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Archive for December, 2011

A quiet night out

31 Dec

 

Cold days in the Ionian

 

New Year’s Eve, and there are yellow flowers in the thick wet grass of my garden in Corfu, and snow on the mountains of Albania. The island is extraordinarily quiet this season – as I discovered last night. My koubaros Philip, who owns the bar in our village, and I went out for dinner at nine o’clock, intending to eat whitebait and mussels at The Pumphouse, a venerable and favourite haunt in the town of Akharavi, down on the coast. Or we would go to another place, five miles westward in Karoussades, a grill room where they make the best rolo on the island. Rolo is pork belly stuffed with onion, garlic, masses of herbs, salt, sweet paprika and sometimes feta cheese. You roll it up, bind it with wire and spit-roast it slowly over a charcoal grill. I hadn’t eaten anything but a bowl of soup all day and was thoroughly looking forward to it.

            Well, The Pumphouse was closed, much to Philip’s surprise – and mine, since this was the Friday night before New Year’s, at the height of the holiday season. Nothing daunted, we pushed on for Karoussades and the famous rolo. Zounds! That place was closed, too.

            “Okay,” said Philip. “We can go to a really interesting place back in Roda where they always cook traditional but unusual dishes.” Sounded good and we drove on into the increasing rain, passing an occasional car. Philip turned off the main road into Roda and then started to swear under his breath. The empty restaurant’s windows were dark, the chairs stacked inside.

            “You know, we could go back to my house and I’ll cook spaghetti,” suggested Philip, but we were both looking forward to the conviviality of a busy restaurant. He suggested a more casual grill room back in Akharavi that was always open. It too was closed. By now we were laughing and also sighing. It’s the economy here in Greece that is to blame, keeping people at home, even on festive nights like this one. We ended up at another town called Kassiopi, miles to the east, where one of Philip’s friends has a good, honest taverna. It too was locked and silent. Indeed, the only place open on the entire northern coast was a take-out, neon-lit burger bar by the bus stop in Kassiopi and the only customers were adolescent youths who would presumably rather be anywhere on earth than at home with their parents at half past ten at night.

            We sat down at one of the two or three tables. Five minutes later, we stood up and placed our own order at the counter – souvlaki and a salad, twice, and a half-bottle of retsina to share. The mood of frugality is contagious. The souvlaki were surprisingly good and the salad was fresh and crisp, a jumble of cucumber, tomato, olives and feta. We were soon putting the world to rights. Philip’s view of the current state of this country is that anything would be better than years of fiscal oppression. He has always described himself as an anarchist, an advocate of chaos and revolution as catalysts for change and rebirth. Then the conversation turned to a debate about the merits of pressing green, unripe olives for oil (my position) rather than ripe black ones (his). Despite the bitter recession, it is only the old who still farm olives seriously on this island, the price of oil is at rock bottom. The young have been cutting down the trees and selling the wood. Lorryloads of it leave on the ferry for Italy every day.

            “The trees will grow again,” said Philip. Will the economy?

 

Christmas in London

27 Dec

Lodovico - bravissimo

This is Lodovico, a most self-possessed and well-behaved infant. He and I sat across from each other for Christmas lunch at the Savoy and I can only say that in terms of la gourmandise, he left me in the dust. The empty dish before him was his second bowl of polenta. Before that he had enjoyed some of Gordon Ramsay’s “pumpkin soup” (spread across a side-plate to cool by his father, who is a chef and owns a super restaurant in the Abruzzo). Lodovico and I were both guests at a wonderful party for 27 hosted by very dear friends of my mother in a private salon called the D’Oyly Carte room, just on the left of the American Bar. It is an annex of the Savoy Grill downstairs, a restaurant now in G Ramsay’s portfolio, and was the perfect location for the festive gathering. Somehow the kitch art-deco horror vacui of the newly redecorated Savoy has not reached this charming chamber, which was once a most discreet little bar where the theatre producer Michael Codron used to host famous lunches when I was a nipper. I was never privy to those glamorous occasions but my mother remembers them well.

