Langdon Hall (all images courtesy of Virgil Knapp)
Langdon Hall is my favourite hotel in Canada – a country house in the English style and the perfect setting for Shakespearean comedy. Had I my players yet, my poor dear rogues, I’d fill the gracious halls and sitting rooms with noble lords and ladies, ardent lovers and a nimble-witted clown. There could be dainty dalliance in the orchard and repartee upon the croquet lawn, moonlit assignations in the woods. Such games, such comical misunderstandings! Perhaps a pair of twins to tangle up the plot before the final act, then resolution like a pent-up sigh – all’s well – ending in music, marriage and merriment, the natural order glorified, the whole a kind of masque or party…
We came very close to such high jinks a few weeks ago when VISA Infinite took the entire hotel for Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch. It was a splendid opportunity for Jonathan Gushue (Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef, Gold Medal Plates Toronto champion and all-round hero) to show us why Langdon Hall was named one of the top 100 restaurants in the world by the San Pellegrino academy. He did not disappoint.
Gushue’s not-so-secret weapon is the property itself, particularly the vegetable garden. It really is a magical place – especially early on a summer morning. Get up before everyone else and tiptoe across the dew-soaked croquet lawn; push open the gate into the garden… It’s like that moment when Dorothy opens the door into Munchkinland and suddenly everything is full of colour. There’s a sense of murmurous fecundity and the illusion of movement, of green things twisting upwards, the scent of fresh herbs and of rich, moist earth in the warm sun.
All that freshness sang out from Gushue’s amuse. He began by taking the year’s first local strawberries and turning them into a quick pickle, Japanese-style, with sugar and salt. Beside the berry was a crunchy baby cucumber, a moment of serrano chili and a teaspoonful of gazpacho sauce made from cherry tomato, cucumber and red pepper, a dash of Cabernet Franc vinegar and another of Ontario’s own Extra Virgin – rich, golden, cold-pressed canola oil.
White asparagus with two sauces
It was a great awakening for the palate and a fine introduction to the first course of the evening, a charmingly simple salad of chilled white asparagus from Cookstown Greens, peeled, blanched and chilled to perfection. Gushue garnished it with bittersweet, leafy lambs quarters from the garden (the name has nothing to do with lamb – it’s a corruption of the medieval Scottish name for August 1st – Lammas Quarter – a quarter day when the church came round for its tithes). There were two sauces, the first a citrus mousseline made with equal parts of hollandaise and whipped cream, spiked with Grand Marnier and orange zest. The second was more unusual – a rich meaty daube jus – beef cheeks slowly braised with red wine and orange, reductio but not ad absurdum, then forked apart until it became a profoundly beefy ragout. If the idea of daube jus on asparagus sounds like gravy on salad (it did to me), you must trust Gushue’s judicious use of it – just a little here, a little there… It was wonderful!
Langdon Hall’s sommelier, Katy Moore, was charged with selecting the wines for the great feast. She aimed squarely at the asparagus with a Staete Land 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand… Bull’s eye. Her second match was even better – Domaine Patrick Javillier’s 2009 Meursault, Cuvée les Clousots – as rich and elegant and blonde as Paris Hilton, but much more useful, especially when it came to pairing Gushue’s second dish.
This was the gastronomic sensation of the weekend. Jonathan Gushue comes from Newfoundland and he loves snow crab, waiting impatiently for the season to begin in June when the boats go out up the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador – almost all the way to Greenland. Tonight, the chef’s team picked all the meat out of the crab, then they separated the soft brown parts and beat them into a butter with a good deal of white wine. The white meat was poached in that crabby butter then laid in the empty bottom of a pristine soup bowl. Then the crab meat was smothered in flower petals picked from the garden, in much the same way that neanderthal people buried their dead, back in the day. English daisies, oxeye daisies, bachelor’s buttons, calendula, marigolds, sweet borage blossoms, many other dainty, colourful species… And even more were used to create the dish’s final element, an infusion of flowers in warm water – very delicate, herbaceous, perfumed, chlorophyllic… So early in the season, the flowers make a subtle tea so Gushue added some tomato skins to provide a touch of tangy acidity. Then just a drop or two of Pristine Gourmet’s Indonesian-style soy sauce by way of seasoning and balance. As we sat in that smooth sea of white linen, in that sumptuous dining room, the waiters appeared and poured the hot flower broth over the petal-covered crab, not to flood it but to bring it all to life, loosening the butter until it mixed with the broth. A stunning presentation.
How to follow that? Leap back to Ontario – Lake Huron, to be precise, and the Purdy family’s wonderful pickerel. Everywhere in the world, “pickerel” means a baby pike. Not in eastern Canada. Here we use the word to name a walleye, state fish of both Wisconsin and South Dakota and the provincial fish of Saskatchewan (eat it with a new respect). Gushue roasts the fillet and flatters it on the plate with a lettuce fondue. That is another charming treat made by enriching fish stock with bacon and cream then blending it with whatever lettuces are at their best in the garden. As he blends it, he adds a couple of raw scallops to give texture and body (it ends up as sleek and heavy as satin) as well as a certain marine sweetness. Before serving, he beats it by hand with a whisk just to aerate it a little – the protein lets it keep that slightly voluminous mouthfeel without it becoming a foam. Sharing the course is a fricasee of wild asparagus from Saskatchewan and sea asparagus from the Queen Charlotte islands. Underneath it, like a rich, tangy continuo, was a treatment of onions – last year’s red and torpedo onions from Antony John at Soiled Reputation – cooked for 32 hours with a little butter so that they basically melt, then finished with an elderflower and apple reduction. The elderflowers come from Gaspé; the apples from the garden – the combined acidity balances the sweetness of the onions.
