Chives emerging in early spring.Chives are prized for their pure allium flavour, blessedly devoid of the harsh burn of raw onion.

Here are some other awesome things about chives.

They are hearty perennials, which means they re-appear every spring and require very little attention.  In fact, they grow as weeds in many parts of Edmonton, including downtown parking lots.  I don’t mean that you should harvest chives from downtown parking lots; I just offer that as evidence of their gumption.

They are one of the first edibles to appear in spring.  This year the spring thaw came early, and my chives were a few inches tall by the end of March.  It was seeing this enterprising green growth that inspired me to write this post.

Chive blossomsTheir flowers are both beautiful and delicious. Most flowers with that light purple colour, like lilacs and violas, have very little flavour and are nowhere near as versatile as chive blossoms.

My chives usually bloom in June.  The tiny, bell-shaped flowers are easy to harvest because they grow on round umbels.  Just pick the entire flower head from the stalk, pinch the hub where all the stems meet, and you can remove all the blossoms in one motion. They are much more robust than most culinary flowers and can be kept in the fridge for days.  The green stalks that hold the flower heads are woody and should be reserved for stock.

They can be super-fly elegant.  When cut properly chives are like happy green confetti.

How to cut chives for fine dining applications: a photo essay.

Harvest the chives by cutting the stalks close to the ground with sharp scissors.  Gently bundle the stalks together and lay them on a cutting board.

Whole chive stalksCut the bundle in half.

Chive stalks cut in half

Flip one half onto the other so that the cut ends are all on the same side.  Use the side of your knife to line up all of the cut ends.

Chive stalks with cut ends flush

Cut the chives so that their length exactly equals their diameter.

Chopped chives: happy green confetti

That’s just a fancy technique to keep in your back pocket.  Chives don’t need to be precious.

Chives are usually added to dishes fresh, shortly before consumption, as lengthy cooking destroys their delicate flavour.  Though versatile, they are best sprinkled onto eggs, potatoes, and marinated vegetables.

A bowl of potato salad, with lots of chives

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Mise en place for Italian aperitivo.Aperitivo is the Italian word for aperitif.  Ostensibly it is a drink taken before dinner.

In practice it is both drink and food.  The fundamental idea of Italian aperitivo is that you order a drink and receive complimentary food.  That food may be a fistful  of olives, or it may be a no-kidding smorgasbord.  Isn’t that amazing?

Let’s talk about drinks, then about food.

A Simple Bar for Aperitivo

Amari.  If you can buy only one bottle of liqueur for aperitivo, it should be Campari.  Campari is a bitter liqueur of about 25% ABV, flavoured with obscure herbs and fruit (eg chinotto, the myrtle-leaved orange tree).  It was invented in Novara, Piedmont, by Gaspare Campari.  It was first produced en masse outside Milan, and has become affiliated with that city.

Campari is a bright, cherry red.  Slightly viscous.  It has an intense, smoky bitterness, and is syrupy-sweet.

Campari can be taken on the rocks, diluted with soda or fruit juice, or mixed into proper cocktails.

Vermouth.  Vermouth is fortified wine flavoured with botanicals, which is a fancy way of saying plants.  It can be bone dry or quite sweet.  I think the most common brand is Cinzano (chin-ZAHN-o), especially their sweet, red (“Rosso”) vermouth.

Cinzano Rosso is 15% ABV and has a medium red colour with a russet hue.  It has a medium-intense aroma of herbs.  It is sweet with a bright, balancing acidity.

The bitter-sweet clash of Campari and Cinzano Rosso is the basis of several classic cocktails.  The Americano, for instance is one part each Campari, Cinzano Rosso, and soda water.  If you substitute the soda for gin, you have my favourite aperitivo, the Negroni.

negroni_2Negroni.  The apocryphal origin story of the Negroni has Count Camillo Negroni seated at the bar in Caffè Casoni in Florence in 1919.  He asks the barkeep to stiffen his Americano by subbing soda with gin.

I feel like a real hack just re-typing stuff that I’ve read elsewhere on the internet, but there is a fantastic quip about the Negroni by Orson Welles: “The bitters are excellent for your liver, the gin is bad for you.  They balance each other.”

Returning to original content: The most memorable cocktail I’ve ever had was a Negroni from Mr. Brown’s in Trastevere, Rome.  Unfortunately it’s memorable for the lurid conditions in which it was procured, not any nuance of flavour or composition.  Lisa and I were walking back to our apartment after a late dinner, and we finally encountered the raucous, lively Trastevere we had heard about.  Drinkers were overflowing from the bars and pouring onto the streets and campi.  The street was particularly congested in front of a placed called Mr. Brown’s, advertizing 5 Euro “to go” cocktails.  We pushed our way in and stood by the bar to get the lay of the land.  5 Euros didn’t seem especially cheap, until we watched the bartender mix a drink.  Bottles of liquor were inverted and held over plastic cups for 3-5 seconds.  The drinks were enormous and contained several ounces of liquor.  And it seemed you weren’t limited to hi-balls: you could order what ever you want.  Tequila Sunrise?  Sure.  Spritz?  The barkeep opened a new bottle Prosecco, projecting the cork through the air and striking a large bell hung over the bar.  Mojito?  He muddled fresh mint.  I ordered a Negroni.  My 5 Euros got me about 4 fluid ounces each of gin, Campari, and Vermouth.  Actually the drink was so large and purchased so late in the evening that I couldn’t finish it.  I put it in the little fridge in our apartment, and the next day I poured it into a glass of Prosecco, thus inventing the Negroni Spritz.

Tangent: If you replace the gin in a Negroni with bourbon, you have a Boulevardier.


aperol_spritzAperol Spritz.  While Campari and Cinzano Rosso are a delicious, versatile power couple, I think that the Aperol Spritz is actually the most common aperitivo in Italy.  I have no official statistics on this, but a short walk through any northern Italian city in the early evening will confirm my hypothesis.

