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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

August on Corfu

07 Sep

corfu plus elle ma dit 002

Three weeks at our mountain hideout on Corfu seemed like a generous run of days when we first arrived but it slipped away all too quickly. Still, the beneficial effects linger for a while – about as long as a tan lasts, perhaps. There was a little work to be done on the house but not much that couldn’t be postponed for another year, so we turned our attention to our land, the steep little acre that drops away from the terrace into a valley, its contours smothered by an unbroken counterpane of olive trees.

We have neglected our own 11 olives shamefully. Indeed, the last time I really got to grips with them was more than 25 years ago and they were badly in need of attention, tall and shaggy as John the Baptist. But first there was strimming to be done, to get through to the trees, wading through a chest-high sea of yellow stalks and plants. Enter Themistocles the gardener, an Albanian from the next village, who knew exactly what needed to be done.

The first day was a strimming day and when we could once again stroll down the slope without fear of vipers I watched him take a hatchet to the forest of shoots that had sprung up from the base of each tree. He was ruthless with our litle grove of plum trees – tall, willowy trees that give little fruit to anyone but the wandering wasps – why would they when they have been abandoned for so long? He pruned them right back, making me gasp at his ruthlessness. We shall see what happens next July. When we lived here year-round, a long time ago, we made vast quantities of splendid jam from the purple plums. I think I wrote about it in A Kitchen in Corfu, my first book about the island, republished this year in England, incidentally, without any fanfare at all.

being cruel to be kind

being cruel to be kind

The second day was the olive tree armageddon. A short back and sides. Themis clambered nimbly into each tree, scampering up and out onto branches that I (plagued by vicarious vertigo) was certain must break. There was dead wood to trim, whole branches to lop off, the whole crown and centre of each tree to be clinically sawn away to let in light and air. In the end there was more olive wood on the ground than growing. “Next year,” said Themis, “they will be bushy with new growth and you will have another good crop of olives.” Even my koumbaros, Philip, agreed that the job had been done pretty well when he came to lunch later, bringing two litres of his own red wine (another very good year) and two bottles of the precious Champagne he makes in his apothiki.

It took me a day to drag the fallen olive foliage into six huge piles, each twice as tall as me. Themis will come back in October, after the early rain of autumn, and burn it all.

My own little project lay in a particularly forlorn corner of the land, where the low dry-stone wall that separates us from the neighbour’s unoccupied property had been tumbled by time. No one has lived there for 50 years and the garden is a towering tangle of brambles, like a wave that threatens to engulf our slopes. Cutting through the brambles, pulling the prickly ropes down out of my olive tree, sawing away dead wood, letting in the sunshine, I found an unsuspected little greengage tree struggling in the middle of it all. I trust it will do better now, with the wall repaired and the brambles (temporarily) pushed back.

As far as flavours go, there was one new highlight this summer. Our good friends Horst and Yutte have a house on the other side of the ridge. (We have the dawn, they have the sunset view.) Retired now, they spend most of the year here. They brought their delightful family for dinner one night and brought gifts, too – a bottle of the dark purple grape juice Horst presses from his vines, and a little jar of dried oregano flowers…

fennel pollen

And something else altogether wonderful. Earlier in the summer, Horst had harvested wild fennel flowers on the hillsides, brought them back to his kitchen and, with a scientist’s care, shaken out the pollen. He gave us a jar of it – no more than two tablespoonfuls of the precious golden dust. I have never smelled anything so aromatic or so quintessentially explicit of the scent of fennel. A princely present, like something out of a fairy story where the innocent hero is warned to use it sparingly and wisely. Its magic was apparent the next day. I was tossing some tiny baby squid in a frying pan with nothing but a little olive oil – just two minutes to crisp the tentacles and bronze the pinky-sized bodies – and I sprinkled on a tiny pinch – a scruple of the pollen. Unbelievable. Its fragrance filled the kitchen; its flavour charmed our tongues. A noble gift indeed.

 

Roman crumbs

07 Jun
The slipper lobster

The slipper lobster

Before we close the book on our little Roman escapade, I should mention the other treats we encountered.

