The Hippest Little Culinary Hub on the Canadian Prairie
Louise Black loves cheese. Like, really, really loves cheese. She talks about it with the mastery of an academic giving a dissertation, and also with the enthusiasm of a parent describing her kid's first homerun. As general manager of Bulk Cheese Warehouse, she oversees the daily bustle at the shop near the South Saskatchewan River. Despite the store's name, it's actually a modest size, and every square inch of every shelf in every case is occupied by cheese. For the most part, they're organized by country--French, Italian, Danish, English. I cannot show you what it looks like, though. There's a strict no-photo policy. Louise deems the store a "diamond in the rough" and she likes to keep it that way. (She's not kidding. Search for photos online. You'll find two images of the shop's interior. Clearly shot on the sly.)
Sampling is encouraged here. Ask for anything, she's happy to cut you a piece. She wants you to love cheese as much as she does. When I visited the store on a sunny July morning, she started waxing poetic to me about Chateau de Bourgogne, a triple cream cheese from Burgundy, France, and was nearly offended when I told her I've never had it. She immediately went behind the counter, spread a dollop on a cracker, and pushed it towards me. "It's triple cream heaven!” she exclaimed. "It’s just butter. When God created this, man, oh, man, step back!”
Louise’s passion is merely a small sampling of the excitement that courses through this small yet vibrant city, an urban enclave surrounded by prairies and wheat fields smack in the middle of Canada. It’s a city with culinary traditions that can be traced back thousands of years to when the native people lived off the land straight up to today, as entrepreneurial types showcase their creativity at restaurants, cafes, distilleries, shops, markets, and farms.
The South Saskatchewan River cuts through the city, a culinary oasis in the middle of the Canadian prairie.
Those ancient traditions are on display at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a sprawling, majestic site with a vast crater used millennia ago for bison jumping. Native people occupied the land up to 6000 years ago (that’s about 3000 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids, by the way) and today it’s known as Canada’s longest-running archaeological dig. It’s a cultural center today where you can camp out in teepees, roam the museum-meets-art-gallery space, or try smoked bison. When I visited on a sunny day in July, I watched a descendant of the native people effortlessly slice and smoke the meat in a minimalist smoker pit the way her father taught her. When I asked whether she ever uses any seasoning, she looked at me suspiciously and retorted “You don’t disrespect the meat that way!” I tried a piece that had been over the fire for three hours. Then I understood her reverence.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park staff demonstrates ancient methods of cutting and smoking bison meat.
She also told me about Bannock, an ancient food made from Indian bread root, which I sampled with a lunch of bison burger and Three Sisters soup, another customary food made with corn, squash, beans, and a medley of vegetables. Dry and crumbly, it was utilitarian, to be diplomatic. It's easy to understand why so many people lived by a paleo diet millennia ago.
My carb-fueled cravings were filled later that day on a visit to Night Oven, a small but bustling bakery with piles and piles of cookies, grainy loafs of bread, baguettes, brioche, croissants, and sundry pastries stacked up in pyramids. Nearly everything is made with heritage grains that the soft-spoken owner, Bryn Rawlyk, sources from area farmers and mills in-house on a 30-inch stone mill he constructed. But to say Bryn is handy would be an understatement. Behind the cases of sweets and racks of bread, the bakers scurry around in a compact space anchored by a hulking brick oven, which Rawlyk built. It has a 9-foot dome that, he explained as I savored a gingersnap cookie, bake the loafs with radiant heat stored up in the bricks from the wood-burning fire. It imparts an only subtly smoky flavor to the bread and, you might say, a sense of heritage.
Heritage is the cornerstone of Baba’s Homestyle Perogies, a no-frills perogie joint on the side of a busy thoroughfare. There’s the option to order at the drive-through. Or you could eat in the small canteen-like eatery. The perogies are served on Styrofoam plates on plastic cafeteria trays. They are the best perogies I have ever had. (And I come from an Eastern European heritage.) Owner Rob Engel told me that he became obsessed with the dumplings through his wife’s Ukranian family. His obsession has become a wildly popular business.