I had been looking forward to the Ramsay version of the Christmas feast and much of it was lovely – the turkey itself, to be sure, and the awesome roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts with bacon – and the pigs in blankets (chipolatas wrapped in bacon and roasted) once they had been sent back to the oven to achieve a crisping and a tan. But the great man nodded where the Christmas pudding was concerned – pale, bland mounds, gummy with flour, that tasted as though they had been rustled up that morning, not last year, and came with a sort of brandy butter aïoli that was a very far cry from the echt hard sauce which was always my brother’s speciality. We began with a studied collation of smoked fish – salmon, mackerel and sturgeon with a horseradish mousse, buckwheat blinis and devilled quail’s eggs. My mother can’t eat oysters so she asked the waiter to make sure there were none on the plate. Alas, he misunderstood and set down six perfect Colchester beauties before her instead of the fish. As soon as he was gone we swapped our plates so everyone ended up happy. Very happy, to be sure, for the company and the conversation was stellar and the wines magnificent – Domaine Didier Morion Vent d’Anges 2008 Condrieu with the fish and Hudelot Noellat Chambolle Musigny 2004 with the bird.

For me, it was a flying visit to Lunnun Tarn but there were other culinary highlights. The city looked pristine, though it seemed oddly quiet on my late-night perambulations, walking through the echoing labyrinth of Chelsea streets I grew up in, now empty and guarded and somewhat foreign, though marinated in my own nostalgia. England’s economic austerity can be felt. I hope it will prove to be the carfeully controlled deep breath before the glorious plunge into the Olympics this coming summer.

Meanwhile my mother roasted pheasants for our first supper (living in Canada, I crave game that has been properly hung in the feather) and then we turned the carcases into a spectacular soup. I found some dressed Essex crabs no bigger than the saucer of an espresso cup and ate far too many of them. There was a very memorable Vacherin at its unctuous Yuletide best – and my mum taught me her recipe for Welsh cakes. Dear friends of my youth, neglected this time around, I shall have you all over for tea when I come back in the spring and we shall see how well I have learned the technique.

And then it was Victoria Station at six o’clock in the morning, the hell of Gatwick and Easyjet to Athens and Olympic to Kerkyra… And here I am tonight in room 52 of the Cavalieri hotel in Corfu Town, the esplanade warm and dry under a new moon, the streets bright with Christmas lights and thronged with merry-makers – but more of that anon.

 

 

 

Beard on a Wire

23 Dec

   I saw him fifty years ago, through the window of my father’s car, with the dirty London rain pouring down upon the crowds along the Charing Cross Road. I remember the soporific rhythm of the windshield wipers, the soft leather seats that smelt faintly of tobacco, and my father’s handsome, impassive profile, as he sat silently beside me, thinking his own thoughts.

   The evening traffic was particularly heavy. We would crawl along for a hundred yards and then stop, while people with umbrellas and Christmas shopping swayed around the car, their faces distorted by the film of water on my window. But Santa Claus had no umbrella. He was standing on the corner outside Foyle’s bookshop, dishevelled and sagging, held up by two policemen. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead and he had lost his beard; one half of his face was smeared with mud. His head was lolling and his mouth was twisted into an idiotic grin.

   My breath fogged the window and I quickly wiped it away with my hand. Perhaps he thought I was waving, for he suddenly looked up and stared at me with exhausted eyes. The grin began to fade away. His arms were pinned too tightly in the policemen’s grip, but I saw his right hand stiffen towards the car and move from side to side.

   To this day I do not know what to make of that small gesture. It seemed to say don’t worry – pay no attention to all this. It might have been a dismissal, or a benediction.

   Then the traffic edged us on and I lost sight of him. It was a while before I realised that my father had seen him too.

   “Just a drunk in a red ulster,” he murmured as we turned onto Oxford Street.

 
 

Four pre-Christmas treats and one post-

19 Dec

Liquored salmon belly at Starfish Oyster Bed: is Patrick McMurray a genius or what?

