Quebec baker hangs up his apron
Rigaud, Que. — Special to The Globe and Mail, Apr. 07, 2015
Jean-Guy Boucher never considered switching to a digital scale from the cast-iron double-pan balance scale he has always used. But after a lifetime of baking, the 87-year-old and his scale are preparing to retire for good.
“This is it,” he says. “This is my last day.”
The kitchen tool, now a museum-worthy relic, was handed down to him by his father. It remains perched in front of a picture window with a panoramic view of a stunning century-old maple-tree grove in Rigaud, Que.
Boucher places his final batch of rustic bread in the dome-shaped wood-fired oven – the centrepiece of the log cabin on the property of Sucrerie de la Montagne. The Quebec heritage site draws an astounding 35,000 visitors this time of year to celebrate the flow of maple sap and its transformation into pure maple syrup – the beloved tradition known as sugaring-off. Setting it apart from all of the other pancake-breakfast cabanes is the scent of bread and maple-glazed cinnamon rolls emerging from a stone oven.
Boucher, a joyful and fit octogenarian who worked 14-hour days well into his 70s, remembers his father showing him, at the age of 5, how to slide the scale’s metal ball notch-by-notch to measure out precisely 16 ounces of dough for a crusty loaf. From such humble beginnings, he could never have imagined that this bread would one day take him around the world.
He was the only one of the seven brothers who wanted to work in the family bakery. Boucher and his father started mixing dough at 4 a.m., and delivered the round loaves door-to-door by truck in Vaudreuil, Que., charging seven cents each.
After the bakery was sold in 1947, he continued to work as a baker at a supermarket in Laval until he retired – the first time – at the age of 67. But retirement didn’t agree with him and he responded to an ad placed by Pierre Faucher, the owner of Sucrerie, who was looking for a baker. Boucher was hired on the spot and began baking his father’s recipe once again. He was soon invited to travel as Faucher’s kitchen assistant to France, Italy and Japan. For the next 16 years, the men would transport the Sugar Shack experience abroad on behalf of the province’s tourism commission.
Faucher, who calls Boucher “a wild man” and “a very hard worker,” once joked with him that he should put more than four raisins in the raisin bread. “My father taught me never to waste,” says Boucher, “He was very rough with us but he was a good teacher. He showed us the right thing.”
After so many years immersed in flour and dough, Boucher is surprisingly unsentimental about hanging up his apron. But when he speaks about his father, his voice softens. “He said being a baker is like being a doctor and bread is like your patients,” says Boucher. “You love them, and you try to give them the best.”
Zen and the art of eating yak
This article appeared in Ottawa Magazine in February 2013.
YAK TATAKI. Yak tataki. When I first spotted those two words on the menu at Oz Kafe four years ago, I couldn’t wait to say them out loud: yak tataki, yak tataki, yak tataki.
They are the kinds of words that a food writer dreams about — playful, whimsical, and deliciously unusual. They make you laugh, perhaps salivate, and dream. In a job that constantly battles against boring, repetitive, predictable menus and the constraints of the English language (how many ways can we talk about a great steak?), this dish was already infused with the makings of a great story, and I was determined to find it.
I mean, who has the nerve to serve yak in Ottawa? And how in the world did the chef get his hands on fresh yak meat? I would soon discover that a herd of Tibetan yaks was roaming the wilds of the Ottawa Valley.
When the plate arrived, the meat was just barely seared, thinly sliced, and topped with anchovy mayo and bacon breadcrumbs. It was not the kind of dish I had expected to find in a meat-and-potatoes government town, but there it was — all crimson and succulent and drenched with soul-satisfying umami.
The dish had been prepared by Jamie Stunt, the creative young chef I had pegged a few years earlier as one of the city’s culinary up-and-comers. The restaurant where Stunt cooks is the late-night crash pad for fellow cooks, who swing by after their shifts to fuel up on smoked duck poutine and spicy grilled beef lettuce wraps.
When I interviewed Stunt for the profile I was writing, he told me how he sank all his energy into cooking after losing his brother in an accident. Working in kitchens, he quietly gained a reputation as a risk taker.
Some called it culinary bravado when he served yak heart tartare and yak head chili at an underground supper club (he has also begun offering yak heart and yak liver cabbage rolls at Oz Kafe). But those who knew him understood that it was Stunt’s attempt to show respect to the beast by using every last bit of it.
Last November, it was another plate of yak that catapulted Stunt into the culinary limelight when he won the Gold Medal Plates Ottawa competition.
He wowed the panel of judges with pan-seared yak tenderloin and seduced them not only with the exceptionally tasty dish but also with the story of an unlikely pairing of hipster chef and hippie farmer.
Stunt will now go on to the Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna in February, competing against the gold medal winners from nine other cities from Vancouver to St. John’s.
Stunt began putting yak on his menu after meeting farmer Rosemary Kralik at a weekend farmers’ market. Kralik came to raise the long-haired bovines after a series of events over the years led her to her current farm.
She was still in high school when she became disillusioned with the industrial food system, swore off supermarket food, and sought out farmers who raised animals the way she believed animals should be treated. But it was decades before Kralik would become a farmer herself. In 1993, a dear friend who was on his deathbed said these words to her: “God will not come from the sky to give you what you want. No one cares what is in your heart; only you can know and care enough to pursue your dream.” Those words inspired Kralik to pursue the dream of farming.
