Montréal Eats

Montréal Eats

Oh Montréal… land of cheese curds, “hello, bonjour”, and maple everything. It’s no wonder that every time I visit I spend 60% eating and 30% shopping. The last 10%, you’ll find me walking, hoping to work off the mound of calories I’m about to intake.

Montréal is a quick trip for me. Only an hour flight away from Toronto, I can leave after work on a Friday and be back home for dinner on Sunday and by Canadian flight standards, it’s relatively inexpensive. Which is what made it a perfect, quick getaway for this Family Day weekend.

B and I flew out direct from City Centre airport early Saturday morning. By noon, we were in the heart of the shopping pathway to do a bit of shopping at my dear Simons. While we now have this Quebec-grown department store a little closer to home, there’s something about making a trip to Simons on Rue Ste Catherine that makes a trip to Montréal that much more special.

While shopping makes up a large portion of what I did in Montréal this time around, the city is infamous for its festivals. Summer in MTL is alive with buskers, comedy shows, music, and love. In the winter, it’s close to -30 degrees so people like me who hate the cold, spend it indoors… usually eating because c’est la vie.

Every, and I do mean every, time I visit Montréal, I eat the following things:

  • Poutine
  • Escargot
  • Saint Hubert chicken

If I’m lucky, I add Saint Viateur bagels to this list but it’s a bit out of the way from the downtown core and did I mention it was close to -30 degrees this weekend?!?

Poutine is life, especially in Quebec. I grew up with fries and gravy but it was really only until I was in high school that poutine increased in popularity in my eastern Canadian village… and even then, it wasn’t quite like the Québécois make it. Ours was made with mozzarella cheese. The Québécois use cheese curds. And now that I’m older, and have many plates of poutine in my belly, cheese curds trump mozzarella.

The first time I tried escargot was about seven years ago at a French restaurant in Halifax. Like most people, I was hesitant to give it a try but once I did, I was hooked. The garlicky butter, the parsley, and even the funny looking fork and tongs cause my eyes to widen and my mouth to salivate. I can honestly say I have not had a time in both France and Montréal that I have not had escargot… and I don’t think I ever will. (B is the same with beef tartar… his first true love)

And finally, put, put, put St-Hubert Bar B Q. My first experience with this was actually relatively recent. About six years ago, B introduced it to me on a trip to Quebec and I converted. I don’t know if it’s the gravy, but it’s fair superior than Swiss Chalet… there, I said it. St-Hubert has become a staple on our Toronto to Halifax drives and I was worried that I wouldn’t get my fix this time around. Thankfully, Montréal has a St-Hubert Express before you go through security at the airport. So for all of you that haven’t tried it, you now have no excuse.

For those who haven’t had a pleasure of visiting this lovely city, do it. And for those who are regulars, what are your must-eats every time you go?

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Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

There are view places that have truly taken my breath away. The Kananaskis Valley in Alberta is one of them and the Amalfi Coast in Italy is another. On this trip to Vietnam, the place that had that affect on me was Halong Bay.

We were picked up by our tour (Maya Cruises) bright and early at our hotel in Hanoi. After about 2.5 hours in a ballin’ limousine bus, we arrived at the dock to board our ship. While we waited, we met some of the fellow visitors and chatted about life back home next to fish drying on the rack. While it wasn’t the fish that became part of our dinner, it did remind me of my childhood, back when my grandpa would dry and salt cod fish to preserve for the winter.

After a short taxi, we boarded our main ship with our outstanding guide, Tommy. We were greeted with a welcome drink and taken to the dining area for our 5-course lunch. This was my first cruise experience and it did not disappoint. After our lunch, we were given our room keys and told the agenda of the day. As we sailed further into the bay, the group of us made for two Australians (one of whom was originally from Vancouver), a Brit, and two Taiwanese from Halien. We quickly became a pretty tight knit group as there were only 7 of us.

After lunch and getting sorted in our rooms, we hopped into our bathing suits and prepared for our group kayaking tour around the bay. Once we were all in our respective boats, Tommy guided us around some of the house boats and showing us their oyster farms.