STARFISH liquored salmon belly. My wife chose Starfish for her birthday dinner over the weekend and the ever-hospitable owner and oyster-genius Patrick McMurray surprised us with his latest invention – liquored salmon belly. He was thinking about the salmon he gets – organic Irish salmon of the highest calibre – and what to do with it… Cure it? But how? With some kind of brine… And what is the purest brine – and always available at Starfish? The ocean water trapped inside the shell of each living oyster. He had some gorgeous Welsh oysters from Anglesey to hand – grown in almost the same water in which that Irish salmon swam when it was pink and carefree in the glory of its youth. Salmo salar! The leaper! The selfsame fish whose avatar once dwelt in a secluded pool on Ireland’s River Boyne, nourished by the hazelnuts of knowledge as they plopped into the water from the tree of wisdom until that salmon was the wisest of all creatures. Alas, not smart enough to elude Patrick McMurray. He opens the deep shell of a Welsh Menai Straits oyster, removes the oyster without losing the brine and lies two slices of the fish’s fatty belly into the viscous, salt-thickened water caught in the empty shell. He poses it on a coupe of crushed ice and sets the oyster itself beside it, still alive but beached on the other flatter half of its shell. The brine starts to cure the salmon – even a moment or two is enough to begin to turn that coral-coloured flesh pale and opaque. It tastes amazing! The soft, buttery salmon belly with that hit of ocean salt… The oyster fat and creamy with a cucumber, minerally finish… A very good reason to go to Starfish asap.

Interesting trivia fact: almost all British oystermen now have a bed or two dedicated to Pacific species! Why? Because their season lasts all year long. Indigenous British flats have distinct seasons and are periodically unavailable.

 

SOMA chocolatemaker Green Tangerine 66%. Proprietor-chocolatier David Castelan has an unerring sense of what constitutes the most delectable chocolate in the world. With this slender bar he blends sharp, fruity Madagascar Trinitario and Criollo beans, rendering a chocolate of 66% cacao content and flavouring it with essence of green tangerine. The chocolate is intense and fruitily acidic to begin with – but not as bitter as it would have been at, say, 70%. The green tangerine aroma/flavour is perfectly pitched – a citrus fruit that is more interesting than lemon or orange or grapefruit but less floral than yuzu or kumquat – the ideal chocolate corollary. I tried to make my dainty little 80-gram slab last until nightfall. Yeah right…

 

ALIMENTO is the new Italian gourmet emporium at 522 King Street West that took forever to open but is now up and running. Judging by the empty aisles and the empty chairs in the attractive mozzarella bar, it is still a well-kept secret but we went down and checked it out last weekend. There’s a charming décor of old wooden floors and extravagant displays of imported (and a few local) Italian treats. Great strengths: the salumi bar featuring dozens of fab Italian and Canadian meats, plus real Spanish Iberico ham at a very reasonable price. An impressive cheese selection. A predictably strong wall of Italian olive oils. Decent canned items, antipasti and pastries. Lots more… We ended up going home and cooking up a lunch from what we bought, built around a spectacularly good dried angel-hair egg noodle, Spinosini 2000. It cooks in two minutes and has a gorgeous grainy flavour. Our sauce was simplicity itself – sliced cremini mushrooms sautéed with finely chopped shallot, dried porcini reconstituted in chicken stock, pepper, plenty of cream and a tablespoonful of President’s Choice black truffle aioli. This last is a product that had been sitting in my fridge for a while, waiting to learn what its fate might be. I wasn’t sure whether it would have that rank, locker-room aroma that some truffle-flavoured products lend to a dish so I had hesitated to use it. As things turned out, it was surprisingly subtle, pleasing and just the ticket for our mushroom sauce – the sort of thing that disappears texturally in a sauce or dressing but leaves a ripe and poignant memory of truffle in the air.

 

ACE Christmas berry jam and fig bread. ACE bakery always does something special for the holidays. The berry jam is divine – like a rumtopf turned into jam with whole cranberries popping in a runny, spiced-up red-berry matrix. The fig bread is a tasty brown loaf with a good crunchy crust and great big dried figs in it. Slice it and toast it and your kitchen will smell like Christmas. The jam is great on the toasted bread – but so is a creamy blue cheese like Cambazola, spread quickly while the toast is still hot so that the cheese starts to soften and think about melting. Be merciful – scrunch – and put it out of its misery.