Two years later, at the age of 50, the single mother of a grown son bought her first farm. It didn’t work out, but in 1999 she made a second attempt at her dream, buying a farm an hour and a half from the city. She called this farm Tiraislin Fold, a Gaelic phrase meaning “earth of my dreams.” “I made a choice,” she would later tell me. “At retirement, one can travel the world, buy fast cars, gamble, drink, do drugs — I chose agriculture.”
Stunt experienced an instant kinship with the farmer and felt good about serving her yak in the restaurant, even knowing it might have limited appeal with customers. He shared Kralik’s conviction that we can actually taste the happiness of the animals we consume and that we receive health benefits from those that have enjoyed good health and a stress-free life. Kralik cites studies with evidence that yak meat is very high in CLA (conjugated linoleic acids) and omega-3, both of which have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. She is also convinced that the meat from happy animals tastes sweeter and is more satisfying. This all meshed with her belief that what we eat directly affects us. For her, there is no doubt that cruel farming and butchering practices are linked to widespread human depression in the world. Most of the animals we consume, she says, have known nothing but misery.
It’s not surprising, then, that her yaks play in the sun and wander out to the woods of the 722-acre farm to feed on buds, leaves, and bark. In the spring, she uses a rake to help detangle their winter coats as they shed. When Kralik talks about her frolicking yaks, she could just as well be describing a charming but unruly band of backpackers who have opted to crash in her barn for the weekend.
She loves to tell the story about the time she received an unexpected call from the provincial police. A dozen of her yaks, calves and all, had escaped from the farm and had turned up at a golf course, located about 50 minutes away. “I didn’t even know they played,” she quips. When the story hit the local papers, people were outside in their bathrobes with cameras trying to spot them. In the end, it took a month to round them up — all part of the adventure of raising the uncommon beasts (there are only about 2,000 yaks in North America). Looking back at it now, Kralik says she couldn’t help wondering if they were just trying to find their way back to Tibet.
As a food writer, I was drawn to the yak story on many levels. Similar to bison and other heritage-breed animals that are gaining popularity among health-conscious carnivores, yak meat is lean, protein-packed, and low in cholesterol. It is also delicious and revered for its delicate, sweet, beef-like flavour. The problem comes in the cooking. Because it is extra, extra lean, yak easily turns as tough as shoe leather — and about as tasty. The best way to eat it is raw or nearly so, like steak tartare or the way I was introduced to it at Oz Kafe: yak tataki. Soon after that first bite, I felt compelled to track down and find out more about the woman whom I referred to affectionately as The Yak Lady.
During a series of phone conversations, I learned that Rosemary Kralik is also an artist — a painter — with a surprising background as a management consultant for the federal government. But she gave up the great salary, security, and pension (a decision people thought was crazy). She’s one of those brave souls who follows through on a dream to change direction entirely. In Kralik’s case, she opted for a life of combing yaks with a rake.
Kralik’s description of her initiation into farming life did not inspire great confidence. She recalled standing and watching a parade of animals — horses, pigs, sheep, and goats — at a sale barn near Fitzroy Harbour. Then the auctioneer led out a pair of shaggy black Tibetan yaks with handlebar horns and humped backs, and she noticed how the crowd instantly dispersed as people wandered off to the canteen for a coffee. She, however, was lovestruck. They were the most beautiful creatures she had ever seen.
In just over a decade, that cow and bull (the names for the female and male yaks) have given her a herd of 28. I wondered whether Kralik actually eats these animals after nurturing them at a level many people reserve for their pets. “The only reason I’m raising them is to eat the meat,” she says in response to that question. “But you have to love and respect them. The animal is giving you its life so that you can live.” It’s a contract she takes extremely seriously.
On the day each yak is born, Kralik promises it a good life. When the time comes for one to be “put away,” she stays with it to the end. “I look into his eyes, I stroke him, I thank him,” she says. “They understand the vibes. They go quietly and calmly, and that makes a world of difference.” In fact, there is only one certified butcher in the Valley whom she trusts to give her animals a dignified death. She swears she’ll sell the farm once that abattoir goes out of business. “There is no point in doing what I do on the farm if the animal is going to die in terror,” she says.
Meanwhile, she has yet to figure out a way to make the farm financially viable — and doesn’t know if she ever will (she continues to paint portraits to pay the bills). The hay alone costs more than $17,000 a year. And since yaks are slow to mature, she had to care for them for many years before there was a herd of 28 and any meat to sell.
When we first met in 2008, she had just begun renting a stall at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market with a freezer full of ground yak, yak sausages, and yak salami. I wanted a chance to chat when she was “off duty,” so we arranged to meet for coffee one afternoon when she was coming to town to deliver meat.
I was already inside the café when her rusty blue flatbed truck pulled up. It stood out as a distinctly rural vehicle among the sensible sedans and shiny SUVs on the street, but what really made heads turn was that she had parked her truck facing in the wrong direction. From out of the driver’s seat bounded a woman wearing large plastic-framed glasses circa 1970-something and high-waisted jeans of the same vintage. She had a wild, feathery grey-blond mane, a wide grin, and an electric twinkle in her eye. As we got in line to order our coffees, a couple sitting at a table by the window gestured for us to look outside. A police officer had pulled up to slap a parking ticket on Kralik’s windshield. She dashed out, but after a brief exchange with the cop, she shrugged her shoulders and bounced back in with the same exuberance she had before. In that moment, she struck me as the embodiment of every cliché about happiness I’d ever heard, from “Don’t sweat the small stuff” to “Never cry over spilt milk.”
