Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

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.



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.








Bottega Farm Inn

09 Feb

To Kelowna, B.C., for the Canadian Culinary Championships, a much-anticipated weekend that begins with a judges’ retreat that allows the judiciary to recover from a day of travel, to calibrate our palates and catch up with old friends. This year, Catherine Frechette of Tourism Kelowna organized a most generous night for us in a beautiful new property called Bottega Farm Inn, at the foot of the mountains to the south-east of the city. It was dark when I finally arrived and a light snow was falling but the inn looked most welcoming and merry. This was once a cattle farm but last year the owners completed a stunning modern building with ten luxurious rooms and a soaring dining room – a true relais du silence offering perfect peace and quiet. They also built a recording studio that is nearly finished and brought in a charming herd of alpacas to amuse the guests, though we had other diversions last night. Representatives from Tantalus and Cedar Creek wineries were pouring some delectable wines alongside elaborate displays from several local operations including Arlo’s Honey Farm, Okanagan Lavender Herb Farm and vegetable specialists Sunshine Farm.

It was a very happy reunion for the judges. Our panel consists of the senior judge from every city where Gold Medal Plates holds an event – expert palates all. Let me name them from east to west. From St. John’s, Newfoundland, KARL WELLS is a broadcaster, food columnist for the Telegram and host of his own tv show, One Chef One Critic. From Montreal, ROBERT BEAUCHEMIN is a culinary author who writes for La Presse as well as being an anthropologist and a university professor. From Ottawa, ANNE DESBRISAY has been the restaurant critic of The Ottawa Citizen for 20 years and is also an author and broadcaster. From Toronto, SASHA CHAPMAN is an award-winning food columnist and food writer, currently an editor with The Walrus magazine. From Winnipeg, JEFF GILL is a professional chef and culinary arts instructor at Red River College. From Saskatchewan, CJ KATZ is an author, tv and radio host and publisher of Savour Life magazine. From Calgary, JOHN GILCHRIST is a teacher and author, broadcaster and restaurant columnist for The Calgary Herald. From Vancouver, SID CROSS is the wine and food guru for Western Living magazine and is a world-renowned wine and food judge. And also from Vancouver, ANDREW MORRISON is a writer, a teacher, a restaurant critic and the editor of Scout Magazine. He also serves as our culinary referee during the CCC, making sure the competing chefs obey our complicated rules to the letter. Our Kelowna judge is PERRY BENTLEY, Instructor in Baking and Pastry Arts at Okanagan College. The only judge not present last night was Edmonton’s MARY BAILEY, the wine, food and travel writer, certified sommelier and wine instructor and the founder of Edmonton’s Slow Food convivium. She couldn’t get away last night and will join us on Thursday.

Need it be said, dinner had been prepared for us all, provided by a terrific local chef, Mark Filatow, whose restaurant Waterfront is currently undergoing a serious renovation, reopening in a month or two. I’ve eaten his food before and admire his work but last night he outdid himself. Dishes were served family style with passed platters – everyone helping themselves – and the menu was designed as a showcase of local produce. We began with salads of white and pink beets from Sunshine Farm in a creamy horseradish dressing, and cold grilled sardine fillets sharpened with Eldorado Farms tarragon vinegar and laid out over a slaw of cucumber, crème fraîche and preserved lemon. We moved on to perfectly cooked little slabs of soy-braised belly pork, the delicate crackling immaculately crisp, paired with pickled cabbage and yam noodles. The wines were very well chosen, including a racy Tantalus Riesling and Cedar Creek’s lush Platinum Chardonnay.

Next came some ravioli that oozed runny egg yolk when we cut into them (that’s a neat trick of timing from Chef Filatow!) garnished with pancetta and soft broccolini florets. And after that we were blessed with Thiessen Farms quail, just the breasts, still pink and tender and fire-roasted, and the boned legs, cooked sous vide and as soft as the turned squash and pea-sized dates that accompanied them. Filatow emerged from the kitchen to pour on a rich jus from a tiny jug then sent out an extra dish of Pemberton farms beef tenderloin, aged 40 days, each slice showing the gradation of doneness from a crisp exterior to a ruby heart. The beef had its own red vermouth jus and a splendid array of Sunshine Farm’s heritage carrots, salt-baked cipolini onions and little sieglinde potatoes, baked and hollowed out then filled with their own mashed insides – they looked like tiny cupcakes. Tantalus’s 2010 Pinot Noir was sublime with the quail; Cedar Creek’s 2007 Merlot was ideal with the beef.

Our cheese course consisted of toast made from red fife and grape bread topped with a wee sphere of soft Happy Days goat cheese dressed with a marvelous honey from Arlo’s. Last year, Arlo’s owner, Helen Kennedy, explained, they had noticed that the honey from eight of their 106 hives was particularly pale and pure. The bees had been foraging on elder blossom and, indeed, there was more than a hint of elder amidst the wildflower aromas of the honey.

So the evening progressed. We sipped an amazing wine from Cedar Creek with our dessert – called M, it’s a maderized Pinot Blanc, lightly fortified then put into small casks and left outside in the hot Okanagan sunshine for five summers. The only Madeira-style wine produced in the Okanagan, it’s a totally delicious amber nectar, the complex flavours and sweetness lifted by a sly acidity.

At the far end of the inn’s great hall stands a Steinway grand piano. There are several fine musicians amongst the corps of judges but it was Catherine Frechette who was persuaded to play, from memory, Chopin’s Ballade number one – to thunderous and well-deserved applause.

Tonight the serious work begins.


Down into Wensleydale

06 Jun

A fine day in Arkengarthdale, Yorkshire

Today we hiked over Shunner Fell, third highest fell in all the Yorkshire Dales. The hot sunshine that was the glory of our first few days of exercise had given way to drizzle which turned to cold rain and wind as we trudged up the Pennine Way. By the time we reached the gently rounded summit, walking through miles of peat hags, we were in the cloud and visibility was poor – but what a brilliant walk! There’s a stone windbreak at the highest point and there we paused for lunch – a very welcome ham roll and a Twix bar, an apple and a bottle of water. The rain diminished as we marched on towards Wensleydale. A skylark rode the wind above us, singing for all his worth, and there were curlews and plovers, grouse and lapwings all around. As the path began to descend, the moor became meadow and we returned to the world of rabbits and sheep and strutting cock pheasants. Two miles later we were safe in the Green Dragon, warming up in front of an open fire and enjoying the first pint of the day – a bitter local cask-conditioned ale called Castle Bolton.

