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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy

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Birthday dinners

Jean was away for my birthday, but my friends kindly stepped in, and I wound up with more than the usual allotment of birthday outings.

First up was a dinner at Masala Bay. This was on a freezing cold Wednesday, and two of us could not resist having the mulligatawny soup, which was indeed very warming and delicious. But also very filling, making it difficult to finish our main course curries and naan. But hey, Indian leftovers are good.

The day after my birthday, I was taken out for both lunch and dinner. Lunch was at Bauer Kitchen, a place I tend to avoid because it’s so noisy. But it wasn’t so bad this day. We arrived earlier so the initially smaller number of people helped; but even as it filled up, because we were sitting against a wood backing. it wasn’t as loud as it can be at more central tables. I made a meal of two appetizers: mussels and duck confit wings—both very tasty, though the mussels really would have been enough. Well, the duck confit wings were pretty good leftovers, also.

Dinner was at a new place to me, but one that people speak pretty highly of: Redhouse, on the site of the former Yukiko’s. Quite a nice meal here, too. I, like several others, started with the Iron Horse Trail salad, in which the greens are topped with various nuts and dried fruit. And my main course was the Boneless Cornish Hen: Porcini-dusted & pan-roasted, truffled wild mushroom ragout, wilted blonde frisee, goat cheese & lemon potato croquettes, tarragon puree. (Did I remember all those details? Of course not. I just copied it from their online menu.) It was just about as good as that description made it sound.

Oh, and I got a free birthday dessert at both of those meals as well.

I have no photographic proof of any of those meals [so how do we know they really happened?], but this was made up for last night at Jean’s birthday dinner. We went to 39 Carden Street restaurant in Guelph, which I got interested in after its rather good review in The Record.

It’s a small place, and seems rather popular, so we had some concerns about the noise level here also, but it wasn’t that bad. They change their menu frequently, so instead of printed menus, we had to select everything from chalk boards on the wall. Not crazy about that, particularly as the far ones at an angle are rather hard to read. And it means you spend the first part of your meal turning away from each other, staring at the wall.

But the chalk boards did contain many interesting-sounding items. They call their appetizers “snacks”. For these, we finally settled on six raw East Coast oysters (to share), to which I added deep-fried oysters (mysteriously called chicken-fried oysters, though I do not believe any meat was involved). In all its forms, the oysters were just perfectly delicious.

Oysters on the half shell. Rasberry Point and Pickle Point Oysters :)

And Jean tried potatoes croquette with salt code aioli, which was also a mighty fine dish. Crispy and not too salty.

Potatoe Croquettes with Salt Cod Aioli

We were a bit disappointed that it seemed they had no white wines by the glass (as our main courses were definitely red wine fare), but when we asked, he said they did have a Sauvignon Blanc available. And that was perfect with this.

But while we were on the track of thinking that we had to pick a red that would work with everything, we settled on a Pinot Noir from Chile. Then we didn’t change that when we found out we could start with white after all. That turned out to be a mistake, as the Pinot was a 2013, so really quite young and thin. It wasn’t bad, on its own, but it didn’t stand up to the food that well.

On the other hand, it was only $30, which is quite good in a restaurant, and we just corked the remainder to bring home. (After informing the waiter that, yes, it is legal to do that in Ontario, even with screw-top wines.)

Jean had roast duck over risotto as his main course, while I went with lamb sirloin with lentil cassoulet. All the meat was prepared very well, tasty, with good texture. I also found the lentils were very well flavored. Jean wasn’t bowled over by the risotto, but it was a reasonable presentation.

Medium Rare Lamb Sirloin with lentil cassoulet

For dessert we had: A cheese tray! (Well, it was Jean’s birthday, and that is his favorite food.) The best of that lot was the blue, which wasn’t too strong. One of the cheeses, a raclette, was just so-so. Nonetheless, we took the leftover of that home along with the wine.

Given that it’s a 45-minute drive to Guelph, I’m not sure how often we’ll get to 39 Carden Street again, but overall they acquitted themselves well. It was a nice evening out.


