Stratford Bound

Stratford Bound

Woken yesterday morning at 6:45 a.m. by small black and white cat faces very close to mine, mewing for their breakfast. Grumble, mutter, shuffle downstairs and find no newspaper on the porch. Choking coughs and gurgles of coffee machine announce start of day. Cats crying for the outside world, though I know when I open the back door and the damp arctic air hits them they will race back indoors complaining of my cruelty. Why, then, am I smiling? Because this Ethiopian coffee that I buy from Moonbean in Kensington Market is not the first thing of surpassing excellence to pass the lips this week.

On Wednesday evening, for example, there was an absolutely superb duck confit—the layer of sweet, soft fat beneath the perfectly crisp skin on the point of liquefaction, the flesh beneath moist and full of rich ducky flavour—I don’t know when I have eaten better. It was cooked at The Old Prune restaurant in Stratford by Richard Francis—but I should give some background. Last Sunday, I was very honoured to be named the first Joseph Hoare Writer-in-Residence at the Stratford Chefs School. Joseph was my great friend and mentor, the long-time food editor of Toronto Life who gave me my first job reviewing restaurants and writing about food and wine 20 years ago, and who set ethical and grammatical standards by which I still try to live. He died 10 years ago but not before learning that the writer-in-residence program would be set up in his name, allowing students at the Chefs School to develop their food writing skills and knowledge, should they so wish. Life skips by. It has taken 10 years to get the program funded and off the ground, its ultimate success largely due to Joseph’s nephews and the rest of his remarkable family.

As I said, I am incredibly honoured to have been chosen, and I look forward to being of some use to the students with writing tutorials and workshops, public readings or simply talking about food writing with anyone who is interested. I’ll be there for 12 days scattered throughout the coming term, and I started on Tuesday and Wednesday, sitting in on classes, introducing myself to the students and being a customer at a couple of dinner labs held at The Old Prune. The second-year students are divided into groups and each person has the chance to serve as chef at several dinner labs during the term while the other members of the group fill other roles in the kitchen and dining room. It was Richard Francis’s turn on Wednesday. He had been assigned an interesting menu that began with a dish of sliced lamb’s tongue, fingerling potato, golden beets and lamb’s lettuce. It was followed by a salad of frisée, sliced raw artichoke and fennel and crisp prosciutto. Then came the duck confit—so divine—served over a little ragout of cabbage. Dessert was a delicious crème caramel—not too sweet, thank goodness, dressed with orange.

The dinner lab concept is challenging for the students—the “chef” assumes full responsibility in the kitchen and the customers are real members of the public. Francis’s task was made harder by the presence of a full TV crew that filmed the entire evening. They are producing a show about the Stratford Chefs School that will air early next year on the Food Network.

And talking of television, the episode of Mark McEwan’s show, The Heat, on November 19 is all about the Canadian Culinary Championship held in Whistler last February. I had a sneak preview and thought it was excellent, capturing all the stress and challenges of the competition. Definitely worth watching. This coming week, we’ll be finding three more contenders for next year’s hugely fascinating Canadian Culinary Championship (to be held in Toronto from February 7 to 10) as the Gold Medal Plates competition takes to the road—Montreal on November 13, Vancouver on November 14, Calgary on November 15 (all three events long since sold out, I’m delighted to say). What tired bunnies we will be come Friday.

Bertrand Guinoiseau of Martell Cognac recently came to town, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to a one-on-one tasting of that renowned house’s ultimate brandies. Martell Cordon Bleu has been my avowed favourite cognac for many years and much as I love the more elegant Martell XO, I still prefer Cordon Bleu’s rich, robust depths, the floral perfume of all those Borderies eaux-de-vie that go into the blend, the incredible length. Guinoiseau poured me a little of the latest Martell arrival in Canada, the Création Grand Extra (currently on sale at the LCBO for $495). It is amazingly delicious, super smooth, super long en bouche, and redolent of prunes and gingerbread, lime and orange marmalade, walnuts, cedar and those rancio aromas that make good sherry so pleasing. Then, as a grand finale, he poured me a little L’Or de Martell (LCBO Classics Catalogue, $2,500), which comes in its own decanter with a 24-carat gold stopper. L’Or is a dark coppery golden colour that seems to paint the glass. It’s viscous and incredibly concentrated, like the quintessence of cognac. One sip lingers on the palate for long minutes. It’s the sort of spirit to be enjoyed in tiny amounts, in private, in silence, obsessively, making a bottle last for years. Wonderful stuff.