These house boats became a thing after the invention of polystyrene foam, which allowed for the building of cheap floating platforms. Prior to that, the families of Ha Long bay lived on land in traditional houses and in the natural caves on the islands. The last family living in a cave home moved out in 2009. Now, due to the bay’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, no new private homes are allowed to be built on land. Only a few yellow and red park ranger stations dot the landscape. The days of the floating homes are numbered too – the government is relocating those families back on land, due to the environmental impact of the breakdown of the polystyrene floats. I do wonder if ten years from now, visitors to Ha Long bay will see recreations of these villages, built strictly for tourists.

We chose the 3 day / 2 night option while the rest of our group would head back to Hanoi after just one night. While our boat made its way to drop the group off, we boarded a “day boat” cruise which included a different tour guide and a new group of sailers, all of whom were from neighbouring cruises in the bay. We were the last to join the group before we made our way to the famous Cat Ba island.

Cat Ba is the largest island in Halong Bay and is the only island with habitats. It’s also home to the endangered Cat Ba monkey. The monkey lives more in the middle of the island and there are less than 100 left in the world. While we didn’t see any of the monkeys, we did take a bicycle tour to Viet Hai, a small village just a few kilometres from the eastern port. The ride was a pretty easy one with only one big hill that I couldn’t tackle on the bike myself (I’m not a cycler) and the views were incredible.

After a visit to the hospital and school (both of which seem a bit much for a town of less than 200 people), we stopped in for a fish foot massage – strangest feeling ever! – and a rice wine tasting before heading back to the dock. The wines that we did try were infused with rose petals or banana… there was also the infamous snake wine which none of us tried but can be seen in a number of southeast Asian countries including Vietnam. After a nice bicycle ride back to the boat, we made our way to a kayaking raft where we paddled our way to our own private beach.

Paddling in Halong Bay really did bring us up close and personal to the bay. It’s unfortunate that over the years, so much pollution has accumulated in the bay. As you paddle around, it’s not uncommon to cross paths with multiple plastic bottles, plastic wrappers, pieces of styrofoam, and even a rubber glove. But as we made our way back to our main cruise ship, we did see two rangers gathering garbage from the bay, so there is hope for a cleaner bay in the future.

After an action packed trip, we ventured onto the water one last time to visit some caves before we left Halong to make our way back to Hanoi. I have to say that after two weeks exploring Vietnam, Halong Bay was by far one of the highlights of our entire trip. I only wish I could have spent more time…

Hue – A Foodie’s Paradise

Hue – A Foodie’s Paradise

Hue was on my list as we planned out our trip to Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) was on B, and Hanoi we knew we had to do. I wanted to do Hue for the Old Imperial Capital, or the Citadel as they call it… but what I quickly came to learn about Hue was more than old building ruins, I have learned the Hue should be more known for the food.

Sure Bourdain (RIP) had visited before, and I had seen the last episode he did while visiting the region, but it didn’t hit me until our first meal. In the pouring, soon to be monsoon-like, rain that stayed with us the entire time, we made our way to grab some lunch after our hour flight from Hanoi. We stumbled upon the restaurant and bar area of Hue city centre and plopped down at a place called Xuân Trang where I order Banh Khoai (without the pork of course!) and an order of chicken with rice. B got Nem Lui (ground pork patties grilled on lemongrass skewers). Place number one set the bar high.

Our first food in Hue was amazing, my jet-lag, not so much. Four days into the trip and I still had trouble sleeping the entire night, needing naps during the day… but my Hue nap took us into well into the night and we ended up missing dinner. At 11:30 pm we took to the street only to find that Hue is not a town of late night eats. After wandering around for a good 30 minutes in the rain, I turned on my data and found a food stall that serves burgers and fries… not very traditional but I was starving. We weren’t the only ones, and found a group of three Malaysian travellers who were also in search of food. We all went to the burger stand together and took it back to our respective hotels… even Hue’s roadside burgers and fries are outstanding!

