A windy Saturday morning in Niagara. Definitely sweater weather though the sun was bright and the sky full of innocent-looking blue areas giving the lie to the forecast of showers. We began with my colleague David Lawrason giving us the fascinating low-down on Niagara’s sub-appellations, neatly illustrating the geology with a trip to Balls Falls where Twenty Mile creek trickles over the escarpment in gentle imitation of Niagara itself. Then on to Tawse winery where we learned the importance of gravity-driven winemaking, tasted lovely wines (including the lush, beautifully balanced 2007 Robin’s Block Chardonnay) and discovered a small Szechuan button plant growing in a planter at the door. At least it looked like Szechuan button. Egged on by the eager mob, I guinea-pigged myself and ate one. Yep. The same tingling numbness and sudden salivation. “Now eat one of those,” they cried, pointing at a tree covered in glossy, hard green berries. Basta… I had no wish to take the edge off my appetite.
We ate lunch at the Good Earth Food and Wine Co., Nicolette Novak’s whimsical shangri-la of a cottage, garden, orchard, cooking school and now vineyard and winery all hidden away in her 55-acre peach farm. The team there is picked for individual enthusiasm and charming eccentricity as well as talent, taking their lead from Nicolette, the “facilitator of fun.” It was a really good meal, starting with those gnocchi in the picture – ethereally light, made from local Upper Canada ricotta cheese, egg, a little flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and bathed in a cream sauce topped with smoked roma tomatoes. Nicolette’s rosé wine (“the panty-remover” she calls it) was a vibrant, strawberry-scented match.
Resident chef Patrick Engel was so eloquent about the dishes we were given that I had nothing left to say and tucked in with everyone else, particularly enjoying the meaty, dry-rubbed pork side ribs that had spent hours in the smoker in the garden, and a fine pork tenderloin that Engel had marinated overnight in buttermilk, dredged in cornflour and briefly fried – the Angelina Jolie of all schnitzels. No one knows more about peaches than Nicolette, obviously, so I was interested to see how she would use them in our dessert. First she made peach ice cream streaked with caramel, then she halved and pitted whole peaches from her trees, dipped them first in melted butter then in brown sugar, pan fried them for a moment until the sugar crust was caramelized then slipped the pan into the oven for about 15 minutes. Oh my. Simply a peach juice explosion with every bite.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at Malivoire and Flat Rock Cellars, tasting old vintages of their finest offerings then went back to the hotel to change for dinner.
Frank Dodd has been chef at Hillebrand Estates winery since 2006 and I love what he does there, hence my decision to bring the group back there after a brilliant dinner in the barrel cellar on the 2008 tour. He didn’t let us down. We’d have needed blankets and hot water bottles to dine in the cellar this time around but it was the ideal place for a pre-prandial vertical mini-tasting of Trius red 2007, 2002 and 1998. Dodd had provided some nibbles and I’m ashamed to say they very nearly proved terminally distracting from the serious wine-tasting business, sitting there calling out to me in their tiny canapé voices. Superlight, creamy whipped foie gras mousse in a biscuitty cone, topped with a slice of cherry that had been macerated in Cabernet Franc icewine… a fat brick of marinated smoked salmon with a curl of cucumber… bison carpaccio wrapped around a juicy little pickled cattail… Heavenly.
We sat down to dinner upstairs in the pavilion beside the vineyards, starting with a terrine of pressed watermelon and tomato, a shot of tomato water with a watermelon popsicle and Koskamp Farms burratta. The dairy prepares these cheeses like a regular mozzarella but during the process they pull each form open, fill it with pure cream then close it up again, returning it to the warm whey to seal the deal. You have to eat it within a day or two and these ones were very fresh, dressed by chef with salt and pepper, virgin cold-pressed soya bean oil and baco noir balsamic syrup. We helped ourselves with a large spoon, scooping up the soft white cheese and the cream that flooded out from its heart as we cut down.
The next course was the highlight of the evening – a study in the naturally raised Berkshire pork from Dingo Farm, near Bradford. Dodd made a sturdy terrine from the pig’s head, studded with smoked potato. He fashioned crunchy little blood-sausage croquettes of peppery richness and great depth of flavour which was a lovely match for a 1997 Trius red, the Bordeaux blend that made Hillebrand’s reputation in the 1990s. He prepared a consommé from the ham hocks and added little shreds of pulled pork, tiny white beans and flecks of poached tomato. Each of us had a small ceramic pot of this amazing soup, piping hot beneath its pastry cap.
If you’ve ever tasted those little perch the Purdey family catch in Lake Erie you’ll know the flesh is unusually firm and dense, tasting like fresh, sweet shrimp. We each got a whole perch for our main course, butterflied along the spine and set over a melange of ingredients tailor-made to flatter the accompanying wines (two Showcase single barrel Chardonnays from 2004 and 2006). Gorgeous little wild spot prawns from Queen Charlotte Sound almost stole the show from kernels of local corn, sweet peas, baby yellow Ontario chanterelles and a buttery cauliflower purée.
Dessert was peaches poached slowly in icewine in a thermal circulator that preserved their texture beautifully. The peach juice and icewine formed a predictably sumptuous nectar of a sauce, further chilled by a compressed white peach sorbet.
Beyond that waited coffee and tea, though most of us felt we had no room left. Some of our younger element discussed a possible visit to the Niagara casino but then thought better of it. A small contingent repaired to the bar when we got back to the hotel to close off the evening with a cold beer while discussing the treats that Sunday might bring. More on that tomorrow.