Monday, December 8, 2014

FoodTrek: To Put On Your (next) Holiday Wish List - Cornucopia

So, here's to all the OCD longterm planners and wishlist-makers out there, already looking for something to do for next fall - Cornucopia Twenty-Fifteen, LIVE THE DREAM! I wish I had my own Flux Capacitator-installed DeLorean, so that I could have experienced this year's Cornucopia 2014 in November, write the post, and then 2.21 gigawatts my booty back to September/October, to say: arrange some time off in November, buy your tickets to Cornucopia, and head on over to Whistler, BC to overwhelm your senses with All the Nomz. Sadly, I cannot bend the laws of space and time, so I tell you now to get preparing for next year's Cornucopia, and consider this your hit list for enjoying one hell of a culinary weekend.

Araxi Big Guns Wine Dinner - start the weekend off right with caviar and bubbly - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Cornucopia - what is this? Held every year in beautiful Whistler, BC, Canada, it's an annual 11-day food and wine extravaganza. They have a wide range of events, from educational workshops and demos explaining wine/food pairing, histories and processes behind distilled spirits, cooking demonstrations by top BC restaurant chefs, to elegant wine dinners held at Whistler restaurants, luncheons cooked by restaurant chefs in private luxury homes, to big gala tasting events. It's an impressive showcase of regional cuisine and wines, a celebration of what's in season (a lot, since it's fall), and held in the beautiful resort town of Whistler, it's a place designed for a city-wide hospitality event.

This was my first trip to Corncucopia. I didn't know what to expect, but we had a great Food/Wine Spirit Guide through Tourism Whistler, who knew exactly how to give a sampling of what the event is like, and also what to pinpoint as a must-do the next time I go to Cornucopia. Because you can bet this won't be my last visit to this festival.

Smoked sablefish with a mix of dark bitter greens and a ginger/orange sauce fr Araxi - Photo by Wasabi Prime
To loosely quote Kevin Smith's Clerks: I hate people but I love gatherings. Well, not totally true - I love a festive vibe, but I don't want to be overwhelmed. Whistler is known more as a winter resort, but it's gorgeous year-round, and having it in autumn, before the ski crowds arrive, is flippin' genius -- people come in for Cornucopia, but it's not mobbed. Friendly, energized, yet relaxing -- not Black Friday shopping at the mall. This is a food and drink-themed festival lasting two weeks, you want to savor it. Accept you're not going to fit EVERYTHING into a few days, so just choose the things that fit your interests best. I was only there for an extended weekend, I'm sure I missed SuperOMGAwesomeRadicalStuff on all the other days, but that's OK, I can come back again next year -- you should too.

Araxi's wine-paired dinner/cocktail hour is a perfect Welcome to Cornucopia - Photos by Wasabi Prime
So here's the Wasabi Prime-approved Must-Do's for Cornucopia-ing it:
Splurge on a wine dinner, specifically Araxi's Big Guns Dinner. An excellent Whistler restaurant that focuses on locally-sourced ingredients and a longtime proponent for farm-to-table dining, Araxi is like a celebratory Welcome to BC party to your palate.

Surf and turf at Araxi's Big Guns Wine Dinner - Photos by Wasabi Prime
It typically sells out, so get your tickets early. This year's Big Guns menu consisted of six courses, plus a caviar/prosecco reception featuring Sunshine Coast Northern Divine Caviar and a Montenisa Franciacorta Brut NV from Lombardy, Italy. Araxi's sommelier put together a hit list of excellent local and imported wines throughout the meal. The food is as expertly prepared as the wines paired with each course. It was a mix of local seafood and meats -- the seafood ceviche mixed with crab, octopus, tuna and scallops was a refreshing favorite. The beef tenderloin with a nice slab of Quebec foie gras was a rich treat. The smoked sablefish atop kale and spinach, in a ginger/orange sauce was heavenly.

And of course - don't forget dessert. A beautiful spiced sugar pumpkin bavarois was a treat for all the senses, and had the autumn flavors of cinnamon, spice, and everything nice.

You're voted off the Island, Pumpkin Spice Latte - Photo by Wasabi Prime
If you're more into exploring and seeing where the night takes you, check out one of the large evening events, like Crush, a mega wine-spirits tasting gala. It's held at the main Whistler Conference Center, where most of the presentation-style events are held. It's a huge tasting event, focused mostly on Canadian wines and spirits, but there's a nice mix of imports as well -- I even saw some familiar Washington-based winemakers as well.

There are some small bites at Crush, but I highly recommend having dinner first. You want to enjoy the event, not imbibe to the point where you can't feel your face. And go with a group, it's more fun with friends, so everyone can try a little of everything, share tasting notes, and many of the wines and spirits you can buy at Cornucopia's mini wine/liquor shop set up in the conference center.

