Brain Stew

8 Feb

Torontoist, Toronto

This week I went to one of the culinary events put on as part of Winterlicious, Toronto’s annual attempt to pull people out of hibernation and into its plethora of restaurants, during the big freeze.

 Here’s my write-up for

Winterlicious Toronto


Five things they don’t tell you about Blue Mountain

27 Jan

I spent last Friday night in a pub. Life in Toronto isn’t so different from that in London.

Although, admittedly I’ve never rocked up to a UK drinking hole armed with a pair of skis and poles.

My accoutrements attracted quite a bit of attention from The Oxley’s genteel patrons, some of whom seemed to be under the impression that I’d literally skied to the door. After all, it was -13C and gusts of snow were flurrying  horizontally across the windows.

When I explained that my statement accessories had, in fact, been in a nearby workshop getting primed for an actual downhill ski trip the following day, on an actual mountain, my Canadian drinking buddies looked even more perplexed. “You’re going skiing in Blue Mountain?”

The biggest ski hill in this part of Ontario  – all 1,483 feet of it – sometimes seems to be a source of embarrassment to locals, who jealously eye up the rugged mountain ranges out west and the picturesque, snow-sure villages further north.

Whistler ski Blue Mountain Toronto

The vast ski area at Whistler, by GlobalReset on Flickr

With a maximum vertical of 720 feet, Blue Mountain’s very much the pygmy species of the Canadian ski kingdom. This doesn’t put me off; pygmies are among my favourite types of animal, and – as a Brit – small, cramped environments make me feel right at home.

But, having skied in the Alps, Pyrenees, the Andes and Dubai (in an air conditioned shopping mall – sorry ecowarriers) – not forgetting Milton Keynes – would Blue Mountain be a bit of a disappointment?

Well, here are a few things you don’t always hear about Blue Mountain:

1. There’s a great view of Georgian Bay from the top. On a cold day, when the lake’s totally frozen over, it’s rather pretty.

Blue Mountain Toronto ski

Ok, so not the best pic (cold hands), but you can see Georgian Bay in the distance

2. Everyone will tell you that the queues for the chairlifts can be numbingly long. BUT they often fail to mention that, despite the crowds, tougher pistes can be totally deserted. Well, that was the case on the day we went, anyway. Head for the black runs for the most solitude.

Blue Mountain ski Toronto

The only ones on the piste

3. You’re better off avoiding the busy, kiddy, cafe at South Base Lodge, near to where coach trippers are dropped off and ski schools gather. There are better eating and drinking options at Grand Central Lodge, based at the end of a couple of blue runs, which also has more of a cosy “resort” feel to it. The huge pulled pork sandwiches and burritos at Rusty’s will set you up for a thigh-burning afternoon sesh.

4. The conditions are fab after a week of the white stuff. Maybe that goes without saying, but a 1.5m snow depth at base camp ain’t bad for a titchy hill.

5. The International Ski Federation’s Snowboard Cross World Cup is being held at Blue Mountain in 2013 for the second year in a row – one of only two stops scheduled in Canada. You can catch the action there this weekend.

In summary, it’s clearly no Mont Blanc or Banff but, in optimum conditions, city-dwelling snowbunnies will have a fun day trip. Having your own kit, pre-booking lift passes via your ski club and heading away from the busiest slopes will enhance the whole experience by minimising queuing times.

And some things they do tell you (but I’ll repeat here anyway just FYI):

  • There are 36 trails, ranging from green to double diamond black runs
  • Fifteen lifts carry skiers and snowboarders up and down the mountain
  • A day’s lift pass (9am-4.30pm) costs $59, including tax. Night skiing (4.30pm-10pm) costs $45. Or it’s $69 for a day & night pass
  • You can rent equipment from the South Base Lodge
  • The drive takes around two hours from Toronto

Cross-country skiing: definitely a sport

23 Jan

“On your right! On your left!” Glancing up at the fallen casualties splayed like dilapidated windmills on the nordic trail I’ve just skidded down, I catch my breath and smile nervously at a crowd of polypropylene-clad skiers clustered at the bottom.