Just south of the Spanish Steps, down the Via Borgognona is Nino, a tiny trattoria with dark wood panelling and high ceilings where the tables are very close together and the uniformed old waiters compete to see who can be the grumpiest. There are no secret places in that ritzy part of the city and Nino is a bit too proud of its unpretentious looks, self-consciously old-school ambience and  traditional Roman cuisine. Still, people fall under its spell. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes held their wedding rehearsal dinner there, according to the guide books, all of whom seem to be batting for Team Tom. The food is simple  – really good grilled fish, roast veal with potatoes, heavy pastas. The highlight was a bowl of the best straciatella I’ve ever tasted – pure chicken broth, nimbus-cloudlike egg, just enough parmiggiano.

Nino, Via Borgognona 11,  06/678 6752, www.ristorantenino.it.

On the advice of my friend Sid Cross, Vancouver wine and food guru, we had lunch at Perilli when we found ourselves south of the Aventine hill in the Testaccio area. It’s quite like Nino only far less self-aware and the prices are more than reasonable. The feel of the room reminds me of a railway restaurant from the 1960s with old posters and photographs on the wall and a faded mural of a rustic scene. The owner sits at a lectern near the kitchen door, occasionally rising to serve customers he knows from the small but excellent buffet of vegetable antipasti. They had told us at Nino that the artichoke season was over but that was nonsense and we started at Perilli with two perfectly poached little globes – artichokes in their tender adolescence. The prize there is the carbonara – heavy pasta tubes tossed tableside in a large bowl with an egg yolk sauce. The elderly curmudgeon who served us ladled some of it onto a plate for Wendy then set down the remaining majority in the mixing bowl before me. The real deal. Warning: avoid the house wine.

Perilli, Via Marmorata, 39, 06/5755100.

And then there was Crab, on the same street as the Hotel Lancelot, where we were staying, just east of the Colosseum. This is an expensive evening but worth it. Crab is a modern seafood restaurant, chic and glossy, with an irresistible display of oysters and seafood behind glass near the door. We started with a platter of raw seafood for two – four kinds of impeccable French Atlantic oysters, various species of prawns and clams, langoustines and mussels that had been briefly steamed. Then we shared a slipper lobster from Sardinia, also known as a cicala or “batti-batti.” If you’ve never seen one, slipper lobsters are extraordinary creatures, spectacularly primitive. They really do look like a clog but they are full of superbly flavourful meat. The restaurant serves this tender flesh out of the shell, cut into large chunks in a Catalan sauce that’s mostly emulsified olive oil and lemon juice like a warm, runny mayonnaise, surrounded by tart, firm little cherry tomatoes, raw onion, crunchy celery and soft boiled potatoes. It was the dish of the entire week and one of the most expensive things we’ve ever ordered. I misread the price as 17 euros a kilo but it was actually 17 euros a hectogram so the final price was 170 euros. Sheesh… But worth every cent.

Crab, Via Capo d’Africa, 2. 06/77203636.

 

 

Agata e Romeo

03 Jun
Wome

Wome

The highlight of the early days of this Roman holiday was dinner at Agate e Romeo, a small restaurant on a grand and sombre avenue near the crown of the Esquiline Hill. We thought we had stumbled across an undiscovered treasure but that turns out not to be the case – the ristorante already has a Michelin star and a loyal following among Rome’s cognoscente. Getting in can be a challenge. We had reserved online before leaving Canada – and  were obliged to share credit card details – but received no confirmation and could not reach the restaurant by phone once we got to Rome. So we just showed up at 7:00 p.m. outside the discreet entrance, looking smart and hoping for the best. The door was locked and we were wondering whether we shouldn’t just go round the corner to the always-reliable Trattoria Monti when a waiter appeared. “Momento.” He disappeared and came back with the chef and co-owner, Signora Agata Parisella, who looked us up and down and told us to come back in half an hour. We never did find out if they had registered our reservation but, once we were inside, the staff, led by chef’s husband, Romeo Caraccio, were entirely welcoming.