And more related to my last post: It reminded me that the last (only) time I’d previously seen Brian May and Roger Taylor perform live also involved the “Idol” franchise—Canadian version. As with Adam’s year, one of the non-winners is the one who ended up with the big career: Carly Rae Jepsen. Yep.Jean was too busy at the time to join me, so my younger sister stepped in. It was nearly seven years ago, and I wrote about it here: An Ironic Night at the Rock Opera.


Commission photography

We had three bottles of wine sitting up on the buffet, rather than in the wine rack, because their music-inspired names made them good conversation pieces (not that we’ve really had anyone over lately to converse with…):

  • Bohemian Raspberry
  • Ja Maca Me Blush
  • Dark Side of the Moon

The first two we picked up at the Rasta Ranch winery in the Finger Lakes; the last is an Australian Shiraz, a Christmas.

I thought they might be an interesting photography subject, but not if I was the photographer. So I mentioned the idea to Jean.

This is what he came up with. Kind of cool, eh?



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Post-Valentine activities

We don’t go out to restaurants on or around Valentine’s Day, as it’s just unpleasant. The next day Valentine’s we did go out ballroom dancing, though. Sufficiently romantic, and considerably more enjoyable!

The following day was the “Family Day” stat holiday in Ontario, so we went with a small group for our second snowshoe outing of the year. As with our first time, about a week earlier, we had lovely winter weather and tons of snow to walk on. You could almost forget you were still in the city.

Wait! .. don't leave me in the cold!

Off we go…

Yesterday got warmer and rainier, then icier, so I’m not sure how the snow will be now. But we decided to have a dinner out then, at Verses. While we’d had a couple special dinners there semi recently, we hadn’t had a chance to try their regular winter menu before now.

Verses - a lovely refuge on a stormy night

We actually had the place to ourselves, to start… Not something you’d experience February 14th.

The appetizer list always has many amazing-sounding options on it, but I quickly settled on the oysters five ways: poached, cripsy, Rockefeller, steamed, and of course, raw. Each with its own distinct accompaniments, from smoked bacon to tomato sorbet shooter. My goodness, each one was fantastic.

Delectable assortment of Oysters!

Jean managed with the foie gras, this time served with foie gras custard brûleé, brioche, and cranberry and bluberry. That was rather sublime as well.

Foie Gras ... some of the best I've had!

We were both tempted by the roast duck served with kale, squash batons, and chestnut ravioli, but Jean let me order it.

Duck and ravioli!

It was quite delectable, but he probably did even better with the tender pork shank braised in cider and beer, served with rutabaga, Brussels sprouts, and beets.

Pork Shank .. nearly Osso Bucco :)

He wasn’t able to finish it all, but declared it made a rather good breakfast as well. (The wine, by the way—which he did not have for breakfast—was a very lovely 2010 Cote du Rhone, one of their feature wines.)

For dessert, I went chocolate, with a flourless chocolate cake served with chantilly, apricot foam, and passion fruit popsicle. All at a quite manageable serving size.

Jean had the cheese plate, which was downsized somewhat compared with past menus, but still fairly large (better for sharing, only I didn’t, so he left some). He included a manchego, Sauvagine, and goat cheese. It was served with dried wild blueberry bread, spiced almonds, port fig jam, and honey comb.

Cheese Please!

Hmm. Maybe we should make this a tradition… Post-Valentine weekday dinner out…

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Weekend in Tranna

Why Toronto in February, when the weather, much more often than not, is abysmal? Two words: free hotel. Jean goes there for a work-related conference; hotels don’t charge extra for another person staying in the room.


Considering how bad this winter has been in general, the weather picture wasn’t so bad. The temperature had been in deep freeze all week, but rose for that weekend. KW was expecting a lot of snow Saturday (and that materialized), but Toronto, not quite as much (also materialized).

The main issue was that the snow they did get was very wet, as it was near the freezing mark, and we did do a ton of walking outside in it on Saturday afternoon. Tiring of the wet hair, I bought a hat with a brim, but there wasn’t much to be done about the wet coat collar, or the wet pant bottoms. And the “waterproof” boots eventually caved in under the pressure, allowing water in at the seams. Squish, squish!

