a little bit magic. The Airstream that Christine and Kenny had pulled around North America since 1984 would keep on spinning its wheels in new directions. Starting with us, back to Uxbridge. Back through the Bridges of Madison County. The Fields of Dreams. Homeland of Cloris Leachman and John Wayne. The state where you can find brownie batter milkshakes and hot pickles in a bag. And elementary schools that boast “drug-free school zone.” I should hope so.

Now, with 28 feet behind us, there were no random stops. We were long-haul truckers. We had to eat at places like Thirsty on 80 Grub and Pub in West Branch, Iowa, because they had 50 feet for us to park. It’s the kind of grub and pub with day drinkers, darts and deep fried everything (corn dogs, chicken fingers and frozen pizzas). They curiously also offered crab Rangoon, whatever that is.

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Through Plain View and Normal we went. Past Starved Rock National Park, across Skunk River. Past the World’s Largest Truck Stop on the I-80. We were following the eyelash of the storm through Indiana as wicked apocalyptic clouds swirled and whorled.

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After pulling off in a dodgy neighbourhood thanks to the Wayz app where souped-up cars with spiked rims and giant spoilers cruised. We found amazing Baracoa burritos (not wet) at Chilangos and hoped that we would return to find the Airstream still parked there—not fashioned into a dozen spoilers for whatever mafia ruled the roost.

We gassed up in Ronald Reagan’s birthplace (much to PJ’s chagrin) and kept laser-like focus on our only destination: Indiana Dunes State Park. It rained CNN special-weather-report announcement amounts. And, I would later learn (thanks to my mother, aspiring CNN meteorologist) that tornadoes were ripping through the area.

Arriving in 100% darkness (perfect conditions to back-up the 28-foot Airstream for the first time, into a narrow campground slot), Kim seamlessly slid it in like a seasoned camper. PJ apologized to the entire campsite for the idling diesel truck. I begged nearby campers for rations of firewood as the camp store was closed.

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When we finally had set up base camp (complete with roaring, borrowed fire), we laughed at our grand entrance to the state park. The park warden asked how we were. PJ admitted to being nervous—after all, it would be our first time backing the Airstream up. The warden actually said, “Do you have a man in there to help you?”

PJ calmly and confidently replied, “No, but I have two very capable women with me.”

And, when we finally sat down with glasses of Scotch (Kenny’s favourite brand), we toasted him and committed to always chasing adventure. We planned to come back to the Indiana State Dunes Park one day, because we didn’t see the dunes or much of anything beyond our bonfire pit. But sometimes it’s not about what you see, it’s what you do. Or didn’t plan to do. And how you feel. And, we felt pretty cool cruising across the border with our California Dreamin’ Airstream.

 

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Passport Please, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Random Reykjavik: Where to Eat, Drink & Crash

It was a sharp scenery contrast as we moved on from our fishing lodge cum guest house to the urban thickness of Reykjavik.

Ensku Husin (‘old English lodge’) was like stepping into a time machine—70s furnishings, prerequisite wood panelling, beat-up armchairs, trophy fish mounts, vintage pics of men grinning with monster fish and a pot belly stove. It was a fab crash pad with serene views of River Langa. And, like much of the real estate in Iceland, the property came with its own personal waterfalls.

ICELAND 2013 415Fast forward 100km from the idyllic countryside to the end of the Ring Road. From 70s kitsch to the modern spoils of Radisson Blu 1919 in downtown Reykjavik. We happily exhausted our RBC Visa Rewards points account for two nights at the boutique hotel (room rates from 110 euros!). The studio-concept room was a welcomed contrast. Unlike Ensku Husin, we probably wouldn’t hear our neighbour’s snoring. Or, dishes being washed or the ruckus of the innkeepers’ children below.

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In Reykjavik, we had to part ways with our reliable steed, the Jimny 4×4. We were sad to see her being driven away—no doubt re-assigned to a brand new, fresh-faced couple about to tackle our same route. The Jimny must have been thinking, “What? Again? I just did the Ring Road.” However, Kim was now footloose and fancy-free from chief driver responsibilities. We were ready to be pedestrians again, stretch our Ring Road legs and partake in Reykjavik’s happy hour scene.

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To commemorate reaching the end of the Ring Road (sigh), we mixed “Ring Worms” and “Reyk-ed” cocktails in our tony room while watching an old Ellen Burstyn flick. Our duty free Icelandic vodka had to be drank! I’d read about the Nordic love of malt extract and Appelsin (akin to orange soda) as a nourishing winter warmer/yuletide favourite. Adding vodka upped the yuletide and we created variations while waiting for the drizzly skies to take a rain intermission so we could explore.

We eventually did the “Rodeo Drive” stroll—popping in and out of shops along Laugavegur and arty Skolavordustigur. The window shopping extremes ranged from bric-a-brac at Frida Fraenka on Vesturgata (two storeys rammed with peculiar antiques—an inventory nightmare!) to fawning over the flashy outdoor gear of 66 Degrees North. If you are a licorice fan there’s a sugar epicentre on Laugevegur with licorice dipped in every sort of imagined confection. Get your hands on a “Dramur” (‘dream’  in Icelandic)—it’s black licorice whips dunked in chocolate in a bar form.

Happy Hour Chronicles (in no particular order):

Skipbarrin: It’s slick and smartly designed with salvaged wood, industrial flare and cow hide stools. Part of the Icelandic Air Marina hotel, it’s a lively and vibrant pit stop—though the marina view is lacking. Here, outside of happy hour you can expect to pay almost $22 CAD for a mixed drink. We heard rumours of this, and the outrageous price of booze in Iceland—and it’s true. Just a basic rum and Coke or gin and tonic is prohibitively priced. Safer choices are the pints of Viking or Gull which are universally 900isk ($8 CAD). Happy hour deals = 2 for 1 beers.

Dillon Whiskey Bar: Though Lonely Planet described this whiskey hole as a place where you might encounter “beer, beards and the odd flying bottle,” we witnessed only beer during the 4-6 happy hour time frame. It’s a little rougher around the edges, darker, but authentic. Make note of the “Mind Eraser”– Vodka + Kahlua with a lime wedge dipped in coffee and sugar.

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Olsmidjan Bar–Kaffi & Vin: We hadn’t seen Polar Beer on the menu anywhere but here. I imagine it’s a budget lager brewed by the larger conglomerates. But, we were okay with this—for 900isk you could get a pint of Polar and a shot. We decided to upgrade our shot option (licorice schnapps or a gimmicky, syrupy “Northern Lights” shot with floating green and blue liqueurs) to try the premium priced Brennivin. It’s the local hooch derived from fermented potato mash and caraway seeds. We found it rather palatable. Please note: Signs of maturity were witnessed as Kim and I actually purchased a Polar pint glass from the bartender instead of stealing it.

