Everything you eat in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is fresh, fresh, fresh. The vegetables seem to be never more than a day off the farms and most dishes are quickly cooked to order, ensuring bright, light flavours and a snap texture – citrus and floral aromas, occasional blasts from hot chills and a perfect salt sour balance make it a cuisine you need to come here to explore. We tasted Southern, Hue (Imperial) and Northern dishes over a rainbow of restaurants and can hardly wait to come back again!
Had a blast last week in Singapore on the media tour for Anna’s new show Inspired, due to launch on Asian Food Channel at the end of the month. We did a Canadian reception at The Westin Singapore with Chef Aaron Foster, Niagara College Alumni, once student, now friend. Eating and talking about food is the national pastime in Singapore!
Anna and I were invited to travel to Russia over this past weekend to attend Taste of Moscow in the capital on behalf of Scripps International, the UK broadcaster that is responsible for showing her shows Fresh and Bake in Russia and many other countries. Like usual, we already had a lot on the go but relied on our failsafe “why not?” rule, where we look for a logical answer that outweighs any potential benefit. In the end, we could have played the “no time, too hard” card but the idea of visiting Moscow was so appealing and off our radar that we simply had to go. And what an education. I now plead ignorance, empty of basic historical knowledge outside of a few facts around Tsars, ergot ridden armies of Alexander, the revolution and of course Soviet regime images. I was too influenced by movies showing a dreary, dark Russia, with lineups for bread, babushkas on bundled old ladies and lots of scary officials. Okay, I did see some of those things but I truly did not expect the stunning architecture and general beauty of the city that presented itself to us. Bear in mind that rose coloured glasses are especially rosy when you are in town for a brief stay and on someone else’s dime, er, ah ruble.
Anna is currently in studio taping a new season of Bake and I, although on sabbatical from Niagara College, will be going in to Toronto for three weeks to work as a cook at my friend John Bil’s temporary restaurant Le Pavillon as part of the Luminato festival. We hustled to get ready for the long haul, me meeting Anna at the studio and whisking her off to Pearson late Wednesday for a flight to Frankfurt then on to Moscow, nearly missing the connector. The Domodedovo airport is around 45 km outside of the city in a wooded area, very Uncle Vanya, with rolling pastures and lots of signs of country living. The cool part was the sullen driver with our name on a sign waiting with the big stinking Mercedes, oh yeah, Oligarch life. The city of Moscow is like many others, with concentrations of buildings, people and street life compounding as you get closer to the city centre. There aren’t many but old signs of Soviet life make your eyes widen, with super pro-labour, work hard messages. An interesting thing about Moscow is that it is the centre point of the country, not geographically, but if you look at a Google map and zoom in, you will notice that all highways begin in the city centre, near the Kremlin and radiate out like a spider web. And we were staying in the middle of the web. As we approached our hotel, we giggled to catch our first glimpse of St. Basil’s, you know – the onion topped church in Red Square. We met our new friend Kate at the hotel – Kate is British but lived in Ottawa for 8 years before returning to London where she works at Scripps (but will be moving on to a new life in Austalia, yes a boy’s fault). After settling in to our room, spectacular by the way (with a view of St. Basil’s), we were treated to a dinner at Reka – a super glitz, modern club overlooking the Moscow River, with views of the Peter the Great Statue, The Kremlin, and a massive, brightly lit giant white marble building that I believe is the headquarters of Military Intelligence (KGB at one point?), anyway, kinda crazy. The food was great, we shared several starters and a couple of mains, Potato Souffle with Sour Cream and Pike Caviar, Country Cheeses, Pumpkin Goat Cheese Salad and an extremely tasty Beef Stroganoff. We were of course tired so called it an early evening (it is now late Thursday night local time).
