Icewine grapes are harvested from the Konzelmann Estate Winery in Ontario's Niagara-on-the-Lake region. The sweet, dry icewines are made using grapes from Ontario, B.C. and Canada's East Coast. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)
Canada's cuisine comes of age
Last Updated June 26, 2007
At one time Canadian chefs had to elbow their way forward, fighting for a little space in a spotlight crowded with more internationally famous fare. But with time, the country's cuisine has come of age, with cooks crafting new signature dishes made of locally grown ingredients.
Chef Michael Smith says more and more chefs are happy to wave the Canadian flag, and are creating menus built around seasonal, locally grown products. (Food Network Canada)
Admittedly, Canadian fare might still not be as familiar around the globe as Italian, Chinese or French, but we're definitely growing up, says Canadian chef and popular Food Network Canada host Michael Smith.
"Thailand, Arizona, Morocco, France, Germany — wherever you happen to be, cuisine is always about using what you have in your backyard," Smith told CBC News.
"We hold up things like southwestern or French or Thai as shining beacons of cuisine, forgetting we have one that is just as strong, because we do the same thing: we use what's in our backyard, we cook with what's around us."
For Smith, defining Canadian cuisine can be as easy as asking cooks from coast to coast to coast: What do you eat? What'd you have for dinner last night?
"Whatever it was, it was Canadian cuisine. It may have had a solid ethnic influence, because that's one of the coolest things about our Canadian cuisine. We have ethnic influence from all over the world that we get to weave into our tapestry," said the host of both the itinerant show Chef at Large as well as Chef at Home, which is set in eastern Prince Edward Island, where Smith lives.
"As long as we're staying true to the basic idea [that] we're cooking with what's around us — with what's in our backyard, seasonally and regionally — that's Canadian cuisine."
Coaxing a meal out of moose lips
From the idiosyncratic versions of classic fish chowders made across the Atlantic provinces to the wide variety of perogies enjoyed on the Prairies, Canadian recipes have evolved over the years. Changes inevitably arose over time as a result of different factors, from what basic ingredients were available to early families, to what was best to eat for survival, to which familiar tastes immigrants craved once in their new homes.
According to Bill Casselman, author of Canadian Food Words, Canada's most famous fare was born of creativity and hardscrabble necessity.
Supermarkets have expanded their stock to include once-exotic ingredients like curry pastes and fish sauces, which can be used to flavour locally grown vegetables. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)
"What other country is going to make a soup out of moose lips?" he asked, referring to moose muffle soup. Early aboriginal recipe books described the fare as being an "acquired taste" — a description Casselman says the eater should regard with caution.
"The big blubbery lips of the moose were cut off and boiled and made into a glutinous, gelatinous sort of stew soup — that's necessity," he said.
What the food lacked in taste, the chefs made up for in humour. Take for example the famed cowboy fare, "son of a bitch in a sack," a boiled pudding Casselman says could sink a stomach.
"The fact that we could laugh at some of the horrible things we had to eat just balances the sour Canadian pioneer cliché experience. It wasn't all like that," Casselman said of the supposedly dour settler persona.
"One of the ways to survive is laughing at your predicament, and we even did that with the names of foods."
These quirky and rustic dishes in many ways tell informal histories, offering hints about where immigrants came from and how they settled. For instance, bannock, an unleavened bread cooked over a campfire, tells the tales of Scottish and English immigration to Canada's East Coast, Casselman says.
"Bannock is an Anglo-Saxon word that meant little piece, broken-off piece," Casselman said of the bread's etymological origins.
"[It] was brought here by early English and Scottish pioneers, and then all kinds of variations were spun upon it. For example, there's a bannock that is cooked in fish grease in the Maritimes because that was the most easily available grease along the shore in Newfoundland when they first came," he said
Made in Canada a 'badge of honour'
While many of these Canadian foods and recipes have existed for a long time, what has been lacking is our willingness to wave our flag and toot our own horns in celebration of Canada's culinary landscape, Smith said. And he said that might be due to our humble nature, or a lack of confidence.
"Places like Thailand, Morocco and the [American] southwest over the last 10 to 15 years have done very well marketing themselves as culinary tourism destinations. Canada is not doing that well enough. We're not doing that, yet at the same time, we have absolutely just as exciting and vibrant a cuisine as anywhere else."
While chefs around the world are renewing their focus on cooking seasonally and regionally, Canadian chefs doing so today have a wealth of exciting raw materials from which to choose, Smith said. They range from East Coast oysters and clams to Quebec cheeses, from Ontario wine to produce from the Okanagan, from the vast selection of Prairie grains to sustainably harvested fish from British Columbia and the North.
"Fifteen years ago, very few chefs would have identified themselves as Canadian first. Today, that's a badge of honour. Every city in the country, we have chefs that are proudly waving the flag and proudly building their menus around seasonal, regional products," he said.
More chefs using domestic ingredients with an international twist
The average eater is also more familiar with different international cuisines than ever before and more knowledgeable about food in general, so the celebration of local ingredients is also trickling down to the average Canadian kitchen.
"Geopolitics what they are, issues of global warming and sustainability what they are, we are on the verge of a massive return to local foods and a reinvigoration of our relationships with local producers," Smith said. "That is going to engender a much greater understanding of cuisine at the mass level, if you will, not just something that academics and chefs think about."
For Smith, who claims to live in "the middle of nowhere, Prince Edward Island," this has meant that his local grocery store now stocks local produce alongside once-exotic components such as curry pastes and southeast Asian fish sauce, allowing home cooks to create internationally inspired dishes from domestic ingredients.
Still, to celebrate Canada Day, Smith says he likes to keep the menu simple.
"By the time Canada Day rolls around, we are usually getting our first strawberries of the year. For whatever reason, we always tend to grill a lot of Alberta beef, and serve it with strawberry shortcakes, and by then we've got lots of stuff in the garden for salads," he said.
"To me, that's Canadian cuisine at its best. A steak hot off the grill, strawberry shortcake for dessert and a nice garden salad. It doesn't get any better than that."
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