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Archive for July, 2011

Champagne Charlie Burger

31 Jul

Charlie Burger has crossed the line. I don’t know if you saw a story I wrote in the Globe and Mail last weekend, breaking Charlie Burger’s cover. With his blessing, I revealed his true identity – Franco Stalteri, the sophisticated young bon viveur whose day job is Director of Experiential Marketing for a company called Your Brand IMC. He puts together high-end events for banks or luxury motor car companies or other prestigious clients such as Dom Perignon Champagne.

Charlie’s Burgers was his dazzling notion a couple of years ago – guerilla dinners that allow deeply talented chefs to do their own thing for 50 or so lucky souls in a mysterious venue. Guests have to find their way to the place by following a trail. It’s all great fun, slightly tongue-in-cheek but elegantly contrived and has a serious gastronomical pay-off of great food and wine. But now, as I say, Charlie has crossed the line. The consummate host has become the artisanal entrepreneur. Charlie Burger has his own Champagne.

Let me start by saying there isn’t very much of it. Champagne Charlie Burger is a true “grower’s Champagne,” estate-produced by a small but much revered house that has been in the business since 1732. The marque in question, Henry de Vaugency, can be found just outside Oger. Their Chardonnay vineyard is right next door to Krug’s prestigious Clos de Mesnil – and I’d have to say it shares the quality as well as the classified Grand Cru location, which makes Champagne Charlie Burger a pure Oger Grand Cru Classé Blanc de Blancs Champagne. Very special stuff. Very suave and very delicious.

So, how did Franco Stalteri get his hands (and his moniker) on this ethereal nectar? Through a mutual friend – the sommelier of the world-famous Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris who persuaded Henry de Vaugency that Charlie Burger was a worthy customer. Stalteri liked the idea of presenting his own Champers at CB events – and anyone who falls in love with the bubbly can buy a case, I am told, provided they go through the proper channels. I can see why they would. This is a blend of wines from 2000, 2001 and 2002, cellar-aged for five years. It has a fresh golden colour – the beauty of youth – and a subtle fresh aroma of yellow fruit with a hint of lemon peel. Not really “citrus” as in lemon juice or lemon marmalade – more the very precise but delicate smell you experience when you sniff a ripe but uncut lemon. The mousse is very fine to the eye and sparkling on the tongue. That first sip reveals the ethereal body you would expect from a Blanc de Blancs – liquid dancing – so refreshing – a discreet flavour of yellow plums, a suggestion of yeasty biscuit. It’s all so vibrant and beautiful and yet there is a maturity there that stops it being remotely tart or sharp. Great balance and then… a long, long finish – always the sign of very good wine, Champagne included.

Stalteri presented the first bottle of CB Champagne to the sommelier at the Tour d’Argent. He opened the second with his fiancée. I’m so honoured that I received bouteille #3, so inscribed and therefore to be kept and treasured even now that it is empty. Regrettably, I shall miss the Charlie’s Burgers event on August 7th when the Champagne will be the evening’s debutante, turning everyone’s head, breaking everyone’s heart. If you’re going to be there, I’d love to hear what you think of the Champagne.

 
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Posted in Drink, Wine

 

Collingwood whisky

30 Jul

 

Collingwood, the latest Canadian whisky

Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood (Cuthbert to his family) is a top-ranking hero in my personal Justice League. He was Nelson’s second-in-command, subsequently C-in-C of the Mediterranean station, a career sailor who served the Royal Navy for 50 years, almost all of them at sea, and a wise and well-intentioned man. Collingwood Canadian whisky is not named after him directly (or one would drink it all the time) but there is a connection. The whisky is called after the Ontario town of Collingwood, the place where it’s made, which was named to honour the great naval hero, some 48 years after his death.

To be honest, I never realized there was a distillery in Collingwood but it turns out this is the home of a blended whisky called Canadian Mist. The operation is owned by the firm of Brown-Forman, based in Louisville, Kentucky, which also owns Jack Daniel’s and Woodford bourbon. Collingwood is a new product, proudly bannered as “the first new major Canadian whisky to hit the market in almost a decade.” It’s as smooth as a Perry Como ballad and has a full-bodied weight as if it were designed to be poured over ice – and indeed the press release accompanying its launch makes a specific recommendation that it “can be enjoyed on the rocks or mixed in a cocktail.” In other words, this is not sippin’ whisky.

