Home and away, I love to travel. Posts from trips in the UK and overseas including hotel and restaurant reviews and visits to specialist producers.

 

Formally known as the Seated Amida Buddha, more commonly called the Daibutsu (Giant Buddha) of Kamakura, this beautiful Buddhist statue was cast from bronze in the mid-13th century, to replace a similarly large wooden Daibutsu completed just a few years earlier but damaged soon after in a storm.

Originally a hall was built to enclose the bronze statue; this too was damaged in a storm. The hall was rebuilt and destroyed by the weather multiple times during the following two centuries, but after the hall was once again washed away by the tsunami of 1498 the Great Buddha was left out in the open. Unsheltered from the elements, Daibutsu was at risk of deterioration, until a temple priest and an Asakusa merchant built a new temple, Kōtoku-in to protect and worship it in 1712.

The base upon which the statue sits was destroyed in an earthquake in 1923, the new plinth being built shortly afterwards. In the 1960s, repairs were made to the statue itself, with the neck strengthened to better withstand future natural disasters.

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Two visitors taking photos of the Giant Buddha

At over 13 metres in height (including the base) Daibutsu is very imposing and the beautiful green tones of oxidised bronze are beautiful against the greenery and blossoms of spring. That said, it must have looked very different when new – it was originally covered with gold leaf, of which only traces remain near its ears.

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Our first glimpse of Daibutsu; Pete in front of Daibutsu; our friend offering a prayer; the throng of fellow visitors

Visitors can also enter into the Buddha via a small side entrance into the plinth, which affords an insight into the casting and assembly of the statue. Entrance to this is 20 yen, but note that it’s not for the claustrophobic!

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Incense dome; cherry blossoms; a man worshipping the Kannon Statue within Kangetsudo (Moon Viewing Hall) behind Daibutsu; the roof of Kangetsudo

The nearest train station to Kōtoku-in Temple is Hase, about 10 minutes walk, or you can walk from Kamakura station in 20-30 minutes. Entrance to the temple costs 200 yen per person.

If you can manage a lot of stairs you may also enjoy a visit to nearby Hasedera (Hase Temple), which affords beautiful views of the area from its main terrace half way up the hill.

You may also enjoy these posts about my travels to Japan.

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Is there anything more charming than a restaurant to which one travels by small boat along a serene stretch of river in one of Japan’s most beautiful cities? One that also serves the highest quality Japanese cuisine, each dish a perfect balance between traditional classic and inventive modern?

If there is, I am yet to find it but it certainly has a hard act to follow in Hoshinoya Kyoto, a top-level kaiseki ryōri restaurant within the luxury inn of the same name.

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Kaiseki cuisine is a traditional multi-course meal consisting of a succession of seasonal, local and beautifully presented little dishes. Although its origins are in the simple food served as part of a traditional tea ceremony, it has evolved over centuries into a far more elaborate dining style now served in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and specialised restaurants.

Such meals usually have a prescribed order to what is served, though each chef takes pride in designing and presenting their own menus based on local delicacies, seasonal ingredients and their personal style.

A typical meal may include a small drink or amuse-bouche to start, a selection of stunningly presented small appetisers, a sashimi (raw seafood) course, takiawase (which translates as ‘a little something’ and is most commonly vegetables with meat or fish alongside), futamono (a ‘lidded dish’, often a soup but sometimes combined into the takiawase course in the form of a broth with simmered ingredients served within it), sometimes there is a small tempura item (battered and deep fried) or some grilled fish, all this to be followed by a more substantial dish such as a meat hot pot or grilled steak with local seasonal vegetables, then rice served with miso soup and pickles, and finally fresh fruit or another dessert.

If that sounds like a lot, it is! That said, most of the dishes are small enough that most diners are able to enjoy the full meal comfortably, albeit with very little room left by the time the rice arrives! And most kaiseki menus don’t include every single one of the courses above, though they usually cover the majority.

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Views of Hoshinoya Kyoto; the hotel grounds later in the evening

Hoshino Resorts is a family business launched over 100 years ago when Kuniji Hoshino founded a forestry business in Karuizawa. The area, nicknamed the Japanese Alps, became increasingly popular as a location for holiday villas and in 1914 Kuniji opened a ryokan there which is still one of the company’s flagship properties today, albeit hugely updated since Kuniji’s era. Today, fourth-generation family member Yoshiharu Hoshino is CEO of the company and has lead the business through two decades of transformation and expansion, modernising existing properties and purchasing several new ones that are marketed under the brands Hoshinoya, Kai and Risonare.

A few years ago Hoshino Resorts purchased a beautiful historical Kyoto property originally constructed in the 16th century as the home of Ryoi Suminokura, a wealthy merchant and trusted advisor to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Suminokura played a major role in the construction of Kyoto’s canals and river systems, earning him extended shipping rights within the city. He built his beautiful home in the bamboo forests of Arashimaya, on the banks of the Katsura River. In the centuries following, his home was turned into a traditional ryokan.

In 2012 the ryokan closed for two years while the company completely refurbished the property, retaining and enhancing its historical treasures.They hired Japan’s most skilled architects and designers to repair the existing property and to design and construct extensions in keeping with the original yet offering a more modern luxury and comfort. The best artisans in their fields were invited to repair original pieces and to create new furniture and artworks throughout.

The newly completed resort opened in 2014 and has been another flagship for the brand ever since.

At the helm of Hoshinoya Kyoto’s kitchen is Head Chef Ichiro Kubota. Kubota’s father was the head chef at one of Kyoto’s top restaurants and instilled in his son an appreciation of culinary excellence and Japanese traditions. Initially intending to become an artist, Kubota studied art as well as English language; indeed it was a two year stint studying in America that helped him better appreciate the beauty of Kyoto’s culture and cuisine, and to change his focus and career plans. Kubota went on to train as a chef under his father and in many of the region’s top kaiseki restaurants before heading to Europe. There he apprenticed at Paris’ three-star Michelin restaurant Georges Blanc where he perfected classic French techniques, also taking advantage of days off to eat his way around Europe. He was poached from Paris in 2004 to head up the kitchen of Umu, London’s first Kyoto-style banquet restaurant. After seven years (and a Michelin star of his own, awarded within a few months of Umu’s launch) Kubota accepted the invitation to head up Hoshinoya Kyoto’s new restaurant – keen to return with all the expertise and knowledge he had gained and receive recognition in the home of the cuisine.

Since then, Kubota has developed a truly incredible offering that brings many innovative touches to this most traditional of formats.

So often, when chefs try to modernise classic dishes and methods, it just doesn’t work – it’s either so far from the original so as to be virtually unrecognisable (in which case naming it as such seems a travesty) or it simply isn’t as good and is therefore a rather pointless change. But Kubota achieves what very few do, retaining all that is glorious about the best traditional kaiseki ryōri whilst also applying European influences and modern techniques, flavours and presentations to each dish he serves – and these innovations not only work, they positively shine!

A meal at Kubota’s table is one to keenly anticipate; his reputation – and Hoshinoya’s – have already earned him high praise and the restaurant has a consistently busy reservations book. Most of the diners are, of course, residents of the resort but others, like us, book in for dinner only. The kaiseki menu is priced at 20,000 yen per person plus taxes and service, very much in line with Kyoto’s high end restaurants.

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Arashimaya at dusk: tourists in kimonos, tourists on the river bank, a bride under the cherry blossom, our boat at the Hoshinoya Kyoto landing dock

The journey to Hoshinoya Kyoto starts at the Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashimaya, a famous West Kyoto district that is popular with locals and tourists alike. If you’ve not visited, a stroll through the famous bamboo groves followed by a visit to Tenryuji Temple are both umissable activities; Tenryuji’s garden is amongst my favourite of the Japanese temple gardens we have visited. There are many other attractions in this area too – more temples, a scenic railway line, tourist boat trips (including trips to observe cormorant fishing in season) and even a monkey park, if you are so inclined.

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On the boat to Hoshinoya Kyoto; views from the boat

The Hoshinoya dock is close to Togetsukyo Bridge and easy to find. We are lead onto a small boat with large windows around the passenger area to enjoy the view. The boat slowly putt-putts its way up the river taking about 15 minutes to reach the hotel’s landing dock, where we are greeted by guest relations manager, Tomoko Tsuchida.

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Arriving at the hotel by boat; the path up to the restaurant and hotel

After taking a few photos in the darkening dusk outside, Tomoko takes us into the restaurant and shows us to our counter seats, of which there are 8. The other 30 covers are at regular tables. Tomoko settles us in, gives us the menu for the meal to come (which lists each course in both Japanese and English) and serves our meal assisted by an army of polite, well-trained and quick-footed waiting staff. Each dish is carefully explained and any questions patiently answered; sometimes the origins or patterns of the artisanal tableware are explained too – traditional lacquerware with painted gold flowers and fish, sake cups from Shigaraki (a pottery town we visited just two days earlier), and other beautiful handmade plates, bowls and cups.

