On Friday I was up at the crack of dawn to drive down to Niagara College to deliver a convocation address to some of the students and to receive an honorary diploma in Media Studies. It truly was an honour to be thus gowned and hooded and the graduating students were impressively polite and patient with this old geezer at the podium. The trip also gave me a chance to check out Benchmark, the restaurant in the College’s Niagara-on-the-Lake campus. It has been thoroughly worked over in the last ten months by Michael Olson, the renowned chef (Liberty, On the Twenty) who also teaches at the College. He runs Benchmark as a classroom where students in the culinary and hospitality programs can learn the realities of the business.
That’s how Niagara College works, with excellent and famously hands-on courses. It also has 40 acres of vineyards on the beautifully landscaped 114-acre campus, tucked up under the Niagara escarpment, where students can learn viticulture, growing the grapes that they then turn into wine in the teaching winery. Those wines are routinely entered for professional competitions and have so far won 140 awards! I remember coming across one years ago when I was one of the many judges for the Ontario Wine Awards. I thought it was a joke until I tasted it. Dazzling! Renowned winemaker Jim Warren was il professore at the time, which explains a lot. I believe it won gold that year. The College also has its own brewery, beer store, greenhouses and now a chic, ultra-modern wine boutique beside the vineyards where anyone can buy the wines. Production is very small, obviously, so this is actually the ONLY place to do that. Reserve wines are referred to as Dean’s List and some of the labels are designed as report cards filled out by none other than Tony Aspler. I strongly recommend you visit and buy, next time you’re down in Niagara.
And stop for a meal at Benchmark. Our lunch there was delightful, set in the restaurant’s airy rotunda with its wrap-around view of the vineyards and escarpment. The place is open to the public and is a local favourite, especially now that Olson has done away with much of the formality of service and dramatically lowered prices. The five of us were served family style with platters of food set down in the centre of the table for the appetizer courses. We began with silky slices of Mario Pingue’s yummy local prosciutto and slices of Guernsey Gold from the Upper Canada Cheese company in nearby Jordan. The College’s own semi-dry Riesling was a fine accompaniment.
Crispy battered shrimp with coleslaw and a peppery aioli followed, then Olson emerged with a casserole of perfect white asparagus grown by farmer Peter Janssen in Simcoe. He doesn’t grow enough for the commercial market but advertizes in German-language newspapers and sells the lot to ex-pats who miss Germany’s obsessive spargelfest. Olson’s students cooked it beautifully, dressing it with fresh orange, a Riesling-orange hollandaise and chopped chives from the garden. Our hosts brought forth a second wine for good measure and reasons of scientific comparison – a gloriously golden barrel-fermented Chardonnay. It was hard to say which wine better suited the asparagus but I think the Riesling was the ultimate winner. There’s something to be said for classic combinations.
For a main course I ordered tender pork with a sweet, sticky glaze of maple and beer – roast potatoes and vegetables were exemplary. Then Olson brought out another unique treat, a sort of soprbet made by freezing the pure wort from the brewery before any hops had been added. It was, as you might expect, marvelously malty and sweet – quite the most original and delicious ice I’ve had in ages – and full of the taste of barley. We finished with platters of cookies and pastries that were actually a preview of recipes from the upcoming tv show starring Anna Olson (Chef Olson’s wife). It’s called simply Bake and will be well worth following if the scrumptious apricot pastries and empire cookies are anything to go by. “It’s an inverse puff pastry,” explained Michael Olson. “Instead of starting with dough and adding butter, we start with a sheet of butter and add dough. It makes for a more even result.” Absolutely lovely!