All posts by Rob

Whistler Weekend!

Hello, Happymouth! It has been awhile since my last confess… I mean road trip. Old habits die hard. I have not written (Rob has) for two years. I have been busy transporting an adult life across a continent. Only just this month have I felt planted and home, ready to get back on the road.

After an early morning hike with Josie, AKA The Red Menace (ask a bunny), we hit the road north on this gorgeous, sunny but comfortable Thursday. I have not been beyond Squamish BC. and am looking forward to the scenic Sea to Sky Highway.  I knew it would be pretty but it really is majestic.

The highway cuts through bold rock face of slate and ochre offering tremendous views of towering evergreens, crystal waterfalls, open blue sky, emerald lakes, and lush, summer alpine mountains effortlessly reaching into mashed potato clouds. Also of note and just for fun are warnings about not stopping due to Rockfell areas, Debris Torrent Hazard, and….BEARS! Bears for 50 km!. Lies. Not a one.

We have decided to stop near Squamish at a little bus turned roadside stand where we have eaten once before later in the season.

Mountain wo-Man, an ocean-side, open air place with a patio, seems barely more than a chip wagon. It offers fish and chips, hot dogs, fried prawns and…poutine. Yeah, poutine. Scary. But I decide to run with it. Not bad.

Decent, skin on fries, salty, crappy (in a good way) dark brown gravy and real cheese curds. Cheese curds are known as squeakers here and hard to find, so I was not overly hopeful. It was good poutine…for BC, but not Ottawa chip wagon good. A side of prawns and tartar sauce was also well made, not greasy.

We arrive at Crystal Lodge in Whistler Village before check in so we walk about the village briefly before settling on the patio of Brasserie des Artistes. The colourful view of bedding plants, tourists, bikes, dogs, awnings and brellas, bustles and makes for great people and dog watching with a beer in the sun. I cannot see the massive mountains from my seat and could swear I’m in Mont Tremblant.

I order a Whistler Grapefruit Ale with a tart pink grapefruit finish. Not sweet like a radler.

Very nice. Rob had the Driftwood White Bark Witbier. Heavy on the clove and coriander flavours with secondary citrus notes. Very refreshing.

 We stick around for cocktails, still killing time. I opt for a very average Moscow Mule, not objectionable but probably saved by the atmosphere and Rob had a really good elderflower and lime cider. The lime was real and pulpy tasting, not artificial or cloyingly sweet. He won the round.

Dinner tonight will be at the well regarded Araxi Restaurant and Oyster Bar. 6:45 reservations inside. Evenings get quite chill here when the sun goes down. The diners consist of an eclectic mix of tourists in shorts and pajamas to the well dressed. We get comfortably seated and check out the menu. Our waitress, a sweet native of France’s Loire Valley with a charming accent and bubbly personality, delivers Cadillac Margarita cocktails. Cadillac involves the addition of orange juice and a smoky, salted rim. The smoke adds a pleasant note as you sip. A very well made marg but I do think I prefer the classic lime.

They have a small but decent raw bar with so many things I want…lobster cocktail, salmon tartare, oysters 5 ways and caviar. Hard to pass up excellent caviar. They have Northern Divine on offer. Yes please.! Northern Divine, a farmed, sustainable BC Sturgeon caviar melts and pops lightly salty on the tongue.

It comes with classic accoutrements…finely diced chive, egg white, egg yolk and creme fraiche.  Paired with a cold glass of Tattinger,  this caviar makes for a special treat albeit a very expensive one. 30 oz., fully prepped, goes for $169 tonight.

Our waitress has paced our courses as we had requested. Mains arrive leisurely after we linger on the caviar. I’m having the fresh BC halibut in season now for a few weeks. The fish comes with a braised leek and cabbage veg but more notably, with a delicate bed of barley lightly scented with anise and a smoky, buttery, charred side of rapini. The char removes the bitterness typical of rapini.

Rob had local pork two ways, with a hammy, smoked pork tenderloin and then pork belly on a bed of asparagus and whipped parsnip. The tenderloin had a cured snap to it that was unique, and the pork belly was slow-roasted, tender and juicy.