Fountains - a day out

This has been an excellent adventure, as all Gold Medal Plates trips tend to be. We’re a large group of 41, including Olympic skeleton gold medallist Jon Montgomery and comedian Ron James, who put on a show for us all last night at the CB Inn in Langthwaite. He worked some hilarious material about certain members of the group into his dazzlingly energetic set and finished to a standing ovation. A great many sturdy souls from Western Canada stayed up after that to catch the hockey game, strengthened by ale and still valiantly alert when the Canucks finished off Boston in overtime at around 5 a.m.. By then the sky was bright with morning and there were stirrings in the kitchen of the inn as the breakfast chefs began working.

We have seen wonders already. The ruins of Fountains abbey and the magnificent 18th century gardens of Studley Royal. Bluebell woods and shady hillsides where the ransom is in bloom, filling the air with its garlicky aroma. The renowned Black Sheep Brewery in Masham where they still use the now-very-rare Yorkshire Square fermenting vessels that add to the creamy texture and delectable flavour of Riggwelter and their other mighty brews. Busy little rivers and meadows of wildflowers – 115 species according to some though red clover and buttercups dominate this week. The Bridge Inn in Grinton, where Jon Montgomery opened his throat and drained a yard of ale (2½ pints) in 20 seconds – an astonishing time that broke the record of 33 seconds set last year by a huge margin. He kept it down for almost a minute then returned the beer to the world. Luckily he had taken off his shirt and was out of doors by the roadside when that occurred. Even the two old Yorkshire gaffers sitting inside at the bar were impressed. “’E did all right, your lad,” one remarked with a nod in Jon’s direction.

Geoff Catherwood gallantly downs his yard of ale - and keeps it down! But no one comes close to Jon Montgomery's new 20-second record

Other treats have included pigeon breast in Scotch broth at the CB Inn, a fine stew of lamb and apricots at the Bridge Inn, Raspberry Eton Mess and Sticky Toffee Pudding at the Punch Bowl near Low Row. Tonight we head for the Wensleydale Heifer, a gastropub specializing in the local seafood that comes in daily from Hartlepool or Redcar, always a highlight of a visit to the Dales. I am anticipating roast hake, pungent little brown shrimps and dressed crab.

Ron James gives us a dazzling set at the CB Inn


East & Main, Prince Edward County

27 Mar

The Main event - fillet of cheval with mushrooms, green beans and potato rosti

Twenty-four hours in Prince Edward County is a surprisingly effective getaway – at least it was this weekend, with dazzling blue skies and bright sunshine belying the sub-zero temperatures. The roads and the beaches were empty, the meadows and copses free of the snow that we left behind in Toronto but still poised in winter’s palette of orange and grey. There was ice on the ponds though the ever-present lake glittered temptingly blue, the water as clear as glass. I had driven down to check out two wineries – Sandbanks and Grange of Prince Edward – for an article for Food & Drink magazine. That meant spending the night and that meant having dinner. I’ve been hoping to eat at East & Main in Wellington since it opened two years ago. Here at last was an opportunity.

Wellington is all charm, a village right on the water with enough lovingly restored Victorian houses to satisfy any need for the picturesque. There is one traffic light on Main street and East & Main is close by, a former bulk food store bought, renovated and run by Kimberly Humby and her husband David O’Connor. Kimberly was the gifted sommelier and chef de service at the Fifth in its early days, talents that subsequently took her to YYZ, Fat Cat, Far Niente and Langdon Hall; David is also a sommelier and wine consultant. Moving down to the County and becoming part of the adventure of a nascent wine and food destination has been a long-held dream of them both. The chef is Lili Sullivan who was chef at Peter Oliver’s short-lived Chapeau in the ’90s and then at the Rebel House where she cooked the best pub food in Toronto for seven years before moving down to the County.

So – a talented line-up! And the space is lovely. The old wooden floor has a certain undulation, though not enough to cause the wooden tables to wobble. The bar is right in the middle of the room and one can see into the kitchen at the rear so there is always a visible, lively bustle to energize the ambience. Gourmet treats and local delicacies in jars and bottles are on sale, temptingly arrayed on shelves made of repurposed barn boards; the colour scheme is mostly a mellow grey-green, the consciously rural décor offset by a number of fancy chandeliers. We didn’t know it, but this weekend is Countylicious and the place was packed with locals eager to try the generous $30 prix-fixe menu. The kitchen offered to put together a tasting menu for the two of us, with Kimberly matching the dishes to local wines. The idea was irresistible.

We began with a flute of Hinterland’s 2007 sparkling rosé, a fine bubbly the colour of peach glass and full of the refreshingly lean County acidity and an intriguing minerality on the finish. East & Main’s wine list (David O’Connor’s on-going project) is a thing of beauty with over 100 wines, of which more than half proudly carry the local acronym PEC VQA. The mark-up is notably low, offering a fine opportunity to explore the tastes of the region and hard-to-find vintages such as 2007.

Gnocchi in mushroom consomme await the culinary napalm of flaming brandy

Our first dish needed no wine – would have killed one, in fact. It was a delicate mushroom consommé containing three drowned gnocchi that had first been pan-fried to give their light, fluffy surface a browned suggestion of crispness. The miniature bowls were set down before us then Kimberly poured on flaming brandy from a tiny jug. It was a dramatic coup de service but my gasp of admiration blew out the brandy prematurely which left a lot in the consommé and masked some of its mushroomy nuances.

The next dish was right off the menu, and part of the Countylicious offering for those fortunate bargain-hunters – a jumble of perfectly seared sweetbreads, local mushrooms and crispy parsnip ribbons piled high on a disc of maple-roasted sweet potato. A rich meaty port reduction was the unctuous sauce. Kimberly paired it with an off-dry 2009 Riesling from Sandbanks – a huge contrast to the deep, dark flavours of the dish but a triumph in the end.

Onwards to three impeccably tender ravioli filled with creamy, very flavourful duck confit. The little squares were outlined from beneath by a red wine-mushroom reduction and topped with buttery oyster mushrooms seasoned with pepper and sprinkled with a little chopped parsley. This time the wine match was more conventional – Trumpour’s Mill 2007 Pinot Noir made by the Grange of Prince Edward, a delicious, beautifully knit Pinot with a more intense flavour than the nose would suggest.

Perfect duck confit ravioli outlined by red wine sauce

Juicy pickerel fillets from the Bay of Quinte were the next act on the program, hidden beneath thin “scales” of potato like pommes Anna. Under the fish was a jumble of ribbons cut from multi-coloured carrots that had survived the winter in the field and were as sweet as they were crunchy. With this we drank Casa Dea’s limpid, spicy Pinot Gris.

Our main course was a lean, exceptionally tender fillet of horse meat wrapped in cawl fat that pressed a brunoise of mushroom against the muscle. With this came potato rösti and green beans and another saucy reduction. Fieldstone vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc was exactly the right wine to bring out the taste of the meat.

