Here in Toronto, we love the Cookbook Store. In Vancouver, we love Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks, and a recent missive from her explains why. With her permission, I share it here:
Here in Toronto, we love the Cookbook Store. In Vancouver, we love Barbara-Jo’s Books to Cooks, and a recent missive from her explains why. With her permission, I share it here:
I’m delighted to announce that Black Walnut (an imprint of Madison Press) is republishing The Man Who Ate Toronto, a book I wrote in the last century that chronicles the history of Toronto’s restaurant scene from the 1950s onwards and is also a memoir of my career as a restaurant critic. It’s a very handsome and hefty edition with a new chapter that carries the story forward to the present day. And now there are many beautiful photographs interleaved amidst the text, making this an astonishing bargain at $24.95. There are also a small number of copies of a deluxe boxed edition – priceless.
By sheer coincidence, an English publisher called Clearview is republishing an even earlier book that I wrote with my wife back in 1987, called A Kitchen in Corfu. That one was a documentary about the foodways, ancient and modern, of the remote Greek village where we lived in the mid-1980s. I had thought the life the book describes would be long gone by now, dissolved by the encroachment of modern life, and indeed that was very nearly the case – until the current Greek economy made the old ways of foraging and subsistence farming suddenly viable again. For those forced once again to live off the land as their grandparents did, I’m glad to say the many recipes in the book still work! Clearview is selling the new edition for £9.99, though I fear it won’t be available on this side of the Atlantic. If anyone would like a copy, please let me know and I’ll see what can be done.
It’s a strange but happy feeling to welcome back offspring from the past, a little like going back in time and engaging in conversation with yourself. Thanks to Black Walnut and Clearview for taking a chance on these books.
I’m always happy to see a really good new Canadian cookbook – particularly so when it has been written by one of the posse of amazing culinary judges who adjudicate Gold Medal Plates events. CJ Katz is GMP’s Senior Judge for both the Regina and Saskatoon events and now she has written her first book, Taste: Seasonal Dishes from a Prairie Table (CPRC books, $29.95) – and it’s a beauty, a delicious portrait of Saskatchewan’s foodways and, for me, a fascinating introduction to Canada’s prairie heartland.
When Gold Medal Plates first moved into Saskatchewan a couple of years ago, CJ was the obvious choice to serve as our Senior Judge. A prolific writer and documentary food photographer, she is the culinary host of The Wheatland Café on CTV and a regular columnist on CBC Radio. She is also very well connected across the province having met and interviewed just about everyone connected with the food industry from farmers to chefs to research scientists. All that experience is distilled into this book as we venture away from the cities to meet the people who grow and gather and produce the ingredients that CJ then turns into simple but mouth-watering recipes. As Anita Stewart writes in her foreword, “CJ’s food voice is strong and determined and respectful… She has chronicled the seasons and cooking traditions with great care. She honours farmers and fishers and a research community that is as creative as any.”
How can you find this book? If you live in Western canada, you can find it at Chapters. Here in the East, it’s at the U of T bookstore and also online at Chapters and Amazon. Well worth getting your hands on this one!
Everyone knows how good Prince Edward County bubbly is getting. It’s a style that suits the terroir perfectly and it’s going to grow in importance with every passing vintage. How to keep up with the latest wines and enjoy them at their very best? Here’s a great opportunity that also supports Slow Food the County. More details below, courtesy of Peter C. Fleming, chair of Slow Food the County:
Slow Food the County has changed the format for its annual fundraising event and announces a beginning of winter celebration of Sparkling Wine. Local sparkling wine producers and area chefs will partner to produce an evening of delectable bites each paired with its perfect liquid partner. Proceeds will go to supporting our ongoing food education activities, including the Healthy Lunch program and to other County food charities.
The gala event will take place on Saturday 19 November from 6:30 to 10:30 at Highline Hall in Wellington and will feature an auction of wine, art and other unique items as well as a chance to bid on dinner prepared in your home by one of our fine chefs. The event will feature music from the Lenni Stewart Jazz Trio.
Sparkling wine is a growing sector of the County wine industry with 8-10 sparkling wines now being produced in a variety of styles including méthode champenoise, méthode ancestral, Charmat and Prosecco. The following wineries have confirmed their participation – Huff Estates, The Grange of Prince Edward, Hinterland Estates, 3660 Vineyard and County Cider. Our chef partners are Michael Hoy, Heinz Haas, Sebastien Schwab, Luis de Sousa, David Dee, Paula and Victoria from Pasta Tavola and apprentice chefs from the Loyalist College hospitality program.
