One morning I woke up, took a shower and got dressed. But not before I did a long workout at the gym. I was preparing for not just an ordinary day but a day in which I would try 40 bites of pastry and gelato, being guided by patissier Jackie Ellis of Beaucoup bakery, a woman who would undoubtedly understand my complete and utter devotion to butter.
There we were in her bakery, wedged in a tiny corner while a never-ending crowd of pastry lovers bumped against the glass to point at glistening flakey buttery pastries and take them home (or hope that one of the few tables would clear up).
Jackie was originally a graphic designer that sold off her share of a successful business and started visiting Paris to do exactly what I go to Paris for - to eat pastry. Jackie visits the pastry capital four times a year for inspiration and to set benchmarks for what an ideal croissant, macaron or kouign-amann is. On her return to Vancouver, she debuts the next season's collection inspired by the visit.
A woman behind us quips, "I think I'd like to sit at your table!" while another woman's eyes narrow and she regards us suspiciously from another table. I guess having two trays of gleaming pastries brought out to try can evoke one of two reactions.
We try each of the pastries starting with one of my favourite pastry items: the almond croissant. Here it's double baked and dipped in syrup syrup giving the oft neglected bottom of the pastry a sweet, super crunchy base. The creamy almond filling oozes with every bite and a shower of golden crumbs rains over the table. The unhappy woman at the other table sighs and turns her body the other way as if she can't bear to look.
The Bostock is a heavenly piece of brioche with orange blossom water custard. Le Bibi is is a brioche filled with rosewater syrup custard. One the savoury side is a scroll with roasted pear, walnut, blue cheese and rosemary-like a cheese platter in pastry form while a cheese and onion scone although simple compared to the rest of these supermodels is no less stunning.
And then we get onto the cookies. Jackie is famous for her peanut butter sandwich cookies. They are an exercise in the right amount of salt, crunch and sweet the cookie shattering satisfying under the weight of each bite while the peanut butter filling is a creamy, luscious ooze from the centre. The chocolate rosemary cookie is for those that like their chocolate dark and their sweets on the savoury side with aromatic rosemary and salt. The salted caramel blondie is given a refined Parisian appearance, all slender with a small round biscuit on top.
Jackie explains that her patisserie fits her French training and Asian roots. It has clearly exceeded her modest dreams of serving 50 customers a day with 3 staff members (her 20 staff serve hundreds of customers daily). An example of her East West philosophy is her tarte citron which is actually lemon and yuzu flavoured with a buttery tart shell. Her religieuse is flavoured with black sesame creme patissiere and features a thin black sesame croustillant, reminiscent to me of Chinese black sesame candy. A spiced pear cheesecake is strong on spice, light and smooth while a pressed apple cake sits atop a very vanillaey creme patissiere filling.
Our next stop is one of Jackie's idols: Thomas Haas. She recalls studying his pastries and using them as an influence for her own shop. She and Thomas now have a joking and close relationship and he is always ready with a one liner.
Originally from Germany, the store bears some signs of his heritage with freshly baked stollen lining the shelves and shopping baskets of customers. The line is enormously long and constant so close to Christmas and he tells us that the Christmas period is six times busier than any other time of the year.
Thomas started working at the Four Seasons in 1995 and then worked in New York for Daniel Boulud before returning to Vancouver. He found himself making 20,000 chocolates a week at night after working during the day. Now his pastries, chocolate and cakes are in high demand and the queues today make it almost impossible to get a good counter shot of the cakes or chocolates.
But we mustn't dawdle because there are many more sweets that Vancouver has to offer. Just four days prior to our visit James Coleridge of Bella Gelateria took out the title of "International Gelato Master of the Year Award" from the 54° International Fair of Artisan Gelato (MIG) in Longarone, Italy. During summer his gelateria serves up to 2,500 a day of his small batch ice cream made using gelato machinery that most have dispensed of.
Each batch is just four kilos large which is small compared to the ten kilos usually produced by most gelaterias today. James tells us that sometimes they use social media to let buyers know of a flavour and they sell out of it with preorders before it even hits the counter. Once a flavour is gone, it disappears for 3-4 months and the product is only sold here.