During the conversation, it quickly became clear that not only was she a yak whisperer but that her everyday wisdom came from a life lived largely on the periphery and in solitude. “I am a hermit,” she declared. “ What I love about farming is that you get up every day and deal with what you see in front of you. There are no excuses — you do it or something dies.” We spent the next hour jumping from topic to topic — from food to art to mortality to parenting. I learned that as a student, Kralik had studied ballet, music, and theatre but was drawn to physics, chemistry, botany, and zoology. Her talent as an artist, nurtured during a childhood spent in Egypt and, later, in England, came in handy in Canada (she arrived here in 1959), when she began working for a design company in the late ’60s.
By the time she was 18, Kralik had been invited to exhibit her artwork professionally, her scientific illustrations had been published in government reports, and her studies of people and animals had won prizes in high school competitions. She later pursued her passion for architecture (her then husband was an architect), learning architectural drafting on the job. After that, she took university courses on computer programming, statistics, and psychology — a combination of skills and experiences that ultimately led to consulting work for several federal departments, including Health and Welfare, Agriculture Canada, and Indian and Northern Affairs. Her federal career proved to be both intense and lucrative, her skills as a number cruncher and innovative problem solver proving to be a crucial apprenticeship for her next career — running a farm.
The farm has provided Kralik with the opportunity to elevate agriculture to a work of art. Now, at the age of 68, she declares it her magnum opus. The more I listened, the more I began to understand the real story behind the yaks, the freedom they have to live their lives the way they want. I sensed that this was a theme she felt echoing in her own life and told her so. She smiled at me knowingly, the way a teacher looks into the eyes of a student who has suddenly understood the meaning of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method. Suddenly I was having another epiphany about that dish of yak tataki. I could now see that behind every delicious mouthful, there was bound to be tragedy and trauma tucked away inside the person who was motivated enough to transform it into something beautiful.
It was time to go, and Kralik reached out for a hug before getting into her backward-facing truck. “Nothing is all good or all bad,” she said in farewell. “Everything has both sides. If you don’t realize this, you miss out on half of life.” And with that, The Yak Lady wheeled around and drove away.
Gastrodiplomacy: Culinary Marketing’s New Buzzword
A meal out can be an exercise in international relations. Pass the kimchi, por favor.
Published in EnRoute Magazine, NOV 05, 2014
There was a sudden surge of Korean restaurants in Ottawa’s Chinatown, and so I convinced my friend to join me on a foray into the world of bulgogi and bibimbap. This was on the heels of the “Gangnam Style” craze and a few years after Korean flavours began popping up on American food-trend lists – admittedly, a little later in Ottawa due to its apparent tax on novelty. I was confused by all those tiny banchan, the two-bite marinated side dishes, wondering whether they were appetizers or condiments. I can still remember that first bite of kimchi: using chopsticks to lift off the top petal of fermented cabbage and letting its damp-sock funkiness penetrate my nostrils. Next came the prickly mouth feel, fiery heat and the wear-it-for-a-week reek of garlic. Stinky and brash and crawling with bacteria – hey now, that’s no way to make friends!
But here we are, just a few years later, and kimchi has become the prom queen of the culinary world – a celebrity among food-trend watchers and fermentation fans. Today it’s a topping for trendy hot dogs and quesadillas at chain restaurants, including Jack Astor’s. Chefs like Momofuku’s David Chang in New York helped pave the way by whipping up a batch of Korea’s answer to sauerkraut on the Today show. Next, First Lady Michelle Obama got on board, tweeting about turning vegetables from the White House kitchen garden into kimchi. With its all-star PR team, it’s no wonder that even a food so seemingly inhospitable to uninitiated palates could enter the culinary consciousness and become the hipster munchie du jour. Less obvious, perhaps, is that behind the sudden rise of Korea’s national dish is the work of the Korean government putting its money where its mouth is.
Food has been shaping our view of the world, strengthening and severing bonds between nations throughout history. These days, the idea of using culinary marketing to garnish the image of a country has a spiffy new name: gastrodiplomacy. Scholar Paul Rockower, who helped popularize the term, calls it “the art of winning hearts and minds through stomachs.” The graduate of the public-diplomacy program at the University of Southern California points to Thailand’s successful 2002 Global Thai campaign. It made tom yum for Thailand what apple pie is for America. The Thai government offered small business grants for its own chefs to open Thai restaurants around the world and the number rose from 5,500 to more than 10,000 in 2013. “Countries are starting to realize the importance of promoting their edible nation brand as a way to garner more global attention,” says Rockower.
Peru (pisco diplomacy) and Taiwan (dim sum diplomacy), along with South Korea (kimchi diplomacy), were among the next wave of countries to invest in advertising signature dishes and drinks. Some provided soft-loan financing to restaurants abroad; others facilitated travel for their best chefs to go to food competitions and festivals. So when a country like Taiwan hoped to differentiate itself from neighbouring China, it ignited a following for “stinky tofu” (part of its U.K. campaign). The goal? Everything from boosting tourism and increasing trade to less tangible perks like better relationships among nations. At the level of embassies and consulates, you might say gastro-diplomacy has shifted the emphasis of traditional talks held over rubber-chicken dinners to a time when the food on the plate does the talking.