I had no other footwear with me, so while I could and did change into dry pants and socks for dinner, the best I think of boot-wise was putting the feet in plastic bags in the wet boots. That did keep the feet dry when I was outside. Once sitting inside, though, eventually, there was a bit of a perspiration issue…

But hey, it really was nice to get away. Friday night Jean had a conference dinner, so I went out with my sister and her husband to Bangkok Garden, where they were offering a Winterlicious menu that was, in fact, quite delicious, along with being a good deal. My sister and I both had the options of mussels in lemongrass and beer sauce, rainbow trout with pineapple red curry, and chocolate chai mousse for dessert.

Jean remained occupied Saturday morning, so after breakfast (really good waffles with walnuts and banana), I decided to go check out the Bata Shoe Museum for the first time.

It had four floors of exhibits. The basement presented shoes though history, including the very oldest pair of shoes ever found:


The next floor showed footwear of famous people, such Elvis Presley, Elton John, John Lennon, and Justin Beiber. (Beiber’s “Baby, Baby, oh” song proved to be the biggest earworm.) The second floor covered traditional shoemaking, a somewhat endangered endeavour. And the top floor was for special exhibits. Currently it’s on sneaker culture, something I previously knew nothing about. Like, people spend big money on sneakers. They riot over particular limited editions of them. They build up huge collections, so they never have to repeat the same pair. One dude had enough to cover the next three years—new pair every day.

We had been thinking of going to the ROM Saturday afternoon, but I felt museumed-out, and Jean was somewhat stir-crazy from all the hotel time, so that become our soggy walk afternoon.

For supper we went to George on Queen, a restaurant with a good reputation. It’s a nice room with notably well-dressed patrons and excellent service. They specialize in multi-course meals, but we went for just three (rather than five or seven).

We were quite blown away by the first course, which was centered around duck for me, and smoked trout for Jean.


All the elements on the plate really worked, and were creative and fun.

The next two courses, of tuna and lobster, then seabass and arctic char, were very good. But they couldn’t quite match up to the standard of the first, so you couldn’t help feeling a bit let down. For dessert, we just shared some cheese, and I had an ice wine while Jean had an Italian sweet sparkling.


On the walk back from George

Sunday we met up with sister and husband again, this time at a dim sum restaurant, the Crown Princess. This one is fancier than most and doesn’t feature the usual little carts; instead you have to order from a menu. The items were of a very high standard, definitely above the average dim sum place (though I also like that). And it wasn’t really that expensive.

Good job that we aimed to arrive by 11:00, because it got busier and busier as we were sitting, until there was quite a lineup. We had the table right by the door, where the hungry people in line could watch us eat. A bit awkward!

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Chopped Canada (or what to do with that freeze-dried shrimp)

I’ve written before—though not for a while—about how I’m not a big Food Network fan, despite liking to cook, and being known to occasionally watch TV.

But I have been somewhat taken with Chopped Canada. I’d seen the American version a few times and found that somewhat interesting, so checked out the Canadian version.

The first episode was fantastic because one competing chef was clearly an unlikable ass, and he ended up going mano a mano with a woman—a cooking school teacher rather than restaurant chef—who at first had seemed hopeless out of her element. (The other two contestants were also men, but of less striking temperament.)

And, satisfyingly, the nice woman won. Deservedly. In the end, she made a better three-course meal.

Although the remaining episodes haven’t had such vibrant personalities, I’ve been continuing to find it entertainment. But I can’t kid myself that it’s any kind of useful.

Because in real life, you are never handed four random food items, some of which are barely food (strawberry drink powder, processed cheese slices, macaroni deli slices?), and told that in exactly 20 minutes (or 30 or 60—depends on the round), you have to turn it into an appealing appetizer, main, or dessert, complete with lovely plating. Just doesn’t come up.

However, in a recent episode, where the ingredients were not so much bizarre in themselves as just not seeming to belong together in one dish, two of the items that had to be used were freeze-dried shrimp and dark chocolate. One of the chefs, having made something lovely with the other two ingredients in that round, seemed at a bit of a loss what to do with these ones. So although he seemed quite dubious himself, he just melted the chocolate, and tossed the shrimp in there, and served that on the side.

