Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Hours after landing in Alberta’s largest city and checking into their hotel, Rick and Nui Khow drove to the first destination on their vacation — the Calgary Farmers’ Market. The foodies from Los Angeles had registered for a tour of the large facility that is about eight kilometres south of the city’s downtown. For the Khows, the excursion provided them with a showcase of Alberta’s bounty of meats, produce, and craft retail items.
For Calgary, the presence of tourists arriving from a destination as far away as California and coming for activities focused on culinary finds is an indication marketing efforts to shift consumer perception of the city are working.
“We heard it was like Portland,” Nui Khow said of Calgary, “with a really good food scene.”
Although the Khows were also travelling north to Lake Louise for their anniversary trip, they intended to spend their first days in Alberta exploring Calgary’s restaurant scene. Such a dining adventure would have been unheard of or even impossible 15 years ago, when the city lacked the impressive number of quality restaurants it features today.
The restaurant scene started to change in the early 2000s, with the arrival of chefs such as Michael Noble, who had worked at Vancouver’s celebrated Diva at the Met and moved to Calgary to open Catch, which quickly became a popular downtown seafood establishment. He has since launched Notable, which ranked No. 49 on the Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List for 2014, and The Nash, housed in a renovated, century-old building in the trendy Inglewood neighbourhood.
“I wondered about coming here because Calgary did have that reputation,” he says, pointing out the belief that the city’s culinary scene was weak. “I came and I saw there was opportunity. You have an economy that can support great quality dining just like any other big, vibrant city. Even in times like these, when the economy isn’t doing so well, we can still be vibrant because we have a community to support it.”
A prolonged economic downturn in Alberta has impacted the dining scene in recent months but the growth in interest in Calgary’s restaurants and the province’s flavours continues to broaden. Karen Anderson, who owns and operates Alberta Food Tours, says 50 per cent of her clients for her Sunday farmers’ market walkabouts are, like the Khows, from outside the province.
“A lot of savvy travellers will come here first, because they want to get to know about the food and what they will be eating and should be eating during their stay in Calgary or the area,” says Anderson, a nurse, author and passionate advocate for ethical food production.
Food Tour Offers a Taste of Calgary
Her company offers six tours, including the popular Sunday visit to the farmers’ market, where guests learn about some of the approximately 80 vendors under the big, red roof, and sample a few treats. The tour starts with a brunch plate at the tasting bar of J. Webb Wine Merchant, a boutique retailer adjacent to the market. Throughout the 2.5-hour tour, Anderson informs about Alberta’s farmers, organic produce, craft foods and wines, grass-fed and -finished beef, and the fascinating reasons why she is so involved in culinary tourism.
“I saw people getting sicker and sicker in my nursing career, and after years of study and research it became clear to me, and to many others who follow the subject closely, that the farther people get from their food, the sicker they become,” says Anderson, who was raised in St. Andrews By-the-Sea, a small and idyllic New Brunswick seaside town where she knew “where every bit of food you ate came from.” That’s not the case anymore, where the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, as well as inconsistent practices from one jurisdiction to the next, leave many consumers baffled about the food they eat.
“As a nurse, I want to reconnect people to food and how we source it and how we cook it. I think if we are successful in doing that through education and sharing of information then we can start to reverse the trend we’re seeing with so many food-related illnesses cropping up,” says Anderson, a member of Food Tour Pros, a collective of 109 operators in 20 countries aiming to standardize and elevate the quality of culinary tours across the globe.
The Calgary Farmers’ Market tour, which costs $45 per person, supports 50 businesses and answers some important questions, including why we should purchase organic foods (they have far more nutrients and vitamins than foods produced with chemical fertilizers) and how Alberta distinguishes itself with its ingredients (Red Fife wheat, canola, and bison, among others).
As of this summer, Anderson’s tours will also be offered in Edmonton and the mountain resort town of Canmore. Its advocacy for the province’s agricultural and culinary scene is another asset in Calgary’s ongoing development as a destination for more than the Calgary Stampede.
With interest in food travel booming — a University of Florida study estimated spending on food services from tourists across the U.S. topped $201 billion in 2012 — Alberta and its famous Cowtown appear to have found a sweet spot in the tourism market.
MORE ABOUT ALBERTA FOOD TOURS
Calgary Farmers’ Market Tour: The tour starts at 10:30 am at the market (510 77 Avenue Southeast) and lasts approximately 2.5 hours. Tickets cost $45 each and can be purchased on the operator’s website.