Normally, you wouldn’t hear music in the background while reading a blog post, but I think this one calls for some good background tunes. Click this link, open it in a new tab or window, and enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luUBD6pEqwQ
I’m currently writing this post from the observation deck on the train back home. As I pass through Manitoba, it’s lightly raining outside, the porch lights from the farmhouses shine in the distance, and apart from staring at my computer, I’m gazing upon the vast farmland in the prairies while the sun is just starting to set.
On an abnormally warm evening on Saturday, July 7th, I along with 4 other bloggers (Valerie Howes, Martine Pagé, Jean-François Frenette, and Mayssam Samaha) arrived promptly at Union Station in Toronto to embark on what would be an incredible trip. This three-and-a-half day ride on VIA Rail’s “The Canadian” took us from Toronto all the way to Vancouver, with a couple short stops along the way. We met with VIA’s head chef, Martin Gemme, who has many ties to Montreal restaurants and catering companies. For the last year and a half, Chef Gemme has been responsible for overseeing, and revamping the food offerings all of VIA’s trains.
Apart from just being a lengthy trip across the country, there was much more attention given from my/our perspective from a culinary point of view. Last March, 8 chefs were invited to accompany chef Gemme to literally come up with brand new dishes to re-vamp the menu offered on The Canadian. This “re-thinking” of VIA Rail’s meal offering was put together in the 2012 Menu Creation Challenge. Us bloggers were asked to write about the food on board as well as share it on Twitter and/or Facebook. For those of you who followed my travels throughout the ride, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed it. I sure did. I initially wanted to just write about the food, but what came with it was far more of an experience than the plate in front of me.
The food we feasted on for 3 meals per day was not your “microwaved pre-made meals on a tray with plastic cutlery” kind of deal. There are dining cars, each with their own professional kitchen and 2 chefs cooking away at all times, either to push out food for the meal currently going on, or preparing for the next one. These chefs are no slouch. They start at 5:00am every day, and don’t stop until dinner ends at around 9:00pm. Most chefs don’t work like these guys do in any restaurant, especially one in constant motion. These chefs have to endure high heat, tight quarters, and of course, an always moving and shaking train. I don’t know how they did it every day, but kudos to them. These kitchens also come with their fair share of restrictions. No gas (for obvious reasons), no fryers (also for obvious reasons), and a standardized setup that must be the EXACT same in every kitchen on every train. The chefs change trains every few days and are expected to cook whatever the menu says is being served as soon as they come on board, while knowing where the spices, sauces, pots & pans, produce, fish, meat, eggs, herbs, cheese, etc. are located in all the pantries and fridges. Standardization and consistency are key.
In short: the food was excellent. I don’t know many trains, buses, boats, or airplanes where you can get duck confit eggs benedict for brunch, shrimps and scallops with a local (yes, I said local) Saskatoon berry chutney for lunch, or Canadian lake trout in horseradish and panko breading with ravigote sauce (vinaigrette with onions, capers, and herbs). Every dish for lunch and dinner has a recommended wine to pair with it, where each selection is Canadian. The service was fast, friendly, comfortable, and of course incredibly scenic. There aren’t many opportunities to dine with the Rockies, the prairies, or the forests and lakes. Every meal I ate was just as good, if not better than the next. My favorites included the AAA Canadian prime rib of beef, served with a rich rosemary demi-glaze and stuffed potatoes, cheesecake-stuffed French toast with a wild berry compote and whipped cream, and the slowly braised beef short rib with pearl onions and bacon in a thick stout beer sauce. I didn’t expect this level of cuisine on a train, but boy did they deliver.
The Travel Experience
The train itself was nice. There were a couple lounges, game rooms, observation decks (where you can get a great view from the top of the train), and a Panorama car where almost the entire car is made of plexi-glass windows for a 360 degree view. What really amazed me was not what was happening on the train, but what we were surrounded by on the outside.
