Writing Portfolio


The bird of the North

Travelling through ‘Cottage Country’, that belt of land north of Toronto where many Canadians (and, indeed, quite a few Americans) own holiday-cottages by the shore of the region’s many lakes, I have not only experienced wonderful hospitality and the truly breathtaking sight of The Colours (it’s that time of year), but also the opportunity to see birds which I would never see back home.

There are chickadees, cardinals, blue herons, turkey-vultures and American black ducks. No North American bird, though, is as fascinating as the loon.

I refer in particular to the common loon (gavia immer, also known as the great northern diver); the four other species of loon listed in my field guide do not tend to be found in Ontario (preferring, as they do, to summer in the far north or on the west coast).

Loons, which spend most of their lives on or under water (they can dive deeper and for longer than all other birds) require near-pristine conditions to nest, so their presence on any given body of water is often seen as a sign of the good condition of said lake; their numbers declined heavily in the Sixties and Seventies but since then, conservation efforts (such as the banning of lead weights for fishing in addition to restrictions on hunting) have led to a revival in loon numbers – even on lakes which have a lot of cottages.

This is very significant, as the loon is highly symbolic of the wilderness – or, as it is known in these parts, the North. You know you’re in the North when you hear the call of the loon emanating from somewhere out on the lake.

There have always been links between loons and native folklore; for example, the loon is said to be the messenger of Kuloshap, the creator-god of the Algonquin people. Indeed, no bird – with the exception of the eagle – features so prominently in folk tales and legends. Central to this place in legend is the bird’s call, usually described as ‘haunting’ or ‘eerie’. The loons actually has four calls: “Wails, tremolos, yodels and hoots ... together, the four calls add an air of magic to the often silent world of the wild. Together, they are the sound of the North.”

The loon’s high status continues to this day, for it is both the provincial bird of Ontario and the state bird of Minnesota, and even features on Canadian money – which is why the one-dollar coin is popularly known as the ‘loonie’.

No trip to Cottage Country is complete without getting to see and hear the loon.

Fred J. Alsop III, Birds of Canada (Dorling Kindersley, 2005)
Doug Bennet & Tim Tiner, Up North: A Guide to Ontario’s Wilderness from Blackflies to the Northern Lights (McClelland & Stewart, 1993)
Robert H. Busch, Loons (Whitecap Books, 1999)


A tale of two statues

In the course of my wanderings around Toronto, I have come across two very different statues with British connections, both of which have graced this fair city since the Sixties and which were installed amid some controversy.

Toronto’s civic authorities are housed in the very striking building that is City Hall, which was built in the Sixties and consists of two curved towers surrounding a council chamber that looks like a flying saucer (despite being almost fifty years old, it still looks really modern in a cool kind of way that most Sixties tower-blocks never achieved; these towers, by the way, are depicted on the city flag). In front of this is a large bronze sculpture that is unmistakably the work of Henry Moore (1898-1986). Three Way Piece No. 2 (The Archer), better known simply as The Archer, weighs 2½ tons and is in Toronto thanks to Viljo Revell, the architect of City Hall, who had won the international competition to design the new building and who in the early Sixties approached Moore with the suggestion that one of his works would complement the new building.

Moore agreed, and a suitable design was chosen from among his maquettes (the small models that he made before starting work on the big sculptures), but the proposal to purchase the work with public money became hugely controversial and was vetoed by the city council; the money was eventually raised by private subscription and it was unveiled in 1966. Touched by this gesture of public support, Moore donated over 200 sculptures and drawings to the Art Gallery of Ontario; these formed the basis of the AGO’s Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, the largest public collection of Moore’s work in the world.

Over in Queen’s Park, by contrast, is something a little more traditional – an equestrian statue of King Edward VII. This feature, which is located in the northern section of the park and constantly seems to attract the attention of passers-by wondering who the guy on the horse is, was never intended for Toronto and is in fact there almost by an historical accident – even though it depicts the man who (when he was the Prince of Wales) opened the park, Toronto’s first, in 1860.

