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Archive for February, 2013

Make Wine Not War – the Massey College wine grazing 2013

27 Feb

grazing

One of the signal privileges of being a member of the Quadrangle Society at Massey College is that I get to help with the College Wine Committee’s annual Grazing. It’s always a delightful occasion with about 100 guests (half of them junior fellows of the College, half of them senior fellows and Quadranglers) moving from food station to food station in the Junior Common Room and Upper Library, tasting the precisely devised dishes prepared as perfect matches for the wines. The wines themselves are selected by the Wine Committee with a theme in mind and this year we attempted to show some of the different things that can happen to a grape when it’s grown in Ontario and in California. Jonathan Bright, who heads the Committee, came up with the title for the event, a cunning reference to the War of 1812 and the peace movement of the 1960s: Make Wine Not War.

I had discovered in previous years, much to my amazement, that some of our guests were unfamiliar with Ontario wines – old prejudices formed 30 years ago still nudging them away from the local shelves at the LCBO, the local pages of a restaurant wine list. They had passed from the last century into the present one in a state of ignorance, their lives immeasurably deprived of Ontario’s shimmering, racy Rieslings, our sleek Bordeaux blends, our Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and profound late-harvest elixirs.

So there was an element of evangelical zeal in my introductory comments to the evening’s wines. I attempted to explain that, here in Ontario, we really don’t have to struggle to make wines of true elegance and that it isn’t all that hard to showcase the crisp acidity or the aromatic intensity that comes from interesting soils and a long hang time on the vine – especially now that our vineyards – and our winemakers – are reaching the glory of maturity. And, dare I say it, our summers do seem to be warm and fruitful more often than they used to be.

For California, the problems were always the other way around. All that heat and sunshine – the macho show-those-grapes-who’s-master winemaking taught at U.C. Davis – the early taste for over-oaked, overly potent Chardonnays and inky, over-extracted Cabernets… The one thing they seemed to lack in those old days was any whisper of finesse. But all that is changing too. Today’s winemakers are seeking out cooler areas where altitude or fog and wind from the Pacific mitigates the heat and where grapes ripen more slowly, developing more interesting aromas and keeping some notion of acidity. So our theme wasn’t quite such a cool-warm divide as it might have been 10 or 15 years ago.

We began with a delicious bubbly from Prince Edward County, the 2008 Grange of Prince Edward Sparkling, a méthode Champenoise blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with a pinky, beigy, papyrus colour – one of those elusive nacreous half-tones you see in a dawn sky or near the edge of an opal. It had an intriguing nose with plenty of yeast on top – like bread or biscuit dough overlaid upon notes of ripe red apple and a hint of pear. Tasting it, the apple was much sharper – like a Granny Smith – and there was some citrus there and a definite minerality as if one were sucking a cold, clean pebble from the bed of a stream – a trademark of a Prince Edward County wine.

I wish I could tell you where to find the 2008 but I think we drank the last of the vintage. It was very generously donated by Caroline Granger who founded and owns the winery. Her father had bought the property when she was a girl and she spent her summers there before growing up and becoming a fashion model and actress in Paris and New York, then a schoolteacher then a forensic accountant. In 1997, she and her three small children returned to Prince Edward County and the family property where she conceived the idea of growing vines. She planted the first 10 acres by hand – literally, when her tractor broke down – all the while studying chemistry and biology at Loyalist College. 2003 was her first harvest and, as an accountant, she couldn’t resist crunching the numbers from her investment. She calculated she would have to sell each bottle for $7,000 to break even on her costs to date. Today she has 60 acres under vine and a great success on her hands.

We had tasted the bubbly in November, together with Massey’s brilliant culinary director, Darlene Naranjo, and with Greg Cerson, the College steward and the man who makes our Grazing possible in every logistical way. Darlene came up with a perfect canapé to pair with the wine – a warm scone topped with a quince and green apple compote and a hint of fresh ginger. Scrumptious.

After that little appetizer we moved to the Upper Library for the first real pairing. We’d wanted to show that both Niagara and California are capable of perfumed, exotic wines beyond the usual pale. I had also thought it might be interesting to show off a Muscat from California, partly to justify the extraordinary and unprecedented infatuation that state is currently showing for the grape and also to show that not all Californian Muscats are sweet, one-dimensional, deeply tiresome wines that taste more soapy than floral and appeal mostly to people who like drinking Blush Zinfandel or are slaves to the Dark Master, Coca Cola. We found something much nicer. Uvaggio’s 2010 Moscato is dry, lightweight and has a true Moscato aroma like grapes, ripe canteloupe and gardenias.

Next to this we opened a 2010 Gewurztraminer from Cave Spring Cellars, grown on the Beamsville bench in Niagara on the sloping hillsides right under the escarpment. Cave Spring’s winemaker, Angelo Pavan, lets the grapes hang quite late into the harvest to build up sugar and aromatic complexity but picks while the necessary balancing acidity is still intact. It has none of the voluptuous weight of an Alsatian Gewurz but it’s still decidedly seductive with aromas of elderflowers and dried rose petals. There’s a little sweetness when you taste it and flavours of spiced pears and bubble gum but a lovely tangy acidity that keeps the wine honest. It opened up quite dramatically in our glasses and there were oohs and ahs all around the room, especially when I mentioned that Cave Spring had generously donated the wine for the evening.

We wanted something decadent and delicate to pair with these two wines and we came up with a milky infant of a ricotta cheese cradled in a bitter leaf, sweetened with floral-infused honey, a touch of anise and a final kiss from a rose petal – as if some wayward aunt had waved her perfumed hanky over the innocent ricotta as a blessing.

On to the Chardonnay station. When we were in the very early stages of thinking about this evening I had contacted Martin Malivoire, proprietor of Malivoire Wines on the Beamsville Bench in Niagara, to seek his advice and suggestions. He was supportive from the outset and proposed that his 2009 Moira Chardonnay might be just the wine to show how dazzling Niagara Chardonnay can be. He only makes 100 cases from the vineyard he and his partner, Moira Saganski, planted in 1995 and I was thrilled to pour it. This wine was praised by Jancis Robinson in terms that made many a Burgundian producer green with envy when she tasted it in London a couple of years ago. It’s made in a cool, clean Burgundian style with some of the juice fermented in French oak barrels made for Martin by a Burgundian cooper and some aged in steel. The oak is part of the choir, not the solo performer, harmonizing with refreshing acidity and minerality and  rather a yummy nose of honeysuckle, pear and lemon zest. En bouche, you find – if I may plagiarize Martin’s web site – flavours of “pineapple, pear, honey and custard cream with a zesty mineral finish.”

We felt this wine needed a dish of its own. Martin has since emailed me that he had opened a bottle of it for dinner on New Year’s Eve, and cooked up a perfect pairing – butter-poached lobster on linguine with a lobster and tomato reduced cream sauce with roasted fennel and oven-dried tomatoes. We came up with something fairly similar – shrimp cooked in butter with tarragon and just a hint of saffron to bring out the oak.

Alongside this gem, we served the 2009 Mer Soleil, grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey County by the Wagner family. This is a perfect example of what Californian Chardonnay makers are after these days – a site that is naturally cooled by Pacific air and ocean fog being sucked into the valley. But there’s plenty of wind to keep the vines healthy and dry and a great deal of sunshine. Even 15 years ago, Californian Chardonnistas used to use so much French oak to ferment and age their wines that it ended up tasting like pineapple juice sucked through a straw from an old leather boot. The Australians were doing the same. Most of them have moved on. And yet this wine seemed undeniably oaky after the chic and taut Malivoire, full of spicy vanilla aromas along with hay and honey – and Mr Wagner also finds Meyer lemon on the nose but that may be the power of suggestion since his vineyards are surrounded by lemon groves. The oak is certainly there when you taste but, in the mouth, the wine is surprisingly delicate and not full-bodied at all – just a delightful and easy-going Chardonnay with an adorable smile… Darlene found a terrific match with a gratin of potatoes with molten Emmenthal cheese and lemon thyme cream.

Our third station was devoted to Pinot Noir, indubitably Ontario’s most promising red. There are some thoroughbred beauties strutting out of Prince Edward County, where the soil is almost identical to the Cote d’Or, and now that the vines there are reaching maturity, the Pinots are getting more interesting every year. But there are also some spectacular versions from Niagara’s benchlands and our Pinot Noir was from Tawse – voted the Canadian Winery of the Year by Wine Access magazine for an astonishing three years in a row – 2010, 2011 and 2012! Moray Tawse makes several Pinots from various vineyards. We tasted the Growers Blend from the long, hot 2010 vintage – a year which gave delicious concentration and complexity to the wine. From the vast spectrum of potential aromas Pinot Noir offers we found ripe cherries and blackberries with a hint of violets and some earthy, truffly, mushroomy forest floor background.

Our Californian Pinot came from Kenwood (the 2010) and was a good one, typical of what can be achieved down there now that winemakers have stopped manhandling the fruit as if it were Cabernet Sauvignon. So many Californian Pinots basically taste like raspberry juice with streaks of spice added by ageing in oak. This one was much better integrated and more interesting, grown in the Russian River valley of Sonoma – relatively cool and close to the ocean – and the winemaker decided to add 1% Syrah to the mix to add complexity and body and probably a bit of extra colour. Is that cheating? Not if it improves the wine. We found the nose to be a bowl of fruit – raspberries and strawberry jam, Ocean Spray cranberry cocktail – even a hint of Ribena. The taste was more complex – refreshing, suprisingly tannic in the way cranberries are and though there wasn’t any sense of a barnyard or those forest floor mushrooms there was a pleasant background of cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper. I urged our guests to go back and forth between the two, looking for the difference that climate can make – especially to the intensity of the aromatics and the underlying acidic structure. The Californian is cheerful, likeable wine – very easy to spend an hour with – but if you want long involved conversation deep into the night, the Tawse was the Pinot to choose. And to eat? Darlene prepared a splendid dish to go with both wines – slow-roasted pork topped with a mushroom brunoise in a dried cherry and pomegranate marinade.