The dining room isn’t large or particularly posh (Agata Parisella’s forebears ran it as a porchetta joint back in the 1890s) but it has an idiosyncratic charm with hundreds of antique and vintage teapots displayed against the pale green walls and some colourful abstract canvases commissioned for the room. Downstairs, a fabulous modern wine cellar fills every nook and cranny – the pride and joy of host Romeo who was one of Rome’s first certified sommeliers, back in the day. We were served by his young lieutenant who proved perfectly adept at matching each dish we chose with something from the small list of wines available by the glass. We could have opted for the long tasting menu or a second set menu featuring some of the dishes Agata Parisella is best known for – including a renowned, super-rich version of spaghetti with cheese and pepper. Instead, we ordered à la carte and did not regret the decision.

The first amuse bouche was like a quick musical overture previewing some of the themes and stylistic nuances that lay ahead – three tiny, perfect, technically complex bites of food daintily set out on a plate. The first a slice of sea bass bottarga on a dab of ricotta, the bitter-salt marine flavour of the pressed roe delightfully contrasted with the bland, sweet cheese. The second was a miniature ball of crisp, greaseless golden batter concealing a zucchini flower and a dab of near-molten mozzarella. The third was a sphere of fried cheese, intensely flavourful and dramatically spiked with white pepper.

Then the breads arrived – four distinct and freshly made styles including tiny pizza, heavy foccacia and little round brioches in paper shells. Bread is so foten disappointingly dull or borderline stale in even quite good Roman restaurants that such bounty was a pleasant surprise.

The second amuse appeared – so simple but so amazing – about a tablespoonful of raw marinated whitebait, each no more than half an inch long with a wee black dot of an eye against the pale flesh. They were dressed with lemon juice and olive oil on a morsel of crisp bread and they tasted like the ozone-charged scent of the sea.

My first dish was Chef Agata’s vision of how oysters should be served. There were three huge, plump, firmish French Atlantic oysters removed from their wet shells and set upon the plate beside a nest of samphire. Daubed onto those tangled, crunchy green fronds were three shapes of white foam that turned out to be oyster mousse, as aromatic and salty as the ocean itself. The big contrast of the dish, like an island of earthy sweetness, was a ball of red onion ice cream. It sounds weird but it was no more than extrapolation of a mignonette, I suppose – strangely delicious and a brilliant purple colour, topped with a jaunty little yellow Szechuan button that I saved to the end, using it as a tongue-numbing finale to the dish. The young sommelier paired it with a sharpish, resonant 2010 Verdicchio from Bucci in Il Marche and it worked like a charm.

All this time, Wendy had been tucking in to her own first course, a five-part treatise on trout. She had smoked trout teisted into a rosette and used as a cup for trout roe with a stripe of fresh cream for dipping. There was cured trout smothered with a salad of aromatic seedlings. Then a slice of poached trout flattered by capers, sundreied tomatoes and chopped black olives. A little hill of trout mousse was topped with herb butter and a deep-fried scrunchion of ethereal pork fat. The final movement was a sliver of citrus-cured trout with a sauce of lemon, grapefruit and orange and a pearl of grapefruit sorbet. A wedge of black bread, twice-baked and both dyed and flavoured with cuttlefish ink, was a fine idea.

That bread reappeared with the pea soup, a super-rich purée so thick it held a peak until the bowl looked like a sculpture of the sea. Snow white against the green was a mound of slivered cuttlefish, marvellously tender and somehow managing to be both raw and warm.

By now we had twigged that Chef likes to take an ingredient and play with it every which way. Next up it was artichokes, still just in season in Rome and one of my favourite friends from the world of vegetables. Here, they came in disguise, turned into an artichoke crème brûlée; transformed into a delicate little tart like a miniature quiche with a grill-browned top and some flecks of bacon; fried as tempura; and finally simply steamed with a sprinkling of chopped fresh mint. All this as an accompaniment to four impeccably fried pieces of sweetbreads.

