November 18, 2009

A Culinary Jewel in Algonquin Park

Canoe camping and fine dining don't generally go hand in hand. In fact, it's pretty much impossible to consume any fresh food after paddling and portaging in Algonquin Park for a few days in the summer.
For many years now, my husband and I have enjoyed the spectacular scenery and blissful peace of the park for about a week, sometimes longer, in July or August. Algonquin Park covers an area of about 7700 square kilometres and is located between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay, on the southern edge of the great Canadian Shield. Hundreds of millions of years, an ice age and the subsequent melt have resulted in a vast area of interconnected lakes, which is unique in the world. Thanks to a clever Master Plan for Algonquin, approximately 12% of the Park is a designated wilderness zone, aimed at ecological preservation.
There are no roads, only rough paths - portages, which paddlers must traverse with their gear in order to cross from lake to lake. The scenery is spectacular and canoeists and kayakers come from all over the world for the privilege and the beauty of the experience. Camping access is limited and controlled, ensuring peace and tranquility for both paddlers and wildlife.
Any fresh food taken into the park has generally been consumed or turned strange by day three, so culinary delights feature a whole lot of dehydrated stuff. It does the trick in terms of nourishment of the body, but not a lot for the soul. And even if you fish and catch something tasty, it's pretty much impossible to chill a nice Chablis - the one that you previously decanted into a Nalgene bottle, since glass is not allowed in the park. Still, even foodies will agree that the many splendours of the park more than make up for a week without fresh veggies and sauces from scratch. Having said that, it is possible to start hallucinating lettuce leaves after about eight days, and there's no question that a hot shower, and a meal at the first restaurant you encounter on the way home are both very welcome.
So, this year we decided to spend a couple of days at Arowhon Pines at the end of our week in the park. This is one of three lodges in the park. It's a summer resort, located on Joe Lake and renowned for its beautiful location and exquisite cuisine. The idea of fabulous food, lovingly prepared by chef David Cooke and his amazing team, after days of packet mixes, was very appealing.
As it turned out, we cancelled the canoe camping and took a last minute cruise in the Bahamas instead. Ottawa residents will recall the endless July rain and, after months of preparing to move house, the prospect of a week of thunderstorms in Algonquin Park had little appeal, so we wimped out. But we did make sure that we were back from the cruise in time to drive to Arowhon and enjoy the weekend. Despite the fact that it came after five days of fairly decent food on 24 hour availability, the cuisine at Arowhon was out of this world!
Virtually everything is prepared from scratch with the best possible ingredients, many of them local or grown in Arowhon gardens. Stocks, sauces, breads, yogurts, jams, chutneys, some of the teas - all homemade. The range and quality of the food, terrific service, relaxed atmosphere and sheer beauty of the location makes Arowhon a fabulous experience. If you've read this far, take a couple of minutes to check out the Arowhon Pines website and salivate over a few menus. As a sommelier, passionate about food and wine matches, I love the fact that Arowhon is a BYOB place (with no corkage fee). I had a look at their menu before we went and ended up taking more than a few bottles with us to make sure that we had wines to match all the delicious sounding choices. It was great fun!

Another big plus was the unfettered use of all the canoes, kayaks and other essentials of a rustic resort in Algonquin Park -no fees or signing up or handing over of credit cards as a deposit. Apart from the inevitability of the final bill, the whole experience felt like staying with laid back friends who just quietly look after your every need, but leave you alone to relax and enjoy.
Arowhon Pines is now closed for the season, but it's not too early to reserve for next year. They fill up fast.
I know we'll be going back and, hopefully next time, it will be after a week of dried foods and water, filter-pumped from the lake!