Aperol is from Padua, in Veneto, and is flavoured with bitter orange, gentian, rhubarb, and other stuff.  It is 11% ABV, sweet, orange in colour, and faintly bitter, much less so than Campari.  It smells almost exactly like orange Triaminic.[1]  If you are unfamiliar with the sweet nectar that is orange Triaminic, think orange Kool-Aid-flavoured cough syrup.

The Aperol Spritz originated in the province of Veneto, supposedly during the Hapsburg occupation of the region.  (“Spritz” is the German word for fizz).  It is a mixture of Prosecco, Aperol, and soda water poured over ice and garnished with an orange.  According to the Aperol website the classic ratio for the Spritz is 3-2-1 Prosecco, Aperol, and soda.


Food at Aperitivo

When ordering a drink for aperitivo you can expect at the very least a small bowl of olives and potato chips.  You might also receive finger sandwiches, little pizzas, or cured meat and cheese.

Occasionally the food is set out on a buffet.  Maybe some crostini with a variety of spreads, or a large bowl of pasta.

Some advice for students looking to use aperitivo as a meal-replacement: look for starch.  Pasta, toast, whole-grain salads, these starches have sustained most of humanity for most of history, and they will sustain you.



Aperitivo plays out a bit differently in Venice.  You can get the usual cocktails, but it is more common to drink an ombre, a small glass of wine.  And instead of receiving complimentary food you can purchase small one- or two-bite cicheti (chi-KEH-tee).  Cicheti can be simple and elemental (roast bell peppers, cheese, olives, et c) or full-on composed hors d’oeuvres (octopus carpaccio and olive spread on a crostino).  Escaping the hideous tourist maze to enjoy a plastic cup of Valpolicella and a bite of food is one of the best ways to enjoy Venice.



1. Well before Lil’ Wayne and other southern rappers made it cool, I had my first experience abusing cough syrup.  I was three years old, and the story has become a Suddaby family legend.  When I was a toddler my mom kept a few bottles of Triaminic on hand.  Red Triaminic was for a cough.  Orange for a runny nose.  The red one was disgusting so I was always careful to stifle my coughs.  The orange one was absolutely the best thing I had ever tasted.  Like ever.  It was candy that you could drink.  It tasted kind of like McDonald’s orange drink concentrate.  So one day I climbed onto the counter and reached into the medicine cabinet, opened the bottle, and put it to my mouth.  The exact amount I drank varies depending on who tells the tale.  Mother caught me mid-act, tore the bottle from my tiny hand, and immediately called poison control.  They said that I would get drowsy, then fall asleep.  Mother only needed to jostle me every so often make sure that I was still able to wake up.  If I didn’t wake up she should call 911.  (That’s actually the advice they gave.)  As I remember we went to the park that afternoon and I fell asleep on the tire swing.  I think everything worked out all right, though.

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Towards a Theory of Fried Chicken

Fried chicken cooling an a rack.Usually I don’t post about something til I’m confident I have a best practice down pat.  I have to say that there’s one important point in my fried chicken technique that I am waffling on: I’m torn between the winning flavour of buttermilk-brined chicken, and the superior texture of dry-rubbed chicken.

The Chicken.  Frying chicken is a bit of a balancing act: you want the crust to develop the perfect, deep golden brown at the very instant the meat reaches the proper temperature.  If you were to take an entire leg from a large chicken and deep fry it, the exterior would get much too dark by the time the meat cooked through.[1]

For this reason I like using smaller birds, somewhere around four pounds, and I cut them in the classic 8-cut style.

Brining vs. Dry-Rubbing.  Once the bird has been cut there are two mains methods for marinating it.  The first way that I learned is to submerge the chicken in buttermilk overnight.  If given sufficient time, the tangy flavour of the buttermilk penetrates the flesh.  It also supposedly tenderizes the meat, I think because of its acidity.  The next day the chicken is dredged in flour and fried.

Many chefs expound the dry-rubbing method, in which the chicken is set out on a wire rack, sprinkled with salt and spices, and left uncovered in the fridge overnight.  The salt works its way into the meat, and exposure to the dry, circulating air of the fridge supposedly makes for better skin.  The next day the chicken is dipped in buttermilk and dredged in flour before frying.

This past weekend I tried these two methods side by side.

Dredging.  I dredge in flour spiked with a bit of paprika and dried herb.  I add only a tiny bit of salt to the flour because the brining and seasoning methods above have already made the chicken plenty salty.

Dredging should be done moments before dropping the chicken in the oil.  Shake excess flour from the surface.

Frying.  As always I will emphasize that you don’t need a deep-fryer to deep fry at home.  Any straight-sided, heavy-bottomed pot or pan will do.

Fried chicken is cooked at a relatively low temperature.  I heat the oil to 320°F.  The cold chicken actually drops the oil temperature to 275°F or lower, and it will take several minutes to recover.  Higher temperatures will darken the exterior before the meat cooks.

Even if the chicken is entirely covered in oil I flip all the pieces half way through as the downward-facing sides tend to brown faster.

Cooking takes roughly 15 minutes, depending of course on the size of your chicken bits.  I use a temperature probe and pull all the breast meat at 70°C and all the leg meat at 80°C.

The Results: Buttermilk Brine v. Spice Rub

Some succinct tasting notes.

Buttermilk-brined chicken.  Dark amber colour, actually a bit too dark.  Crust not perfectly cohesive? Tangy, well-seasoned throughout.

Spice-rubbed chicken.  Beautiful golden brown.  Well-seasoned but perhaps not as thoroughly penetrated with salt?  To me no detectable buttermilk tang, even with the dip before dredging.

No discernible difference in moisture content between the two styles.

They were both delicious, and I would be happy to serve and eat either.  The visual difference was striking.  Temperature was carefully controlled, so I figure that the extra milk sugars present in the buttermilk-brined chicken burnt.  Also I think that the extra moisture on the brined chicken caused some of the dredging to slide off during frying.

More work is required obviously.  Below is my dinner plate.  The drumstick in the background is the spice-rubbed chicken.  The thigh in the foreground the buttermilk version.  Accompanied by garlic mash potatoes and green salad.