There are all sorts of reasons why main courses are often more straightforward than appetizers or the final dessert. It’s like a symphony, where the speed and invention of the first two movements give way to a more meditative slow movement before the final allegro vivace. To be sure, my main course of duck (breats sliced pink, leg frenched and confited, foie gras grilled with a zigzag of red fruits sauce and a wee quenelle of sticky black rice) and Wendy’s of lamb (three joined-up chops so pink and tender, a nest of fried shoestring potatoes) were perfectly executed. If they seemed somewhat conventional after the drama and fun of the apps, the effect was intentional. But the pre-dessert that followed set the ball spinning again. Just a shot glass with layers of various creams – a base of cake, about five millimetres thick, then sambucca-flavoured panna cotta, a plum fool, half a teaspoon of very dark chocolate sauce, a crystallized rose petal. It was by no means sweet but it roused the palate like nobody’s business.

And then dessert – “la fragola” – strawbery mousse topped with strawberry gelee on a whisper of sponge. Three chocolate-dipped strawberries. An intensely refreshing strawberry sorbet. A compote of strawberries and black pepper.

It was all splendid, quite expensive (a Michelin star does push the prices up) and I recommend the place highly. The web site and the business card disagree about whether they are open on Saturday nights but they are certainly closed on Sunday – and there’s no earthly point in showing up before 7:30. They’ll just send you away.

Agata e Romeo is at 45 Via Carlo Alberto. Telephone 06 4466115 (good luck, mate). www.agataeromeo.it.

 

 

 

When in Rome

30 May

la quercia

To Rome for a week of spontaneous vacation, spending the days slightly off the beaten track and finding some splendid treasures. We’re staying at the Hotel Lancelot which is lovely, quiet, friendly, very close to the Colosseum, and owned by Mrs. Khan, who was born in Grand-Prairie, Alberta, we discovered at dinner the first evening, though she has been in Rome for over 40 years.

There are parts of Italy – Puglia, for example – where it is impossible to find dull food, where even the humblest osteria will blow the buds away. Roman cuisine, on the other hand, is more simple and robust than passionate and wandering into the nearest little place or sitting down at a breezy table in the corner of a piazza is no guarantee of pleasure. So far we have found two restaurants worth writing home about.

Osteria La Quercia (23 Piazza della Quercia, 06 68300932, www.laquerciaosteria.com) is on a small square between the brilliant, charming and eccentric Palazzo Spada and the forbidden Palazzo Farnese. Local businessmen and French people who work at the French embassy inside the Palazzo Farnese come here for lunch, paying little attention to the modern wooden interior of the restaurant but concentrating hard on the food. Highlights of our experience included super baccalao carpaccio, the juicy slices of reconstituted salt cod sprinkled with poppy seeds, olive oil and lemon juice and flanked by two shavings of salty pecorino. Of course there were also stuffed zucchini flowers, which are everywhere at this time of year. Here, they filled them with mozzarella and anchovy, deep-fried them in a crispy batter and good fresh oil and served them on a square of brown paper.

For a main course, I had a very hearty and homespun mound of fried lamb’s liver and kidney (with soft onions and a bit of lamb’s brain) on toast – the offal exceptionally tender and fresh-tasting, the bread soaking up the tangy juices. Alongside it, a salad of puntarella was the ideal refreshing accompaniment. Puntarella is that weird kind of chicory that looks like a tangle of green and white pasta. It’s more stalk than leaf, crunchy, bitter and has a flavour somewhere between endive, fennel and celery. At La Quercia, they dress it in a thick, anchovy-scented dressing and top it with an anchovy fillet and black olive.

Wendy had a heavyweight pasta that looked like priest-stranglers tossed with a pigeon ragu, asparagus tips and shaved truffle – major carbs for a day hiking the Campo and Navona districts. We didn’t feel like dessert but the friendly waiter brought us slivers of apple cake and jam tart with our coffee. Thus fortified, we set off into the afternoon, heading for the museum devoted to Napoleon Bonaparte’s family, where we wandered entirely on our own through the dignified salons.

Next up – a spectacular dinner in Esquilino.

 

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.

