Archive for October, 2012

Poutine - Canadian Comfort Food

Poutine – Canadian Comfort Food

I think I may have recovered from this trip just enough to share this journey with you.  The setting is relevant so bare with me a moment…

I was returning from the most fun family reunion ever at Mont Tremblant, about an hour north of Montreal, Canada.  As per usual, I seriously kicked up my heels during our stay and may have scarred a few nieces &  nephews as a result – hey ho.  So on this, our day to return to Boston to board a flight back to Scotland (via Ireland) we were facing a 7 hour car ride…with two small children,  a 20-something year old nephew who strongly advocates a survivalist lifestyle, and three very tired adults – at least one (me) with a whopping hangover.

As we prepared to leave the hotel just after 11:30 am, after lots of packing & tearful goodbyes, we jumped into the car, only to be cut off by a rogue driver on our way out of the underground garage.  At which point we promptly smashed into the wall of the garage…in a rental car. (I wasn’t driving if you were wondering).  Well, we like to think of ourselves as being made of tough stuff, so we assessed the damage, took a deep breath and even though rattled were on our way.

As you do when you are a tired parent facing a long ride in a freshly dented car, we bribed our children with lunch at McDonald’s if they could just behave until we had driven past Montreal in about an hour’s time.  And it was just about there that we stopped cold…for well over an hour…with every sign in French, looking like this.

And we were stuck behind this guy… freaking fabulous.

As it was closer to 2.45 pm when we finally started to move again (remember we still have at least 6 more hours in the car from this locale), we found ourselves slightly lost in the suddenly very rural Quebec.  No McDonald’s was presenting itself to our now very, very hungry and increasingly agitated small children.

In desperation we took the first exit that we were able and began randomly seeking out any place that we could quickly and easily eat and get back on our way.  And that it when things began to greatly improve.

Even though we drove past it at first, the group was drawn to the intriguing outdoor décor and all thoughts of McDonalds happily vanished. And so we entered La Belle Province – Retro d’Iberville and our visit quickly became a Quebecois version of Diners, Drive Ins & Dives.

It was as snazzy on the inside as it was on the out and it was clear that quite a lot of effort had been made to create a fun, retro space replete with lots of shiny chrome details.

But the magic of this adventure lay with these guys.  As our rag-tag fleet approached the counter they were ridiculously warm & welcoming.  Listening to my very Scottish sounding kids and husband try to order Fish & Chips from French Canadian speakers was very entertaining to all involved.  While I neglected to get the proper names of  the lovely woman and the tall guy, I can tell you the middle guy was named Campbell…but he didn’t speak any English so the cultural connection was a bit lost.  And while my group happily ordered the standard fried fish & burgers, I had my prize in sight.  I was finally going to sample the mythic and up until now elusive – POUTINE!

Poutine is the Canadian version of  what folks in Britain might call “Chips, Cheese, Gravy”, but it is very different in texture and flavour. There was no way I was going to miss this opportunity as I was about to cross over the border and leave the first of  four countries I had to venture through in the next 48 hours.  Now my only choice was Reguliere or Italienne – presumable with Bolognese-type sauce atop.  I opted to keep my first experience a classic, plus the Italian looked a bit too much like what would be Chili – Cheese Fries in the States of which I have had dubious experiences.

And here is how my trophy appeared upon its arrival!  Hot, crispy fries piled high with fresh cheese curds and a rich beef gravy with strong accents of pepper and lemon.  The signature element is the mild, fresh cheese curds (cheddar I was told) that make an unexpected but not unpleasant squeaking noise upon your teeth when eating.

OK, I realise the term “hot mess” does indeed come to mind, but this was just what my sore head and rattled nerves required.  Additionally, I actually went to university about an hour or so  south-west of this location and could well appreciate how welcome this hot, satisfying, savoury extravaganza could be to combat the shocking cold of the northern New York/ Canadian winter.  As a final bonus, it kept me full for the next  7 1/2 hours which was the actual remainder of the rest of the trip to Boston – but that’s another story.

Whilst you can get poutine just about anywhere, I just have to give a shout out to these guys who were so fun and so bemused to have a random woman come to rave about their food and take their picture.  So if you find yourself anywhere in the area, I can recommend the food, the service & the atmosphere of:

La Belle Province –  Retro D’Iberville 494, boul d’Iberville, Saint-Jean-Sur-Richelieu, QC J2X 3Y7  450-741-7313.

In term of recipes, even a good search of the internet turns up “oil for frying potatoes and a can/tin of beef gravy” and it all seems more of an assembly job than something requiring a home-made recipe.  I would note that of course you can substitute fresh mozzarella or regular cheddar cheese for the curds, but I would opt for some halloumi, cubed fresh from the pack to replicate the rubbery & squeaky characteristics of the dish.
As an homage to my treat of hot assembled comfort food, I have devise a Poutine Escosse – a hot mound of oven fries, topped with haggis and a whisky, cream gravy…mmmmmmmmm.  
So as all of you bordering the North Atlantic are preparing to stay warm and dry as Hurricane Sandy approaches, you might want to stock up on a hot & hardy treat.
Stay Safe!
Quick update: My friend-in-law who resides in Montreal has now gently informed me that not only does La Belle Province  refer to the nickname that Quebecois refer to their region – the place where we stopped is actually a chain – so you can sample my meal just about anywhere in Quebec.  Funny how none of the employees mentioned it in my interview – oh well, just shows you what I know!
Head'n Upstream - Recent Readings

Head’n Upstream – Recent Readings

I (like many folks of a creative bent) can get knocked off my perch with disheartening ease.  For me, this book was the most recent culprit.  It is well written, highly acclaimed and billed as “The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More”. So naturally I thought, “Hey, this sounds fabulous for me!”.

