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.
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.
Anita Stewart dropped by after Soupstock and gave me a gift of quinces – October’s fruit – gathered from under the tree of a farmer friend of hers. It was a most resonant gift. There used to be a quince tree in the feral garden next to our once-tended-now-equally-feral garden on Corfu. Every October we would pick the golden, downy, rock-hard quinces and bring them home, piling them in a bowl, letting them perfume the house with their un-European, tropical fragrance. You can’t eat a quince from the tree – any more than you can eat an olive. Quinces are as astringent as an unripe persimmon or a too-young Cabernet Sauvignon. They fill your mouth with cotton wool. But roast them in the oven or turn them into a compote, as our neighbours did, and they are heaven itself – luxe, aromatic, like a cross between an apple and a guava. The Portuguese make them into a stiff jelly which they carve into slices to eat with pungent cheese. The Greeks prefer them soft and submissive on the tongue.
Quinces were the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, according to Palinurus. These were the three “apples” that Aphrodite gave to Melanion when he entered the foot-race against Atalanta, the dazzling athlete of her day. The race was a test: win and you won Atalanta’s hand in marriage; lose and you lost your head. Melanion knew he couldn’t beat her but he used the apples as a distraction, tossing one to the side of the track each time the fleet Atalanta caught up with him. I can’t see a regular apple holding that much appeal, but a quince… She retrieves the rolling fruit, lifts it carefully to her nose, closes her eyes, inhales the heady scent… Comes to her senses, sees the cheat has taken the lead and leaps forward again… Melanion won the race – but the marriage, though lusty, was short-lived. While on holiday, the couple felt compelled to have sex in a temple of Zeus and were promptly turned into lions.
Ay me, the quince… the coing, membrillo, marmelata, pyrus cydonia… Set it up with its potently aromatic equals, as Palinurus does – the truffle, the opium poppy, the peyotl bud. He claimed “it only ripens in the south” but these Ontario quinces will make a fine jam, cooked in the way our neighbours on Corfu used to do, back in the day, when the old ways were still remembered. Nitsa had the technique down pat, learned from her grandmother.
To make Nitsa’s Kithoni Gliko, you’ll need 1 kilo sugar and 300 mL water for every kilo of quinces. Also two large lemons and 4 sprigs of arbaroriza (a common herb on the Ionian islands that is only used in this recipe, imparting a flavour somewhere between vanilla and angelica – you could use a few drops of vanilla essence instead. Maybe).
Rub the down off the quinces. Peel and dice them and put them in a bowl with the water. Cut one lemon in half, squeeze it into the water, flick out the pips with the point of a knife then add the squeezed lemon halves to the quince mixture. Let it all soak for half an hour then remove the lemon halves. Tip the quince and the liquid into a heavy pan and boil vigorously for 30 minutes. Stir in the sugar until it’s dissolved and boil for a further 15 minutes. Add the juice of the second lemon and the sprigs of arbaroriza. Boil five minutes more. Remove the arbaroriza. Quinces are very rich in pectin (maybe that’s why the ancestors of Anita’s farmer-friend planted the tree on their land, 100 years ago – to make sure their strawberry or blueberry jam set properly) so this jam will surely set at this point. Nitsa waits for the jam to cool before bottling it. She eats it on bread. I used to stir it into strained yoghurt for a particularly indulgent breakfast in the cool autumn months when the peaches and stone fruits were long gone. We used to swap a jar of our damson jam for a jar of her quince jam, because she had a quince tree and we had damsons. That was the way the world worked in the Ionian islands before Brussels introduced notions of profit and speculation and debt and despair.
On to Stockholm for four or five days – a city I had never seen but must now place high on the list of favourites. We came upon free rock concerts just across the water from the Parliament buildings, paused to admire the mounted brass band and timpani of the Royal Guard as they played in the courtyard of the Palace, visited some exceptional museums (especially the one built to house the Vasa, that remarkable but unlucky ship that sank after sailing only a few hundred yards on her maiden voyage in 1628) and tasted many delicious things. Best of all was the grilled reindeer at Slingerbulten (incredibly tender, lean, sweet meat) and the mildly salted bleak roe on fried bread at Sture Hof. Almost as good was a dinner in one of the labyrinthine basement rooms of Den Gyldene Freden – a bit of a tourist trap but full of charm. I had heavy cured herring with capers and perfect little boiled new potatoes; delicate, much more lightweight herring with sour cream and a bitter spicy edge from horseradish; sweeter, saltier herring with honey and cherries; and cheese that had been drowned in aquavit for two days. These dishes comprised the first course, to be followed by wild duck (the breast pink and pleasingly tender, the leg frenched and confited).