Dessert was a raisin butter tart that contained an unexpected surprise – little flecks of maple-smoked bacon. It’s a dish I will have to return to some day when I haven’t eaten quite so much…

I’m delighted to add East & Main to the ever-growing list of County treasures. We walked back to the little inn where we were staying and couldn’t help but notice the breathtaking blaze of stars in the moonless sky. Such a cold night made them sparkle more brightly than I have ever seen in my life, on any of the six continents I have visited. No wonder so many people are drawn to this enchanted almost-island. East & Main is at 270 Main Street, Wellington, Prince Edward County. 613-399-5420.


The Canadian Culinary Championships

21 Feb

The final podium finish

Last weekend we gathered in Kelowna B.C. for the Canadian Culinary Championships, bringing the winning chef from each of our eight Gold Medal Plates regional events to compete in three gruelling challenges. My team of judges, profound of palate and splendid in their impartiality, performed magnificently and I will name them first, proceeding from east to west: Karl Wells from St. John’s, Robert Beauchemin from Montreal, Anne DesBrisay from Ottawa, Sasha Chapman from Toronto, CJ Katz from Saskatchewan, Clayton Folkers from Edmonton, John Gilchrist from Calgary, Perry Bentley from Kelowna, Sid Cross from Vancouver and our culinary referee, Vancouver’s Andrew Morrison. Google their names with pride.

We began with a reception party at Quail’s Gate winery, introducing the chefs, their sous chefs, the enthusiastic local students from Okanagan College’s culinary arts program who were to assist them, the judges, and Olympic rower Adam Kreek representing the athletes who are GMP’s principal beneficiaries. Each chef was given a bottle of the mystery wine, unlabelled, anonymous, and given 24 hours to create a dish to perfectly match the wine. The catch – they had to cook the dish for 350 people and they had to do their shopping on a budget of only $500 – about a $1.47 a head. I couldn’t do a dinner party for that but the chefs rose to the occasion, rising at dawn to shop. One chef handed back nine cents – all he had left; another returned an unspent $247! Such impressive parsimony.

On Friday night they presented their dishes, each at his station in the lovely 1920s-style main floor of the Hotel Eldorado, while the guests tasted, sipped the mystery wine and recorded their own verdict. It was quite the party, packed and exuberant, casual but intense, and though a People’s Choice Award was given the judges kept their silence. Until they all came back to my hotel room and talked and talked…

The wine was a doozy – La Stella Fortissimo 2008 from the Okanagan, B.C.’s version of a SuperTuscan, mostly Merlot and Cabernet but with slightly less than 10 percent Sangiovese Grosso aged in Slavonian oak. It was inky black, very young and tight, massive with tannin and acidity but with all kinds of fruit and cinnamon-liquorice spice eager to burst out – a rowdy adolescent full of promise. The challenge for the chefs was to tame its aggression and only a couple of the competitors managed to do that. The dishes were delicious, and full of imagination. Here’s what the chefs decided to do.

Jeremy Charles from Raymonds in St. John’s, Newfoundland, assembled a very pretty composition of creamy polenta, finely chopped bittersweet rapini with lemon, chili and garlic nuances, braised beef short rib, a potato raviolo topped with tomato concassé and a dab of a profound, almost offaly jus.

Martin Juneau from Newtown in Montreal spent a deal of time trying to find pig’s blood but eventually succeeded and turned it into a seductively soft boudin noir with a savoury crust which he set over a smooth white bean purée. The blood and the legume tamed the tannins in the wine – the only dish to do so. He surrounded the boudin with a deconstructed Bordelaise sauce – a brunoise of shallot turned into a chutney, a Melba-thin toast topped with bone marrow butter, a reduction of the mystery wine, and some fresh tarragon leaves as a crown. There was a drizzle of parsley oil, too, but it was the blood and bone marrow that cast a magic spell over the wine, making it crouch down and purr.

Michael Moffatt from Beckta Dining and Wine and also from Play, both in Ottawa, had competed in the CCC before, back in 2007. He made a terrine of lamb liver, dense, subtle and spiked with pistachio and sundried cranberries which he served on a slice of painstakingly made brioche spread with apple-red onion butter. A cilantro and cucumber relish refreshed the dish nicely and a smear of grainy mustard spiked with a reduction of the mystery wine added piquancy.

February in Kelowna - one reason why we hold the Championships there

Toronto champion Frank Dodd from Hillebrand Winery restaurant in Niagara made 350 tiny perfect pies filled with minced beef and chopped mushroom – delicious and irresistible with ambrosial flaky pastry. Beside the pie was a wee mound of red cabbage cooked with icewine and cherries that reached into the wine and drew out the Sangiovese fruit, and a stripe of a reduction made from the wine.

Dan Walker from Weczeria Food & Wine in Saskatoon represented Saskatchewan. He presented a cold dish of gorgeously tender beef striploin, pink and perfect, patted with grainy mustard and rosemary. There was a mound of pulled beef short rib braised with a hint of vanilla and a bed of potato and parsnip salad with leek and a buttermilk dressing. Roasted garlic aïoli acted as a condiment; red onion and cherry marmalade was another luxe component. “Meat and potatoes,” was how Chef described it. Some judges thought the striploin-wine match was magnificent; others were unconvinced.

Andrew Fung from Blackhawk Golf Club outside Edmonton also chose beef short rib as his star. He braised it for five-and-a-half hours, removed the bone then roasted it some more. The effort was well worth it for the meat was amazingly tender and flavourful over ribbons of mustard-flecked spätzle. On top, he set a tangle of crunchy bean sprouts in a chili-spiked Thai red curry dressing and finished the dish with a parsley-chive oil.

Duncan Ly from Hotel Arts in Calgary decided to use chicken – the dark meat fortified by marination with the wine like a crisp-skinned, magnificently tender coq au vin. Beneath it was a take on the classic chasseur sauce with pearl onion, bacon flecks, a turned carrot, celery leaf and a gastrique using tayberry – a berry like the love child of a raspberry and a bramble. It was totally delicious but it circled the wine warily rather than engaged it.

Robert Clark of C restaurant in Vancouver had also competed in a CCC before – our inaugural one, held in Whistler back in 2006 – an event with a very different mood to the series of parties held this weekend. He had brought his sommelier, Kim Cyr, to the competition, and she pulled off a spectacular feat, not only analyzing the components of the wine but correctly identifying it. Clark made a thick purée of a sauce to mimic the spicy flavours in the Fortissimo using cranberries, cinnamon, star anise and liquorice. He found bison and turned it into a tartare pressed into a tube of fried pastry, like a wonton wrapper. He draped a slice of pancetta over the roll and also worked tarragon and chervil into the dish. Yes, it echoed the fruity aromas of the wine exactly, but it didn’t seem to address the tannin and acidity quite so well.