So where does Canada – land of the Beaver Tail – stand in all of this? Is there any chance for poutine diplomacy? Apparently, oui. The Canada Brand Initiative is a multimillion-dollar marketing plan to boost interest in Canadian food. Its spokesman, Patrick Girard, is quick to point out that the focus is mostly on raw ingredients available for the export market, such as beef and blueberries. Yet there have been a few attempts at culinary branding, including the creation of a temporary outdoor café in Japan selling poutine and maple lattes to people in a region hit hard by the massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011. A more widely known (and largely mocked) pilot project, launched in Mexico City, relied upon a maple-leaf-branded food truck that served a version of poutine topped with Oaxacan cheese instead of cheddar curds.
Showing off what, when and how we eat is a window to who we are. That’s how Heon-jun Kim, the Counselor for Cultural and Public Affairs at Canada’s Korean Embassy in Ottawa, describes his country’s national branding effort. It’s what’s behind the creation of the World Institute of Kimchi in southern South Korea, the first research centre to focus solely on a single dish. “Korean food is a cuisine of harmony,” he tells me. “That’s true for the way Koreans approach everyday life too.” It’s a message that’s been carried like a flag by at least two different groups of young Koreans with a shared case of wanderlust. In 2011, a team of culinary students set off around the world on the Kimchi Bus to promote their national nosh with support from their government’s food-culture outreach project. The young cooks, who popped up in Brazil during this past summer’s World Cup, have been to more than 28 countries. They continue to visit major tourist spots, cooking schools, Korean language schools and stadiums, offering kimchi tasting sessions along the way. Meanwhile, the Bibimbap Backpackers set off on a similar trip, doling out bowls of the Korean dish, which stars rice topped with an assortment of veggies, meat and eggs seasoned with hot pepper-laced gochujang paste and sesame oil. The two crews happened to converge for the first time at an event at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Food, as we all know, is the easiest, most visceral and emotional way to start conversations with strangers. Standing befuddled in front of a french-fry vendor in Rotterdam, I once welcomed a lesson in Dutch history that led to my first encounter with peanut sauce on fries. I walked away with a profound taste-memory of the trip and an excellent recommendation for an Indonesian rijsttafel restaurant for dinner. The more we travel to eat and the more our amped-up global food culture pits authenticity and chow-hounding against the mainstream taste for fast food, the more disorienting it can be to discover that your latest genuine food epiphany is part of a gastrodiplomacy campaign.
And that’s what gave me pause last year as I got in line for my first Korean short-rib taco at the world-renowned Kogi food truck in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest Korean populations outside of Seoul. On the one hand, I was keen to experience what L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold describes as “food that makes you feel plugged into the rhythms of the city just by eating it.” I like to think such quintessential moments help me repent for the sins from my backpacker days, eating McDonald’s in Rome and ordering Domino’s Pizza in Paris. But at the same time, I found myself wondering what separates Kogi from the Kimchi Bus. I worried that gastrodiplomacy might be turning us all into lacto-fermentation agents, unwittingly in the service of a global gastronomy network. On second thought, that didn’t sound so bad. I lifted the paper plate under my chin to catch the juice, stained red from kimchi, as it dripped down my chin. It was an awfully good taco.
Why the world’s top female sommelier chose to come home to Gatineau
GATINEAU — Special to The Globe and Mail
Published May. 20 2015
Véronique Rivest, the Quebec sommelier deemed to have one of the best palates on Earth, says she was one of those horrible children who put everything in her mouth – dirt, grass and discarded wads of gum. “There are photos of me on the beach eating sand,” she says. “Was that the beginning? I don’t know.”
It’s this down-to-earth charm that makes time spent sipping wine in the company of Canada’s most decorated sommelier go down like a bowl of punch at a party. Rivest recently emerged at the top of her game after a decade of self-directed study, interminable training and gruelling sommelier competitions that led her to summit every awards podium she encountered, from Canada to the Americas and finally to the World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Japan in 2013, where she placed second over all. That made her the top female sommelier in the world, a true marvel in this male-dominated domain.
With her new-found celebrity status and nearing her 50th birthday, she took what some might consider an unusual turn. Instead of heading to Paris or Las Vegas to work at a posh hotel restaurant procuring rare, high-end bottles, Rivest returned home to the region of Quebec where she grew up, determined to celebrate wine at a more personal level. Last September she opened a wine bar in a former burger joint in Gatineau, on the northern bank of the Ottawa River across from Parliament Hill. She named it Soif, the French word for thirst.
“This is the business I love – I wanted to be on the floor talking to customers,” Rivest says. “Everyone is paying so much attention to what’s in our food. So why are we drinking so much crap?”
Rivest sought to change that – starting at home.
“We’re so fortunate that she made the choice to put down her roots here. She could have gone anywhere,” says Jennifer Warren-Part, co-owner of Les Fougères, a culinary retreat in nearby Chelsea, Que., where Rivest spent the bulk of her restaurant career. “She is the great democratizer.”
“My No. 1 criteria? It has to taste good,” Rivest says.
It’s a simple philosophy that is echoed in everything from the natural-wood-and-cork motif she chose for the bar to the menu of affordable, food-friendly wines, many of which can be sampled in either two- or four-ounce pours. The menu, too, is unfussy – homemade bread with tapenade, oysters, charcuterie, bison tartare. “I am a simple person. It’s very much who I am.”
She instructs staff to refrain from replacing glasses between tastings since she believes it’s preferable to, as the French say, “rinse with wine” – something she knows some people still see as a major faux-pas. It reveals a more complex side of Rivest, a woman who isn’t afraid to swim against the tide.
