Canada 150: 15 Canadian foods you need to find and eat

How can we celebrate Canada’s 150th without a feast?

1.Maple syrup: I know everyone’s waiting for this one, but you can’t have a list of Canadian eats and not include Sirop d’érable. When I was 17, my high school French class went on an exchange visit to Quebec and one of our day trips was to a cabane à sucre, a sugar shack, where we drizzled maple syrup on snow and ate it like candy, and had a feast of baked beans (see no. 5) laced with syrup, of course. It’s pretty hard to beat a stack of buttermilk pancakes dripping with maple syrup.


2. Butter tarts: such a Canadian classic! Pastry shells filled with a butter and brown sugar mix – with or without raisins is an ongoing debate — butter tarts are the perfect blend of gooey and sweet. Although sometimes made as a bar (traybake), with a base instead of pastry crust, they never seem to appear as full-on pies, proving that good things do come in small packages.

3. Wine: Canada is not known internationally for its wine, but all the better for us. The southeast of Vancouver Island has a microclimate suited for vineyards, as does the Okanagan Valley, also in BC, and southern Ontario. Our local liquor store has a great collection of Vancouver Island wines, many of them berry wines, including Cherry Point’s Cowichan Blackberry. Blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, gooseberries and tayberries all feature from wineries like Mooberry, Blue Moon and Silvercrest.


4. Split pea soup: a hearty, warming bowl of comfort with the smokey saltiness of a great ham bone. Perfect for a Canadian winter’s day of snowshoeing and portaging.

5. Baked beans: no ‘beans with tomato sauce and lots of sugar’ in a tin, the Canadian version is a medley of pulses slow cooked with molasses, onion, brown sugar, and again, a lovely ham bone in a huge earthenware crock.

6. Poutine: like numbers 4 and 5, we owe a lot to French Canada in the cuisine department of Canada. Who else has thought of adding cheese curds and gravy to fries? (don’t answer that!). That’s your basic poutine, but it gets pimped up from there: bacon; beef; lobster; jerk chicken; pork, fennel and onion; foie gras… was there anything else you wanted? Allegedly from the Quebecois French word for mess.

Poutine with grilled mushrooms, onions and beef.

7. Nanaimo Bars: Chocolate, butter, sugar, nuts, coconut: what’s not to love? This iconic treat is a celebrity in my hometown and deserves a post all of its own. Watch for it!

8. Berries: like any northern country, Canada produces a variety of delicious berries, both wild and cultivated. Blueberries and cranberries thrive in marshy lands; fields of cranberries are flooded for harvesting. I’ll never forget flying out of Vancouver and the sight of fields of water reflecting the sky, acres of ruby red moving in slow motion. When I was a teen, one of my jobs was picking blueberries at a local farm. Two things: a) if you don’t eat ‘just one’, you keep yourself from eating at all and b) on a hot summer day the patch will smell just like a baking blueberry pie (which makes ‘a’ all the more difficult). August days are marked with blackberry picking, all scratched legs and purple-stained mouths. One berry, though, deserves its own mention: the berry with the same name as a Canadian city…

9. Saskatoon berries: similar to a black current or blueberry, these grow wild in Saskatchewan and much of the rest of the country, and are enjoyed in pies and jam. Not named after the city, ‘Saskatoon’ is from the Cree name for the plant Mis-sask-qua-too-mina. When my parents discovered Saskatoon bushes growing along the roadside of our home in BC – “we can’t believe no one else is picking these!” – we were sent out to pick. Though the supply was endless and it seemed we were there for days, the promise of a homemade pie at the end of it was enough (barely) to keep us going. Many, many buckets and one beautiful looking pie later, we discovered these Saskatoon berries were (for some unknown reason) terrible, dry and bitter. Unfortunately quarts and quarts had already been canned and these were disposed of fairly rapidly. Were they quite inedible raw? Maybe we thought they would be nice cooked. In any case, what we lacked in dessert, we made up for in family legend. If you want to try a Saskatoon berry, perhaps just go to Saskatchewan.

10. Jam: homemade, of course. All those berries, all that fresh fruit that becomes overwhelming by about August, means that kitchens start filling with the sweet scent of hot jam. My Grandma Kiselbach’s simple recipe for berry jam makes innovating so easy. Combining different fruit, adding cinnamon, brandy, cloves, whiskey (she would never have added whiskey or brandy, just let me clarify that): the possibilities are endless. There is a freezer full of last year’s back yard produce – raspberries, apples, rhubarb, grapes, pears – that is waiting for me to gather jars and a wooden spoon.


11. Sonny Boy/Red River Cereal: before multi-grain with seeds hit hipster status, this hot cereal warmed Canadian tummies on cold winter mornings. Even nicer with brown sugar.

12. And Cream of Wheat: another hot cereal that the Irish person in my house says is like semolina, this is a creamy (like it says) comforting start to the day. Really yummy with blueberries on top.

13. Chips: I realise that there are potato chips pretty much everywhere, and while Ireland is proud of its cheese and onion crisps, Canada has – as my kids point out – a full range of condiment-flavoured chips. Ketchup? Yes, obviously. Honey mustard? Yes again. Dill pickle (no, not a condiment but you would put one on a hamburger)? Yes, yum! Sour cream (ripple are the best!), barbecue, all-dressed, and for sure, salt’n vinegar: too much choice, but that’s a good thing.

14. Island Farms ice cream: Just the best (after Italian gelato, of course). Too many flavours to choose from, but I’m pretty partial to (the oh-so-Canadian) Moose Tracks.

Ice cream, island-style: a treat while you wait on Denman Island for the Hornby Island ferry.

15. My mom’s pies: Okay, this is one that I’m hoping you don’t find and eat because, well obviously I want more for me (and my family too, of course – really!). She just gets it right: pastry, filling, toppings. One summer she made a goal to bake a pie every week. She didn’t actually bake one every week, but sometimes she baked two. We had lemon meringue, chocolate cream, blueberry, apple cranberry, coconut cream, peach, pear and apple.


And now a few more mouth-watering thoughts to send you on your way: anything homegrown; strong Canadian wheat; the Rock Cod Cafe in Cowichan Bay; berry shortcake (a family tradition from my Grandma Caldwell); cinnamon buns from Ladysmith’s Old Town Bakery. I could keep going, but it’s your turn: please add your own in the comments!

This is the third in the series of 15 things about Canada, that will eventually add up to 150 things. The first one lists our Canadian adventure highlights and the second one gives you some quirky facts about this place.

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