Dessert. Yup still had room to share a small dessert. Rob picks the lemon tart. The delicate, lemony, jiggly filling on a shortbread crust dissolves wonderfully on the tongue. Topped with shreds of sweetened lemon zest and accompanied by a creamy Tahitian vanilla ice cream that tastes faintly of goat’s milk, raspberry coulis and fresh blueberries,  served with excellent cappuccinos makes for a perfect dessert and the end of a lovely first evening in Whistler.

Pulled Ham – Sandwiches for Days!

Maureen’s a creature of habit. Same thing for breakfast and lunch for months at a time. So you can imagine my surprise when she asks for something different. Of course my surprise turns to nodding approval when I find out what it is.

On One of our monster road trips, this one from New Orleans to Chicago, we took a 440-mile stretch from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee on a National Park road called the Natchez Trace. Because it’s a National park, there’s no where to eat on it.

Natchez TraceC 1

One day we pulled int the only nearby dot on the map — Hohenwald, TN, to grab lunch and we were resigned to breaking a road trip rule and to eat at any fast food chain by the highway. On the main 3 block-long drag, we found Big John’s Pit BBQ (no web link, no website) and discovered a plethora of pulled, smoked meats, including pork, ham and turkey. Our favourite was the ham — moist, lightly sauced and perfectly smoked. It made an amazing sandwich.

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When we discovered one of our local butcher smoked their own hams and then cut chunks off of them to sell as “nuggets”, we started smoking and pulling our own ham, whenever we felt like something different for lunches.

I start the BBQ on low and slow – about 250°F with cherry wood in the smoker drawer, and then I set to make a slather for the ham. It’s a small piece, weighing a few pounds. But it’s real. It’s not the molded ex-liquid meat of the commercial hams. It used to be a chunk of a pig leg. That’s important if you want to pull it later.

Then I rub the ham with a good pork or rib rub and put it on the smoker, replenishing the smoke wood for the first 90 minutes (after that the bark is formed and there’s no point doing any more because the smoke won’t penetrate.

pulled-ham-1 pulled-ham-3

After about 5-6 hours I take the ham off and pull it with bear claws. You can use large forks, too. Once pulled I place it in a bowl and add a couple tablespoons of rustic mustard, hot sauce and BBQ sauce and mix well. Then I place in a large plastic bag to keep in the fridge. I don’t know how long it keeps as it’s always gone in a couple days.

I make one of these every month or so. It’s easy to do, even on a busy day — the ham just sits in the smoker for 4-6 hours. It takes about 10 minutes to prep and another 10 to shred the ham and sauce it.

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South of France River Cruise Wrap-up

The Viking Cruise Ship Experience

The Ship

This ship was made in 2012 as with the entire fleet, so it’s new, modern and has the very latest in amenities, including satellite wi-fi (although it’s not screamingly fast).

You will pay for drinks in the lounge but you can purchase a premium drinks package separately. Depends on how much you drink. This is not an all-inclusive get hammered on cheap alcohol kind of cruise. Bartenders are experienced and know how to make a decent cocktail. There is unlimited wine and beer with meals.

IMG_9124There are only about 160 passengers  and amenities are very close by. It’s way more intimate than the floating cities that are today’s ocean liners. Cabins are never more than a two minute walk to dining areas and outdoor decks, quiet spaces and computer centers. We did not have to call down for this or that  except extra pillows, which came in mere minutes.

Vienne 005People have asked what the ship looks like. The answer? Exactly as pictured on the website and in print and television medias. There’s no real-life step down. It’s gorgeous.

The Cabin

Our cabin was a first class cabin and is generally the one pictured on TV. It was spacious and very well appointed. Having the balcony off the cabin for private outside time was  very nice, but there are plenty of areas to be outside if you don’t have a balcony. Showers and toilets worked beautifully. We heard from other passengers that their cabins were less spacious but also much cheaper. Best to check online for your own needs. It was really nice not to be tripping over each other. The room came with a bottle of sparkling wine which we sipped on our balcony on a hot day between ports. Nice.

Having BOTH 110V and 220V outlets in each cabin, as well as USB charging ports were thoughtful additions.

The Staff

We’ve been on other cruises. Service was always professional and fastidious.

We were very impressed by the staff’s interactions with passengers and their overall demeanor. They were comfortably engaging and gregarious, and while professional, they were not formal. Clearly designed to be a Viking differentiator.

