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Archive for the ‘Treats’ Category

A new chef at Langdon Hall

30 Jan
Albacore and carrot - an extraordinary presentation

Albacore and carrot – an extraordinary presentation

 

How cold was it at Langdon Hall this week? Not quite cold enough to keep my wife off the little skating rink they have flooded on the basketball court. I watched her do her elegant thing for a while until the wind chill drove us indoors to the soothing heat of the spa. Not cold enough, either, to keep the heroic construction crew from their ongoing outdoor work expanding the dining room and kitchen. Some beneficent sprite must have blessed the infant Jason Bangerter at his christening with a particularly chefly gift – that whenever he took on a new job, the owners would give him a new kitchen in which to play. It happened at Auberge du Pommier and then again at Luma. Now at Langdon Hall he will have 50 percent more space in which to perform his art than Jonathan Gushue ever did, along with the very latest generation of induction stoves. If he now seems as quietly excited as a well-mannered kid in a candy store, just wait until the summer when he gets his hands on the produce from the garden and the wild things from the woods…

            But his good fortune is also ours, of course – as we tasted on Tuesday night. It was a busy evening for Chef and his brigade – the first Wine Maker Dinner was also taking place in a private dining room, organized by the hotel’s new General Manager, Christophe le Chatton. Langdon Hall has three stellar sommeliers (known as the three musketeers). Le Chatton must be their D’Artagnan, then, for he, in his day, was Toronto’s finest. Langdon’s lead sommelier, Katy moore, was kind enough to invite us to the dinner (a spectacular array of Domaine Faiveley Burgundies with five courses and no doubt innumerable intermezzi) but we were determined to see what Bangerter was up to on the à la carte, so we ate in the main dining room with its views of the nocturnal garden (fairy lights glinting from the snow) and of the new 30-seat extension, where the steps down to the lawn used to be. We ordered conservatively, but many other little sample dishes were sent out. They spoil you rotten at Langdon Hall.

            So we shared a lobster salad – perfectly timed pieces of tail and claw, juicy and quivering but poached long enough to taste of lobster without losing any of their natural tenderness. There were cubes of firm lobster-court-bouillon jelly and a streak of pink lobster roe across the plate. Chef had chosen leek as the crustacean’s date for the night – leek turned into crisp tempura wands, into moistly poached, crunchy little drums, into drops of silky purée, even into a dusting of pleasantly bitter leek ash. Garnished with fennel fronds, the whole plate looked like a Joan Miro painting and was gone in a trice.

            Wendy started with slices of marinated albacore tuna (see above) that came close to the textural place where fish becomes meaty but kept their discreet marine flavour. Carrots were the supporting cast this time – bias-cut coins, shaved ribbons, some lightly pickled, others roasted to tenderness, still others minced into a brunoise and turned into a sweet-tart relish. As a sort of dressing, a ginger and perilla purée brought in a fresh spectrum of flavours. The presentation reminded me of a display cabinet at the Pitt-Rivers museum – comprehensive, dramatic, surreal… Charles Baker’s 2011 Ivan vineyard riesling was brilliant with it.

            My appetizer was billed as a toasted barley and sweet onion pudding – a rich, rustic Canadian cousin to a risotto with moist strands of duck confit stirred in. It was topped with generous hunks of melt-in-the-mouth pan-seared foie gras and startled by moments of tart preserved wild strawberry around the plate. Softly fried sage leaves brought a vegetal note and the Domaine Zind-Humbrecht 2009 Gewurztraminer caressed the dish like a louche and loving courtesan.

            “You must try this,” said Chef, as a dish of Humboldt squid appeared. One can only imagine the size of the creature in life! He had cut its body into cubes fully an inch and a half across, some poached, others battered and fried. How do you flatter a Humboldt squid? With a hank of the crunchy green lichen they’re calling “caribou moss” and a tangerine aïoli and some dabs of sea buckthorn for acidity, and a sauce of squid ink that was as black as the squid itself was white.

