April 25, 2010

Diodati cheese, Saint-Clet and leave the fish alone

I was having a quick coffee in Saint Clet Québec in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region, when I wondered who was this saint. I do not wonder often given that every second town in Québec is named Saint someone, perhaps this one sounded a little odd. I look around me, early Sunday morning, nobody looks awake. I could ask the waitress, but she does not look like being bothered, even serving my coffee was another spark to potential pandemonium. I text message a friend in Montreal instead. His reply a few minutes later was 'weird question at this time of day J, are you in a church or something? Clet. Third Pope. circa AD 79. Call me when you get back. Explain please. You are not in Rome or something?'

18 degrees outside. Smell of fertilizer everywhere. Lazy. Figure I would visit a few places but have to be back at work to prep for a Fair Trade launching of Eric St-Pierre's new book. I figure I would try a goat cheese at Ferme Diodati to go with a Fair Trade dried pineapple and dried mango chutney from Équita that I would serve on top. I thought of serving it with my guinea hen and pistachio terrine but a very fresh and young goat cheese would be a lot better.

Terrine de pintade de la ferme La Sabinoise aux pistaches

340g pintade
380g pork shoulder
3/4 cup pistachios
3/4 cup chopped and sauteed pintade livers
10 g 7 spice
60g crust-less bread
60g milk
1 egg
10 chopped parsley
30ml brandy
20g salt
5g pepper
25g smoked bacon lardons
20g diced shallots
20g garlic
1 cup porto or red wine
enough barde to line one terrine mold

1-grind meat keeping 1/3 big grind for texture, the other 2/3 grind small
2-saute bacon with shallots and garlic, deglaze with porto and reduce by 3/4 quarters. chill.
3-soak bread in milk and mix to make a paste.
4-saute pintade livers in a little butter until golden but still r
Boldare in the middle (they will finish cooking in the terrine. this adds a little taste, texture and colour.)
5-once all ingredients are cold mix well.
6-line a terrine mold with the barde, put mixture in, cover with remaining barde.
7-cook for 30 minutes at 450F and then for 1 hour for 350F in a bain marie in the oven.
8-take out, let sit for ten minutes, press in fridge until the next day.

When I arrive at the Ferme Fromagerie Diodati I am looking at a house/tenement which looks at lot like something in Saint Leonard than the area of Les Cèdres. A little worn and time locked. I open the door and a woman tells me to enter. Her smile slightly eases the thoughts I was having of a Tarantino movie involving a gimp etc...She, Giovanna, explains the Montefino cheeses to me, from a few days fresh, to aged to something which she calls a Parmesan. I ask her if her family is from Abruzzo (Montefino being in the east). No. Napoli. Her father who started the fromagerie in 1972 was born in Galluccio, but that is in Campania. She laughs a little in that kind of that is how it goes and gives me a slice of fresh goat cheese which is two days old. Almost like a very floral tasty ricotta. Incredible...a soft spreadable texture which I see already with tomatoes and olive oil, but also with my Fair Trade dried fruit chutney. I ask Giovanna if she is the next Maitre fromager. Her father Antonio is ninety two. A few more questions and things are making more and more sense. When he first came to Canada by boat in the 40's he worked construction. This could very well explain the building. Only later did he start the farm. They are five children so they waiting to see who will keep the business going. They know they have to modernize it a little but, for now, our father, like a patriarch, has the last word she says giggling a little. I try the next cheese which is the same but aged a little longer. Beautiful. Roasted on a piece of toast in the oven for a couple of minutes. The third is what she calls Parmesan like. In 1972 it was difficult to sell this type of cheese she told me because Quebecois found it smelled too much like goat. Not now. We talk a little of Italy, a place I miss. I buy some cheese for the restaurant. I see a sign saying Farm fresh eggs. The simple pleasures. I buy a dozen for home. Arrivederci, gracie, a la prossima!

I decide to drive to Coteau du Lac wanting to see the water. The great gift of a large body of water. I found myself at the National historic site of Coteau du lac along the St-Laurent river where the first canal lock system in North America was built. A few stone formations of British military fortifications remain. I walk around. The beautiful St-Laurent river. A no fishing sign is posted. Funny. I kind of read it that the fish will not bite so don't bother. Sitting there listening to the passing water I felt that I was coming up for air, not unlike Orwell's George Bowling returning to his home town 20 years later. I don't need to go back to see how quickly our points of reference are changing, how we age with all these evanescent points of reference.
My friend sends me a text message "Cletus meaning in ancient greek 'one who is called' or his other name Anacletus meaning 'one who has been called back'...what the fuck are you doing anyway? Where are you?" Perhaps I thought that is exactly what our memory constantly does. Calls us back. Calls us back to something before the trend. Giovanna's stories remind me of just that, the cross roads of all our memories and the capacity to keep on moving with them and in fact the St-Laurent river reminds me of that of too.

