Saturday, August 23, 2008

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Victoria: Top Eats V

OK, this is the last of my Victoria eats posts until my next trip (September, 2008). I haven't focused on serious restaurants because to be honest the ones we tried were not very good, albeit their fine reputations. But no matter, because there is plenty to imbibe and savor regardless.

You'll have to venture outside of Victoria for some of these. The Cowichan Valley, and notably Cobble Hill, is a haven of artisanal food and drink production. A 45-minute drive will get you there, an idyllic pastoral landscape of fields, forests, rivers and lakes. Hilary's creamery, several decent wineries, honey producers and cideries dot the hills and valleys. Many of the spirits producers have on site bistros so culinary tourists can take a leisurely break for refreshment and taste the fruit of the vine or orchard along with dishes created to complement flavors.

At Merridale Estate Cidery we sampled the eight varieties of the hard stuff, some with as much alcohol content as wine and with tastes that range from sweet to extra dry. The effervesence is slight, due to the natural process of fermenting the organically grown apples of which there are many varieties. (According to the pourer, other producers inject bigger bubbles into the drink to mask the taste of chemicals.) Read this for a view of the cider business elswhere. The Merridale is experimenting with apple brandy as well.

This is a tricky drink to produce and to store. The cider must stay refrigerated or it will continue to ferment in the bottle, so if like us you plan to take some home bring an ice-packed cooler. But the result of the high standards of production is a delicate taste, in some varieties punctuated with a snap of ginger or pepper, and in others sweetened with honey or berries.

As is the case with most of the artisanal producers, Merridale is fairly new and despite its very good product will probably improve with maturity and more trial and error. But its relative youth is not a strike against it; awards are already pouring in.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Victoria: Top Eats IV

Looks like my posts on "Victoria Eats" have largely been about drinks. So here's one on more solid matter.

Our tour through the Cowichan Valley and its vineyards and ciderworks also took us past Hilary Abbot's creamery. We weren't able to stop, but later that day we found ourselves on Cowichan Bay where Hilary's Deli offers a bountiful assortment of his cheeses (and those with provenance from elsewhere). Hilary is one of those intrepid artisans who is reviving the lost art of cheesemaking on the island. He's well on his way.

Here's a generous plate of washed rind and blue examples, with slices of baguette from the wonderful bakery next door. I'm used to what Portland considers a cheese plate: $15.00 for three tablespoon-sized dollops. You get a big, lingering mouthful at Hilary's.

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

Victoria: Top Eats Part III

Despite decades of cultural change and openness to more diversity, there is an unavoidable Anglophilia all over Canada. It is part of the country's cultural mosaic, but the one with the deepest roots.

You can find it in the many tea rooms, by watching cricketeers on Sundays, and in visits to pubs modeled on those found in the old country.

It's been eons since I've experienced the dark, low ceilinged and slightly claustrophic rooms of a hundred-years old English pub, which I can recall happily frequenting in my youth for its reassuring, ebullient din and its promise of camaraderie. Never mind the contemporary smoking ban and slightly newer digs of a new country locale, and you have the same experience again all over Victoria: darts, shepherd's pie, Queen's tartan signage and all.

As I discovered recently, not all locals enjoy a sunny summer day kayaking, hiking, biking, gardening or otherwise outdoors. The pubs start rocking early and by dinner hour are full to capacity.

For those who want the best of both worlds, as do I, here's your strategy. These pubs usually have lovely outdoor seating areas, so you can settle in after a summer day's activity, perhaps four-ish in the afternoon, to enjoy the late sun over a Ploughman's plate of local cheeses and a choice of English ales and lagers.

You'll also find wares from a slew of local breweries. My favorite:the lively and fresh tasting Victoria Pilsener from Vancouver Island Brewery. This summer, I also indulged in sampling the island's many hard ciders, a subject to be returned to soon.

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Friday, August 08, 2008


I haven't been to China in two years but after watching the Summer Olympics 2008 opening ceremony I want to return. Because in two years, it's become a different country. It is no longer an aspiring economic and political power as it was then; it now has arrived. Watching the ceremony inside the "bird's nest" stadium, which was designed to be the world's most technologically advanced stage, you could not help but realize that China has big plans to move beyond being the world's copy cat.

What struck me was not just the dazzling precision of the choreography and technical elements of stagecraft such as sound, music and lights. It was the grandeur of designer Zhang Yimou's vision, the power of his storytelling, and the enormous scale of the spectacle. Compare that to Italy's opening ceremony in Turin two years ago -- more like a tired fashion parade. A nice confection but not much underneath.

This was a very high standard of entertainment. Disney should be afraid. The Chinese have made it clear they have a grasp on a very contemporary brand of mass market magic.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Victoria: Top Eats Part II

High tea is on every tourist's to-do list when in Victoria, with the most famous spots being The Empress Hotel and The Blethering Place. The price for a full set can run in the environs of $60. I reject that.

Plus, although I love my tea I don't enjoy musty places no matter how authentic they may be.

A few years ago a local tea doyenne tipped us off to the White Heather, an off the beaten track spot in a commercial block on Oak Bay Drive. It was perfect, with its fresh and soothing seafoam-colored walls, crisp white linens, porcelain pots and shiny silver place settings. It's where you can walk away having spent as little as $8.00 or so for a single scone and tea, or up to $40 for the full "muckle" of tea sandwiches, oatcakes, cheese, Devon cream, pastries and more.

The owner, a Scottish lass who is always on site and audible by her throaty laugh, worked on the recipe for the puffy scones for years before opening up the shop and they're unlike any other. Not dense or sweet, they are a nice foil for butter, homemade jam, goat cheese or lemon curd. The White Heather's objective is to make you "more cuddly." I guarantee regular visits will make you so.