Throughout the meal we watch the two chefs stationed in front of us create the first three courses again and again. Other chefs work on other courses in other kitchen spaces and their dishes appear in front of us as finished master pieces, from the fourth course onwards.

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Before the first morsel arrives, we are served a glass of Kasegi Gashira, a junmai sake with a light, lemony flavour that is accentuated by the mugwort pudding that arrives shortly afterwards.

I’ve been learning in recent years, and shared my beginner’s guide to sake last year, but am still a novice when it comes to selecting sake from a list. Luckily Tomoko gave us some suggestions for the two sakes we choose to accompany the rest of the meal.

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The amuse bouche is listed as Mugwort pudding with white shrimp, chopped fern root, horse tail bud, lily root petal and umami jelly. Tomoko explains that Mugwort is a sign of spring, and the dish is the introduction to their very seasonal menu. Near the property is a field of greens and yellows with a lone cherry blossom tree within it; the construction of the dish has been designed to represent this scene. The dish as a whole is light and refreshing, though I’m still not sure I could describe mugwort to you – I’d say slightly bitter with a hint of floral.

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When our next sake is served, we are offered a box of sake cups to choose from, each one a very different design. I recognise the distinctive look of an unglazed Shigaraki piece and of course, I select that one. This sake, in the very pretty blue bottle, is a junmai daiginjo made by Eikun, a sake brewery located in Kyoto’s Fushimi district, an area known for sake production. It has a rich, deep flavour, strong and punchy, not at all like the lighter one we started with. It’s unlike any sake I’ve tried before, and I like it.

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The selection of appetisers served next are beautifully presented; each item listed separately on the menu.

From left to right: bamboo shoot and cuttlefish marinated with cod roe dressing, lady fish sushi, simmered hamaguri clam and river lettuce with umami jelly, deep fried Japanese dace, broad bean stuffed with shrimp dumpling, simmered baby octopus with sweet soy sauce with simmered sea bream roe with ginger

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The dace fish, Tomoko explains, is threaded onto the skewer in an Ƨ shape so that it looks as though it is swimming!

I don’t pay much attention to the little leaf sat on the octopus and sea bream, and don’t realise until later that one of the intense flavours I detect on eating this is from the leaf rather than the braising spices used to cook the seafood.

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The next course is one that the chefs at our counter are responsible for, and throughout our meal we watch them make it again and again; their intense focus and attention to detail as they construct each plate is a pleasingly practised choreography.

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Described on the menu simply as Seasonal sashimi Hoshinoya style, Tomoko is on hand to give us all the details. When she tells us the plate itself is a design known as ‘blossom falling in the wind’, I realise I’m so focused on the beautiful food that I didn’t even glance at the plate. A good reminder to observe all the wonderful details.

The two pieces at the edges are the same; the one in the centre is different. The two pieces are both baby melon on fresh seaweed, wrapped in sea bream with diced wasabi and sea urchin on top. The ‘crystal jelly’ spooned onto the plate at the two corners is made from konbu stock and the white foam ball is sakura flavoured. A home made soy sauce dressing is provided for the outer two pieces.

The centre sushi is a piece of fresh sea bream roe which has been briefly boiled and then grilled. On top is a tiny layer of pureed leek topped with a circle of Japanese tangerine jelly (the citrus fruit chosen for its exact balance between sweet and sour) melted over the top, and a single Japanese red peppercorn sat on the jelly. The plate is garnished with crisp sugar snap peas and edible leaves and flowers.

The entire plate is altogether stunning, especially the sea bream roe which melt-pops in the mouth as though it’s filled with a mild and creamy liquid center. This dish is about beauty, freshness, seasonality, texture and flavours and it’s delightful!

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As we open the poached greenling coated with Domyoji sweet rice crumbs in a clear soup with yuba cake and fern root Tomoko tells us to check for the fish artwork under the lid before explaining how best to enjoy the soup. First, on lifting the lid, bend over the dish and inhale the aromas released, especially of the fragrant sansho leaf sat on top. Move the leaf into the broth so it can impart a little flavour, then use your chopsticks to hold back the other ingredients as you sip the broth. Finally, enjoy the other ingredients in the bowl.

This time, when I eat the leaf it’s a knockout punch to the taste buds! Not only is the flavour intense, it comes with a tingling numbing sensation akin to eating Sichuan peppercorns – I wonder if the two plants are related? The numbness lasts for a good few minutes, so you may prefer to nibble just a tiny bit of leaf for a hint of the flavour, and set the rest aside.

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Next comes charcoal grilled king fish glazed with rapeseed sauce. The fish is rich and meaty, and the seasonal topping of spring onions with rapeseed greenery is delicious. To visually represent the yellow of rapeseed flowers, bright yellow karasumi (salt-preserved mullet fish roe) is grated over the top – it contributes to the flavour too, of course. Also on the plate are baby ginger, shiitake mushroom and udo, a mountain vegetable.

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Shiraki Brewery in Gifu are the makers of this unusual Daruma Masamune sake that has been aged at room temperature for 15 years. The flavour is incredible, reminiscent of mushrooms though that makes it sound unpleasant when it’s actually very delicious!

Although aged sake is nothing new, today’s market is predominantly focused on new sake, released every spring – to the extent that Shiraki faced both bemusement and confusion when they first started to sell their 3, 5 and 10 year old aged sakes in the 1970s. Aged sake is still not very common, but these days there are enough aficionados to make this a premium drink.

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The next course arrives in a very unusual dish, unlike any I’ve seen before. If you’re starting to feel full just reading about this multi-course meal, I can assure you, it’s exactly how we feel as the containers are placed before us and we wonder if we can do justice to the contents.

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Inside the custom-crafted clay container (with one clay lid and one made from wood) are pieces of beef fillet and simmered spring vegetables. Wasabi and salt crystals sit in the condiment spaces, though for me the beef is perfectly seasoned as it comes and it’s absolutely superb – full of beefy flavour, meltingly soft without being pappy and cooked to just the right point. Hard to beat beef (and cooking) of this quality!

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Lest you think the savoury courses are over because the ‘main’ dish has been served, as with any Japanese meal, the rice course is still to come. Tomoko brings out a black lidded dish of seasoned rice with bamboo shoot topped with charcoal grilled conger eel which is served with red miso soup, assorted Japanese pickles and green tea.

We ask for small portions to be served, and the eel is delicious, so we do dig in even though we manage just a few mouthfuls each.

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Next comes an elegant strawberry and mint financier, strawberry sauce and rich milk ice cream served on a chilled metal block. The flavours are vivid, and brought to life by the tiny fragments of mint on the top.

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But lest we think that a more traditional Japanese dessert has been dropped in favour of the French-style patisserie, a second dessert arrives of melon and papaya with mint, served with a cup of hojicha (roasted black tea).

The papaya is nice enough but the melon, oh my goodness, this is the most delicious melon I’ve ever tasted! I ask for more information and learn that it’s a green melon from the musk melon family and grown in Shizuoka Prefecture. It’s so perfectly ripe that the perfume is heady and the flavour intense, with a texture that is almost liquid in the mouth. It’s glorious and a genuinely revelationary experience!

Full to bursting, yet a little sad that such an incredible meal has come to an end, we are walked to the reception area to settle our drinks bill before one of the resort’s private cars drives us back to Togetsukyo Bridge for our onward journey back to our hotel.

On this trip, we experienced several high end kaiseki meals and this one was our clear favourite (though others were certainly excellent, more of which soon). Kubota’s delightful weaving together of traditional Japanese techniques, ingredients and dishes with global influences from his exploration of world cuisine, along with his whimsical, artistic, delightful presentation lifted this meal to another level.

Kavey Eats dined at Hoshinoya Kyoto as guests of Hoshino Resorts.

 

If there’s one trend in the restaurant industry that’s really come to the fore since the turn of the century it’s the rise of the second-career chef.

Men and women who worked in all manner of highly successful, and often high-paying, careers – lawyers, doctors, engineers, corporate managers, computer programmers, management consultants, hedge fund gurus – choose to give these careers up for the hard labour and long hours of a professional kitchen. There are many routes to this journey from an informal start running supper-clubs, short-term residencies or street-food stalls to a more conventional training and graduation from a professional cookery school.

Some, like my friend Mat Follas, win a TV cooking competition and take it from there. In the UK, winning Masterchef doesn’t come with any prizes; no monetary bursary to put towards training or setting up one’s own business, no book deal, magazine column or paid apprenticeship with a top chef. But it does give you a readymade reputation for reliably good cooking and a short-lived celebrity from which to launch a new career should you choose. After Mat won Masterchef in 2009 he strode through that door of opportunity with an immense steadiness of nerve, opening his own restaurant within just a few months.

Beaminster-based, The Wild Garlic restaurant was immensely popular with locals and visitors from further afield and the food was excellent. Pete and I visited a few times; well worth the trek from London.