I suppose the area where the biggest difference between Ontario and California can be seen is in the category of Big Red Wines – especially Cabernets. We can get some really good colour and intensity from C Franc in a long, hot year – but perhaps we should be looking for supple strength rather than brute force. For our Ontario red we left the benchlands and moved down to the plain – the Niagara Lakeshore appellation that lies around the road from St. Catharine’s to Niagara on the Lake. Like Malivoire and Tawse, Stratus is a brilliantly conceived winery, utterly eco-friendly, gravity-driven, so the wines aren’t constantly being pumped around and stressed. The vineyards there were planted with the deliberate knowledge that the principal wines made were going to be blends – the speciality of winemaker J-L Groux, a man of professorial intellect and a thorough individualist. We tasted the 2007 Stratus Red which is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot – all three mainstays of Bordeaux of course – with a little Burgundian Gamay added – something you would most decidedly not find in a Bordeaux. 2007 was another of those long, hot summers in Ontario when Cabernet Sauvignon was able to ripen properly – which is not always the case here in cool years. J-L gave the components 644 days ageing in French oak barrels – 88% of them new ones. Then he chose the barrels he liked best (the rest went into Stratus’s second wine, called Wildass). The ’07 Stratus Red was finally released in 2010 and it proved to be a super, elegant wine that deserves the most concentrated appreciation. It’s so smooth and well-integrated that it’s actually quite hard to analyze! There’s a lovely juicy, round acidity and all sorts of rich, ripe, sleek black-fruit flavours right in the centre of the palate. And though it’s more than five years old now, it still tastes marvellously vibrant and young.

Our Californian Big Red was the 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon grown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The name is a tad misleading as it’s also a blend, containing 23% Merlot to soften and humanize the dark, disapproving, rather austere frown of the Cabernet. These vineyards were planted in the 1960s and their roots grow deep, which adds all sorts of nuances to the wine. 2009 was also a summer of heat waves in California – one after the other – and we could taste the ripeness of the fruit. The Ridge is just reaching its peak now and it met with universal approval – not too extracted or jammy but huge, full-bodied and powerful. The tannins were smoothing out but there was plenty of acidity tucked away behind the tell-tale Cab Sauv blackcurrant and the aromas of black tea, fennel, brambles and cigar boxes.

We paired both reds with a cassoulet prepared with double-smoked bacon lardons and wild boar sausages made for us especially by Peter Sanagan at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington Market – (my local and therefore my nomination for Toronto’s best butcher’s shop). My favourite cassoulet wine is an inky black Fitou from Roussillon, tasting of charcoal and liquorice and sinful mid-afternoons. I once drank such a wine with a magnificent cassoulet made by the wives of the vineyard workers of Carcasonne and it was a humbling experience. I made the mistake of asking for seconds and my Oliver Twist-like presumptuousness ruined me for the rest of the week. At Massey, no such Armageddon occurred – but I think the Ridge worked better with the cassoulet than the Stratus. Darlene also served some mimolette cheese, gouged à la minute. I am on record as saying this is my favourite cheese in the world.

And so to our finale. We had thought about presenting an Ontario Icewine but we figured everyone already knew what they’re like. So, to bring symmetry to an evening that began with a lone Ontario bubbly we ended with a lone Californian sticky, another Muscat but made from a different kind of Muscat than the dry Moscato we tried earlier. This particular grape is called Orange Muscat and its aroma is like apricots and the orange flower water that barefooted street-children sell you in Marakesh. As far as I know only one producer makes it – a couple called Andrew and Laurel Quady who live in Madera in the San Joaquin Valley. They had experimented with making their own port during the 1970s – they rather cleverly called it Starboard – but in 1980 they came up with the fortified  Orange Muscat they call Essensia and it became an instant cult hit among dessert wine lovers. They have continued to experiment and these days Essensia also contains a few percentage points of Muscat Canelli which enhances the citrus character of the wine and a tiny bit of Malvasia Bianca which boosts and complicates the floral aroma. This is really one of those wines that takes the place of dessert but the idea of pairing it with a final treat was irresistible – some crystallized orange peel dipped in dark chocolate.

And that was our evening. It was certainly a wonderful occasion for me because my son is currently a Junior Fellow at the College and he came to the Grazing as my guest. Although Massey is one of the planet’s most enlightened and stimulating educational environments, that night we were not really there to learn. Our sole purpose was more simple and more profound – the clear-eyed, utterly single-minded quest for shameless hedonistic pleasure.

 

 

Easy-going weekend

25 Feb
The Royal Frenchmen please the crowd on Decatur Street

The Royal Frenchmen please the crowd on Decatur Street

Kid Kotowich plays trombone with The Happy Pals every Sunday at Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina Avenue. She is a jazz phenom and she also knows New Orleans like the back of her hand so it was to her that we turned when planning a swift descent upon the Crescent City, eager for three days of music and cocktails. This was not a gastronomical trip. My wife, son and daughter-in-law have spent too many afternoons and evenings watching me write for hours in a notebook while laborious dishes come and go. So there was no long-drawn-out dinner at Herbsaint or Cochon or August; not even a route march to John Besh’s American Sector. Instead, we just plunged into the  merry party that never stops in the charming old French Quarter and had a really, really good time.

And we heard some excellent music. Some of it was indoors, some out on the street – everything from trad jazz to New Orleans jazz, from bluegrass to blues, from folk to funk – even a busking violinist channeling Brahms. Highlights: Another great female trombonist, Katja Toivola, and her trumpeter husband, Leroy Jones, and their band playing jazz standards at Palm Court on Decatur Street. Three guys in a bar on Bourbon Street digging deep into r&b with some old Derek and the Dominos and Allman Brothers (the favoured soundtrack of my teens). The legendary Alton “Big Al” Carson (“495 pounds of pure New Orleans blues”) and his band reminding a mostly grey-haired crowd at The Funky Pirate what it was like to listen to funk in the 70s and 80s. An energetic Dixieland group called The Royal Frenchmen, who claimed they really were from France, playing outside the French Market.

We had had enough gumbo and deep-fried dill pickles by our second evening so we ducked into Maximo’s Italian Grill on Decatur Street and had a perfectly decent Italian meal – the tastiest food of the trip, as it turned out – then headed on to Frenchmen Street, where Kid Kotowich assured us we would find the best music in town these days. We squeezed into the crowd at the Spotted Cat and stayed for a set from an old-school jazz ensemble called Jumbo Shrimp. We listened to a young trumpeter and his band at Maison but the youth was so pleased with his own talent, we had to leave. Then we found some free-spirited jamming on guitar, six-stringed electric bass and drums in Yuki Izakaya, a tiny outpost of retro Japanese culture with great sake, vintage Astroboy cartoons projected on the wall and framed photos of unidentifiable stuffed toy animals. Excellent.

Gulf oysters, plump and beautiful, but tout sans gout

Gulf oysters, plump and beautiful, but tout sans gout

And to drink? I made it a small personal mission to try a Sazerac in as many watering holes as possible. A surprising number turned out to be dreadful, awkwardly unbalanced, syrupy things that dishonoured NOLA’s proud cocktail culture. The two best were tasted on the same Saturday evening. One (most unexpectedly) at Brennan’s, where Sara the bartender took the time to mix me a first-class version, complex, herbal, harmonious, like a bittersweet Manhattan with a Louisiana accent. The other at a fine and well-kept oyster bar, also on Royal Street, called Royal Oyster. We also ordered two dozen of the finest local oysters on the half shell – plump, glossy beauties, impeccably shucked. They tasted of absolutely nothing at all – not even salt water. Gulf oysters, growing up so quickly in those tepid waters, have no flavour. I know this but I persist in tasting them just in the hope that they might somehow have acquired a little personality since the last disappointment. Nope… I guess that’s why they are more often smothered in garlic and butter or bacon and cheese and set under the grill or deep-fried and turned into po’boy sandwiches down here in the south where frying is the default culinary method. I loaded mine up with Crystal hot sauce, horseradish and lemon and muttered voodoo mutters. An old lesson learned yet again – but it was never going to be woeful enough to dim the lustrous dazzle of our purple, green and golden Mardi Gras beads.

 

A Tale of High Adventure

20 Feb

 

Adam Kreek and three friends are rowing across the Atlantic. photo credit: www.erinnjhale.com

Adam Kreek and three friends are rowing across the Atlantic. photo credit: www.erinnjhale.com

The Canadian Wildlife Federation Africa to the Americas Expedition left January 23rd from Dakar, Senegal to row unassisted across the Atlantic Ocean on a daring 3569-nautical-mile journey to Miami, USA. Using human power to propel the boat, and solar and wind power to charge its instruments, the four-man crew are conducting research on the ocean and themselves to share it in real-time to viewers world-wide. It’s an extraordinary adventure and you can follow the team’s progress at www.oarnorthwest.com.