Of course, the judges were a bit dubious, too. Yet to a man, and woman, they declared the freeze-dried shrimp in dark chocolate to be absolutely delicious.

So there’s my one takeaway from this show so far: Apparently, some day, I need to get me some freeze-dried shrimp and chocolate-coat them. (If anyone out there is brave enough to try this before me, do let me know how it goes…)

Shrimp ... but you wouldn't know it was the same as you make it at home - for the taste :)

Un-chocolate-coated shrimp…

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Maple syrup pie

Not sure what it is about Canadians and all our variations on sugar in pie crust: Tarte au sucre (literally, sugar pie), butter tarts, pecan pie, and now maple syrup pie.

I made this on a whim this weekend. The recipe is from Canadian Living. I already had a homemade pie crust ready, so the rest was easy. Walnuts in the bottom of the crust. Then you mix eggs, brown sugar, maple syrup, whipping cream, and flour and pour that in. Truly a dieter’s delight, a nutritionist’s dream!

Maple syrup pie with whipped cream

How about some whipped fat on that baked sugar?

Not sure if this will change at all with refrigeration, but it’s quite a bit runnier than I expected, though I used the recommended amount of flour and eggs and baked it for the specified time.

And the taste? Well, the word sweet comes to mind…

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I made kale chips

Google tells me that kale became “suddenly hip” in 2012, but by end 2013, we were “so over it”. My timeline was a bit different. I never ate kale as a child or teenager, that I recall. I believe I first encountered it when I started getting food baskets from organic farmers; maybe 15 years ago? Then I had to figure out what to do with it.

Raw kale is quite disgusting, but I found that once it cooked and lathed in butter and balsamic vinegar, with maybe some raisins and pine nuts, it’s actually pretty good. And it is this nutritional powerhouse, all vitamins and flavanoids and omega-3s.

Today, as the subject line suggests, I decided to try preparing it a new way: As kale chips.

Kale chips

Those were remarkably good! Jean and I were both surprised. They get all crispy, and a bit salty, and the baking mellows out the bitterness… (Of course, this wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Nothing is everyone’s cup of tea, not even cups of tea. But we definitely liked it.)

Plus, it’s super easy to make. You cut up the kale leaves (don’t use the stems), toss them with about 2 Tbsp of olive oil, spread them on a baking sheet, then sprinkle with sea or kosher salt. Bake at 400 F for about 14 minutes. My guide was my Gwyneth Paltrow recipe book, but there are similar recipes online.


Early new year?

As in other recent years, plans to go out to dine on New Year’s Eve meant that we couldn’t also do our gourmet cooking thing that day. With Jean working, alternate dates to do that were either this weekend, or the first weekend of January.

While I won’t get into details here, this Christmas required on-the-fly revamping of plans due to unexpected medical issues. Somehow, this persuaded me not to wait. So though we’d only been back from vacation about a day and a half, we did our gourmet dinner yesterday.

Instead of the usual appetizer / main dish / dessert, I decided to try a “small plate” or tapas approach to the meal. We made four appetizers, and two small-serving desserts. And in keeping with that—and also because Jean was on call (fortunately, that did not disrupt things)—we just did tasting portions of wine: one white, one red, one port.

Four appetizers and two wines

Here are the four assembled appetizers and two wines

Unlike the Christmas dinner, most of these were from recipe books (as opposed to online)—three of them from a cookbook published by the Cancer Research Society:

  1. Carpaccio of red tuna with citrus and avocado quenelle: The first item I selected, because I’ve been wanting to try it for ages. Fairly easy, really. You make a vinaigrette of citrus juice, olive oil, and ginger. You mash avocado with lime juice and sesame oil, then add some tabasco. Then you get sushi-grade tuna, slice it thinly, and serve it with the vinaigrette, avocado, orange pieces, and sesame seeds. (Salt and pepper are involved throughout, as well.)
  2. Spring rolls: A bit more involved, but still not too bad. You fry up some red pepper. Then you mix green onion, fresh mint, fresh coriander, watercress (my bean sprout substitute) with sesame oil and salt and pepper. Then you roll the pepper, some enoki mushrooms, and the mixture in hot-water softened rice paper. Jean did all the rolling.
  3. Edamame with Guérande salt: Easiest recipe ever. Boil frozen edamame 10 minutes, drain, and season with sea salt.