Midway through the cruise we were required to change ships due to the fact that our cruise began on the wrong ship because of high waters. It was utterly painless. The team added extra perks: a cheese tasting and a bottle of local wine, for example. When we got back aboard, wet and cold from Lyon, they had prepared some rum-laced hot chocolate for us. It seemed like it was just for us — they were thoughtful and attentive and made it seem like OUR cruise was the only cruise.

A special note: our cruise director, Nikolas, an American-raised Belgian, was everybody’s friend – knowledgeable, friendly, funny and professional. He gave personal recommendations to anyone who asked and also gave daily briefings to all passengers, as well as presentations on wine, art and cheese that were informative, well-researched but never too academic.

The Food

The food on board was pretty much perfect for a large and varied group of passengers. The chefs managed to feed everyone with a fairly varied menu that highlighted the region’s cuisine. Of course the food in southern France is generally more rustic and passengers  expect some fancier fare so, while this is not a complaint in any sense, we found in many cases, the chefs’ hands were tied and probably they focused on presentation and mass appeal in their versions of the local dishes.

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Our best meals were rustic and full of local flavour. We ate lunch at a sidewalk café in Avignon and sit rose wine while eating fois gras, roast duck and other local delicacies. And on the ship , the chef surprised us this one day with a special menu featuring the rustic cuisine of Provence: Baguette, olives, local dried sausage, herb roasted chicken and duck and local cheeses. It was the best meal of the trip by far.

Vienne 008Vienne 007Tour Guides

All of our tour guides were exemplary. They were excellent guides that knew their subjects — history, architecture and culture. They also knew so much more, including about the geography and the horticulture or the region. They did a superb job of wrangling large groups of tourists  while never seeming to rush or to corral.

Viking employs QuietVox, the latest in guided tour technology. It’s a small receiver that every tourist wore which was tuned automatically to the tour guides’ transmitter. The perfect tour experience. Guides could speak quietly and respect residential areas and hallowed places while including everyone. We could go further afield of the group and still hear the guide clearly which was especially good for discovering photo opportunities.

Travel

This, being our first Viking river cruise, we chose to go top-drawer all the way, which included first-class air travel to Europe and back which ain’t cheap. They were long travel days but at least we had short lines and more comfortable surroundings.

It was a pricey trip, but if you wanted to not spend so much, regular economy airfare and a smaller cabin would still make for a great vacation. There’s lots of hang-out space on the ship, so not a big need for a larger cabin.

Something that never occurred to us — Spring rains make the rivers high, which can hamper river navigation for ships on rivers that include ancient bridges.

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The crew wasn’t sure that the cruise would make it all the way to Lyon and Chalon-Sur-Saône because of the combination of high waters and particularly low bridges there. As it turned out, we were able to make all of our stops but on a couple occasions we were awakened in the morning  by the crew dismantling all of the structures on the sun deck above us to make under-bridge passage possible.

The Places

The Stops

The stops along the cruise were amazing choices — each was unique and different from the last. We wish had more time in each but had to keep moving. But, then we look back at what we packed into 8 days, we realize the ground we covered. As with many cruises, we discover the locations we will return to on our own (*cough, cough* Beaune.)

Arles

Arles was our first stop — a wonderful representative of the colours of Provence – the blues, the yellows. We walked in ancient footsteps among  Roman ruins and saw the inspiration for many of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous works. We took in the wandering ancient streets to the Roman coliseum and the Amphitheater from the first century, built by Augustus in Julius Caesar’s honour. As, well we stopped by the locations made immortal by Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, Starry Night, Cafe at Night.

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Avignon

We walked through the narrow streets where Avignon has it’s own  Roman ruins and then the remnants of Roman influence from 1000 years later when Avignon held the seat of the Catholic Church during war. For me, the highlight was a stop at Les Halles at Avignon, a market for purveyors, of cheeses, meats and pastries. We saw lovely sausages, pates, breads and everything for an amazing Provencal repast.

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Leaving our guided tour at this point, we scouted out a French sidewalk cafe from which to  soak in the sun the proper way. A lovely lunch, some rose wine and lovely conversation made for a lifetime memory.

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Leaving Avignon we began the most picturesque part of the river cruise, passing limestone mountains, vineyards and castles, drinking sparkling wine on our sunny balcony.

