“You have a most civilized place to live.”

March 21, 2010

“You have a most civilized place to live.” Taking into account that he had to stand in the bed of the Ranger with three others and cling to the roll bar as the vehicle lurched through mud holes, and that lunch was a venison burger fried on a corner of the maple syrup arch, I was a little surprised when Dr. Armand Leroi made this comment to Bet and me.

On a brief visit to Kingston, Armand joined Saturday’s crew at the sugar shack along with friend and colleague, Dr. Adam Chippindale of the Queen’s Biology Department. They came to see what had been dragging so many of Adam’s students out of the lab and up Hwy 15 lately. Fourth-year biology students each year get to pick a guest lecturer for their final class. They selected Dr. Leroi, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the Imperial College in London, England. His BBC4 science programs* no doubt influenced their choice.

At least those sallow moths in the sap buckets received some high-powered attention on the weekend. For an album click here. Photos:

Earlier in the week Matthew Swift arrived. Matt is a sous chef at Red’s Bistro, a restaurant in the financial district of Toronto, and has a keen interest in new approaches to local foods. He joined friend Don Kerstens, one of the sap crew, to look at the setup and taste our Canada tea.

With a hot fire rolling under the finishing pan, Martin Mallet was in his element tracking the boil until the syrup hit the proper sugar concentration. “The Brix is at 66. It’s time to take it off.” No more endless speculation and arguments: that eBay refractometer was worth the money. Martin and Matt bottled 8 litres of syrup.

Things had gone normally until they took the small pan with the syrup off the arch. Then the three foodies kept gazing at that expanse of bare, hot steel. The urge to cook had struck. In his business Don Kerstens (selectfinefoods.ca) supplies specialized meat cuts to Toronto restaurants. He happened to have some premium pork chops frozen in a cooler. Into the boiling water went the vacuum-packed chops. Too hot? Martin added two pails of cold water so as not to boil them during the defrost.

A wipe of the flat surface with a wet towel and the arch was ready for cooking. Chef Matt seasoned the “pan” by melting the fatty edges of the chops into the steel, producing a black, smooth surface. A little salad oil, and on went the chops. Matt kept feeling them with his finger, turning them frequently. Then he took them off. Martin advanced with his thermometer. “68 degrees F in the middle. They’re not cooked yet.” Unbothered, Matt waited and chatted with me about how to get syrup into the chops without burning them. After a couple of minutes he put the chops back on the stove and finished them. He later told me he likes to let pork chops rest a bit halfway through. Then he poured a bit of syrup onto each, turned them, and used his Swiss army knife to slice them into thin strips on the tray. We ate with our fingers. They were delicious: excellent meat, cooked by an expert, with very little salt and pepper added and a light maple flavour.

Red’s Bistro staff take pride in winning cooking competitions in the Toronto area with innovative entrees and appetizers. I doubt if it will be long before some combination of maple syrup and Berkshire pork makes its way onto the menu in this high-end restaurant.

Next day I tried Matt’s technique to fry a couple of Don’s chops. Even with my limited skills they were quite delightful. Premium pork may well be worth the cost, and the end of a maple syrup arch trumps a gas barbecue as a cooking surface every time.

But the highlight of the week had to be a conversation with four-year-old Liam Chippindale, visiting the farm with his father and brother. He sat down with me and explained in amazing detail how his home’s heating system works. He combined acute observation and anecdote with a fertile imagination to fill in the missing parts, but basically there’s an ice volcano outside which runs water in to provide hot air through a floor register in his room and a wall register in his brother’s. Neat kid. He invited me to his birthday party in thirty days – at an amusement park.

*You can easily find a number of Dr. Armand Leroi’s programs on You Tube: The Evolution of Music, What Makes Us Human, What Darwin Didn’t Know, Aristotle’s Lagoon. Start with What Makes Us Human.

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