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Notebook

Giles Coren eats fried seal loin with Eva Avila

A notebook from Canada

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

My week began on a plane to Quebec, where I’m filming a show for Canadian television. It is a broadcast pilot for a format of my own devising and, if it flies, I stand to make billions. But first it must succeed in Canada. Because Canada is the country that has bravely chosen to try it first, and shelled out the initial moolah. I am delighted that my show is getting its big chance in this great country, rather than boring old America, say, or England. I love Canada. I have always said it is the most culturally innovative and pleasant-to-visit country on earth. (I have never been to Canada in my life before.)

I flew in, as it happens, on the very day that the Bank of Canada announced the phasing out of the penny from circulation. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I feel sad to have missed the Golden Age of Affordable Canada. The country where once upon a time certain very small items could be purchased for a single centi-unit of its currency is no more. Local feeling is that prices will rise as vendors round up to the next available coin denomination and create inflation. Penny chews, tragically, could soon cost as much as five cents. On the other hand, Canadians can afford this kind of price hoik, because theirs is the only major developed world economy to have survived the banking crisis unharmed, thanks to the ministrations of the former head of their national bank, Mark Thingummy, who is now Governor of the Bank of England. So perhaps we Brits will soon be so rich that we don’t need pennies either. Furthermore, I am here to make money, not spend it. And if I had thought the Canadians were going to pay me in pennies, I think I would probably not have come. Pennies you can get at the BBC.

‘Hello,’ I say to the guy at passport control. ‘Bonjour,’ he replies. I am stunned. I knew that they could speak French in this part of Canada. But I didn’t know that they actually did.

[Alt-Text]


In downtown Quebec City, where we are staying, it is minus 26. I can’t help wondering if this is cold enough to achieve that longed-for dream of all English prep-school boys: a wee that freezes solid on contact with the air and can be snapped off and waved around. I will never know, though, because from the brittleness of my fingers and toes I am worried about what else might snap off if I tried. Instead, I settle for a sneeze which solidifies into buckshot on leaving my nose and tinkles on the pavement like falling coins. And also for a go at ‘tire sur neige’, in which one flings boiling hot maple syrup into the snow and then eats the resultant amber lolly, thus breaking the first survival rule of the Mounties: ‘Don’t eat the yellow snow.’

The front page of the National Post has a story about how the Arctic community of Arviat Nunavut, thanks to a Coca-Cola-sponsored system of fireworks and electric fences, is ‘celebrating 12 months without having to shoot dead a marauding polar bear’. Wow. Not a single polar bear shot in the whole of 2012. Just like back home in Kentish Town.

We’re filming today in a ‘First Nations’ restaurant, which is what they call aboriginal cultures that include the Inuit. I will be dining with the beautiful Eva Avila, winner of Canadian Idol, and my main task will be to swallow elk carpaccio and fried loin of seal without barfing; also to avoid saying the word ‘Eskimo’, which is the word they have painstakingly replaced with ‘Inuit’ and ‘First Nation’. The elk is harmless enough, but the seal is terrifying: served extremely rare, it is nonetheless black as jet. It does not taste at all fishy, but rather of long-buried dog offal, dug up and left in the sun. Our driver, who is half Inuit, says, ‘If you think that’s gross, you should try walrus. My dad loves it. But then he’s a fucking Eskimo.’

One benefit of this Canada excursion is that I am 4,000 miles from a storm that blew up last week over something I wrote about anti-Semitism. Some Poles are angry because, as the great-grandson of Polish Jews chased from their homeland in 1903 at the point of a pitchfork, I characterised the whole nation in a newspaper article as historically brutally anti-Semitic. I was generalising, and I admit I was possibly being unfair on some. Indeed, when I came under assault from the Polish community via Twitter and email, it became clear that modern Poles have come a long way from the prejudice of their past. Such as the chap (whose name I withhold) who asked me, ‘Have you ever thought about what caused the anti-Semitism…? Could it be that Jews were the agents and beneficial collaborators of the invaders who were trying to wipe Poland and the Polish people off the map?’ And the woman (again, granted anonymity here) who enquired, ‘Did your grandpa was a killer in Koniuchy? There the Jews made massacre of Polish civilians. Later they profaned the corpses?’ Good points well made. I take it all back. Poland is clearly cool with the Jews, and quite at peace with its history.

Giles Coren’s book How to Eat Out is published in paperback this week.

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