Meanwhile, I was wondering what the four of them are eating to keep up their strength, rowing in pairs, non-stop, day and night. Adam Kreek wrote back to me this morning to tell me. Here’s part of his letter.

“… It can be exhausting out here, but it is also fascinating. It will be an experience that will stick with me for a lifetime.
“We have broken a couple oars, and have gone through some homesick blues. Other than that, the wildlife, camaraderie and sunrises have been incredible. The Ocean has a deep and infusing power that can elevate your soul as quickly as a big wave can crush your spirits.
“…Regarding ocean food. This is what I can tell you. Our breakfasts consist of quick oats or flaked quinoa mixed with sulphur-free dried pineapple, cranberries, apples, raisins and mangos. We mix in some cacao nibs and organic coconut flakes. To add caloric density we will also add coconut oil to the oatmeal.
“Lunch consists of an array of Backpacker’s Pantry freeze-dried meals. My favourite flavours are the Pad Thai, Macaroni and Beef, Southwest Chicken, and astronaut ice cream.
“For dinner we have been eating a lot of De La Estancia polenta mixed with freeze-dried vegetables and cheese. We will also have instant rice and bean flakes mixed with freeze-dried vegetables and canned wild salmon. Both meals are generously spiced with chili flakes, pepper and garlic powder. We also mix in a healthy portion of Olive Oil for flavour and caloric density.
“Snacks consist of e-frutti gummies, and “The EDGE” energy bars.

“We also are drinking a lot of tea on this vessel. Our favorites are the powdered Jaga Silk Macchai, and the powdered London Fog. We are also eating/drinking ground hemp and maccha powder. We mix it as a warm drink, add it to our oatmeal or dinner dishes for texture, substance and health effects. It has a high protein content and good fats which make it a great superfood.
“Our diet is supplemented with Vitamins from Natural Factors. We have Omega 3 fish oils, vitamin ester C, ultimate antioxidant, acidipholous and bifidus, and a multi-vitamin. Finally, the majority of our sundries were provided by Lifestyle Markets in Victoria BC.”

Tuck in, guys! Safe voyage and a happy return!

 

A Great Day in Kelowna

17 Feb
Suncatcher Farm, Kelowna

Suncatcher Farm, Kelowna

Our annual trip to Kelowna for the Canadian Culinary Championships is always a highlight of my year, not least because it offers a chance to get to know more about this extraordinary valley. Home for the long weekend is the stylishly retro, discreetly luxurious Eldorado hotel, right on the shores of the lake – a placid body of water that never seems to freeze, even in February when the ski slopes in the surrounding mountains are choked with snow. And for the last couple of years, Tourism Kelowna has generously organized a tour of the area for the posse of judges (the Senior Judge from each Gold Medal Plates city) who fly in to adjudicate the Championships with me. Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna puts our day together and this year’s trip surpassed all our expectations.

Montreal judge Robert Beauchemin ponders Bean Scene's magnificent roaster

Montreal judge Robert Beauchemin ponders Bean Scene’s magnificent roaster

We began very early with a visit to Bean Scene Coffee Works on Dickson Avenue for freshly baked muffins and a truly first class cup of joe. This is the actual roastery and bakery for the other two Bean Scene cafés and it’s something of a local secret, very much a labour of love on the part of the owners, John Anderson and his partner Deb Synnot. Old school? Such an understatement. John acquired a vintage small-batch roaster (no computers here) and then devised a homespun but brilliant system to clean the smoke that the roaster produces using water filters instead of high-energy incinerators. The only by-product is a nitrogen rich liquid that he uses to water the trees outside the café. “No gimmicks, keep everything simple,” is John’s motto, but there’s nothing simple about the coffees he serves. The aroma is heavenly, the flavour rich and complex, medium-roasted and pitched somewhere between acidity and carbon, “between a lemon and a match,” as John puts it. He roasts single-origin coffees from Mexico, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Sumatra and El Salvador and mixes all five for his profound espresso blend. We ate freshly baked cornmeal muffins and lingered over our capuccinos, then set off for the next gastronomic adventure.

Jim and Lorena Wood live on their six-acre, organic, mixed-orchard farm and they were waiting for us as we parked our vans in the snowy driveway. Lorena’s three-month-old granddaughter, Sage, was in her arms, well-bundled-up, and a pot of hot apple cider was seething aromatically on the barbecue. We munched on wonderfully sweet little red Fuji apples while Jim told us the story of the 1928 farmhouse, how they used to use goats and sheep to “mow” the orchards, and how they started a small farmgate business for their fruits and vegetables, eight years ago. Eventually top chefs found their way to the farm (he has another eight acres where they farm organic vegetables), fell in love with the quality and the Woods’s philosophy and are now customers. Red Haven, Glow Haven, Canadian Harmony and raretown white peaches, cherries and apples, chickens and eggs… We sipped a cocktail of Cipes sparkling wine and the farm’s own organic apple juice – a nectar that knocks your Bellini out of the park.

The gleaming still at Okanagan Spirits

The gleaming still at Okanagan Spirits

On to Okanagan Spirits, a 10-year-old craft distillery in downtown Kelowna where awesome eaux-de-vie, fruit liqueurs and spirits are alchemized from a gleaming German 250-Litre copper pot still that looks like a steam-punk time machine at the back of the store. This is something that anyone who comes to Kelowna should see, especially if you share my innocent passion for unique distillates. They’re working on a single malt whisky that they enchant with a dash of fruit spirits. I have a phobia against adulterated whiskies but this one was remarkably good – not sweet, just ameliorated with a faint aroma of stone fruit. We judges tried one eaux de vie. Then another. Soon we were working our way through the entire repertoire including “Canados,” a remarkable, dry, spicy local version of Calvados (this is apple country, after all, in the way that the garden of Eden was apple country) made with Hyslop crab apples, and finally a nip of Taboo, the distillery’s pungent absinthe. We could happily have stayed all afternoon but lunch awaited us around the corner at the extraordinary RauDZ Regional table, the very cool restaurant owned and operated by Chef Rod Butters and Audrey Surrao.

RauDZThey had opened at lunchtime for the first time in their history to accommodate the CCC judges. “And the last time,” said Chef Butters with a smile, as we scrambled up onto bar stools, wondering what to expect. They don’t have a bartender at RauDZ, they have “liquid chef” Micah Jensen who had organized a progression of cocktails for us to try, examples of his “farm-to-glass” philosophy. The first of them arrived in a Mason jar, a Quince Gin Mule, made with local Spirit Bear gin, quince puree from O’Neil farm and the dry, dazzling, English Fentiman’s ginger beer. A delightful palate cleanser, herbal and spicy, designed to refresh but also to showcase the lavender in the gin.

Soup at the bar at RauDZ

Soup at the bar at RauDZ

And then the little edible treats began to appear. There were miniature jars of tuna slow cooked in grapeseed oil. There was wholly unexpected smoked sockeye salmon from Lake Okanagan, coaxed back up the Columbia river and into these waters and caught by First Nations people. Chef served it with the tiny citrus beads squeezed from finger limes. Then a can of mushroom soup – literally served in a can with a label created for our visit (click on the image above – it’s a good read) – to be poured into a cup already harbouring morels and other wild mushrooms. And there were beers to sample, including Vertical Winter Ale from local Tree brewery, flavoured with vanilla and heady with nut and caramel aromas, and Red Wood, an ale aged for a hundred days in red wine barrels and showing a subtle nutmeg flavour.Plates of venison carpaccio appeared, dressed with mustard sauce and julienned apple. An array of charcuterie came from Seedo’s in Salmon Arm – Chef Butters believes that charcuterie should be left to the experts and the chorizo, cervelat, salami and spicy biltong added weight to his argument. Micah Jensen presented a second cocktail with the meat, a Vanilla Sky made with Tree’s winter ale and whisky – oaky and smoky and sweetened with beautiful honey from Arlo’s honey farm on Bedford Lane.

Duck, duck, duck eggs and gnocchi

Duck, duck, duck eggs and gnocchi

And the food kept on coming, all of it true to Chef Butters’s once-radical, now-orthodox belief in the virtue of locally sourced ingredients. The main course was a dish of pan-browned sage gnocchi topped with the applewood-smoked breast meat and confited leg meat of Pekin ducks from Feather Farms, an operation owned by the parents of RauDZ sous chef Evelyn Takoff. There were perfectly fried duck eggs on top of the tender confit mountain and she advised us to break them open so that the runny, dark yellow yolks seeped down over the meat as a heavenly sauce. Then there were four cheeses from the valley’s Upper Bench Creamery including a semi-soft blue called King Cole and a fabulous soft goat cheese called Grey Baby. Not to be outdone, Micah Jensen mixed us Poached Pear Cocktails of pear vodka from Okanagan Spirits mixed with cointreau, red pear purée, lemon juice and, as a final float, port spiced-up with anise, cinnamon, vanilla and blood orange peel. Little triangles of soft, moist Christmas cake were the perfect accompaniment.

We needed a walk after that spectacular lunch and we got it at Suncatcher Farm, where Tony and Nancy Cetinski cultivate organic vegetables on their precious six acres right next to the first permanent white settlement in the Okanagan, where Father Pandosy built his mission in 1859. Tony Cetinski is a witty guy who cherishes the land he bought in 2001 – land that has been farmed for well over a century and is protected as part of Kelowna’s agricultural land reserve, though property developers must be tearing out their hair. He farms it pretty much single-handed, with a passion and an energy that produces 40 different crops in a season, much of which goes to RauDZ and the kitchens of other enlightened chefs in the area.