I researched this book.  I asked for this book for my Christmas, and I dually read this book whilst taking copious notes. And in return, this book paralysed me and brought my outward creative expressions to a screeching halt. (Bad book, Bad!)  There was of course, nothing wrong with book itself,  just my reaction to its sage words.  The nasty little chorus in my head (that sounds startling like the Wickersham Brothers in “Horton Hears a Who”) struck up their music and somehow convinced me that everything I had been doing in regards to writing about food had all been horribly, shamefully wrong.  Alas.

So, I waited for the chagrin to pass and tried to distract myself with a little light reading about the average Scottish woman’s life in the Tenement buildings of Edinburgh and Glasgow in the first half on the 20th century…good times.

I tend to read rather quite a lot of books like this as I am fascinated by the different aspects of life in my adopted home and their various histories.  The Scots are not terribly forthcoming with helping you understand the “why” in how things are the way they are, but then again – they are not terribly forthcoming with each other in general, so I don’t take it too personally.  Anyway, this is a brilliant book with wonderful insights into the everyday lives of an often silent (at least in historical records –  not in real life I am sure) majority of woman who lived, loved, and coped in unimaginable conditions and whose experiences influence much of what is modern Scotland today.

I can HIGHLY recommend this wonderfully researched book for ANYONE who for more than ONE SECOND is tempted to retreat into their inner core to host a little pity party for themselves about how life is treating them.  Strong tonic this!

However, my writing funk was still not shifting, school holidays were now upon us and all schedules went out the window.   Luckily, on the recommendation of my brother, I began this next ditty. This is the equally impressive corollary to this same author’s Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs & Steel.  I LOVE Diamond’s work as it soars through time, space & catastrophe with his unique blend of super smarty-pants observations and humour.  Who else can take you through the demise of Easter Island and Medieval Greenland, straight into the impending doom of our modern environmental actions and leave you begging for more? (Very important folks…do NOT cut down all your trees for grazing and/or farming – Top Tip.)

Well, with my brain properly humming with thoughts of over-salinisation of our eroded and depleted soils and the general precariousness of our existence, my next read came packing a surprising wallop. This is Douglas Adams’s (of the Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) posthumous book.   It is not just a collection of articles and notes from his hard drive, but also the first chapters of the books he was working on at his untimely death in May of 2001 during a gym workout. ( Stay with me – things cheer up from here on…)

Well, anyone who knows Adams’s writing knows the sheer joy of his absurd ramblings. Yet even though he brought so much joy and humour to so many, in his life he constantly struggled with a (seemingly bizarre) lack of confidence.  So, although the title of the Salmon of Doubt began life as a possible sixth book in the Hitchhiker’s trilogy (yup that’s right), it is also a reference to his own creative journey and what hard it work it can be to keep those taps flowing.  This collection was compiled by his family and editors so that we could all savour just a bit more of his genius after his death.  As quoted in the Financial Times, “Douglas Adams threw away better ideas than most people have ever had…”.  Crikey, if it could be a challenge for him, what could I possibly be stressing about?

As my inner perspective regained a slightly more permissive and chilled stance, I encountered this next absolute gem of a book.  Now, I admit I was bracing for another worthwhile but very academic tome when I cracked the cover, but joy of joys this book was anything but a dry read!  It was written by a woman who was born in a fishing village in Fife in 1895 and whilst she lived with and amongst the fisher folk of the village, she and her family we always slightly “other” and therefore apart as her father was a fish buyer and caretaker of one of the churches in town.  Bottom line this was one of the richest, most interesting, enjoyable historical accounts I have ever read (and I have read a few) which very nearly never saw the light of day!

It was written by the author many decades after she moved away from Scotland, first to travel to Algeria as a Missionary and then to relocate in England (doon Sooth).  After her death her son passed it to her sister who insisted that she needed to take a black marker to most of it and promptly stored it in a bottom drawer.  For many more years that it where it sat until well after the sister’s death when the son came across it again.  Perhaps he had grown a bit, but not only did he overcome his embarrassment at his mother’s long remembered childhood in Scotland, he had the humility in the forward of the book to acknowledge, “I think I always underestimated my mother”.  He finally saw that this treasure was published – almost 100 years from when many of these observations occurred and over 50 years from when they were recorded as a book.

So, what do I take from this random collection of readings? Well, just that life is fleeting and precarious at best and that to waste any of that time panicking about the calibre of your creative output is a waste.  Everyone brings something different to the table and there is no one way or even right way to go about letting your free flag fly.  Hopefully, things improve with time and effort, but even great creatives have the same struggles no matter what their external trappings of success.  So lighten up, get cracking and enjoy sharing your thoughts, dreams & creations with each other because if not, the world will be less rich because of your hesitations.

Happy Weekend!


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