Oh Canada!

13 Jul

This week I took the train from Toronto to Vancouver.

It was a four-day trip, so I packed 12 books.

I read one.

For the most part, all I wanted to do was watch the landscapes change and look for bears and moose out the window.

I saw neither. But I did spot an eagle hovering low over Jasper National Park, a deer backlit by red sunlight in a mustard-yellow field, and a Prairie dog dashing across the Winnipeg Station platform, as if racing our train.

I loved tracking our progress aboard the Canadian by the changing backdrops to our meals through the dining car windows. And I’d always feel a moment of confusion–followed by wonder–as I opened my cabin blinds in the morning to see a jagged mountain range where starlit lake or wildflower meadow whizzed by the night before.

Other than gazing slack-jawed at our surroundings, I relished spending time getting to know all kinds of people. There was Annie Becker, the Vancouver musician who’d put on three official shows a day in the activity cars…

then spontaneously jam anywhere in the train, the minute somebody else pulled out a guitar.

There was Myriam, the 13-year-old from Sherbrooke who was sketching her way across the country. She distracted me with her pastoral scenes, during our bleakest hour, on this Edmonton platform backing onto a busy highway.

There was Jorg, the German journalist based in Banff, who was getting in quality time with his Dad.

And there were DustinJeffMartine and Mayssam (left to right), the food bloggers from Quebec with whom I was invited by VIA-Rail to share this adventure.

Our group was there to try out a new menu drawn up by Executive Chef Martin Gemme, and seven other VIA-Rail chefs. They got together a few months ago, for two days, in Winnipeg  to come up with 78 new or revamped dishes to serve aboard the Canadian.

There are extra challenges to cooking on a train. There’s just a tiny galley kitchen serving each dining car, with counter space the size of a large chopping board available for prep. There has to be a handrail running in front of the stove so that chefs don’t fall face-first into the soup if the tracks go round a bend. And with the constant movement and occasional abrupt stops, deep fat-frying and flambeing are out.

But what the chefs ended up with was an array of made-from-scratch dishes using fresh Canadian ingredients.

What I liked best was how their menu changed in keeping with where we were on the trip. For example, you’d be offered warm Saskatoon berries on your shrimp and salmon skewers in the Prairies or juicy prime rib of beef on the Alberta leg.

Ever the sweet tooth, my favourite dish was the cinnamon-dusted pumpkin pancakes doused in maple syrup, heaped with whipped cream, and served with glistening bacon on the side.

As well as working with iconic ingredients, Martin and some sommelier friends in Montreal, drew up an all-Canadian wine list. Since this train does Toronto to Vancouver, all the bottles are from Ontario and BC. The price per glass is always under $10, and the dining car staff know their pairings, so they help figure out what will go with your meal.

In the activity car, you could go to free wine tastings during the trip. There were craft beer tastings too–great for trying bottles produced in such modest batches that you might not otherwise get the chance to buy them outside of the areas where they’re brewed. I went for a second round of Granville Island Brewery’s smooth honey lager.

Other on-board activities include Trivia, Bingo and Name That Tune. Tip: if you’re in it to win it, never sign up for Name That Tune with some guy in his sixties whose job, growing up, was changing the song slips in jukeboxes.

There are also a few stops to break up the epic journey. In Winnipeg we got off and toured the city, gorging on cinnamon buns scored at the Forks Market as we explored a peaceful sculpture garden.

In Jasper we breathed in mountain air and welcomed new people aboard.

And on a quick break in the tiny town of Melville, people did jumping jacks by the train and crowded into the station-side convenience store selling soft drinks, chocolate, cut-price Canada Day fireworks and glittery pink girls’ fishing rods. On the platform I got to know this guy, who’d cycled in to meet the train–not an actual VIA employee even if his cap and love of the railroad says otherwise. And I tried in vain to snap a litter of timid tabby kittens shacked up in an old hut. These lightning stops were just as much fun as the bigger city ones.

On our last full day, cabin staff did something special for us as we were approaching a  huge waterfall: they opened a window. The moist air tingled on our faces, bringing in a sharp pine scent from the forest. The water roared. We machine-gunned photos like paparazzi, only pausing for the last few seconds to grin at one another and say “wow.”

