Rocky Mountain Food and Wine Festival

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the Rocky Mountain Food and Wine Festival at the BMO Centre – a huge building on the Stampede grounds, used year round to host shows and exhibits. The 13 year old festival started in Calgary and has expanded into Edmonton and Banff in recent years. I attended last year for the first time, but didn’t bring my camera and had limited time there, but had a blast nonetheless. Truth be told it would easily take more than one visit to do the festival justice. Despite the small samples you can really only try so much food and alcohol before your judgement and taste buds are on overload and you’re no longer experiencing variety the same way. But you’re having fun so it’s all good.

The large hall is divided into long rows lined with booths. The lighting is slightly dimmed and tinted which lends a lovely ambience to the event, because there’s nothing worse than being washed out in harsh semi-industrial fluorescent lighting to kill the mood.

The displays range from austere to elaborate, with many vendors capitalizing on the fall theme and getting quite creative with their decor.

From beautiful fall foliage:

To an urban display of ads:

To a lovely Mediterranean setting of Kefi Greek Restaurant:

These are not cigars but clever chicken rolls in cigar boxes – neat hey?

And tell me you don’t want to dig right into both of these!

There is a much larger proportion of wine, beer and spirits vendors, partially due to ease of showcase, I assume. It’s much easier to open bottles and pour samples than it is to coordinate a cooking station and organize messy food to increasingly inebriated people. Still, a good cross-section of Calgary restaurants was present and a wide variety of food was available.

I started by doing a loop around the entire exhibit to get a feel for what’s there, and stopping at some wine vendors which I either recognized or wanted to know more about. A main sponsor of the event is Wine Access Magazine and they provided some guidance to wine neophytes like myself by printing a handy guide and tasting sheet and marking their award winners with signs. Because lets face it, the wine world is a vast ocean and it’s a large subject to learn about. Never mind the complex and sometimes overwrought jargon to try and explain something as elusive as taste. Suffice it to say, as I mentioned a few times on my site, I’m a complete dilettante when it comes to wine but a very enthusiastic taster nonetheless, because every one of us is capable of knowing within a few seconds of sampling something whether we like it or not.

One of the first few things I learned about me and wine is that I generally like full-bodied well-rounded wines. I like bold reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, with the odd Zinfandel thrown in. I like wines that have a robust taste, warm notes like chocolate and espresso and smooth mouthfeel, which means I’m not the biggest fan of many Merlots and Pinot Noirs. So naturally I was drawn to Charles Smith Wines, especially since I just polished off one of his bottles at home. A vintner out of Walla Walla Washington, (just below the Okanagan, really) his wines are really exceptional, and balanced more than anything. Some, like a great riesling are limited edition only, and will probably run out by Christmas not to be seen again until next year. And the labels are pure fun too.

Another good wine was Sledgehammer Cabernet Sauvignon from California. Using more of the winey adjectives it was warm, robust and complex and will appear at your retailers soon. It would make a great table wine.

J. Lohr is my girlfriends’ go-to wine, and one of her two housewines (the other one being Fetzer if anyone cares) and a very good value.

This McWilliams Hanwood Cabernet Sauvignon however, was not a wine that I enjoyed. Hailing from Australia, the helpful gal who served me, tried very hard to get me to recognize notes of blackberry or cassis in the wine. But being a rube, all I could think about is this is ‘thin and sour’. Descriptive hey? It badly needed a sharpness to spike it up somehow and was not for me.

This Apothic Red fared better, being closer to my stubbornly preferred tastes. I also learned that a lot of wines make their debut in Alberta, since our liquor stores are privately owned and not government regulated. Way to go Alberta, and since when is it the govts job to sell us booze? Ridiculous.

Veering into the bizarre and improbable, I also tried a chocolate wine. Sounds weird right? The bottle held a milky brown liquid, reminescent of crappy chocolate milk. But the liquid inside was a close relative of Baileys – perhaps a bit thinner and less sweet, not a bad thing in my opinion. Served with some dark chocolate, or even better a nice rich dark chocolate brownie, it would make a great dessert. Expected to retail for about $15.00 it’s great value too. But hey guys? You need a better label.

One of the items I really wanted to try in the course of the night was sparkling vodka. This is a brand new product which could be either very good or horrid, depending on quality, so I made a beeline to the vodka table on my very first circuit. Apparently it was developed as a patented process, and not at all carbonated the way Coca-Cola is, with the addition of carbon dioxide to liquid.  So how was it? Awesome! Just shy of the smoothness of a first class vodka, it was nevertheless of a very good quality. It was sparkly and had a faint coffee aftertaste, although it was supposed to have a hint of lemon.  I blame it on the interaction with the wine I just consumed. Anyhow, since I mainly mix vodka with real ginger ale and club soda and sparkling grapefruit juice, sparkling vodka had true appeal and did not disappoint. I’d love to see sparkling gin next.

Unlike this hemp vodka which was rather disgusting. I can see how hemp would be a possible addition to vodka, since it’s herbal taste could be blended well with alcohol, but trust me, you’d rather smoke the stuff.