Breakfast the next morning was included in our hotel. The buffet had a wide assortment of fresh fruit, breads and pastries, meats (which B made a comment on), rice, crepes and more. What really stood out was the pho. I’ve come to learn over my short time in Vietnam is that pho is eaten really any time of the day… and it differs depending on the city (not really a surprise here). B was so obsessed with it that he convinced me to get a bowl. And he was right to obsess over it, it was THAT good. (Naturally I asked for mine without the beef in it – I’m so complicated)

Aside from the Banh Khoai which I so desperately wanted to try, I wanted Banh Beo. These tiny coin shaped rice circles come with shrimp and fried onions and I had had them at a Vietnamese restaurant back in Canada. Knowing that they’re a uniquely Hue dish, I knew I had to check it off my list. We ordered a dish of them at a restaurant called Madam Thu, which serves up traditional Vietnamese food and has vegetarian options! As our mains, B ordered chicken and rice while I ordered a vegetarian Banh Khoai (honestly, could not get enough on that stuff!). Our Banh Beo came with the traditional fish sauce but what really made the dish was the chilli sauce that they provided. The spicy was a nice compliment and I should have ordered more.

I could go on and on about the food in Hue, but all good things must come to an end. Aside from the endless rain, and the crippling jet lag that I still haven’t kicked after 6 days, we’ve made our way to our next destination (Hoi An). But I know that Hue will always have a special place in my food-loving heart.

The many beers of Bavaria

The many beers of Bavaria

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When people first think of Munich, many think of the world famous Oktoberfest, lederhosen, and beer… and I’m not going to lie, before heading there I had the same preconceptions too. However, after spending a week in the area, I’ve come to realize there’s more to Bavaria than just beer, beer, and well, more beer, despite the title of this blog post 😉

Our first beer on the trip introduced us to HOFBRÄU MÜNCHEN WEISSE, which we lovingly enjoyed in the Hofbräuhaus. This iconic landmark provided us with a great introduction to Bavarian beer, and culture. The large beerhall consists of high cellings and long tables, which encourages you to meet new people to share a pint with. Within a short time of being seated, a nice local couple sat next to us. It was quite clear that we weren’t from around the area and offered to take our photo. From there, we enjoyed the live music together and even though we couldn’t speak the same language, I’d like to think there was a small bond between us and them.

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When we crossed the border to neighbouring Austria, our beer of choice was of course Stiegl. At this point in our trip, I had been living off head-sized pretzels and I was looking for something to round out my limited diet. Thankfully, Salzburg had just what I needed. The land of Mozart and Sound of Music supplied me with chicken schnitzel, salads, and bread with cheese and it was all glorious. Aside from the food, the town was quaint and conveniently located to where I really wanted to make a visit – Berchtesgaden.

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I had heard about Berchtesgaden from a coworker who visited there when she spent a semester abroad in high school. This charming little town built on the edge of the Austrian alps is known for skiing, hiking, and history. When I say history, I refer to the Eagle’s Nest, a mountain top retreat gifted to Hitler on his 50th birthday. This majestic retreat is now a tourist attraction with thousands of visitors making the trek, dining at the mountain’s edge, with their selfie sticks at the ready. At the foot of the mountain is Dokumentationszentrum Obersalzberg, a powerful museum that takes you through the rise and fall of the Nazi party. I always thought that this was something that Germany wanted to forget, but this museum shows the importance of highlighting the past, to ensure that history does not attempt to repeat itself. As I mentioned, it’s a powerful museum and I’m forever grateful that I had the chance to walk through and learn of the history from the German’s perspective compared to what we learn growing up in Canada.

As I basked in the sun on the top of the mountain ridge, I enjoyed some more Hofbräu. It was my birthday afterall 😉 Before taking the golden lift to the top, we had lunch with some non-alcoholic brews (yes, they have non-alcoholic beer too!) produced by Weininger. It was light and refreshing and paired nicely with my veggie burger! I’m as surprised as you that not only did this restaurant have non-alcoholic beer, but they also had VEGGIE BURGERS! It truly was a win in my books!

