Monday, November 21, 2016

No going hungry or thirsty at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

You’d think that I’d eat a lot at an event called the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, but that hasn’t always been the case. I attend more for the wine, beer, ciders and spirits. The food, for me, is almost an afterthought.

Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought that there were more food exhibitors and more of a focus on food at this year’s event at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre than in recent years. So I paid a bit more attention to sampling edibles, while still getting my drink on, from Friday to Sunday.

I’ve walked by Entice Culinary Lounge on Toronto’s Queen Street West dozens of times without ever going in. But proprietor Ali K graciously offered me three of the things it offers in the restaurant that it also had available at its Gourmet Food & Wine Expo booth. The ravioli, Korean beef ribs and unique bread pudding in hot chocolate were all delicious.

Two companies were peddling jerky: Krave and Lorissa’s Kitchen. They each had four varieties available and, while I enjoyed them all, Krave Chili Lime Beef Jerky was my favourite, as it had the most bite of all of them.

That bite also gave the edge to Campbell’s Thai Tomato Coconut Soup, though I'd also have no problem serving its tomato basil and golden butternut squash flavours, which I also sampled.

Cool isn’t the word I’d apply to most of Cool Runnings’ sauces, but I tried almost all of them and most bring a satisfying amount of heat. Damien’s only had two sauces, one hotter than the other, but both were terrific. They would have gone well with the parmesan turkey meatballs I sampled.

I always have a jar of Matt & Steve’s Extreme Beans in my fridge, and now I know I also like their similarly flavoured asparagus and olive products — and I don’t even eat olives.

Casa Manila has treated me right at past Gourmet Food & Wine Expos, and did so again this year, as I closed both Friday and Sunday sessions at its booth. On night one a spring roll, tangy boneless chicken adobo and tomato garlic beef stew hit the spot. And on Sunday I was left satiated and satisfied with grilled chicken skewers, salad, rice and more chicken adobo. I accompanied both meals with a delicious calamansi mojito.

Speaking of cocktails, I had several of them on Sunday.

The worst was first. Social Lite comes in a can and has a full ginger and lime aroma, but those elements are much less pronounced in the flavour. It’s certainly light, with just 80 calories and a four-per cent alcohol content, but it’s much too watery and lacks the kick that both lime and ginger can provide.

Things improved considerably after that, starting with a simple Bombay Sapphire Gin and Fever-Tree Tonic. You can’t go wrong with those two ingredients.

Great Britain’s dry and non-citrusy Boodles Gin was the primary alcoholic ingredient in my next three cocktails, which were mixed and served by a lovely young woman from Invite Catering.

The Boodles Smash was made with 45.2-per cent alcohol content Boodles Gin, QCumber Water, Belvoir Elderflower Water, cucumber, lime and basil. It’s as cool as a cucumber and would make a great summer refresher.

The Boodles Mule was made with Boodles Gin, Kiju Apple Juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and a slice of lime, and then shaken and served over ice with an apple slice. The ginger beer comes through loud and clear in the nose and flavour, but the apple adds a distinctive touch and mellows things out a bit.

The Boodles Blossom was made with Boodles Gin, Kiju Mango Passionfruit Juice, Kiju Lemonade, iced tea and fresh raspberries that were shaken and served over ice with a bruised mint leaf. The raspberries and iced tea provided the strongest flavours in this easy-drinking translucent pink cocktail.

Jeremy Parsons mixed my next two drinks with 1800 Tequila.

The Winter Sun Margarita was made with 1800 Tequila, Kiju Cranberry, Pomegranate and Blueberry Juice, Kiju Mango Orange Juice foam, and a lime slice, shaken and served neat. While I’m a traditionalist when it comes to margaritas and prefer the original lime juice-based version, this was a fun alternative.

I preferred 1800 Punch, which was made with 1800 Tequila, Kiju Pomegranate Cherry Juice, Fever-Tree Ginger Beer and an orange slice that was shaken and served over ice. It’s surprisingly mellow, considering the tequila and ginger beer combination, but it’s beautiful.

Circa Lemon Ginger was made with Ciroc Ultra-Premium Vodka, lemonade and ginger beer, and then garnished with mint and lemon. The ginger beer cuts through and makes this sparkle.

