Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It was a very good year!

2014 was healthy, prosperous and joy-full!

Memorable highlights and meaningful milestones.

Some of the biggest events weren't really mine, but the men who help define my life. Alex moved out and Rob turned 60.  Time is flying by, and confirming for me that I am in the youth of old age.

All the more reason to enjoy small pleasures. Taking time to linger over great meals with friends and family, foodies and book buddies. Tasting some things for the first time, like coffee cupping, caviar and sake on the solstice.  Continuing to explore wine and cocktails.

And finally!  Getting around to updating the front room with comfy furniture and light-hearted touches that help it live up to the name, "living room".  Stopping to smell the flowers and enjoy my garden, whatever the season.

Rob and I took an iconic trip to Paris and London in September. Both cities were amazing, and I was happy we were able to spend 8 days in each place to get to see the sights and sounds. So much to take in, it was all a bit of a whirlwind. We took cruises on the Thames and the Seine, and checked out both their Towers and as many galleries and museums as our feet carry us.

I am continuing to enjoy sailing as weather permits. We took Yondering for a two week cruise East over the summer and spent most weekends hanging out on the Island. Also memorable was a five-day get-away to Wilson New York. Even if the boat is in the slip, it is still fun to get down to the club and enjoy the view from the deck or dock at BPYC.

My two different book clubs keep me reading, but more importantly,  help keep me connected to some lively and memorable discussions with some fabulous women.

I am also deeply grateful to be continuing with my daily yoga/meditation practice and adding in the sadhanas and workshops.

On the work front... Three different jobs testing my adaptability, thankfully still with the same employer. Something new to learn in each new posting, but all the same, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. I am grateful to continue being employed & employable but starting to look ahead to a time of retirement. How will I fill my days? Something tells me I won't have a problem figuring out what to do with myself.

Yes, I am grateful for a wonderful year and time well spent.

Here's to 2015.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sake on the Solstice - 2014

Sake has been enjoyed by the Japanese for at least 2,000 years. Farmers often gathered together in the winter to brew small batches of rice wine for the coming year.  How appropriate to have this tasting to honour the Winter Solstice! 

Usually, Stu conducts tours and sake tastings on site at the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company. Fortunately, he was open to making a home visit, and brought along five different types of Izumi sake, so we could sample the different styles and deepen our appreciation. He was entertaining and at ease as he guided us through the different styles.

Our small group listened to a quick overview before proceeding to the tasting. Three basic ingredients are distilled to create sake: water; rice; and koji. This basic trinity yields very different results, depending on the characteristics of each element, how it gets processed and then distilled. 

Water.  Izumi  uses Ontario spring water from Muskoka. In fact, ‘Izumi’ roughly translates to ‘spring water’ in Japanese.  The company first tried using Lake Ontario water, but the owner was disappointed with the results, and so trucks in water from a pure source. When sake is called ‘junmai,’ it means it is a pure rice wine, without additional alcohol or grain spirits.

Rice. Good quality grain is essential, but even more critical is the percentage to which each grain is polished and the outer kernel removed.  The lower the polishing ratio, the more premium the sake.  If sake is labelled ‘ginjo’ it must be polished at least 60%. 

There are noticeable changes at this level;  ginjo sake is usually lighter and more aromatic. Daiginjo means a sake that has been polished to at least 50%. Daiginjo literally means “big ginjo” and that’s a fair description of their relationship: they’re like ginjos, only more so. 

Some premium sake boast that as much as 85% of the outer kernel has been polished away, leaving behind only 15% of the inner core. Too polished? Many in the industry believe the industry is taking this to an unneeded extreme, an utter waste of perfectly good rice.

Koji. This is basically, rice mould. Izumi gets theirs from Nagano, Japan, from a catalogue of different structures dating back to at least 1662. Stu brought some for us so we could see what it looked, smelled, and tasted like (mushy stuff with a yeasty smell, very chewy and not unpleasant flavour).

The first sake we tasted was Nama nama, a nama-zaki style, which means it has not been pasteurized. This type is rarely exported from Japan, and because it doesn’t have much of a shelf-life, it’s ideal to get from a local brewer. Gauntner and other connoisseurs often prefer pasteurized styles because they believe the process “eliminates the veil-like set of characteristic aromas and flavours“.  Served chilled, this was delicious with prosciutto and melon.    

