Ode To Maine

Maine Friends

Holding your  friends close can be tough to do in these busy times. Not enough time for visits, calls or catch-ups.

For the past 22 years, I’ve been so lucky to be able to spend this calendar week  with a stellar and eclectic group of people in the state of Maine. And during the week I would hold  them very very close because that week  (which eventually became two) would last me the whole year.

We refer to each other as  the Maine friends, not because the friendship exists only on our sandy beach, (and  none us of actually comes  from there), but because the Maine friends believe there is no better place to spend this  week each year.

Yes, the water turns your lips blue, the traffic on transit day means the drive from Montreal could take you 5 or 10 hours and the weekly fee for the cottage keeps creeping up  steadily.  There were years of the 60 cent dollar that left you wondering if there was a point where it didn’t make sense (or cents) anymore.  After all, PEI is beautiful.

When we moved to Toronto eight years ago, the driving time doubled, but who cares?  This was OUR week, on OUR beach so OUR kids could grow up with blue lips, powerful waves and a beach that stretched for miles.

I always loved the fact the kids would pick up where they left off. The blue-lipped gang would explore the rocks, spend hours body surfing and run at the sound of the ice cream truck. Of course there were also the dramas. We even used to bet how long before the first kiddie meltdown.  But the dramas never lasted long. It was Maine.  And Maine never lasted long enough.

Two years ago, my girls, now in their twenties,  carted down a load of books, a bottle of sunscreen and  counted their blessings because they love it every bit as much as they did when they played in the tidal pools.

Friends for Life

Other beach  regulars would call us The Canadians. They watched our kids grow. That’s what the woman from Connecticut told me every year when we exchanged  reading suggestions. She also loved watching the  compound grow. There were always the drop-ins, those invited guests who easily slipped into the relaxed pace of the week. It took at least three summers before they could  be called regulars proving they were more entranced by our beach Big Chill  than scared off by the big chill of the water. Then they had to take the Pledge not to reveal more about the location other than it was near Old Orchard.

This is  the first time in 22 years my husband and I can’t be there. No illness or depressing reason other than being kept home by a work thing that couldn’t be changed (try explaining to the IOC that you would really appreciate it if they held the Olympics a couple of weeks later). I am handling it like an adult. It’s been put in perspective, and my often Pollyanna-like optimism reminds me that “I’ve been so lucky to have been able to go for 22 years and we will definitely be back next year”.

Time flies and I’m sure by Monday, I’ll stop thinking about what I would be doing this very minute on my beach   – whether I would be helping to take  orders for Goldthwaites for “arrival night”  dinner on the beach or arguing what Billy Jo Macallister really threw off the Talahatchee bridge. I would have mused at least a dozen times that it doesn’t get better than this.

I would have  already unpacked my 24 interesting bottles of wines picked up in tax-free New Hampshire and my dozen books for beach reading plus the selections I’d have picked for others because after 22 years you get to know the reading preferences. I would have made the bed with my sheets ridiculously-ironed and spritzed so when I crawl into them and look out window at the ocean and hear the sound of the waves, I would sigh. Because this is my happy place. It’s the place where I am most true to myself. It’s the place where my children will take their children, and it’s the place where I can hold my dearest Maine friends oh so very close.

Mangiare Everyone

It’s funny but when I travel it’s not the museums or galleries that intrigue me, but the grocery stores.  I love to walk around and look at the fresh produce, cheeses, meats and spices I might not be able to get at home.

Aielli, Italy

One of my favourite countries is Italy.  I’m not Italian but I have a sister-in-law that lives in a small village in the Abruzzo region about two hours south of Rome.  I’ve visited there a number of times and I love everything about it from the food and wine to the people.  I love drinking my morning coffee and hearing the horns of the vendors as they arrive in their trucks to sell their produce and other wares.  Watching the people come out of their homes to smell, touch, and buy what they need for the day’s meal, then chatting with their neighbours before heading back inside.

Italian cuisine is often quite simple so the ingredients for the dishes are extremely important.  But since going to Italy for Parmesan, Proscuitto and pasta is pretty much out of the question for most of us, where do you get fine Italian ingredients for your kitchen?