“Terrifying!” I pant.

“Yeah, you were,” one of them nods.

This seems an overly harsh assessment of the way in which I skillfully wove through the crowds emitting only the very mildest of swear-words (technically, “shi-euuuurgh” isn’t even a swear-word…or a word). But I let it go; the lycra guy’s brandishing a timer and wearing a ski club vest with numbers written on it – he must be important.

I’m at Highlands Nordic cross country ski centre, 10km south of Collingwood on the Niagara Escarpment – the huge crust of rock stretching from New York State through southern Ontario, forming gorges, waterfalls and cliffs.

There are 25km of trails at Highlands Nordic, winding through hardwood forest and – in some cases  – overlooking Georgian Bay.

Highlands Nordic cross country ski Toronto

A green (supposedly easy) trail at Highlands Nordic

On the day of my visit we’re being pelted with powdery snow, it’s a bone-chilling -13C or, with the windchill, -23C. Mad dogs and Canadians, eh?

It’s the first time I’ve tried cross country skiing. I’m hoping that my downhill experience will come into play, but just in case, I’m taking a morning lesson, which is included in the trip organised by my ski club.

“If you’ve done alpine skiing, you’ll be used to the weight shift and some of the fundamentals we’ll be running through this morning, like the snowplough,” says Greta, our instructor. I nod, feeling encouraged. Snowplough? Pah, I passed that stage years ago.

But snowploughing on flimsy nordic skis is akin to trying to snowboard down a mountain on a tea tray (yep, done it). There’s no “edge” to cut, and the skis are less responsive as your ankles aren’t fixed to them with bindings. Needless to say, on my first attempt at the weediest of “hills” – really just a mound of snow – I lose all control and crash into a heap at the bottom.

Things aren’t a whole lot easier on the flats, but I start to get the hang of stepping and gliding.

Highlands Nordic ski cross country Toronto

It’s easier on the flats

Going uphill is another struggle. The “herringbone” move eludes me so I resort to running, which is stupidly exhausting.  Now I get how you can burn more than 1,000 calories an hour and double your cardivascular fitness doing this.

“Give it more oomph” shouts Greta. I give it more oomph, and fall over again. At least the exercise is keeping me warm, and the snow-covered pine trees make a serene backdrop to my group’s giggly screeching.

I’m feeling brave enough after lunch to venture onto the trail again with just my other half for company. As we whoosh through the forest in the afternoon sun, slicing through glittering snow flurries with increasingly fluidity, it’s easy to understand what draws people to the sport.

And, to any naysayers, it IS a sport. That’s what my thighs and calves were telling me three days later, anyway. Look at these guys if you’re unconvinced.

Cross-country skiing: Potentially useful, factual stuff:

How long does it take to get to, from Toronto? Highlands Nordic takes around 2.5 hours from Toronto by coach

How much does it cost? Equipment rental plus a trail pass costs $35 for the day, though we only paid $15 each with the ski club

What to wear? On a normal winter’s day, you’ll probably be too hot in downhill ski clothes. I wore waterproof hiking trousers over thermals, and – as it was so cold – a long-sleeved base layer, hoodie and ski jacket.  On a  warmer day, you could probably get away with winter cycling/running gear

Anything else I might like to know? The shoes are COMFY. This is a major bonus to anyone used to toe-crunching downhill ski boots

Court report: Latest on the immigration backlog cull

19 Jan

The Canadian government was taken to court last week over its decision to scrap thousands of immigration applications from people who’d been waiting for up to eight years to hear whether they could move here.

I covered the case, heard at Toronto’s federal court from Monday to Wednesday, for Canadian Immigrant magazine:

CA screen grab

The lawyers representing the would-be immigrants, all of whom had submitted their applications before 28 February 2008, argued that the government acted unconstitutionally.

They told of families that had put their lives on hold in order to pursue their dreams of moving to Canada, passing up jobs and delaying buying properties as processing times for immigration files got progressively longer. I spoke to a British applicant with a similar tale for a story published last year on

The government, for its part, hit back that parliamentary sovereignty gave it the power to make decisions that were in Canada’s best economic interests.

