The Iron Sommelier

Canada's three Master Sommeliers, Jennifer Huether, John Szabo and Bruce Wallner

On Tuesday night, the disconsolate blue-and-white crowd that streamed out of the Air Canada Centre and past the soaring glass façade of Aria Ristorante were unaware that a contest was under way, behind those lofty windows, of a much more subtle and hard-fought intensity than anything the Leafs have provided of late. The Iron Sommelier competition, 2012, came folded into a VISA Infinite dining event – and that meant good times for the audience of 150 eager food-and-wine lovers. Not only would they have a superb meal at the hand of Aria’s Executive Chef, Eron Novalski, they would also taste the wines chosen for each course by Canada’s three Master Sommeliers and then vote on which of the three deserved the title of Iron Sommelier.

I was to share the MC duties with the excellent and always amusing Nick Keukenmeester from Lifford wine agencies which had provided the portfolio of dozens of spectacular wines from which the competitors could choose their matches. By some deft and ruthless manoeuvring I was able to shuffle off the lion’s share of the work onto Nick’s shoulders, leaving myself with a single duty – to describe the dishes themselves.

And so we began, milling about in the restaurant, sipping 2002 Feuillatte Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs Champagne and nibbling on Chef Novalski’s awesome canapés: confited duck tongue with duck egg aioli… Green olives stuffed with duck meat, veal and sausage then breaded and fried… Wicked little duck breast spiedini with orange sea salt (“speedies” are all the rage in Western New York State’s more fashion-forward bars these days, and are certainly coming soon to a restaurant near you.)… Duck prosciutto crostini with apricot chutney and shaved foie gras… Have you spotted the theme? Yes indeedy. Every course was to feature duck and of the potential wines available to the sommeliers, the vast majority were Pinot Noir. The white Pekin ducks, incidentally, were generously sponsored by King Cole of Aurora, Ontario, a hugely successful, righteous farm that lets the birds lead clean, happy, outdoor, organic lives.

Nick introduced Canada’s three MSs, and I was delighted to see that he was perfectly prepared to take the mickey out of them, as they were out of each other. So it was a merry contest from the outset and I was left free to torment Nick whenever I could think of something. John Szabo MS (uber-consultant, whose latest project is STOCK restaurant in the Trump tower)  looked splendidly virile in the black, embroidered dolman and pelisse of a Hungarian hussar, though he had left his shako, boots and sabre at home. Jennifer Huether MS (o.i.c. MLSE’s wine program next door at E11even, the ACC, and everywhere else) was all charm and good-magical-energy but with a rapier for a palate and cool acuity where the public’s preferences are concerned. Bruce Wallner MS (lately of Paese) was the joker of the pack tonight, though he is a man on a serious mission to turn Ontario on to excellent wine.

Course number 1


Ma foie...! (image


Chef used duck foie gras to create a slightly Italianized version of a classic French foie gras mousse, served in a most original way. That Italian component comes in right at the beginning when he marinates the whole foie gras not in Cognac or Armagnac or Calvados – but in a grappa that has been aged in port casks. After an hour or so he strains the grappa off into a pan, pours in some chicken stock, adds bayleaves and peppercorns and brings it to the boil. The cool pink foies are lowered into this hot bath to relax for a while. Then they are separated again and allowed to cool down to room temperature before the foie is put back into the liquid and they go into the fridge. It all sounds like some elaborate day at the spa. Then the foie and its fat is buzzed in a food processor together with a great deal of butter – to be finished in a pacojet. By now it’s a mousse – you would be too if you had endured such treatment. Eron spreads it out across the whole plate like hummus and then adds crazy extra flavours – orange peel that has been dehydrated and then ground to powder; crispy sage leaves for earthiness and baby shiso leaf for mentholated tang; crispy duck skin, deep fried then crumbled over the top; and dehydrated cherry, like the weightless, chalky “berries” you get in a packet of cereal, partially powdered, partially crumbled over the top.

I was able to pass on instructions about how to eat it. Eron had baked some foccacia and turned it into crostini. He suggested we all just broke a piece off and wiped it right through the plate so it picked up a little of everything. Pop it in one’s gob – and while the flavours are still ringing and resonating around the palate try one of the wines and pay close attention to what happens.

