canada

Ice, Ice(wine) Baby

I wouldn’t classify myself as a picky eater. I’ve only truly hated two types of food in my life: cilantro (it tasted like soap to me and I know I'm not alone) and salmon (thanks to getting sick after eating it). When I read an article about overcoming food aversions few years ago, I started to feel silly about turning my nose up at them. Apparently if you continue to try small amounts of whatever it is you don’t like, you develop a taste for it. I've been successful with this strategy so far. I love salmon again and I tolerate cilantro now. 

I wanted to lead with that because I always thought I hated icewine. Last year, S and I were gifted a weekend getaway in Niagara on the Lake during the Niagara Icewine Festival. Our stay included free tastings at a handful of wineries. We went to Château des Charmes first and had such a lacklustre experience with both the wine and the service that we lost interest in trying any of the other wineries. Later, we wandered through the downtown festival area for a bit but didn’t taste anything. We spent the rest of our trip having fun antiquing.

I didn't take many pictures at the festival because, frankly, my hands were cold and my phone dies in the cold. I also try to keep foodie pics to a minimum in public because it always feels weird. 

I didn't take many pictures at the festival because, frankly, my hands were cold and my phone dies in the cold. I also try to keep foodie pics to a minimum in public because it always feels weird. 

This year, we went to the festival again with my parents and had a completely different experience. Instead of heading to a winery, we went downtown first. We got tasting glasses and tokens and wandered through the huts to see what the different wineries offered. 

Generally, you will see most ice wines made from Riesling, Vidal, or Cabernet Franc grapes with the latter two being the most popular in Ontario. The Vidal produces a rich, buttery yellow wine and the Cabernet Franc produces a beautiful, deep amber strawberry color. 

What makes icewine different? The grapes are left on the vine until temperatures dip to -8° Celcius or lower, which concentrates the sugars in the grape. The grapes are then harvested and pressed while frozen. It can be a tricky business, from harvesting at the right time to working in conjunction with unpredictable weather. The result? Smaller yields and sweet, fruity wines with hefty price tags. Since Ontario gets warm summers and cold winters, we are one of the few regions of the world the produces icewine.

I think next year they should spruce the tents up a bit. They look kinda boring, no? My bar is high after researching Christmas markets in Europe. 

I think next year they should spruce the tents up a bit. They look kinda boring, no? My bar is high after researching Christmas markets in Europe. 

Our first taste was an Iniskillin Sparkling Vidal. Much to my surprise, it didn’t taste like the horrible cloying sweet icewines I remembered. This had more character and 100% more bubbles of fun. It was sweet, yes, but also tart--like a perfect fall apple mixed with ripe grapes. It felt celebratory. I wanted a full glass! Perhaps I like ice wine after all? 

We perused the food next, letting our noses guide us as deliciously warm and hearty scents wafted through the air. There were multiple kinds of pulled pork with long lines. Pass. Some macaroni and cheese that looked amazing. I can’t have dairy, so a reluctant pass. It was a lonely duck confit cassoulet from Peller that caught our attention. No one seemed to be manning the station. A pretty little yellow Le Creuset pot sat atop a portable single burner. Was it empty? 

We went to the end of the aisle and realized none of the other food sounded as good as the cassoulet. By the time we walked back, there was a woman behind the counter. We walked right up and got a small bowl. It was so good that after one bite each, we turned around and got a second bowl.

Delicious, delicious cassoulet. It disappeared so fast I almost missed my photo op.

Delicious, delicious cassoulet. It disappeared so fast I almost missed my photo op.

I still have no idea why there wasn't a long line up for it, but I feel like we found an under appreciated gem. It was rich and hearty but not heavy. There were tons of beans and everything had a beautiful duck flavour without being too fatty or strong. It’s still the morning as I write this, and I would eat a whole bowl right now if I could. Probably some for lunch, too. Who am I kidding? And dinner. I love duck. 

We considered spending the rest of our tokens on cassoulet, but that’s not what we came for, so we tasted three more wines: a Vidal from Joseph (ok), a Vidal from Trius (yum!), and a Cabernet Franc from Peller (meh, too sweet for me). 

Afterward, we wandered around some of the stores that were open and then drove to Iniskillin. We sampled their Vidal, a Sparkling Cabernet Franc, a Sparkling Vidal, and an Oak-Aged Vidal. I genuinely liked them all, but holy moly did I love the Oak-Aged Vidal and both of the sparkling offerings. 

All in all, I was shocked. I really enjoyed the day and the wines. I’m not sure I’ll ever be the type of person who loves ice wine, but I can see having an after-dinner glass on a very special occasion, especially one of those sparkling beauties.

So I guess I do like icewine after all. The lesson? Try again. 


Want to have the full icewine experience, too?

The Niagara Icewine Festival runs each year for three weekends in January. 

Since the 2015 festival is over, there is always the option of going to the wineries and doing your own tasting or looking into a tour, like Grape Escape Wine Tours or Niagara Vintage Wine Tours.

