What's the difference between a buffalo and a bison? The answer escapes me as I tuck into another succulent rib doused in smoky chipotle sauce. The menu at Fude – a highly original restaurant in the Osborne quarter of Manitoba's capital, Winnipeg – is full of unusual temptations.
But a day tramping the streets has built up my appetite, and the bison (or buffalo) has just pipped the chilli-chocolate chicken on grounds of anticipated quantity. I knock back any lingering guilt with raspberry sangria. After all, I'm not responsible for driving this proud animal to extinction: that happened – in Canada, at least – back in 1883. The individual I'm now munching comes from a local, wild-farmed, sustainable herd; I know this much because owner "Fude dude" Chris Fougere lists all his suppliers on the menu.
Buffalo (or bison) certainly played their part in local history. This morning, at the Manitoba Museum, I was no sooner past reception than I met a stampeding herd with a mounted party of Métis hunters in hot pursuit. The Métis (meaning "mixed") are the true children of Manitoba. Born largely of French-settler fathers and Cree and Ojibwa mothers, they battled for centuries for their rights and received First Nations recognition only in 1983.
To get a handle on this – and other complexities of Manitoba's history – the museum is definitely the place to start. And, with a diorama for every era, pride of place goes to a full-size replica of the Nonsuch, the impossibly tiny ketch that in 1668 made the first trading voyage into Hudson Bay. The 12 souls who braved this Arctic crossing were not after bison (or buffalo), however, but mink, muskrat, beaver and the other luxuriantly pelted creatures of the north whose fur fetched a pretty price back in Europe. It was on the fur trade that the Hudson Bay Company – and, ultimately, Canada itself – was founded.
Back outside, I fail to spot any mink coats or beaver hats. But then it is summer and the city is wilting. Hard to believe that temperatures here drop to minus 40C in winter and that, a few months back, the locals were racing dogsleds along its frozen rivers. But climatic extremes are part of the centre of continents, and Winnipeg is as central you can get: stick a pin in the very middle of North America and that's where you'll find it.
It was this location – halfway between Canada's east and west coasts, with the rail connection north to Hudson Bay and surrounded by fertile prairies – that made a burgeoning hub of Winnipeg in the early 20th century. The "Chicago of the north" they called it then, and the monuments to that prosperity are everywhere, from the chateau-esque Fort Garry Hotel and the equally imposing Union Station that it served, to the faded signs and Art Deco embellishments of the downtown Exchange District, once the city's pumping commercial heart.
But the city's remoter past is equally present. Winnipeg, which means "muddy waters" in the Cree language, refers to the lake of that name, 40 miles north of the city, but could also mean the Red and Assiniboine rivers, at whose confluence the settlement sprang up.
Today, this spot is known as The Forks. "People have been meeting here for 6,000 years," says my guide Chris Thomas as, decked out in 19th-century settler threads and wicker shoulder basket, he leads me on Parks Canada's "6,000 years in 60 minutes" tour. Chris's colourful stories bring to life the ancient indigenous rituals and bloody settler skirmishes.
Today, however, the Forks is a more tranquil spot, all sunbathing picnickers and organic food stalls. A unique "Naked-Eye Observatory" celebrates indigenous cultures worldwide in towering wrought-iron sculptures around a huge sundial. Beyond, a busy construction site will become Canada's museum of human rights, due to open in 2013. A statue of Gandhi stands nearby, looking impatient.
A stroll across the Esplanade Riel bridge takes me into St Boniface. Louis Riel was the father of the Métis and founder of Manitoba. The battle for his people's rights eventually led to his execution in 1885 and makes him a folk hero. Today, St Boniface remains predominantly francophone and is home to most of the city's Métis community. Behind the monumental façade of the original basilica I find the modern cathedral, where stunning stained glass friezes depict biblical scenes in pop-art Modernism. Mary, I notice, is Métis.
I spend my final evening creeping through the corridors of the Manitoba Legislative Building. Built between 1913 and 1920 by British architect Frank Worthington Simon, this grand edifice is the ultimate monument to Winnipeg's good times. My guide is local author Frank Albo, whose bestselling Hermetic Code unlocks a world of occult mystery smuggled into the architecture. "Everything is hidden in plain view," he tells our wide-eyed tour group, as he reveals Masonic codes, hieroglyphic inscriptions and an intriguing hotchpotch of Christian and pagan symbolism.
Manitoba's legislators – all Freemasons, it turns out – believed that they were reconstructing nothing less than Solomon's temple amid the prairies. It's gripping stuff. But what really catches my eye are the two magnificent stone bison either side of the great marble steps to the upper chamber: a Manitoba take on the totemic wild boars of classical temples.
And now I remember the answer to that initial question. Of course! You can't wash your hands in a buffalo.
Winnipeg no longer has direct UK connections. You can fly via a range of North American gateways but the widest range of connections is via Toronto on Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com). Alternatively, fly on Air Canada, Air Transat or British Airways to Toronto, and take the two-day train ride on Via Rail (0845 644 3553; viarail.ca) .
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