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Archive for February, 2012

The Admiral Codrington

23 Feb

Three cheers for the Admiral

Admiral Sir Edward Codrington GBC RN (1770-1851) was not one of Nelson’s original Band of Brothers – the captains who fought under him at the Battle of the Nile – but he certainly belongs in the broader Band. He commanded HMS Orion heroically at the Battle of Trafalgar, went on to become Captain of the Fleet, fighting the Americans, during the War of 1812 and later defeated the combined Turkish and Egyptian fleets at the Battle of Navarino. So it’s no wonder that there should be a London pub named after him – the Admiral Codrington on Mossop Street, a quiet backwater around the corner from the posh Chelsea neighbourhood of Sloane Avenue and Draycott Place, home to Daphne’s and Bibendum and other renowned and ludicrously expensive eateries.

            Many a London pub has closed its doors in recent years; others have struggled to reinvent themselves as restaurants. “The Cod” does so with distinction, retaining the proper ambience of a pub in the bar while adding on a long dining room at the back, decorated in a cheerful but dated 1990s style and featuring (who knows why?) a retractable glass roof. The roof was closed recently when I had dinner there with my daughter and her fiancée and we sat in a comfortable green velvet booth and told each other outlandish stories.

            I was impressed with the service and with the food. The menu is eclectic but nothing we ordered was anything less than excellent. I started with tender squid rings that had been deep-fried in a crisp, robust, fish-and-chip-style batter then smothered in finely sliced green chilies and chopped scallions and strewn with coriander and salt. The scrunch of batter and the tongue-tingling hit of chili proved distractingly pleasurable.

The artichoke splayed

            Clams can so often end up like little nubbins of India rubber snipped from the blunt end of a pencil – especially those tiny palourde clams that usually meet their maker as spaghetti vongole. The Cod, however, steams them to a becoming tenderness and piles them in their shells into a bowl of lightweight but intensely flavoured broth featuring flecks of smoked bacon, chopped shallots and fresh, sliced sage. It’s heavenly, slicked up with a final knob of butter and, but for the necessary work of extricating the clams, the whole thing would be gone in a trice.

            I don’t often see a whole globe artichoke on a menu – certainly not in February – but we ordered it and were not disappointed. The picture gives some idea of the attractive presentation – outer leaves pulled off leaving the heart like a conical alien bloom. The kitchen serves it with a thickly emulsified vinaigrette for dipping and a deliciously stiff walnut aioli. And I couldn’t resist seeing how they did a Welsh Rarebit. Pretty good, was my verdict – nicely seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, the melted cheddar rich and bubbling on crusty brown toast though there was too much Dijon in the recipe… Ah, but my WR standards are impossibly high having been set long ago by my Grandmother’s impeccable version.

            Mains took matters to a new level. I had the Cod’s cod – a big fillet of moist white fish that parted into juicy petals at the touch of my fork. The fish had been thrice coated – once with a layer of tomato purée, then with a waistcoat of mushroom duxelles and finally with a green blanket of breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme and grated parmesan that held together under the heat. A most accomplished dish.

            Grilled Dorset lamb cutlets were the cod’s equal – the meat good and lamby with a sweet layer of fat and the proper, slightly chewy texture that speaks of actual grazing in green pastures. A gratin of very thinly sliced swede reminded me how much I love the flavour of that particular root (we call it rutabaga here) while caramelized onions and salty little capers completed the dish.

            Desserts are usually worth waiting for when you eat at a pub – definitely so here. Sticky toffee pudding was almost too sticky, almost too buttery and too thoroughly drowned in toffee – almost. Vanilla panna cotta was as rich and slippery as a Russian billionaire.

            You can find the Admiral Codrington at 17 Mossop Street, London SW3. 020 7581 0005. www.theadmiralcodrington.co.uk.

 

Allen’s Steak Festival 2012

16 Feb

I have always imagined John Maxwell, proprietor of Allen’s, as the most urban of men, a boulevardier very much at his ease in Manhattan, London’s West End or deepest Toronto. Perhaps he might occasionally be found in a wide-open space but only if it were the location of a rally of vintage Jaguar motor cars. How wrong I was. We can see from the photograph he kindly sent me that Mr. Maxwell is just as much at home in a cow pasture, especially when visiting his own herd of Dexter cattle. He acquired them last year, he tells me, and visits them, often, at their home on Wyatt Farm organics, Flamborough Centre, Ont. Dexters are one of Europe’s oldest domesticated breeds and they produce fabulously good steak, lean as venison when finished on grass and hay.

But don’t take my word for it. You can taste Dexter carpaccio, striploin, ribeye and bone-in rib from Maxwell’s own herd as part of the Steak Festival at Allen’s on the Danforth. It runs until February 25, so there is still time to indulge in the most fascinating forensic exploration of steak you will ever encounter. Maxwell assembles meat from animals personally chosen by himself from a number of different farms – many different breeds of cow, the creatures raised and then finished on many different feeds, the meat aged for many different lengths of time. Most are raised in Ontario but there is also an example of Angus from Prince Edward Island’s increasingly popular and delectable beef program, as well as bison from Quebec, USDA Prime Hereford from Nebraska and “Kobe” Wagyu-Angus from Alberta. Comparisons are encouraged.

Alongside this majestic menagerie is a dazzling wine list comprised of rare and old vintages of Ontario VQA wine. Here are bottlings you won’t find anywhere else – Reif’s Tesoro from 1995, the best vintage of the last century, Cave Spring’s superb 2005 La Penna, Hidden Bench’s 2007 La Brunante, Chateau des Charmes Equuleus going back to 2001, even a 2002 Zweigelt Reserve from Pelee Island Winery, a wine I have never tasted.

Anyone who claims to know about steak and wine has a moral obligation to participate in this amazing event. Allen’s is at 143 Danforth Avenue (as if you didn’t already know) and reservations are strongly recommended. 416 463 3086. www.allens.to/.

 

Pachuco

15 Feb

Three sisters, each called Margarita

Oh dear, it has been hard to find really good, authentic Mexican food in Toronto since Chris McDonald closed Zocalo and Desmond Poon retired from Duppy’s Original Diner and then Iguana. Pachuco doesn’t scale those heights but it debuts pretty high in the city’s charts, especially for people who like modmex food – the cooking of modern Mexico rather than the creaky northern and Tex-Mex canon.