A plate of fried chicken, buttermilk mash potatoes, and green salad


1. If you do find a piece of chicken getting too dark well before the meat is properly cooked, you can take the chicken out of the oil and put it on a wire rack on a sheet pan and hold it in a 250°F oven.  The meat will continue to cook and the browning reaction at the surface will slow considerably.


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The Maple Continuum

We are all familiar with maple syrup.  And most of us know that maple trees don’t exude syrup, but sap, which is thin, clear, and only faintly sweet.  The liquid must be reduced to become syrup, and in fact it can be further reduced to become pure crystalline maple sugar.  So while we are all acquainted with a certain concentration of maple syrup – the one on grocery store shelves and brunch tables – there is actually a broad spectrum of products that can be made with maple.

Let’s look at the two extremes of the maple continuum.


A glass of cool, raw maple sap.

Chilled Maple Sap

An amazing but subtle tasting experience, one that I appreciate more in lean years when the sap run is meagre.  Maple sap smells and tastes of green, nutty vegetables like pea shoots, with the sliest suggestion of sweetness.  It’s a fantastic way to begin a spring meal.  At left is a photo, not particularly inspiring because the sap looks just like water, but I think it gives some idea as to how elegant maple sap can be.

I’m still thinking about the best name for this.  Raw sap?  Green sap?

Best served at the same temperature at which it comes out of the tree, roughly 5-7°C.  Enjoy in the presence of pussy willows and other just-spring novelties.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is…

Maple Sugar

When all the water content has been driven off by boiling, we have maple sugar.  If you grew up down east you will know maple sugar candies: a firm, crystalline maple fudge pressed into the shape of a maple leaf.  They are ubiquitious at sugar shacks, tacky trading posts, and airport souvenir shops.

Below is a picture of some homemade maple sugar candy.  I’d feel guilty if I didn’t admit that I made this candy mostly by accident: I over-reduced a pot of syrup, noticed that it was starting to crystallize, then stirred in a bunch of butter and poured it into a tray to cool and solidify.

Maple sugar candy

Between these two extremes are infinite possible concentrations of maple syrup.  I’ve used different grades of maple syrup in cocktails, soups, dressings, meat glazes, sauces, and desserts.  The way that I process and consume the maple sap usually corresponds to the seasonal yield.  In lean years when I get little sap, I am more likely to consume it in its raw or lightly cooked forms.  Years with voluminous flow are more likely to be drastically reduced.

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Rye Whisky

Rye whiskey makes the band sound better,
Makes your baby cuter,
Makes itself taste sweeter.  Oh, boy!

-The Punch Brothers


I have friends that get mad when I say this, but Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye.  Unlike, for instance, Bourbon, which has very specific requirements for the grain bill (at least 51% corn), Canadian whisky is not highly regulated.  Actually you can read everything that the Food and Drug Regulations have to say about Canadian whisky in about 90 seconds, here.  Basically to be called Canadian whisky the drink needs to be made of cereal grain (no mention of specific types like barley or rye), it needs to be at least 40% alcohol, and it needs to be aged in small wood for at least 3 years.  That’s it.

That being said, many of the common Canadian whisky brands (Royal Reserve, Alberta Premium, Crown Royal, et c) contain rye.  But since “rye” isn’t a regulated term, it’s hard to know how much is really in there.  50%? 10%?  The truth is that the main ingredient in most Canadian “rye” is corn and wheat.[1]

Producers rarely specify exactly what grains they use and in what proportions, and they almost never make mention of what non-cereal ingredients are contained in their whisky.  Caramel, for instance, is such a common additive that the Food and Drug Regulations mention it explicitly as a permitted ingredient in Canadian whisky.

One notable exception is Alberta Premium Rye, which says right on the label is made with 100% rye.  For most of my drinking life I never gave this whisky much thought: the 750 mL size comes in a cheap, dated cut-glass bottle, and retails for about $20.  Then one day I was listening to CBC radio while driving and heard Englishman Jim Murray, author The Whisky Bible, say that he considers Alberta Premium one of the best whiskies in the world.  I nearly drove off the rode.  His words exactly: “One of the top six whiskies in the world.”  You can listen to the interview here.

I’ve always grouped those cheap Canadian whiskies together: Crown Royal, Royal Reserve, Canadian Club… Could Alberta Premium really be so much different than the others?

I designed a blind tasting.  Well, not really a blind tasting: maybe a myopic tasting.  I bought a bottle of Alberta Premium and a bottle of Royal Reserve.  I put tape on the bottom of two glasses and labelled one AP and one RR.  I poured the whiskies into their respective glasses, then closed my eyes and hummed Uptown Funk while shuffling the glasses back and forth.

When I opened my eyes I had two glasses of whisky in front of me.  I knew one was AP and one was RR, but I didn’t know which was which.  I tasted each and came up with this:

Whisky 1:

  • very pale, bronzy-gold, lustrous
  • on the nose: medium-intense aroma, loads of butterscotch, butter, light brown sugar
  • on the palate: medium weight, medium burn, slight sweetness leaving palate, a lingering tingling burn

Whisky 2:

  • colour almost identical to first, maybe a hair darker, more brown
  • on the nose: some butterscotch, but more grassy, with spices like black pepper, bay, and vanilla
  • medium-full mouthfeel, slightly oily, low-medium burn – less lingering burn than first


  • These two whiskies are not radically different.  They both exhibit typical aromas of caramel.  Whisky 2 is arguably more complex, with some spice notes.

Then I looked at the tape on the bottom of the glass to see the identity of each: Whisky 1 was RR and Whisky 2 was AP.

A rye revival has definitely been afoot the last several years, and there are many craft sipping and mixing ryes coming out of the US, labels like Pendleton and Masterson’s.  The hilarious, unfortunate fact is that many of these are actually made from rye whisky that is distilled in Canada and exported in large quantities to be bottled elsewhere.[2]  I’m not saying that our cheapest Canadian whiskies deserve the solemn admiration accorded single-malt Scotch, but I do think that our low estimation of these products has a lot to do with packaging and marketing (or lack thereof).