Bunk Bar: Adjacent to the Reykjavik Backpackers Hostel on Laugavegur, the salvaged wood doors of the Bunk Bar easily lured us in. Inside we found a very hip and inviting chill zone with a gently thumping electronic soundtrack. This place oozed cool! Renovated in May of this year, the combo of iron and wood textures, repurposed tractor seat bar stools and black and white photos make the bar a stand-out. Go here! It’s not the scrubby hostel type-bar you remember!

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Post Happy Hour Eats (in no particular order, and not all in one day):

My sister and her fiancee had been in Iceland just weeks before us and we were armed with a list of cafes and fish n’ chip joints that couldn’t be missed.

Cafe Babalu: The decor of this cafe made for one trippy latte. It was like stepping into Quirk Central: pink flamingoes, Smurf figurines, cuckoo clocks, needlepoints, random 60s lighting, vintage board games—with an Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack.  It’s  well-worth the time out—and be sure to head upstairs, to get fully immersed in the rug hooking groove. Don’t miss the Star Wars themed restroom either. It’s part of the Babalu experience.

Prikid:  On Bankastraeti, we found the best burgers since our reindeer burg experience in Hofn. Kim opted for a hefty Blue Moon topped with guacamole and blue cheese. I went for the sweet and savoury twist of the Jam burger loaded with camembert, blue cheese, brie, parmesan and raspberry jam. We’d recommend a table upstairs so you can have a fine perch for people-watching while pint drinking. And, if you’re really ambitious, Prikid is one of the later-closing bars: at 5:30am. Don’t miss the men’s washroom (really, take a peek) and the graffiti in the smoking area on the way upstairs.

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I was nervous we wouldn’t be able to cram in all the lattes, battered cod and hot dogs that we needed to eat before flying home.

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Baejarins Beztu: Right across from the Radisson Blu we watched the congestion around the Baejarins Beztu hot dog joint. Famous for Bill Clinton’s drop-in and some other Hollywood hot doggers, the stand has been in operation since 1939. For 330isk ($2.50CAD), a hotdog with ‘everything’ is handed to you loaded with remoulade, crunchy fried onions, ketchup and a sweet brown sauce akin to honey mustard. After eating hot dogs around the Ring Road, we nodded that yes, it was one of the best and that we needed to take home some fried dried onions in our cargo.

Icelandic Fish & Chips: Located on Tryggvagata, you gotta go here for the tempting line-up of ‘skyronnaises.’ Skyr is a thick, Balkan-style yogurt and Icelandic staple–flaky plaice and tusk (1,480isk per main) dipped in coriander and lime skyronnaise (280isk), is really the only way fish should be eaten. Add a side of rosemary and Saltverk potatoes (490isk), a pint and you’ll wonder why you didn’t eat here everyday for every meal.

Koffinn: We had our last minute fill of Icelandic fare here before catching the bus to the airport. Known for a riveting list of paninis, the Indian Hut is where it’s at. Fiery red curry and chicken in a Panini with perfect grill lines? This was the best send-off. Deep, jazzy soundtrack and piles of old magazines to flip through.

Of course, we accomplished more than happy houring and filling our faces in Reykjavik. There were tranquil morning runs along the sea wall, keeping pace with seabirds skating along the water’s surface. Glimpses of distant glaciers and boats chugging along towards the futuristic glass Rubik’s cube-looking opera house.

After 800+ miles of driving headlong into a postcard on the Ring Road we were really craving that soul-nourishing stillness that we had become accustomed to. You can find it in Reykjavik! At the Holavallagardur Cemetary (off Ljosvallagata street), this graveyard is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, smack dab in a city centre. Laden with verdant moss, elaborately carved headstones and gnarly trees, its well-worth a wander through.

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Also, be sure to walk around the pond by City Hall. Dotted with grey legs and bossy swans and several unusual sculptures, it’s like an open air gallery and bird sanctuary. There are also several dream homes to be pointed at near the pond. The simplistic and colourful corrugated iron construction set behind dwarf birch trees with leaves begging to turn orange made for a sweet stroll.

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The cosmo city, endless walls of graffiti and top notch pubs and eats instantly put Reykjavik on our return list. The laughing, flush-cheeked, straw blonde kids in babushka buffs are poster children for purity, wool sweaters and fresh air. With few visible minorities, Reykjavik is a non-stop parade of Nordic beauty, furs and a catwalk for 66 North fashions.

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Iceland gets under your skin in a very good way. You’ll see. And be sure to tell me all about it!

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shark Bites, Love Balls and Spelunking in Iceland

Kim has become quite accustomed to my elusive food foraging quests. She has been game for the likes of camel stew, fig moonshine, frog legs, some unfortunate thing in Belize that tasted and looked like cat barf in a pastry shell, tongue on rye and even braved a blizzard for the promise of caribou burgers in Quebec City.

“Will you try the putrid shark though?” I asked as we headed towards the shark museum near Berserkjahraun.

“Of course.”

That’s my girl.

Fermented hakarl (shark) can be found in most grocery stores in Iceland, however, I wasn’t convinced that we’d love it enough to buy a pre-packaged pound’s worth for upwards of $20. A free sample would satisfy, and because the Foss Hotel was shuttered in Dalvik, the shark museum was our only probable tasting station.

For 1,800isk ($8 CAD), our admission to the Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum also included a tasting. I had remembered the boys on Departures grimacing and near-hurling hakarl over the experience—though they had Brennivin chasers to cleanse their palates (a local hooch of fermented potato mash and caraway, known better as “Black Death” or by its English translation, “burning wine”).

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The museum itself was a marvel—a hodge podge of massive whale vertebraes, sheep bones, seal skins, old harpoons, ancient navigational equipment (hello GPS!) and the family fishing boat, circa 1870. Before a motor was tacked on the back, the vessel was rowed by six men which must have been a parallel feat to the pyramids being built.

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There were the prerequisite taxidermied birds and decrepit foxes, shark heads and fins. Really, it was the best touch-me, feel-me display of curios. I was especially drawn to the exhibit that displayed things found inside one shark’s gut—polar bear skin and bones!

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The doting curator hovered around us, at the ready for questions and then reeled us in for the real attraction—shark snacks. After drying in a shed for five months, the otherwise toxic Greenland shark becomes edible with the fermentation process. The species has no kidneys which results in an elevated ammonia level–survival adaptations for a shark that lives almost 2km below the surface.