Pachuco used to be called Café Madrid, a basement tapas bar owned by the three Fernandez sisters, Jais, Eren and Mali, who are also the proprietors (and front of house, marketer and chef, respectively) of the more conventional Spanish restaurant and dance bar on street level, Embrujo Flamenco. I’m not sure Café Madrid caused very much of a stir but Pachuco is more interesting. The space is tiny (32 seats) and dominated by a bar, behind which Jais mixes some really good cocktails. A sampler of three Margaritas is excellent value at $15 and the distinctiveness of the tart original version, the sweet strawberry and mint, and the yummy mango, chili and lime variations are remarkable. She also makes a long, addictively austere Mojito or there’s a range of imported Mexican soft drinks displayed, including Mexican Coca-Cola, made with cane sugar instead of the high-fructose corn syrup that, in this country, crouches at the heart of The Dark Master. Sit at the bar and you can see the cocktails being made or watch the silent black-and-white Mexican movies from the 1950s featuring real pachucos – small-time hoodlums in zoot suits. Not that you can’t see the screen from anywhere in the little room, seated at a tiny granite table in the dim candlelight.

Service at Pachuco is impressively attentive and knowledgeable. Our waiter was eager to explain the food and how best to order it. We started with a sampler of three of the five variations of guacamole on offer. Flavours were unexpectedly vague in one of them that featured smoked trout, bacon and poblano chili; a second, starring goat cheese, poblano and chewy sundried tomato was better but the best of the bunch was the blue-cheese-walnut-caramelized-shallot recipe – creamy, piquant and perfect with the excellent corn chips. Blue marlin ceviche felt a little like yet another guacamole, deconstructed this time, with slivers of the delicate fish served on a crisp round tortilla with tangy starfruit aioli and more avocado.

Bolobanes with mole sauce

Bolobanes de polo blew the marlin out of the water – a dish that reminded me of Argentinean empanadas – small soft pastry crescents stuffed with chicken and olives and served with the best mole sauce I’ve had in years, full of complex spicing, a nicely judged chili heat and just the barest hint of savoury chocolate amidst the other 25 ingredients.

Taquitos are the main event at Pachuco. Soft, moist, warm corn taquitos arrive in a prettily decorated basket that keeps them in peak condition. The filling is in a separate dish and at least two accompanying salsas make up the quorum of flavours. I ordered the huitlacoche filling – the rather slimy fungus that grows on corn and is known as “corn truffle” or, less attractively, “corn smut.” It has the texture of cooked black trumpet mushrooms and an interesting, slightly pungent corn flavour, and it makes a great filling for the taquitos. Add a trail of one creamy salsa made with requesón (like Mexican cottage cheese) and avocado, and another, much spicier one of smoked chipotle and honey, and you’re good to go, with ot without the black beans that come in a separate bowl in a dark broth with clouds of pressed cheese. Or try a different taquito  filling of beef braised with coffee and ancho… Splendid.

Taquitos with all the fixins

Desserts here look interesting, too. One of them comes in a glass with a layer of cake topped with thick lemon custard, as rich and yummy as a citrus tiramisu.

Pachuco is open Wednesday through Sunday evenings. 99 Danforth Avenue (at Broadview), 647 694 0303. www.pachuco.ca.

 

Canadian Culinary Championships 2012

13 Feb

Marc Lepine (centre) the new Canadian Culinary Champion with Rob Feenie (right) who won silver and Jean-Philippe St-Denis (left) who won bronze. image C Gardiner

Another year, another magnificent competition! Last weekend we gathered in Kelowna B.C. for the sixth Canadian Culinary Championships, bringing the winning chef from each of our nine Gold Medal Plates regional events to compete in three gruelling challenges. As ever, I was joined by the Senior Judges from our GMP cities who formed the judging panel, palates akimbo and glorious in their impartiality. I will name them first, proceeding from east to west: Karl Wells from St. John’s, Robert Beauchemin from Montreal, Anne DesBrisay from Ottawa, Sasha Chapman from Toronto, Jeff Gill from Winnipeg, CJ Katz from Saskatchewan, Mary Bailey from Edmonton, John Gilchrist from Calgary, Perry Bentley from Kelowna, Sid Cross from Vancouver and our culinary referee, Vancouver’s Andrew Morrison.

We began on Thursday night with a reception party at Quail’s Gate winery, gorging on B.C. oysters and chanterelle risotto, before the chefs and their sous chefs were introduced, together with the enthusiastic local students from Okanagan College’s culinary arts program who were to assist them. Olympic kayaking superstar Adam Van Koeverden represented the athletes who are GMP’s principal beneficiaries. Each chef was given a bottle of the mystery wine, unlabelled, anonymous, and given 24 hours to create a dish to perfectly match the wine. The catch – they had to cook the dish for 350 people and they had to do their shopping on a budget of only $500 – about a $1.47 a head. Economy is a valuable trait in a chef.

On Friday night they presented their dishes, each at his station in the lovely 1920s-style Hotel Eldorado. While the judges ate in a sequestered chamber, the guests moved upstairs and down, tasting and sipping the mystery wine, recording their own verdict for the ever popular People’s Choice award. It was a wonderful party, merrily exuberant, casual but intense, brought to a fine climax as the People’s Choice Award was handed to Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier in Ottawa.

The mystery wine had been chosen by GMP’s National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason – the multi-award winning 2008 Old Vines Riesling from Chateau des Charmes in Niagara. I believe we drank the last bottles in the world unless you are lucky enough to have one or two in your own cellar. It was a medium-bodied wine of racy acidity, exuding complex aromas of citrus, peach and petrol – uncompromisingly dry but rich, refreshing and delicious. We had speculated on what the chefs might make of it – how many would opt for seafood (expensive on their tiny budget); or whether others might choose to work with pork or fowl… As always, they amazed us with their creativity. Here is what they did…

Michael Dacquisto's delectable pate de campagne

Jean-Philippe St-Denis from Kitchen Gallerie Poisson in Montreal was clearly reminded of Alsace by the wine. He created a delectable choucroute of braised cabbage and bacon and set a slice of firm Pacific halibut on top of it, beside a tranche of juicy Ukrainian sausage he had found at a store in the city. A salad of shredded baby spinach added freshness while the sauce was beurre blanc that picked up the richness in the wine. The garnish of fried potato matchsticks and crunchy crumbled pretzel added an extra dimension.

Michael Dacquisto from WOW Hospitality Concepts in Winnipeg took a completely different approach, making a coarse pork paté de campagne studded with roasted hazelnuts to echo the aromas of honey and hazelnuts he found in the wine. He toasted a crunchy crostini of German caraway rye bread and crowned it with a slice of lightly grilled Asian pear and a wedge of brie that he brûléed with a blowtorch. A compote of gala apple, triple-smoked bacon and caramelized onion spiked with sherry vinegar, honey, black pepper and lots of fresh thyme was one condiment; another was a jam of apricots quickened with orange and lemon zest. Arugula leaves were lightly dressed with olive oil while a ribbon of pickled butternut squash also helped the richness of the paté. He even found time to make his own mustard, cooked down in the German style with beer, malt vinegar, caraway and honey. A lot going on? To be sure, but it all made perfect sense.