 

TOMMASI makes a single-vineyard Amarone Classico called Il Sestante (“The Sextant”) and it’s coming to Ontario in January, on the General List at around $39.95. It’s a beauty – old style amarone, which Tommasi does so well – complex and intense that will be perfectly delicious with a knob of parmiggiano reggiano or a well-hung grouse roasted and served with its own juices on toast or a firm slab of polenta. I was lucky enough to taste a preview bottle and I’m still smiling. It’s full of the sense of cold autumnal larch forests in the Italian pre-Alps, of liquorice and dark spicy honey, smoky firesides and cherries that have been spiced and preserved for months. The finish is all about dried figs and raisined grapes – sweet but dry, if you know what I mean – like a great amarone can be. Worth waiting for.

 

The uses of icewine

17 Dec

Sue-Ann Staff unexpectedly attacked by a wine barrel

To Sopra for a lunchtime tasting of 18 icewines and a sort of live seminar of food-and-icewine matching organized by the Wine Council of Ontario for “Wine Country Ontario.” It turned out to be a fascinating few hours for the food-writing brigade and for the wine-writing fleet, who rarely get invited to the same event. Being neither fish nor fowl myself (I’ve always preferred to forage in the tidal areas where food and drink overlap) I know both groups. It was heartening to see how well they all got along, thanks, perhaps, to the charm and engagingly easy manner of our two hosts, Sue-Ann Staff, winemaker and proprietor of Sue-Ann Staff Estate Winery, who introduced the wines, and Jason Parsons, chef of Peller Estates. It was Parsons who determined the format of the tasting – taste nine icewines to demonstrate the range of the style, then nine more with accompanying food – some savoury dishes, some spicy, some sweet. The intention, of course, was to demonstrate that icewine had more versatility as a food wine than is generally thought to be the case. The experiment was a success.

            As chef of a winery, Parsons gets to play with icewine in the kitchen to his heart’s content. For January’s Icewine Festival, for example, he will marinate a whole sucking pig in icewine for two days before roasting it off. He also, famously and delectably, poaches lobster in icewine. Despite the fact that icewine is so very sweet (at least 35 brix – in other words, more than one third of the liquid is pure sugar (imagine that ratio in your cup of coffee)), this leaves neither meat inordinately sweet. Rather it brings out the natural sweetness of the pork or lobster. The very high acidity in icewine that balances all that concentrated sugar  has much more of an effect in the kitchen. Parsons even uses it to cure ceviche.

            It’s also the key in the dining room – as was demonstrated by the first confrontation. Sopra’s chef Massimo Capra had devised the menu but it was executed brilliantly for us by chef de cuisine Derek Von Raesfeld. Not every wine and food pairing was spectacular but there were more than enough bullseyes to allow the project to make its point. Here are the matches that impressed me most.

            A rich, smooth chicken liver paté coated in butter and strewn with grains of salt, served with a clove-scented, very sweet onion marmalade, was overpowered by two Riesling icewines (made me long for a Select Late Harvest) but was great with 2008 Harbor Estates Cabernet Franc Icewine. Why? The red icewine lacked the intensely tangy citrus kick of the Rieslings, offering red berry aromas instead and an illusion of lower acidity.

            Those two Riesling icewines worked much better with crumbled Bleu Elizabeth blue cheese served in a bitter endive leaf with dried cranberries. The sweetness of the wine and the intense saltiness of the cheese mute each other slightly, letting the wine’s fruit and the cheese’s more subtle flavours stand out. Like port and Stilton.

The spicy trio: (from left) duck confit with curried squash puree; seared scallop with chili butter honey glaze, chestnuts and carrot puree; slow-cooked Iberico pork cheek

            Icewine has a lovely ability to counterbalance intense spicing. Chef Parsons found this out by accident once when his kitchen accidentally over-spiced a piece of venison then sent it out into the dining room where he was introducing the match. The meat was too spicy to enjoy on its own, but paired with icewine, it worked beautifully.