Tickets are $75 per person and are only available in advance. They can be purchased online at County Tix http://www.countytix.ca/events?view=list.
Ottawa wine-writer Natalie MacLean is coming to town, on tour with her new book, Unquenchable, A Tipsy Quest for the World’s Best Bargain Wines. Natalie has so many devoted readers in print and online that she needs no endorsement from me but it’s rare to have a chance to meet her in person in Toronto. By way of a launch party, she’s hosting two events – the first being a multi-course gourmet dinner with matching wines at Grano Restaurant in Toronto on November 23. Anyone can go simply by buying a ticket and great food and wine, merriment and story-telling is guaranteed. More info can be found at http://bit.ly/GranoDinner. Call 416-361-0032 or email Ben McNally (email@example.com) to buy a ticket.
The day before, which would be November 22, according to my calculations, Natalie’s hosting a wine tasting in Niagara. More details on that at http://tktwb.tw/NiagaraWine.
Unquenchable is an excellent read, chronicling the travels of a perpetually curious and often thirsty wine writer, visiting great characters around the world and listening to their enthusiasms. Natalie’s writing is always vivid and entertaining so that one feels more like a travelling companion than a reader. For more information about the book and an amusing video trailer about it, please visit www.nataliemaclean.com/book.
People send me books to write about on my blog. I only review them if I like them. But to know whether I like them or not I must, per necesse, read them. There is a lofty Matterhorn of books on my desk, an alp as yet unscaled. “Fills me with guilt,” as Mr. Bingley once remarked about the library at Netherfield. So let me lift the peak, the summit, off the mountain and open it…
Riesling Cooks is published by Cave Spring Cellars, in celebration of the winery’s 25th anniversary. The subtitle is “25 Riesling recipes from 25 of North America’s hottest chefs.” I think we can assume they mean most popular chefs rather than most intemperate or closest to combustion. And glancing down the list I see that almost every chef has contributed only one recipe, not 25. The exception, appropriately enough, is Chef Kevin Maniaci of On the Twenty, Cave Spring’s own restaurant, who provides a complete three-course menu of simple but delicious-sounding dishes. The list of other contributors is impressive indeed. Susur and Keith and Jamie. The Michaels Bonacini, Stadtländer, Olson, Moffatt and Weiss (that’s Professor Michael Weiss of the Culinary Institute of America who shares his recipe for a Savoury Potato Krugel). Mark McEwan and also Marco Canora of Hearth in New York City, one of the great embassies of Niagara Riesling in the U.S., thanks to the passion of Canadian General Manager, Paul Grieco. Neil Baxter, Anne Yarymowich and Jonathan Gushue. Donna Dooher, Anna Olson and Lora Kirk. Niagara’s finest, including Erik Peacock of Wellington Court, Ryan Crawford of Stone Road Grille, Tony de Luca and Robin Little. Rodrigo De Romana of Rodney’s Oyster House, doing salmon not oysters, Kevin McKenna of Globe Bistro and Earth, Peter George and Roberto Fracchioni…
It is a constellation of culinary stars, each one offering a scrumptious and doable dish designed to pair beautifully with one or other of Cave Spring’s array of Rieslings. As luck would have it, I have eaten one of the dishes in the book, the delectable Catfish Tacos shared by Ottawa-based chef Michael Moffatt of Beckta Dining and Wine and of Play, where I hoovered the aforementioned, one long-ago lunchtime. The picture above is of those very tacos, here riding the range with a humble but marvelous sidekick of “shaved Brussels sprouts.” Why point out that they have shaved? I wondered that, too. Are the macho tacos so obviously stubbly that some explanation is needed for the smooth green chins of the diminutive brassicae? It’s probably something to do with the well-known fact that catfish have whiskers.
Everyone knows Riesling is the best grape for food-pairing. And this book has one advantage that none of the other, much larger tomes on my desk can boast. It’s free. Dash immediately to your computer and type http://cavespring.ca/cookbook to order a copy. Quantities are limited. Life is short. Riesling is good.
One or two comments have been sent in from readers who are annoyed that I offer copies of my early books for sale on this web site but then explain that they are “sold out” and therefore unavailable. My apologies. This is the short story anthologised in Winter’s Tales I, first published a very long time ago.
On an afternoon in July, 1977, William Green was travelling south in a small aeroplane, en route from Bombay to Goa. The purpose of the journey, which had already brought him from London, was to eat a certain fish curry unique to the old Portuguese town. To this end, Green had fasted for 48 hours. At three pm the stewardess looked into the first-class cabin and gained the impression that her passenger was sleeping. He was, in fact, in the tertiary stasis of trance.