Cocktail party convo starter: Did you know that sharks have no bones and just a ‘spine’ of cartilage? I love these Jeopardy contestant tidbits.

Gearing up for what everyone had said was a revolting mouthful akin to an ammonia-soaked sponge, rancid blue cheese and feet, Kim and I were both pleasantly surprised. Now, I wouldn’t choose to sit down to an entree of putrid shark, but, it was essentially like a cube of raw fish. Roll it in sticky rice, wrap it in nori, add a dot of wasabi and it would be a hit in Toronto’s Koreatown with a Sapporo.

What next? After visiting the farm’s drying rack with shark bits in various stages of aging, finding some warm love balls seemed appropriate.

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Stykkisholmur was the only place I was able to sniff out the traditional love balls—and indeed, they are full of love. Deep fried tennis ball-sized glories for 340isk ($3 CAD) a pop. The Nesbrud Bakery in Stykkisholmur is a pastry wonderland with several varieties of twists and sugared rolls dunked in severe amounts of icing, and, astarpungar. The dense doughnut balls are a sweet and mildly tart hit of lemon and cardamom. Totally worth the pit stop and shark breath. And if you climb to the old lighthouse overlooking the darling little marina, love ball eating can be justified.

ICELAND 2013 458Now well-fuelled we were ready to climb into Iceland’s underbelly at the Vatnshellir (‘Water Cave’) Caverns in Snaefellsjokull National Park. Who doesn’t want to poke around lava tubes 12 storeys below?

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The spiral staircase painstakingly erected by volunteers and cave enthusiasts takes spelunky-types 130 feet deep. The cave had been closed for several years due to geological ransacking by visitors. In May of 2013, it was privately contracted out to a former mountain rescue guide with 25 years experience. I smiled at his transition—all those years at such elevations, and now, his pursuit in the opposite direction!

At six degrees, you’ll be glad to zip on a fleece and pull on a toque, however, there’s no need to worry about getting slimy, stalactitey, soaked or shat upon by bats. There are no bats in Iceland, and the terrain is solidified lava (which makes for some wobbly ankle terrain en route to Jules Verne’s Centre of the Earth).

The tour is a little bit schmaltzy—Kim was hoping for some fox hole belly slithering routes  or a fear-factor-esue squeeze like our Belize experience, but, it’s rather tame. Regardless, even if you’ve been in dozens of caves, there is no getting used to the unsettling feeling of 100% darkness. Our natural desire ‘to see’ causes such strain and mild panic in that minute of headlamps being turned off.

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Above ground an hour later, we returned to our now-familiar inundation of natural phenomena. Rounding the coast, the Malariff sea stacks instill another 3D postcard. And Anarstapi? Step aside love balls, this 2.5km cliff walk from Hellnar along the stone arches and basalt escarpment is visual balm after being in the dark and damp Vatnshellir caves.

The turbulent coastal waters and frozen lava flows is a surreal sight. Next to the sea stacks of Dyrholaey and the black sand beaches of the south, I really swooned over Anarstapi.

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Rounding out the day of sharks, caves and love balls, we shared a cauldron (really) of lamb soup at The Settlement Centre in Bogarnes after we found accommodations at Ensku Husin, an old fishing lodge.

Iceland was getting seriously deep into our bones. Could we somehow rewind the Ring Road?

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Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Iceland 101, Passport Please | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deep Fried Texas

It started off with an innocent appetizer upon our arrival. Feeling the Texas heat seep into our bones, chugging pints of the local craft brews and then…somehow our trip transformed into an eight day pilgrimage of deep-fried crab, avocado, pickles, pulled pork and bacon-wrapped this and that. While Virginia may be for lovers (as their license plates dictate), Texas is for eaters.

If you didn’t get the memo–on the 8th day, God made deep-fried jalapeno balls stuffed with pulled pork and called them something fancy: Armadillo Eggs. And they were good. So good they came with directions to the emergency room 2.5 miles away from the cholesterol crime scene.

T-Bone Tom’s Steakhouse is the deep-fried go-to in Kemah, Texas. Guy Fieri of The Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (DDD) gave his coveted approval to the Armadillo and Shark Eggs (jalapenos stuffed with crab, shrimp and cheese) and DDD ear-marked T-bone Tom’s Sausage Sandwich. Kim and I could barely eat our balls (four ostrich-sized “eggs”) and packed up the monster sandwich for a shared brunch the next day. Have you checked out the interactive site for DDD? The Food Network On The Road allows you to search a city and find out where Guy has been and burped.

Our original intention was to find some surf and turf at Stingarees on Bolivar Island. We took the free car ferry from Galveston with crab legs and salty tequila-punched margs on our mind. However, Stingarees was closed until 6pm but the marina also housed the more casual Down Under pub where we joined day-drinkers and birder-types heading home from the tidal flats and burrowing owl stomping grounds. It was a tough decision between the fried fare: crab patty burgers, po’boys, boudin balls (deep-fried pork and rice balls) and fish tacos. Kim opted for the greenest choice–deep fried pickles with a dilly mayo. I ordered the fried shrimp po’boy on a buttered and fried bun. Hypertension level: soaring to a record high.

It gets worse (but better really, from a totally non-health conscious point of view). At the Fisherman’s Wharf we ordered a round of Saint Arnold’s Elissa IPA and the Galveston Trio. This platter is exactly what you would demand before the electric chair: Gulf shrimp stuffed with jack cheese and wrapped in bacon, deep-fried panko-rolled crab-stuffed jalapenos on a bed of fried matchstick onions and, stop the presses–a rich crab and queso (cheese) dip with a pile of tortilla chips for dunking.

Analysis so far? Texans love their deep-fried balls. At Landry’s Seafood House in Kemah we uncovered the ball show-stopper: crab-stuffed avocado “lightly” fried with a heavy-duty chipotle ranch dip and fire-breather side salsa.

Feeling rather sluggish on my morning runs along the jetty of Surfside Beach, we thought chicken sandwiches at Sharkey’s would be a smart departure from the steady feed of stuffed balls. My vision of 12 grain bread with thick slices of beefsteak tomato, some greens and non-deep-fried chicken was squashed. The white bread Texas Toast was saturated with butter–enough to allow me to skip lip balm application for three days. And, there was more mayo than chicken on the sucker.

Of course, to round out our Texas experience, we had to do a taqueria. They lined the freeway in between every Cracker Barrel, Denny’s, IHOP, Whataburger, Jack-in-the-Box, Chick-a-fil and Fudrucker’s. At El Pike Regio we packed back Pirata Regios–tortillas loaded with beef and guacamole and a thin hot-as-hell salsa. For $10 bucks we had tacos, a gallon of agua de Jamaica (hibiscus juice) and a smoky bean and jalapeno soup. Olé. Plus, we could watch the latest Spanish soaps at full-blast on three flatscreen televisions.

