On February 3, I went down to the Westin Nova Scotian for Decadence: Chocolate | Wine | Cheese, a night of almost unbridled indulgence and bite-sized gluttony that is one of the three big events in Halifax during the Savour food & wine Festival, which happens every year around this time. (The other two key events are the Rare & Fine Wine Show and the Savour food & wine Show itself.)
I really like Decadence. Not just because it’s wall-to-wall goodies, but because the event showcases the chefs-in-training from the NSCC culinary and pastry arts programs. It’s a really nice little glimpse at the future of Haligonian cuisine.
This year the chefs added a prepared cheese dish to the menu, meaning the pairings were with raw cheeses and chocolates, along with a prepared savoury dish and a prepared dessert. Led by Chef Sean Kettley (Culinary Arts) and Chef Jean-Luc Doridam (Baking & Pastry Art), the chefs showed a real respect for the ingredients, leaning more towards mousses and ganaches in the case of chocolate, meaning they weren’t altering the natural flavour properties of the chocolate through using too much heat, or over-baking. And the diversity of dishes—from salads and sandwiches to a mascarpone shooter—was really impressive. At last year’s event, I was pretty blown away by the talent of the NSCC students, and this year was no different.
On the savoury side, one of the highlights was a torched maple brie (double cream) with spiced candied pecans, served with Peter Lehmann Borossa Shiraz. For me, it was important to try the pairings with the raw and prepared ingredients, and this is one where both felt equally successful. The brie really elevated the wine—which I actually didn’t love on its own—and the wine had enough acidity to elevate the cheese, which made it a great pairing.
Another favourite pairing was the Old Dubliner aged cheddar with Sweet Potato Tart served with Grand Pre Pomme D’Or Apple Cider Wine (top left photo). The tart apple wine worked beautifully with the sharp cheddar, and even though the tart softened some of the strength and saltiness of the cheese, it was still a lovely coupling. (Also pictured: caesar salad cones with Pecorino Romano; roasted baby pear salad with Fox Hill cumin Gouda and curried apple dressing; pickled Asparagus with prosciutto and oka.)
Another of my favourite dishes was the mascarpone and cantaloupe caviar shooter, which was served with Grand Pre sparkling wine. The cantaloupe caviar had a great texture, and the lime foam was a beautiful bit of acidity to counterbalance the rich, smooth cheese. The wine pairing actually felt redundant with the shooter so it didn’t feel entirely like a success, but the dish itself was so great that I didn’t really care. A little slab of brioche with a slather of the cheese—thick and rich, like clotted cream—was, however, divine with the wine.
Perhaps my favourite dish of the entire night—basically my dream breakfast—was a cambozola and smoked salmon Croque Monsieur (top left photo) served with Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port. The smooth, smoky salmon, mildly pungent cheese, sweet onions and savoury garlic custard it was dipped in before frying, combined for a delectably rich treat that was a beautiful pairing with the fruity, full-bodied port. If I could eat that little sandwich every day, I would be happy.
Unfortunately, what was perhaps the most beautifully presented—celebrity goat cheese used in an orange tarragon cream cheese with prawn and red pepper zabaglione (bottom left photo)—was one of my least favourites. The little logs of goat cheese were sprayed with white chocolate (a technique repeated in the dessert round, on the white chocolate Bavarian). I found the dish overly sweet and, especially when served with the Muscat, quite cloying. I also have to say that the foam—which had very little flavour—did nothing for this dish, and seemed like an unnecessary display of technique. My other least favourite, which is not pictured, was a country pâté with Port Salut, which I found aggressively salty and ultimately inedible. Local food blogger Ruth Daniels was also in attendance, and had no issue with the dish, so it may have just been bad luck on my part, but it was a bummer. Because I sure do love pâté. (Also pictured: hazelnut crusted lamb loin with Chester Beer Cheese and Merlot reduction.)
By the time the chocolates were presented, I was all ready rife with guilt over leaving plates half-full of the rich treats from the savoury wave of food, and was pretty much hitting the wall. As I looked around the room, I noticed that half of the attendees had abandoned the idea of pairing their desserts and simply had their tiny plates stacked with treats from stations all around the room, and were retreating to tables to cram the little cakes in their greedy maws with not even the faintest attempt to humour the chefs or wine pourers. And some of the wines had run out, which was a true shame. The sparkling wine, for instance, had long since run dry. That was a disappointment as they had paired it with a raspberry and white chocolate frangipane, which I remembered from the year before as a lovely pairing. (The frangipane itself was again fantastic.)
I actually found that the white chocolate desserts, in particular, paired quite magnificently with the wines this year. I am not a huge fan of white chocolate, but perhaps it was the fact that most of those desserts had a tart ingredient—lemon curd or sour apple—that provided a lovely break from the overwhelming sweetness found at most of the tables.
My favourite dessert pairings of the night were the silky chocolate crème brûlée (Equatoriale Noire 55% Valrhona) with the Pinot Noir (top left photo) and the wonderfully tart white chocolate cheesecake with sour apple compote (Ivoire 35% Valrhona) with apple cider wine (right photo). (Also pictured: Caoba 41% El Rey hazelnut chocolate parfait; Manjari 64% Valrhona chocolate tartlette)
Another favourite was the cocoa chocolate truffle (Gran Cru 85% Michel Cluizel) with Cabernet Sauvignon. The truffle was intensely rich; I couldn’t eat more than one tiny bite. The wine was dark and complex enough to stand up to it, and was great with the raw chocolate as well.
My least favourite was probably the chocolate pillow cookie (Tanzania 75% Cacao Barry) served with the Shiraz. As I said above, I didn’t really like this wine. And I found the cookie too dry, which was really just personal taste as I’ve never love crispy chocolate cookies. C’est la vie. It was sort of bound to fail for me regardless of how well made it was. (Also pictured: Ivoire Select 25% Callebaut white chocolate Bavarian with lemon curd; Irapa Rio Caribe 40.5% El Rey Chocolate and Strawberry Mirroir.)
By the time I left for the night, my head was spinning from all of the wine, sugar and rich cheese. That still didn’t stop my shameless shoulder-tap on a server asking for a takeaway tray. I loaded it up with a stack of delectable chocolatey treats and headed home with the plan of spending the next week treating myself to top-notch desserts. Of course, as soon as I walked in the kitchen, flush with the triumph of having made it all the way up the wintry streets to my house with my tray of treats in tact—I dropped it on my kitchen floor. Am I shameless enough to eat the desserts anyway? I’ll never tell. (Yes.)