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Archive for June, 2011

The mega quarry

28 Jun

Have you heard about the mega quarry? It has the potential to be the biggest environmental disaster to hit Ontario in living memory. It would be the largest aggregate quarry in Canada, digging out over 2,300 acres of prime Ontario farmland about an hour north of Toronto, plunging 180 feet below the water table and jeopardising vital watersheds of four major rivers, including the Grand and the Nottawasaga – our drinking water. They call the region the Hills of the Headwaters for a reason. And yet there has been no Environmental Assessment!

I think it is reasonable to request an Environmental Assessment before embarking on an act of destruction of this scale. Perhaps you also think this might be a good idea.

If you were a farmer proposing to dig a small pond in a field to water your five cows, you would have to have an Environmental Assessment. Why is the mega quarry exempt? Well, there’s the rub.

It’s a quarry, you see, and quarry licenses are issued under the auspices of the Ministry of Natural Resources. In order to ensure an ongoing supply of aggregate to build roads and other structures, quarries are not required to undergo an assessment. Who could have written such a biased and misbegotten law? Why, the aggregate industry, 30 years ago, who have now hired teams of very expensive and influential lobbyists to make sure the mega quarry goes ahead as quickly as possible. The funny thing is that “The Highland Companies,” the company that wants to excavate this vast crater in the heart of Ontario, has never owned or operated a quarry of any size before. These amateurs are backed by a Boston hedge fund, into whose alien coffers the profits from this venture will pour. It doesn’t benefit Canada even financially.

Fortunately the Ministry of the Environment has broader powers than the Ministry of Natural Resources and that is why we have a chance of victory in this desperate battle. We must persuade them to do what they were created to do and that is Assess the Environmental impact of the project. That is the law of the land.

The Highland Companies bought the farmland legally, announcing that they intended to continue farming potatoes there (potato farming has been the backbone of the local economy for a century – it supplies half the potatoes we eat in the GTA). Then the company started bulldozing all the farmhouses on their 7000 acres and cutting down trees. Now they want to excavate to destroy the superb farmland with its rare Honeywood Silt Loam soil to get at the limestone beneath. Here is an outline of their plans.

They will dig deeper than Niagara Falls over an area of 2,316 acres. They will blow up the limestone over a period of years (they promise six hours a day of blasting, six days a week) and will crush the limestone on-site (in one of Ontario’s windiest regions). Then they will transport the limestone dust out of the area in large diesel trucks – 7,200 trucks a day. A day! Because they are digging below the water table they will have to pump out 600 million litres of water from the quarry every day. They promise they will do this forever – because someone will have to. They also say they will return the bottom of this vast quarry to farmland when they have taken all they need from it. (Even the Ministry of Natural Resources concedes this can’t happen. “Maybe you could get a nice golf course,” quipped the Ministry spokesman. So funny…)

It reminds me of the tar sands of Alberta (I’ve been there and seen that vision of Hell, breathed in the reeking air, seen the toxic ponds) – another government-backed get-rich scheme that promises on its honour to turn everything back to pristine wilderness. Yeah right.

Only this isn’t wilderness. It’s Ontario farmland – just north of Shelburne – the countryside we all drive through on our way to cottage country. And these people want to destroy it so that a few rich men in Boston can become even richer for a little while.

Okay. As you can tell, I am a little exercised by this matter. I just got back from an inspiring meeting at Marben restaurant where we ate some of the delectable produce still farmed around this land and listened to concerned citizens make various points. Representatives of the David Suzuki Foundation were there, and of the Green Party, but the crowd wasn’t just lefty Loraxes like me. There was even a local Liberal MPP present, Michael Chong, who has seen the light. Bill Duron, former publisher of Toronto Life, was the MC; CBC’s Andy Barrie also spoke. He made a telling point, reminding us all of the power of the people-once-roused, who stopped the Spadina freeway under Jane Jacobs’s leadership – a project with even more ruthless capital behind it than this scheme has. It can be done, you see.

It can be done especially effectively in an election year.

The Minister of the Environment will listen to the people who elect him.

It’s not just NIMBYism. It’s Toronto’s food and water and air – things we take for granted in this beautiful, innocent country.

As we left the party we were each given a letter, which you will find below.

Please print it off and send them to our elected representatives. The Honourable John Wilkinson is Minister of the Environment (his address is on the letter) and it’s now time he earned that epithet of “Honourable.”

Ten thousand people read this blog (and I am eternally and humbly grateful to you all). We have only until July 11 to make our voices heard (I told you there were powerful lobbyists involved, making this happen quickly). The alternative, of course, is to do nothing. But then you must be prepared to explain to your children why the rural heart of southern Ontario was allowed to become the biggest Pit of Despair Canada has ever seen.

ALL WE WANT IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT. I think that is a reasonable request.

 

 

A light lunch with Dom Pérignon

23 Jun

A very rare treat - the Oenotheque 1996

How well I remember my long-ago visit to Möet & Chandon in Épernay. There was the obligatory photograph at the statue of Dom Pérignon in the courtyard of the Möet Maison, a rather forbidding brick building on the Avenue de Champagne, a night at the Chateau de Saran, where the company entertains its guests, then a delightful lunch in the Trianon – two elegant white palaces and an orangerie framing a charming garden. Built by Jean-Remy Möet in 1804 they were a favourite watering-hole for Napoleon and are now used for public relations exercises. It was the same Jean-Remy who had the foresight (and the cash) to purchase the Abbey and vineyards of Hautvillers in 1823, including the tiny room where Dom Pérignon himself made his contribution to civilisation in the late 1600s. These days it is kept up as a shrine – and a most satisfactory one. A lovingly tended garden lies at its heart, circled by lichen-covered grey stone walls that draw colour from the afternoon sun. Woodpigeons coo in the trees behind the rose beds; vineyards slope steeply down the hillside, merging into meadows that reach to the placid waters of the Marne.

            Pierre Pérignon was 29 when he joined the Benedictine community at Hautvillers in 1658. His duties were those of a procurator, collecting taxes from the Abbey’s tenant farmers, some of whom paid with grapes. Dom Pérignon used these tithes in his experiments, carefully vinifying wines from different vineyards and villages and then comparing and blending them. His first great discovery was that an assemblage of various wines could be far more delicious and interesting than its separate components.

            At that time, casks of the tart, still white wine from Champagne’s cold, chalky hills were shipped to England in the winter, where innkeepers drew it off into bottles which were then sealed with corks. The warmth of the inns rekindled the incomplete fermentation and when the bottles were opened, sparkling Champagne frothed out. Dom Pérignon figured out what was going on and learned to control the process, pioneering the use of corks and strong glass bottles in France. He also developed a shallow-based press that allowed him to produce clear white juice from black Pinot Noir grapes and discovered that sheep manure was the best fertilizer for vineyards. By the time he died, in 1715, he had done enough to earn an undying reputation as the father of sparkling Champagne.