And just as we had sworn to a salad-only existence once we returned to Toronto, we discovered these at the convenience store. Margarita beer chips with that perfect kettle-cooked crunch. Paired with a Landshark lager and a lampshade, these chips took my Best Ever award, ousting my fall back Terra Sweets and Blues.

 

Editor’s note: I’m happy to announce that after eight hoggy days of pig-outs, sleep-ins, extended happy hours and being relative beach butts, we are actually gout-free. And, kind of longing for those Texan deep-fried balls.

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Pumped About the Pumpkin: Fall for These!

It’s here. The time of year when flip flops slowly give way to scarves and the security of denim jackets. Crisp, curling leaves litter the sidewalks and the air is heady with sweet smoke from stoked wood fireplaces. Halloween “fun-sized” candy creeps into workplaces, because when it’s fun, calories don’t count, right?

Embracing the seasonal change is made easier by limited-time-only autumnal pleasures. Fall is not only signalled by a temperature drop and bracing mornings, but by the return of frothy pumpkin spice lattes and decadent cream-cheese stuffed pumpkin muffins. Kraft caramels, candy corn and Cadbury Screme eggs (with lime green fondant) also act as a pleasant balm to summer’s end.

This year, everyone and everything seems to be pumped by the pumpkin. Godiva sucked me in with their oh-so-pretty pumpkin spice ganache and pumpkin cream cheese truffles. Seriously, the chocolates could double as costume jewelry or museum showpieces under glass.

Rumour has it that Paulette’s Original Donuts & Chicken is seducing Leslieville with get-‘em-while-you-can pumpkin spice donuts. Tim Horton’s is hot on the scene too with day-glo orange sprinkles adorning the usual offerings of glazed goods.

Cool Hand Luc on King West promised me another barrel of pumpkin ice cream was to arrive this week. The day I stopped in they were sold out. I settled for a thick and rich butternut squash soup instead and marvelled at how a place could serve up soup and ice cream with equal popularity and success.

The seasonal showcase is alive and well at Jimmy’s Coffee on Portland too. The generous and dense slabs (think Texas Toast) of pumpkin loaf are woodsy, moist and perfect gut-fillers for romantic fall walks through the transforming trees of Trinity Bellwoods Park.

 
*I can attest to the year-round addictive qualities of Jimmy’s sweet potato and pecan muffins too. With big hits of nutmeg, these heavy-weights are the best thing to pick at with a dark Hendrix roast in the dying afternoon light on the front patio. It’s like swallowing all of October. (Loaves and muffins are both made by Circles and Squares bake shop.)

For die-hard pumpkin pie lovers, drop into Wanda’s Pie in the Sky in Kensington for a sugar and spice and everything nice fix. If you can resist instant gratification, tote your slice home and do it up with proper East coast flair: drizzled in dark ribbons of maple syrup. I’ve been spoiled by the introduction and can have pumpkin pie no other way.

Pumpkin cheesecake in the making. Culinary wizardry credit to PJ Moore.

Pumpkin cheesecake in the making. Culinary wizardry credit to PJ Moore.

For pumpkin strayers but autumn lovers, The Pie Shack in the Beaches is hawking wedges (a “slice” is ¼ of a pie in these parts) of apple cinnamon pie this month. Add a dollop of ice cream, whipped cream or cheese to round out your sweet fantasy because $6 is cheap happiness.

Not into the baked goods and calorie monster lattes?

Grab a stool at Hair of the Dog on Church street where they’re pulling pints of Great Lakes Brewing Company’s pumpkin ale. With a swizzle of whipped cream on top, this one could be liquid pie in a glass. Handlebar (located in Kensington Market), the kid sister bar of Leslieville’s Avro pub, is serving Nightmare on Mill Street, another homerun for the Mill Street microbrew—this time marrying pumpkin and spices in a non-cloying way. The clove finish and just-baked pie inhale is the best way to toast fall.

If you’d rather pull on pajamas and download the 1978 slasher Halloween (starring siren Jamie Lee Curtis), turn on the gas fireplace and rest assured with your LCBO pumpkin beer bounty. Mill Street has 6-packs of Nightmare on Mill Street and its Oktoberfest brew on sale.  Black Creek Historic Brewery has launched a 500ml ginger-kicked pumpkin ale, joining the fall guy club with Beau’s 600ml tribute (Weiss-o-Lantern) and St. Ambroise’s 4-pack (whose apricot beer is legendary). Up the booze ante with Shipyard’s Smashed Pumpkin (Portland, Maine). Warning: at 9% alcohol, you might end up as a jackass-o-lantern.

Creative and ambitious sorts can stop in at Bloor Superfresh just west of Spadina to purchase the kind of pumpkin Linus dreamed of in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown ($90). Mid-size but still gargantuan selections will set you back $25 (urban pumpkin prices, groan), but, they are gourds on steroids and you’ll need some serious muscles or steroids to get the suckers home.

 

Other fall things you should keep on your radar:

 

Thanksgiving poutine

Smoke’s Poutinerie is advertising (insert drum roll and dramatic gasp here) “Thanksgiving Poutine.” All the usual suspects (fries, curds, gravy)—loaded with turkey stuffing. Yeah, holy crap.

City of the Dead

Get in the full Halloween groove with the Necropolis Cemetery tour on October 21st at 1:30pm. Visit the graves of William Lyon Mackenzie and his family on 200 Winchester Street near Riverdale Farm.

Church Street October 31st

On October 31st, Church street in Toronto is the place to prowl. The gay village strip closes to vehicular traffic from 7—11pm and drag Queens do it to the nines. The costumes are what your 5-year-old self envisioned, but never accomplished with pipe cleaners and crepe paper. Bar hop from the slick Smith bar to the thump and boozy martini grounds of Byzantium to the beefy boy crowd at Woody’s. Or, just spike up a hot cocoa and enjoy the zany parade of the dressed-up and dressed-down on the street. Tricks or treats will be easily found.

1984 Flashback

 

 

 

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Dear Lynn Crawford: A Cuban SOS

 

Dear Lynn Crawford, steely Iron Chef competitor, former executive chef of Four Seasons New York and Toronto, top dog at Rubywatchco and firecracker host of the Food Network’s Pitchin’ In–

CC: The Barefoot Contessa, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver, Anthony Bourdain

S.O.S! Cuba needs your knives and spice racks!