For some shockingly thorough info and tasting notes on Canadian whisky, I highly recommend this site:

A bottle of Alberta Premium Rye Whisky


Rye whiskey makes the sun set faster,
makes the spirit more willing,
but the body weaker.

-again, Punch Brothers


Way up on Clinch Mountain I wander alone,
I’m as drunk as the devil, oh let me alone.
You may boast of your knowledge an’ brag of your sense,
‘Twill all be forgotten a hundred years hence.
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, you’re no friend to me.
You killed my poor daddy, God damn you, try me.

-Tex Ritter


1. This fascinating article from The Globe and Mail.
2. Ibid.

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Sylvan Star Cheese Farm

Sylvan Star owner Jan with a wheel of Grizzly aged goudaI have purchased, without exaggeration, tens of thousands of dollars of Sylvan Star cheese. Not for personal consumption, of course, but for the restaurants I’ve worked for over the past few years.  The mac and cheese served from the Nomad food truck, for instance, was made with Sylvan Star medium Gouda.  The grilled cheese sandwiches at Elm are currently made with a blend of medium, smoked, and aged Gouda.  Rarely does a week pass without my purchasing at least a whole wheel of cheese from Sylvan Star.

Jan Schalkwyk is the owner of Sylvan Star, and he was already a champion cheese-maker when he left Holland and came to Canada in 1995.  He had fully intended to leave cheese-making behind him and simply run a dairy farm.  He says he was compelled to return to the craft because of the quality of Gouda available in Alberta at the time.  If that seems immodest, I direct you to the cheese section of your local supermarket.

The Sylvan Star Cheese Farm is a short drive off Highway 2, west on Highway 11 for about five minutes.  I went there with some of the other cooks from Elm Café and Catering last week for a tour.

Behind every great cheese is great milk, and so it is with Sylvan Star: right outside their back door, maybe 100 meters away, is the Lac La Nonne Dairy, operated by Jan’s son.  All of the milk for Sylvan Star cheese comes from here.  It is a kind of vertical integration that gives Jan intimate knowledge of what the cows eat and how clean their stables are.  He emphasizes that dairy cows must be fed only hay and silage, never grain, to produce the sweet, “soft” cream necessary for making quality cheese.

A holstein dairy cow at Lac La Nonne Dairy

The milk for Sylvan Star cheese is not pasteurized, technically.  It is heated to 60°C, which kills pathogens but doesn’t destroy all-important enzymes.  Standard dairy pasteurization would heat the milk to 74°C or higher.

The cheese-making vat at Sylvan StarOn cheese-making day the milk is warmed in a heat-exchanger to 30°C, then transferred by pipe into an 8,000 L vat.  As soon as the first bit of warm milk enters the vat, Jan adds a bacterial culture.  It takes 45 minutes for the heat exchanger to warm enough milk to fill the vat, and by this time the culture is already actively metabolizing lactose to create lactic acid.  Once the vat if full, Jan adds rennet and lets the milk sit for about 45 minutes to coagulate and separate into curd and whey.

The curd is cut by grates of sharp blades that are mounted on rotating shafts that move back and forth over the vat.  The blades gently pirouette through the soft curd, breaking it into smaller pieces and releasing whey.

At this point of the process some of the whey is pumped out of the vat and replaced with hot water from a tank.  This raises the temperature of the solution, making the curds firmer, and also washes the curds and dilutes the whey around them.  I didn’t know this until our tour, but this washing process is actually what makes Gouda Gouda.  The washing removes some of the lactose and allows the bacterial culture to metabolize all of the remaining lactose without creating too much lactic acid, making a “sweet” cheese that is entirely lactose-free.

After the washing, two perforated steel sheets are placed into either end of the tank and mounted overhead.  They slowly move towards the centre, gathering all the curds into the middle of the basin.  Then another heavy, perforated sheet is rested on top of the curds to work out a bit more whey and make the curds drier and more manageable.

Then the curds are scooped up with fine mesh baskets, which are set into perforated buckets.  In the mediocre photo below the baskets are at the far end of the table.  They look like cream-coloured bowler hats.

Gouda molds at Sylvan Star Cheese

The buckets are stacked and then weighed down by a pneumatic press.  Jan says that the pressing doesn’t actually wring whey from the cheese: only rennet can do that.  The pressing is to shape the cheese into the familiar wheels.

Once removed from the molds the wheels are recognizable as Gouda, but they are naked: pale white, without the friendly yellow waxing.  At this stage they are also completely without salt.

To remedy this sodium deficiency the wheels are lined up on racks and submerged in a brine solution for up to two days.  The brining inhibits the bacterial cultures, and of course seasons the cheese.  Jan shoots for 1.5% salt content in his Gouda.

Brining flavoured gouda at Sylvan Star Cheese

Next the cheese is covered with a breathable yellow wax.  The waxing process actually takes four days.  First the top half of the wheel is brushed with wax.  This layer is allowed to dry, then the next day the wheel is flipped and wax is applied to the other side, after which the process is repeated.

The cheese is aged for anywhere from 2 months to 2 years, depending on the style.  Mild Gouda, for instance, a soft, creamy style, only ages 2 months, while Grizzly Gouda, similar in texture to Parmigiano-Reggiano ages 2 years.  The wheels sit on pine boards as they age, and every so often they need to be flipped and wiped with a mild chlorine solution so that mould doesn’t form under the cheese against the wood.

Shelves of gouda aging at Sylvan Star Cheese

After aging, the famous Grizzly Gouda is sealed with a non-breathing black wax.

Sealing wheels of Grizzly gouda at Sylvan Star Cheese

What is most remarkable about the Sylvan Star operation is the tiny labour force that is able to produce so much cheese.  Jan personally does all the cheese-making – culturing, cutting, molding, et c – himself.  He has a handful of part time employees that answer phones, flip the wheels in the warehouse, package finished product, and so on.

Here are some lightening-quick notes on a few of the Sylvan Star products.

Curds – I am a curd fan.  I grew up in Ontario, and on road trips between Bright’s Grove and Brockville we would stop at a cheese factory in Belleville for bags of curd to snack on.  I was thrilled to see Sylvan Star start selling cheese curds.  To get the characteristic squeak leave them out of the fridge for a couple hours before consuming.  I know that’s not technically food-safe.  Just do it.  For some reason the refrigerator kills the squeak.