Wendy and I had hoped to visit our old friend Goran Amnegard who has built an extraordinary hotel/restaurant/vineyard a couple of hours west of the city (his Vidal Icewine wins prizes regularly at the major French wine fairs) but he and his family were away on holiday in Italy. Next time…
Then it was a quick hop to Berlin where we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a lavish dinner at the 2-Michelin-starred Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer. The room was delightful – like a peaceful library in a large country house but with a view of the Brandenburg Gate – and the service exemplary. Chef Hendrick Otto’s cooking is in the very haute modern French-European style – complex and clever and evolved. Every component is orchestrated to the nines but such is his mastery of harmony that nothing is ever remotely dissonant: it’s like listening to Haydn played by the Berlin Philharmonic – super if you love Haydn. A parfait of goose liver for example, was graced with brioche cream, orange, coffee and polenta, the natural texture of each ingredient transformed… Silver salmon received the blessing of a white bean fumé, an escabeche of vegetables, tiny cubes of jellied salt water as well as mango and bell pepper. Scallop and pork belly flirted with a curry emulsion, moments of banana, fennel, artichoke and passion fruit… And so on. The wines chosen by the sommelier were all fine but nothing breathtakingly good and original – things like Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltliner that seem fairly commonplace in Toronto (I was hoping for some spectacular German wines). But it was all very fine but ultimately not nearly as satisfying and pleasurable as the whole turbot we shared for lunch the next day down on Quarré’s sidewalk tables along Unter der Linden. It’s not a fish one comes across often any more – and I can’t really afford it when I do – but we were still under the anniversary spell.
And now we are in Corfu, at our old house, getting ready to go up to the bar where our koubaros, Philip (aka Pakis) has finally decided the moment has come to offer food as well as drink. He has built a small but impressive kitchen, taken on a business partner in a chef called Spiro, and proposes a small menu of mezethes that will change every night according to the whim of the management. We have been asking Philip to do food for more than 30 years but he has always dismissed the idea, though he is a fabulous cook. How will tonight’s mezethes turn out? Please watch this space.
Some time ago I was given a small metal canister by Adam Kreek, the Olympic rowing gold medalist turned entrepreneur, high performance expert and community advocate. It contained a green powder called Maccha Nirvana, a really first-class ground tencha green tea from Uji, Kyoto, Japan. It’s brought into Canada by a company called JagaSilk (www.jagasilk.com) and Kreek helps publicize it. The idea was that I might blog about this spectacular tea but I was negligent… Now I will be spending lots of time with Adam Kreek in London during the Olympics and I have remembered my promise. After all, Kreek is HUGE and still alarmingly fit as he recently proved by rowing around Vancouver Island (1,200 kilometres, 19 days). That is part of his training for a longer adventure in December in which he and three buddies will row from Liberia across the Atlantic to Venezuela (7,000 kilometres), rowing 24-7 in two hour shifts as a fundraiser for Right To Play International. It could take anything from 60 to 80 days.
But about this tea… It ticks all the boxes for maccha – organic and shade-grown, each leaf de-veined, de-stemmed and painstakingly stone-ground into a powder. I conducted my own little tea ceremony with it this morning, mixing ½ a teaspoonful with about 2 ounces of water (at around 60o – which I gauged as handhot) in my tea bowl and whisking it to a froth with my trusty chasen whisk. I was expecting the flavour of toasted nori and lily under the pervasive bittersweet chlorophyl and there it was, hovering over the thick, rich, full-bodied liquid. The lingering finish conjured images as green and pastoral as anything Danny Boyle could come up with. In short, this is an excellent tea, invigorating, exhilarating – a fine way to open the day. I’ll be ordering my refill pack online from JagaSilk (they ship refills free).
Thanks, Kreek, for turning me on to it! And I’ll see you in London shortly (everyone is shortly when they stand beside Adam Kreek).