Ten years ago my partner and I went to Holguin, Cuba. The water was just like the glossy brochure: like 7-up, like Perrier, like all those things that are promised.  The sand is tumbled diamonds, as soft as walking through flour.

But, the Cuban food. Insert groan here. Welcome to the all-inclusive buffet, more commonly referred to as the “barfet.” There has to be a PhD thesis in here somewhere—about the hysteria created in normal citizens over an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s as though we believe that our stomachs are sudden bomb shelters. We must take stock! Eat as much as we can! Quick! More!

But we couldn’t. Even if we wanted to, we were appalled at how the entire barfet offering was deep-fried. All the fresh fruit was submerged in cloyingly sweet syrup.  The sodium content of normally healthy vegetables made my aorta take on the pace of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me documentary heart.

The fish was so salty it tasted like it was sweating on my plate. I was retaining more water than information. Although, that might have had some correlation to rum intake. In this vein, Cuba took top marks. The daiquiris and pina coladas were boozy, frothy textbook perfect rum shakes. They became our meal replacements because we couldn’t bear another agonizing walk along the buffet line.

Scroll forward ten years, back to Cuba. Back to Holguin even—but without the cushy, sanitized all-inclusive experience.

I had earned the Willy Wonka golden ticket–a travel writing scholarship awarded by the Adventure Centre, that had me hopping on 10 day Geckos Viva Cuba tour as a participant. I had the opportunity to eat, imbibe and delve into textures and terrains of Cuba that were amiss in my not-so-cultural visit in 2002. And write all about it for the Matador Network.

So, Lynn Crawford, I knew eating was going to be a daily challenge. And I’m no fusspot! I’ll eat testicles, insects, that green glop on the lobster’s head, hot sauce made from fire ants, piranha, tripe soup even!

I knew that Cuba had one reliable fall back in its pizza, so I wasn’t totally alarmed about returning to the island for two weeks. Which makes me feel like a fussy teenager, unwilling to try anything that might have the likes of curry or cilantro in it.

Cuban pizza is a godsend though. In Trinidad, 20 minutes from the south coast’s best beach (Playa Ancon) I found solace AND the best mango and pineapple pizza on the terrace of Restaurante Trinidad Colonial. For 10 bucks I had a pizza as big as a bicycle wheel and two cold beers, oblivious to the sheets of rain blamed on the aftermath of Tropical Storm Isaac.

I know what you’re thinking. Surely, on a tropical island there has to be some enterprising chef taking advantage of the local produce veta madre (mother lode).  There has to be something more amazing than pizza to eat!

I’ll take a pass on the guavas. Those suckers have lethal pits for anyone with dental work. Clarification: guava pits are dangerous for anyone with teeth, in general. They are as hard as peppercorns!

I applaud the Cuban pineapple though. The watermelon is a little anemic, its flesh was a consistent cat tongue colour, and not as sweet as the Californian cannonballs we import. Cuban bananas are often freckled more than an Irish kid and ready for banana bread, but the plantain…it makes for such addictive chips—I’d even take a pass on Tostitos for the dense and starchy crunch of plantain.

So, Lynn, here’s my beef. Cuba has avocadoes as big as footballs and they refuse to make guacamole. When I returned to Toronto I immediately pulled up the menu of Julie’s Cuban Cafe on Dovercourt. HA! Guacamole. Our Geckos guide Leo sneered at me when I said he could make a mint if he opened a tortilla chip and guacamole stand. “That is Mexican. We are Cuban.” So! I balked, “I’m Canadian, I make guacamole!”  He wouldn’t budge on his stance. The Cuban avocado is like green butter, as rich as a handful of macadamia nuts. It’s often served on a side plate with sliced beets, green beans and wimpy carrots. Boo.

I want guacamole.

Leo teases me with talk of the Christmas avocado, three times bigger than the ones we’ve seen for sale along the Obispo in Havana. Shame. I bet a Christmas avocado would feed 40.

Cuba needs a Christmas avocado guacamole intervention.

And how about some hot sauce? I thought every island had their own fiery concoction. I am at the rationing stage of my Marie Sharp’s grapefruit hot sauce, procured on a February trip to Belize. In fact, I’ve hoarded two extra bottles that were intended as gifts. It’s citrusy with a surreptitious drop-kick. Surely Cuba could whip up its own blazing counterpart?

The only condiments that grace a Cuban table are (50% of the time) white vinegar and oil. Slim pickings. Some of the hotels we stay at have ornate displays of HP, A-1, ketchup and mustard—showcased like they are fine wines.

One hundred percent of the time, mayo makes an appearance. It’s the Cuban cure-all. Mid-trip we take shelter from the rain at ZinZin in Santiago de Cuba. Between serenades from the Cuban playing showtunes on his Flamenco guitar, our server delivers fresh bread and an accompaniment to our table.

Tipsy from afternoon mojito intake, we all greedily grab at the bread. It’s so fresh and pliable! I slather on more butter than I normally would, slightly starved from a slim ham and cheese toastie lunch by the pool.

“This isn’t butter,” Jacqueline remarks.

I agree.  “What is it?” I struggle to place the taste.

“Mayo!”

We are eating not “bread” per se, but sliced hot dog buns with mayo. And we think it’s the best thing ever.

I entered the danger zone that night.

Lynn, the baguettes in Cuba could be used in a cricket game as bats. I am embarrassed to be so complimentary of white hot dog buns!

Could you run a workshop on 12 grain bread baking? Even 7 grains would do. Any grains? The bread that is served with breakfast is already in a crouton state. Is it pre-toasted?

I wouldn’t even feed most of the bread I eat in Havana to birds. They would never fly away again with its weight. Every endemic Cuban bird would become a flightless turkey.

Am I simply missing North American preservatives? Food dye #5?

I am a big cheerleader of eating local and I KNOW that Cuba has very local mangoes, sugarcane and coffee. The island outside of city centres is verdant and pastoral. The red dirt pulls me back to Prince Edward Island in a flash.

All the essential elements of an awesomely stocked kitchen grow in Cuba: sweet potato, lychee, okra, peanuts, coconut, plantain. Pork. Beef. Chicken (often joked about in trip guides as being “born fried”). Lobster, red snapper, mahi mahi and shrimp are on every menu. But, they get overcooked to the point of the fish doubling as a shoe insole.

And the stew. Not a stew at all. I had a rabbit stew at El Nardo and it was actually a rabbit leg in OXO cube gravy. At El Barracon in Santiago de Cuba I have the lamb stew, and it’s just lamb in gravy. The kind of gravy I loved in high school on a $2 plate of fries. Not stew. But the gravy is better at El Barracon.

