Wild Strawberries

Under the High Chair Travels: Northern British Columbia

My first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains from my seat at 35,000 feet always evokes deep emotion. It’s a feeling of renewed wonder, childlike excitement, and a sense of homecoming so strong I have to duck my head to hide my tears. This quickening of my pulse and butterflies in my stomach almost make up for the last five hours of Noah using my face as a motorcross course, my thighs as a trampoline, and my clothes as sponges for juice. It’s been a long flight and I am returning to my hometown in Northern British Columbia.

The Bulkley Valley is nestled between three major mountain ranges, has several rivers that divide the rolling farmland, and boasts clear blue, glacial-fed lakes. I could write a whole travel brochure on how picturesque it is and still never do it justice; however, I have traveled a lot and declare this some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever known.

My parents property is a magical, overgrown 23 acres tucked under the shadow of a huge mountain and near a private lake. The setting effortlessly encourages a reversion back to childhood; for who wants to do grown-up things when one can chase ducks, climb trees, catch minnows, gather flowers and pick berries?

Ah, the berries.

I had barely dropped my suitcase on the front porch before I was out in the hillsides, on hands and knees, picking wild strawberries. They were everywhere and they were big. The first taste brought back so many memories of being a little girl, when I would pick handful after handful and eat them all myself, my hands stained with the juice.

Wild strawberries can hardly be compared with domestic. They are intensely sweet, powerfully fragrant and so juicy it requires a delicate hand to gather them. They are probably among my top five favorite things to eat ever, and it’s rare that I get a chance to eat a whole bowl of them.

So I had two.

There was even enough left over for Noah’s cereal in the morning. How decadent!

We’re off to a great start here in beautiful B.C.

UtHC Travels: New York City

Our second attempt at a weekend getaway in New York City fared much better than our failed first attempt. Even up to the last minute, I didn’t get my hopes up and had resigned myself to the fact that anything could still interrupt our plans; but nothing did and I breather a sigh of relief when we finally arrived and I found myself sipping a Starbucks latte and being whisked up Central Park West in a taxi.

I found New York somewhat changed since my last visit in 2002. Could it be that New Yorkers are friendlier? We seemed to encounter people who were helpful, polite, and friendly at every turn. They seemed to have slowed down their pace a little too, it didn’t seem as frenzied, and maybe it’s just me, but are their families with young children everywhere? Maybe I was just missing Noah already.

One could spend a year in New York and still not have eaten at all its great restaurants. I decided to visit as few of the low-budget headliners and keep my fine dining fund for Montreal. I selected a few places based partly on word-of-mouth recommendations, partly from reviews on egullet, and partly–call me silly–because I wanted a bagel from the same place Meg Ryan ate one in “You’ve got Mail”.
They are among the most popular of New York eateries, but one must start somewhere and I had to see what all the fuss was about! H&H Bagels

What a better way to fuel yourselves for a trip through the Metropolitan Museum of Art that a few bagels from this famous Upper West Side bagel shop. I tried to sample these bagels with an open mind and a conscience attempt to avoid the whole Montreal bagels versus New York bagel debate…but you, my readers, deserve to know the truth.
I know Yew Yorkers love their bagels and are fiercely loyal to them, but man, they don’t know what they are missing: ours are way, way better.
NY bagels reminded me of the ones I can buy in the bins at the grocery store, except they were fresh from the oven so they tasted a bit better. They were smooth as a baby’s bottom, sweet, soft-yet dense, and really, really big. Each bite seemed to stick halfway down my throat and when the entire thing finally did make way into my stomach, it set up shop. I started having mild cramping within half an hour and it felt like there was still a whole lot of yeast action going on down there. Now, I like to think I have a fairly strong stomach and healthy digestive system, but these bagels almost did me in. I didn’t pass anything for two days and that’s all I am going to say about that.


