Thursday, February 20, 2014

Winter Get-Away, Part Two

The last three days of my much-needed winter break was a far cry from the gourmet weekend in Elora. This time I was with my parents celebrating my mother's birthday.

My mother is the world's easiest going person. She takes so much pleasure from everything in life that she doesn't have need for a bucket list or some such. Except for one particular dream.

However... a little back story first...

My mother's father was born in Italy but spent several years in the States as a young man, working in Alaska among other places. This was during Prohibition. When he headed back to Italy he met my grandmother and started his family. He brought back with him not only a New York-accented English, but also a love of Robert Service poems and the novels of Jack London, including Zanna Bianca (known in English as White Fang).

So my mother grew up with these influences and developed a love for and fascination with husky dogs. Dog sledding was something she dreamed of doing, and so this year, for her birthday, we surprised her with a trip to Haliburton. Now, when I say we surprised her, we gave her three weeks notice... because a girl needs to know she's properly outfitted!

Winterdance provides a fantastic dogsledding experience. They have 150 Siberian huskies and they love their dogs. The safety and well being of their dogs is paramount and this is evident in all they do and how happy and vigorous the dogs are. Haliburton is three hours north of Toronto, and Winterdance's trail is about half an hour further north. The guides could not have been more helpful and professional. Their very obvious love of the dogs and the care they took of us, the novice clients, was so impressive. Kevin, our fantastic main guide for the day, is also an artist, and you can see his remarkable work in wood here.

My dad rode with Kevin, and my mother rode in another sled with me as driver (she's a brave woman!). Seven more sleds of visitors and two more guide sleds made up the party. Nothing could have prepared me for how special this would be. I suppose I had a more dreamy idea of dog sledding, when in fact it was a vigorous and exciting activity. The sudden pull of the dogs took some getting used to, as they bounded forward excitedly every time we took off. Finding my feet on the narrow runners and learning how to use the all-important brake was a bit of a learning curve too. And for the driver, dog sledding is a work out. As we rode, Kevin told us that in the first month alone of sledding this winter, he lost 15 pounds, and it's not like he needs to. I found myself doffing layers. However the passengers got quite cold. If you plan to dogsled and just ride in the sled, you cannot wrap yourself up too warmly!

We had booked the half-day trip (by far the most popular) and it was perfect. The trails are stunning, sometimes dipping up into Algonquin Park. The land is totally remote, untouched, beautiful, haunting... we crossed a frozen lake, and drove through tree-covered ravines that soared up beside us. The snow had started to fall as we took off, and then began to fall in earnest in great, fat flakes. It was like something out of a film in my imagination - just a little more visceral.

When you drive a sled, you are part of the team, and it makes sense that when you come to inclines, you get off to walk with the dogs, and sometimes help push the sled up. It's invigorating to say the least! When the slope goes downwards, you must use the brake, to make the dogs pull the sled down, ensuring that the sled doesn't run forwards and risk hurting the team.

The dogs are remarkable. They love to pull. When they were getting into harness, one dog named Lily, identified as the queen of the kennel, began to howl. Within moments all 55 dogs were howling, the sound reverberating around the clearing and ringning in my ears. As soon as they had started the run, all was silence. We just heard the slight jingle of harness, the soft rush of the sled, and all else was silence.

Our lead dog was Willow, a small female. She was patient with me, just occasionally looking back as if to say, "Do you have any idea what you're doing?" Kevin warned us that if we didn't do our bit for the team, like getting off to push when the going got tough, they would just stop, sit down and look over their shoulders at you with the Stare of Death. Each dog was such an individual character. Willow's running mate was Albus, a big boy, unfixed, so I was warned to push him off her if he got amorous, but this was unexpected as she wasn't in heat. No kidding - he acted like she wasn't even there. Rainy, the middle dog, is Willow's sister, and apparently they're mortal enemies. They seem to harbour a powerful hate for each other but all the dogs are gentle and patient with people. After the first burst of energy was out of their system and we'd reached the halfway point, they took interest in us and wanted cuddles. I never learned the names of our two wheel dogs at the back. As they were being harnessed, such was the racket of howling, I couldn't hear what the guides said. But they did tell us that once we were on the trail, we only had to speak to the dogs in a conversational tone, as their ears were pointed back to pick up our sounds.

Here's handsome Albus, the big male dog who ran with our lead dog, Willow. Such a beautiful face... two beautiful faces (the other being my mum's). Secret surprise: I got a print made of this picture of her and Albus today and framed it so she'll open it on her actual birthday (tomorrow).

Pausing on the trail. The scenery took my breath away. My mother's lower legs are there, covered in a blanket.