Smoked Gouda – Sylvan Star smoked Gouda comes in mild and medium forms.  They both have fantastic smoke flavour.  They are best enjoyed on their own, on cheese boards, as the smoke flavour easily gets lost in sandwiches.

Mild and Medium Gouda – These are “everyday cheeses,” and I literally eat them every day.  Relatively mild, they have great melting and baking properties.  I use them in mac and cheese, grilled cheese, scallop potatoes, and sandwiches.

Flavoured Gouda – Sylvan Star makes dozens and dozens of flavoured cheeses: Gouda punctuated with everything from green peppercorns to nettle.  I was skeptical at first, as it seemed a bit gimmicky, but most of the flavours are amazing.  The chili pepper Gouda absolutely demolishes the peperonata cheese sold at the Italian Centre flavour-wise.

Cheddar – Sylvan Star is first and foremost a maker of Gouda.  Their Cheddar is tasty but not as good as another Alberta-made cheddar: Franco’s.  (Franco’s Cheddar suffers from drastic inconsistency season-to-season, but that’s a post for another day…)

Gruyère – Again, Sylvan Star is a Gouda-maker.  Their Gruyère is good: it’s definitely sharper than their Gouda (because it doesn’t undergo the washing process described above) but to me it doesn’t have the characteristic flavour of Gruyère.  It may be an esoteric matter of terroir…

Grizzly Gouda – I’m convinced that Sylvan Star’s Grizzly gouda is one of the best craft food products made in North America.  People unfamiliar with Old World aged Gouda would be forgiven for thinking this was Parm.  It is dry, hard, and breaks into fragments along fault lines.  It is studded with incredible, crunchy flecks for which I know of no English word.  In Italian they are called punti bianchi.  I imagine there is a Dutch word as well.  They are actually crystallized amino acids, not salt.

I think the Grizzly is best eaten on its own, broken into small pieces.  It can also be shaved on top of salad or pasta, or it can be grated and baked on top of casseroles.

On most wheels of Grizzly I cut away about half an inch of cheese from the rind because it is too dry.  This trim can be finely ground and blended with other cheese, but it is difficult to eat out of hand.


Anyways, thank you Jan and everyone else at Sylvan Star for doing what you do.  I’m lucky to the point of absurdity that part of my job is getting to eat your cheese, and shave it on top of salads, and grate it onto casseroles, and stuff it into perogies…


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Originally posted December 15, 2009 (if you can believe that).  Re-posted today with some major corrections.  I first read about cretons in an article in The Ottawa Citizen by then-food-columnist Ron Eade.  He presented cretons as a Quebecois variation on rillette.  A while back Emmanuel (Manu) of Pied Cochon, Joe Beef, and Woodwork fame gave me the skinny on cretons, and they really are not like rillettes at all.  I am not able to find that original Ron Eade article to expose it.  Presumably someone from the lower St. Lawrence forced him to remove it as libel or lies.  Anyways.  

A ramekin of cretons.Cretons is a pork spread made by simmering ground pork and aromatics like onion, bay, and clove in milk or cream.  As with any Quebecois dish there are as many variations as there are Francophones.

Pork.  You can use regular ground pork.  Actually the pork can be quite fatty as any lard that renders into the pan will be bound up with the dairy and (in my recipe…) breadcrumbs.

In addition to ground meat, Manu also adds gryons. This is the Quebecois word for greaves (see this post on rendering lard for more info).

Usually I’m a fanatic about searing meat, even the ground meat used in chili and meat sauce.  Searing generally improves the colour and flavour of a dish, but there are a few notable exceptions.  In my book those exceptions are veal blanquette and cretons.  We want a soft texture and a light colour.

Onion.  To me onion is essential as a sweet-‘n-savoury bridge between the pork and the spices.

Speaking of Spices.  Clove seems to be the most commonly used spice in cretons.  I use a standard quatre-épices blend of black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg.  These baking spices can easily become cloying, so use a light hand.

Dairy.  Some use milk, some use cream.  I use cream because it gives the final dish a rich texture but a happy, bright white colour.

Breadcrumbs.  Again, not all recipes include breadcrumbs, but I like using them to bind up any pork fat that has gone adrift and floated to the surface of the mixture.  Starch such as breadcrumb makes for a smoother, more cohesive spread.

Basically all these components are combined and simmered until the dairy has reduced and become a stodgy porridge.  At this point the mixture is potted and chilled.  It is most commonly eaten for breakfast, on toast.

Lazy Man’s Cretons.  Oftentimes when I make pie I misjudge the ratio of dough to filling, and am left with a surfeit of one or the other.  Excess pie dough is easy to get rid of (pie sticks!)  Excess filling can be a bit trickier.  If I have leftover tourtière filling, I put it in a heavy pot and cover it with heavy cream.  If you simmer this mixture for about an hour it’s hard for an Anglo such as myself to differentiate it from true cretons.  I have no idea what Quebecers would think of that, but it’s already happened so we should all move on.

Like many rustic preparations, cretons is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it’s almost impossible to not be tasty; on the other it is truly impossible to make it look appetizing in the modern sense.  It is cold meat porridge, after all.  But it’s delicious, and a great way to use up leftover ground meat.




  • 600 g ground pork
  • 150 g onion
  • 10 g garlic
  • 1 tsp quatre-épices
  • 470 g heavy cream
  • 30 g bread crumbs
  • 1.5 tbsp kosher salt


  1. Gently cook the pork in a heavy pot.  Do not colour the meat.
  2. Add the onions, garlic, and quatre-épices.  Cook gently until the onions are starting to become translucent.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients.  Simmer until the cream has reduced.  The mixture should have the consistency of porridge.  Roughly 45 to 60 minutes.
  4. Transfer immediately to ramekins or ceramic dishes.  Chill thoroughly.
  5. Spread on toast.
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Cooking Canadian Quinoa

The first several times I cooked Canadian quinoa I was a bit disappointed.  Sure, it had a remarkable flavour, but it was much stickier than the South American stuff I had had before: sticky to the point of stodginess.