The people’s choice went to Jeremy Charles by a considerable margin.

Martin Juneau's second Black Box dish

Saturday dawned bright and cool as the judges and chefs, each with his chosen sous chef, made their way to Okanagan College for the Black Box competition. Start time was 8:00 a.m. but the production team, assisted by the invaluable Chef Michael Lyon of Hotel Eldorado, himself a two-time winner of Gold Medal Plates regional events, had already been busy for hours preparing the arena. We were expecting a crowd of hundreds and we were not disappointed. The chefs and sous chefs were introduced then forced to surrender their cell phones and BlackBerries before being led away to their sequestered lair, to be summoned when their turn came.

Judge Perry Bentley had chosen the ingredients for the black box, all of which had to be used by the chefs in their two dishes. It was a deliberately challenging inventory: two large Dungeness crabs, alive and kicking, courtesy of Codfathers Seafood market; a smoked wild boar shank from North Okanagan Game Meats; a gnarly little liquorice root dug up on Vancouver Island and acquired through Mikuni Wild Harvest (a tricky ingredient to use as the liquorice flavour only emerges when it’s cooked and must be used sparingly or its bitter pungency can overwhelm a dish); some gorgeous local heritage candy cane and golden beets from Green Croft Gardens; and some juicy Asian kosui pears, grown in B.C.. Each chef had access to an identical pantry of vegetables, dairy, herbs, spices, oils, stocks, wine, flours and seasonings to enhance the mystery ingredients, and they all rose manfully to the occasion, completing plating within their allotted hour, all except Dan Walker who went over time by 90 seconds, a mistake that cost him points with the judges.

Andrew Fung from Edmonton led off the contest. He boiled his crabs in a lemon court-bouillon then used the meat to make a tasty crab cake, stirring in onion and garlic and coating the cake in panko crumbs. With it he made a relish of shredded golden beets and chunks of crunchy Asian pear dressed with vinegar and sugar. For his second dish he braised and pulled the boar meat, setting it over a creamy potato “risotto” flavoured with thyme and (ever so subtly) with the liquorice root. A sweet salad of pickled candy cane beet finished the dish.

Robert Clark from Vancouver went next. He too made a beautifully textured crab cake, spiked with mustard and cilantro and bound with a little egg. He paired it with a salad of grated pear and cilantro and a tart liquorice butter sauce that cut the richness of the crab nicely. Having tenderized the boar (a crucial first step) he diced the meat and aranged it in the bottom of a bowl with pickled beet, basil leaves and a little basil oil then joined the judges in their chamber to finish the dish by pouring on a thick velouté of golden beets, quickened with more of the liquorice root. It was a visually stunning presentation and tasted as good as it looked.

Dan Walker from Saskatoon’s first dish was a riot of colour – a boar shank ragout set over beet and potato rösti beside a bright yellow purée of liquorice root and golden beet, garnished with crunchy pickled candy cane beets. He also made a crab cake, mixing the crab with shallots, ginger, garlic, tomato, basil and cilantro; a pear purée served as a splendid sauce and a tomato concassé was the final flourish.

Martin Juneau from Montreal was our fourth competitor. His crab salad moistened with cilantro-scented cream delighted the judges, set as it was in the centre of a pool of strongly vinegared tomato-and-onion gazpacho, ringed by olive oil. His boar dish was like an extrapolation of a breakfast, the shank cut into pieces and arranged over a sweet-sour onion, Asian pear and liquorice marmalade together with a hearty potato pancake. He set a perfectly poached egg on top and crowned the whole ensemble with shaved raw beets.

Michael Moffatt from Ottawa made the dishes that scored highest with the judges that morning – the juicy crab meat posed in a cold, delicate tomato consommé. He used the liquorice to flavour a salad of julienned Asian pear and also in the garnish, a tangle of confited lemon zest. His tender boar meat lay on a bed of creamy potato and beet “risotto” ringed with a pungent salsa verde of many herbs.

Duncan Ly's first Black Box dish

Duncan Ly from Calgary created a stunning presentation of lightly sautéd crabmeat with liquorice-infused cream and a hollandaise sauce, beside a slaw of Asian pear and cilantro. He braised the boar shank and set it in its own clear broth with a perfect potato fondant, firm chunks of the beets and a diadem of crispy potato threads.

Frank Dodd, representing Toronto, made best use of the Asian pear, turning small spheres of the fruit and poaching them with liquorice, bringing out just the right amount of liquorice flavour. He made a syrup from the pear juice and used both to accompany a chilled salad of crabmeat with basil and olive oil. He cooked down his boar meat until it was tender and shredded it between two discs of pasta like a giant, open raviolo, moistened by the boar broth. With this, he served chunks of perfectly cooked beet then set a poached egg on top, its runny yolk acting as a second sauce.

Frank Dodd's first Black Box dish

Our final competitor was Jeremy Charles from St. John’s. He used both the crabmeat and the finely diced and fried boar shank in one dish, tossed with fettucine (made à la minute) sharpened with lemon zest, white wine and a tomato concassé. His second dish was vegetarian – chunks of crisp raw pear and sliced beets dressed with a liquorice vinaigrette and pear purée, crowned with crisp matchstick frites.

And that was the Black Box competition. The judges were most impressed by the dishes they tasted, but hoped fervently that smoked boar shank was not on the menu for the evening’s Grand Finale in the Delta Grand hotel.

In past years, the CCC’s Grand Finale has been a relatively small affair. Saturday night’s event was anything but – a major gala that began with a VIP reception featuring Victoria gin and wineries from the Naramata Bench Winery Association and ended with a sit-down dessert, inspiring words from Adam Kreek, great music from Colin James, Barney Bentall and their attendant musicians, and a most successful auction (I’m proud to say the winning bidder for the trip I’m leading to hike the Yorkshire Dales in June paid $12,000 to join the party). In between, 600 guests from across the country tasted each chef’s signature dish and matching wine, moving from station to lavishly decorated station. We the judges sat in grandeur at a spotlit table and had the plates brought to us. As one might expect, the gastronomic standards were exceptionally high. Here are the dishes the chefs presented, in the order in which we tasted them determined by the weight of the food and wine.

