ROCKY MOUNTAINEER: GOURMET MEALS ON WHEELS
All aboard for gourmet meals on wheels
I’m as fat as a bear, and soon I will burst my seams. The food just keeps coming: breakfasts of blueberry pancakes dripping with Canadian maple syrup; baked eggs served over Yukon gold potatoes and Canadian bacon; and lunches so luscious they wrench my attention from the landscapes rolling past.
What’s more beautiful, the soaring Rocky Mountains or a piping hot mushroom burger oozing smoked cheddar? There are tea trays piled high with warm cookies the size of bread plates and trolleys crammed with bowls of bite-sized trail mix and chocolate-covered nuts.
On the Rocky Mountaineer’s popular First Passage to the West itinerary from Vancouver to Banff, I feel as if I’m being fed to prepare for hibernation. But it’s spring, and black bears and less common brown grizzlies are beginning to emerge from their secret winter lairs in search of sustenance.
If they found their way to the Fraser Valley, west of Vancouver, they’d be rewarded with fresh blueberries and raspberries, stone fruit and apples and herbs, and kale so prolific it grows like weeds. It’s past these lush pastures that we’re chugging now, leaving the graffitismeared outskirts of Vancouver, the blooming aspens and overpasses we spy through the glass ceiling of our GoldLeaf carriage. But it will be at least a day before we can spot a bear, and then only if we’re really lucky, says train manager Zebulon Fastabend, whose last encounter was about 45 journeys ago.
We make a toast, nonetheless, to the historic Canadian Pacific Railways route, which extends in seemingly interminable, sometimes jagged lines west from here, uniting British Columbia with the rest of Canada. As we cross the Fraser River into Mission, two harbour seals poke up their heads from the water and ogle the passing train. Perhaps they’re salivating for the smoked salmon curled like a rosebud inside a cupped tortilla chip atop my breakfast of creamy scrambled eggs. For yes, I am seated in the dining carriage, and the feeding has begun.
As I eat my breakfast I understand why people undertake this journey as much for the food as the scenery. Executive chef Jean Pierre Guerin, a 10-year veteran of the Rocky Mountaineer, conjures magic inside his slimline galley kitchens across four routes. Menus are a celebration of everything that grows in this region and its adjacent seaboard. It changes each season, but Guerin has retained favourites, such as beef short ribs, braised for hours in Okanagan Valley merlot. “This is your comforttype food,” he explains. “It’s not extremely original but it’s been one of the bestsellers. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of thousands of portions we’ve cooked over the years. It’s just unbelievable the amount people eat.”
But things are changing and Guerin has received so many requests for gluten-free dishes that this year the menu has become almost 100 per cent gluten-free. It’s only obviously wheat-based products such as bread and croissants that contain gluten now, and alternative gluten-free varieties are available on request. Moreover, every menu contains a vegetarian and vegan choice.
All around me, passengers are smacking their lips, mopping up the remains of their breakfasts and almost forgetting to look out of the window, where the countryside has opened up like a storybook.
When we left Vancouver early this morning, raindrops had pooled like liquid pebbles on the glass dome, but the clouds are lifting now and bright daylight is flooding the carriage. The flat, expansive landscape starts to crumple, taking on the contours of altitude.
The Fraser River squeezes through the Fraser Canyon, and the Rocky Mountaineer follows suit. From the carriage we can spy the narrowest part of the river, a frothing chasm christened Hell’s Gate by 19th-century fur trader and explorer Simon Fraser who, after he and his men had rowed through it in their birch bark canoes, noted, “Surely we have passed through the gates of hell.”
Lunch? For me it’s steelhead salmon with garlic herb jasmine risotto and market garden vegetables and by now I’m getting the hang of savouring food and scenery
Passengers are smacking their lips, mopping up the remains of their breakfasts and almost forgetting to look out of the window
all at once. We’re passing a bluff painted in shades of copper and green, and stubbled with the hemlocks and cedars that were charred in last year’s fire; and peculiarly shaped, fossil-filled formations called hoodoos, which have been sculpted by glaciation into conical spires.
At Lyttleton, where the muddy Fraser and glass-clear Thompson rivers converge, opportunistic ospreys have built their nest at the top of a nearby telephone pole, close to where salmon spawn. Their chicks have hatched, but we can’t see these young ones. “I watch them grow from furry little chicks into adolescents out fishing for salmon with their parents,” says carriage attendant Michelle Boyen, who rides these tracks six months a year.
The wildlife sightings escalate as we approach Kamloops, where we will spend the night. We spot bighorn sheep grazing amid the ponderosa pines, bald eagles soaring over the desert plateau. But it’s the next day that brings with it the chance, however slim, of sighting a bear.
The Rocky Mountaineer sets off early, tracing the Adams River, where millions of sockeye salmon spawn each year. I order a breakfast of eggs benedict with Montreal-style smoked beef, but it’s impossible to keep my eye on the food, for we’ve entered the hemlock zone and the backdrop has transformed into an exquisite panorama of waterfalls gushing through the clefts of soaring granite mountains and firs teetering on unstable riverbanks, roots dangling like tendrils above the ice-blue water.
Passing through Revelstoke, passengers spot a bear but it’s just a statue. Disappointed, I settle into the rhythmic clickety-clack of the journey and gaze on the mountains rearing up ahead. The firs are so close I can make out the different species by the shape of their foliage, with discreet needles on one, spiked cones on a second, a floppy spread of leaves on a third.
At lunchtime I taste my vegetable gyoza glazed in soy sauce and a dessert of creme brulee, but competing for my attention is the mesmerising landscape of jagged chasms, snow-streaked peaks and gushing, glacier-fed rivers. Soon we will cross the Continental Divide, the highest point on this 957km journey, before descending into Lake Louise and then, finally, Banff.
And, as if on cue, Fastabend informs us that there’s a bear up ahead, on the left-hand side of the tracks. We press our faces to the glass and hold our breath as the train sails around the bend. And there, standing in a pond of thawing slush, as though waiting especially for us, is a beautiful, fat, bursting-at-the-seams male brown grizzly bear. He looks directly at us, and as we pass he swivels his great big head to watch us go.
The snow is thawing, the skunk cabbage is blooming, and summer is on its way. Hibernation is over at last, so let the feeding begin.
Rocky Mountaineer travels between Vancouver and Banff, above; lunch is served, left; chef Jean Pierre Guerin, right
Black bear, above left; gourmet fare, above; wildlife spotted from the train, above right