The second sake was Nama cho, once-pasteurized. Most types of sake are pasteurized twice – after pressing on its way to the maturation tank, and once again post bottling. This one is pasteurized after bottling. We tried it both warm and chilled, and it seemed as though it became two entirely different beverages. I was surprised by the way the aromas were neutralized when it was served warm.  Definitely delicious both warm and chilled, paired with sushi and sashimi.  In North America from the 1940s—1980s, lesser quality sake was served warm to disguise its taste, and many people formed poor impressions as a result.

Third tasting was Teion Sekura, with a white-wine-like acidity. Stu called this the distillery’s “gateway saki” that most generally appeals to North American palates. More koji, pasteurized twice, and very similar to a Gewurtztrameiner.  I served this alongside a mild bleu cheese, aged cheddar, and a washed rind ewe. The umami flavours paired really together surprisingly well.

Fourth up was Genshu, served with slow-roasted pork belly and apple compote. By this time, many of us were starting to get a bit of a sake-buzz, and the Genshu certainly helped us along. This sake is undiluted, no water added, 17% alcohol content, stronger flavour and drier taste. The Izumi had the strong aroma of pear and apple. If I had to pick a favourite of the evening, this would definitely be on the shortlist.

Last but not least, a chilled Nigori Junmai. There was a bit of sediment on the bottom, and when the bottle was shaken, the liquid became a cloudy-white.  This is a sweet sake, and so I paired it with dessert offerings (a raspberry tart, chocolate & goji berries, crystalized ginger, spiced nuts), although it would also have been great served with something spicy. 

The evening definitely expanded my appreciation of sake. I can see incorporating it into my drinks and menu pairing on a regular basis. Although I thought one style would emerge as a strong favourite, each was pleasing and distinct from the other.  I like it! And it was great to share this special evening with friends.

The truth? It is all a matter of whether or not you like it. It is all about preference; it is all hedonistic. Sure, there are greater and lesser levels of quality, but different sake suit different palates, and fit different situations. So first and foremost, ask yourself if you like it. This is deceivingly important, and just as deceivingly simple.

-         John Gauntner



Monday, December 8, 2014

Winter Solstice Tasting - 2014

I was dithering about what to do for the Winter Solstice Tasting this year, and then thought... Sake!

So I hunted down a sake expert to come to the house and found some kindred spirits to join me on the taste adventure.

We'll be trying five different types:
  • Namanam (unpasteurized)
  • Namacho (once pasteurized)
  • Nigori (cloudy)
  • Teion (white-wine-like acidity)
  • Genshu (undiluted)
At first, I was just thinking about serving the sake with sushi. A quick trip to T&T, grab some dragon rolls, wasabi peas & be done with it. Kaarina wondered, which fish with which sake (say that out loud 5 times).

Then Caroline sent me info on the "surprising affinity between Canadian cheese and sake." How irresistible is that? Apparently, since sake has a lower acidity than wine and no tannins, the resulting rounder flavours make it a complementary (rather than contrasting) pairing. Also, both cheese and sake are bursting with umami flavours, and the more umami in the sake, the more complementary it will be to cheese.

Although there are categories of sake, there are huge variations within each. For example, much Nigori sake is sweet and creamy in texture, but there is a variety "so chunky you will be tempted to eat it with a fork. Taste Buds and Molecules suggests pairing a chilled Nigori to calm the fire of capsaicin hot peppers.

SakeWorld is a fantastic introduction to the complexities of rice wine. That's where I found this handy flavour profile chart:

John Gauntner, founder of SakeWorld, is a world-renowned expert on the subject, and suggests pairing based primarily on acidity, umami and texture. In a post at Steamy Kitchen he writes,  "Fortunately, it is hard to have a real mismatch with sake: even if the pairing is not perfect, you have leeway. So feel free to experiment."

We'll need to find out a bit more about the sake we will be sipping before settling on the food pairings, but I'm already twirling around with some ideas.


Sake – Food Pairing Chart – Starting with Sake

Sake and food chart-3
Steamy Kitchen

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Long Nights Full Moon - December

The temperature and weather are very unpredictable right now. Below freezing in the early morning, warmish in the afternoon, flurries, freezing rain.

One thing that isn't unpredictable are the length of days. It's dark when I leave for work. Dark when I come home. I miss the sun!

The moon is always a welcome sight, but in the winter it seems more vigilant in its fight against darkness.

The moon was full 7:30 a.m. December 6.