Red Carpet Stars

Well another year of TIFF has wrapped up and Toronto has seen many stars walk the red carpet for their film premieres.

But besides the usual suspects there was another celebrity in town. Famous in his own right, 2-star Michelin Chef, Oliver Glowig was also here. He rolled out the red carpet for a special chef’s table dinner at the Ritz Carlton’s TOCA restaurant and Lis and I were lucky enough to be two of the eight people invited.

The food was a delight to the senses, with bright, vibrant colours that were a feast for the eyes. The sizzle as the swordfish hit the grill signaled another delicious dish was coming and watching the chef hand make the ravioli let you know only the freshest ingredients were being used. As six courses were presented over the evening the flavour explosions brought a taste of Italy to our mouths thanks to the skill of Chef Glowig and his amazing team.

For every course there was a terrific wine pairing and one of the delights of visiting TOCA means you get to try something you won’t always find at your local liquor store.  We started off the evening with a deliciously light sparkling Falanghina Brut DUBL from the Campania region of Southern Italy served by sommelier Taylor Thompson.  Each dish was accompanied by a wine chosen to bring out the flavours of the food and they didn’t disappoint.

Getting rave reviews was the “Ravioli Capresi” stuffed with caciotta and marjoram, served with a cherry tomato and fresh basil sauce. Maybe it was  because Chef shared the secret of how the delicate ravioli were made but I’m pretty sure it was because they tasted truly amazing.  Some of the eight at the table were even willing to give up dessert for another crack at this dish and I was in total agreement.

While chef Oliver Glowig has now flown back to Italy to handle the affairs of his own restaurant in Rome, you can enjoy the menu he created for TOCA any time at Toronto’s Ritz Carlton.

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?

Traveling in Style

Train from Switzerland to Italy

There has always been a great allure to me about traveling by train. My father always used to say  “I never heard a train go by without wishing I were on it.” I don’t know where it came from, or if it was really a quote, or if it reflected his unfulfilled dreams, but to a teenager who had just devoured “The Drifters” by James Mitchener and who could barely spell mortgage,  it felt like the perfect life. I wanted to be Gretchen, the drifter who carried her guitar across Europe.

I did carry mine to Italy when I was 14′ even though I could barely play two songs – Norwegian Wood (3 chords) and “my own” composition that sounded remarkably like a Bob Dylan tune. Fast forward decades and traveling between Paris and London through the Chunnel with  work mates, a few bottles of wine, baguettes and cheese turned into an unforgettable experience.  Or even today, taking advantage of an incredible VIA Rail sale and heading to Montreal to visit friends and family.

While I LOVE LOVE LOVE the never ending wine glass in VIA One, I brought my own to economy.  I am sipping a  Mimosa thanks to the Zonin Prosecco traveling 3-pack $11.95 at Vintages.

Though between the time I picked it up and the time I left on my trip, it turned into a 2-pack. In any case, sipping a Mimosa, listening to great music with free WIFI on a train that I don’t have to WISH I were on, is the perfect way to start an extra long weekend!

Happy Labour Day.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

F’Amelia located at 12 Amelia Street, Toronto

A common theme on this wine journey of discovery of mine is the delightful surprises that happen along the way.   Tonight that surprise came in the form of a little place  I had heard and forgotten about in the cacophony of new restaurant listings. Rita, one of my dearest and most willing dinner companions suggested F’amelia , a little Italian eatery tucked away in  Cabbagetown.
The first thing that made me happy, apart from the perfect parking spot, was the charming location. This is place is all about neighborhood. I almost hear the theme song to Cheers.Next, the wine list -lovely suggestions by the glass or bottle, some I recognized, some calling my name.

I picked Garofoli Monte Real 2010 Sangiovese. It came with a strong recommendation  from the waiter.  Such a perfect pick. With Rita running a little late –  I had Google-time. Surprise number two, the winery is about 45 minutes from the farmhouse near Ancona, Italy that I am visiting in three weeks. Thanks to Google and WIFI, within a few minutes, I had made a tasting appointment.
The menu was simple. The pizza fantastic. The conversation lively. But the real joy of F’Amelia on Amelia street, is it feels like it’s run by a favourite aunt or uncle. One who wants  you to take your time, not  rush. If you want to work your way through the wine list, there’s time to compare notes.  If you want to know more about the home made pasta or the pizza dough made on site , just ask. And even though Cliff and Norm aren’t sitting at the the bar, it really one big F’Amelia.

The Big Chill meets Under the Tuscan Sun

Friends Italian Style

Take twelve people. Most of them strangers to one another.  Entice them with the promise of winning wines,  primo pastas and the other tantalizing tastes of Tuscany.