Friday 10: Christmas Markets

Somewhere around this time of year I start to daydream about going to one of the great Christmas markets in Europe. I love the idea of wandering a historic squares and alleys between little chalets full of goodies with a warm cup of mulled wine in my hand. The markets look so beautiful and festive that even I've started thinking a river cruise would be fun thanks to Viking's marketing department. . .and I'm not a cruise person (or a cold-weather person, if I'm honest).

So for today's Friday 10, I thought I'd do a list of my Christmas Market Daydream Destinations in US, Canada, and Europe. Sit back, get cozy, and grab a hot drink. Here's one of my current favourite Christmas playlists to set the mood (link for email subscribers). I'm listening to it as I type!

Before I start, I have to say there are so many Christmas markets out there that I would probably be able to do an annual Christmas Market Daydream Destination list for a few years. 

Colmar's Place Jeanne d'Arc market via  OT-Colmar

Colmar's Place Jeanne d'Arc market via OT-Colmar

#1 Colmar, France

Tradition and illumination are the cornerstone of Colmar's Christmas markets. There are 5 markets tucked throughout the old town, each with a different focus. Place Jeanne d'Arc, for example, is full of local Alsatian products and delicacies from charcuterie to gingerbread.

I really chose Colmar partly as a representative of Alsace because it seemed cozier and more intimate than the famed markets of Strasbourg. It would be a lovely trip to stay in Colmar and travel to the other beautiful markets nearby. (video link for email subscribers)

Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market via  www.koelnerweihnachtsmarkt.com

Cologne Cathedral Christmas Market via www.koelnerweihnachtsmarkt.com

#2 Cologne, Germany

It would have been silly not to include a German market. Cologne seemingly has it all. There are 7 different markets throughout the city, each with their own personality. The Alter Markt sounds the loveliest to me. It's located in the old town directly in front of city hall and is known as being more intimate, nostalgic, and picturesque than the others. The Cathedral Market, however, has the largest tree in the Rhineland, the dramatic backdrop of the cathedral and 150 chalets to visit. 

#3 Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

This is the market that inspired this post. Each year Tivoli Gardens transforms itself into an Alpine Wonderland with rides, market stalls, food, beautiful lighting, ballet and more. . .it's the complete Christmas package. 

Spittelberg Christmas Market   Ph  oto credit: Lind

Spittelberg Christmas Market Photo credit: Lind

#4 Vienna, Austria

I had a hard time deciding between including Salzburg or Vienna this year. Both are gorgeous places that I would visit again in a heartbeat. In the end, Vienna won for its size, the beauty of Schönbrunn Palace as a backdrop, and variety of its markets held in squares throughout the city. The Spittelberg Market, just a short walk from the centre of Vienna, feels more like a village with historic buildings and narrow, romantic cobblestone streets that provide a cozier market atmosphere. 

#5 Prague, Czech Republic 

Like most of the larger cities Prague has a number of Christmas markets, but the one in the Old Town Square is the most picturesque. The Old Town Square dates back to the 10th century. The giant Christmas tree and Gothic, Baroque and Romanesque buildings serve as an enchanting setting for the chalets full of traditional Czech food and crafts. (video link for email subscribers)

#6 Valkenburg, Netherlands 

Looking for something unique? Valkenburg's Christmas markets are held underground in heated caves. Caves! With murals and sculptures and an 18th century cathedral. Sign me up now, please! (video link for email subscribers)

#7 Skansen Christmas Market, Stockholm, Sweden

Skansen, an open-air history museum on Djurgärden Island in Stockholm, was founded in 1891 by Artur Hazelius. It brings historic rural Sweden to life with exhibits that include cultivated gardens and wild animals. Each Christmas, it also hosts a market celebrating Scandinavian traditions, food, drink, and crafts. (video link for email subscribers)

#8 Georgetown, Colorado

The small, historic town of Georgetown is known as the "Silver Queen of the Rockies." For just  2 weekends each December, the Christmas market arrives. What I love about this market is that it seems like a mix of everything: Victorian Carolers, procession of St. Lucia, St. Nicholas, a horse drawn wagon, roasted chestnuts, and, of course, shopping. It's a little bit Western, a little Scandinavia, a little German, and a little British. I think that probably makes it uniquely its own. For another special treat, the Historic Hamill House hosts two classic Christmas dinners.  

Four authentic English pubs - and the Bohemian Absinthe Bar - serve up hearty Christmas cheer at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair.    Photo credit: Rich Yee

Four authentic English pubs - and the Bohemian Absinthe Bar - serve up hearty Christmas cheer at the Great Dickens Christmas Fair. Photo credit: Rich Yee

#9 Great Christmas Dickens Fair, San Fransisco, California

A Victorian London Christmas in San Fransisco. A cast of 700 characters roam around merrymaking. You may, for instance, bump into Dickens or Queen Victoria or Scrooge or Dr. Livingston (I presume)! Meanwhile, the Cow Palace has been transformed into the London streets full of boutiques and pubs. There's dancing and stage shows for young and old. Visitors are encouraged to dress up and immerse themselves. 