 

 

Christmas in Norfolk

31 Dec

Very flat, Norfolk

This Christmas we made our escape to Norfolk (England, not Virginia), renting a tiny 17th-century cottage near the coast. It was built as a royalist magazine during the English Civil War, cunningly disguised as a chapel to hide its stores of gunpowder and weaponry from the Puritans. They say there’s a secret tunnel leading from it to the sea but we never found it, preferring to hole up around the blazing log fire after dark, listening to the buffetting wind and walking on the vast, deserted beaches and sand dunes during the daytime. This is the Eastern bulge of England that sticks out into the cold, grey North Sea – marsh and wetlands and tidal channels down which the fishing boats creep to catch crabs and lobsters and small, flavourful brown shrimp. We bought some almost every day from a hut on Brancaster Staithe with bags of cockles, mussels and oysters as relish. The weather was gratifyingly bleak and rainy but we had mornings of unexpected sunshine and nights when the wind died away around three a.m. and the full moon shone like a searchlight through the mullioned windows of our attic bedroom.

Local mussels at Titchwell Manor

We ate very well, needless to say. For Wendy’s birthday dinner we splashed out at The Neptune  (one Michelin star) in Old Hunstanton and tasted grilled partridge breast with sweet red endive leaves, dots of quince jam and dainty sandwiches of fried brioche filled with a paté made from the bird’s lights. We followed that with lobster agnolotti and juicy kohlrabi in a lightweight lobster bisque. Then perfect fillets of baby halibut with crosnes and artichoke hearts.

There were many other feasts, of course. When our daughter came up from London to spend a few days we took her out to lunch at Titchwell Manor for pails of  huge, glossy local mussels steamed with butter and shallots and turbot fillets with hollandaise, roast chestnuts and brussels sprout leaves – a side of green kale with chopped white anchovies almost stole that particular show.

Brancaster oysters, each one the size of a serving spoon

Our favourite spot, however, turned out to be the White Horse at Brancaster, a pub on the edge of the salt flats that stretch out for miles towards the sea. They serve local oysters there – huge, soft, creamy ones that taste of melon and brine and go down spectacularly well with a malty ale called The Wreck, brewed in the village. I couldn’t resist the lemon sole amandine but Wendy’s choice was even better – a slab of grilled smoked haddock perched on a mound of smashed potatoes with wilted spinach and a final flourish of chive oil. Unpretentious pub food, but as good as it gets anywhere. If only we had had time to see our friends in London, but we stayed away from cities this time. Notwithstanding, it was an altogether splendid holiday.

 

 

Calgary Gold Medal Plates

27 Oct

Calgary’s victorious chefs – photo: Alan Chong

Calgary was amazing! What a great party we had on Thursday night with incredible energy in the room, a sold-out crowd who were clearly having a thoroughly good time and a regiment of Olympic athletes who filled the stage. The Van Houtte coffee team was there in force. Jim Cuddy and Barney Bentall rocked the house, accompanied by the very talented singer-guitarist Matt Masters and none other than Theo Fleury, who sang one of his own compositions to great applause. Watching the auction from the wings, it seemed to me that we must have raised a tidy sum for Own the Podium and our elite athletes – the whole purpose of all our fun and games.

Meanwhile, sacrificing themselves to an evening of fabulous food and brilliant booze was our amazing panel of judges led by Senior Judge, author, broadcaster and educator John Gilchrist, accompanied by catering guru and owner of Red Tree, Susan Hopkins, renowned chef, now chef instructor and Food Network star, Michael Allemeier, food writer and editor and publisher of City Palate, Kathy Richardier, and last year’s Gold Medal Plates champion, Chef Michael Dekker. Sitting in splendour on a raised dais in the centre of the room as the dishes and wines were brought to us, we all agreed that this was Calgary’s strongest showing ever.