Terminating the old files would help to speed up the immigration process for newcomers who applied under updated criteria and more closely matched the country’s labour needs.

But the authorities were also accused of discriminating unlawfully against applicants from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, in favour of countries that were “more like Canada”.

This was based on figures that Mario Bellissimo of Bellissimo Law Group said had been obtained from officials, showing the proportion of files that different visa offices around the world managed to process between 27 February 2008 and the June 2012 cut-off point. Those that weren’t processed by that date have been cancelled.

I’ve visualised this below (click on image for the interactive version, works best with Internet Explorer):

Proportion of backlog processed in different visa offices Many Eyes
More than half – 57 per cent – of all backlogged files were processed between February 2008 and June 2012, leaving 97,715 applicants (or 278,391, including dependants) out in the cold. But, as the map shows, applicants’ chances varied significantly depending on which visa office they applied to. No data was available for the Middle East.

The judge presiding over the case, Justice Donald Rennie, is mulling over all the evidence and is expected to make a ruling in around a month’s time on whether the cancellation was lawful.

Have you been affected by the backlog cull? Let me know your thoughts below.

From Banuary to Ch(ocolate)anuary

12 Jan

Start the year as you mean to go on – isn’t that the saying?

In line with this maxim, my first week back in Toronto after Christmas in the UK involved a trip to chocolate “boutique and lounge” MoRoCo, in Yorkville, and the most decadent dessert ever:

S'mores Toronto MoRoCo

S’mores at MoRoCo in Yorkville

For the uninitiated, s’mores are a North American campfire tradition. They consist of melted chocolate and gooey marshmallow, sandwiched between two graham crackers (sweet, chewy biscuits) and leave you wanting “some more”, geddit?

Granted, a trip to the local chocolate boutique’s a non-conventional alternative to January’s gym slog, but no doubt fellow sweet-tooths would agree it’s the preferable option. Especially when said boutique serves Malbec by the (large) glass.

In any case, we’re into the third week of January by now – definitely the time to hang up the yoga mat, along with any pretence that you can exist solely on oily fish, quinoa and coconut water.

The MoRoCo Experience

MoRoCo takes its chocolate very seriously, as one might expect. Entering through the white-walled store, displaying bite-sized, pastel-hued truffles and macaroons inside glass cases, it feels like you’ve walked into a jewellers or a high-end spa.

The starched ambience relaxes as you move into the main lounge, with its velvet curtains, mastoid chandeliers and kitsch figurines.

MoRoCo Toronto chocolate

MoRoCo interior

The decor’s probably meant to create a “romantic” atmosphere but instead lends a certain gentleman’s club air to the place; I half expected an exotic dancer to jump out from under the table and perform a strip-tease.

The soundtrack was also a bit forced – has anyone got jiggy to Sting since the ’80s?

The Menu

Technically, you can eat a full dinner at MoRoCo, but seeing as the menu’s finale features giant vats of apple caramel cheesecake, red velvet crepe and chocolate fondue, you might want to skip the Caesar salad and baked polenta. Filling up on leaves would be kind of missing the point.

The tiramusu ($10), served with Italian lady fingers in a chocolate cup, was good, however I definitely lucked out with the molten, crunchy s’mores ($14).

Our server uttered the inevitable snark about us “obviously” not enjoying our desserts (the plates were virtually licked clean). She was only being friendly but, really, no-one wants to be reminded of their gluttony. Especially in January.