Friday was free up until 2 p.m. so after a luxurious breakfast at the hotel, including Syrniki (what looked like thick potato cakes but actually sweet cottage cheese pancakes, omygod, so delicious), we headed over the bridge to check out Red Square. Approaching, you can see the tour buses and line-ups for security to get in. There was also quite a commotion as there was a cultural and literary festival being held in the square. To say we were giddy was an understatement. Being up close to St. Basil’s is like being on the brink of Niagara Falls, where everyone is taking pics and posing, milling around like sharks in a feeding frenzy. And yes, lots of security. This is also the point where I start to realize my lousy understanding of history and geography and other things that I should have been paying attention to – yeesh. I though The Kremlin was going to be a dull, administrative Soviet building but of course it is more of a palace grounds, home to the current president and ancient Tsars, a walled compound housing many churches, museums, Lenin’s Tomb, armoury and yes – government offices. I really did not expect it to be so beautiful. Red Square is the open court in front, the former city marketplace. It is flanked by St. Basil’s, Gum (department store come high end mall) and One Red Square, the State Historical Museum. We were surrounded by live music, performance art and basically a bunch of happy people. A light lunch at a terrace of Borscht was a brief, classy break, great for people watching. The tour into the Kremlin was a blend of punishing lines (people here make an art of cutting in) and breathtaking views. The sentries were very serious young men, in brilliant uniforms and leather boots so shiny and new that they squeaked as they marched by. Like always, seeing soldiers not on television or in print reminds you that those who defend and go to battle are not hardened adults but actually young people just starting their lives, never ceases to make you pause and think. At this point I resolve to study history, not a documentary on Netflix but actually read a big thick book. I promise.
Late afternoon,we meet with Kate and Julia from Food Network UK and head over to a culinary studio so Anna can do a hands-on session with media types and local broadcasters. It never fails to make me laugh when I see her picture and name in a language other than English. I must say that the the studio was a very posh event space in a glitz mall, surrounded by high end home ware stores, designer shoes and fancy schmancy panty shops, you know – the richer you are, the smaller the pricier your underwear. Anyhoo, the attendees rolled in and the Veuve corks were popped (Russians love real Champagne) and the snacks served. We met Katiya – Anna’s interpreter and a lovely, bright blonde bomber. Interesting story, she worked at the UN in NY and spends her time in between Moscow and Los Angeles with her future husband. Later in the weekend, she explained local economics to me in that her father, a noted physician and lecturer was paid a very low wage, a reality check after seeing so many excesses, see oligarch. Anna did her demonstration, a delicious French Canadian Tourtiere and a fruit topped Platz (rich golden cake with seasonal fruit baked over top). Everyone loved it, got their signed cookbook and were on their way. And now for our fun; we had heard of Cafe Pushkin and Kate set up the reservation. This is a traditional Russian restaurant housed in an old noble house and the servers wear (not tacky) period costume and do table side carving and so on. We had a delicious meal featuring wonderful chicken noodle soup, Pelmenis (round dumplings filled with game and mushrooms) and a spectacular dish of Veal Pojarski. This deserves explanation: before food processors and industrialized ingredients (think Chicken McNuggets), the idea of a smooth, tender meat was something only the wealthiest could imagine eating. The veal meat was removed from the chop, minced into a fine hash and bound with egg, butter and cream to make a “mousse” texture, light, smooth and tender. It was reshaped into the chop shape, breaded, the bone re-inserted and pan fried to golden brown and sauced. I have to admit that I made this when I was in culinary school in the 80s and have not ever seen mention of it since. I had to. Instead of bread crumb, the crisp coating was a fine brunoise of bread, allowing for the extra thunder crunch. The meat was spectacularly delicious, slightly spongey and juicy. A sauce of morels in cream from a sauce boat only made in more of the Escoffier era dish that I was pining. Of course, you could not manage to serve this to most people as it would look like “fake meat” – something that came from a Sysco truck box and into the deep fryer. I must say that I ate the whole shebang with a wide grin and Marty Feldman eyes. And then another deep sleep. Hello jet lag fatigue, my old pal.
We slept in a bit and skipped breakfast – how else would you prepare for a food fest? Taste of Moscow is a franchise festival of the same pattern that invades cities around the world. Food Network had a booth and brought Anna in to do a series of demonstrations and appearances, to meet the viewer but of course to handle media interviews to keep the ball rolling. It was held outside a massive soccer stadium being outfitted for the 2017 FIFA World Cup, you can picture it, tons of parking, port a potties, tents, stages, sponsor areas blah blah blah. We met a lot of fun people, the guests were great and of course you don’t eat because it is festival food (I should have figured that out by now). I went looking for Russian ingredients but of course most local restaurants are showing off imports to their clientele. I don’t want to eat Italian food in Moscow. However, I did find a small grill station where a guy was cooking Turkish looking meat kebabs, the ones made with ground meat rather than chunks. He was also grilling what looked like a Pogo/corn dog looking thing. Aha! This is Georgian food, I had heard of this. Khachapuri is a skewered piece of fresh cheese curd (like the size of a sausage) that is wrapped in a thin yeast dough and then grilled, finally glazed with garlic butter and eaten hot, drippy and melting. Jumping Jesus on a Pogo Stick! I wanted to sneak away from view and shove the thing into my mouth, it was so tasty and simple, I had to get one for Anna too. The other item we tasted was a lamb kebab in a tortilla like flatbread (made to order) filled with rich tomato/pepper sauce, yogurt, herb salad and slices of red onion. Truly tasty and wonderful food, makes me want to learn more about Georgian cooking.