Axelle Araud, oenologue for Dom Perignon, our guide through the vintages

            Centuries later, in 1936, Jean-Remy Möet’s successor, Robert-Jean, Comte de Vogüé, was looking for a good name for Möet & Chandon’s Vintage 1921 Cuvée de Prestige, a wine created initially for the American market. Dom Pérignon was the ideal moniker. Since then it has been made only in exceptional years – 37 vintages to be precise – its personality and unique style cherished and protected by a series of winemakers who see themselves more as custodians of a tradition than creators. Any chance to taste it must always be seized, so when Franco Stalteri invited me to a small gathering in the magnificent wine cellar beneath Barberian’s steak house, and mentioned that various Dom Pérignons would be tasted and introduced by Axelle Araud, an oenologue on the team of Richard Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon’s winemaker and chef de cave, I was down there faster than a gopher with mustard on its tail.

It was a lovely way to spend a Wednesday lunchtime. I suppose there were nine or ten of us, along with our host Arron Barberian and Axelle Araud. Her commentary was lucid and fascinating. We started with the 2002, one of the great vintages in the region when all the grapes in all 17 of Champagne’s grands crus reached perfect maturity. That, in fact, was the challenge for Dom Pérignon. The wines from that year were so intense and rich that the great Champagne’s ethereal character was threatened. You can have too much of a good thing! Dom Pérignon is always around 50-50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and is the only Champagne to use grapes from all 17 grands crus. It’s different every time and yet it’s always the same – weightless, gossamer but round and richly flavoured with amazing length. The texture is the giveaway – “seamless and tactile,” said Axelle, “like a caress on your tongue. Never too dry or astringent.” And it’s pristine. During the winemaking and during the obligatory minimum of seven years’ aging on the yeasty lees trapped in the bottle, it is never exposed to oxygen. Other Champagnes are. Krug, for example, ages its base wines in oak. So Dom Pérignon is virginal, hinting at toast or almonds or citrus but in a subtle way – as if you walked into a room on a spring morning and the window was wide open and there was a bowl of lemons on the table – no more citrus than that.

            After the 2002, we tasted the 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé, my first encounter with this wine. In all the years, Möet has only made 21 D.P. Rosés. The first one was created in 1959 in honour of the Shah of Iran’s wedding. This too is roughly 50-50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but the blend includes red wines for the colour and for a subtle astringency. It’s more intense and vinous and there are red and black berries on the nose. “It’s amazing with meat,” said Arron Barberian. “Lamb tartare in particular.”

Arron Barberian, generous host and master of the revels

            Our third wine was a Dom Pérignon Oenotheque 1996. These are fabulously rare beasts, “ a confrontation with time” wherein the wine is left undisturbed in the bottle for a further plenitude of five years or even for another 20. The extra time doesn’t seem to age the wine at all – the yeast contact keeps it young. The 1996 was disgorged in 2008 and as we tasted it on Wednesday it was miraculously vibrant, more intense and biscuitty than the Vintage 2002 with hints of honey and dried citrus peel on the nose – a curiosity for the true collector, priced around $1500 a bottle.

            Barberian’s provided a magnificent buffet for us at that point – big fat PEI oysters (awesome with the Oenotheque), massive juicy shrimp and lobster meat, smoked salmon and charcuterie (fabulous with the Rosé), an array of Quebec’s finest cheeses, teaspoonfuls of caviar and barely seared scallops topped with a dab of house-made bacon jam. “You know what we should do?” asked Arron Barberian. “Just in the spirit of intellectual enquiry…” He disappeared into his other (even larger) wine cellar and came back with a Dom Pérignon 1978. “Who here is younger than this wine?” he asked. A number of hands were raised. He opened it and we tasted… Sure, it was showing a little age, which suited me no end – I’m English, I love older Champagnes. The colour was darker but it was still awesome, still showing pizazz with buttery notes and the scent of dried fruits. The length was formidable and that telltale texture, like the feeling of silk on bare skin, was unmistakable.

            Sharing the love, Vintages will be including the Oenotheque 1996 and the 2000 Rosé in its October Classics Catalogue. The 2002 is on sale now. For the 1978, you’d best be high-tailing it over to Barberian’s.

 

Mae Day

21 Jun

I am enormously proud of my daughter, Mae Martin, aka the hardest-working woman in comedy. She’s debuting her one-woman show at Buddies on Thursday June 23 at 7:00 pm and again at 9:00 pm, before taking it to the Edinburgh Festival in August. Tickets are available by calling 416 975 8555 (Box office of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre) open from 12 – 5 pm every day.

 And here is the press release to accompany the show: 

Mae Martin began doing comedy professionally at the tender age of 13, when she had braces, acne, and an all-consuming crush on the Backstreet Boys. She went through puberty and spent her adolescence on stages in dark and dingy comedy clubs across Canada. Now 23, this year she is celebrating a DECADE of comedy by debuting her one hour solo show, “Mae Day: I’m Not Waving, I’m Drowning” as part of Buddies In Bad Times Theatre official Pride Festival programming. It is a show that will then be taken to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August for a full run. 

 
In the decade that Mae has been performing she has become a fixture in the Canadian comedy scene. She has been nominated for two Canadian Comedy Awards, and has been featured on the Comedy Network, the Space Channel, TVO and YTV. While she is now based in the U.K.. she continues to keep one foot on Canadian soil – most recently she appeared in Global Television’s “Global Comedians” with Dave Foley, Maria Bamford, and Jon Dore, and in January was featured on CBC’s “Q”. She also just filmed an episode of Video On Trial for Much Music.
 
Mae is returning to Canada for a brief time only to debut her solo sow, “Mae Day: I’m not waving, I’m drowning.” at the Toronto Pride Festival this summer – she is currently fulfilling a life-long dream of infiltrating the UK comedy scene, and she is quickly building an audience across the pond: She was nominated for the 2011 UK Musical Comedy Awards,and has headlined at the Liverpool Comedy Festival and Leicester Comedy Festival and at numerous London comedy clubs. Mae is looking forward to being back on her home turf to debut her solo show at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre as part of their official 2011 Pride programming.
 
Over the years, Mae’s comedy has evolved into a unique blend of comedy songs and stand-up mining her adventures in androgyny, her extreme anxiety about the impending apocalypse, and her very strong feelings about certain celebrities. The title of Mae’s one-hour solo show “Mae Day” implies a distress signal and is in keeping with Mae’s neurotic style of comedy. Is the world actually ending, or is it just Mae’s paranoia?
 
Mae Day will be performed at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on June 23rd at 7pm and 9pm. The show features opening act Marco Bernardi (a young up-and-coming stand up nominated for the Tim Sims Encouragement Fund Award).