So, why? Why the OXO cube gravy? Why all the mayo? WHY all the lacklustre stale white bread-cheese-ham sandwiches?

I am barely surprised when I place my order at Plaza Vieja Factoria and am told that they are “out of Cuban sandwiches.” How can Cuba be out of Cuban sandwiches? It’s like Manhattan being sold out of Manhattan martinis.

I do find passable snacks like Pelly pork rinds. Cubans are mad about their “aerated chips.” All of them are of the cheezie family consistency—more air than substance, and called chicarrons.  Even the chicarrons would be better with guacamole.

Don’t even get me started on the coffee. Most mornings I can’t figure out if I’m drinking coffee or tea. The UHF shelf milk (long lasting milk that doesn’t require refrigeration) adds floaty bits that make the cofftea more mud puddle than breakfast beverage.

I come to realize (and in the end, even our Cuban guide agrees) that Cuba prides itself more on quantity than quality. Dinners are like Italian weddings with seven courses. I would never normally eat a plate of watermelon and pineapple followed by black bean soup, some polenta, then a plate of soggy green beans, avocado and boiled beets and another dish with a chicken breast and three cups of rice. PLUS, one of three typical desserts: ice cream, bread pudding or sponge cake. With espresso. Ugh.

Creme de Menthe on bread pudding. If a Christmas tree barfed, this is what it would taste like.

Creme de Menthe on bread pudding. If a Christmas tree barfed, this is what it would taste like.

Lynn, can you help? I know the premise of your Pitchin’ In show. The whole island needs your kitchen brains and pizzazz. I know you’ve already set the menu: snapper flambéed in dark rum, grilled espresso-rubbed pork and plantain on sugarcane skewers, mango cobbler with avocado gelato…

SOS.

Cuba needs you Lynn Crawford.

(But, we need you too, in Toronto.)

Signed,

I-ate-pizza-for-10-days-Jules

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#Trending In My Life This Week

Sometimes there are a lot of things and thoughts that collide at once, that all deserve their space, but are more suitable for a bar stool conversation. Semi-related, but not really, this week is a bright spot: an awesome movie find, the close of an exceptional book, a new downtown patio to drink upon and the ongoing obsession of finding a house to call ours.

In no particular order, this is what has been trending in my week.

#Jeff, Who Lives At Home

Any film with Susan Sarandon listed in the credits is a shoo-in for me.  Jeff (Jason Segel) is an authentic  30-year-old slacker inspired by the movie Signs. Consumed by finding and following the semi-obvious “signs” that appear to him in his mother’s (Sarandon’s) basement, Jeff is certain that he is within reach of his destiny.  His brother, Pat (Ed Helms), opposite in all possible ways, is a twitchy paint store manager blow-hard who thinks a new Porsche will cure his tanking marriage. The brothers ram heads like rutting elk and can find little common ground outside of a blood tie. Their lives tangle into a fisherman’s knot when they witness Pat’s wife obviously in the throes of an illicit affair.

While the boys duke it out, Jeff’s awareness and perception—often lost in the haze of his chronic pot smoking, begins to make sense to Pat. What happens next unfolds without a sign for the audience. The emotional impact of the final scene is wholly unexpected and will leave even the steeliest of hearts feeling like they’ve swallowed knives instead of popcorn. Yes, you will cry. Like a child with a skinned knee. You will ache for Sharon’s (Sarandon) lonely existence, longing for attention and affection despite her brave exterior and I’m-just-fine-on-my-own stance.

The writers weave in surprising twists and earn kudos for a tight and realistic script. Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an honest portrayal of how easily relationships can dissolve—whether it be with a spouse, brother or mother. And the signs, well, they’re everywhere. You’ll see.

#One Bird’s Choice

On my list of (probably) 138 books To Read, One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid was chosen primarily for its portability. I have finally caved to the sensibilities of my right shoulder.  I am a firm believer in “fashion hurts,” and I insist on carrying my oh-so-cool shoulder bag from Amsterdam because it is oh-so-cool. What I refuse to carry now is hard-copy books. I can’t. Unless I skimp on the weight of my lunch, I just can’t tote hardcovers anymore in my sub-5K walking commute.

So, One Bird’s Choice was the likely choice due to its featherweight category designation—in addition to the rave reviews and firework displays it received for his porcupine quill-sharp writing.  I packed the book for our getaway to The Pinery Provincial Park. I read the entire book (nearly) to Kim, out loud on the beach.

Apparently I’ve got a trending theme of slackerness this week. One Bird’s Choice chronicles Reid’s decision (and aftermath) to move back in with his goofball parents on their serene “Lilac Hill” hobby farm in Ottawa.

As the seasons shift from the winter of Reid’s discontent to a spring fever of renewal and gratitude, life with his parents is a quiet riot. There are generous doses of melancholy, comic encounters with the resident guinea fowl Lucius and a gentle meditation associated with life on the farm. His initial resistance to admitting to his permanent covert accommodations eventually twists into what life should be. Time spent wholly engaged in conversation, petting cats, drinking coffee, musing, napping, observing, Hockey Night in Canada, digging the shit out of sheep barns, eating mom’s lemon loaves (and cookies and apple walnut cake) and just being. And, lucky us! We get to eavesdrop on all those conversations and cheer the emergence of a wayward urban refugee writer finding solace.

#Poetry Jazz Cafe

As much as I adore the beer taps and smart handle of the place, Thirsty & Miserable in Kensington Market smells like a dog that has swum in brackish water. The wet dogness doesn’t dissipate, even after 3-4 pints. I know, I’ve tried. However, just south of the great-named-bar-that-smells-like-the-fish-market-next-door, there’s Poetry. Dark as a carnival haunted house, it has groovy by the neck. Kim and I feel our way to the back to where we’re meeting my friend Keph. Earlier in the day I had read online about their intimate patio. From here we can still here the jazzy beats, but at a level that still permits conversation. Weathered mill carts, makeshift benches, Adirondack chairs and bistro tables fill the tidy pea-gravelled space that is bigger than any Toronto backyard. The tall boys (Guinness , Stiegl, Strongbow), and the pints of Steam Whistle, Keith’s and Hoptical Illusion (Flying Monkey’s Brewery) fuel an easy night of chatter. We chatter even longer when a bowl of super-salty popcorn arrives by surprise. Which, in turn, encourages another pint.

The patio fills before dusk. Unpretentious and as relaxed as hanging out in your own leafy space, this place is going to be a future soupy night go-to for Friday night flat-lining.

