Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Vegan Affair

Other than sometimes having to contend with the odd morning after, the biggest problem our Dinner Club has is trying to schedule an evening when all four couples can attend. Things aren't made any easier now that Matinder and Jeaux spend five months of the year in semi-retirement down in Antigua, particularly since I don't think we can manage to get everyone down there on a regular basis for a dinner club like we did this year. With last night's Holiday Cookie Bash now behind them, our Caribbean couple were charted to head off to the sun in another week.

Although Tyrant had just returned from a month's visit to New Zealand, he and Panda Guy thought we might be able to fit in a dinner before Jeaux and Mat's departure. Luckily for us, Tyrant had access to his old Vancouver condo (and its view of the carol ships in Coal Harbour); so, he brought along his tools of the trade and made his way into town from Salt Spring Island.

The only clue we had as to the dinner's "theme" was that we were all asked to bring along organic wines. For those of you not familiar with Salt Spring, it is well known as a haven for artistic, holistic and organic back-to-nature folk. Upon our arrival and our learning that the evening's fare would all be vegan, we immediately began joking about how, despite Tyrant's carnivorous ways, his current island surroundings must be rubbing off on him. He countered that the theme had more to do with trying to come with something new after more than a decade of Dinner Club gatherings than it did with turning all granola on us.

In any event, it was going to be an interesting evening because none of us could remember ever having partaken in an entire menu plan based on vegan cuisine.

Tyrant started us off with vodka martinis made with Calvados, ginger beer and fresh pressed apple juice from our hosts' own trees. As we sipped away, an array of hors d'oeuvres were presented: sesame crusted tofu batons with dipping sauce, faux crab salad in cucumber cups and pesto seared king oyster mushroom medaillons on daikon rounds. it would seem that vegans have their ways of presenting food so that it reminds you of more familiar foods - like crab and scallops. Regardless, we were off to a tasty start.

1812.  NV Summerhill Pyramid Winery - Cipes Brut (Okanagan Valley VQA)

It only seemed fitting to bring along a bottle of Summerhill Cipes Brut. Not only is it consistently lauded as an excellent example of Okanagan bubbly, Summerhill is as dedicated to organic production as anyone in the Okanagan. Indeed, they've pioneered biodynamic practices where possible in their vineyards and they dedicate a healthy portion of their website to educating consumers on organic farming and wine.

Their website also has a "Note to Vegans" where they state, "although there is no third party verification for vegan wine, Summerhill uses no animal byproducts in its winemaking, and is therefore vegan friendly. We were once asked whether our Biodynamic practices are vegan friendly. Some biodynamic preparations are made by fermenting herbs in stag bladders and cow intestines. These animal parts are not in the wine or in any way touching the grapes. They are used as a medium to create beneficial soil bacteria that aid processes in the grapevine's immune system. We must leave it to each individual vegan to decide whether the biodynamic preparations are a deal breaker or not. Some animal byproducts commonly used in winemaking include fish bladders, gelatin, egg whites, milk and milk byproducts. Summerhill uses none of these ingredients in our wine."

It also didn't hurt that we were pairing the 2014 All Canadian Wine Championships "Sparkling Wine of the Year" with a roasted sweet potato soup (vegetable stock naturally) that had been thickened with puréed macadamia nuts.

1813.  2012 Domaine Fouassier - Les Romains (AOC Sancerre - France)

1814.  2013 TWR - Te Whare Ra Pinot Gris (Marlborough - New Zealand)

My favourite dish of the night was the miso-marinated, grilled Portobello carpaccio with lemon zest, pistachios and arugula in a lemon vinaigrette. It matched up nicely with our pair of whites - a Kiwi Pinot Gris that Tyrant had brought back from his trip as a treat for the Dinner Club and a Sancerre (which is always a treat in my book) that Lady Di had brought. I thought it was interesting that Tyrant brought the Kiwi wine but it was a Pinot Gris and not the variety more associated with New Zealand. The Sauv Blanc hailed from France.

This is the second vintage of Domaine Fouassier to be added to The List, but I've never heard of - let alone tried - TWR. Tyrant ran across them during his Kiwi tour and they are a boutique winery that specializes in organic, small batch wines. The current owners, Jason and Anna Flowerday, took over the vineyards ten years ago and they replanted one of their blocks with a Pinot Gris clone that they felt was suited to their terroir and passion for aromatics. Their site says that 2013 was a textbook summer in Marlborough and, in a little different take from most of the Pinot Gris we see from BC, 40% of the wine was aged and lees-stirred in old French oak to add to the "texture and complexity."

I think it's particularly telling that the owners' name is Flowerday and they are into organic and biodynamic farming. The biodynamic calendar is divided in four days: fruit, leaf, root and flower. Certain activities are planned to be in sync with phases of the lunar calendar to coincide with the most favourable times for sowing, planting, harvesting and even tasting. Flower days are noted for how wines are supposed to taste better on them (and fruit days) as opposed to root or leaf days.

When Tyrant announced the vegan theme for the evening, I checked my phone to see what day it was on the biodynamic calendar (yes, there's an app for that) and saw that it was a root day - not noted for being good days for tasting wine. I didn't know how root days boded for tasting vegan dishes but I hoped for the best.

