Buying presents for people we care about at this time of the year – or buying a few innocent extra indulgences for oneself – is always an ordeal. So many exhausting decisions…
I’m here to help.
OIL At the farthest, most remote reaches of Portugal’s Douro valley, so far and high you can see the Spanish border to the east, in a landscape where the sun beats down on the parched, vertiginous slopes of crushed stone like a hammer on an anvil and the river takes many days to slip silently past the great port vineyards before surging out into the Atlantic, stands the epicentre of the Casa Agricola Roboredo Madeira, better known from its wine labels as CARM. It’s the Madeira family business and once, almost a decade ago, I tasted its finest wines and olive oils in a palace in Lisbon, poured and interpreted by Felipe Madeira himself. Much to my delight, I recently rediscovered some of those oils right here in Toronto, at Salt Wine Bar on Ossington Avenue, to be precise. You can buy them there by the bottle, to take home, and I strongly recommend such a course of action. The CARM Praemium is the one to aim for – an organic extra virgin oil cold-pressed from Madural and Verdeal olives. The flavour is strong but it’s not raunchily oxidized like so many Portuguese olive oils. The aroma is penetrating, fruity, like ripe tomatoes and apple skins with just the right amount of peppery prickle. On that night in Lisbon, the chef at the palace chose to flatter Felipe Madeira by turning his golden treasure into dessert – a trio of olive oil mousse (with a bouquet of newly cut hay), juicy sugared olives (a brilliant idea I have never encountered since) and an olive oil ice cream that tasted like crème fraîche boosted by the fruity, plum-tomato aroma of these amazing Madurals. Praemium knocks any olive oil from Tuscany into a cocked hat, especially when tasted with fresh, moist, heavy Portuguese corn bread for dunking and a scrunch of coarse salt.
TEA I’m a sporadic tea drinker at best. There will be times, mostly during some kind of physical recuperation, when a really excellent tea becomes an enthusiasm. Cleansing, restorative… Then I feel better and quickly return to older associates – coffee, port, Negronis, a refreshing ale…Recently, I had a chance to taste some teas from Kusmi, the venerable company founded in St. Petersburg in 1867, removed to Paris in 1917 (for obvious reasons) and last year entering North America via Montreal. These are very high quality black or green teas and exotically flavoured blends, some subtle, some powerful but all of them elegant and delicious. Most usefully, Kusmi has prepared a sampling box of 12 different varieties (two teabags per variety, $17) to allow a thorough exploration. I was enchanted by “Prince Vladimir” with its citrus and vanilla aromas, and by “Anastasia,” all bergamot, lemon and orange blossom. These teas, I suspect, will command my loyalty for more than a morning-after. Find them at Cheese Boutique, McEwan, Pascale Bros and elsewhere. A complete list of retail locations is available at www.kusmi.ca.
WORDS I met François Chartier a few weeks ago when he passed through Toronto, publicizing his extraordinary new book, Taste Buds and Molecules (McClelland & Stewart, $39.99). It is a manifesto, a treatise, a revolutionary new approach to the relationship between food and wine, and it could change your life. You and I (and I include you in this with total confidence) were brought up to match wines to food in an entirely empirical manner. We were taught guidelines that had evolved through trial and error. Like good scientists, we tested those guidelines through trials of our own. Perhaps we even came up with some semi-original ideas, but always because history, custom, tradition, our own instincts and the evidence of our own palates determined them. Chartier, a leading sommelier in Montreal, approaches the relationships between food and wine from the inside out. This book is the result of 20 years of research and it has been hailed by no less a sage than Ferran Adrià as “magnificent” and “groundbreaking.” Chartier’s method is to analyze the aromatic molecular compounds in a wine and then find the identical compounds in foods. Pair them together, however bizarre the combination sounds, and a gustatory orgasm is guaranteed. Some of these juxtapositions might be guessed at – mint and Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Others are more obscure. The same compound, sotolon, links the vin jaune of Jura with curry and maple syrup. It also accounts for the deep affinity between fenugreek seeds and Manzanilla sherry and oysters. Chartier was completely persuasive when we met. “You must dip grilled asparagus in dark chocolate and then taste it with a Cabernet Sauvignon,” he insisted. “It is a revelation.” Study this book and you will learn what wines to serve with what foods, by a method entirely based upon biochemistry rather than the evidence of your senses. It is full of wisdom, though the style of the writing is decidedly scientific and the graphic design annoyingly distracting. This will not deter the professional sommelier or the wine geek but it may tire the general reader. No matter. Dip into it whenever you can. Use the index. Amaze your friends and confound your enemies. You can find the book at the Cookbook Store.
