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Archive for June, 2010

Atlantic

28 Jun

Dundas and Brock weren’t looking their best the other night when my family and I met up for dinner at The Atlantic (1597 Dundas St. W., 416 219 3819). There are barricades along the sidewalk (water main repairs, not G20) and odd blue hoses sticking out of the pavement, perfect for tripping unwary feet. Flags, vuvuzelas and the other gaudily gimcrack trappings of the World Cup are for sale everywhere (Portugal and Brazil are the favoured teams in this neighbourhood and both are still involved, though other nations are not (sob)). The Atlantic is chef Nathan Isberg’s own place, formerly an unpretentious Portuguese family restaurant, now renovated on a minuscule budget. Pretty it ain’t – dark blue walls, rough boards to hide the ceiling, plain old wooden tables, vintage junk-store knick-knacks – but it is hip and wry and casual enough to bring a smile of approval from its cool 30-something clientele. There are a couple of model ships to admire (one built by Isberg’s brother) and good music from some Indie-lover’s iPod. An extraordinary old black-and-white photograph of a harvested whale on a slipway will dismay sensitive diners; others will see it as a sombre reminder of the blood-letting that underpins most acts of eating.
There are other nice touches. A blackboard over the bar offers an unusual cocktail list including an “All day breakfast: cold slice of pizza, ½ btl of beer and a deep sense of foreboding” or something called “The Terrorist” – it’s a cup of mint tea. “Yes, it’s quite a funny list,” agreed the waitress, “though I’m not sure how practical it is.” The dozen wines offered are all temptations and delightfully inexpensive – Daniel Lenko’s 2006 Unoaked Chardonnay for $39, for example, or a sensational Catalan “Syrahnnosaurus Rex” from Domaine Ferrer Ribiere at $60.
Isberg was one of the Queen West wunderkinder a few years ago, dashing across the road to stretch his culinary muscles between both Coca and Czehowski. His relationship with the owners ended in tears, however, and though things are patched up now, he is eager to go it alone as Atlantic’s chef-patron. And I do mean alone. There is no one else in the kitchen. Hence the structure of the menu – 18 small dishes ($3-$12) plus cheese ($13) and three desserts ($7) and the occasional G20 Special – that night it was “dinner served in a fake lake, $1.8m, free after 10pm.”
How to describe the food…? The overall mood of the menu is almost defiantly rustic, consciously domestic and yet slyly exotic – as if Isberg had gone back to school to take a second philosophy degree and was rustling up food one night for other students in his digs. A bowl of priest-strangler pasta with scarlet flecks of pickled chili and a runny Sao Jorge cheese sauce is surely in that basic league. Mussels with salt cod, chorizo and a big slab of toasted brao cornbread are dominated by the sweetish, garlicky, salty bacon personality of the chorizo – which is one way of doing mussels, just not very subtle. But that may be the point. Isberg seems to be chasing big, bold, simple, salty flavours at Atlantic. Fat sardines, grilled and smoked, are as robust as they can be, with nothing but a lemon wedge to mitigate the delicious pungency. Orecchiette are stirred up with tender chunks of braised duck leg, flecks of smoked mackerel (works nicely with the duck and boosts the umami), and lots of bitter, garlicky rapini. Another people-pleasing pasta dish stirs tiny spherical fregola with excellent chanterelles and tangy wild leeks.
Occasionally, a more delicate approach showed the value of finesse. A simple steamed fillet of halibut, for example, was gorgeous over a fine mix of roasted cauliflower and couscous with a smoked paprika dashi – restraint paying dividends. Lovely little steamed artichokes came with a bowl of bagna cauda into which each precious petal was to be dipped, but the rich liquid was so spiked with garlic, salty anchovy and caper that the flavour of the artichoke risked being lost. Cold edamame and mint soup, supersmooth and richly textured, was oddly sweet and overminted – and sweetness and mint only really go together in cocktails, candy or toothpaste. Or in one of the evening’s desserts – a lightweight chestnut-flour crepe wrapped around chocolate mousse and topped with caramel sauce that was crunchy with salt crystals. Fresh chopped mint was the dominant impression and here it worked beautifully.
Three years ago, Isberg and I spent a few days together in New York where we both admired the rustic, tapas-sized dishes at Blue Ribbon, Casa Mono and The Spotted Pig. Of course, it’s much easier to be quaint and simple when you can draw on the limitless resources and personnel of Mario Batali’s empire. Determinedly independent these days, Isberg goes it alone. The price point will keep the place more than busy (it was packed on the night we were there) but I’m looking forward to finding out what this chef will do next.

Tasty steerage

 

In Celebration of the Nation’s Table

25 Jun

Their Excellencies and the recipients

Just got back from two action-packed days in Ottawa, attending the glorious festivities surrounding the inaugural ceremony of the Governor General’s awards in celebration of the Nation’s Table. This is the brainchild of His Excellency Jean-Daniel Lafond, first conceived in 2006 after the Cuvée event in Niagara and developed ever since with meetings, conversations and shared enthusiasms across the length and breadth of Canada. Essentially these awards are gastronomical “G-Gs,” recognizing gastronomy as an art form and as a cultural cornerstone of the nation. This is not just another way of patting top chefs and food writers on the back. It goes much deeper than that, embracing as broad a slice of Canada as possible and considering gastronomy in its broadest possible sense. I was honoured to be part of the 12-person advisory committee who decided the recipients of these inaugural awards. But I was not prepared for the extravaganza involved last night. When Rideau Hall decides to throw a party, a party is truly thrown. There was pomp and circumstance – the granting of armorial bearings to the proceedings by Claire Boudreau, Chief Herald of Canada; aides de camp resplendent in ceremonial uniforms; many military chamber orchestras in many different rooms playing everything from Brahms to tango to Roy Orbison; soldiers in bearskins standing guard over Ruth Klassen’s cheeses; the entire residence thrown open for public inspection; Their Excellencies thoroughly involved, charming the multitude, posing for photographs with the Stratford high-school student-chefs of the Screaming Avocado Club, who assisted the resident culinary brigade of Rideau Hall for two days leading up to the great gala.
Was such ceremony of value? Emphatically, yes. It legitimizes gastronomy as an artistic medium of equal merit to literature, acting, music, dance and all the more conventional forms of enhanced human self-expression. It sets culinary Canada in all its many facets – from farmer’s fields and fishermen’s nets to university laboratories and food writers’ laptops, from vineyard to forest, meadow and mountain, from dairy to diner to haut cuisine – onto a new pedestal. I hope it makes us think a little more and a little harder about this country’s extraordinary foodways, and about how damn good we are when we try.
The recipients – each introduced by a member of the advisory committee who had nominated them – were delightfully free with their remarks and though the room was warm (Rideau Hall’s air conditioning is like an Ottawa earthquake – experienced rarely and only by some) none of us would have wished to have been anywhere else. After the ceremony, the party lasted late, with guests discovering that many of the residence’s state rooms were splendid with food and wine. Then many of us moved to the excellent and tolerant Restaurant 18 in Byward Market so see if we could stay awake until dawn.
But such antics are less interesting, I suspect, than the true heroes of the day. Here is an extract from the official report of proceedings, from www.gg.ca , beginning with a speech from His Excellency, Jean-Daniel Lafond, that explains the inspiration for the awards:

“My wife has told you a bit about the official story of how this award began when I was at Cuvee in 2006, but like all good stories, this version is only half of it. I would like to share with you now the other half…the less official half, if you will.
“It was a very cold and blustery day in February in the Niagara Region. Those of you from that area who are with us tonight can attest that no place feels colder than a vineyard in the middle of an ice storm, with the wind howling in off Lake Ontario.
“I had been asked by the Niagara Community Foundation to present a wine award at the Cuvee gala and to say a few words about Canadian wine as their patron. But, what to say? That was the question.
“I am a great lover of wine and I had been to Niagara before with my family and but I had never been to Cuvee before and my English…well, it was, to everyone’s great surprise, including mine, not that bad.
“My original plan was to improvise, as I so love to do. Then I decided I would jot down a few notes over breakfast about Canadian wine and its contribution to our society. But, when I was sitting at my table in the hotel room, eating my lovely fruit with cheese, bread and coffee, it struck me. I needed to talk about more than that. I needed to talk about how what we eat and what we drink and how it gets to the table is a crucial part of our culture. It is what joins us together. It is what makes us who we are. It is what sustains us as a people. And then, I had an idea…
“I quickly called my team together, sat them down, offered them coffee and brioche (always a good strategy for getting people on your side) and then told them of my little idea.
“Since there are Governor General’s Awards to celebrate literature, the performing arts, media arts, architecture and other endeavours that are vital to the cultural fabric of our country, why could there not also be an award to celebrate the culinary and table arts.
“My team was not hard to convince (especially with their mouths full at the time) and we decided to float the idea out at Cuvee. While I did not have a chance to run it by my wife, I knew she would agree because like me, she believes in the fundamental place of the table in the discourse of our lives. And, she did. She loved, and loves, the idea, as you can see.
“J’avais quelques bonnes bouteilles rapportées des vignobles ontariens, qui ont su ajouter les vertus du vin à ma capacité de convaincre : mon épouse a reçu avec le plus grand enthousiasme le projet d’un prix du gouverneur général des arts de la table, et tous nos collaborateurs ont fait de même.
“So, in my speech that night at Cuvee, I said, ‘I have one final idea that is percolating.’ (and now that you know the inside story, you can appreciate the word choice…?percolating’ was a reminder of our discussion over coffee in the morning.)
“The response to the idea was overwhelming. Some of you who are here tonight, were present that night at Cuvee and I want to take this opportunity to thank you, and all the people like you across the country who have helped make this award possible, for your support, for your vision and for your shared passion.
“This passion is something that has been a huge part of my life ever since I was a young boy. I come from a culture of food and wine. I was born in France and during my formative years, the land was as much a part of my education as literature, geography, sociology, psychology and philosophy. My grandparents and great-grandparents cultivated the land and made their own wine. And my father tended his library, his kitchen and his cellar, all with the same care and passion.
“When I was older and moved to Canada, the table became the space around which I established my connections with society. After all, a table is not just a space to tantalize the taste buds. It is a place for conversation and sharing; where ideas flow as fully as the flavours of the meal. It is there where people of all ages, all cultures and all walks of life, gather to share their hopes, their fears and dreams. It is around a table where our collective stories are told and passed from one generation to the next.
“You will no doubt agree from your own experience, that around the table can be heard tall tales of great adventure and simple words of welcome; and whether there is a physical table or not, the act of hospitality itself conveys a message: when we break bread together, we are sharing the best that life has to offer, and what is more, the privilege of having food to share.
“At a time when, too often, each of us thinks more of ourselves than the other, when imagination and initiative take a back seat to the daily hustle and bustle, when fast food and ready-made meals serve as culinary rituals, it is reassuring to have a central place and cultural forum for exchange, heedless of our differences.
“It is in this spirit of exchange that this award was created.
“Over the last four years, we, my wife and my daughter and I, have travelled across this country, both geographically and gastronomically. We have consulted with hundreds of people who contribute everyday to the bounty of our nation’s table: farmers, food writers, sommeliers, chefs, cheese makers, fishers, teachers, students, hunters and tea makers. We gathered around tables in culinary schools, hotel kitchens, farmers’ markets and old firehalls and broke bread together – exchanging ideas, stories and points of view; and it is from the fruits of those discussions that you find the very heart of this award.
“We completely agreed that this award had to be different from other awards. It had to recognize the human values we share around the table, and around the country. It could not be about the specific accomplishment of one chef, one winemaker or one food producer. It needed to recognize those who inspire us, who teach us and who delight us with their contributions to the nation’s table. It needed to recognize those with a passion for what links us together as Canadians.
“You know, life is a circle. When my wife was first designated as Governor General, our predecessors invited us to come, meet with them and see the residence. Do you know where the tour started and ended? You guessed it, the kitchen, the garden and the table. Like my wife and me, Mme Clarkson and Mr. Saul believed fervently in the importance of the culture and bounty of the nation’s table. Over the last four years, we have strengthened those beliefs and closed the circle with the creation of this award.
“This year during my speech at Cuvee, I said, “Before the fall harvest arrives, we will present the first Governor General’s Award in celebration of the Nation’s Table.” I am proud to be here today to fulfill that promise and to honour the first recipients of this award whom you will see, represent in their actions and their passion, the full extent of the nation’s table and all the values this award was conceived to exalt.
“I don’t know about you, but I cannot wait any longer, so let’s discover the wonder of the nation’s table and meet this year’s recipients.”

