Finding the Mother Lode of Sweet Treats on Last Chance Gulch

How can you not want to take a stroll down Last Chance Gulch on a warm and breezy summer evening? How can you not want to at any time, really, because is Last Chance Gulch not the best street name ever? It is the beyond-bucolic main drag of Helena, Montana’s historic downtown, and the name derives from the fact Helena’s founders were planning to move on if they didn’t find gold in their last-ditch effort at prospecting. Luckily they hit pay dirt and the rest his history.

Helena Montana Last Chance Gulch

When I arrived in Montana’s capital just before sunset I hastily checked in at the Holiday Inn, jettisoned my bags and set out on foot with one mission in mind. Yes I wanted to soak up the history, and get a feel for the place on this lovely pedestrianized thoroughfare, but foremost in my mind was procuring an ice cream cone.

Helena Montana Big Dipper exterior

I’d read about The Big Dipper in my pre-trip googlings and knew it to be a local institution, selling homemade ice cream since 1995. Luckily I didn’t have far to go and I knew that I getting close when I spotted the queue that wended its way out the door. This gave me time to choose from among the twenty or so luscious flavours.

Big Dipper ice cream Helena Montana serving cone

When I reached the counter, I was confident in my choice: Mocha Chip. I took my prize out into the night and enjoyed it during my twilight wander back to the hotel. Lo and behold I found myself back there the following evening, sampling a Huckleberry cone, the region’s quintessential flavour.

Helena Montana Last Chance Gulch ice cream

In my world, sugar enhances almost any experience. So, when I asked Kal Poole, the Managing Director of the Grandstreet Theater, about his favourite establishment on Last Chance Gulch, and he enthusiastically described The Parrot Confectionery (with a hint of reverie giving rise to the suspicion I was dealing with a fellow addict,)  I instantly knew that first-hand “research” was in order.

Parrot Confectionery chocolates Helena Montana

AParrot Confectionery chocolate case Helena Montana substantial display case full of all sorts of confections, obscured by a congregation of eager customers, greets visitors entering The Parrot. Patiently hovering in the background as the customers were served, I spied one tantalizing treat after another from the huge array of candies and chocolates made in-house, and the visually stimulating jars of vibrant penny candy lining the surface of the candy counter. When I reached the front, the crowd had thinned and I confessed to the friendly gal behind the counter that this was my first time and I was overwhelmed by choice. I explained that I might never again have a chance to return and therefore the angst of deciding what to get weighed heavily on me. I broke the ice by introducing myself and requesting permission to take photos.

Candies Parrot Confectionery Helena Montana

This obviously wasn’t Amanda’s first confectionery indecision rodeo, and we chatted about my general preferences, deciding that I would forgo penny candy and focus on the goodies made at The Parrot. Emphasis would be put on Turkish Delight because it’s unusual and a favourite of mine, while mints would have to wait and take a gamble on my returning to Helena someday. Chocolate is mandatory. Because chocolate. After this meeting of the minds I surrendered the sweets selection duties to Amanda while I indulged my shutterbug proclivities.

Helena Montana Parrot Confectionary soda fountain
A Helena haunt since 1922, The Parrot is also a vintage soda fountain and lunch counter, serving the full gamut of sodas, phosphates, shakes, malts, and sundaes, as well as secret-recipe Parrot Chili (though the formula is confidential, rest assured it contains no actual parrots) that is highly sought after.

Parrot Confectionery Amanda turkish delight Helena MontanaHaving presented me with my expertly chosen selection of sweets, Amanda had one more surprise in store. Perhaps because of my obvious and charming (at least I like to think so) enthusiasm, she encouraged me to go take a look in the back room of the shop where the candy is made!

At this point I will wrap up the commentary and let the photos transport you to the sugary wonderland that the Parrot Confectionery’s kitchen. As their tagline states, it “Talks for Itself!”