All three MSs chose a Pinot Noir – each wine a star in its own right. Jennifer went for Barnett Savoy 2010 from California’s Anderson Valley. It was far more sophisticated than I expected with complex swirls going on under and around the vibrant cherries. It was such a good match it seemed to disappear in the welcoming embrace of the foie. John’s Pinot was a magnificent old Burgundy – Louis Jadot Corton Pougets Grand Cru 2002 – the most delicate red Corton of all. He urged us to think about texture and he was right – silk on silk – heavenly but, again, so perfect a dancing partner for the mousse that I lost sight of the wine behind the foie’s broad back. Bruce’s wine came from Niagara – Malivoire Mottiar Vineyard 2009. Cherries all over the place, but there was a distinctive Niagara vibrancy to it – an acidity that was different and alive – as if this wine was playing an electric guitar while the other two were playing in the strings section. It was a great match but it also let the wine stand out in its own right. It got my vote.

Course number 2

Duck consomme (image:

Our next dish was a (possibly unintentional) homage to the Marx Brothers and their immortal movie, Duck Soup. A great consommè always begins with the bones, of course – in this case, roasted and then boiled into a brown duck stock with a mirepoix of carrot, celery, onions, cinnamon, allspice, rosemary and thyme, all simmered over eight hours. Chef let it cool, then strained it, then boiled it up again, this time adding a little gelatin, orange zest (one of the ubiquitous secondary flavours of the evening) and some pat chun sauce (like a tangy, citric hoisin). To clarify it, he froze the soup, wrapped it in cheesecloth and let it slowly thaw at room temperature, drip-drip-dripping through a perforated pan. The result was a beautiful consommé, clear and the colour of dark honey – like the chunks of topaz shoeless children try to make you buy in the Atlas mountains – and with layers of flavour that go on for ever.

Three tortellini bobbed about in the soup, filled with a smooth mixture of confited duck, grated parmigiano reggiano and a pailful of porcini mushrooms that had been cooked down with roasted garlic and puréed. He finished the dish with some chopped chives and just a droplet of truffle oil that created an invisible, intangible ambience of truffle hovering in the air about a foot above the bowl.

Soup is a notoriously tough match for wine (cold and hot liquids rarely work well together) but the MSs were unfazed. John began by pointing out that the consommé was basically an umame bomb but that the tortellini might be the key bridge. “There is also umame in wine,” he opined, “when grapes are perfectly ripe or even over-ripe…” His choice was a white Alsatian show-stopper, rich and heavy, sweet and complex, the Zinck Rangen Grand Cru Tokay Pinot Gris 2007. A gorgeous wine, but I found it too big and sweet for the surprisingly delicate soup and the subtlety of the tortellini. Bruce took a totally different route, using a very rare and prestigious sparkling rosé from Franciacorta, the Ca del Bosco Anna Clemente Rose 2004 (a wine that retails at $219.95 a bottle). It showed magnificently and was brilliantly refreshing with the dish, and perfectly capable of singing its own song clear and true against the complicated orchestration of the dish. But did it actually add anything to the moment? Was there a sublime epiphany? Not so much. Jennifer took yet another route into the soup, picking up on the savoury, umame, mushroom, truffle components in the consommé with a classic match – a mature Burgundy with its own delicate, earthy, mushroomy notes, the Louis Jadot 1er Cru Beaune Theurons 2006. Bingo! A great balance of texture and intensity. The Beaune got my vote.

Course number 3

Pasta - basta! (image

The pasta interlude. The pasta in question was hand-made cavatelli, one inch long, sturdy and filling. The sauce…? Well of course it was all about the sauce. Chef Eron made a marvellous duck ragu, first roasting whole ducks until they were brown then braising them slowly for six or seven hours in a mixture of red wine, veal jus, tomato paste and a mirepoix of vegetables. When they were done, he took of the duck’s skins and forked off all the meat from the bones, He strained the braising liquid and added it to the meat, then passed the vegetables through a mouli and added them, too. Then he started a new sauce with onion and garlic and fresh tomatoes, folded in the ragu and just before serving added a couple of spoonfuls of mascarpone to add extra richness and silkiness of texture. As a final flourish he roasted chestnuts, froze them, then grated them over each dish as it went out.

John declared this rich ragu to be the toughest match of the evening, though not the most complex. He chose a Carrick Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009 from New Zealand – a smooth, perfectly balanced Pinot Noir that seemed to slide gracefully over the surface of the food without ever making much contact with it. Bruce also went to Otago for his Pinot, the Felton Road Cornish Point Central Otago Pinot Noir 2010, a wine that still showed the clumsiness of youth, needing time in the bottle to achieve perfect integration. That clumsiness, which revealed itself as a separation of the wine’s components – glorious cherry and berry fruit up front, acids and tannins swirling in a little late to the party – was exacerbated by the dish but I thought the match was actually more interesting with the tannins and acids managing to penetrate the textures of the dish, letting the fruit reach out to the sweet duck and spices. Jennifer found a Pinot Noir from Sonoma, the Freestone Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2008. This wine is another beautifully knit smoothie with a great balance between the tangy, ripe red fruit, vibrant acidity and minerality. That vibrancy managed to handle the richness of the ragu – in my opinion, the best match of the three.