Time flashes by, doesn’t it? Last weekend I was girding my loins in preparation of emceeing Terroir, the culinary symposium organized by Arlene Stein and other stalwarts of the hospitality industry. It was great fun and full of fascinating ideas but I was too busy to take notes. Luckily, Jamie Drummond and Good Food Revolution did that job admirably. Here’s a link to their report: http://goodfoodrevolution.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/terroir-vi-april-23-2012-part-1/
Meanwhile, I have so many recent treats to report, I don’t know where to begin. I’ll start with Bestellen’s burger, which really is one of the best in the city. Chef and co-owner Rob Rossi uses a combination of chuck, striploin and prime beef (you can see the meat ageing in the windowed meat locker in the restaurant) that ends up rich and sweetly beefy and attractively lean, keeping its shape nicely between a brioche bun. He adds a slice of tangy raclette which reaches melting point but stops short of actual liquefaction, and a layer of caramelized onions to bring out another dimension and boost the meat’s own sweetness.
It’s an excellent burger and doubly enjoyable with a glass of Joie Farm’s Alsatian-style blended white, A Noble Blend. I don’t think Joie Farm (they’re in the Okanagan Valley, B.C.) ever made a less than stellar wine but this Blend is terrific. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois, with a splash of Schoenberger, are the components. It has a truly zaftig Alsatian body and focused, complex aromas of elder and baking spice with lychee, spice and citrus on the palate. This is a big, grown-up white wine that worked remarkably well with the burger.
Another, vaguely related gustatory happening concerns Canada’s first raisins. In 2009, Klaus Reif of Reif Estates vineyard in Niagara bought two old tobacco kilns, intending to use them to dry out grapes for an appassimento-style Riesling wine. At the same time, a local grower of Sovereign Coronation table grapes was having trouble competing with imported fruit and wondered what he could do with his unsold crop. Grapes + kilns = Canada’s first native raisins – and now they are being marketed commercially as Reif Naturals Kiln Haus raisins. They are truly delicious – robust and a bit bigger than Californian raisins but with a real fruit flavour to back up the natural sweetness. I found myself scarfing them by the handful. An extension of the line also sees them covered with a glossy milk or dark chocolate, courtesy of another Niagara company, Chocolate FX. These are definitely treats to look out for, and I love how local they are.
Next up: Adam Kreek’s fabulous green tea; Hogtown ale…
One of the things that has given me most pleasure in the last few years is to watch the friendship burgeon between my daughter and my mother. Now that Mae is living in London for most of the year, growing her career as a stand-up comic, they have been spending lots of time together. I never taught Mae to cook (mea culpa, mea gulpa culpa) in the way that my mother (a genius in the kitchen) taught me to cook. Now my mum is doing the honours. In fact, they are considering writing a cookbook together and I am sure it will be vivid and funny and wise and full of invaluable insight.
One of the dishes my mother has taught my daughter in the last year is Toad in the Hole. Everyone knows, I hope, that this is an English treat consisting (in its most usual incarnation) of sausages smothered in batter pudding (a.k.a. Yorkshire pudding) then baked. The end of the sausage tends to poke out from the pudding like a toad looking out of a hole. The whole affair is delicious with hot English mustard.
I was thinking about toad in the hole last week when I was in Greece and busy installing a new woodstove chimney through our three-foot-thick stone walls. The guy doing most of the work was Steve O’Connor, an Englishman who has lived in the next village but one for a good 20 years. We were swapping renovation stories while we worked and talking about the things we had found in our very old houses – dowry papers and other legal documents sealed for safe-keeping in an old daub-and-wattle bedroom wall; bits of a stone mortar; bottles of veterinary embrocation; an English gold sovereign that had slipped between floorboards a hundred years ago.
Steve had the strangest story. His old house, like mine, had a stone pezouli running along the inside wall of the kitchen – like a support wall about three feet high and two feet deep – useful for sitting on or using as a big shelf. I kept mine; he decided he’d rather have the extra floor space and started to demolish his, busting off the plaster and old whitewash then digging out the stones and rubble from which the wall was made. To his surprise, the pezouli was hollow and the inside was rank and damp where the roots of an olive tree had writhed their way in from the garden outside and then rotted. He had almost finished the job when he noticed something in the dim light of the kitchen – something shiny and black that moved amidst the rubble. It was a monstrous toad. Sometime long ago it must have squeezed in from the outside, following the olive root. It couldn’t get out and so it lived in the darkness inside the wall, blind and imprisoned, growing ever fatter on whatever moisture it could suck from the rotting tree roots, eating whatever creatures found their way into that fetid space.