On the hillside behind the farm is Sperling Vineyards. Anne Sperling is a towering figure in Niagara – one of the great winemakers and a pioneer of biodynamic viticulture. I always knew she grew up on a family vineyard in the Okanagan and learned the roots of what she knows by tending those vines as a child. Now I had a chance to see the property and to meet her neice and her neice’s husband, who run the place and operate the winery shop. We finished our day with a tasting of wines from the vineyard, starting with Sper…itz, an extraordinary bubbly made from old-vine Bacchus and Perle of Csaba (a love-child of Muscat). It was amazingly aromatic and attractive and I wish they made enough to send a few half bottles to Ontario. Then we tried the Sparkling 2008 Methode Champenoise bubbly made from a unique block of Pinot Blanc given three years sur lie. Yeasty, acidic, with a hint of lanolin on the nose, it was delightful but again – they only make 1200 bottles a year. An intense Pinot Gris followed, then the flagship wine from the property, an old-vines Riesling I had tasted a couple of weeks earlier in Toronto, racy, coursing with limestone and petrol, spectacular! In 2008, they planted Pinot Noir on their busy land and we tasted the first ever vintage, the 2011. Precocity isn’t in it. It was shimmering with the promise of the future, all cherries and minerality, a subtle kiss of oak… Another reason to love the Okanagan.

Catherine Frechette had made her point. All this lies within a few minutes of downtown Kelowna, a wonderful circus of quality, history, innovation, commitment and passion. Envious Canadians often ask me why the CCC takes place in Kelowna every year. All the people we met that day provided different but irrefutable answers. If you love wine and food and spirits and beer and vivid gastronomic narratives, this is surely the place to be.

 

 

Kitchen Sisters – Last Supper for Sistering!

15 Feb

Kitchen Sisters Blog - 2

International Women’s Day is just three weeks away (it’s on Friday, March 8, to be precise) and the place to be that evening is Mildred’s Temple Kitchen in Liberty Village. The occasion is Kitchen Sisters, a fundraising feast prepared by some of Toronto’s finest chefs including Donna Dooher (chef-owner of Mildred’s, of course), Lynn Crawford, Anne Yarymowich, Christine Bib, Suzanne Baby and Andrea Damon-Gibson. It’s the finale of a fundraising initiative aimed at building a new kitchen for Sistering.

And what is Sistering? It’s an agency and advocacy group that has been supporting low-income and marginalized women in the Toronto community since 1981 by providing a safe haven during the daytime hours in a welcoming, multilingual and multiracial environment. Hot meals are part of the service – indeed, in the last few years the demand for meals has increased substantially, until the Sistering kitchen now finds itself providing more than 250 meals a day, 365 days a year. In order to meet this growing need, the kitchen required a massive overhaul. Fridges, stoves, cooking and baking equipment were all needed to give the hard-working chefs at Sistering a leg up on their production. The resounding success of the past two International Women’s Day dinners has meant that much of the funding is in place and Donna Dooher hopes this ‘Last Supper for Sistering’ will help them reach that final goal.

All proceeds from the event at Mildred’s Temple Kitchen will go towards Sistering’s kitchen renovation project. Tickets are $500 for a spectacularly delicious four-course feast, served at the Temple Kitchen communal table, complete with wine pairings. Partial tax receipts (for $350) will be issued. For information or tickets, please call 416-926-9762 ext. 243.

Sistering’s twitter account is @sisteringTO and Kitchen Sisters’ hashtag is #kitchensisters13

 
 

David Lawrason’s CCC wine report

14 Feb

David Lawrason made a dramatic entrance at the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna last week, flying in directly from a three-week sojourn in New Zealand and looking remarkably fit and spry. I never see enough of him during the CCC since we are both very busy with our separate vinous and culinary worlds. Only when those worlds collide – at the actual events – do we have a moment to share notes so I welcome this post-facto report even more than usual.

The Canadian Culinary Championships Wine Report

By David Lawrason, National Wine Advisor

The 2013 Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna featured an astounding 40 different wines, spread over three events. Except for the wines that were paired with ten competing chefs, the vast majority were donated by the wineries of Kelowna.  Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna was instrumental in organizing the donations and the tastings.

I had the great pleasure of tasting and judging them for the Best of Show Wine Award with two good friends and excellent palates to help me with the judging – two local boys known to all wine folk in the Valley.

Harry McWatters was the Honorary Chair of this Event, but I think he derived his real pleasure from joining us on our tasting rounds.  Harry was the founder of Sumac Ridge Estate winery in 1980, among the very first small new, quality focused wineries in the Valley.  He had the vision and courage to plant what he wanted, where he wanted, and to speak out for what he felt was right for such a tender industry. He was truly the architect of the incredible growth of Okanagan wine has enjoyed since.  And he is still out there creating, and mentoring with his McWatters Collection, and new brand is in the wings called Time.

Rhys Pender is younger, but very much a Harry.  Living in the Similkameen Valley Rhys has made his mark as a passionate wine educator, writer and show judge. He is one of only three people in BC and four in Canada to have earned his Master of Wine.  He too is vitally interested in and vocal about BC wine, and he has not been afraid to dig in and plant grapes and make wine of his own.

Chef’s Reception at Tantalus Vineyards

This year Tantalus Vineyards played a major hosting role for the Canadian Culinary Championships, offering their winery for the Chef’s receptions and introductions, and helping organize neighbouring wineries of the Lakeshore Wine Route that poured at the Mystery Wine Night.  The interior of the winery looked like a movie set for a classy futuristic culinary thriller, with stainless steel gleaming in white light, culinary students from Okanagan College all in their whites, food stations, and of course the stellar Tantalus wines.  They poured the terrific 2010 Riesling this night as well as 2010 Pinot Noir, which could frankly use a couple of years. Winemaker David Paterson led some of the judges through a tank sampling of the very promising 2012 Riesling, and we dabbled with a 2007 Old Vines Riesling that is now evolved to perfect fruit, honey and mineral complexity while maintaining electric acidity.  It was astonishingly good with oysters from the Outlandish Oyster Company of Quadra Island

The Mystery Wine Competition
The El Dorado Hotel

This is my favourite of the three Canadian Culinary Championship competitions, and not just because I am involved in selecting the Mystery Wine.  We all like to talk the talk of food-and-wine matching, but this night  we got to walk the walk – the chefs, the judges and 400 guests who packed into the wonderful, retro summer lodge-like El Dorado Hotel on the shore of Lake Okanagan.  It was all about exploring the interaction of flavours – the essence of gastronomy. Simply, each chef had to create one dish to match specifically to the wine.

The El Dorado is the culinary hub of the Lakeshore Wine Route, so it was only fitting that four wineries who belong to this association provided other wines in vinous support to the Mystery Wine.  Tantalus, St. Hubertus, CedarCreek and Summerhill Pyramid Winery each poured two or three wines at stations on the main and second floor. And the evening kicked off with a very generous pour of Distraction, a funky, pink sparkler by The View.

The room was full of conjecture and guesses about the identity of the Mystery Wine. Most people correctly assessed it as pinot noir, but few confidently picked its origin.  The wine showed exceedingly well according to most opinion, with terrific fragrance, fresh acidity, excellent fruit depth and silky tannin. It was a wine that easily drank through the evening, and provided the chefs a broad flavour canvass.

And the Wine?  Norman Hardie 2010 County Pinot Noir, from Prince Edward County, Ontario.

If you are unfamiliar, Prince Edward County is located two hours east of Toronto on the north shore of Lake Ontario.  It is an amazing chunk of limestone bedrock rapidly gaining acclaim for pinot noir, chardonnay and sparkling wine.  The first winery opened in 2001 and there are now almost 40.   Norman Hardie is the great ambassador for the region – a Toronto-raised pinot noir fanatic who has made wine in Burgundy, South Africa and California.

Norm Hardie took the podium and graciously acknowledged our Olympic athletes, tying their pursuit of excellence to the pursuit underway in the vineyards of Canada.

The Grand Finale at The Delta Grand

About 25 wines were poured during the festivities in the Delta Grand’s Ballroom on the final leg of the competition.  The chefs from each city had invited their winning winery to pour again in Kelowna and all took up the offer, with three wineries accompanying their chefs to the podium. In bronze medal position, paired with Regina chef Milton Rebello was the taut, complex See Ya Later Ranch 2010 Pinot Noir.  Ottawa silver medalist Jamie Stunt brought along Ashton Brewery’s la belle terre, a brew flavoured with ginger and green tea. And the Gold Medal podium was shared by Toronto chef Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier and the delicate Peller Estates Ice Cuvee from Niagara.

Aside from the chef wines, guests at the VIP reception were treated to a pair of lovely wines from Black Hills Estate – the 2010 Syrah and 2011 Alibi, a cracking good white blend.  After the competition, as guests were treated to entertainment and athlete interview, several wineries from the Kelowna area poured a wide selection at the tables. Participating wineries included Andrew Peller (BC), Calona Wines, Sandhill, Ex Nihilo, Mt. Boucherie, Sperling Vineyards, Quail’s Gate and Camelot Vineyards.

At the end of the evening it was left to the three wine judges to select the Best Wine of Show, from all those entered over the two days of competition. And here’s what happened. With remarkable consistency five wines showed up on all the score cards.  Malivoire 2011 Gamay from Niagara placed fifth.  There was a tie for third between Gray Monk 2011 Gewurztraminer and CedarCreek 2009 Platinum Merlot, both from the Okanagan.  In second place, only a couple of points out of first place, was the superb, complex Tantalus 2010 Chardonnay.  And finally with two first place votes and one second came the compact, elegant and powerful Black Hills 2010 Syrah.  Black Hills will receive A Best of Show Wine Award, along with all other Best of Show winners in cities across Canada.