Acknowledgements and Disclosure: Thanks, obviously, to Amanda at The Parrot for her help and kindness, and to Mike Mergenthaler for treating me to huckleberry ice cream. This trip was hosted by the Helena CVB.

Foto Friday: Dining and Dashing in Uruguay

Besides the novelty of old-timey drive-in restaurants with roller-skating carhops, eating in the car is not generally a recipe for enjoying food.

Another exception might be this restaurant in Colonia, Uruguay, where you can enjoy leisurely fine-dining at a table for two inside this vintage automobile that is a permanent fixture on the patio.

Colonia Uruguay car dining


I wish there’d been more time to enjoy Uruguay. We only spent an afternoon there on our escorted tour, which was really only enough time for lunch and a wander through the bucolic streets of the town of Colonia del Sacramento

Foto Friday: Eating Ice Cream in Bariloche

Bariloche Ice cream

It’s a reality of travelling that some days are going to be effed up no matter how much you have your act together. Those days call for ice cream.

It was going to be great. It was unusual to have much free time during our tour of South America, but on this day in Bariloche, Argentina, we had a huge block of it. I was going to whip off the article I owed my editor and then head out and explore for hours and hours!

The Internet gods were having none of that. The hotel’s internet connection unexpectedly devolved into glacial mode and instead of my work taking half an hour to complete, I spent hours wrestling with a bad connection, cajoling it to work, pleading with hotel IT people. Finally I had no other choice but to decamp to McDonald’s and use their wi-fi to submit my work.

With only an hour or so of free time left, I did what any sensible person would do. I took a walk and went for ice cream.

Admittedly, seeking chocolate and ice cream is my default response to stress and frustration, but if there were ever an ideal place for me to be stressed out, Bariloche is it. This town in Patagonia is famous for its chocolate and there is a heladeria (ice cream shop) on almost every street street corner. I went for milk chocolate, white chocolate and dulce de leche, which were all tremendously satisfying choices. Plus, I conducted the entire conversation, albeit a brief one, in Spanish with no pointing required whatsoever. It’s the small victories that count.

Shelbourne Hotel Afternoon Tea pouring

Afternoon Tea at the Shelbourne Hotel

Apparently, having tea at the Shelbourne Hotel is one of things you have to do in Dublin. I was told as much the day after I arrived in Ireland, when I met up with the local BookCrossing group.

Shelbourne Hotel Afternoon Tea pouring

When Mariellen of Breathe. Dream. Go. came to town, it seemed like the perfect time to enjoy this must-do Dublin experience. Afternoon tea isn’t something I normally indulge in by myself, and Mariellen is a tea aficionado. Though, as someone who drinks the stuff approximately as often as a solar eclipse and is thus wholly ignorant of its complexities, I was mildly intimidated by the extent of her tea geekitude.

Shelbourne Hotel afternoon tea teapotsThey call her the Grand Old Lady on the Green (the hotel that is, not Mariellen. No matter how zen India may have made her, I expect Mariellen would still object to being referred to as old) because she is an ornate, historic hotel overlooking St. Stephen’s Green. She’s like an elderly auntie who still knows how to dress to impress and has all kinds of wild stories to tell you if you bother to ask. “Peter O’Toole?” she’ll say. “Oh yes, he loved to bathe in Champagne.” Or maybe she’ll tell you about the time she hosted the drafting of Ireland’s Constitution if you seem interested.

The Shelbourne has so many stories that the hotel has a tiny museum in the lobby to share moments from its past. Shelves are lined with guest books filled with the names of heads of state, big names from the silver screen, corporate movers and shakers, and lesser-known but well-heeled guests of yore who have stayed at the Shelbourne, while the walls feature photographs of the property and Dublin’s streetscape through the years, as well as portraits of famous guests.

Shelbourne Hotel museum

Speaking of stories, one of the most surprising and impressive amenities at the The Shelbourne is their Genealogy Concierge. Since tracing family roots is a popular reason people travel to Ireland, the service makes sense and isn’t just for the sake of novelty, but it’s still unusual and intriguing.