Vienne

Our trip through Vienne revealed a stunning view of the city from the church atop a mountain.

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Then the most unexpected thing happened. To show us the quality of the acoustics of the church, our tour guide sang Ave Maria in a pitch perfect, strong and clear voice that transported everyone in the room. It was one of the highlights of our entire trip.

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Again Vienne had it’s own Roman ruins, most impressively, the temple of Augustus and Livia.

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Ardeche/Tournon

At our next stop, Ardeche we boarded a steam train, enjoyed a ride through the country side (don’t wear white. It is a dirty ride) and sampled some of the ciders and juices made from the area’s fruits.

Ardeche 006The train wound around the mountains of the region and gave us views of rivers and gorges and the odd nudist who, I’m sure, figured they’d be totally alone and didn’t count on a train full of tourists going by 100 metres above.

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Lyon

Lyon is a large city and we had really only a few hours to spend there. We toured the very old streets and the “traboules” – passageways through the buildings from street to street as old Lyon didn’t have enough room between mountain and river for cross streets everywhere.

Lyon 008We were in search of Lyonnaise sausages and nougat, specialties of the area. We found each of them in quaint shops that sold them and other specialties of the area. It was a cold, blustery day in Lyon, but shopping along its narrow, old streets was fantastic.

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Chalon-sur-Saône/Beaune

It’s like the trip saved the best for last. We pulled into a more industrial part of Chalon-sur-Saone because the water was too high to pass under the ancient bridge to downtown proper. It was fine, because were were taking the bus to Beaune in Burgundy, wine capital of France, and maybe all the world.

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It had warmed up, the sun was out and we enjoyed our trip through the clos, the stone-walled vineyards of Burgundy, past the mustard factory into Beaune. We walked through the Hôtel Dieu and had our wine tasting in an old cellar.

Beaune 017We poked about for a short time and then had to leave for our last night on the boat. We will definitely be coming back to Beaune, maybe someday, to stay. We liked it that much.
Beaune 024You see the Viking ads on television and the web. As with most things, you don’t believe the real thing can measure up to the idealized version presented there. This is an exception. Seeing the advertising after we’ve returned, our reaction was the same: it’s JUST like that. 100% just like that. It was a spectacular introduction to the South of France. Intimate. Romantic. Historic. Wonderful.

Fish & Chips at the Perfectionists’ Cafe

Another day, another layover at Heathrow. This time, I had a couple hours, so I decided to go back to The Perfectionists’ Cafe, Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant in Terminal 2, this time for lunch.

IMG_2641 (1)Known for going to ridiculous lengths to provide a unique and authentic food experience, Mr. Blumenthal doesn’t disappoint with his description of the fish and chips from the Cafe’s Menu:

“The Perfectionists’ Café Fish & Chips uses day-boat caught, sustainable varieties of fish from the coasts of Cornwall. Our relationship with these smaller boats helps us source the very best quality fish.

Inspired by a visit to see a nutty professor at Leeds University, The Perfectionists’ Café special beer batter is aerated through a siphon to create the lightest, crunchiest texture possible, and for that real smell of the ‘chippie’, it is served with an atomizer of malt vinegar pickled onion juice – bottled at source. Just spray onto the fish and chips for flavour without sogginess; unless of course, soggy chips is what you want, in which case, go crazy!”

The server brings a small dish with malt vinegar and an atomiser containing the pickled onion juice ‘bottled at source’. I imagine a running river of malt vinegar pickled onion juice with a bottling plant next to it.

Fishnchips 001My lunch comes and the fish looks like the batter has been aerated — light and crisp. The fish itself, light and fairly mild, offers to complete the fried, battered fish experience. It looks like there’s extra batter strips on top to provide further crunch.  Certainly the best fried fish I’ve ever had.

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Fishnchips 005The chips are absolutely perfect. Golden-crisp on the outside and soft and steamy inside, they are a master class in chip making. Also on my plate was the traditional minted, mushy peas. I’ve had them several times and I really like them. Fresh, green with a hint of mint — they’re the perfect foil to the richness of the rest of the meal.
Fishnchips 003The malt vinegar goes well with the chips and the spray…well, it just passes the line of gimmick to actually providing a hint of flavour and aroma. Of course, I haven’t been to a “chippy” often enough to judge the authenticity of the experience, although I am sure that an atomizer would be met with a derisive sneer in a seaside fish and chips shop. Nevertheless, it’s fun.

