Malcolm Jolley looks back on a year of eating in other countries…

A culinary squad of grandmothers from Menfi, Sicily, demonstrate their art in May.

2019 was big travel year for me. I crossed the continent to spend a week in Southern California, then crossed the Atlantic 12 times on six trips, to the point where it was almost becoming routine. Not that I took any trip for granted. Far from it, especially on press trips, I am aware that the one I’m on might be the last I am invited on, since my presence is completely dependent on the pleasure of my hosts. at no time is this more pressing to me than when I am invited to sit down for a meal. Here are some of the better restaurant dishes I enjoyed in 2019, and why I think they were worth noting.

March | Los Angeles, California, USA: Chopped Salad

I wrote about the chopped salad at The Rose in the Venice Beach neighbourhood of Los Angeles, and the history of the Angeleno dish, at length in this post from earlier this year. Since then, I’ve seen a few on menus in Toronto, but they’ve been presented as appetizers, which completely misses the point. They’re supposed to be the star of the show, and in grand Southern California fashion both virtuously good for you (it’s a salad, after all) and bad (it’s got cheese and salami).

April | Nantes, Brittany, France: Smoked Salmon with Chêvre Cream

It turns out there’s some pretty good food in France. So, while picking one dish from my trip to Brittany in April wasn’t particularly easy, this roulade of of smoked salmon around herbed Loire Valley goat cheese from the struck me as both brilliant and eminently rip-offable. I think Boursin could easily be a substitute. Goes particularly well with a good dry Chenin Blanc, like the ones from Vouvray that Vincent Carême makes.

May | Rekhale, Pantelleria, Italy: Linguine with Snapper and Wild Fennel

Competition for the best dish I had on my press trip to Sicily in May was fierce. The food in Sicily, with its Arab influence and heavy reliance on the fruits of the sea, is the perfect antidote for the slow spring after a long Toronto winter. This dish of snapper linguine with wild fennel and hemp seeds was served at Themá, the restaurant in the super lux Sikelia Hotel on the tiny volcanic island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Tunisia. We had it with dry Muscat, or Zibibbo, wine from Coste Ghirlanda in the company of Giulia Pazienza Gelmetti, who has established bot the winery and hotel. More on this amazing day to come…

August | London, England: Pickled Mackerel

When I was in Sicily in the spring I made friends with Andrew Catchpole, the editor of the British magazine Harper’s Wine and Spirit. Andrew lived near St. John, Smithfield for many years, and earned the exalted status of a regular. I ran into him again this fall at the St. John 25th anniversary party (see below) where he shared with me his theory on one of the secrets behind the success of what I consider to be the best restaurant in the world (outside of Toronto). To paraphrase, Andrew explained that although St. John’s broad reputation was built on Fergus Henderson’s ‘nose to tail’ carnivorous cooking, the actual menu has always been quite diverse. As it was when my family and I dined there in August, as we always try to do when in London. My eldest son had brought along a good friend for company on our  annual trip to visit my in-laws in the UK, and the teenager turned out to be a recently recovering vegan who had only just converted to pescatarianism. No worries, lots of veg and fish at St. John. But my wife and I knew that, since we almost always order the fish – a treat for those of us who live so far from the sea.  No phones allowed in the St. John dining room, so my only photo is of this Canadian street urchin outside. But the pickles makerel arrived in the form of a salad with (I think) mache leaves, carrots and boiled potatoes. The pleasant sting of vinegar, and subtle heat of horseradish, from the pickle served to elevate the oily fish. Was particularly good with a glass of co-founder, and front of the house man, Trevor Gulliver’s Boulevard Napoleon Grenache Gris.

September | Bolzano, Alto Adige, Italy: Risotto with Kale and Ragu

Going on press trips is a bit like being a kid on a family vacation. You’re along for the ride and the adults decide where you’re going to go. That’s not a complaint. It’s actually kind of nice to have everyone else do the work of organizing a trip, but sometimes details get lost in the mix. Like the precise composition of this dish of risotto that I was served at a banquette in Bolzano in a medieval castle. It was so good: enough for me to take a picture and half a note (the notebook was out because I was tasting some amazing back vintages of Kellerei Bozen with the cantina’s chief winemaker Stephan Filippi, including a stellar 2016 Riserva Chardonnay, that was paired with the risotto). I wrote about the fanstistic dual culture of the Alto Adige / Südtirol here, and this dish, Italian in form but with a big punch of German-Alpine cheesiness, expressed it beautifully. The bitter hit of the kale and sweetness of the slow braised meat (my guess is veal) danced on top of the rich salty rice porridge.

September | London, England: Snails Wrapped in Bacon

Under rather unusual circumstances, which I will elaborate on anothe roccasion, I went to London again in September for three days for the purpose of attending the St. John 25th anniversary party and launch of The Book of St. John. This time cameras and phones with cameras were certainly allowed in the dining room, which was standing room only, as was the bar pictured above. The food was for fingers and included classics like Welsh rarebit (see: a long standing SJ vegetarian option), crispy tripe bits and fried lamb’s brain on a bun. All good, but my favourite were the snails wrapped in bacon which helped calm the rivers of wine and negroni’s that flowed. It was a good party.

October | Melgaço, Portugal: Tomato Rice with Chouriço and Kale

My last trip this year was in the North of Portugal to learn about Vinho Verde. (Again more of this to come – a resolution for 2020 is turn these trips into posts…). In a small town near Melgaćo in the very northeast corner of the country, just across the river from Galicia, Spain, my group had lunch at restaurant where they served a magnificent stew along with perfectly crispy fried salt cod croquettes. The base was tomato and the starch was rice, and mixed in were generous portions of smoky and garlicky cured chouriço sausage and leaves of black kale. I had a three bowls washed down with Alvarhino-heavy Vinho Verde, and life was good.