I love poking around gourmet grocery stores, but this time the people watching was almost more interesting than the label reading and cheese tasting. I felt very conscious that I was in the middle of the Upper West Side and I minded my manners. We had no problem selecting a number of delicacies for our picnic lunch in Central Park; we thought the prices were very reasonable, and the place utterly charming. I didn’t dare venture upstairs to the kitchenware department for fear of being tempted, but if you’re in the area and need to pick up a pepper mill or some flatware, be sure to check it out. Katz’s Delicatessen

Think Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal with almost as much seating as an average food court and about as much atmosphere. After being given a ticket at the door, we were required to stand in three different lines to get our food: one for pastrami on rye, one for fries, and one for drinks. Oh, and there’s another line to pay when you are finished, as well. I don’t think one can compare Montreal smoked meat to New York pastrami and so I won’t. I believe our smoked meat is brined, which is why we found the pastrami to be dryer than we are used to…and almost chewy. It is cut much thicker as well, but we still enjoyed it and the whole experience. The staff was jovial and efficient, the crowds were colorful, and the fries were as thick as my thumb and piping hot. What can I say? We loved it for what it was: New York’s oldest deli, still swinging and slicing. Sugar Sweet Sunshine

We tried two cupcakes at this casual, open kitchen, Lower East Side bakery: Lemon and Chocolate Almond. Very reasonably priced at $1.50, we had no problem agreeing that it was money well spent. While they were not the best I’ve had, the owners can certainly be proud that they are offering a product that tastes homemade and can compete with the best of New York’s cupcakes.

Lombardi’s Pizza

Apparently one of the oldest eateries in the city, their banner outside the restaurant boasts “best on the planet” and I won’t challenge that. It was certainly some of the best I have ever had. You can keep your deep dish, stuffed crust, extra toppings pizza, I like it thin and thin it was. We ordered the simplest kind, Margarita, a favorite of mine, consisting only of tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, fresh tomatoes, and pecorino cheese. I had no complaints! Pizzas are fired in an original coal oven, giving the crust a wonderful smoky, slightly charred flavor. Service was speedy and prices very reasonable. Little Italy may be shrinking, but they can be proud of this place.

In visiting these places, we barely scratch the surface of all there is to eat in New York City. I hope to return and sample some more soon!

Flashback: Okanagan Valley, 2006

When we started our decent along the switchbacks from high in the Cascade Mountains down into the Okanagan Valley, all we knew was that we were headed for a town between two lakes at the heart of British Columbia’s wine country, and to the home of our friends who lived in this place called Pentiction. We weren’t expecting to gape in awe at the scenery, as we drove our rented Montana along a breathtaking wine route that wound around the lake, providing beautiful views of vineyards co-existing along the sloping hills and growing nearly right down to the shimmering, clear waters of Okanagan Lake.
In short, we never expected to fall in love with this bewitching place.

Located about five hours east of Vancouver, the Okanagan Valley stretches over 100 kilometers with Okanagan Lake at it’s center. This is Canada’s warmest region and one of it’s premiere wine appellation, thanks to the many unique micro climates and soil types in the various pockets of the valley. One could say that this area is experiencing a boom as in the past five years the number of wineries has doubled in size bringing to total up to 132. We decided that was enough to keep us happy doing wine tours for an entire summer. Unfortunately we had to settle for considerably less than that during our two day stay.

Our cheery, enthusiastic hosts Cameron and Dana were more that happy to give us the tour around the valley where they have settled and set up their business, Joy Road Catering.
Two of the best chefs I know, we’ve kept in touch over the years since working together a few years ago at Toqué!

After a swim in the lake to cool us down, our friends got on their cell phone and called their contacts to let them know that they were on their way with some food and wine lovers in tow! We were in for a rare treat: a gourmet excursion along the captivating benchland known as Naramata with our own personal guides.

Danny and Noah enjoying the river-fed Okanagan lake with it’s mountain views and sandy beaches.

Although wineries are predominant in the valley, plenty of orchards and produce farms take advantage of the rich terrain. The air is heavy with the scent of ripe apricots and roadside stands showcase the best of what the valley has to offer: peaches, pears, plums, apricots, cherries, and apples. This is fresh fruit at its finest, bursting with flavor and warm from the lazy suns rays.

Our van lurched along a winding driveway alongside a cherry grove and we tumbled out at Claybank Lavender Farm. We walked down a sloping hillside overlooking the lake (everything overlooks the lake here!) and into fields and fields of ripe purple lavender. Absolutely magical.

Dana’s friend Pati runs this second-generation lavender farm and makes her own one-of-a-kind luxurious products for body and home. She was as pleasant as can be and invited us to pick cherries from her trees, which we were hoping she would, and gave me a bundle of fresh lavender that scented my suitcase all the way home.

Fresh cherries are amazing and all, but we were getting hungry and eager to sample some wine. So while Noah succumbed to the warm sun and dozed in his stroller, we did a wine and cheese tasting at Poplar Grove Winery. This establishment produces four different kinds of absolutely stellar cheese that are sold on site and various local markets. Also, from what I have read, many of BC’s fine dining restaurants are featuring Poplar Grove cheese on their menus. Their wines weren’t bad either. Miranda picked up a bottle to bring home to her boyfriend, but to be kind, let’s just say he was M.I.A. when she returned home to Montreal and she drank it herself.
He didn’t deserve it anyway.

