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Galicia in Spain’s northwestern corner is so dramatically different from any other part of the Iberian Peninsula, it can be hard to imagine it belongs to the Spain of popular imagination, characterized by intense heat, smoldering flamenco dancers and blockbuster red wines.
This is Atlantic Spain, with the famed pilgrimage center of Santiago de Compostela at its heart, a land of scudding clouds, emerald-green pastures grazed by some of the country’s finest beef cattle, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines.
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Wines from here are principally white, with the racy, zesty Albariño variety in pole position, closely followed by peachy Treixadura and full-bodied, mouth-filling Godello. Many vines are more than 50 years old, plants which — thankfully — no one thought to tear out when more fashionable “international varieties” began to make inroads into Galicia. Some red wine is also made from local specialties, with names such as Caiño, Brancellao and Sousón.
In the coastal Rías Baixas region that stretches all along the western edge of Galicia, the climate is cool and humid. Rain falls heavily and persistently, and vines are trained high on pergolas suspended between chunky, head-high granite posts, as if gathering up their skirts to keep them out of the water and the mud. This is Albariño country par excellence — at least 95 percent of vines planted here belong to this now-voguish variety.
Inland in the Ribeiro region, it’s a different story. Here, where rainfall is half that of the coastal regions, midday summer temperatures routinely reach into the 100s, with a marked difference between midday and nighttime temperatures, an important element in the production of quality white wines. Vines are stacked on steep, well-drained terraces that rise above the three rivers that traverse the region (Avia, Miño and Arnoia) and equipped with drip-irrigation systems to combat water stress.
The region’s trump cards, according to Pablo Vidal, technical director of DO Ribeiro, include a range of distinctive grape varieties, great granite-rich terroirs and a climate that is significantly less humid than the coastal region. Ribeiro has been on a roll since the 1990s, when a number of local visionaries determined to resurrect the area’s long-established but lost reputation for fine wine and set about reclaiming terraces, restoring dry-stone walls and vineyards and planting new vines.
Here are seven estates in Galicia whose wines are worth seeking out. Some are in the cooler coastal region of DO Rías Baixas, others are inland in DO Ribeiro. Check for your nearest supplier of wines from Galicia.
Casal de Armán
Casal de Armán is a 20-hectare (50-acre) estate in the heart of Ribeiro, founded 16 years ago by four brothers — José, Javier, Jorge and Juan — of the González Vázquez family. The eminently quaffable, entry-level Casal de Armán white (“our visiting card,” says José) is made mainly from Treixadura with a dash of both Godello and Albariño, while Finca Os Loureiros, their prize-winning, single-vineyard white, features the straw-gold, peachy Treixadura in starring role and is aged in French barriques.
Finca Viñoa is an impressive new venture with vineyards set high above the River Avia, which flows south through Ribeiro and into the Miño, which forms the border between Spain and Portugal. Rows of impressive terraces have been carved out of the granite hillside, which is streaked with seams of schist. Here they have planted Ribeiro’s four signature grapes, Treixadura, Albariño, Godello and Loureira, which go to make up Finca Viñoa’s single, satisfying white blend, recently tipped by Financial Times wine critic Jancis Robinson as one of her top festive white wines for the holidays.
Coto de Gomariz
Also in Ribeiro is Coto de Gomariz, an impressive 28-hectare (62-acre) estate whose owners have devoted the past 30 years to resurrecting historic sites, acquiring new plots and restoring swathes of terracing. Lately they have adopted some biodynamic practices — a tough call in Galicia’s predominantly cool, damp climate. Surprisingly (because Galicia is known for its white wines), reds traditionally outnumbered whites in Ribeiro. The estate is now flying the red flag once more with a super range of new-wave, Atlantic red blends, alongside its impressive collection of full-bodied whites.