Alimento Fine Food Emporium

Last night Lis and I and our friend, home decor expert, Karl Lohnes were at Alimento Fine Food Emporium on King West in Toronto, an interesting venue that houses both a grocery store alongside a high end restaurant, Bar Mozza.  Founded by the Contardi Brothers whose grandfather founded Grande Cheese, the shop portion of the building offers high-end Italian cheeses (over 140 different types), pre-made meals made in-house and dried goods directly from Italy.

Sitting on the restaurant side you can see directly into the shop which makes this venue totally unique.  The only other similar place would be Eataly in New York City owned by the mother of all things Italian, Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe along side famed chef Mario Batali.

Crostini Quattro Modi – Chefs Choice

The menu offers everything from insalates to pastas, pizzas and dessert but lets not forget the wines.  We started off our evening with the mixed formaggio and salumi board and a Valdobbiadene Prosecco which was delicious.  Then I enjoyed the Crostini Quattro Modi while Lis had the Brussel Sprout Salad.

Brussel Sprout Salad

Since Brussel sprouts seem to be the number one hated vegetable on the planet I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want to put this item on their menu.  Well let me just say I won’t be turning my nose up at Brussel Sprouts anymore…after I took a taste of Lis’ dish I was hooked.  The Brussel sprouts were shaved along with Piave cheese, pancetta, apple topped with pancetta vinaigrette…this is a definite must try dish.

Risotto Nella Ruota – Arborio Rice, Cream, Parmigiano, Tartufo Nero

If you’ve ever been to an Italian wedding you know the food never seems to stop coming and for our next dish we tasted a lovely Risotto Nella Ruota topped off with freshly grated black truffles. This was served alongside a lovely fresh 2010 Maculan Pinot Grigio which complimented this creamy dish.

Luckily most of the dishes weren’t huge but by this time I was pretty much done. Lis was having the Fusili All Contadina (sausage, rapini, onion & olive oil) so I took a quick taste of hers and asked them to pack up the Margherita pizza I ordered to take home.

You’ve got to make sure and leave room for desert and the mixed board of pastries that arrived looked delicious. Pasty chef, Michelle Lee out did herself with the lovely assortment and you can also find many of her treats behind the counter over on the other side in the food shop. Ending the evening Italian style meant sipping a bit of Grappa or cool Lemoncello.

If you’re looking for a traditional Italian experience this definitely isn’t it…there’s no red and white checkered table cloths or dim lighting.  The open space here is fresh and modern yet still inviting with long tables that remind you of an Italian family feast.  The staff is friendly and extremely informed about all their foods so whether you’re looking for a fun evening out or just some great ingredients to take home to make your own meal Alimento Fine Food Emporium is definitely worth checking out.

Now This Is Class

Our never-ending wine education sent us back to the classroom last week to learn about Chardonnay.  The event: the International Cool Climate Chardonnay Conference. The seminar: Extreme Winemaking 101.  Winemakers  from Niagara, BC, the Sonoma Coast, Australia, Burgundy, Argentina gathered to talk about the challenges of producing Chardonnay in often difficult conditions.

“We play Chardonnay the way a musician plays a Stradivarius to express the terroir,” said Jean Lupatelli of Decelle-Villa in Burgundy. But that symphony is often complicated.

“You’ve got to be cruel to be kind,” said Australian-born Craig McDonald who leads the wine-making team at Hillebrand Winery. He said over the past nine years there has been only one season with landmark conditions.

Cool Chardonnay

Still, there’s a reason Chardonnay is one of the most widely planted grapes in the world. And we got the chance to taste six of them.  Many of these wines  are not even available on the market yet.   While I have never been a card carrying member of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) club,  I must admit it is not my go-to varietal. But I believe in keeping an open mind, and what an opportunity for a pair of novices like us to be exposed to the vast differences based on terroir and technique.  Both our favorites was the 2010 Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Chardonnay , from the Sonoma  Coast. Its flawless finish is the product  of a big fault, the San Andreas fault line that created incredible  soil diversity.