“It was as big as a half-deflated soccer ball,” said Steve. “Monstrous. I got a shovel under it and carried it outside under the trees. It was heavy and it wobbled. Then I went back in and began digging down, sealing the wall.”
And now I can’t get the image of the toad out of my mind. Toad in the hole. It has quite put me off my tea.
This is Lodovico, a most self-possessed and well-behaved infant. He and I sat across from each other for Christmas lunch at the Savoy and I can only say that in terms of la gourmandise, he left me in the dust. The empty dish before him was his second bowl of polenta. Before that he had enjoyed some of Gordon Ramsay’s “pumpkin soup” (spread across a side-plate to cool by his father, who is a chef and owns a super restaurant in the Abruzzo). Lodovico and I were both guests at a wonderful party for 27 hosted by very dear friends of my mother in a private salon called the D’Oyly Carte room, just on the left of the American Bar. It is an annex of the Savoy Grill downstairs, a restaurant now in G Ramsay’s portfolio, and was the perfect location for the festive gathering. Somehow the kitch art-deco horror vacui of the newly redecorated Savoy has not reached this charming chamber, which was once a most discreet little bar where the theatre producer Michael Codron used to host famous lunches when I was a nipper. I was never privy to those glamorous occasions but my mother remembers them well.
I had been looking forward to the Ramsay version of the Christmas feast and much of it was lovely – the turkey itself, to be sure, and the awesome roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts with bacon – and the pigs in blankets (chipolatas wrapped in bacon and roasted) once they had been sent back to the oven to achieve a crisping and a tan. But the great man nodded where the Christmas pudding was concerned – pale, bland mounds, gummy with flour, that tasted as though they had been rustled up that morning, not last year, and came with a sort of brandy butter aïoli that was a very far cry from the echt hard sauce which was always my brother’s speciality. We began with a studied collation of smoked fish – salmon, mackerel and sturgeon with a horseradish mousse, buckwheat blinis and devilled quail’s eggs. My mother can’t eat oysters so she asked the waiter to make sure there were none on the plate. Alas, he misunderstood and set down six perfect Colchester beauties before her instead of the fish. As soon as he was gone we swapped our plates so everyone ended up happy. Very happy, to be sure, for the company and the conversation was stellar and the wines magnificent – Domaine Didier Morion Vent d’Anges 2008 Condrieu with the fish and Hudelot Noellat Chambolle Musigny 2004 with the bird.
For me, it was a flying visit to Lunnun Tarn but there were other culinary highlights. The city looked pristine, though it seemed oddly quiet on my late-night perambulations, walking through the echoing labyrinth of Chelsea streets I grew up in, now empty and guarded and somewhat foreign, though marinated in my own nostalgia. England’s economic austerity can be felt. I hope it will prove to be the carfeully controlled deep breath before the glorious plunge into the Olympics this coming summer.
Meanwhile my mother roasted pheasants for our first supper (living in Canada, I crave game that has been properly hung in the feather) and then we turned the carcases into a spectacular soup. I found some dressed Essex crabs no bigger than the saucer of an espresso cup and ate far too many of them. There was a very memorable Vacherin at its unctuous Yuletide best – and my mum taught me her recipe for Welsh cakes. Dear friends of my youth, neglected this time around, I shall have you all over for tea when I come back in the spring and we shall see how well I have learned the technique.
And then it was Victoria Station at six o’clock in the morning, the hell of Gatwick and Easyjet to Athens and Olympic to Kerkyra… And here I am tonight in room 52 of the Cavalieri hotel in Corfu Town, the esplanade warm and dry under a new moon, the streets bright with Christmas lights and thronged with merry-makers – but more of that anon.