Quinta de Couselo
Quinta de Couselo winery is housed in a gorgeous stone pazo, or manor house, at the southernmost end of the Rías Baixas, watched over by a pair of parasol pines, which are featured on its elegant labels. They make two alluring, aromatic white blends, Quinta de Couselo (winner of an award for the best white wine in Galicia in 2014) and Turonia, in which Albariño’s angularity is fleshed out by discreet amounts of Loureira and Treixadura.
Zárate is a family-owned bodega in the small seaside town of Cambados, self-styled capital of Albariño and home to the Festa do Albariño, a lively street party held annually the first Sunday in August in honor of its now famous local grape. The entry-level Albariño is a pure delight, while the single-vineyard El Palomar, grown on ungrafted centenarian vines and trained in traditional style along pergolas supported by granite posts, has greater complexity and elegance.
Pazo Baión is a magnificent 30-hectare (75-acre) estate just south of Santiago, whose origins go back to the 16th century. After a succession of owners, including most recently an Argentine drug baron operating off Galicia’s coast, it was confiscated by the Spanish government and sold at auction to the Condes de Albarei group. Investment in the property has been impressive and includes renovation of the vineyards that surround the house, installation of spanking-new cellars and a superb, architect-designed tasting cellar. “New wine in an old setting” is the device of manager Xavier Zas. They make a single, fragrant, fleshy Albariño with wonderful mouthfeel from its six months spent on the lees.
Pazo Señorans is one of Galicia’s most immaculate properties, complete with its own superb hórreo (granary), a private chapel and cypress trees, all three of which are necessary components for a property to qualify as a proper pazo. Owners Marisol Bueno and Javier Mareque and their four children together run the 21-hectare (52-acre) estate, once a kiwi plantation and now a noted center of Albariño excellence. Choose between the entry-level Pazo Señorans (lovely rose petal nose, good structure) and the Selección de Añada or vintage selection, a special cuvee from selected grapes (mineral, spicy and long-lasting).
Main photo: Galicia on Spain’s Atlantic coast is a land of scudding clouds, rocky shores lashed by furious waves and seafood-rich estuaries fringed with vines. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
If you’ve been almost anywhere in Europe this summer, you’ve probably had moments of cowering inside, shutters closed, windows open, fans on. (We don’t do air conditioning hereabouts, at least not in our homes.)
In France, train tracks have buckled and tarmac has melted in temperatures that have topped 107 F. In England, during Wimbledon, local tennis hero Andy Murray battled it out on Centre Court with Mikhail Kukushkin in 105-degree temperatures as ball boys dropped like ninepins in the heat. Bonn, Germany, was one recent day hotter than Cairo, Istanbul, Phoenix and Miami.
With this kind of weather, the idea of hot food is a serious turnoff. Cool is where it’s at. And you can’t get much cooler than the following flowery ice bowl. It takes a little time and attention to make, as it must be frozen in several stages. However, the result is startlingly gorgeous, especially when filled with fresh summer fruit or sundry scoops of ice cream or sorbet.
Selecting your bowls
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First, select your bowls. You’ll need two: one bigger than the other, so the smaller one will sit inside the larger. The ones I’ve used here are about 8 inches and 10 inches in diameter (20 centimeters and 25 centimeters).
If you have two metal bowls, things will go even faster, but this combo of a ceramic mixing bowl with a smaller metal one works just fine. The point is their difference in size: You’ll be filling the space between the two with water and flowers, and the space must be sufficient to make thick ice walls for your ice bowl.
Also, make sure you have space in the freezer for your two bowls sitting one inside the other. (A cue to use up all that produce frozen last summer?)
Choosing your flowers
Next go out and pick (or buy) some flowers — from your garden or terrace if you have one, or even wild ones, which give a graceful, homey touch.
The flowers should not be too big (a maximum of 1 inch across), and you’ll want to use a good mix of colors. Geraniums work beautifully, either the predominantly red and purple Pelargonium/window-box varieties or the blue or pink perennial ones. Lavender is great, as is the deep egg-yolk yellow St. John’s wort, aka Hypericum. A few rose petals won’t go amiss, and if you have some lacy, lime-green flowers of Alchemilla mollis, throw in a few of those too. Basically any small colorful flower or petal will do.
