A locally sourced, perfectly aged and superbly cooked Black Angus steak has been the signature item on Calgary restaurant menus for decades. It should come as no surprise. Alberta’s 8,000 beef producers provide half of Canada’s supply. Their five million head outnumber the province’s population, and these animals, renowned for their rich, marbled flavour, thrive on wide grasslands.
But visitors soon discover Calgary’s culinary scene has more — much more — to delight anyone who loves good food. “Our wonderfully diverse culinary scene captures Indigenous experiences, traditional farmers markets, an exploding craft beer industry and everything in between,” says Karen Anderson, founder and president of Alberta Food Tours. “Calgary is both the food hub and spoke to other areas and communities around the province.”
Within a few hours’ drive of the city, you’ll find an abundance of food-related events such as Alberta on a Plate and Alberta Open Farm Days and fabulous tastes — specifically Alberta’s Seven Signature Foods.
In 2015, the Alberta Culinary Tourism Alliance hosted 24 local and international chefs who explored different regions across the province to try to shape Alberta’s culinary identity. The group pinpointed seven key ingredients, the Seven Signature Foods. Inspired by cultural influences, they developed unique dishes that reflect the diversity of Alberta’s food.
Yes, beef tops the list, but you may be surprised by the six others, including honey.
Calgary is home to more than 1.5 million people. About 500 of them are backyard beekeepers even though honeybees are not indigenous to the province. But thanks to long daylight hours, an abundance of clover, canola, alfalfa and flowers, they thrive here. The 2019 bee census showed that 169 billion bees called Alberta home. No wonder they create a buzz as they go about producing about 40 per cent of Canada’s honey.
In the garden at Rouge Restaurant in Inglewood, Calgary’s first neighbourhood to have bees, are two beehives, established there by Alberta Food Tours as a talking and tasting opportunity on its Inglewood Edibles: Made by Mavericks Tour. This hands-on, three-hour walking tour, which Destination Canada designated a Canadian Signature Experience, is a lively, educational and delicious way to experience culinary Calgary.
While beef has been an Alberta staple for about 160 years, bison, according to research from the University of Alberta, began roaming the region 120,000 years ago. They have also been the staff of life for Indigenous people for 2,000 years. Today bison are raised at over 500 Alberta farms.
“There’s simply not enough supply to meet the demand and we aren’t worried about our prices dropping,” says Neil Hochstein of Alberta Bison Ranch at Mayerthorpe north of Edmonton. “Not everyone in the world is producing bison. We’re one province in one country raising bison for the rest of the world.”
Bison is a red meat lover’s dream come true. It has all the flavour of beef, and, depending on the cut, half the fat and double the iron.
If you are eager to enjoy a bison striploin steak or a bison and beef burger, you will experience the best at The Lake House, close to the heart of Calgary and a member of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts (CRMR) family of companies renowned for their world-class hospitality and dining experiences.
If, however, you fancy a surf and turf dinner, Bow Valley Ranche Restaurant serves a mighty fine bison striploin with scallops and shrimp. This historical landmark is in the heart of Fish Creek Provincial Park, one of the largest urban parks in North America. It’s a stunning setting in which to enjoy a gourmet meal.
Along with bison, Saskatoon berries, both fresh and dried, were a staple in the diets of the Indigenous people of the Prairies, also used for making pemmican, a dense, high-energy food that fur traders used when they travelled north. The fruit is sweet, delicious and tastes like a blueberry.
You can enjoy berries plucked off the bush at U-Pick farms such as The Saskatoon Farm, about 20 minutes from Calgary, just outside of Okotoks. Horticulturists Paul and Karen Hamer began farming here on a small parcel of land 30 years ago. The farm now includes 70 acres of berries. With added attractions like greenhouses bursting with plants, a gift shop and restaurant and a seasonal farmers market, the Hamers provide entertainment for the entire family. During the 10-day to three-week season when the berries are ripe, up to a thousand visitors a day come to pick their own.
Red fife wheat
As every child of the West knows, Red Fife is Canada’s oldest wheat. Legend has it that European settlers brought it to Canada in 1842 and the grain played a big role in keeping early pioneers alive. Like any stone-milled whole wheat, it retains the bran and germ and the B vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that are thought to have disease-fighting properties.
Red Fife’s high milling qualities also make it appealing to bakers, especially those who make sourdough bread. Shop for Red Fife sourdough bread at farmers markets. If you want to make your own, Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms in Strathmore sells organic Red Fife stone-ground wheat flour online at $7 for a three-pound bag.
Canola, the mild-flavoured, heart-healthy oil used by chefs worldwide was created in 1970, and today Alberta farmers plant upwards of six million acres of golden fields around the province, according to Statistics Canada.
“I like to think of it as Canada’s answer to olive oil,” said Tony Marshall, of Highwood Crossing Foods which produces an intensely flavoured, organic, cold-pressed canola oil. It is an exquisite finishing oil that many local chefs prefer. Visitors are welcome to the small factory in High River, south of Calgary where granola, steel cut oats, flour and baking mixes are also available.
Potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes and turnips thrive here. Although the growing season is short, summers are very hot and the cold fall nights that follow cause the plant’s sugars to concentrate. Et voilà! Sweeter tasting vegetables. “We love to create with them,” said world-renowned celebrity chef Darren MacLean. “With the advent of the pandemic, many local chefs have become more interested in agriculture and have connected with local producers.”
MacLean not only started a farm on his property as a way to keep his staff employed but he also began growing Kabura turnips — a Japanese variety he serves at Shokunin, his award-winning Japanese restaurant.
MacLean thinks the pandemic provided the culinary community with an opportunity for chefs to innovate, to become way more connected with local farmers, and to work together more collaboratively. “It turns out we are a fiercely innovative group,” he said. “We don’t want your dining experience to change very much. However, over dinner, we do hope to make you forget about the pandemic.”
The potential for agri-tourism has motivated culinary professionals Tannis Baker and Rheannon Green, co-owners of Food Tourism Strategies, a culinary tourism consulting company, to create Alberta on The Plate, an August dine-around festival where participating restaurants across the province offer multi-course prix fixe menus, starring local producers, growers, brewers and distillers and their products.
August also marks Open Farm Days, a time when visitors can visit a farm, meet the farmer and see first-hand where their food comes from. It’s an opportunity for the entire family to taste, learn, shop and picnic, while adhering to COVID guidelines that require you to stay one cow apart.