 

Jonathan Gushue amuses

21 Jun

Chef delighting the crowd

Jonathan Gushue, executive chef at Langdon Hall (my favourite Canadian hotel) and a Grand Chef of the Relais and Chateaux (though he points out it’s the property not himself that owns the title) is off to Madrid Fusion next week. Madrid Fusion is now one of the most important gatherings of chefs. No prizes for guessing that it is held in Madrid, as a rule, but Gushue is going to the New World version down in Mexico. His theme as a presenter will be Canada’s forgotten ingredients and he’ll be introducing some of the world’s great chefs to treats like Newfoundland spider crab. As something of a preview, he presented an amazing menu of delights to the VISA Infinite crowd on Wednesday, up in the immaculate show kitchen above the St. Lawrence Market. We had an eager, attentive crowd of more than 50 – not bad on an evening blessed with a full moon and Game Seven of the Stanley Cup – though the leafs said about that the better.

Gushue’s menu was unusual – nine dishes drawn from his repertoire of “tapas” – those fascinating little extra courses that he slips in between more substantial dishes at major dinners at the hotel or uses as an amuse bouche. One or two of them are sometimes brought out as a surprise at dusk when one is sitting outside under the Camperdown elm, sipping a glass of Champagne before dinner and watching the scarlet sky reflected in the ornamental pool… You can see why I like Langdon Hall.

To accompany Chef’s oeuvre, we poured a goodly number of fine Canadian wines, starting with the crisp, intensely flavourful, bone dry sparkling rosé from Grange of Prince Edward in the County. Winemaker Adam Delorme was on hand to introduce this delicious bubbly while Gushue got things rolling with a number of little passed tartlets. These tartlets have proved to be immensely popular at the hotel and a great way of showcasing whatever is current and fresh from the garden – source of so much excellence during the season. Tonight he filled some with a puree of jerusalem artichoke topped with cubes of lamb jelly. Another had a sweet pea mousse topped with mint and some of the fresh ricotta made in the hotel’s kitchen. A third held a jelly of apple juice and cooked leeks topped with the rich spider crab meat (a much more interesting, lingering flavour than Dungeness crab) and a dab of whitefish caviar. Scrumptious – and we hadn’t even started the event!

Lake Huron pickerel and black radish

For our first foray we swapped bubbles to Henry of Pelham Cuvee Catherine Brut. The dish was designed to take advantage of the wild greens from a deliberately untended corner of Langdon Hall’s garden, an anarcho-syndicalist collective of wild herbs and various lettuces. Gushue turns them into a gazpacho but then uses it more like a sauce than a soup to dress a rainbow of hothouse tomatoes. “But it’s still too early for them to have as much flavour as I’d like,” explains the chef, “so I peel them and raisin them to intensify the flavour.” And alongside, in each of our bowls, is a single juicy, awesome black morel from the Queen Charlotte Islands. Chef had been hoping to use the blonde morels that grow wild along the driveway and in the woods of Langdon Hall but they haven’t come in yet (such a strange wet spring…). I treat-saved my morel, of course, leaving it until everything was eaten, and then indulging in that juicy, earthy, alien squelch-crunch of mushroom.

The next dish blew the room away – crunchy raw asparagus from Langdon Hall’s garden paired up with thinly sliced, mild-flavoured breakfast radishes. Gushur drowned them in a dashi stock to which he gave his own Newfoundland-born twist, using East-coast kelp and dried caiplin instead of bonito and further westernizing the broth by using chicken stock montéed with butter. All this was a sort of Grinling-Gibbons frame for the main event, a generous spoonful of sturgeon caviar from Purdy’s fishery in Lake Huron. Better known for the pickerel and perch they catch, Purdy’s also net the occasional wild sturgeon and one or two may be full of roe they can turn into caviar. They can then sell the delicacy on to gourmets in Quebec or B.C. but not in Ontario – a convoluted matter of government quotas or some such bureaucratic fiddle-faddle. “This was a gift,” said Gushue as he spooned it into our bowls. The whole thing was gone in three or four bites, each one a dazzling experience of simultaneous chlorophyl crunch from the asparagus, profoundly fishy saltiness from the caviar, rich and subtle maritime tastes from the dashi, all cut by the dry acidity of the wine.

Tossing peas for the lamb neck

Dish three introduced Charles Baker’s Riesling from Mark Picone’s vineyard – one of the great expressions of Bench Riesling and a knife-like contrast to a dish of soft textures and warm, tangy tastes. Scrambled duck eggs stirred with ramp tops while the gently pickled ramps acted as a garnish topped with delicately acidulated and salted whipped cream… There was a final sprinkle of red sumac powder bringing another lemony taste to nibble away at the richness of the eggs. Then the wine arrived as if the delicate acids in the dish had called in massive air support.

Onwards to moist, fluffy pickerel fillet dressed with a streak of honey infused with wild ginger. Crème fraîche was a cool blonde presence and toasted sunflower seeds a rich nutty flavour while black radishes from Cookstown Greens added a strong, peppery hit. Then there was a boned chicken wing, cooked endlessly sous-vide until it became the ultimate mouthful of sweet chicken. Gushue served it over tender cuttlefish cut so small it looked like a risotto, stirred up with a brunoise of kohlrabi and creamy mascarpone. Powdered brioche was strewn over the dish which was finished with dabs of reduced sweet sherry, its glaucous, boozy funk a brilliant extra touch.

The main course (though the dish was no bigger than any other) was lamb neck with fresh peas, ricotta and pine mushrooms. With this appeared an extra treat – lamb belly breaded and fried like tonkatsu then sliced into awesomely fatty treats. Tawse Pinot Noir was just the ticket. After that came pickled strawberries with cider vinegar reduced to the thickness and sweet-sour hit of caramel. Toasted hemp seed was as rich as ground cashews and there was a slice of Monforte Talleggio cheese, milder than the Italian original and a little dismayed by the vinegar in the dish.

Sue-Anne Staff describes her Icewine

Then it was on to dessert proper, accompanied by Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery 2007 Riesling Icewine, introduced by Sue-Ann herself. The tangy elixir worked beautifully with both the last courses – the first a spoonful of sorrel ice cream paired with a compote of last year’s raspberries mitigated with icewine. The grand finale was a dainty millefeuille pastry filled with a crème patissier made from winter parsnips folded into sunflower seed praline, two unlikely but wonderful flavours.

Another triumphant evening for the VISA dining series – and if those dishes don’t wow the crowds at Madrid Fusion then I’m a Dutchman. And I’m not.

Thank you very much to Marc Polidoro who took all these lovely pictures!