I had some boneless lamb loin on hand, and got the idea to try lamb skewers. That recipe I did find online, at Epicurious: Skewered lamb with almond-mint pesto. The pesto involved mixing almonds, Parmesan cheese, garlic, olive, fresh mint, and fresh basil in a food processor. The lamb was cut thin, threaded onto a skewer, brushed with olive oil and salt and pepper, then broiled two minutes per side.

So nothing was that hard, and we were fortunately able to find everything we didn’t already have on hand at our nearby Sobey’s that morning. Of course, things inevitably get a little crazy when you’re trying to finish up four recipes more or less at the same time, but we managed.

And we’re having a good year, because everything was really good. They’d all be “make again”’s (albeit probably not all again on the same day).

The wines were a Cave Spring 2011 Estate Riesling, easily available at your LCBO, and crazy good, really. The hit of the evening. The red was a 2004 (!) Argentina Cabernet Sauvignon. It was very good and smooth, but not as big and showy as we were expecting.

Blueberry pavlova, chocolate, and port

And for dessert…

Desserts were the type you could make ahead, so I did.

The blueberry pavlova was a Gwyneth Paltrow recipe, from her My father’s daughter cookbook. The meringue is made the usual way: Egg whites, sugar, salt, vinegar, beating to stiff peaks, then baking a low temperature for an hour and drying out for another hour. Those are formed into a circle with an indent. In the indent goes some whipped cream with sugar and bluberries, then served with more blueberries on top.

Though it’s certainly not blueberry season, the organic Chilean ones I bought were very good in this rather lovely, light dessert.

The other item was from LCBO Food and Drink Holiday 2009, but it’s not available on their website. For this Festive Bark, you melt 70% chocolate in a bowl over boiling water, then stir in some cashews, candied ginger, apricots, dried cherries, and anise flavor. You spread that out, then you sprinkle sea salt on top, and let it chill.

It’s really hard to go wrong with those ingredients. That was delicious. And went nicely with Fonseca port.

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We’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather

Compared with people spending Christmas in unheated, unlit homes or stuck in airports, I can’t really complain about our Christmas travel.

We had more time this year, and therefore decided to drive north, figuring we could then adjust our own itinerary as weather demanded rather than be dependent on the airline’s.

We left the weekend of the ice storm, after the smaller Friday night one ended, before the bigger Saturday one started. The roads weren’t fantastic at the start of that trip, and some bits were quite foggy. So it was slow, but we didn’t really have any problems. Eventually we drove out of the storm zone and were driving on bare pavement. We even got a bit of sun.

We decided to lay over in North Bay despite their predicted 25 cm of snow the next day. The usual 4.5 hour drive took us 6 hours, so it was nice to have a break. We also quite enjoyed our first dinner at Churchill’s, a restaurant listed in Where to Eat in Canada. It’s an older place with a warm atmosphere and an impressive wine list. We enjoyed a bottle of Malbec with appetizers of gnochi and asparagus, and calamari and tomato, both excellent. For mains I had the roast duck with potatoes and salad, while Jean had wagu (a type of beef) ribs. I found the duck a little overdone, but everything else was good. For dessert, I had three tastings of creme brulee (coconut, chocolate and sambuca, and maple), while Jean had a Greek-style dessert.

Dessert at Churchill's

Dessert at Churchill’s

The next day it was back on the road, indeed in snow. It was fairly blowy not long after taking off, but it gradually lessened as we moved north, and finally ended completely. Back to driving on pavement.

Timmins was cold this year. Highs of -20C, maybe -18C most of the time we were there. Dropping to -30 something overnight. Nevertheless, we did get out to do stuff. We went snow shoeing one day; by far the worst part was putting on the snowshoes in the windy parking lot. Once on the trails, it was actually fine. (Of course, we were well bundled up.) We went for a decent length walk the next day, and survived.

It finally warmed up some on Christmas day, to -11 or so—balmy! But with the hustle and bustle of visitors that day, I barely got outside.