The fasts of a great gourmet have always been occasions of hushed reverence in the global kitchen. When Herr Grosch prepared himself in this way all Vienna went tiptoe for days on end: the hooves of the cab-horses were wrapped in felt and the playing of the waltz forbidden by Imperial decree within a mile of the little house on Konstanzplatz, that no sound might disturb the concentration of the great man. In Paris also, though a hundred years earlier, it is said that Louis XVI was no less sensitive to the delicacy of his friend and mentor, Vicomte de Corse, even to the extent of outlawing the cooking of food over heat in the city during the time of vigil, lest any aroma corrupt the Vicomte’s nostril’s as he lay on his crimson day-bed in the Tuilleries.
Green, however, and perhaps this is a measure of his greatness, disdained such external pressures. He relied on the ability of his own highly trained and supple mind to prepare himself, coupled with an unchanging methodology. Whether he was staying at the time in his rooms in London, or in his hilltop cloister in the Umbrian countryside, he set about his fast with an almost impudent cool. Seventy-two hours before the chosen dish was due to be eaten, he would take from a box a single cigarette, unfiltered and made from a blend of harsh Balkan tobaccos rolled in the finest Moskott paper. This he would proceed to smoke.
Over the years, the timing of this heresy had become uncannily precise. For a day and a night following the cigarette his taste buds and olfactory nerves lay numbed and cataleptic. Like bees stunned by smoke, they had recoiled, stricken from their natural processes, leaving Green innocent of both taste and smell.
Such sensory silence was of crucial importance to the gourmet. Now, free of distraction, he was able to cleanse his imagination and carefully reconstruct his critical apparatus. First, he established anew the compass points of flavour – sweet and bitter, salt and sour; secondly, he lifted them into three dimensions, in the manner of an astronomer mapping the infinite night sky, readying his olfactory planes of reference for new phenomena; thirdly, and here his tremendous self-discipline was stretched to the full, he sealed all memory of everything he had ever tasted temporarily into his subconscious. In this way, when the time finally came to eat, his palate would be free of any association, of every link, no matter how relevent, that might disrupt the present moment with an intimation of things past.
The last stage was a period of tranquil rest. As sensation returned to his nose and mouth, he would remain in semi-trance, holding back the tide of memory. The dishes would be set before him. While his body absorbed the colour, texture, sound, smell and savour of each mouthful, his imagination led the food into his naked mind, allowing its identity to fill his consciousness. In that pristine laboratory, it would be measured, dismantled and analysed according to the precise rituals of gastronomic science until the great man understood it utterly. Then, at last, his pent-up memories were released in one adrenal roar to crowd around the new experience, comparing, questioning, pronouncing, finding the place for it to fit amongst his history. And when the last plate was carried away, he would awaken, as if from sleep. His eyes focused on the faces of those about him, his ears once again heard voices. The structure of sensory references was folded away and stored for future use and the gourmet smiled, blinking in the applause of those who had eaten with him, and accepted a little coffee.
Green, then, was anything but haphazard where his vocation was concerned. Each time he was invited to evaluate some famous dish, some new creation, he set about it with absolute thoroughness, and because he was wise and aware of the danger of routine, and because he sought perfection and knew that it was not yet his, he embarked upon his fasting with an ever more profound concentration. Thus it was, as he lay back in the comfortable seat in the first class cabin, with the western coastline of India shimmering in the summer heat below him, that he first sensed the presence of the dish.
A moment before, Green had been on the point of entering the fourth stage of trance. His mind was naked and clean of all memory of taste and smell. It was as if he had never eaten in his life before, when suddenly he became aware of the imagination of food. It lay just beyond the womb of consciousness, like a word on the tip of one’s tongue, a shape beneath the surface of mirky water, a ghost in the room. Green frowned. His initial reaction was that some thought of food had escaped from the prison of his subconscious, prompted perhaps by a chance aroma in the aeroplane, and he accordingly tried to force the fugitive back, not even bothering to bring it out into the light for study. But his memory would not accept it. He realized that the wall had not been broken. A flash of intuition: whatever it was was a fantasy, a will-o’-the-wisp formed by his ascetic mood, assisted no doubt by the altitude. It was not, thank goodness, that his grip was slipping, it was just a mirage, flitting across the desert of his hunger.