A fine speech, I think you will agree. Jean-Daniel Lafond devised the five award categories that recognize achievement in creativity and innovation, education and awareness, leadership, mentorship and inspiration, and stewardship and sustainability. A sixth category, youth, recognizes a young person with potential to inspire peers to become contributors to the nation’s table. Here are the 2010 recipients:

Creativity and Innovation
Recognizing those who have contributed original and distinct ideas, products, techniques or creations to the nation’s table that are imaginative and forward-thinking.
Christian Barthomeuf
Frelighsburg, Quebec
When Christian Barthomeuf first got the idea in 1989 to use icewine-making techniques to create the first ice cider in Quebec, his neighbours said he was an eccentric. Little did they know that, just 10 years later, this exceptional product would be one of the great agri-food success stories in Quebec and Canada, garnering worldwide recognition. Today, Mr. Barthomeuf is one of the pillars of this flourishing young industry. His work is based on simple production techniques and meticulous observation of natural cycles. In helping apple growers to produce high-quality ice cider, Mr. Barthomeuf has also helped to raise the profile of their challenging vocation, while yielding significant added value for their orchards. That assistance has saved many family businesses from certain financial ruin. This visionary has devoted considerable efforts to preserve heritage apple varieties, which he now grows organically in his Clos Saragnat vineyard, where he also produces straw wine and ice wine.
Alfred E. Slinkard
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Alfred Slinkard is synonymous with the development of the Canadian pulse industry. Pulses, commonly known as lentils and peas, are an increasing part of the Canadian diet. They are low in fat, a good source of iron, protein, fibre, minerals, calcium and ‘B’ vitamins. Since 1972, Dr. Slinkard has worked tirelessly with researchers and industry leaders to promote the production and consumption of pulses. His innovative research at the Crop Development Centre of the University of Saskatchewan included the creation and development of the Laird and Eston lentil varieties. His work has helped lead the way for Canada to become a major exporter of peas and lentils, with Canadian farmers producing over 7.5-million acres of pulses in 2009. As professor emeritus, Dr. Slinkard continues his food research developing spice crops. In honouring Dr. Slinkard, we acknowledge the enormous value of plant researchers in Canada over the last 100 years. Their work, like that of Dr. Slinkard, has changed not only what our farmers produce, but also what we eat.

Education and Awareness
Recognizing those who have raised awareness and increased our collective knowledge of the nation’s table to the enrichment of all
John Bishop
Vancouver, British Columbia
John Bishop opened Bishop’s Restaurant in 1985 with a commitment to organic, local produce. He was a pioneer on 4th Avenue in Vancouver long before it became the West Side’s hippest food corridor. There is a kind of lyrical sensibility in his approach to both life and his influence in the culinary arts. It’s an unspoken eloquence, a touch of risk-taking tempered by poetic license and an unwavering belief that it’s the simple things that deliver the most memorable moments in life. This award-winning author, chef, veteran maître d’ and restaurateur is a model for hospitality, and a pioneer of local ingredient sourcing and menu development doctrine—a doctrine that has become conventional wisdom in Canada. With a natural ability to select, educate and transform up-and-coming chefs and budding hospitality students to become culinary leaders, Mr. Bishop’s influence can be traced from British Columbia’s most renowned restaurants, through to a culinary institute in California, and all the way to an exclusive hotel in Borneo. John Bishop has improved the quality of Canada’s gastronomy by transforming our food culture with an infusion of new flavours and techniques that ceaselessly highlight and promote the worth and potential of Canada’s backyard.
Robert McLaughlin
Guelph, Ontario
With good humour, Robert McLaughlin has dedicated his life to actively promoting the growth and study of our distinctly Canadian food culture. In his tenure as dean of the Ontario Agricultural College, he managed three colleges and a number of research stations. As inaugural chair of the Guelph Food Council, Dr. McLaughlin pioneered the linking of agricultural production to ingredients. This concept laid the foundation for the creation of the Guelph Food Technology Centre and the Guelph Food Inventory, institutions that have greatly enhanced the work of students and educators. As vice-president of Alumni Affairs and Development, he managed the successful Science of Life, Art of Living campaign. During his tenure as president and chair of the board of The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, he ensured the longevity of the Canadian Culinary Book Awards. He is past board chair of the George Morris Centre, Canada’s agricultural think tank; of the Ontario Agricultural Experience Inc.; and of the Ontario Agricultural Leadership Trust. He is a born educator.