What makes it so smooth? It’s triple distilled for one thing and it also undergoes a “toasted maplewood” mellowing process. Brown-Forman are shy about giving any more details than that but my guess is Collingwood is filtered through maplewood charcoal – or at least exposed to it – the process the company uses to smooth out Jack Daniel’s. An alternative theory is that the whisky may also go into maplewood barrels, like the Masters Collection of Woodford Reserve bourbon, though that would be a pricey thing to do for a whisky that sells for $29.95. Besides, Collingwood makes a big deal about maturation in white oak barrels.

Admiral Lord Collingwood

The press release is also a little vague about the grains used to make the whisky. Ontario corn is mentioned (the town of Collingwood is a centre for the corn-into-ethanol industry) but perhaps there is malted barley too, as there is in Canadian Mist. I don’t taste the tang of rye at all, just the rich, placid sweetness of corn whisky and a pleasant blur of oaky vanilla and caramel. Such is the power of word association that I’m quite sure I can taste maple as well, after reading about the toasted maplewood process.

I don’t usually like to put ice into whisky but in this case it works, leavening the weight of the spirit a little and loosening up the clustered flavours. In those conditions it comes across as a friendly, tasty, not very complicated Canadian whisky at a very reasonable price. And if smoothness is what you seek above all other qualities, this is the baby for you. LCBO #244186, 750 mL, $29.95.

 

Fishbar

24 Jul

Deep-fried smelt stuffed with olive tapenade - 40 are never enough

Fishbar, on Ossington, is open at last – the long-awaited new project from William Tavares (an original partner in Salt, a few doors north) and chef David Friedman (Vancouver-trained and most recently sous chef at Table 17). We took some friends there on Friday and had a very good time. It reminds me of Kitchen Galerie Poisson in Montreal (at 399 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, to be precise), one of my favourite, merrily informal spots in that talented town,  only Fishbar lacks KGP’s kick-ass foie gras. What they do have in common is a cool but unpretentious décor of open brick walls and wooden tables, not to mention excellent oysters and a laid-back party atmosphere. Fishbar’s wooden benches are a bit hard on the bum and I’ve probably seen enough Edison light bulbs by now to last me a lifetime, but all such teeny issues evaporate once the food starts to arrive.

 The oysters come from Rodney’s and we tried three different kinds – some mild, sweet beauties from New Brunswick; briney, substantial, temptingly metallic Mystic Cocktails from Connecticut; and great big, full-flavoured Marina Top Drawer from B.C. They were accompanied by three sauces: a classic red cocktail, a decent ponzu and a tart, spicy “apple orchard” sauce like fruity mustard. Oysters are also served as pogos – in other words heavily breaded, stuck on the end of a stick and deep-fried to a mahogany colour. Moist, greaseless and delicious, they were even better when dipped into a loose tomatillo salsa that balanced the corn sweetness of the breading with a sharp, fresh tang.

 I love deep-fried smelt especially when they’re on the big side – but not so big that you have to clean them: then you can taste the funky, bitter flavour of their fishy innards. Friday’s smelt were bigger than that so Friedman did clean them but then had the brilliant idea of stuffing them with olive tapenade before fritting them in tempura batter. So I had my bittersweet fix anyway, crispy and piping hot.

 Thus we began to work our way through the menu of small plates, a piece of paper divided into “starters,” “cold,” “hot,” “sides” and “dessert.” Almost every dish showed the Ocean Wise symbol, reassuring us of the kitchen’s commitment to using sustainable, ocean-friendly seafood. Halibut ceviche is a case in point, the juices of the soft, tender fish seized but the flavours more to do with salt and coriander oil than citrus. There were lime wedges for a squeeze-your-own moment that perked the dish up considerably. Hair-thin sweet potato fries were too thin to offer much tuberous presence – more like a heap of frying.

Wild sockeye tartare with apple instead of onion

 Salmon tartare was a champion – the wild sockeye cut into large pieces and tossed with shiso, soy and chopped apple – a great idea and undeniable proof that a tartare doesn’t always need onion. The kitchen pairs it with ethereally thin fried wonton wrappers which are much too delicate and brittle to bear the weight of the fish. I guess we’re supposed to take a forkful of salmon and then a bite of crunchy crunch. As a system, it works admirably.

 Chef Friedman does hearty as well as refined – witness a mound of PEI mussels smothered in big chunks of juicy grilled tomato with lumps of chorizo lurking in the tomato sauce. Many slices of baguette were needed to make sure every drop of the sauce was accounted for.

 Battered Pacific cod from the Queen Charlottes lies at the heart of his fish and chips – surprisingly the weakest dish of the evening. The chips were fine – unpeeled, slender, crisp where they should be and tender inside – but the flavour of the fish was missing in action, smothered by the taste of the batter. A side dish of fresh bright green peas with flecks of bacon and the wicked sheen of bacon fat totally stole that particular scene.

