For about three decades I've been on a quest to discover...to really pin down...the essence of Canadian cuisine. For years it seemed to be a moving target. Now, finally, I've eaten and traveled widely enough to share insights and tastes and experiences. My education was like so many others, through sometimes-raw, sometimes star-blessed experience. I have come to the realizaton that there's no mystery to cooking. Great cooks listen to their hearts. Here you'll get opinions, read about some very special places and taste, as I have, the pure sensual pleasure of our country.
A Flirtation with Canada!
(Originally published in February 2011)
Restaurants across Canada have been very busy creating an array of special Valentines Day menus so I thought it would be fun to show off one of my own. Two weeks ago, with the help of the Canadian Tourism Commission, I assembled ingredients and enlisted three very talented chefs to create a special brunch we called “A Flirtation with Canada”.
With winter winds howling outside the Canadian Food and Wine Institute/ Niagara College, Chefs Michael Olson (Benchmark Restaurant/Niagara College) Chef Paul Stewart (Harbour House Hotel, Salt Spring Island, B.C.) and Chef Jesse Vergen (Saint John Ale House, N.B.) joined forces and for one day and part of the evening love was at play in that otherwise quite stainless kitchen. The whole event was live-streamed by enthusiastic NC broadcasting students to a select group of New York City media who had baskets filled with the same ingredients that we were using. It was an exercise in patriotic culinary chaos and tons of fun.
“Possibilities” is the word that defines Canadian cuisine. We are limited only by our imaginations. We are a creative people. And although we’ve given the world Marquis wheat and Yukon Gold potatoes, Canadians also has a sensual side. We do far more than chop wood and shovel snow. Watching these guys are work, it was clear that a Canadian aphrodisiac menu is a great way of showcasing the passionate relationship that chefs like these have with the fabulous ingredients of our land and sea.
Food and the erotic have long been natural bedfellows. Brillat-Savarin, observed in the early 1800s, ‘When the serving platters had been passed, I saw spread out in succession on every face, the fire of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment and then the perfect peace of satisfaction’. The very act of eating and tasting; savouring and consuming each morsel is one of the most sensuous activities in which one can participate. Even Virginia Masters acknowledged that there is a “symbiotic relationship between food and sexual intimacy”.
From coast to coast, Canada is rich is exotic/erotic ingredients. Many of them that were part of this Valentines Day brunch have been chronicled over the centuries are having near-magical powers. Wine is certainly one.
In Gerarde’s Herball, dated 1636, wine is said to “restoreth strength most of all other things (…) It maketh man merry and joyfull. It moveth pleasure and lust of the body and bringeth sleep gently…”. And with that the menu began to unfold.
Southbrook’s extraordinary Poetica 2007 Chardonnay can be called ‘Love Bottled’. In New York and in Niagara, we cracked it open and while the on line media were sipping and reading and watching us cook, they also nibbled on Blue Haze, a lavish blue cheese that is smoked in Ontario over cherry and hickory. It’s as sensual a cheese as I’ve tasted.
Because Venus and Aphrodite sprang from the sea all shellfish are considered to be the foods of love. Bring on the oysters! Saints and Sinners from PEI, beautiful little Mallet oysters from New Brunswick and fat, fleshy Sea Angels harvested on the beaches of B.C.
Jesse Vergen is an oyster expert. He splashed the Saints and Sinners with just a bit of Aceto Niagara’s fabulous ice wine vinegar then maple cured the Mallets before smoking them over King Cole Tea, another real Maritime tradition. The big Sea Angels were broiled just till their shells winked open. And while they were hot and steaming, Jesse topped the buttery flesh with crisp bits of Mario Pingue’s ‘bacon’ and shards of Avonlea raw milk, aged cheddar. Beyond sensuous! More Poetica, please!
I have a theory about maple syrup even though it’s not on the official aphrodisiac radar screen. I submit that it is a very powerful tool in the sensual arsenal. Not only is it one of the most delicious flavours on the planet, it provides a burst of energy along with micronutrients like zinc. And since maple SUGAR is concentrated syrup my advice is to use is with either great caution or wild abandon — as your mood dictates
Up next was Chef Paul Stewart who was indeed using maple sugar. He created a fabulous salad with maple-sautéed Ontario Cortland apples – the big, glorious ones that Eve must have fed Adam. These topped a salad of micro greens and a vinaigrette containing scarlet Carmine Jewel cherries – the finest new sour cherry cultivar this country has seen in a long time, some Aceto Niagara cherry vinegar, a bit of grainy mustard and to balance the acidity, a spoonful of honey locust /linden flower honey from the Grand River Valley. We all know that honey IS the nectar of the gods, delivering immortality…and lots of energy.
Canadian gardens and greenhouses overflow with the vegetables and fruits of debauchery but tomatoes really are special. Looking like a human heart it was christened the love apple when early doctors claimed it was a sure fire love potion. All of the allium family…garlic, leeks, onions, are credited with massive erotic powers. Eggs are the penultimate symbol of fertility.
Chef Olson ‘s Eggs Benedict couldn’t have been more perfect. He poached Omega 3 (another Canadian invention) eggs, the penultimate symbol of fertility (also think “caviar”) andbathed them in a creamy emulsion of tomatoes and cold pressed canola oil! Then he made some buttery, egg-y crepes with fragrant Okanagan lavender flowers and sautéed themwith a splash of ice wine. Ahhhhh!!!
But what about chocolate? It is such a powerful aphrodisiac that monks in the 17th century were forbidden to eat it. Heck there’s even a chocolate company named Godiva. It had to be somewhere on the menu even though we don’t grow cocoa beans in Canada. So Chef Stewart opted for a Canadian supplier, Callebaut from Calgary. He melted white and dark chocolate wafers in separate pans over hot water, poured each creamy mass into a buttered pan, swirled it, drew his spatula through it to create a gorgeous marbling and scattered the still soft surface with maple-sweetened dried cranberries from northern Quebec.
After a guided icewine (Inniskillin 2007 Vidal) tasting led by Inniskillin/Vincor’s Debi Pratt, no one wanted to leave the warmth and the camaraderie of the kitchen.