Burt Wolf's Table: Across Canada, Via Rail Part 2 - #215

BURT WOLF:  Canada's Transcontinental Railway:  it passes through some of the world's most beautiful scenery.  And through Via Rail, it maintains the traditions of the Golden Age of passenger travel.  It's the place to take a look at the fascinating history of on-board food.  And to learn the recipes that have made the Via Rail chefs famous for the best Meal on a Wheel.  So join me on board Canada's Via Rail at Burt Wolf's Table.

BURT WOLF:  The Canadian is the name of the train that takes passengers across Canada from Toronto in the east to Vancouver in the west... or vice versa.

It passes through some of the most beautiful scenery on our planet.  Snow-covered mountains, unspoiled forests.  It's the kind of scenery that gives you a real appreciation of North America and it's amazing that it's still so easy to see.

During the past few years, Via Rail, which is directed by the Canadian Government, has made a great effort to bring back the good old days of railroad food. 


The earliest meals for train passengers were offered by track-side vendors.  The vendors would wait for the trains at the stations.  As soon as the train came in, they would sell the food to the passengers through the train windows.  Unfortunately, the coal-burning engines passed into the stations first and deposited a nice layer of soot on all the food just as it was about to be offered to the travelers.

Not very attractive, but perhaps an interesting source of additional nutrients.

The station vendor period was followed by the era of the “news butcher.”  The news butchers were characters who came on board the train and walked through the cars selling newspapers, magazines and food. 

Skilled practitioners of this craft always offered salted peanuts on their first pass.  That insured better beverage sales on their second. 

News butchers were still around during the early 1940s when I was making my first train trips.  My mother would send me to visit her sister in Boston.  She'd kind of plunk me down in the train seat and I would sit there until my aunt picked me up at Boston's Back Bay Station.

The news butchers would go through the train between stations and I even remember their pitch.  “Life, Look, Colliers, Reader's Digest, Fortune, Harper's Bazaar, Atlantic Monthly.  Candy bars, Hershey Bars, Almond Bars, Ju Ju's, Sandwiches, Coffee, Tea, Milk, what'll you have, kid?”

These cartoons show the next major development in the history of railroad meals.  It was the Eating House, built into the existing train station.

The train would come to a stop and the passengers would rush out to the eating area.  They would bolt down their food and bolt back onto the train.  The stop was scheduled for twenty minutes and was officially called a Meal Stop.  The passengers usually described it as an Indigestion Stop.

As railroad technology improved and trains began to cover more and more distance in shorter and shorter amounts of time, it became really impractical to stop three times a day for meals.  And so the first on-board food service was offered.

Very often it was just a buffet set up in the baggage car.

This is an old photograph of a Canadian National Train.  It was probably taken during the first years of this century.  The food and beverages were being served from a counter in the freight area.

Maybe it was an official service set up by the railroad company, or maybe it was a little free-lance operation undertaken by the train crews to earn a little extra money. 

There's actually a long history of entrepreneurial activities by those early train crews.  Very often, the restaurants that were set up first in the train stations were set up by the wives of the conductors.  The conductor would walk through the train, find out how many people wanted to have a meal at the next stop and then telegraph ahead to his wife and tell her how many people were coming to dinner.

In 1867, George Pullman introduced his hotel car.  It was the first car built specifically for cooking and serving meals while the train was in motion.

It changed the way both the railroad companies and the passengers thought about their meals.  Railroad dining cars became famous for top-quality food and service and they continued that tradition for almost 100 years. 

Having learned to offer their passengers a service that was basically a hotel and restaurant that moved, it was only logical that the railroads would get into the business of hotels and restaurants that didn't move.  The driving force behind this idea was a man named Cornelius Van Horne.  He was the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He'd built a railroad through some of the most beautiful parts of our planet.  And he felt that if he could not export the scenery, the very least he could do was import the tourists.

And so the Canadian Pacific Railroad started to built resorts and hotels.  They also undertook an extensive communications program using artists to present Canada's natural beauty.  They wanted to show the country to potential visitors all over the world.  Paintings, posters, and eventually photographs and even films were commissioned by the company.

