A Friendly Feast

I’ve lived in my neighbourhood for close to a dozen years now and from the day we moved in we’ve been fast friends with a few couples whose company we enjoy and who we can count on if we need to.

We didn’t even have fences between our yards until a couple of us got a dog and even then we installed a gate for easy access between our houses.  During the summer months we generally wind up in the back yard Friday or Saturday night catching up over a glass of wine but as the cold weather sets in we often don’t see each other for long periods of time.

A few years back a friend told me about how her neighbours used to have these progressive dinner parties, where you would have appetizers at one person’s house, then move to the next house for the entrée and someone else’s for dessert.  I really liked the idea but it seemed like a lot of unnecessary work for everyone so I devised a plan to make the progressive dinner party easier to manage.  We created the Canterbury Dinner Club which included four couples.  Each couple would hold one dinner a month during the fall and winter, rotating between between us.

The couple holding the dinner are in charge of the entrée and the other three are assigned the appetizer, soup or salad and dessert with each course  paired with an appropriate wine. Just like the dinners, the wines are progressive usually starting with Champagne or Prosecco then whites or reds depending on the dish.

 

Oscar themed dinner

We try to come up with themes but one of the big rules is you have to dress up…no jeans allowed, which makes it feel special. We’ve had an Oscar dinner where we dressed in gowns and did a movie quiz, an Oktoberfest dinner with German music, a Kareoke night and so many more.  Sometimes we just pick a country and theme the food based on that.  Everyone gets into the mood by researching what dish they can create to fit the theme and we always have a great time doing it.

It gives us all something to look forward to each month during the dull days of winter. Affords us the ability to stay close to home (no need to worry about drinking and driving since we can all walk).  To get dressed up and use our fine china and generally feel like we’ve been out for a night on the town without paying hundreds of dollars at some fancy restaurant.  This is not to say we never go out to eat but in today’s economy this is a great way to spend an evening out with friends without spending big bucks.

I’ve shared this idea with some of my colleagues and they’ve all said how much they loved it so I wanted to share it with you.

Do you have a great idea for a dinner party?

 

Winery with a Mission

 

Salcheto Winery just outside Montepulciano

 

Just a stone’s  throw from Montepulciano, one of Italy’s most beautiful hilltop towns, is a winery that blends excellence with responsibility.   Salcheto’s mission was to become the most sustainable winery in Italy, if not the world. Five years ago when Salcheto needed an upgrade, the company committed close to half a million Euros to make the new operation the ultimate in energy efficient wine-making.It reopened just last fall and you can see the fruits of their efforts everywhere you look.

Harvest Time at Salcheto Winery

We arrived during the Vendemmia or harvest, and several workers were hand sorting the grapes over one of the transparent bubbles dotting the surface of an outdoor terrace.

 

 

 

The bubbles open up to a funnel which sends the grapes directly into the vats to ferment.The same bubbles, when not being used for the harvest, provide natural light in the cellars.

 

 

 

 

 

Cellars Use only Natural Light

Instead of using mechanical pumps to stir the juice and skins, Salcheto came up with a system using CO2 captured during the fermentation process to rotate them naturally. They also found this process increases extractions by 5-10%.
Sand, instead of cement, covers the terrace to keep the cellars cool naturally.

 

Salcheto’s Vertical Garden

The walls are surrounded by a vertical garden which also helps maintain the right  temperature inside.
There is so much more. Nothing is wasted. The old bottles are cut and converted into glasses. Old wood from its previous facility is used to build cupboards in its wine shop.Solar panels power the computer in the office.  And the commitment doesn’t change on the road.

At a recent wine fair in Verona, Salcheto powered its booth by bicycle. Anyone who wanted to taste its wine had to spin for one minute. Talk about the benefits of exercise!!
Every single emission of CO2 used to create one  bottle of wine, for production or distribution, is calculated. The result: Salcheto has reduced its emissions by 54%! And they expect to recover their investment within six years.
OK, so what’s the wine like? Magnificent.

Recyled Wine Bottle Becomes Water Glass

Following the tour our most excellent guide Ettore Carfora, took us to a room surrounded by windows, furnished with three spectacular wood tables that seat a dozen people each. We were served a simply delicious meal of pasta e fagioli along with a plate of Tuscan cold cuts and cheeses.

Tasting Salcheto

 

 Ettore introduced three wines: the Rosso Di Montepulciano 2011, a simple uncomplicated red that is fruity and fresh, the   Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano which was our favourite, perfectlybalanced, incredibly smooth – I will look for this at the LCBO!

