Niagara Tour part one

06 Sep

Szechuan buttons discovered growing at Tawse winery. Boldly we tasted!

Halfway across Lake Ontario in a 40-foot Hunter sailboat, we were having a most invigorating morning. The wind was strong and from the west and with our sails reefed we were speeding along at a rate of knots, the boat tilting dramatically so that I, high on the starboard side of the cockpit, could look down between  my feet at the faces of my companions on the port. The urge to shout “Woohoo!” was almost irresistible. We were two hours out from Port Credit, still two hours from Port Dalhousie on the Niagara side when the squall smacked into us. Fortunately, our skipper, Mike, had seen it coming and taken in sail. One of our other boats was less fortunate and its sail was torn asunder. Lake Ontario – 330 feet deep at that point – had never felt more like an inland sea as we motored on through the warm but rough water (three-metre waves according to the CBC), soaked by rain, holding tight to whatever seemed steadfast. It was altogether excellent. But that squall blew away the summer in a single violent gust. The temperature had dropped ten degrees by the following morning and those with a nose for such things looked up at the grey and white clouds scudding across the blue and sniffed the first intimation of autumn.

            But what an amazing summer it has been! Too hot for strawberries and cherries – too hot for the pickerel and perch in the Great Lakes who have stayed in the cool depths, to the dismay of our commercial fishermen – too hot for the buffalo herd at Koskamp Farm so that the awesome cream-filled burratta cheese we tasted on Saturday night at Hillebrand was made not with their milk but with that of their less sensitive understudies, the Koskamp Farm cows. That said, everyone else on the peninsula seems to have a smile on their face. The grapes are ripening several weeks ahead of schedule – picking of Chardonnay Musqué has already begun – and it’s going to be a spectacular vintage as long as it doesn’t rain too much in September. The peaches are better than I can ever remember and still have a week left in their season. This year, the tomatoes – especially the 300 or so different heritage varieties that grow at Linda Crago’s Tree & Twig Heirloom Vegetable Farm in Wellandport, some of which we tasted at various restaurants throughout the weekend – are historic in every sense of the word.

            They began our weekend – almost – as the first course served at our winemaker’s dinner at Treadwell in Port Dalhousie. We actually started with flutes of 13th Street’s 2006 Cuvee 13 Rose, sipped outside on the terrace looking out at the swift green eddies of the old Welland canal that passes right by the restaurant – the sun had come out and it was warm in a windy kind of way – but I’m not going to describe every last thing that passed our lips on this long weekend (45 wines, five amazing meals, various sundry breakfasts, snacks, leaves and foraged treats). The tomatoes, however, were exemplary. There were half a dozen different varieties, some red, others yellow, orange, green and purple, some like tiny pears, others thinly or thickly sliced, each one offering its own interpretation of summer’s balance of tangy acids and sweetness. Our host and chef Stephen Treadwell had paired them up with a little tomato sorbet, some crumbled feta (mild, sweet and creamy) from Best Baa Dairy out near Dundas and a crispy deep-fried basil leaf from a farm we visited on Sunday – Victory Organic Greens (of which more later). As one of our group wisely pointed out, the tomatoes were perfectly salted – evenly, invisibly, as opposed to having someone fling a handful of fleur de sel at the plate – which enhanced their spectrum of flavours immeasurably. The wine poured with this bouquet of tomatoes was the stunningly delicious Hidden Bench Rosomel Vineyard 2008 Fume Blanc, introduced to our party by none other than Hidden Bench’s affable proprietor, Harald Thiel. I had intended to be very scientific and try to work out which tomato worked best with the wine but it was all so yummy and we were all so hungry after our sail that our plates were empty far too soon for any forensic work.

            Next up was a dish built around some of those elusive Lake Erie pickerel – perfect little fillets, their juices just seized in the pan. Treadwell orchestrated them with some Saskatchewan chanterelles acquired through the area’s new mushroom source, Marc’s Mushrooms (of which more later). They were some of the best chanterelles I have ever eaten – so fresh they were almost crunchy, squeaky as silk and tasting of sweet, creamy woodland flavours. Tossed in amongst them were little crispy pieces of Mario Pingue’s guanciale, a stem of smooth-stemmed, thick-leaved New Zealand spinach grown nearby by Dave Irish, some impeccable fingerling potatoes and a subtle sauce salted with soy and some shaved summer truffle. Treadwell showed me the truffle in question. It was the size of a man’s fist and though it had only a fraction of the potency of a winter truffle it was ideal for this dish. “Where did you get it?” I asked. “Er…” Treadwell, always so generous and precise about the provenance of his ingredients, hesitated a moment. “From a guy…” Okay, Stephen, we won’t be pushy. Everyone tends to guard their truffle sources. The wine match, Flat Rock’s 2007 Chardonnay Reserve, introduced by Flat Rock’s owner, Ed Madronich, was the best wine match of the entire weekend.

            A little palate cleanser was in order before the next course (veal Wellington matched with Southbrook’s rich, elegant, supersmooth 2007 Whimsy Cabernet Franc) but Treadwell took it to a new level with a zapper rather than a cleanser. Each one of us was presented with a single Szechuan button, a slightly conical seed ball of the Brazilian plant Acmella oleracea, about the size of a fingernail. I’ve mentioned these things before in a posting about the national cocktail championship but if you missed it let me explain that this plant contains a strong analgesic called splianthol which numbs and tingles in the mouth like the cold-hot sensation you get from Szechuan peppercorns – something like licking a 9-volt battery. Bravely our group bit and chewed the buttons! It was a nice little coup on the chef’s part though I wondered how it would affect our appreciation of the Cabernet. So did its creator, winemaker Anne Sperling, sitting at the far end of our table. In the end, time solved all – a ten-minute gap, some water and bread, soothing the effect.

            After that, it was plain sailing through the marvellous Wellington followed by a roasted peach topped with Mennonite granola, sheep’s milk sorbet and rosemary caramel sauce and finally lingering, satisfied conversation and a teeny taste of Anne Sperling’s awesome Riesling from her family property in the Okanagan

            All in all, an excellent start to the weekend. What happened next must wait until tomorrow’s posting.


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  1. Karen Bekker

    September 7, 2010 at 10:57 am

    James, thank you, I’m switched on by Szechuan Buttons, my life is in a new light after our Niagara weeekend, reading your notes, glowing all over again! Thank you for signing my copy of “A Matter of Taste” and your much appreciated note. And a warm thank you to you and David Lawrason for quality on a level that I could never even have imagined. My home is surrounded with memories, wines, wood, I’m going to live now for that next Szechuan Button!