David Burton discovers glorious scenery aboard Canada's Rocky Mountaineer train, and marvels at the country's fantastic produce

by David Burton | Cuisine issue #154 | Monday, 12 November, 2012
The cloud that had been hanging low all day suddenly cleared, revealing the Canadian Rockies high above us, bathed in the glow of the setting sun. I was aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, nearing the end of one of the great train journeys of the world.

Just as I’d decided this was an even more awesome sight than The Remarkables in Queenstown, a Canadian sitting next to me said:

“I guess it’s hard getting you Kiwis over here to see what you’ve already got.”

“Actually, we don’t have anything quite like this at all,” I murmured, recalling the visual drama of the past two days.

From Vancouver the train had passed through the tranquil Fraser Valley, where tugboats had been pushing logs up-river. Then there’d been the Fraser Canyon, where the spring snow melt had been forcing water through the narrowest point, Hell’s Gate, at 760 million litres per minute – double the volume of the Niagara Falls.

At that point, the train had been climbing through the classic Canadian landscape of fir trees, bulbous rocky outcrops and waterfalls. But after we reached the confluence of the Fraser and Thompson Rivers, it suddenly changed to semi-arid desert.

It was here we passengers began indulging in a variation of the I-Spy game – “spot the critter”.

First there was a lone bald eagle, regally perched atop a spindly tree upon a huge nest of twigs, just like a scene from Walt Disney.

Then we saw hoary marmots (resembling enormous fat squirrels) and beaver dams, which our conductor pointed out as we passed by slowly, only metres away.

As we climbed beyond the snowline and into the densely forested foothills of the Rockies, the competition to spot the first bear hotted up. We still had our eyes peeled as we sat down to lunch in the dining car, beside big picture windows.

I’d been salivating all morning at the prospect of wild British Columbia sockeye salmon (served on a bed of vegetables, with fennel slaw and mustard vinaigrette), having passed the very lakes where they return from their overseas travel to spawn.

Just as I was taking my first mouthful, my fellow food writer Annabelle White began waving her table napkin excitedly in the air.

A bear! A bear! I see a bear! I want a prize! I want a kiss from the conductor!”

And so it was that the curiously named Zebulon Fassbender had to descend from the viewing room above to deliver the kiss, adding that it was only the second grizzly bear he’d seen in all the 12 years he’d worked aboard the Rocky Mountaineer.

Well, it was a grizzly all right. But it was only a cub – and unfortunately right at that very moment it was shitting in the woods.

I laid down my fork – but only temporarily, for the sockeye had been cooked to perfection by our on-board chef, Travis Catfish. Yes, that’s right – Travis Catfish. The name was clearly embroidered over the breast of his chef’s jacket. So, had he been born Travis Catfish?

“Yes sir,” he replied. “Travis Catfish Olfers.” It transpired his dad had been an avid fisherman.

This really was a journey for curious names, for later that day, I heard one of the Canadian passengers chatting to an elderly gentleman from Quebec.

“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Yvon.” “
You’re joking!”
“No, I’m not. It’s spelled y-v-o-n.”

As we neared our final destination, Banff, Yvon spotted an elk. This interested me very much, as I was keen to sample a bit of elk, having heard it tasted like a cross between beef and venison. Reaching Banff, the township serving Banff National Park, my wish was granted. There were the magic words – elk burger – chalked up on a blackboard outside a Canadiana-themed pub called (what else?) The Elk and Oarsman.

As you’d expect in Banff National Park, it was farmed elk. The pub manager told us it was from an elk farm in Carmen Creek, Alberta, one of many nowadays receiving big prices for their meat on the Asian market. My elk patty had received the standard burger treatment – highly seasoned and minced with onions – making it taste all the more like beef.

The next morning I sat down to a breakfast of bison sausages, which also resembled beef (only juicier, tastier and sweeter) in the vast dining room of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Built in several stages last century, the Banff Springs is a cross between a Scottish baronial castle and a French chateau. With 1100 staff serving 768 rooms, its ground floor is a series of medieval-themed halls, lounges, boutiques, bars and spas, including a heated outside pool in which I lounged, with snow on the boughs of the trees all around.

Later I took afternoon tea upstairs in the Rundle Lounge, where staff preface the service with a little presentation about tea, inviting guests to sniff canisters of various blends. Then I tucked into three tiers of decadence, topped with a magnificent chocolate and raspberry cake, decorated with gold leaf.

In the grounds of the hotel is The Waldhaus, a Swiss-style restaurant built in the 1920s, where the signature dish is trout with fingerling potatoes, asparagus and lemon beurre blanc. New Zealanders don’t tend to rate trout very highly, since ours typically has a brackish flavour reminiscent of the bottom of the lake. But this trout was astounding. Not only was the flesh pure white, but it tasted delicious and sweet. Are you sure this is trout? I asked the chef. Oh yes, he replied – and what’s more, it came from the Bow River, roaring only 50 metres below the restaurant.

British Columbia also abounds with a pink trout, the steelhead, which both looks and tastes like salmon. It is one of several unusual fish to be found at Vancouver’s Hawksworth Restaurant, where I dined on my first night in Canada.

Generally regarded as the finest restaurant in Vancouver, the Hawksworth occupies part of the frontage of the legendary Rosewood Georgia Hotel, recently restored to its full art deco splendour. Chef-owner David Hawksworth is from Vancouver, but worked in the UK for 10 years – including a stint at The Square and as head chef for Marco Pierre White at L’Escargot.

Hawksworth works wonders with Pacific sablefish, sustainably caught in traps which allow smaller specimens to swim free. The moment I put my fork to the fillet, the glistening flakes separated and fell like a line of dominoes across the plate. Meanwhile, the oily but spanking-fresh white sturgeon fillet was so extraordinarily succulent it tasted like aquatic chicken.



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