Amused, Green reached out to see what it was his mind had conjured, but the thing eluded him. And it continued to do so. For the remaining hour of the flight he played cat and mouse with the untrappable taste and smell of the thing, chasing it around the three-dimensional scaffold of his graph of primary flavours, only to feel it slip away again as he lunged. It was as if it were attached to him invisibly by a distancing rod, a carrot before a donkey, never to be reached. Only it wasn’t a carrot.
At the little airport near Goa a car was waiting to take him to the hotel where the curry was to be made next day. He remembered nothing of the drive, only dimly noticed the chefs and managers as they greeted him with low bows in the hotel lobby, smiling as he hurried by. In his room, he lay down on the bed and tried again in the helpful silence to reach the mocking phantom. He could not.
Green remained in his room for the rest of the day and night and had still not emerged by the following morning. When an anxious manager knocked and said that the chefs were waiting to begin he told him that he needed further time to prepare his mind and body for the feast, and asked him to deliver a crate of bottled water. The manager bowed and left, explaining that he understood; his brother was a brahmin and the importance of meditative renewal could not be denied.
The gourmet sank back onto the tortured sheets of his bed. The challenge of defining the thing within his brain was assuming the proportions of obsession. In all his life, such a failure had never happened to him before. Here was a dish, a simple plate, he sensed, of something that his entire arsenal of critical gastronomy could not even approach. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes against the sight of the spinning fan above the bed and set to once again.
Now he extracted with aching care a series of flavours from his memory and attempted to measure the phantom. The notion that it was something he had never before encountered was incredible, but the elusive ghost responded to nothing. It was like attempting to describe an entirely new colour, not of our spectrum. If he could only elicit the beginning of a match, produce one faint echo… After many hours he was forced to abandon the application of primary flavours as useless.
“This is absurd,” he muttered, startling the silence of his room. “To be beaten, evaded, outwitted indeed by a flavour. I who am master of all flavours.” A small part of his mind now begged him to desist, to leave Goa and the pomfret curry for another time, to forego the chase. He ignored the suggestion disdainfully and turned his attention to the compound flavours. First he despatched the basic mixes into the void where the phantom lurked, mixes that were easily separable, like a fine sauce whose individual ingredients can be detected in each mouthful upon the spectrograph of the tongue. Then, the combinations that result from a more molecular merging, as in the unity of a blended whisky. Nothing led him the least bit nearer to the answer, no echo yet returned from where the presence waited, hovering in the darkness, beyond the edge of his understanding.
The days passed and he began to abandon altogether the tried and tested method of his science, but still he believed he would be able to explain the mystery if he could only taste the dish. Now he lunged at it wildly, or turned his back then spun round very fast and dived into the darkness, but the phantom was no nearer. He found himself imagining that if he ran, hard and fast, he must eventually capture it. He ran.
So complete was Green’s concentration that he failed to notice the symptoms of starvation as they seeped slowly through his body where it lay in that foetid little room. His stomach started to ulcerate and his abdomen was knotted with pain, but he paid them no attention. His already lean body grew weaker and more emaciated, but he was racing deep, in the benighted tunnels of his soul, pursuing.
He started to hear voices now: a thin high repetitious accent, intoning over and over again that this was the primal dish he was chasing, the first created union of two flavours. Then there was the other voice, low and soothing, murmuring that it was in fact the last and final meal, the ultimate congress of matter, the entrée of Armageddon. Both he felt, as he hurtled onward, were lies, and he dismissed them. I will catch you, he called, and look upon you, taste and savour you, and know your origin. You shall not defeat me.
In another country, perhaps, he might have been saved; but the manager whose brother was a brahmin had determined that the great gourmet should not be disturbed until he wished to be. He too had read the diaries of de Corse and knew the value of the trance anticipatory. It was an accident therefore that led to the discovery of Green. A maid returning to work from a lengthy illness entered the room independently of the manager’s wishes. She unlocked the door then stepped back gagging into the corridor, clutching her apron to her mouth. Green had been dead for days, of homeostatic dehydration. His weakened fingers could not open the bottled water.
* * *
Surges of emtion swept his body with the violence of nausea: fear of failure, hatred for the unseen food and need of it, terror that it might disappear as quickly as it had come, leaving him alone in the great universe, and finally, at first quietly, then building up from the deepest bass until the sound of it filled him utterly, an all-pervasive adoration of the meal that stood beyond human description, impervious to the remotest understanding of mankind.
Let me see, he cried, let me know. I am not worthy, but I would know you. I am your prophet and your vessel. Teach me. I love you.
