Four pre-Christmas treats and one post-

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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