The Moksha Indian Bistro booth was out of its chicken when I arrived shortly before closing time on Sunday, but the Niagara Falls restaurant more than made up for my disappointment with that with its cocktails, including the excellent Moksha Ginger Sour made with Jagermeister and ginger. I also tried a concoction made with rum and tamarind. It made me smile.

I discovered Tito’s Vodka in Austin, Texas several years ago and have drank it on occasion ever since. At the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, I was given a souvenir Tito’s glass for a drink that mixed the vodka with cranberry juice and lemonade. I wasn’t disappointed.

White wine fever at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

“White Line Fever” is one of my favourite Motorhead songs, but I was overcome with white wine fever at Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre over the weekend. After focusing on beers on Friday, trying a variety of white wines was at the top of my agenda on Saturday and Sunday at the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.

There were a few booths specializing in New Zealand wines, and a high percentage of them were Sauvignon Blancs. The bright and fruity yet dry style is made in different parts of New Zealand’s Marlborough wine-growing region, some areas of which produce a more grassy flavour. I’m more of a fruit-forward guy and preferred those.

My favourites were Villa Maria Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2016 and Villa Maria Private Bin Lightly Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. I’d rank Babich Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Peter Yealands Sauvignon Blanc, Stoneleigh Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Stoneleigh Latitude Sauvignon Blanc, Nobilo Icon Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, Nobilo Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and the Maori-made Te Pa slightly behind them but still worthy of recommendation.

Joiy, which just arrived from New Zealand in boxes containing four 250-millilitre bottles, was a pleasant surprise: a sparkling and aromatic wine made with no added sugar, concentrates or flavours that would work well for the holiday season.

I was also very fond of the extra dry White Cliff Sauvignon Blanc 2015 from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay region on the north island.

I spent time at a few California booths and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, what impressed me most was the Fetzer Gewurztraminer from Monterrey. The style is fairly uncommon for California and this one was sweeter than what I generally prefer in a wine, but its bold floral aroma, rich full-bodied fruit flavour (with a hint of pineapple) and oily finish won me over.

The organic Fonterra Chardonnay from further north toward the Oregon border had pleasant green apple, pear and citrus flavours and tied for second on my list of favourite California wines from the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo along with the gentler and earthier Chloe Chardonnay.

I enjoyed Italy’s Ruffino Prosecco, an extra dry and very bubbly sparkling wine with peach and apple aroma and flavour profiles.

Calmel & Joseph Villa Blanche Chardonnay 2015 was the only French wine I had, and the extra dry medium-bodied wine with apple, peach, melon and citrus elements didn’t disappoint.

I didn’t get around to trying as many Rieslings as I normally would at this year’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, and only one from where the style is best known: Germany. The light and easy Funf Riesling lived up to its fun name with its peach and apricot bouquet, citrus flavour and clean finish.

Closer to home, I became a fan of the bold, refreshing and off-dry Rosewood Sussreserve Riesling from Beamsville, Ont. The Rosewood Legacy apple and honey mead was interesting, but a bit too sweet for me.

Port Dover, Ont. is the home of two cheekily named brands, Frisky Beaver and Smoke & Gamble. Frisky Beaver Sparkling was off dry but wit some sweetness and would be my first choice over Frisky Beaver Frisky White Riesling, Smoke & Gamble Chardonnay and the only rose I tried over the weekend, Frisky Beaver Blushing Beaver.

The other Ontario wine I sampled was Fielding Estate Winery’s Long Weekend Pinot Grigio Chardonnay, an enjoyable casual wine with a robustly fruity aroma and flavour.

Perhaps the least favourite wines I sampled were from Greece: Santorini Assyrtiko; and a Sauvignon Blanc called 2014 Thalia White.

And finally, thank you to the lovely couple from Cambridge, Ont. who gave me three sampling tickets as they celebrated their anniversary on Saturday. And also to my New Zealand wine-drinking buddies Natasha and Louise, who gave me four tickets but then didn’t show up at The Cadillac Lounge afterward like they said they would.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Beer night at Gourmet Food & Wine Expo

Toronto’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo seemed smaller this year, but there were still a couple dozen beers and ciders that I hadn’t tried before (as well as a few cocktails and wines) that were available to sample on Friday night.

Four beers stood out from the rest.

