This is a story about ice wine, and we will get to it in a roundabout way.
Recently my husband Hector forwarded me an email from the farmer who, last fall, had sold us half a pig, four chickens, and our Thanksgiving turkey. He and Hector have developed the kind of old-fashioned, collegial relationship between smallholder and householder now possible in the Yukon, with the increase in small-scale farming. Together he and Matthieu, the farmer, have plucked chickens, butchered pigs, and cooked up blood pudding in Matthieu’s shed on a cold fall evening. When Mathieu has something new to offer, he sends Hector a bulletin. This one read: “Hi, I have a regular supply of duck eggs. They are XXL in size and very good for pastry. 7$ / dozen.” Hector replied, “Yes.”
The duck eggs arrived the next day. They were indeed XXL with shells pale ivory in colour, faintly marbled and almost translucent. Hector had an egg for breakfast, soft-boiled, accompanied by sourdough toast. “Hmm,” he said. “A fresh, organic duck’s egg, soft-boiled, does not have quite the allure of a fresh chicken egg. Not the same brightness or sharpness at all.”
I sent out a call on social media: Duck’s eggs. Any suggestions? There were several replies, some helpful, others less so (“eat them”), and the consensus was that anything baked was a good bet, as Mathieu had intimated.
So I baked four of them into a cake called “Duck Egg Cake with Rosemary” posted on Epicurious and reprinted from Hank Shaw’s Duck, Duck, Goose: The Ultimate Guide to Cooking Waterfowl, Both Farmed and Wild, adding seven tablespoons of duck fat, as instructed, and substituting Labrador tea for the rosemary. The cake came out beautifully — high and golden with a caramelized crust (I greased the tin with duck fat), a beautiful crumb, and an eggy, ducky fl avour haunted by a ghost of lemon emanating from the Labrador tea.
In his notes, Hank Shaw suggested a dessert wine such as a vin santo or Sauternes as accompaniment, so I combed the shelves of the liquor store, arriving, in a roundabout way, at the ice wines. There are currently two ice wines in stock in Whitehorse, both produced and bottled by the Bench 1775 vineyard in the Okanagan, one made with sauvignon blanc, the other merlot, and both sold under the name “Whistler”.
For those unfamiliar with ice wine, its fi rst distinguishing feature is the method of harvest — the grapes are left to freeze on the vine and harvested when the temperature has hovered between -8°C and -12°C for a sustained period, usually in January or February. During this extended period on the vine, the grapes dehydrate, concentrating the sugars and producing a sweet, thick, and complex juice. Though there is evidence that the Romans harvested frozen grapes for wine, ice wine in modern times was fi rst produced in Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the mid-to-late 20th century it was taken up in a big way by vintners in the Okanagan and southern Ontario. Now, Canada is the biggest producer of ice wine in the world, and ice wine is the number one export among Canadian wines.
However, there is much, much more, as I discovered while hovering near the ice wine shelf. Malcolm Mills, an enthusiastic Yukon Liquor Corporation employee with a deep appreciation for wine and a vast store of knowledge at his fi ngertips, approached me, asking if I needed any help. There and then he gave me a crash course on how to drink ice wine, and later, over the phone, filled in the gaps.
Mills had little interest in ice wines himself until he took a tasting tour with an educational focus through Niagara-on-the-Lake. Now he is a convert. His fi rst bit of advice: prepare to look pretentious. “Ice wine is one of the few beverages where there really is a right way and a wrong way to drink it.”
You must buy into the ritual in order to get the full benefit of what Mills calls “the nectar of wines.”
Malcolm Mill’s tips for drinking ice wine:
– Don’t chill the wine for too long; an hour before serving is enough.
– The ideal serving size is 30 mL, and the ideal glass is tulip- or bulb-shaped and big enough to allow you to swirl the wine.
– Swirl vigorously for at least one minute; centrifugal force pulls the wine up the sides of the glass and pulls air into the wine, opening it up. Sniff while you’re doing this, and, “You’ll start to get all these amazing smells.”
– After swirling, sniff the wine again — two short inhalations followed by a deep one. Take an initial sip of fi ve to 10 mL, no more. Place the wine in your mouth, purse your lips, and inhale for about 30 seconds (careful not to aspirate) using your tongue to push the wine up against the roof of the mouth near the nasal cavity. Mills says, “After the fi rst couple of seconds, you’ll notice a dissipation of the sugars, and you’ll start to get much more fl oral and botanical-type notes.”
– Now, take a break. While you wait, the wine is warming up and changing again. On your second sip, you will notice different fl avours — at our house, blackcurrants and apricots were followed by honey, lemon, and a slightly mineral tang. On your third sip, the fl avours will change again. Pay attention.
– Instead of matching a sweet wine with a sweet dessert, think instead of “the concept of richness”. Try crème brulée, even a savoury one, or a rose petal panna cotta, or macadamia or brazil nuts, pan-roasted with sugar and salt. Or, try a duck egg cake: the rich, savoury, ducky fl avour of the cake works beautifully with the fl oral notes and the smooth, almost oily texture of the Whistler sauvignon blanc ice wine.
By the second week of April, there will be another ice wine in stock at the Whitehorse liquor store, and by the end of the month a further six or seven, from Ontario and the Okanagan, ranging in price from $20 for a 200 mL bottle to $60 for 375 mL.
Watch for them. And befriend a farmer. You might get some duck eggs.
Duck Egg and Labrador Tea Cake
Adapted from Hank Shaw
Unsalted butter or duck fat for greasing the pan
4 duck eggs
¾ cup (180 mL) sugar
3 Tbsp. (45 mL) olive oil
7 Tbsp. (105 mL) duck fat, melted
2 Tbsp. (30 mL) minced Labrador tea leaves
1 cup and
3 Tbsp. (295 mL) all-purpose fl our
1 Tbsp. (15 mL) baking powder
Generous pinch of coarse salt
• Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan with butter or duck fat.
• Crack the duck eggs into a large bowl, beat until frothy, add the sugar, and beat until well combined. Still beating, drizzle in the oil and duck fat while stirring the mixture.
• In a second bowl, whisk together the fl our, baking powder, salt and Labrador tea. Stir the dry ingredients into the egg mixture with a few vigorous strokes.
• Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes. Stick a toothpick into the centre of the cake, and if it comes out clean, the cake is ready. If not, bake for another 10 minutes.
• Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn it out onto the rack. Slice and eat warm or at room temperature. • Makes six to eight generous servings.