April 17, 2010

the blessed, the roadkills and the casse croute

Early. Saturday morning. Too early. Seven am. Did last night's service until 11.30pm which meant no sleep until at least 1. Dreamt that a truck pulled up behind the restaurant and dumped a load of thousands of oysters into the kitchen from the back door. Oysters everywhere. One guy was cleaning them with a huge brush while another beside was madly shucking oysters with me but there was no end to it. Orders from clients just kept on ticking in, over and over, more and more with no reprieve. Then I hear somewhere somebody saying that there is another truck full of different oysters coming. We had to make room.

oysters with sake pearls

1/2 cup of sake + enough sake to cover the pearls
2.5 g of agar agar

1/2 cup of cold vegetable oil (in a container in the fridge)

put the sake in a pan and slowly heat. add the agar agar. Bring to a boil while whisking, reduce heat and cook for one minute. Remove from heat.

remove oil from fridge. fill a dropper with the sake mix and one drop in very cold oil one drop at a time.

strain the pearls from the oil. Rinse under warm water to remove excess oil.

cover the pearl with enough sake which helps retain their flavour.

to serve. open oyster. garnish with a little spoonful of pearls.

I have to drive Michèle to Ottawa from Montréal for a conference she has.

Early. Grey day. A thick fog has swallowed everything. Coffee is not working. The vague outline of trees is spectral. There is a silence to this fog which I covet.

Mechanically I get into the car and we are off. 15 north, highway 40. My attention is enough only to drive. We arrive in Ottawa and I drop her off at her work. Now what? I don`t feel like being in the city. A little introspective...started wondering about food. Already I was hungry, but I started asking questions like what is food really? We all eat for one reason but there seems to be an enormous set of secondary reasons. People have been mentioning comfort food so much lately that one had to wonder. What are people really trying to say about comfort food? That it is good? That it reminds them of their youth? Simplicity? Culture? Something I never heard of when I lived in Italy.

I remembered reading about a monastery in Québec not far from Hawksbury of Greek Orthodox nuns who make some goat and sheep milk cheese. Fuck it. Now or never I thought. Without calling to see if they are open I drive in the general direction. I could use something spiritual. I take the 17 towards Hawksbury. A beautiful drive through Ontario villages and farmland. Full of picturesque sagging wood barns which most of us love. The thing is that we would never buy one, but we realize that they are still being used, perhaps that is their charm, along with the old rusted tractor; that they are not pristine. But then again some people can where socks with innumerable holes in them and could not be bothered. Nonetheless the presence of these barns is something I almost expect. Perhaps as something to invalidate the milk carton picturesque ideal of a farm pure and smiling and simple and clean living. There are few cars on the highway. So many road kills though. Pink insides folded outward like warning signs. Dangerous. With the lack of sleep, such vibrant colours bulging out of all the bellies of this and that creature my eyes tend to fixate on them a little too intensely...behind the wheel is not a good thing. So many still lifes. What is so appealing about these farms? The organization of the pastures? Maybe it is the idea of self sufficiency that is so attractive. I often wonder if we do not realize somewhere that unless we know how to hunt or farm or tend a garden that we are not only removed from surviving but are neurotically subconsciously aware that we are dependent on people that we do not know, on a system that we vaguely trust, but have little choice to expect them to deliver?

Over the Ottawa river, into Québec from Ontario. I become aware of my incredible hunger. I pull into the first place I find, a casse croute. The menu. Hot dog, poutine, hamburger, pizza ghetti and then half a pizza with half a portion of spaghetti with meat sauce with poutine. My hunger is savage but I suddenly wonder who invented this kind of dish? Is it comfort food? Unfortunately it probably is for someone. At this moment I feel nothing comforting about it, nothing of the community I am in, nothing of terroir, suddenly feeling that it is not even food...it is the remnant of a North American system of mass production hopefully coming to its end. I reconsider. Not far to go. I buy some nut bread at a local bakery, tear off a few chunks and race off for the blessed flock. Chemin Staynerville, Montée Wert and then a muddy dirt road. The forest looks wild. Nothing arranged except the power lines feeding some unseen source.