Once we’d flounced around the hotel a bit, and seen some of the guest rooms, (which are proactively redecorated and refurbished before they have a chance to need it) and chandeliers as big as your car, we sat down for afternoon tea in the Shelbourne’s Lord Mayor’s Lounge, which is just off the lobby as you enter the front door.

Shelbourne Hotel afternoon tea menu

Francois is the Tea Concierge, and he helped us navigate the extensive tea menu. I realized Mariellen is a tea nerd when I caught her testing Francois with questions about the varieties of tea in specific blends listed on the menu. Later, she confessed to being a “tea snob.” Apparently my berry-infused herbal tea is not tea, but a tisane, and purists care about subtle distinctions such as this. It was tasty enough for me. I ordered it because, not being a regular tea drinker, I was concerned that I might dislike a proper cup of tea and since my face is an open book I could accidentally offend our hosts.

Since I don’t like tea, it’s logical that you might be wondering why I chose to go for afternoon tea at the Shelbourne Hotel. Two things: the food and the atmosphere. For me, proper afternoon tea is more about the experience than the tea itself, and The Lord Mayor’s Lounge makes you feel as though you’ve taken a spin in the TARDIS and stepped into another, more elegant era.

Shelbourne Hotel Afternoon Tea sandwiches

Afternoon tea cannot be rushed, and there’s something about being faced with a towering tray of dainties that forces me to slow down and savour the moment. The Shelbourne’s head chef Garry Hughes enthusiastically takes inspiration from the hotel’s heritage and, thanks to that aforementioned museum, often refers back to menus from historic moments in the hotel’s 190-year history.

Shelbourne hotel afternoon tea desserts

The desserts served at our tea harkened back to ones served on memorable dates in the years 1924, 1954, and 1956, while our sandwiches were a contemporary update on stereotypical tea sandwiches, each made with artisanal heritage breads. Mariellen’s gluten-free sandwiches were especially impressive. Personally, I’m quite thankful that Ireland won its rugby match against Wales in 1956 because the dessert served that day — a gold-leafed chocolate mousse with mango and passionfruit — was by far my favourite.

Shelbourne Hotel afternoon tea anerdatlarge breathedreamgo

Disclosure and acknowledgements: Many thanks to The Shelbourne Hotel for giving us a tour and providing Afternoon Tea for the purpose of this review. Thanks also to Francois for taking the group photo above.

Try 1,000 Things: Bacon Ice Cream Sandwich

Bacon Ice Cream Sandwich

The opening on the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto has me thinking of outrageous food. It’s a tradition at the CNE that every year they unveil some new and preposterous indulgences available at the Food Building. One year it was deep-fried butter making the headlines. This year they have sweet potato and Nutella poutine, bacon milkshakes and mac-n-cheese bunwiches among their repertoire, along with a Food Truck Frenzy.

I do love me some crazy food experiences, but odds are that the only frenzy I will be taking part in this weekend is a packing frenzy, since I leave for Dublin on Sunday night. But all this wacky food talk got me thinking of the out-there dessert I tried recently.

I was visiting my family in Barrie, Ontario and Jane and I went out for lunch at The Potted Pig. After stuffing ourselves with various delicious pork-laced dishes, the server asked what we wanted for dessert. Dessert!?! I’d forgotten there was dessert. Barrielicious was on and our prix fixe meal included appetizers, mains, and dessert. I was about to take a pass on it, until he uttered the magic words… Bacon. Ice Cream. Sandwich.

It sounds crazy, but bacon really does make an ice cream sandwich better. The chewy chocolate chip cookies and vanilla ice cream were a treat, but the candied cubes of salty, smoky bacon were what made this dish. Maybe next year they will turn up at the CNE.

Odile Chocolat truffles Toronto

Don’t Hate Me for Taking a Chocolate Tour. It’s My Job.

