And then quite suddenly (but not entirely unexpectedly) it was Sunday and we were all standing outside the hotel in the cool and breezy sunshine at nine o’clock in the morning, appetites primed by a lavish cooked breakfast and ready for new adventures.
The day began with a visit to Victory Organic Greens, a small farm on the flatlands southwest of St. Catharines. We were greeted by the owner-operator, a young man of 24 called Vivek Rajakumar, his wife, Alexandra Hlinyanszky (who is the gifted chef at the health-conscious Pan Café in downtown St. Catharines), and their very small, very well-behaved, strawberry-eating daughter, Isabella – not to mention an adorable little dog called Bobo who looks something like a dachshund and a bit like a terrier and, like Isabella, accepts whole strawberries when they are offered. There are lots of strawberries on the farm because when Vivek abandoned a degree in finance and began his farming life a few years ago, it was with the ambitious idea of growing strawberries hydroponically, year-round, in a greenhouse. He has since switched to organic salad greens grown indoors and outdoors according to the weather, each little plant nurtured with herbal teas and molasses, its perfect leaves individually snipped off with scissors and bagged for sale to nearby restaurants or farther afield in Toronto, at the Big Carrot and Pusateri’s. But there is still a bumper crop of shiny, scarlet, juice-swollen ever-bearing strawberries to be found on the bushes and swiftly eaten while Vivek is in the greenhouse explaining his methods to the more serious element in our party. We greedies were startled by cannon fire as we stole the fruit but it was only the bird-scaring devices in neighbouring vineyards. Like the sky-darkening flocks of local starlings, we soon learned to ignore them and stripped the bushes bare. Strawbugs aside, we were all touched by this self-taught young man’s sincerity and commitment and by the way his wife spoke of him when he was out of earshot – shy stories glowing with love and admiration for her husband. I will certainly buy his deliciously righteous greens whenever I see them.
On to Stratus winery for a most informative tour of that unique and ergonomically elegant facility and a tasting of four of their gems. As usual, the Stratus White (this time it was the 2006) simply blew me away, a gorgeous, layered blend of six varieties that impressed people in many different ways. “Pineapple quince,” said one perspicacious member of the group; “honey,” said another. I couldn’t help thinking of yesterday’s buttered and roasted peach but the tight braid of aromas and flavours are not to be pinned down so easily.
Lunch was at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery. I have visited a few times this year, bringing friends from England there, as the property is resplendent with anecdotes. We talked about its narrow escape from development into row housing, the rescue by the Harber family who have been connected by marriage with this piece of land for five generations, the land itself which is the actual ancient riverbed of the Niagara river and offers completely different soil from neighbouring properties. Vines planted here grow to maturity much faster than they do anywhere else.
We began with a splendid spread of charcuterie, cheeses, pickles and breads in the main parlour of the restored 1804 house that stands at the heart of Ravine. It was known as the House of Nations in the early 19th century because new immigrant families rented its many rooms (one family per room) before they began to make their way in the community. And William Lyon Mackenzie once jumped from an upstairs window into a convenient tree to escape his pursuers. I had warned our company that there were at least three more courses to come but the terrines and prosciutto were awfully hard to ignore. Blame the very strong young culinary team at Ravine led by Stadtländer protégé Paul Harber and another chef, Collin Goodine. Amy Pelley is a fabulous pastry chef (as our finale of sticky toffee pudding with hazelnut-praline-caramel ice cream proved) and I’m amazed she hasn’t been head-hunted by some glamorous Toronto restaurant. The breads, baked at night in the enormous wood-fired oven at the edge of the vineyard while the coyotes pad by and the stars wheel overhead, are the best in the entire peninsula. The recipes belong to Erin Turcke (I treasure my copy of her brilliantly singular book, Sourdough A Recipe For Life) though she left for the Maritimes a week ago and will be replaced next month by a Michelin-starred pastry chef cum baker. Meanwhile, we tasted breads as Erin intended – weighty, tangy, moist of crumb and crisp of crust. A fully fledged Ravine restaurant is planned for 2012; our long table was set outside on a deck behind the deli with a beautiful view of the vineyards.
Guiding us through the wines was none other than Peter Gamble, the renowned winemaker and consultant who designed this winery (and Stratus, and is currently busy with projects in Nova Scotia and Argentina) – Niagara royalty, as ever there was. He had chosen the Ravine 2008 Sauvignon Blanc for our next course, a delectable, coconutty, grapefruity SB that worked brilliantly with a Raspberry Point oyster and a shot glass of orange citrus mignonette and even better with its plate-mate, slices of sweet-salty arctic char cured in ginger, lime and vanilla, garnished with a drizzle of lime-vanilla syrup and a pinch of candied and salted orange and grapefruit zest.
Our main course was unbelievably tender veal cheek braised in Ravine’s Redcoat red wine and olive jus and cooked in the mighty wood oven. Before that we tasted a rich, thick chanterelle soup dressed with burnt butter and toasted chanterelles. The chefs paired it with a little puck of brioche topped with a brunoise of caramelized apple and roasted golden beets. The mushrooms came from Marc’s Mushrooms again and I asked chef Collin Goodine what the guy was like. “But he’s right here,” said Goodine. “Do you want to meet him?”
So Marc Eber came out and said hello and showed us all some of his magnificent lobster mushrooms. This is his first year in business and he is working hard, not just harvesting his own secret Ontario ’shroom patches but putting together a network of pickers across Canada. “Mushroom pickers are almost as elusive as mushrooms,” he ruefully explained. When the crop is particularly good, the picker alerts Eber who arranges to fly the baskets of very fresh, high-quality fungi into Toronto. I asked him if he had ever heard of my old friend Goran Amnegard who used to run a similar operation a decade ago, before he went back to Sweden, but Eber had not.
Eber fits right in with so many of the passionate young people we have met on this weekend – an impressive new generation who seem determined to carry the idea of Niagara food and wine to the next level. The great news is that they have all the necessary talent to back up and justify that localist enthusiasm.
And now the Tour is over for another year. We had hoped to sail back on Sunday afternoon but the winds were so strong the skippers of our boats refused to leave harbour. On the coach home we thanked Sandy Molnar for organizing our trip. We’re building the Tour of Niagara a web site of its own in a few months time so people can see exactly what they might be in for. Thanks also to David Lawrason – so suave, so relaxed, he’s the Mel Torme of hosts (and I happen to think Mel Torme is a genius) and the very best guide to the latest achievements in Canadian winemaking. He has tasted everything, met everyone, written unabashed exposés of mistakes and cover-ups, earned the respect of anyone I have ever met who takes an interest in wine. What’s lovely for me is that I get to work with him again in October and November when the Gold Medal Plates roadshow starts up again. It gives me the opportunity to taste the work of the finest chefs in eight cities and regions across Canada, from St. John’s to Vancouver – a unique perspective on the state of the art of Canadian cuisine. I’ll keep you posted on that.