Cornucopia's Crush - mega wine/spirits tasting gala for those who like to explore - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I lean more towards smaller, intimate events, and I definitely recommend signing up for one of the luncheons held at a private home. Sounds strange at first, but it's the perfect way to spend an afternoon -- catch a chartered bus from the Whistler Conference Center (pretty much the HQ for most of the Cornucopia events), get whisked off to some alpine-ensconced mansion, or a picturesque resort home overlooking a lake, and have a top restaurant chef cook a multi-course lunch. #YOLO

Beautiful seared scallop over red wine lentils and pancetta from Cibo Trattoria - Photo by Wasabi Prime
The luncheon I attended was prepared by the fantastic talents of Vancouver-based Cibo Trattoria's Executive Chef Faizal Kassam and his team of kitchen ninjas, wine pairings by sommelier Robert Stelmachuk. The home we dined in was this gorgeous chalet-style house overlooking alpine hills and mountains. Filled with natural light, it was a total Food/Photo Nerd dream. I brought a fixed lens on the trip, no great wide angle possibilities, so my photos of the home doesn't do it justice -- you should check it out on its real estate page. Another genius thing -- a lot of these luncheons are held in homes up for sale, so it's a nice way to promote the property and encourage people to wander around through all the rooms. Including a nice wine cellar!

Welcome to my Whistler abode! (i wish) - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The wine selections were wonderful -- I fell in love with the Wild Goose "Stoney Slope" Riesling 2012 and Thornhaven Estate Gewurztraminer 2013. Ever since our trip to Germany last year, trying plenty of Rieslings and Gewurztraminers, I had yet to find one that was more on the dry side, not dessert-sweet. BOOM. Search over.

Apricot wine with cheese and honey - perfect dessert - Photos by Wasabi Prime
In terms of pleasant surprises, Elephant Island's apricot wine made my palate expect sweet, but instead it was reminiscent of a Belgian sour -- tart, palate-refreshing, and ideal with a honey/cheese dessert. A big wedge of aged pecorino with a hay-covered rind, and a little nugget of sweet honeycomb is an elegant finish.

Great wine selections by sommelier Robert Stelmachuk - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I have to say, some of my favorite dishes from Cornucopia were at this luncheon -- Cibo's team prepared a wonderful seared scallop over wine-cooked lentils, and they made a pillow-soft gnocchi alla romana (basically one giant semolina-based dumpling), smothered in chanterelles and a hefty shaving of white truffles off an impressive softball-sized fungi.

Truffle Envy - Cibo Trattoria dresses their food to impress - Photos by Wasabi Prime
From heady, earthy truffle flavors to rich slow-cooked bison rib with Hester Creek's Block 3 Reserve Cab Franc, it was a beautifully composed meal, in the casual luxury of a beautiful home. And Cibo Trattoria is on my list of must-visits the next time I'm in Vancouver.

Red meat, red wine - nuff said - Photos by Wasabi Prime
That's another thing that Cornucopia is perfect for -- great suggestions for restaurants to visit in Vancouver. They bring in several top chefs from the city for luncheons and cooking demos, from places that are typically tough to get into, so having them up close and personal for an event is a pretty rare treat, like having brunch cooked for you by owner Robbie Kane and Executive Chef Jonathan Chovancek, paired with wines by Sage Hills Vineyards.

Feel the love! Brunch with Medina Cafe (without the wait!) - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I'd heard the line for brunch at Medina can weave out the door, and around the corner -- and I can see why. Their Mediterranean/North African-inspired menu is like taking your tastebuds on a trip around the world. Rich, spiced sauces with heady, aromatic main courses, the food is absolutely delightful. Even the typical mimosa is elevated to a new level, infused with spices like pink peppercorns and fennel. And they keep the food friendly and familiar -- their Belgian waffles with sweet chocolate and caramel sauces keep you firmly grounded in Brunch Mode.

Lamb meatballs in a spicy sauce with a glorious poached egg - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I left feeling totally inspired by this kitchen demo. This wasn't some basic how-to-boil-water presentation, Medina Cafe was presenting complex, multi-layered dishes that made you want to jump in your car and head straight to Vancouver to eat everything else on their menu. The flavorful lamb meatballs in a spiced tomato and aleppo chili sauce was a favorite -- it was like a meaty version of shakshuka, topped with the poached egg.

My new favorite salmon salad... EVAR - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Medina's cooking demonstration also served a wonderful cured salmon, flavored with their signature Mediterranean spices, but then warmed in a skillet, with the skin crisped, before serving on a bed of fresh greens. Again -- inspired. The next time I cure a salmon, I'm expanding my use of curing spices and definitely doing the pan-sear/warm-through, because that crispy skin was delightful.

Like I said, this by no means covers everything that happens at Cornucopia, and I look forward to going again. Which is the sign of a well-planned multi-day event -- you want to encourage people to come back and continue exploring. So consider the culinary gauntlet dropped -- save your pennies, start your planning, and prepare your appetite for Cornucopia 2015! 

For everyone who wants to visit Whistler RIGHT NOW, I've got another post coming up to share great local spots that are available year-round, so stay tuned...

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