Smuttynose Brewing Finest Kind IPA from New Hampshire is made in a LEED Gold-certified brewery, but it’s not just its facility that’s impressive. The 6.9-per cent alcohol ale pours a slightly cloudy gold with little head and a pleasant hop aroma. It stands at a 75 IBU on the bitterness scale but, despite this, the taste is crisp, clean and well-balanced and isn’t excessively bitter. It has an excellent and surprisingly easy finish.

Beau’s Collabrewnaut Espresso Pilsner was perhaps the most unique beer I tried. I’ve had espresso porters and stouts before but had never tried it in a pilsner. It works wonderfully. It’s very finely filtered so the coffee bean darkness doesn’t infuse the five per cent beer, but the flavour certainly does.

Beau’s Polaris Pale Ale was made for the Polaris Music Prize gala and, since I didn’t attend this year, the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo presented my first opportunity to try this five-per cent alcohol beer that’s brewed with spruce tips. It’s rich gold, pours with little head and has a 32 IBU. There’s not a lot of spruce in the nose but it comes through in the flavour. The spiciness of the spruce gives it a bit of bite almost like ginger, making Polaris a bit reminiscent of a ginger beer.

I didn’t expect a lot from Moosehead Radler, but I was happily surprised by it. It’s a pale and slightly cloudy gold and, at four per cent, has a bit more of an alcoholic kick than many radlers. I’m on medication where I’m not supposed to eat grapefruit or drink grapefruit juice, so I couldn’t have many of these for that reason, but they’re certainly refreshing enough that I’d like to on a hot summer day.

There were three other beers just a notch below these.

Railway City Express India Session Lager is a dry-hopped, 4.8-per cent, 18 IBU beer made with Galaxy, Mosaic and Cascade hops at the St. Thomas, Ont. brewery. It’s light gold with  a beautiful hop and pine aroma and a well-balanced flavour.

Railway City Double Dead Elephant Imperial IPA is a 7.5-per cent alcohol beer that’s dark gold and pours with a big white head. It has a gentler aroma and flavour than I expected, as the high alcohol content and bitterness expressed in its 90 IBU rating aren’t overpowering. It finishes very nicely.

I’m a wimp when it comes to sour Berliner Weisse beers, but Nickel Brook Raspberry Uber may be my favourite of the style since it’s not overly sour and isn’t that much different from some raspberry-flavoured beers I’ve had.

There were three beers I’d put in the next tier.

Charlie Wells Dry Hopped Lager from the United Kingdom just arrived in Ontario and the 4.7-per cent alcohol beer has more body than a lot of lagers. It’s gold, has a small head and is made with two types of malt and four different hops. It’s an easy-drinking, refreshing beer with a smooth finish and is best suited for summer.

Nickel Brook Equilibrium ESB is a 5.5-per cent, 43 IBU beer that pours dark gold with a small head. You can taste the complex blend of hops and malts, but it’s hoppier than many extra special bitter beers I’ve had — which is a plus for my palate.

Nickel Brook Cucumber Lime Gose is cloudy gold and had no head. The cucumber is wonderfully evident in the aroma and, while you can detect the lime as well, it comes through more in the flavour and gives the beer a slightly sour taste. I don’t drink a lot of goses because they tend to be too sour for me, but that’s not the case with this one.

There were seven beers I’d rate a step down from those.

Wellington Kickin’ Back is a dark gold, dry-hopped session ale with a somewhat floral bouquet. At 48 IBU, it may be the Guelph, Ont. brewery’s most hop-forward beer. The 4.8-per cent alcohol ale is dry on the first sip and stays that way through the finish.

Smuttynose Brewing Robust Porter is very dark brown with a tiny head. The 6.6-per cent alcohol beer isn’t as robust as a stout but it has the dark chocolate bitterness of some of them. I preferred the initial introduction over the finish.

Badger Fursty Ferret is from the United Kingdom, where it’s apparently the top-selling craft-bottled ale. It’s a light golden brown and has a bouquet of malt and orange. Raisin comes through with the malt in the flavour, which is nicely balanced and not too heavily malted. I don’t often drink English pale ales, but I appreciate this one.

Median Brewing Dark Ale is a 5.2-per cent alcohol beer from a Windsor, Ont. brewery that opened early last month. The aroma is stronger than the taste, which is initially sharp but then quickly mellows.