Leadership
Recognizing those who have led their peers, colleagues and fellow citizens to build stronger communities connected to the nation’s table in all its aspects
James and Linda Gourlay
Bedford, Nova Scotia
James and Linda Gourlay are innovators, catalysts and creative doers who have inspired Canadians and raised awareness of the intricate connection of farm to table. With the creation of their monthly magazine, Saltscapes, they showed Canadians the role the table plays as a cultural forum for exchanging and sharing culinary and other ideas. They put the spotlight on creative, “outside-the-box” food and wine initiatives in Atlantic Canada and promoted them at the national level. Mr. and Mrs. Gourlay are the driving force behind Atlantic Canada’s most popular fair, Saltscapes East Coast Expo. Attended by thousands of Canadians each year, the Expo features culinary demonstrations, tastings and innovative shows that highlight the wealth of Atlantic flavours and the newest ways to prepare food. It provides a platform for producers and artisans from throughout the region to demonstrate their work in the food, wine, interior decorating, travel and gardening industries. With the Saltscapes brand, Mr. and Mrs. Gourlay have led Canadians to think differently when they purchase and consume food and drink. Their passion for superior quality regional products has allowed them to promote and institute new trends and ideas that continue to strengthen Canada’s farm-to-table connection.
Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtländer
Toronto, Ontario and Singhampton, Ontario
Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtländer—two individuals—two careers—two lives—separate, yet inseparable—in our eyes and perhaps even in theirs. Toronto-born Kennedy traveled to Europe for a classical chef’s education, where he apprenticed with German-born Stadtländer. They became friends and colleagues, moving to Toronto and forming the opening team at Scaramouche—unimaginably young, but leaders from the start. The sheer number of young apprentices that have emerged from their kitchens and gone on to fulfilling and important careers in growing, preparing, preserving and serving food is extraordinary. They were the original locavores and Toronto’s first celebrity chefs. Over two decades ago, the two chefs founded Knives and Forks, an organization that brought farmers and cooks together to discuss and initiate important changes to our food supply line. They understood then that they must change the infrastructure before they could change what is on the plate if their vision was to endure. In the last 30 years, chefs Kennedy and Stadtländer have never waivered from their beliefs. It is impossible to articulate the impact these two men have had on the culinary arts in Canada. They are chefs, artists, environmentalists and activists. Their food is sublime and they are leaders in the field.

Mentorship and Inspiration
Recognizing role models and those who inspire their peers and fellow Canadians about the ways in which we think about, appreciate and participate in the nation’s table
Jean-Luc Boulay
City of Québec, Quebec
As the co-owner of the Le Saint-Amour restaurant in Old Québec City for over 30 years, Jean-Luc Boulay has drawn on his training and experience in France to create a distinctively Canadian and Quebec gastronomy. He was one of the first chefs to promote local food, both in Canada and in other countries, using local ingredients to showcase regional producers and to help them improve their products and grow their businesses. On the leading edge of the latest technologies in his field, Mr. Boulay has always placed great importance on his role as a chef mentor, taking fledgling cooks under his wing. He trains them with passion and patience to take part in numerous high-profile competitions, and organizes internships in prestigious establishments to hone their know-how and versatility, while strengthening their love for their vocation. Mr. Boulay is a favourite as a judge in culinary competitions, conducts specialized training throughout Quebec, and is involved in various associations that support emerging practitioners of the culinary arts. His exceptional career has made him one of the few Canadians ever to be awarded France’s National Order of Agricultural Merit.
Sinclair and Frédérique Philip
Sooke, British Columbia
Over the last 30 years, Sinclair and Frédérique Philip have painstakingly created and maintained an incubator for regional and sustainable food philosophies. With the inexhaustible food knowledge of Sinclair and the artistic eye of Frédérique, Sooke Harbour House has mentored and produced some of this country’s most respected chefs. With its network of local fishers, foragers and artisanal food producers, this dynamic couple have created one of the most internationally recognized and acclaimed inns in this country. By working their own extensive gardens and building strong relationships with local growers, Mr. and Mrs. Philip are an unsurpassed testament to quality and commitment to a regional economy. Never willing to rest, they are now both incredibly active in the international Slow Food movement.

Stewardship and Sustainability
Recognizing the fundamental role of the gatekeepers and caretakers of the nation’s table in safeguarding our environment, food security and health
Avataq Cultural Institute
Nunavik, Quebec
Founded in 1980 by the Nunavik Inuit Elders’ Conference, the Avataq Cultural Institute is dedicated to protecting and promoting the rich language and culture of Inuit in Canada and throughout the world, by supporting a wide variety of projects. One of them, the creation of five Northern Delights herbal teas, helps not only to fund numerous activities for this northern community, but also to preserve ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants of the tundra and how they were used by previous generations. It also helps to forge precious ties between elders and youth, by keeping that traditional knowledge alive. The Northern Delights herbal teas project also provides jobs to those in the community who need them most. All the plants are gathered in accordance with strict organic rules that ensure the sustainability of this fragile resource. Thanks to the Northern Delights herbal teas project, Inuit communities in Nunavik can draw on their regional plant resources to market and sell a highly symbolic product that reflects their unique culture.
Award was accepted by Charles Arngak, President of the Avataq Cultural Institute
David Cohlmeyer
Thorton, Ontario
David Cohlmeyer came to Canada from the United States in 1972 and quickly became a gentle but powerful alternative voice, as chef and restaurateur at Beggar’s Banquet, as food and agriculture columnist of The Globe and Mail, and as the founder of the Toronto Culinary Guild. But he is best known as a farmer. He founded Cookstown Greens in 1988, a farm supplying our leading chefs with fantastically inspiring produce—everything from edible flowers to heritage vegetables to obscure herbs and perfect asparagus. A tireless advocate for locally grown foods, a generous contributor to innumerable causes and events, he is a pioneer, a leader and the environmental conscience of everyone who knows him.

Youth
Recognizing young Canadians who have shown immense potential to improve the quality, variety, awareness and sustainability of the nation’s table through creativity, innovation, inspiration, leadership and stewardship
Ricky Sze Ho Lam
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Ricky Sze Ho Lam is one of the new generation of outstanding food researchers in Canada. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph, he received an Undergraduate Student Research Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Dairy Farmers of Ontario Scholarship to start his research interests in the physical properties of edible oils and fats. In his master’s studies at the University of Saskatchewan, under the direction of Dr. Michael Rogers, he continues to focus on the food applications of edible oils and fats using the Canadian Light Source (CLS). He has published two peer-reviewed articles on his research and has demonstrated significant potential as a food researcher. He plans to continue his studies at the doctoral level, where he is sure to inspire others and lead by his enthusiastic and dynamic example.