Still, MoRoCo wasn’t an awful place to test out my reverse New Year’s resolution. Forget Banuary, it’s all about Ch(ocolate)anuary. Any visitors to Toronto who are down with this might like to check out the following emporiums of sweet treats:

  • Soma, 32 Tank House Lane, Distillery District. There’s a chocolate LABORATORY. Also, the best hot chocolate in the city – be sure to ask for it with milk.
Soma Toronto Chocolate

Soma, Distillery District

  • Cafe 260, 260 Richmond Street East. Superb eavesdropping to be had thanks to the exuberant designers, architects and model bookers who frequent it. Adjoins an art gallery and serves white chocolate lattes, After Eight hot chocolates, muffins and cookies. Yum, slurp.
  • The Oxley, 121 Yorkville Avenue, Yorkville. Great British puds. The sticky toffee pudding was so good I could almost overlook the fact it was served with ice cream instead of clotted cream. Almost.
  • Tori’s bakeshop, 2188 Queen Street East, The Beaches. Cupcakes, cinnamon buns, croissants, muffins, tarts and pies. They’re vegan, organic and refined sugar free, therefore totally guilt-free?

These are just some of my favourite spots, but I’m still exploring! Let me know where you go for your Toronto sugar-fix.

Canada Travel 2013 Wishlist

8 Jan

Note that I haven’t called this a “bucket list.” I’d never heard that expression until moving here. Where does it come from? Why does everyone say it, ALL the time?

Anyway, I decided to write a travel *wishlist* because friends and family in the UK have been asking where they should visit, apart from Toronto, when they come to Canada to see us.

It made me think about areas I hope to return to, and those I’m itching to explore this year.

So far our travels out here have included a Vancouver to Alaska boat trip, the Okanagan Valley, the Rockies, Niagara, Algonquin, Parry Sound, the Haliburton Highlands and Prince Edward County. Not bad for six months, considering we’ve been based in Toronto for most of that time.

Peyto, Banff, Toronto, Canada travel

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park, taken July 2012

But there’s so much more to see. It’s quite a big place, as you might’ve noticed.

The main limitations to extensive travel in Canada are the enormous distances and budget-busting flight costs.

For example, one day I’d love to visit Churchill to see the polar bears, but the $500 airfare to Winnipeg, followed by the $1,200 onward flight, make that a bit of a pipe dream for now.

And seeing the Northern Lights in the Yukon would be incredible, but 5,000 km is rather a long way to travel.

Northern Lights, Yukon, Canada

Northern Lights, Yukon, Canada, by Studiolit on Flickr

Lots of prospective visitors tell me they want to travel by train from Vancouver to Banff, but few have $2,000 to spare for the Rocky Mountaineer – and most are shocked at the cost. There isn’t much regular train travel available, and where it exists, you’re at risk of suffering spontaneous outbursts of the national anthem (though personally I love this video!).

Forgive me, then, for the Ontario-centric map I’ve put together, of trips that are high on my agenda for 2013 .

It includes Tobermory, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s wineries, Montreal, Quebec City, but excludes tons of other places I’m desperate to see, like the Maritimes and Laurentians. Hopefully we’ll find a way to slip the rest in at some point.

But it’s not all about me, me, me. With a bit of luck, the map gives any would-be tourists out there some inspiration for things to do around Toronto and further afield, in different seasons.

While there are limitations to cross-country travel in Canada, luckily we’re spoilt for choice in Ontario when it comes to sweet summer spots for sunbathing, swimming, walking, canoeing, cycling and camping – and supping wine, of course.

I haven’t experienced winter out here yet, and, while it’s a shame that the province isn’t renown for downhill skiing (though there are places to do it), there are meant to be good opportunities for Nordic skiing, snow-shoeing and snowmobiling.

This is a good thing, as I’m determined to make the most of the big freeze, rather than turn into a onesie-wearing hermit for the duration. There’s a lot to be said for a onesie, and I shall be wearing mine with pride – but hopefully after a day of exertion on the Ontario trails.

Expat jobs far, far, away

24 Dec

Cocooned in my family home back in England, having started the day with an eggs ‘n bacon breakfast, I’m watching the sploshy London drizzle and thinking about the cucumber sarnies we’ll be enjoying later for afternoon tea, which we’re having  in a hotel that’s home to one of the country’s only tea sommeliers.

Oh, and later, we’re doing a spot of morris dancing, popping into a pie n mash shop, visiting a pearly King and Queen and doin’ the Lambeth walk – oi! Some of that might be made up.