 

Niagara College

19 Jun

Chef Michael Olson in Benchmark restaurant at Niagara College

On Friday I was up at the crack of dawn to drive down to Niagara College to deliver a convocation address to some of the students and to receive an honorary diploma in Media Studies. It truly was an honour to be thus gowned and hooded and the graduating students were impressively polite and patient with this old geezer at the podium. The trip also gave me a chance to check out Benchmark, the restaurant in the College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus. It has been thoroughly worked over in the last ten months by Michael Olson, the renowned chef (Liberty, On the Twenty) who also teaches at the College. He runs Benchmark as a classroom where students in the culinary and hospitality programs can learn the realities of the business.

That’s how Niagara College works, with excellent and famously hands-on courses. It also has 40 acres of vineyards on the beautifully landscaped 114-acre campus, tucked up under the Niagara escarpment, where students can learn viticulture, growing the grapes that they then turn into wine in the teaching winery. Those wines are routinely entered for professional competitions and have so far won 140 awards! I remember coming across one years ago when I was one of the many judges for the Ontario Wine Awards. I thought it was a joke until I tasted it. Dazzling! Renowned winemaker Jim Warren was il professore at the time, which explains a lot. I believe it won gold that year. The College also has its own brewery, beer store, greenhouses and now a chic, ultra-modern wine boutique beside the vineyards where anyone can buy the wines. Production is very small, obviously, so this is actually the ONLY place to do that. Reserve wines are referred to as Dean’s List and some of the labels are designed as report cards filled out by none other than Tony Aspler. I strongly recommend you visit and buy, next time you’re down in Niagara.

Our very own spargelfest

And stop for a meal at Benchmark. Our lunch there was delightful, set in the restaurant’s airy rotunda with its wrap-around view of the vineyards and escarpment. The place is open to the public and is a local favourite, especially now that Olson has done away with much of the formality of service and dramatically lowered prices. The five of us were served family style with platters of food set down in the centre of the table for the appetizer courses. We began with silky slices of Mario Pingue’s yummy local prosciutto and slices of Guernsey Gold from the Upper Canada Cheese company in nearby Jordan. The College’s own semi-dry Riesling was a fine accompaniment.

Crispy battered shrimp with coleslaw and a peppery aioli followed, then Olson emerged with a casserole of perfect white asparagus grown by farmer Peter Janssen in Simcoe. He doesn’t grow enough for the commercial market but advertizes in German-language newspapers and sells the lot to ex-pats who miss Germany’s obsessive spargelfest. Olson’s students cooked it beautifully, dressing it with fresh orange, a Riesling-orange hollandaise and chopped chives from the garden. Our hosts brought forth a second wine for good measure and reasons of scientific comparison – a gloriously golden barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It was hard to say which wine better suited the asparagus but I think the Riesling was the ultimate winner. There’s something to be said for classic combinations.

A preview of scrumptious cookies and pastries from Anna Olson's new show, Bake that starts production in September.

For a main course I ordered tender pork with a sweet, sticky glaze of maple and beer – roast potatoes and vegetables were exemplary. Then Olson brought out another unique treat, a sort of soprbet made by freezing the pure wort from the brewery before any hops had been added. It was, as you might expect, marvelously malty and sweet – quite the most original and delicious ice I’ve had in ages – and full of the taste of barley. We finished with platters of cookies and pastries that were actually a preview of recipes from the upcoming tv show starring Anna Olson (Chef Olson’s wife). It’s called simply Bake and will be well worth following if the scrumptious apricot pastries and empire cookies are anything to go by. “It’s an inverse puff pastry,” explained Michael Olson. “Instead of starting with dough and adding butter, we start with a sheet of butter and add dough. It makes for a more even result.” Absolutely lovely!

 

Urgent information

16 Jun

The piglets of Eigensinn Farm, making hay while the sun shines...

Tuesday, if you recall, was a spectacularly beautiful day – cloudless skies of periwinkle blue, a slight breeze, pleasant temperatures, Ontario looking bright green and bushy-tailed, Vancouver still full of hope and innocence – the ideal time to set off into the countryside, heading north to Michael Stadtländer’s Eigensinn Farm. It was a private invitation, an opportunity to see a preview of the great artist’s new project, the Pine Spiel. Inspired by the waldschule, his childhood school in the forests outside Lübeck, and by the pine circles of the native peoples of Ontario, it promises to be an extraordinary creation – a walk through the pine forests on his own 100-acre farm with pathways and “rooms” fashioned in the woods, places for spiritual reflection and delectable food… So we drove north to see it, my wife, my son, his wife and me.

It has been a couple of years since I last saw Eigensinn Farm and the trees have grown up around the driveway so that I drove right past and had to double back. But there were Michael and Nobuyo and their three apprentices busy in the gardens and about the open fire-pit outside the kitchen door.

“The Pine Spiel,” mused Michael… “Actually, I’ve postponed it until 2013 – Eigensinn’s 20th anniversary.”

“Oh…”

“Still, we can see it…”

So we walked – down to the pond, now stocked with brown and speckled trout but used more often as a swimming hole on sweltering summer nights than as a source of provender. Up the lane to the teepee field where a French landscape artist is going to create living sculptures using lines of plants along the contours of the land. Into the pine forests…

Mosquitoes were thick around us but they were Eigensinn mosquitoes and knew not to bite. We saw the work that Michael and his apprentices have already accomplished – pathways delineated by brushwood, clearings here and there, still abstract concepts, it’s true. No way this could be completed by August. And we came upon the scultpures left over from the last major walkabout – the sculptures of the Heaven on Earth project – the chef with his tray, the earth-mother oven, the god of wine, the farmer made of rusting machinery, the underground house, the play house… Michael showed us where he will plant an allee of 300 shoulder-high pine trees to lead from one patch of pine forest to the next – he’s dedicating it to David Suzuki. Then he showed us the Outside Dining Room, a new area planted to conifers where people can commission an al fresco dinner for a dozen friends. It will be ready by mid-August and is the sort of magical place that will be remembered for ever by those lucky enough to dine there.

Memories of Heaven on earth - a chef even taller than M Stadtlander...

And then we were back in the farmyard, admiring the litter of piglets (a red wattle and black English cross), the new chickens, the indolent marmalade cat lying in the herb beds, the sunlight on the blackcurrant bushes. One of the apprentices brought out a plate of lightly smoked New Brunswick sturgeon sliced onto rye bread with a dab of crème fraîche and pungent purple chive flowers. Another brought slices of Eigensinn ham and a plate of cucumber, sliced thickly and briefly pickled in the Japanese way in miso and beer.

I was going to bring some of the new Carmenere rosé from Cono Sur – my favourite foreign rosé this summer, so full of juicy flavour – but thought it politic to stick to local wine, choosing Trius Sauvignon Blanc and Cave Spring Gamay. To honour my daughter-in-law, Kayo, Nobuyo brought out various rare sakes including something I had never tasted, an awamori at 43% abv – more like an eau de vie than a sake and dazzlingly yummy. We drank it from beautiful little glasses that Nobuyo explained were made in Okinawa from vegetable ash and recycled Pepsi bottles from the local U.S. navy base. Magic! To turn the crass detritus of our shallow culture into splendid art is cause for celebration – and a toast in awamori.

