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Wine and Food Pairing

Book Reviews, Wine and Food Pairing

Goodness – Wine Pairings for the Neal Brothers’ New Cookbook

February 1, 2016

Confession – I’m a fan of the Neal Brothers products. We can’t keep their honey-mustard pretzel bites in the house because they’re just too good and I will happily slather my sandwiches with their delicious sriracha mayonnaise if given the chance. I also like the ethos of the company—fresh ingredients, organic and Fair Trade whenever possible and supportive of local charities—so I was very interested in finding out more about their Goodness: Recipes and Stories cookbook when it was released.

Peter and Chris NealGoodness is full of yummy-looking recipes and interesting stories from chefs, entrepreneurs and food champions and would be worth checking out on that basis alone, but this book is so much more. Fifty per cent of the profits from Goodness are being donated to Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC), a charity that brings together people from low-income communities to “grow, cook, share and advocate for good food.”

For Peter Neal, the book was a way to spread the word about Canadian food fighters and support a cause he’s passionate about. “I am on the National Advisory committee for CFCC and in a November 2014 meeting we were discussing ways to raise awareness and funding,” he says. “I had always wanted to write a book to inspire others around entrepreneurship and conscious capitalism. Goodness; Recipes and Stories seemed like a wonderful vehicle to accomplish all of this.”

Crispy Cod from the Neal Brothers Goodness CookbookI bought a copy of the book at a recent Toronto launch party and then quickly set about making one of the recipes. OK, Shawn set about making one of the recipes – but you knew that already, right? We went with the Halibut Crunch by Peter and Chris Neal, which is an easy and delicious take on breaded fish. We made our version with cod, since there was no halibut available at our fish shop and chose Neal Brothers Srirachup Kettle Chips and Sriracha Mayonnaise to make the topping. Shawn and I both like spicy food, so this was the perfect version for us, but the recipe can be adapted to whatever your tastes.

We both agreed this recipe was super easy and the results really tasty. This is the sort of simple, filling dish that can be paired with a salad for a lazy dinner after work. The chips give the breading a great kick of spice and a burst of crunch and the mayo brings it all together in a delicious bite. No need for tartar sauce here – it’s built right in. For a wine pairing, we went with dry bubbles that cut through the spice cleanly. We chose the Veuve Ambal Crémant de Bourgogne, an affordable French sparkling that won’t break the bank for a casual meal and works really well with the level of salt and spice here. I liked this brut sparkler both on its own and with food—it was refreshing and crisp with just enough fruit on the palate and very strong bubbles that held up well.

Veuve Ambal Sparkling French WinePeter Neal is also a wine lover (and a partner in Hanna Neal Wine Merchants), so I asked him for his favourite wine pairings for recipes in Goodness. “I loved Lil Macpherson’s braised lamb shanks with a beautiful Rioja – Marques de Murrieta,” he says. “I also loved Palmer & Co. Champagne on New Year’s with Jamie Kennedy’s marinated wild sockeye salmon.”

Those both sound like mouth-watering options too! I was curious about Hanna Neal Wine Merchants and the work they do, which is currently focussed on Spanish wines. “We feature some beautiful and iconic Riojas from producers such as Marques de Murrieta, as well as lesser known value wines from areas such as Alicante and Emporda,” says Peter. “We are starting to work with a producer who makes the best value Cava in my opinion, La Perelada, and also hope to start presenting organic and biodynamic wines to the LCBO, but they need some nudging!” Hopefully not too much, as it would be great to see another organic option on store shelves soon.

The Neal Brothers Goodness Recipes and StoriesIf you’re looking for a good mix of recipes with varied levels of complexity Goodness is a great option (there’s lots for newbies or more experienced chefs here). It’s an easy-to-use cookbook for a great cause and full of dishes that call out for wine pairings. Shawn and I have marked a bunch of pages and are thinking the Beet Caprese by Chef Rocco Agostino will be next on our list to make and we’re excited to experiment with wine options.

You can order your copy of Goodness: Recipes and Stories on Amazon or find it at a local retailer.

Interested in another Spanish wine and food pairing? Check out this suggestion from Peter Neal’s partner at Hanna Neal Wine Merchants, Andrew Hanna.