After the restaurant closed in 2013, Mat cooked at a number of other venues including a summer beach cafe and a local hotel in Dorchester. He also wrote two cookbooks, the first Fish: Delicious recipes for fish and shellfish came out last April, the second Vegetable Perfection: 100 tasty recipes for roots, bulbs, shoots and stems was published a few weeks ago, (review coming soon).

Now he has launched his latest venture alongside wife and business partner Amanda, and long time colleague and business partner Katy.

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The Bramble Cafe & Deli is located in a newly built area of Poundbury – the experimental urban development on the outskirts of Dorchester, built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The development ethos is to create an integrated community of shops, businesses, private housing and social housing and the architecture is a modern interpretation of classic European styles. As a fan of yellow brick, I like it.

Bramble fronts onto an elongated ‘square’ with all the properties facing in onto an open space, commonly used for parking. There’s a deep portico providing shade to the patio area in front; go through the front door into an airy interior with huge windows and plenty of tables. Behind the dining space is the kitchen, cosy and domestic rather than gleaming-metal; very much in keeping with the relaxed style of the space and Mat’s cooking. Everything is on one level, including the toilet, making disabled access straightforward.

The deli is set to open in a few weeks, with products to be displayed on a large set of shelves to one side of the main room. For now, the cafe is open Monday to Saturday from 8.30 to 4.30, offering pastries and cakes, light lunches and drinks. As of a couple of weeks ago, the cafe is also open for dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings; Mat offers a pared back menu with three choices per course and an affordable wine list to match.

Daytime

During the day, customers can come in for a breakfast croissant, a hot or cold lunch, or perhaps an afternoon tea with a sweet baked treat.

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The macaroni cheese with smoked salmon is one of the best macaroni cheese dishes I’ve had. I’m not a fan of the thick style where a block of stodge can be sliced with a knife; I prefer my macaroni cheese to have a slippery-slick sauce full of intense cheese flavour, coating perfectly cooked pasta and that’s just how this one comes – with the added bonus of two generous slices of smoked salmon, made flaky by the heat of macaroni cheese below and grilled cheese above.

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Also superb is a crab and cheese toast. Crisped slice of bread is thickly covered with a generous layer of flavour-packed crab, heavy on the brown meat, and topped with sharp salty cheese, grilled till its bubbling. Served with some crisps and an unadorned salad, it’s perfect for a satisfyingly delicious lighter lunch.

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On the counter are a few indulgent bakes, flapjacks and gluten-free chocolate brownies on the day of our visit. These are huge slabs – my photo shows a half portion of the brownie I shared with Pete! It’s good, dense and fudgy with a lovely crisp surface on top.

I enjoyed my share with an extra chocolate hit – a Jaz & Juls hot chocolate; Bramble offer a dark chocolate or a milk chocolate option.

Evening

The Bramble is currently open for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. Walk ins are welcome but book ahead to guarantee a table. The menu changes seasonally, with a focus on locally sourced ingredients.

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Tempted by all three starters, we follow Katy’s naughty suggestion of sharing the Asparagus with hollandaise sauce (£6) as a pre-starter and then having the other two starters afterwards. The asparagus is excellent with lots of flavour, no woodiness, very fresh. And Mat makes a killer Hollandaise, glossy with butter and lifted by a real kick of lemon juice. Gorgeous!

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Not what we expect from the description of Smoked salmon, tomato and pea (£7), this dish doesn’t feature any smoke-cured salmon, rather it is fresh hot-smoked salmon served in a jar with tomatoes and pea shoots. The theatre of Mat opening the jar at the table to release swirls of smoke is fun, but the dish isn’t a favourite – perhaps because I had expected smoke-cured salmon instead.

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The Ham hock and wild garlic terrine with pickles and toast (£5) is enormous! Actually large enough for two to share as a starter, and could be the basis of a fabulous lunch plate too. Delicious soft and meaty pork with a hint of wild garlic, crunchy lightly pickled vegetables and crisp melba toasts.

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Pork belly, crackling, apple sauce and smoked mash (£14) is so very delicious. It may not look it from the photo but the (enormous) portion of pork is cooked perfectly till the fat is melty, melty, melty and the meat is soft and tender. Crackling is gorgeous, though a little too salty for me. Mash is rich and buttery and with just the right level of smoke. Apple sauce has the sharpness to cut through all the richness. I may need to get out my indigestion tablets later after all this butter and fat, but it’ll be worth it!

On the side, cauliflower and broccoli cheese (£3.50).

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Pete orders Rabbit cooked in red wine, served with a crusty roll (£13). It’s really not a pretty dish any which way you look at it, but it does deliver on flavour. The rabbit and vegetables are well cooked, the sauce full of red wine and meatiness, perfect for sopping up with the bread.

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We don’t really have room for desserts but cannot resist, especially with a bit of gentle nudging from Katy!

My Chocolate and marmalade orange tart with clotted cream (£6) is a grown up jaffa cake on a plate – rich, smooth dark chocolate ganache over a marmalade orange jelly, inside a crumbly pastry shell.

Pete loves his Lavender pannacotta with raspberry powder (£6), so perfectly judged that it wobbles most pleasingly yet yields like creamy custard to the spoon.

At no more than £30 for a three course meal with a side per person, this is fantastically good value. Of course I appreciate that prices are lower outside of London but for good quality ingredients and cooking like this, it’s still a steal.

We booked a wonderful B&B a few miles outside of Dorchester to make a short break of our visit and took the opportunity to enjoy some of the gorgeous gardens nearby. There’s so much to do in Dorset, look out for another post in coming weeks sharing my favourite attractions (and lodging) in the area.

 

Once upon a time, dating was what you did before you got married and once you were married, well you were married, weren’t you? It wasn’t that married couples no longer went out, just that it wasn’t referred to as dating, just married life, I guess. But over the last couple of decades, the term ‘Date Night’ has done an about-turn and these days I most commonly see it used to describe a dedicated night to themselves for married or long-term couples.

For Pete and I, with no kids underfoot, you could say that most of our meals out, and all our weekends away and longer holidays are dedicated time to ourselves, and it’s true that many of them are; sometimes we grab our Kindles and read, companionably, over our meal whereas other times we leave them behind and natter away, making plans for the allotment or a future holiday, talking about the news or some interesting local development, sharing synopses of good books we’ve recently read or giggling over whatever is the latest thing to tickle our funny bones…

I imagine that for couples with young children, setting aside dedicated child-free time to be a couple must be essential to maintain their relationship as lovers and friends, as distinct from their mutual roles as their children’s parents; whether it’s weekly, monthly or only every now and then.

Whatever your situation, if you’re looking for an indulgent Date Night idea, I have a terrific suggestion for you – Film, Fizz and Dinner in a luxury hotel followed, if you like, by an overnight stay.

Film & Fizz

Luxury London hotel One Aldwych host Film & Fizz nights in their dedicated 30-seater cinema – you are greeted and seated with a glass of chilled champagne and a box of sweet or salty popcorn to enjoy during the film, after which you head to the hotel’s Indigo restaurant for a delicious three course meal. Or night owls can opt for a later screening; fizz and film without dinner afterwards – perfect if you want to dine in one of the many excellent restaurants in the vicinity.

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second image courtesy on One Aldwych

On our One Aldwych Date Night, Pete and I enjoy Trumbo – an engaging film about how the American fear of Communism lead to the Hollywood Blacklist, as told through the story of top screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. The cinema is adorable – wide and comfortable blue leather seats with plenty of legroom (enough for Pete’s lanky legs) and good image and sound quality too.

After the film, we and other guests head to Indigo restaurant for dinner.

Dinner

This is very much a trip down memory lane for me. When we first moved to London, our salaries (and therefore our budget for eating out at restaurants) were much lower and my approach to eating out at decent restaurants was to take advantage of their pre-theatre dinner menus; these allowed my friends and I to enjoy two or three courses for significantly less than an a la carte meal would cost, albeit we had a restricted selection of dishes to choose from. Indigo (and the hotel’s other restaurant, Axis) were both firm favourites on my pre-theatre dinner circuit and I have happy memories of many excellent meals here.

Today, Indigo’s kitchen is headed up by Chef Dominic Teague. Over the last year, Teague has quietly developed lunch and dinner menus that are entirely gluten and dairy free, though those without allergies certainly won’t feel they are missing out; if it weren’t mentioned on the menu, I doubt most diners would even notice.

Top quality ingredients, conscientiously sourced, are allowed to shine in light, delicious dishes.

First, gluten-free bread – samphire, rosemary and roasted onion mini loaves with rapeseed oil for dipping; perfectly decent.

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Pete orders red wine, a young Bordeaux that could do with another year or two to mellow – there’s not much choice in the lowest price bracket; mark ups seem on the high side. My One D.O.M. cocktail of Benedictine, Finlandia Vodka, honey, kaffir lime leaves and egg whites is delicious, but similarly pricey at £14.

