Let’s face it. Winter in Canada is all about the cold. There’s nothing growing in the garden, the lakes are frozen, and the gloves are on. But Canadians know how to make the best of winter.
The town of Lakefield, Ontario, holds PolarFest each February with activities more suited to warmer months. The Otonabee River may be frozen, but that can’t stop canoe races. These canoes are on wheels and each sits on a cradle with handles so the team can push their canoe and two passengers to the finish line.
Not content with this insanity, hardy residents plunge into the freezing river each year, dressed in costumes. This year’s theme was Star Wars. Darth Vader took the plunge! It’s all good fun and last year raised more than $35,000 for charity.
Ice is for more than drinks
When the world is frozen, why not carve it? The ice sculpture competition had as its theme Creatures of Legend. Weird and wonderful dragons, a phoenix, and even Bigfoot emerged from giant blocks of ice at the park.
And Li’l Chippers, the children’s competition produced some unexpected talents in the small fry of the town.
Winter food needn’t be boring
At nearby Viamede Resort, fires are burning in the hearth, a welcome sight after a walk in the woods. In the resort’s new swimming pool allows swimmers to paddle outside through a plastic barrier. The water is toasty warm and several emerge to brave the frigid air.
Viamede’s chef, Kevin McKenna, doesn’t let a little thing like winter stop him either. He hosts a quarterly event, The Gathering, to showcase the food he grows, raises and forages at the resort near Lakefield, Ontario. Now you might have thought that winter might inhibit McKenna, but this February, some 50 guests gather at long refectory style tables to laugh, eat, and rave about every morsel of an extraordinary winter menu.
We start with local cheeses, chef’s own charcuterie, and crudités with a delicious dip that defies identification, all while sipping hot cider. There are also cocktails made with whiskey and red wine.
The first course is maple smoked Yukon Gold potato soup. Into a bowl with pickled wild mushrooms and tiny black pearls of charcoal coated potatoes, the wait staff pours the hot, creamy soup. The combination of flavours and textures is beautiful. And it’s served with a slice of rabbit and foie gras tourtière. “You have to have crackers with soup,” laughs McKenna. “This is our version of crackers.”
To complement them, a lovely Reisling from The Grange in nearby Prince Edward County is introduced by the winemaker, Maggie Granger. Both the soup and tourtière are so good that my intention to simply taste (I want to save room for the rest of this meal) is put aside. In fact, it transpires that there is no way I can simply taste any part of this menu.
Pastry chef Dylan Smith’s breads (multigrain and quinoa) appear next with goat butter, olive oil and my favorite – duck schmaltz with chopped shallots. The bread is light, the duck fat is tasty. It works!
Viamede’s own roast heritage pig comes next. The 175 lb porker has been roasted with juniper berries and spruce, then carved in front of the guests by McKenna. The serving platter holds fat slices of succulent pork, alongside marrow bones with a spoon for scooping out the delicious interior.
A Church Key Brewing jug holds a fragrant jus of juniper, thyme and the beer reduced with the broth from pork bones. I can’t resist a second slice of this gorgeous meat. Church Key has created a unique brew for the occasion, appropriately titled Whole Hog.
A surprise addition to the menu is duck confit. Viamede’s own ducks have been roasted whole, immersed in their own fat. The meat which has been marinated in champagne and thyme is tender and very flavourful. Seconds are necessary!
Canada’s winter cupboard always includes root vegetables so roasted beets, potatoes and carrots accompany the dinner. On the table are pickling jars of various sauerkrauts, scented with different herbs. The tang of this winter salad is a nice contrast with the rich meats.
Smith provides a sweet finish with celery root ice cream topped with beet ganache and brown butter snow, as well as a duck fat chocolate bread pudding. No need to choose, a taste of each was in order. As was a sample of some of the local cheeses on the cheese tray. A sweet wine from Rosehall Run is the perfect complement to this glorious culmination.
And this folks, is how Canadians do winter!