The unassuming Baba's Homestyle Perogies turns out some of Canada's most exquisite from-scratch perogies.
He took me into the sweeping warehouse-esque kitchen behind the dining area, where two Ukrainian women were industriously scooping dough, flattening it in their palms, topping it with a potato and cheese mix, and pinching it shut with jaw-dropping speed and efficiency. They make seven different varieties. They offered—nay, forced—me to try it myself. It’s not easy, to say the least. When Rob told me that they make 5,000 to 8,000 perogies a day most days, and 12,000 to 15,000 a day during the holidays, I nearly passed out. A plate of warm Saskatoon berry perogies topped with vanilla ice cream helped revive me.
Saskatoon berries are, as you might guess, unique to this region of prairieland. Their relatively short growing season makes them a prized bounty, one worthy of celebration. My late-July visit was perfectly timed to the Saskatoon Berry Festival, which takes place at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, a year-round bazaar that's featured the local bounty and baked goods since 1975. I stopped by expecting to wander around for an hour or so. I left four hours later. Saskatoon has that classic small town atmosphere of coziness and warmth, which is to say that conversation flows easily among strangers. Wandering through the marketplace, I spoke to a woman known around town as the Prairie Pasta Lady, who offered me a sample of her signature pasta pudding, a delectably gooey concoction that could stand up to the finest bread puddings the American South. I took a photo of the recipe, but I’ve yet to try to make it myself. Some things are more delicious when you’re not aware how much heavy cream is involved.
The Prairie Pasta Lady, a fixture at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market, is known for her variety of homemade pasta.
I chatted with a woman who sells dips and spreads inspired by her Polish parents who served dill dip with every meal when she was growing up. That day she had Saskatoon berry cream cheese on offer alongside her own rendition of her mother’s dill dip and a few other savory spreads. I was regaled with the various health benefits of sea buckthorn berries, acidic orange morsel that grow on shrubs in Canada, Russia and China. The superfood is the calling card of local company NVigorate, which uses it to make juices, jams, vinegar, syrup, and lotion.
But it was what appeared to be the most unassuming-looking women that left the biggest impression. Jean, who has short-cropped hair, cat’s eyes glasses, and a wide toothy grin, was busily organizing jars of salsas and sauces on her table while two young teenage boys clowned around behind her. She firmly warned them to settle down. They did. When your aunt the kind of woman who buys thousands of pounds of cabbage at a time and ferments it for three weeks to make sauerkraut or shows up to the market each week with anywhere between 33 and 50 cases of mason jars of her handmade condiments, from her “million-dollar relish” to an array of salsas to the crowd-pleasing red pepper variety, you listen when she tells you to behave.
Sisters-in-law Jean and Dorothy sell baked goods, homemade salsas, relishes, perogies and more each week at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market.
"They’re my nephews, I want them to learn. If they wanna earn money, they’ve gotta work for it,” she told me as I browsed her offerings. Jean lives on a farm where she grows wheat and grain and fruit and if anyone can teach work ethic to young people, she can. Jean told me that she has a computer in her house but she hasn’t used it in three years. She works 12 to 15 hours a day except on Sundays. “That’s when I nap,” she concedes. Also, Jean is 74. She did, however, work the prior Sunday because she had to pick 24 pails of Saskatoon berries in a day in preparation for the weekend's festival. She pointed to the other end of the table at a tall woman with high cheek bones and auburn hair done up tidily. That’s her husband’s sister Dorothy, a former professional ballroom dancer and flight attendant. She made 175 Saskatoon berry pies for this weekend, baking them 35 at a time. Dorothy is 87.
Jean's farm is over an hour away, but Black Fox Farms, which was selling gins and liqueurs at a table nearby, sprawls out across a valley alongside the Saskatoon River. It's just a quick drive from the center of the city, but I would have willingly spent lots more time on the road to get there. For husband-and-wife owners John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, running the 80-acre farm is something of a homecoming. John started his farming career 100 miles north, then moving to Mexico and then to Chile, from where he commuted to Kazakhstan. True story. Barb, meantime, is an award-winning soil scientist.