After a short break and change at the hotel, we went over to White Rabbit, the highly touted and uber cool modern power seat. And you know that I wanted to see the oligarchs, those ridiculously rich business men with their mistresses, their Bentleys, the many body guards and excesses. This was the Bond movie part of Moscow that I had hope to witness (from a distance). We arrived to the front of a shopping plaza in a fairly nondescript building, guided through the department store to an elevator, up to the 5th floor then switch over to a second elevator to the, um, maybe 30th or 40th floor, very spy like, or secret speak easy club or something. will continue tomorrow
Warm Autumn aromas fill the city of Mendoza, dry leaves falling to the sidewalk, charcoal and wood grills being fired up in yards and restaurant kitchens, escaping scents of onions frying and butternut squash or pumpkin roasting away, like that moment when your Halloween pumpkin is kissed by the flame of the candle in the Jack-o-lantern. We stroll around parks and streets just taking inventory of the local shops and doing some people watching, not creepy, just curious. Every man has a sweater on and every woman has big chunky, clunky boots, like Kiss meets Wyatt Earp, ah fashion. I am quite comfortable in my light shirt and blazer but rugged mountaineer looking men sit on terraces shivering while sipping steaming hot mugs of café con leche. I’m always warm though, and tonight that fire will be fueled by meat sweats after we partake in the cooking of Francis Mallman’s crew, his ubiquitous meat fire cuisine has captured our attention. That’s later though.
Anna and I observe a number of protests as tomorrow is Labour Day and many are holding rallies to decry the big machine of corrupt politicians, bankers and industrialists. It is peaceful and despite the noise there is a bit of a carnival celebration as there are all sorts of vendors in an open air market selling crafts. Many of the demonstrators are drinking Yerba Mate from gourds or cups. I have not seen anyone drink the mountain tea associated with Gaucho culture in restaurants but it is very much a home thing, showing friendship and so the fact that these demonstrators have brought the hot water in thermos’ and the goods, it is very much a DIY show of camaraderie. A lady in a shop explains that the Mate does indeed contain caffeine and uses a cup and metal straw that has a strainer in the bottom. You add the dry “tea” then hot (never boiling!) water and sip away, adding more water as necessary.
One of the shops we look into is a sort of deli, with some hams, olives and salami and mountains of generic looking cheese, soft grating stuff, high potential for melting on sandwiches and such. Despite the national obsession with eating beef, there does not seem to be an equal passion for dairy, yes there are wonderful yogurts, cremas and custards plus we have eaten some nice mozzarella and burrata but there is not a huge variety of cheese like you would see in European countries. There is one dish that keeps reappearing and it is Provoletta, a slab of Provolone cheese that is either grilled or pan fried and served soft, warm and gooey with chimichurri or salsa. I joked with Anna that it reminded me of the healthy kitchen snacks that fuel chefs during service, melted cheese filling that has escaped stuffed chicken breasts or the shrapnel stuck to the sides of lasagna dishes, ha. It is tasty though, honest Doc.
Getting back to the park near our hotel, I meet a gentleman selling handmade knives in bone and wood handles. Please understand this is my version of a shop selling Prada bags, I knew that I would find one of these characters. He looks like a hefty version of Pure Prairie Gibberish Gabby Johnson from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. And he is carved out of stone and wood. Shaking his hand I felt like I was gripping firewood. The knives are beautiful and sharp like a razor, his proves so by effortlessly slicing through a thick piece of leather, like a hot knife through butter. What I really like is that he has done the metal and all the work alone, by himself, stamping his initials into each blade. They are perfectly imperfect, cracks in the bone handle that would relegate each to the Factory Seconds bin in a manufacturing facility, nicks in the blade and not s single true surface. I picture him sitting near a fire with his trusty dog near his feet, a cup of steaming Yerba Mate and a pot of beans on the simmer while he makes the knives (I know what you are thinking; he is in his condo with Downton Abby on Netflix and a microwave dinner but No Way, get out of my dream!). We strike a bargain and I walk back to the hotel clutching my knives, wrapped in paper bags, Anna having suggested that we not go for lunch with my new weapons.