The work of Sir Thomas Brock (1847-1922; his most famous work is the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace), this 1919 five-ton masterpiece of imperial pomp was originally unveiled in Delhi to commemorate the 1911 Delhi Durbar at which his son, George V, was officially proclaimed Emperor of India (in return, he announced that Delhi would henceforth replace Calcutta as the capital of India).

It survived Indian independence for almost two decades – presumably while the Indian government figured out what to do with it – before being taken down in 1967 and given to the City of Toronto. The man behind this move was the then Governor General of Canada, who had previously been the Canadian High Commissioner to India, although a private art collector had to come up with the money to have it shipped to Toronto, where the same city authorities who’d had to deal with the controversy over the Moore sculpture now had to decide where they were going to put what must be one of the most impressive re-gifts in history. This was not without its own controversy due to the the statue’s rather obvious colonial overtones; some said that the money that would need to be spent on installing it would be better spent on melting it down and commissioning a local artist to use the bronze to make something a bit more emblematic of modern Canada, while one wag suggested it could be made into a climbing-frame.

After both the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario turned it down, the well-travelled statue was re-erected in the park to the north of the Provincial Legislature in 1969, over a century after the man it depicts had opened the park.


St Lawrence Market

We’re in Toronto, and on our first morning we went to the centre of town to visit the St Lawrence Market. This old-fashioned covered market and local landmark is not only a mecca for food-lovers of Toronto but has been hailed by National Geographic as the top food market in the world. Not in North America. The world. (Borough Market, by the way, came tenth.)

Located in the part of town known as Old York (York having been the name of the settlement established here by Governor Simcoe in the 1790s; it was renamed Toronto in 1834), the market has been running for over 200 years.

The items on offer on the lower level are a fair reflection of modern Toronto’s diversity; as well as coffee from just about anywhere in the world (they’ll even grind it for you should you so wish) and many varieties of rice, you can get perogies, crêpes, souvlaki, spices, meat pies, Chinese food, more preserves than you’d care to name and all sorts of other tasty treats here. Up on the main level butchers, bakers, fishmongers and cheesemongers (who do a good line in cheeses imported from places like England, France and Italy as well as Canadian cheeses) co-exist side by side in St Lawrence, where the only problems appear to be people who suddenly stop to look at things, as well as the perennial dilemma of what to buy, and who to buy it from.

We found a wine merchant who seemed very happy to talk about the various Ontario wines he had on offer; a few samples later and we were walking away with a bottle of ’13 Riesling (Ontario Riesling being somewhat less sickly-sweet than its German counterpart) and a ’12 Trius Red (a blend of Cab Sauv, Cab Franc and Merlot; it’s superb, and surprisingly mature-tasting for a two year-old wine).

For lunch, the crowds seem to know that the Carousel Bakery is the stall to head to; this is the one that is best-known for serving up the Torontonian take on the bacon roll that is the peameal bacon bun (“Experience this Toronto tradition, eh!”). Cut much thicker than a regular rasher of bacon, peameal bacon is made from boneless pork loins rolled in ground yellow cornmeal (originally, ground yellow peas were used, hence the name), and it is a Toronto speciality which harks back to the time when the city was nicknamed ‘Hogtown’ due to the large number of pork processing facilities that existed here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It’s delicious and filling, but don’t just take my word for it; when Anthony Bourdain came here for The Layover, it’s what he had for breakfast.

The wares on the various seafood stalls looked fantastic –live lobsters, sushi-quality tuna steaks, wild salmon from British Columbia, scallops, oysters … we went for the mussels (from Prince Edward Island) which were on display in a large tank of water, from which our order was scooped out.

The butchers are masters of their trade who are happy to guide customers in the ways of all the different cuts and varieties that can be had. Should you want some mustard to go with your newly-purchased meat, there’s a stall for that where you can sample dozens of different types; I even found a couple that I rather liked (and I speak as someone who, as a rule, doesn’t particularly like mustard).