Over the years, many chefs have thrilled me with their cooking but only a handful of them have consistently surprised me. Off the top of my head, the list would consist of Michael Stadtländer, Greg Couillard, Mitsuhiro Kaji and Marc Thuet. I have eaten Marc’s food dozens of times since I first tasted it in 1993, at Centro, where he had just taken over as Executive Chef after four years as Michael Bonacini’s sous. He stayed there until 2002 and I never knew what to expect. Some nights he’d come out and ask “Do you wanna play?” and then he would send out something miles away from the restaurant’s standard menu – a dish of pig’s trotter slow-braised almost to jelly and layered with persimmon, perhaps, or a little pastry filled with molten Münster cheese, or (so unexpectedly) sushi topped with foie gras and icewine jelly.
After that came two triumphant years at The Fifth (I voted it the best restaurant in Toronto during his stay, as I had done a couple of years earlier when Didier Leroy was chef), then a brief stay at Rosewater Supper Club (he was gone before I had a chance to taste his work there). And then he settled into the property on King Street West, next door to Susur Lee’s restaurants. There were still surprises. No one cooks game better than Marc Thuet and the properly aged and hung game he procured for off-menu dinners was the best ever tasted in Toronto – at least in the modern era. When he reinvented the place as a bistro he revived recipes learned from his grandmother in Alsace – awesome choucroute and cassoulet – dishes, he told me, that took days to prepare from scratch. But there were also dishes that astonished with their delicacy and discipline, almost a Japanese aesthetic, that reminded us that Thuet had started his career as an apprentice at The Dorchester hotel in London under the great Anton Mosimann.
The room’s last incarnation was as Conviction, with Thuet employing former convicts as kitchen and front-of-house staff, the whole socio-culinary experiment filmed as a reality television show. This time the big surprise was Thuet’s gift as a teacher. He didn’t look the part – big and burley as a biker, arms covered in tattoos, movie star shades worn on top of his dyed golden curls; and he didn’t sound the part – the basso profundo growl still showing a heavy Alsatian accent, effing and blinding with every other word. But two or three of the raw recruits managed to stay the course and one, I know, has since opened a bistro of his own.
TV tends to lead to a book deal in this shallow age, and here it is: Marc Thuet’s French Food My Way (Viking Canada, $39). Many of the favourite dishes from his restaurants are featured, and if the snippets of accompanying text don’t quite sound like Marc talking it’s only because his editors have weeded out the cuss words from a personal patois that normally puts Captain Haddock to shame.
It’s a thrill to find the recipes for dishes I’ve loved in his restaurants – quail consommé, choucroute, cassoulet, roasted pumpkin soup with poached bone marrow and white truffle (no one has ever accused Thuet of shying away from rich textures). The big question, of course, is how well do they translate to the page. Consider his take on tarte tatin (page 148). All the necessary information is there, and anyone who knew how to time a caramel sauce and pack the apple would have a pretty easy time doing it justice. But a cook who lacked experience or instinct? I’m not so sure.
The best thing about the book is the insight it gives into Thuet’s culinary mind. These are the things that make him tick, the ingredients that matter to him, the background techniques he learned in Alsace and London, the flavours he found in Canada. I’m not sure about the pictures – there are plenty of them, which is great, but they lie a tad flat on the paper. Nevertheless, I shall be putting this volume on the shelf reserved for books from which I intend to actually cook, some day, when there’s time.
Obsession is absorbing. It can go on for years – even decades – a process of concentrated gathering, collecting, hoarding. Then one day a point of satiety is reached and the tide turns. All that the river drew in on its flood is finally allowed to ebb back out into the sea. And when an obsession is shared a strange transformation sometimes takes place as all those stored experiences reveal themselves as expertise.
Totally Scallops (Kimagic publishing), is a specialized cookbook entirely devoted to scallop recipes. It is the pearl cultivated over Judy Eberspaecher’s 26-year fascination with Pectinidae, the world’s only migratory bivalves. Judy hails from Nova Scotia, Eastern Canada’s scallop hub, so she comes by her passion naturally. She’s a wonderful photographer, and her book is lavishly illustrated with her own images of scallop dishes, boats, regions, markets, fishers, environments… anything that is related to the delectable little critters. And there are almost 100 short, lucid, eminently doable recipes collected from around the world. It’s fascinating to see how different cultures have treated the scallop, how they choose to enhance that rich treat.
