As colour returns to trees, gardens, and city streets, and we’re finally blessed with weather warm enough to put our parkas back in storage, patios reopen, and cafes, restaurants, and wine bars fill again with throngs of patrons rushing to soak up the sun and enjoy the season. One of the first things we appreciate each spring is the sudden rediscovery of the evening, as lengthening days hold back the specter of cool nights, and return to us all the beautiful daylight hours we forgot we were missing during the coldest months of the year. It’s not long though before we begin to appreciate how much warmer the mornings have gotten, too. We take a little while longer sipping our morning coffee on the patio or balcony, hop off the subway a few stops early to enjoy a sunny walk into the office, or leave the car in the driveway and walk, run, or cycle to work instead. Come the weekend, now that simply getting out there into the world seems so much more achievable and attractive, we find ourselves in possession of a few more precious hours to fill in the first half of the day. We recommend filling these hours with brunch.
BRUNCH VS LUNCH
Growing up, my family never had brunch. We just had lunch, earlier some days than others. It always seemed to me to be a distinction in want of a difference. But once I started my voyage into the world of hospitality, and later into wine, I began to discover what I’d been missing. Now, what distinguishes one from the other to me is the setting, the cuisine, and – crucially – the intent. Brunch, while mostly being taken around the time one might eat lunch anyway, and in some of the places it might get eaten, is an altogether different animal. It evokes images of the pastoral – a picnic in the sun, a table in a provincial-looking café. It starts me imagining heaped baskets of bread, plates of savoury pastries, fresh fruit, seafood salads, and generous glasses of sparkling wine. It screams for the bruncher to indulge – not only in food, but in time, among company, in a setting worth appreciating. So whether on a picnic in the park eating sandwiches quaffing rose, on a relative’s deck making omelettes and mimosas, or out on the town with friends at a local hotspot, scarfing Beef Wellington and smoked salmon, we thought we’d provide a few suggestions for how to indulge best.
SIMPLE PICNIC BRUNCH
Not every brunch needs to be a complicated or pretentious affair. There’s little in life better than the pleasure of a simple meal outdoors on a sunny day. Some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had personally have been hosted in the garden, back yard, or vineyard of friend, colleague, or winemaker I’ve visited. Most of the brunches I’ve ever made have been me trying, with mixed success, to replicate these meals.
When dining on the beach, the lawn, the park, the roof of your condo, or wherever, the most important thing to keep in mind is to keep it simple. Most of my aforementioned follies have come when I’ve lost sight of this most important outdoor brunching commandment. With that said, there’s a wealth of great options to explore for hosting in this format. I would recommend picking a theme.
Last year, I had the distinct pleasure of tagging along with some other Canadians in the wine business on a trip to Greece. While most peoples’ minds would immediately leap to the idyllic, white, sun-bleached isles at the south of that venerable country, we found ourselves instead in the mountainous, green, remote valleys of the Peloponnese, the large landmass to the west of Athens – and eventually, at a simple table overlooking a few rows of vines, and tiny, crumbling monastery, and a steep drop to valley floor, one of the most delicious, simple meals I’ve ever been treated to in my life.
There were only four things on the table – bread, fresh Greek salad, spinach pie, and wine. This is a meal I’ve made at home a few times since then, and while it isn’t what many would first imagine for the occasion, it makes an absolutely perfect outdoor spring brunch, either at a table or picnic.
Since the dishes are extremely simple, it’s very important to do your best to find top quality ingredients. Since you’ll use it for both the bread and the salad, it’s worth investing in a very good olive oil. If possible, do your best to find a single varietal olive oil, made from only one type of olive. These oils tend to have a more distinct flavour, and will add a little something extra to your meal. Koroneiki olives tend to make many of the best Greek olive oils, but if you can’t find one of those, Nocellara from Italy or Hojiblanca from Spain may be more readily available. If all else fails, any high quality blended oil will do just as well. For bread, I would recommend any good sourdough you can get your hands on. Sourdough breads are common in Greece, particularly in the country, so you’ll be getting a somewhat authentic experience, as well as a great, flavourful companion to your meal. The salad can be made ahead of time or assembled once you arrive at your picnicking destination. Fresh green peppers, thinly sliced red onion, cherry or sliced tomatoes, Kalamata olives, cucumber, and creamy Feta cheese are all you’ll need for ingredients. You’ll barely need to do anything to prepare the dish, short of tossing the parts in oil, and adding a touch of wine vinegar and dried oregano. The spinach pie will need to be prepared ahead of time, but isn’t very complicated either. There are as many recipes for this classic dish as there are Greek grandmothers everywhere on earth, so you won’t be short of variations to choose from if you need to search. Try to find one that errs more on the side of “pie” than “puff pastry”, as this will be the most substantial part of the meal, and will hold up better to transport and easy serving. Personally, I like to go a little heavy on the cheese, and add a touch of dill.