Starting your ice bowl
Pour about 1 1/2 inches (3 centimeters to 4 centimeters) of water in the bottom of the larger bowl and place a few flowers in the water. They will float around a bit, so don’t fret too much about placing them neatly and symmetrically; they will sort themselves out. In any case, this layer will be the base, so the flowers will be barely visible once you’ve filled your ice bowl. Put the bowl into the freezer and leave until solidly frozen.
Creating the bowl shape
Once the base is frozen, remove the bowl from the freezer and place the smaller bowl on top. It should sit with its rim slightly above the outer bowl, because it’s sitting on the frozen base. Make sure the smaller bowl is centered, and place a can of something heavy in it so it doesn’t float when you add more water.
Add about 1 1/2 inches of water and drop some flowers between the two bowls, poking them down a bit into the water. Freeze again. Repeat this procedure once or twice more until the water is up to the rim of the outer bowl.
The point of doing this bit by bit is to allow each layer of water and flowers to freeze firmly each time; if you poured it all in at once, all the flowers would bob up to the top, which would spoil the effect.
Once you’ve completed the process, keep the ice bowl in the freezer until needed.
Removing the ice bowl
Finally comes the tricky part — you need to get your creation out from between the two bowls. The first step is to remove the small bowl (after you’ve removed that can of something heavy). Pour some hot water (tap-hot is enough) into the smaller bowl and leave for a few moments, just long enough so you can lift it out. Now fill a sink with hot water and lower the big bowl into it. Keep testing until the ice bowl has melted enough that it’s freed itself from the sides of the bowl.
Once the ice bowl has been freed, lift it out and place on a napkin-lined tray or plate (so it doesn’t slide and/or leak).
Now you can fill it with whatever suits your fancy: a mixture of soft summer fruits or a colorful selection of ice cream and/or sorbet, for example.
Main photo: A flower ice bowl filled with summer fruit and elderflowe
Malbec is to Argentina as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco: impossible to imagine one without the other. Yet this deeply colored, exuberant purple grape that is automatically associated with Argentina came originally from France. Known as Cot in its original homeland, Cahors, where it continues to play a leading in the wines of that region, it was brought over by French agronomist Michel Pouget in 1852.
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But it’s in the vineyards all along the eastern edge of the Andes that the Malbec vine has really found its feet. There are now more than 30,000 hectares (76,000 acres) planted throughout Argentina — six times as much as in its homeland.
In its adopted home, the grape is celebrated for its ability to make huge quantities of juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wine at a fair price — perfect for the upcoming barbecue season. But there’s a new wave of Malbecs that merit more than the obligatory char-grilled steak.
On a recent visit to Mendoza and Salta, two of the country’s most significant wine regions, I found (aside from a warm welcome and some gorgeous wines) a buzz of excitement, plenty of experimentation and a firm belief in what has become Argentina’s signature red wine grape.
Per Se Vines
Edy del Popolo’s microwinery Per Se Vines has just 1.5 hectares (barely 4 acres) of vineyards in Gualtallary, a top appellation in the Valle de Uco south of Mendoza, and the first harvest was in 2012. Plantings are principally Malbec with a little Cabernet Franc, and wines combine the two in varying proportions.
“I like non-interventionist viticulture” is how del Popolo explains his wine-making philosophy. “I want the place to express itself without my fingerprint showing.”
Per Se Jubileus (mainly Malbec “with a few bunches of Cabernet Franc thrown in”) is a joyous wine with good, ripe tannins, while La Craie (a Malbec-Cab Franc blend) is restrained elegance overlaid with subtle hints of orange and lemon zest.