            Are you getting the picture? I was strongly reminded of the way Bangerter used to cook at Auberge, where his European, Mosimann-trained roots were always showing. He’s Canadian, lives in Milton, started out with John Higgins at the King Edward hotel in Toronto, but spent three or four very formative years on the other side of the water. His food these days is so refined – not as ethereal as Jonathan Gushue’s, but discreetly substantial and with all sorts of subtle surprises.

            Wendy had ling cod as a main course, the fish bronzed and parting into moist petals. A bed of lentils provided bottom (as we English say), and salsify appeared three ways, as crisp ribbons, as a soft purée and as oiled and roasted chips. A parsnip-vanilla jus linked all the flavours together and an unexpectedly firm, crunchy white cippolino onion, masquerading as a baby turnip, also made a contribution. Our sommelier chose Vasse Felix 2011 chardonnay from Margaret River as a complement.

            Me, I had the venison – two cylinders of tenderloin that showed all the gradations from seared surface to a rare ruby-coloured heart. There was a spicy confit of red cabbage turned into a purée, big blocks of butternut squash scented with pine from the property, some delicate Brussels sprout leaves and a peppercorn-game jus by way of a sauce. La Spinetta’s 2009 “Pin,” a blend of sangiovese and montepulciano, hit just the right note.

            Langdon’s ace pastry chef, Sarah Villamere, departed with Jonathan Gushue, leaving big shoes to fill. Rachel Nicholson seems up to the task. She made a stiff custard of citrus and coconut milk and encased it in a square of saffron-coriander gelée, topped with a gossamer ricepaper tuille.

            It only remained to polish off a confection of picobello cheese that had been transformed into custard, then torched and served over crumbled chicken skin and huckleberry compote, and we were ready for bed.

            I’ve seen many chefs come and go at Langdon Hall in the 25 years since it has been open. Jason Bangerter certainly belongs in their (mostly) mighty company. He is having enormous fun, working wickedly hard and is filled with excitement at the possibilities that await him in the months to come.

           

           

 

More treats

29 Nov
The below-mentioned panettone - grappa-touched - ambrosia

The below-mentioned panettone – grappa-touched – ambrosia

Marolo Cuneesi alla grappa di Barolo

Anything that ends with the words “alla grappa di Barolo” is likely to attract my attention. Especially if they are cuneesi. These are the renowned little chocolate-coated treats invented in the town of Cuneo by Pietro Galletti more than a century ago. They look like wee domes of dark chocolate with a layer of dainty cake inside, and another of chocolate ganache, its texture something between a marshmallow and a Milky Way. Galletti flavoured his with rum but these particular examples are saturated in Paolo Marolo’s grappa di Barolo so they taste decidedly grown-up and delicious. Where can you find them? Contact Sarah Liberatore at www.vinaiowines.com – she’s the exclusive agent in these parts. And you might want to order one of her Piedmontese Marolo-grappa-soaked panettones for the festive season. It is an ideal base component for a classic English trifle when smothered in fruit, jelly, set custard and whipped cream.

 

Villa’s Authentic Sauces

I first met Vivian Villa in the 1990s – when I used to put together Toronto Life’s Food Shop Guide, a gruelling but educational occupation every summer that had me driving from dawn to nightfall for six or seven weeks, from Oakville to Markham to Pickering, visiting and tasting and following the most obscure gastronomical leads. Does Toronto Life still send its food columnist out on such a marathon? Your guess is as good as mine. But that’s where I met Vivian Villa and tasted the fabulous pesto she was making and marketing at the time. She recently started doing it again, with a series of absolutely brilliant pestos, salsas, dips and sauces, all natural and profoundly flavourful. My favourites are the arugula pesto and the classic Genoese basil pesto (sulfite- and gluten-free, with no added salt or preservatives) but there are many to try, and they work with more than pasta, transforming potatoes, vegetables, pilaffs, grilled chicken… They are intense enough that you only need a spoonful per serving: and now they’re all over town. Find out more at www.villassauces.com.

 

VIP Pinot Grigio (LCBO 272351, $12.95)

Why buy a Pinot Grigio from Argentina? It’s a reasonable question. VIP provides the answer – and  it has nothing to do with the chic label or the robust 13.3% abv. The floral, apples-and-pears nose is refined and a little shy; the immediate impression on the palate is also delicate, lightweight, clever and very dry. And then suddenly an intense illusion of bosc pears swoops in out of nowhere to supercharge the crisp flavour. The end result is more Granny Smith than the usual Pinot Grigio citrus. Sharp, clean as a whistle, lovely balance. A class act.