A sake glass from Okinawa made from recycled pepsi bottles from the U.S. navy base - beauty from trash

Dinner took place indoors with friends, apprentices and family all sharing the farmhouse table. Nobuyo cooked rice and slippery mizuku seaweed, the first asparagus from the garden served with delicate fillets of pickerel, and a dish of crumbled wet tofu and dandelion greens. The main event was two legs of the least fortunate of Eigensinn’s piglets grilled outside on the barbecue until the juicy flesh was succulent and the crackling crispy and tissue-thin. With it came mashed potatoes stirred in with a handful of raw lovage leaves. Dessert was a rottegruze of stewed strawberries, rhubarb, raspberries and black currants in apple cider, topped with a chunk of sweet woodruff ice cream. We were eating the farm and it was heavenly.

Conversation? We discussed Haisai, Stadtländer’s whimsically beautiful restaurant on Singhampton’s main street. He will be cooking there for all of July and then passing the kitchen over to two guest chefs from Germany. They sound pretty cool and I think I’ll have to go and check it out. He is also looking for a manager/maître d’ to run the place for the foreseeable future – a brilliant gig for a front-of-house person with both savvy and soul.

We also discussed the appalling mega-quarry threatening the entire area between Eigensinn and Toronto. Even if you are entirely indifferent to the country and province in which you live, to the health of the water that you and your children drink, you ought to find out about this Satanic initiative. Below is an article by Donna Tranquada that explains the issue, originally published in Homemakers magazine.

The sun shone brightly over our small farm in Dufferin County yesterday as I worked in my garden, weeded the vegetable patch and watched tractors plow the dark earth in nearby fields.  It was one of those perfect spring days in the country. Our little “homestead” is perched on the top of a hill about 90 minutes northwest of Toronto. We’re surrounded by rolling pastures, gabled farmhouses and grey-weathered barns that have survived a century of seasons. It’s one of the most stunning regions of Ontario and is known as “The Hills of Headwaters.” But looming over the landscape is the threat of a mega quarry that will destroy vital farmland, jeopardize fresh water and devastate our environment.

As you drive westward from our farm, the land rises to a vast and fertile plateau in Melancthon township, north of Shelburne. It’s the highest point of land in southern Ontario and contains the best grade of soil in the province: Honeywood silt loam. Farmers love it. Not only is it fertile and rock-free, it sits upon a massive limestone aquifer, which offers a perfect drainage system for growing potatoes and other crops. Fifty per cent of the potatoes consumed in the Greater Toronto Area are grown on this plateau.

The region is also the source of water for four watersheds, including the Grand and Nottawasaga rivers. It’s estimated one-million people downstream rely on the fresh water. Local wells, ponds and streams count on the headwaters for replenishment.

Agriculture or Aggregate

Enter the Highland Companies. Over the past few years, Highland, which is backed by a $22-billion Boston hedge fund, has purchased about 7,000 acres of the 15,000-acre plateau. At first, Highland said its focus was growing potatoes and, after assembling so much land, it’s now the largest potato producer in Ontario.

But, in March, Highland confirmed suspicions that it was far more interested in the limestone beneath the fields. Highland filed a 3,000-page application to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to tear up the fields and excavate the largest open pit quarry in Canada for the lucrative aggregate market. The proposed size is staggering. The mega quarry would span 2,300 acres. It would be deeper than Niagara Falls and plunge 200 feet below the water table.

Forever is a long time

 In order to keep the quarry from filling up with water and draining the watersheds, Highland says it will have to pump 600-million-litres of water a day, 24 hours a day. Forever. That’s the same amount of water used by 2.7 million Ontarians each day.

At a recent public meeting hosted by Highland, I expressed doubts about a pumping system running in perpetuity. The hired water-management consultant replied “We have the technology.”  Well, the Japanese thought they had the technology to protect their nuclear reactors from earthquakes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was equally confident about its levees around New Orleans. Pumps fail, and when that happens, the results will be catastrophic for those downstream.

Not Welcome in the Neighbourhood

The mega quarry would also be a troublesome neighbour for the Niagara Escarpment, which runs through the Hills of Headwaters and is recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve. The Florida Everglades and Galapagos Islands share the same designation. The Niagara Escarpment Commission says it is “one of the world’s unique natural wonders.” The Escarpment also supports “300 bird species, 53 mammals, 36 reptiles and amphibians, 90 fish and 100 varieties of special interest flora including 37 types of wild orchids.”  Yet, the largest quarry in the country would stretch alongside this environmentally-sensitive area. No government would ever allow a quarry of any size near the Florida Everglades or in the Galapagos Islands.

Deep Down on the Farm

 Once Highland extracts the limestone it intends to farm the bottom of the pit. That’s right, the bottom. The company claims it will spread topsoil in this deep, massive scar and, if the pumps don’t fail, it will grow crops. But according to current provincial legislation, Highland is under no obligation to rehabilitate the quarry pit because it would be below the water table.

Help Stop the Mega Quarry

 There’s so much more. Up to 300 heavy diesel trucks an hour would rumble to and from the pit each day, polluting our air and clogging our roads. And, incredibly, the largest proposed quarry in Canada is not subject to an Environmental Assessment in Ontario. This is unacceptable.

The Hills of Headwaters is normally quiet and bucolic. But it’s now noisy with opposition to the proposed mega quarry. What can you do to stop it?  Write letters of objection to the province of Ontario. Please demand an Environmental Assessment. The deadline is July 11, 2011. Click here to learn more.  You can also e-mail Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty here.

And for further information about the mega quarry, visit www.ndact.com and www.citizensalliance.ca, and join us on Facebook at Stop the Quarry for news updates and events.

 

Toronto Taste

13 Jun

Chef Kevin Prendergast (right) and the team from Tundra at Taste

Many thanks to everyone who sent such kind words about my winning a silver National Magazine Award on Friday evening. It was my 19th NMA nomination for work written for Toronto Life (this time for the Top Ten New Restaurants from April, 2010) and though I haven’t been connected to the magazine for over a year, it was gratifying to have the long-ago story recognized. Kathryn Hayward edited it (she too has left Toronto Life and now works for The Globe and Mail) and was sitting beside me at the gala so we were able to congratulate each other.

Onwards and upwards to Sunday’s Toronto Taste, held inside and outside the Royal Ontario Museum, with 60 chefs and 30 producers of wine or beer gleefully closing the northern end of Queen’s Park to Sunday traffic. This was the 21st iteration of Second Harvest’s glamorous fundraiser and the weather was benign, much better than the sweltering heat or torrential rain of years gone by. Crowds were dense and line-ups long inside the museum which made reaching or even identifying the chefs’ stations tricky but I did find C5’s spot (this is their home turf, after all). Chef Teddy Corrado had created a scrumptious taco of forked pickerel marinated in aji paste which he topped with dabs of guacamole, pico de gallo and tomatillo relish. “Tex-Mex is my guilty secret,” said Corrado with a grin.