PEI mussels with a robust sauce of tomato and chorizo

 Dessert restored smiles to faces. They make their own ice creams here and serve a trio of chocolate, honey and goat cheese ice creams, the latter undeniably cheesy and brilliantly framed by the more conventional treats. A giant, crusty chocolate brownie covered in cherry jam and vanilla ice cream ended up as a sort of blue-collar homage to Black Forest cake, swiftly eaten and enjoyed.

 Veteran sommelier Jamie Duran is in charge of the wines at Fishbar and has put together an attractive little list that includes a dry Muscat from Terre di Orazio in Basilicata ($44), a crisp, aromatic white that smells like a bunch of lilies, a lovely match for many things on the menu.

 Early signs are that Fishbar will be a hit for the team behind it – original, affordable and above all blessed with a chef who understands how to cook seafood and have a little fun while he’s doing it.

 Fishbar is open for dinner only, closed on Mondays. 217 Ossington Avenue (a few doors south of Dundas). 647 340 0227. www.fishbar.ca.

 

Campagnolo

22 Jul

Zucchini carpaccio - fresher than a summer's day

 

I’ve been looking forward to going to Campagnolo ever since Joanne Kates gushed so enthusiastically about chef Craig Harding’s “dreamworld pasta” last March. I called often during the spring but there was never a table available, then I forgot about it for a couple of months. This week I called again and while the place was still fantastically busy I was finally able to get a reservation, but only if our group of four arrived promptly at 6:30. Not 7:00… 6:30. Ever obedient, we did as we were bidden, though the scorching sun was a little high in the sky for anyone to be thinking much about dinner. Perhaps the restaurant sensed that, because we had to wait 40 minutes for our repeatedly requested plate of bread and gougères and bowl of warm olives in orange-scented oil.

I don’t do outrage – I’m really too easy-going to get flustered by that sort of thing – but it was odd. Campagnolo has an open kitchen and we could see the four cooks standing and talking, could see our waiter explaining our needs. We could also see a basket of loaves of bread on the counter. It was obvious that they were baking new bread and cooking new gougères – which is just silly when you make customers come at 6:30. No one offered an explanation or thought to send out something else to take the edge off our hunger. Oh well. Hey ho.

At least we had plenty of time to study our surroundings. The corner spot was once a Coffee Time and you can still see the old lines in the shape of the space. There’s a new bar with a fancy light fixture above it that looks like a miniature Dale Chihuly zoomorphic glass sculpture. Big caramel-coloured plush curtains soften the angles of the walls and help control the sound of merry voices that bounces up and down between the tiled floor and low ceiling. Little brass candelabra and blue-and-white china water jugs add a quaint charm.

But no one is here for the décor. It’s Craig Harding’s food that has caused such a fluttering of fans amongst the critical community. And I do see why. It’s very good food – thoughtful, balanced, beautifully executed – rooted in Italian traditions but with a contemporary refinement.

A little dish of zucchini carpaccio, for example, was a simple but brilliant little hymn to summer – crunchy ribbons of fennel sliced so thinly they were almost translucent set over broader strips of raw zucchini, strewn with shaved parmiggiano reggiano and peppery baby nasturtium leaves, all refreshed by a deftly harmonious tomato vinaigrette.

Scrumptious marrowbone with oxtail and nectarine marmalade

Testina was a very different proposition but equally well achieved. Testina is head cheese but instead of slicing the jellied brawn as a terrine, Harding turns it into a patty, breaded and pan-fried, which warms up the various pieces of pigface and turns the matrix of jelly into rich juice. Flavours are released and the unusually large size of the bits of meat lets you experience their different textures. A good, tart gribiche sauce around the plate cut the fat when required while the frisée topknot looked pretty.

An even richer treat for carnivores used half a vertically sawn marrowbone as a vessel of pleasure. The marrow was still in the bone but hidden by morsels of tender braised oxtail and traces of nectarine marmalade adding a lovely fruity sweetness. A close look revealed chopped herbs and tiny gratings of lemon zest – a sly gremolata that was as scrumptious as it always is with oxtail. A spoon was provided to scoop out bonemarrow, oxtail and fruit together to be spread onto crunchy toasts. Though it sounds like a heavy dish for the hottest day in Canadian history, it wasn’t. Sumptuous, yes, but so nicely balanced it almost seemed dainty.