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The beer gardens of Munich are plentiful and populated. On our last day in Munich, after quite the eventful morning where I dropped my backpack into a bath of toilet water (it was honestly the worst morning of our trip), I needed one last beer garden brew. Again, it was Hofbräu but about the size of my head. It was a Tuesday and the small garden located along the river was less populated as it was near the banking district. As I got my second, and smaller beer, I decided that the mug from which I was drinking would make a good souvenir. Something to note, that I wish I had known earlier, is that every beer garden charges you a deposit on the mug. When you order your beer, you pay an extra two Euro or three, depending on the location. If you bring the mug back, you get your money. If not, the mug is yours. I only learned this on the last day in the beer garden when I asked if I could buy my mug. I could have gotten it for a Euro cheaper at another garden but oh well, lesson learned for next Beer Adventures of Bavaria!

 

 

Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia

It was three weeks out before our return trip to Europe and we still had no plans outside of visiting our beloved Paris, and spending a day in Champagne. At this point, we had planned a trip based on a cheap flight we scored direct to Paris and we had 10 days for our adventure. Since I’m not someone who goes to Europe and only visits one country at a time (ain’t nobody got time for that!), we plotted our course. We’ll spend the weekend in Paris with a day trip to Reims, fly to Bourdeaux and spend three days there, rent a car and drive to Barcelona, and make our way back to Paris to catch our flight a few days later. This plan was all well and good until the Catalan Referendum happened and there were protests in the streets of Barcelona. Three weeks out from our grand adventure, it was time to change course.

I jump on Google flights to see what I can find and after a few alterations with dates, I found a very reasonable flight from Paris to Split, Croatia. Croatia had been on our list for a while, but it hadn’t even crossed our minds this trip. We did the math and it all made sense… we were going to Split!

Our flight was direct from Paris on Croatian Airlines. Being the nervous flyer I am, I gulped my complimentary red wine as we hit some turbulence over the Alps. I couldn’t wait to land. Upon arrival, the earlier turbulence was nothing… the Bora winds had come in strong and our landing was one hell of a roller coaster ride. When we were finally on the ground, the guy next to B crossed himself, leaned over and said “This is a dangerous airport.”

We board the bus that takes you to the port of the city, it was cheap and easy to catch – they line up just outside of the exit. The historical centre of Split is spread out along the waterfront and our hotel wasn’t too far from the port (about a 10 minute walk). After ending up at the wrong version of the hotel (there were two by the same name), one of the staff found us and gave us a lift in their laundry buggy to where we were actually supposed to be. My first observation of Croatia, besides the insane winds, was that the people were super helpful. To the point, but very, very friendly.

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Much of Split’s historic downtown is made up of the Diocletian’s Palace, and the other half is tiny pedestrian streets that you can easy find yourself lost in. There are little shops selling olive oils, sea salt, and truffles around every corner but the best part is the tiny restaurants and cafes tucked into these narrow alleyways. On our second night in Split, we stumbled upon a resto-bar called Torito. It was 7 p.m. and it was quiet. We weren’t completely sure of it since there was only one other table seated but we were already there. We ordered the cheese plate and drinks. No word of a lie, of all of the cheese plates in all of the cheese countries I’ve been in, this was quite possibly my favourite. Accompanied with warmed homemade bread, plum jelly, and this homemade hazelnut chutney that I then spent three days wandering Split to try and track down (it turns out that it’s something that’s unique to the restaurant). The wine was amazing and we knew we’d be back before leaving Split. In fact, we returned twice…

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I didn’t know what to expect from Croatia. The only thing I really knew about the country was Yacht Week and sailing, oh and that Game of Thrones was filmed there – but I’ve never seen an episode so nothing really excited me about that. What I came to quickly learn was that Croatia is a foodie’s paradise. On top of the amazing cheese, Croatia produces some equally amazing olive oil, wine, and sea salt – in addition to being home of the infamous truffle. While we were there, we partook in an olive oil tasting – my first ever! The “instructor” walked us through the traditional and modern ways to produce olive oil, and taught us how to taste the oil like judges do in competitions. The tasting consisted of three types of olive oil, each from a different year and region of the country, and was accompanied with bread, vinegar, and sea salt. Paired with a lovely glass of Croatian Plavac, it made for a pretty unforgettable experience.