Finally, you’ll have to choose some wine to accompany the spread. Another advantage of this type of simple fare is that you’ll have plenty of flexibility in wine pairings. Moscofilero or Malagousia make fantastic Greek white pairings, but you won’t need to stay within this tradition to find something that works. Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire or New Zealand, Pinot Gris or Pinot Bianco from Italy, or rosé from Provence and Southern France or Spain should all be ideal. These wines have in common good acidity, fresh light fruit, and little to no oak, making them perfect foils for feta cheese, bread, and rich oil, and lovely to sip on in the sun.
Of course, there’s no reason that one couldn’t get a bit fancier or formal for brunch, and I suspect in fact that most readers probably do have something more decadent in mind when they contemplate the meal. Perhaps the most iconic brunch in the world is the Four Seasons’, and while it might be difficult to recreate in full, it’s not impossible to borrow a few tricks from the fresh, French market fare from which it draws inspiration to create your own upscale meal at home. One delightful place to start is with Salade Niçoise, Croque Monsieur, asparagus quiche, and a good bottle of sparkling wine.
Salade Niçoise is usually among the first things I rush to eat in spring, whether at brunch or otherwise. Originating in Nice, the picturesque Mediterranean port city in the south of France, it is traditionally a roughly tossed-together blend of local ingredients: fresh tomatoes, hardboiled eggs, Niçoise olives, and anchovies, and olive oil. For the North-American palate, you will find most places substitute the anchovies for tuna, which, while less traditional, many may find a welcome change. High quality tuna will also likely be easier to find in most areas, and makes a more neutral companion for the other components of the meal. Many restaurants will also add cooked potatoes and raw green beans, but at least in my mind, that’s the extent of ingredients allowable before this classic dish starts to become unrecognizable. This rule of thumb also makes it easy to prepare. Pan-sear the tuna for best results (canned tuna will also do in a pinch), and sprinkle it with a bit of sea salt. It needs no other seasoning, which will give you more time to make your quiche and Croque Monsieur.
Croque Monsieur doesn’t need much explanation. It’s dead simple and deadly delicious, and when made well, provides a nice counter-balance to the brighter flavours on the rest of the table. Made popular in Paris at the turn of the last century, this tasty sandwich is best prepared with sliced brioche bread, cured ham, and Emmental or Gruyère cheese. My favourite means of cooking it is to pan-fry, and garnish with a bit of fresh watercress or sprig of cilantro atop the melted cheese. Quality of the ingredients is more important than execution, so feel free to experiment with other cured meats like jamon, prosciutto, or even peameal bacon for a more Canadian experience.
Don’t be daunted by the quiche, as easy recipes can be found, and it’s a great way to showcase one of Spring’s best ingredients: asparagus. More practiced pasty cooks will feel comfortable preparing their own pie crust from scratch, but there’s nothing wrong with cheating a bit and buying a premade crust if you’re not up to it, or in the interest of keeping things simple. Try to keep the flavours bright to compliment the asparagus – leek and sea salt are personal favourite additions, along with the cheese left over from the previous dish.
Lastly, you’ll need to pick your bubbly. For many, the gut instinct will be to rush to the Champagne isle. Far be it for me to advise otherwise, especially for a special occasion – though the arrival of Spring is probably as good a reason to celebrate as any! For me, though, the quintessential sparkling wine for brunch is and always will be Crémant. Crémant is the name given to sparkling wines made in France outside of the Champagne region, and those of a high quality level will be typically be produced using the same methodology as that more famous wine – though perhaps with different grapes. Lovely Crémant can be found from the Loire valley, made from Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc, and from Burgundy, where it’s most commonly grown from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The bubbles are usually slightly larger and lazier than those in Champagne, and the flavours in the wine more slightly more straightforward and immediately appealing.
Crémant also has another advantage at brunch: as it can be had at lower cost, you won’t feel as guilty turning it into cocktails. The easiest, and most recognizable sparkling wine cocktail is the Mimosa. Invented in the 1920’s at the Hotel Ritz Paris, and borrowing the common European name for the Acacia Dealbata flower, the whole world is familiar with this classic blend of sparkling wine and citrus (usually orange) juice. For those looking for something a little more adventurous, one of my favourites is the Moonwalk. Invented at the Savoy in London in 1969 to commemorate Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, the drink is easily made from equal parts fresh grapefruit juice and Grand Marnier, a few drops of rosewater (light bitters will do if this proves hard to source), and a healthy top-up of Champagne or Crémant.
We hope this will be enough to get you started. Whether in or out doors, we can’t wait to brunch our way through the best of what the season has to offer.