It’s great to be surrounded by loved ones, enjoying home comforts. Toronto feels a long, long way away.

No doubt most readers are similarly holed up with their nearest and dearest, or preparing to be.

But for those whose relatives’ eccentricities spark less than fuzzy feelings, or those who are just fed up of the damp weather, or are re-evaluating life with 2013 just round the corner: have you ever considered emigrating to somewhere warm and far away with a wealth of expat opportunities?

You have?

How about Azerbaijan?

| Azerbaijan, baku city |

Courtesy of mohammad sadeghmo

According to a survey I’ve written about for, expats are having to increasingly set their sights further away from home to land the best jobs and most generous packages with school fees included.

As countries in Eastern Europe and traditional expat destinations in Asia build their home-grown managerial talent, there are better deals to be snared in emerging markets, which also include Mongolia and Armenia. These countries need experienced managers who are culturally sensitive, can build teams and are able to operate with little in the way of support functions. In the words of one headhunter I spoke to: “If a company needs someone in the Gobi Desert, they’ll pay whatever’s going to get people there.”

So, Gobi Desert; How about it?

Gobi desert Landscape shadows

By frenchster

Ugly town…but the bacon’s great

19 Dec

“Whoever’s in charge of promoting Canada abroad completely have their heads up their arses.” So says Anthony Bourdain, the American TV chef who’s visited Toronto for a show due to air in Canada next year, though you can watch it below:

He’s right, there’s a lot more to Canada than mounties, maple syrup and Celine Dion. Though, regarding Toronto, Bourdain seemed to take some winning over.

He starts off by slating the city’s architecture  (“It’s not a good looking town…these architectural fads of the 20th century…Mussolini would be perfectly at home with that one…Soviet chic…butt ugly “) but ends up raving about its foodie culture, furtive bar scene and eclectic neighbourhoods.

He mainly seems to have been won over by his peameal bacon bap at St Lawrence Market, which is understandable, though personally I’d have taken him to Rashers in Leslieville, which seems to be the only place in Toronto that sells proper British-style bacon butties.

Rashers bacon Toronto

Bacon butty from Rashers

Anyway, the video’s quite fun, if you can stomach Bourdain’s scatological turn of phrase; it’s hard to imagine Delia or Floyd referring on air to mushrooms that “give you a big stiffy”or roti that causes a “burning a-hole”.

It actually doesn’t do a bad job of showing the “real” Toronto as a city comprising lots of different, slightly hidden, areas. T Dot’s not – and doesn’t try to be – a New York, or London, with their distinctive, all-encompassing branding.

Instead of fixating on the lack of iconic sights or tourist spots, it features some of my favourite neighbourhoods, like Kensington Market, Mirvish Village, Toronto Islands and Little Italy. The full list of restaurants and bars in the show are listed here.

And yeah, my first impression of Toronto’s architecture tallied with Bourdain’s, but high rise cities – even concrete ones – are often spectacular at night, and during the day the skyline looks pretty awesome from the islands.

Toronto skyline beaches

Toronto skyline from the Islands

First Five Months

12 Dec

Facebook’s inviting users to: “See your 2012 in review: Look back at your 20 biggest moments from the past year.” According to the site’s handy photo memo, I’ve spent much of the year with a drink in my hand and/or wearing questionable hats or wigs. Usually while pretending to be a pop star.

Personally, I’d have included emigrating to another continent, fulfilling my dream of travelling to Alaska and making the huge decision to leave my magazine job  in a list of 2012’s “biggest moments”, but Facebook’s  clever algorithms don’t seem to have quite captured any of this.

You can’t blame Facebook for trying; at this time of year, everyone’s clamouring to get in on the “Review of 2012” action. This blog’s nothing if not bang on trend (even though the phrase “bang on trend” really isn’t), so I’ve created an interactive Dipity timeline of my experience in Toronto, which starts when my husband and I touched down in mid-July.