What are your favourite wine and food pairings? Share them in the comments below or on social.

Thanks to The Neal Brothers for providing some of their products to help Shawn and I experiment with this recipe (and a few wine and snack food pairings). The bottle of Veuve Ambal Crémant de Bourgogne was also a sample. I bought my copy of Goodness at full price because CFCC is a really important charity and this is a great way to support them. Opinions are, as always, my own.

Wine and Food Pairing

Icewine Festival 2016 – Ice, Ice, Baby

January 28, 2016
Peller Estates Icewine

The incredible 10 Below ice bar at Peller Estates is not to be missed

Missing the annual Icewine Festival in Niagara is simply not done in our household. Even with my current life unsweetened (I’ve pretty much given up candy and desserts in favour of wine as my indulgence of choice), I wasn’t willing to miss this year’s fest. And I’m so glad we made the trip. Every year the festival seems to get better with the wineries developing more innovative (and delicious) pairings to go with some of the world’s best Icewines.

For those who haven’t made it out yet, you still have one more weekend (January 29/30/31) to explore all that the area has to offer. And, believe us, it’s impossible to see it all in just one day. Shawn once again played DD so I could sip and savour at eight different wineries. I’ll have a full review of my experience at Pillitteri Estate Winery in an upcoming post, but below you can find out more about the pairings we enjoyed on this year’s trip.

Pillitteri Estate Winery – Kerner Icewine paired with a homegrown Niagara Apple Fritter drizzled in a cinnamon Icewine caramel sauce—I was a little hesitant about this pairing because I sometimes find sweet on sweet a bit too much, but this was a delight. The fritters were very light in flavour, so they made a great pairing with the sweeter 2012 Kerner. Pillitteri is one of, if not the first, winery to make a Kerner Icewine and it is indeed a treat – there were caramel, pear and vanilla notes and a lovely acidity that cut through the sweetness. This was perhaps my favourite festival-featured Icewine and is a must-try for wine-lovers looking for a unique varietal.

Rancourt Winery Gewurztraminer Icewine paired with Wicked Thai SoupRancourt Winery—Harvest Barn Wicked Thai Chicken Soup with Gewurztraminer Icewine—On its own, I found this 2013 Gewurztraminer just a touch too sweet at first sip – the candied fruit notes were definitely pleasant and the wine was well-balanced, but not quite to my tastes. Paired with this absolutely brilliant soup, though, it was pretty perfect. Shawn and I both agreed that this soup was just fabulous—lots of heat and Thai flavours and plenty of chicken and rice to fill your belly. And the contrasting flavours between the soup and the Icewine just worked so well. A reminder of how much an Icewine can be elevated by a great pairing.We were very glad we made this stop.

Peller Estates Cabernet Franc IcewinePeller Estates Winery—Cabernet Franc Icewine with a roasted Icewine marshmallow—I admit that I gravitated towards more savoury pairings this year, but the Icewine Festival feels incomplete without one of Chef Jason Parsons’ Icewine marshmallows. These sweet treats are perfection roasted over one of the fires in Peller’s outdoor area (although both Shawn and I smelled like campfire for the rest of the day). The pairing here is almost secondary to the experience, though. The 2013 Cabernet Franc Icewine is good quality, very approachable and well-made, but the pairing is too sweet-on-sweet for me.

But Peller is a can’t miss for this Festival, they go all out and it’s such a fun experience—I highly recommend taking the time to visit their 10 Below ice bar. It costs a bit more, but standing in this incredible room made completely of ice is a one-of-a-kind way to experience Icewine (it’s open year-round currently, so this weekend isn’t your last chance).

Inniskillin Reisling IcewineInniskillin Wines—Chicken and waffles, spread with Icewine butter with a Riesling Icewine—The chicken and waffles called my name and it’s hard to resist visiting one of the best-known Icewine producers in the world. At Inniskillin you can see the Icewine vineyards right outside the winery, which is a nice touch, and you will taste your Icewine in one of their exclusive Icewine glasses. And, yes, in my opinion the glasses do elevate the tasting experience. The 2014 Riesling was well-structured with lots of honeyed pear and apple notes. The chicken and waffles were quite tasty, although I would have liked some more heat to cut through the sweetness and play with the great acidity on the wine.