Whitewater Midnight Stout is a 4.5-per cent alcohol oatmeal stout that pours black with a medium tan head. It’s coffee and dark chocolate flavour is pleasant, but I would have preferred more body as I found it a bit thin for a stout.

Sierra Nevada Nooner Pilsner is a light gold beer that’s certainly decent but doesn’t stand out. It’s a crisp but easy drinking pilsner.

Propeller IPA from Halifax has just been introduced to Ontario in a can. The 6.5-per cent alcohol, 68 IBU ale is a slightly cloudy gold and has a fruity and full-bodied bouquet. It’s not bitter at first but it has a bit of bite in its finish.

Luckily I have no reason to drink gluten-free beer, as most of them I’ve had aren’t very good. There’s nothing offensive about Bard’s Gluten Free from Utica, N.Y., but it’s very dull in its aroma and flavour profiles and has little to offer. It was my least favourite beer of the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.

I was quite happy with the three ciders I sampled.

Brickworks Cherry Cider will arrive in the LCBO in early December. I prefer it over the company’s two apple ciders and one peach cider. It has a dry apple cider base augmented with cherries, with all ingredients grown within 300 kilometres of Toronto. It has a five per cent alcohol content and isn’t nearly as sweet as many cherry ciders. Although it’s a seasonal product, I could enjoy it year-round.

Double Trouble Grow A Pear Cider is a pale, 5.5-per cent alcohol perry made in Stoney Creek, Ont. It’s made with water, sugar and pears from Winona, Ont., in the heart of the Niagara wine region. It was a bit sweeter than expected, but I thought it was excellent.

Pommies Perry is a light straw-coloured, semi-sweet and medium dry pear cider with a five per cent alcohol content. It’s crisp, but not overly so, and is very pleasant. Its pears come from around Meaford, Ont.

I’m generally not a fan of barley wines and while I wouldn’t go out of my way to have another Midian Brewing Barley Wine, it was certainly decent. The eight-per cent alcohol brew from this new brewery is a cloudy, dark amber. While you can detect the high alcohol content in the aroma, it’s not overwhelming. It’s full bodied, fruity and gentler than most other barley wines I’ve tried.

I discovered Tito’s Vodka in Austin, Texas several years ago and have drank it on occasion ever since. This time I was given a souvenir Tito’s glass for a drink that mixed the vodka with cranberry juice and lemonade. I wasn’t disappointed.

Les Quarterons Cremant de Loire is a dry and creamy sparkling wine with a slight lemon aroma that’s made with chenin, chardonnay and cabernet franc grapes. The 12-per cent alcohol wine is aged between 18 and 24 months by Amirault in France.

Rodrigues Blueberry Wine from Whitbourne, Nfld. is all natural with no sulphites that rates a two on the sweetness scale and has a 10-per cent alcohol content. I’ve had better blueberry wines.

It was suggested that I also try mixing the Les Quarterons Cremant de Loire with the Rodrigues Blueberry Wine. I did, but preferred them both on their own.

I admit that I attend the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo more for the booze than the food, but I’ve enjoyed the Filipino food from Casa Manila in the past and stopped by its booth again. This time I had a small but delicious meal of a spring roll, tangy boneless chicken adobo and tomato garlic beef stew. I accompanied it with a lovely calamansi mojito. If you haven’t had calamansi juice before, I definitely recommend it. It has a mix of orange and lime flavours that’s great on its own or, as I found, in a rum cocktail.

The Krave Chili Lime Beef Jerky I sampled was excellent. The sweet chipotle flavour was also nice, but not as good.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Rugged beauty of Lewis and Harris shines through the rain, the wind and the cold -- in July

You soon realize how sparsely populated the Isle of Lewis is when you arrive by the large MV Loch Seaforth ferry to its major city of Stornoway, whose 7,500 occupants comprise 40 per cent of the island off the northwest coast of Scotland’s inhabitants.

Stornoway has the typical small town stores, restaurants and pubs you’d expect, as well as a disproportionately large amount of barber shops and storefronts promoting religion and Christianity. If you’re looking to find God or get a haircut, this is your place.

Stornoway is a strongly Calvinist enclave, an important port and the administrative centre for the Outer Hebrides islands. I stayed at Heb Hostel, a clean and friendly place to rest your head and enjoy a warm peat fire after a day exploring the rest of Lewis. And you’ll want to explore, because there’s not a lot to do in Stornoway.

