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Road Food: the Cowboy Trail

Chuckwagon burger

When most Calgarians hop in the car for a day trip outta Dodge they tend to head west, toward the mountains, toward Banff and Lake Louise and skiing and snowboarding. And while those are very worthwhile destinations, I’m partial – once spring rolls around – to leaning more southwest, toward the Cowboy Trail, that gorgeous rolling expanse of foothills between the city and the mountains out on highway 22. Technically, the Cowboy Trail (named for all the ranches it winds past) runs 700 km, from highway 3 near Lundbreck to Highway 18 near Mayerthorpe, but the chunk we like to take goes from Bragg Creek through Priddis, past Millarville – and the farmers’ market at the racetrack on summer and fall weekends – to Turner Valley and Black Diamond. It’s a perfect distance – a couple hours in the car, with plenty to stop and eat.

Millarville Market

The Millarville Market should be opening again soon for the season-typically it’s open Saturdays 9-2.

cowboy trail

Keep driving another ten minutes and you’ll find yourself in wee Turner Valley, home of some of the best beef in Alberta. (And close to Diamond Willow Artisan Retreat – a place unlike any other I know, where groups of up to 12 can meet, work, play and eat in a wonderfully serene environment, with a hot tub and wood-fired pizza oven out back. And check out this kitchen! I’ve done a couple cooking events out there – it’s a blast. We should all go sometime for a sleepover, fire up the pizza oven and open some wine. For real.)

diamond willow

Literally around the corner in Turner Valley, the Chuckwagon Cafe isn’t as big a secret as it used to be – it’s the bright red refurbished barn right in the middle of town, where owner Terry Myhre’s own herd of cattle are the focal point of the menu. The burgers – some of the best in Alberta – are made with aged beef that’s hand-ground, seasoned and shaped, served with their own homemade relish and hand-cut fries. They also serve an all-day breakfast, and are equally known for their flat iron steak topped with a poached egg and hollandaise. But seriously – the burger alone is worth the drive.

Chuckwagon Cafe 1

Conveniently, they’ve built the brand-new Eau Claire Distillery and Tasting Room right next door, where they have a farm to glass philosophy. It’s Alberta’s first craft distillery, with a special vodka named after the neighbouring Three Point Creek skirting Turner Valley, Parlour Gin with its intense botanicals – juniper berry induced dryness and hints of rosehip, Saskatoon berry, coriander, lemon, orange, mint and spice. You can sidle up to the tasting room bar beside the distillery to give it a try.


They chose Turner Valley to be close to the source of their ingredients, sourced and harvested from Alberta farms, and to draw water from the Rockies. It also helps that Turner Valley has a storied history from prohibition times; the new distillery is housed in the old Turner Valley Movie Theatre and Dance Hall circa 1923, that once served as town hall, political rally point, dance hall and community gathering spot.


Right now they distill gin, vodka and Spring Equinox – a very prairie-inspired spirit made of prickly pear cactus. Up next: rye whisky. Last spring, the owners and a small group of friends camped out by the Bar U Historical Site Ranch and ploughed for 8 to 10 hours a day, equipped with horses and horse drawn farm equipment salvaged from old yards and auctions, and used a 1910 seeder to sow untreated spring rye seed purchased from a farmer in Provost, Alberta.

Eau Claire Distillery 1

The crop grew and the plan was to harvest it 100 days from the date of planting – September 9. If you live in Calgary, you might remember this past early September – the harvest party was canceled, and they scrambled to gather all the grain before the massive snowfall. Crazy!

Eau claire distillery 3
Eau claire distillery 2

More burgers. One of these days I’m going to stick around and eat one for lunch, then stay for dinner.

If you’re not ready to head home yet, further down the trail you’ll find Black Diamond – and I love the old-school Black Diamond Bakery, owned by George and Patty Nielsen, which I managed to not get any photos of. Suffice to say you’ll find things like Parkerhouse rolls and homemade long Johns, Nanaimo bars and butter tarts.

Azuridge 1

And if you’re looking to make a weekend of it, there’s an equisite boutique hotel in Priddis called Azuridge that’s spectacular – once a private residence, this extraordinary estate was transformed in 2011 and is now one of Canada’s only estate hotels; 27,000 square feet on 13 acres, with indigenous Rundle rock, timber and sweeping glass architecture inspired by the Canadian Pacific Railway’s rocky mountain train stations.

Azuridge 2
Azuridge 2

There are just 13 guest suites, all with floor-to-ceiling windows, staggering views, and the very best, deepest claw foot tubs I’ve ever had the pleasure of soaking in. It’s gorgeous. Guests have access to a private butler, there to do anything from unpack your suitcase to draw a bath with your choice from a literal library of sea salts. The showers look like Charlie’s Great Glass Elevator. If you ever wanted to spend an over-the-top luxurious weekend, this is the place to do it.

Azuridge 4

The Chef’s Table is -literally- a slab of cedar that seats 12, with Executive Chef Yoshi at the helm in the kitchen – and the Opal restaurant is open even if you’re not staying there. They do a pretty mean eggs Benny and Caesar – and there’s really nothing better than waking up, putting on a fluffy robe and opening the door to a tray of coffee and pastries basking in the sunshine.

Azuridge breakfast

So there you go – a whole lotta ways to spend an afternoon, or a weekend semi-staycation, by venturing just southwest of the city.

Thanks to Dong Kim for the images from Eau Claire Distillery!