But even with this announcement the evening was not over. This year, for the first time, Gold Medal Plates entered all the donating wineries, breweries and distillers into a draw. The winner, as drawn by Rhys Pender, was Laughing Stock Vineyards of the Okanagan.  The prize?  A villa holiday at the Relais and Chateau Borgo San Felice in Tuscany, the new international HQ for Gold Medal Plates fundraising trips.

It was a terrific weekend, and on behalf of the athletes I want to thank all the winemakers, brewers and distillers across Canada for the best campaign to date.

Here’s looking forward to next season.

 

 

 

 

Canadian Culinary Championships 2013 report

11 Feb
And apparently it was snowing in Toronto

And apparently it was snowing in Toronto

Was it only a year ago that Ottawa’s Marc Lepine raced to victory at the Canadian Culinary Championships here in Kelowna? Time speeds by even in this balmy lakeside paradise. Now the long weekend is over and we have a new champion. You could skip to the bottom of this post and find out who, or you could read on and relive it as the drama unfolded.

We had 10 competitors this year, each one of them the champion of his or her own regional Gold Medal Plates competition. On Thursday night, at a splendid reception up on the ridge at Tantalus Winery, we introduced them and their sous chefs to a select crowd of sponsors and friends, and boosted each team with a brace of eager, talented culinary students from Okanagan College.

There were wonderful oysters to be tasted and Saskatchewan pickerel on quinoa cake prepared by former competitor Chef Dan Walker. And My Tea Blending Room was also in the house. A few weeks ago, owner Amber Piche had the inspired idea of asking each chef and each judge to create a blend of tea. They were all on display, in a tin with our names and faces on the label. I was deeply honoured that Amber had decided to brew and blend my own creation, an iced green tea with juniper, lemon, bergamot and rose petal that I hoped would taste like a gin and tonic. I think Amber had fixed the recipe because it was actually rather good! All the details are there on the web site, www.myteablendingroom.com.

The competing chefs are: from Chinched Bistro in St. John’s, Shaun Hussey; from Fou d’Ici in Montreal, Daren Bergeron; from Oz Kafe in Ottawa, Jamie Stunt; from Auberge du Pommier in Toronto, Marc St. Jacques; from Wasabi Sabi in Winnipeg, Östen Rice; from the Saskatchewan Radisson Plaza in Regina, Milton Rebello; from the Riverside Country Club in Saskatoon, Darren Craddock; from Wildflower Grill in Edmonton, Nathin Bye (who competed in the CCC once before); from Crazyweed Kitchen in Canmore, our Calgary champion, Eden Hrabec (who also competed at the CCC before, as sous chef to her mother, Jan Hrabec); and finally the victor of the Vancouver GMP, a chef from right here in Kelowna at the Waterfront Restaurant & Wine Bar, Mark Filatow.

It seemed a strong list going in to the competition and the judges, each one a Gold Medal Plates Senior Judge, convened from sea to shining sea, had plenty to say about their local star. Here is the posse of überpalates who joined me on the panel. From St. John’s, Newfoundland, KARL WELLS, broadcaster, food columnist for The Telegram, host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. From Montreal, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN, food writer for La Presse, culinary author, anthropologist, college professor… From Ottawa, ANNE DESBRISAY, restaurant critic, author and broadcaster. From Toronto, SASHA CHAPMAN, award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus. From Winnipeg, JEFF GILL, professional chef, culinary arts instructor at Red River College, avid snowmobiler and Liverpool supporter (yes, we Chelsea fans forgive him). From Saskatchewan, CJ KATZ, award-winning cookbook author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine, and our senior judge in both Regina and Saskatoon. From Edmonton,  MARY BAILEY is a wine, food and travel writer, a certified sommelier and wine instructor, publisher of The Tomato (www.thetomato.ca) online and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium. From Calgary, JOHN GILCHRIST, teacher and author and restaurant columnist for the Calgary Herald. From Kelowna, PERRY BENTLEY, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts right here at Okanagan College. 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 is also our Culinary Referee and the man responsible for enforcing the rules throughout the weekend.

THE WINE MATCHING CHALLENGE

This is the first of our contests. At the end of our Thursday night reception we gave each chef a bottle of unmarked mystery wine and 24 hours to come up with a recipe that perfectly matched the wine. The catch? They had to cook for 400 people and they had only $500 to spend. Their students were very helpful here, full of advice about local stores and suppliers – the best butchers and grocers and farmers.

The wine was the last of Norman Hardie’s 2010 County Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County, Ontario, a lovely Pinot from a warm year that had richness and depth, cherry fruit and subtle spice. The ripe vintage confused some of the chefs who read it as an Okanagan wine but the underlying minerality was unmistakable for those of us who have followed Norm’s Pinots from the beginning.

On Friday evening, we all gathered at the Eldorado hotel (see view above). My friends from Van Houtte coffee were there with a great little kiosk and a range of rich brews. The 400 guests moved from chef’s station to chef’s station, tasting the mystery wine alongside each dish. We judges sat in our own comfortable salon and the dishes were brought to us. Brian Chambers was our official photographer and took these beautiful shots.

Here’s what we tasted:

Milton Rebello's dainty duck

Milton Rebello’s dainty duck

Milton Rebello spent most of his allowance on local ducks (a classic Pinot Noir match). He used the total bird, making a layered terrine of juicy, coarsely chopped duck and chicken thigh confit (a tad too subtle for the wine), and slicing the perfectly seared breast then dabbing it with a ginger and orange marmalade that suited the Pinot to a T. He used the duck bones to make a broth then turned it into pudding with gelatin, setting it over tissue-thin shaved beet carpaccio. A crisp raspberry-strawbery tuille stood vertically on the plate with radish seedlings clinging to it like climbers on a Matterhorn.

Mark Filatow's sausage and pierogy

Mark Filatow’s sausage and pierogy

Mark Filatow presented next (the order was randomly chosen). He introduced his dish by citing his Ukrainian heritage and then set down a dainty plate consisting of a delicate pierogy stuffed with bacon, potato, leek, sour cream and onion and a piece of wonderful pork-and-garlic sausage with the texture of meatloaf. The sausage sat in a tablespoonful of borscht jus and around the plate were many elfin moments of texture and flavour from crispy shallot rings, jellied sauerkraut, crunchy bubbles of pork fat, crumbs of horseradish-flavoured rye bread and a tiny ziggurat of shaved cucumber. My only doubt about the dish was a single shimiji mushroom, tartly pickled, that I felt was too much for the wine but the overall effect of the dish was spectacular.

Eden Hrabec's Korean pork belly - winner of the people's choice award

Eden Hrabec’s Korean pork belly – winner of the people’s choice award

Eden Hrabec brought her creation to us next. She had braised pork bellies to perfection with Korean spices, red pepper paste, garlic, ginger and black pepper, then reducing the liquid to a sticky, sweet-spicy sauce. She served her lusciously tender meat over juicy napa cabbage and topped it with a cracker of puffed rice and sesame and a teaspoonful of pickled mustard seeds. The intention was to contrast with the fruit and acidity of the wine and it worked well – again I felt there was an imbalance with the sesame – but what a great dish!

 

Daren Bergeron's tuna

Daren Bergeron’s tuna

Daren Bergeron was our fourth competitor, using albacore tuna as his protein. “My star is the sauce,” he told us, but his protein was also remarkable – albacore tuna that he cooked old-school, caking it in salt then carbonizing it over an open flame, cracking off the salt and rinsing it, then cutting a thick slice for every plate. The effect was to double the flavour of the nearly raw fish and to add a smokiness that worked well with the wine. Daikon, carrot and brussels sprouts petals were his vegetables, topped with tiny crunchy quinoa kernels and a confit of ginger. And that sauce – a reduction of fish stock made with ling cod, clam juice, ginger, lemongrass and red wine – was indeed stellar.

Nathin Bye's "faux gras" of chicken livers

Nathin Bye’s “faux gras” of chicken livers

In fifth location was Nathin Bye. “It’s a torchon of ‘faux’ gras,” he explained, in other words an intense chicken liver terrine made with tawny port, some of the mystery red wine and smoked bacon, cooked sous vide and crusted with powdered cherries and pistachios. He made a pesto arugula, spinach and olive oil and topped the torchon with a strip of bitter arugula jelly. To match the earthiness he found in the wine, he baked flat, rectangular sage crackers. The judges loved the forthright flavour of the terrine but some felt it changed the character of the Pinot.

Shaun Hussey's "hot dog"

Shaun Hussey’s “hot dog”

Our sixth competitor was Shaun Hussey who brought out a dish that looked to me like a classic British toad in the Hole. Shaun had made his own “hot dogs” that morning – 700 of them – coarse sausages of pork butt – partially wrapped in toasted potato-bread bun. There was smoked mushroom ketchup enriched with caramelized onions, sugar and vinegar, as well as an apricot relish and a mound of pickled mustard seeds. A mound of salad leaves dressed with truffle oil sought out the earthy mushroomy elements in the wine.