Having heard so much about Harding’s pasta, I had to try the agnolotti that headed up the list of main courses. Yes, they were superb. The pasta itself was perfectly textured, soft little pouches that held a fresh pea purée. Whole peas, pea leaves and shoots nestled in amongst them while awesomely tender lobster meat lolled about on top. A mild fennel purée and a sort of bisque-like sauce lurked in the bottom of the bowl, bringing all the flavours together.

If peas and lobster is a classic combination, so is chorizo and octopus. There is no nonsense about the relationship on Harding’s dish – you get a big juicy, spicily seasoned fresh chorizo sausage hot off the grill and a single tender octopus limb that has also been finished on the grill (just a moment too long, I felt, because the diminishing curl of the tentacle was over-charred). Between the two principals is a soft, deliciously tangy peperonata while a puck of firm polenta represents the world of starch.

Saddle of lamb, perfectly pink

A subtler textural game is played on another main course – perfectly seared scallops, moist and creamy at heart, share the plate with smoked steelhead trout the colour of a carola rose, not sliced but cut into juicy chunks. Little new potatoes, a lively caper aioli and some shavings of radish complete the moment.

Roast lamb saddle represents a more conventional aesthetic, the succulent meat paired with cannelini beans but then perked up with a dark cherry balsamic and some shaved parm regg. The cheese was great with the beans but I’m not sure it sat so happily with the lamb, but that’s because the flavour of the meat was so good, especially when enhanced by some shavings of black summer truffle, that I would have resented any extraneous interference.

Two desserts were offered. One was a flaky canoli filled with chocolate-flecked, amaretto-spiked ricotta and served with a spoonful of gentle orange marmalade. The other was a slab of “chocolate paté” with the gelatinous texture of pudding – yummy in a childish sort of way – topped with crumbled macaroon and some boozy figs that had ended their lives poached in red wine – a great match for the chocolate.

Campagnolo’s wine list is rather clever – about 50 wines in total with four sparklers and lots of interesting, aromatic whites. Reds are a more serious gathering – only two under $50, seven in three figures. I was glad to see some decent representation from Ontario but the big guns were mostly Italian – which suits an Italianate menu, to be sure.

Craig Harding is clearly the real deal and success has allowed him to build a large brigade in the kitchen and front-of-house. I hate the fascism of a reservation policy so obviously built around turning the tables but the temptation is irresistible, I guess, when you have less than 40 seats. Still, that sort of “screw the customer” attitude can bite you back in the long run. And there’s one other element missing from the evening – any sense of verbal connection between the kitchen and the table. I would have loved to have had a brief word with someone about any of the dishes – some little tidbit about where an ingredient came from, why the chef had done this or that, even a standard enquiry about whether we were enjoying the food. So many other, less interesting restaurants do this as a matter of course, but there seems to be an endemic lack of gastronomic communication between the staff and the customers. It comes across as arrogance and, no matter how good the cooking, that always leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth.

Campagnolo is at 832 Dundas Street West (just at Euclid Avenue). 416 364 4785.

 

La Société

18 Jul

 

Does the newly dandified Bloor-Yorkville area need a big, brassy French bistro? Apparently. La Société has been packed since it opened in June, taking over that upstairs location that used to be Dynasty on the Colonnade. There’s a patio outside the restaurant on the terrace and another down at street level where the fountain once plashed, all generating the sort of lively, bustling vibe rarely seen on stately Bloor Street.

Charles Khabouth is the guy behind La Société and that means Munge Leung are the designers. They’ve done a fine, eye-catching job on the enormous space, borrowing all the bistro clichés from padded brown leather banquettes with brass rails and a mosaic tiled floor (of curiously reflective tesserae) to a magnificent stained glass ceiling and a long zinc bar. Lots of mirrors and framed posters hang on the nicotine yellow walls and some magnificent displays of delphiniums bring a moment of nature into the oh-so-urban setting, effortlessly stealing the show. If the final stylistic statement ends up as a hotch-potch of art nouveau and art deco, well, the same thing happens in Paris, too.

The name is appropriate, for the place has already become a favourite rendezvous for the well-healed condo-dwellers of the area, somewhere to be seen but where they can also bring children and grandchildren. Tony Longo, the man in charge of the operation, knows most of them from Centro days and makes everyone feel welcome and important. His team of uniformed servers and bussers must number in the dozens but they know their onions. When I challenge our waiter’s description of our oysters as “kumos from California,” he sticks to his guns – and he’s right. These are sweet, creamy little guys from Baja – not as good as the pure-bred kumos from Puget Sound in Washington, but perfectly acceptable when you’ve been deprived of oysters for days.
La Société’s executive chef is James Olberg, a John Higgins protégé who was most recently exec at Queen’s Landing, so he’s comfortable with big numbers. It’s a long menu with just about every bistro standard in place and a few extra dishes thrown in as plats du jour. What it lacks are two or three unique signature offerings that might set the menu apart from the card at Biff’s or La Sélect – something unpredictable or even slightly challenging that this bistro could own. But I’m cavilling because the first few things we had, in our hunger, were very good.