Michael Dekker's lovely dish

Michael Dekker from Rouge in Calgary presented a beautiful dish, making his own pasta and turning it into 1300 fabulous agnolotti filled with mascarpone and Quebec foie gras he managed to source from a local restaurant called Bouchon. A light sautée of corn kernels, golden raisins, kale and bacon and a scattering of chopped chives finished the dish. It was a good match with the Riesling, the flavours subtle but true.

Jan Trittenbach from Packrat Louie in Edmonton found fresh ling cod at Kelowna’s renowned Codfathers fishmonger. He pan-seared it lightly, leaving the perfectly seasoned fish juicy and medium rare. Beneath the paillard was a compressed salad of pear, apple and fennel and a very gentle picallili of beautifully turned carrot, zucchini and cauliflower florets with a delicate turmeric flavour. The lightest apple purée imaginable dressed the plate while a jaunty strip of crisp, very salty cooked prosciutto added a sudden moment of intensity to an elegantly understated dish that found all sorts of echoes in the wine.

Anthony McCarthy from the Saskatoon Club in Saskatoon worked with ivory spring salmon, a fish that has extra fat and really is the colour of ivory, a condition brought about by its diet. He confited the belly in a circulator leaving it incredibly succulent and set it over a gastrique of riesling and clementine that had all sorts of happy fun with the wine. Swiss chard was chopped with ginger while a smooth “verde” of parsley and Granny Smith apple added brightness to the dish. A spoonful of red tobiko caviare brought saltiness and crunch but the garnish almost stole the show – a crsip, ethereal taro root tuille dusted with chili and powdered, toasted kaffir lime leaf. If he sold those tuilles by the bag, the judges agreed, he could make a fortune.

Jonathan Gushue - courageous but controversial presentation

Jonathan Gushue from Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa, representing Toronto, presented the evening’s most courageous dish, dividing the judges into those who found it inspired and others who did not. He took Nova Scotia squid and chopped it so finely it looked like grains of rice then presented it like risotto in a runny purée of parsnip and gala apple, tinted faintly pink by the natural colour in the squid’s tentacles. Chopped fresh celery hearts was one garnish, the other was a burnt onion crumble with an almost sugary caramelization that isolated an inherent residual sweetness in the wine. The avant-garde presentation left some guests scratching their heads but the dainty flavours worked well with the Riesling.

Mike Barsky from Bacalao in St. John’s gave us our pork – a cider-glazed pork jowl, to be precise, braised for three hours but still offering its sweet pale fat. Beside it was delectable roll of lightly pickled cabbage stuffed with braised lentil and smoked ham and the braising liquid became a streak of sauce on the plate. Two lightweight purées also featured – one of tangy spiced carrot, the other of Granny Smith apple. Over the top he scattered traditional Newfoundland scrunchions of pork fat brined with apple, thyme and spices and then deep-fried to an irresistible crunchiness. The moments of acidity in the dish were perfectly balanced with the tang of the wine – for me, the best wine match of the evening.

Rob Feenie of Cactus Club Café in Vancouver found apple and lemon in the wine and set about echoing them in a Riesling jus enriched with apple, lemon and a roast chicken stock reduced for four hours. He made extraordinarily soft little gnocchi from butternut squash and paired them with local bacon and a brussels sprout petal sautéed in bacon fat to add visceral weight to the dish, an effect amplified by a crumble of bacon and pumpkin seed. Chef Feenie added the finishing touch at our table – a rich foam of cream, honey and parmesan cheese.

Marc Lepine from Atelier in Ottawa chose to work with langoustines, chopping them up and shrouding them in tissue-thin slices of avocado. There were many other elements on the plate and to read them gives the impression of crowding, but each new discovery drew admiring sighs from the judges. Here was puffed wild rice seasoned with fennel and coriander seed. Beside it lay two small pieces of fennel seed sponge cake aerated in a syphon and cooked for 40 seconds in a microwave for a soft, spongey texture. Tiny, pea-sized balls of Granny Smith apple were spiked by a chili marinade while celery was compressed with salt and sugar until it was almost a jelly. A parsnip crisp added sweet crunch, while orange zest and powdered ash made by charring lemon rind found the citrus notes in the wine. It was a brave but ultimately brilliantly harmonized creation.

Retiring to debate their evening’s work, the judges were unanimous in awarding Marc Lepine top marks, followed by Rob Feenie and then, close behind, a posse of four other chefs, with Mike Barsky about an inch in front of anyone else. But the weekend had only begun.

 

Saturday morning, mild, still and foggy, found the chefs, each with a chosen sous chef, standing outside the hotel while the judges milled around close by, all ready to head off to the venue for the Black Box competition in the teaching kitchens of Okanagan College. This is the most intense and rigorous challenge of the entire competition with the chefs sealed in a distant room to be brought out one at a time. They don’t know the order in which they will be called and it’s only when they make their way through the crowd in the kitchen and open their box that they fully understand the task that lies ahead. They must create two dishes using the mystery ingredients in one or other, plating 12 identical portions of both for the judges, and if they run over the allotted hour by even a few seconds they will be penalized. They also have access to a generous communal pantry.

A crowd of several hundred guests was expected (the event is always the first to sell out) and the good people from Van Houtte coffee were there with a kiosk offering six different brews and a chance for anyone who wished to discover his or her personal coffee profile by taking a simple but revealing test. The Van Houtte profile combines one’s taste for the intensity and darkness of the roast with the more subtle characteristics of terroir – fruitiness, acidity, earthiness, spiciness, etcetera – a reflection of the provenance of the beans. Me? I’m Bold & Woodsy.

Once the chefs were hidden away the judges revealed the ingredients to the expectant crowd. Last year, we had drawn everything from British Columbia; this year we invited six judges to provide a list of items from their own regions and put together the fiendish inventory from those. From Newfoundland we selected jars of bakeapples (also known as cloudberries), tart, subtly flavoured berries about the size of a raspberry with a nuisance of pips inside. From Mariposa Farm outside Ottawa, we chose goose breasts – two for each chef – with a fine layer of fat between skin and flesh. From Montreal, we brought a wonderful, firm blue cheese called Le Rassembleu. Manitoba’s contribution was a one-pound bag of Shoal Lake Oh Canada wild rice (something that would require a deal of cooking!). From Saskatchewan came some splendid Lake Diefenbaker steelhead trout and from Calgary, two pounds of parsley roots that looked (but didn’t taste) like parsnips. The point of course was to find harmony between such curiously matched ingredients.