What do you get?

The Big Chill: Italian-style

When I turned  50, instead of shrinking from the F-word, my 50th year would be nothing short of F-F-Fabulous. I pitched a dazzling dozen of dynamic wine drinkers a villa vacation – and it proved to be an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Google tuscan villas and you hit about 1.5 million matches – everything from luxury villa retreats to castle apartments.  My group of seasoned travelers included hostel hoppers, cottage couples and travelling teens – old friends and new. Most had never been to Italy.

Our pool under the Tuscan sun

I gathered their preferences and narrowed it down to three properties: one about 20 minutes of Cortona, the stunning hill town made famous by Frances Mayer’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second near Siena and the other in Chianti – the heart of Tuscan wine country. The group voted and  committed with cash.

Our beautiful villa

I will admit to moments of trepidation. What if it was a scam? What if the pictures were of another villa surrounded by landfill? Or maybe there was no villa at all? How could I be sure?

Even worse, what if the villa was perfect and everyone didn’t get along?

We planned to meet in a parking lot outside Cortona. One thing you realize quickly – even when you speak Italian, getting directions is not easy. It’s more of a state of mind – like getting a recipe from my mother – a little bit of this and a little bit of that.  Invest in a GPS. In this case. no one had to pave paradise , you were surrounded by it.

A place of unbelievable beauty

Andrea, son of the villa owner, and most gracious host – met  us and accompanied  us to the villa. We never would have found it ourselves. The address was something like turn right after the bus stop at marker 232 and continue along the third dirt path until you are absolutely sure an axe murderer will pop out of the bushes and there’s no one to ask for help just chestnut trees and the odd family of wild boar.

But when we turned the final corner, it was obvious, the pictures on the web site didn’t come close.

Our villa turned out to be a 13th century treasure. Six bedrooms, each with its own separate bathroom over three floors, a huge dining room table where we ate every night and a living room with overstuffed couches  in front of the fireplace, with enough space to dance up a storm.

A villa fit for kings

The main kitchen was big enough that the wannabe Italian cooks never had to compete for space. Then there was the pool, the view and the price.   $2500 for the week or about $500 per couple.

My wonderful band of strangers bonded on the first night over the freshest salami, ripest tomatoes, most fragrant cheeses washed down by local wine. We brought our own music and danced until 3am. Nice start to wash away any worries.

A breathtaking view from the pool

But renting a villa with a group of people forces you to make all kinds of decisions.

Take a wine tour or a cooking class, a bike trip or feign jet lag and relax, visit  places with names that you’ve probably read on wine bottles. Montepulciano, Montalcino, Chianti, Orvieto.

We took the slow option and hung around the pool most of the first day.

A taste of Tuscany

Blame  Marcella – mother of our host Andrea. She arrived with her cheerful assistant Valentina to cook us a five-course dinner. And we didn’t want to miss a second. I was the only one who could speak passable Italian, but where there is a will there is a way. Johanne and Lynn watched as  the kitchen was transformed into a haven of heavenly smells. Marcella and Valentina whipped up three kinds of appetizers, spinach pie, two kinds of homemade pasta – yes made right then and there – one with fresh mushrooms, the other with fresh tomatoes and a chicken roasted with something delectable, all topped off with a fruit flan of some sort. Did I mention it cost 30 euros a person WITH wine?

Friends and family

There are moments in life when it feels like you are being rewarded for any good deed you have ever done in your life. That’s exactly how I felt. Graced with my daughter and her best friend who is like a daughter to me, my best friends who have been through the best and worst of times, and new friends who have become such an important part of my landscape – we all sat together around a table as families do. How could I be so lucky?

I knew I had nothing to worry about when Johanne one of my oldest and wisest friends said after the first night – there will be tears when we say goodbye.

The rest of the week just kept getting better. Picture the Big Chill – Italian style.  The kitchen became the hub. A few of us, standing around the centre island, one whipping up a salad, another a plate of antipasto – with the freshest ingredients bought that afternoon, another trying out a favourite pasta recipe as familiar to them  as breathing.

Our walking tour of Tuscany

We walked, we talked, we wine toured and talked more. We solved the problems of the  world. Any problem we had a world away.

And on the very last day – we had lunch outside the villa Under the Tuscan Sun – we drank too much – danced on tables and threw rose petals at the wind. But most important we got to experience that something special with people and a place that you will never  forget.