Darren Craddock's poached ling cod

Darren Craddock’s poached ling cod

Darren Craddock came next. He worked with fish, poaching ling cod in a court bouillon of white wine, lemon, butter and herbs topped with deep-fried crispy beets and a sprinkling of smoked salt. A second protein was a faux scallop made from a mousseline of the ling cod trimmings, crusted with toasted hemp hearts. Pancetta and shiitake added oomph to a sweet potato mash and beet reappeared arm-in-arm with cherries and turned into a tangy jam. Generously seasoned, it was a good match with the wine.

 

Jamie Stunt's lamb tartare

Jamie Stunt’s lamb tartare

Jamie Stunt opted for a lamb tartare, using mildly-flavoured Abbotsford lamb. He ground some cuts, seared and hand-cut another, then stirred the meat with roasted beets. Toasted pistachios and black radish were other components, alongside deep fried threads of sweet potato for crunch. For richness, he smade a smoked turkey mayonnaise which perfected the balance between the dish and the wine – a most impressive effort.

Marc St. Jacques cooked with beet and beef

Marc St. Jacques cooked with beet and beef

Marc St. Jacques’s dish was the most delicate of the evening. He wrapped enoki mushrooms in a ribbon of striploin beef with basil and green onion – it looked like an exotic plant from a book by Dr. Seuss. Then he set it in a thin beet broth – sweet, deep pink and peppery – and suggested we wipe the beef-mushroom roll in the broth before we tasted it. I found the wine match one of the most successful of the night.

 

Osten Rice's Asian beef

Osten Rice’s Asian beef

Our final competitor was Östen Rice. He sought inspiration in a great Pinot Noir dish – boeuf Bourgignon – but gave it a lightweight Asian twist, using Indonesian long pepper to crust his beef striploin. He used tangy red onion for acidity and made a cherry and Pinot Noir reduction as a sauce, then he assembled a sort of mille-feuille of potato and shiitake and finished everything by pouring on a delectably intense but weightless broth made from beef bones, soy, 12-year-old white balsamic, shiitake and star anise. Another terrific dish.

To summarize, the judges felt that the chefs all analyzed the wine well, using their palates and recognizing earthiness, cherry fruit, an impression of mushroom… Presentations were delightful – dainty with a sharp awareness of colour. But several dishes sabotaged themselves with food flavours and characteristics that jarred – pickled elements in particular. And a couple of dishes seemed pre-conceived, as if they had been planned before this precise wine was tasted – delicious and complete on the plate but better suited to a big tangy white wine or a sake or even bourbon…

In the end we felt that no one took the ball and ran with it. There was a pack of five or six chefs who were jostling for position and still in strong contention going into the next contest, with Mark Filatow leading the way. The people, however, made their favourite known – Eden Hrabec’s Korean-style pork belly wowed the crowd – and indeed, it was a dish all the judges agreed they could have gone on eating all night long.

 

THE BLACK BOX COMPETITION

It gets better every year! And because we keep increasing the number of competitors at the CCC, it starts earlier, too. Judges and chefs were up with the lark, waiting for the coaches outside the hotel in the mild grey light of a Kelowna dawn. Some judges decided to walk to Okanagan College and the test kitchens where this event takes place. They reached the event about three minutes before it began. No harm done…

The first half of the audience was already there, some 100 people, sipping Van Houtte coffee and My Tea Blending Room tea. The College students had set up omelette stations to keep the crowd happy since only the judges get to taste the food this morning. As the day went on, rack of lamb and shrimp were provided… We have come a long way since the early years of this competition when guests got nothing but water!

Here’s what we chose to put into the Black Box this year, a selection of six ingredients that we hoped would offer the chefs lots of options and lots of challenges.

Judge Sasha Chapman chose the grain – red fife wheat flour from K2 Milling in Ontario. I chose the fish – Northern Divine’s wonderful, organic, sustainable, farmed sturgeon caviar from Target Marine Hatcheries in Sechelt, B.C., very generously donated by Northern Divine. Perry Bentley chose the dairy component – a strongly flavoured, firm goat gruyère from Carmelis Artisanal Dairy in the Okanagan that tasted like pecorino. Sid Cross found the vegetable – bittersweet black kale, aka Tuscan kale or Dinosaur kale. Andrew Morrison selected the fruit – heritage Anjou pears from Hazeldell Orchards, a stone’s throw from Okanagan College. And Mary Bailey procured the meat – the bone-in shoulder and neck of Edmonton Katahdin lamb raised by Shayne and Vicky Horn at Tangle Ridge farm, deliberately difficult cuts that would require some butchering skills and a good long time to cook. Time they did not have…

Each chef had to create two dishes, using all the ingredients in one or other of them, along with anything they wanted from a basic pantry of other ingredients. They would be docked marks for failing to use them all or for over-running their 60-minute time frame by even a few seconds. The crowd leaned in to watch as the first chef opened his box. Leaving Andrew Morrison behind as colour-commentator for the crowd for the next five hours, the judges moseyed off to their sequestered lair and the contest began.

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock was first out of the box. He made a blanquette out of the neck and served it with a nicely seasoned fondant potato, a carrot purée and a delicious mustard jus. A fresh pear and herb compote was a pleasing garnish. His second dish starred a cookie made from the flour (its strong buckwheat-like flavour would become a theme of the morning) and the cheese. Chef used it as the crowning glory over roast lamb shoulder (great flavour, not so tender), wilted kale and spinach and a clever vinaigrette sauce of chopped tomato, herbs and caviar.

stunt bb 1Jamie Stunt, who had performed well the night before, kept his standards high. He used the red fife flour and gruyere to make a bannock, icing and microplaning the cheese to diminish its pungency a little. He whipped cream from the pantry with lemon zest and salt and put a dab on the bannock, topped with the caviar. Crispy thyme leaves and a sliver of pickled onion finished his first dish. For his second, he stewed both cuts of lamb, using the gnarly bits and the bones to make a wine-enriched stock that became the gravy. He marinated the kale in garlic and lemon juice and seared it in a very hot pan, then cooled the dish down with a slice of tangy pickled pear. Crispy onions were sprinkled o’er.

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye went third. He made a stew out of the lamb neck, thickening it with red fife flour and sweetening the stock with carrot and potato. A sweet-tart pear and onion relish was spooned on top, in turn surmounted by a crisp kale leaf and a little of the caviar. Kale featured in his second dish, too,braised with a creamy cheese sauce that used the gruyere with white wine, garlic and shallots. All this served as the accompanying vegetables for medallions of the lamb shoulder, served very rare and almost tender. Chef had dusted the lamb with red fife flour, mustard and brown sugar and baked it over ginger to add a subtle nuance. He finished the idea with a tomato and lemon zest concassé.

So far so good. The judges were beginning to realize that making the lamb tender was probably the chef’s biggest challenge. We were still waiting to see the flour used in more imaginative ways.

Marc St. Jacques

Marc St. Jacques

Marc St. Jacques’s name was drawn next. His first dish had a noticeable elegance and sophistication – a beautifully white-and-green stack of finely sliced pear, like a mille feuille, dotted with lemon zest and olive oil and showing a hint of ginger. He had softened more of the pear and chopped it into a brunoise to mix with the caviar and more lemon and olive oil as a sort of vinaigrette around the plate. Dainty celery leaves provided a grace note of bitterness. His second dish starred the roasted lamb shoulder – tender enough to pass muster and set over a salad of chopped raw kale. On top was a kale stem, stripped and sautéed but still crunchy, and chef had steeped the cheese in cream to make a surprisingly subtle sauce. He used the lamb necks to make a reduced jus. But where was the red fife flour? He used it to make a batter to coat a deep-fried ring of shallot and set it on the top of the lamb. Bingo…

Milton Rebello

Milton Rebello

Milton Rebello was next and when we had tasted them both, the judges agreed that one was great and one was not. The great one may have been the dish of the day – a supple tagine of the lamb meat (beautifully butchered and cleaned) with tomato, onion and pear. The kale was there as a crispy chip and a swipe of bright green in the foreground turned out to be mint-and-cilantro oil, unexpectedly sweet and great with the lamb. Also on the plate was a really delicious fritter of mashed potato and caviar, its surface crispy, its heart delicately fishy… So yummy! The second dish was cleverly conceived. Chef made a soft, pliant paratha out of the flour. He lined it with a thin but firm cheese omelette then cooked up the lamb shoulder, searing it with ginger and garlic and rolled the paratha around the meat, dressing it with a super pear chutney. Somehow the dish didn’t quite work, ending up uncharacteristically bland. Next year we will add more interesting spices to the pantry!

Osten Rice

Osten Rice

Östen Rice found a smart solution to the toughness of the lamb neck, turning it into a sausage with garlic, thyme, panko crumbs, brown sugar and a touch of soy. He braised the kale in the oven, made a subtle roasted garlic and red wine gastrique as a sauce and added a separate mound of herbed and toasted panko crumbs for textural contrast. The lamb shoulder shared the plate, marinated and seared and the bones and trimmings had been turned into a rich jus. A julienne of gingered pear was a tart condiment. Chef’s second dish was a tart tatin of sliced pear, and caramelized sauce on a gruyere shortbread base, all surrounded by caviar in a sweet vinaigrette. “Think of it as a cheese and fruit plate,” said Östen.

Shaun Hussey

Shaun Hussey

Then it was Shaun Hussey’s turn. He roasted the lamb shoulder, sliced it and served it and, lo and behold, it was tender! Crunchy soft braised kale and onions lay alongside, an interesting compote of caviar and pear. The meat was sauced with a reduction of lamb neck, red wine and “loads of butter.” The second plate was a stew of the lamb neck, tasty and sweet, served over a thick, flavourful pancake of red fife and gruyere., A salsa of tomato, onion and mint brought everything to life.