View from Poplar Grove Winery

Next up was Elephant Island Orchard Wines, who’s driveway carved through dense orchards scattered with Quebecers busy harvesting the fruit. (OK, maybe there weren’t all from Quebec, but the word is that the majority of fruit pickers in the summer come from Quebec!) Here we found no elephant and no island, but a tantalizing selection of fruit wines: raspberry, apricot, crabapple, black currant, cherry, pear…Just reading the wine list made my mouth water. We sat in their shady garden and sample five or six. We left with a case.
This sun was sitting low in the hills as we dropped in to visit Heidi Noble at Joie Farm Cooking School and Winery.

View of Joie’s outdoor kitchen

Haidi and her partner, Micheal Dinn, seem to lead a pretty idyllic life, at least one that I would covet. Hmm, let me see, own a small winery, a few orchards, a modest cooking school run out of a top of the line outdoor kitchen, and in the winter months, work on a cookbook. It was a pleasure to meet the vibrant Heidi, and we realized we had more than one thing in common: we both held the same position at Toqué, but she was there several years before I. Small world. They showed us around their charming farm and we picked ripe peaches as large as grapefruits from their trees. Look for their cookbook, Menus from an Orchard Table, coming in May. The word is out that both of our friends, Cameron and Dana, are featured in it.

Soon afterward, following a quick stop for coffee’s, we said our goodbyes, thanked our splendid hosts and hit the highway toward Vancouver, where we would catch our flight home. The van was oddly quite as we watched the beauty of the Okanagan Valley fade away as the miles passed under our wheels. Soon the fast food joints started popping up on the sides of the road and we began to see all the usual signs of the approaching sprawl of suburbia.
We had experienced a rare side of Canada’s natural splendor and it was going to be hard to get back to normal everyday life.
We had had a glimpse of a world where a peach tastes so good, it’s the best thing to happen to you all day-and you’re having a great day. A place where people care about their environment, get to know their neighbors, take pride in their land, and live life to it’s fullest.

The fragrance of lavender perfumed our Montana, reminding us of where we had been.
As if I would ever forget.

Flashback: Thailand, 1999

Koh Phan Ghan, Thailand. Eight years ago

We’re looking for the perfect restaurant. Darkness has fallen by now. Here, halfway around the word from home, and closer to the celestial equator than I have ever been, I search the sky for familiar patterns in the stars. I don’t find any. A group of us walk along a muddy road, following the lights of the guesthouses and bars that line the beach for miles. It’s been three days of nonstop rain on this island and no boats can get in or out. I exasperatedly wrote in my journal this morning: “72 hours of solid torrential rain. Ok, I’m impressed. Can you stop now?” With nothing to do but sit in our guesthouse restaurant, watching the rain carve channels in the sand, we’ve formed friendships with the good folk we are now stepping out with. Since we’ve tried everything on our menu, it’s time to venture out in search of something new, and tonight’s break in the rain is the perfect chance. A giant mud puddle yawns in the road before us and I can’t even make out the other end in the darkness. Joe offers me a piggy back ride and I accept, since my brother Josh has already veered off into the jungle and is bush-whacking his way around the puddle. That’s ok. We’re only two weeks into our three month backpacking trip together and I can tell I am going to have to look out for myself. Joe is a tall, tanned Kiwi who’s been traveling for months with his girlfriend, Andrea. They’re giving New Zealanders a good reputation with their easygoingness, big smiles and charming accents. We met up with them a week ago in Bangkok and have been having a blast touring temples, snorkeling, watching Thai boxing and eating out together. Two British blokes make up our party of six: Churchy and Snaksy. I don’t think I know their real names-or their relationship to each other, for that matter. Both are thirty something’s, always ready with a joke for the occasion, and speak what I imagine to be Cockney. Snakesy, the short one, never takes off his cutoff jean shorts, rain or shine, swimming or sunning, and perpetually has a fag lit. Churchy, the tall one, seems to be the more educated of the two and likes to rag on Snakesy. From three different countries-different continents for that matter-we are united by a love of good food and that is our quest tonight as we stop and peruse a menu posted in a bamboo case on the side of the road. Down a windy path, the lights of the restaurant beckon and I can smell ripe pineapple. “Nope, not this one” I declare, after a quick look at the menu. “Look, they have hamburgers and Wiener Schnitzel”. Obviously the place couldn’t be authentic Thai if it is catering to the tourists so blatantly.