As the journey came to an end, I actually didn’t feel ready to get off. I’d mastered the art of showering as the train took on hills and sharp bends, I’d made my peace with forever turning back my watch as we whizzed through time zones, and I’d gotten used to welling up when nobody was looking, because the mountains were so big, the trees so green and the lakes such a deep shade of turquoise-blue.

I felt relaxed, happy–well-fed–and utterly smitten with Canada.

*     *     *     *     *

Beer-braised beef short ribs with pearl onions, parsnips and
maple-smoked bacon

(Recipe and photo courtesy of VIA-Rail. Find more recipes from aboard the Canadian here.)
Makes 4 servings.


2.7 kg 6 lb. 4 bone-in short ribs, trimmed of excess fat
¼ cup canola oil
To taste salt & pepper
3 large onions, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
1 rib celery, diced
9 medium garlic cloves, chopped
60 ml ¼ cup all-purpose flour
500 ml 2 cups veal, beef, chicken or vegetable stock
500 ml 16 oz. beer (I prefer a stout but your favourite will do too)
22.5 ml 1½ tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
15 ml 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
3 bay leaves
15 ml 1 tablespoon tomato paste

Pre heat the oven to 300°F.
In a large oven-safe skillet or Dutch oven, sear the short ribs in oil until golden brown and season to taste.
Remove the ribs and set aside.
In the same pan, sweat the onions, carrots and celery in the leftover fat until they caramelize (+/-12 minutes), add the chopped garlic and cook 30 seconds.
Add the flour to the vegetable mixture and cook for a minute. Deglaze with the beer, add the stock, the herbs and the tomato paste.
Place the short ribs back in, loosely cover with aluminum foil, and place in the oven for 3 hours. Transfer ribs from skillet to large plate, removing excess vegetables that may cling to meat, and discard loose bones that have fallen away from the meat.
Strain braising liquid into medium bowl, pressing out liquid from solids; discard solids.
Cover ribs and liquid separately with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. (Can be refrigerated up to 3 days.)


6 slices maple-smoked bacon
8 oz. frozen pearl onions
4 medium parsnips
1 teaspoon sugar
To taste salt & pepper
6 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

In a Dutch oven, cook bacon over medium heat until just crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon to plate lined with paper towel.
Add to Dutch oven the pearl onions, parsnips, sugar, and salt. Increase heat to high and sauté, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 5 minutes.
Spoon off and discard solidified fat from reserved braising liquid.
Add defatted liquid and bring to simmer, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the chopped parsley.

Submerge ribs in liquid, return to simmer.
Reduce heat to medium and cook, partially covered, until ribs are heated through and vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes longer. Gently stir in bacon. Serve with mashed sweet potatoes and your favourite vegetables.

29 Responses to “Oh Canada!”

  1. Dayle Wiltshire July 13th, 2012 at 6:58 AM #

    Thanks for this one, Val. It’s adream of mine to ride the Canadian one day – perhaps when my train-loving boy is a little older. You brought tears to my eyes describing the tears in yours – I love this big wild country, too!

    • Valerie Howes July 13th, 2012 at 11:37 AM #

      Thank you, Dayle! There were lots of kids on the train, and they were all amazingly well behaved and into the whole experience. I hope you get to do it soon. You can sometimes get tickets at 75% off on VIA’s website.

  2. pat anderson July 13th, 2012 at 9:09 AM #

    Wow. Awesome journey. Looks really super! Enjoy the trip back.

  3. Nikki Bayley July 13th, 2012 at 10:22 AM #

    I took this wonderful trip along with Marie-Julie Gagnon a couple of years back. You just made me well up a little there – such fantastic memories. I can’t believe you even read one book… I didn’t crack the spine on mine! Great post.

    • Valerie Howes July 13th, 2012 at 11:39 AM #

      My book was under 100 pages! Glad you enjoyed your trip too, Nikki.

  4. George Ware July 13th, 2012 at 11:37 AM #

    The wife and I intend to take this trip from Toronto to Vancouver and return in a couple of years. We would appreciate any info that is available on the trip.

  5. noella July 13th, 2012 at 12:29 PM #

    like very much the article love to do it too since I have done it via air and route…

    • Valerie Howes July 13th, 2012 at 1:22 PM #

      Do it!

  6. Yvonne Tardiff July 13th, 2012 at 1:41 PM #

    I did this trip with my daughter last year and enjoyed every minute of it. It was so relaxing and the staff was so helpful. Your article brought back such good memories.