I discovered a surefire way to make people instantly hate me. Okay, not real hatred, but at least an intense pang of primeval, involuntary jealousy.

I’ve only recently started calling myself a writer. Even though pretty much my entire career has been as a writer of one sort or another, it was well over a decade before I gave myself permission to say so. When asked about my profession I would always say something like “Oh, I’m in marketing” or “I work for a travel company.” Then one time a couple of years ago we were crossing the border to Buffalo and the border guard was giving us the third degree where they ask the same question a bunch of different ways to try to trip you up. He asked what I did for a living and I responded, “I’m a writer” and it felt right.

Nowadays I have the audacity to call myself a travel writer because that’s what I do. I write about travel. When you tell people you are a travel writer folks react about the same way that they would if your job title was “Astronaut” or “President of the United States of America” – amazement tinged with envy.

So, how do you take that over the top and make people believe that you don’t deserve to be living the life you are blessed to lead? Tell them you’re going on a chocolate tour.

Audrey at Tasty Tours Toronto invited me to try her Trinity-Bellwoods Chocolate Tour, and you can be certain that I didn’t need to be asked twice.

Tasty Tours Toronto Chocolate Tour

At the beginning of the walking tour, Audrey explained where chocolate originates from, how the cacao beans are grown and the process of transforming cacao beans into chocolate. She also taught us how to properly taste chocolate and gave us morsels of chocolate from Cocoa Camino to practice with. Unlike piano lessons, chocolate tasting is something I could practice with a great deal of dedication.

Our first stop on the tour was at Le Dolci, a culinary studio where they give classes in making cakes and other sweets. They also have house-made lemonade that we  sampled before drooling over (figuratively!) their showcase of cupcakes, macarons, and other goodies.

Le Dolci Macarons Toronto

I learned a few things about Toronto’s past while we made our way south to Nadege Patisserie. Audrey told us a bit about the history of Trinity-Bellwoods Park, which was once a university campus before Trinity College merged with the University of Toronto.

We had unbelievably perfect weather for our tour. It was the first sunny, warm, summery day of the year, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when we arrived to find the café at Nadege completely jammed with people shopping for mouth-watering sweets while out for a weekend stroll. Luckily this saved me from potentially blowing a whack of both cash and calories, as I was too daunted by the throngs of people in line to purchase any of the sweets that were calling my name. They are known for their macarons and they had a whackload of flavours in the showcase.

What fired up my inner word nerd is that the cornerstone of Nadege’s range of confections is a line of chocolate bars with flavours for every letter of the alphabet. We sampled W. You might be thinking walnuts, or that irritating pretender of a flavour called wildberry. Try wasabi. Wasabi and ginger gelee in dark chocolate to be precise. Pungent and delicious.

Nadege chocolate alphabet toronto

Our next stop was a familiar one, though I’d never viewed it in the context of chocolate. Sanko Trading Co. has been a fixture of Toronto’s Queen West neighbourhood for years and years but I always thought of this Japanese variety store with its cheery sign as the place where we bought big tubs of miso and beautiful crockery, not as a place to get my candy fix. Well, there’s this one aisle that holds all kinds of goodies. Stephen, one of the owners, had us gather round while he handed out samples of two of the many confectionary items he imports from Japan – Meltykiss and matcha-flavoured KitKat bars.

Matcha Green Tea KitKat

We concluded our tour back on Dundas West at Odile Chocolat. This tiny shop is a treasure trove of artisanal chocolates, all handmade by the proprietor, Odile Chatelain who is originally from Paris, France. Her specialties are origin chocolates and combining unusual flavours in her truffles. She and Audrey explained more about chocolate is made, with a cacao pod on hand to show us where it comes from. We even tasted raw cacao beans. Odile was very generous with her time and answered all of our questions. All the while we were surrounded by rows upon rows of Odile’s tantalizing creations. At last we were each given a truffle to taste! I chose one flavoured with Niagara Icewine.

