In Case Of Last Resort

Funny but when I was younger I could never understand why people felt the need to get away from winter but let me just say, I totally get it now.  It’s barely the beginning of November and I dream of someplace warm.

One of my favourite escapes when the cold Canadian winter is in full swing is the Riviera Maya in Mexico.  Dollar for dollar it’s a great value vacation and I’ve never been to a five-star resort I didn’t like.  If you’re staying close to Playa Del Carmen, a short taxi ride will take you into town for a day of shopping and dining.

 

I really only have one complaint – no matter the quality of the resort, the wines they offer are definitely lacking.  It’s not that I’m a wine snob, lets just say I have particular tastes. Since I’m not into Tequila or sugary fruit drinks my inner wine snob (ok, so I admit it) pales at the thought of only having 2 choices – vino blanco and vino tinto  unless you’re willing to spend big bucks on a high-end domestic or imported wine. And while cheap and cheerful works for something cool by the pool, I definitely enjoy something a little better when I’m having a nice meal.

So why is it that Mexico doesn’t have better wine considering it’s actually the oldest wine industry in the New World?  Well, I figured I’d do a little digging and share what I found.

In 1521, just after the Spanish invasion, conquistadors started planting vines and in 1524, Hernán Cortés, the governor of New Spain (Mexico), decreed that each Spanish settler given lands must plant ten grapevines per year for the next five years.

With the success of the Mexican wine industry Spanish imports started to dwindle. So in order to protect the Spanish wine industry King Carlos II banned the production of wine in Mexico in 1599, except of course for use by the church. The ban remained in effect until Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and lets just say a few hundred years can turn any wine enthusiast towards other popular domestic spirits like Cerveza (Mexican beer) or tequila.

L.A. Cetto Vineyard in Baja California, Mexico

In the 20th century winemaking gradually increased, but with the removal of trade barriers in the late 1980s production declined again due to inexpensive imports from around the globe. With this increased competition the government soon levied taxes to around 40% on each bottle and wine makers recognized in order to compete they would need to rely on quality, not price.

The average Mexican is still not a big wine drinker but consumption is on the rise much of that due to tourists who consume about 40% of the wine. One element which is considered key for a broader consumer base is the need to produce more palatable entry-level wines.

Considering Mexico is the number one fly in destination for Canadians going on vacation here’s hoping the resorts will soon be sourcing some of those.

Now if you’re not planning a trip to sunny Mexico just yet but want to try a Mexican wine, my partner who endlessly snoops through the aisles at the LCBO to source great finds has suggested L.A. Cetto Private Reserve Petite Sirah 2008.  It’s from the Baja California region of Mexico and priced at $19.95 you’ll find it in the Vintages section.

We would love to know about your experience with Mexican wines or if you’ve found one worth sharing.


 

 

 

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.

Foreign Men With Sexy Accents Serving Up Delicious Wines

Recently we were invited to an event put on by Mark Bruni, the general manager of RKW Wine Imports.  He had flown in Marc Kent a winemaker from South Africa for the launch of his Wolftrap White and Wolftrap Red labels at the LCBO.

Mark is the winemaker at B O E K E N H O U T S K L O O F (bow-ken-howts-cloof) already known and loved for its Porcupine Ridge and The Chocolate Block.  Bet you can’t say that name fast a few times…actually it works better after a few glasses of his delicious wine.  Mark’s talent for winemaking has garnered the only FIVE star rating for a South African winery from the esteemed Robert Parker.

In addition, Boekenhoutskloof was recently awarded “2012 Winery of the Year” by Platter’s South African Wine Guide.

Lis and I with Sommelier Zolton Szabo

The event took place at Barque Smokehouse and the place was packed.  Our table was set for seven and as we quickly introduced ourselves to our charming dinner partners we realised one of our esteemed companions was none other that the super sexy sommelier Zoltan Szabo.

If you don’t already know this, the one thing all wine lovers seem to have in common is their love of sharing…whether it’s a fantastic new find, their passion for pairings, helpful tasting hints or a glass from a great bottle of wine (or maybe two).

Salad of warm fior de latte, heirloom tomatoes, basil & reduced balsamic

Mark’s passion for winemaking and in particular these new wines had us all ready to sample what was being served for the evening.  It started light with the Wolftrap Rose.  We moved through a couple of whites including the lovely and fresh Wolftrap White served with Salad of warm Fior de Latte and then came the Boekenhoustskloof Semillon served with some white fish…

 

 

Well I’ve tasted Semillon before and was not a fan but this one is something to rave about.  Since wine tastings are often more about sampling than drinking everything served, I laughed when Zoltan wouldn’t let the server take his glass of the Semillon because he was so impressed by its taste.

Then came the reds…the new release Wolftrap Red was served with a Pulled Duck Taco that everyone enjoyed. The pairings continued (yes I know you’re wondering how do these wine people eat and drink so darn much – well everything comes in small servings – think tapas).  The Chocolate Block with the braised short rib may have been my favourite but I have to say everything was delicious – both food and the wines.

Now when you get to spend the night sitting beside an amazing sommelier you make sure you absorb as much of his knowledge as possible.  I confessed as an average wine consumer I often pass right by South African wines and go straight to the better known producers  – France, Italy, Australia and even California.  He made sure to let me know  you should never pass by the unfamiliar in favour of the standards because you never know when you’ll find something delicious, and I believe we did. It’s really one of the great things about the wines at the LCBO…you’ll always find the regulars but there’s always something new to try.