His flavours reflect the ethnic diversity of Vancouver. The Falouda is rice noodles with rosewater, while a Filipino gelato is made in a Buko pandan flavour. He uses local products like Erin Ireland Banana bread and everything is made from scratch. "We don't use can openers" he says. The dairy free chocolate sorbetto is a favourite as it is smooth, dark and creamy despite having no cream - the secret is down to the texture which they reduce to 25 microns so that it is super smooth.
After all of the sweets, we're at our last stop with Jackie where one of Canada's favourite celebrity chefs Vikram Vij is joining us. Vikram offers us a cup of chai while we wait for everyone to arrive. The chai recipe changes every day according to the weather and today's is strong in ginger because of the rain.
We are dining at Rangoli, a casual version of his eponymous restaurant Vij, one of the most well regarded restaurants in Vancouver. While Vij focuses on fine dining, Rangoli is all about home cooking with things that would have been made by mums and family recipes. Named after the "painted prayers of India" women would paint their homes beautiful vibrant colours in the hopes of attracting the gods to visit them. The cuisine is neither exclusively North or South Indian.
He tells us that his whole kitchen is made up of female chefs. When he first started, his auntie was the dishwasher and when the restaurant became successful, he needed a chef so she became his chef. She agreed to do this on one condition: if she could have an all female team. "She said to me 'We women want to talk a bout our husbands and things like that. we don't want men around'" Vikram recounts. He explains that in Indian culture women don't like being touched by strangers and bumping inevitably occurs in a kitchen. In the 19 years that he has been in operation he tells us that he has not lost a chef to unhappiness.
Both restaurants however do not take bookings and Vikram is firm on that. His reason? Gandhi's quote that "All Men Are Same. Treat Them Equal." Even his mother has to wait for a table at Vij's in the famous queue that can last as long as two hours. Waiting guests are taken care of with pakoras and drinks during their wait and the wait is as much a part of the experience as everything else.
The savoury chaat is usually a summer item but we don't let the cold rain pelting down dampen any enthusiasm for this texturally delightful dish. Crunch is from the wheat chips and body from potato, sprouts and a drizzle of chutney and yogurt.
Vikram spoons more daal on my pakora and the vegetable rich crunchy fritters are given an extra boost of flavour from the lentil daal which is richly spiced.
I adore the spicy hit from the kebabs which prompts Vikram to ask if I'd like to try some pickled red chillies. I nod yes enthusiastically and they bring out a small bowl of home pickled chillis. They're about the same size as a birds eye chilli but I nibble at the end a little-there's a good hit of heat but it has been offset with the sweet pickling.
In between courses Vikram tells us about the business's rough start. From the beginning, he has made a concerted effort to create Indian food that was different that others - there was no butter chicken or tandoori chicken on his menu. After he was open for three and a half months he was making an average of $100 a day on a good day.
He had one month left before he had to admit defeat and close up shop when a woman walked in asking for butter chicken. He told that he didn't have any and as she turned to leave he asked her to try the food - if she didn't like she didn't have to pay. With reluctance she stayed and he cooked her a meal. She turned out to be a food critic Robin Mines and her review shortly established him as a chef and they have never looked back since.
This is the dish you pull out your emergency stomach for. The pulled pork sings with spice and flavour and it sits on a layer of collard greens and batons of daikon. Vikram tells us that daikon usually associated with Japanese food is definitely used in Indian cuisine. You take a piece of soft naan and spread the yogurt and sour cream chutney on top with a pile of spicy pulled pork and some collard greens and forget any sort off fullness.
The grilled chicken is served nicely charred after marinating in tamarind and yogurt. To the side is a sprout salad, basmati rice and naan.
The rice pudding is sweet and fragranced with rosewater and cardamom. I love the aroma of this dessert and keep thinking what a nice perfume it would make!
This is a dessert that takes 20 minutes to prepare but it's worth it in its simplicity for it is delicious and the fact that it is rarely seen on restaurant menus. "It's like serving oatmeal in a restaurant," Vikram explains. It is a classic way that Indian families get their children to eat wholewheat chapatis. They sprinkle demerara sugar and cashews on a chapati to make the top crackle with crunch and flavour and then serve it with a mint topped custard.
Because life should always have a sweet ending.
So tell me Dear Reader, would you like to work in a women or men only team? And do you end every day with something sweet even if it is healthy like fruit? And which pastry would represent you? I would be a strawberry Saint Honore!
NQN visited Canada as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission
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