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Pete’s Wild garlic soup with poached egg and croutons is superb, with a clear wild garlic flavour that is perfectly balanced; rich yet not overwhelming. The egg is beautifully cooked and a gentle cut of the spoon spills it into the soup to add its yolky creaminess. Croutons and wild garlic flowers garnish with texture and fresh flavour.

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My Organic Rhug Estate pork, granny smiths, truffle mayonnaise looks a bit of a mess and when it arrives I mistakenly think it’ll be a bit meh. Actually, it’s gorgeous, with thin slices of soft, meaty pork accentuated perfectly by crisp sweet-tart apple, a pea shoot salad and a beautifully truffled mayonnaise, with extra truffle grated over the top. The truffle with the pork is a winning combination!

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Pete’s Brixham plaice, confit pepper, olive, fennel is perfectly cooked, just just just enough – creating a softness and silkiness that’s very appealing. This is a light dish that speaks of the summer to come.

My Braised new season lamb with spring vegetables, wet polenta is more solid, a dish that speaks of the winter just gone. The lamb is superbly cooked and with excellent flavour, as is the gravy. Vegetables are so so, the beans are a little woolly but the peas, carrots and greens are good. But the slop of wet polenta does absolutely nothing for me, lacking in flavour and with all the texture of wallpaper paste.

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Pete is delighted with his Lemon posset, poached Yorkshire rhubarb which comes with a quenelle of pastel pink rhubarb sorbet and a crumble garnish as well as the poached fruit. The posset hasn’t set, so it’s more of a cream but the flavour is excellent, and the dessert is, once again, very nicely balanced.

My Alphonso mango sorbet, passion fruit jelly comes with both mango sorbet and fresh mango, perfectly ripe and flavour-packed Alphonso, the king of all mangoes. The passion fruit jelly suffers in comparison, with very little flavour other than a not-too-pleasant acidity. Luckily, it’s easily left at the bottom of the pretty glass bowl and the mango sorbet and fruit more than make up for it.

It’s an enjoyably meal with only a few minor niggles and I think it would be a particularly nice place to visit with friends on gluten-free or dairy-free diets, allowing them the luxury of choosing anything on the menu rather than being forced to pick the one dish they can eat.

Our set menu dinner is rolled in with the price of Fizz & Film, at £55 per person for a glass of champagne, the film and a three course meal. (Drinks are, of course, extra).

Ordering from the a la carte menu, a three course meal in Indigo ranges from £35 to £53, based on the menu at the time of our visit.

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The film was a long one so we’re dining later than usual (though there are post-theatre diners that come in much later than us). The staff kindly serve our tea and coffee to the room, a nice touch that speaks to thoughtful service.

Bed

Speaking of our room, it’s an absolute delight. We are in one of the hotel’s spacious Deluxe Doubles. The beautifully elegant room features a king size bed, two comfortable armchairs and coffee table, a desk and chair and a TV (with safe hidden in the stand). The bathroom is gorgeous, all dark red tile and white suite with a deep tub by the window and a walk in shower. Both the bedroom and bathroom look out over the heart of tourist London but good quality glazing means no street noise to worry about.

Indeed, the only thing that disturbs the peace is a poorly-designed low-water flushing system that makes the most awful racket after you flush, and the screeching noise lasts for ages too. I’m happy to see hotels take eco-friendly measures seriously but these need to meet the standards of the rest of the fittings and furniture, and right now the loo lets the bathroom down!

There are lots of lovely touches that other hotels could learn from – an international plug adaptor in one of the drawers, a card detailing the next day’s weather forecast left in the room during turndown service, a hairdryer that isn’t attached to the wall as though I’m going to steal it if it isn’t, and a decent amount of space for opening cases and storing clothes.

One thing we miss though is the provision of tea and coffee making facilities; unusual not to have them in a hotel of this calibre.

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Breakfast

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A nice touch when it comes to breakfast is that you can enjoy it delivered to your room for no extra charge, or dine in the restaurant if you prefer.

The downside is that it’s awfully pricey at £29 per person and the Full English Breakfast isn’t very full!

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The plate above is Pete’s cooked breakfast; he asks for the Full English as it comes, stipulating streaky bacon over back and eggs to be fried; this minimalist plate is what he is served – two eggs, some bacon, a small piece of black pudding, half a grilled tomato and half a small flat grilled mushroom! Oddly, no sausages, though they are listed on the menu and my breakfast (for which I name items I want individually) includes them! The basket of pastries and toast is meagre with three different pastries and a few slices of toast between two, though if you order room service, you’ll be given your choice of four per person, selected from a list. We ask for more pastries, and staff do oblige. Breakfast also includes fruit juice, tea and coffee.

There are national newspapers available at the entrance, always appreciated, particularly on a weekend.

Date Night Score

For Film, Fizz and Dinner, we give One Aldwych a solid 9 out of 10. It feels like a real occasion; the little cinema offers a decent selection of films – a different one each weekend; Dominic Teague’s cooking is very enjoyable, and the dining room is comfortable and welcoming too.

For Bed, it’s an 8 out of 10. We loved the generous size of our room, the elegant colour scheme and furnishings, the comfortable bed and the luxurious bathroom. Only the noisy plumbing and lack of tea and coffee making facilities let it down. Note that this is a luxury hotel; plugging a few different dates into the online reservation system returns Room Only prices starting from £350 for standard doubles and twins, a good bit more for the Deluxe room we enjoyed. That said, the location truly is in the heart of tourist London, less than a minute’s walk from Covent Garden, Waterloo Bridge, The London Eye and many more of London’s best attractions.

Breakfast is the only element that gets a thumbs down, 2 out of 10. For the hefty price of a three course dinner, it’s not remotely good enough and I’d recommend booking Room Only instead. Use the £58 you save to cover both breakfast and lunch in the many local cafes and restaurants nearby instead.

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Exterior hotel image courtesy of One Aldwych

Kavey Eats was invited to review One Aldwych on a complimentary basis, including the fizz and film dinner experience plus bed and breakfast. We were under no obligation to write a positive review, and all opinions are our own.

 

Your Date Night Ideas

Do you and your partner do Date Nights? If so, what are your top suggestions for a romantic or fun experience to enjoy together?

 

One of the most picturesque cities in Europe, Lübeck is the perfect destination for a Northern European city break. During my recent March visit the wind chilled to the bone but the end-of-winter sunshine showcased the Old City in glorious golden light.

Situated on the River Trave, Lübeck is the second-largest city in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region, and a major port in the area. For several centuries it was the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a commercial confederation of merchant guilds and market downs that dominated trade in Northern Europe, stretching along the coast from the Baltic to the North Sea. Lübeck Old Town, on a small island entirely enclosed by the Trave, is much admired for its extensive brick gothic architecture and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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A Rich Mediaeval History

If you enjoy learning about Europe’s history, you’ll certainly appreciate a visit to the European Hansemuseum which opened in Lübeck last year.

Even though I love history, I’m not always a fan of museums; far too many of them present information in such dull and unimaginative ways. That absolutely cannot be said of the Hansemuseum which is one of the best museums I’ve visited! Housed in a purpose-built modern structure adjacent to Lübeck’s Castle Monastery, the museum focuses on the rich history of the Hanseatic League (which South East England was very much a part of) over six hundred years. The museum makes excellent use of modern technology to bring history to life; not only are there informative interactive visual displays and audio content, but every other room recreates a scene that immerses you in an aspect of the tale – a lively bazaar, a traditional wooden merchant ship or the league’s council chambers during a session. As in any museum there are also a range of historical artefacts on display, and best of all, an excavation of ancient constructions down at basement level.

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Of course, you can also see much of this history in the many beautifully preserved old buildings; Lübeck is a veritable jewel of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.

 

An Enormously Walkable Old Town

A great way to appreciate some of that is simply to walk around Lübeck’s delightful Altstadt (Old Town), designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site with very good reason.

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A local guide can really bring the history alive for you, pointing out details you might otherwise miss, and relating the history and stories associated with each place. We were shown some of Lubeck’s treasures by Mr Colossus, a real character with the most wonderfully bushy handlebar moustache; hugely knowledgable and an entertaining narrator, he really enhanced our visit. Certainly, you can explore on your own though it’s well worth picking up a guide book or Tourist Information map to ensure you don’t miss the highlights.

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Holstentor

The iconic Holstentor – a fifteenth century brick-built Gothic two-tower city gate that formed part of the city’s mediaeval fortifications and sits at the Western entrance to the Old Town – is today considered the symbol of the city, and indeed you can buy hand-moulded marzipan models of the gate in Niederegger’s shop (see below).

Burgtor, also built during the fifteenth century, is located to the North of Old Town.

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The St. Mary’s devil; St. Jacob’s church

Lübeck was once known as the City of the Seven Spires, these being visible from quite a distance from the city.

