If we must have a national dish in Canada - and people ask all the time, in all the talking we do about food - we could do worse than wild salmon. Fresh-caught pickerel, cooked in the woods, is a contender; bison should be runner-up, given what a perfect meat it is and how the woolly chested weirdos restore the natural prairie simply by grazing on it (did you know that?). But salmon has the edge.
This is the only conclusion your correspondent is willing to park himself in front of, after a summer (81 days, precisely) of driving and eating his way across the country. It's a big country, after all.
There are a lot of also-rans: Did I mention Newfoundland halibut? Sausage in Manitoba? Ground-cherry jam? The Asian spare ribs at Jade in Richmond, B.C., or the samosas (three for $2) at Doaba Sweets in the Charolais mall in Brampton, Ont.? Do you have any idea how many cuisines there are in this country?
I'm more than willing to nominate heartburn as the national ailment. But as for a national dish, wild salmon is as far as I'm willing to go.
And if I can actually climb out of the car on my own any longer, I'll tell you why: We're not afraid of it. Aboriginal cooks have been preparing salmon for a millennium, and they've taught the rest of us a thing or two. I devoured the Atlantic model, caught in New Brunswick and cold-smoked by Fumoir St-Antoine in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. I ate the sweeter, paler, wild Pacific version - grilled, smoked, jerked, candied, tandooried, baked, even deep-fried - up and down the B.C. coast and almost everywhere in between.
Every time I think of the... astonishing attention and time and effort they bestowed on a meal for a person they had never met, I have to stand still for a bit.
I wasn't even that fond of salmon when I set out. But this is the strange thing: I remember each one I ate driving across the country, in detail. I thought I'd tell you about a few of them, to figure out why.
SALMON FOR A STRANGER
The sockeye salmon I ate in Metchosin, at the tip of Vancouver Island, at the outset of what may be the sockeye run of a century, had been caught in the Juan de Fuca Strait by Pete Pauwels, a B.C. conservation officer. Pete's mother, Germaine, his wife, Charlene, and his sister, Sue, had invited me to dinner, something people did a lot. Apparently, when food is involved, it's okay to invite a complete stranger into your house.
Germaine Pauwels's house was a small, precise one on a rocky hill, with a view of the strait across green sheep pastures. Germaine had lived there for 48 years, most of them with her late husband, Bob, a teacher, raising two kids. Before that, she was a copywriter in Winnipeg.
A lot of people now refer to Comox as 'the new Provence.'
She remembers her mother making pierogies, with dough drying in sheets on all the bedspreads in the house. Her mother had been slightly ashamed of being Ukrainian, which in Winnipeg in those days put you behind the English and the French, but ahead of the Jews: That made her feel bad both ways.
The meal Germaine, Charlene and Sue made was ready when I got there, just after 7 in the evening. Germaine had wanted to stuff the salmon, but the girls said no, you couldn't do that to sockeye. Sockeye is the pinkest Pacific salmon (I didn't know that), the one British Columbians prize most for its sweet taste (ditto). Sockeye eat plankton and shrimp, whereas other salmon prefer herring and anchovies.
We sat out on the patio in the Pacific gloaming while the salmon rested. We drank B.C. wine and ate homemade puff-pastry tarts of leeks, zucchini, feta, thyme and "tons of butter," alongside plates of tiny bright-red-and-yellow tomatoes with bocconcini and a homemade vinaigrette.
The herbs in the vinaigrette and most of the vegetables came from the Comox Valley up the island, where Sue and her husband, Ron Brown, live. A lot of people now refer to Comox as "the new Provence."