Chef Duncan Ly’s petite saddle of lamb won the bronze

Winning the bronze medal was a former gold and silver medallist, Duncan Ly of Raw Bar, Hotel Arts. “Things always happen to me on Gold Medal Plates week,” he confided. “Last year my son was born on the night itself; this year, I slipped and fell and knocked myself unconscious!” And indeed, he had a nasty gash on his eyebrow. But it didn’t stop him from performing like a star. His dish was a tour de force of classical technique – a “petite saddle” of lamb which he created by rolling the short loin around some braised lamb shank then wrapping the roll in the lamb’s tender fat cap. He cooked this sous vide then finished it in the pan so the meat was rare but spectacularly tender while the surface was as delectably crisp as the skin of a roast chicken. So much work! It was delicate and subtle, nicely paired with a tangy pearl-onion-and-raisin preserve and a little drum of apple-and-parsnip parfait topped with two postage stamps of goat cheese and a bundle of julienned apple sticks that set the whole dish off beautifully. A sauce of parsnip, apple and parsley mirrored the flavours of the parfait. Chef Ly’s presentation was impeccable and the wine pairing a nifty one – the rich, fruity 2009 Syrah from Sandhill in British Columbia.

Chef Cam Dobranski’s duck pastrami took the silver

Our silver medal went to another chef who regularly reaches the podium in Calgary – Cam Dobranski of Brasserie Kensington. This dish was “totally Cam” according to John Gilchrist – a simple open sandwich that really wasn’t simple at all. Sitting on a slice of baguette was a heap of sliced duck pastrami, very tender and ducky with just a hint of spicing. Alongside it on the bread lay a disc of silky foie gras torchon, its richness enhanced by a judicious suggestion of truffle oil. A chanterelle emulsion picked up the truffle and the duck flavours while a drizzle of excellent Turkish olive oil had its own fruity and soft-spoken comment to make. Topping the sandwich off, Chef Dobranski added a teaspoonful of his own stunningly good orange-peach-lemon marmalade which sent other flavour combinations ricocheting around the palate. His wine was a new discovery for me – a 2011 white blend from Black Hills Estate in B.C. called Cellar Hand White.

Chef Eden Hrabec’s masala-spiced sweetbreads was our gold-medal dish

And so to gold. A couple of years ago, Jan Hrabec, owner-chef of Crazyweed, in Canmore, won gold at the Calgary GMP, ably assisted by her daughter and sous chef, Eden. Last night, Eden Hrabec herself competed for Crazyweed, where she is now chef – and won the gold medal. Her dish was substantial, risky, subtle, clever and delighted all the judges. 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. Chef Hrabec 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.

So, treats all round in Calgary and congratulations to all the chefs who competed. Eden Hrabec is coming to Kelowna in February for the CCC!

And now here is David Lawrason’s wine report for the evening:

Blue Mountain Peaks in Calgary

It was a unanimous and almost instant decision by three experienced Canadian Wine Awards judges – Blue Mountain’s terrific 2010 Pinot Noir is one of those wines that grabs hold at first sip and doesn’t let go. You search the nooks and crannies for weaknesses – a bruised hint of oxidation perhaps, a shard of acetic acid pricking the surface. But there was none of that here; just glorious, perfectly ripened cherry fruit flecked with herbs, stones and spices. So from the opening bell it was a shoe-in for The Best of Show Award in Calgary, and proprietors Jane and Ian Mavety can look forward to an inscribed certificate, and a chance to win a week at Borgo San Felice in Tuscany.

The Best of Show Award is a way to recognize the contribution of Canadian wineries to Gold Medal Plates, with over 60 donating their wines this year. For our walkabout judging of the wines and beers in Calgary I was joined by Tom Firth, a leading wine writer and educator who frequents the pages of Wine Access and other publications. The inimitable Brad Royale is the sommelier for Divino, and wine consultant to Divino and Rocky Mountain Resorts.

The voting for the runner-up positions was much more difficult. This was the strongest field of wines to date in the 2012 campaign, and wineries brought out some big guns to match with the chefs and wow the over 600 guests.   Second place went to Blacks Hill 2010 Viognier, a subtle, elegant, spare wine.  Third place went to Joie Farm 2011 Noble Blend, a very well-crafted blend of several aromatic varieties that has become a staple of fine dining wine lists in western Canada. 