So there you have it. An exceptionally broad and diverse selection of Canadian food-and-drink movers and shakers – or so we hope. I was honoured to introduce Dr Alfred Slinkard last night. The awards will be an annual event. There is much work still to be done to establish them in the country’s consciousness. But I think it is a fine thing that we are applauding and celebrating Canada’s gastronomic champions in such a way. It’s okay to blow our own trumpet occasionally – our red-and-white gustatory vuvuzela. We eat very well in this country: it’s good to remember why.

photo © 2010 Office of the Secretary to the Governor General of Canada

 

Carry on up the Okanagan

19 Jun

Just back from a 36-hour flying visit to the Okanagan for the media launch of the Canadian Culinary Championships, annual grand finale of each year’s Gold Medal Plates campaign, where the victorious chefs from each of the eight regional finals battle it out over a gruelling weekend of gastronomic challenges. For at least the next five years, we’re going to hold the CCC in Kelowna and the launch was to announce the fact to the locality and the world.
Why Kelowna? We were asked that question a lot by the local press. The answer involves a number of reasons. We were weary of reinventing the three-day event in a different city every year and were looking for a home. We wanted somewhere that wasn’t one of our regular cities. Kelowna kind of has it all… Great wine, obviously; excellent local produce; a strong chefs’ association; a vibrant culinary program at Okanagan College ( we can use their teaching kitchens for our Black Box competition and their students as apprentices for our competitors); above all, a sophisticated population who are very savvy about food and wine and will, we hope, provide the essential extra component to our funfair – an audience.
The launch went very well. We held it at the Delta Grand, where we will also hold the CCC Grand Finale next February. Triathlete and all-round hero Simon Whitfield flew in from Victoria for four hours and charmed everyone. Radio star Terry David Mulligan was the smart and genial MC, interviewing everyone (see his comment below for a chance to hear about the event on his own radio show). Excellent food was on offer, including an item from the Delta Grand hotel’s executive chef, Stuart Klassen, built around wine-fed beef. He gets the animals from Sezmu Farms – beef cattle whose diet includes a litre of wine a day for a minimum of 90 days. No, it doesn’t taste of wine, but it is remarkably tender (“I guess the cattle are that much more relaxed,” says Klassen, with a twinkle in his eye). Chef took little cuts of the chuck, wrapped them in cawl fat and braised them then set each piece of juicy meat on top of a hollow potato pedestal with a stewed cherry inside it. Beside this, over a stripe of reduced cherry wine, he set a tiny puck of foie gras terrine freckled with macerated cherries. Scrumptious.
The other dish came from Joy Road Catering out of Penticton, a company created by two young chefs, Cam Smith and Dana Ewarts, who I first met years ago when they were apprentices in the kitchen of Chris McDonald at Avalon. They are utterly delightful, existing in a sort of wonderful glow of innocence and youthful exuberance, but at the same time working incredibly hard in the service of their uncompromising values. Their dish featured 100 lbs of fresh wild morels they had picked the day before on Terrace Mountain – the happy legacy of the tragic forest fires of last year. They set the pan-seared morels over perfectly timed local asparagus (skinny and emerald green) all o’er-strewn with a crunchy brunoise of fried sourdough bread, fresh thyme flowers and chervil. They set this heavenly tangle of early summer flavours over two sauces – one a thick, mild-mannered purée of sweet onion bulbs, the other a cadmium yellow liaison of organic hazelnut oil and egg yolk from their own aracana chickens. It had that incredibly rich, yolky flavour that only truly free-range, intellectually independent laying-hens can give. It was a sensational match for the white wine we served – Laughing Stock’s 2007 Chardonnay, aged in 500-litre oak puncheons – juicy, silky, opulent Chardonnay with buttery biscuity overlay.
There will be four chefs from the Okanagan in the Vancouver Gold Medal Plates gala on October 29 – Stuart Klassen from the Delta Grand, Kelowna, Cam Smith and Dana Ewarts from Joy Road in Penticton (two talents competing as one) and Roger Sleiman, chef of the stunning Quail’s Gate winery restaurant, Old Vines. I believe they will give coastal B.C. a serious run for the gold.
There was barely time, but, the night before the launch and straight from the airport, we dashed down to Osoyoos to see Sean Salem, owner of two Oliver-area wineries – Le Vieux Pin (amazing Syrah, fabulous blended white, awesome Merlots) and La Stella (I had no idea anyone could make a SuperTuscan in B.C.!). Uncompromisingly generous with his hospitality and his barrel samples, Sean was an awesome host. His experiments with different French and Canadian cooperages and toasts at Le Vieux Pin are going to yield a wealth of delectable knowledge in a couple of years. Tragically, a massive landslide last week has destroyed one of his prize vineyards of almost 30-year-old Chardonnay and the gorgeous mature Muscat vines he uses for La Stella’s off-dry petillant Muscat. No one was hurt, though five people’s homes were wiped out. Apparently authorities knew about a poorly maintained pond and dam up on the hillside but failed to respond to local warnings. Heavy rains came last week and presto. It’s a miracle no one was killed. A tragedy about the Muscat.
Back in Kelowna, after the launch, we nipped out for dinner last night to a delightful five-year-old spot called The Rotten Grape. My friend John Gilchrist, Calgary’s primo food writer and restaurant guru, recommended it and he steered us totally right. It’s a 40-seat wine bar and bistro owned by Rita Myers (who got her start with the Fairmont hotel group) and chef Tasha Howe (proudly self-taught) – lovely and casual with rough stone walls, wine cabinets everywhere and a guy with a guitar singing old Beatles and Leonard Cohen songs with uncommon grace and beauty. There’s also an adorable Portuguese water dog called Praia who seems to be in charge of the entire place. We ate very tender baby squid smothered in almond panko crumbs with a chili cucumber sauce; gorgeously succulent local bison tenderloin, barely seasoned with some simple potatoes and a giant morel lolling on top like a gnome’s loofah; fascinating cakes made from mashed-up curried broccoli and Manchego cheese held together with egg and panko and served with a curry aioli (can you imagine them? They really were terrifically good); and squeaky green beans tossed with garlic, chili and ginger. Wines? We seem to have drained a few bottles, now that I try to make sense of my notes – a 2005 Conca Tre Pile Barbera d’Alba rings a bell, as does a bottle of MDC from Dunham Froese Estate winery – 50% Cab Sauv, 25% Zin, 25% Syrah (try and picture that blend – it was marvelous), and some frisky local bubbly… And of course there was cheese – Qualicum Bay Brie (delicate, miniature, childlike, irresistible), Poplar Grove Tiger Blue (soft, sweetish, gentle, rich – a Cambridge blue, in other words, the thoft-thpoken antithesis of a butch Oxonian Stilton), an Okanagan goat cheese and a gouda from Triple Island Farms in Lumby. Tasha Howe paired them with local arlos lavender honey, organic Aurora apples, boozed-up figs and some super crackers from a company called Gone Crackers, in Vancouver. I’m afraid we lingered so long we closed the place. So much smashing local food, so much local pride – I think we’re going to be very happy holding the CCC in Kelowna, a swift, four-hour direct hop from Toronto. And there’s skiing.
Leaving The Rotten Grape, I encountered a young, eager, fresh-faced busker with a guitar. He was playing the Catalan nursery rhyme that Pablo Casals used to use as his encore piece when he was in his eighties and that became a virtual signature tune for the UN peaceniks during the Cold War. I don’t think the busker was born during the Cold War and he had not heard of Casals but for me it was a little piece of synchronicity as I had just finished reading The Cello Suites, a very cool book by Eric Siblin about Casals, Bach’s cello suites and the power of serendipity. I took it as a blessing on our CCC endeavour and left more than the usual buck in the troubadour’s guitar case. I think Kelowna will be a very cool location for the CCC.

