Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Gourmet Food and Wine Expo keeps me in good spirits

I've attended each edition of the Toronto Festival of Beer over the past 17 years, but made it to my first Gourmet Food & Wine Expo on the weekend. I think it could be the beginning of a new tradition.

Upon arriving at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre's South Building on Saturday evening, we were informed that there could be a two-hour wait to get in. But with my media pass and my three friends' VIP tickets, we were able to walk right in. Paying the $40 for the VIP ticket as opposed to $20 for the regular pass may not be a bad idea next year for folks like me who hate standing in line.

I was told that 40 one-dollar sampling tickets was the average purchase, so that's what I bought to make sure that my wine glass was never empty for long. I'm much more of a beer snob than a wine connoisseur, and I found one that I'd never had before along with Australia's ever-reliable Cooper's Sparkling Ale and Germany's Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. The new one, to me at least, was England's Badger Golden Champion Ale. A hint of elderflower in the bouquet and a refreshing finish made it a worthwhile, if far from essential, discovery.

The place was packed and the clientele seemed to be skewed a bit younger than I might have expected, but perhaps it was just people getting a good start to their Saturday nights before hitting clubs after the expo closed at 10 p.m. I used it for that purpose, too, as we caught a great show by Boston garage rock band The Lyres at the Horseshoe Tavern at midnight.

I much prefer whites over reds, and Rieslings and sparkling wines are my favourites, so that's what I tried to focus on for the most part. The Alsace Riesling Willm Reserve was my favourite of those.

I quite enjoyed the Bassano Hard Sodas — a combination of vodka, spring water and natural flavours inspired by classic Italian sodas. Both the Lemon Sanguinelli and Raspberry Pomelo would appeal to those who aren't big drinkers and like some sweetness to go along with a 5.5 per cent alcohol content.

Some booths were offering spirits, so I was obliged to try a few. Khorytsa offered both a regular and a pepper vodka. The former was okay and the latter definitely had a spicy bite that seemed like it would go well in a Caesar.

I'd been intrigued by the bottle and label of The Kraken Black Spiced Rum when I'd seen it in stores, but had never tasted it. The Kraken was released and I got molasses and dark chocolate flavours from it, but I wasn't sold on this complex 47-per cent alcohol rum. A shot of Fireball cinnamon whiskey went down well, however, as it always does.

The crawfish etouffee from the Louisiana booth hit the spot and made me long for New Orleans, even though I'd just been there a week earlier.

I had more than half my tickets left at closing time, but luckily I had no major plans for Sunday afternoon and returned for another visit. There were fewer people, which made it more relaxed and easier to talk to the representatives at each booth about their product.

I found three new to me beers that I'd overlooked on Saturday. The Amsterdam 416 Urban Wheat has 4.16 per cent alcohol and came out this summer to mark the brewery's 25th anniversary. It lacked the fruit bouquet and flavours of my favourite wheat beers, and I have no need to drink it again. Slightly better, but unexceptional, was Theresianer — an  amber Viennese lager brewed in Italy. The best of the bunch was Beau's Nightmarzen, a dark amber fall seasonal from the organic Ontario brewery.

I was pleased with the light and fruity Riesling Moscato, Black Slate Riesling and 20 Bees Riesling, as well as the 6.5-per cent Sundance Pink Lemonade wine beverage that tasted more of grapefruit than anything else.

I balanced that with more of the hard stuff, starting with a lovely Caipirinha cocktail made with Leblon cachaca. A mixture of 360 Double Chocolate Vodka and Dooley's Toffee Cream Liqueur was certainly chocolatey — and good. Mathilde Creme Liqueur is an 18-per cent alcohol beverage from France that smells and tastes of raspberry, but there's no creme to be found. Cherry Heering cherry brandy liqueur tastes better in a Singapore Sling than on its own.

I visited the Mount Gay distillery in Barbados in 2010 and, while the booth at the expo lacked the same appeal, I still enjoyed the spicy sorrel cocktail made with its Eclipse brand. El Dorado is a Demerara rum from Guyana and was okay, but I'll stick with my Old Sam, thank you.

I sampled free veal, a few different types of pears and a variety of hot sauces, and soothingly sweet Panama Jack's French Vanilla Cream helped cool my mouth off after those. I paid a buck for a tasty San Danielle prosciutto slider, but it wasn't until the show was closing at 6 p.m. and I still found myself with tickets that I really turned my attention towards food. The friendly woman from Royal Elephant set me up with lots of spring rolls and chicken wings for my walk home.

Lots of people had left their wine glasses behind, so I put six of them in my bag, and then was given almost 20 cans of Clamato juice as I made my exit. I put that to quick use by making a couple of Caesars to sip on while watching Sunday night football on my couch.