 

 

Sarah Villamere’s amazing dessert

15 Oct
Itself

Itself

Well, we have been living the life o’ Reilly these last few days. We spent the weekend giving thanks for our decision to spend it at Langdon Hall, bobbing about in the warm waters of innocent physical self-indulgence. Plenty of hiking, cycling, working out in the gym, circumambulating the snooker table and striding about the croquet lawn, mallet in hand – but could it possibly even begin to balance the caloric intake of the various breakfasts, lunches and dinners? Not to mention the little treats the staff at Canada’s best hotel like to drop casually in one’s path – for example, the dainty but existentially profound chocolate tarts that greeted us in our room when we arrived. All weekend long, the see-saw of eating and exercise, the teeter-totter of sin and redemption, creaked and squeaked like a rodeo bull in a Calgary bar. I have to get into my suit on Thursday for the Gold Medal Plates event in Halifax, so I was seriously concerned.

“Why on earth would you go to Langdon Hall, then, O’Reilly, you fool?”

There’s a reason, your honour. My son Joseph passed a milestone on the long path to his doctorate, and we deemed it a ripe moment to celebrate.

“But could you not have stuck to thin gruel and green tea for your meals at the hotel?”

We could not. It’s true we were a week too early to witness the menus of the new Executive Chef, Jason Bangerter, who drove up the driveway as we were leaving, but there was no escaping the genius of pastry chef Sarah Villamere.

“You’ve mentioned that name before.”

Wild cranberry and sumac soufflé with molasses ice cream

Wild cranberry and sumac soufflé with molasses ice cream

I have indeed, so save your majesty, and hope to again. It wasn’t just those chocolate tarts. Nor even the wild cranberry and sumac soufflé with molasses ice cream (the soufflé as proud and haughty-high, as sharp and ethereal as any queen of Tara). It was the dessert she sent out on Saturday night, when we were all but determined to eat nothing more at all (barring a sortie or two onto the cheese trolley).

This is what it looked like (points to the picture at the top of the page) – a saucerful of secrets, nothing too fancy to the eye but mysterious, and giving off a powerful fragrance of mushroom. Very few desserts smell like mushroom… Later, Sarah Villamere told me what goes into this amazing treat. She starts by making “milk jam” which is very like dulche de leche. Then she makes a purée of impeccable chanterelles, with nothing but a grain or two of salt before adding a reduction of Earl Grey tea to the mixture. She roasts some apples in foil until they are softish but not mushy, chops them up and tosses them with wild oregano, sugar, sea salt and cold-pressed canola oil. A morsel of this heady mixture goes onto the mushroom-milk-jam. In late July, she had picked sour green apples from Langdon Hall’s trees, juiced them and made a sorbet; now she shaved that sorbet into snow with the paco-jet and set a spoonful over the roasted apple. The penultimate ingredient was powdered cep mushroom that she had baked into a cookie and then powdered again to sprinkle here and there over the dish. The final flourish – a candied chanterelle perched on the apple snow.

It was a dazzling dessert – the most interesting pudding I’ve had all year with those cold, tangy, acidic apple flavours and heavy, roasted, sweet apple flavours, cep and chanterelle and oregano aromatics and the underlying richness of condensed dairy. Even more striking was the core texture of the dish, reminding me of the thick, velvety softness of a mushroom velouté but also the crusty, almost-solidity of clotted cream. Splendid stuff, to be sure, though Villamere modestly described it as being “fairly straightforward.”

Oh really?

No sir. O’Reilly.