Vino Nobile

  The last was the signature wine. Salco 2006 – aged two years in oak, four years in the bottle – it is a  remarkable wine that keeps on giving. The initial attack of the tannins, turned velvety smooth.
Each year Salcheto introduces a new label for its higher end Salco. The first year we visited, the labels featured black and white landscapes.

Ode to Drummers

The second year they were dedicated to drummers from Meg White  to Keith Moon. Last year, it took on an environmental theme, boxed in a crate with a biodegradable diaper (not quite sure why) and package of rosemary seeds to plant in the crate when the wine was long gone. This year, an artist’s rendition of a QR code, that looked remarkably like the black and white drawings my brother created during the psychedelic sixties.
The good news: Salcheto’s Rosso, Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano and the Salco have all been available at LCBO Vintages over the past three years at price points varying from $15.95 for the Rosso – $45 for the Salco.  So keep an eye out for them.
I can’t say the wine tastes better than it did before all the changes. I can say it feels good to buy wine from an establishment that puts its mission first.
Thanks to Ettore, the afternoon felt more like being welcomed by family, than an official tour. A family very proud of their achievements. Rightly so.  And it is that kind of personal touch, that keeps people coming back for more.

Weather and Wine

As we head into the colder weather most of us are switching from those cool refreshing summer whites to full-bodied reds.  When it’s cold outside we naturally want to hibernate by the fireside with a lovely glass of Cab or Chianti.

But just as the weather changes something in us, so does it affect each year’s vintage. As drought, frost and hail have ravaged Europe’s wine grape harvest, some vintners say this year will be the smallest in half a century.

Some wine makers like Cherie Spriggs of southern England’s Nyetimber Winery have gone so far as to forego the 2012 harvest.

A smaller harvest will definitely be costly to vintners and the approximately 2.5 million European families that make a living off the wine industry.  But just because the harvest is small doesn’t mean the vintage will be bad.  The up side to the bad weather creating a smaller harvest may mean the quality of the wine is better because the flavours are much more concentrated.

But while Europe is dealing with downsizing this year’s production other growers around the world are reporting very good seasons.  Ontario in particular harvested early and according to Grape Growers CEO Debbie Zimmerman, red grapes will be especially good this year, thanks to sweltering conditions promising 2012 will be a very good vintage indeed.

So if you aren’t already do so it’s time to support local. If you haven’t tried an Ontario wine lately check out the VQA section at your local LCBO and give something new a try or head down to Niagara to enjoy a winery tour and pick up something you might only find there.

 

One of my favourites lately was the 2010 Insieme appassimento style red from the Colaneri Winery. In this wine Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot have come “together” to create the perfect sipping fireside wine.  It has a beautiful combination of dried figs, cherry and leather on the nose and goes beautifully with everything chocolate (really – wine and chocolate, could there be a better pairing?). Sadly I just checked and saw this one was sold out but I’ve tried serveral wines from Colaneri and have to say you can’t go wrong if you’re looking for a full bodied red.

What’s your favourite cold weather wine?

 

 

Wednesday Wine Picks

I had the chance to taste some delicious wines over the past week and here are a few of my recommendations for the week including a splurge that is extremely worth the price, a couple of super whites and a red that will make you feel like drinking while you are wrapped in a blanket in front of a fireplace. Enjoy.

The Bold and the Beautiful

2007 First Press Cabernet Sauvignon  from the Napa Valley  –  $19.95

Deep Purple – not the music pairing but the colour. This full-bodied California Cab had me humming when my husband tempted me with a taste after work – breaking my weekends only wine at home rule. Blackberry, dark chocolate, mocha – are you getting thirsty yet? Great quality for a decent price. 14.5% alcohol and produced by the Delicato Family – known for other good value Californians. Pairs well with grilled lamb chops and rich pastas.

Music Pairing: Bruce Springsteen all the way. And not just any Springsteen –  Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born to Run.

A Chianti Classico worth the Splurge

Mazzei Ser Lapo Chianti Classico Riserva 2007 $24.95

The Mazzei family has been producing wine under the Castello di Fonterutoli name since 1435. Ser Lapo Mazzei started even earlier and is considered the father of the Chianti name – having authored the first contract for barrels of Chianti. Not surprising there were many more. This deep ruby-red with lovely red fruit aromas and velvety tannins.  James Suckling gave it a 95 and said it was the best Chianti Classico this winery had ever produced.  I popped it open while cooking up a meal of risotto with beef tenderloin. A little more than my average, but so smooth and welcoming, definitely worth the splurge.