So our next flight was of three spicy dishes with three different icewines. The epiphany was a duck confit with mostarda, curried squash purée, baby green cabbage leaves and caramelized roasted onions. All three icewines were delicious with it, each one muting what would otherwise have been an over-seasoned dish, but angels sang when I tasted the duck alongside Reif Estates Winery 2005 Vidal icewine. It reached right into my palate and dismantled the spicing in an extraordinary way, as if it were shining a bright yellow light on the recipe putting each flavour into sharp relief. But the same wine was too sweet and thick for another of the three savoury treats – a slow-braised Iberico pork cheek with chili-apple braised radish and spiced apple-celery salad. This time it was another red icewine, Hillebrand Showcase 2008 Cabernet Franc icewine, that lifted the spices away from the rich sweetness of the meat and spread them like a hand of cards.

The trio of desserts

            Throughout these experiments, the sweetness of the icewines was not an issue at all. The spicy seasoning or the saltiness of the food balanced the sugar out of the equation leaving the field to the acidity and the array of fresh fruit flavours that an icewine wears so beautifully.

            Three desserts had their own tales to tell. German apple cake with salted icewine caramel was overwhelmed by a young Riesling icewine, okay with a simpler Vidal icewine but absolutely lovely with an old icewine that had lost some of its sweetness and mellowed with age, the 1999 Mountain Road Company Vidal Icewine.

            Best match of this end of the meal was a pear poached in icewine and served with lots of dulce de leche and whipped vanilla mascarpone. This time the balance was absolutely perfect with the Peller Estates 2010 Vidal Icewine. I suspect that was the very wine in which the pear had been poached.

            In sum, everyone around the table agreed that our eyes had been opened to new uses for icewine beyond dessert. With blue cheese, certainly; with spicy duck; with richly braised and glazed meats. I’m tempted to open an icewine and try it with barbecued ribs or very hot buffalo wings. Could be interesting.

            Thanks to the Wine Council of Ontario for organizing the event and for the lovely parting gift – a white icewine aroma kit made by Wine Awakenings that contains samples of the 12 aromas most commonly found in white icewine, from passion fruit to raisins and caramel to kerosene. So interesting – and a good way to sharpen olfactory acuity. They will be on sale at Niagara wineries during the January Icewine Festival.

 
 

The County General

14 Dec

Awesome fried chicken two ways with an array of garnishes

As Scrabble games go, it was an embarrassing blow-out – a Leafs versus Bruins game with my wife as Boston, creaming me by well over 200 points. It was over so quickly we found ourselves drained (emotionally and linguistically) by 5:00 p.m. – and hungry, too, since we ran out of those spicy, anchovy-spiked cheese straws from The Harbord Bakery (best cheese straws in the city) just about the time Wendy put down “parvenus,” her fourth seven-letter word. So we went out to dinner, early enough to find two seats at the bar of The County General, the casual new place opened by Splendido’s owners, chef Victor Barry and manager Carlo Catallo. Neither of them were there (I suppose they were at Splendido) but we were beautifully looked after by the two women behind the bar – smart, friendly service really stands out sometimes. I didn’t realize that one of them is Aja Sax, whose cocktails I have read about but have yet to try. Last night we were in more of a white wine mood and found a lovely Fielding Estates Viognier on the small but proudly all-Niagara wine list. Aja also does the music, apparently, which was right up my boomer-box tin pan alley – drifting along through Leonard Cohen to U2, Chris Isaak, the Stones, Derek and the Dominoes… and all at a reasonable and highly civilized level.

            The County General is small – just 14 seats plus another 10 at the bar – but it’s nicely put together. The decorative theme involves a large number of 2-by-1 planks, lining the walls, creating a dropped ceiling and forming the bartop. They play on this barn-like feel with occasional sculptures of chicken – which makes perfect sense when you see how often chicken appears on chef Garth Legree’s short menu. He is working with a fairly narrow palette of flavours – sort of Thai meets American barbecue – but the results are absolutely delightful.