Tundra's dish - strawberry-rhubarb soup with lobster salad

Wandering outside, the human pressure eased. There was room to chat with chefs and other old friends in the milling throng. Every Toronto Taste has its own internal trends, and this one was no exception. There were two mighty porchettas each with suitably crunchy crackling (Sotto Sotto’s was irresistible) and plenty of pork in other guises. But this was, above all, the year of the burger, with innumerable variations of the tender patty on offer. The trouble is that that means innumerable buns and who wants to fill up on soft white bread when there are so many other delectable treats to be sampled. One burger, however, stood out from the pack – a gorgeously juicy (and topless) brisket burger, cooked rare and topped with sophisticated, crunchy house-made kimchee, made by David Lee of Nota Bene.

When there is so much to eat, a one-bite wonder often makes huge impact. That was the thinking behind a scrumptious, multi-textured mouthful from George’s Lorenzo Loseto. He sliced venison salami very thinly and skewered it against a fried lemon thyme spaetzle with some roasted heirloom beet and carrot. In typical Loseto style, it was a cunning, complex swirl of cleverly complimentary flavours. Scaramouche’s Keith Froggett was not in attendance but his team proffered a Chinese spoonful of impeccable veal tonato – a classic version that reminded me what an elegant little masterpiece of a dish v. tonato is, especially when topped by a cucumber slaw.

David Lee's topless brisket burger with kimchee

Finding ways to present finger food that don’t involve bread is a useful lesson for any young chef. John Higgins and the team from George Brown College’s The Chef’s House went the hollowed egg shell route, filling each one with a luxe foie gras custard, a little quinoa for structure and a cool lobster salad – a divine combination of flavours that may have been the most original dish of the evening. Another contender came in a dixie cup from Tundra – a chilled strawberry-and-rhubarb soup topped with lobster salad, celery seedlings and candied violet. Straddling the fence that separates sweet from savoury, it was a super idea.

Other notable experiences included a brilliantly old-school canoli and a juicy lamb sausage served with tzatziki at the Maléna-L’Unita station. Paul Boehmer of Böhmer mixed up a dandy venison tartare and set it beside a salad of baby herbs on a cunningly undulating tuile.

Foie gras custard and lobster salad in an eggshell from The Chef's House, George Brown College

Peach Chardonnay vinaigrette liaised valiantly between the two elements. Anne Yarymowich of Frank put together a duck confit tostada topped with Monforte ricotta cheese – as delicious as it sounds – one bite and it was gone. Chef Michael Smith, representing SODEXO Canada, offered his version of a shore dinner – confited fingerling potato topped with seared Manitoba pickerel, a strip of wild boar bacon and a tarragon mustard foam. A dainty anchor fashioned from potato held things together. I loved Chiado’s monkfish wrapped in a collar of duck prosciutto and topped with tiny cubes of port jelly. Ditto Didier Leroy’s classic steak tartare (the city’s best) served either with a sweet potato crisp or on a knob of baby cucumber.

Mark McEwan's Lake Erie sardines - I mean smelt

Was it possible to find favourites among all the general gustatory splendour? Rocco Agostino of Enoteca Sociale turned salt cod and potato into soft warm fritters and served one on a bed of tender tripe in tomato ragout. Topped with lemon caper aioli and a leaf or two of fresh chervil it was a total triumph, a dish you’d order over and over again if you came across it in a restaurant. Mark McEwan presented the perfect little crispy, deep-fried Lake Erie smelt he serves at Fabbrica with fennel salad. Someone spread the rumour that these were actually Lake Erie sardines which had the Museum’s icthyologists pushing their way through the crowd to glimpse such a zoological miracle. They were only your regular smelt but for a number of trusted palates they proved to be show-stealers. And Marc Thuet of Petite Thuet proved what a master he is with a variation on an open-faced pork belly sandwich. The pork had been cooked sous-vide until it was as tender as a mother’s kiss, the meat set on a slice of fried wild-rice bannock and topped with Asian slaw, peach coulis and tonhatsu mayo. Awesome.

Dropping anchor with Michael Smith

It was interesting to see media friends and colleagues working the event. Their lovely pictures and descriptions will be everywhere by now, I dare say. Some were busy tweeting as they moved around the stations, others were assigned tweeters from the organizers, who skillfully transmitted the journalist’s impressions into the ether for the benefit of the curious planet. The auction prizes were specatcular – especially a barrel of Tawse David’s Block Chardonnay (300 bottles of wine), a 10-day food and wine trip to Portugal or a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. However, Prize #11 may have been the most meaningful, and the one that reminded everyone of why they were there, eating and drinking and talking so merrily. It had been titled “Feed a Family of Five for a Year” and promised Sun Life Financial would match funds raised from personal donations made at Taste, dollar for dollar, to a maximum total of $10,000. Twenty thousand bucks is what it costs Second Harvest to feed eight families of five for a year. So many people in this soi-disant world-class, first-world city don’t have enough to eat. Our various levels of government have not managed to solve the problem. More power to Second Harvest for stepping in and to the generosity of everyone who bought their tickets to Taste.

 

A little bit more Yorkshire

09 Jun

There's a welcome in the Dales...

This sign was spotted in the front window of the Green Dragon pub in the Yorkshire Dales. I imagine it’s a joke as I can’t believe anyone in that idyllic part of the world would harbour such a grudge against the flower people. Then again…

As predicted, dinner at the Wensleydale Heifer proved spectacular. My roast hake was especially good, a perfectly timed slab of the soft white fish, its texture somewhere between that of plaice and haddock, its flesh juicy beneath a crisp skin. The chef had set it above a ragout of chopped chorizo sausage, white beans, red pepper and brown shrimp – a merry-go-round of flavours that still allowed the fish its due – so simple but very delectable. Gastronomically this meal was the highlight of the week, an opinion with which our guide, Mark Reid, concurred. He ordered fish and chips and pronounced them to be some of the best he had ever had. From a Yorkshireman that is high praise indeed.

On the following evening I encountered another unique treat at a restaurant called Chaste, in Hawes in Wensleydale. This was a liquid treasure, a “gin” made from cider apples by a gentleman called William Chase, creator of the famous Chase vodka. His tale is an interesting one. A potato farmer, Mr. Chase provided the raw material for Tyrrell’s crisps, a popular brand of potato chip. Alas, there was a row with the supermarkets that sold the crisps and Chase found himself with a great many potatoes on his hands. He turned them into a vodka that went on to win the prize as Britain’s best vodka. The apple gin is his latest venture, a clear spirit with some of the sweetness of Calvados but unaged and laid over with juniper and other traditional gin botanicals. It’s rich, fruity, nicely spiced and rather powerful at 48% alcohol by volume. Brilliant with tonic.