I was with two dozen other people on the 10-day Compass Buster tour of the Scottish highlands, the Western Isles, Orkney, Skye and Loch Ness run by Haggis Adventures, which gets you out and about to see and experience several sights without the hassles of renting a car and driving.

Abhainn Dearg Distillery
Our comfortable and roomy bus left Stornoway for the west coast through a landscape of small, rocky hills occupied by grazing sheep. Our first stop was the tiny and rustic Abhainn Dearg Distillery, where we were greeted by high winds and torrential rains. Thankfully, the staff was much more accommodating than the weather as they showed us their small operation and offered us samples of their Spirit of Lewis and my favourite, Abhainn Dearg Single Malt. It’s a smooth, totally homegrown Scotch with a natural cask colour and a pleasing finish despite its 46-per cent alcohol content. I enjoyed several free shots and while I’m not used to drinking that much Scotch at 11 a.m., you have to take advantage of such things when circumstances arise.

Callanish Standing Stones
We moved on to the Callanish Standing Stones, a large stone circle that’s considered one of the most significant and important megalithic complexes in Europe. Think Stonehenge, the most famous stone circle, on a smaller scale. The pelting rain and fierce wind, unfortunately, dampened my enthusiasm and appreciation for this historic site.

Carloway Broch through a wet camera lens.
It was a short drive to what’s left of Carloway Broch, a round Iron Age structure positioned well from a defensive standpoint on a hill with free roaming shape. It was probably the home of tribal leaders and important members of the community hundreds of years ago.

Gearrannan blackhouses
The Gearrannan blackhouses aren’t as old, but it’s still difficult to believe that they were inhabited until 1974. Blackhouses acted as homes for both people and livestock and were constructed of stone with gaps filled in with earth or peat. Wood frames held up thatched or turf roofs which had to withstand severe weather. I was there in July and shuddered to think what it might have been like to live in one of these structures in January. There were several blackhouses at Gearrannan, some of which have been modernized to house a small museum and hostel rooms.

Butt of Lewis
I’ve always loved rugged landscapes where cliffs meet the sea, and the Butt of Lewis provided an opportunity to enjoy one of these vistas. The rain had stopped and the wind had diminished, allowing us to roam over the soft green turf and peer down at waves crashing into small coves, with seals occasionally bobbing above the water’s surface.

Port of Ness
There was a short stop in Port of Ness, where the tide was out and boats were stranded on sand, on the way back to Stornoway. 

Upon arrival back in town, I went to an unlicensed Thai restaurant and paid $18.50 for a good if unexceptional meal of two chicken skewers, fried rice, beef and vegetables. McNeill’s pub was the place to be later in the evening for fruit-flavoured ciders (which are much more popular in the United Kingdom than in Canada) and musicians covering country songs until midnight.

When morning came it was time to make the journey south to Harris, which is attached to Lewis by a causeway. Harris has higher elevations and its rocks evoke thoughts of lunar landscapes, but the white sands of Loggantir beach were as nice as you’d find at Caribbean resorts. The water, however, was still cold even in July and there was no-one swimming.

Loggantir dunes
I walked alone along the beach for 30 minutes before climbing up the dunes that overlook it. I shared them with sheep and was wishing I had something to slide down on when I came to a sand canyon. I instead climbed down and then back up to get back to where the bus was parked near a small cemetery. 

St. Clements Church
A nip of Scotch did the trick to pick me up before arriving at St. Clements Church, which was built around 500 years ago for the MacLeod clan. It was repaired after a fire in the 1800s and its lovely setting surrounded by rocky hills on one side and the sea on the other would have been an interesting place for a golf course —- and I soon discovered that the Isle of Harris Golf Club wasn’t too far away. Owing to the winds blowing in from over the water, a 215-yard hole was still a par four.

After reaching the southern tip of Harris, we headed back north to the village of Tarbert, the embarkation point for the ferry to the Isle of Skye. It didn’t take long to walk around, so it wasn’t difficult to find Isle of Harris Distillers Ltd. While the distillery is waiting for its Scotch to mature, it’s making gin. I was given a sample, and it was fine, but I didn’t spend $63 for a bottle. Nor did I buy any of the tweed that Harris is famous for before boarding the 4 p.m. ferry to Skye.