Our Man in Mendoza

We’ve landed in the land of Malbec, a place that is familiar and unknown at the same time. Argentina called to us, maybe we never thought we’d actually get here but it happened so fast that we are walking around, eyes wide open, still face-slapped that we are so far south. Okay, let’s roll the film back just a little. My wife has written a bunch of cookbooks and one of them has been translated to Spanish to support the interest from the crowd that watches her cooking program in Latin America. We were invited to visit the big book fair held annually in Buenos Aires as part of the launch and though we should extend the trip by enjoying the wine country of Mendoza. Flying 14 hours south from Toronto, we passed through Santiago, Chile then right across to Buenos Aries for a night before returning west to Mendoza. Why not just hop over to Mendoza from Santiago? I also wondered why but these little things called the Andes got in the way. Anyhoo, we got in last night and spent our first full day in what I can imagine is either now or soon one of the most intriguing wine tourism destinations in the world.

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One of these hands is in the middle of making wine

We are no strangers to wine country tourism, having worked the food angle of at least one winery, getting to know the lingo and what people wish or expect to see when they get to the production site. And yes, it is romantic. Bucolic countryside, escaping the freeway to slower roads, witnessing the transformation of an agricultural product to something that has captured the attention and imagination of poets, rock stars and gastonomes the world round. We were lucky enough to make a local contact through an all-star, greatest-hits-album-good-friend Charles Baker. He knows an expert who has been to visit his workplace, Stratus Wines in Niagara-on-the-Lake (where he also makes the cult hit Charles Baker Riesling) and has an interest in a winery in Mendoza. Paul Hobbs is a bit of a genius in the Malbec world, a grape whisperer of sorts. I did reach out but he would not be around for our arrival, however he put us in the hands of the hospitality manager of Vina Cobos, the winery to which Paul devotes much of his attention. So, really it was kind of a 3 cousin removed sorta connection but our man Pablo Bustos was very kind to write back and welcome us. If fact, he did mention at one point regarding our last name that he “is a big fan of Anna Olson, the chef, but even if that is not you, I will take good care of you” ha ha, very cool.

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Our man Pablo with Anna

Our hotel in Mendoza was very helpful in arranging a remis, a car for hire by the day or half. Quite frankly, it simply made way more sense than renting a car, I mean, driving to do a full day of wine tasting is like starting a diet while touring a potato chip factory, for crying out loud. We only had to ride out for just over half an hour, of course noticing vineyards and other signs of wine biz. Arriving at Vina Cobos, there was a pause to get through the security gate, so different from Canada where you are more likely to be dragged onto property rather than confirming your identity for a visit. The car pulled up and Pablo basically knocked me out of the way in order to introduce himself to Anna, no offence intended. He explained that he had considered being a chef years ago and continues an interest in cooking but is a big fan of watching her shows on television. Too funny, he eventually got around to introducing himself to me but was quite nervous and jumpy. We knew right away that we liked this guy and were in for a wonderful tour. He really made us feel welcome and took on the sense of true hospitality where he was going to make sure that we were well taken care of while under his roof (one of the tenets of Brillat Savarin for those of you who read “The Physiology of Taste”). I digress. We were led on a tour of the production facility and into part of the vineyard for the whole info package. I must say it was a true learning experience as we were shown things that I was not familiar with, like whole berry maceration rather than crushing – the grapes are simply destemmed and allowed to ferment in the whole berry form. The skin contact from this technique pulls colour and flavours from the fruit to a super level. They pump over the must in order to drag the potential our of each grape. After the free run juice is racked off, they press the leftover “cake” and add that super purple juice back into the wine. In short, it was clear that the winery had serious planning behind it, and the team was following through with the doctrine. Even though we never met Paul Hobbs, we felt we got to know his way of thinking by observing the standards of operation in place. Quite a young crew, everyone was very friendly and energetic, a really cool work environment.

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After tasting this wine, I noticed that my socks were no longer, apparently knocked off

The tasting session was well planned out, with a geography and history lesson followed by sequenced roll out of the wines. Of course, Pablo arranged the wines in terms of “casting the net” where the base wines, those from a single varietal and from a variety of vineyards within Mendoza were first shown. Then followed by single vineyard bottlings and finally, the blockbuster cream of the crop example. Honestly, the wines were wonderfully balanced, fresh and delicious, each showing particular aroma or flavours that distinguished them. I might suggest that a snob might jump to the conclusion that the final showstopper wines were in a league of their own and yes, they were as good a wine as I’ve ever tasted however I would admit that I enjoyed the first level wines just as much. Any fool can say they like the most expensive item after all, yet each and every wine I tasted was a winner.