Frank Dodd, representing Toronto, wowed us once again with his technical skills and imagination. In the centre of his plate sat a miniature glass cloche filled with smoke pumped in from a tray of smoldering vine wood. We lifted the cloche and there was a slice of succulent salmon that had been cured in icewine and smoked, then wrapped around a finger of pickled golden beet and a small bundle of seedlings and baby spinach leaves. Beside it was a tiny perfect spherical croquette made with potato and Monforte Toscano cheese, a few dots of icewine syrup and a sweet-tart popsicle made of beet juice and icewine sorbet. The fascinating little collation worked brilliantly with Dodd’s chosen wine, the fruity Brut Rosé sparkling wine from Trius.

Duncan Ly from Calgary also chose to work with salmon, bringing his supplier to the party. He in turn brought two mighty coho salmon he had caught off the Queen Charlotte Islands, each as big as a man’s leg, displaying them on a bed of ice. Chef Ly cooked the salmon fillets sous vide until they were meltingly soft then cut a piece for every plate, sprinkling it with a crunchy powder made of crushed duck crackling. Beside it was a slice of duck torchon, the tender, ruby-coloured breast rolled with duck confit rillettes and wrapped in duck prosciutto. A purple stripe of beet emulsion was dotted with tiny segments of peeled orange and garnished with a curly, very crunchy cranberry-nut cracker. Chef Ly’s wine was the tangy 2009 Tantalus Riesling from the Okanagan, its racy acidity in dramatic contrast to the soft, sweetish flavours of the dish.

Michael Moffatt from Ottawa was the next chef to bring his dish to the judges’ table. He had sliced a firm, coarsely textured and deliciously flavourful terrine of rabbit, studded with pistachios and set it on a crisp melba toast, topping the meat with finely diced pickled pineapple. Beside it, he had impaled some tender grilled squid on a fork with a taro-flour tortellini, both generously dressed with lush, creamy bonemarrow butter sauce – an amazing mouthful. The third element on the plate was a “duck reuben” – thick, juicy slices of corned duck breast, cooked rare, draped over a mellow sauerkraut and topped with crumbled motes of aged Beemster cheese that had somehow been rendered crunchy. It all proved a fine match to the 2008 Pinot Gris from Fielding Estates in Niagara.

Robert Clark from Vancouver followed next, making magic from Fraser Valley quail. “I created this dish entirely to match the wine,” he explained, and indeed it was the pairing of the evening, brilliantly wed to the white Bordeaux-style 2008 Alibi from Black Hills in the Okanagan. Chef Clark had poached the small plump breast of the quail then glazed it with orange citrus. He turned the wee leg into a ballotine stuffed with a citrus-scented farce. A quail egg, cooked sous vide so that its white was set but its yolk still runny was coated in a delicately crunchy powder made from the crisped and ground-up quail skin; the egg was set on a coin-sized puck of French toast flavoured with coriander seed. In a tall shot glass, two Lilliputian mushrooms bobbed about in piping-hot quail consommé, its flavour disarmingly pure, while a slice of kumquat could be seen drowned at the bottom, gently adding a citrus hint to the soup. The jus on the plate was a reduction of the consommé and a mound of fragrant coriander salt allowed the judges to season things to their taste.

Martin Juneau's Grand Finale dish

Martin Juneau from Montreal was our fifth competitor. He confited St-Canut piglet belly until the fat almost melted into jelly and the lean milk-white flesh was improbably soft, the skin a delicate, brittle crisp. Then he glazed the meat with red beet juice and heaped it with dill fronds, pickled beet and strips of crunchy onion pickled in beet juice. A broad stripe of purple beet purée painted the plate which was also decorated with intensely flavourful dots of dill-green apple jelly. Chef Juneau paired his dish with a dazzling aged apple cider from La Face Cachée de la Pomme cidery in Quebec, the 2007 Cuvée Dégel Reserve – a brilliant match.

Up next was Dan Walker from Sakatchewan with a rustic, seasonal dish that he felt fully represented the province. Front and centre was a moist fillet of bacon-wrapped Saskatchewan pickerel dusted with lemon, dill and salt. Beside that were two slices of a dainty cabbage roll filled with a stuffing of finely ground elk meat seasoned with garlic and onion. A mound of buckwheat groats with the texture of Israeli couscous added body to the dish while a swirl of puréed beet and two wands of air-dried carrot brought colour and sweetness. A drizzle of apple cider gastrique finished the plate. Chef Walker found a good match to the elk and bacon in the 2009 Pinot Noir from Road 13 in the Okanagan.

Andrew Fung from Edmonton was the penultimate contender, presenting a slice of Asian-style pork belly darkly marinated in soy. Bringing acidic contrast to the meat were some juicy sautéed pieces of Granny Smith apple and a tangy Asian slaw dressed with sugar and vinegar. Slices of peppery duck-and-blueberry sausage provided a second protein and a toasted pistachio biscotti served as a most original garnish. Chef Fung worked with another wine from Road 13, the 2008 Jackpot Pinot Noir.

Jeremy Charles's dish from the Grand Finale

Jeremy Charles from St. John’s brought our final dish, a treatment of wild Newfoundland rabbits he had trapped himself. Everything on the plate was sized for a doll’s house – the tiny frenched rack of ribs, the swirl of rabbit liver mousse on a crunchy coin of Melba toast, the slice of roulade made with the tenderloin set in a firm matrix of herb-scented, confited leg meat. Perched on top of a mound of steamed Brussels sprout leaves flecked with rabbit bacon was a crispy raviolo filled with braised leg meat, mushroom duxelles, a dot of feta and a trace of sweet date. A turned baby carrot seemed like something out of Beatrix Potter and for sauces Chef Charles had made a purée of Jerusalem artichoke and a dark sticky reduction of the braising jus. The dish was a technical tour de force that worked beautifully with Ravine Vineyard’s 2008 Merlot from Niagara.

While the guests found their seats in the hotel’s ballroom and settled down to the show, the judges retired to their lair to deliberate and enter their scores. It had been a most interesting weekend. Three chefs had pulled ahead of the pack during the first, Wine-Matching Challenge; a fourth competitor had aced the Black Box. Three or four chefs stood out in the Grand Finale. We knew the marks would be close – they always are at the CCC with chefs of this extraordinary calibre. At last the moment came to announce the medalists and summon them to the podium. But first the judges were invited up on stage and presented with a small token of appreciation from the Gold Medal Plates organisation – a solid gold toothpick – a gift both beautiful and practical.

Winning the bronze medal was chef Robert Clark of C restaurant in Vancouver, B.C.

Winning the silver medal was chef Jeremy Charles of Raymonds in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Our gold medallist and new Canadian Culinary Champion was Chef Martin Juneau from Newtown in Montreal, Quebec.

Huge congratulations to him, his team, his cider-maker – and to all the chefs and winemakers who were part of an incredibly successful weekend. We’ll be back in Kelowna this time next year to do it all again with different dishes, wines and a new cast of chefs. I for one cannot wait.