Mike Barsky (St. John’s) began the proceedings. He cut fillets from the trout and seared them briefly then set them over splendidly velvetty purée of parsley root. He made a sauce of the blue cheese, thyme, lemon, cream and white wine which gave the lie to the old adage that cheese and fish are a poor match. His presentation was just as impressive for the goose – seared briefly, fat-side-down but leaving the ruby-coloured flesh still rare and bloody. He boiled the wild rice but not enough to bring it to an al dente level and mixed it up with wilted spinach and minced shallots. Recognizing the bakeapples (of course) he turned them into a chutney with wine, herbs and shallots and used it to dress the goose.

Pan-seared goose breast became the leitmotif of the morning. Every chef did it that way and the judges wondered if their approach would have been so conventional if we had put a steak into the box.

Marc Lepine (Ottawa) emerged next. Would he crash and burn after his triumph of the previous evening? Far from it. He crisped the goose skin and sliced it relatively thinly which mitigated its chewiness without diminishing its robust flavour. Charred, lightly pickled rings of onion provided an acidity that cut the goose fat while the meat was raised up on a short pillar of potato confited in olive oil with rosemary until it was soft and tempting. He used the blue cheese in a mayo beside the meat and solved the wild rice’s textural issue by puffing it in hot oil for a moment, finishing the dish with a natural jus from the goose. His trout dish was equally impressive. The fish fillets were pan-fried in butter until the skin was crisp and set over herbed spätzle. There was a smooth coulis of the bakeapples that eliminated the crunchy seeds from the berries and let the tangy flavour shine forth. Crisp ribbons of parsely root crowned the fish and Lepine even found time to make his own ricotta as an extra moment of dairy on the plate. A luxe brown butter hollandaise was poured on at the table. Both dishes showed a marvellous sense of harmony.

Rob Feenie's jewel-like trout

Rob Feenie (Vancouver) was the third competitor. His treatment of the trout was a star turn – curing it in citrus juices for twenty minutes then softening it in warm olive oil until it glowed like coral and was as soft and smooth as satin. Feenie also puffed his rice and made a bakeapple sauce – another visually stunning presentation. His seared goose breast was cut even more thinly, its richness equalled – even surpassed – by a purée of parsley root and blue cheese. A second, spinach purée brought refreshment and the meat was strewn with deep-fried shallots and panko crumbs fried in butter and lemon thyme.

Michael Dacquisto (Winnipeg) came out next. His trout was pan-seared to firmness and garnished with wilted, garlic-spiked spinach, then set over chewy wild rice. A salsa of tomato, chopped basil and cilantro livened things up and the dish was finished with a sharp gastrique of white wine, vinegar and butter. The ruby-red goose breast was pan-seared and full of flavour and matched with a chunky parsley and blue cheese sauce and soft chips of fried parsley root. Shavings of the blue cheese provided saltiness to season the meat while a second sauce, a fruit vinaigrette, was a deft final touch.

Jean-Philippe St-Denis (Montreal) salted his trout with fresh herbs then confited it in olive oil until it was meltingly tender. The wild rice (again undercooked) was tossed with baby spinach leaves and freshened with chopped tomato robustly flavoured with shallots and herbs. A sauce of pure egg yolk rimmed the plate. J-P’s goose breast saw the oven before being sliced over a delicious mix of coarsely broken boiled potato and plenty of the blue cheese, sliced thinly and on the point of melting which brought out its magnificent flavour perfectly. A very crisp, panko-crusted onion ring crowned the goose while a bakeapple gastrique fulfilled the need to use them.

Anthony McCarthy's brilliant "fish breakfast"

Anthony McCarthy (Saskatoon) delighted the judges with his take on a “fish breakfast.” His trout was pan-fried and set next to a perfectly poached egg and a tomato-and-onion salad. The wild rice was cleverly involved in a thick potato pancake smothered in melted cheese. Also on the plate was a cup of a thick, chilled pale orange liquid – he had used the bakeapples to make a smoothie – a huge success with the judges. For once, the goose found a new role to play, with two slices of the breast decorating a bowl of the chicken broth from the pantry, subtly enhanced with lemon zest and chopped herbs. Also bathing in the clear golden liquid were two tortellini filled with parsley root and ricotta.

Jonathan Gushue (Toronto) is a Newfoundlander, so he recognized the bakeapples immediately. He used the juice of the berries to make a gastrique with vinegar and sugar, then, having salted the filleted trout, he cured the fish in the liquid. “How long for?” asked the judges. “Forty-one minutes,” he answered. The fish was cut into big, glistening chunks and served with parsley root chips, decorated with a sprig of basil. Gushue’s goose was marinated in garlic and thyme then pan-seared to the point of bloody rareness and served over a toothsome wild rice risotto. He made two sauces, both of them awesome – a basil purée as green as an emerald and another involving the delectable Rassembleu.

Michael Dekker (Calgary) poached his trout by laying the fillets in cold olive oil then gently bringing up the heat until the fat in the fish seized into tiny white dots. A citrus beurre blanc added further richness, balanced by a tangy salad of onion and tomato. A comma of intensely flavourful parsley root purée perched cheekily on the trout’s back, wearing a green crown of basil leaves. Seared and thickly sliced, the goose breast was served atop wild rice stirred up with spinach and shallots. A dab of the unadulterated blue cheese allowed meat and dairy to fight it out while the bakeapples were transformed into a tasty compote with sugar, salt and white wine. All the flavours in Dekker’s dishes were clear and true, integration taking place in one’s mouth rather than on the plate.

Jan Trittenbach's goose dish

Jan Trittenbach (Edmonton) was our final competitor. He presented a “modern fish and chips” with a trout tartare seasoned with garlic, onion, herbs and soy set on top of a superb brick of fondant potato fried in butter with rosemary. In lieu of tartare sauce, he made a hollandaise with fresh herbs and pickled shallots. His goose breast was ruby-red, filled with a stuffing of shallots and egg but the show was stolen by an unabashedly pungent garlic purèe beneath the meat. A stiff custard moulded into the shape of a maple leaf was another element, topped with a hearty slice of the remarkable cheese (we never tired of its marvellous flavour). He turned the bakeapples into a yummy pickle as a condiment for the goose. But where was the wild rice? Summoned back by the judges, Trittenbach explained that he had not used it. Ten valuable points were lost…

The judges agreed it had been a challenging box and that next time we would avoid wild rice and offer a more accessible meat than goose breast – if only for the sakes of our own constitutions. The one ingredient I still hadn’t had enough of was the Rassembleu cheese – Canada’s first blue and still the best. Damn, it’s good.