 

Just a small one

17 Jun

A delightful event filled my Monday evening – a cocktail competition featuring Victoria gin, the spicy, floral gin distilled by the Hunt family on Vancouver island. The rendezvous was Böhmer, chef Paul Boehmer’s Ossington hotspot, a space already famous for the height of its washroom doors, its crystal and wooden chandelier, its primo food. We were a merry band of judges on Monday – Surreal Gourmet Bob Blumer, food writer Chris Johns, Christine Sismondo (whose new cocktail club, the Toronto Temperance Society is due to open imminently) and me. Kevin Brauch was master of ceremonies, sitting on the bar and keeping the relaxed and good looking crowd in stitches. The mic didn’t work very well, so Kevin chose to shout instead – as a result of which I am now deaf in my left ear, since I was sitting beside him.
As for the contestants, almost all the top Toronto mixologists were in attendance – 14 of them in all – each making “a cocktail fit for a queen” and then a simple version of the same drink that “even a queen could make.” The winning cocktail recipe, we were told, will adorn a neck tag on bottles of Victoria gin sold at the LCBO later this summer.
The standard of the competition was impressively high throughout and the powers of imagination shown were astinishing. Everyone made some play on the theme of Queen Victoria (her youthful face adorns the bottle). I scored Rob Montgomery of the Miller Tavern full marks for presentation for his Brooklyn Queens – a hot concoction simmered for hours and consisting of gin, a chopped-up pineapple,some Madeira, some vermouth, some LBV port, lemon juice, honey, cinnamon sticks, cloves, star anise and orange zest. He served it in a miniature china bath tub accompanied by a dainty teatime sandwich of gin-soaked smoked salmon.
All the other cocktails were decently chilled, some in tumblers or shot glasses, two in tea cups, some long, others short. I was looking for recipes that would enhance the flavour of the gin rather than mask it – and that narrowed the field. Many riotous hours and 28 cocktails later, the judges came to our unanimous decision. The winner was Moses McIntee, formerly in charge of the bar at Ame but now competing under Sidecar’s banner. He called his drink The Old Vic and the gin shone through beautifully. It was a fascinating cocktail, like a complex, full-bodied extrapolation of a Negroni made with gin, Campari, bittersweet earl grey tea syrup and served in a Martini glass topped with a creamy head of Earl Grey tea foam. A purple pansy petal lay on top as a garnish. Congrats to McIntee, whom I understand may now be joining Sismondo at the Toronto Temperance Society.
A charming thank you to the judges was a small bottle of something I have never tasted in a lifetime devoted to the pursuit of gin – an oak-aged gin, also produced by the Hunt family. It’s delicately coloured, like a very pale Scotch, and has a startlingly interesting flavour – the gin’s botanicals still loud and clear but energized by another layer of bittersweet, tannic flavours. An intense little novelty, and one to be sought out by every true collector.

 