Sparkling Hill

18 Feb

A bath with a view

Sometimes an invitation is too intriguing to cause even a momentary hesitation. That was certainly the case when Sparkling Hill resort in the Okanagan suggested that the judges for the Canadian Culinary Championships – ten of us, all told, might wish to spend 24 hours there before driving into Kelowna for our gruelling weekend of work. The kicker was the opportunity to experience the cold spa in the resort’s extraordinary Kurspa. You may have heard of this – it’s quite the rage in Austria and Germany. One strips down to swimming trunks, socks and shoes, gloves and a surgical mask and spends three minutes standing in a chamber with an ambient temperature of minus 110 degrees Centigrade. There is nowhere on earth that naturally reaches such a low temperature – only in space can such cold be found. Why does anybody do it? There are many reasons given, most to do with wellness, but the gist of it is that a person feels so wonderful when it’s over. To be that cold must be extraordinary, we thought, and so it proved. “When you emerge,” explained Hans-Peter Mayr, President and CEO of the resort, “you will feel as if you want to run outside and pull up a tree with your bare hands, the adrenalin-endorphin rush is so strong.” Okay…

In the end, seven of the ten judges decided to go for it. We made a surreal picture, kitted out for the “plunge” (photos were taken and I am spending a fortune trying to have them suppressed), then in we went, three at a time, accompanied by Hans-Peter, who wore a suit and tie. You enter three rooms, the first chilled to minus 10, the second to minus 60, and then into the third… It’s no bigger than an elevator, panelled with wood, and there’s a window through which a controller peers, making sure we don’t overstay our welcome in this frozen circle of hell. The first thing that happens is that the room fills with fog – the frozen carbon dioxide of each exhalation. The first minute is simply really really cold, though the total absence of moisture mitigates it a little. After one minute and 45 seconds, the brain begins to send frantic signals of alarm and the urge to open the door is almost overwhelming. Fifteen seconds later, the panic passes. By now the cold has entered your bones. Shins and pate, elbows and shoulders feel it first. “Like a million little needles,” said one judge. And yet there is physical exhilaration – that endorphin rush. Hans-Peter counted down the last five seconds and we left the chamber quickly and gratefully.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. It has worked marvels with people suffering from depression, inflammation, rheumatism, fibromyalgia… And now I have experienced the deep cold of space and lived to tell the tale.

Chef Ross Derrick

As spas go, Sparkling Hill is unique in the world. It is owned privately by Mr. Gernot Langes-Swarovski, patriarch of Swarovski crystal company. Built on the peak of a granite mountain with amazing views of Lake Okanagan and the Monashee mountains, it cost $122 million to build and has been decorated with 3.5 million Swarovski crystal pieces – about $10 million worth of scintillating, iridescent glass. The spa itself is vast, with all manner of steam and sauna rooms, water therapy walkways and pools and serenity areas, combining the German idea of a wellness spa with the North American emphasis on pampering. It is, quite simply, breathtaking.

There are several restaurants at Sparkling Hill, including one called Cleanse, where no food is served, just detox concoctions. We had dinner in Gernot’s, the private dining room named for the owner. The chef is a talented young Canadian called Ross Derrick and he started us off by leading us out into the snow and sabreing a bottle of local bubbly, mixing it with local poire Williams, cassis and a dash of vermouth in an Okanagan take on a Kir Royale. Then we went back indoors into the firelit, wood-panelled room and sat down to a splendid dinner. Each course was named for the local artisanal producer who supplied the main ingredients or else, where the first course was concerned, “Farmer’s Market.” It proved to be a most impressive collation of vegetables – beetroot whipped with gelatin to make an ethereal mousse, juicy little cippolini onions, a purée of banana squash, dried leeks and raw radish, carrot pearls and candied parsnip crisps, delectably matched with Township 7 Sauvignon Blanc.

Farmer's Market - a sparkling first course

Veronika Falkner was a rabbit terrine. Ms. Falkner is only 16 years old but raises rabbits for market. Chef Derrick had turned them into a moist, dense terrine, wrapped in bacon and sprinkled with a couple of grains of Murray River salt, garnishing it with dots of yellow cherry purée and sour cherry compote, both coming from a grower called Neil Sproule, who may or may not be my relative.

We went on to a succulent little fillet of the first sable fish of the season, pan-fried for a moment then shown the oven, surrounded by tamarind purée for sourness, eggplant with lemon purée, cauliflower florets turned into tender pakoras with turmeric oil, some brown and crispy, others pickled, tender and white.

The main course was Fraser Valley goose, slivered slices of the breast with a tasty fringe of fat, cooked sous vide then roasted. Chef piled them up with crunchy moist braised endive scented with vanilla and citrus and a jumble of supple oyster mushrooms.

Our goose, cooked to perfection

Then there was cheese – a sort of blue tête de moine made locally and served with honey spun into sponge toffee – and followed by dessert – an extravaganza of local fruits preserved last summer, made by one of the pastry team, Anne Riemerschmid. I remember tonka bean mousse with a damson plum sauce, rosemary panna cotta with poached pear, a peach foam, a blueberry-blackberry sorbet, a whole cherry hidden in a marzipan coat, a tiny apple strudel and more and more. But all so light and easy.

Sparkling Hill is entirely unique. Check it out on the web site,, and also check out the prices. The owners have not created this place for a wealthy elite. It costs about as much to stay there as it does in an inn in Muskoka. Amazing.


A day in Montreal

13 Feb

Le Gout des Mots

On Friday, I took the train to Montreal to take part in a symposium on food writing at McGill University, a joint – and bilingual – venture of the French and English Departments. The venue was the Faculty Club Dining Room, a delightfully eccentric Victorian salon resplendent with stained glass and mock-Gothic columns. There were to have been five of us on the panel, including master baker and author Marcy Goldman, chef and veteran restaurant critic of the Montreal Gazette Lesley Chesterman, and anthropologist and food writer Robert Beauchemin. Robert is an old friend who is also Senior Judge of Gold Medal Plates’s Montreal jury but, hélas, he was stricken with a cold and forced to make his excuses. Instead, we were joined by Catherine Turgeon-Guin, a rather brilliant graduate student working on historical aspects of food writing, so the academic side of the subject was well represented. Our moderator was Professor Nathalie Cooke, renowned culinarian and also editor in chief of CuiZine, the Journal of Canadian Food Cultures. I believe the proceedings of the day will be fully reported there, so I won’t go on about them. Suffice it to say, I hope the audience had as much fun as the panelists. Time sped by. By way of self-introduction, each of us was invited to name our favourite piece of food writing. To my surprise and delight, Lesley Chesterman nominated the Jeeves stories of P.G.Wodehouse, especially those tales dealing with Anatole, the brilliant French chef employed by Bertie’s Aunt Agatha and coveted by every other household in the brittle but endearingly innocent world of Wooster. Her father read them to her when she was a child, she explained, and she remembers being deeply impressed by the power and influence the great chef exercised over aristocratic society. It was a good start to an afternoon that gave much pleasure and food for thought.

