CALGARY. You may know it as the gateway to the Canadian Rockies and home to that annual celebration of cowboy culture called the Stampede. But this city of 1.2 million outgrew those boots a long time ago.
While the pull of the mountains is as strong as it ever was and the pancake breakfasts still proliferate in July (though they might be called a ‘PhoDown’ or an ‘Agahan’ — or offer halal meat instead of bacon), Calgary’s emerging East Village development has shone a spotlight on the riverfront and energized the city core. The New Central Library promises to be an architectural icon when it opens in 2018 and the stunning National Music Centre has proved since its 2016 opening to be a crucible of creativity for musicians of every flavour. Few other cities offer such a collaborative environment, say visiting musical artists. Visiting chefs say likewise.
You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that Calgary is a great food town. It’s kind of a well-kept secret.
Except to those who’ve been paying attention.
Case in point: Who was the Gold Medal Winner of the Canadian Culinary Championships in 2017? It was Calgary’s Jinhee Lee, Executive Chef for Foreign Concept restaurant (itself named Calgary’s Top New Restaurant in 2016 by CBC food critic and Calgary Herald columnist, John Gilchrist, and one of the top restaurants in the country in 2017 according to Canada’s 100 Best).
And who was the first woman to win the Food Network’s Top Chef Canada — doing it the hard way in the 2017 All-Stars competition? You’re correct if you said Calgary’s Nicole Gomes, chef-owner of Nicole Gourmet catering and Cluck N Cleaver (one of the Globe and Mail’s Top New Calgary Restaurants 2016).
Add headliners like Rouge, Deane House, Charcut, and The Nash, and perennial A-Listers on Canada’s Top 100 — like Pigeonhole, River Cafe, Anju, and Model Milk — and you know the time is ripe for delving into Calgary’s food culture.
Enter Calgary Food Tours — who’ve been trying to tell the world for more than a decade that the city’s had a good thing going. Founded in 2006 by food writer, award-winning cookbook author, and CBC Radio columnist, Karen Anderson, Calgary Food Tours offers an insider’s view to some of the city’s most interesting culinary neighbourhoods.
Take Kensington, for instance. Never as poor as its Toronto namesake was nor as affluent as the London original, Calgary’s version was built in the early 1900s as the city’s first suburb. It wears its decades-long attempts at gentrification like an ill-fitting suit — an evolutionary state that makes for surprises, sometimes urbane and sometimes dowdy.
Anderson is known for the strong relationships she has with chefs and shop owners who feature in her walking tours, and her Craving Kensington tour is no exception. It shows in the time and attention that each is willing to spend with tour guests.
At family-owned Pulcinella restaurant where the tasting begins, the very charming Savino has been teaching Anderson Italian. He’s the genial host for our charcuterie tasting and a generous pourer of Isonzo Sauvignon Blanc and award-winning Alpha Zeta V Valpolicella. But the feature attraction is the line-up of authentic Neapolitan pizza, which we tear and fold in traditional style. Pulicinella’s Chef Domenic Tudda was the first in Canada to receive and maintain the strict certification of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani that stipulates the origin of ingredients, the preparation process, and the precise temperature of the tiled pizza oven that dominates the room.
Next up is The Naked Leaf tea shop, tucked into the bottom of a former Masonic Lodge built in 1926. Here, former professional dancer, lifetime tea-drinker and owner Jonathan Kane pours us cups of cold-brewed Cinnamon Rooibos and Chai-Mint Green tea while he outlines the deep connections that tea has held historically for cultures around the globe. We nibble samples, too, of tea-infused chocolate — a sweet collaboration between Kane and an instructor at nearby SAIT Culinary School — while we browse the selection of loose teas, teaware, and tins featuring the work of local artists.
Further down the street, we slip into the tasting room of Kensington Wine Market, one of the first independent liquor stores to emerge in Calgary when the Alberta government privatized liquor sales in 1993. In addition to the usual array of products, the shop sources items for which it can be the exclusive Calgary provider. Each of our heady tastings is presented by a different store expert: the wine gal pouring a glass of Bernard Fouquet Vouvray from the Loire Valley; the beer dude, an 8-Wired Semi-Conductor Sessional IPA from New Zealand; the scotch guy, a 24-year-old small-batch single malt from Cadenhead.
Right next door is Peasant Cheese Shop, where chef-turned-cheese-whiz Crystal McKenzie sells everything needed for an elegant charcuterie platter, including scores of cheeses, terrines and olive varieties from the cold case, plus shelves of locally-sourced and choice (read: French) imported products. For our tasting pleasure, McKenzie prepares slices of Haloumi cheese sautéed in olive oil and drizzled with house-made salsa verde, and fingers of ash-laced Morbier sided with Sweetie Drop peppers from the highlands of Peru.
Our next host is Cam Dobranski, chef-owner of Brasserie Kensington, the WineBar Kensington downstairs, and the (shipping) Container Bar that sits in the adjacent alley. Formally-trained in both Alberta and Switzerland, Dobranski is a self-described “freestyle” chef with an underground edge to his rustic-classical cuisine — a perfect match for the neighbourhood. He’s also co-creator of the indie-style Medium Rare Chef Apparel worn by contestants on Top Chef Canada. Under a sombrero-wearing wild boar head, we sample the brasserie’s house poutine, made of Kennebec potatoes, duck-confit gravy, and local cheese curds, perfectly-paired with Show Pony Pale Ale by local craft brewer, Last Best.
An ideal food tour ends with dessert — and for this we head to Crave, popular Calgary purveyor of cupcakes and cookies. Coming from a family of home-bakers in nearby High River, sisters Carolyne McIntyre Jackson and Jodi Willoughby hit the scene at the leading edge of the cupcake craze and have persisted beyond it, due largely to the handcrafted techniques and high quality ingredients used in their bakeries (think hand-cracked eggs and fresh butter and cream). We run a gauntlet of envious eyes from the customer queue as we make our way to the kitchen, where we ice (and eat) our own feather-light cupcakes.
We end our tour where we began — at Kensington Riverside Inn, Calgary’s first Relais & Chateaux-designated property. Under the R&C banner of local authenticity and exceptional food, this art-filled boutique hotel offers Canadian cuisine just a stone’s throw from the crimson Calatrava-designed Peace Bridge — and free bicycles with which to explore the riverside pathways. Our parting gift is a package of the inn’s housemade granola, something by which to remember our slice of Calgary’s inventive food culture — with nary a pancake in sight.
CATHERINE VAN BRUNSCHOT is a Calgary-based writer who contributes regularly to TASTE & TRAVEL – and is an incorrigible fan of Stampede Breakfasts. Read why at www.catherinevanbrunschot.com