The Chardonnay sampling didn’t stop there.  After class there was a luncheon where they set three bottles on each table, all different. Once you finished sampling yours, you could bottle-switch with other tables. Chardonnays from Jura, Burgundy, Prince Edward County, Oregon and many other regions were represented. I am happy to say my luncheon favourite was local. Vineland Estates Reserve 2009 was terrific. Citrusy and bright, crisp and well-balanced, it is a  perfect match for my summer playlist. It’s only available online and on site – so that means there’s another road trip in the near future!

Miso Glazed Pork Belly, Pineapple, Cilantro & Cucumber

The conference officially kicked off in the evening with the spectacular “Explore Your Senses Dinner” hosted at Jackson Triggs.  We met some of the 56 winemakers at various sampling stations and the evening’s menu consisted of Chardonnay-inspired dishes like Miso Glazed Pork Belly with Pineapple, Cilantro and Cucumber, Oysters with Peach Chardonnay Mignonette and other delicious dishes.   The end to a perfect evening came when  Canadian rockers,  The Arkells took the stage at the outdoor amphitheatre.  Going back to class has never been sweeter.

Every Family Has A Story

After attending the Cool Climate Chardonnay conference at Brock University yesterday we accepted an invitation to visit the Colaneri Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-lake.  We’ve been to Niagara-on-the lake many times but never to this particular winery so we were interested to take a look.  We knew it was a family run estate and assumed we would arrive at a lovely house on a vineyard like many other small wine makers in the area.

“Photo by © F.G. Couch”

To our great surprise as we drove up the road we saw a large building that resembled a cluster of homes in a small Italian village.  Even though the building is still under construction the winery is open and promises to be an amazing venue once it’s completed.

The front of the building forms a semi-circle that reminded us of a traditional Italian piazza where guests can mingle in the afternoon sun, sit and enjoy a lovely glass of wine and even snack on a slice of pizza from the outdoor oven.

From design to construction to the tiniest detail this winery is all about family.  Sitting on the original plot of land purchased by Italian immigrants Maria and Joseph Colaneri the estate today, shows what can be achieved when family works together.   We had the chance to meet Betty Colaneri, the daughter-in-law of Joseph and Maria, who took us on a tour and told us the family’s story…how she and her sister fell in love with the Colaneri brothers and raised their families together.

“Cavallone”

She explained how the artwork on the walls of the estate was the same design used for the labels on the various wines.  There’s a drawing for each family member based on their passions and personality but there was one drawing in particular that had us close to tears.  Called “Cavallone”  a nickname given to Betty’s sister, Angie by their mother, the drawing depicts two children clinging to the back of a beautiful horse.  Angie’s illness and recent death is one of the reasons the building is not yet finished because when family means everything you stop what you’re doing to look after each other. Now the drawing prominently placed on an easel with candles surrounding it, is a fitting tribute to a woman Betty says was a driving force behind this amazing winery.

We sampled a selection of wines, all delicious if I may say so myself and then Betty took us to see the rest of the winery that was still under construction.  Passion was written all over her face as she explained the family’s dream and how everything would look upon completion.  She talked about how they would be able to hold weddings and dinners and how she would be the first to cry when a bride finally stood on the balcony overlooking the vineyard.

Colaneri Estate Wine Cellar

Finally she took us down to the cellar where she kept her babies, row upon row of beautiful oak barrels filled with the wines lovingly produced by this family.  We couldn’t leave without buying some of the wine for our own cellars (ok maybe just a wine rack in the basement) and decided on the ’09 Corposo a Cabernet made in the traditional ‘Ripasso’ style and the ’09 Insieme, a rich red blend of Cab Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

As we left it was like saying goodbye to family and we knew we would be back to visit again.

Music To My Ears

From the Montreal Jazz Festival to the Big Valley Jamboree in Alberta to the Boots and Hearts Festival in Ontario, great music abounds across Canada during the summer months.  But when it comes to outdoor festivals you’re often dealing with huge crowds, long lineups and nasty porta-potties.  Besides these venues generally serve beer (so not me) or wine that I don’t want to waste my money on.