I love showing off my home province – thanks to Travel Alberta for helping me do it!

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March 30 2015 | eating out | 10 Comments »

On making a living as a food writer

misty beach 2

Every time I come out here, life pulls into sharper focus – it becomes more clear what I want to do and why I want to do it – why it’s important – and then I go home and it kind of collapses into the day to day minutae. One of the things I always seem to struggle with is how to make a living – while maintaining my integrity. I know I’m not the only one.

So here I am in the midst of a blog redesign – still, because for years I’ve been trying to figure out how to do things better, what the right next step is, how to stand out from all the sameness yet maintain familiarity, worried that if I do take a sudden jag, people will lose interest. (And if they do, isn’t it my own fault for being boring?) As always, my blog keeps getting back-burnered for actual work deadlines – I have to answer to editors, publishers and producers, not so much to myself.

But I’ve finally (!!) hired someone to do it. It’s anxiety-inducing to choose someone to come up with a design that defines you, and to tinker with the back end so that you don’t lose all your stuff. But I’m struggling myself to determine what kind of content I want to produce that people will care about – and how to organize it all, and are blogs really dying? But even if they are, from now on and forever people will always get recipes from the internet, right? Until something comes along to replace the internet? This is why I’ve asked for advice from friends and readers, because they see it all from an audience perspective, and really are the only ones who matter. But one recurring comment makes me bristle each time I hear it: No ads!

And I get it, I do. I don’t love ads – least of all the ones that pop up when you open a page, or blare weight loss promises with distasteful images, and I don’t like the look of blogs that have dedicated every square inch of space to Google Ads either.

But. I’m a food writer. It’s what I do – it’s my job. I’ve wanted to be a food writer for as long as I can remember – since telling my grade 3 class I wanted to be the food editor of Canadian Living when I grew up. I love doing it, and would love nothing more than to be independently wealthy or financially supported enough to be able to write about whatever inspires me that day or week rather than what I’m assigned that pays the bills. Because this work -and Mike works with me- pays our bills. I’ve never relied on my blog to pay the bills, but here’s the thing: it costs me $3000/year for web hosting – I pay extra to have a dedicated server so that it loads more quickly – and I’m paying $6500 to do this redesign. So that’s $10k so far this year that I’m forking out to just keep this blog out there, which I’m happy to do, but I don’t think it should mean compromising my integrity to offset some of those costs.

As it stands, the only ways to do that – by selling ad space or creating sponsored content – are frowned upon by many. (And it seems to be more so in the food blogging world than in fashion, travel or design blogging.) In the past, content like this could only reach the masses through traditional means – recipes and photos and essays and kitchen tips were only available in newspapers, magazines and cookbooks – all of which you’d have to pay for, and most of which also ran ads because subscription revenue is never enough. You don’t hear complaints about Bon Appetit or Lucky Peach running ads. No one thinks less of me when I get paid to write stories for print magazines (which themselves run ads and charge for issues), and if I were to bind all these recipes and photos together in a book, print copies and charge $40, it’s considered a (huge!) success, not a sellout.

Create custom content – sponsored posts – and you risk being labeled a shill. Of losing your integrity in some peoples’ eyes. (And this makes sense from a journalistic standpoint – a professional journalists’ code of ethics stresses autonomy, but most have staff jobs and salaries so that never the two shall meet. But what about being wined and dined by restaurants, PR agencies and tourism boards? And of course the publication itself still has advertisers to keep happy. There are so many grey areas these days.) Sponsored content has become the way to do things in the advertising world – I don’t think I write for a single print publication that doesn’t offer custom content, or native content, or whatever term they’ve come up with to distinguish advertorial from editorial. Buzzfeed is often held up as the standard to which we all should aspire – a digital magazine with an entire team dedicated to creating custom content for their advertisers in much the same way ad agencies do, in a way that fits with their own publication.

I vacillate between thinking that carefully curated box and banner ads are the most inoffensive – people are used to seeing them and blocking them out, right? although those who work with ad networks say it’s becoming impossible to make a living that way anymore anyway – and sponsored posts, which I reason at least provides the opportunity to produce content in my own voice that I think might have some value to my readers. But these days a lot of people feel deceived by sponsored posts, and again the writer loses credibility.

So traditional print media outlets are starting to fold, largely due to lack of advertising. (Where are all those ad dollars going? Digital has finally surpassed print, TV and radio in terms of ad spending – but my understanding is that it’s mostly going to Facebook and Google.) That means big staff cuts, slashed freelance budgets, editors getting back into the freelancing pool, and overall fewer publications to write for. (If Gourmet can’t make it..?) Online publications generally pay a tiny percentage of what print magazines do, and there are often those willing to write for free, or almost, for exposure (something I’m not against). Of course the concept of working “for exposure” goes beyond writing; at my first home show appearances in 2002 I was paid $2500; nowadays a few celebs are paid as a draw – the rest come on their own dime, and some chefs actually pay to participate as a promotional opportunity. I guess my point is, even the option of subsidizing your blog with columns, other paying gigs and cookbook royalties (a few dollars per book) is more difficult than it used to be. (Maybe it’s my own fault for not being a self-promoter – which is a big part of the game these days – my new web guy was shocked to hear that I have 7 cookbooks and don’t promote or sell them on my own website. But that’s just me.)

As usual I have more questions than answers, and I often think the solution is – or comes from – better understanding. What do you think about it all? I’m going to the beach.

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March 24 2015 | eating out | 92 Comments »

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