A short walk past pizza and pasta joints (up to 60% of Argentinians have Italian heritage) and steak restos to get to Maria Antonieta, smallish open kitchen restaurant that has been recommended. The place is packed and they suggest we can get a table in 30 minutes, we do notice a free deuce but know that they are not overloading the kitchen or service to the point of fail so we agree. We head out to pound the pavement again, building up those Food & Beverage credits. Part of me is thinking, ah, let’s cancel and just go to a more convenient place rather than waiting. Of course we burn up the time and once seated, I am again reminded to relax and wait for good things. Nothing against the other restaurants that had lots of seats available, but that short pause gave us access to a well oiled machine, solid service and determined, precise cooking; basically, a better restaurant by a factor of at least two. It is easy to spot the chef in the open kitchen, her quiet demeanor but fierce “eye of the tiger” rule, tasting everything, watching every preparation and plating on the pass the whole time. We were told that she is in fact, married to the chef of the place where we’ve booked tonight, another couple built in a kitchen! This, Maria Antonieta, this is a busy bistro, there is a humble quiet confidence that runs through the place. Not overconfident, no attitude, but they know what they are doing. Service is brisk and educated and the food, lighter than we’ve seen elsewhere in Argentina has a feminine strength to it. Clean, unfussy flavours, solid cooking and the kind of food that only chefs with a certain intellectual maturity can deliver. After you’ve tried all sorts of combinations and have been influenced by the various cultural cooking styles of the moment do you reach the point where you develop your own style and cook the food that represents how your mind works, not imitating someone else’s work. This restaurant serves that food – like going to an excellent chef’s house on her day off and she cooks lunch for you and her. We started with a composed salad of pear, prosciutto, burrata, greens and dark roasted almonds in lemon and spectacular local olive oil. Clean, fresh and hitting all the marks of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Anna had the “tart&salad of the day” – a pumpkin, corn & cheese curd quiche with mixed greens (reminds me of the old cooking at Le Select) while I dove into a pan roasted chicken leg smothered in a mix of green peas, leeks and green beans in a lemon pan juice. Intense flavours, and the chicken moist – again a sign of skill as any fool can cook a boneless skinless chicken breast but the leg takes a little more work. We thought about dessert but decided to hold off as we will certainly be back later this week. We chatted with the pastry chef on the way out, she spotted Anna and wanted to visit.
After a gym break, rest and clean up at the hotel we started out on our evening journey. A short taxi ride took us to 1884, named after the winery building that houses it, of course which was built in that year. You are dropped off outside a compound and greeted by attendant/security types that verify your reservation then escort you to the understated doorway. A little James Bond spy game kinda feeling, very private and secret. Yet once the door opens, we are hit with a warm breeze of grilling beef aroma, so inviting that we turned to each other, wide-eyed and grinned like a couple of star struck fans. Funny how aroma memories come back to you, here we are entering what will promise a special night of dining and all I can think about is visiting relatives as a kid with my parents. Uncle Cliff worked for the railroad and had long hauls out then several days off in a row, devoting his time to cooking while Aunt Sophie ran her hair salon. I recall so many times where we would arrive to the intense aroma of roasting beef, that dripping fat beckoning for you to steal a burnt bit off the edge, that I have always connected the smell of good beef with Uncle Cliff. Wow.
We entered the long narrow bar and were greeted by several young men in two-tone tuxedo jackets, like a down and out lounge band look but cool. They asked if we’d like to relax at the bar prior to taking our table. Our eyes caught a garden lounge with a full on decked-to-the-nines outdoor kitchen and I must have made some serious sad baby clown eyes because the guy immediately asked if we wanted to visit the kitchen. Walking out into the darkness, there was a tribal feeling as we came upon a group of young men tending to fire and meat over a gigantic wood fired grill, a monstrous clay beehive oven and a circular metal teepee shaped implement called a fire dome that was 3 metres across and 4 metres tall, a roaring fire encased in a metal ring then racks and hooks and shelves up to the tip of this “grill” so that all manner of food could be cooked on surface or hung over open coal. Crazy. The chefs were not yet into the full swing of service, it was only 9:30 p.m. after all, so we chatted, took pictures and they played show and tell with the cooking equipment. These were macho guys, two of them looked like assassins and they were tough as nails. Giving the lead cook a jovial back slap in a sort of “hey, I ‘m part of your team”, it was like slapping a stone wall.