Annoyingly, doesn’t like Dipity, but you can see it here:


The timeline includes loads of highlights that I didn’t get a chance to blog about, including (not in any particular order):

Toronto Nuit Blanche

Colourful speakers in Nathan Phillips Square blasting out choral music during Nuit Blanche

  • Nuit Blanche – Definitely one of Toronto’s cooler events.  An all-night contemporary art festival, with car parks, public squares, cinemas and municipal buildings converted into installations for the night.
  • Haliburton Highlands – When my parents came to visit in early October, we spent Thanksgiving in cottage country. The Fall colours were at their beautiful, golden, peak and we had a perfect weekend of games, wine, a cottage with a dock down to the lake, some silly canoeing and a day trip to Algonquin Provincial Park.  If my little sis had been there too, it would’ve been perfect. It wasn’t bad though (sorry sis):
Algonquin Fall Colours

Fall colours

  • Niagara Falls by helicopter – Every bit as cool as it sounds. Niagara-on-the-lake is a really pretty town to wander through, too. I’m sure the wineries will call us back.
  • Taste of the Danforth – A meaty cloud wafted over Greektown while crowds lined up at stalls selling grilled quail, souvlaki and fried calimari at the hugely popular (Toronto’s most popular, according to the website) August festival.
Taste of the Danforth Toronto

Grills line the street at Taste of the Danforth

You’ll have to check out the timeline for the rest.

Btw, this isn’t meant to be a “hidden gems of Toronto” guide – these diamonds are all very much on the  map. But it all depends on what map you’re using; I don’t think Nuit Blanche features in any of the guides I bought before arriving here, yet I’ve never seen Toronto’s streets so buzzing (in more ways than one, by the early hours).

Some of them are personal highlights, like passing my sailing practical exam.

And  there are so many great experiences that aren’t on the timeline. It’s just intended as a visual reminder of what a fantastic introduction we’ve had to our new city – and hopefully, a handy set of suggestions or reminders for anyone planning to be in Ontario next year.

I’d love to know what other people’s Toronto/Ontario highlights have been in the latter part of this year – and what a newbie can look forward to in the first half of 2013.

Desperately Seeking Sparkies

11 Dec

Thinking about moving to Canada? As the most reticent reader of this blog could surmise, I’d recommend it.

However, as less reticent readers will know, the immigration system over here’s being drastically overhauled and it’s increasingly difficult to get in unless you tick some tightly defined boxes.

But there’s a new box in town; step forward the sexily-titled Federal Skilled Trades Program.

As my story in today sets out, the Canadian government’s making it easier for skilled tradespeople to move here with permanent residency. They’re being tight-lipped about the full list of registered trades due to benefit from the fast-tracking, but immigration minister Jason Kenney’s name-checked electricians, welders, pipe-fitters and heavy duty mechanics.

For the article, I spoke to Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada CEO Cheryl Knight, who said the oil and gas industries also particularly needed millwrights, machinists, steamfitters and crane operators.

But she urged anyone thinking of making the move to do their research, warning: “They need an understanding of what trades are in demand and where the trades are in demand.”

She makes a moot point. Because, while lots of aspirant migrants think of Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto as potential destinations, the in-demand jobs are often many, many miles away in remote corners of Canada.

Take Fort McMurray, home to the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta. It’s 450km from the nearest city, Edmonton. And Edmonton, with a population of 812,201, is hardly a giant metropolis. Fancy it?

Canadian Construction Association president Michael Atkinson said project managers and supervisors were also in high demand. But again, the jobs were primarily in less populated parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and the North (take your furs).

Newfoundland Canada Immigration

Some jobs are based in Newfoundland, in Eastern Canada. Courtesy of

If this sounds like your cup of tea, take heart: Benjamin Tal, CIBC World Markets deputy chief economist, said those with sought-after skills could expect competitive salaries, as Canada battles with Australia, the USA and the UK for the cream of the labour crop. In Mr Tal’s words: “They’re not lining up to be picked. They’re selecting us.”

The official list of occupations in the scheme is due to be announced before the program kicks in on 2 January.

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