Music Pairing – John Mayer

A Classy and Casual White

Ataraxia Sauvignon Blanc 2011 17.95

OK I admit it. I totally bought this wine for the label. I have been drinking more Sauvignon Blanc’s from New Zealand recently. But this label with the angel graceful and strong floating above the vines – ok, so I have an imagination – drew the bottle into the cart. These grapes hail from the Western Cape of South Africa.  Ataraxia means a state of mind free from worry and preoccupation. Good thing to, because it was more than a pretty label. Quality wine with mouth-watering acidity, refreshing notes of grapefruit. Medium bodied and well-balanced with a surprising 14% alcohol. Choosing this wine will put you in a worry-free state of mind.

Music Pairing – anything by Sara Bareilles.

Loire Valley: Delicious and Great Price

Donatien Bahuaud 2011  Les Grands Mortier Vouvray $15.95

Pears, peaches, dried fruit – and a  touch of sweetness that fills the mouth. This wine gives me another reason to visit the Loire Valley. Absolutely delicious down to every single one of its 100% Chenine Blanc grapes. Even my husband loved it and he is a committed Red drinker. It is a lovely wine at a lovely price  from Vintages.

Music Pairing – Outstanding Trumpeter Chris Botti Impressions or the lastest Diana Krall Glad Rag Doll.

Do you have a wine pick worth sharing? Let us know.

Happy Weekend!

A Quarter Century of Fine Food and Wine

Walking  into Centro, you are greeted by a vision of beauty: a wall of wine.  Not just any wall and not just any wine. It’s a collection, carefully selected to create  a wine menu that includes  familiar favourites, bottles worthy of a major splurge, and affordable gems that will leave you wanting more.

 

That’s why when Tina and I were invited to visit the cellar, we jumped at it. And who would know more about the intricacies of those gems than owner Armando Mano. He started in 1990 busing tables. One year later he was promoted Wine Bar manager, and within a few years was managing the entire restaurant.

I have often mentioned in these pages that true wine people  are a generous sort.  The only thing better than discovering a new wine, is sharing it with people who  will appreciate it. Armando is one of those people.

As  soon as he heard we were women of wine, he insisted  we try one of his favourites – Moschioni 2006 from Friuli region of north-eastern Italy. Oh my. This wine is mysterious, and doesn’t give everything away at once. It reveals slowly. The wine made me think of a Venetian Ball:  elegant, opulent, velvety with the clear suggestion that the best is yet to come. And we just got started.

 

Armando and über chef Symon Abad took us on a journey of perfect pairings. From the initial palate-cleansing glass of Prosecco, (which is so right on so many levels), to the 2011 Babich Sauvignon Blanc which  accompanied the most delicate buffalo mozzarella and heirloom tomatoes.

Symon followed with a pan-seared scallop on a bed of squid ink pasta which came with a crisp lively white Adriatico from the cellar of Lidia Bastianich, chef, author and host of Lidia’s Italy in America.

 

I  was not going to let go of my Moschioni which, in my view, would pair perfectly with anything – but in this case – my rabbit roulade stuffed with spinach and mushroom with polenta puree and  peas– which may well have been the best combination I have ever tasted.

It almost upstaged the lobster ravioli which paired spectacularly with a Chardonnay from Pearl Morrisette Winery on Twenty Mile Bench. Did I mention the shaved truffles? Beyond delicious.

 

Armando has a story for every wine. A visit to the Bastianich winery in north-eastern Italy where he bumps into Lidia herself, touring the Antinori estates  throughout Tuscany where the family has been making wine for 27 generations, and entertaining the greatest wine makers of the world in his restaurant.

He believes there are four elements to a  perfect dining experience, it is all about the food, the wine, the service and  most important, the company. Though he will pass on the fusion movement,  thank you.  “Fusion causes confusion. I want to know what wine to order with my food,” he says.

His favourite  wine book:  Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly

His signature dish: Brown Butter Crab Risotto, so long as someone cleans up while he cooks.

His favourite wine: Mouton Rothschild (it is breaking my heart that it is not Italian)

His  favourite Canadian wine, Pearl Morisette from the Bench which he praised for  sparing no expense to get it right.