Yorkshire notes

13 Jun


There are a few more things about my recent week in Yorkshire that had better be said before the memory of them fades entirely. Thirty-five of us set off from Manchester, driving north in five vehicles until we were almost in the Lake District then turning east to take us up onto the Pennines. Crossing a cattle grid, we entered the Yorkshire Dales National Park and left the rest of the world behind. The park is 685 square miles of bleak heather-covered fells and peat hags, broad green glacial valleys, little rivers and waterfalls, tens of thousands of ewes and lambs and rabbits, villages and isolated farms, medieval castles and medieval pubs, the buildings all made from the local stone. There are over 10,000 miles of dry stone walls, some dating back to the 18th century enclosures of common land, others much older. As if to emphasize the antiquity of the surroundings my laptop and my camera both croaked halfway through the trip so I was forced to write down my snapshots in a notebook. Here are some of them.
Our first meal in the Dales – lunch at an isolated pub in Keld – coming in out of the rain and crowding up to the bar for the first, much-anticipated pint of Black Sheep Riggwelter cask-conditioned ale, a strong, dark ale with rich coffee notes. Our guide, Mark Ried, is here with his chocolate-coloured pointer, Elvis. Lunch is good – a bowl of unpretentious lamb stew with suet dumplings followed by apple crumble and jugs of hot custard to pour over it. Then it’s off into the damp grey afternoon for a quick three-hour hike to the village of Muker and back, refreshed by a pint of incredibly hoppy Muker Silver IPA at the Farmer’s Arms.
What makes Yorkshire ale so special? For one thing, it’s cask-conditioned – still alive, still fermenting in the cask – not like draught beer from a keg which is pasteurized, filtered, carbonated, chilled, dispensed under pressure, dead. A hand-drawn pint of real ale is an altogether different thing and here in Yorkshire they fit sparklers onto the end of the spout. A sparkler is like a spinning spray at the end of a garden hose. It spins as the beer passes through it, aerating the beer, giving a soft creamy texture and a fabulous head. They say it takes the bitter edge off the hopping (Yorkshiremen describe London ales as hard and thin) but all our group feels there is plenty of bitterness to be going on with.
Arkengarthdale. Setting off next morning from our hotel across the narrow valley, up past the Duke of Norfolk’s shooting lodge (he only uses it a couple of weeks a year during grouse season) – climbing through woodland, the shaded slopes smothered in bluebells or ransom, a pretty little white flower that fills the air with the scent of wild garlic. The aroma makes me look at the lambs in the meadow in quite a new light. They are Swaledales – white fleece, black faces, white eyebrows – and delicious in every way.
Another day we hike higher over the fells, climbing past an old farmhouse, its roof and chimney smothered in pink and white clematis like an illustration from a book of fairy stories. Then higher past the remains of lead mining first begun by the ancient Romans – I find a lump of smelted galena, glossy and black like an obsidian fist. Up onto the fells in hot sunshine – until a hailstorm passes, then more hot sun, then rain, then sun again, all in the space of an hour. This is the moorland where the grouse breed beneath the wiry heather (the fells are purple in the autumn) but we don’t see any, just a lonely curlew calling for its mate.
Then coming back down towards a distant village, sliding through gap-stiles in the dry stone walls to cross hay meadows so full of yellow buttercups, white daisies and red clover you can barely see the grass. More birds down here – a pair of peewits swooping over us, trying to attract attention away from their nest – pheasants strutting in their magnificent stupidity as the summer ticks towards the opening of the shooting season.
The Charles Barton Inn, Arkengarthdale – playing darts with the locals – learning the game of quoits (tossing iron rings at a distant post set in a square of soft clay) – dinner of pigeon breast, tender venison and sticky toffee pudding. Kippers for breakfast or a proper English plate of bacon, sausage, black pudding, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. We are all eating like hobbits.
On to Simonstone Hall in Wensleydale for the second half of the week – a grander location altogether, like a Gothic shooting lodge, with a croquet lawn and formal gardens. The group is coalescing now, coming together for a Pimm’s tasting one evening, another day touring a 14th century castle still in the hands of the family that built it – the owner gives us the tour. One room is fitted out as a guardhouse and the owner hands a longbow to our Olympian oarsman, Adam Kreek, to see if he can draw it. He is so strong he breaks the bow in three. Fortunately, it is not an original. A generous member of the troupe buys us all Champagne that night as we dine at the Wensleydale Heifer, a renowned gastropub famous for the seafood they bring in daily from Grimsby. I choose dressed crab and a baby turbot pan-fried with capers and brown butter. The best event is an after-dinner concert back at Simonstone Hall given by crooner Matt Dusk who is spending the week with us. Matt takes us through his songbook – Gershwin and Johnny Mercer, even a great ballad by Bono – and the standing ovation is loud and long.
We will do this again next year with a different group – whoever bids highest on the trip at Gold Medal Plates events across Canada.

 

Party time

08 Jun

Jamie Kennedy has been much on my mind recently. I’ll tell you why in July. Meanwhile, he and his pals are having a party and everyone’s invited.
Back in the late ’80s and ’90s – the era of the independent, superstar chefs – Jamie and his BFFL, Michael Stadtländer, stood in the outfield – visionaries and lonely activists for many of the causes that today seem de rigueur. Now the world has caught up and Jamie has come into his own as guru to the new generation of socially aware, collaborative chefs. It’s not just that he looks younger than most of them: he’s ubiquitous at the small, righteous events that the young idea puts on around town, raising money for various causes. Perhaps his financial troubles last year forced him back into the trenches (how great to see him with a pan in his hand every night at Gilead Bistro); but really it’s something he has always done, providing leadership and inspiration to the next generation.
But about the party… Jamie sent out a press release the other day. Rather than paraphrase it, I’ll simply share the message.
Jamie writes: “Well the hot summer weather is here, and it’s setting the stage for an exciting event I’m hosting next month. I’d like to invite you to join me at a Communal Table, taking place on Saturday June 19th at the inspiring heritage site of the Evergreen Brick Works. Some of my friends and colleagues, whom you likely know well – Keith Froggett, Anthony Walsh, Brad Long, Michael Dixon, Adam Colquhoun, Yasser Qahawish and Crosstown Kitchens – ar coming to take part. I hope you’ll be there too. “I’ve always wanted to create a unique, celebratory dining experience situated around a very large communal table, and now the time has come. We’ll be dining on the cusp of the summer solstice, and there isn’t a better time to take in and savour the exquisite tastes of our very own southwestern Ontario flavours. My team and I will be preparing a four-course sit-down dinner, featuring the finest seasonal produce of local food artisans. Prior to that we’ll be enticed by a stunning cocktail setting where my friends will each create delectable, signature canapés. This gastronomic tour-de-force would not be complete without a selection of our region’s wines and beers, specially chosen for the event by me. So please come take a seat at our table, and join us all for this unique, not-to-be-missed culinary event.”
It sounds like a blast. A potentially heroic evening. Here are the details.
DATE: Saturday, June 19, 2010.
TIME: 5 pm ~ Reception with Jamie Kennedy’s partners in gastronomy featuring canapés and libations. 6.30 pm ~ Four-course sit-down dinner prepared by Jamie Kennedy Kitchens.
LOCATION: Evergreen Brick Works, 550 Bayview Avenue, Toronto.
TICKETS: $200 per person.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.jamiekennedy.ca, by phone at 647.288.0680, or at the Gilead Café & Bistro (4 Gilead Place, Toronto).