St. Mary’s Church shows the Gothic stone cathedral designs prevalent in France adapted to be built in local brick. Do check out the bronze sculpture of a devil that commemorates a charming fairytale about the construction of the church – as the townspeople were building St Mary’s, the devil paid a visit and asked what they were building. Keen not to anger him, they told him they were building a tavern. Delighted with this idea, since many souls had found him in just such a place, he leant a hand and the church grew quickly. Only when it was nearing completion did the devil realise he had been tricked. Furious, he picked up a huge stone boulder, intending to demolish the new place of worship. Thinking quickly, the townspeople promised to build a tavern directly next to the church and this they did, the Ratskeller. Appeased, the devil dropped the boulder where it lies today next to the walls of the church – the devil’s claw marks are clearly visible. The bronze sculpture of the devil was created in 1999 by artist Rolf Goerler.

Lübeck Cathedral is the oldest place of worship in the city; construction of the brick cathedral began in the 12th Century, but before that a wooden church stood on the same spot.

St. Peters, a Roman church built between 1227 and 1250, is no longer a church but an exhibition and events centre. At Christmas, a large arts and crafts market is hosted here.

You may also like to visit St. Giles, St. Jacob’s and St. Catherine’s churches.

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The Rathaus

The Rathaus, Lübeck’s Town Hall, is still the city’s seat of administration, so you can’t wander around inside on your own. However guided tours are available regularly throughout the day to allow visitors to see the lavish interiors and architecture more closely.

The Heiligen Geist (Holy Spirit) Hospital is one of the oldest social institutions in the world – any sick or elderly townspeople were guaranteed care here, regardless of their financial means. During advent, the city’s largest and best known arts and crafts market is hosted here.

If you do get tired and want to rest your legs, you can hop on a boat for a leisurely view of Lübeck Old Town from the water.

 

A World Centre of Marzipan

Lübeck is famous for marzipan. The most celebrated manufacturer is Niederegger, founded over 200 years ago.

Once upon a time there were many hundreds of marzipan makers within the old town alone. A local legend suggests that marzipan was first made in the city in response to either a military siege or a local famine. The story goes that the town ran out of all foodstuffs except stored almonds and sugar, and these were combined to make loaves of marzipan “bread”. In reality, marzipan is believed to have been invented far earlier, most likely in Persia though historians are undecided between a Persian and an Iberian origin.

At its core, marzipan consists of nothing more than ground almonds mixed with either sugar or honey. These days, a wide range of marzipan is available; many commercial versions contain a comparatively low volume of almonds; instead they contain a great deal of sugar with the flavour boosted by almond oils and extracts or even cheaper synthetic almond flavourings and are often sickly sweet. In Germany there are clear labels that describe the various levels of marzipan, from marzipanrohmasse (raw marzipan) at the top to gewöhnliches marzipan (ordinary or consumer marzipan) at the bottom.

Niederegger marzipan products are all marzipanrohmasse, which means they contains 65% ground almonds and 35% sugar; the flavour is subtle and natural and the sweetness is not overwhelming. In consumer marzipan, only a third of the total content is almond, with the rest made up of sugar and flavourings.

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Niederegger Cafe (external photo courtesy of Niederegger)

The best place to visit to indulge to the fullest is Café Niederegger, located in the heart of Old Lübeck. Not only will you find the most impressive range of Niederegger products in the extensive ground floor shop – at far lower prices than you’ll find in the UK – there’s also a charming café on the first floor where you can have a light savoury lunch before indulging in one of the fabulous cakes on offer. And I can personally recommend ordering a marzipan hot chocolate, alongside! Also worth a quick visit is the top floor museum where you learn a little more about the history of marzipan in Lübeck and see twelve life-size statues made entirely of marzipan.

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Dinner in the Seafarer’s Guild

The Schiffergesellschaft is a modern restaurant offering both traditional German classics and newer dishes. The restaurant is proud of its history as part of the city’s historical shipping guild.

The Skt. Nicolaus Schiffergesellschaft (seafarers’ guild) established in 1401 was tasked with supporting those who worked in the shipping trade, and caring for their families. By the end of the thirteenth century there were multiple such guilds, including St. Anne, established in 1495. In 1530 these two guilds merged, forming a single professional body for Lübeck’s shipping industry. The new guild purchased the property across from St. Jacob’s church in 1535 and shortly thereafter, a new headquarters was built there. Over time the guild’s responsibilities expanded to include matters of navigation, taxes, mediation, guarding the harbour and more. All those working in shipping had to be members of the guild but in 1866 the compulsory nature of the guild was abolished and it lost many members and much-needed revenue. In order to counter some of its debt it leased an area of the building in which a restaurant was established. This lease assured the financial security of the guild and helped it to settle its debts. In 1933 the Schiffergesellschaft became a non-profit organisation and in the 1970s, extensive restoration of the building was carried out. Today the restaurant lease is operated by Engel & Höhne.

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The wood-panelled restaurant features wooden tables and ornately carved high-backed bench seating that divides the room into rows of diners. Hanging from the high ceiling are model ships, and lanterns and chandeliers throw a warm and welcoming light.

The menu offers a wide range of starters, fish and meat mains, and desserts.

After malty brown bread served with pig fat, my Roast Duck Lübsch – roasted duck served with gravy and a savoury-sweet stuffing of red cabbage, prunes and marzipan – was hearty and delicious, and desserts were indulgent.

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This isn’t the highest level of fine dining but it’s good, tasty food in an unusual setting and the extensive menu gives plenty of choice.

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I liked our table up on a raised platform by the front window which allowed us to look down into the main dining area; book this if you can.

I spent just over 24 hours in Lübeck and am keen to go back for a longer, more leisurely visit. Have you been? What sights, activities and restaurants do you recommend I check out on my next trip?

Kavey Eats visited Lübeck as a guest of Niederegger who organised transport, accommodation, a guided tour and our meals. We were also given an exclusive tour of their factory, not usually open to visitors.

 

Welland’s Farmers Market in Niagara-on-the-Lake is not nearly as vast as the mind-boggling markets I visited in Montreal and Quebec but it’s plenty big enough to offer a wide selection and is a wonderful place to buy local and regional produce. Fruits, vegetables, fresh meat and dairy, cheese, honey, charcuterie, baked goods and other food and drink products are all on offer, sold by friendly, helpful and knowledgeable vendors.

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Usually, I’d take my time and explore everything the market had to offer, but on the day of our visit I was focused on just one main ingredient – peaches!

Our hosts, chefs Anna and Michael Olson set us a challenge, giving us just 30 minutes of shopping time at the market and $15 Canadian dollars with which to buy our core ingredients to make either a sweet or savoury condiment back at Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute where Michael is a chef professor. (The Institute is incredible, by the way, not only is there an expansive professional cookery school, the college also boasts a teaching brewery, a commercial teaching winery and a full-service training restaurant. With onsite vineyards, hop yards, and organic gardens, students can also also focus on the agricultural production of ingredients if they wish.)

Over the previous several days (in Montreal, Quebec City and here in Niagara-on-the-Lake), I had admired basket upon basket of gorgeous ripe Ontario peaches at every market and fruit store I’d visited so I quickly decided to make a peach jam.

I raced around all the stalls selling peaches to compare the taste, ripeness and prices of the many varieties on offer – Baby Gold, Flaming Fury, P24, Pierre and Redstar. I decided on Flaming Fury from Tony’s stall after a tasting that clinched the deal.

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I had two ideas to try with my gorgeous Flaming Fury Ontario peaches – a peach and ice wine jam or a peach and honey one. In the end I decided to make both, using some ice wine kindly provided by Anna, and a locally produced honey I bought at the market. I chose a robustly flavoured buckwheat honey from Charlie bee that packed a proper punch of flavour.

We had a few challenges during our cook – an unexpected fire alarm and ensuing evacuation meant we all raced out (I stopped to turn off the stoves first) and it was a long wait (in the tasting area of the teaching brewery, plus a walk around one of the greenhouses) while the fire personnel checked the entire cooking school building before clearing us to go back in. On returning to our classroom we discovered that the gas had not yet been turned back on so had to made a quick switch to another, where we were able to use plug-in electric cookers to continue cooking our condiments!

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Flaming Fury Peach & Niagara Ice Wine Jam

This recipe can be scaled up or down to according to how much fruit you have

Ingredients
750 grams peeled, cored peaches, variety of your choice
500 grams caster sugar
125 ml ice wine of your choice, divided into 50 ml + 75 ml

Note: I used a locally-made Henry of Pelham Vidal ice wine (2010). You can use any ice wine of your choice, or substitute a different sweet liqueur or fortified wine.

Method

  • Chop the peaches, to roughly half inch sized pieces.
  • Place chopped peaches, sugar and 50 ml of the ice wine into a large, flat-bottomed pan and turn on the heat, at low to start until the sugar melts and the peaches start to release their juices, and then to medium-high.