We had so much fun with Pablo that I know we will meet again soon. When you are conversing at a pace that makes time go fast, you know you are in good company. So good in fact that we ran late for our lunch reservation. No problema, I was assured. We were heading just down the road and Pablo called ahead to inform them.

 

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There is an ocean of Malbec in Mendoza 

 

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Yes, those are fall colours in April 

 

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Gazing at The Andes from Finca Desero

 

 

Arriving at Finca Desero, we were greeted at the entrance by Miguel, the restaurant manager. He led us in to a quiet, intimate second floor dining room with stunning views of the vineyard and Andes Mountains. It really, honestly takes your breath away. He offered to tour us but we suggested lunch first in respect to the kitchen as we were running late. There was absolutely never any indication of a rush or that anyone was put out by our tardiness. The restaurant follows a simple, effective approach to lunch where they pour three wines and serve four courses, if you wish more of any particular wine they will top up. It felt more like a private VIP experience than a regular restaurant service. They only do red wines so the pours were recent vintage Syrah, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon, all excellent. Our first course was a mushroom cappuccino with crisp shrimp, extremely tasty and a surf and turn combination that might not sound red wine friendly on paper but the seasoning was on target and worked like a charm. Second was a plate with a slow poached then seared slab of pork belly on sweet potato puree with plum chutney and an intense wine syrup reduction. Meaty, peppery and great contrasts in texture. Our main was a roasted beef tenderloin, very rare (happy wife) with roasted grapes in mashed potato (yum) and a couple of flavoured purees, including smoked eggplant. These sauces were enhanced by dynamite local olive oil and I commented that there are so many occasions where these bright little swabs and dabs of sauce are form only, each component on the plate was seasoned well and delicious in its’ own right. After a short break on the terrace to gaze at the mountains, we finished off with a chocolate pave with fruits and tasty chocolate ice cream. Whew! Yes it seems like a lot of work but we are willing to take one for the team. We met and visited with the chef, shot the breeze and got the bill in order to continue. Take note, the experience here is one of profound value, less than $100 Canadian for this feast with as much premium wine as you like, really great stuff.

 

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Mushroom Cappuccino with Crisp Shrimp 
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Pork Belly on Sweet Potatoes with Plum Chutney and Malbec Glaze 

 

 

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Roasted Beef Filet with Smoked Eggplant Puree 
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Me: “blah blah blah   Him: “uh huh, si”     Her: “get out”

 

 

 

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Not a bad view from the workplace

Miguel gave us a tour, actually we asked for a short one and he was clever enough to just spend enough time without going on too much in any one area. The property is spectacularly designed and equipped to the teeth, I think he said they are at the early part of a 20 year master plan to take them to full production. We said adios and sped off with our driver in a hail of gravel dust and heifer hair.

 

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An impressive battery of French Oak barrels 

 

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Date night 
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The Parilla – wood fire box in the middle and coals are spread under the grills on either side, heat so intense that I could feel it 25 ft away whenever the door opened.

Getting back to our hotel in the city, we decided to take a full rest and book a table at the hotel’s steak house (Asador) for a quiet evening. Normally we eat just after 6 so I felt quite suave asking for a 9:30 p.m. booking, man I usually have my pants off by that time. Lucky for us the restaurant Q had a Tango show so in addition to tasty food, there was a display of a cultural practice that is both athletic and sexy Meow! The dancers stared into each others’ eyes with such intensity that you really felt they did not know there was anyone else in the room. This might sound like a corny experience but I just loved it, I was grinning like a lottery winner. Mind you, sitting there with the love of my life, being treated well with great food and drink and no worries, I guess I am kind of a lottery winner.

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Wango Tango

 

The Whey of Curds

Shep
Shep Ysselstein

Shep Ysselstein is a cheesemaker, son of a dairy farmer, grandson of a Dutch immigrant who came to Canada to build a new life after WW2, starting a farm in Oxford County, the country’s dairy epicenter. I first met Shep several years ago at Taste of the Grand, a food fest in Brantford, where my wife was doing a cooking demonstration. I nearly walked by his small booth, a table filled with plates of cheese samples, however politely accepted one and had a bite. I stopped a few seconds later and went back to talk to this guy. First of all, he looks like what a marketing agency would seek out as the model dairy farmer, clean cut and innocent looking. Just one bite of his Five Brothers cheese had stopped me in my tracks and I knew I had to get to know this guy. We’ve since become friends and my respect for his work continues to grow, if Shep is the future of Canadian food production, we are in for good times.

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Bo the Cheese Dog

Many years ago, I took a one-day cheese making workshop out near Cornwall at the Glengarry shop operated by Margaret Morris, a sort of cheddar guru, the Gordie Howe of Canadian artisan cheese. Although a short course, it was intense and hands-on, enough to get you interested and mostly, appreciate the work and finesse involved in this age old practice of preserving milk in a solid form. From that day, I understood the basics so felt it was the beginning of my cheese education.