This is a man who knows about getting it right, and he makes  sure the people who work for him share the same philosophy.

Armando is proud of how Toronto has become a city known  for its food. With more than eight thousand restaurants in the GTA, Armando marvels at how quickly the industry  developed here. “I travel a lot and when I come home, I feel this massive sense of pride at how far we have come.”

 

2012 marks Centro’s 25th year, a remarkable achievement when restaurants come and go faster than the sales of Fifty Shades of Grey.  And the impact of that success extends far beyond its own kitchens and into some of the other best restaurants in Toronto. The list of Centro’s alumni is enough to make gastronomers sigh and the casting agents of Top Chef weep. Chefs Like Marc Thuet (Thuet Fine Foods), David Lee (Nota Bene),Frank Parhizgar (Frank’s Kitchen), and Michael Bonacini (Oliver and Bonacini). Now Symon Abad (shown above) is king of the kitchen.

To honor its inauguration into the quarter century club, Centro’s alumni are participating in a series of evenings creating a special menu for the anniversary.

It will mean a treat for regulars, more stories to tell for Armando and a perfect launch point for the next 25 years that will keep people coming back, again and again.

A Winning Team at Maple Leaf Gardens

Chef Mark Russell and Company

.A few months ago, I bid on an auction item – Dine with the Chef at the PC Cooking School at Maple Leaf Gardens,  a four course dinner for eight prepared by Executive Chef Mark Russell.  It  sounded like fun. The cause was the Radio Television Digital News Directors Association – one close to my heart.  I had never been to the new Loblaws. I knew it got rave reviews when it opened last November, but I didn’t have any real expectations – other than a fun evening with eight great  work buddies.

OK, if you haven’t been there…this isn’t just any neighbourhood Loblaws.

And a meal prepared by the Chef is anything but ordinary.

The underground parking got the first nod of approval. But really, this place  had me and Tina at the wall of cheese. Stilton, Pecorino, Grand Padano, Buffala Mozzeralla – you name it.  Marci was overwhelmed by the wall of cupcakes. Lucie loved the aisle of freshly cut flowers.  This is the way Europeans shop if they can’t hit the individual butcher, baker and candlestick maker. It reminded me of Italy’s Costco equivalent – aptly called Hyper-Coop. You can get everything there without feeling like it is mass produced.

 Russell says the store has come to define the neighbourhood with people coming in to eat lunch and dinner daily. 

“They treat it like the village square,” he says.

The Chef supervises the preparation of fresh food prepared in the massive kitchen above the supermarket. He lived and breathed this baby for two years before it opened. A former chef for the family of Diana, Princess of Wales,  he also worked as personal chef to the Weston family for seven years before they approached him to take on the project.

“I spent 15-18 hours a day here. Now that it has opened it’s more like 10,” he says. “It’s a really unique place.”

There is another production he is even more proud of. . He and his wife are parents to five-month old Thomas.

“He changed my life.  And every time I bring him to the store, I lose half a day because everyone wants to see him,” he explained, while pulling up photos of the new star on his IPhone.

 And we got a taste of the kind of food this village square had to offer prepared by the Chef himself.

We originally thought we would help in the food preparation, but when you get eight women together after work, talking about anything BUT work, we were most happy to let Chef handle the food and as good journalists, we could ask questions.

How often do you get to spend time with amazing people from work without a deadline, without an agenda, just for the sake of having fun. It doesn’t happen often enough. These people I work with are so dynamic – they all come from different backgrounds but they are all so smart and  so entertaining. There is something about people who are routinely used to rolling with whatever is thrown at them, The only routine is that there isn’t one. Hence lots of lively chatter and a little less time for chopping. Thanks Mark.

The PC Cooking school is set up on the second floor, tucked beside an LCBO (how handy) and a Joe Fresh (you never know if you show up 5 minutes early  – which we did – always time to shop a little). It is equipped with large screens so you can  easily watch the preparation (when we aren’t talking).

Our hostesses Minnu and Heather couldn’t have been more gracious, keeping our glasses filled and serving up the courses.

Minnu Goes Over the Evening Menu

 

 

 

 

 

And what courses!

The menu prepared for us after assuring that there were no allergies:

Butternut Squash Soup served with Brie Beignets and Spiced Aioli

Pan-Seared Scallops served on a Cauliflower Puree with a Herb Oil to finish

Slow Roasted Beef Tenderloin sliced on a Crisp Parsnip Potato Rosti with Glazed Shallots Red Wine Jus

White Chocolate and Gingerbreak Parfait served with Caramel Sauce and Quennel of Coffee Mascarpone.