Elsewhere, two fruit-and-veg stalls compete for trade side by side, under a sign reminding customers that “We’re two separate stores”. One can only imagine the arguments that occurred before that went up! We purchased a few items from one of these places which, later that day, joined the mussels in a delicious moules marinieres.

St Lawrence Market: Gourmet’s paradise. A Toronto must-visit.


Meatopia 2

Meatopia returned to the Docklands this weekend, and having been impressed with it last year, we returned to Meatopia, the carnivorous foodie festival where everything is cooked over wood or charcoal.

 View IMG-20140906-00381.jpg in slide show

On entering a Tobacco Dock that was decidedly less smoky than last year (those issues having evidently been sorted out second time around), we were greeted by no less a person than the founder of Meatopia, Josh Ozersky. I’m impressed by the fact that with all that must be going on at a big event such as this, he found the time to mingle with the punters.

 View Tower Hamlets-20140906-00392.jpg in slide show

View Tower Hamlets-20140906-00388.jpg in slide show

We had, of course, come for the meat and we were not disappointed. We got to try Charcoal grilled Flat Iron Steak with anchovy butter (courtesy of the ever-excellent Hawksmoor), Tasty Pig & Beef Bits Taco (The Greenhouse Tavern of Cleveland, Ohio), Korean BBQ Pork Belly (Judy Joo of New York), Meatopia Double Smoked Cheddar Dog (Shake Shack; I really need to go to their place on Covent Garden) and the Burger with comte cheese, pulled Beef Ribs, Baconnaise – a real thing, it seems – & smoked chillis (Tommi’s Burgers). All were superb, and as an added bonus we did not get caught up in any two-hour queues this time.


According to Christian Stevenson (a.k.a. DJ BBQ), the master of ceremonies at the demonstration area that is the Cutting Room, the organisers had far more chefs, restaurants etc interested in cooking than there were spaces (this despite the event being spread out over two days), so they were having to turn would-be barbecue-ers away.

Liquid refreshment came courtesy of Fuller’s, which has recently created a craft lager called Frontier. This is not something that has come up on my beer radar, despite the fact that I have been known to frequent Fuller’s pubs (although the fact that I usually go for bitter may well have played a part in my not noticing that they’ve branched out into lager); hand-crafted over 42 days, it’s a good refreshing pint.

We got to see an entire cow being spit-roasted, presumably for the benefit of those who will be attending tomorrow.  

 View Tower Hamlets-20140906-00382.jpg in slide show

Music was provided by a seven-piece band called the New York Brass Band who played instrumental versions of 1980s hits. The tuba-player, who appeared to be the one in charge, did not sound American when he announced his band, but he got a laugh by saying that they are in fact from York. 

As for demonstrations, we got to see two guys from a fun-sounding Sussex-based organisation called Hunter Gather Cook butcher a deer carcass on the stage, serving up some wild venison carpaccio in the process along with advice about how to go about hunting deer and butchering venison, the latter being possible to do in your back garden. Not that I’m getting any ideas, of course.

 View Tower Hamlets-20140906-00386.jpg in slide show

The highlight of the day was Dario Cecchini, the master butcher of Panzano who has cropped up on this blog before (if you’re going to go to Tuscany, I highly recommend eating at his establishment in the afore-mentioned small hilltop town located between Florence and Sienna where his family have been butchers for eight generations). With his American wife Kim providing the translation, Dario expertly butchered a hindquarter of beef (and not just any piece of beef but one that had been hung for 45 days) while discoursing on his philosophy of treating the whole animal with respect by making sure that all parts of it are used (which, of course, ties in neatly with the whole nose-to-tail philosophy behind Meatopia) and quoting from Dante’s Inferno. The sushi del Chianti that he served up was delicious, although so popular was this with the crowd that I was lucky that Allison, who was sitting closer to the front than me, was able to get a couple of pieces!

 View Tower Hamlets-20140906-00397.jpg in slide show

View Tower Hamlets-20140906-00399.jpg in slide show

Meatopia 2014 was, I am pleased to report, a highly enjoyable foodie experience.