The privy, tipi, and sign-in hut at the trailhead. In the picture beside it, you can almost make out Willow looking back to check on me!

Sisters and enemies: beautiful, blue-eyed Rainy, and Willow, our lead dog, with the softest fur ever. Look at her wonderful ears!

 A half-way break for hot chocolate with marshmallows and home-made danishes (plus treats for the dogs) saw the sun come out... a bit blinding but very welcome. To the left are our wheel dogs, who were such good boys. They loved to pull so much! The one on the left had snow on his nose. During stops on the run, many dogs would push their faces into the snowbanks to cool off. Kevin told us that they're happiest running when it's minus 20 Celsius. This particular day was a bit too warm for them. On the right are the two lead dogs for the sled behind us. The sleepy guy on the left took the advantage of a stop to push his head between my legs and keep it wedged there. Oh haaaaaaiiiii.

The sun started to fade, it got colder, but no less beautiful.

We stayed two nights at a nearby resort, with the world's most comfortable beds. They were needed. I was zonked by about 8:30 on the evening after the dog sledding. A beautiful experience, and one that I wouldn't have wanted to miss.

I'm Pinning!

Just saying... well, I'm not really pinning myself, although I've set up an account. But my images are now pinnable from my blog. Just hover your mouse over each image to see the Pinterest icon show up!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Winter Get-Away, Part One

The long, cold, snowy winter continues, although the days are lengthening. We cling to the hope of spring. But in the meantime, a winter break was needed. So I tacked on some days and put together a five-day weekend. The first two days were spent in Elora, where the gang of four went to stay at Drew House. This is a B&B and offers gourmet weekends with cooking demonstrations by owner/chef/author Roger Dufau. We went for the works, as one of the party is an old friend of the Dufaus.

It was cold and sunny, and the heavy snowfall squeaked underfoot. Elora, famous for its stone buildings, its summer music festival and its real charm, was a haven of serenity for us out-of-towners.

Roger produced a Valentine's Day menu which, to be honest, I thought was impossible in three hours or so.

Beetroots and blue potatoes
Asparagus mimosa
Caesar salad
Chicken lasagne
Roasted steelhead with shrimps and scallops
Beef Bourgignon
Beefl Wellington
Black Forest Cake

Readers, he did it, unflappably and charmingly in his Basque French accent and assisted by his sous-chef François, a young culinary student. What a relief fron the overexcitable self-importance of most television chefs.

The 30-or-so crowd enjoyed the demonstration with wine they had brought and Roger's indescribably good sausage rolls. He made them in front of us as part of the demo and then, thank God, they only took ten minutes to cook in a roaring oven. It was, and this is saying something, the best part of the weekend. My friend Laura turned me and said, "We're making those."


We start work on this year's big cake project very soon, and she suggested that at our first get together, when we start the colour-flow decorations, that we set aside a bit of time to try making the sausage rolls.


The demonstration took place in the large coachhouse building of Drew House. Afterwards the food was set up on a buffet table we all sat together en famille and ate. So good. SO. GOOD. And such an interesting table of people! Later, after a bit of shopping in the little main street of Elora (I had bought raw chocolate there last fall and had to stock up again), we had cocktails at a beautiful farmhouse. This belongs to a friend of one of our gang of four, and Chef Roger and his charming wife Kathleen were of the party. Our hosts are avid collectors of photography and there were some stunning pieces of serious historical value. We then returned to the main house, where we had run of the place, and sat by the fire chatting and making new friends. I slept like a log in the pumpkin-hued bedroom, and then, in the morning, there was more lengthy discussion over breakfast, which featured eggs benedict. It seemed most of the previous day's demo participants had stayed overnight as well. It was hard to push our chairs back from the table as the conversation flew fast and furious. Finally we groaned our way back to the car and came home. I slept... more. That's pretty much all I had done all weekend: eat and sleep. Really wonderful time.

Roger and Kathleen create a very special atmosphere, deeply relaxing and friendly, warm and irresistible. Needless to say, we'll be back. Needless to say I took some pictures.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Beautiful Blossom

(I think Bruce the Bat has a crush... appropriate for the day).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Christmas 2013

Christmas was lovely. It was white.