Konzelmann Estate Winery—Atlantic seafood chowder with Vidal Icewine—Vidal is a classic Niagara Icewine grape, so I was happy to get to taste this 2011. It was a delicate and pretty Icewine with lots of peach, pear and mango notes—a very classic style. The chowder portion was small, but very flavourful with lots of seafood pieces and good spice. My only quibble was the fishy taste when I got a bit of Icewine just after a piece of  seafood. But overall, great. And the Observation Deck at Konzelmann is a must-do—a stunning view of the vines in winter that will leave you breathless.

Ravine Vineyard Vidal Icewine with chicken meatball and cornbread pairingRavine Vineyard—Homemade spicy chicken meatball in a molé sauce with Rossco’s cornbread and a Vidal Icewine—We had never been to Ravine before, but this won’t be our last visit. It’s such a fun and friendly property and this pairing was delicious. The meatball was juicy and well-cooked and the cornbread had a nice sweetness that off-set the spicy/sweet molé sauce. With their nuanced 2013 Vidal Icewine, this combo brought layers of flavour that came together nicely. Yummy.

Megalomanic Winery Riesling Icewine MartiniMegalomanic—Three Icewine based martinis—This was a must-do stop on our list when I heard about the martinis. What a brilliant idea. Shawn and I rarely buy a bottle of Icewine because we just can’t get through the whole thing before it goes off. Megalomaniac solved that problem by showing us four different ways to serve Icewine with a twist. The visit started off with their new sparkling Riesling mixed with their 2014 Coldhearted Riesling Icewine, then I sipped through three more small samples of martinis mixed with their Icewines. From citrus, cherry to chocolate, the drinks ran the gamut and each showed creativity in layering flavours. I will definitely be making one or more of these again soon.


Redstone Winery 2014 Cabernet Franc IcewineRedstone Winery—Braised venison and dark chocolate chili with 2010 Cabernet Franc Icewine—We had hoped to make it to Mike Weir Winery, but just ran out of time. Stopping at Redstone to check out this beautiful new winery instead was certainly not a hardship, though. The 2010 Cabernet Franc Icewine is delicious and well-made, with a mix of strawberries and spice on the palate. Since I don’t eat venison, Shawn was more than happy to enjoy my portion too and steal a sip of Icewine to let me know that the spice on the chili was perfect with the wine . He didn’t find that the chocolate came through strongly, so couldn’t compare those notes, but overall he thought it went very well together. This well-cooked chili was his favourite food of the day and I was a little jealous that he got to enjoy two whole bowls.

After our epic winery-hopping, I was ready to get back on the road towards home, but we’re already looking forward to next year.

Did you visit the Icewine Festival this year? What were your favourite pairings? Share them in the comments or on social!

Interested in our past Icewine Festival experiences? Read about my visits to the 2015, 2014 and 2013 festivals!

While we received complimentary passes to attend the festival, all opinions are our own.

Wine and Food Pairing

Barsa Taberna – Spanish wine and food in Toronto

January 13, 2016

Nestled on Market Street in Toronto, Barsa Taberna is a little taste of Spain near the St. Lawrence Market and it’s one of my favourite places in the city to eat. Barsa specializes in tapas, little bites of Spanish cuisine that are as fun to pair as they are delicious.

While Barsa is well known for its sangria, which is authentic and lovely on a summer’s day (no soda or other fillers in their version), it also has an interesting wine program. I recently sat down with owner Aras Azadian to try some of their pairings and talk about what makes Barsa Taberna a great option for someone who wants to learn about Spanish wine and food.

2012 Torres Altos Ibéricos Crianza Spanish wineI first discovered the restaurant when I interviewed the winemaker for Radio Boka, a Spanish wine from Valencia. I remember walking down the steps into a stunning room that seemed to resonate a love for Spain and for wine. There is an entire wall made out of the bottom of wine bottles and the walls behind the bar are lined with wines from their list. The space is beautiful and it perfectly compliments the dining experience.