 

It was party frocks for the Grand Finale, held in the majestic salons of the Delta Grand hotel. Our judging table was set apart in the Celebration Ballroom so we had peace and quiet and optimum conditions for tasting.

Michael Dacquisto, Winnipeg

We began with Winnipeg champion Michael Dacquisto’s dish, a “Freshwater Trio” of Manitoba pickerel, pike and whitefish. It’s rare to find a chef going nose-to-tail with fish but that’s what we were presented with. In the centre of the plate were two pickerel pectoral fins, battered and deep fried. “Hold the actual fin and suck the flesh from the cartilege,” suggested the chef, so we did and it was delicious – soft, rich and delicately flavoured. Beside the fins were pretty slices of applewood-smoked pike mousse wrapped in pickerel fillets and then tender green leek – so pretty! Beneath it was a tangle of crispy shaved fennel tossed with whitefish caviar. Close by were two beautiful pickerel cheeks dusted with powdered toasted wild rice and to the right of the plate a stripe of purple beet purée topped with beads of beet gelee and “caviar” made from the wine Chef dacquisto chose as his accompaniment, the sparkling Odyssey Rosè Brut from grey monk Estate Winery in B.C. Overall it was, a lovely, delicately flavoured dish, full of different textures.

Michael Dekker, Calgary

Calgary`s Michael Dekker was next up, offering a dish with a Southern theme. He chose to work with Louisiana catfish, marinating the fillets in buttermilk to mute their flavour a little then blackening them with a perfectly judged mix of sweet and smoked paprika, garlic and thyme. There was a delicious spicy tingle to the meaty fish that he topped with a garland of tiny microgreens – celery, cilantro and watercress. Propping up the fish was a spherical cheddar biscuit like a glossy little scone with the texture of brioche. Around it were impeccable grits, smooth but not too heavy, their richness complementing the fish. Chef`s chosen wine was the crisp, racy 2010 Charles Baker Riesling from Niagara. It cut through the richness of the dish like a blade of yellow light, its acidity dancing with the spiciness of the blackened fish. Another really fine dish.

Jonathan Gushue, Toronto

Jonathan Gushue from Langdon hall, representing Toronto was our third competitor, escorting the food runners to our table and providing a small brochure and recipe card explaining his dish. At its heart was a mound of diced raw Digby scallops stirred with mascarpone, lime juice and fleur de sel, a sweet, sticky confection. Laying across the top was a single leaf of Paris Dusk kale from Langdon Hall`s garden, sautèed in butter for 30 seconds then drizzled with a gastrique made from Langdon Hall honey, cider vinegar and containing crumbled black walnuts. A vanilla and apple purèe added further sweetness and then the dish was finished with a scattering of yellow oxeye daisy petals and a grating of a sort of landlocked bottarga made from confited duck gizzards to add an intense little dust to the whole adventure. The wine pairing was a beauty – Organized Crime 2008 Riesling Reserve from Niagara, a clean, crisp Riesling with zesty lemon and ruby grapefruit on the nose and a hint of musk as it starts to age.

Marc Lepine, Ottawa-Gatineau

Marc Lepine from Atelier in Ottawa delighted the judges with his dish. Lying like a lid across the top of the bowl was a crisp celery-root parchment upon which was sprinkled a white powder (dehydrated bacon powder) and some jewel-like pike roe. Beneath this cap we found two pank-crusted chorizo meatballs and a perfect Quadra Island scallop lightly bronzed from the pan. Sharing the intimate space at the bottom of the bowl were some pickled chanterelles, flecks of dehydrated fennel, bacon, lovage and lemon balm, and dainty motes of celery that had been compressed with sambucca. An aerated purée of potato and truffle worked like a creamy sauce, ably seconded by a lemon thyme cream. For his final effect, chef Lepine took an atomiser filled with lemon-rind-infused sambucca and gave each bowl a little squirt. Serving the dish in a bowl was a deliberate act on lepine’s part. He wanted us to taste all the elements together and randomly rather than separating and analysing them on a plate. It worked: flavours swirled, levels of intensity and textural experiences jumped all over the place while the wine acted as a delicious anchor – Hidden Bench 2009 Estate Chardonnay from Niagara.

Jean-Philippe St-Denis

Next up was Jean-Philippe St-Denis from Kitchen Galerie Poisson in Montreal with the same famous dish he used to win the regional event. It was a vitello tonnato – which I love, of course, but which might not have been enough to win a GMP gala in its own right. “Wait til you see it,” advised Montreal judge Robert Beauchemin – for of course I hadn’t yet seen it, having missed the Montreal event because I had to be at the Winnipeg event on the same night! Anyway… It was worth the wait. J-P had turned the dish on its head, laying thinly sliced albacore tuna carpaccio onto the plate then smothering it in a variety of different ingredients – little slices of super-tender veal tongue sharpened by a mustard-tarragon vinaigrette. Motes of crispy parmesan. Tiny dice of pain brioché. Crunchy fried capers like sudden shots of salt. Shiny black balsamic jelly cut into cubes that were starting to melt under the lights. Dots of preserved lemon skin. A shaving of bottarga on top like Gentleman’s relish turned to powder. Raking my fork through it all I picked up different flavours and textures with every mouthful and the accompanying beer  – St-Ambroise Cream Ale from the McAuslan brewery in Quebec was probably the match of the evening. It looked like a chaos but ate like a dream and the judges absolutely loved it, propelling J-P St-Denis forward and out from the middle of the pack. The dish won the evening but would it be enough to catch the front-runners?

Mike Barsky, St. John's

Mike Barsky from Bacalao in St. John’s provided our first red wine. His dish was also a repeat of the creation that had proved a GMP winner, thrilling me and the other St. John’s judges, but tonight the presentation wasn’t as spot-on and the textures seemed to lack immediacy. Barsky had exercised his powers on Newfoundland goat, using all parts of the unfortunate animals. We had a rare but delectably tender seared loin, a drum of goat rillettes in crispy panko crumbs, a slice of pickled tongue, a puddle of thick, creamy, glossy goat-brain mousse, a smashing spherical turnip cooked sous vide with saffron and mustard, a stripe of saffron-dyed goat milk pudding, one or two Brussels sprouts petals, a demi-glace made with pinot Noir and partridgeberry and a scattering of mustard seedlings. The accompanying wine, Pelee Island 2010 Pinot Noir Reserve, from Pelee Island, Ontario, did its best to keep up with the range of textures, temperatures and tastes on the plate.