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  • Use a jam thermometer to cook the jam until it reaches 104 °C (219 °F). Alternatively, you can assess for readiness by checking the set of the jam, but I find both the wrinkle test and spoon test more of a faff than using a thermometer.
  • The timing for cooking can vary enormously depending on how ripe the peaches are and how much sugar and water content they have. Keep an eye on the pan and stir regularly to stop the jam from catching.
  • Once you have reached 104 °C or have tested successfully for set, take the jam off the heat and allow to cool for a minute before stirring in the additional 75 ml of ice wine.

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  • Bottle hot into sterilised jars or serve warm over vanilla ice cream

To our surprise, after we finished cooking all our pans were set out for Anna, Michael and Anna’s right-hand helper Lisa to taste test, something they took quite seriously and which turned us all into nervous wrecks. To our relief, everything passed muster and we enjoyed the savoury creations with some local sausages, coleslaw and snacks before spooning my warm peach jam over vanilla ice cream for afters.

If you’d like to learn more about ice wine – how it’s made and some great wineries to visit – do check out my recent post on Enjoying Ice Wine in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Kavey Eats visited Ontario as a guest of Destinations Canada. With additional thanks to Anna and Michael Olson for being our hosts, and Diane Helinski for being our tour manager and guide.

 

I adore dessert wines. The syrupy liquid nectar is too sweet for some, but I truly love the intensity of flavour that the best dessert wines bring to the glass.

Some of my favourites are produced by noble rot, the action of Botrytis cinerea, a fungal mould that causes infected grapes to partially shrivel, raisin-like, on the vine. This concentrates the sugars, resulting in a delightfully sweet wine, though of course, far more grapes are required to produce a bottle than for regular wine. French Sauterne, Hungarian Tokaji and German and Austrian Beerenauslese are all made in this way.

But there is another method that produces similarly sweet results and that is ice wine. Here, the grapes are left on the vine until a cold snap freezes them – of course it’s mainly the water content that freezes, rather than the sugars and other solids within the grape. Pressing while still frozen means that only a small volume of sweet and concentrated juice is extracted, with the water left behind as ice. This is a tricky wine to produce since the vintner must hope for the right weather conditions to grow healthy grapes, and then for a suitable cold snap during which to harvest. Harvesting is usually done by hand, on the first morning it’s cold enough, and there’s a brief 6 hour window during which the entire harvest must be picked and pressed. For this reason, ice wine is not produced in great quantities, and there are only a few regions with the requisite climate to do so. Canada and Germany are the world’s largest producers; with the majority of Canada’s ice wine being produced in Ontario.

During my visit to the region last year, I enjoyed visits to a number of vineyards in the Niagara-on-the-Lake area. Of course, all these wineries produce regular red, white and rosé wines as well as their sweet ice wines, so they are well worth a visit even if ice wine is not for you.

 

Two Sisters Vineyard

Two Sisters Vineyard is the first one we visited, on a balmy early-autumn evening, the sun casting a golden blanket across the beautiful stonework of the vineyard, and the fields of vines surrounding it. We ate our dinner on the terrace, probably my favourite menu of the vineyard restaurants we visited. Kitchen 76 offers rustic Italian food at its best – superb fresh ingredients cooked and served simply but skillfully to bring out their inherent flavours.

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For starters, we shared pizzas, salads and charcuterie boards laden with locally made meats, cheeses and breads.

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For mains, superb pastas – the rabbit ragu pappardelle was a winner, plates of lamb chops with guanciale potatoes and a ribeye steak topped with a potato croquette that was to die for.

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Vineland Estates Winery

Three of us really arrived in style to our lunch at the Vineland Estates Winery, dropped off by the helicopter that had just given us spectacular aerial views of the Niagara Falls. (The rest of our party went by road, a beautiful drive in its own right).

Lunch was served on the outdoor terrace, a perfect spot in the gorgeous sunshine. Of course, there are plenty of tables inside, for when the weather is less amenable!

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From a wine perspective, this was hands-down the best meal for me; Vineland Estates produce not one but several different dessert wines, some made with late harvest grapes and some ice wines. I was served a flight of delicious sweet wines throughout my meal, switching between wine types, grape varieties and years of harvest. It was a wonderful opportunity to identify the flavour profiles of the grapes, not to mention the difference that weather makes, year on year.

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Food was again excellent. A very different style to Two Sisters, but very similarly focused on the superb quality local ingredients. I particularly enjoyed Chef Justin Downes’ home-cured charcuterie and home-made rillettes, patés, pickles and chutneys.

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These were followed by an incredible smoked tomato bisque, perfectly cooked beef top sirloin served with cauliflower puree, mustard jus and some blue haze blue cheese. After, a New York cheesecake with brandy-marinated necatines, blueberry gelato and crushed pstachios. Everything was stunningly plated and suitably delicious.

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The one I bought a bottle of was a delicious classic Vidal ice wine, 2014.

 

Inniskillin Winery

Inniskillin Winery was the only brand I was already familiar with, having come across it’s ice wine in the UK. Founded by Donald Ziraldo and Karl Kaiser back in 1975, the name comes from the Irish Regiment to which one Colonel Cooper belonged in the 1800s; Cooper was the previous owner of the farm where the vineyard was established.

Unlike the other wineries we visited, Inniskillin don’t have an onsite restaurant. But they did organise for chef Tim MacKiddie to cook us a multi-course meal to enjoy with their wines, served in one of the spacious private rooms at the winery.

Before and during dinner we were talked through the wines by the enthusiastic and hugely knowledgeable Sumie Yamakawa, Inniskillin’s Visitor Experience Manager.

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The wine that absolutely floored me here was the incredible sparkling Vidal ice wine, 2014 vintage, and this is the Inniskillin bottle I purchased to bring home. This is truly amazing, well worth a try if you can find it!

 

13th Street Winery

Located right next door to Whitty Farms (more of which in this recent post), 13th Street Winery is the vision of Doug and Karen Whitty and their friends John and June Mann, but the man behind the wines is Frenchman Jean Pierre Colas, formerly the head winemaker at the Domaine Laroche in Chablis for 10 years, during which time he produced many award-winning wines.

First into our glasses is a sparkling rosé blend of pinot noir and chardonnay plus a little gamay to add a deeper colour and more fruitiness to the flavour. The colour and sparkles are beguiling and the others in the group confirm, for those with less of a sweet tooth than mine, that it’s delicious.

During our tasting Jean Pierer explains that red gamay is the flagship wine of 13th Street, though of course, they produce other wines too. Having worked in Beaujolais as a student, gamay was a grape he knows how to handle and it grows well here in Niagara; “there is something unique in Ontario that allows us to produce crazy, beautiful, strong, charming gamays”. And gamay is also a wine that is made for food, as the pastry with basil, tomato and Grey Owl blue cheese helps us to confirm.

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13th Street are one of the only wineries in the area not producing ice wine. As Jean Pierre puts it, “we don’t have to be like everybody, we don’t have to do like everybody”. I ask him why and he quips that he has “no interest to pick grapes in the winter and to freeze my arse outside!”

After the gamay, we try 13 Below Zero, a sweet riesling with far less residual sugar than ice wine. With my super sweet tooth, they’re still too acidic for my liking, but are much-liked by the others in my group.

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The owners’ love of art is shared via a selection of modern pieces hung within the winery’s main building and displayed in the beautifully planted gardens just outside.

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Hopefully I’ve given you a taste of the Niagara-on-the-Lake region’s excellent wineries, and especially the ice wine that many of them produce.

It’s a perfect destination for a self-drive holiday, with plenty to see and do, many charming independent hotels and bed and breakfasts, and some truly world class eating and drinking to enjoy, both at the wineries themselves and in the area’s many top quality restaurants.

Kavey Eats visited Ontario as a guest of Destinations Canada. With additional thanks to Anna and Michael Olson for being our hosts, and Diane Helinski for being our tour manager and guide.

 

Do you know Niagara-on-the-Lake?

No? Well you can probably guess a couple of things about it at least – that it’s near Niagara Falls, and that it’s on the shores of a lake! That’s all I knew too, but last autumn I visited for myself, and discovered a lot more.

What I came away with, as well as an appreciation of the warmth of the local population and the beauty of the landscape, was some serious envy about the quality and variety of fresh produce grown here. Readily available directly from the farm, at farmers markets and in local stores, it’s put to fantastic use by local producers, restaurateurs and home chefs.

Inn the Pines Farmgate Shop

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Very much a farming community, many of the farms have a farmgate shop – exactly what it sounds like, a shop or stall from which farmers sell direct to their customers just yards from where the produce is grown.

We stopped at Inn the Pines in St. Catharines to admire their produce, watch happily squawking chickens enjoy freshly harvested corn on the cob, and chat to owners Cheryl and Barney Barnes – that’s Barney posing on the back of his pickup and feeding the chooks. As we learned a little about some of the produce they grow and sell to both restaurateurs and home cooks, an elderly couple arrived to buy corn by the barrow-load, deftly peeling away the husks which will no doubt be thrown onto a nearby compost heap and bemused by my request to take a photo.

There’s something rather special about buying produce direct from the farmers; one of the things I can’t help but envy, as a London-based city slicker.