Fincas y Bodegas Montechez is another new venture in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco but on quite a different scale with 100 hectares (250 acres). In the prime appellation of Altamira, serried ranks of newly planted vines — every row drip-irrigated and draped in anti-hail netting — stretch as far as the eye can see, framed by the snowcapped Andes.
The aptly named Vivo is a bright, lively Malbec, briefly aged in used French and American oak barrels and designed for early drinking. Reserva is discreet and elegant after a slightly longer spell in used barrels, while Limited Edition, with 16 months in all French oak (new and used), is the aristocrat, dark and brooding and promising a long and distinguished life.
The Lagarde estate in Luján de Cuyo comprises about 245 hectares (619 acres), including a parcel of 100-year-old Malbec vines. Founded in 1897 and one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, it nonetheless looks resolutely forward — “Honoring the past, imagining the future” is the house motto, explained Sofia Pescarmona, who runs the estate jointly with her sister, Lucila.
They were the first in Argentina to introduce Viognier, the aromatic Rhone white. Their house pink, 50 percent Malbec and 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a delight with all the fruit and fragrance that’s missing from many a rosé. On the Malbec front, there’s a whole slew of juicy 100 percent varietals (Primeras Viñas, Guarda, Lagarde and Altas Cumbres ). For a special occasion, look for the super-elegant blend Henry Gran Guarda, a very Bordelais mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
Bodega Colomé is hidden away up a bone-shaking track in a remote and spectacularly beautiful valley in the northwestern province of Salta, close to the Bolivian border. Wine growing here, at 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level in desert-like conditions with an annual rainfall of barely 120 millimeters (4 inches), is not for the fainthearted.
Established in 1831 and now owned by Hess Family Wine Estates, Colomé produces several whites, including Salta’s signature wine Torrontés and three Malbecs: Estate, a Malbec-rich wine with a small proportion of other red varieties; Auténtico, 100 percent Malbec, unoaked and unfiltered with rich red fruit flavors; and Reserva, made with fruit from vines aged between 60 and 150 years, with a two-year spell in new French oak barrels and one more in bottle.
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya is a boutique winery in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, a joint venture between the Etchart family and French winemaker Michel Rolland. The estate’s 20 hectares (50 acres) used to be planted largely with Torrontés, the finely aromatic white grape that thrives in the rarefied altitudes of the northwest. Nowadays Malbec rules, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Tannat.
Ranked by Wine Advocate as one of Argentina’s top five wineries (Parker points abound here), they make three impressive reds in which the Rolland fingerprint is clearly visible: opulent and mouth-filling Malbec Yacochuya has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix and is aged in new oak; San Pedro de Yacochuya is a dense and delicious 100 percent Malbec; and the impressive Yacochuya made from 60-year-old Malbec vines is one to cellar.
José Louis Mounier, one of Salta’s most celebrated winemakers with an impressive track record working for many of the region’s top wineries, is responsible for wine making at Bodega Tukma in Tolombón, south of Cafayate. The estate has about 25 hectares (62 acres) of vineyards scattered throughout the Calchaquí Valley, with red wine production centred on Tolombón.
The entry-level Malbec Reserva is an uncomplicated, fruit-forward Malbec that’s perfect with a plate of empanadas, while Gran Corte, a blend with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for which the grapes are rigorously selected and the wine aged for one year in new French oak, calls for your best piece of bife (steak).
Consult www.wine-searcher.com for worldwide availability and prices of all wines mentioned.
Main photo: Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
Why did a handful of British chefs invade the 2015 St. Moritz Gourmet Festival? It’s a nod to the very British pioneers who more than a century ago visited in winter and made the Swiss mountain town a popular cold-season tourist spot.
In September 1864, Johannes Badrutt, a hotelier in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, staged a neat publicity stunt. At the time, people on holiday — about 75% of them British — ventured to the Alps only during the summer months. In a bold initiative to change the established pattern and persuade them of the beauty of the mountains in winter, Badrutt made a promise to his departing British summer guests: If they returned in December and stayed until Easter, their stay in St. Mortiz would be free of charge, provided the winter experience matched their summer memories.