Odile Chocolat truffles Toronto

The tour finished here and it was time to say goodbye to all the fun and interesting folks I’d spent the afternoon with. There was a 5-15minute walk between each of the tour stops and it was a lovely opportunity to visit and make new friends, such as Noelia and Tommy who gave me top tips on things to do in Tipperary. The day that I took the tour, the group was all people from Toronto and area who were looking for something fun and different to do on a Saturday. There’s no reason a tourist wouldn’t enjoy the tour as well, and I suspect Tasty Tours Toronto may see more visitors as word spreads.

Overall the Trinity Bellwoods Chocolate Tour was great fun. Audrey made it interesting and informative. If you want to know where chocolate comes from and how it’s made, this is a good place to start. On the other hand, if you’re a bit of a chocolate geek like me and have read a few books on the subject, you’ll find that this tour covers just the basics. Let’s face it; a chocolate tour is about the tastings! We sampled several things at each stop, but not so much that you’d need to skip a meal or feel like a glutton as a result. I would recommend this tour for anyone who likes chocolate and wants to make people incredibly envious.

Not many people know this, but when I was laid off in 2009 I came very close to embarking on a career as a chocolatier. Chocolate is an immensely fascinating substance to me and my first impulse when I received my severance package was to enroll in a pastry arts program somewhere. Then I went for outplacement counselling and in talking to my career coach I realized that even though I was fed up and burned out from that job, beneath all the stress and discontentment one fact remained. I am a writer.


Disclosure: I received free admission to this tour for the purpose of reviewing it.

Randy's Donuts

Foto Friday: Randy’s Donuts

The first thing we did when we got to Los Angeles was pay a visit to Randy’s Donuts, which is very close to LAX and not far from our hotel.

Randy's Donuts


long john donut

beer tasting

Try 1000 Things: Beer

Until this year I was an alcoholic virgin. Hmm, that sounds way trashier than I intended, but I think you know what I mean. Although I’m well past the legal drinking age, I only started drinking in April 2012. There are several reasons for this, all of which are boring, so let’s just say that it boils down to the fact that I never started.

pints of beer at an Irish pub
The natural habitat of beer experts – photo by vermegrinio

I was set to visit a land with a greater than average concentration of experts on the subject, so I decided that my trip to Ireland would be as good an occasion as any to start drinking.  Since my first glass of Proseco in Dublin I’ve tried many different alcoholic beverages. I enjoyed most of them, but not beer.

A sip of a friend’s pint of Guinness at a pub in Ballycumber was my first hint that beer might not be my drink of choice, but then again lots of pople dislike Guinness so I wasn’t prepared to write it off just yet. Nevertheless, trying more beers fell considerably lower on my list of alcoholic explorations.

Then June I went to TBEX in Colorado and there was a reception for us at Wynkoop Brewing Company where I tried beer in earnest with a glass of my very own. They were quite tickled that my first beer was one of theirs. I wanted to like it and make them proud. But I didn’t. I started to feel weird after drinking half the glass, probably due to the combination of altitude, jet lag, not having eaten, walking all day, and being on edge after a run-in with a creepy dude just prior to the event. So I stopped and focused on making new friends instead.

beer tastingI still didn’t feel like I’d given beer a fair shake, so when I went with friends to The 3 Brewers for a pre-TIFF dinner I was coerced decided to have their beer-tasting flight, featuring a white, blonde, amber, and brown beers. As instructed I drank them from lightest to darkest. The light one was supposed to taste fruity, and it kind of did. To me it tasted like I imagine it would if you took a pineapple and a load of old shoes, threw them into a washing machine, and then drank the rinse water. In the spirit of experimental enquiry I drank every one of the beers in front of me and kept hoping that the good part would come with the next sip, but it never did.

I have nothing against the brewers of the beers that I tried. No doubt their wares are delicious to people who enjoy beer, I just don’t happen to be one of them.

It’s official. I don’t like beer.