Fishnchips 004Lunch done. Off to catch a plane to Copenhagen.

Swedish Candy!

I’ve been doing work in Sweden lately and staying a couple weeks at a time. Last time I traveled there, I thought I would bring home a large assortment of Swedish candy, which is quite different from the Canadian Candy we know. I picked up a small assortment myself, but I mentioned this to my Swedish colleagues, and they surprised me with a large sac full of assorted candy.

In this post, I’ll place a description of each type of candy under its photo as well as a review and rating. There are a few distinct categories of candy here:

  1. Gummy and gummy variants
  2. Licorice – Salty, sweet, hard and soft.
  3. Deliberately unpleasant candy
  4. Astounding chocolate

So here we go:
1. Gummy and gummy variants
This includes gummy and semi-gummy marshmallowy candies which seems to be in abundance.

Gummies 1

Half-citrus, half-berry gummies. A little more solid than classic gummies. Very nice.Gummies 2

A mix of red and black licorice. Again, more solid than gummies. A little less solid than the tougher licorice. Not salty, but sweet licorice. Good stuff. Gummies 3

Absolutely classic, quintessential gummy bears. The original. Truly soft and gummy. Pretty much perfect.

Gummies 5Cross between the tougher gummies and marshmallows. This is a fairly common candy type there. Chewy, fun to eat, sweet and kind of meh.

Gummies 6Juleskum! LOL. Christmas time treats. Christmas marshmallows that are kind of the texture of the marshmallow peanut candies that are ubiquitous in North America. Of the flavour, I can only say that they’re pink and white flavour…

2. Licorice
Licorice comes in huge variety in Sweden. Various levels of hardness, saltiness, and sweetness make for dozens of offerings

Licorice 1Tough gummies that are salty licorice. You can see the salt and sugar coating. Not too salty, and very pleasant.

Licorice 2These are salt licorice versions of the tough, marshmallowy cars above.  I couldn’t taste the difference between the black and brown ones but then the a-salt (ha!) on your tongue after a couple leaves no ability to discern subtlety.

Licorice 3Just like the fish above, but more of the skull and crossbones shapes. Coated in a salty coating.

Licorice 4I liked these the best of the licorice. Basically a wonderful variation of the licorice all-sorts. Fresh, tasty and full of variety. Will definitely buy more.Licorice 5This was an interesting mix of licorice and fruit paste flavours. Salty but nice.Licorice 6Gummy licorice with only a little salt. Nice.Licorice 7More sweet and toothsome. My favourite pure licorice.

3. Deliberately Unpleasant Candy
We have this category in North America, too (sour patch? super-hot cinnamon? hello?) It seems their thing is salt and heat, but mostly salt. My goodness, but some of this stuff is salty.

Unpleasant 2Unpleasant 4To be fair this is Danish Candy  (I picked it up at the Copenhagen central train station). These were terribly, disgustingly salty. They had a very salty outer coating, sweeter hard candy and then a powdery centre of ultra saltiness.  My goodness, but these were awful.

Unpleasant 3Well, these were the three-alarm variety. This is candy for those who like things hot — folks who find the hottest hot sauce. Not for  casual enjoyment.

4. Chocolate

Chocolate 1Chocolate 6Oh. My. Goodness. This may well be the best chocolate treat ever invented. In Canada we have Caramilk — a chocolate bar enrobing soft caramel. Imagine excellent European chocolate surrounding salty-sweet licorice that’s as sooth as caramel. Unbelievably good.

Chocolate 2 Chocolate 3So, while Canadian chocolate has not been ruined like much of the American chocolate that’s broadly available, Scandinavian chocolate is simply wonderful. Creamy and delicious, without being waxy or too sweet.Chocolate 4 Chocolate 5Paradis is kind of like a super high quality Swedish version of Pot O’ Gold chocolates. A holiday tradition and every Swede seems to know all the flavours.  Again, amazing chocolate quality and lovely fillings, although tuned to the Swedish sense of what makes a good filling. Elderflower and others may seem strange to the North American palate.