Sunday, 23 September 2012

Drinking at Halifax Henry's

What to do on a Friday night in Halifax, Nova Scotia when you've only been in town for a day?

Following a local's tip-off about a bar, I was about to step out of my hotel when I noticed people queuing for entry at a previously unnoticed door.

Above the door was the title "Yuk Yuk's". The apostrophe was a worry, but judging from the board next to the ticket desk it was a comedy club. I wavered a moment; then heard a patron being told it was free to hotel guests.

I was in, and shortly joining a queue for the slowest bar service in the world. Have you ever noticed that people ahead of you who are taking forever to order, will also be paying electronically?

Anyway, it turned out the bar was selling a bottle of Molson's Canadian beer for $4, or (from memory) seven of them for $24 in a small bucket with ice.

Having a laugh

I declined the seven bottle offer, though groups of friends in the audience were keen on the idea. I doubted I'd need seven bottles to enjoy the stand-up comedy. How bad could it be?

Pretty awful, as it turned out. I've never seen such lazy, we've-performed-this-a-thousand-times routines on a live comedy stage. Even the seven-bottle tables were finding it hard to raise much laughter. During the third act, I slipped out to my original destination.

It was only a block away, and Halifax is very pleasant place to walk. The city centre has some marvellous grand timber buildings and I strolled past the neat grounds of Cornwallis Park on the way, with its statue of the city's founder on a plinth. Halifax was a touch foggy that night too, lending a soft, slightly mystical look to its streets.

Henry's hacienda

Then I reached the Henry House at 1222 Barrington St. A grand stone building constructed in 1834, it had belonged to a prominent local. William Alexander Henry was a lawyer, politician, judge and one of the Fathers of Confederation (Canada's unifying moment in the 19th century).

I walked up the steps and through the front door to be met by, of all things, an Australian waiter from Melbourne. He gave me an overview of the house's three levels: a pub on the lower floor, a dining room in the middle and The Drying Room on the top floor.

This last, where I headed, was a gem. A dimly lit space, it had loads of atmosphere - exposed stone walls, big timber beams, and talented cocktail creators leaping around behind the bar. It was a stylish environment and, I imagine, one of the most sophisticated places you might find a drink in Halifax.

The locals are friendly

And full of interesting people. The barman, Scotty, was a part time surf photographer who had lived for a while in New Zealand. He revealed this as he was whipping me up an 1895 New York cocktail called the Corpse Reviver (Scotty: "One brings you back to life. Four and you're back in the grave.").

It contained my favourite cocktail ingredient - absinthe. Oscar Wilde had once stayed nearby in a local inn, so it all seemed to fit.

While I drank it, I chatted with my neighbour at the next stool, a geologist from Alberta who'd once studied in Halifax and was back in town on business. He loved the city, and it turned out he had been to Australia, so there was plenty to talk about.

Smoke gets in your drink

At some stage (the details are blurry) he somehow talked me into ordering a whisky cocktail which was made from scotch and vermouth, passed through a large jug full of smoke which was held in place by the vessel having being chilled beforehand.

Watching it being made was quite entertaining and the result, Scotty's special Hickory Smoked Rob Roy, was excellent. Smooth, very smoky to the taste at first but mellowing to a perfect blend of spirits and the elements.

I was glad I went out after all, rather than turning back to my room after the disappointing comedy. This was more like it - a meld of the small-city friendliness of Halifax with some superb and dedicated cocktail creation.

It seemed the sort of town where you could talk to anyone and share a drink with them. I liked it.

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Nova Scotia Tourism and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Digesting the Charlevoix

To the northeast of Quebec City the St Lawrence River, already impressive on its path from Montreal, really opens up and lets itself go.

Broadening, it resembles more an estuary than a river, earning its alternative tag as the St Lawrence Seaway. And as it heads to the Atlantic it passes the Charlevoix region, framed by mountains to the west and the river to the east.

What's interesting is that the fertile Charlevoix was the result of a long-ago meteorite impact, hollowing out the earth in which its towns and greenery now lie. Once you realise this, you can clearly see the contours of the much-eroded crater on the horizon.

That's the macro picture. The micro includes a vast variety of tasty things to eat and drink, several of which I had the pleasure of consuming over the past few days.

For your foodie entertainment (for I suspect you love the foodstuffs when travelling as much as I do), here are a few pics I snapped along the way...

1. I was quite taken by the food at the Hotel La Ferme, the hotel operated by the Le Massif excursion train company at one of its destinations, Baie-St-Paul.

This was my dessert at dinner in its restaurant Les Labours, looking somewhat like an atomic symbol and described intriguingly as "L'extra carotte: biscuit de carotte, tube de crème brûlée au thym et sauce orange".

A tube fashioned from crème brûlée (it had the crunchy bits embedded along its length). What will those crazy food boffins think of next?

2. This was breakfast at the hotel the next morning - a kind of stack of soft brioche-like bread with ham, cheese, and scrambled egg on top of a pile of potatoes. It was like a croque madame that had gone rogue:

3. For lunch, here was Quebec's most infamous dish - poutine, composed of cheese curds, chips and gravy. I say infamous partly because it's impossible to take an attractive photo of it; and also because the concept of it always seems to surpass the actual taste, a kind of gluggy meld of salt and carbs probably best consumed when intoxicated.

Still, an authentic and unavoidable Quebec experience, and the mushrooms lifted this variant at l'Orange bistro in Baie-St-Paul:

4. Had to drop into a cidrerie, given the resurgence in popularity of cider in Australia. This place, Le Pednault, produces a number of beverages which are 80% cider and 20% juice. The most popular (not pictured below) is the pear version.

I was impressed with the prices of the large bottles - $16 including tax. That seems pretty reasonable compared to Australian equivalents at small breweries.

