A single leaf of sorrel! Sometimes that's all it takes to make you never want to eat a certain way again. Even a single, perfect, bright-green leaf of fresh sorrel lovingly plucked from the perfect herb garden at the 13th Street Winery in St. Catharines, Ont., on a perfect evening in June.
June, when all the food juices start to teem and boil and the foodies and the gourmands and the oenophiles and the just plain hungry start to roam the land, searching for that … perfect bite. For that ineffable deliciousness that makes you glad to be doing nothing for a moment but eating - as long as it isn't going to kill you, hasn't been fed a pail of pesticides, respects the environment and doesn't make you feel too guilty.
I thought I would roam the land myself, looking for those delicious moments. I would eat Canada. Because there are a vast number of people who think about food more or less incessantly. It's a national delirium. It ranges in intensity from obsessive to slightly less obsessive, at every level of sophistication and meaning. It's often competitive, and occasionally wiener-ish.
And contrary to the stereotype that there's nothing to eat anywhere but Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver (maybe Calgary), there are astonishing things to eat everywhere. The trick is finding them. I hope this is a chronicle of that adventure.
I decided to start posh, so I called my brother, Tim, and invited him to an elaborate tasting at 13th Street, a once-tiny winery now expanding and becoming more commercial in Niagara, the Queen Mother of Canada's wine lands. The meal was to be made by the chef at Treadwell, easily one of the best restaurants in the country.
Ian Brown eats Canada
I always call Tim on any daunting culinary adventure. He's a stockbroker, but his real love is food and cooking. He's very accomplished at all three, and an ex-waiter, which, coupled to the stockbroker persona, guarantees Vulcan standards. I often feel sorry for the waiter when we have lunch. The poor server - if the server is a man, at least - soon takes on the look of a small dog in a thunderstorm.
Tim has a way of conveying to the waiter that he, the waiter, is an imbecile because (and this is just one of many possibilities) the cretin has described the chicken supreme inadequately. He does this silently, or with the single word: "Really."
The trouble started when a bearded Saxon named Peter Bodnar Rod gave us a tour of the new 13th Street facilities. Mr. Bodnar Rod calls himself a sommelier, but he's also a marketing consultant. His last commission was to convince Eastern Canadians that B.C.'s Mission Hill makes serious wine. (He succeeded.) His current task is the commercial expansion of 13th Street. (That's working too. Its wines were served at the G8, the G20 and this week to the Queen.)
He showed us the sculptures installed around the winery. They were bright and enamelled, the creations of a Transylvanian artist, Karoly Veress. "This one is called Encounters," Mr. Bodnar Rod said. "It's his wife and him meeting for the first time. Then they come together and sort of solidify."
"Really," Tim said.
First bite: A searing issue
Which brings me, once again, to the sorrel leaf and the scallop. The scallop was a single scallop, seared and served on a tidy altar of pork belly marinated in 7UP and roasted with brown sugar. Between the pork belly and the scallop was a plop of fresh pea purée graced with a hint of truffle oil. On top of the scallop was the aforementioned single, perfect, very green leaf of sorrel. I felt like Albert Mummery standing before Nanga Parbat.
I was nibbling the sorrel on its own when a middle-aged woman down the table spoke. "Does the chef sear his scallops on cast iron?" she asked.
She had a voice like a sharp blow to the forehead. A sinuous wreath of gold twigs around her neck matched her golden tan and her dyed golden hair. She had been acting up all evening.
Each course was preceded by a new wine, which in turn was preceded by explanatory talks from Michael Pinkus, a respected taster at the Ontario Wine Review, and James Treadwell, the son of Stephen Treadwell, the chef at Treadwell. This is a feature of obsessional fine dining: You learn as you eat.