Split isn’t all food and yachting though, it also has a beautiful park within walking distance from the old town called Park Marjan. The park is quite large so you can easily spend a whole afternoon there – which we did. There are a number of ways to enter into the park, but we entered the park off of the city street – Senjska. From there we began the climb to the top. At the top of the first part of our climb, we came across a restaurant with the most spectacular views of the city. We stopped for a rest and a beer before continuing on. Along the way, we came across one of the many churches in the park, this one for St. Nicholas the Traveler.

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The hike through the park can be a long one, so I recommend taking water. We didn’t, and regretted it almost immediately, but it was too late for us to turn back, and we also didn’t know how much longer the walk would be. While there’s a lot of trees, depending on the time of the day, they provide little reprieve from the blistering sun. If you plan your day out well, be sure to bring along a towel and your swimsuit, as there are a number of beaches that you can visit for a cool off.

While Croatia wasn’t top of mind when planning this trip, I’m sure glad to stumbled upon the flight. The food, people, and beauty in Split gave me only a glimpse into what the rest of the country has to offer and I can’t wait to go back!

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Paris

Paris

Paris is always a good idea. It’s a magical city that has something for everyone. If you like art, may I direct you to the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay? If you’re a foodie, need I remind you that France is the home of Escargots de Bourgogne, the crossiant, and the crêpe. If you’re a history buff, well… I don’t really need to go into detail here because you already know that Francia was unified in 486 and the area has seen a LOT of historical changes since then. In summary, Paris is always a good idea.

One of my favourite things about Paris, well France in general, is breakfast. As I kid, I hated it. I didn’t like bacon and eggs, I hated pancakes, and the thought of toast revolted me. That was until my mom introduced me to croissants. One day, she brought home some Tim Hortons butter croissants for me to try and I was hooked. It was one of the few pastries I truly enjoyed and would eat for breakfast. Since then, I’ve been in the search for the perfect croissant. That search took me to Paris several years ago and ever since then, the first thing I do as soon as I land in France is seek out my first croissant of the trip. Of course, we have some great croissants in Canada (I refer you to Quebec), but when I think of amazing croissants, I think of France.

The last time I was in France, it was the peak of summer and I lived on salade du cheve chaud, light beer, and escargot. This time around however, it was Fall and cold, so all I wanted was something warm and comforting, this brings me to cheese. I must have eaten my weight in cheese this past trip. I worked my way from cheese plate to cheese plate, and topping off the night with some amazing fondue. I have no idea how I managed to maintain my weight considering that 90% of my food intake consisted largely of cheese.

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Come to think of it, it could have been the walking. One of my favourite things about Paris is the walking. Everywhere you turn, you’re in the centre of history, culture, and beauty. This trip, we stayed near Gare de l’Est, which is located in the 10th arrondissement. While we had easy access to the Metro, we still walked quite a fair bit. From our hotel, we walked north to the 18th arrondissement to check out Moulan Rouge and shopping. Another day, we walked from the 4th arrondissement where we visited Notre Dame to see the Eiffel Tower in the 7th arrondissement. It’s because of Paris’ endless beauty that you can walk for hours upon hours and never get bored.

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To escape from the chill of the Paris Fall, we popped into several museums including Musée d’Orsay and Le Musée du Vin. Experiencing Monet, Van Gogh, and Renoir in person is something as a child I could only dream of seeing, but in Paris, you can do it. I also have a bit of a fascination of the world wars – the history of how they played out, how each of the countries got involved, and the political change of events, it’s all so interesting to me. So it comes as no surprise that when I visit Europe, I make an effort to visit one or two of the many historical sites from that era. This trip, we spent a day at the Musée de l’Armée. I could have spent more than a day wandering its hallways, learning about the early battles of France and its colonies, through to the end of WW2. There’s honestly so many museums and places to see, it’s difficult to take it all in in just one trip.

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As I go through my photos from my recent trip, I can’t help but get a little longing in my heart to return. The city offers so much and every time I go, it’s for just a short amount of time that I’m left wanting more.