Whitty Farms & 13th Street Bakery

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Whitty Farms is another local farm just outside  St. Catharines, and like Inn the Pines, has been handed down through the generations. Today, it’s the turn of Doug and Karen Whitty, and just like Inn the Pines, customers can buy direct from the farm.

But there’s another treat not to be missed alongside all the fresh produce and that’s the output of 13th Street Bakery. Their butter tart may be a contender for best in Niagara, if not all of Ontario or indeed the entirety of Canada; if anyone is looking for someone to do a more comprehensive survey, point me at the application form right now!

Butter Tarts are a much-loved treat across Canada and there’s hot debate on just what a good butter tart should (and shouldn’t) be. A basic butter tart has a filling of butter, sugar, syrup and egg baked in a flaky pastry casing, often with the addition of Canadian maple syrup. Purists eschew the addition of pecan nuts or raisins, let alone anything more exotic . It’s less clear cut whether ‘traditional’ allows for a firmer or softer filling but the ongoing argument is a good excuse to taste as many examples as possible.

The Whittys, with their friends John and June Mann also set up 13th Street Winery at the same site, more of which in an upcoming post.

Upper Canada Cheese Company

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Another favourite stop for me as a cheese addict, Upper Canada Cheese Company in Jordan Station is a small local creamery producing a range of cheeses from the milk of local Guernsey cows and goats.

We tried a selection including Niagara Gold, a semi-firm washed-rind based on traditional Loire Valley cheeses, Comfort Cream, a camembert-style soft bloomed rind cheese which is best when super ripe, the maple-smoked version of Jordan Station, another semi-firm cheese and Nanny Noir, a goats milk camembert-style cheese rolled in vegetable ash and allowed to ripen for four weeks. We also tried an experimental new blue cheese – great flavour but some more work needed on the texture.

This is everything you want of a cheese shop – great cheeses and very helpful staff happy to give tasters and help every customer find just the cheese (or cheeses) they need.

White Meadows Farms Maple Shop

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Maple syrup is produced across quite a swathe of Canada and I had already tasted and purchased a lot of it during the few days I spent in Montreal and Quebec, before heading down to Niagara. (So much, in fact, that my case was overweight and I had to post a box of goodies home to myself, thus instantly rendering my bargainous purchases into some of the most expensive maple syrup ever!)

But I was still keen as maple-mustard to visit White Meadows Farms and sample their four grades of maple syrup, and to taste their range of maple syrup products – sauces and mustards, vinegars and salad dressings,  maple sugar and maple butter (maple syrup boiled until it’s dry and whipped into a spreadable form, respectively), fruit and maple jams, and of course, traditional maple candies.

Maple syrup, made from sap collected from maple trees, is graded by colour into Light, Medium, Amber and Dark. Canadian maple syrup must be 100% maple sap, and the finished product must have a sugar level of 66%, achieved by boiling natural sap to evaporate the water content which thickens the consistency and concentrates the sugars. The boiled syrup is then filtered before being packaged for sale. The colour is governed by the sap, with early season sap usually producing the lightest finished syrup. Dark is harder to find, as it’s produced right at the end of the season when the sap is at its richest and the strong flavour is not to everyone’s taste.

Dark proved to my favourite, and I bought a few bottles to bring home.

Welland Farmers’ Market

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Wellands Farmers’ Market is not as huge as the amazing markets I visited in Montreal and Quebec but it’s the perfect place to buy local produce, and there’s a great selection. However, I was focused on just one main ingredient, after our hosts chefs Anna and Michael Olson set us a cooking challenge! More on that cooking experience in an upcoming post…

The best thing about the market, aside from the top quality produce itself, were the very friendly stall holders, keen to tell us about their goods and to welcome us to their town.

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The market consists of two main buildings dating from 1919, and some outdoor marquees as well. Alongside fruits and vegetables you can find fresh meat and eggs, charcuterie, local honeys, fresh baked goods, cheese, chocolates, flowers and wine.

Kavey Eats visited Ontario as a guest of Destinations Canada. With additional thanks to Anna and Michael Olson for being our hosts, and Diane Helinski for being our tour manager and guide.

 

One of my earliest childhood memories is of a visit to Niagara Falls when I was four years old. Everyone donned waterproof ponchos before we walked through the tunnels to view the falls from behind the water. This memory, oddly, is so much stronger than the fragments of looking down on the falls from the viewpoints, though there are snatches of that too.

There are certainly other waterfalls around the world that are impressive. I remember a later childhood visit to Iguaza Falls in South America (forever associated in my mind with nearby Itaipu Dam, which had our childish minds giggling at the idea of eating a poo). A decade later, Pete and I clambered up Jamaica’s Dunn’s River Falls on our honeymoon and more recently we made our way to many beautiful examples around Iceland.

But few are as iconic as Niagara Falls, which has been attracting travellers and tourists for centuries; tourism becoming the area’s main industry by the 1750s.

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The Falls (of which there are three) sit about halfway along the Niagara River, a short waterway of just 36 miles which connects Lake Erie in the South to Lake Ontario in the North. The falls straddle the border between Canada and the United States and tourists visit from both sides, though I’d say the views are most spectacular from the Canadian side.

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The largest Niagara Fall is Horsehoe Falls, American Falls is next and Bridal Veil Falls is the smallest. The falls were formed at the end of the last ice age, when glaciers melted and waters from the newly formed lakes carved a way through the landscape, as they flowed North Eastwards to the Atlantic Ocean.

The best known attraction must surely be taking a boat ride into the heart of the gorge to view the falls up close.

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From the American side, tours are run by Maid of the Mist, on boats of the same name. The original Maid of the Mist, launched in 1846, was actually a steamer designed for a passenger service between New York and present-day Toronto, with stops in Niagara on route. However, the ferry business was no longer profitable once the first Niagara Falls bridge was built, and the boat quickly became a tourist attraction instead.

Tours from the Canadian side are operated by Niagara Cruises on its Hornblower boats.

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Ponchos are definitely advisable for the 20 minute trip which first swings by American Falls before taking passengers right into the plumes of spray that reach skywards from the Horseshoe Falls. If you don’t mind getting wet, head for the upper decks and stake out a spot by the handrail. The view is equally impressive from the lower decks, but also (a little) dryer! To me, this is the quintessential Niagara Falls experience; not to be missed! Current ticket price is CAN$19.95 per adult.

Here’s a short video clip, starting at American Falls before panning around to Horsehoe Falls.

Another wonderful way to see the falls is by helicopter; soaring above the falls for a bird’s eye view was one of the highlights of my trip. Niagara Helicopters’ Classic Tour lasts 12 minutes, though that includes boarding time, so your time over the falls is a little less. The pilot makes sure to do a few figure eights to ensure that all passengers have a good view from different angles. The views are wonderful! Current price is CAN$140 per adult.

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View my short video clip of our helicopter journey over the falls here.

Kavey Eats visited Ontario as a guest of Destinations Canada. A big thanks to Niagara Cruises and Niagara Helicopters for making our day at the Falls so special.

 

When I was a child back in the Seventies, the only terms I knew for the aboriginal peoples of North America were Red Indians and Native Americans. As a child, I understood that the former was considered offensive, a relic clinging to the clichéd coattails of Hollywood Westerns. It also surprised me that early European travellers had confused the indigenous people of the North America continent with my own ancestors in India, or indeed with any of the various distinct peoples of East Asia. After all, their appearance and behaviour were completely different, each tribe with its own rich history, culture and traditions.

As a member of a minority ethnic group myself – albeit a large one – I was keen to give others the respect of addressing them as they preferred, rather than use terms associated with exploitation, marginalisation, derogation and prejudice. Of course, it’s never that simple – I’ve since discovered that there are some who still choose to identify as American Indians while others use Native American and others who ask for their tribal identity to be used, rather than a generic term that groups all tribes together.

The best way of finding out how someone prefers to be labelled, if such a label is even relevant to the conversation, is to ask them!

The reason it became relevant for me recently was my desire to find out more about the food of Canada’s indigenous peoples during my recent trip.

Until I started researching the trip, I didn’t realise the term Native American is not commonly used in Canada, indeed it’s pretty much only used in the United States.

In Canada, the collective term for the country’s indigenous peoples is First Nations, with an individual referred to as a First Nations person, man or woman. Generally this covers all the nations except the Inuit of the Arctic regions and the Métis, a formally recognised cultural group that was born of mixed-race unions between First Nations people and Europeans and between those of different First Nations.

Just as Native Americans has (somewhat) replaced American Indians in the United States, so First Nations has replaced Indian bands in Canada. There are more than 850,000 Canadians who are officially recognised as First Nations people on Canada’s Indians Register. As well as protection from discrimination (under the Employment Equity Act), Indian status also confers a range of additional benefits including property rights and tax exemptions related to Reserve lands, carefully controlled traditional hunting rights and access to a range of social programmes.