 

Revisionism

06 Jun

It was interesting reading my own obituary in the Globe yesterday. The writer, Ben Leszcz, felt that I lacked the common touch as a restaurant columnist for Toronto Life, preferring to write about elite chefs rather than “Scarborough strip malls.” Magazine writing is an ephemeral medium and anyone who embarks upon that path knows that yesterday’s articles line today’s gerbil cages. But if I may whisper a retort from beyond the grave, I also covered my fair share of pubs, diners, suburban ethnic restaurants, caterers and chain eateries, and reviewed countless restaurants in strip malls. I have also spilled a lot of ink on trendy new stars such as Local Kitchen, the Black Hoof and Ceili Cottage. Leszcz also painted my approach to my old job as conciliatory, even collaborative with the chefs and restaurateurs I wrote about. It’s true I have never seen the point of being rude or bitchy at someone else’s expense. There are plenty of other critics who take that easy line. I have been to innumerable bad or mediocre restaurants. Often I simply didn’t write about them – the mandate from Toronto Life for most of my time there was to offer the reader recommendations rather than snide put-downs. Sometimes I did look closely at restaurants that weren’t working in the way they intended, but rather than merely giving them the finger, I tried to explore the nature of their failure and perhaps suggest ways in which they might improve. As a restaurant-goer and citizen, I had a vested interest in helping our industry evolve.
One thing about the article did make me sit up. Leszcz announced that Chris Nuttall-Smith is to be my successor at Toronto Life. I’m not sure if that is strictly accurate. When she fired me, editor Sarah Fulford told me categorically that there would be no dining column in her refashioned magazine and I have no reason to suppose she was handing me a porkie pie.
Meanwhile, folks, I’d like to say for the record that I am not in fact dead, just delightfully liberated, and I intend to write about the city’s restaurants for another 25 years, whether the places in question boast white tablecloths, greasy wooden boards or scratched formica. Sarah Fulford is guiding Toronto Life in a new direction. I hope it won’t follow Saturday Night into oblivion – I had good times at TL, helped build the brand, and I still care about it. But whatever happens, I’ll still be around and writing, and often in a positive way – for which I make no apology. Restaurant critics have an obligation to do more than just trash the inadequate. We can also celebrate and encourage, cajole and tease and make our own contribution to the culinary environment in which we all live.

 

Yorkshire pudding

02 Jun

It’s interesting to play the tourist in my own country. I’ve been away from England for almost 30 years and hardly ever went to Yorkshire even when I lived here. Mostly I seem to have passed through on my way from the south to Scotland, though there was a memorable week in Leeds when I was 22 and had a small part in a play that toured around the country, playing a soldier in the army of Frederick the Great of Prussia (a mesmerising performance from Tom Conti). I lived on fish and chips back then. Mostly, though, I have only passed through. This week, I’m in the stunningly beautiful Yorkshire Dales and having an amazing time hiking from pub to pub, tasting awesome cask-conditioned ales. Yorkshire ale is a thing unto itself, and I’ll explain why one of these days. Then again, everything up here that is native is loyally embraced by the local population – and that includes Yorkshire pudding.

You don’t have to go to Yorkshire to enjoy it. My mother makes a spectacular version, cooked properly in a big flat baking pan using the drippings from the roasting joint of beef that shares the oven with the pudding. It’s dense and moist, soft and yellow with crispy brown edges, like a hefty, savoury crêpe and my mother puts a slice of it on the plate with roast beef, horseradish, roast potatoes, gravy and a couple of vegetables (spring greens or brussels tops if we’re lucky).

That is what true Yorkshire pudding is like. Two hundred and fifty years ago, when the Yorkshire Dales were being mined for lead and enclosed for sheep, Yorkshire pudding was a poor man’s dish. It was created to fill you up, to be served as a hearty preliminary course before the roast meat. That way you didn’t need to eat so much of the expensive beef or lamb or notice if hard times had given rise to short commons. It could also double as a dessert if spread with jam, and as a cold lunch next day, if there were any leftovers. I was talking about this with Mark Reid, our intrepid hiking guide and source of knowledge about all things to do with Yorkshire and Cumbria. It was he who led our group over fell and dale to a much-anticipated lunch at The Bridge Inn in Grinton, in the heart of Swaledale. This is a delightful old coaching inn opposite the 12th century church of St. Andrew and beside the babbling Swale, England’s swiftest river. I should mention that I’m here as part of a trip organised by Gold Medal Plates, the organisation that raises funds for Canada’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes. This means that we have an Olympic athlete with us – none other than the mighty Adam Kreek, who won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics as part of the men’s rowing eight. At the Bridge Inn he was game enough to take on all challengers at drinking a yard of ale (only 2½ pints, but it’s served in a glass like a slender trumpet with a sphere on the end. Careless drinking can lead to a tsunami of ale pouring onto your face). Kreek drained his yard cleanly in 36 seconds.

Anyway… On the menu that day was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. I ordered it, hoping for a taste of the real McCoy. It was not to be! The pub cooked individual Yorkshire puddings in a muffin tin. They emerged as puffed-up as a regimental sergeant-major, crisp and hollow, like some sort of weird biscuit. Not right. Not right at all. I looked at Mark Reid but he is too polite to denigrate anything or anyone and would not meet my eye.

And then today… We are now over in Wensleydale, home of the famous cheese that Wallace and Grommit saved from possible oblivion. Indeed, we are in Hawes, where the Wensleydale is actually made – a firm, crumbly, cream-coloured cheese with a subtle flavour, a delicate milky tang, the faintest taste of honey… My wife and I slipped away from the crowds and went off for a coffee in a nearby café. There they were serving “Yorkshire pudding filled with chips.” What a brilliant way to gain weight rapidly! The pudding in question is round and two inches high and the size of a dinner plate. It’s also much more substantial – more like my mum’s, in fact. At this café, they heap its concave centre with fat greasy chips but I am told in other parts of the county they might use curry or chili or simply gravy – such are the aberrations of this carefree modern age. I watched a woman work her way through the nutritious treat. I have spent years trying to explain to anyone who will listen that British food is actually quite sophisticated and interesting and delicious. I must now apologise to all my readers.

Incidentally, one of the younger members of our group, Kevin Boyd, drained his yard of ale in 33 seconds at the Bridge Inn in Grinton. There is hope for the youth of Canada.