Mostly anyway, we were spending time with family indoors, at somebody’s house or another’s. Always nice to celebrate together.

Me at Christmas

Not sure my family wants their photos posted here, so won’t, but here’s me…

Part of the indoor entertainment at my parents’ is watching the activity at the outdoor bird feeder. Northern birds have such nice colors! Jean spent one morning gathering pictures of them. I wish I could remember all of their names, as Dad reported them to me. (Even when it comes to birds, I’m bad with names.)

Woodpecker preparing to eat

This large woodpecker is too big to just perch on the edge of the feeder

Woodpecker at feeder

So he (or she) has to hang on from underneath, balance with the tail, and reach in for the peanuts

Blue jay at feeder

This smaller bird (blue jay?) has it easier

Bird flying to feeder

Action shot! Love this one

(Our drive back was largely unremarkable, weather-wise. One brief bit of blowing snow, and that’s all.)



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A very cranberry Christmas

Jean and I have developed a tradition of celebrating with our Christmas morning and dinner the weekend before the stuff with the extended family begins. This year, that pushed it quite early, to this weekend. Even though some of the mail order gifts hadn’t quite made it to our house, yet.

Our Christmas dinner was particularly good this year, for whatever reason. It was a whole set of new recipes (on familiar themes, mind you), and they all turned out really well. Most are available online, and the time I spent organizing recipes in Evernote this year (geek alert!) paid off, as I accessed most of them on my tablet. Bit awkward switching between them, sometimes, but then again, it’s also a bit awkward switching between physical cookbooks.

In the morning I made the cranberry sauce and the pie. The pie was from Fine Cooking Magazine, and it was the very Christmas-sy Ginger-Spice Cranberry-Apple Streusel Pie.

Cranberry-apple pie

My version of the Fine Cooking pie

I followed this recipe pretty much as written, except that I made my usual vodka-based pie crust instead of using their recipe, and I didn’t use quite all the streusel topping. I didn’t find my crust over-browning as the recipe warned it might.

And though I’m jumping to the end of the meal, the pie was really good. It is a nice blend of tart and sweet, and the candied ginger adds a very interesting zing.

The cranberry sauce recipe, courtesy of Cooking Light Magazine, was very basic, essentially just substituting apple cider or juice for the usual water. I went with apple juice, since that’s what I had.

As a not-unusual choice for us, I choose duck as our Christmas meal bird. I had to start that mid-afternoon, following an LCBO recipe created by Jamie Oliver: Slow-roasted duck with sage, ginger, and rhubard sauce. Here I did a few substitutions: I couldn’t find any rhubarb this time of year, so went with cranberry. I added dried sage (from my garden, mind you) instead of fresh. And I used less onion, and white instead of red.

I also couldn’t be bothered with quite as much messing around with the gravy at the end as suggested in this recipe. (Gravy, like jam, is one of those things I don’t have great skills with.) We did create a gravy with the stuffing, defatted drippings, red wine (didn’t have Masala), and chicken broth, but we didn’t do that fried ginger thing. It still made for a nice topping on the meat, and the slow-roasted duck tasted amazing.

For sides, I settled on mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts. In the mashed potato recipe I followed this time, all cooking was done in the microwave, which was a first. You nuke the potatoes, then you nuke the milk and butter in a bowl, then you add the potatoes to that and mash them, then stir in buttermilk, Parmesan, salt, and pepper. This is buttermilk-Parmesan mashed potatoes from Cooking Light magazine. They tasted really good, and that method made fewer dishes.

Roasted Brussels sprouts with walnuts and dates were courtesy Sobey’s. I was low on walnuts after the pie, so I also used some pecans and pine nuts to make up the amount. I also left out the green onions, and used dried thyme instead of fresh and lemon juice instead of zest. No matter, as they were still quite delicious. Roasting gives Brussels sprouts quite nice flavor and texture.

Put together, the plate looked like this:

Christmas dinner plate

For wine, we opened up a 2008 Chateauneuf du pape, which proved highly drinkable. With dessert we had a bit of late harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Prince Edward County, which suited pretty well.

Bottles of French wine

Three French wines, but we drank only one bottle (actually, only part of one bottle) this day


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