Eden Hrabec

Eden Hrabec

What would Eden Hrabec make of it all? Her two dishes were wildly different. One made good use of baby spinach leaves from the pantry, turning them into a salad strewn with grains of caviar in a tart lemon dressing. Shaved gruyere was judiciously used (it is a very strong cheese) and hiding under the leaves were warm spaetzle made with the red fife flour. Poached pear worked beautifully with the rest of the ingredients. Her second dish was visually stunning – pan-seared lamb shoulder with salty wilted kale set over an exemplary potato rösti. The whole thing was smothered in a colourful, pungent chimichurri of tomato, onion, garlic and herbs. Delightful!

Daren Bergeron

Daren Bergeron

And now Daren Bergeron – always intelligent, always thinking outside the box. He had hand-chopped the lamb as a way of counteracting its toughness and turned it into a kefta, stirring the meat with raw egg, mint, onion, garlic and some of the flour then frying it in oil. A caramelized onion purée acted a sauce for this rissole; the pear was there, poached in white wine, and the goat cheese too, shaved like snowflakes where needed. He had chopped the raw kale as a salad and dressed it carefully. To finish his plating he added a component designed to add richness to the kefta and generally distract attention – a perfectly poached egg deep-fried in panko crumbs. When our knifes cut into it, the yolk flooded out like another sauce. Chef had used almost all the ingredients in one dish. His second offering was a model of simplicity. A very simple red fife blini fried in beurre noisette and topped with caviar and a streak of bitter lemon purée.

Mark Filatow

Mark Filatow

And so to our final competitor, Mark Filatow. He too made a teeny red fife pancake (the most perfect of the day) using egg white and cilantro for flavour. He topped it with the caviar and then set four small dice of marinated pear as a point beneath the circle. “This dish is all about the sauces,” he told us – and what sauces they were. One was a rich lemon-ginger aioli, the other a raw egg yolk cured and coloured with soy. Chef’s second dish used the two cuts of lamb. The neck became a tasty “bolognese” cut as small as a knife allowed and sweetened with onion and carrot. Lemony braised kale lay alongside and the piece de resistance was a crisp cylinder of fried potato filled with mashed potato mixed with enough of the gruyere to register. The one drawback of the dish was in the treatment of the lamb shoulder, roasted slightly but still virtually raw and too tough to cut with a knife.We had challenged the chefs and they responded so impressively! But then Andrew Morrison came in from the kitchen with news that four of our champions had incurred time penalties – one of them by less than 30 seconds (he lost 5% of his marks), two by less than a minute (each lost 10%) and one by a full four minutes which incurred the maximum 20-percent deduction and effectively (such is the standard of perfection at this level of competition) took away any chance of a podium finish.

The Black Box is all about accuracy and time and coping with pressure. Positions had changed somewhat since the morning began – Mark Filatow rejoining the pack, Marc St. Jacques now edging ahead… Time for the judges to retreat to our hotel, crunch the scores, discuss past, present and future and get ready for the Grand Finale.

THE GRAND FINALE

On Saturday night – just a few hours after the stress and rigours of the Black Box – the chefs set up their stations in the stately Delta Grand hotel and each one presented his or her signature dish to a crowd of 700 guests. It was a very glittering affair, with Alan Doyle and Barney Bentall, Kendel Carson and Cory tetford performing great music from the stage, Adam Van Koeverden MCing and presenting a host of Olympic athletes, and a live auction of GMP trips to Tuscany, the Adriatic, South Africa, Chile and other glamorous locations.

We judges, however, had work to do.

Marc St. Jacques

Marc St. Jacques

The first plate that reached us in our secret, windowless lair was from Marc St. Jacques. He had created a terrine of foie gras, its texture somewhere between a torchon and a mousse, and set it on a thin black layer of black sesame financier. On top was an equally thin layer of clear, golden white soy gelee, sharpened with mirin and Meyer lemon juice. Those lemons informed the rest of the components of this deceptively simple dish, as dots of intensely flavourful roasted lemon curd, and as morsels of fresh lemon flesh (secretly dusted with sugar to mitigate the tartness a tad). Tiny bubbles of tempura batter held black sesame seeds for moments of crunch and fattiness and the finishing notion were minuscule squares of shiso leaf. St. Jacques had given us five perfectly harmonious flavours, a range of textures, impeccably elegant technique and a good match with his chosen wine, Peller Estates sparkling Ice Cuvée from Niagara, Ontario.

Osten Rice

Osten Rice

Next up was Östen Rice. His dish had a personal narrative, inspired by the gravlax his Scandinavian grandmother used to cure but given a Japanese twist to reflect the style of his restaurant – call it Scandinasian cuisine. Instead of salmon, he worked with escolar, curing the super-soft, almost creamy raw fish with beet juice, honey and sea salt that stained a vermilion rim around each slice. Contrasting the texture, he gave us a fresh, crunchy, sweet-tart slaw of julienned Fuji apple and golden beet tossed with a chiffonade of shiso leaf. There was more shiso flavour (and more subtle crunch) in the compressed cucumber pieces on the other side of the plate while a scrumptious taro crisp with a hole punched out of its middle stood tall in a tiny hill of orange-coloured tobiko roe bound with a beautifully judged wasabi mayonnaise. It was going to take a wine of character to stand up to all those sweet-sour elements but chef found one in the 2010 Gewurztraminer from Gray Monk in B.C., a delicious Gewurz’ with the acidity and the lush weight to perfectly balance the dish.

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye

Nathin Bye was up next with a dish he called “Breakfast for Dinner,” each of its many components based upon sensations he found in his complex wine of choice, the 2010 Chardonnay from Tantalus Vineyards in the Okanagan. There was plenty on the plate, but the intricate knot of textural and flavour harmonies provided unexpected unity, all within a loose interpretation of breakfast. Where to begin…? With an ornamental spoon that held a creamy bircher meusli of rolled oats, apple and quinoa, garnished with a tiny marshmallow, a miniature grapefruit jelly, a sun-cured blackberry and a half-inch-high tuile shaped like the 2012 Olympic symbol. A quail egg fried sunny-side-up, its yolk still runny, sat on a plinth of potato, golden beet and cheese pavé which served as the substantial point of reference for many of the dish’s more ethereal elements. There was a mushroom pop tart made with dried, powdered mushrooms but the centrepiece of the whole affair was a maple syrup and bacon-infused panna cotta, coloured bright green with evaporated parsley dust. The panna cotta contained a surprise – a meaty heart of Texas-barbecue-style pulled pork paté that matched a delicate vertical ribbon of crispy triple-cured speck. There were two sauces on the plate – a swoop of cheese fondue and a thin, very pungent line of hickory-smoked barbecue sauce.

Shaun Hussey

Shaun Hussey

Onwards with Shaun Hussey. Two major proteins shared the limelight on his plate, one a medallion of salt cod wrapped like a tight drum in crispy shoelaces of fried potato. Beneath it lay softly braised spinach and on top was a yummy smoked apple relish. The other protein was a a miniature timbale of ham hock that chef had brined for five days, braised for four hours and served with a little cap of unctuous fat. Circling all this at a distance was a sauce of chopped apple in an apple cider brown butter, equally good with either of the two elements and more than amicable next to a smmartly chosen wine, the lightly oaked 2010 Sketches Chardonnay from Tawse, in Niagara.

Eden Hrabec had delighted the judges all weekend and her finale dish, substantial, risky, subtle and clever, did not disappoint. She chose sweetbreads as her protein and prepared them immaculately, serving a big lobe that was piping hot, perfectly timed and finished in a brown butter sauce spiked with garam masala spices. Beside it was an almost-bubble-and-squeak of smashed baby potatoes and wilted spinach lit up by coriander seed. A sauce of puréed apricots with more delicate masala spices had just enough spicy heat to slip from the sweet to the savoury side of the spectrum and a brunoise of preserved lemon had a sudden pickle-like intensity that brought everything to life. The final touch was a “papadom” that was actually made from crispy chicken skin flecked with black pepper. Eden chose an accompanying wine that is a particular favourite of mine – the Alsatian-style 2011 Noble Blend White from Joie Farms in B.C., its weight just what the dish needed.

Daren Bergeron

Daren Bergeron

Daren Bergeron had decorated his station with an extra gift that he gave away to the dinner guests – cans of his own chowder or chili from his “grocery store” Fou d’Ici, specially labelled for the evening. It was a typically generous gesture that thrilled the crowd. His dish was an adventurously abstract reinterpretation of vitello tonnato. On the left of the plate, a slice of perfect veal tenderloin was crowned with chopped eel in a sticky, pungent barbecue sauce flavoured with onion and Asian pears. On the right, a drum of white tuna, barely seared but enough to turn the surface white, stood on a delicate mat of tofu. Its topping was a spoonful of salty salmon trout roe. The two proteins were decorated by a hank of glistening golden filaments – threads of calamari jerky in a sweet-and-sour glaze. The sprouts and seedlings of various pulses added some earthy flavours and Chef finished the dish by flooding each bowl with a clear dashi broth powerfully infused with daikon. A final detail was the dab of fiery English mustard high on the rim of the bowl – there if needed for the veal. Another complex dish but the wine match was very successful – the light-bodied, gently fruity 2011 Gamay from Malivoire in Niagara, Ontario.