During wine-tasting workshops, part of Soif’s raison d’être, she is often asked about foods she considers to be wine enemies; things such as artichokes and eggs are commonly considered culprits. Rivest balks at the notion. “I’ll find you a wine for any food,” she says. “It won’t always be the throw-me-on-the-floor good pairing, but it’s the playing around that is fun.”
Her focus on so-called natural wines follows the same theme. “There is lots of debate around it,” says Rivest, who doesn’t get wrapped up in semantics. “I hate all dogma in food and wine.” She concedes that the term “natural wine,” used to describe wines made with minimal intervention (unfiltered and minimally manipulated), can be polarizing. Rivest advocates instead for real, authentic wines that are able to express terroir – a taste of the place it comes from. These wines have developed a cult following in recent years. “The worst is when some young sommelier goes around defending some faulty wine and goes on and on about terroir,” she says. “That’s where natural wine gets a bad name.”
Thanks to her impressive Rolodex of wine-industry contacts, Rivest has unique access to many small, interesting producers that come through exclusive private importers to Quebec and are largely unavailable elsewhere. As a result, Rivest’s wine list could intimidate even the most experienced oenophile.
“She has a lot of unique stuff that no one else has,” says Ottawa-based wine importer Aaron Shaw. “She’s going for esoteric, eccentric choices.”
Rivest says she chooses the wines she serves based on what she loves, but strives to have something to appeal to everyone. Customers who come into Soif at all points of the wine-knowledge spectrum – from total wine geeks to fans of the fruity, juicy “boardroom” wines reviled by aficionados – will be encouraged by knowledgeable staff to try something they don’t recognize.
“Taste is so individual,” Rivest says. “There’s a gradual way to do it. If a table says they love the wine Ménage à Trois, we respect it. We try to take them somewhere.” In that sense, she has created a friendly, low-risk playground of experimentation that gives any wine enthusiast an opportunity to drink like a world-class sommelier.
“People will go [to Soif] because of her and be willing to take risks,” Shaw says. One can taste wines from a small, organic, family-run vineyard such as Vino di Anna on Mount Etna in Sicily, as well as wines made from extremely rare grapes such as Listan Negro, which is primarily grown on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. “Some of these wines are cloudy, they have higher levels of volatile acidity, and some have funky smells and tastes,” Shaw adds.
Rivest is the first to admit there is good and bad in everything, but she seems determined to help more of us experience the vast variety of wines that are available in Quebec and elsewhere.
Dressed casually in a button-up black blouse and black trousers, Rivest stands in front of 15 guests who have come to a workshop at Soif on a Saturday afternoon. Learning how to taste wine with Rivest is like learning how to ride a bike with an Olympic cycling champion who happens to be standing by with a set of training wheels. She says wine is no different than discussing how you take your coffee – cream, sugar, black – who’s right? It’s whatever makes you happy. She wants us to see how the taste of wine is dependent not only on what foods we are eating but on the places we grew up, the food we’ve eaten over a lifetime, as well as atmosphere, weather and how much we enjoy the company around the table.
Rivest talks about “vacation syndrome” as a way to explain why the wine we adored on a trip to Provence, France, doesn’t taste anything like the bottle we brought home and drank on a Tuesday night in the dead of winter. She flashes one of her famously disarming smiles. “It’s all part of the charm and frustration of wine.”
Citric acid: How sour is becoming a chef’s new weapon
BY SHAWNA WAGMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail, Apr. 09 2014
As far as It ingredients go, citric acid is an unlikely one – it’s the stuff found at the bottom of the bag of sour gummy candies. But the grainy, white powder’s ability to heighten flavours and bring balance to a dish – the supreme goal of good cooking – is turning it into an essential tool for the contemporary chef.
When Toronto chef Rebekah Pearse was a contestant on Top Chef Canada in its first season, she chose to include citric acid as one of just 10 items she was allowed to bring from home. She used it to make fresh ricotta and last-minute buttermilk by adding one teaspoon of citric acid to a litre of milk. Appealing to Pearse’s inner-science nerd, she says it has become one of her favourite ingredients: “People say, wow, how did you do that?”
Citric acid occurs naturally in such fruits as limes, pineapples and gooseberries. The dry, powdered citric acid used as an industrial food additive since the early 19th century, however has a less appetizing source; it is manufactured using a mould that feeds on corn syrup glucose.
Found in supermarket staples from sodas and teas, to juices and jams, it’s widely revered for its anti-bacterial, preservative and stabilizing qualities. Chefs have long held a stash of it, for instance to keep fruits and vegetables from oxidizing and turning brown while travelling from cutting board to table. But more and more chefs are wielding citric acid’s sour strength – the fairy dust of flavour amplification – in creative new ways.
Chef Kevin Mathieson, owner of Ottawa’s industrial-chic gastronomic café and patisserie Art is in Bakery, first experimented with citric acid back in 2000 during his apprenticeship at Peltier, a prestigious pastry shop in Paris.
He sprinkles a mixture of citric acid, icing sugar and salt over orange peel or wild blueberries before drying out the fruit for a week.
Using a coffee grinder, he blends it all into a powder that gets added to jellies inside chocolate truffles, infused into marmalade that gets slathered on brioche for a duck confit BLT sandwich, or dusted over crème fraîche as a garnish for a bowl of soup.