Sarah Villamere , photo credit Ksenija Hotic

Sarah Villamere , photo credit Ksenija Hotic

 

Carnivore Club

29 Sep

CarnivoreClubBoard

I’m lucky. I live within a three-minute walk of Sanagan’s Meat Locker, the überbutcher of Kensington Market, so the world of salty-sweet, irresistible, melt-in-the-mouth, top-flight charcuterie is within daily reach. Grant Van Gameren’s lonza and bresaola? No problem. A selection of wicked terrines? Bien sur. But for the millions of artisanal charcuterie lovers in Canada who do not share such blessed geographical coordinates there is now the Carnivore Club. It’s basically a meats-of-the-month start-up. Pay them $50 a month and they will send you a monthly selection of excellent charcuterie. They were kind enough to deliver a typical box to me last week so I could see what’s up. There were six treats in the box – bona fide Iberico pata negra ham; a whole rustic Tuscan salami; a thick slice of a chunky but surprisingly subtle Quebec pork paté; some good bresaola; some really good culatello with all sorts of funky, juicy flavour going on; and some Iberico chorizo that I intended to use to add meaty pizzazz to a rustic-Portuguese-style potato and cabbage soup but ended up eating with my fingers while standing in the kitchen listening to Cross-country Check-up.

Reading the fine print of the Club’s accompanying literature, I discover that the two founders, Tim Ray and Matthew Cloutier, are building their business along post-modernist collective lines as a crowd-funding project. In other words, like condo developers or the wannabe high priests of a new religion, they are pre-seeking a congregation of carnivores who will pledge support online and on-trust and bring their brainchild into being. Making the flesh flesh with their chanting, I suppose you could say. We are invited to go to Indiegogo.com – www.igg.me/at/carnivore – where we can pledge as little as $2 as a show of basic support, or $500 if we wish to be celebrated as a King or Queen Carnivore, receive 12 months worth of boxes and a free, limited-edition T-shirt.

Or you can have a closer look at the company at www.carnivoreclub.ca and then make up your mind. Is it worth it? I found the quality of the charcuterie to be close to the freshly sliced standards of Sanagan’s and far above that of your average supermarket. And pata negra isn’t easy to find. Check it out for yourself, gentle reader, and let me know what you think.

 

 

An unexpected treat

13 Sep

Someone very kind has sent me a pair of remarkable headphones. A message reached me a few days ago that they were gathering dust at the HQ of Harry Rosen Inc. and would I be around to pick them up soon. I obliged immediately for I dearly love a present. I am, in fact, famously appreciative of any gift. It’s not a trait I have ever sought to conceal. Perhaps an ancestor was the grand vizier of some Levantine court or an early Tudor privy councillor or a Canadian mayor. But no, I can’t be bought. There’s nothing of the quid pro quo to my cupidity. Just that I take a keen delight in being given things.

Only once in living memory have I been quaint and surly when the ribbons have been untied and the paper ripped away. It was Christmas Eve, just before the children’s bedtime, and everyone was allowed to open ONE present. I chose one of the several inscribed to me by my mother.

“It had better not be socks,” I joked.

But of course it was socks.

My children gazed, appalled, as I rudely demanded another prezzy. My family has never forgotten – or, I suspect, forgiven – the moment. The tale is retold every Christmas.

So, am I acquisitive? Alas that it should be so. Is that a sin? Probably – because receiving gives me so much pleasure, and pleasure is the calling card of sin. And if anyone presumes to divert a gift intended for me, I find it hard to pretend any sort of smiling, merry nonchalance, with indignation roiling up inside me like the acid reflux of avarice. I do not forget.

July 22, 1998. A PR event at an Irish pub in Toronto. Good canapés. A tap on my shoulder…

Man at Party (icily): “So. Did you enjoy the bottle of Krug?”

Me: “Eh?”

MaP: “I sent a bottle of Krug to your office at the magazine. A year ago.”

Me: “But but but I work from home… Krug!?”

Crashing into the office next morning, demanding answers, I was met by silence and big round eyes and mouths that looked as though they were sucking lollipops.

Anyway these headphones – Sennheiser Momentum, made in Germany – sleek and black with a bold red cable – have reached me today and I am in awe. They are beautiful and they exclude all ambient noise. The earpieces cup and couch my oreilles with the most tender but most complete embrace. The sound quality is superb. Hitherto, I have relied on a set of ’phones pilfered from the first class cabin of a British Airways transAtlantic flight, fragile things that have required a deal of duct tape and fiddling over the years to maintain their integrity. From this moment on, I discard them. They will go into the wicker hamper where I keep all the redundant possessions that I cannot bear to throw away.

