It’s the end of March in the cool Alberta Rockies and I’ve spent the morning waiting out the unpredictable weather. I’m hoping for the temperatures to breach the freezing mark so there won’t be any bone-breaking ice on the roads for me and my little Honda 250 motorbike, Goose. From my place to Dennis and his wife Nancy’s in Nordegg, it’s roughly three hours under optimal conditions. Today was anything but optimal and I ended up riding directly into a couple of whiteout conditions. Literally, a white-knuckle ride with snow blanketing down over me from the heavens. The last time I rode through the snow was crossing the Andes in Peru headed to Machu Picchu, I’m not sure which day was worse. At least on this route, I’m 15,000 feet closer to sea level.
A temperature of 0oC doesn’t seem that bad when you’re standing still but add in a windchill factor of 100km/hr (or whatever the speed is you’re riding at), and you might as well be sitting on a glacier in your underwear! During the ride, my hands became so cold I could hardly work the clutch. My nose was a running river of snot and the wind was whipping up and under the chin guard of my helmet, where it would smatter across the inside of my visor, freeze, and blur out more and more of my vision. The breaking point for me was when I went to shift up and realized I had no feeling in my toes.
Finally, I gave in and pulled over. Walking around in a sort of walk-jump-walk motion, while moving my hands as much as possible until everything regained feeling. I needed to pull over and repeat this little antifreeze dance several times before finally reaching the snowy road that turned into Dennis and Nancy's wooded neighborhood. Unlike the well-traveled, dry main road, the roads in their neighborhood were white and soft. I knew I likely wouldn’t make it up a steep hill if I made a wrong turn, so I called ahead to confirm the last bit of navigation.
Once I arrived, I basically wrapped myself around their fireplace chimney to thaw out for a few minutes before heading out back to meet Dennis around the campfire. If I was looking for adventure, the trip was off to a promising start!
Rich in history and resources, Nordegg Alberta was once home to a booming coal mining industry. So abundant in fact that when mining began in 1912, Nordegg needed to add a rail line in the first year of production that branched off from the Edmonton to Calgary route to pick up the coal. Before the line was complete there was already over 100,000 tonnes of coal stockpiled and awaiting its first transport train. As production escalated over the years the mine expanded to a workforce of 800 miners and by the 1940s, the once remote wilderness was now home to over 2,500 residents. The coal quality and supply were so good that Nordegg became the largest producer of coal briquettes in Canada.
Today this humble village hovers closer to 100 residents, mostly retirees enjoying its serene, peaceful tranquility. However, the embers of the past still glow and I found myself under the spring snowfall learning to cook bread with coals and cast iron.
Outside in the shadow of a storybook log cabin, at the foot of an inviting pine forest, I can hear the sounds of the forest rustle with spring chickadees pecking through the melting snow and searching for any forgotten berries from the year before. It’s here I find Dennis tending to the red glow of what was a campfire and surrounded by an array of moose and deer antlers from animals he’s harvested as well as a number of elk sheds and a couple of majestic ram skulls.
Dennis’s love for cooking is obvious and when I spotted an apple tart and tourtière on the counter before leaving the house, I could see he hadn’t lost any of his skill as a former restaurateur. Dennis explains he acquired the recipe from his neighbor Al. A no-knead bread made from stone-ground flour that never fails to ‘rise’ to the occasion.
The coal-powered baker explains that he made the dough from stone ground flour the night before and covered it overnight to let it rise. Before my arrival, he warmed the Dutch Oven and then filled it with dough. Warning: if you place the risen dough in a cold pot it might cause it to fall, at which point you will have flatbread, not the delicious masterpiece we are creating today.
A mountain man with Metis roots, Dennis seems right at home here in the heart of the Rockies. He explains that a lot of his time is spent hiking the trails that surround this stunning setting as well as fishing for some of the beautiful brown trout that swim in the streams nearby.
While we chat, Dennis skillfully rotates the cast iron cooker every 3-5 minutes to even out the cooking and rests a few coals on the lid to help brown the head to match the heel. While the anticipation for the perfect finish builds, so do the nerves. Dennis mentions the process is a bit nerve-wracking as you never know what you’re going to get until the lid comes off. When I asked him why we were doing this over the fire instead of just putting it in the oven the explanation was simple; “It’s more fun this way!” In a part of the planet that can see six or more months of winter and temperatures that will have you running from the cold, catching a cold, and getting cabin fever all at the same time, the fun of an outdoor fire with a flavourful food reward is a welcome winter distraction.
After carefully prepping the night before, ensuring proper pot temperature, and coaxing the bread to bake to perfection, the moment of truth finally arrived. Extracting it from the firepit Dennis went to maneuver everything over near the log chair and get the loaf ready for transport. Meanwhile, I was over grabbing the camera and heard a little thud then Dennis laughing. He had moved the bread from the Dutch Oven to a bowl and was heading inside when he caught his boot on the ground. Tripping, the little loaf of baked perfection launched from the bowl to the ground, and went rolling across the packed snow. The upside is that the bread was instantly cool to the touch and Dennis was so quick, he grabbed it before breaking the five-second rule!
Inside the storybook log cabin with the fireplace crackling in the background, we indulged in the fruits of Dennis's labor. The no-knead bread was served alongside the delightful tourtière and an apple tart, a throwback to his Metis heritage. The whole setting created an alpine resort ambiance mixed with an intimate family dining experience. As we savored the moment, white-tailed deer strolled past the front window, adding to the enchanting atmosphere.
Nordegg is a Canadian National Historic Site. Its vacant rail tracks and historical landmarks may have transitioned from a coal mining powerhouse to a serene village, but its historical echoes are unmistakable. The coal briquettes that were once sought after by Canadians coast to coast have given way to modern methods, but the flames of history still flicker in the hearts of the locals, creating a bridge between a vibrant past and an optimistic future.
Dennis / Neighbour Al’s Cast Iron & Coals No Knead Bread
-3 Cups Flour
-1 ½ tsp salt
-½ tsp instant yeast
-1 ½ cups room temperature water
*Beginners note. Don’t take the lid off to check until after the 30-minute mark. Doing this will suck away the heat and if the bread isn’t cooked may cause it to fall*
Serve with butter and good campfire stories.