Rob Feenie, Vancouver

Rob Feenie from Cactus Club, representing Vancouver, also chose to work with a Pinot Noir – the 2010 from Haywire Winery in British Columbia. It was a fine choice for his dish, a variation of the creation that had won him the Vancouver competition last fall. First came a slender shot glass filled with clear barbecued duck broth in which flecks of black truffle were floating. We downed that first to clear our palates and set them up for the main event. The plate was beautifully put together. At its heart was a slice of a layered terrine of moist, tender, pink rabbit meat and bacon that had been pressed together with duck fat for 24 hours. On top, like an ivory-coloured torpedo, sat a whole, miniature boudin blanc, speckled with chopped black truffle. Soft as a mousse inside, it was made from more of the rabbit meat and foie gras. A thick slice of truffle was propped against it and there was yet more truffle in the jus that painted the plate. And then there were carrots – some turned into a silky purée and whipped with brown butter; some transformed into caviare beads; others completely morphed into a crisp and delicate wafer. “I found a hint of carrot in the wine,” explained Chef Feenie – and such is the power of suggestion that I did too.

Anthony McCarthy, Saskatchewan

Anthony McCarthy from The Saskatoon Club in Saskatoon decided to work with duck, placing slices of Brome Lake duck breast on a vinous demi-glace that worked very well with the wine. To the left lay a drum-shaped pavé of layered vegetables crowned with pancetta scratchings. A bright orange-coloured swipe of sea buckthorn berry purée offered fruitiness to the bird; as did a pool of Carmen Jewel sour cherry sauce. A salad of crisp julienned peppers and other vegetables hid under a latticed crisp of two-year-old goat cheese, waiting to jump out and revive a flagging palate. As a treat, Chef also gave us a moment of aerated foie gras with black truffle, textured like a stiff mousse and posed prettily in the cherry sauce. It was a beautifully composed dish and one of the best wine matches of the evening, reaching out to Nichol Vineyard’s 2007 Cabernet Franc-Syrah from British Columbia as if they were old school friends.

Jan Trittenbach, Edmonton

Our final dish came from Jan Trittenbach of Packrat Louie in Edmonton, whose family had flown in from Switzerland to watch him compete. He presented us with a slice of gorgeous, lean venison, the colour of red wine, which had been rolled around a centre of pulled beef chuck, the meat cooked sous vide and admirably moist and rich. “This is the best meat of the entire weekend,” said one of the judges, and no one argued with him. A crumbly, lightweight canoli was stuffed with creamy, mild-flavoured goat cheese while a pink beet purée added colour and a sweet earthiness to the spectrum of flavours. A wee watercress salad dressed with truffle vinaigrette refreshed the palate and balls of pickled butternut squash in a blackberry gastrique offered a different but equally tasty element. Chef had grated horseradish but politely left it on the side of the plate so we could add as much or as little as we wished. His wine proved a great match for the venison – the 2009 Peller Estates Private Reserve Syrah from Niagara.

Back in the judges’ lair we began our deliberations and calculated the marks. None of us was surprised to see that Marc Lepine was the clear champion, or that Rob Feenie had won the silver medal. Both had set the pace since the beginning of the weekend and had made no mistakes tonight. From the tight group of chefs in pursuit, Jean-Philippe St-Denis had used the Grand Finale to break away from the pack to take the bronze with his amazing deconstructed vitello tonnato.

And then it only remained to return to the party, to marvel at the bidding for the trips to Tuscany, Chile, California and other exotic locales, to cheer Ed Robertson and Barney Bentall as they sang for us all, to listen to Adam van Koeverden’s inspiring stories (and hilarious jokes) and then to hand out the medals and trophies to the victorious chefs. Marc Lepine’s fellow chefs in Ottawa had got together in an extraordinary show of support and cooked at Atelier each night he was away in Kelowna. Otherwise the restaurant would have had to close at one of the busiest times of the year. I have no doubt they will be as excited as anyone in the country to welcome the champion home.

Weird but true: 5 out of 6 Canadian Culinary Champions have a first name that begins with the letter M: Makoto, Melissa, Mathieu, Martin, Marc… Hayato Okamitsu (2008) is the only exception.

photocredit: Brian Chambers for all the beauty shots of the plates

And now a special report on the wines of the CCC by Gold Medal Plates National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason:

The 2011 Canadian Culinary Championships convened in Kelowna – the heart of B.C. wine country – on a mild and foggy weekend in Feb 2012.  In the span of three public events, and four invitational events for judges, chefs and invited guests, almost 60 wines were poured, and it was a tour de force, especially for the wines of the Similkameen Valley.  The Similkameen Wineries Association – eight wineries strong – hosted the Grand Finale Event at the Delta Grand Hotel on February 11.

This year, for the first time, a Best of Show Wine Competition was incorporated into the Canadian Culinary Championships  – a judging of the wines in their own right, without taking the chef’s pairings into account. (The matter of judging the pairings is the mandate of the food judges, and weighs heavily in their decision). 

This year I invited two prominent western Canada wine professionals to join me on a panel.  Rhys Pender is one of three Canadian Masters of Wine, residing in the Similkameen Valley of B.C. where he conducts his business as a wine educator, writer and Canadian wine judge.   Gurvinder Bhatia of Edmonton is wine writer for the Edmonton Journal and owner of Vinomania, one of the finest specialty wine shops in the country.

Judging over two days, the panel selected Orofino 2009 Syrah from the Similkameen Valley as the Best Wine of Show.  It was the first syrah produced by John Weber at Orofino, and the tiny production of 90 cases sold out quickly.  The runner up hailed from Ontario, the Hidden Bench 2009 Chardonnay from Niagara’s Beamsville Bench, which had been brought to Kelowna to pair with the dish by Ottawa’s Marc Lepine. The second runner-up was Sandhill 2009 Cabernet-Merlot from the Vanessa Vineyard, also from Similkameen.

Before moving onto the series of events, a special note of recognition and thanks to Harry McWatters who was a critical link to the local wine community as part of the Kelowna organising committee.  He also very kindly donated several cases of his new McWatters Collection wines that debuted at the Mystery Wine competition.  Both the McWatters Collection 2010 Chardonnay and 2007 Meritage are classics of their genre with all kinds of structure and complexity.  

I also want to thank and acknowledge Catherine Frechette of Kelowna Tourism who set up an afternoon wine judges trip on the Lake Country Scenic Sip Trail, visiting the refurbished Gray Monk, and the spiffy new Ex Nihilo.  I was not with the chefs at Tantalus Winery for their tasty retreat on February 8 but I hear the Tantalus wines showed beautifully.