Directly across the street from the Toronto Train Station is the Royal York Hotel.  It was built in 1929 by the Canadian Pacific Railway.  At the time it opened, it was the largest hotel in the British empire.

It had 1,000 hotel rooms, a concert facility with 2,000 seats, its own small hospital, and a library with 12,000 books.  It also had a facility for demonstrating a new invention, the invention was called the “talking movie.”  Never worked.

Today the Royal York Hotel is an architectural signature for the City of Toronto.  It's surrounded by a cluster of bank towers that have risen in recent years, but its copper and limestone roof still stands out as the jewel in the city’s skyline.  The Royal York is a symbol of history.  It's been restored to its original grandeur on the surface, but it's also high-tech and up-to-date on the inside.  Different restaurants and bars offer an almost endless variety of culinary styles.

The lap-pool is as restful a place as you will find in a modern city.

The Royal York is a perfect example of the kind of hotel the Canadian Pacific built as it developed its non-moving facilities for travellers.

Crossing the border between Manitoba and Saskatchewan marks the midpoint in the transcontinental trip.  Saskatchewan is the center of Canada's vast expansive prairies.  It's the breadbasket of the nation, with some of the largest grain farms in the world. 

Historians tells us that when the last great glaciers began to recede, about 12,000 BC, the weather warmed up and we began to see the appearance of giant wild wheat fields.  This was easy food for our ancestors and they began to gather it and make it an important part of their diet.  They have to be right next to wheat when it's ready to harvest, and so small settlements began to develop at the fringes of these giant wheatfields.  Over the next 4,000 years, little by little, we learned to control and cultivate the wild wheat until wheat became our first real agricultural crop.  And that was an amazing thing to have done. 

Raw wheat is difficult to swallow and indigestible.  We learned to separate the edible part of the grain from the surrounding husks and to germinate or cook the wheat until it was edible.  Wheat was the basis of the porridges that sustained life for thousands of years.  It evolved into the breads which are still described as the staff of life. 

These are the wheatfields of Saskatchewan and these fields actually owe their rich soil to the glaciers that once covered them.

When you're looking at a wheat field, you're actually looking at the very beginning of agricultural civilization.

Saskatchewan is also the official home of the Northwest Mounted Police, who brought stability to this area in the 1800s.  That was followed by the arrival of the railroad, which resulted in a major immigration of Russian and Scandinavian colonists. 

On the second day of the trip I woke up in a Saskatchewan town called Bigger.  There was a wonderful sign on the train station; it said “New York is Big, But This Is Bigger.” 

Saskatchewan is also the place where Canada saw its last armed conflict.  There were a group of people who were the descendants of fur trappers and native Americans and they were having an ongoing dispute with the federal government.  In 1885, it broke out into an armed rebellion.  It was quickly put down because the railroads were able to get 3,000 troops to the place almost instantly.  The people loved the railroads, the government loved the railroads.  It gave the government an excuse to help with the politics and economics of the railroad expansion, and everybody thought of the railroads as essential to the defense of the nation.

These days, the people of Saskatchewan are dedicated to the defensive nature and when you get up to the northern part of the province, it's time to give them a gold star.  Especially if you enjoy fishing in some of the world's most beautiful country. 

Serious fishermen fly in by seaplane and spend their days casting for northern pike, walleye, whitefish, grayling, and giant lakers.  Like Magic Johnson?  No.

Anyway, a guy I met on the train told me that the last time he was fishing in Saskatchewan, the fish were biting so often that he had to take his line out of the water so he could have a peaceful moment to drink a beer.  Is that a fish story or a beer story?

There's a special spirit to the rural areas of Saskatchewan.  Visitors are always welcome at county fairs, farmers' markets and town suppers.  It's a spirit that speaks of family and oneness with the land. 

Saskatchewan also attracts tourists who are interested in wildlife.  Now, it’s not the kind of wildlife you find in Paris, but as I get older, it’s the kind of wildlife I like the best.  Saskatchewan prides itself on places designed to give tourists a good look at nature. 

As Via Rail's Transcontinental trail rolls through Saskatchewan, it passes some of the best fishing areas in North America, a fact which is regularly honored by the chefs on board.  You'll often see local fish on the menu.  Today it's pickerel, which is being prepared with tomato and basil. 