Aras didn’t grow up in Spain, but he did go to business school in Barcelona. And while he was focused on his studies then, he fell in love with the food and the culture. With an MBA in hand, he has gone on to become a vice president at a bio-chemical company working on cancer research, but he also owns and runs Barsa – the reason he always wears a suit and never sleeps, he says with a laugh. One of his goals with Barsa is to bring a Spanish experience to Toronto. At first, he tried more of a Spanish fusion with flavours from around the world, but he has realized that Toronto diners want a more authentic Spanish experience and that’s something he can deliver on.

That he’s able to merge both his careers so successfully speaks to a passion that comes from youth. Aras, and most of the staff at Barsa are under 30. It’s all a part of the unique experience that comes with dining here. And with that youth comes a vibrant and playful style that infuses everything about the experience.

Tuna tapas from Barsa Taberna restaurant in TorontoI start my pairing with a refreshing Cava.  The Juve y Camps Reserva de la Familia from Penedes, has biscotti and vanilla on the nose and the bubbles hold together nicely. It’s a complex Cava and works very well with many of the seafood dishes on Barsa’s menu. Aras pairs it with a salmon escabeche done as pinchos (a small bite on toast). The salmon has been cured and is bursting with flavour, which works well – the Cava’s acidity cuts nicely through the salmon’s oiliness and highlights the lovely texture and flavour.

Octopus and purple potato tapas at Barsa Taberna restaurant in TorontoNext up is grilled octopus with charred potato – a skewer that’s full of complex Spanish flavours. Paired with a Telmo Rodriguez Basa, this works quite well. This is a versatile wine option with peach and grapefruit notes on the nose and a rich, full mouthfeel. The wine compliments the richness of the octopus and the salty notes on the purple potato. The wine, which drinks very nicely on its own, is a good option for the many seafood dishes on the menu.

Because I don’t eat red meat, it was harder for the Barsa staff to find a good pairing for a traditional Spanish red – Tempranillo. But this team knows their wine and food pairings and chose a lighter style from Rioja, the 2012 Torres Altos Ibéricos Crianza. While this was a little heavier than some of the more Pinot Noir-esque Spanish wines, it worked well with the seared albacore tuna dish. Served with warm couscous, the tuna was seared perfectly and the Tempranillo was a pleasant surprise. Red wine and seafood doesn’t always work well together, but in this case it was quite good.

Spanish vermouth with creme brulee at Barsa Taberna in TorontoFor dessert, Aras suggested Casa Mariol Vermut Negra, a Spanish vermouth that tasted more like Sherry. It paired well with the cinnamon and orange in the crème brule dessert. While the fruit compote topping was just a little too sweet for the vermouth, the crème brule itself was a good match – just the right level of sweetness to hit all the best notes in the vermouth.

With an evolving wine list (expect a Chardonnay from Northern Spain to appear on the wine list soon, as well as a Spanish Cabernet Sauvignon), Barsa is a great option for wine lovers looking for a Spanish-style night out. While Aras can’t bring in all his favourites from Spain, he is putting as many as possible on his wine list. They’re also hosting a number of fun evenings out, like Flamenco Thursdays and Pass the Table’s unique Spain Via Sommelier events. Pass the Table provides exclusive experiences that allow anyone to have an ‘insider’ experience at a restaurant and are a great option for wine lovers wanting to really experience the restaurant. Aras is hoping to create a few other wine-inspired events in 2016 so that more people can come out and experience Spanish wine alongside food from the country.

You can learn more about Barsa Taberna’s menu and events on their site and check out Pass the Table’s list of fun foodie events at

Wine and Food Pairing

Pairing Wine and Indian Food at Pukka

November 25, 2015

Pairing wine and Indian food isn’t easy. That’s one of the reasons Pukka’s wine program is so impressive – with co-owner Derek Valleau and top Toronto sommelier Peter Boyd working together to create something truly special and unique. Pukka hosts regular wine pairing events and their wine list is a top notch selection of wine options that work well with the array of spices and flavours that are the trademark of Indian meals.

And the food at Pukka – oh, the food. I was recently invited back for a blogger dinner to try out the new menu and was more than happy to attend. The general consensus at my table and in the room was that Pukka is one of the places in Toronto that is genuinely delicious all around.

Cocktails at Pukka restaurant in Toronto

There was a deep sigh of relief when we discovered that the beloved okra fries are still on the menu (and likely to remain there permanently due to their popularity), but there was so much new to discover.

