Dishing It Out

By / Magazine / October 12th, 2010 / 2

Food and wine partner-up like Bogie and Bacall, Lucy and Ricky. Inseparable at picnics, best buddies at barbecues and lovers on the dining room table, one wonders if their rendezvous starts there or much earlier … in the sizzling heat of the kitchen.

I interviewed three Niagara-area chefs to compare their philosophies on the connection between food and wine, and to discover how they kick-start the affair. Fortunately for me, it involved cutlery and stemware.

Jason Parsons is the Executive Chef at Peller Estates Winery Restaurant. I had the good fortune to dine there as he demonstrated how impassioned he is about wine. As a slow learner, it took several courses for me to fully understand, but the message was clear: in Chef Jason’s kitchen, wine is as integral as salt.

An attractive square plate with tuna tartare in one corner and five-spice crusted tuna in the other reminded me of boxers facing off across the ring. Accentuated with liquid gold (2007 Riesling Icewine), a split decision was declared as both were enhanced by the sweetness and acidity in the glass. I asked chef to describe the connection between food and wine: “Working at a winery for the last five years, my most important discovery is that wine and food truly need each other. The thought of creating a dish without the wine in mind just seems like a job half done. When you find a perfect pairing that elevates both the wine and food, it is a whole new creation. For me wine is a very diverse ingredient, so using it can bring a whole new dimension. To create a dish and then leave it to the mercy of a wrongly matched wine that pulls down the potential of both is such a shame.”

Chef Jason told me (then demonstrated) how wine marries food: “When you profile a wine and truly understand what is in the glass, you can only then begin to create a culinary pairing. Every dish on my menu incorporates wine in one way or another. They may not all include some wine in them, but I always have the wine profile in mind. For example, the Meritage profile would be cherry, vanilla, smoke and white pepper, so when I make the dish, I use cherries in a risotto, vanilla in the cream, smoked cheese, and white pepper crusted lamb.”

With the plate in front of me and a glass of 2007 Meritage at hand, I tasted the cherry risotto, vanilla cream, goat cheese brulée and smoky, peppered tenderloin together, then immediately tried the wine. What an amazing experience. The food, basically a deconstruction of the wine, reflected the flavours, as he’d promised, but added a textural dimension that made my mouth tingle. But I wasn’t finished yet.

A “frost” of dry Rosé wine with raspberry and anise set my palate up for a dessert of Cabernet Franc Icewine, chocolate marquise, cranberry compote and pistachio bark — an irresistible tag team. Chef said there was Icewine in everything, which makes sense, as it is his personal favourite: “I am not just saying this because I work in Niagara, but Icewine is such an amazing ingredient. I have been able to use it throughout an entire meal and it has given me some of my most treasured pairings. The amount of wine we go through (in the restaurant) is staggering. Everything we do at Peller Estates Winery Restaurant is in the spirit of wine and food.”

Chef Tony De Luca is the affable owner of Tony De Luca’s Wine Country Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He cooked up a staggering number of off-menu dishes made and matched with Niagara wines to demonstrate how strongly connected both are in his kitchen.

Over an amuse-bouche of pear with double-smoked prosciutto and blue cheese and a glass of Cave Spring Cellars Dolomite Brut, he shared his thoughts on wine-food culture: “I will always champion the cause of “regional cuisine.” From sea to sea, this great country of ours provides us with wondrous natural resources that we chefs are so lucky to have in the compilation of our repertoires. My belief is that the food culture here is closely tied to the local terroir of each region, just like in many European countries. In Niagara there is one unifying element for all us chefs and that is a healthy respect for wine. Furthermore, we are blessed with four distinct seasons that allow us to respect Mother Nature with seasonal dishes, and because the cooking and farming communities are so well connected, we are always certain of the provenance of our raw materials.”

Stratus Winery (across the street from the restaurant) made the Charles Baker 2006 Riesling, a perfect accompaniment to Pacific perch with leek compote, mussels, and a saffron and tomato sauce. I was swooning, but listening as Chef Tony quoted from his book, Recipes from Wine Country: “There are few experiences in life that are as complete, pleasurable and rewarding as sitting down to a meal with family and friends (and chefs). And when the flavours of the food and wine are in harmony we experience something beyond our expectations; meals can bring us joy … I strongly believe that food and wine is as natural a relationship as can be found.”

Along with a glass of Creekside Estate’s 2006 Reserve Shiraz came 30-day aged beef with a red wine reduction sauce, a fricassée of mushrooms with truffle oil, and fingerling potatoes. Chef offered “a few simple guidelines” for those of us who want to cook at home with wine: “If you are using wine in a recipe, you will have greater success by using a heavy one with a full body and a generous acidity. There is an old adage that you should never cook with wine you wouldn’t drink. That is true. But conversely, you should never use a wine which is very expensive either, because heat will be detrimental to the qualities which make wine expensive in the first place.”

Over cheese and an array of beautiful desserts, Chef Tony summed up his goals perfectly: “In the restaurant, highlighting the affinity of food and wine is our primary mandate.”

Vineland Estates Winery Restaurant uses local, seasonal ingredients in its “Niagara cuisine.” I spoke with Executive Chef Jan-Willem Stulp about wine and food on a day that was so chilly and snowy that the neat rows of vines outside the windows seemed to be shivering. Chunky, creamy mushroom soup with truffle oil, and a glass of Vineland Estates 2007 Chardonnay Reserve with its creamy oak, was a perfect way to begin our conversation — and banish the cold:
“We always have an off-menu Chef’s Creative. We have learned to pair our wines with our dishes because we have an innate sense of flavour profiles. Our food is always prepared with wine in mind. Our Niagara food culture is based on what is grown indigenously. We try to go as local as we can, but the circle increases as we search for things like seafood. We do mussels, oysters, char, salmon, but not Hawaiian Maui [mahi?]. We have duck, quail, deer, elk, wild boar, pheasant, rabbit, all locally grown. Pecans, walnuts and almonds are available here. Cheese is always Canadian, even though the USA is technically closer to us than Quebec.”

Accompanying a glass of 2007 Pinot Noir, a five-spice duck breast with a red wine reduction and grilled vegetables was a perfect match to the afternoon. Chef discussed his choices: “Food here is designed to showcase what it is. A duck breast still looks like a duck breast. I don’t want to turn it into anything else. The flavours all have to be true to their terroir. Terroir comes into play with food as well as wine. A wine is released here and I start playing in my head to find out what will really work well. There was fruit in the glaze in the duck, for example … that was on purpose, to play with the flavours in the Pinot Noir. We know that some flavours clash, like toothpaste and orange juice, while others harmonize beautifully.”

A large plate of tempting dessert bites (to which I succumbed) and Cabernet Sauvignon Icewine left me more than sated: “We deglaze pans with wine, we use wine in sauces, stocks, bases and marinades. I always cook with Vineland Estate wines, rarely Niagara, but that is less loyal or romantic than you may think. It is simply price. This wine, technically, I don’t have to buy. If I needed Port, then I’d have to go elsewhere, but as a rule, I have learned to understand the flavour profiles of our wines, by year, so have learned to anticipate their flavours and which aspects I’m going to push. A Riesling from a cold wet year will be more tart, more appley, more lemony than a Riesling that has enjoyed a tremendous amount of heat and sunshine. I work with the wines from each year and make the most of them. The culture of food and wine is always evolving. You are sitting here in a winery in Canada … 50 years ago, the idea was absurd.”


Brenda McMillan is thrilled by new sights, sounds, aromas and flavours, and old buildings, barrels and friends. She travels at the drop of a corkscrew and is always "just back" from somewhere.

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