If you are going:

  • 6 months before departure date – confirm with potential housemates. You will find everyone wants to go, but when it comes time to commit, the group shrinks.
  • Get the group to rate their priorities: price, ensuite bathroom, close to town or in the country
  • Look for a recommendation.  We worked with rentvillas.com and our most gracious host Andrea who has a number of villas available info@casaleruffignano.com

 

Good Bubbles for your Buck

Bring on the bubbly

Summer’s definitely the perfect time for something fun and light and it seems everyone is finding a way to add a little fizz to their wine.  Over the last few years Prosecco sales have risen dramatically and it seems wine makers from around the world have taken notice.  On a recent trip to my local LCBO I realized they actually devoted an entire row of sparkling wines and everyone from the Francis Ford Coppola winery in California to the Wolf Blass label in Australia are offering their versions of sparkling wines to get in on the action.  There even seems to be a good selection of rosé sparkling wines.

In fact, in 2011 Prosecco sales rose 50% and this sparkling wine has done a great job in terms of value.  When you look at the average cost of a half decent bottle of champagne coming in at around $70 and the fact you can get a nice bottle of Prosecco for under $15 which one would you choose if you were just looking for a fun drink for a sunny summer’s day?

Lovely to enjoy on its own Prosecco it’s also a great drink to serve with Hors d’oeuvres, antipasta, or seafood.  I actually found one I really enjoy called Il Prosecco and it’s only $11.75.  It reminds me of an old school pop bottle it doesn’t have your regular type of pop cork it but a cap.  The bubbles are lively and it has medium-intensity citrus, pear and melon notes with a dry, light-body and crisp, refreshing taste.

Il Prosecco by Mionetto from Italy

So at this price I say “Bring on the Bubbly”

A Super Tuscan Virgin

The words Super Tuscan evoke a certain reverence among wine lovers.  I first heard the term as a young news writer in Montreal. Apparently the Hells Angels were big fans. They fought the spiraling unemployment rate by hiring people to wait in line outside the SAQ when Super Tuscans went on sale for astronomical prices. I knew nothing about these warriors of wine with names like Tignanello, Sassicaia and Ornellaia. I was a 24-year old  beer drinker.

A lovely view of the Chianti region

Turn the clock forward 15, ok, more like 25 years, and at this point I have been to Tuscany. I visited a small winery located on the property and run by a God-like handyman named Arc-Angelo ( not kidding) and a raven-haired beauty named Allesandra who gave us a barrel tasting and explained what a Super Tuscan is all about.These wines produced by some of the greatest winemakers in Italy actually carried the same designation as simple  Table wine because they did not meet the specifications of Italy’s DOC and DOCG system. Enter Giovanni Goria, who in 1992 created a a new category – IGT or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, which denoted a designer wine of sorts – a winemaker’s creation that did not follow a set formula. It was more  about a passion and drive for excellence and individuality.

And the thing about a passion – it opens up a world of experiences with other people who share it.  Tina and I were taking a wine course a while back and one day I was studying out loud, reciting the multitude of wine producing regions of Spain.  My dear Chilean friend Adriana, who happens to be an awesome massage therapist, helped me through my pronunciation. The next day she called me and said one of her friends/clients was opening a bottle of Vega-Sicilia and because we were taking this course, would we like to come sample?  I said where and what time.

1996 SASSICAIA

I will spare the details of an incredible house tour, including the “Hunter S. Thompson for Mayor ” poster in an upstairs bathroom and more books that I could ever read in a lifetime. But it was the first time I visited a wine cellar that made my heart flutter. What I saw first in that room of beauty were case upon case with the names of the Holy  Trinity: Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Tignanello. And  then there were the cases of California’s Opus One – the marriage of the Old and New World brilliance  of Robert Mondavi and Baron de Rothschild. I thought this must be what heaven will look like if I am really really good.Witnessing  our excitement (it may have been our wide eyes or the way we lovingly stroked the bottles ) our most gracious host asked if we would rather opt for an Italian than the Vega-Sicilia. I couldn’t help it. I was too close.  And I was a Super Tuscan virgin.

Tina and the Super Tuscans

The  four of us started with a bottle of Tignanello and I have to say, it was everything I dreamed it would be. When we toured the house, I took my glass with me. It was like the  Christmas when you got that present you wanted more than anything and refused to put it down for a second.  But this time, the presents kept getting better. We tasted  Sassicaia and Guado Al Tasso. We changed continents, moving to Chile’s finest Almaviva.

Then came Opus One.

The evening  was a life-changing experience. No offence to anyone,  but it was much more impressive than my other first time when I secretly wondered what all the fuss was about. As early as I was in my wine education, I  understood clearly  what all the fuss was about. I understood the meaning  of perfect balance, perfect complexity and what  separated great  from spectacular. And I understood that all the days going forward on this wine journey would be defined by the days before The Super Tuscans and the days after.