Little wonder that John waxed rhapsodic about a head-spinning array of topics when he guided me and my friend across the property: the misconceptions of organic farming (“The truth lies somewhere in the middle—it’s not just about organic farming, but also using good genetics.”); grape breeding (“My job is to kill them. If I can’t kill them, they’re pretty hardy. It’s old-fashioned breeding. We’re just guessing.”); the start of their floral business (Barb got 30,000 daffodil bulbs at an auction. They grow about 12,000 lilies annually and hold a Lily Festival each July to celebrate. Peonies are their biggest crop today.); and haskap berries, a tart pod that looks like a cross between a blueberry and a tiny sugar snap pea and tastes like the platonic ideal balance of sour and sweet. (They’re made from two flowers blooming on both ends and they can take a frost of minus-8 degrees.) And so on.
Veteran farmers John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, blend traditional and progressive farming methods on their 80-acre Black Fox Farm, where they grow about 90% of the ingredients they use to make gin, liqueur, and whiskey in their distillery.
All that farming has led up to the couple’s newest endeavor: Black Fox Farm Distillery. Nearly 90% of the ingredients they use in their three gins and various liqueurs are grown on the property. “Anything edible is likely to be pickled and used in a gin recipe,” John told me, ticking off calendula flower, rhubarb, to name a few. One of the gins he produces, the lightly aged Oaked Gin Barrel Two, won top honors at the 2017 World Gin Awards. I picked up a bottle of it as well as a bottle of Saskatoon berry and wildflower honey liqueur and a jar of unpasteurized, unfiltered honey. I couldn't wait to get it home and share it with my friends. It was the least I could do to spread Saskatoon's bounty around.
Get to Know: Glens Falls, NY, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Glens Falls, NY, is no. 9 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. If you take the long view, the Adirondack region is essentially a mosaic of heart-stoppingly gorgeous small towns, but Glens Falls, situated at the southern edge of Adirondack Park in the Hudson River’s “Big Bend” and first settled in 1763, stands out for a few reasons. A magazine in 1944 christened it “Hometown, USA,” and the name has stuck ever since. Some of the area’s largest firms have their headquarters here, yet it’s just a quick trip to nearby caves and waterfalls, which novelist James Finimore Cooper extoled in “The Last of the Mohicans.” Today you can visit the cave, named for the writer, where Hawkeye and his cohorts tried to escape. Glens Falls, it seems, proves nature and commerce can coexist. It’s easy for music, art and theater lovers as well as history buffs to stay entertained here. The Adirondack Theatre Festival performers from Broadway and regional theater for six weeks each summer; the Crandall Public Library and Folklife Center features a chronicle of the region’s rich cultural heritage; the Glens Falls Symphony performs throughout the city; and the Hyde Collection Art Museum, set in an historic house, displays works by Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci, and other iconic virtuosos, as well as antique furniture and decorative objects. All that and it's close to all the offerings of the Catskills.
