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Independence celebrations are a good time for food in Canada, too

Forum food critic Eric Daeuber visited Canada earlier this month and reflects on the poutine, Tim Horton's, French pastries and other culinary delights that abound in Winnipeg.

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Crepes at the St. Norbert farmers market in Winnipeg.
Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic
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WINNIPEG, Manitoba — While Americans were gearing up for their annual fete of freedom and fun on July 4, Canadians were coming down from July 1 — a similar celebration but without the revolution, and with a few other compromises and concessions that dragged the whole thing out to around 1982.

But with those 115 years out of the way, and the border between Canada and the United States open again, it seemed time to visit Winnipeg to sample the culinary oddities that Canadians use to identify themselves. They are not always epicurean art, but they are always recognizable as Canadian culinary calling cards.

There is no end to ethnic options in Winnipeg. Ethiopian bakers and Korean barbecues. Latin diners, Indian dhabas and Indigenous eateries. But for our purposes, we wanted the instantly recognizable indicator lights of Canadian culture. Americans have their burgers, Canadians have their Biebs. It’s not high cuisine, but it makes a strange kind of cultural sense.

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Biebs at Tim Horton's in Winnipeg.
Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

One of the most visited parts of Winnipeg is The Forks where the Assiniboine and the Red River meet. There, the fish and chips tradition that is English gastronomy distilled finds its most conventional expression at Fergie’s Fish and Chips. True, they wrap it in food-grade newspaper instead of the London Times, but it’s pretty close to its English presentation.

Cod and Halibut are options, and the chips are best with a side of vinegar. But it’s the pickerel that screams Canada. Most agree that it’s walleye, but the debate is not entirely silenced in either the kitchen or on the water. Whatever it is, it’s your best choice. Dark, chip-wagon fries and battered walleye combine England, Canada and enough of Minnesota to make a lot of people feel at home.

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Forum food critic Eric Daeuber says the north Fargo business brings back the charm, if not the primness, of the English afternoon tea. It’s quiet, relaxed and unhurried, he says.

The one event that got Canada rolling on its journey to July 1, 1867, was the 1763 Treaty of Paris in which the French promised to leave Canada but didn’t, really. Instead, they opened bakeries and began cranking out baguettes by the basketful.

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French pastries and food, such as this baguette at French Way Cafe, are a common sight on menus in parts of Winnipeg.
Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

La Belle Baguette, which doesn’t keep this a secret, is in the heart of St-Boniface, the French sector of Winnipeg. But great French bakeries are scattered all over Winnipeg. In the Little Italy neighborhood, locals line up for a morning table before the French Way Cafe opens. Patisserie in the display counters and art on the walls in an unassuming neighborhood building make it a kind of down-to-earth high cuisine.

Tim Horton’s is at the far end of the spectrum of dessert doughs from French patisserie, but both are worth the calories. Tim Horton’s is now a multinational behemoth headquartered in Toronto but owned jointly with Americans using Brazilian money. But it still seems authentically Canadian, having been founded by Tim Horton who started his hockey career with the Toronto Maple Leafs 70 years ago.

They are famous for their Timbits, the round versions of doughnuts that some still insist used to be punched out a doughnut to make the hole. They are now known as Tim Biebs after Canadian singer Justin Bieber who recently told Food and Wine magazine that he grew up on Timbits and is absolutely obsessed with them, which explains a lot.

Forum food critic Eric Daeuber describes the restaurant as a small-town Midwestern diner with decidedly Mideastern flavors.
Forum food critic Eric Daeuber says the Italian eatery repeats flavors, which gives diners the feeling that the meal is being assembled rather than prepared.

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Creme brulee at the Chocoberry Dessert House in Winnipeg.
Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

The French crème brulee brings the French and English together in a strange way. The baked custard was claimed by the English and renamed English cream just a little before the Treaty of Paris, but that could be a coincidence. You can order that little bit of that history at the Chocoberry Dessert House in Osborne Village.

It’s hard to visit Winnipeg without mentioning two local standards. The first is Stella’s. Still owned by two of the original founders, it’s synonymous with dining in Winnipeg.

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Poutine, a staple in Canada and beyond, as seen at Smoke’s Poutinerie in Winnipeg.
Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

The other is poutine. It appeared in French Canada in the 1950s and was exported across the English-speaking parts of the country, perhaps as revenge for the Treaty of Paris, and it became enormously popular before people knew much about heart disease. The french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds find their most traditional home at Smoke’s Poutinerie, but other versions show up all over Winnipeg, even in traditional old-school diners like Nooks. They also show up in restaurants all over Fargo and they’re just as good.

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So, as independence goes, there’s more than barbecues and fireworks — and more than one country that celebrates having acquired it, one right next door and within a week.

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Pickerel fish and chips at Fergie's Fish and Chips in Winnipeg practically screams Canada.
Eric Daeuber / Forum food critic

Winnipeg restaurants

  • Fergie’s Fish and Chips, 1 Forks Market Road
  • Tim Horton’s, 3,530 locations in Canada, including 76 in Winnipeg
  • The French Way, 238 Lilac St.
  • Stella’s Au CCFM, 340 Provencher Blvd.
  • Smoke’s Poutinerie, 131 Albert St.
  • The Nook, 43 Sherbrook St.
  • Chocoberry Dessert House, 470 River Ave. B
  • La Belle Baguette, 248 Av. de la Cathedrale

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.

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