Butter-poached lobster risotto

A duck liver terrine arrived in a glass jar, sealed beneath a meniscus of tart cherry jelly. It was sinfully heavy and rich, as silky as butter with a beguiling hint of booze beneath the swirl of ducky flavours. A little dish of caramelized cherries provided extra sweetness and acidity and there were plenty of crisp toasted baguette slices upon which to spread the gorgeous stuff.

A generous risotto studded with crisp, fresh asparagus and peas was topped with a perfectly cooked, butter-poached lobster tail and claw. The moisture level was exactly as I like it (not wet but seeping) and the broth had a pleasant lightweight summer freshness to it. The carnaroli rice was a bit too soft – cooked just a tad longer than necessary so the grains had lost that secret heart of chalky firmness – but that’s how they cook risotto on the West coast and maybe chef learned to make it out there.

Mushroom velouté was just that – a great bowl of velvety, creamy mushroom purée with just enough truffle oil drizzled onto its surface. Beside it was a long toast topped with a quenelle of truffle-flecked crème fraîche and a single, whole black morel as an irresistible treat.

By now we were getting quite full but we were having too much fun to slow down. Even on a hot summer’s evening, I felt I had to judge the kitchen’s cassoulet. The braised lingot beans had a good texture and plenty of seasoning but the breadcrumbs that would normally be sprinkled on the surface to form a crust during the cassoulet’s long, slow time in the oven were dredged around the edge of the beans, unintegrated and meaningless. A confited duck leg was 85 percent of the way to perfection, its flavour excellent but a couple of its extremities dryish. There was a fat slab of pork belly and a big, juicy, dense, fine-grained sausage called a “Niagara sausage” on the menu. I wasn’t keen on it. It was very salty and over-seasoned. A cassoulet is supposed to be heavy going, of course, but the whole point of the dish is that its components should be cooked together so that their fats and juices commingle and collaborate and enrich. This one felt as if its separate parts had been cooked separately and then assembled.

The cassoulet

Our other main course was a Dover sole amandine – at $44 a rash extravagance – but it’s been ages since I had a real Dover sole and I miss them. It was the real thing, cooked in a pan, the two fillets served one on top of the other and dressed with melted butter, slivered almonds, parsley and lemon. With sole, it’s all about the texture (the flavour is so refined and shrimpy it’s almost bland) and this one was just right – half way between firm and delicate and so hard to describe I’m not even going to try. There was more of the almond-butter sauce served in a little jug but it wasn’t needed.

Vegetables are offered as side dishes. French beans were just right, very fresh and dressed with almonds. The frites, however, were oddly dry and dull – not the best frites in town by a long shot.

Is it enough to offer only six cheeses, charging $18 for three 25-gram tastes? I think so. Six cheeses is plenty if they’re well chosen and La Société has covered that base. We had profiteroles as our finale and found them exemplary, the pastry fresh and soft, the chocolate sauce dark and authentic and lo, yet again, almonds strewn over everything.

As for wines – it’s a good list with enough pricey treats for the condottieri, decent recognition for Niagara (nice to see Daniel Lenko’s Chardonnay) but $25 for a small flute of Champagne is a bit steep. And more choices by the glass is essential when the menu is so enormous.

La Société is not really a French bistro, of course. It’s in Toronto, owned and operated by people who aren’t French so the best it can be is a sort of superior pastiche. But it’s just what the neighbourhood wants and the patios will be packed for as long as the summer lasts.

Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner (brunch on Saturdays and Sundays).

La Société is at 131 Bloor Street West, just east of Avenue Road. 416 551 9929. www.lasociete.ca.

 

Himmel und Erde

15 Jul

What a busy week! But that is neither here nor there.

An email trickled in this morning from Nobuyo Stadtländer saying that people were still contacting Eigensinn Farm about the Pinespiel, having seen it on this site. Those who actually read the posting will recall that it was announcing the Pinespiel’s postponement to another year.

 Now we have other news. Michael Stadtländer will be creating a different festivus this August that he’s calling Himmel und Erde, but it’s not a reprise of the Heaven and Earth project. Here’s what Michael himself has to say:

  Like Prospero he conjures gardens in the wilderness and sets forth feasts to please us. But no aerial harpy will disturb this banquet.