We pass pub after pub, place after place and we’re starting to get hungry. There’s the unspoken feeling that this is our last night together and we’ve become better friends than we thought we would. Tomorrow the weather will be calm, the ferries will be able to cross from the mainland and we will be off, each to our different destinations. This meal had to be memorable. A feast. We would order Som Tam (green papaya salad), Chicken with Red Curry, Pork Satay with Peanut Sauce, Fried Rice with Veggies and Cashews, Coconut Curry Shrimp with Thai Basil, Fish Soup with Vermicelli and Sweet Potatoes, Curry Prawns with stir-fried Baby Corn and Lime, and mounds of sticky rice. Finally, just as certain members are starting to mumble about “buggerin’ off” under their breath, I see it. The perfect place. A large thatched roof bungalow rimmed with swinging lanterns. Guests seated outside, at low tables that are scattered amid the trees on the shoreline where the willows meet the sand.. The sign says it all: “ The Nice Place for Your Nice Time”. The menu sends shivers up my spine and I announce that this is IT. No one argues. I think they are all to hungry. What time is it anyway? Nearly eleven. Wow. No wonder we’re starving; we’ve done more walking tonight than in the past three days. A bowing waitress escorts us to our table and I can hear the THUD of coconuts dropping around us. This small island exports about one million coconuts a year; it’s biggest industry after tourism. As we take our seats, which are large pillows on the ground, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the beauty of the moment. The surf gently laps the shore just a few yards away. The moon is rising over the South China Sea and it’s reflection is splintered by the waves. Strong, gnarled trees seem to grow right out of the sand and form a canopy over our table. A few lanterns swing above us in the night breeze, illuminating a couple sitting a few tables away. They sit close, their heads together over a bowl of rice. They don’t talk, but just look into each others eyes. I think of Danny and wish for the millionth time that he was here with me. I’ve just remembered, it’s Valentine’s Day.

Our menus arrive and I cheer up. We order drinks. Singha beer for the guys, fresh pineapple juice for Andrea and I. The food sounds amazing and I can’t believe our good fortune at finding a spot like this. The blokes have cheered up too and the jokes are rolling. Josh looks tired, his contacts are probably bugging him. A long way down the beach, firecrackers pop and explode in the air from a nightclub. Laughter drifts down the beach and I can hear the pulse of Thai techno as a Valentine’s party gets under way. People certainly know how to party here; I can see them in the light of the moon, flocking to the club from all over the beach. It’s taking a long time to get our drinks and Joe jokes that we should have brought a pack of cards. All we’ve done for the last three days is play Butt hole and sip lemongrass tea.

A shy, bowing, young Thai man finally comes out to take our order. He kneels on one knee next to our table and smiles and nods about 50 times as we painstaking relate ALL our dishes to him. When we fold our menus, he stands up quickly to collect them. Too quickly. THWACK! He bashes the back of his head on a low branch and drops (‘Like a sack-o-potatoes’ said Churchy, later) onto the sand. For a few seconds we all stare in disbelief, and then immediately feel stupid for not responding, as two restaurant staff come running and kneel next to him. He is conscience, but hurting, and they gently carry the man inside. We sit in stupefied silence for a while. I have the horrible urge to giggle and hate myself for it. Then we talk in low voices, fidgeting with our drinks, wondering how he is and what happens next. It’s not long before we find out. A lovely, but distraught looking Thai lady approaches our table and in her broken English explains that the restaurant is closing and we have to leave. “ No food” she says. Puzzled, we enquire after the health of the waiter and discover that he isn’t a waiter, he is the cook, and that he may not be cooking again for a long time. Since they no longer have a cook, they can no longer serve food, and that is that. It’s like a bad joke, but we have no choice but to leave. As we collect our things, I see the poor man, lying on a bench just inside the bungalow. He has a bandana wrapped around his head and he’s pale.

No one feels like walking around anymore -or even eating for that matter- so we drift down the beach in the direction of the party. We’ll get in line for a plastic cup of the popular party drink, a ghastly combination of whisky, Coke and Red Bull, join the throng of all-night revelers, and will probably make some memories of a different kind tonight. I don’t know if we did or not. I don’t remember.

Editor’s Note: “Flashback” is a new feature on UtHC, relating travel stories, memories and wisdom from past experiences. Where are we going next? Turkey. Maybe the Yukon.