The first official Gold Medal Plates event of the (very long) weekend was billed as The Last Supper. It took place at a private residence at the Big White Ski Resort on February  8 as a wrap up event for successful bidders from across Canada  for the Big White/CCC auction ski package enjoyed a fabulous four course dinner prepared by 2010 CCC champion chef Martin Juneau of Montreal.  Four B.C. wineries stepped up to donate their finest to this event, led by the terrific Tantalus 2010 Riesling.  Many thanks to Tantalus owner Eric Savics, who joined us on the mountain.  Other wines included the well-known Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay sparkling, the vibrant Black Hill’s 2010 Viognier and the layered, very fine Painted Rock 2008 Syrah expertly matched to chef Juneau’s main course bison creation.  The wine had actually been shipped to Montreal by Painted Rock owner John Skinner so that Juneau could consider the match in his preparations – a great demonstration of the kind of detail carried on behind the scenes.

The Chef and Judges Reception took place February 9 at Quails’ Gate winery where a pair of wines were poured at two food stations.  The racy and quenching Quails’ Gate 2010 Chenin Blanc was served with a selection of Pacific oysters, while the fragrant, fresh Quails’ Gate 2009 Pinot Noir was matched with a very good risotto.  During this event the chefs were presented with an unmarked bottle of the Mystery Wine to which they would have to create a matching dish – for 380 people – 24 hours later. On a budget of $500!

The Mystery Wine Pairing returned to the cosy confines of the lakeside El Dorado Hotel on June 10.  Guests were greeted with Trius Brut sparkling wine, a much awarded crisp and dry sparkler made by Andrew Peller’s Hillebrand winery in Niagara.  After being introduced to the concept and flow of the evening the chef stations opened and the very professional and attentive El Dorado staff began passing the glasses.  The crowd was quick to pounce on riesling as the grape involved, with local sentiment saying it was the Tantalus Riesling.  But not so!  It was the Chateau des Charmes 2008 Old Vine Riesling from the Niagara-on-the-Lake appellation in Ontario, a beautiful, maturing, complex riesling that was named White Wine of the Year at the 2011 Ontario Wine Awards.  Our deepest thanks to the Bosc Family of Chateau des Charmes for donating the last available cases of this great Niagara riesling.

The final day of events on February 11 was a wine lover’s dream. It began for the wine judges and invited guests at a private tasting by the Similkameen wineries, many of which brought out older vintages to show how the reds in particular developed.  With only an hour to spare the winemakers then had to ready for the VIP Reception, where each poured two wines.  Many thanks to Cerelia Vineyards, Clos du Soleil, Eau Vivre, Forbidden Fruit, Orfino, Robin Ridge and Rustic Roots for making the trip to Kelowna and putting on a fascinating show for our guests, many of whom had to be prodded out of the VIP Reception to enjoy the main event.

In the Grand Finale the chefs brought the same wine, or at very least a wine from the same winery, that helped them win gold in their respective cities.  These are listed elsewhere on the Gold Medal Plates website. The wines, plus one beer from Montreal, were equally divided among the east and west, and ranged across several styles, and the medalists spanned three provinces.  The bronze medal went to McCauslan Brewery’s rich and exotic St.Ambroise Cream Ale paired with chef the always offbeat and fun-loving J.P. St Denis of Montreal.  The silver medal went to the taut and juicy Haywire 2010 Pinot Noir from the Okanagan, paired with Rob Feenie of the Cactus Club in Vancouver. And the Gold Medal went to the stately, complex and well structured Hidden Bench 2009 Chardonnay from the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, paired brilliantly with the creation of gold medal Chef Marc Lepine from Atelier in Ottawa.

But the fun did not end there!  Several new Celebration Wines appeared on the tables as guests sat down to listen to athlete presentations, await the awards and enjoy great performances by Ed Robertson of Bare Naked Ladies and B.C.’s own Barney Bentall.  The Similkameen Wineries added new wines to the festivities, and they were joined by a brilliant Township 7 2009 Syrah, Black Hills 2010 Alibi and 2010 Viognier, and the Sandhill 2008 Cabernet-Merlot, the aforementioned third place finisher in the Wine Competition.

So that’s a wrap, but in ending this report I must add a personal note of satisfaction, and thanks to all involved, for the wonderful recognition and acceptance that Canadian wine is receiving through the Gold Medal Plates program.  Gold Medal Plates is the country’s largest showcase for Canadian wine, and it’s getting bigger and better every year.

Cheers
David Lawrason
National Wine Advisor

 

 

 

Bottega Farm Inn

09 Feb

To Kelowna, B.C., for the Canadian Culinary Championships, a much-anticipated weekend that begins with a judges’ retreat that allows the judiciary to recover from a day of travel, to calibrate our palates and catch up with old friends. This year, Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna organized a most generous night for us in a beautiful new property called Bottega Farm Inn, at the foot of the mountains to the south-east of the city. It was dark when I finally arrived and a light snow was falling but the inn looked most welcoming and merry. This was once a cattle farm but last year the owners completed a stunning modern building with ten luxurious rooms and a soaring dining room – a true relais du silence offering perfect peace and quiet. They also built a recording studio that is nearly finished and brought in a charming herd of alpacas to amuse the guests, though we had other diversions last night. Representatives from Tantalus and Cedar Creek wineries were pouring some delectable wines alongside elaborate displays from several local operations including Arlo’s Honey Farm, Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm and vegetable specialists Sunshine Farm.

It was a very happy reunion for the judges. Our panel consists of the senior judge from every city where Gold Medal Plates holds an event – expert palates all. Let me name them from east to west. From St. John’s, Newfoundland, KARL WELLS is a broadcaster, food columnist for the Telegram and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. From Montreal, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN is a culinary author who writes for La Presse as well as being an anthropologist and a university professor. From Ottawa, ANNE DESBRISAY has been the restaurant critic of The Ottawa Citizen for 20 years and is also an author and broadcaster. From Toronto, SASHA CHAPMAN is an award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus magazine. From Winnipeg, JEFF GILL is a professional chef and culinary arts instructor at Red River College. From Saskatchewan, CJ KATZ is an author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine. From Calgary, JOHN GILCHRIST is a teacher and author, broadcaster and restaurant columnist for The Calgary Herald. From Vancouver, SID CROSS is the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine and is a world-renowned wine and food judge. And also from Vancouver, ANDREW MORRISON is a writer, a teacher, a restaurant critic and the editor of Scout Magazine. He also serves as our culinary referee during the CCC, making sure the competing chefs obey our complicated rules to the letter. Our Kelowna judge is PERRY BENTLEY, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts at Okanagan College. The only judge not present last night was Edmonton’s MARY BAILEY, the wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium. She couldn’t get away last night and will join us on Thursday.

