Vancouver Island Travel Guide: Victoria

We love to travel and this summer our family took our dream trip: a whole month in Canada! We spent two weeks touring around Vancouver Island, B.C., staying in hotels, B&Bs and cabins, and then another two weeks travelling in the Rockies in a hired Winnebago. It was truly a trip of a lifetime and I’m thrilled to be able to share all my tips and recommendations with you!

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The Inner Harbour

Victoria, located on the south-east coast of Vancouver Island, is the capital city of British Columbia. It is a beautiful, charming and accessible town which is clearly proud of its historical and cultural links to Britain; red double-decker buses trundle through its streets, which boast British-style pubs and architecture.

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Breakfast at the Huntingdon Manor

We stayed for two nights at the Huntingdon Manor, a historic hotel, brilliantly located downtown on the Inner Harbor. The hotel itself, while not exactly shabby, is a bit old-fashioned and could probably do with a renovation. However, on a month-long trip for a family of four, we were looking for comfort and value rather than luxury and this hotel suited us just fine. The staff were extremely helpful and friendly and it was great to be able to walk everywhere downtown. Also, thanks to the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, Sophie now has an unhealthy obsession with croissants.

On our first night in Victoria we met up with my aunt and two cousins for vegan Chinese food at the Lotus Pond on Johnson Street, Victoria’s main shopping street. This unassuming little restaurant is crazy popular so booking ahead for dinner is a must. It serves delicious and authentic Chinese dishes, all prepared using vegetables and meat alternatives, such as bean curd skin, seitan and shitake mushroom stems. We loved the Spicy Salted Oyster Mushrooms. I’m told they also do a great lunch buffet.

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Totem pole in the grounds of the Parliament Building

One of the highlights of our Victoria trip was our visit to the Royal BC Museum. Considered by some to be the best museum in Canada, the Royal BC is definitely one of the most fun, interactive, visually stunning and immersive museum experiences I’ve ever had. Sophie and Tom each found a couple of exhibits that completely captured their imaginations.

For Sophie it was an animated film about First Nation tribes hunting wooly mammoths, and also the wonderful Old Town in the Modern History Gallery, featuring extremely detailed (and slightly spooky) recreations of the Grand Hotel, Port Moody Railway Station and a 1900s kitchen, complete with the smell of cinnamon and a net curtain flapping in the evening breeze. For Tom, it was the fire in the beautiful and atmospheric Jonathan Hunt House in the First People’s Gallery, which functions both as a museum installation and as a real ceremonial house. On a less impressive note, the other thing which Tom found it worth getting out of his buggy for was a taxidermied duck.

After a whole morning spent at the museum, we were hungrrrrry! So we visited the Year-Long Food Truck Festival, conveniently located in the museum’s back courtyard. The eating area features recycled and reused furniture and decor and, for the thirsty, there are local craft beers on tap. It turned out to be a super fun lunch option and each of us could choose what we wanted to eat from the various different trucks. For Sophie that was, unsurprisingly, chicken fingers (since when do chickens have fingers anyway? Ha ha) while for hubby and I it was spinach and potato tacos. Tom was fast asleep in his buggy by this point. Obviously all that taxidermied duck excitement had worn him out.

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Arthur and Tom larking about in Beacon Hill Park

When nap-time was over we headed up to Beacon Hill Park, a large and beautiful park, also walking distance from the harbor. The park has a petting zoo, a miniature golfing green and various other attractions but we got sucked into one of the playgrounds, where myself and my aunt (hubby had somehow wrangled himself a nap – clever man) ran around like headless chickens trying to make sure Tom didn’t overestimate his abilities and launch himself head-first off the climbing frame.

We all convened for dinner where we managed to fit seven of us into a booth at Ferris Grill and Garden Patio. Despite Tom being rather intimidated by our waitress and giving her the side-eye all night we had an awesome time. Ferris specializes in oysters, but most of us ordered a burger of some description. I loved the house Burger and hubby (who is vegetarian) enjoyed the Veggie Nut Burger. Portions were very generous and the Chicago Style Fries were completely addictive. The kids decorated themselves with pasta and tomato sauce and a grand time was had by all.

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Sophie’s favourite shop

We loved Victoria and immediately felt at home there. Although it’s a capital city, it has an extremely fun, quirky, laid-back coastal vibe. One of the things I especially loved were all the flower beds blooming along the waterfront. Flowers, flowers for miles!

Thankyou, Victoria, for a lovely stay – we hope to visit again someday!

 

Decadent Fudgy Brownies

When I was in my early 20s I worked as a sous chef in the kitchen of a well-established and well-loved London deli. Most of the time it was just me and three super fun and sweet Algerian guys bumping into each other in the tiny basement kitchen and pumping out Bob Marley or Manu Chao for 10 hours a day. Oh yeah, and we also cooked a little bit.