From the same table though, came this maple syrup whiskey, which apparently makes a heck of a cooking implement. And you know what? I can totally see how it would make an awesome glaze for salmon, or a lovely basting sauce for a pork roast.

This Absolut Acai Berry Vodka which they were serving with club soda or sprite was not a winner for me either.  I don’t mind many flavored vodkas, but this one was cloyingly sweet in that cough syrup kind of way, that would produce the worst hangover.  We could not finish one sample between two of us.

The winner of the battle of the vodkas came from Crystal Head Vodka, brought to you by none other than Dan Aykroyd. Another improbable product, right? But it was the smoothest, velvetiest vodka I’ve ever tried. If you assume vodka must have a medicinal bitter aftertaste, then run, don’t walk to the nearest liquor store and plop down the fifty bucks or so to purchase this one, if only to say you did. I tried it unchilled and it sailed down my throat as smooth as water. Incredible.

In the realm of whiskey, a new experience for me was this highland scotch from, un, the Scottish Highlands, of course. Very different from rye whiskey and most whiskeys really, this one was a delicious blend of smokey peat mixed with a warm, robust scotch with slightly fruity undertones. Served over ice, it would make an awesome companion to a movie, or after dinner, or with a cigar. Apparently there was not much in the way of gas or firewood to dry the malted barley in the Highlands, so they burned peat, and the smoke translated into the product we see today.

Check out these psychedelic bottles – didn’t have the strength to try the wine.

And these fruit liqueurs were recommended  by several tasters. Real pureed fruit and good liqueur make these gorgeous bottles into a great kitchen helper. Apparently they can be poured over ice cream, or drizzled onto crepes, or eaten with a spoon…

At this point I was getting to be a tad inebriated, and decided that a prompt switch to food might be a great idea. Walking over to the nearest table, I tried this jewel like sushi pizza from Great Events Catering, with tuna or salmon and caviar on small baked rice cakes. It was not much different from sushi, other than the crispyness of rice, and equally delectable.

This was swiftly followed with a slider from Loungeburger, which was very nice – juicy, well seasoned meat, hints of bacon and cheese on a great tasting bun.

And a fabulous gorgonzola stuffed filet wrapped in bacon, on mashed potatoes and a lovely red wine sauce from Chop Steakhouse. It was savory and full of umami and very tender.

A crabcake Mac’n’Cheese from West – quite good. Truffly and comforting.

And a delightful pork, chicken and shrimp dumpling from Opus on 8th. Absolutely great, spicy and savory, and gorgous presentation to boot.

And the dish to top them all – Highwood’s beef cheek and roasted red onion perogie with foie gras foam. Seriously good. Tender dough pierogi, pan fried until crisp, filled with a perfectly seasoned filling and that foie gras foam was to die for. I could swim in it and drown happy. They blew me away last year too, with a beef something or other and this year they had the best bite also. Highwood is the restaurant ran by the cooking school at SAIT, and to get a reservation there takes months because they are that good.

The chicken cigars were also sampled, and found to be perfectly flavored but a tad dry. The chicken was full of flavor, the crispy wrappers held up wonderfully, but the meat could have used a cream sauce (which I’m sure would have made the whole affair soggy), but still.

We also tried a not photographed duck liver and black truffle pate and rhino pulled pork bun from District, which I’m going to next Friday, with a fuller review to come. The pate was ducky, but needed some salt, badly, and the pulled pork could have used a touch less sauce to taste the meat better. But not bad.

Dessert was these gorgeous mini cupcakes from Buttercream Bake Shoppe. I had the pumpkin one with maple walnut icing, and went to heaven. Not to stop there I also later had the truffles from Elements (the chicken cigar place), and they were fantastic. Full of dark, rich flavor they were better than Callebaut.

All this food orgy was finished with two great beers to cleanse the palate. Or inflict more damage to the liver, you decide. But it would be a screaming shame not to tell you about them, since both are artisanal brews that were better than they had any right to be.

My personal favorite is a beer from Mill St. Brewery with the odd name of Lemon Tea Ale. It doesn’t sound THAT great, but it really was. The lemon flavor is so subtle that it appears somewhere along the travel down your throat, and mixes so well with faint tea notes and hops that it was the most refreshing drink I could imagine. If we ever get a summer in Calgary again, I’m buying cases.

A close second was the Apricot Wheat Ale from St. Ambrose. Sounds delicous and tastes likewise. Again very subtle flavors, the smoothness of wheat ale, the richness of malt, it seems to have won every tasters choice award out there.

On that note my stomach, liver and palate were done. I reached that point where nothing looked good, no matter how tempting, and wisely departed. It didn’t stop me from curing a very mild hangover with McDonald’s this morning, but it was really well worth it. If you have an opportunity to go, GO, you’ll have a great time and expand your horizons vastly.
PS:  if I mis-attributed, mispronounced or made any other mistakes, well I blame it staunchly on the booze, so please feel free to make any corrections in the comments.