Toward the end of 1864, a handful of hardy British guests, motivated by the now-famous bet, set off on the long journey from London by horse and carriage across the English Channel and through France to Switzerland. From Chur in Switzerland’s Graubünden, the carriages got progressively smaller and more uncomfortable as the guests traveled ever higher, finally reaching St. Moritz via the winding Julierpass. Piled high on long sledges towed behind the carriages was everything they needed for their two- or three-month stay.
In the spring of 1865 the delighted caravan of guests returned to England, suntanned and singing the praises of St. Moritz in winter. Winter tourism in the Alps was launched.
In recognition of Badrutt’s initiative, and of the key part Brits played in developing winter tourism in the Engadine valley of southern Switzerland, this year’s St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, held annually at the end of January, took on British colors. Just how much the British food scene has changed in the past 20 years — not to mention since that winter of 1864 when the first British guests stayed in St. Moritz — became apparent over the course of the festival, during which a team of nine of Britain’s leading chefs returned in the footsteps of those first British winter tourists. Their job was to showcase the best of what the British have to offer in a series of spectacular dinners, kitchen parties and gala events.
Food festivals are two a penny nowadays. What set this one apart was not just the quality of the cooking but also the surprise element. “Plenty of people still think that British food is just fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding,” said Jean-Jacques Bauer, assistant manager at the Hotel Kulm, where the whole story began and where the final gala dinner took place, with all nine chefs in attendance. “But, as we saw at this year’s festival, it offers so much more than this.” During the week, he said, “the chefs took us on a culinary journey and opened our eyes to the outstanding quality of contemporary British food.”
Chefs highlight multicultural influences in British cuisine
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The crack team of chefs was selected first and foremost because each is at the top of their game — most have Michelin stars. Some work in London, others out in the country. More importantly, the festival organizers had understood well what distinguishes the best modern British food: not just superb local ingredients and specialties used with skill and flair, but also the many international and multicultural influences at work, both contemporary and from the country’s colonial past. “Great Britain is a melting pot,” Bauer said. “And so, too, is its food … which has brought together tastes from all over the world within just one country. This is British cuisine today.”
Each chef was assigned to one of St. Moritz’s five-star hotels, where they worked in tandem with the home team, preparing menus with their own personal stamp. Yorkshire-born Jason Atherton boasts a stableful of trendsetting London restaurants (Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House) with outposts in Asia, and further operations about to open in Dubai, Sydney and New York. Guests at the Schweizerhof were treated to what he describes as “real food based on British traditions,” along the lines of Cornish sea bass with a kombu glaze and braised ox cheeks sourced from the estates of the Duke of Buccleuch.
Angela Hartnett, whose home kitchen is Murano in London’s Mayfair, brought a British-Italian perspective to diners at the Carlton with her brand of seasonal, pared down cucina Italiana, which included a virginal buttermilk panna cotta with grapes and candied oranges. Across the lake at the Waldhaus in Sils-Maria, Nathan Outlaw managed to bring a breath of sea air from St. Enodoc in deepest Cornwall all the way up to the Swiss mountains with his seafood-rich menu, including succulent turbot with lobster sauce and seaweed.
And while all the chefs at this year’s festival are currently working in the U.K., not all were born there, yet another reflection of the international flavor of British food today. Take French native Claude Bosi, for example, who found his way to London from his home town of Lyon, France, via Ludlow in Shropshire and now officiates at the double-starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. At Badrutt’s Palace his highly creative and personalized version of French cuisine included a dramatic dish of venison with quince and Sharon fruit, while Atul Kochhar, born in India, educated in Britain and now a star chef with several London restaurants to his name (plus one in Dublin and another in Madrid), dazzled palates at the Kulm with slivers of duck breast cured with Indian spices (“my charcuterie, Indian-style”), a fragrant fish curry and a delicate dessert based on yogurt and dulce de leche.