STARFISH liquored salmon belly. My wife chose Starfish for her birthday dinner over the weekend and the ever-hospitable owner and oyster-genius Patrick McMurray surprised us with his latest invention – liquored salmon belly. He was thinking about the salmon he gets – organic Irish salmon of the highest calibre – and what to do with it… Cure it? But how? With some kind of brine… And what is the purest brine – and always available at Starfish? The ocean water trapped inside the shell of each living oyster. He had some gorgeous Welsh oysters from Anglesey to hand – grown in almost the same water in which that Irish salmon swam when it was pink and carefree in the glory of its youth. Salmo salar! The leaper! The selfsame fish whose avatar once dwelt in a secluded pool on Ireland’s River Boyne, nourished by the hazelnuts of knowledge as they plopped into the water from the tree of wisdom until that salmon was the wisest of all creatures. Alas, not smart enough to elude Patrick McMurray. He opens the deep shell of a Welsh Menai Straits oyster, removes the oyster without losing the brine and lies two slices of the fish’s fatty belly into the viscous, salt-thickened water caught in the empty shell. He poses it on a coupe of crushed ice and sets the oyster itself beside it, still alive but beached on the other flatter half of its shell. The brine starts to cure the salmon – even a moment or two is enough to begin to turn that coral-coloured flesh pale and opaque. It tastes amazing! The soft, buttery salmon belly with that hit of ocean salt… The oyster fat and creamy with a cucumber, minerally finish… A very good reason to go to Starfish asap.
Interesting trivia fact: almost all British oystermen now have a bed or two dedicated to Pacific species! Why? Because their season lasts all year long. Indigenous British flats have distinct seasons and are periodically unavailable.
SOMA chocolatemaker Green Tangerine 66%. Proprietor-chocolatier David Castelan has an unerring sense of what constitutes the most delectable chocolate in the world. With this slender bar he blends sharp, fruity Madagascar Trinitario and Criollo beans, rendering a chocolate of 66% cacao content and flavouring it with essence of green tangerine. The chocolate is intense and fruitily acidic to begin with – but not as bitter as it would have been at, say, 70%. The green tangerine aroma/flavour is perfectly pitched – a citrus fruit that is more interesting than lemon or orange or grapefruit but less floral than yuzu or kumquat – the ideal chocolate corollary. I tried to make my dainty little 80-gram slab last until nightfall. Yeah right…
ALIMENTO is the new Italian gourmet emporium at 522 King Street West that took forever to open but is now up and running. Judging by the empty aisles and the empty chairs in the attractive mozzarella bar, it is still a well-kept secret but we went down and checked it out last weekend. There’s a charming décor of old wooden floors and extravagant displays of imported (and a few local) Italian treats. Great strengths: the salumi bar featuring dozens of fab Italian and Canadian meats, plus real Spanish Iberico ham at a very reasonable price. An impressive cheese selection. A predictably strong wall of Italian olive oils. Decent canned items, antipasti and pastries. Lots more… We ended up going home and cooking up a lunch from what we bought, built around a spectacularly good dried angel-hair egg noodle, Spinosini 2000. It cooks in two minutes and has a gorgeous grainy flavour. Our sauce was simplicity itself – sliced cremini mushrooms sautéed with finely chopped shallot, dried porcini reconstituted in chicken stock, pepper, plenty of cream and a tablespoonful of President’s Choice black truffle aioli. This last is a product that had been sitting in my fridge for a while, waiting to learn what its fate might be. I wasn’t sure whether it would have that rank, locker-room aroma that some truffle-flavoured products lend to a dish so I had hesitated to use it. As things turned out, it was surprisingly subtle, pleasing and just the ticket for our mushroom sauce – the sort of thing that disappears texturally in a sauce or dressing but leaves a ripe and poignant memory of truffle in the air.
ACE Christmas berry jam and fig bread. ACE bakery always does something special for the holidays. The berry jam is divine – like a rumtopf turned into jam with whole cranberries popping in a runny, spiced-up red-berry matrix. The fig bread is a tasty brown loaf with a good crunchy crust and great big dried figs in it. Slice it and toast it and your kitchen will smell like Christmas. The jam is great on the toasted bread – but so is a creamy blue cheese like Cambazola, spread quickly while the toast is still hot so that the cheese starts to soften and think about melting. Be merciful – scrunch – and put it out of its misery.
TOMMASI makes a single-vineyard Amarone Classico called Il Sestante (“The Sextant”) and it’s coming to Ontario in January, on the General List at around $39.95. It’s a beauty – old style amarone, which Tommasi does so well – complex and intense that will be perfectly delicious with a knob of parmiggiano reggiano or a well-hung grouse roasted and served with its own juices on toast or a firm slab of polenta. I was lucky enough to taste a preview bottle and I’m still smiling. It’s full of the sense of cold autumnal larch forests in the Italian pre-Alps, of liquorice and dark spicy honey, smoky firesides and cherries that have been spiced and preserved for months. The finish is all about dried figs and raisined grapes – sweet but dry, if you know what I mean – like a great amarone can be. Worth waiting for.