Eventually I remembered a lesson I learned from a guy in my culinary class.  He was from Mumbai.  Our instructor was talking about the importance of rinsing basmati rice before cooking it to remove excess starch from the surface of the grains.  Once removing this powdery starch you can combine the rice with 1.5 times its volume, then cover and steam in the usual manner.  The preliminary rinsing makes for lighter, fluffier pilafs.  The Bombayite scoffed, and when prodded he said that he cooks his rice the way we cook our dry pasta, in a huge excess of boiling water.  This way the rice is rinsed throughout the cooking process, leaving virtually no starch left on the surface to make the final dish sticky and stodgy.  But then again, he continued, he’s from India: what could he possibly know about rice?

He wasn’t actually that self-righteous about it; I just got carried away recounting the story.

Anyways, the “pasta method” is definitely the best way to cook Canadian-grown quinoa.  You still get the great, rich, nutty flavour of the quinoa, but with a lighter texture.  I boil about 6 L of well-seasoned water to cook 1 L of quinoa.

The “pilaf method” can yield acceptable results if the quinoa will be served as a hot starch.  If however you intend to serve the quinoa cold, as a salad, the pasta method is essential.

Below is just such a salad: prairie quinoa and chickpeas with red cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, and fresh cheese.

A salad made with Canadian quinoa and chickpeas

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On Spirits

brettosSpirits are distilled beverages, made by concentrating alcohol and other volatile, aromatic compounds to make heady, shelf-stable drinks.

The sheer number of different types of spirits available in most liquor stores can be confusing.  What, for instance, is the difference between Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey?  Or tequila and mezcal?  Why is all Cognac brandy, but not all brandy Cognac?  These questions can be answered by knowing a few things about how liquor is made.

All spirits can be classified using the following four pieces of information:

  • region of production;
  • ingredients, including the base fermentable material and any other flavourings like spices or caramel;
  • distillation details, including type of still used, number of distillations, and other nuances; and finally
  • aging method, if any.

Region of production.  Some spirits must be made within defined geographical boundaries to carry a certain name on the label.  The most famous examples are Scotch (which must be from Scotland…) and Cognac and Armagnac (from the areas around the French towns of the same name).  The argument for the protection of regional designations is that subtleties in the water, ingredients, even the air, give the product a distinct character.  Regional designations are always accompanied by specifications on the ingredients and processes using in production.  For instance, Cognac must be from the Cognac region, must be made from grapes, must be aged for a certain period of time, and so on.

Ingredients.  All spirits begin as some sort of food that has sugar in it, whether fruit like grapes and apples, grains like barley and rye, or even sugar itself, in the form of cane juice or molasses.  The first step in converting these foods to spirits is to turn them into a fermentable liquid.  This is self-explanatory for grapes: you crush them to make juice, and there is in fact already yeast on the skins that will start to metabolize the natural sugars.  The process is a bit more complicated for grains: generally you need to malt, kiln, grind, and mash them, just like when making beer.

Interestingly, the base fermentable is not always important in categorizing the spirit.  Vodka, for instance, can be made from rye, or potatoes, or a number of other diverse ingredients.  Some spirits are categorized not by the base fermentable, but by how it is flavoured.  Gin can be made from any type of grain, but must be flavoured with juniper and other aromatics.

Regardless of the ingredients, yeast is added to the base fermentable liquid, and over the course of a week or two it metabolizes the sugars, creating ethanol as a byproduct.

After fermentation the mixture (now called wash) is relatively low in alcohol, somewhere around 5-15% alcohol by volume (ABV).  ABV is determined by the quantity of fermentable sugar in the original liquid.  There is, however, a ceiling on alcohol content with natural fermentation.  Even if we were to pour a bag of sugar into our grape juice or barley mash, we could only ever get an ABV of at most 17%.  Alcohol is a toxin, and fatal to yeast in such a high concentration.  We must concentrate the alcohol and aromatics by distilling the liquid.

Details of Distillation.  Distillation makes use of the different boiling points of the different components of a liquid.  Water boils at 100°C at sea level, and ethanol at about 78°C.  By heating a mixture of water and ethanol to a temperature between these two, then capturing and condensing the vapour, the distillate will have a much higher ethanol concentration than the original liquid.  The ethanol, being easily evaporated, is called a volatile component.  Often used to describe someone who flies off the handle, in the present context it means easily evaporated.  Non-volatile compounds, including sugar and pigments, are left behind.  All pure distillates are therefore dry (not sweet at all) and colourless.

What makes distilling challenging and interesting is that there are thousands of volatile components in fermented liquids besides ethanol.  Some are more volatile than alcohol and boil off at lower temperatures.  These are called heads, or foreshots, and are always undesirable in finished spirits.  They include methanol, acetone, and are generally nasty and toxic.  Other compounds are less volatile than ethanol, boiling off at higher temperatures.  They tend to be long, fat-like hyrdrocarbon chains, and are called tails, or feints.  They contribute harsh flavours that are desirable in small amounts in some styles of spirit, notably whisky.  They also contribute to mouthfeel, producing the oily texture of some spirits.  Tails are also known as fusel oils, and include butyl and amyl alcohol.

The art of the distiller is inviting the right volatiles to the party, while keeping out the undesirables.  The guest list depends on the style of liquor they are making.  Vodka, for instance, is a very neutral spirit, prized for it’s clean flavour.  (One of the first Smirnoff ad campaigns in North America was: “No taste. No smell.”)  Eau-de-vie and schnapps, on the other hand, are prized for their strong aromas of fresh fruit.

There are countless types of stills, but there are three important, classic styles used in commercial distilling.

Pot still.  A large pot that holds the wash is heated.  Vapours rise from the pot into a vertical pipe called a gooseneck, or swan neck.  This pipe then narrows and bends towards the horizontal in a section called the lyne arm.  Vapour then descends into a condenser.