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Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, artwork in the museum and hotel lobbies

For those interested in learning more, Tourisme Wendake operates the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations in Wendake, less than half an hour’s drive from Quebec City. Established in 2006 by the Council of the Huron-Wendat Nation, Tourisme Wendake is a non-profit organisation created to promote aboriginal culture and tourism. Their website is a mess – the navigation will make you weep; I recommend navigating directly from the Sitemap.

Visiting in person, however, is a pleasure and the site is a Must-See for anyone seeking an insight into First Nations history and culture.

At the heart of the museum and hotel complex, located on the banks of the Akiawenrahk river, is the Huron-Wendat Museum. Named for the Wendat people – also known as Huron and Wyandot – the museum opened in 2008 with the aim of protecting and promoting the nation’s heritage through permanent and temporary exhibits, activities and workshops. The museum also serves as a gateway for visitors keen to explore Wendake’s numerous heritage sites.

The complex is decorated with traditional and modern arts and crafts created by artists from many of Canada’s First Nations; indeed some of these items are available to purchase from the onsite shop.

I am shown around the museum, hotel and longhouse by Jason Picard-Binet, Marketing and Tourism Development Coordinator for Tourisme Wendake. Jason is part of the Huron-Wendat nation and takes enormous pride in sharing his culture with visitors. Indeed he says that many of the staff working in the complex are First Nations people.

As we stand in the entrance lobby to the museum, Jason points out colourful paintings on floor and ceiling, and tells me the story they represent. The creationist saga of the Huron-Wendat people relates how Aataentsic was banished from the sky world for breaking the rules. As she fell through the sky towards the world of water below, the water birds flew up to help her and gently held her above the water with their wings. As they tired, Great Turtle arrived to relieve them and held her on his back instead. Toad arrived, and dived into the water to retrieve earth from the ocean bed, giving it to Aataentsic to sprinkle over Great Turtle’s back. Soon after, Aataentsic gave birth to twin sons and they created all the elements of the earth and sky. Where one created light and human life, the other created darkness and destruction. The twins fought, and when the good brother won, the other was banished into the underworld where he remains.

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Chef Martin Gagné, La Traite Restaurant, some of the dishes served during my Autumn visit

One of my key interests is to find out more about First Nation cuisine, including some of the unique ingredients traditionally farmed and foraged from the local landscape.

Jason introduces me to Martin Gagné, the Executive Chef at Restaurant La Traite, an elegant restaurant at the museum-hotel. In summer months, tables on the peaceful outdoor terrace are particularly sough-after.

We sit down for a chat over tea. Martin offers me a choice of teas and infusions, highlighting those made with herbs and berries that have long been a part of the First Nations diet. Arctic Blend features juniper and other local berries and herbs. Cloudberry and crowberry teas are both fruit infusions. I follow Martin’s lead and choose Labrador tea, an infusion of a flowering plant in the Rhododendron genus which has a refreshing, mildly minty and rosemary-like flavour. Some of the traditional First Nations ingredients are becoming more popular of late, says Martin. Labrador tea is one such ingredient; traditionally used to cure headaches, to relax and to help mothers through childbirth, it is now being investigated by Western Pharma and has tripled in price in the last few years.

Although Martin is not registered Indian, he is part Algonquin and has always had an interest in First Nations culture. I ask him how he came to work at the Huron-Wendat Museum and Hotel.

After studying catering Martin worked at a number of prestigious restaurants, eventually taking up the head chef position at Manoir St-Castin, not far from Quebec City. It was here that he became more inspired by First Nations food traditions, and began to incorporate them more regularly into his cooking. Indeed it was during a visit to Wendake to purchase a teepee in which to host events at Manoir St-Castin that he first met the Grand Chief of the Huron-Wendat nation. Later that year, he was invited to cook at the community’s Harvest Festival. There, the Grand Chief told him of the nation’s plans to set up a new museum and asked Martin to head up the restaurant.

Other First Nations restaurants in the area tend to serve traditional First Nations food, but Martin wanted to take things further – to take the traditional and bring it up to date. At La Traite, he uses local products to create a modern, nature-focused menu with strong influence from First Nations traditions, but not bound by them. The cooking is informed by his classical French training, the wider Canadian-Quebecois food culture and some international references. These he skilfully fuses with a larder of wild game, seafood and many vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices foraged from boreal forests that still cover much of Canada. It is a celebration of the abundance of nature, seasonality and the ethos of sustainability.

As much of the restaurant’s customer base is repeat diners and corporate clientele, Martin is keen to offer a menu that not only changes seasonally but introduces diners to new ideas and dishes each time they visit. Alongside traditional game meats of the region, he also assimilates ingredients and ideas from aboriginal traditions elsewhere in the world – hence the menu has also seen dishes using Australian kangaroo and Mayan shrimps (from modern day Belize) over the years.

When it comes to adding flavour, Martin uses herbs and spices favoured by First Nations cooking to complement his main ingredients, but often looks to use them in new ways. Gathered when in season, some are are dried and preserved for use throughout the year.

We want our customers to discover new flavours in our forest’, he says, ‘but we also want to show them that with our local products, we can produce similar tastes as the spices of the Orient’.

Dune pepper (poivre des dunes), for example – the small buds from the green alder tree – is traditionally used with game meat such as buffalo; Martin describes its aroma as the perfume of the forest, adding that it has a peppery flavour but not the heat of peppercorns; it is good in a creamy sauce, much as one might use peppercorns.

Balsam fir (sapin baumier) is similar to pine; Martin uses it to smoke fish, imbuing the fish with a citrusy woodland flavour.

Coltsfoot (tussilage) flowers are found all over Quebec and traditionally used in medicinal infusions; with a flavour resminiscent of chamomile, Martin likes to pair them with fresh fish.

Myrical gale (myrique baumier) is also known as bog-myrtle, sweetgale and royal piment (pepper); the leaves and buds have a nutmeg-like aroma and taste and can be used in similar recipes.

Horsetail (prêle des champs), also called sweet grass, is a sacred medicinal plant for the Nation and has a very particular scent. Martin grinds it to make a marinade for prawns.

There are over forty such herbs and spices in Martin’s kitchen, each of which brings a unique flavour to his cooking.

As restaurant service starts, Martin heads back to the kitchen and Jason and I take a table in the restaurant, to enjoy some of the flavours I’ve recently learned about.

With traditional bannock cornbread rolls, we have a refreshing ‘rhubarb water’ – I’m not usually a fan of rhubarb but the perfect balance between sweet and sharp, and the gentle flavour, is delightful. Our first course is a traditional Sagamité Soup featuring the three sisters, red beans, squash and corn, in an elk broth – the ingredients are so known because of the way they are traditionally grown together – the tall stalks of the corn provide a frame for the beans to climb, and these in turn provide shade to the squash plants growing beneath; an early and enduring example of companion planting.

Next comes a beautiful tasting board with several perfectly-presented little dishes including smoked salmon, lemon ‘caviar’, salicornia (a beach or marsh-growing succulent) and capers; foie gras with a spiced apple butter; a fresh vegetable salad; venison with parmesan and cheddar cheeses, confit onion and wild blueberry jam; crab rillettes with sweet peppers and gherkins and a smoked L’Algonquin Cheese, grilled with pear.

To finish, we enjoy fresh fruit with maple syrup mousse and maple syrup – of course the First Nations people harvested and used sap from the maple tree long before the Europeans arrived in North America!

As I’d hoped, the cooking is accomplished and delicious; the way Martin and his kitchen team weave together ingredients, techniques and dishes I already know with those I’ve not previously encountered is a special experience indeed.

I’m reminded that there are many such ingredients available in Europe – foraged for centuries, perhaps even millenia, but somehow forgotten by modern cooking, yet readily available in our local woodlands, verges and untended grounds. First Nations food is above all about that link to the local environment, and making best use of the produce it offers; surely a good lesson to take home.

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The Ekionkiestha’ longhouse at Huron-Wendat

After lunch, Jason shows me more of the site.

The main hotel is within the same complex of buildings as the museum and rooms are gorgeous. Spacious, attractive, decorated with traditional and modern First Nation art and crafts, they are really delightful and of course, staying one or more nights gives you more time to learn about the First Nations as whole and the Huron-Wendat nation in particular. It’s also a great base for outdoor activities in the region such as hiking, boating, fishing and more.

Just outside the hotel and museum buildings is the traditionally constructed Ekionkiestha’ longhouse. Here, guests can learn traditional First Nation myths and legends over a cup of Labrador tea and some bannock bread. Guides are also available to teach interested visitors about First Nation cooking, hunting and craft-making. For a more immersive experience, guests can book to spend a night in the longhouse, under the supervision of the firekeeper.

My visit this time is too short to stay overnight. I’d like very much to come back and spend longer next time, learning more about Huron-Wendat culture and traditions.

 

Kavey Eats visited Wendake courtesy of Destination Canada, with the assistance of Tourisme Quebec. Huge thanks to Jason and Martin for their time and all that they taught me.

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