 

And there is more – a second promise from Michael – in October, a mighty gathering of 20,000 citizens! Seventy canadian chefs! In case you hadn’t noticed, the children of Mamon are loose in the land – even the awful people of the Fomor – greedily seizing the farmland of Melancthon, threatening to take the axe to Riverdale Farm (in its charm and its innocence), poisoning and stealing our water from the Headwaters of Ontario to Alberta’s Athabasca to the splash pools of urban Toronto. Here’s a delicious way to protest – on the very farms the Boston hedge fund and its puppets are seeking to destroy.

 

 

 

Food Day Canada is Coming!

11 Jul

 

Food Day Canada starts here

 

Get Ready for a National Party!

On July 30th, Food Day Canada will follow the sun! It all starts at 5:37 am with a sunrise breakfast on Signal Hill – the chefs of St. John’s are so creative!  Then the day flows across Canada, celebrating all the way, before toasting the sunset on a Vancouver Island beach.

Here is where you need to go:  http://www.foodday.ca.

Food Day Canada is the largest locavore event in Canadian history. Period!
It’s free form! Chefs and home cooks are urged to celebrate in their own style. It will be a fabulous upscale menu from a restaurant like Les Fougeres in Chelsea QC, an energetic. student/chef collaboration at Benchmark in Niagara and a casual take out from a veteran fast food outlet like Ossie’s Lunch in St. Andrews, NB.
But it can also be a barbecue beside a lake, a picnic in one of our National Parks or a family reunion feast.

In all it’s incarnations, Food Day Canada is about our great northern bounty and it’s about us.

Check out the web site for the following details

The full list of restaurants involved – a list that is being added to constantly.

A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Food Day Canada 2011 for EVERYONE in the nation!

 

The Food Day Canada Awards

The 2011 roster of awards is growing and represents the diversity of Canadian agricultural production.

Best Brunch in Canada: Awards will be presented for three (3) menus that include imaginative dishes using fresh shell eggs and show off the talents of both the chef/cook and the farmers who supply Canadians with the best food on the planet.  There are some serious bragging rights with this award but The Egg Farmers of Canada are also offering the first-place winner the opportunity to visit and tour a working egg farm.

The Healthy People, Healthy Planet Award will be given to three (3) chefs across Canada who create innovative pulse-based menus showcasing one of Canada’s most important crops, pulses.  Canadian pulses include beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas. This award is presented in partnership with Pulse Canada.

Prizes include a Blackberry Playbook.

Check the web site for details about other awards, including the Wildest Menu Award presented in partnership with Beef Information; The Parks Canada Heritage Menu Award; The University of Guelph Good Food Innovation Award; the Canadian Tourism Commission’s Award for Culinary Journalism  and the Taste of Nova Scotia Lobster Award.

More Awards! More Judges!

The Food Day Canada 2011 Judges’ Panel has expanded. There are great chefs, great food communicators and great academics who will oversee the distribution of the Food Day Canada Awards. Several  are returning from last year (James Chatto, Chef Michael Smith, Dr. Sinclair Philip) and several are new (Chef Judson Simpson of the House of Commons and Board Chair of the CCFCC, veteran food writer Elizabeth Baird; and educators Chef Michael Allemeier, Alison Bell, Dr. Rene Van Acker and Dr. Tanya MacLaurin).

Spread the word!  Tell your friends!  Get involved!
Thanks for reading!

 

The Pineapple Brigade

08 Jul

There is an eel in Boris Vian’s deliciously surreal novel, L’Ecume des Jours, who emerges from the cold-water tap above the bathroom washbasin to suck pineapple-flavoured toothpaste from the tube. The cook, Nicholas, puts an end to this dastardly crime spree by substituting a real pineapple for the toothpaste. “When it was only the tube it would suck out the toothpaste, swallow it, and then pop its head straight back. But with the pineapple, it wouldn’t work. The harder it pulled, the farther its teeth sunk in… Nicholas came in at that very moment and sliced off its head with a razor blade. Then he swiftly turned on the tap and out came the rest.”

I can understand the eel’s affection for pineapple. I’m very partial to it myself. Though I accept that I am never going to experience the full pineappular monty while I live in Toronto. Friends who have spent time in the tropics tell me that the sweetness and tangy flavour of a fresh, fully ripe pineapple, harvested moments before it reaches the plate, is a world above the taste of the fruit we are used to finding in more temperate climes. So much so that they refuse to be bothered with the pineapples we get here.