The first liquid that dribbles out of the condenser contains the heads, which are discarded.  Next the happy hearts are dispensed.  Finally the tails, which may or may not be desirable in small quantities.  The distiller evaluates the spirit to separate the heads, hearts, and tails depending on the style of spirit being made.

Charentais Alembic Still.  Most associated with Continental, aromatic spirits based on fruit, such as brandy and eau-de-vie.  Important features include the “helmet,” a bulbous top on the boiler functions as an expansion chamber, which holds back the heavier volatiles, and lets the lighter fruit aromatics through.

Usually the vapour passes by a pre-heater, containing the wash for the next batch.

Like a pot still, heads, hearts, and tails come out of the condenser one after the other, and have to be separated at the distiller’s discretion.

A sketch of a Charentais alembic still

Continuous still.  Most associated with industrial distillation of neutral spirits.  As the name suggests, this still does not operate batch by batch, but with a continuous input of wash.

The cool wash descends and is heated by the rising vapour.  Instead of heads-heart-tails differentiation being a function of time, as with batch stills, here it is a function of height.  The more-volatile heads come out the top of the still, and the less-volatile tails out the bottom.  The spirit is taken out somewhere partway up the still.

A sketch of a continuous still

The number of passes through the still is also important.  Scotch, for instance, is generally twice-distilled, while most Irish whiskey is thrice-distilled.

Aging method, if any.  The most important question here: is the spirit aged in wooden barrels?  All distillates are clear and colourless when they first come out of the still.  The colour of brown spirits like whisky and brandy develops during barrel-aging.  Besides changing the colour of the spirit, aging in wood makes the drink smoother, and can lend distinct aromas and flavours, notably the vanilla and caramel notes found in bourbon.

Based on the four points discussed above, we can now simply and accurately define every major style of spirit.  A super-quick survey:


  • Region of Production: There are no controls on the term whisky, but its most famous sub-varieties are regional designation: Bourbon is from the US, Scotch from Scotland, Irish whiskey from Ireland, and Canadian whisky from Canada.
  • Base Fermentable: Whisky is always made from grain, but the exact ingredients vary widely.  Bourbon is based on corn, and Scotch on barley, for instance.
  • Distillation Details: Traditionally made in a pot still that allows certain tails through.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.
  • Contrary to popular thought, Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye whiskey, though it does generally contain a good does of rye.  It pains me to admit, but Canada is the least regulated of the four classic whisky regions, and therefore the least distinct of the group.


  • Region of Production: There are no regional controls for vodka, but its homeland is Russia.
  • Base fermentable: Any number of base fermentables can be used.  Basically the cheapest source of calories available.  Rye is the most common, but potatoes and wheat are also used.
  • Distillation Details: Most commercial varieties are made in a column still, but pot stills can also be used.  Often distilled several times for clean flavour.
  • Aging: Not aged, or aged very briefly, but never in wooden barrels.  Vodka is always clear.


  • Region of Production: “Brandy” itself can be made anywhere, but it is understandably most common in wine regions, and certain types of brandy are regional designations (Cognac, Armagnac).
  • Base Fermentable: Grapes are fermented into a mediocre wine that is later distilled.  The term “brandy” is also broadly applied to other distillates based on fruit.  For instance, while the Normans have a word for apple cider distillate (“Calvados”, see below), but the English do not, so we often call it “apple brandy.”  This is perfectly acceptable.  Imagine if the English language did not have the word “cider,” and we had to call fermented apple juice “apple beer.”
  • Distillation Details: Premium brandies like Cognac are made in Alembic Charentais stills.
  • Aging Method: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.


  • Region of Production: Specific parts of Normandy and Brittany, in France.
  • Base Fermentable: Apples, or sometimes pears.
  • Distillation Details: Alembic still
  • Aging Methodl: Always aged in wooden barrels to obtain characteristic colour, flavour, and mouthfeel.


  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from Holland and adopted with enthusiasm by the British.
  • Ingredients: Usually a neutral grain spirit that has been flavoured with juniper and other exotic aromatics like grains of paradise.
  • Aging Method: Almost never aged in wood.  Almost always clear.  (There are some exceptions by craft producers like Victoria Spirits.)


  • Regional of Production: Not a controlled term, but originally from the Caribbean and other cane-growing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Sugar cane juice, or molasses, or a blend of the two.  Often caramelized sugar is back-added to the distillate for sweetness, colour, and body.
  • Aging Method: Large commercial brands of rum are not usually aged.  The best rums in the world (like this one) are always aged in wooden barrels.

Eau-de-Vie and Schnapps (true schnapps)

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term.  Schnapps is common in German-speaking regions such as Germany and Austria.  Most French regions, notably Alsace, use the term eau-de-vie.  Switzerland can go either way.  Etter is a self-described eau-de-vie, even though it is made in the largely German-speaking Swiss town of Zug.
  • Base fermentable: Any manner of fruit, including apple, pear, apricot, plum, and cherry.
  • Distillation Details:  The best examples use an Alembic still to capture the aroma of the fresh fruit.
  • Aging Method: Not aged in wood barrels.  A clear spirit.


  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but confined almost entirely to Mexico.
  • Base Fermentable: Agave, specifically the swollen, central bulb of a mature agave plant that has had its flower stalk snipped.  The bulb is cooked, then crushed and shredded to extract a sweet liquid.
  • Distillation Details: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging Method:  Some mezcal is aged on wood, some is not.  It is partly a stylistic decision.  Cheap industrially-produced mezcal usually gets its colour from caramel, while very fine examples are aged in wood.


  • Tequila is a kind of mezcal produced in certain delimited areas of Mexico, using only blue agave.
  • Tequila has different classifications based on aging method.  Blanco is un-aged, or aged very briefly in stainless steel tanks.  Gold tequila gets its colour from caramel.  Reposado and añejo tequilas are aged in wooden barrels.