            The organizers of the event, Professors Frédéric Charbonneau and Paul Yachnin, had also invited another panelist who had been unable to join us – Hugo Duchesne, co-owner and sommelier of La Montée de Lait, the excellent little restaurant on St-Laurent. He has been too busy since the recent departure of chef and co-owner Martin Juneau to take part in the discussion. Juneau, if you recall, won the Gold Medal Plates Tour de Montréal in the fall and will be competing in the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna next week. Meanwhile, he has moved to a new kitchen – Newtown, on Crescent Street. Taking over at La Montée is a 25-year-old chef called Jonathan Lapierre. My friends Frédo (the same Professor Charbonneau), his wife, Marie-Pierre and their pal, Andy Paras, and I were eager to taste his work and see if La Montée is still one of Montreal’s finest, so off we went there for dinner.

(right) Professor Charbonneau. (left) me in full academic costume. (behind) splendidly decorated Faculty Club Dining Room


      La Montée is a cosy and merrily informal spot with an open kitchen at the back. A tall red banquette runs down the centre of the room creating a partition between the bar area and the dining area. The décor is cheerful – a high ceiling covered in dark blue pressed tin, walls of open brick or white clapboard, black wooden tables set very close together. It’s a little bit scruffy, very serious about wine and food and always full.

            We began with oysters – some from St-Simon in New Brunswick (briney with a fine minerally, metallic finish) and others from Summerside in P.E.I. (creamier, sweeter) served with their mignonette on long, rough-hewn wooden boards. A glass of Cadel Vispo Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2008 was an almost perfect match. The wine list here is mostly French, jewelled with interesting producers from small appellations, but a blackboard of other wines by the glass changes frequently.

            From there, I pursued a nautical theme with a plank of seared mackerel – very intense, salty and densely textured under its crispy skin. Chef Lapierre had cut it into bite-sized pieces and arranged them into three mounds with fresh, crunchy shaved fennel and radish, pungent chives and whole segments of tangerine. There were dots of thick tangerine curd on the board and a puddle of smooth white caillé de vache, which Google translates as “cow quail” but which is really a separated dairy product somewhere between buttermilk, crème fraîche and green cheese. Its cool creaminess was a perfect foil to the mackerel.

For my main course I chose sweetbreads – a single good-sized lobe perfectly cooked, tender and creamy inside its browned and fairly crispy surface. Surrounding it were wands of firm roasted parsnip with their uniquely aromatic, sweet, rooty flavour, and little slices of cooked apple that had been pickled in vinegar with a slightly too heavy hand. Chewy lardons of smoked bacon, a delectable cauliflower purée and a sticky brown reduction of pan juices completed a scrumptious dish. Frédo chose a great wine to sashay down the gastronomic aisle with it – a limpid, elegantly oxidated, altogether seductive 2003 Savagnin from Jacques Puffenay of Arbois in Jura that tasted of walnuts and an autumn walk through the woods. After that, he still had room for a beautifully moist financier cake with fresh orange and citrus sorbet but I declined (for some reason I don’t now remember) and regretted it for the rest of the evening.

            “We must go to La Brasserie T next time,” suggested Marie-Pierre. It’s Normand Laprise’s new casual spot next to the Museum of Modern Art, inexpensive and open for lunch. He gets his beef from Cumbrae Farms in Toronto (only Laprise could get away with that in Montreal) – beef of such quality that he can cook his bavette rare and it’s still tender. So that will be a date, next time in Montreal.

La Montée de Lait can be found at 5171 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal. 514 273 8846.


The Domain of Killien

31 Jan

The thing about cross-country skiing is that it’s heaven when you stop. Especially if you’re a couple of hours into the forest, along one of the trails that loop through the 5,000 pristine acres that belong to the Domain of Killien. Up and down hills and steep little valleys, skirting snow-choked muskeg and cliff faces where icicles have formed like the organ pipes in a church, you suddenly find yourself on a ridge with a view of a frozen lake as smooth and white as royal icing on a wedding cake. That’s the moment to pause and inhale the absolute silence of the forest. It isn’t the silence of death, just a perfect pause, as if Nature were holding her breath and playing a game of statues, month after month, with infinite patience. The air is utterly still so it must be the weight of the sunshine that causes a little snow to fall from a branch in a slow-motion sparkle of light. And though deer tracks cross the trail here and there, some undeniably fresh, we saw not another living soul – man, bird or beast, on our two lovely long days in the wild.

A surprisingly large number of people have heard of the Domain of Killien, mostly because of the long-running advertisements on Toronto’s classical music radio station. In the off-season, however, one can almost have the place to oneself. It began life as a private fishing and hunting camp, built in 1927 by a local doctor on the shore of a lake about 15 minutes outside the village of Haliburton. In 1982, it was bought by the Count and Countess de Moustier, who already owned the adjacent 5,000 acres of forest, land that merges seamlessly into Algonquin Park. They had fallen in love with the Canadian winter and also, I suspect, with the simple charms of Ontario cottage life that Canadians often seem to take for granted. They set about renovating the property, making it a little more exclusive (five rooms in the main lodge, eight separate cabins in the grounds) but maintaining its rustic appeal. When the Countess’s two sons, Jean-Edouard and Dante Larcade, joined them in 1984 they opened as a year-round resort, renaming it the Domain of Killien after the family’s seigneurial estate of Quillien, in Brittany.

I first came to visit a year or two later, on assignment for Toronto Life – an article about posh getaways that was great fun to research. All the things I noticed then still hold true today. A great deal of the pleasure I felt had to do with things the Domain is not. It isn’t a typical Canadian resort. There are no facilities for children, no spa for grown-ups, no televisions or radios – no noise at all really beyond birdsong in the morning and the crackle of logs in the fire after dark. The lounge in the main lodge is a place to lie back on one of the big sofas around the fireplace and read a book (there’s a complete set of Tintin in the corner). Each of the pine-panelled cabins has a modern bathroom, a comfortable bed with extravagantly good sheets, a huge woodstove and pictures on the wall that reflect the family connections with Paris, Brittany and Guadeloupe. Everything is fine without being pretentious, the serenity tangible and inspiring – it’s why the great cellist Rostropovich came here to practice from time to time.