It was a brilliant dish and Katy Moore paired it unexpectedly with a red wine, a 2010 Lagrein from Kellerei St. Magdalena in the Alto Adige, light, fragrant but with enough gumption to dance with the shape-shifting flavours on the plate.
The party had acquired its own merry momentum by the time the main course arrived, a dish Jonathan had recently cooked in New York for the Relais & Chateaux dinner, to great acclaim, by all accounts. It was a canon of lamb – a cut we call the “best end” in England, which is basically the ribeye. Gushue’s lambs were local, the muscle lightly trimmed and crusted with crushed hazelnut and Alpindon cheese from Kootenee Alpine Cheese company in British Columbia. The lamb’s sweetbreads also showed up, cooked sous vide like a confit for two hours then lightly sautéed with no flour. There were more of last year’s onions from Soiled Reputation – sweet little cippolini this time, cooked in their own juices. A smidge of wild herb purée was improvised from whatever the kitchen found growing in the wild places around the property – wild watercress, chickweed, hen-bit, purslane, wild garlic, anise hyssop, yarrow… It was crisp, herbal – the sort of purée well-informed lambs dream of eating. Gushue completed the dish with a spiced jus made from lamb stock enhanced by white wine, shallots and garlic. He finished it with a spice butter using wild ginger from the property, last year’s dried chilies from the garden, star anise, and also some sultanas that have steeped in Earl Grey tea until they pick up the perfume of bergamot and orange pekoe – the sort of flavour you are vaguely aware of but can’t quite identify until someone tells you what it is – and then you suddenly taste it loud and clear.
There was no starch on the plate. Or anywhere in the meal, come to that, though the house-baked bread was pretty irresistible. Katy Moore chose a Châteauneuf du Pape to match the lamb – Château de Beaucastel 2007 – another fine decision.
At this point, the evening took a rather dramatic turn. Everyone stood up and wandered into the conservatory and the billiard room, where the table had been covered and turned into a fabulous cheese and dessert buffet. Sarah Villamere, Langdon Hall’s dessert chef, created an infinity of little bites and treats and temptations and Gushue had his own array of goodies to go with the cheese, including honeys made by Langdon Hall’s own bees (you could tell from the flavour where they were foraging – one batch scented like Tuscan blue rosemary; another like lavender) and a most intriguing ale jam. The cheeses themselves were some of Canada’s finest, generously sponsored by Dairy Farmers of Canada: Le Guillaume Tell, Tomme de Grosse Île, Niagara Gold, Louis d’Or, Alpindon, Avonlea’s clothbound cheddar, Celtic Blue and Le Rassembleau.
And then it was time for bed.
Jonathan Gushue puts the finishing touch to one of the many many scrumptious brunch dishes
And then it was time for brunch! How to explain the amazing feast that filled our morning? It was all done out of doors around the lawn and reflecting pool, next to the century-old Camperdown Elm. Smart people sought out the tables in the deep shade beneath its boughs for the sun was cruelly hot that morning.
I can’t do justice to the DOZENS of dishes Jonathan Gushue and his team presented at many stations spread out around the garden. Close your eyes and imagine what you can from this shortlist of highlights.
A whole pig roasted since 2:00 a.m. the previous night – glorious in its unctuous belliness and crispy crackling.
Asparagus dressed with a tapenade made from last year’s bumper crop of Langdon hall black walnuts.
Sweet Pickle Potato Salad – a very traditional southern-style potato salad with sweet pickles, bacon, onions and pickle juice that soaks right into the new potatoes if you time it just when they’re steaming.
Endless cheeses and some superb local charcuterie from Cameron Bell, a local farmer and chef who also grew and cooked the aforementioned pig.
Stuffed lobsters on the grill.
Smoked local catfish and smoked fried chicken with a summer squash and Louis d’Or cheese pudding.
Musicians played, the sun shone on, we ate and ate and (after 11:00) drank Mimosas. A very good time was had by all.
The weekend, for me, was the culmination of a very pleasant couple of years hosting dining events for VISA, evenings brilliantly organized by Paul Alsop of IDMG.ca. Many happy memories… Thanks to Virgil Knapp for these images.
Drinking: Rosehall Run Vineyards Cuvée County Chardonnay 2010. A great year down in Prince Edward County, obviously (they picked in the last week of September – the earliest harvest ever) and the big body proves it. Lovely ripe citrus and apple on the nose and a judicious amount of oak. It’s tangy, intense, but with a sturdy acidity to carry all that fruit. Very refreshing in these heavy temperatures. This wine will be released at the winery in the fall and will retail at $21.95.