“People used to poke fun at Britain on the culinary front,” said Atherton, adding ruefully, “If there’d been an Olympics for food, we’d have been at the bottom!”
But a week in the mountains of St. Moritz was enough to show that British chefs are now right up there at the summit.
Main photo: Guest and resident chefs at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2015. Credit: Andy Mettler
“To make ice wine, you need a thick skin,” Dave Gimbel says with a ghost of a smile.
Gimbel, who is representing Vineland Estates at Canada’s annual Niagara Icewine Festival, is not talking about the resilience required of any winemaker willing to embark on this demanding and highly risky enterprise — though that certainly helps. Instead, he is referring to the grape variety best equipped to withstand the intense cold needed to make this singular, highly concentrated, intensely sweet wine.
Producing ice wine a risky endeavor
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Vidal, a hybrid vine bred specially for icy conditions, is ideal, Gimbel explains. Thanks to their thick skins, the grapes borne by this hardy variety can survive intact on the vine right through to January or February, when midwinter temperatures in the Niagara vineyards dip to the regulation minus 8 degrees C (17.6 degrees F) for several consecutive days and nights. The risks — which include anything from rot to hungry birds — are outweighed by the potential rewards; ice wine is a premium product that sells at a premium price.
The practice of producing naturally sweet wine from frozen grapes originated in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein. Nowadays, perhaps due to the changing climate, both countries struggle to muster low enough winter temperatures for a reliable harvest. Canadian winemakers, on the other hand, can count every year on the kind of freezing conditions needed to make ice wine, and the country has long since overtaken Germany and Austria as the world’s most significant producer.
As with any wine, the story starts in the vineyards. The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights in the dead of night, when temperatures are at their lowest, picking the grapes and speeding them to the waiting presses out in the yard. Throughout the night, tiny quantities of juice are painstakingly squeezed from the whole berries, and the intensely aromatic juice is then left to ferment gently through to spring.
At Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, some grapes are still hanging on the vine when I visit in January, which enables me to experience harvesting firsthand. With numbed fingers, I pluck bunches of frostbitten fruit from beneath the nets — essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings — and drop them one by one into shallow crates. For the wine to be made, explains Debi Pratt, Inniskillin’s honorary ice wine ambassador, the outside temperature must hold steady at minus 8 C (better still, minus 10 C) for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little pinkish marbles.
Over the course of my three-day visit for the festival, I sip golden nectars made by several different Niagara wineries and from a whole range of grapes — the thick-skinned Vidal, of course, but also Riesling, the classic German and Austrian Eiswein grape, and even some made from Gewurztraminer. Truly exciting and distinctive are the ruby-red versions made with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some ice wines sparkle, but most are still; all are delectable.
The idea that both winemakers and chefs are keen to counter is that ice wine is strictly for dessert. There’s much talk of “the texture of the wine” (the mouthfeel is indeed remarkable and satisfying), its complex array of aromas and flavors and its intense natural sweetness balanced by rapier-sharp acidity, which equips it for most food challenges.
My first “aha!” moment comes at Inniskillin with the pairing of oysters Rockefeller and sparkling Vidal. “Those tiny bubbles lift the wine and delude you into thinking there’s less sweetness — perfect for oysters,” explains Bruce Nicholson, Inniskillin’s senior winemaker. Outside the winery, by a roaring fire, in-house chef Tim MacKiddie has prepared maple-glazed duck breast and portobello mushrooms on the barbecue smoker, wonderful with a lick of Cabernet Franc.
At Jackson-Triggs Winery I sample empanada-sized wraps of chicken in mole topped with tiny dice of crunchy rhubarb, another great match with Cabernet Franc, while over at Pilliteri Estates Winery they partner a pork belly taco and avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius Winery’s take on the sweet-spicy theme is beef chili with Vidal, whereas Kacaba Vineyards & Winery offers a singular taste of Gewurztraminer with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another rarity is Vineland Estates Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which they partner with cassoulet of braised short ribs with a blob of ice-wine-infused crème fraiche.
