There are parties you simply don’t want to miss, but then you do miss them and end up regretting it the rest of your life. Or at least until Tuesday. I was actually invited to Ivy Knight’s sausage party—a riotous assembly of competitive sausage-making, sausage-eating, imbibing and burlesque. Ivy describes it with typically vivid verve (and pictures) on the Gremolata blog. Wish I could have been there.
The same goes for Brad Long’s change-of-life fiesta last Sunday. Long has been chef of the Air Canada Centre and Maple Leaf Sports for 10 years, and though he has thoroughly enjoyed the gig, he is heading off to pastures new—literally. On behalf of his new restaurant, Veritas, and in partnership with chef Tawfik Shehata of Vertical, he is setting up a farm somewhere north of Stouffville, where he and his family live and where he will, in his own words,
learn to sustainably plant, grow and harvest a cross section of heirloom produce (maybe some chickens, pigs, sheep down the road) for [Tawfik’s] restaurant and mine. Part of the reason to do this is to offer cooks (and everyone) an opportunity to experience and understand the process (and some of the politics) of growing food. On top of the digging and learning, hauling, hoeing, weeding and watering this whole intense (and sustainable) process will be the subject of a documentary… Sound crazy? Yeah, don’t care.
And that was where the party idea entered the picture. Long got his pals to leave the city for a day (lucky the weather was breathtakingly aestival), don wellies and get stuck into a little on-camera farming. The pot was sweetened with yummy food, beverages, fireworks and the sort of banter only off-duty chefs can generate.
To be executive chef of the ACC is to be about as corporate as a chef can get, though Long always went much farther than his tether might be expected to reach, pushing the gastronomic envelope at the Platinum Club by giving the steak-eating members a chance to taste game (always beautifully cooked), wild salmon, the best of everything. He was also den mother to the athletes, teaching 10-burger-a-day-scarfing NHL prospects how to cook a healthy pasta lunch and finding bona fide grits and collard greens for homesick Raptors. It’s interesting to see him going all muddy and righteous down on the farm, following in the rustic footsteps of Michael Stadtländer, Michael Potters, Jamie Kennedy, Marc Thuet, et al. Or it would have been interesting if I had been there. I did have a good excuse, though: I was taking my daughter and her friend to the Cheese Boutique for the Festival of Chefs event starring Jonathan Gushue of Langdon Hall.
Readers of this blog will know the very high regard I have for Cheese Boutique, its tireless owner, Fatos Pristine, and his talented family. The Festival of Chefs (held every Saturday and Sunday in May) is always fun—a foodfest in the midst of a busy shopping day. This time I was very honoured to be invited to sit at a perfectly accoutred table in the shop window, together with my young companions, and to be thoroughly spoiled as Gushue’s delectable treats were brought to us and a fine 1993 Barolo was poured.
We began with a trio of olives: sweet, lemony, delicately flavoured, pitted brown ones from Italy; firm green picholines from Provence; and fantastically pungent alfonso olives from Peru that had turned soft and purple from long storage in red wine barrels. Served alongside were some of the breads now being made at Langdon Hall by pastry chef Rob Howland, including a dazzling new loaf introduced by Montreal’s bread genius James MacGuire, who recently stayed at Langdon Hall for a week, coaching the bakers.
The first course was a delicious cold soup, a velvety purée of fava beans topped with some of the parmigiano-reggiano-infused yogurt made at Langdon Hall and a sprinkling of toasted cumin seeds. So yummy.
Then Gushue sent forth a selection of Langdon Hall’s charcuterie, which Afrim Pristine matched with some firm cheeses: lightly smoked Idiazábal from Navarre; Vento d’Estate from the Veneto (a sheep’s milk cheese wrapped in wild mint and lavender that the Boutique ages for a further year); and Provolone Aurichio, also from the Veneto, a superstar Provolone that comes in roped forms almost seven feet high. You can see them for yourself in Cheese Boutique’s awesome cheese vault. Even alongside such amazing treasures, the Langdon charcuterie more than held its own. Gushue makes a foie gras parfait that camouflages its perfect richness with an ethereal texture. He turns out a fabulous and unusually soft bresaola by marinating the beef for weeks in red wine brine before dry curing it. His beef cheek in gelée is like the god of head cheese; his pulled pork rillettes simply ooze flavour. As for the pheasant and foie gras paté en croute and the sopresata (its chunks of sweet white fat spiked with red wine and a touch of smoked paprika), well, I must leave those experiences to your imagination.
Moving along, the Pristines brought over some of the smoked pork ribs they prepare and sell on weekends, then Afrim appeared wheeling a massive steel-lined barrel. Inside were 180 fresh, firm young goat cheeses from the neighbourhood dairy, International Cheese Company, all drowned since February 27 in 75 litres of Malivoire Old Vines Marechal Foch red wine. Afrim thrust in a hand and pulled out a cheese stained the colour of beetroot by the tannic Foch. He cut into it and we saw that the colour had barely penetrated the cheese—the dark purple exterior and snowy white paste a dazzling contrast. We tasted. The marriage needs a few more months, we agreed, to fulfill its potential. Meanwhile, we munched on lightly toasted fig bread from Célestin and a wedge of unctuous Saint Dominus goat cheese from Burgundy, fronds of thyme pressed into its bloomy yellow rind.
Rob Howland provided dessert: strawberries soaked in balsamic and dusted with cracked black pepper, fresh cherries and a selection of chocolate truffles, one filled with a cream made of rhubarb poached in orange juice, another flavoured with blue cheese and sea salt, another with lime and espalette peppers.
There is always something slightly surreal about sitting and eating a long and civilized meal in a busy shop window—which of course is a good thing, not a criticism. The Pristines’ hospitality is legendary, and their shop, I believe, is the most interesting and creative food store we have.