Bolton Castle, glimpsed from the maze

Forgive the dashing about in this posting, the lack of linear narrative, but now I will whisk you miles up Wensleydale to Bolton castle, towering above the village of Castle Bolton. It’s open to the public but our Gold Medal Plates group was fortunate enough to have a private tour from Tom Orde-Powlett, whose family has owned the castle since it was built in 1399. Parts of it, including the rooms where Mary Queen of Scots stayed, are in remarkably good nick and there is a handsome little garden and falconry demonstrations involving a number of different owls and raptors. To the delight of our party, lunch had been laid on in the Great Hall – a feast of smoked salmon followed by a fabulous selection of local pies and cheeses including the creamy, subtle, Jervaulx Blue, a local cheese that tasted like the suave younger brother of a Stilton. One eats so much when everything is within reach and I had no room left for the finale – a goblet of strawberry Eton Mess. I ate it anyway.

venison, duck breast, ox tongue, scrumptious pies and Wensleydale cheese - all part of lunch at Bolton Castle

The last event of our week was a demonstration out on the sunny terrace of Simonstone Hall in which I attempted to explain the reasons why it matters what goes into a Pimm’s. I tried to paint a vivid picture of the origins of the drink, how young James Pimm, a tenant farmer’s son from Newnham in Kent came to London to seek his fortune not long after the battle of Waterloo. He set himself up with a barrow from which he sold oysters in the streets of the City but by 1823 he had parlayed that into an oyster bar that became a popular lunch spot for London’s businessmen and financiers. Seeking a gimmick that would set him apart from his rivals he began to mess about with signature cocktails and finally ended up, circa 1840, with Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, a tankard of chopped fruit, lemonade and the unique elixir he had created from gin infused with spices and fruits.

Life was good for Pimm. His drink caught on, sold door-to-door by boys on bicycles and new “numbers” were introduced – No. 2 Cup (based on Scotch) and No. 3 (based on brandy and still made today as a spicier version called Pimm’s Winter Cup). Eventually Pimm retired, selling the oyster bars and the secret recipe for Pimm’s to a fellow called Frederick Sawyer who sold it on to Horatio Davies, the future Lord Mayor of London. His dreams were bigger than Pimm’s and soon the stuff was available all across the Empire, wherever Englishman lifted a tennis racquet or an oar. Other “Numbers” followed in the 20th century, based on rum, rye and vodka, but the 70s and 80s were a time of hardship for the drink. Just as I was discovering its glories, most of England was turning away. The oyster bars disappeared and so did most of the Numbers. Even at places like the Henley Regatta, the drink was poorly made – something warm and flat and sticky by the end of the afternoon, attractive to wasps but otherwise useful only as a crude tool of seduction.

A mighty drum of Jervaulx Blue

Today all is once again happiness and light! A good Pimm’s remains a super drink on a hot day. Some people have their own ways of making one, using ginger ale or Champagne instead of fizzy lemonade and that’s fine, as is the normal (rather puny) ratio of 3 parts pop to 1 part Pimm’s. But this is the recipe I favour: Slice up one cored green apple, one orange, 12 strawberries and a four-inch piece of unpeeled cucumber (slippery seeds removed) and tip them all into a jug. Pour on one 750-mL bottle of Pimm’s and a fistful of mint leaves. Add 1.5 L of ice-cold fizzy lemonade such as Sprite or Seven up. Give it a quick stir (but not enough to lose the fizz) and pour over ice cubes in half-pint tankards, letting lots of the fruit slip in with the liquid. Garnish with tiny blue borage flowers. Drink swiftly and have another one right away.

 

Down into Wensleydale

06 Jun

A fine day in Arkengarthdale, Yorkshire

Today we hiked over Shunner Fell, third highest fell in all the Yorkshire Dales. The hot sunshine that was the glory of our first few days of exercise had given way to drizzle which turned to cold rain and wind as we trudged up the Pennine Way. By the time we reached the gently rounded summit, walking through miles of peat hags, we were in the cloud and visibility was poor – but what a brilliant walk! There’s a stone windbreak at the highest point and there we paused for lunch – a very welcome ham roll and a Twix bar, an apple and a bottle of water. The rain diminished as we marched on towards Wensleydale. A skylark rode the wind above us, singing for all his worth, and there were curlews and plovers, grouse and lapwings all around. As the path began to descend, the moor became meadow and we returned to the world of rabbits and sheep and strutting cock pheasants. Two miles later we were safe in the Green Dragon, warming up in front of an open fire and enjoying the first pint of the day – a bitter local cask-conditioned ale called Castle Bolton.

Fountains - a day out

This has been an excellent adventure, as all Gold Medal Plates trips tend to be. We’re a large group of 41, including Olympic skeleton gold medallist Jon Montgomery and comedian Ron James, who put on a show for us all last night at the CB Inn in Langthwaite. He worked some hilarious material about certain members of the group into his dazzlingly energetic set and finished to a standing ovation. A great many sturdy souls from Western Canada stayed up after that to catch the hockey game, strengthened by ale and still valiantly alert when the Canucks finished off Boston in overtime at around 5 a.m.. By then the sky was bright with morning and there were stirrings in the kitchen of the inn as the breakfast chefs began working.

We have seen wonders already. The ruins of Fountains abbey and the magnificent 18th century gardens of Studley Royal. Bluebell woods and shady hillsides where the ransom is in bloom, filling the air with its garlicky aroma. The renowned Black Sheep Brewery in Masham where they still use the now-very-rare Yorkshire Square fermenting vessels that add to the creamy texture and delectable flavour of Riggwelter and their other mighty brews. Busy little rivers and meadows of wildflowers – 115 species according to some though red clover and buttercups dominate this week. The Bridge Inn in Grinton, where Jon Montgomery opened his throat and drained a yard of ale (2½ pints) in 20 seconds – an astonishing time that broke the record of 33 seconds set last year by a huge margin. He kept it down for almost a minute then returned the beer to the world. Luckily he had taken off his shirt and was out of doors by the roadside when that occurred. Even the two old Yorkshire gaffers sitting inside at the bar were impressed. “’E did all right, your lad,” one remarked with a nod in Jon’s direction.

Geoff Catherwood gallantly downs his yard of ale - and keeps it down! But no one comes close to Jon Montgomery's new 20-second record

Other treats have included pigeon breast in Scotch broth at the CB Inn, a fine stew of lamb and apricots at the Bridge Inn, Raspberry Eton Mess and Sticky Toffee Pudding at the Punch Bowl near Low Row. Tonight we head for the Wensleydale Heifer, a gastropub specializing in the local seafood that comes in daily from Hartlepool or Redcar, always a highlight of a visit to the Dales. I am anticipating roast hake, pungent little brown shrimps and dressed crab.