I pull into the drive way, past some open iron gate with the orthodox cross and...well it is not Europe. Perhaps I expected Monte Subasio, or Chartreuse, or Syria. No. Something very new. A house in the distance like any other, only bigger. Nearer, a collection of buildings made to look as if we were on the Mediterranean coast, ersatz middle ages. Oh well. I walk into the boutique with its books, CD's, icons and cheese. I am served by a traditionally black hooded nun with a brilliant smile, the kind of smile which gives one a sort of feeling of relief. The kind of smile that suddenly makes me feel like a fool, like a tourist helped by the fact that everyone in the store is speaking Greek. We talk about their production, how they sold their flock to a neighbour because it was too much work for such a small community, but they still produce their cheese. I buy 3 varieties. More hungry than ever.

I have the cheese for the restaurant. I sit at a picnic table. I pull out the nut bread and cut a piece of Athonite. 100% goat. 6 months old. Nutty. Floral. I try another. Le Bon Berger. 100% goat. Same production date. More floral, like a cheddar maybe with a light taste of annatto. Then the Graviera, sheep's milk. A little over six months old. Delicious. The best by far. A sharper even toasted taste. I finish the bread, saving some cheese for Michèle. I watch the tiny river moving over huge rocks, into the wild looking forest, and the half finished construction of their buildings. Except for the constant agitation of the river there is absolute silence, not the kind of silence there must have been before the big bang or God's grand gesture, but the silence of something inarticulate, the silence of something which needs to be constantly said.

April 11, 2010

spring is edging in with its blossoms and drinks

The more and more we set out in the Quebec country side I realize how it is a sort of therapy or maybe it is all the strange artisan alcoholic drinks we are tasting along the way.

Under a slightly grey sky Michele and I set out through the early Sunday morning streets of downtown Montreal via Mont Saint Hilaire. It has been one those weeks and I need my 'therapy'...besides I need some cheese for the restaurant I work at, and might discover some other farm or ingredients I can use. The ice pack in the trunk is filled with random leftovers from the fridge, and by the time of our first visit to an apple orchard we realize that we simply taking our leftovers for a joyride. We arrive at Les Vergers Petit et fils expecting to taste some apple ice cider and instead wandered to the back of the shop...where of course there happens to be the distraction of a kitchy restaurant serving enormous buckwheat crepes with apple syrup, sausages etc....So be it, there has always been a fine line between research and pleasure for us. The leftovers in the trunk will have to wait. We sit. Gum chewing waitress pours each of us a coffee, we order while looking through the window over the budding apple orchard. That orchard the future of tasty apples, tasty apples and tasty drinks!

And what crepes! What a pair of enormousities! Michele finished half the plate (half a crêpe = a whole one but folded in two...so a plate is two half crepes meaning two whole stuffed crepes) and I left some debris of apple, sausage with a tiny pool of sirop. What the fuck I thought, this is obscene and yet with the sun suddenly conquering the clouds, the Quebecois music playing, fuck the kilos, the calories...this is research. We paid and walked out a little dazed from this unexpected brunch, forgetting to try their Petit Frisson apple ice cider. On the way back we say. Now for cheese. La ferme Mes petits Caprices. Goat cheese. Only sold at their farm. Cheese, the staff of life, or pretty close. Somehow though, the 5 minute drive to their farm turned into a quarter hour...another Michele and Jason excursion through the country side.

A wrong turn, somewhere, somehow, every time...a little frustrated (not like we fought or anything!) we pulled into a the driveway of what I thought was a farm that sold ostrich meat. Instead a sign reads that we were at a ceramist's shop. A woman comes out of her garage cum shop 'Bonjour!' She greets us. Above her is the sign which reads Ne faites pas l'autruche (Do not be like an ostrich). I comforted myself with this simple mistake. Where are we from etc...and suddenly we are in her atelier surrounded by pottery done in the Japanese Raku technique. I never set out to look at pottery, but end up always sucked in, falling in love with some piece etc...

description of this technique

Raku is a centuries old firing technique developed by the Japanese. The pieces of pottery are fired outdoors in a kiln fueled by wood or propane. The pieces are heated very quickly to the red hot stage and while the glaze is still molten, they are pulled out of the kiln and into the air. The iridescent colors and/or crackle surfaces are a result of the chemical reaction of the glaze materials oxidizing when the posts are removed from the kiln. To stop the oxidation process and control the surface effects and colors, the pots are then places in a pit or container, covered with combustible materials and sealed airtight with a lid. This is called a reduction atmosphere. This reduction of oxygen stops the flaming and produces thick black smoke which permeates the clay body and produces the unusual, spontaneous surface effects.

all glazed and random sensuous lines with a fossil like look. And as Jose Drouin is explaining this technique to us I somehow had one of her pieces in my hand, a tiny ceramic container with its lid and mentally I already had it filled with my homemade mead wine mustard.