Black Hills, perhaps the leading winery supporter of Gold Medal Plates in recent years, also poured their cracking good sauvignon-semillon blend called Alibi, plus a new wonderfully nuanced and complex blend 2011 Cellar Hand White.  Other delights included Laughing Stock 2009 Portfolio, Mission Hill’s top-rung chardonnay called Perpetua, a delicious, charming Gray Monk 2010 Merlot, the inky, powerful Sandhill 2009 Syrah, and Clos du Soleil’s 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Rose.

At night’s end, as the chefs took to the podium, the wines they matched also received medal hardware. Eden Hrabec of Crazyweed Kitchen in Canmore took the Gold medal paired with Joie Farm 2011 Noble Blend.  Cam Dobranksi of Brassiere/Wine Bar Kensington took Silver paired with Black Hills 2011 Cellar Hand White, and Duncan Ly of Hotel Arts Raw Bar took the Bronze paired with Sandhill 2009 Syrah.

With its gold medal win in Calgary Joie Farm earns a berth at the Canadian Culinary Championship in Kelowna on February 8 and 9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Santiago Sunday

04 Oct

large as life

To Chile for a week as the guest of Wines of Chile to check out some of the latest vinous treasures in a dozen or so wineries in this very long, very narrow, very hospitable country. We arrive on a Sunday and are whisked off to a splendid lunch in the Central Market, a spacious 19thcentury hall with a wrought-iron roof like a mini Les Halles. Out on the sidewalk is an alpaca, its saddle decorated with knots of coloured wool, and bands of uniformed waiters urging us to try their establishments. There used to be scores of small restaurants inside the market but most have them been bought by the most successful, Donde Augusto, and it is there our group of six sits down to eat surrounded by crowds of Chilean families, strolling singers with old guitars and a general mood of day-out merriment.

Donde Augusto restaurant - more than merry!

 

 

Alysson Silva, our hostess and guide from Wines of Chile, suggests we all share a bunch of dishes, the specialities of this fish and seafood restaurant – and the plan is a good one. First bread appears – flat heavy buns called hallulla which have been pierced with holes like the Easter loaves in Greece, and have the cakey texture of a scone. Bowls of a loose salsa called pebre are set down alongside – a sort of garlick-free chimmichura of onion, tomato and herbs. Does everyone want to start with a Pisco Sour? Of course! And it’s a beauty – pisco, lemon juice and sugar, no egg white – bright and refreshing. It only needed a few drops of Angostura bitters on its creamy, foamy head to be perfect.

And then lunch… Cold chunks of abalone the size of a child’s fist, unexpectedly tender and with the subtlest of rock-pool flavours, dressed with mayonnaise and surrounded by lettuce and tomato. A little casserole of scallops, rims and orange roes attached, briefly cooked in oil flavoured with big crimson curls of dried chili, coarsely chopped garlic and green herbs. A second casserole of juicy shrimp as thick as my thumb cooked in just the same way. Almost stealing the show are razor clams on the half-shell smothered in melted cheese and then put under the grill until the cheese bubbles. Deep fried squid rings are deep fried squid rings – and always will be.

curiosities of the cold southern waters

The main course is a platter of pan-fried fillets of fish – salmon, of course (it’s one of Chile’s five main exports – copper, molybdenum, salmon, wine and fruit is the order of importance) and conger eel (big flaky petals of the creature with no bones and the texture of monkfish), sea bass (corvina not the Patagonian toothfish we call Chilean sea bass) and reynata – a new fish to me that has the oily texture of mackerel but a snow-white flesh. Elsewhere in the market are the fishmongers with counters piled high with curious clams and shellfish and strange, hideous, glistening South Pacific deep-sea fish, half of which I don’t recognize. They are all Impeccably fresh, as they should be in a country with 4,000 kilometres of coastline.

After lunch, we go for a walk, down to the cathedral where a parade is marshalling in honour of St. John the Baptist – groups of people in satin hoods and boys’ brass bands in pseudo-military jackets with outsized epaulettes and clusters of the devout around statues of local saints and heroes. A good beginning.