Ron James gives us a dazzling set at the CB Inn

 

Chabrot Bistrot d’Amis

01 Jun

L'exterieur

When Canadian friends are going to London the question they never ask is “What is the best restaurant in London?” What they do want to know is “Where is a good little place to eat that doesn’t cost the earth?” So I have been looking for such a gem, while also thinking of next July when I’ll be hosting some Canadians over here for the Olympics, courtesy of Gold Medal Plates. Tonight we went to check out Chabrot, a 65-seat bistro in a tiny alleyway running between Knightsbridge and the park, just a pierre’s jetée from Harrods.

Open about three-and-a-half months, it’s the fulfilled ambition of four friends – society florist Pascal Lavorel, wine guru Philippe Messy, Yann Chevris, who set up a number of big-name spots such as Nahm, Nobu London and Atelier Joel Robuchon, and chef Thierry Laborde, who worked at Le Gavroche and with Alain Ducasse at Le Louis XV. The name this influential quartet chose refers to a ritual from the Dordogne whereby gourmands pour a little wine into the bottom of their soup bowls to allow every last drop of potage to be consumed. Suitably obsessive… The credentials of the partners caught my eye, to be sure, but so did the menu, gleaming with treats from the south-west of France – sardines marinated in white wine; grilled black pudding with cooked apple; whole roasted foie gras for two (or three); cabbage stuffed with veal, chestnut, foie gras and ceps… So off we went.

The premises are hard to find. Cabbies know Knightsbridge Green and there is a cluster of little restaurants in the knuckle of the laneway that turns back southwards to Knightsbridge. Chabrot lies to the north, up a narrow passage where cars cannot go. It’s a slender little property on two storeys run by a team of young and anxious French people who try very hard to be friendly. We were guided up the steep flight of stairs to a wedge of a salon with painted brick walls, a wooden floor, tiny tables clad in red-and-white striped linen of industrial tea-towel weight, hard wooden chairs and large framed sepia photographs of French bistro scenes. “This will be noisy when the other tables fill up,” we surmised – and so it proved. Good reviews have ensured the place is packed, even on a Tuesday night. A lone waitress coped womanfully with our storey, keeping her temper, bringing excellent crusty brown bread and sweet, firm butter, giving us time to read the menu carefully. The dishes here are unabashedly simple – almost too simple, some might say, though others would disagree. It’s a tough call.

plain but very good - the broad bean salad

A salad of broad beans and ewe cheese is a case in point. The wee dish offered some absolutely impeccable, timed-to-perfection and shelled broad beans with a hint of mint. They were crowned with a dollop of sweet, bland sheep’s milk cheese with the texture of cottage cheese and the same amount of flavour. A sprinkling of piment d’espalette powder, south-west France’s gentle answer to paprika, added a soupcon of seasoning. A dose of very good olive oil offered much more. It was a brilliant little dish, such as one makes for a picnic montage in a Merchant-Ivory film when love is running hot and smooth. Puritan gourmets say “oui, superbe,” but others who might have hoped for a bit more dash and imagination grumble.

Ditto a dish billed as warm duck liver paté. If you have made paté you know there’s a moment when everything is cooked and warm in the pan and ready to be mashed and pressed and cooled into a paté. One can’t help but taste it. Well this dish has arrested the process at that point, presenting a ramekin of warm chopped and sautéed duck liver with capers, herbs and oily juices. Beside it is a giant gougère, the size of three Yorkshire puddings with some Comté cheese baked into the crust. It’s hollow of course, as a gougère should be, but where most gougères are dainty and ethereral little bites this one is the size of a child’s head. So we break bits off and use the undulating hollows of choux pastry as receptacles for a little of the embryonic pate. It tastes wonderful but the premise is a little like eating raw cake mix. What might this dish have been if the paté had been made? As Bubble used to answer in Absolutely Fabulous, Who can say?

Marinated sardines in white wine vinegar are a yummy crowd-pleaser, the fillets firm and juicy, just tangy enough. They come topped with chopped cherry tomato, chopped white grapes for sweetness, shredded basil and tiny dice of oil-fried croutons, crunchy and juicy with good olive oil. Again, it’s lovely but far from special.

my petit chou

Mains loom out of the menu and I find I can’t resist the stuffed cabbage leaves – savoy leaves as it turns out – my favourite cabbage. Inside is a dense meatloaf of finely ground veal studded with soft nuggets of chestnut and cep, enriched with foie gras. On top are some crunchy little croutons and a few burst cranberries which bring the whole thing to life, for the flavours of the cabbage roll are gentle and wistful, like an auntie’s kiss on the forehead. The tart cranberries have decided to make trouble but there are too few of them to bring the too-too-solid flesh to life.

Grilled octopus skewers, partially breadcrumbed, are as tender as the night. That espalette paprika makes a repeat appearance but has nothing to say it didn’t say already. A warm salad of halved fingerling potatoes in olive oil and lemon juice is divine. “But is it art?” Again the question arises.

Paillard de veau is a piece of veal beaten and tortured until it’s as thin as vellum then grilled and sprinkled with rosemary and sage. Any Italian would scoff, having tasted the tender Milanese equivalent. A small mound of well-dressed salad leaves on the side of the plate murmur comments without getting involved.

ma baba avec son verre d'Armagnac

Oui, we had desserts. A bowl of gariguette strawberries with crème chantilly – very nice but too polite and the cream was too sweet to be wicked. Praline ice cream – excellent, but ice cream usually is. I had a baba (okay mostly so I could look the waitress in the eye and say “a baba!”) but this was served in an unusual way. The baba lay in a bowl beside a pillow of crème chantilly looking enchanting, but as I admired it the server whispered that I must now choose one of three vintage Bas Armagnacs (at decidedly vintage prices) to complete the experience. There was also a cheaper hors d’age Armagnac she confessed, but she made a most discouraging face when she mentioned that one. I chose the 1979 and awesome it was, though I couldn’t make out the producer’s name on the label. The waitress poured it into a snifter and murmured that I should now soak the spongey, very fresh, slightly syrup-impregnated baba with the precious eau de vie. Quelle dilemma, mes amis! To pour or not to pour? Whether tis better to annoint the baba or save the armagnac til later – that is the question. I decided to soak my cake and eat it while cunningly saving half the generous snifter for a post-baba libation! Lights flash, bells ring! That is the right thing to do.

There is wine at Chabrot – a lovely list indeed, strong in french regional bottles from cool, well-chosen producers but at London prices, which are higher than we are used to in Canada. The final verdict? We had a good time but next time I will fall back on a more comfortable favourite across the road – Racine.

Closed on Sundays, Chabrot is open for lunch and dinner. 9 Knightsbridge Green, London SW1X 7QL, 207 225 2238, www.chabrot.co.uk.