Days are filled with outdoor activity. A 40-minute hike takes you deep into the domain to secluded Delphis lake where there’s a winterized but very basic cabin for those seeking total solitude. In the summer, canoeing, fly fishing, tennis and hiking are the attractions, with golf close by, if you wish; at this time of year, it’s more about cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing, skating on the tiny rink beside the lodge and arrangements can also be made to go dog-sledding. The ski trails held the most attraction for my wife and me and we hit them after an excellent breakfast, taking with us a bumper packed lunch of sandwiches, fresh fruit, raspberry squares and some of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had – as thick and rich and intensely chocolatey as some magical restorative from a children’s story book.

Back in the 1980s, Dante Larcade was chef here (he once had a little restaurant in Paris). Then he left for Toronto and opened an art gallery on Queen Street West called Roseland while his brother, Jean-Edouard, ran the Domain. Now Jean-Edouard has moved to the West Coast and Dante is back in charge, not as chef but as leader of a charming and efficient new staff who seem to love the place as much as he does.

The kitchen is in the hands of an enthusiastic young local chef called Emily Bjelis. Our first taste of her talents was the unforgettable almond biscuits we found in our cabin when we arrived – bendy cookies with more than a suggestion of meringue and macaroon in their make-up. They worked well with some very old non-vintage extra dry Champagne we brought with us and chilled in the snow. Slightly brown and with just a hint of oxidation, it was far more exotic and delicious than it had been when it was bottled almost 20 years earlier.

Chef Emily Bjelis's signature appetizer

Bjelis’s dinner menu is very small – a soup, a choice of two appetizers, of two mains and of two desserts, plus cheese if you wish. Her style is faultless, honest and forthright, quite a bit plainer than Dante Larcade’s more Parisian cuisine. Her signature appetizer, according to the friendly server, is the layered creation seen here – a sort of exploded millefeuille of sliced portabella mushrooms, crisp parmesan puff pastry, spinach leaves, tomato and a cheesy bechamel sauce. I was just as impressed with a beautifully tender veal tenderloin served with wild blueberry gastrique and a muster of vegetables including perfect turnip, green beans, mashed sweet potato and pickled red cabbage. The wine list is mostly French but with enough Canadian bottlings to remind everyone where we live. Prices are eminently reasonable and choices interesting – I was delighted to find a 2008 Jurançon sec that proved a lovely match to a starter of rare scallops garnished with leek.

The Domain of Killien isn’t for everyone. Its charms are more meditative than frenetic, its comfort more understated than pampering, but I find the overall insistence on simplicity ends up being rather sophisticated. And you can’t really go wrong with access to 5,000 acres of unspoilt Canadian wilderness in the Haliburton Highlands – a brumal Eden for couples with romance on their minds.

Domain of Killien, 1282 Carroll Road, P.O.Box 810, Haliburton, Ont K0M 1S0. (705) 457-1100.


Play Food and Wine, Ottawa

24 Nov

The nation's capital

“Do you see? Do you see what I mean? It’s happened again! You promised just a snack…”

“Hush, my love…”

“Just a morsel of lunch, you said… Just tapas! And you end up eating everything on the menu!”

“Not everything, cara mia. But one can’t ignore a chef’s own charcuterie…”

My stomach and I have been having these little talks lately. Thanks to Gold Medal Plates and six weeks of serious cross-country eating I now have to put up with this constant rumble of reproachful complaint from El Gordo, the belted one.

One recent mezzogiorno, we found ourselves in Ottawa and wandered down to the Byward Market, thinking of a bite of lunch at Domus or Eighteen. One was full and the other only open for dinner but fortunately I was armed with an ideal vade mecum, the latest, bran-new edition of Capital Dining, the definitive Ottawa restaurant guide written by my friend Anne DesBrisay, longtime restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen. So we found our way swiftly to Play, the cadet establishment to eight-year-old Beckta Dining & Wine.

Play occupies two storeys of a sturdy building directly across the road from the fortress-like American embassy. A cheerful colour scheme has the walls painted cerulean blue, a ceiling of billowing orange fabric and glossy little wooden tables that aren’t quite big enough to be comfortable.

At Beckta, chef Michael Moffatt and owner-sommelier Stephen Beckta offer some of the capital’s most serious fine dining; here they’re at play with a menu of small plates, lots of cheeses and charcuterie and a really interesting wine list loaded with treats and with Canada well represented. At lunchtime, you can order any two plates for $20 which simplifies everything, and Beckta has paired every dish on the menu with a cleverly chosen wine available in 3oz or 5oz pours.

Yes, we began with charcuterie. The kitchen buys in Mario Pingue’s silky prosciutto from Niagara and also the coarse chobai sausage made at Cheese Boutique in Toronto from fine Winnipeg Berkshire pork. Moffatt also does some meats of his own – a brisket and a dense, stiff country paté with the texture of meat loaf. It came in slices, cold from the fridge, and frankly outclassed by the accompanying condiment, a luminously flavourful compote of beet and raspberry.

Catfish tacos - yum yum

Chunks of soft pink beet and big seedless cubes of chilled Californian watermelon starred in the next course, a salad of grilled romaine lettuce with nubs of soft, mild goat cheese and a big smear of cashew purée on the plate. Not a bad dish, but we had tasted nothing yet to write home about.

Catfish tacos changed all that. Piping hot, moist, fluffy fillets of catfish in a peppery crust were served on a bed of shaved brussels sprouts on top of firmish round tacos that tasted delectably of corn. A mashed tomatillo salad was fresh and sharp and a sweetish salsa of edamame and chopped peppers added a sort of succotash component in the same continental key.

The waiter (otherwise so friendly and smart) should probably have warned me that my next dish was eerily similar to the tacos, but it too tasted great so I wasn’t remotely dismayed. Moffatt had set a piece of cumin butter to melt on a crisp-skinned slab of pickerel and paired it with actual bean, corn and pepper succotash nicely spiked with jalapeño.

Then there was the hanger steak, marinated for 24 hours with tamari, citrus, mirin and brown sugar so that its surface caramelized and crusted during its brief time on the grill while the heart of the meat was crimson as a blush. Excellent frites were heaped alongside and some sautéed mushrooms hidden beneath the sliced meat. Upon request, a ramekin of salsa verde replaced the advertised aïoli.

"Apple Pie Napoleon"... my Waterloo

Somehow room was found for dessert, though not without mutterings from behind my tie. The menu called it apple pie Napoloeon but it was made with diced and lightly cooked quince between tissues of phyllo, backed up by stiff vanilla-almond custard. The plate was finished with quince sauce, berries and a rich cinnamon ice cream.

“Happy now?” demanded my belly as it led the way back to the hotel.

Play Food and Wine is open daily for lunch and dinner at 1 York Street, Ottawa. 613 667 9207.