In England, we grew up prizing the scallop’s livid, glossy orange roe, tucked around the creamy white cylinder of the adductor muscle. In North America, only the muscle is prized and typically, on a scallop boat, the “roes and rims” are scraped away as detritus and tossed back into the sea. Patrick McMurray of Starfish, Toronto’s primo raw bar, brings in real East Coast scallops alive-oh and encourages his customers to eat everything inside the shell, including the roe and the ring of crunchy eyes that lies just inside the shell’s rim. It is SO delicious, SO sweet and strange and textured that you forget you are eating a living creature.
McMurray has his moment in the book, but it’s really about ways of cooking scallops. “Treat them like miniature tenderloins,” proposes English chef Theo Randall of the Intercontinental hotel in London. “They have such a great texture and flavour that they don’t need much help.” Fortunately, the rest of the world disagrees. From Montreal comes a scallop, canteloupe and foie gras tartare; from Wales a scallop and laverbread kiss; from Japan, curried scallop cakes; mango scallops fom Singapore, scallop carpaccio and Norwegian scallop and avocado tarts… And scallop soups from just about everywhere. Judy’s husband, wine writer Alex Eberspaecher, provides an introduction and a short essay on matching scallops to wine (Champagne or Riesling share the honours). Best of all are the informative little sidebars that together amount to a small treatise on scallop science and lore.
The book just won the Best Fish and Seafood (Canada) category from the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards and now goes up against the rest of the world. The winners will be announced in March. This is a marvellous book for scallop lovers but it will resonate more generally than that, ringing a bell with anyone who still jealously hugs an obsession or has learned to share it. Buy a copy at the Cookbook Store (of course) or from the book’s own web site, www.totallyscallops.com ($39.95).
Buying presents for people we care about at this time of the year – or buying a few innocent extra indulgences for oneself – is always an ordeal. So many exhausting decisions…
I’m here to help.
OIL At the farthest, most remote reaches of Portugal’s Douro valley, so far and high you can see the Spanish border to the east, in a landscape where the sun beats down on the parched, vertiginous slopes of crushed stone like a hammer on an anvil and the river takes many days to slip silently past the great port vineyards before surging out into the Atlantic, stands the epicentre of the Casa Agricola Roboredo Madeira, better known from its wine labels as CARM. It’s the Madeira family business and once, almost a decade ago, I tasted its finest wines and olive oils in a palace in Lisbon, poured and interpreted by Felipe Madeira himself. Much to my delight, I recently rediscovered some of those oils right here in Toronto, at Salt Wine Bar on Ossington Avenue, to be precise. You can buy them there by the bottle, to take home, and I strongly recommend such a course of action. The CARM Praemium is the one to aim for – an organic extra virgin oil cold-pressed from Madural and Verdeal olives. The flavour is strong but it’s not raunchily oxidized like so many Portuguese olive oils. The aroma is penetrating, fruity, like ripe tomatoes and apple skins with just the right amount of peppery prickle. On that night in Lisbon, the chef at the palace chose to flatter Felipe Madeira by turning his golden treasure into dessert – a trio of olive oil mousse (with a bouquet of newly cut hay), juicy sugared olives (a brilliant idea I have never encountered since) and an olive oil ice cream that tasted like crème fraîche boosted by the fruity, plum-tomato aroma of these amazing Madurals. Praemium knocks any olive oil from Tuscany into a cocked hat, especially when tasted with fresh, moist, heavy Portuguese corn bread for dunking and a scrunch of coarse salt.
TEA I’m a sporadic tea drinker at best. There will be times, mostly during some kind of physical recuperation, when a really excellent tea becomes an enthusiasm. Cleansing, restorative… Then I feel better and quickly return to older associates – coffee, port, Negronis, a refreshing ale…Recently, I had a chance to taste some teas from Kusmi, the venerable company founded in St. Petersburg in 1867, removed to Paris in 1917 (for obvious reasons) and last year entering North America via Montreal. These are very high quality black or green teas and exotically flavoured blends, some subtle, some powerful but all of them elegant and delicious. Most usefully, Kusmi has prepared a sampling box of 12 different varieties (two teabags per variety, $17) to allow a thorough exploration. I was enchanted by “Prince Vladimir” with its citrus and vanilla aromas, and by “Anastasia,” all bergamot, lemon and orange blossom. These teas, I suspect, will command my loyalty for more than a morning-after. Find them at Cheese Boutique, McEwan, Pascale Bros and elsewhere. A complete list of retail locations is available at www.kusmi.ca.