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Here’s the Coles Notes on making cheese: fresh milk will go bad in a hurry so by removing water from it, it can be salted and aged without spoiling. If you had one or more dairy cows way back, producing more milk than your family could consume in fresh form, it would be necessary that you understand how to make the stuff last longer. If you let fresh milk sit in a cool place, the cream will rise to the top (fat is lighter than water so gravity takes care of this). Cream can be skimmed off and used or separated by churning to produce butter. Remember, removing water from food is a way of making it last longer. Think about buying dairy at the grocery: you might buy butter every two or three weeks but likely buy milk every two or three days. On the other hand, if you take that fresh milk and change it in a way that sets the protein into a semi solid, you can turn that mass into one of many types of cheese. Variety of process can produce cheeses that will be eaten immediately, like cottage cheese, stretched and held in water like fresh mozzarella, allowed to form a bloom like Brie (only aged for two months) or pressed into hard cakes and aged, like Cheddar, Gouda or even Parmesan. Obviously, cheese varieties have a link to the geography and climate of that place from which they are named. Even something as obscure as Gorgonzola developed its unique characteristics from the cool limestone caves in which it aged.

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Let’s get back to Shep. And this is the cool part. He grew up on a dairy farm run by his folks in the beautiful rolling hill area near Woodstock, Ontario. I can imagine him and his brothers running out way too early in the morning to help their father with milking and chores before going to school. And you know that Dutch Canadian household was filled with amazing home cooking smells and pies and jams and pickles. You know that stuff that is really hip and cool right now? Well that’s all they’ve ever known. Of course I don’t know this for a fact as I have never met his parents but I really doubt that I am too far off the mark. After high school, Shep got a degree in business from Western then started on a stagieres’ journey, working in cheese facilities in BC, Ontario, New York and Switzerland. The Swiss connection was formative, the capstone of his apprenticeship, where he developed his own style, his direction in cheese. Now he makes nearly a dozen varieties at Gunn’s Hill, his strength in those Gouda-Swiss hybrids that have become his calling card. Gunn’s Hill has started to gain fame by winning awards at the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix but I think his best work lies ahead of him. A recent new build has him working in a state-of-the-art plant with room to grow. An impressive site and good location for a tour, it is a rich educational experience for young and old, and I will encourage the young part as I really do think it is important to take young kids to places like this so they begin to understand that food comes from someone, somewhere, not a big mysterious factory in a far-off land.

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Pasteurizer

The Process

Milk is delivered by truck every 2nd day from Friesvale Farms, just 1 km away. The milk is pumped into a vat that keeps the temperature around 2 C and has an agitator to prevent the milk from separating. When it is time to start making cheese, the milk passes through an in-line pasteurizer then through a heat exchange plate to cool it to a working temperature. Pasteurization heats the milk to kill any potentially harmful bacteria. Once the milk is pumped into one of the cheese vats (they look like giant hot tubs) it has a bacterial culture added to it. This helps develop likeable flavours in the cheese. Next, rennet is added to the warm milk. Rennet is a natural enzyme that curdles casein (milk protein) so that it goes from liquid to what looks like a gigantic tub of tofu. Once set, the cheesemakers cut this curd with outrageous looking knives either hand held or mounted onto spinning devices over the vats. By cutting the curd, this allows for the curds to be separated from the whey (watery part). In the case of the Gouda style firm cheeses, the curds are now gently cooked by heating up the vat slowly. This tightens the proteins strands and encourages the removal of water. Then the whey is drained off and those curds are put into a different vat where they will have a little pressure to start to form them into a workable solid mass. This is cut into consistent sized blocks and put into forms, different sizes for specific cheeses, and put under pressure for 20 minutes, flipped and then another 20. At this point the cheese is in a recognizable form, a wheel basically. The wheels are put into a cage and lowered into a vat of salt water. There has not been any salt added until this point. The cheese can be in the brine for hours or days, depending on the desired texture. And then for the part that would drive me crazy; the long wait. Cheese are stored in a series of rooms, with specific temperature and humidity under control. Some of the cheeses will eventually be washed with salt water and flipped, the washing removes any unwanted bacteria and develops the rind. Others are washed with red or white wine, some even with beer.

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Pressure is applied to set the shape
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Cheeses are lowered into brine, these will have a three day salt bath

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Walking through the different rooms is a wonderful experience for your sense of smell. At the mildest, there is a warm aroma of butter and slightly soured cream, and it the room where the Handek wheels can age for nearly two years, there is a punch in the face, intense nose, a pungent reminder that nature is at work here.

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Beer washed cheese getting an extra month of age in vac pack