The Meandering Epicurist

Galerie au Chocolat

A product with a history of nearly 4,000 years speaks to us across the centuries, inviting us to keep reinventing it.

On a walkabout in Lima’s edgy Barranca district, I wandered into the El Cacaotal chocolate shop—or, as it describes itself, “An edible library of Peruvian chocolate.” El Cacaotal has collated 40 of the best artisanal chocolate brands and award winners from all over Peru. This is serious stuff! Here, there are tasting classes, the equivalent of wine-tasting flavour wheels. Indeed, the chocolate I sampled had the depth and complexity of good wine, but none of the brands were available in Canada.

Fast forward…I’m at Toronto’s Gourmet Food & Wine Show, surrounded three deep by people making contented munching and murmuring sounds. Politely elbowing my way to the front, I see the Galerie au Chocolat booth with rows of chocolate bars in understated plain cardboard. My heart sings. Perhaps this is chocolate comparable to what I discovered at El Cacaotal.

Photo: Galerie au Chocolat

I’m not disappointed. Galerie’s products are from the finest Belgian chocolate and the flavours are sublime. First, I try the 72 per cent dark chocolate with sea salt. From experience, I know this is a tricky combo because of too much (or too little) salt. For me, this dark strikes precisely the right balance. The chocolate is rich with a nice salty bite. But, even better to my palate, are the natural allies of almond and sea salt. Here, the sea salt lifts and amplifies the flavours, while milk chocolate adds an extra creamy texture.

Rick Katigbak of Galerie leans over and invites me to try the white chocolate and matcha tea. The white chocolate has the familiar creamy mouth-feel I found in Peru, while the matcha tea adds a zing with a slightly astringent counterpoint. I’ve got a new gourmet best friend!

Emerald Grassland Butter

Drew McIver found his passion in life as a result of a minor BBQ mishap—someone forgot the butter for the corn. A day or so later, McIver saw an issue of Time Magazine with two words on its cover: “Eat butter.”

At the time, fat was being rehabilitated and the grass-fed beef and dairy movement was taking off. Realizing there was no Canadian grass-fed ultra-premium butter, McIver, formerly a US dairy farmer, moved back to Ontario to pursue his dream. Then the fun began. There was no official standard for grass-fed milk and, at the time, there was actually a shortage of Canadian cows and whole milk. On top of that, field grazing was not possible for almost half the year.

Ever the innovator, McIver tried to sell farmers on the benefits of storing and using fresh forage year-round. Not only did he want premium butter, but also he believed in sustainable pasturing, regenerative practices, organic soil health and ethical treatment.

After hawking his ideas to the Canadian Dairy Commission and taking four years to secure a supply, McIver’s pilot began in 2017. His butter, from 450 “happy” Jersey cows at St. Brigid’s Dairy, had a remarkable yellow colour from the beta-carotene in the pasture grass. It was also rich in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which some believe has health properties.

Leading chefs, including Rob Gentile of Buca, Michele Forgione of Impasto and others, quickly discovered that Emerald Grasslands was not only a remarkably flavoured, vibrant butter, but that it didn’t emulsify in sauces and there was less waste. 

Now McIver’s butter is a staple in more than 35 restaurants, including Momofuku, Pearl Morissette and Woodlot, and he’s currently looking at launching a cultured butter, ghee and aged cheddar. 

Under the radar—but not for long. Lusciously rich (84 per cent butter fat), with a great mouthfeel and ethics that makes one feel good eating it; you can find Emeralds Grasslands butter at Harvest Wagon, Whole Foods and St. Lawrence Market.

Mengrai Thai 

Tucked away in a benignly neglected turn-of-the-century ex-bank on Ontario Street, Mengrai Thai is about a far as you can get from Toronto’s modern restaurant scene. An old favourite reinvented, its storied history includes hosting the likes of Mick Jagger, Bill and Melinda Gates, John Travolta and even Justin Bieber.

What counts for both Chef Sasi Meechai and her husband, Allan Lim, is authenticity—and, of course, the use of fresh, flavourful ingredients. A self-effacing, diminutive figure, Meechai turns out to be an imposing presence in her always bustling kitchen. 

Meechai’s dishes are deconstructed from the authentic village food of her childhood home in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand. (We’re told a special order of “not available in Canada” produce is flown in biweekly.) Everything here is prepared à la minute, with each dish having its own individual voice and interplay of herbs and spices.

Lim has recently renovated the couple’s lower-level dining room, dubbed Chiang Mai Market. Here, for the astonishingly low price of $29.99 (plus gratuity), you can order an “all you can eat feast” of exquisite small-plate dishes. House rules: 1.5-hour seating limit and a $5.00 charge if you leave more than half of a dish. 

Chiang Mai Market is open 5–8.30 pm Tuesday through Sunday, with an additional 1–4pm brunch on Sunday. Also recommended: The Mengrai sour—a cocktail of kaffir lime-infused vodka with a lovely tingle of ginger.

A nice touch: Mengrai runs cooking classes, with profits contributing to the Treetop eco foundation in Wiang Pa Pao. Here, volunteers stay in tree houses and help to build housing, provide education, encourage sustainable farming and promote health.

Outset Sparkling Wine

A glass of sparkling wine is one of life’s little luxuries, but leaving half a bottle to go flat in the fridge is a waste. I’ve tried fancy stoppers and a spoon in the bottleneck, but nothing really works.

So, three years ago, Greg Wertsch and his partners decided to tackle my problem. The result: Outset, a 250 ml can of prosecco-style sparkling wine with, as Wertsch puts it, “A kiss of Vidal Icewine.”

Pale gold in appearance, Outset has apple and citrus aromas, with a
nice balanced acidity, a hint of sweetness and plenty of swagger. In 2018, it even won “best sparkling wine” at the Finger Lakes International Wine Festival. 

Wertsch likes to pair it with seafood and light cream dishes, but claims it goes just as well with popcorn and potato chips during a Netflix binge. Hunt for Outset at the LCBO adjacent to the checkout.

Homefront’s man about town is suave, debonair, charming and, best of all, extremely curious. He hunts, sleuths, discovers, explores and tells all.

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