WORDS I met François Chartier a few weeks ago when he passed through Toronto, publicizing his extraordinary new book, Taste Buds and Molecules (McClelland & Stewart, $39.99). It is a manifesto, a treatise, a revolutionary new approach to the relationship between food and wine, and it could change your life. You and I (and I include you in this with total confidence) were brought up to match wines to food in an entirely empirical manner. We were taught guidelines that had evolved through trial and error. Like good scientists, we tested those guidelines through trials of our own. Perhaps we even came up with some semi-original ideas, but always because history, custom, tradition, our own instincts and the evidence of our own palates determined them. Chartier, a leading sommelier in Montreal, approaches the relationships between food and wine from the inside out. This book is the result of 20 years of research and it has been hailed by no less a sage than Ferran Adrià as “magnificent” and “groundbreaking.” Chartier’s method is to analyze the aromatic molecular compounds in a wine and then find the identical compounds in foods. Pair them together, however bizarre the combination sounds, and a gustatory orgasm is guaranteed. Some of these juxtapositions might be guessed at – mint and Sauvignon Blanc, for example. Others are more obscure. The same compound, sotolon, links the vin jaune of Jura with curry and maple syrup. It also accounts for the deep affinity between fenugreek seeds and Manzanilla sherry and oysters. Chartier was completely persuasive when we met. “You must dip grilled asparagus in dark chocolate and then taste it with a Cabernet Sauvignon,” he insisted. “It is a revelation.” Study this book and you will learn what wines to serve with what foods, by a method entirely based upon biochemistry rather than the evidence of your senses. It is full of wisdom, though the style of the writing is decidedly scientific and the graphic design annoyingly distracting. This will not deter the professional sommelier or the wine geek but it may tire the general reader. No matter. Dip into it whenever you can. Use the index. Amaze your friends and confound your enemies. You can find the book at the Cookbook Store.
BUBBLES France is replete with sparkling wines, mostly made in the same painstaking way as Champagne though each blessed with its own proud provenance and name. Crémant de Loire is one such style, and Château de Montguéret is an admirable example of it, a crisp, elegant bubbly made from 60 percent Chenin Blanc, 20 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Cabernet Franc. It calls itself a Brut but it’s not as austere as many Champagnes, though the chalky soils of the Loire valley lend a definite minerality to the long, satisfying finish. On a good day, I can imagine pear and cooked apple on the nose but let’s face it, we turn to bubbly for texture and sharpness, refreshment and chill and for fizz and frivolity rather than vague suggestions of fruit. If you’re on a budget that denies you real Champagne, this will solve your problem: it’s a bargain at $18.95 (CSPC # 621896 on the LCBO’s general list). And we drink too few wines from the Loire – possibly because Niagara already provides us with a home-grown seraglio of cool, diffident blondes.
CHOCOLATE Back in the mid-1990s, chocolatier Sharon Shoot had a charming little store on the margin of the Beach. It was called Wickerhead and the great treat available there was clusters of fresh, crunchy-squeaky popcorn hand-dipped in dark, milk or white Belgian chocolate. In those days I wrote Toronto Life’s food shop guide single-handed, spending six weeks of every parched and broiling summer visiting hundreds of gourmet stores in the GTA, learning the city’s foodscape first-hand. My reward was the discovery of obscure jewels such as Shoot’s awesome corn. Things are different these days at Toronto Life, and Sharon Shoot has moved on. But only a block or two. She is still in the deliciousness business, with a new store called Chocolate by Wickerhead at 2375 Queen Street East (at Beech), 647 344 9060, www.wickerhead.com. And the chocolate popcorn remains her defining gift to the world. If you have never tried it, now is as good a time as any to remedy the situation.