 

#Banh Mi Boys, 392 Queen West (at Spadina)

Their lemongrass pork sub stuffed with daikon, pickled carrot, cuke, mayo and cilantro gets kicked-up a few infernos with three different hot sauces. Bahn mi subs from this joint (the 5 spice pork belly with pickled relish is love in a bun) make me want to wear only sweat pants, watch thirtysomething re-runs and eat only these. For breakfast even. Less than $5 bucks a pop and paired with a blood orange San Pellegrino, they push Subway to the curb.

MLS

Boo to the Highway 6 traffic that took this Morriston gem out of the running.I think Kim and I have looked at over 548 MLS listings. I “drive” around Guelph in circles (I could find a quick job as a cabbie with my new found directional sense of the city), waiting for the dream house listing to FINALLY appear. We have moved our initial search out of Dundas, Waterdown and south Burlington. We want a place with personality that bleeds charm right out of its brickwork. We’d be smitten with anything that ticks off 97% of this checklist:

No pool (due to previous experience and severe novelty worn-off-ness)

Absolutely no hot tub (due to previous nightmares)

No finished basement (we are both basement-haters)

Pedestrian-friendly location: just far-enough from the traffic hum but close enough to find a pint or Americano

Preferably old hardwood, exposed brick, wainscoting

A backyard suitable for bonfires and plein air dining

Kim would like a furnace that doesn’t tick

I would like a fridge that doesn’t operate at the decibel level of a Mack Truck

NO TENANTS (especially the type that re-enact Jurassic Park scenes from above)

No white-fluffy, ribbon-wearing, below knee-level barking dogs in a 100 foot radius

A Wolf stove would be really nice

A workshop space so Kim can be all handy and build remarkable things with her tools and saws that every man envies

Front balcony for morning coffee-drinking and nosey-neighbour-type spying

Barn board, exposed timber beams—bonus: attic space for writing the Next Great Novel

Century home or raw loft space WITH balcony (no concessions)

A scalding hot shower with endless water pressure unlike my parents (the equivalent of being pissed on by a horse). Clawfoot tub separate. No wrestling two shower curtains around claw foot. Been there.

Gas fireplace for wintry nights and wintry wine-drinking. One in the bedroom too, best yet.

Kim’s request: “no messy trees” (i.e. wind-weary willows or berry-bearing trees that attract birds that shit purple bombs on her highly-polished black Saab

That je ne sais quoi. The kinda place you walk into, close the door, breathe deep and contemplate never leaving.

 

What’s trending in your life?

 

 

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Flicks and Muzak, Home Sweet Home, On My Bookshelf, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Camping Gets An Upgrade

There comes a time when every urban urchin needs to turn down the static of the city’s frequency and retreat to the restorative properties of terra firma at its best. Of course, at age 37, terra firma is feeling more firma than ever after three nights of camping at Pinery Provincial Park on Lake Huron. However, there is much praise for the soundtrack of such tree-centric sanctuaries: lulling waves that Mother Nature cranks to the max, the threading of the wind through feathery pine tops and the lonely call of the whip-poor-will.

Finding a campsite at one of Ontario’s provincial parks is much like booking your wedding venue. Keeners have already staked out premium spots in the dead of February and hog them for the majority of the summer. I can see why.

When we departed on Monday morning, the Saab was stuffed fuller than a pinata. My watch didn’t find its way to my wrist. For the next four days we operated on basic human instinct: hunger, thirst and sleep. Recreational reading was punctuated by tepid tall boys and picnics of various essential elements: guacamole, salty Fritos, roasted red pepper dip, jalapeno havarti and sweet potato crackers. We grazed, we dozed, we wandered barefoot.  At dusk we sauntered back to our campsite, any latent stress completely evaporated with talk of spicy sausage and Weber burgers on the grill for dinner.

The cicadas buzzed like overloaded electrical wires and petered out with the fall of dusk. Slowly, we watched the woods transform into the pages of fairy tale lore. Fireflies mixed with the suspended stars until the soupy humidity of the day thinned out and encouraged long sleeves. We piled the kindling and split ash in a Boy Scout-approved teepee-style and gave in to the sway of childhood nostalgia: eating cloying sweet marshmallows until near-sick.

We awoke to the scamper of drag-racing red squirrels. A resident pair kept close eye on our cache. I think they suspected we might be carrying Squirrel peanut butter, the one with the peanut on top. If the squirrels were taking inventory, they would see that we took no shortcuts in comfort, ambience or bomb shelter-worthy canned goods. Not to mention our booze cartel of pink Prosecco, Malbec, gin and enough beer for two college football teams. We decided to do it as deluxe as possible. Inflatable Queen mattress (not those horrible maxi pad thin Thermaphores), real pillows (not balled up clothes) and pretty much all the pleasures of home, minus the walls and roof and fridge that makes ice on its own accord.

While some people take valuable days to decompress on vacation, we seemed to be breathing in tandem with the pines upon arrival. Not that I would choose to permanently sleep on an inflatable mattress….but, there is a different awareness and heightened sensory intake when you wake up outside. The crisp clarity of the air beckons stiff coffee, banter about the neighbouring birds and drop-in butterflies. My hoodie smelled like the unmistakable morning-after-campfire bacon bits scent. Inhaling deeper, I am glad that we get to stoke up another blazing fire that night. But first, a leisurely breakfast is all we’re obligated to do for the next few hours.

Kim and I assume unspoken roles, as we do. She is quick to boil the water for coffee and I take on the whipping of eggs and dicing of red pepper and onion. We meet somewhere in the middle, well entrenched in the premeditated laziness of the day ahead of us.

We’ve upgraded our Coleman stove menu from last year–our inaugural camping trip at Long Point Provincial Park on Lake Erie. Over coffee and the last bits of breakfast blotted up with a tortilla shell, we anticipate our al dente and al fresco menu post-beach. We decide to take camping to the next level with a jar of Jamie Oliver coriander and cashew pesto, penne and pine nuts (not locally sourced). The plastic checkered tablecloth will be spread on top of the picnic table, easily transforming our campsite into a pop-up Italian resto in the pines.

Each day we return to our site famished and sighing aloud from the joy of nothingness. The sun has warmed us right to our bones. Kim and I are sheer experts at this napping, wading and beachcombing business. My surf shorts are weighted down with more than a few polished stones. We walk the length of the sandbar to Port Franks, admiring cottage architecture, impromptu lakeside bars fashioned out of driftwood, greeting wag-happy dogs and exchanging pleasantries with the beach bum set.

Another fire is lit, snapping and spitting embers in no time. We pull the picnic table closer to the flames and talk as we do: all over the map. Always scheming of where to travel next and how we might opt out of this thing called work for more of the life balance equation.