Three-Day Weekend: Monterey, CA
Approaching Monterey from the north remains one of my all-time favorite travel experiences. My wife, Michele, and I spent part of our road trip honeymoon in Monterey years ago, and the trip down from San Francisco still gives me a thrill: I love everything about the drive - from the top of Monterey Bay near the beaches and boardwalk of Santa Cruz, southward through the agricultural vistas of the Salinas Valley, and into the bustling coastal city that inspired literary heroes of mine, including Robert Louis Stevenson and John Steinbeck. We visited Monterey this past July, and it was all the more special because we’d been away for more than a decade and were essentially introducing both of our daughters, now 10 and 14, to this special community, bursting with local history, incredible seafood, local wines, and the opportunity to drink in the gorgeous Monterey Bay (mysteriously misty in the morning, shining bright turquoise at midday, achingly beautiful at sundown) at every turn. LUXE-FOR-LESS LODGING We were among the first guests to stay at the just-opened Wave Street Inn, conveniently located (as the name “Wave Street” might suggest) near the water. We loved waking up to views of Monterey Bay, the songs of seagulls, and the friendly, attentive hotel staff. The design of the hotel was so eye-popping, a playful homage to the industrial and maritime spaces in downtown Monterey, that my daughters, who don’t normally notice such details, were tossing around phrases like “exceptional interior design” and “imaginative architecture.” WHAT TO DO Our comfy, design-forward room was also just a few minutes’ walk from Cannery Row. In the first half of the 20th century, “Cannery Row” was a nickname for the hub of the sardine fishing and processing industries that made Monterey the busy, culturally diverse city that it remains to this day. Cannery Row is also the title of a hilarious, touching John Steinbeck novel, which famously opens, “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise…”. A far cry from those noisy, smelly cannery days, the street is now the epicenter of incredible fresh-from-the-bay seafood, local wine-tasting, unique shops, family-friendly activities, and exhibits devoted to the history of the region’s Native peoples, Spanish colonists, and 19th- and 20th-century settlers. Start with a walking tour along the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail, with stops along the water to savor what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the most felicitous meeting of land and sea.” The trail is easily walkable from Cannery Town down toward Fisherman’s Wharf or up toward neighboring Pacific Grove, offering frequent overlooks, unbeatable photo opps, and (often) sightings of sea lions, sea otters, and even porpoises and dolphins. If you find yourself staring a bit too long at the water, don’t worry - it really is that beautiful and, no, it can’t really be captured in photographs. You’ll carry the memory home with you, I promise. Of course, if you’re visiting with kids, they’re eventually going to ask you to stop staring at the bay and “do something.” Cannery Row obliges with a seemingly endless array of unique shopping - way beyond the customary T-shirts and sweatshirts you’ve come to expect in other destinations, Monterey’s shops offers quality arts and crafts, jewelry, and a great selection of literature and local history books too. For a deeper dive into local history, book a visit to the Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum. My younger daughter and I also enjoyed the Monterey Mirror Maze - we “escaped” the maze in minutes on our first try, then got more and more (pleasantly) lost in the maze on each subsequent visit. My only advice to newbies is to hold hands, but that’s (almost) always good advice, right? Getting out on the bay is more ambitious, and very rewarding. Adventures by the Sea offers the chance to explore the water and waterfront. Founded by local Frank Knight, the company has several locations around town where you can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, bicycles, and surreys. I recommend that you book a kayak tour, in which a knowledgeable guide will take you out on the bay and talk about the wildlife and history, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting up-close-and-personal (safely) with sea lions, seals, and sea otters. You may find the sea lions lounging on the decks of fishing boats, as my wife and daughter did, while the seals love to hide in the seaweed and slyly peek out at visitors. Sea otters, on the other hand, may swim right toward your kayak or even swim under you. Of course you’ll want to take pictures: Adventures by the Sea supplies you with a “dry bag” to keep valuables like cameras and smartphones safe. You’ll also get a waterproof jacket and pants to wear over your clothes, but do consider kayaking barefoot or in water-safe shoes because your lower legs and feet will almost certainly get wet out there. Our visit to Monterey was very much centered around Cannery Row and the outdoor activities nearby, but if you’re in town long enough, you ought to consider a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, housed in a former cannery and hosting sea life from the bay plus a variety of changing exhibits, presentations, and events. Fisherman’s Wharf, a few blocks north of Cannery Row, boasts some fine restaurants and a fun party scene in the evenings. And the entire Monterey Peninsula, including the quiet Victorian beauty of Pacific Grove, the drop-dead-gorgeous Carmel Valley, the town of Carmel, and the Pacific coastline to the south of Lovers’ Point, is the kind of place you