Lychees and salmon for Canada's desert soldiers

FOB SPERWAN GHAR, Afghanistan Sat Jun 25, 2011 7:39am EDT

FOB SPERWAN GHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - In the dusty heart of the Panjwai valley, there are waffles and real maple syrup for breakfast, salmon and tagliatelle for dinner, and lychees, ice-cream and home-made cookies for desert.

The lucky diners are not VIP visitors but Canadian soldiers, who between meals head out to fight the Taliban in the poppy fields and narrow mud lanes of one of the most dangerous corners of southern Afghanistan.

"Napoleon said 'An army marches on its stomach'. We haven't forgotten that," said Lieutenant Colonel Marcel McNicholl, Canada's senior gunner in Afghanistan.

The Canadians are preparing to withdraw their combat troops after nearly a decade fighting in Afghanistan, and with them will go a network of combat kitchens that even other armies admit serve up some of the best food of the war.

"We aren't going to eat as well when they've gone," said one of the U.S. soldiers replacing the Canadian troops at Forward Operating Base Sperwan Ghar, who asked not to be named for betraying such unpatriotic sentiments.

U.S. bases often provide only ration packs at lunch.

A dedication to keeping the army well fed in even the most inhospitable outposts has been bolstered by the French-Canadian culinary heritage of the unit currently serving in Sperwan Ghar, on the edge of the Reg desert.

The menu includes dishes like tourtiere du lac -- a meat pie -- and chicken cordon bleu.

"When I work with the English, the best way is always the fastest way, while the French put a little more heart into our cooking and I think you can taste that," said French-Canadian Master Seaman Jean-Guy Vienneau, who has spent 15 years as part of a dedicated corps of military cooks.

61 DEGREES AND UP

The 11 chefs on base may not face enemy fire as often as the people they feed, but they have to endure grueling days up to 14 hours long in a blistering hot kitchen.

"It gets to 61 degrees Celsius, sometimes even hotter -- but the thermometer doesn't go any higher," Vienneau said.

They also have to be inventive. The military sends cooks to any outpost with at least 50 soldiers, but many smaller bases -- now handed over to U.S. troops -- have only charcoal-burning stoves. Menus there still included pepper steak and cakes.

The logistics of feeding hungry soldiers is almost as tough as the heat. One stir-fry for the 550 people on base needs 100 kg of beef; the daily budget per person is little over $20.

The tasty spread is not an indulgence, said General Dean Milner, commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

"The food is excellent, but it's a morale issue for us," he told Reuters before awarding Master Corporal Sylvain Bachand a "commander's coin" for his work in the kitchen, calling him a "true chef" who raised standards everywhere he worked.

But despite the cooks' skills, soldiers still have several weeks wait before they can enjoy a dinner many are craving: cold beer with the most famous French Canadian dish, poutine -- French fries served with cheese curd and brown sauce.

Alcohol is forbidden under army rules and deep frying is banned on bases where the blistering heat, stacks of ammunition and limited extinguishers could make a kitchen fire devastating.

(Editing by Alistair Scrutton)

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