The soup was so creamy and the beignet exploded with cheese inside the crispy exterior. I thought Jen – our senior producer also known as Producer Jen to her Twitter followers – was going to have an out of body experience. She has made getting the recipe part of her benefits package.

Butternut Squash Soup Extrodinaire

After each course was served, we peppered (no pun intended) Mark with questions. The preparation of scallops and how they are seared just perfectly – some tips – don’t crowd them in the pan and dry them off before you cook them so they don’t get watery.  They were simply delicious! (And special thanks to Mark – when he heard one of the eight was not a fan of scallops – he sent Minou downstairs to replace the scallop[s with salmon).

Perfectly Seared Scallops

These two courses were served with a delicious Pouilly Fuisse 2010 which drew raves from Bev and the rest of us. A perfect pairing.

 

 

 

 

 

Then there was the beef. Slow roasted for 2 hours at 250 degrees with just a bit of sage and garlic. It was so tender. Dawn carefully savoured each bite separately – witness her plate mid-course.

Beef par Excellence

 I had mentioned when I approved the menu that one of the 8 was not a fan of parsnips –  but sure enough – there was one Rosti –just potato.

And another perfect pairing with a 2008 Sicilian Syrah – called  Spadina  (which made one of my weekend wine picks – at an exceptional value of $14.95 at the LCBO).

The meal was capped off with a cappuccino, espresso and tea along with the parfait – that included all the best dessert taste sensations – chocolate, gingerbread, caramel, coffee. Just spectacular.

Dessert a la Delicious

What an incredible meal and such a fun evening. Sue said that would have been the dream menu she would have picked if asked for a favourite meal.  We all had such a great time, and while we didn’t put in any of the hard labour – I am definitely going to try that beef again. And I am also going to find out about their other cooking courses.

The other important lesson, make the effort to spend some time  together. if you are as lucky as I am, it only makes your life richer.

In Great Company

All in all a spectacular evening was had by all. Many thanks Minnu, Heather and Mark (by the way – I will have to get that soup recipe).

 

 

 

 

 

A Small Tuscan Winery gets Top Marks

 

Morning Glory in Montepulciano

Tucked into the valley underneath those clouds is a modest winery getting anything but modest results. When you drive down the long dirt road approaching Tenuta Valdipiatta and you witness the glory of the past and the taste of the future.

Acres and acres of vines, some decades old, some barely a year, roots finding a home in some of the most valuable terroir in Italy.

Everything about this place feels authentic.

This is not product of good marketing. This is the product of care, attention and excellent grapes. We lucked out on this day because it was prime harvest time. The workers were hand picking  the vines.  Truckloads of fat juicy grapes were  poured into the de-stemmer and the fermentation process begins.

A Truckload of Beauty
A Truckload of Juicy Beauties

We got a tour and tasting of four of their wines for 10 Euros. They have another tour that sounds sublime: a sensory wine tasting that guides you through the experience using natural and artificial aromas that lead you through the sampling of three of their fine wines.I called at the last-minute on the off-chance they had an available time. Lucia graciously obliged with a tour of the estate and a tasting of some of their best.
It’s one of the many things I love about this country.

There is always something around the corner to discover that makes your life so much richer for having experienced it.

 In this case, it was the Valdipiatta Vino Nobile Di Montipulciano 2009. And it wasn’t just us. Robert Parker gave it a whopping 93 – not bad considering it is only 17 Euros a bottle. We sampled the Rosso, the Vino Nobile, the Riserva and Lucia threw in a Super Tuscan blend of Canaiolo and Merlot  for comparison.

Tenuta Valdipiatta produces 140,000 bottles a year. And I am taking home four of them for tonight’s  dinner and four of them back to Canada.  Such difficult decisions. Allowing you to bring back   only four bottles is sheer torture. The signs that say We Ship Worldwide  are so misleading. In Canada,  it only valuable of you are buying crazy expensive wine. The base price for shipping 6 bottles in 110 Euros. Argh!

But Valdipiatta will make my final cut. And when I am sitting on my back deck with great friends, a plate of simple pasta and I pop open that bottle – it will bring back memories of another perfect day in the outskirts of Montepulciano, Italy – a glass in hand and a dream to return again.

Is there a special wine that brings back memories for you?