Around the world, the mention of food and Calgary conjures up thoughts of a great steak in a bustling town. But the idea of Calgary as a foodie destination isn’t so easy a jump. Or at least, it hasn’t been so easy until now.
But is it true? Is even the heart of beef country being transformed into a more diverse ag market?
I ask Karen Anderson. After all, as the owner of Calgary Food Tours, she’s about as close to the front lines as you can get. So I quiz her about the sort of people who attend her food tours, and in reply, she recalls one participant who told her, “I can read about the best restaurants in Calgary,” but the challenge was to meet people — owners, chefs, and staff — and to get a sense of where food is going.
Her tours include tastings, but they also give visitors food stories and introduce them to real live Calgarians. “You come to Calgary and go to the Tyrrell Museum, the mountains, and Heritage Park… but did you meet a Calgarian?” asks Anderson.
But if you were going to show people from across Canada and even from around the world about food in Calgary, where would you start? Who would you pick to include on your tour stops?
Anderson takes the same approach that she uses when she travels herself. She is always seeking out people and stories when she goes somewhere new. “I travel a lot globally and I always start vacations with a food tour,” she says. Food, she feels, is a gateway to local knowledge and people.
Her company website is peppered with three words: food, fun, adventure. And when I speak with Anderson, although she is serious and engaging, she laughs a lot. Her approach to food — people, stories, and fun — seems an engaging yet down-to-earth way to teach people about food.
From nursing to food
“It was a transformative experience for me,” Anderson says as she talks about her first exposure to food tours. At the time, Anderson, a former nurse practitioner, was studying in Boston. “Because I didn’t know that city I was taking courses to meet people. I saw one was a chef-guided tour of an Italian district. It turns out that the chef was a nurse,” she recalls.
The food businesses in that district became an important network of people in her life. Today, she says, her tours provide “inside information and relationships with food operators.”
“I grew up very connected to my food,” says Anderson. “You bought your bags of turnips, potatoes, and carrots and you put them in your cellar for the winter,” she recalls, talking about her upbringing in New Brunswick. There was also a side of beef — and lots of fish, since her grandfather was a fisherman.
Anderson started Calgary Food Tours in 2006 when looking for a business suited to family life. “I have a mind that sees patterns and I like to tell stories,” she says. Combined with her interest in food, and the idea of food tours, it created what she calls a “perfect storm.”
“If you’re going to have beef this (Calgary) is probably the best place in the world to have it,” she says. Then she talks about a restaurant where patrons explore the flavours of beef, tasting different breeds, grain-fed versus grass-fed, and beef aged in different ways.
For people like me who think of steak when they think of Calgary, Anderson says, “I’d tell them that there’s a lot on the menu once you get past the beefy blinders.” She suggests bison. Then she talks about the cold nights in the area and how it affects the root vegetables, saying, “Our root vegetables are so incredibly sweet.”
She talks about prairie-hardy fruit such as sour cherries, saskatoons, and black currants, and how the large honey production in the province is spawning meaderies. “We are micro-brewery crazy in Alberta,” she adds.
The company offers five different food tours weekly, from May through October. Four of the tours explore neighbourhoods, and one of them, a farmers market.
Clients include international tourists from places such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Norway — she even had someone from Namibia last year. She says that many people go online to find Calgary Food Tours, on sites such as TripAdvisor. “Our company credo is food, fun and adventure and those are the characteristics of the people we attract,” she says.
She also attracts people from Calgary bedroom communities. “They are people that like a small-town life. When they come in the city they feel intimidated so they walk around with us to get to know the neighbourhood and not feel so intimidated by all the one-way streets,” she says.
Food and farmers
“I am devoted to city people understanding what it takes for a farmer to put food on our table, so that is a big part of our storytelling,” says Anderson, who used to lead day-long farm tours. Those tours, called Foodie Tootles took busloads of urbanites to farms to raise awareness of farming.
Sometimes it’s more than recipes, covering food-related issues. She talks about entrepreneurs reviving small grocery stores, and how Amazon in the U.S. is offering next-day delivery of fresh food. In another, where she talks about large-scale hog farms and porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) coming to Alberta, she says, “I think consumers are going to have to realize the need for higher pork prices if this industry is going to be viable.”
In another post where she shares her aunt’s carrot cake recipe, she says, “I’ve lived in Alberta 30 years now and I know many of the farmers that grow my food. Now when I make Aunty Em’s cake I use as many things from their farms as I can. I know she would’ve loved the golden hue and rich flavour of the organic canola oil I can source here.”
When I first contact Anderson she says she’s just handed in a book manuscript. It’s a cookbook based on her annual food tours — but on tours she gives in India. “That’s a really joyous thing,” she says talking about the tours.
“This year’s trip is all about #EatPrayPlay,” is how her blog post about the forthcoming India trip begins.
EAT — because this trip is for food lovers and our shared passion for the mouth-watering cuisines of India.
PRAY — because India’s religions are so much a part of the vibrant daily life of her people — we make an effort to learn about them and the culture that forms around them.
PLAY — because, though we’ll see lots of “life in our face,” India will surprise you with the joy and love in most of her people. We make sure to play, have fun, join in festivals and unwind with a restorative form of yoga that anyone can take part in.
Like the Calgary tours, the eat-pray-play theme of this India tour weaves together food and the stories of people. Anderson says, “It’s a way to make cultural connections beyond just visiting a place. My goal is go there and cook — and cook with Indians. We do lots of touring, but we mostly are going to experience the culture.
“I’ve always wanted to inspire people to know where their food comes from,” says Anderson.
The 5 Tours
Anderson says Calgary is a city of 1.2 million people that has a downtown core studded with glass-and-steel towers. Most of the eateries in this part of town, she says, are “expense-account” restaurants. But outside of that core, visitors can see the character of Calgary.
“What most people don’t realize about Calgary is that near the downtown core there are very walkable, liveable neighbourhoods, like little pearls on a necklace. That’s where we focus,” she says.
Inglewood’s Edible Enticements $100
Anderson says this is where Calgary started in the late 19th century. It’s experienced a revitalization partly driven by food businesses and “food mavericks” who have gentrified the neighbourhood.
The tour includes an Italian lunch, knife skills demo, spice blending, tasting gourmet treats, chocolate tasting, a private restaurant tour (with wine), honey and sweets, a tea tasting, and bakery treats.
Craving Kensington $100
“It was the first suburb of Calgary,” says Anderson of this neighbourhood just outside the downtown core. “There’s so much good food
in that neighbourhood we only walk two blocks,” she says.
She calls it a “cozy and enjoyably walkable neighbourhood that’s bursting with delicious offerings and great stories.”
Palette to Palette $100
This is an art and food appreciation tour that looks at food, wine, and culinary arts in the designer district, which she says was formerly “millionaires row.” Includes a stop at an art gallery.
Savouring 17th Ave. SW $100
“It is notorious and infamous for when the Calgary Flames are in action. It’s called the red mile,” she says of this trendy neighbourhood. The tour involves a six-stop progressive lunch. “It’s a very fun part of town,” says Anderson. “THE place to be on a Saturday afternoon.”
Chef-Guided Tour of the Calgary Farmer’s Market $30
Includes tastes of fresh produce, saskatoon treats, elk jerky, bison, pork sausages, fruit wine samples, artisanal cheeses and coffee — and recipes.
On the website she promotes this tour by saying, “The ranchers and farmers you’ll meet on this tour are from southern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. They devote their lives to growing food for you to eat and this is your chance to hear how they do it.”