Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ottawa by Marche By

“Have you had BeaverTails at ByWard Market?” This was the nth person asking me that question. I hadn’t heard the expression till I had stepped into Ottawa on a wintery morning. Over the next few days that I was to spend in the absorbing capital city of Canada, this query would pop up very often. Friendly locals would recommend it and friends would talk at length about it. The bottomline: you couldn’t have gone back from Ottawa without doing the ‘BeaverTails at Byward Market’ ritual. That would almost account for contempt of custom.

What was BeaverTails? Before you get notions of delicacy or horror, depending which side of the food-preference fence you are on, be rest assured it belongs to the much-relished dominion of desserts, and the only fault it can commit is wrecking your calorie count. Essentially a dough pastry, it’s hand-stretched to remind you, well, of a beaver’s tail, and fried to a lightly-crisp, golden-brown. The pastry is topped with a variety of options as hazelnut, candy bar bits, fruit, chocolate etc, though the classic remains cinnamon-sugar. Savoury toppings like grated cheese are also popular. A thoroughbred Canadian retail venture, BeaverTails is a chain of stores across the country having originated at ByWard Market in Ottawa. That outlet still remains iconic for this neo-traditional dessert, a creation of Pam and Grant Hooker, who turned their family recipe into a business in 1978.

It was at the ByWard stall that I eventually had my first bite of BeaverTails. A perfect snack for a windy day, it also reminded me of home. I felt it’s basically our humble ‘atta ki roti’, fried and tweaked with toppings. Nonetheless, what I was savouring was a Canadian version of our daily bread and enjoyed it, especially the part of having done the buzz.   

ByWard Market
The festive spirit of year-end December is hard to miss and the one spot in Ottawa that it all comes to the fore is at the circa 1826 ByWard Market. Considered the soul-keeper of the city, it’s amongst the oldest and biggest markets of Canada. The most vibrant district of Downtown Ottawa, and also known as Marche By in French, this is the venue of an open-air farmer’s market, art and knick-knack stalls, magician shows, music gigs, book launches, horse-drawn carriage rides etc. In addition, it has a collection of chic boutiques (Frou Frou is a must-check for urban, artsy apparel), pulsating restaurants, sidewalk cafes and a pick of nightlife spots, which include Chateau Lafayette, the city’s oldest inn (AD 1849) where every Saturday since 1999, country singer Ron Burke, a legend of Ottawa, holds the Lucky Ron Show, belting out classics and having the swigging crowd swaying and singing.

Another iconic spot here of current vintage is the Moulin de Provence Bakery, which prepares maple-leaf-shaped sugar cookies with red and white icing. Ever since US President Obama picked up a few for his daughters, during an impromptu visit in 2009, these have been labelled ‘Obama cookies’ and are always in huge demand, the baker’s order having risen by a daily count of thousand!  

As a build-up to Christmas, ByWard Market begins getting festooned, appearing almost fairlyland-like. This December, the weekends (between Dec 4-19, 12 noon to 4 pm) offer holiday choirs and free horse-carriage rides. Adjoining the open-air market is Rideau Centre, one of the best shopping malls of the city that presents a fine selection of just about anything you’re looking for.

Downtown and around
Ottawa city, in Ontario province, lies largely on the banks of the River Ottawa, with the River Rideau and River Gatineau fringing it. The network of rivers has given Canada a unique heritage and a slice of this can be seen in Ottawa by way of the 202-km Rideau Canal which has been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. One of the greatest engineering feats of its time, it’s the oldest continuously-operated canal in the continent and its locks are managed today just as they were when it opened in 1832, as a war-time supply route.  The Rideau Canal makes a pretty sight in summers, but come winters and it freezes to form a 7.8 km solid ice ground, in the event gathering a statistic of becoming the world’s largest skating rink which is a sure treat for ice-skaters. 

The canal, a hop away from ByWard Market, flows between two other striking Neo-Gothic landmarks of the city: Parliament Hill, the seat of the government (free tour of the complex is offered), and Fairmont Château Laurier hotel, a class in itself. Around them there are a number of attractive spots and it’s best to dress in layers to conquer the wind-chill factor, don walk-worthy shoes and map the area on foot. 
Across the Chateau is the National War Memorial and a few blocks away, Sparks Street, a pedestrian zone popular for souvenir purchasing. About one km away is the Canadian Museum of Nature; while at bus-ride distance is a spot definitely not to be missed — the National Gallery of Canada with a stupendous sculpture of a massive bronze spider by its front doors. If travelling with kids, the Canadian Museum of Civilization (in Gatineau) is a must-visit, especially to see the collection of totem poles as well as for its invigorating children’s section that offers glimpses of a world culture in a remarkable fashion.

Ottawa is a bustling multi-ethnic region and according to unofficial data has the highest number of languages spoken per sq km in a capital city. Immigrant Asians have happily settled into the cityscape and are a proud community. As an Indian visitor, it may take a while in getting used to the sober discipline that governs the city, but once in sync with regulations the system is appreciated. Yet, if you ever feel homesick tune into Chin Radio FM 97.9 between 5 to 7 pm, when India-born popular radio jockey, “host and dost (friend)” Hunsdeep Rangar, does a special programme for the South Asian community under the banner of Mirch Masala Radio, rolling out a peppy package of Bollywood hits, star interviews and community events. A Kishore Kumar-Asha Bhonsle duet when walking by the Rideau Canal munching on BeaverTails sounds the perfect blend for a day out in multi-cultural Ottawa.    

Getting around: Ottawa has an excellent network of buses. Private cabs the other alternative.  The Visitor Centre, opposite Parliament Hill, offers able assistance.
Accommodation: When in the capital, it’s in order to stay at the best heritage property:
Fairmont Château Laurier ( The hotel is located in the heart of Downtown, and is at touching distance from popular spots.
What to buy: Maple syrup, Moose droppings chocolate, ‘Roots’ apparel
Where to shop: Rideau Centre, next to Byward Market, offers a wide selection and good bargains for tourists 

Published, Dec 2010

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