Course number 4

The breast (image

The main event. Someone asked me, “Why ducks on the menu tonight?” I tried to explain by asking her to imagine the shoreline of a great continent, the place where the land of food meets the ocean of wine. Armies of foodies ceaselessly roam the land; great navies of wine aficionados bob about on the seven seas. But in between lie vast tidal flats – lonely  and unvisited places, silent and wet under the infinite sky. But look there…! Far away across the miles of shining mud – distant figures are at work. It’s the sommeliers. They make their living where food meets wine, filling their string pouches with the glistening treasures they discover, collecting unique knowledge and original ideas. It can be a solitary place and they find companionship where they can – especially with the shore birds – the eiders and harlequins, the velvet scoters, the oldsquaws and goldeneyes – all the marine ducks – like the sommeliers, as comfortable on the water as on the land. I’m sure that’s why we had a duck menu.

And why, for our next course, Chef Eron worked with the breast, rubbing it with a dry marinade of liquorice, allspice, cinnamon, pepper, thyme and bayleaf and then sealing it in a vacuum for a couple of days to contemplate the error of its ways. When the meat was truly contrite, he cleaned it and then rubbed it with a second, fresh marinade of the same spices, but this time they had been toasted to mellow their pungency. Then the breast was quickly seared and sliced and the meat was arrayed over a velvet cushion of puréed celeriac and Gala apple, enriched with cream, thyme, bay and peppercorns.

There was also a tiny perfect brick of polenta that was mixed with butter and Parmigiano when it was still in its stirrable infancy. Eron spread it out onto baking pans and put it in the fridge to solidify. Then he cut it into rectangles and pan-seared them to reactivate the cheesiness.

As the evening’s token vegetable we had fennel poached in milk, then laid gently onto the polenta cake, only to be smothered in breadrumbs and cheese and gratineed under the merciless flames of the salamander. The sauce was a Veal jus with cocoa in it that was rich enough pass for a mole. There was a dusting of pink peppercorn powder around the plate and a final crumble of raw cocoa nibs – primal chocolate as a dark, savoury spice.

Such a complex, profound, tricky dish, with so much going on! The MSs did not let us down, working with three very serious Pinot Noirs. Jennifer chose an Australian star, the Kooyong Mornington Peninsula Estate Pinot Noir 2010, a very smooth and well-integrated wine that relied on fruit to make its statement. Bruce chose a huge Pinot, the Sequana Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch 2008 – a great wine in which he detected even caramelized notes. To me, the food exaggerated those hints, making the wine oddly sweet. This time John aced the round with a wine he described as “the most old-world of the new world Pinot Noirs,” Adelsheim Willamette Valley Pinot Noir 2009 from Oregon. This time the food gave the wine a leg-up and then they continued to climb towards the sun in a slowly turning gyre.

Jennifer Huether, Iron Sommelier, 2012

So who had won? My vote was just one of 150. While the numbers were tallied we feasted on. Debbie Levy of Dairy Farmers of Canada introduced a cheese course of aged Lankaaster (Ontario), Le Mont Jacob (Quebec), Avonlea clothbound cheddar (P.E.I.) and Bleu d’Elizabeth. I had lots to say about dessert – a layered verrine called Ciocolatto e Caramello created by Aria’s pastry chef, Melanie Harris. She loves salty things almost as much as sweet and this delectable little item reflected that. Layered from the bottom up was salted caramel-white chocolate mousse; pure salted caramel; a 77%-cocoa dark chocolate mousse then a very dark (99%) ganache. On top was a chapeau of espresso-flavoured whipped cream and on top of that a magic white powder, soft as talc, made from pure olive oil. Only a total dessert nerd would attempt to consume this layer by layer. Most people just dug in, enjoying it with a dazzlingly well-chosen drink – Bowmore 12-year-old single malt whisky, Islay’s most elegant malt.

Ah, but by now the results had been tabulated. No 2nd and 3rd was announced – just the name of the winner: Jennifer Huether. It was a most satisfactory conclusion to a fascinating evening.

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