Grappa, Marc, and other Pomace Spirits

  • Region of Production: Not a controlled term, but most common in wine-producing regions.
  • Base fermentable: Grape pomace (the skins and seeds left-over after pressing grapes to make wine).  Really cheap examples will use true pomace mixed with a bit of water and sugar.  Really fine examples will actually use grape juice, but from later pressings.
  • Distillation: Pot still, traditionally.
  • Aging: Most often a clear spirit.  The Cretain pomace spirit raki is often aged on wood.  And there are some amazing Grappa di Barolo that are barrel-aged.
  • In Greece the most common word for pomace spirit is tsipouro.
  • Other notes: Grappa is often a little rough around the edges, but quality examples like Nonino Grappa showcase the natural aromas of the grapes from which it is made.  Nonino Grappa di Moscato, for instance, has the distinct lemon balm aroma of the moscato grape.
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Red Fife Wheat: Heir to the Prairies

I consider this post a sort of addendum to The Story of the Buffalo.  I suggest having a gander at that post before reading this one.


Red Fife wheat has received a lot of attention in our part of the world.  It is a heritage or heirloom wheat, touted as the first cultivar to be grown successfully on the Canadian prairies. It is not genetically modified, and since it is not industrially grown, it is often organic.  There are many compelling reasons to grow, purchase, mill, and cook with Red Fife wheat.  It is, however, romanticized to a hilarious degree.

We all know that the buffalo was the basis of prairie life before European arrival.  It remained an important staple in forts and trading posts along the various routes taken by voyageurs and coureurs de bois well into the 1800s.[1]

By the end of the 1870s the buffalo had been hunted to near-extinction, and treaties had been signed with the natives.  The next period of prairie history was European settlement and conversion of the native grass- and pakland to farmland, most notably for grain-growing.

Grain is central to the identity of the prairie provinces.  If you think that’s an overstatement, I direct you to the provincial flags of Alberta and Saskatchewan, both of which brandish golden stalks of wheat.  It’s incredible to think, but at one time there were serious doubts that the prairies could ever be farmed successfully.  The first significant attempt, made by the Red River Colony, was full of failures and disappointments.[2]  They had difficulty clearing the land, had to contend with flooding and locusts on a biblical scale, and then of course there were the bitterly, impossibly cold winters and the brief growing seasons.  Most European varieties of winter wheat were killed by the frigid cold, and most varieties of spring wheat could not ripen before the first frosts of autumn.[3]

Despite set-backs, the Red River Colony eventually found a robust strain of wheat, and they were more or less self-sufficient grain-wise from 1820 onward.[4]

In 1857 the British and the colonial Canadian governments both sent expeditions west of the Red River Colony, all the way to the Rockies and beyond, in part to asses the land’s agricultural potential. The former was led by a man named Palliser, the latter by a man named Hind. Though the Palliser report contained descriptors like “semi-arid” and “almost-desert”, the general consensus was that agriculture would be possible throughout much of the region.

Meanwhile Red Fife wheat was making its way west from Ontario.  David Fife was a Scotsman living in Peterborough, and his serendipitous “discovery” of what became known as Red Fife wheat is now a Canadian food legend.  In 1842 a friend of David’s working at the port in Glasgow sent him some grains of a hardy wheat variety.  Most sources say that the wheat had come to Glasgow from the Ukraine.  The story goes that the friend dipped his hat into the grain, lodging some of the seeds in the interior headband, and then sent this hat to Fife in Canada.  Fife planted the seeds, but only one stalk grew.  That one stalk was decimated by the family cow, but thankfully someone managed to save one head from bovine destruction.[5]

These rescued seeds produced hardy wheat that was resistant to rusts and other diseases. It became famous locally, then spread south into the US, and west across Canada.  By 1870 Red Fife wheat was common on the prairies.[6]  While it was not the first wheat to be grown here, it is considered the first distinct Canadian wheat variety.  Where Old World wheat varieties had offered mere subsistence, Red Fife and its scion Marquis offered prosperity.  Reliably productive wheat crops helped entice millions of immigrants from Europe and the United States into the Canadian west, a region that would later export massive quantities of grain and become the “breadbasket of the world”.

The success or failure of a people has always depended on the success or failure of their associated flora and fauna.  It’s hard for us, a supermarket people, to comprehend, but our mode of existence is largely predicated on tiny genetic mutations in the plants and animals that we eat.  The only reason that we grow wheat in the first place is that thousands of years ago a single Mesopotamian wheat mutant held onto its seeds instead of releasing them and letting them fall to the ground.  Normally this would have been a fatal defect: how could the plant reproduce if its seeds didn’t fall to the ground and get pushed into the soil?  Thankfully someone took notice of the unusual plant, and grabbed the easily-harvested seeds.  They probably ate some, and one way or another planted the rest.[7]  Likewise a mutation in Fife’s wheat from Glasgow made the plant so robust and well-adapted to Canada that it became a keystone for European settlement of the Canadian west.

In this context we can return to the buffalo.  Bison and wheat are two sides of the same coin: bison, the wild animal that sustained the largely nomadic indigenous people of the prairies, nearly eradicated by the voracious buffalo hunt; wheat the sort of heir to the prairies, and Red Fife the unique cultivar that appeared to fill the agricultural gap and make European life here possible.

As with the buffalo post, I want to sort of wash my hands and say that my goal in writing this brief history is not to arrive at any kind of moral decision. The mandate of the local-food movement is to know more about where our food comes from. While we often talk about specific grains grown on specific farms, this post was an attempt to consider a plant from a broader perspective.



References and Other Notes

1.  In 1814 the Red River Colony, closely associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company, attempted to take control of the regional pemmican trade.  The violent response from the North West Company is now called the Pemmican War.

2.  Described in detail in this article on the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada website: From a Single Seed: Tracing the Marquis wheat success story in Canada to its roots in the Ukraine.

3.  From the entry on “Wheat” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition, published by Hurtig Publishers in Edmonton, 1988.  Winter wheat is planted in the fall.  It germinates, then goes dormant over the winter, and resumes growing in the spring.  Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.

4.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

5.  The online Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Red Fife wheat.

6.  Also from From a Single Seed on Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

7.  From Jared Diamond’s brain-blowing book Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of the greatest food books of all time, even though you won’t find it in the food section of the bookstore.  The domestication of wheat is described in Chapter 7, “How to Make an Almond.”

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