With an opening line like "they say chocolate is an aphrodisiac," you know it's bound to be an exciting evening. Thursday October 8th marked Grapes for Humanity's epic evening, A Chocolate and Wine Fantasy, dedicated to superb wine and cuisine all in the name of a good cause. The event took place at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto where guests were invited to enjoy a five-course banquet prepared with Lindt chocolate, by Four Seasons Hotels executive chefs Ashley James (Los Angeles) and Claudio Rossi (Toronto), with matching wines. The event is held to combine passion for wine with an important cause to raise funds and awareness to benefit humanitarian causes around the world, in particular providing a better quality of life for victims and survivors of disasters.
The evening began with a Champagne and Chocolate Martini Reception, to allow guests to mingle and get their taste buds warmed up for the meal to come. Although juggling a champagne flute and an hors d'oeuvre while attempting to gracefully shake hands with fellow guests can be quite the challenge, it was well worth it to have the opportunity to try as many of the succulent hors d'oeuvres as possible. Champagne Veuve Clicquot Brut & Belevedere Vodka as well as Chocolate Martinis (Bottega Gianduia & Belvedere Vodka) were paired with the following selection of hors d'oeuvres:
Northern Thai chicken salad with lemongrass and mint in cucumber cups
Mini skewers of Concord grape and house smoked salmon rolls
Thunder Oak Gouda frico
Baked Petit phyllo tartlets with chanterelle fricassee
Crispy Arancini filled with goat cheese
Balinese chicken satays on sugar cane
Although I did not try every hors d'oeuvre (four out of six is impressive, I'd say) my favourite was the Crispy Arancini filled with goat cheese. The little balls of risotto were perfectly crisp on the outside, with a warm and creamy interior, and a delightful surprise of mouthwatering melted goat cheese in the middle. The Crispy Arancini were bursting with flavour, resulting in me still daydreaming about them today!
As guests were ushered inside the elegant function room, they were encouraged to walk around to view the various items up for silent auction. The large selection of silent auction items were all finely aged coveted wines from California and France donated by some of the world's most respected and renowned winemakers.
Once everyone had taken their seats, Tony Aspler, President and CEO for Grapes of Humanity Canada, took the stage to welcome the attendees and introduce special guests Jean-Charles Boisset (Boisset family Estates), winner of this years Humanitarian Award and Ken Shaw (National Editor and Anchor, CTV News Toronto), the Master of Ceremonies for the evening. All speakers emphasized the extreme challenge of preparing a five-course meal, with each dish incorporating Lindt chocolate, while still pairing the courses with appropriate wines. I felt like I just stepped into the Iron Chef America studio, with the secret ingredient 'Chocolate," AKA every foodie and chocolate lovers dream come true! A challenge like that could easily mean disaster, but extremely talented chefs Ashley James and Claudio Rossi rose to the occasion, creating, hands down, the best meal of my life! The exquisite banquet went as follows:
Banana, Lemongrass and Coconut Soup, White Chocolate and Coconut Shrimp Skewer
(prepared with Lindt Excellence White Coconut Chocolate)
DeLoach Vineyards O.F.S Chardonnay 2007
Foie Gras and Vanilla-Scented Apricots 'au torchon,' a Peppered Milk Chocolate Paint and Brioche a tete
(prepared with Lindt Excellence Extra Creamy Milk Chocolate)
Clos Jordanne Le Grand Clos Blanc 2006
Domaine de la Vougeraie Vougeot 1er Cru 'Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot' Monople 2006
Licorice-Roasted Halibut Fillet, Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, Celery Root Puree, Pinot Noir Roasted Shallots, Fleur de Sel Chocolate Crisp
(prepared with Lindt Excellence Fleur de Sel Dark Chocolate)
DeLoach Vineyards Green Valley Pinot Noir 2006
Jean-Claude Boisset Gevrey-Chambertin 2006
Zinfandel Braised Prime Short Rib, Chili Chocolate Mole, Sweet Potato Puree, Crispy Plantain Chip
(prepared with Lindt Excellence Chili Dark Chocolate)
Domaine de la Vougeraie Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru 2006
De Loach Vineyards Forgotten Vines Zinfandel 2007
The whole meal was outstanding, incorporating the chocolate with just enough subtly to merely heighten the flavours of each course, while allowing each dish to exude layer upon layer of complex flavours. The two stand-out dishes for myself were the Banana, Lemongrass & Coconut Soup, as well as the Licorice-roasted Halibut Fillet.
The soup was impeccable and unlike anything I have ever had. I have to admit, I was a little worried reading that the first course was a banana soup, but once again, each ingredient was incorporated into the soup to add various dimensions of character, ultimately creating a flavour sensation in a bowl. The smooth soup was sweet and savory, with a hint of spice, all tied together with a single shrimp. The Halibut was clearly a stand-out dish for not only myself, but the entire room, as you could very audibly hear a chorus of "mmm' throughout the room as everyone took their first bite. The perfectly cooked and seasoned halibut was complimented by the sweet Pinot Noir roasted shallots (something I must try making at home), and savory sauteed wild mushrooms. The creamy celery root puree added a smooth and comforting base for the halibut to rest on, with the fleur de sel chocolate crisp adding texture and a hint of sweetness.
In between the dinner and dessert came time for the live auction. Although Ken Shaw may not have the speed of a professional auctioneer, he sure knew how to get the room going as he enthusiastically announced each item up for grabs. The thrill of the auction had everyone in the room "oohing," "ahhing," and cheering away as the the final bidders claimed their items. This year, items included:
- Domaine de la Vougeraie: Tour of the winery and lunch for two
- The Ultimate Swiss Retreat Package
- Dine with Rock Superstars Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush
It was clear to see that the excitement of the auction meant much more than the thrill of the bid. What people were truly excited about was contributing to something so profound. Unlike many other organizations, 95% of the proceeds from Grapes for Humanity go directly to those in immediate need. Additionally, for the second year in a row, the Julia Burke Foundation has generously offered to match funds raised from A Chocolate and Wine Fantasy, dollar for dollar. The list of projects that Grapes for Humanity has accomplished is far too long to list here, but to learn more, please visit the Grapes for Humanity site.
After the live auction, it was time for dessert. You can imagine my excitement for the arrival of dessert with an event centered around chocolate. I was so excited in fact, that I forgot to even take a photo of the final and striking dessert. I dove right in! The highly anticipated dessert was:
Warm Butterscotch Fondant, Caramel-Roasted Mini Apple, Gelato Fresco Chocolate Ice Cream
(prepared with Lindt Excellence Crunchy Caramel Milk Chocolate)
Neige Apple Ice Cider
The Warm Butterscotch Fondant was a mini decadent chocolate cake, oozing with warm butterscotch and chocolate. The Caramel-Roasted Mini Apple was like the most superior baked apple in existence. Both desserts were brought together with Gelato Fresco Chocolate ice cream, with its smooth milk chocolate taste and a touch of texture from the caramel crunch.
Needless to say, after a meal like that, you would surely regret wearing a form-fitting dress (boy, did I ever regret that!). I walked out of the Four Seasons with my arm wrapped around my very full stomach, with my head feeling light as a feather from glass upon glass of wine, and my body ready to fall into a very deep chocolate coma. Grapes for Humanity: A Chocolate Wine Fantasy was a fabulous success, bringing people together through their passion for wine and cuisine to support a very important cause.