So… What to listen to with these marvellously intimate new headspeakers? My song du jour, Bowie’s mesmerizing, mysterious palimpsest, The Bewlay Brothers? My favourite episode of QI on YouTube? Or the most enchanting piece of music I can think of, just now, off the top of my head, the Nocturne near the end of Act One of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, the Deutsche Grammophon recording, with Ileana Cotrubas singing Héro and Nadine Denize as Ursule. The duet is ripe with rapturous expectation but at the same time indescribably poignant as the maidens walk slowly in the moonlit garden beneath the fragrant jasmine arbors.

To the anonymous Sennheiser benefactor: thank you for this delightful surprise – a gift that is all the more charming for being totally unexpected and completely undeserved.

 

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.

 

Evelyn’s Crackers Cheddar Crispies

25 Jun

evelyn 004

Self-restraint has never been my strongest suit. I tend to embrace temptation with an open-armed hug of welcome. Hence my new affair with Cheddar Crispies from Evelyn’s Crackers. Yes, they have been around for years but I came to them only recently, spotting the Evelyn’s display at Sanagan’s Meat Locker in Kensington Market. They have become a primary indulgence, the star of our daily domestic happy hour, sharing the card table with the boardgame du jour, cold white wine and conversation.

What makes these righteous treats so compelling? The contrast of deep, rich flavours and brittle, slender texture. The taste of organic spelt and aged white cheddar with the perfectly judged prickle of paprika and some earthy, seedy spice that hovers just over the horizon of easy identification (see the comments below for ID). My wife and I have been known to share an entire packet when the Scrabble excitement becomes unbearably intense.

Husband and wife Dawn Woodward and Edmund Rek make them by hand in Toronto – very labour intensive – using real, local ingredients. You can find the whole story at evelynscrackers.com. There’s a video there in which Woodward vows to go on making them ’til the end of time (as George Michael put it, so eloquently). A promise that I cling to like a lifebelt in the dystopic tsunami of lifeasweknowit.

 

The amazing everlasting chocolate bar

07 Apr
Mathematics - especially geometry - cannot lie. This chocolate bar lasts forever.

Mathematics – especially geometry – cannot lie. This chocolate bar lasts forever.

 

 

 

 

Lapostolle and Grand Marnier

16 Jan

My enthusiasm for the wines of Chile continues to grow, a long-smoldering ember fanned into flames by my trip there last fall, generously organized by Wines of Chile. These days our house wines are from Cono Sur and Conch Y Toro with a bottle of Montes Purple Angel for very special occasions. And my education was further expanded on Monday when I met with Javier Santos at Crush Wine Bar for a private tasting of some of the wines of Lapostolle, framed by other treasures produced by the Marnier-Lapostolle family.

The winery was founded in Chile’s Conchagua valley in 1996 by Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle, sixth-generation descendant of the original creator of Grand Marnier. It seems to be a family tradition to add something important and original to the clan’s portfolio. Alexandra’s great-grandfather bought property in the Loire and founded Château Sancerre in 1910; her son, Charles de Bourné, now has a project of his own, making pisco in Chile’s luminous Elke valley, a pisco he calls Kappa, after the brightest star in the constellation of the Southern Cross.

We started the tasting with the 2011 Château Sancerre, a graceful, subtle, perfectly balanced wine. There was fresh lime and lemon zest on the nose, hovering over a distinctive minerality. The flavours echoed the bouquet, a swirl of complexity beneath the obvious elegance, reflecting the nine months the wine spent on its lees and the ripeness of a lovely vintage. The length showed the wine’s breeding and I was delighted to learn that it will be returning to the LCBO in the summer, priced very reasonably at around $25.

The next white was from Chile’s cool Casablanca valley, Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandre 2011 Chardonnay, made with organic grapes from the Atalayas vineyard. It’s another wine with a bouquet to make any oenophile’s nostrils flare in admiration. Half oak- and half steel-fermented, half oak-aged, no malo, it’s intense, rich, spicy but perfectly formed – a Olympian Chardonnay with oaky caramel braided around peach and pear aromas.