The zen of the woods is like a medicinal salve.  We solve the world’s problems each night and find solace in the stillness. I am thrilled to be away from clocks and social media appliances and obligations. I am thrilled to eat everything that causes hypertension, high cholesterol,  heart attacks and gout in a span of four days. We drink and eat and lie about like royalty. And, not to brag, but our campsite even had an en suite.

Isn’t it time for you to get away? Grab the one you love and get grounded!

Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Polyblogs in a Jar | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Serious Eating Misadventures

Late Thursday night I posted a photo on Facebook of something that hit my barf trigger. My sister was surprised and admitted that she was beginning to wonder if I had experienced any food misadventures and if I was withholding information. Kiley also confessed that she was less than sympathetic in my near-barfing incident and cited a childhood emotional scar that involved me feeding her soft cat food. Attention readers: Please note, yes, I did feed her cat food on the sly, several times, but, the moment she was referring to was a Hostess potato chip with anchovy paste on the underside. Not cat food as per usual. What big sister doesn’t take such liberties?

Of course, I’ve eaten a lot of terrible things. However, I like to think that I’ve educated my palate to be open to radical experiences and surprises. I do have texture issues and I know my instant barf triggers by heart:

1. Peanut butter more than 1mm in height. Slathered on like cake icing and I am gagging. As much as I love it, scooping a hoggy spoonful straight out of the jar is something I could never do. Not even for $100.

2. Havarti cheese. I love this cheese too (dill and jalapeno most of all), but if the cube is more than 2cm x 2cm, I am also gagging.

3. Fettucine Alfredo. Swallowing hard now as I type the words. It’s like eating cellulite. Cellulite Alfredo.

4. Sushi. Ten years ago I was sushi’s biggest fan. It was my “if you lived on a desert island and could only eat one thing, what would it be?” choice, hands down. It was Easter, 2001. Spicy salmon rolls. Near death experience. I was vomitose (a word I coined that is similar in nature to comatose, but, instead of being in a coma, being in the state of vomit). I have tried valiantly (three times so far) to rectify this disappointment, but, each time the flashback is crystalline. Even the poster advertising sexy sushi at Benihana in the elevator at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel makes me uneasy. Sticky rice, soya sauce, wasabi, ginger, salmon—all of these elements have been ruined for me. But, I will try again.

And therein lies the problem. I try and try again. Thursday’s photo was part of my recent research for a feature with the Matador Network on cheap eats in Toronto. Chinatown is always the perfect resource for this. Poke into any place around Spadina and Dundas and you can find complete meals for three bucks.

I had selected a tamale-type item for $2.25 at the Golden Butterfly Bakery. The description was promising: rice, pork and peanuts. Wrapped in a corn husk and bound with twine like a lovely present it seemed like the perfect dinner.

Except, it tasted like cold cat puke. It was like a leftover food snowball. The rice was so sticky it stayed more on the fork than in my mouth. The peanuts were soft and bloated. The pork(?) was more like jerky and of a strange shade. The snowball tasted vaguely like chicken soup powder, but together, the texture did me in. Even with a gallon of beer to slide it down, I was still heaving. I ate more than half, not wanting to waste a good $2.25.

What I ate as a chaser will follow in the Matador article, so, no spoilers! However, I have discovered out-of-season pseudo mini candy apples. Stay tuned.

When you attempt snacking under $5 (as is the guise of my latest article), you are prone to some misadventures. After tossing the remains of the cat puke corn husk feature, I remembered a similar experience in Chinatown last year.

After a shiatsu treatment at the Oriental Health and Beauty Centre, I was ravenous. I popped into a bakery near Huron street and found a steamed bun as big as a bocce ball. Size does matter! I needed serious carb uploading. I paid less than $2 for a massive bun that was described as a “steamed bun with meat.”It was distinctly dusk as I walked past the Art Gallery of Ontario and came to a dead stop. Initially alarmed, and far from the glow of a streetlamp, I realized after super-close inspection that the rubbery mouthful was part of a hard-boiled egg, not a condom. A few steps further I bit into a surprise wiener. And then? Wait for it…a chicken wing! With bone-in! I couldn’t believe the value in my $2 find. Not only did I get bocce ball-sized bun, but it included a wiener, whole egg and chicken wing. Which gave rise to the inevitable question: What came first? The chicken, the egg or the steamed bun with the chicken, egg and wiener?

It was actually not the greatest thing I’ve ever eaten for $2.

In Koreatown last year, I was seen plodding along Bloor, scarfing back a sticky and very sloppy (not first date material) Korean pancake filled with brown sugar syrup and crushed nuts. Seeking out an unusual accompaniment, I bought a generic brown rice beverage in a can. There was no translation on the can but the cashier made a “shake-it-up” motion with her hand. I shook it, fearing a geyser as soon as I snapped back the tab.

No geyser. I had no idea what to expect either. I took a gigantic slug as the Korean pancake seemed to be sitting precariously in my throat like a wine cork. Imagine my surprise when my mouth was suddenly full of worms. Hundreds. I stepped into a side alley and did a big splat and cough. Turns out the worms were not worms at all, but brown rice. It was a brown rice beverage, but, I was anticipating the likes of soya milk—clearly sold with no soya beans rolling around in the bottom of the carton.

That wormy surprise was high on the gross meter. But, I took a few more tentative sips, just to make sure. Yup. The idea of swallowing liquid and rice grains is not desirable.

Also not desirable would be the roasted lima beans I had in Quito, Ecuador. When in Rome…they were being sold everywhere, and after scaling a South American Everest knock-off to see La Virgen de Quito up close and personal, a Biela lager and roasted lima beans seemed to be appropriate. That is until I popped six beans in my mouth at once. Charred black, swallowing the beans felt like I was getting my stomach pumped with the charcoal content. Worse? I felt like I was eating my own teeth. The lima beans were harder than my molars and tasted like nothing more than charcoal briquettes and a root canal. The Biela beer was satiating and a welcome chug after a mountain climb in soupy heat though.

I could go on. Ask my brother about the goat cheese we had at Toronto’s Wine & Cheese show. I swear it was pissed-on sweat socks formed into a cheese slice. The stench was nearly toxic and we wondered if we were being poisoned. The taste? It was like an old man had farted in our mouths. To ward off the fart breath we drank a dozen more wine samples and opted for a touch of alcohol poisoning instead.

There were lots of questionable items in Africa too—but, I actually genuinely loved the tilapia fish that was always served whole, looking very much like a fossil exhibit from a museum.

So, yes, I have eaten many dodgy things that don’t make my glossy online mostly bacon-themed photo albums or blog posts.

What will it be next? I promise to share next time.

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