Jamie Stunt

Jamie Stunt

News that Jamie Stunt was cooking yak ensured a long line-up at his station. We were spared the wait. The yak came from Tiraislin Farms near Lanark – slices of perfectly lean striploin pan-seared to leave its crimson, almost ostrich-like character intact. Chef collaborated with Ashton Brewing Company in Ottawa to create a unique beer to match his dish – a beautifully balanced brew flavoured with Lemongrass and kaffir lime, and many of the elements strewn around the dish paid homage to the beer. Here we found a dab of tamari sauce made with the beer’s sweet barley wort; there a barley miso mayo to use as a sauce. There was barley malt in the smoked boar vinaigrette that softened the crispy barley strewn around the plate. Delicate pioppino mushrooms were a final garnish – lovely with the seafood surprise of a mussel shell filled with Northern Divine caviar (coincidentally, the very product we had included in the black box that morning), egg white and yolk and a tangy beer vinaigrette. It was a clever, original and flawlessly executed plate.

Milton Rebello

Milton Rebello

Our last three dishes featured lamb and first up was Milton Rebello, who brought Indian spicing to his dish with great effect. He began with a perfect pink chop off the rack, the tender meat full of flavour from time spent in a ginger marinade, enhanced by a crust of mustard and crumbled pistachio. Beneath the chop we found a streak of minted pea purée and beside it a soft-textured corn and potato hash cooked in the lamb juices. On the other side of the plate, Chef set a sweet lentil tuile biscuit shaped like a curling maple leaf and dotted with a single lentil. In the leaf lay a ball of soft, mild goat cheese crusted with a powder formed from vegetables cooked with South Asian spices garnished with a refreshing pear chutney. The final touch was a stripe of tangy, pungent sauce made from ginger-infused cherry port. The wine match was most effective, See Ya Later Ranch’s 2010 Pinot Noir flattering the lamb but sturdy enough to stand up to the sauce and the chutney.

Mark Filatow worked with the charcoal-grilled loins of lambs from local farm, Bar ‘M’ Ranch, keeping the meat pink and juicy. Close by on the plate was a thick chunk of soft, juicy merguez sausage made from the lamb’s shoulder and the neck meat cooked sous vide in chef’s chosen wine. The third component was a dainty lozenge of lamb belly braised with a subtle touch of Moroccan spices. We had a piece of roasted thumbelina carrot and a tiny “doughnut” of deep-fried mashed potato the size of Cleopatra’s pearl and a little fennel relish to cut the richness. No sauce was needed, the meats being so moist and intricately spiced but moisture came from stripes of carrot puréed with yoghurt and honey. Chef’s wine was another remarkably accurate match – the 2010 Syrah from Orofino’s Scout vineyard in B.C.’s Similkameen Valley.

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock

Darren Craddock also cooked lamb loin, preparing it sous vide with a hint of garlic and setting a little drum of it on the plate. He braised the shoulder and used the forked meat in a stiff croquette with truffles, chanterelles and mashed potatoes and parsnips, the ball crusted with hemp seed, pumpkin seed and sesame breadcrumbs. Moist and rich within, it was a show-stealer. Frisée dressed with cold-pressed camolina oil offered a bittersweet, leafy moment while a broad swathe of celeriac soubise sweetened with onion and cream was another moment of richness. A drizzle of green fennel oil decorated the plate while a column of compressed golden beet provided a cool, rooty sweetness of its own. A minted green pea foam worked predictably well with the lamb. A classic lamb jus reduction sauced the meat and the final garnish was a lateral slice of tomato, roasted to a crisp and so delicate it melted on the tongue, spiked with a crumble of pungent goat cheddar. Chef’s wine was the 2011 Kay-Syrah from B.C.’s Dirty Laundry winery.

So there we judges were – very well fed and thoroughly impressed by all the competitors. It was time to crunch the numbers and as I entered each judge’s scores for each dish it became apparent that this would be a very close call for bronze and silver, with five chefs within a couple of percentage points. Now marks lost on Friday or gained on Saturday morning meant the difference between a place on the podium or staying at the chefs’ table in the auditorium. Still leading the pack, however, was a clear winner with the gold medal in his sights.

The bronze medal went to Milton Rebello of the Saskatchewan Radisson Plaza hotel in Regina.

The silver medal went to Jamie Stunt of Oz Kafe in Ottawa.

The gold medallist and new Canadian Culinary Champion is Marc St. Jacques of Auberge du Pommier in Toronto.

Our sincere congratulations to him and his team and to all the chefs, sous chefs and student chefs who thrilled us over this mild weekend in Kelowna.

 

On the podium, Jamie Stunt, Marc St. Jacques and Milton Rebllo. Photography: Brian Chambers

On the podium, Jamie Stunt, Marc St. Jacques and Milton Rebllo. Photography: Brian Chambers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marc Lepine’s Last Supper

07 Feb

 

Marc Lepine (on the right) plating a dish. Photo by Karl Wells

Marc Lepine (on the right) plating a dish. Photo by Karl Wells

The final act of a Canadian Culinary Champion, held on the eve of the new Championship, is to cater a magnificent party. On Wednesday night, that party took place in the awe-inspiring rooms of White Spirit Lodge, a private home above the Big White resort. Normally the team of judges who will preside over the coming weekend do not attend this shindig. We prefer to sequester ourselves in some private chapel to prepare our palates and minds (cue quiet Gregorian chanting). This time we rode the coach up, up, up into the mountains and the utter darkness, until we arrived at the snow-smothered resort. The Lodge is a place of breathtaking luxury, built using massive logs helicoptered in from the Queen Charlotte Islands. It is also a brilliantly functional home and in its open kitchen we found Chef Marc Lepine of Atelier in Ottawa, the reigning champion, and his team preparing an astonishingly delicious meal for the crowd of over 100 merry-makers. Each dish was applauded long and loud. Barney Bentall was also there and was persuaded to sing some songs. Olympic athletes including Adam Van Koeverden and Jaime Salé were the stars of the evening and the wine was generously donated by a new Okanagan producer called Nagging Doubt. (The Chardonnay was particularly impressive).

Chef Lepine started us off with kushi oysters topped with horseradish foam then moved on to a dish that many remembered as an adaptation of his championship-winning dish from last year – a dazzling melange of dehydrated bacon and fennel, tiny fried potatoes the size of beans, lion’s-mane mushrooms and a huge pan-seared scallop with lemon thyme and shallot broth. He finsihed the dish with a spritz of lemon smabucca.

A deep-fried croquette of foie gras sat atop truffle purée as the centre of his next offering. Then came a sort of sorbet of coconut and lime granita with powdered kafir lime leaves squirted with thick pineapple juice – like eating a pina colada (the crowd went wild).

Our main course was slices of perfectly timed wagyu beef tenderloin laid over tissue-thin radishes, jerusalem artichoke chips and a ridiculous amount of shaved Perigord truffles, all topped with a sauce that was half butter and half corn – incredibly delectable!

Dessert consisted of a mosaic of quince, spun tonca bean and a jelly made from 2008 Chateau d’Yquem. The ingredients of Chef Lepine’s Last Supper matched the venue in splendour!

On Thursday evening the competition will begin for the ten competitors from across Canada. Whoever emerges triumphant will have a very tough act to follow.

 

 

Kelowna beckons

05 Feb
Sweep will my meal ticket, after Armageddon

Sweep will my meal ticket, after Armageddon

So I’ve been having these post-apocalyptic dreams recently. They wake me up around five in the morning and linger vividly in my mind’s eye, not fading away as dreams should, so that I grow anxious about falling asleep again and rejoining the horror where I left off. On Sunday night I managed to drive out of the zombie-infested small town in Kentucky and into the verdant pastures and copses of the English countryside where I left the jeep and started to climb a steep hill on foot – so steep that I soon realized I could climb no further and that the dead mare on the slope above might slide onto me at any minute. Then the black and yellow snake reared up from a hole in the mud before my face and began to bite my arm.

Last night, I was trapped in the endless labyrinth of dripping shower stalls and lockers in the basement of a vast high school, being hunted by gangs of other survivors. They had discovered that I could see (they could no longer see themselves) and they were closing in.

In all these dreams there is the knowledge that somewhere lies a haven – a place where grim but decent people will be rebuilding a life where one can be safe from zombies. Those of us who make it there line up before the three judges who will determine whether or not we are welcome. One of them – call him Minos or maybe St. Peter – asks what each person did before the apoc. As the people in front of you answer – “Nurse.” “Carpenter.” “Cook.” “Ditch digger.” – you begin to grow uncertain. How valuable will it be in this brave new world to have been a restaurant critic? You try not to glance at the group of men who have already been refused entry because they can offer no vestige of a skill that might benefit the community – the politicians and lawyers. They are already arguing with each other. Panic begins to set in. You think back frantically over your life, searching for some practical, medieval talent that will be of use…

I like to think that I will get in because there will be need of entertainment. I can’t juggle but I was a lounge singer briefly when I was at University, earning my beer money of an evening in the JCRs of the women’s colleges. And I believe I have a little talent as a glove puppeteer, enough to amuse the exhausted last remnants of our species around the campfire at night. Hopefully I can resist the temptation to be snide about the guy who did the cooking or find fault with the seasoning in the politician stew.

Life, meanwhile, goes on. Tomorrow I’m off to Kelowna to prep for the Canadian Culinary Championships on Friday and Saturday. There, food critics are valued and necessary. But I will be taking Sweep the puppet with me, just in case.