While their wine program is top-notch, they have also recently developed a cocktail program that highlights fresh and natural ingredients. I was happy to be able to try a coconut martini, as there was no refined sugar in the drink.

2014 Vina Esmeralda Torres wine

We all dug into Tandoori calamari (a personal favourite), herb-infused chicken tikka and string chaat for our first course and paired it with the 2014 Vina Esmeralda from Torres, a white blend featuring Gewurtzaminer and Muscat. A rare wine from the region, it is very floral on the nose with peach, orange and tropical fruit notes. This unique mixture of flavours and acidity paired well with all the appetizer dishes, though I particularly liked it with the calamari.

2012 Vizcarra Senda del oro from Ribera Del Duero

The second course was the boatman’s fish and prawn curry, pumpkin curry, Punjabi chicken and beef short ribs (which I didn’t try). For this course, Peter selected a red wine, the 2012 Vizcarra Senda del oro from Ribera Del Duero. This medium-weight red worked quite well. I’m told it was best with the beef short ribs, which makes sense, but I thought it was a good weight and just bold enough to pair well with the curry and strong spicing in all these dishes.

Tandoori calamari at Pukka restaurant in Toronto
Tandoori calamari

Choosing wines that work so well with Indian food isn’t easy, so I wanted to ask Peter more about how he made his selections. He admits he’s learned a lot in the two years he’s been working on the wine program at Pukka. “Most of the learning was about structure, I’d say. I came in knowing that the food variations would require wines with loads of fruit, and that played out as I knew it would,” he says.

“But I assumed that high alcohol wines would be more of a problem with spice levels. As I became more familiar with the kitchen’s output, I realized my fears were unfounded as they weren’t pushing the limits, chili-wise. So, modern, 14-plus per cent New World wines fit in more easily than I first imagined. Still, the ‘gotcha’ moment came with Rhône Grenache. Fruity, yes, but not especially dense and full-bodied (despite moderately high alcohol), Grenache was a surprise supplied by Derek, and it really works.”

String chaat at Pukka restaurant in Toronto
String chaat

When diners come to Pukka, they may initially be thinking about beer (or one of the excellent cocktails on offer). Beer is the traditional drink to pair with Indian food, given how difficult it can be to find a wine that works well with all the different flavours and spices. For Peter, getting patrons to take a chance is the first step. “My advice would be to step outside your comfort zone, your usual ruts. Ask for some assistance – and ask for the most qualified person currently on duty to help you with wine,” he says.

“The whole world seems to be trying to ‘curate’ every minute of their existence. Remember that it’s one night, one meal, one small bit of discretionary income. Take a flyer, a night off from chasing perfection, and remember that we all learn a boatload more when we are wrong, or
when things aren’t perfect,”  he says.

This is great advice, which has served me well in my own wine journey, as taking a chance is all part of the magic of the wine experience.

Pumpkin curry at Pukka restaurant in Toronto
Pumpkin curry

At Pukka, thankfully, there are many skilled staff to help with wine pairing decisions and frequent event nights where patrons can come in and learn about how to pair Indian dishes with wines from various regions. These are great opportunities to learn and Peter is already planning a busy 2016 schedule.

“I’m looking forward to more dinners and wine dinner themes,” he says. “I can’t get too weird with themes at this point because we are trying to fill spaces at the tasting table but it’s always fun to explore the outer limits, bring new wines to the table! Most of all, I’m looking forward to new dishes from the Pukka kitchen. We already have some customer faves that can’t be taken off the menu for fear of revolt, but new stuff is always fun and mind-expanding. At last night’s dinner, they produced a spinach and fig tikka that was outstanding! I hope it makes it to the regular menu.”

Pukka is truly one of my favourite places to eat in the city and I can’t wait to return. Thank you to the staff for the opportunity to enjoy this media dinner and to Peter Boyd for answering my many questions.

You can learn more about Pukka on their website and visit their events page to find out about the next wine and food pairing event.

For more blog reviews from the dinner at Pukka (which focus much more on the food than the wine) check out these great posts from some of my favourite bloggers:

The Yum Yum Factor
Libby Roach 
KiKi’s BFF

*While my meal was complimentary, my opinions are most-definitely my own.