winging it

            We started with a hearty soup full of chunks of tender, pale-as-pork ham, white beans and hunky croutons of Marc Thuet bread. The thickish broth was tangy with mustard and lemon juice, thyme and rosemary – just the way to start a winter evening. I had the daily special of wings which were easily the best wings I’ve ever had (okay I’ve only ordered wings three times in my life, but these were the best). Legree cooks them sous-vide then flash-fries them so they’re unbreaded, relatively lightweight and glazed with a sticky and delectable bbbq sauce that avoids over-sweetness and gains depth from a hint of espresso coffee. The wings are strewn with sliced up raw red chilies and a mass of fresh cilantro. Three condiments are presented separately – a creamy, smooth blue cheese dressing, a herbed mayo, and a fresh, tangy apple slaw. Being almost a virgin where wings are concerned I don’t know the protocol of these extra sauces. They were too good to waste, but I was enjoying the wings’ own flavours so much I didn’t want to mask them. In the end, I used the bones as dippers and had the best of both worlds.

            Another star dish is the trio of miniature steamed buns each of which contains a small quivering block of lightly smoked pork belly. Again changes are rung by a variety of condiments. In one bun it’s a crunchy, not-too-garlicky kim chi; in another, that green apple slaw; in a third, a dollop of oniony avocado chutney with a mittful of fresh cilantro. A runny green chili sauce is delivered in a miniature squeeze bottle.

            The main event of our dinner, however, was the fried chicken – a dish intended for two. Served on a wooden board, two substantial chicken breasts have been cooked sous vide and then differently treated – like twin sisters who have grown up in different parts of the world. One has a tamari glaze of great complexity – spicy-sweet and altogether delicious. The other has had a brush with a spice rub featuring allspice and chili and has then been battered and fried. It’s pretty well perfect fried chicken, juicy and flavourful, and ends up being the one we mess with, wrapping thick slices up in lettuce leaves with various combinations of the accompanying garnishes. You can see them in the opicture in their teeny metal bowls – cilantro, green onion, radish, pickled red onion, kim chi, grated fresh ginger, Thai chilies, avocado chutney with plenty of kaffir lime, bbq sauce, a squeeze bottle of red chili sauce. Awesome.

            Other treats? Great frites, triple-fried to make them soft on the inside, crunchy on the outside, with a ramekin of smokey, house-made ketchup. A slice of classic apple pie dusted with cinnamon. A flight of 4 top rums, part of a fulsome and very sophisticated program of brown spirits (mostly rums and bourbons) that Aja Sax has put together. It all costs far less than  it could. The only drawback is that you have to get there pretty early or pretty late if you want to find a table. Me, I’d rather sit at the bar.

            The County General is at 936 Queen Street West (on the corner of Shaw). 416 531 4447.

 

BOM BOM bom bom bo bo bi bi

07 Dec

Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.

There is a sound within the walls of this old house. My wife and I have heard it for the better part of a year – longer perhaps. How to describe it…? I imagine a schoolboy, bored and weary, kept in for detention, alone in the classroom. He is slumped across his desk, his head on one outstretched arm. In his right hand is a small, hard rubber superball. He holds it two inches above the wooden desk then lets it fall. BOM BOM bom bom bo bo bi bi… As its bounces quicken, they lessen in volume. He gathers up the ball, waits a moment then repeats the movement exactly. Over and over again, finding some solace for his boredom in the perfect repetition. That is the sound we hear in our wall: only it is deeper by many octaves than a ball on a wooden desk.

The sound is often with us. We hear it only in two rooms – the bedroom and the bathroom, both built out from the rear of the house, unconnected to the neighbour’s property. We hear it when the wind blows and when the air is perfectly still. When it rains and when it doesn’t rain. By day or by night. Whether or not the furnace and the water heater are working. There is nothing to bang against the outside wall of the house. The sound does not reach the ground floor or the basement. Sometimes in the night it is loud enough to wake us. At other times, when I’m shaving, for instance, it is barely audible. Often it disappears for days on end.

This house is full of strange noises – the creaks and croaks and sudden reports of the hardwood floor, unexplained clicks and gurgles in the kitchen that can only be something to do with the fridge. But the sound in the wall is different. BOM BOM bom bom bo bo bi bi… Armitage – if you are reading this – and I know you are – pray keep your fevered, psychotic hypotheses to yourself. Anyone else, if you can shed some light onto this strange occurrence, we would be more than grateful.