Need it be said, dinner had been prepared for us all, provided by a terrific local chef, Mark Filatow, whose restaurant Waterfront is currently undergoing a serious renovation, reopening in a month or two. I’ve eaten his food before and admire his work but last night he outdid himself. Dishes were served family style with passed platters – everyone helping themselves – and the menu was designed as a showcase of local produce. We began with salads of white and pink beets from Sunshine Farm in a creamy horseradish dressing, and cold grilled sardine fillets sharpened with Eldorado Farms tarragon vinegar and laid out over a slaw of cucumber, crème fraîche and preserved lemon. We moved on to perfectly cooked little slabs of soy-braised belly pork, the delicate crackling immaculately crisp, paired with pickled cabbage and yam noodles. The wines were very well chosen, including a racy Tantalus Riesling and Cedar Creek’s lush Platinum Chardonnay.

Next came some ravioli that oozed runny egg yolk when we cut into them (that’s a neat trick of timing from Chef Filatow!) garnished with pancetta and soft broccolini florets. And after that we were blessed with Thiessen Farms quail, just the breasts, still pink and tender and fire-roasted, and the boned legs, cooked sous vide and as soft as the turned squash and pea-sized dates that accompanied them. Filatow emerged from the kitchen to pour on a rich jus from a tiny jug then sent out an extra dish of Pemberton farms beef tenderloin, aged 40 days, each slice showing the gradation of doneness from a crisp exterior to a ruby heart. The beef had its own red vermouth jus and a splendid array of Sunshine Farm’s heritage carrots, salt-baked cipolini onions and little sieglinde potatoes, baked and hollowed out then filled with their own mashed insides – they looked like tiny cupcakes. Tantalus’s 2010 Pinot Noir was sublime with the quail; Cedar Creek’s 2007 Merlot was ideal with the beef.

Our cheese course consisted of toast made from red fife and grape bread topped with a wee sphere of soft Happy Days goat cheese dressed with a marvelous honey from Arlo’s. Last year, Arlo’s owner, Helen Kennedy, explained, they had noticed that the honey from eight of their 106 hives was particularly pale and pure. The bees had been foraging on elder blossom and, indeed, there was more than a hint of elder amidst the wildflower aromas of the honey.

So the evening progressed. We sipped an amazing wine from Cedar Creek with our dessert – called M, it’s a maderized Pinot Blanc, lightly fortified then put into small casks and left outside in the hot Okanagan sunshine for five summers. The only Madeira-style wine produced in the Okanagan, it’s a totally delicious amber nectar, the complex flavours and sweetness lifted by a sly acidity.

At the far end of the inn’s great hall stands a Steinway grand piano. There are several fine musicians amongst the corps of judges but it was Catherine Frechette who was persuaded to play, from memory, Chopin’s Ballade number one – to thunderous and well-deserved applause.

Tonight the serious work begins.

 

Writers Tears

02 Feb

I believe in the social benefits of taxation. It’s how those of us who are lucky enough to find jobs can still hold up our heads in a Canada that is being split increasingly cynically into the haves and the have-nots by the Harper government’s divisive policies. Taxation is also responsible for a delicious Irish whiskey I tasted this week. It’s called Writers Tears (the link with the far right’s disdain for the liberal arts is another curious coincidence) and it will be launched at the LCBO on March 3rd, so dip your quills into your bottle of emerald-coloured ink and scratch a shamrock onto that particular square of your calendar. There was a time in the 19th century when Irish malt whiskey ruled the world, accounting for 90 percent of the whiskey or whisky exported from the British Isles. The Westminster government noticed and decided to tax Irish malt whiskey. The response of the Irish distillers was to add lots of unmalted barley into the mash that would end up in their pot stills, to be distilled three times in the labour-intensive way that distinguishes Irish from almost every Scotch.

In 1831, a much more efficient kind of still (the Coffey or patent still) was invented by an Irish excise man called Aeneas Coffey. It produced cleaner, lighter, more insipid spirits and these grain spirits were welcomed by the Scots as a way of lightening single malt Scotch into blended Scotch. There was an outcry in Ireland both from the malt whiskey aficionados and those who enjoyed the recent whiskeys made from malt and unmalted barley. For the rest of the century, the major distillers refused to use the Coffey spirits, remaining loyal to the whiskeys now known as Pure Pot Still. But the world moved on. Especially the world of export commerce. Accountants and auditors had no time for character and loyalty. Gradually Coffey-still whiskeys began to encroach into the old-school Irish spirits. The poets – and Ireland is nothing if not a land of poets – called out in favour of the old ways, but the sons of Fomor prevailed. Blended whiskeys and malt whiskeys supplanted all but a very few examples of the Pure Pot Still style. (I had better add here that I love almost all Irish whiskey and have no personal objection to this lush and infinitely variable blending, except when wearing the tragedian’s mask required for this particular story).

Anyway, the point is that right now we have a lovely opportunity to taste an Irish whiskey that is free of those leavening grain spirits. Writers Tears is a rich and very unusual blend of Pure Pot Still whiskey and pure Irish single malt whiskey from the same company that makes a premixed Irish Coffee beverage and a single malt Irish whiskey called the Irishman, though you won’t find that name on this bottle. Go to the web site however, and you’ll see a picture of Bernard Walsh, who founded and owns the company with his wife, Rosemary. Walsh has access to some fabulous spirits produced by Irish distillers which he purchases and vats into his own blends. Irishman 70, Walsh’s creation from a few years back, was a similar spirit to Writers Tears, that is to say a blend of Pure Pot Still and malt whiskey but with a considerably higher proportion (70 percent) of malt.

            The first thing you notice about Writers Tears is the lovely round body and full rich flavour. Not only is this uncut by cleaner, lighter spirits, it is also allowed to go into the bottle without being chill-filtered. So if it sometimes shows a haze under cool conditions, it has lost none of its original nuances. The aroma reminds me of honey and marmalade streaking the fruity barley. There’s a hint of citrus in the flavour too and an initial flourish of spicy, malty sweetness that quickly leaves the stage to drier, firmer characters. The honey-marmalade comes back as a pianissimo echo of the aroma to provide the final moments of a decently long finish.

            It’s lovely stuff, in other words, and a must-have bottle for anyone who collects Irish whiskeys. Look for it in the Vintages March 3rd release (VINTAGES 271106, 700 mL, $47.95).