Ay me… St. John’s! I can’t say the name of the place without cracking a smile. Gold Medal Plates has had some notoriously splendid evenings there since we embraced Newfoundland and Labrador and last night was no exception. Our fearless leader, Stephen Leckie, was missing in action, stricken by the flu and confined to quarters, but Karen Blair was there to rally the troops and Seamus O’Regan was our dashing emcee. Curt Harnett conducted the athletes’ interviews to the delight of the sold-out crowd and we had music coming out of (and into) our ears from Jim Cuddy, Ed Robertson, Anne Lindsay and Spirit of the West’s John Mann and Geoffrey Kelly. John and Geoffrey are coming with me on the Scottish GMP trip next June and I anticipate some great songs from them amid all the other splendours we have in store up there on the very northern edge of Britain. A good many St John’s guests bought the trip last night thanks to auctioneer Wayne Bartlett’s persuasive ways: it’s going to be a PARTY.
You never can tell how the chefs will cross the line at a Gold Medal Plates event – all in a pack or strung out across the field. Last night we had a unanimous winner and by the widest margin I can remember, followed by a very tight huddle of half a dozen chefs, anyone of whom could have made the podium. Working it all out was a roster of palates considerably changed from previous years. Senior Judge, Karl Wells, was beside me as always at the judging table, and chef and culinary instructor, owner of Chef to Go, Bob Arniel was also back in his chair. Joining us this year was author, screenwriter and wine and food guru, Edward Riche; chef, food writer and culinary blogmeister, Nicholas Gardner; home economist and culinarian Debbie Youden; and, of course, Chef Shaun Hussey of Chinched Bistro, who won gold last year and represented Newfoundland and Labrador most commendably at the 2013 Canadian Culinary Championships.
Taking the bronze medal was chef Andrew Hodge of the Holiday Inn St. John’s Govt Centre. Introducing his dish at the judges’ table, he explained that it was a snout-to-tail tribute to Newfoundland’s excellent pork. There was a raviolo filled with a moist farce of pork cheek and pork belly, subtly perfumed with some Italian black winter truffle. A juicy little cabbage roll was stuffed with minced pork shank and shoulder. The third main component was a swooping shard of biscuitty tuile that curled up from the plate, weighted down by a tiny puck of herbed goat cheese and a very tasty croquette made from the pork liver and heart flavoured with roasted garlic. A soft nugget of roasted carrot and three moments of spiced carrot purée nestled up to the cabbage roll. Dots of yellow beet purée and a bold stripe of red beet jam decorated the plate while a balsamic fig reduction provided some welcome acidity. Chef chose a great wine for pork – the tangy, beautifully balanced, complex Cave Spring Cellars 2009 CSV Riesling from Niagara.
Our silver medal was won by chef Ruth Wigman from Bistro Sofia. She is the first female competitor St John’s has ever given us and she stepped up onto the podium to a standing ovation. Her dish took a more Asian take on that great Newfoundland pork, centring on a handsome slab of lacquered pork belly, marinated with citrus, soy and Korean chili. Flanking it we found two tortellini filled with Peking duck – gorgeous bites of flavour – and topped with a delicately flavoured Szechuan foie gras foam. A sprinkle of crumbled crackling garnished the pork belly and the plate was beautified by perfect Brussels sprout leaves, pink discs of pickled radish, a strewing of sprouts and seedlings and a touch of soured pear. Chef’s wine was a fine choice, its cherry and violet notes playing nicely with the gentle Chinese flavours on the plate – Red Paw Vineyard 2011 Pinot Noir from Coyote’s Run Estate Winery in Niagara.
And so to gold – our runaway victor – chef Roger Andrews from Relish. He chose to work with squab, stuffing the bird’s breast with chopped pistachios and chanterelles and cooking it sous vide to moist, pink perfection. He made a squab jus, flavoured it with a low-lying evergreen shrub called Labrador tea and reduced it down to a well-judged consistency, thickened but not sticky. Dots of squash purée spiced with cumin and cayenne kept their distance from the meat but buddied up to little dice of pressed apple scented with maple and finely chopped green onion. The tour de force of the dish was a fascinating and delicious salad of crunchy, slightly charred, puffed wild rice tossed with juicy fresh bakeapples and other berries, garnished with edible flowers and moistened with a hibiscus vinaigrette. Each mouthful was a delightful adventure. Chef went the Pinot Noir route, choosing one of Canada’s finest – Norman Hardie’s unfiltered 2012 Pinot Noir from Prince Edward County, a wine that came across as all silk and cherries and was a dazzling bride for the squab.
Chef Andrews could not hide his emotions on the podium and was a thoroughly popular champion with the other chefs as well as the crowd. We now have nine contenders for the championships in Kelowna. Onwards to Ottawa on Monday!
And now here is the St. John’s Wine Report from Gold Medal Plates National Wine Advisor, David Lawrason:
Norman Hardie Rules the Rock
For the first time in the 2013 campaign one wine has won both major awards at Gold Medal Plates event. The seamless, charming Norman Hardie 2012 County Pinot Noir took the Best of Show Wine Award, then moments after I made that announcement – to the predictably rowdy audience in St. John’s – Chief Culinary Judge James Chatto revealed that the same wine had won the culinary gold as well, matched to a delicious squab by Chef Roger Andrews of Relish.
The culinary gold earns Norman Hardie a berth at the Canadian Culinary Championships, where last year he had donated the 2010 Prince Edward County Pinot classic as the Mystery Wine. In fact Norman Hardie has very generously donated on four separate occasions this year, including a second wine – his 2010 Pinot Noir Unfiltered from Niagara – in St. John’s.
It was a very strong field of contenders for Best of Show, the best group yet assembled in St. John’s. I had only one point separating my top three picks. The First Runner-up Award went to another Ontario Pinot Noir, the intense, cran/sour cherry scented Coyote’s Run 2010 Red Paw Pinot Noir; which also won the culinary silver medal with chef Ruth Wigman of Bistro Sofia. The second-runner up spot went to the massive, impressive Lake Breeze 2009 Tempest from the Okanagan Valley, a blend of merlot and cabernets from a winery better known for its white wines.
The Best of Show Wine Award is a judging of all the wines in each city to recognize the generosity of the Canadian wine industry, which each year counts over 60 wineries as donors. The winning wineries have increased odds in a draw to spend a week at Borgo San Felice in Tuscany.
I was joined in the judging by the two leading local wine writers in St. John’s. Tom Beckett is the creator of Beckett on Wine, a blog that chronicles the vinous life of St. John’s. Steve Delaney is the wine critic for the St. John’s Telegram and a board member of the St. John’s chapter of the Opimian Society.
This night Andrew Peller Ltd, our National Celebration Wine Sponsor, stepped up during the awards, auction and entertainment portion of the evening with Wayne Gretzky 2010 Cabernet-Merlot from Niagara, a red that has settled into a balanced groove with a year or two under its belt. They also donated the Trius 2011 Riesling, which two judges placed in their top five, thanks to maturing complexity and great acid balance.
Another Niagara Riesling reached the culinary podium, with Cave Springs 2009 CSV nicely matched to bronze medal chef Andrew Hodge of the Holiday Inn. Other wines enjoyed over the evening included the delicious Malivoire 2012 Gamay that I placed in my top three, and Mission Hill 2011 Five Vineyards Pinot Noir.