It started, as usual, with sausage rolls and buttered panettone for breakfast as we opened presents. I will never get too old to lose the joy of giving and receiving presents... I mean - come on! The day ended with a different sort of Christmas dinner. I was bored with turkey and the other usuals, so after the soup, I served a festive Italian salad with arugula, goat cheese, pomegranates, and Soma's delicious lightly candied pecans chopped into it. The main course was a wild boar bolognese sauce over pasta. Gooooooood. For dessert, my mother made her traditional killer trifle. Mmmmm. I'd also made a big Christmas fruitcake a couple of weeks previously and my mother and I had a scream making little fondant figures for the top. The donkey looked like a giant rabbit originally. Joseph looked like Genghis Khan, so fierce he looked like he'd rather eat Baby Jesus than, you know, take care of him, and hide him from Herod, etc. Actually, he could have been Herod in disguise.

I bought this little wooden tree for my desk at work a couple of years ago. The yellow wooden star on the top disappeared quickly. I didn't want to use the tree with out it, so this year I looked for - and found - a lovely German-made, unpainted wooden star at Flatirons, the fantastic gift store on Jarvis, just north of the St. Lawrence Market. I painted it white and put it on the top, and it's much prettier and more delicate than the original. Score! And... it's staying at home.

Over Christmas break, I had some cosy nights in my big wing chair. Next you see the table setting for Christmas day. The snowball candles came from that same fabulous gift store in Apsley. And they burn really well. And there's a new shot of me trying out a new lipstick shade, Clinique's Plushest Punch. That sounds Christmassy! It's odd, I used to avoid red in makeup or clothing; now I embrace it in all things.

One Wacky Week

December went by in a bit of a blur, and I realized how blurry it was when I noticed I hadn't posted once in my favourite month of the year, the one that features that little event called Christmas, when I get all weak-kneed and over-excitable.

The month started with a week that featured a whirlwhind trip to Boston and London via Iceland. Bruce the Bat and I put in five flights in five days. This was for my work and - even though I got very few pictures - as my friends know, there's always time to take pictures of Bruce. Obviously.

 Monday morning started at 4 a.m. with a 7 a.m. flight to Boston for a photo shoot. Bruce hung out in the photographer's studio, one of his favourite things to do. That evening we flew to London with a three-hour wait in Iceland in the middle of the night. We got to London in the afternoon and I crashed for two hours because... you know.... SLEEP. That Bruce met my aunt and cousins and was a big hit. It was so fantastic to see them again - what a great and gorgeous family I have! They brought champagne which we drank on a picnic bench overlooking the Thames before gorging on excellent dim sum. My cousin Richard took the shot of Bruce with the empty bottle.

One insane day later, we were back in Iceland, but we were delayed due to storms over Britain. Big storms. Turbulence... you will never by my friend. We had to wait overnight for our next flight but the good folks at Keflavik Airport put us up in a hotel and fed us lots of Icelandic-type food. It was too overcast to see the northern lights and too bitterly cold to do anything but run down to the ocean, lose all possible ability to think straight as my brain froze, and run back to the hotel past some interestingly painted little houses. Back in my warm room, I finished reading the next Jane Austen book club book and perused the Icelandic bible. I lay in bed amusing myself by reading it out loud between mouthfuls of duty-free chocolate. I'm easily entertained.

Guess what? Bruce brought back a great souvenir for himself from Keflavik. Meet his new pal Olaf!

We landed in Toronto late on Friday evening.

Saturday was almost the craziest day of the week. In the morning I hightailed it to the St. Lawrence Market to buy my Christmas tree.. I had been aching for this moment, because... well... Christmas tree! And, as usual, I bought it from Jeff the Christmas tree guy, who was featured here. Thanks Jeff! Then it was off to St. Paul's for the big Toronto Star Carol Concert with a friend and the lovely Armenians. Then it was back to L'Espresso Bar Mercurio for the One-Off, Six Meeting, Limited Edition Jane Austen Book Club. But, the previous night, while disembarking the plane, someone had wetly sneezed on my neck and I woke up Sunday morning with a sore throat and a morning voice-over recording. At the studio I guzzled gallons of peppermint tea and tried to rise above my own voice. It seemed to go ok. Home again I unpacked, caught up on Coronation Street AND performed my cold-fighting ritual. The next day, Monday, I went into work feeling totally normal. Well... as normal as I ever can... heh heh. Weirdly, I had no jet lag. Bonus!

Oh Haiiiiii

I woke up this morning under the newish, beloved duck-down duvet, slightly disoriented to discover there was nothing I had to do, and nowhere I had to be. It was almost disconcerting. ALMOST.

A couple of hours later and I lolled on the sofa, as the pot simmered with organic chicken, leeks, mushroom, marjoram, etc... My stomach grumbled in anticipation. I could hear it because I had no music on. I was relishing the quiet and the nothing.

Then I thought... da blog! It's a little behind. A LOT BEHIND. So, er, I'll go and type up some blog posts and resize a bajillion pictures.