We tasted two red wines, both spectacularly aromatic, an effect enhanced by the splendid stemware Crush found for the occasion. Lapostolle Cuvée Alexandra 2008 Carmenere is splendid, the dominant varietal educated and smoothed with about 15% Merlot. The nose is redolent of plums and black fruits with smoky spice and a hint of dark chocolate. Tasting it, I was struck by the smoothness of the tannins and the ripe black fruit that didn’t seem to have faded at all with the passing years. Young Carmenere often has a hint of something ferous and bloody, the taste you experience when you cut your finger and suck the wound. I didn’t get that here, which may be due to the wine’s maturity.

Then we tasted Lapostolle’s unique Borobo 2009, a blend of Carmenere, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Petit Verdot that changes with the vintage, in terms of ratio. I tasted the 2005 a couple of years ago and loved the dark, liquorice spiciness behind the ripe black fruit. There was a sense of drying tannins behind the scenes, however, that had not managed to integrate themselves thoroughly. Not with the 2009 – a black velvet cloak to wrap around your palate.

So far, so very good, and now we moved on into the spirit world, enjoying a small snifter of Cognac Marnier VSOP as an introit into the Grand Marnier range. If you’ve noticed a change in your Grand Marnier over the last couple of years it’s because they have lowered the level of sweetness by a welcome and significant 20 percent, a decision that has helped bring Red Label Grand Marnier into the modern age. Now Javier Santos caused cocktails to be made to emphasize this refreshing, contemporary side to the old liqueur. The Grand Ginger was my favourite, a simple mix of 1 oz grand Marnier, 3 oz ginger ale and the juice of a ¼ of a lime stirred in a glass full of ice. The ginger ale brought out the flavour of the very rare, bitter, greenish-yellow type of oranges (Citrus bigaradia) that go into Grand Marnier, grown in the family’s groves in Haiti.

The next step up from the Red Label is the Grand Marnier Louis-Alexandre – my favourite level – which is smoother, more sophisticated and offers a greater ratio of Cognac to orange eau de vie in the blend, a virtue reflected in its price. We skipped the next two rungs of the ladder, the Cuvée de Centenaire and the Cuvée de Cent Cinquantenaire, created to mark the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the elixir. Instead we leaped right to the Quintessence, blended from double-distilled orange eau de vie and a selection of cognacs up to 100 years old that were discovered in the Marnier Paradis. This is the ultimate Grand Marnier experience. Can a smell be intense but also ethereal? Almost an incense of orange and oak and very old brandy. Texturally, it’s so smooth it is almost a syrup and the length is unparalelled. Remarkable. But dare I admit it – privately, and for your ear alone – I still prefer the Louis-Alexandre.

 

 

Midnight Train to Gorge-ya

05 Jan

It has been a very long time since I received a toy train for Christmas. This year it finally happened again! And lo – by another miracle – the choo-choo was full of bags of various kinds of posh German cookies that I also dimly remembered from childhood tea parties in other people’s houses. The company that makes the train – and the cookies – is Lambertz, a traditionalist giant from Aachen, Frankish Charlemagne’s old capital city. Their product range is vast and includes shortbread as well as Aachener printen cookies and lebkuchen – a soft, heavy, honey-sweetened, exotically spiced cookie-cake most like a form of gingerbread. There were gingery lebkuchen in my train, shaped like plump hearts and dipped in dark chocolate, with a moist squodge of apricot jam inside. There were also firmer, round cookies that tasted of cinnamon and were crusted with hard white icing. And wee cubes of apricot jelly covered in a fragile chocolate shell. The cookies will not last long but I’ll keep the train, I think.

Where can one find such a treasure? At Ararat, the wonderful gourmet food store on Avenue Road. Peter and Aurora Kashkarian have run their store for more than 40 years. Middle eastern treats and delicacies were always their forte (awesome feta and some of the best olives in North America) and remain so – but now they have a number of amazing German finds as well, including Asbach liqueur chocolates in a handsome wooden box that can be kept when all the sweets have been guzzled and used to hold postage stamp swaps or hanks of coloured silk.

Ararat International Fine Foods is at 1800 Avenue Road (just north of Melrose Avenue). Call them at 416 782 5722.