Via Rail chef David Kissack starts by making the sauce.  A little oil goes into a frying pan, followed by some chopped onion, and a chopped tomato.  It sautees together for about a minute.  Then in goes a tablespoon of capers and some chopped fresh basil.  Finally, a little Pernod.  Pernod is an alcoholic beverage that's very famous in the south of France.  It's really like a flavored wine and the flavor is licorice or anise.  Just about every country on the Northern side of the Mediterranean Sea has an anise-flavored alcoholic beverage.  If you were in Greece it would be ouzo.  If you were in Italy it would be Sambuca.  It's really an easy way to add that licorice flavor to a recipe.

The sauce is kept warm while the fish is cooked.  A boneless, skinless fillet of white fish is given a light coating of flour.  A little vegetable oil goes into a hot frying pan and as soon as it's hot, in goes the fish.  The fish cooks on one side for a minute, then it's flipped, and cooks on the other side for a minute more.  Then onto a serving dish.  The sauce goes on top, a few sauteed baby carrots, a mixture of wild and white rice, a few green beans and it's ready to serve.  Lots of taste for very few calories.

Capers are the buds of an unopened flower that have been pickled.

They're picked from a bush that we think originated in North Africa but these days they're growing in all countries that border on the Mediterranean Sea.  And we are beginning to see capers grown in the southern part of the United States. 

As a general rule, the smaller the caper, the better the quality.  The best are the tiny nonpareils.  The larger capers are very tasty, but stronger in flavor.  It's usually a good idea to chop up the larger capers before you use them in a recipe. 

It's also possible to change the flavoring that's been put in the capers by the pickling process.  When you get the jar home, pour off the liquid and pour in something that you like the flavor.  I usually put in sherry wine.  The alcohol in the sherry acts as a natural preservative and I really prefer the mild flavor of the sherry to the intensity of the brine that capers are usually packed in.

After a few days in the refrigerator, the capers will be milder and you will also have flavored the sherry which you can then use as a flavoring agent all by itself.

It's nice added to salad dressings or into the pan when you're making a quick sauce from pan drippings.  Especially with fish and poultry.


BURT WOLF:  Alberta.  Oil and natural gas below, fertile farmland in the middle, and cowboy culture on the top.  Canada is a large country.  It's the second largest country in the world, right behind Russia.  And Alberta gives you the opportunity to get a look at the variety and natural beauty of the nation. 

Rugged foothills in the eastern slopes of the great Rocky Mountains.  Great beauty, but not an ideal place for agriculture.  However, it is ideal for cattle, and Alberta has more beef cattle ranches than any other province in Canada.  Those ranches have given Alberta its cowboys. 

Every year the Alberta town of Calgary hosts the Calgary Stampede, ten days of the wildest part of the wild west, including the world's largest rodeo.  The most popular event is a chuck wagon race with $200,000 in prizes.  Only fitting that the big money go to the cooks.

Alberta's also home to the Jasper National Park.  Unspoiled despite the more than 2 million visitors that come here every year.  Waterfalls, gorges, the jagged peaks. 


BURT WOLF:  Even more important than Jasper's natural beauty is its role as a wildlife sanctuary.  Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bear and moose make Jasper their home.

Alberta is real cattle country.  You can see it in the land, you can see it in the culture and you can see it in the kitchens.  If you still want to know where's the beef, Alberta's a good place to look. 

And as Via Rail's Transcontinental passes through Alberta, it takes advantage of the area's great beef.

An example is this recipe from Medallions of Beef in a Tarragon Sauce.  Chef Kissack starts by heating a little oil and butter in a frying pan.  Then in go two medallions of beef, which are just thin slices cut from a tenderloin.  They cook for a minute on one side, and then a minute on the other.  David is using two spoons to turn the beef in order to be sure that he doesn't make any holes in the meat that would allow the juices to drain out.

As soon as the beef is cooked, it comes out of the pan and is held aside.  A little more oil goes into the same pan, plus a little chopped onion, chopped garlic, red wine, mustard, tarragon and beef stock.  Finally, a quarter cup of plain yogurt.  That cooks into a sauce that goes onto a serving plate.  Then the beef, some sauteed vegetables and some oven-browned potatoes. 