RUM A great amber rum can hold its own against almost any other spirit. Appleton’s 30-Year-Old is such a treasure. The distillery’s Master Blender takes several individually oak-aged eight-year-old Jamaican rums, blends them and then puts them back into six barrels that once held Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey for a further 22 years. Six casks yield only 1,440 bottles and that is the number released every year – some of which have ended up at Vintages (CSPC 164103) right now and are selling for $503 each. I have never heard of a more expensive rum. Is it worth the money? Sure, if you can afford it. Thirty years in wood is a very long time and a rum might be expected to emerge like the Count of Monte Cristo, all dried-out, embittered and obsessive, but this spirit survives the incarceration with cool equanimity. It’s a superb rum, with a smooth, lissom body like good Armagnac. Appleton’s telltale orange zest aroma is there on the nose but tightly braided with vanilla, caramel, raisin-studded butter tart and a hint of chocolate. The palate is delightfully refined and well balanced, not sugary (nothing so crass) but conjuring illusions of caramel sauce, toasted hazelnuts and the scent of a baked plum tart coming hot from the oven. The dryish finish is as smooth as the beginning, lingering into the distance without any bitter hook or wobbly vibrato. The only criticism I have ever heard levelled against this rum is that it is almost too elegant, too smooth and refined, in other words, not rummy enough. Which is as daft as saying a song can be too well sung. I urge you to buy a bottle – and then send it to me.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting a most impressive woman – Laura Catena. In her native Mendoza, Argentina, she is the vice president of Bodega Catena Zapata, one of the most innovative and iconic wineries in the country. With her father, Nicolas, she is responsible for wines under the Catena, Catena Alta, Catena Zapata, Tilia and Alamos labels. She is also the owner and founder of Luca wines and creator of La Posta winery, which showcases wines made from the grapes of prodigiously gifted smallholders and farmers. Oh yes and she’s also a full-time emergency room doctor in San Francisco where she lives with her husband and three children. In her spare time she has written a book, just published, that is the most thorough, savvy and interesting introduction to the Argentinean wine industry I have ever read. It’s called Vino Argentino and is published by Chronicle Books. I found my copy at the Cookbook Store. Yesterday, she was in town for a day of public relations events then off to New York for more of the same. So I was lucky to be one of the two wine writers (David Lawrason the other) that her Toronto agent, Alex Gaunt of Trialto, invited to his Liberty Village office for a tasting.
After whetting our palates with a little crisp, aromatic Tilia Torrontes (the only Torrontes at the LCBO these days and a fine example of that perfumed grape) we began with the Luca Chardonnay 2008. We don’t see much high-end Argentinean Chardonnay in Ontario though it’s the grape that first lured the world to take an interest in Argentinean wine, back in the 1990s. This one is grown at 5000 feet in Tupungato, in the foothills of the Andes where the sunlight is fiercely bright but the temperatures pretty much Burgundian. It’s gorgeous – full-bodied, ripe, full of intense aromas and flavours of tropical and citrus fruit but with a fresh, minerally finale. It sells for less than $30 and is worth every cent.
We also tasted La Posta Bonarda 2008 an elegant floral red. After Malbec, Bonarda is the most planted red variety in Argentina. With their strong Italian heritage, most Argentineans assume it is the same grape as the northern Italian Bonarda – “They have willed it to be Italian,” says Laura Catena. As she points out in her book however, it’s actually a French grape – the Charbonneau from Savoie. Look how well it has done in Argentina!
Ditto Malbec, of course. But here we should correct an often-heard mistake. Malbec is rare in France these days – confined to the inky wines of Cahors and almost extinct in its native Bordeaux, though it is still listed as an allowed component of the Bordeaux blend. People assume it must always have played a minor role in Bordeaux but in fact it was an equal player with Cabernet Sauvignon until the phylloxera blight in the last quarter of the 19th century, when Europe’s vineyards were all but wiped out. The solution, as we all know, was to replant with American rootstock, immune to phylloxera, but Malbec did not take kindly to the process. Merlot did – which is why Merlot is now Cabernet’s companion in Bordeaux instead of noble Malbec.
Fortunately for the world, Malbec had already been taken to Argentina and was doing well. We can taste how well today in the wines Laura Catena poured for us yesterday. Catena Malbec is available at Vintages for around $20. If I had to pick one Argentinean Malbec as the archetype of the style it would be this one. Laura puts it more poetically: “This is the Chanel jacket of Argentinean wine,” classic, elegant and always appropriate. It’s a blend of fruit from five of the estate’s vineyards, including some very high altitude plantings for heady aromatics and some in the lower-lying Maipu region for richness and warmth. “I despise flabbiness in wines,” says Laura – hence the bright acidity that underpins all the rich black fruit and makes this such a successful food wine.
Then there is Catena Zapata Malbec Argentino. We tasted the 2005 yesterday. It sells at around $90. There’s a much bigger qualitative gap between a $10 wine and a $20 wine than there is between a $40 and a $100 wine. And at these exalted levels we’re looking for more than raw power and intensity. The Zapata is no heavyweight. It is sublimely elegant and balanced, limpid and smooth. What makes it so remarkable is its amazing length. The sense of the fruit, the spice, the aromatic harmony lingers on the palate for a long long time before it starts to fade. And though this wine is already five years old it still tastes wonderfully juicy and young. These very high Andean vineyards receive huge amounts of pure sunshine but it’s the labour-intensive detail in the vineyard that pays such a dividend. Some great wines are made from specific areas of a single vineyard. This wine is made from specific individual vines, each one marked with a red ribbon – the Malbec apotheosis.