BUBBLES France is replete with sparkling wines, mostly made in the same painstaking way as Champagne though each blessed with its own proud provenance and name. Crémant de Loire is one such style, and Château de Montguéret is an admirable example of it, a crisp, elegant bubbly made from 60 percent Chenin Blanc, 20 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Cabernet Franc. It calls itself a Brut but it’s not as austere as many Champagnes, though the chalky soils of the Loire valley lend a definite minerality to the long, satisfying finish. On a good day, I can imagine pear and cooked apple on the nose but let’s face it, we turn to bubbly for texture and sharpness, refreshment and chill and for fizz and frivolity rather than vague suggestions of fruit. If you’re on a budget that denies you real Champagne, this will solve your problem: it’s a bargain at $18.95 (CSPC # 621896 on the LCBO’s general list). And we drink too few wines from the Loire – possibly because Niagara already provides us with a home-grown seraglio of cool, diffident blondes.
CHOCOLATE Back in the mid-1990s, chocolatier Sharon Shoot had a charming little store on the margin of the Beach. It was called Wickerhead and the great treat available there was clusters of fresh, crunchy-squeaky popcorn hand-dipped in dark, milk or white Belgian chocolate. In those days I wrote Toronto Life’s food shop guide single-handed, spending six weeks of every parched and broiling summer visiting hundreds of gourmet stores in the GTA, learning the city’s foodscape first-hand. My reward was the discovery of obscure jewels such as Shoot’s awesome corn. Things are different these days at Toronto Life, and Sharon Shoot has moved on. But only a block or two. She is still in the deliciousness business, with a new store called Chocolate by Wickerhead at 2375 Queen Street East (at Beech), 647 344 9060, www.wickerhead.com. And the chocolate popcorn remains her defining gift to the world. If you have never tried it, now is as good a time as any to remedy the situation.
RUM A great amber rum can hold its own against almost any other spirit. Appleton’s 30-Year-Old is such a treasure. The distillery’s Master Blender takes several individually oak-aged eight-year-old Jamaican rums, blends them and then puts them back into six barrels that once held Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey for a further 22 years. Six casks yield only 1,440 bottles and that is the number released every year – some of which have ended up at Vintages (CSPC 164103) right now and are selling for $503 each. I have never heard of a more expensive rum. Is it worth the money? Sure, if you can afford it. Thirty years in wood is a very long time and a rum might be expected to emerge like the Count of Monte Cristo, all dried-out, embittered and obsessive, but this spirit survives the incarceration with cool equanimity. It’s a superb rum, with a smooth, lissom body like good Armagnac. Appleton’s telltale orange zest aroma is there on the nose but tightly braided with vanilla, caramel, raisin-studded butter tart and a hint of chocolate. The palate is delightfully refined and well balanced, not sugary (nothing so crass) but conjuring illusions of caramel sauce, toasted hazelnuts and the scent of a baked plum tart coming hot from the oven. The dryish finish is as smooth as the beginning, lingering into the distance without any bitter hook or wobbly vibrato. The only criticism I have ever heard levelled against this rum is that it is almost too elegant, too smooth and refined, in other words, not rummy enough. Which is as daft as saying a song can be too well sung. I urge you to buy a bottle – and then send it to me.