One of Tyrant's neat little tricks was to serve a kiwi fruit sorbet in a hollowed out kiwi fruit "egg cup." I mean, there are palate cleansers and then are palate cleansers. Such a witty play on Tyrant's recent adventures down under.

1815.  2011 Carrick - Bannockburn Pinot Noir (Central Otago - New Zealand)

1816.  2010 Covert Farms MDC (Okanagan Valley VQA)

A bit of a break in the menu prompted another two bottles to be opened and this round saw a second treat of Tyrant's from New Zealand and a wine from another star in the Okanagan's organic movement - Covert Farms.

I've had a jones for Central Otago from the time I tried my first Pinot Noir that came from there - not that I get much of a chance to try them. Most of the premium Central Otago Pinots that make their way to the Vancouver market generally carry a premium price tag. A fact that often leaves me relying on the kindness of strangers (or friends such as Tyrant) to open a bottle.

I don't know if it was the whole "root day" thing but the Carrick didn't come across as nicely as I would have hoped for a Central Otago wine. It was shy on the bright fruit and weight that I associate with the region's top Pinots.

The MDC is a Cab Sauv dominant blend with Zinfandel and Syrah playing smaller roles in the mix and it certainly could have paired up with a big, old grilled steak. Ooops, wrong dinner.

1817.  2012 Emiliana - Novas Gran Reserva Garnacha Syrah (D.O. Valle del Cachapoal - Chile)

1818.  2012 Vistalba Corte C (Mendoza - Argentina)

The entrée was its own little tasting menu. Having their highly coveted, quadrant plates, the boys served up a foursome of dishes: Thai red curry soba noodles with shiitakes and scallions, coconut and panko crusted deep fried seitan nuggets with a charred corn and red onion salsa, tofu cubes stuffed with bulgur wheat and Asian vegetables and, lastly, fried lotus roots. I can't say that I've even heard of seitan before - a wheat gluten that is used as an alternative to soybean-based products. It is apparently a common ingredient found in restaurants catering to Buddhist patrons.

The pairing of the two South American wines with the largely Asian entrée may not have been a match in heaven but we were low on whites and we'd saved the bigger wines for the proteins. No one complained. In fact, the Vistalba might have been the favourite wine of the night. I know it was mine, but then, I'm a little biased since Boo and I visited Vistalba during our stay in Argentina - and it wasn't even us who brought that bottle. Jeaux and Matinder brought it (and the sister Tomero wine yet to come), but they apologized profusely as they'd only picked it up on the way to dinner and their choices were limited as their car had broken down and they couldn't make it to a larger wine shop. They had to settle for a little, local wine and beer store that didn't feature an organic section. They were advised that, while Vistalba wasn't labeled as organic, the winery did look to using sustainable growing practices.

Graciously, our hosts did not ask them to leave the table. Personally, when the wine tastes as good as the Vistalba did, I'm willing to put up with a bit of non-organic farming.  Corte C is a blend of Malbec (76%), Cab Sauv and Bonarda and it is actually Vistalba's entry level blend. I only wish that Cortes A and B were available in our market.

Emiliana is a stalwart entry in the provincial liquor board's selection of organic wines. I seem to recall their Novas brand as being the first organic wine to be aggressively marketed here - particularly since it was seen as a well-priced and consistently balanced wine.

Tyrant and Panda Guy topped off their feast with a vegan take on chocolate ganache pie. No cream or butter or was used in the recipe, rather it featured a ground hazelnut crust and a puréed mixed nut filling with organic cacao, medjool dates and agave nectar.

And, since there was chocolate, there was red wine.

1817.  2012 Tomero Cabernet Sauvignon (Mendoza - Argentina)

1818.  2011 Pangloss Cabernet Sauvignon (Sonoma County - California)

The last two wines saw another mix of old and new for me. Tomero is the sister (and entry level) label to Vistalba and, while I don't have a lot of their wines on hand, they are one of my faves for well-priced Argentine wines.

I'll readily admit that I don't know all that many Californian producers but I'm pretty sure that I've never run across Pangloss before. I see from their website that they are a small volume producer of a number of varietals and blends. The Cab Sauv saw one of their bigger case volumes but even it was limited to under 600 cases. I always appreciate it when I get to try a small volume production bottling like this.

The "unfortunate" part of trying these last two wines was that they were the last two wines - and I have to confess that I was drinking tonight's wines, not sipping, spitting and taking notes. I'd be laughed out of the Dinner Club if I tried that - and I started this gang. As such, I don't even recall if I favoured one of the wines over the other. Too bad because a Argentina vs. California tasting could be a decent evening all on its own.

So, vegan or not, I don't think anyone left hungry - and we all have a couple of vegan dishes that we could re-create if the need arose. Tyrant did say, however, that the vegan menu plan was a helluva lot of work and that he doesn't think he'd tackle it again. Indeed, he's already announcing that he figures their next Dinner Club theme will be a Brazilian meat buffet.

Either way - vegan or omnivore - I'm looking forward to it.

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