The herb tarragon seems to have originated in Asia and was brought to Eastern Europe by the invading Mongols, and it was the Crusaders who spread it out through western Europe.

The first time we actually see anybody writing about tarragon appears to be in the mid-1500s.  A botanist of the time wrote: “Tarragon is one of the most agreeable of salads, which requires neither salt nor vinegar for it possesses the taste of both these condiments.”  Good call.  Tarragon is actually an excellent replacement for salt, and anybody who is on a salt-restricted diet can use tarragon as a flavor enhancer. 

If you'd like to see what this stuff is really like, plant a few seeds of French tarragon in a window box.  When the leaves are ready to harvest, chop them up and add them to soups, sauces and salad dressings.  It's also an excellent addition to seafood and chicken recipes.

Most herbs have a stronger flavor in their dried form than when they are fresh.  Cooks usually use twice as much of the fresh herb in a recipe as they would if they were using the dried form. 

Tarragon is actually an exception to the rule.  When tarragon is dried, it loses much of the essential oils that contain its flavor.  So when you're substituting dried tarragon for fresh tarragon, use two or three times as much dried.


BURT WOLF:  British Columbia is Canada's most westerly province and with over 4300 miles of Pacific coastline, it is one of the most picturesque parts of North America. 

Hundreds of islands just offshore have made British Columbia a boater's dream come true.  Deep fjords cut into the land and offer protected areas for water sports.  Sailors, power boat lovers, and fishermen have all been attracted to British Columbia.  But the people of this province are good sports about almost everything.  When they're not on the water, they're in the mountains.

British Columbia is home to the Whistler and Blackcomb Ski Resorts, two of the most respected ski areas in the world.

Local instructors will start you off as soon as you can walk, and when you have mastered the art, local helicopter pilots will take you up to the most beautiful peaks so you come down through pristine snow.

At the base of the mountain is the Chateau Whistler Resort, managed in the great tradition by a division of the Canadian Pacific Railway. 

British Columbia's biggest city is Vancouver, with some of the best food in Canada.  Vancouver has a large Chinese section with dozens of excellent restaurants and food shops.

There's also a restaurant that offers the traditional food of the native tribes.  Good eaters should know about the Granville Island Public Market.  Every day small shopkeepers offer a wide selection of top-quality foods, from freshly-caught salmon to freshly-baked breads.

At the edge of the downtown district is Stanley Park, with a six-mile walk that presents some of the best views of the city and the surrounding waters.

One amazing thing about this park is that it is literally across the street from the city's commercial center.  There's also a neighborhood called Gastown, named after a fellow called Gassy Jack Deighton.  He was a local bartender with a real gift for gab.  Gassy's bar is gone but in its place are a series of charming streets lined with art, antique, and craft dealers.  They continue the tradition of gabbing, but the conversational content has been considerably upgraded.


BURT WOLF:  The oldest ongoing conversation in this area has been taking place for over 30,000 years and it's been between the Native tribes and their spirits.  As a result, British Columbia can offer the visitor a fascinating look into the culture of the first people to inhabit this part of the world.  If your timing is right, you might even get a chance to join them for a traditional salmon roast.


Since the time of the earliest human settlements in this area, the local waters have been the key to transportation.  During the last 100 years the canoe has given way to the famous B.C. Ferry service.  Their fleet is larger than most navies, and essential to the area's continued growth.

About an hour's ferry ride off the coast is Vancouver Island, home of the province's capital city of Victoria.  In the center of town is the Empress Hotel, which is like a time capsule from late 19th Century England.

Afternoon tea in the hotel has been a tradition since the building opened in 1908.  And each afternoon the restaurant serves a curry in remembrance of the days when India was part of the British empire.

But Vancouver Island, like the rest of British Columbia, is a major sports center.  Chartered fishing boats will take you out for salmon, hiking trails along the coast will invite you to a greater appreciation of nature, and the only bridge built specifically for bungy jumping will give you a chance to evaluate your sanity.

Why?  Why would you want to do this?  Aren't there enough ups and downs in life as it is?

