The nexus of farmer, cook and wine maker can be informative, engaging – and most importantly, delicious. The scrumptious synchronicity occurred at Miijidaa Cafe & Bistro just a few days ago.
Part of the Neighbourhood Group of Restaurants, Miijidaa is located in downtown Guelph. It’s a relatively new entry into the food landscape in Wellington County that focusses on Canadian cuisine in all its iterations: First Nations, French, English and Scottish, for example. The restaurant group, as most people will know, is also an industry leader in sustainability, human resources, and of course attention to local ingredients and farming.
The restaurant’s name reaches to Canada’s first languages: it translates into a casual and enthusiastic, “Let’s eat!” Last week, Miijidaa and Managing Partner and Chef Shea Robinson put together what the restaurant refers to as a “collaborative” three-course dinner with wine pairings by Ravine Vineyard.
Host and Neighbourhood Group co-owner Bob Desautels led the 30 or so guests through the wine pairings in an informative sipping and yet uncluttered by wine jargon: that is the premise of his recently published book, Wine Sense: The Three Keys to Understanding Wine (Friesen Press, 2015).
Robinson’s starter course was lighly seared wild-caught tuna and a deep, deep green watercress sauce – a sort of surf and turf with “water” as the common denominator, you could say. The most interesting part of the dish was “textures of carrots:” firm, smooth and jellified pickled carrot. It picked up the elements of the tuna.
The accompanying Ravine Sauvignon Blanc from 2014 was one of the most engaging and dynamic encounters I’ve had with the varietal (for which I usually have a rather tepid response) which has likely changed my relationship with it: it possessed some dramatic grapefruit and light floral flavours and aromas to balance with the tuna dish.
The night’s main event was beef with a unique and thought-provoking story. A YU Ranch striploin is seared and coloured slightly before being finished sous vide. Robinson’s treatment was a perfect way to prepare the grass-fed beef. It was served with a variation of a grated potato rappie pie traditional in the east coast of Canada. The accompanying wine was a marvelous 2010 Ravine St. David’s Bench Merlot with a full body and beautiful cherry and mild chocolate flavours.
Dessert was an inventive apple tart, salted rhubarb caramel and goat’s milk pastry cream served with Ravine’s 2014 Vidal ice wine. Together, they created a balanced acidity and sweetness with sharp textures and flavours meeting soft.
The food, oddly, was almost secondary to the introduction and comments on the beef made by Bryan Gilvesy of YU Ranch. He’s an expert farmer and an authoritative and engaging public speaker: he knows whereof his speaks, and, based on several events at which I’ve heard him talk, he immediately draws in his audience with the process and methods of YU farming and conservation practices. In his brief and informal explanation, Miijidaa guests, it seems to me, found his comments inspiring.
Gilvesy, when he talks about the ranching process as he believes it should be – irrespective of his particular business – his goal, he says, is to put people in a different “frame of mind” when it comes to farming other than a purely mechanic act that starts with tilling the soil.
“Philosophically, we view the farm as a giant photovoltaic receptor that harvests the energy of the sun and pulls down carbon from the atmosphere,” Gilvesy says.
The farm hands tasked with doing that job, he continues, are the grasses that grow at YU Ranch. Gilvesy is not being facetious or disingenuous. “People remember that from school,” he adds remarking on biology class carbon cycle that we all encountered. “That’s what plants do. And what our farm does is simply produce grass which harvests energy from the sun and carbon from the atmosphere.”
The next step is where it gets delicious for diners, of course, at the same time it bypasses the more conventional “industry” of tilling, tractors and other machinery – and even human labour to an extent.
“The way we harvest our grasses is not with machines but with cattle. If you think about it, the fuel used to harvest the grasses themselves is also from the energy of the sun. Those cattle are propelled by the energy of the sun, not diesel fuel.”
Finally, that energy is converted into lean and awfully good tasting protein to which Robinson had applied the sous vide mechanics so nicely. “It’s just a different way to think about farming and beef,” says Gilvesy of his farmer-cattle.
It really is a different way to digest the process – literally too. It is the thoughtfulness and the synchronicity with the seasons; it is the climate and the totality of the environment that one embraces and that adds a layer of meaning to the eating in addition to a unique flavour profile.
The taste, too, is different: eating a piece of grass-fed protein such as that from YU Ranch requires a suspension of conventional expectations of beef. It’s a learning process; a matter of education. Of enlightenment, even, and in a Zen sense too.
When you chew a nice chunk of grass-fed beef, it’s firm but not tough. It has body and yet is soft and creates a wonderful mouth feel. It’s uniform in its flavour profile across time: it doesn’t start off sweet and then diminish into a watery mouthful as the sugars dissipate. Sous vide is an excellent way to cook this piece of the sun too.
Thinking of the entire process makes the experience more than eating – it is, in effect, becoming one with the sun and grass and animals. It’s transcendent almost. Well, it is to me, anyway.