In the middle of the Canadian prairies, Quentin Long was not really sure how he would eat. Suffice to say, he was pleasantly surprised.
When anyone mentions Winnipeg, and let’s be honest that happens as about as often as it snows on Bondi Beach, I can’t help but think minus 40 degrees.
That’s as cold as it can get in the depths of winter here in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada’s central south. The schools won’t let kids play outside when it gets minus 25. Just think about it – at minus 20 degrees “out y’all go kids.”
Apart from that, nothing.
Until today when I sat down to eat.
Who’d have thunk it! Eating in Winnipeg is awesome.
The stand out is, wait for it… a tapas bar called Segovia.
Brainchild of local boy Adam Donelly, the food is outstanding and unashamedly Spanish (he imports a lot of it so not a massive winner on the sustainability ledger).
And so it should be considering his pedigree. He worked with Tom Aikens at the Michelin-starred Dehesa Charcuterie & Tapas Bar in London for three years before returning home.
So what’s on the menu, you ask?
Classics like patatas bravas, where the smoky capsicum paprika bravas sauce balances out the aioli and unlike the worst incarnations of this iconic dish, it’s crisp and not a mess of oily potato chips smothered in even oilier sauce.
Or boquerones on pear and toast. The vinegar infused sardines pack a powerful tangy punch while the toast and pear are bringing calmness to the palate. (Ok, I know I have eaten well when I start to get food pretentious.)
My favourite though, the exquisite confit of white prawns with mojo rojo and aioli. Sustainably-farmed Mexican prawns are slowly cooked in warm but not frying olive oil in a traditional ceramic dish.
The slow cooking gives the prawns a delicate moist texture and flavor that is not beaten out by the aioli.
Then in the emerging Exchange District there’s Peasant Cookery, which cures, dries, pickles or smokes more meat (and probably vegetables) than any other establishment in Canada.
The duck prosciutto is gamey without offence and chef Tristan Foucalt tells me, “anyone can make it. Just smother it in salt for 24 hours.” Said like a true chef, may leave that to the professionals.
Peasant is and is not what it says on the tin. It is peasant food but done with a great deal of skill. A simple burger is raised to heights with Berkshire bacon.
But their biggest seller? Oysters. And out here in the Prairies these are actually oysters from the sea.
The other end of the spectrum, an organization with a zeal for local, sustainable and thoroughly thoughtful food is found in the most unlikely of areas; the university.
On campus food is usually a crime against taste buds. Not here in Winnipeg where Diversity Catering manages the two cafeterias, the restaurant and café.
Diversity is a joint venture by two not for profits who came together to form a for profit social enterprise.
The group takes a large intake of students, mainly “New Canadians” (read refuges and displaced people) and gives them training and jobs.
The result is a social business that is delivering decent food to students, training and employing some of the most fragile citizens whilst engaging the local farmers and producers to give them a local market at a better price.
Chef Ben Kramer now deals with 160 separate local producers to deliver a healthy menu.
And instead of a skeleton staff of six over summer, he manages to keep a staff of 30 thanks to catering work at one of the many festivals in Winnipeg in summer.
The alumni of students is also starting to thrive with a Sudanese catering company formed by previous students who came to Canada as part of the lost girls and boys of Sudan.
Or Beet Happening – an exciting new breakfast-lunch-take-away spot hotspot.
Like I said, Winnipeg is a bit more than just cold.