J's homemade mead wine mustard
85g honey wine

90g cider vinegar

55g brown mustard seeds
15g black mustard seeds
1 tbs mustard powder
8g sugar

soak for 2 days in the fridge then blend half of it with
30g honey
5g garlic
8g mustard powder
pinch pepper

mix in the unblended half keeping the seeds whole

adjust to personal taste (adding a little more honey or sugar with make it less fiery, but then why would you want that!)

She tells us of another ceramist who does more restaurant style pottery, Louise Bousquet. Michele is thrilled. We must visit, her work is sublime. I pay for my mustard pot, happy. We set off in the direction of Bousquet's shop and see a sign for La ferme Mes Petits Caprice. Yes! All is ok in this bubble like Sunday in the universe. Before we get there though there is a sign which reads Cryo. Apple ice cider. Open. Why not. I turn in the driveway where we meet owner Hugo Poliquin, animated, lively, smiling, ex-light engineer turned minister of apple ice wine. Now there are a lot of apple ice ciders on the market, even overwhelmingly so, and there are some incredible apple ice ciders on the market, and this will have to be added to that distinctive list. I think Hugo looks at an apple's life cycle differently and has tried to tell that cycle's story through the liquor. This is complex, not overly sweet liquid which we sip, enjoying its slightly oxidized aroma, happy it is good because there was no crachoir in sight. "And Quebec is unique in that we make our ice ciders with the apples that we eat and not only like most others in the world with apples destined solely for the production of alcohol. And the reason for this he explains is in part prohibition. Making illegal alcohol was easier with apples you ate so when the authorities came around there was little suspicion. But that is one long complicated story and an hour later I found myself hungry again and if we were going to see everything we wanted to we would have to go.
I buy 9 bottles for the restaurant and 3 for us already wondering what I can serve it with other than the obvious foie gras.

Off again. Michèle suggests that we visit Louise Bousquet first since the thought of eating more on top of the buckwheat crêpes would probably make her sick. I was hungry already though. She pulls out some almonds she brought back from Lebanon and by the hand full I managed to finish the bag. There are few experiences in life that I can say are inspiring and challenging at the same time but this was indeed one of them. Louise meets us in her store, serene, wizened, soft spoken surrounded by fine porcelain which I can really only describe as sublime. This translucent quality the dishes was something I was not expecting. In one moment I felt like some aesthete lamenting the modern world until I heard Louise mention to Michele that she studied with Raynaud of Limoges who makes plates for Thomas Keller's Per Se. She had a sample plate to show us for the new collection at his New York restaurant. Here, beside Mont St-Hilaire and I was reminded of my trade as a chef, of our struggles, its stress and of one of the best restaurants in the world. We talked for an hour or so and who I saw a caring professional and her art, matured, accomplished, covered in dust. I felt awe and a certain jealousy that she seemed to have found that peace with her material, a comfort I suppose we are all looking for. I also suddenly understood what admiration meant.

And finally...CHEESE. The wonderful simple pleasure of it. We drive 5 minutes back towards the Cryo ice cider and meet Diane (co-owner) of La ferme Mes Petits Caprice. No time is wasted and she cuts a piece of one of her cheeses explaining that this may be the best part of year because naturally the goat's milk is fat because of the winter whereas in summer it is leaner. So instead of having a slightly chalky texture we are used to in artisanal goat cheeses. This first one was the cream of the creamy. Bang on. We then tasted the Hilairemontais accompanied with a little burp of apple ice cider fumes and it made absolute sense. A perfect pairing. It would be a great week at the restaurant although minus the Louise Bousquet porcelaine to serve it on. I bought a few kilos of cheese feeling that something which comes out of these excursions, this kind of therapy, this kind of sharing with people, this deeper satisfaction of connectedness with people with that yearning to return home and taste it all over again. I was ready for another week.