I seriously can’t think of other modes of transportation where you literally ride among the forests and lakes of Ontario, the fields blossoming with the colza plant (used to make canola oil) in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the green farmland of Alberta, and my favorite, the Rocky Mountains in B.C. and Alberta as well. The pictures do not do these views justice. I enjoyed every passing second. It was hard not to keep my camera glued to the window at every opportunity for a clear shot of every magnificent view. One of the best moments of the trip came in B.C. We heard an announcement on the speakers saying we were approaching Pyramid Falls, and that the train would slow down for pictures. An attendant on the train opened up the top part of the cabin door to allow a few of us get a clear view, other than taking pictures through a window. As I was hanging out of the train as much as I could, the smell of the evergreen and pine rushed into my nostrils and brought me back to the rainy days of summer camp. As we passed the magnificent 300-foot waterfall, I was lightly misted with the water emanating from them. What an amazing sight, if even for a couple moments. Truly breathtaking.
We made a few stops along the way, but there were two cities that we ended up spending a bit more time in, allowing us with some freedom to explore. Winnipeg came on the first day of the trip. As foodies, we appreciated The Forks Market. After grabbing a quick double espresso at The Human Bean, we walked over to the tantalizing aroma coming from the Tall Grass Prairie Bread Company where the bakers were just putting out the freshly baked goods. This is one of those places where everything looks amazing, making the decision on what to eat much more difficult. The cinnamon buns came as a strong recommendation from chef Gemme, so that’s what I had. One word to describe this warm, soft, sweet, sticky, cinnamon bun: ridiculous. I’ll let the image do the rest of the talking. Apart from this indulgence, I was fortunate enough to try the Saskatoon berries from the Grass Roots Prairie Kitchen, where they also make their own sunflower oil on site. Chef Gemme informed me that this is the place where he gets his Saskatoon berries from, which appeared on the lunch menu later that day. Again, pretty amazing stuff for a train, but judging from our chef, I’m not surprised. This market also has many other things to offer, such as homemade donuts, fresh Italian pastas and sauces, local honey, even more baked goods, Latin-American cuisine, and all the fresh produce you can imagine.
The second significant stop was in Jasper, Alberta. After riding through the mountains for the last hour or so, we stepped off the train into a quaint village surrounded by more of this amazing scenery. I wish we had more time here; I would have loved to explore more of what Jasper has to offer, but fear not, I did enjoy a couple bites along the way. It’s hard to resist ice cream in hot weather, and it’s also even more difficult to resist possibly the best combination of foods ever to exist in chocolate and peanut butter. Combine all this together from the house-made ice cream shop Scoops & Loops, and you’ve got heaven in a cone. Sorry, I didn’t take a picture. It was too hot, and I was too focused on keeping my ice cream from melting. Another great little spot is from the Candy Bears’ Lair where they serve home made treats such as milk elk hooves, Robson rock, naked bear paws, rocky roads, and icebergs. All of these are composed of some form of chocolate (white, milk, or dark) mixed caramel, nuts, pretzels, marshmallows, or other delicious treats.
The End of the Line
This voyage is much more than just traveling from Toronto to Vancouver. The Canadian is an experience. I came to appreciate Canada so much more than I ever have. I knew we had mountains, forests, lakes, and prairies, but seeing as we did made me say “wow” more times than I could have ever imagined. The great food, the friendly and proud VIA Rail staff, and the amazing views made this 3 and a half-day trip very enjoyable. When we arrived in Vancouver, everyone pretty much agreed that the trip went by much faster than expected. After that journey, I couldn’t wait for what Vancouver had to offer. And after Vancouver, I did this same ride all over again.
To see more pictures, check out my Facebook album: VIA Rail’s The Canadian
Please follow my fellow travelers blogs for their posts, pictures, and stories.
- Valerie Howes, from Toronto: http://readersdigest.ca/openkitchen
- Martine Pagé, from Montreal: http://martinepage.com/blog/category/food/
- Mayssam Samaha, from Montreal: http://willtravelforfood.com
- Jean-François Frenette, from Québec City: http://dezjeff.com and http://jeanfrancoisfrenette.com