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One of the things that we cooked or rather, baked, on an almost daily basis was the shop’s trademark brownies. These brownies were legendary. People would make pilgrimages from places as far away as Neasden to wrap their choppers around our brownies. Probably. In any case, we sold stacks of them every day to the point where pretty much everybody who worked in the deli (including the floor managers and definitely including the kitchen porter) knew the recipe and could be called on to enter the breach and whip up a double batch at any given moment if stocks got low.

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Fast forward ten years or so and I am about to set about the task of making my two year old daughter’s birthday cake for her kindergarten party. Having been rather absent in the birthday-cake-baking arena up until this moment (sorry, nearest and dearest) I rack my brains to come up with a source for a great chocolate cake recipe that will satisfy a bunch of sugar fiends, um, sorry, I mean toddlers. My extremely clever husband suggests the legendary brownies (having been rather partial to their decadent fudginess himself, back in the day). Aha! I thought. What a clever husband I have!

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So I locate the recipe (which I handily noted down all those years ago) spend a bunch of money on unreasonable amounts of chocolate and butter (I did say they were decadent) only to eventually pull out of the oven a tray of something hard, crumbly and somewhat charred smelling. I don’t know what it was but it definitely wasn’t brownies. As I stirred my disappointed tears into the batter of the rather underwhelming sheet cake which was to replace the paving stone I had just inadvertently baked, I racked my brains to answer the question: WHAT? WENT? WRONG? I scanned the recipe. I gnawed on a chunk of singed brick (chocolate flavour). I questioned my sanity. It was just as I was cracking a lovely unsuspecting organic egg into the cake batter of disillusionment that it dawned on me. Eggs. Do brownies require eggs? Yes. Were eggs listed as an ingredient in my hastily scrawled notes from 10 years previously? Nah-uh. Hence: candied concrete slab. (Well, of course we ate it).

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And so, after baking a succession of rather more successful birthday cakes over the last couple of years (thanks to birthing an additional child… and also to the fact that one birthday party per person per year never seems to be enough these days… this year Sophie turned 4 and I ended up baking her 3 birthday cakes plus a batch of cookies… do we now count out a person’s age in batches of baked goods received instead of number of candles? Is someone going to bake me 39 different varieties of confection for my next birthday? Please?  But I digress…) I have worked up the courage to give the legendary brownies another crack.

And I’ll remember to give some eggs a crack this time round too. How many, you ask innocently? Um, six. And, no, that’s not a typo. It’s the number of eggs it took to get the batter to pourable consistency. Extra vanilla and salt seemed obvious additions, plus some research into the benefits of whipping the eggs with the sugar have produced, I think, a delectably decadent and fabulously fudgy brownie.

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Decadent Fudgy Brownies

Makes 24 smallish brownies

Bake time: 30-40 mins

This article and also this one were invaluable during my eggs-perimentations with different quantities, bake times and so on, and were also sources of general brownie wisdom.

Ingredients

Oil for coating baking tray

450g (15.9oz) bitter chocolate

450g (15.9oz) unsalted butter

6 large free-range eggs

500g (17.6oz) white sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

150g (5.3oz) all-purpose flour

150g (5.3oz) cocoa powder

¼ tsp table salt

 

Method

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180C (356F / Gas Mark 4). Lightly oil a 33cm x 23cm (13 x 9 inch) baking pan and lay two pieces of parchment paper crossways inside so that there is an overhang of paper on each side of the pan. This will help you lift the brownies out of the pan when they’re done. Lightly oil the parchment paper.
  2. Break up the chocolate into smallish pieces and melt using your preferred method. I used a bain-marie but you could also do it in the microwave.
  3. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a low heat.
  4. Use either a stand mixer or a large bowl and an electric whisk to whisk together the eggs, sugar and vanilla. Keep at it for a good minute or so, until everything is combined and has reached a smooth creamy consistency.
  5. In a large bowl, sift together the all-purpose flour, cocoa powder and salt.
  6. Add half the flour mixture to the egg mixture and whisk until combined. Scrape down the bowl and then add the other half of the flour mixture, whisking until everything is very well mixed and you have a thick shiny batter.
  7. Add the melted butter and whisk in.
  8. Add the melted chocolate to the batter. If you used a bain-marie to melt the chocolate, be careful – the bowl will be very hot! The chocolate will set as it cools so make sure you whisk it in quickly and thoroughly, for at least a minute, so that the chocolate will be evenly distributed.
  9. Pour the batter evenly into your lined baking pan and bake in the center of the oven for 35-45 minutes. You can test doneness by sticking a toothpick into the center of the pan. What you’re looking for is for it to come out with some sticky crumbs on it. If the toothpick comes out with wet batter on it, leave the pan in the oven for a bit longer; if it comes out clean, the brownies will be dryer and won’t have the fudgy consistency you’re looking for.
  10. When done, take the brownies out of the oven and allow to cool in the pan. Only when completely cooled, lift the brownies out of the pan using the parchment paper wings, peel off the paper and cut into squares.
  11. Brownies will keep out of the fridge in a tupperware-type container for a good few days and probably up to a week. Try warming one in the microwave for 30 seconds and serving with vanilla ice-cream. Yum!