Breaking Cabin Fever: The Hut-to-Hut Dining Experience
“It’s magic! Feasting in these old settlers' houses by candlelight is an unforgettable experience. When you add in really, really good food, it changes your whole perception of the sport.”
We sit at our kitchen table staring in sombre silence, the large picture window casting a greyish light.
“It’s here,” he whispers. Our breathing is heavy, as though the sight of it bears weight upon our chests.
With a heaving sigh, he stands. “This year, it will be better. This year, we need to make a plan. We can make the best of it.”
"Really, didn't we say this last year?" I silently wonder.
"What we need to do," he says with a decisive tone, "is get out every weekend. We'll pick a new destination and just go for it. We have to embrace it, otherwise..."
The “otherwise” is unspeakable.
“I know. You’re right,” I say. My voice is hesitant; the snow is not.
Suddenly, our four-year-old, in a frenzy of mittens and excitement yells, “Snooooooow!” In a flash, she is outside with her sister building snowmen and yelling through the window “Mom, can we have hot chocolate?” and “Daddy, come and play with us!”
He does, and I watch his first step toward embracing the season. Me, I decide to make hot chocolate.
Even though I’ve lived in Ottawa for most of my life to date, winter is a season that I have to talk myself into each year. Don’t get me wrong, there are aspects I enjoy: the look of soft snow on pine trees, a skate on the canal, a couple of hours on toboggans or short cross-country ski treks and the soul-warming comfort food that restores the body afterwards. It’s just that I feel that I could enjoy these things in about seven days as opposed to four months.
There are many brave souls in this snowridden city, and I have befriended quite a few, who not only embrace this frigid season, but actually (gasp), look forward to it. It just so happens that the edible Ottawa team does not partake of this mentality. As a result, when editor Tara Simpson and I first talked about including an article on hut-to-hut dining, I quickly realized the need to expand our sources.
Hut-to-hut dining is a feat in athleticism in which mere mortals face the elements on skis or snowshoes, toting backpacks, and even sleds, loaded with good food and drink. The idea is to work hard to make it to your destination: cozy cabins lit by candles and heated by fire. The notion of hut-to-hut dining comes into play when these adventurous souls move from one hut to another for different meals, or different stages of a trip. That said, there is one thing that rings true no matter how long or how far you have trekked through the woods: the best part is the food you will warm on the wood stove upon your arrival.
To get a better handle on the how-tos of hut dining, I enlist the help of Heather Erven. Erven is the manager of Knifewear in the Glebe. In addition to her love of Japanese silver, she has a keen appreciation for cutting through snow on her cross-country skis and relishes the hut-to-hut experience. To her, it is “the best Friday night dinner party.”
Well prepared to divulge information, Erven pulls out maps of Gatineau Park and convincingly explains that herein lie some of the best trail experiences in the country and, she notes, they happen to be right in our own backyard. She enthusiastically outlines the paths, from the parking lots to some of the more popular, accessible destinations. In particular, parking lot 10 [P10], which will lead you to a larger cabin named Keogan or, a short distance further, to Shilly Shally. Shilly Shally is a favourite, but it is quite small and only accommodates about four people. Another option is to head in the direction of Wakefield and go to P16 (for the ski trail) or P15 (for the snowshoe trail). These trails will lead you to two other cabins: Healey and Herridge. Both are great destinations to enjoy the food you have laboriously lugged along with you.
The feast, the sweet reward for the sweat, is the culminating event. Charcuterie is a good start, followed by everything you dare create and reheat on the wood stove. Grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil are a popular choice for these adventurists, as are other hearty dishes such as quesadillas, fondues and cassoulets.
Wait a minute, cassoulet? At this point I can’t help but ask how heavy her backpack is. The response is a range: If you are just bringing grilled cheese and some drinks, it is more than manageable. That said, Erven has witnessed people bringing a variety of kitchenware, including hefty cast iron pots toted in sleds. My posture weakens as I imagine skiing uphill with a cast iron pot in my pack, but Erven cheerfully continues to list essential items, which, in addition to an extra set of dry clothes, includes (of course) the perfect pocket knife — in this case a Mcusta Damascus.
With enthusiasm, she rhymes off meals they have made to celebrate their arrival at a cabin. She describes an annual Valentine’s Day trek in which they are determined to outdo their meal from the previous year. I was most intrigued by a dish of bao (Chinese steamed buns). After convincing their friends who run the Gongfu Bao food cart to sell them some uncooked buns, they reheated them with a basket steamer. “The whole experience is magical,” she says, “you have to try it. The feast by candlelight, the woodstove, the people you meet...”
Partially convinced, yet still not donning my skis and loading the cast iron pan in my pack, I decided to round out my interviews by consulting Paul Proulx. Proulx is the owner of a new company called Tours Expédition Ottawa. A retired CIDA employee who always loved the natural landscape that graces the Ottawa-Gatineau area, he has created a business that helps people explore the great outdoors while he takes care of the grunt work.
Proulx will transport you from your lodgings to the trail and will even help you collect all necessary equipment (skis, boots, poles, snowshoes, etc.). While you traverse the trail, he shoulders the weight of an assortment of fine fresh edibles, some of which are prepared by his wife. He knows how to win me over as he arranges a plate of dark chocolate, almond and coconut oil truffles, toasted cinnamon walnuts, and heart-shaped energy bars made with figs, quinoa and pumpkin seeds. In addition to these lovely treats, to complete the main course he often acquires food from his favourite places including: Epicuria, Bread & Sons and La p’tite épicerie du quartier, to name a few. He also carries all necessary equipment (including the cast iron pan — thank you!), dishes and cutlery, a Thermos of green tea, water and some finer touches such as a tablecloth and candles.
As he speaks to me, he echoes the words of Erven. “It’s magic! Feasting in these old settlers’ houses by candlelight is an unforgettable experience. When you add in really, really good food, it changes your whole perception of the sport.”
Hold on to your toques, I’m actually feeling moderately persuaded. When our meeting comes to a close, I review my notes and wonder if this is the year that I actually do embrace the winter wonderland that has evaded me in years past. I close my books and push open the door to the café as a sharp, bitter wind assaults my face. The heater in my car only succeeds in restoring my body temperature by the time I have arrived at home, 20 minutes later.
Upon entering my house, my daughter says, “You look really, really cold mom.”
“Yes, I think I’m part snowman now.”
Sitting here now with my warm tea and heavy blanket, I am awash with a feeling of relief. Braving Ottawa winters is not for the faint of heart and on behalf of all us here at edible Ottawa, I commend all of you who cross the trail in pursuit of a great meal. For your grit and resoluteness, I raise my glass and toast to your passionate determination from the bottom of my heart ... and the comfort of my living room.
Tours Expédition Ottawa
1 - 323 Richelieu Ave., Ottawa, ON
Jacqueline Lawlor has recently invested in long underwear and a large can of cocoa.