Niagara fruit and wine in a storybook venue . . . .
Good food and drink is the stuff of memories. Mine were reawakened recently when I whipped up fragrant, fresh plum coolers in the blender, using ripe, plump fruit, honey, mint, ice and sparkling wine from Niagara. I wanted to share this Plumlicious recipe, and the memories served with it.
One icy sip took me back to the lovely Mark Picone Culinary Studio, to a luncheon hosted by the Ontario Tender Fruit Producers Marketing Board two summers ago. Intimate and interactive, the 800-square-foot Niagara studio is a storybook venue surrounded by rolling vineyards. Here, Picone entertained groups of 8 to 12. Guests could watch him cook a custom lunch or dinner, discuss ingredients and even help prepare the meal, if desired. “It’s all about you,” as Picone described it.
Chef Picone has deep roots in Niagara. His grandfather sold local produce door-to-door after emigrating from Sicily in the early 1900s, eventually saving enough money to open a fine food shop in Dundas, Ont., which is still operating. Picone, one of eight children, worked alongside his father in the shop before setting off to Europe to complete a grueling culinary education in a series of posh restaurants. In 1996, he was recruited to run the restaurant at Vineland Estates Winery. He did that for 10 years before opening the doors of his culinary studio, which is attached to his home in Vineland, Ont.
Before lunch, Picone handed around plum coolers, or “patio apéritifs” as he called them, topped with splashes of sparkling wine, or ginger ale for youngsters, teetotalers and designated drivers. As we sipped, we discovered and discussed a tray of culinary oddities on his countertop. The delicacies included radish pods, saltwort (an herb harvested from salt marshes), Sichuan buttons, mouse melons and white cucumbers.
I tried some pickled mouse melons and radish pods. The “melons” are terribly cute, being the size of grapes but resembling watermelons. However, they taste like slightly sour cucumbers, rather than being fruity. The radish pods are fabulously spicy and crunchy.
Sichuan buttons are the buds of flowering herbs that actually anesthetize the mouth – a quality that could come in handy when eating super-spicy Asian dishes. Also known as buzz buttons, electric buttons and toothache plants, the buds live up to their nicknames. They taste lemony, grassy and peppery, and left my tongue disturbingly hot, buzzing and numb.
Luckily, the unpleasant tingling wears off quickly. The cure, in the meantime, was in my hand: more icy Plumlicious.