“It gives everything a bright, zesty taste,” he says. “It also preserves the fruit’s natural colour.”When it comes to popular taste, sour is no longer a four-letter word, so to speak. An increased appetite for pucker-inducing and tangy flavours seems to run alongside several other major food trends including the rise of artisan sourdough breads, the new-to-North America sour beer sensation, ongoing interest in fermented and pickled foods that happen to be the perfect foil to the rich and fatty flavours of charcuterie, as well as the growing popularity of sour flavours associated with Asian and Mexican cuisines. “Look at the tamarind in pad Thai,” says Mathieson of the ubiquitous Thai noodle dish, “It’s got those same sour qualities as citric acid.”
At Bar Buca in Toronto, Chef Rob Gentile uses citric acid to brighten the taste of a low-acid berry sorbet. “It opens up the flavour,” he says. He also mixes it with water to make a solution that prevents finicky artichokes from oxidizing while they are being prepped and cleaned for artichoke crudo. Citric acid adds tartness where you don’t want to add liquid, he says, “We add lemon juice at the end so we can control the flavour.”
The popularity of citric acid among chefs doesn’t surprise Colin Leach, owner of the Silk Road, an online spice merchant with a shop in Calgary. He says he sells a “surprising amount” of citric acid and also uses it himself to create the shop’s spice blends. He sees the pursuit of perfect balance – a quest for capturing all five tastes in everything we eat – as the new orthodoxy in cooking. “If you making a barbecue rub for instance,” he says, “and you taste it and it feels like something’s missing, it’s usually something sour that’s needed. That’s where we’d use citric acid.”
Chef Robert Belcham, owner of Campognolo in Vancouver remembers using citric acid more than a decade ago to create a less-sweet “neutral” caramel and melting it into a lacy cage that lay over top of tuna tartare. These days he tends to use it directly on a dish as a flavoured salt to give food a dose of agrodolce, sweet and sour flavour. At Belcham’s bar, Campognolo Upstairs, nuts are cooked in simple syrup and tossed with butter, salt, two kinds of chili and citric acid.
“It’s a chef’s tool,” he says, explaining how citric acid allowed him to reinvent a popular bar snack. “First you taste sweet and nutty, then a bit of sour as you chew and it finishes with salt and heat. It transforms the way the dish plays out in your mouth.”
“When I tasted this salad dressing for the first time, I didn’t know what citric acid was,” says Carlotte Langley, chef de cuisine of catering at the Storys Building in Toronto.
“I thought it was one miraculous vinaigrette.
“It’s super zingy and coats everything without being too wet. I was taught to make it by a Lebanese Parisian woman, the mother of the owner of a tiny café on Murray St. in Ottawa where I had my first kitchen job.”
500 ml of the loveliest olive oil in your cupboard
2 tbsp dry oregano
1 tbsp fresh oregano
1 tsp citric acid
250 ml of feta liquid
Whisper of pepper
Blend on high speed until smooth.
No salt is required thanks to the feta juice.
Three key ingredients to turn up the heat in your kitchen
BY SHAWNA WAGMAN
Special to the Globe and Mail, Feb. 12 2014
Thanks to celebrity chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and David Chang, the once exotic tastes of Morocco, Korea, Japan and others have infused our food world. Whether dining out or curling up at home with the hottest new cookbook, many of us are bumping up against the same “it” ingredients.
“A whole new generation is looking to these people as their leaders,” says Ethné de Vienne, co-owner of Montreal’s spice shop, Épices de Cru, known for its rare and treasured ingredients from around the globe. Resourceful cooks are waking up to new worlds of flavour thanks to the increasingly available ingredients. “You are seeing ras el hanout like you used to see cumin,” de Vienne said.
Here are three (literally) hot ingredients to try right now.
Sometimes referred to as “the new sriracha,” gochujang is a pungent hot chili pepper paste – a beloved condiment in Korean cuisine that contains glutinous rice and fermented soybeans.
Ottawa chef Jamie Stunt adores the heat, as well as “the funk” and “potentumami punch” of the fermented hot sauces he discovered during his time spent travelling in Korea. Silver medalist at the Canadian Culinary Championship last year, Stunt says newbies should start with tiny amounts. Once acquainted with the unfamiliar taste, he suggests mixing equal partsgochujang, honey and apple cider and a little minced garlic, “to make the best chicken wing sauce known to man.”
Hana Jung, who runs the Korean food cart Raon Kitchen at several Ottawa farmers markets, noticed a recent spike in customers asking for gochujang. “It’s not easy to handle,” she says, cautioning people who don’t have much experience with authentic Korean cooking. The product – widely available at Asian markets – is often mixed with other spices and ingredients in traditional dishes. Jung makes her own (without MSG), but sells it as a ready-to-use gochujang-based marinade that combines the fermented red chili paste with soy sauce, sugar, plum vinegar, ginger and rice wine. She suggests tossing it with pork, chicken or tofu as a marinade or pouring it over stir-fried vegetables.
A pop-in-the-mouth appetizer from Japan, shishitos have started showing up in farmers’ markets and trendy restaurants. The digit-sized, slender Japanese variety of pepper is delicately sweet and usually mild, but every once in a while, you get one with some heat – a brief yet serious sting. Like a game of Russian roulette featuring addictive finger food, the possibility of biting into a hot one arguably heightens the pleasure.
Shishitos have been spotted on the menu at Pidgin in Vancouver, paired with Parmesan and pine nuts, and at Toronto’s Patria where they receive the traditional Spanish treatment – blistered in a hot pan until the thin skin begins to turn black and finished with sea salt. This easy preparation is the one to try at home.