#10 The Distillery, Toronto, Canada

A local favorite. The Distillery is a pretty little section of Toronto of historic brewery buildings that has been turned into a pedestrian market area. The cobblestone streets and old brick buildings make you feel like you're stepping back into old Toronto, but the boutiques and restaurants keep things interesting.

Every year the Christmas market rolls around and we get our own version of the Bavarian chalets selling crafts, gifts, and treats. You can even get some mulled wine and listen to carollers dressed in Victorian garb. Visit one of the beer gardens to warm up with some mulled wine or a local brew (Mill Street Brewery still has a location in the Distillery). I personally love getting a coffee at Balzac's, a local coffee roaster and cafe, before milling about. Parking is a nightmare, but it's worth going to every few years just to get into the spirit of Christmas in the city.


That's it for this week. I hope you have a warm, wonderful weekend. I'm off to bake cookies!

Fall in Algonquin Park

We spent most of the day in Algonquin Park last Friday. Even though our favorite little trail, Whiskey Rapids, was flooded and it was cold and grey, it ended up being a great day. There was something about the moody weather, the chill in the air, and the smell of the wet, damp leaves that made the trails feel a little magical. Not to mention the glorious absence of bugs!

Our original plan was to do a 6 hour hike of Mizzy Lake, one of the longer interpretive trails. Since my leg isn't 100%, we decided to make things a little easier and just hiked a little bit of Mizzy Lake before checking out some of the short, easy trails we haven't seen yet.

What's great about Mizzy Lake is that it's supposed to be one of the best trails for seeing wildlife. We still haven't seen anything overly exciting, but we are already planning another trip next year to finally complete the whole loop.

mizzylakefalls
mizzylakestream
mizzylakewoodpecker

We were pretty happy with our woodpecker sighting, until we walked back to the car. The hiker parked next to us was starry-eyed and asked us if we had seen the big, beautiful bear, too. You could tell he was still awestruck and starry-eyed. I'm still not sure if I'm envious of him or happy we didn't see any bears. I kind of like to view things that can eat me from extremely safe distance, like on TV.

After Mizzy Lake, we went to Two Rivers Trail. It's only 2.1 km, but it has fantastic view of the forest from a cliff. 

Most of the fall color is gone, but some beautiful surprises appeared around a corner every so often.

Most of the fall color is gone, but some beautiful surprises appeared around a corner every so often.

two rivers cliff.jpg

The view was beautiful. I imagine the hills look like they are on fire when the leaf colors peak. 

two rivers cliff algonquin.png

We met a little chipmunk who was desperately (adorably) trying to stuff a triangular cracker into his cheeks. He wasn't successful, but he finally ran off with it in his mouth and stored it. Can't pass up a sweet find like that!

two rivers chipmunk.png

After our warm, fuzzy encounter with the chipmunk, we ran into a very angry red squirrel. Which is kind of like saying, "I woke up today and the earth was round and the grass was green and there were 24 hours in a day." If you've never met a red squirrel before, you learn quickly that they are tiny territorial jerks. This one kept following me around a tree cackling and spitting and hissing. I'm 85% sure he would have jumped on my head if he could have. 

"Get off my lawn!" says the red squirrel

"Get off my lawn!" says the red squirrel

After we took a bunch of picture of Mr. Grumps and laughed at him, we started off towards the end of the trail. All of a sudden, another chipmunk came running out of the underbrush and up to my feet.

"I heard you had delicious, homemade granola bars! Don't be stingy, I read the blog. . .They've got to be around here somewhere."

"I heard you had delicious, homemade granola bars! Don't be stingy, I read the blog. . .They've got to be around here somewhere."

He ended up escorted us out of the trail. He would come up to our feet, run a few feet ahead of us, and then run back. It was fun at first, until we realized he was just looking for food. 

Our final trail for the day was Peck Lake. It's a quick 1.9 km trail that goes around Peck Lake. There was a busload of tourists walking it with us, so it wasn't as relaxing. You could hear lots of shouting and talking from across the lake, so we knew we wouldn't be seeing any wildlife whatsoever. But the views were pretty and the lake looked so peaceful. 

peck lake.png

I can't wait until next year already. There are so many trails and things that we still want to do, including camping. That's the wonderful thing about Algonquin Park, it's huge and there's so much to do for so many different types of people. I was leafing through the park information guide and found out that you can even stay in old ranger cabins. Some of them take a day or two to get to and some are accessible by car. You better believe I've already scouted out a couple to try!


Resources

If you are ever in the area or are interested in taking a trip to Algonquin Park, check out their website for some basic information. The Friends of Algonquin Park hand Tour du Park are other fantastic resources that go into more detail about park conditions and how to plan a trip.