We made our way in to the dining room, an elegant, tall ceiling, old place with high backed white and black chairs. There are signs of skilled work everywhere, the bread station in the main path rather than being hidden in a back hall, the hot kitchen in display behind glass wall (it used to be the laboratory for the original winery). We settled in, were poured sparking water and selected a Vina Cobos Single Vineyard Malbec, one that we tasted just yesterday from the phone book of a wine list. Nearly all of the wines on the list are from within the province, a pretty clear sign of local purchasing philosophy. I did recognize several of the labels and even without that, the pricing was very fair, with many of the offerings in what I would call the “very affordable” category. I like this; what I don’t like is when wine lists have a couple of affordable wines then stack the deck with over the top expensive ones, I mean, really. However, I also prepared myself for what might seem like an overwhelming list – in all fairness, when you go to a serious restaurant staffed with hyper excited professionals all keen on doing a great job, don’t expect a wine list like you will find at TGIFridays. I did five minutes of homework and was prepared.
Lucky for us, the chef (Dan Alterman) came out to greet us and even though we had already spotted a number of items on the menu that intrigued us, he offered to take care of the selections. Go for it, I recall muttering before the frenzy began.
Breads and eggplant pickles arrived and the wine appeared – so delicious, deep and rich, it appeared in the middle of the pack in yesterday’s tasting but on its own a real star. The first course was a flight of salads; 1)Arugula with Goat’s Cheese, Fresh Figs, and Lemon Confit 2) Zucchini Ribbons in Olive Oil with Mint, Almonds and Grated Parmesan 3) Salt Roasted and Seared Pear with Burrata, Greens and Bacon – each so very simple yet complex. The humble zucchini brought to life with great accompaniments – sophisticated cooking but so approachable and familiar. The middle course was a double whammy with Cured and Smoked Trout with Radish and Greens plus a Roasted Octopus with Crisp Roasted Potatoes and Aioli, both wildly fresh and tasty. The octopus so tender against the outrageously crunch potato and wasabi-like numb of great garlic in the aioli. Dan explained that the fresh trout was cured like Gravlax for just two hours then slow smoked on the Fire Dome. Nice work.
At this point we were started to get a little full and then the Argentinian Meat Parade marched over to our table. Just a note: when in this lovely country, the steak portions are generally twice as big as what you might expect, the beef fantastic and the cooking very good, just remember. The wait staff air lifted in a wooden board with a Char Grilled Beef Rib Eye with Chimichurri, Domino (Hasselback meets Fondant) Potatoes, and Greens then next to that Clay Oven Braised Rabbit with Roast Pear, Bacon, Endive and Tomato. Two serious meat dishes. Let me catch my breath. The rabbit falling off the bone and in place of a sauce, the roast pear for sweet, endive for bitter, bacon for salty and tomato for sour accompaniments. It is an essay on food matching on a plate. And of course the magnificent beef steak. Earlier we saw the Asador men gently bringing the whole rib eye roasts up to near rare on the Dome in a cloud of wood smoke, then cut into steaks for searing on the grill. Crispy salty crust and rosy fleshy interior, this was a steak to reackon with, mineral, peppery flavours, perfect with our Malbec.
We finished off with a super rich Dulce de Lece Flan with Whipped Cream, just that, no conflicting flavours, just the classic custard with rich toffee character.
Feeling extremely satisfied, we talked about top tastes and discussed how each of us silently feared that we might be disappointed with an experience which we had built up in our imagination prior to arriving. What is really outstanding about 1884 is that there really is an aspect of theatre due to the setting and extreme efforts put forward by the staff, especially the kitchen. Think about it, you could easily cook steaks and roasts in an oven in the kitchen rather than staffing an entire outdoor second kitchen working under less than modern conditions. They certainly do not do things the easy way. But this is what makes it wonderful. And the staff did not for a moment give us that “we are way the hell cooler than you, just in case you’re paying attention” attitude that so many places have. There is a thread of humble professionalism throughout the operation. The food is true cooking, using excellent produce and avoiding silly technique or outlandish ego-driven presentation. Again, this is cooking mellowed by maturity and emotional IQ. For the chef de cuisine Dan to be able to manage a diverse group and keep the standards set by Francis Mallman, this also is a sign of dedication. A young chef has so many forces compelling her or him to be innovative, always inventing and changing, that it is hard to reign it in and deliver simple, direct cooking.
Anna and I were treated to a tour of the wine cellar, a former concrete fermenter down a story, an ancient smelling vault of Malbec and others. A wonderful night to remember, we lit our chariot, er, ah got in the cab and went back to the hotel, content, full, and me, just a little sweaty.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.