    • Valerie Howes July 13th, 2012 at 1:44 PM #

      Thanks, Yvonne. It’s true, the staff seem to genuinely love what they do, and they were always there to point out the most beautiful things coming up on the route.

  7. Roger Hoge July 14th, 2012 at 11:23 AM #

    This was great and very timely, since just last night Carol and I booked round trip for October. This morning I ran across your piece and now feel certain that we have made the right decision.
    btw – 60% off if booked by July 19th

    • Valerie Howes July 15th, 2012 at 12:55 AM #

      I’m so happy for you! I’m on the way home now, and we had the thrill of seeing a mother bear and two cubs up close from the train in Jasper National Park today. I have a feeling there are more magic moments to come. Hope you enjoy the experience. October will be beautiful in Ontario with fall colours, I bet.

  8. Hasan ahmed July 16th, 2012 at 4:01 PM #

    I did this trip 2010. I have to say one the best trip i had in my life. So beautiful and gorgeous view from canadian land scape . Unless you did it you will never know what you are missing.

  9. sheila cook July 16th, 2012 at 4:08 PM #

    we are also booked for this trip in october now more excited than ever

    • Valerie Howes July 19th, 2012 at 12:45 PM #

      Glad to hear it! Enjoy every moment, Sheila.

  10. Rita July 16th, 2012 at 4:20 PM #

    I took this fabulous trip in June!! Like, you I was not even close to being ready to get off the train in Vancouver! The meals were fantastic, fellow travellers great. I loved every minute of it. Unlike you, I did not draw my blind in my cabin. It was a thrill to wake up and watch the moon shining of some unknown lake somewhere in Canada!! I would do this trip again in a heartbeat!! Love my beautiful country.

    • Valerie Howes July 19th, 2012 at 12:51 PM #

      Glad you had so much fun. I did take some peeks at the landscapes at night, and everything looked extra magical. I’m a light sleeper though, so the blackout blind was my friend!

  11. Emile Poirier July 16th, 2012 at 4:23 PM #

    We took the train in April 2009 from Vancouver to Toronto and what a trip. The food was excellect, we couldn’t wait to see what was on the next
    menu. Plan to travel from Toronto to Vancouver within the next year…thanks for your blog…excellent…can’t wait to taste all that wonderful food again. This train is a Canadian gem!!!

    • Valerie Howes July 19th, 2012 at 12:48 PM #

      Thanks, Emile. Hope you enjoy the new menu.

  12. mayssam @ Will Travel for Food July 16th, 2012 at 4:57 PM #

    Loved sharing this unique experience with you all! It was a true pleasure playing spot the moose riding bear in a mounty hat and I would do it again in a heartbeat! I miss you all, the laughing and the conversations, I miss the train, the changing landscapes, and I even miss the rattling and abrupt stops…

    • Valerie Howes July 19th, 2012 at 12:47 PM #

      I miss you too! You were an excellent travelling companion.

  13. Jackie and Ken Little July 16th, 2012 at 4:59 PM #

    Hi Valerie…thanks for the blogging. My wife and I are about to take our 5th trip to Vancouver on The Canadian in 7 years….we LOVE the train and feel as emotional about it as you do. It’s so civilized and comfortable and all embracing for all the senses. We appreciate your recount of your trip….it mirrors ours to be sure.

    • Valerie Howes July 19th, 2012 at 12:46 PM #

      Jackie and Ken, I loved meeting people on board who had done the trip several times. They always knew the best places to get your camera ready for photos and had good advice on what to do during the stops along the way. Enjoy trip number five!

  14. Annie Becker July 20th, 2012 at 1:51 PM #

    This is great!!!:)

    • Valerie Howes July 20th, 2012 at 3:04 PM #

      Your presence and music on board really added to the fun on the way out. There was no musician on the way home, and it made a difference. That journey needs a soundtrack!

  15. Mum July 22nd, 2012 at 4:51 AM #

    Valerie – just read your beautifully recorded account of a magical and breathtaking journey. Seconds later I came across Dayle’s comment – “You brought tears to my eyes describing the tears in yours.” Exactly what happened to me! (I see you posted your blog on Friday 13th – your birthday!)
    Lots of love xxxx

    • Valerie Howes July 22nd, 2012 at 9:35 PM #

      Thanks, Mum!

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