At Bar Isabel in Toronto, chef Grant van Gameren gives them a super-quick 20-second dip in the deep fryer and tops them with a squeeze of lime juice and flaky salt. “My experience has been when it’s colder outside, I find them spicier,” he says. Sourcing them can be tricky for the consumer, says vanGameren, who discovered shishitos in Toronto’s Korearown labelled as Japanese curry peppers.
Ras el hanout
In Morocco you might see a customer walk into a spice shop and ask to smell the ras el hanout. The name translates as “roof of the store” meaning that it’s the ultimate secret blend of the spice merchant – the best the seller can offer.
In Toronto, at Momofuku Daisho, it’s more likely to be your server who will be describing what spices made the cut. Sous chef Jed Smith created his own 15-ingredient ras el hanout for a new lamb dish featuring braised belly, roasted rack and a salad of pickled tongue. He started with the classics of Middle Eastern and North African cooking – cumin, clove and coriander – adding floral notes with dried rose, hibiscus and lavender. He also adds a little chili, pink peppercorns and fenugreek, which he admits may not be traditional but are flavours he likes.
The Épices de Cru blend, sold at de Vienne’s shop in Montreal’s Jean Talon market and online, contains 32 different spices. “That’s not including the traditional hashish and Spanish fly,” says De Vienne with a wink. Her recipe has been evolving over 10 years to become ever more mysterious. It contains things like iris root, banglé (a citrusy ginger-like spice from Bali) as well as hand-picked wild cumin from Uzbekistan.
She recommends taking a good spoonful of the blend, grind it and use it as a finishing touch at the end of a recipe – anything from couscous to pea soup or even vanilla ice cream. “It has many delicate fragrances, so it’s the same principle as using perfume,” she says, “A little goes a long way.” De Viennewarns of the ras el hanout imposters out there with just seven or eight ingredients – which to her is a glorified garam masala.
How this University of Windsor prof became Saveur’s ultimate reader
Special to The Globe and Mail, Mar. 12 2014
University of Windsor professor Rob Nelson has been chopping, grinding and braising his way through sauce-splattered pages of Saveur ever since his wife gave him a subscription to the food magazine seven years ago. Cooking quickly became his principal hobby and a welcome distraction from academic work as a historical researcher. At last count, he had prepared 1,000 Saveur recipes.
Along the way, Nelson went from being a food-loving kitchen neophyte to a passionate and capable global gourmand. It unfolded like a scene from an imagined sequel to the film Julie & Juliain which a food blogger aspires to cook all of Julia Child’s French recipes. For Nelson, the muse is every cuisine on the planet. “I love the way Saveur combines travel, culture and history and the way cooking brings it all home.”
At some point, his methodical and arguably obsessive commitment to one magazine’s recipes took on a life of its own. It wasn’t uncommon for a weekend at the Nelson home to be dedicated to Senagalese cuisine. “I became voracious and always wanted to try more new stuff,” he says. “It drove my family crazy because they might love a certain dish but know that they’ll probably never see it again.”
Still he diligently scrawled notes into the magazine margins as a reminder of whether recipes were worth revisiting. Then in 2012 he was preparing for a European sabbatical and knew it would be unrealistic to lug his beloved magazine collection along. He noticed that Saveur’s website included a comments section for each recipe page and he began transferring his notes onto Saveur.com.
“Fabulous. All loved,” Nelson wrote below the mulligatawny recipe. He gave the Indian-spiced soup a perfect five-star rating. He was less impressed, however, with the same chef’s spinach and chickpeas, giving that recipe just one star. The comment: “HUGE Madhur [Jaffrey] fan, but this did not work.”
Five days and 200 comments later, he discovered that each note automatically sent a message to one of the magazine’s editors. The next thing he knew, he was accepting an invitation to fly himself to New York and spend a day in the magazine’s test kitchen. Meanwhile, editor-in-chief James Oseland was putting together the magazine’s 20th-anniversary issue and wanted to feature Nelson and his story as illustrative of the ultimate Saveur reader.
That’s how the Canadian war historian landed in the annual Saveur 100 issue, sharing the tale of how grilled skewers of marinated chicken set him off on a culinary journey. Nelson’s photo appears on the first page alongside a cast of food world luminaries including Ruth Reichl, Mario Batali and Thomas Keller. Says Nelson, “The greatest honour is being on the same page as Madhur Jaffrey.”
What’s in a name? How cheese became a wedge issue in the free-trade era
BY SHAWNA WAGMAN
Special to The Globe and Mail, Mar. 19 2014
Nothing like a little cheese controversy to nibble away at a nation’s notion of food culture. Americans are raising a stink in reaction to free-trade talks that led the European Union to push for the protection of popular names for cheeses with historical ties to Europe, like Parmesan and Brie. It’s like déjà-vu for cheese-industry stakeholders in Canada. Europeans say that a cheese like feta, for instance, should only come from Greece. The EU argues it “is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product.”
Feta is one of five cheese names (the others are Asiago, Fontina, Gorgonzola and Munster) that Canada has agreed to recognize for its “geographical indications” as part of a trade agreement (CETA) signed last October. A list of 50 was originally proposed and five made the cut. For now, Canadian cheese-makers are preparing for when they will no longer be able to use those names. Current feta producers won’t be affected, for instance, but any new cheese names introduced after that will need to be qualified with words such as “kind,” “type” or “style.”