may never want to leave. WHAT TO EAT Sipping from a flight of local Pinot Noirs while looking out at the impossible turquoise of the Monterey Bay in the late afternoon is just one reason to stop by A Taste of Monterey Wine Market and Bistro, on Cannery Row. In addition to the awesome wine tasting for grownups, the whole family loved passing small plates like crab dip, local artichokes, and hummus, and entrees like flatbread pizzas, New England clam chowder, and panini. Lunch at Lalla Oceanside Grill, including incredible calamari (“Wow! It’s bigger than back in New York!”) and fish tacos, was a pleasure not only for the food but also for the sleek mid-century modern decor inside and the bayside views out the window. When visiting Monterey, resistance to Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is futile. By all means go, sit down, and indulge in one of the shop’s yes-it’s-too-big-and-yes-you’re-going-to-finish-it-anyway treats, towering ice cream concoctions named for Cali landmarks like the Golden Gate banana split and the Muir Woods black cherry vanilla sundae. (Experienced travelers, including yours truly, also note that the lines at the Monterey shop are much shorter than those at the Ghirardelli’s at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.) We celebrated our final evening in Monterey at The Fish Hopper, also on Cannery Row. The appetizers are incredibly satisfying, offering a medley of prawns, calamari, and crab in a variety of imaginative relishes like mango and papaya, plus awesome (and massive) local artichokes. Entrees like a bread bowl New England clam chowder, steaks, and sustainably sourced fish make this a nice place to end your day. We loved watching sea otters eating their own dinner right outside the window - floating on their backs and cracking clam shells on rocks on their chests. It crossed our minds that, this evening before we had to pack up and leave Monterey, the sea otters might have been putting on a little show for us, perhaps their way of saying, “Goodbye.” We decided that it’s much more likely they were saying, “Until we meet again...”
Get to Know: Indianola, MS, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Indianola, Mississippi, is no. 10 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Asbury Park, New Jersey has Bruce Springsteen; Muscle Shoals, Alabama has Lynyrd Skynyrd; and Indianola, Mississippi has blues maestro B.B. King. It seems like the entire city, which is known as the Crown of the Delta and measures less than nine square miles, is a shrine to him. First and foremost, of course, is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a $14 million institution that opened in 2008. In addition to being a tribute to an American legend, who’s buried in the museum’s memorial garden, the exhibits chronicle an entire history of the blues. If you’re not there during the museum’s B.B. King Homecoming Festival each May, there are plenty of clubs around the city, some of which are so old school they don’t even have websites, where you can see—rather, hear— King’s legacy in action. Even the streets here are named after him and Lucille, his guitar. But blues isn’t the only history to learn here. The town’s historic district, a showcase of Victorian era-style and Tudor Revival homes, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Like nearly every city in the South, Indianola delivers on meals to remember. The Blue Biscuit is easily one of the most visited joints, what with its high-profile location across from the museum, and Betty's Place is a classic, historic diner, but veer off the well-trod path and chances are high you’ll be richly rewarded.
Get to Know: Cannon Beach, OR, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017
Cannon Beach, Oregon is no. 6 on Budget Travel’s list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017. Here’s the magic number to remember when you think about this breathtaking oceanside town: 363. That’s how many miles of shoreline there are here, each mile as stunning as the last, especially the stretch where you can take in the views of the iconic Haystack Rock, a majestic millions-years-old boulder 235 feet from the shoreline. Colorful tidepools swirl around it and all sorts of birds as well as puffins gather there and you can walk right up to it in low tide. But any of the many places to stay along the water, from rustic B&Bs to more posh resorts, offer quite a vista to wake up to. Needless to say, Cannon Beach is a mecca for outdoor sports. There are plenty of spots for surfers to catch waves and calmer areas for kayakers. Hiking amid some of the world’s tallest trees in Ecola State Park or bike rides along the local expanse of the 382-mile Oregon Coast Trail are ways for landlubbers to spend the days. The Lost Art of Nursing Museum, and the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a treasure trove of maritime objects, are just a few of the institutions that give visitors a sense of the area’s rich and varied history. But to get back to the future, this being Oregon, there are vast dining and drinking options that far exceed what you’d expect for such a small town. Pig N Pancake and Crepe Neptune are among the tempting options for breakfast fare. Dinner is a thrilling array of everything from family-owned Ecola Seafood, which specializes in the local catch, to the elegant, chill Seasons Café, known for its elevated, creative twists salads and sandwiches along with local beer and wine, and the quirky Cannon Beach Hardware and Public House, where you can chow down on pub grub and shop for tools, camping gear, and paint supplies. The originality of that spot alone is enough to have us booking our ticket.