They have my sympathies, of course. And it’s true pineapples have to be picked not-quite-ripe in order to make it to the Canadian market. Nor will they continue to ripen and sweeten once picked. Still, the pineapples sold in Kensington Market seem pretty delicious to me – “the princesse of fruits,” as Sir Walter Raleigh described it. I like its shape too, its satisfying weight, and the punk fireworks display of green leaves at the crown. For centuries after Columbus brought the first pineapple back to Europe in 1493, wealthy people encouraged their gardeners to grow pineapples in the greenhouses on their estates. When Charles II’s gardener, John Rose, succeeded in doing so he presented it with great dignity to the king, a moment immortalized by the painter Hendrick Danckerts in 1675 (see above). After that, everybody wanted one. A pineapple centrepiece on the dinner table became an emblem of hospitality throughout much of Europe and subsequently in colonial America.

It is those connotations of welcome and good cheer that suggested the pineapple as an appropriate emblem to Charles Grieco, Chair and President of the Ontario Hostelry Institute, as he pondered ways to honour a very select group of movers and shakers from Ontario’s hospitality industry. He has recently created an organisation he calls The Pineapple Brigade – although it’s really more of an order than an organisation. At a delightful dinner at The Chef’s House at George Brown College, three new brigadiers were inducted – chefs Jamie Kennedy, C.F., and Donna Dooher B.A.B. (Hon), and Michael Beckley, FIH, B.A.B. (Hon) who is the senior Vice President Lodging Development of Marriott Hotels of Canada. Each one received a framed pineapple (a genuinely curious curiosity) and the applause of all.

 Charles Grieco explained the Brigade to me later: “As the pineapple is the universal symbol of hospitality, it was my thinking to bring together those men and women who are special proponents of this historic art and to honour them as members  of the Pineapple Brigade. While these men and women have been honoured by the industry, the Brigade represents the honours received through our academic institutions, e.g. honourary degrees, and by virtue of this country’s highest civilian honour, as in the case of Jamie. It is my hope that the ‘brigadiers’ will act as mentors for and incubators of the art of hospitality in its truest sense.”

It was an excellent evening centred around a fine banquet of fennel soup with crème fraîche and smoked trout followed by prime rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding and maple-glazed vegetables and finished with grilled golden pineapple, cardamom ice cream and a raisin-and-rum caramel sauce. Cave Spring Cellars supplied the accompanying wines – appropriately enough for there have been rare occasions when I have fancied I caught the fleeting illusion of pineapple in Cave Spring’s Indian Summer Late Harvest Riesling. But there are so many harmonious aromas and flavours in that delicious vino that I may have been mistaken. I’m sure it would be a very good match with eel in pineapple sauce.

Jamie Kennedy about to join the Pineapple Brigade

 

The Guilt of Promises Unfulfilled

05 Jul

People send me books to write about on my blog. I only review them if I like them. But to know whether I like them or not I must, per necesse, read them. There is a lofty Matterhorn of books on my desk, an alp as yet unscaled. “Fills me with guilt,” as Mr. Bingley once remarked about the library at Netherfield. So let me lift the peak, the summit, off the mountain and open it…

Riesling Cooks  is published by Cave Spring Cellars, in celebration of the winery’s 25th anniversary. The subtitle is “25 Riesling recipes from 25 of North America’s hottest chefs.” I think we can assume they mean most popular chefs rather than most intemperate or closest to combustion. And glancing down the list I see that almost every chef has contributed only one recipe, not 25. The exception, appropriately enough, is Chef Kevin Maniaci of On the Twenty, Cave Spring’s own restaurant, who provides a complete three-course menu of simple but delicious-sounding dishes. The list of other contributors is impressive indeed. Susur and Keith and Jamie. The Michaels Bonacini, Stadtländer, Olson, Moffatt and Weiss (that’s Professor Michael Weiss of the Culinary Institute of America who shares his recipe for a Savoury Potato Krugel). Mark McEwan and also Marco Canora of Hearth in New York City, one of the great embassies of Niagara Riesling in the U.S., thanks to the passion of Canadian General Manager, Paul Grieco. Neil Baxter, Anne Yarymowich and Jonathan Gushue. Donna Dooher, Anna Olson and Lora Kirk. Niagara’s finest, including Erik Peacock of Wellington Court, Ryan Crawford of Stone Road Grille, Tony de Luca and Robin Little.  Rodrigo De Romana of Rodney’s Oyster House, doing salmon not oysters, Kevin McKenna of Globe Bistro and Earth, Peter George and Roberto Fracchioni…

It is a constellation of culinary stars, each one offering a scrumptious and doable dish designed to pair beautifully with one or other of Cave Spring’s array of Rieslings. As luck would have it, I have eaten one of the dishes in the book, the delectable Catfish Tacos shared by Ottawa-based chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining and Wine and of Play, where I hoovered the aforementioned, one long-ago lunchtime. The picture above is of those very tacos, here riding the range with a humble but marvelous sidekick of “shaved Brussels sprouts.” Why point out that they have shaved? I wondered that, too. Are the macho tacos so obviously stubbly that some explanation is needed for the smooth green chins of the diminutive brassicae? It’s probably something to do with the well-known fact that catfish have whiskers.