Erin Harris, a cheesemonger in London, Ont., is convinced her customers will continue to ask for feta – it’s part of our language. Best Baa Dairy produces a feta-style cheese in Fergus, Ont., that goes by the name Baa-Feta, which will satisfy the new rules and still resist confusing consumers. “It’s a spectacular product,” Harris says, “From a foodie perspective it might be even more delicious and authentic than the feta we can buy from Europe.”
Harris believes Canada’s local cheese economy is booming at least in part because customers no longer need to purchase imported cheeses to find great quality. Still it raises the question of what’s in a name. Geographical indicators and heritage are part of it, but many in the industry point out that AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) and PDO (Protected Designation Origin) have long existed to protect cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Brie de Meaux.
Meanwhile, issues of authenticity and locavorism have become hot buttons in the food world.
Thérèse Beaulieu, spokesperson for the Dairy Farmers of Canada says the same issues are coming up and being raised in the United States. “We can make Gouda as well as the EU,” she says.
Meg Zimbeck, an American who leads cheese-tasting tours in Paris, educates tourists on why European names should be protected. She gives the example of French Munster made from the raw milk of cows grazing in the Vosges mountains and compares it to a neighbouring cheese that is very similar, and goes by the name Gérômé. She says place is important not only because it determines what the animals will be eating, but also because the microflora – the moulds, bacteria, yeasts – that dramatically influence the flavour of raw-milk cheeses are different from one valley to the next. “If they can’t use the name Munster,” she asks, “why should North American producers of flavourless factory cheese be permitted to do so?”
The American Cheese Society, which represents 1,500 cheese-makers, released a statement last week calling for a “common-sense approach” to cheese names. According to the ACS, the names have become generic in the minds of consumers over the course of hundreds of years. “Many world-famous cheeses gained popularity with consumers precisely because versions made by immigrants abroad were readily available to a New World audience,” says ACS president Greg O’Neill.
The society supports the idea that cheeses be clearly marked with country of origin so that consumers are fully aware of where products are made and exactly what they are purchasing.
Some young Canadian artisan cheese companies have chosen to avoid the naming quagmire altogether, even seeing it as an opportunity to start thinking like winemakers in terms of terroir – differentiating products based on individual geography, history and culture.
In 2011 Shep Ysselstein started making washed-rind Alpine-style cheese on his family’s third-generation dairy farm nestled in the rolling hills of Ontario’s Oxford County. Ysselstein honed his cheese-making skills in Switzerland, helping to make Berner Alpkase, a cheese protected with AOC designation. Strict guidelines for production included rules for gathering milk, morning and night, from cows that were sent from the valley up into the mountains each day.
His own Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese is so-named for the country road where the farmstead cheese plant is located. Inspired by Swiss traditions, his cheeses share characteristics of Gouda and Appenzeller but are branded as Five Brothers and Oxford Harvest, names with personal meaning. “I made a conscious choice not to use those [European] names because I wanted to respect the fact that in Europe they abide by certain rules,” he says, “I also wanted to emphasize that ours were unique and all have a story.”
Just down the road, another Dutch cheese-maker, Adam van Bergeijk, makes farmstead cheese almost identical to the Gouda he made in the Netherlands before emigrating to Canada in 1996. The recipes and even the equipment for his Mountainoak Gouda were brought over from Holland. “At this moment we use the name Gouda to get ourselves known in the market,” he says, “In the next year or two we’ll have to take it out.”
While Gouda is not on Canada’s list of EU protected names, he’s reacting to news that the trade agreement means Canada will be importing another 18,500 tons of European cheeses. Walking into his local supermarket he is already frustrated to see imported Gouda selling for half the price of what he can charge. “I know it’s not the same quality but I don’t want to be compared to those cheeses, ” he says. European Gouda can be cheap because the farms in the Netherlands are subsidized and can produce cheaper milk, says van Bergeijk. He believes the federal government is to blame for creating an unfair playing field by making it impossible to compete. Promises to reimburse cheese-makers when the new imports arrive don’t help. “That’s my biggest concern,” he says, “We want to be honest and let people know what they’re paying for.”
For the second time in less than two years van Bergeijk is playing the name game. When a major importer registered the term “Prima Donna” in Canada, van Bergeijk was forced to stop using it. In the Netherlands the name refers to a cheese that combines characteristics of Gouda and Parmesan.
The ripening battle over cheese names reminds Erin Harris of another famous name dispute. When singer-songwriter Prince changed his name to a symbol in 1993, we kept on calling him Prince, she says, “We’d just say it’s a song by Prince – or whatever it is we’re supposed to call him.”
Is Fine Dining Dead?
In 2007 Frenchman Yannick Anton took over the reigns as executive chef of Le Cordon Bleu’s restaurant, Signatures. That same year, it was recognized by the CAA/AAA as a Five Diamond restaurant—the highest and most coveted symbol of excellence for fine dining in North America. The following year, the Sandy Hill crown jewel shut down for what was billed as a mini-facelift. And like the secretive French woman who returns from her weekend getaway looking decades younger, the acclaimed culinary classroom emerged with little fanfare in November 2009 with new radiance, a new attitude and, judging by the new clientele, fewer wrinkles. It had a new-fangled name as well: Le Cordon Bleu Bistro @ Signatures. With its sunny yellow walls, contemporary tableware sans tablecloth, and servers empowered to make wine suggestions as well as small talk, Signatures bid adieu to its 7-course marathon meal, dark somber dining room, its sommelier and 40-page wine list and the decadent white glove and silver bell service. Gone is the $45 main course, and in its place, a three-course prix fixe lunch menu for $25.