One of the largest and most important ethnic groups in British Columbia are the Chinese.  They started arriving here in the mid-1800s as part of a work force to build the transcontinental railroad.  They stayed, expanded their numbers and became a vital part of the community, especially when it comes to food. 

They have a significant number of great restaurants and have influenced cooking through Canada. 

A perfect example is this dish of Beef and Broccoli prepared by George McNeill at the Royal York Hotel.  George starts by taking two cups of beef that have been cut into bite-size strips and mixing them together with two beaten egg whites.  And a dusting with a tablespoon of cornstarch.  A little oil goes into a hot wok, followed by a touch of sesame oil.  A few slices of fresh ginger, a half cup of chopped onion and the beef.  Interesting mixture of equipment.  A traditional Chinese wok with standard Western chef's tongs to do the stirring.  Some old habits just hang on.

A set of chef's tongs are like an extra hand.  And one that's heat-proof too.

Next, a little chicken stock.  Two cups of blanched broccoli flowerets, two tablespoons of oyster sauce, a few tablespoons of sesame seeds and it's ready to serve. 

A ceramic sculpture of a Chinese farmer goes on the place.  A truly optional ingredient.  Then some green onion made to look like leaves and flowers, carrots, and finally the beef.

George makes those carrot flowers by cutting a series of strips along the length of the carrot and then slicing the carrot into rounds.  Green onions are blanched for a moment in boiling water, then opened up flat and cut into leaves.


BURT WOLF:  The west coast of Canada is one of the most beautiful parts of our planet, and the native tribes have been here for thousands of years when the first Englishman showed up.  It was Captain Cook on yet another leg of his world tour of discovery.

The year was 1793 and ever since then, English culture has been in the neighborhood.  It is particularly evident in the daily afternoon service of English tea with scones.

Chef McNeill is Scottish and he can scone with the best of them.

What's the secret to making a great scone?

McNEILL:  The secret is to mix all the dry ingredients together before you add the liquids because the liquids will activate the proteins in the flour and that's what makes the scones tough.

BURT WOLF:  Gotcha.  He starts by mixing together four cups of all-purpose flour and a tablespoon of baking powder.  Then in goes a half cup of chopped walnuts, a half cup of raisins, and a half cup of apricots.  In a second bowl, a cup of milk is combined with one egg, a half cup of sugar, and a quarter cup of melted butter.  Both bowls of ingredients are mixed together to make a dough.  Baking soda and baking powder are chemically active ingredients that make dough rise.  The actual chemical activity starts when the powder or soda first comes in contact with moisture.  But you really want it to do its stuff while the dough is in the oven, so the trick is to shorten the time between the contact with the wet ingredients and the dough going into the oven.  The last-minute blending helps.  The dough is rolled out to a thickness of about an inch and cut into rounds.  The rounds go onto a parchment-covered baking sheet.  A quick paint job with an eggwash. 

A second tray goes underneath and that's important.  It spreads out the heat and prevents the bottom of the scones from burning.

Then in a 350 degree oven for fifteen minutes.  When they come out, they get a dusting of powdered sugar and they're ready for afternoon tea. 

Part of the increase in tea drinking is the result of a growing concern about caffeine and, of course, there's confusion.  Which has more caffeine?  Coffee or tea?  Well, here's where the confusion comes in.  If you take a pound of coffee and a pound of tea, there will be more caffeine in the pound of tea.  But that is only because you were measuring by weight.  Coffee is much heavier and there's much less of it in a pound. 

But when you go to make a cup of coffee, you use much more coffee than the amount of tea you use to make a cup of tea.  As a result, the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee is much more than in a cup of tea.

However, there is one thing you should bear in mind in connection with tea and good health.  Tea contains a substance called tannin.  Tannin tends to bind up with iron and prevent that iron from being absorbed by your body.  And iron's a very important nutrient.

Scientists who are studying the problem suggest that we limit our tea consumption to two or three cups a day and that we add milk to that tea.  Milk binds up with the tannin, and that leaves the iron free to be absorbed by your body.

Well, that's the end of the line on board Canada's Via Rail.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and drink at Burt Wolf's Table.