So where do you get great music, award-winning wines and gourmet cuisine in a venue that feels like you’re at a private party in someone’s backyard?  Well, I definitely think you need to check out the Jackson-Triggs’ Amphitheatre Summer Concert Series.

Nestled in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake in southern Ontario the open-air concert amphitheatre is situated on the Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate in the heart of Ontario’s wine country.  Their concert season runs from June until September so there are still lots of great artists to see.

We’re heading down there on Friday to see the Arkells and I’m really looking forward to it. They’re a great Canadian band and here’s hoping they’ll rock the house (or the vineyard). If you’re interested in checking it out here’s a list of the concerts still taking place this summer.

July 20           Arkells

July 21           Adam Cohen

July 28           Kathleen Edwards

August 17      Chantal Kreviazuk (Sold Out)

August 18      Raine Maida

August 25      Sarah Slean & Royal Wood w Niagara Symphony

Sept 7             David Usher

Weekend Wine Picks

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A Wine for All Reasons

Friday: An extra  long week that began in Nunavut, combined with the siren call of a bottle of wine chilling in my fridge led me to drive a little faster than usual.  It was just me, a good book and a bottle of Clos Jordanne Village Reserve Chardonnay 2009, rich and creamy with notes of citrus and honey. It heralded the start of a weekend of no commitment and it was delicious. Honey-coloured, balanced with some body to it.  This  evening, it was the perfect pairing to my Bruce Springsteen playlist.  There is something about sipping a good glass of wine while listening to 10th Avenue Freeze Out on a sultry night that releases the stresses of the week.   I love pairing wines and playlists. I would have normally said Bruce deserves something bigger, bolder, with lots of tannins. Darkness on the Edge of town with a Barolo. Chardonnay feels more Adele-y, Hall and Oates, or a little Steely Dan.  But in the heat of this night – this cool elegant pick from Niagara-on-the-Lake is the perfect match. $30 at the LCBO.

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The Glory of Gamay

Saturday: Always begins with a trip to the Farmer’s market in Withrow Park.  I love buying local. Even things I don’t quite know what to do with – like garlic scapes. So drinking local makes sense to me.  We stopped off at Stratus Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake  a couple of weeks ago for a tasting. Sommelier Austin Shynal helped us navigate through the flight of four wines. Loved Stratus Red  and Stratus White (each $44), a blend that changes with the sun and the mood of winemaker, J.L Groux. But one of Austin’s picks sent us shopping. The Stratus Gamay 2009. It gave me new respect for the grape, one of 11 red wine varietals grown at Stratus.

When I think of Gamay, I think of the spritzy Beaujolais Nouveau of which I am underwhelmed – despite the years when people would line up each fall to snag a few bottles from the Quebec’s SAQ.  But my strongest memory is the gallon of Gamay  my Dad used to keep under his seat at the kitchen table. That wine was as much a part of my family history as the stories my father shared whenever we got together. It cost about $7 in the 60s, and lasted about three weeks. No wonder I used to think all red wine tasted like vinegar and old socks. The Stratus Gamay 2009 is $29 – but well worth it.  Give it 20 minutes in the fridge before serving and it is guaranteed to please. Incredibly balanced and  with flavours that keep on giving. Thanks Dad, your stories will never be topped, but can’t say the same for your Gamay. Old memories and new ones.

I love weekend wine picks.

The Sweet Surprise

La Gironda Brachetto d’Acqui

One of the delightful bonuses of ordering wine 8 months ago (possibly the only delightful thing – see Tina’s Rant and Rave entry) is that you forget exactly what you ordered. Our shipment included a La Gironda Brachetto D’Acqui DOCG 2010 from  the Piedmonte region.  I seemed to remember the night we placed the order that we bought a wine with some fizz to it. Popped it open for a lunch al fresco and it was a perfect choice.  Fresh, fruity and aromatic with strawberry notes, it is sweet, sparkling and light-bodied.  It is made 100% from the Brachetto  grape that’s grown in the same region as its sparkling big sister -Asti Spumante.  And at just 5.5% alcohol, it won’t leave you feeling light-headed. At $17.95 a bottle at the LCBO, it won’t hurt your wallet either.