5. This was the homemade breakfast at the B&B, Manoir Hortensia at Saint-Irénée. It was fashioned from Charlevoix ingredients - muesli, apple, cheeses, banana bread, date and almond bread, and cherry jam from the tree in the middle of the accommodation's parking lot:

6. At Laiterie Charlevoix, I got to see these giant wheels of cheese in the course of their production:

7. While nearby at another cheesemaking enterprise, La Maison d’Affinage Maurice Dufour, I encountered one the oddest cheeses I'd ever seen (though it tasted pretty good) - Le Secret de Maurice, liquid cheese encased within a hard shell:

8. Finally, here's a beer at the memorable La Maison du Bootlegger, a kind of beer, burger and live rock venue within a 19th century timber house which once hosted a club which defied Prohibition. And we're not talking about 1920s American Prohibition by the way, but an entirely localised Charlevoix kind. But that's a story, perhaps, for another day...

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourisme Québec. For more information on the Charlevoix region, visit the Charlevoix Tourism website.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Montreal Hotel Goes Pop!

I like the idea of an Art Hotel, though obviously it has the potential to be pretentious.

If done well, however, the display of art can create something memorably different from the many generic hotels out there. It also provides a benefit to locals, who can enjoy the exhibits in the public areas of the hotel.

I've just stayed in an impressive example of this concept, LHotel (pronounced "lotel") in Montreal, Canada.

It's housed within a grand 19th century bank building on Rue Saint-Jacques. This street was once the epicentre of Canada's financial system, and so is lined with vast neoclassical temples to banking glory.

The banks have long departed the street, leaving numerous high-ceilinged buildings perfect for upmarket hotels.

The point of difference at LHotel is its owner Georges Marciano, former co-owner and designer of fashion company Guess. A serious collector of pop art and other modern art, Marciano has decked out the hotel with a large number of works from his collection.

Here's a random sample of what I spotted during my stay.

This first pic is of the lounge next to the bar. Beyond the compacted metal piece in the foreground is a giant glowing figure and a portrait of Marciano on the wall:

Here's a famous Andy Warhol piece above the ground floor lift door, based on a photo taken by Neil Armstrong on the moon:

Just opposite is this curious arrangement of works, the right-hand piece by Miro. Is that Ronad Reagan in the ad on the left, by the way? Looks like him:

There was a lesser-known Warhol next to the lift on my floor:

And this was the corridor outside my room:

Finally here's the hotel illuminated at night, seen as I returned from the direction of Places d'Armes after attending an outdoor electronic music event on Île Sainte-Hélène in the St Lawrence River (as you do).

It was taken with the aid of the handy Glif tripod stand for the iPhone, which holds the phone steady and connects to a compact tripod (and this mention is not an ad by the way, I bought my own Glif and recommend it!).

LHotel is well worth dropping into for a drink, even if you're not staying overnight, just to ogle the surprisingly accessible collection.

And as the man said, all you need is

Disclosure time: On this trip I was hosted by Tourisme Montréal and the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Mysterious Pies of the Baltic (Part 2)

The pie-making entrepreneur of Gdynia in 2006
Last week, I recounted a strange 1994 encounter with Australian-style meat pies in Gdańsk, Poland. Next, in futuristic 2006, I meet their maker...

Gdynia is - how shall I put this? - not blessed with the charms of its neighbours in the coastal Tri-City, seaside resort Sopot and historic Gdańsk.

It’s the ugly sister of the three, a functional port city whose straight, no-nonsense streets are lined with blocky concrete buildings, evoking the gloomy stereotype of communist-era architecture.

But none of this was evident in the charmingly art deco setting of the Willa Lubicz. Here I met Beata Zielińska (pictured above), the fast food entrepreneur of the Baltic coast.

As we sat at a table in the hotel’s genteel cafe and ordered coffee, she explained why the paj.

Pies vs pies

“I couldn't make them under the English name, because ‘pies’ [when pronounced pee-es] means ‘dog’ in Polish,” she explained disarmingly. A sound reason, I agreed.

“In Adelaide, I went to a very nice pie factory, run by a Dutch man, and said ‘I want to learn how to make pies’,” she said. “I worked with him, and learned so much.

“We brought the pie tins over to Poland because they're specially shaped tins; if I'm running out of the tins, my family brings them on the way to visit me. If I'm going to try making a new flavour, I ask my son Martin ‘Can you bring a different shape?’”

Changing tastes

The venture was an initially successful one, but there’s no accounting for local tastes. Though she’d started out with a traditional Australian recipe, Beata found she had to tinker with perfection.

“I had to change them to suit Polish tastes,” she shrugged. “The paj australijski had a lot of gravy, but here they like it to be all meat.”

So could anyone achieve success in a similar way, by taking a unique Aussie foodstuff and adapting it to the palates of a foreign population?

Beata shook her head. “I meet a lot of people who come back from Australia, but not many stay. They think it'll be easy to make money here, but it's not. Just like in Australia, you have to work hard for your money.”

Émigré energy

I’ve never migrated to another country myself, but I have Sudanese friends who’ve settled in Australia via the long and stressful route taken by political refugees, and I marvel at the energy and drive they've applied to adapting to their new home.

Despite our relaxed chat over kawa and cake, I sensed something similarly determined beneath Beata’s surface.

Australia has benefited from its many Polish migrants over the years - from explorer Paul Strzelecki to the Solidarity refugees of the 1980s - so it was nice to imagine some of that migrant energy being traded back to its source.

As we left, I took a photo of a bumper sticker on Zielinska’s car, despite her protestations about its need for a wash.

Paj jest dobry i tani”, it read: “The pie is good and cheap”. Well, indeed. And my 1994 mystery was finally solved.

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