If you’d like to try these, here’s what to look for:

The Wolftrap White 2011 LCBO #169409 $12.95

The Wolftrap Red 2011 LCBO #292557 $13.93

Boekenhoutskloop Semillon 2009 $34.95 Only available through RKW Imports Consignment Channel

Try either the red or white this Thanksgiving weekend with your turkey dinner and make sure to enjoy some time outside admiring the beautiful fall colours.

 


 


 

 

 

A Foodie’s Temptation (Why everything tastes better in Italy)

Osteria L’Acquachetta has a handwritten sign on the front door that tells visitors if you want a seat, fogettaboutit. Go home.  If you don’t have a reservation, don’t bother.This is not a pretentious little bistro, it’s the favourite place to eat for tourists and locals in Tuscany’s Montepulciano area.
And it is not hard to understand why.
The Lovely Anina

 

Tell waitress Anina that you come from Canada, and she gives you a hug and asks you if we know Debbie Travis – a regular when she is in town.

There are half a dozen long tables side by side, so you never know who your dinner companions will be. My first visit I sat beside two vegetarians from San Francisco. Interesting because at the far end of the restaurant in the kitchen , huge slabs of beef sit on a counter in front of a wood burning stove.

Guilio – Man of Meat

The kitchen  is where Guilio is king.  Order a steak “alla” Fiorentina and Guilio hacks off a slab and brings it to the table for your consideration. My husband Steve, who is a certified carnivore, thought he had died and gone to meat heaven.

The rest of the specials are handwritten on a piece of brown paper and basically feature anything that tickled Guilio’s fancy at the market

that morning or something delectable dropped off by one of the farmers in the region who knows what he’s looking for.

Anina prepared a cornucopia of appetizers – from fried zucchini flowers, to Scamorza cheese baked with thin slices of pear, peperonata, and some concoction with fennel and onion that we wiped clean.

Then there were too many choices on the list of specials so there was plenty of sharing involved among our group of eight. Saltimboca, grilled rabbit, homemade pork sausages, tagliatelle with lamb ragu (a crowd favourite) – all reasonably sized portions.

 

Then there was the beef. You can’t really come to the Osteria without trying the steak.  It’s like going to Moishe’s in Montreal and ordering a peanut butter sandwich.  Our one slab of beef, worthy of serving at Fred Flintstone’s table,  weighed in at 1.9 kilos. And don’t ask for it well done.  Guilio is armed with a cleaver.

 

The colourful  owner has a few other rules, too. Don’t  ask for a cappuccino or any other frou frou item you would find on a tourist menu.  Oh, then there is a glass rule. you only get one glass for water and wine. It’s up to you to use it wisely. The house wine was a exceptionally quaffable Rosso Di Montepulciano at a whopping six Euros a litre, good enough to order five more.

While we couldn’t finish every bite, we did a fair amount of damage. Maria wanted to gnaw the meat bone, and I think Phil may have licked the dessert plate. Yes…we had dessert too and coffee all around. It started at one Tiramisu with eight forks, then Anina mentioned the chocolate cake and something with peaches. Lynn declared it the best  meal she has ever had and threw down the gauntlet to recreate it at a future gathering.

When it came time for the bill, the guesses ranged from 270 – 350  Euros considering that slab of beef and the parade of dishes that we ordered. Guilio came to the table and did the accounting right in front of us on a paper tablecloth.  The grand total…190 Euros – less than 50 per couple.

No wonder you need reservations!

Just Like Fine Wine

Growing old is not for the faint of heart.  In a culture obsessed by youth our seniors are often forgotten and neglected.  But just like fine wine they should be celebrated.  My parents both passed away at a very early age so I never got to know them as an adult.  I only saw them through the sullen eyes of a teenager who didn’t appreciate them enough while I had the chance.

I’ve been very fortunate to have friends who have let me share in the pleasures of their family especially my best friend Nancy.  There hasn’t been a Christmas or birthday that I haven’t gotten an invitation to and I try to make them all because over time her family has become mine.

Happy Birthday Jeannette

This past weekend Nancy’s mom, Jeannette turned 80.  Vibrant and full of life, Jeannette has been many things throughout her life…wife, mother, sister, teacher, friend and grandmother.  She has touched hundreds of lives and I believe each of those has been enriched by knowing her.She’s always got a smile on her face and never raises her voice yet if she gives you that one certain look you know somehow you’ve misbehaved, probably why she made such a good teacher.

Gravenhurst Bifocal Concert Band

She was a teacher for 30 years but just because her professional career ended long ago doesn’t mean she can’t still teach us all something.  To this day she remains a force to be reckoned with, an avid gardener she’s a vital member of her local horticulture society, she plays in the Gravenhurst Bifocal Concert Band, often going to entertain other seniors and as a mother and grandmother she’s always there when you need her.

In an age of where most of us communicate online she still keeps a handwritten daily journal, something she has done for the last forty years and loves to send and receive a well written note.   You may think this old fashion and out of date but you’d be surprised how much pleasure a beautiful note or a real Christmas card gives you over a flashing e-card.

The average price of a 1932 vintage wine would probably run you in the thousands today which reflects its value.  So just like a fine wine a life well lived also deserves to be appreciated.  So whether the ones you love are fresh off the vine or have gathered some dust during a life well lived, eat cake and raise a glass to celebrate because life is fleeting and one never knows when it might end.

Love wisely and drink well!  And should I make it to 80, just like Jeannette I expect lots and lots of champagne.