Everyone knows Riesling is the best grape for food-pairing. And this book has one advantage that none of the other, much larger tomes on my desk can boast. It’s free. Dash immediately to your computer and type http://cavespring.ca/cookbook to order a copy. Quantities are limited. Life is short. Riesling is good.

 
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La Vida Loco

01 Jul

Well, well, now lookee here… If it ain’t Canada Day… And an immaculate day it is in the old home town. The faint breeze can’t compete with the Phoebean heat of July. I always wanted to live in a lighthouse and my third-floor deck provides a reasonable approximation. The birdsong almost drowns out the sounds of the students four houses down the street. They too are enjoying the day by cranking up some particularly insistent Latin salsa on their sound system. They were playing touch football in the street last night at 4:30 a.m., too drunk to throw or catch with any accuracy, screaming with glee. A lesson in tolerance for the rest of us.

And I have not been blameless vis-à-vis nightly noises of late. Last week, at dusk, my wife and I were startled from our game of Scrabble by an extraordinary sound – a sort of groaning creak that reverberated through the house. Assuming it was the long-anticipated Zombie Armageddon I ran upstairs to get my sword, but there were no grizzly, rotting faces at the window, no pustulating gangrenous hands clawing through the letterbox. Out at the end of our garden, an aged linden tree, taller than our house, had split in two and half of it had fallen to block the laneway, a wall of foliage twenty feet high. Neighbours gathered. Clinging to the now-horizontal trunk, high above our heads, were four very small racoons with their mother, no doubt even more confused than we were. Presumably their combined weight had broken the tree since there wasn’t a breath of wind that evening.

We called the City who told us the tree was on private property so none of their business. We called the insurance company who explained they were in no way liable. We called Bell and Rogers since it was only their cable that was preventing the great weight of wood from crashing to the ground: they told us to call the City. We called Hydro because the fall had severed the power line between the street lamps in the laneway and the sparking, twitching cable was now, I suppose, dangerous. They came and took down the line but would not touch the tree. By now the police and the fire brigade had also appeared. Our laneway is a culdesac and the people who live farther along it would not be able to get to work next morning unless something was done. They suggested we look in the yellow pages for a private arborist company – so we did – only to be told that the fallen half of the tree was on City property so they couldn’t touch it. We stood around for a while.

Then we called the City again and this time a different woman answered and eventually agreed to send an emergency team. By the time they arrived it was one o’clock in the morning. The neighbours and the racoons had disappeared. There was no sound but the rustle of the night breeze in the linden leaves.

At two o’clock, the chain saws powered up and went about their work until dawn, egged on by the jet-engine din of the shredder that pulverised the brush and foliage. The heroes removed the final obstruction from the laneway – their last cut precisely on my property line – leaving a massive limb hanging over my next-door neighbour’s car port like a zombie’s severed thigh – then went off to see if Timmy’s was open yet, thirsty for a well-earned double-double.

Slowly the sun rose. And with it a miracle occurred. In my garden of perpetual shade, my valley of the hostas, my dank, benighted forest floor of a backyard, lowered over by Norway maples and lindens and a malevolent ornamental pear tree, fell a golden beam of sunshine. With each minute it grew, probing the beds and pathways like a searchlight. My wan and stunted shade plants stirred uncertainly, disbelieving. Then the full sun climbed at last above my neighbour’s roof and the garden was flooded with light. Tentatively at first but with ever-growing vigour, the hostas and the trillium, the ferns and ivies, the foetid moss and the nodding monk’s hood began to sing… “O welche Lust… O welche Lust… In freier Luft den Atem leicht zu heben!”

And so it has continued. A new lease of life for my sad prisoners’ chorus of perennial gloom. Right now, if I look down from my high deck, and they don’t notice me, I can see them jiving and jitterbugging and whooping it up to the music from the students-four-doors-down. They no longer whisper in German, my plants. They’re sun-tanned Latinos now. Hosta la vista, baby!