The final surprising — and deliciously democratic — combination consists of s’mores toasted on the embers of the roaring fire outside the winery, paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc ice wine. The only combo I draw the line at — though the opportunity does, fleetingly, present itself at a lively street festival where food trucks stand shoulder to shoulder with wine stands — is ice wine with Canada’s now infamous poutine, those rubbery cheese curds that squeak beneath your teeth, doused with brown gravy and served with fries. That would surely be heresy, requiring a very thick skin.
Zester Daily contributor Sue Style attended the Niagara Icewine Festival as a guest of Ontario Tourism.
Main photo: A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style
The British like to mock what they love best. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the irreverent names they give to favorite foods — think bubble and squeak (fried cabbage and potatoes), stargazy pie (a pie with sardines poking their heads out through the pastry), bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) or even (dare we mention) spotted dick (a steamed pudding made with dried fruit).
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My personal favorite is toad in the hole. This epic dish of sausages baked in batter — the same as used for Yorkshire puddings — is a kind of distant cousin of pigs in a blanket. The crucial difference is that the sausages, instead of being tightly swathed in a blanket of pastry, are reclining in a delicious duvet of batter, which billows up agreeably around them. A good toad (as it’s familiarly known) is perfect comfort food for the depths of winter.
The original from my childhood had only sausages, which from memory were a sickly pallid pink, suspiciously straight, very smoothly textured and terminally bland. For a properly tasty toad, I prefer a seriously meaty pork sausage, quite coarsely ground. I like to add bacon chunks too. You could think of it as a way to get the full English breakfast, but for brunch or supper and served with chutney and salad.
Here are a couple of hints to help you arrive at the perfect toad in the hole. First off, make the batter a little ahead — an hour is enough to allow the starch molecules in the flour to relax and absorb the milk and water, which gives a lighter result. Secondly, give the bacon and sausages a bit of a fry-up first so they take on a little color. You can do this in a skillet or in a roasting pan in the oven — the same one in which you will bake the dish. Thirdly, use a metal roasting pan, never a ceramic or glass dish, which is the surest way to a soggy toad. Finally, heat is of the essence. The oven and the roasting pan should be preheated, so that when you pour in the batter it makes a satisfying sizzle and starts to set lightly in the bottom, providing a base for the sausages and bacon to be embraced by the billowing batter.
Toad in the Hole
Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour to rest the batter
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Yield: Makes 8 servings
For the batter:
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) water
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) milk
4 ounces all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil
A pinch of salt
For the sausages and bacon:
10 ounces (300 grams) cured or smoked slab bacon
4 coarse-cut pork sausages, about 12 ounces (350 grams)
1. Place all the batter ingredients in a blender and blend till smooth. Scrape down the sides and blend again. Refrigerate the batter for about one hour.
2. Cut rind off the slab bacon and excise any gristly bits. Slice the bacon thickly and cut each slice in squares.
3. Cut the sausages in 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick slices.
4. Put the bacon in a frying pan and fry gently till the fat runs and the bacon begins to take a little color, turning the slices once. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and tip excess fat into a side dish.
5. Add the sausage slices to the pan and fry till lightly colored, turning them until evenly browned.
6. Pour about 1 tablespoon of reserved bacon fat into a roasting pan about 10 inches by 12 inches (25 centimeters by 30 centimeters).
7. Heat the oven to 425 F (220 C).
8. When the oven is good and hot, put the roasting pan inside to heat the bacon fat. Remove pan from the oven and roll the fat around to coat the bottom of the pan — adding a little more fat if necessary.
9. Pour in the batter, then add the fried bacon and sausages, distributing them evenly around the pan.
10. Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until the batter is a beautifully burnished brown and nicely risen. Serve with chutney and salad.
Main image: Toad in the hole. Credit: Sue Style