Burt Wolf's Table: Toronto - #204

BURT WOLF:  Toronto, Canada:  a major metropolitan city encircled by a radiant countryside.  Great restaurants serving over sixty different ethnic cuisines.  We'll get the recipes of some of North America's most talented chefs; visit one of Canada's most elegant hotels; and prepare a meal in a 200-year-old fort.  So join me in Toronto at Burt Wolf's Table.

Toronto is the largest city in the world's second largest country.  The striking downtown skyline was created by the corporations that make this city the center of Canada's business community.  The Canadian National Tower is the world's tallest free-standing structure, and Yonge Street the world's longest street, over 1700 miles.  Toronto is the theatre capital of the nation, reflecting the best of Broadway and London.  The downtown business core is surrounded by low-level buildings, wide streets, and parks, which keep the city open, light, spacious, and in human scale.  With all the business, banks, and educational institutions in town, many people like to think of Toronto as the brain of Canada, and it may very well be that.  But it is definitely the stomach.

Toronto is packed with good food.  The St. Lawrence Market is loaded with good things to eat from all over the world, and so is the Kensington Market.  Each of the ethnic neighborhoods has dozens of food shops offering the specialities of the community.  And when it comes to restaurants, the town is in top shape.  The chefs are considered local superstars, and their devoted diners follow them around town.

Toronto is like a big tossed salad:  each ethnic ingredient in its own place, holding onto its very specific flavor, but appreciating and complementing its neighbors.  The tomato needs the lettuce and the oil needs the vinegar.  As a result, Toronto is a great place to eat.

A quick look at a map shows that Toronto, and the lower part of its province of Ontario, are resting down in the middle of the United States ... which makes it very easy for U.S. tourists to just pop in.  But 175 years ago, it made it just as easy for U.S. troops to just pop in; and that fact has had an amazing impact on the history of the area.


The American Revolutionary War officially ended in 1783, but the tension between England and the United States continued.  War between them broke out again 1812, and spilled over into this part of Canada, with U.S. troops on one side and British and Canadians on the other.

When the War of 1812 came to an end, the British realized that they could not hold this area against the United States unless they packed it with people.  And to do that, they developed a very progressive immigration policy which is still in effect.  The British came, the Chinese came, the Europeans came, the West Indians, the East Indians, and most recently, the Southeast Asians.

Historically, Toronto has received one out of every four immigrants to Canada, which has made this town a microcosm of much of the best food on the planet.

During the early years of the 1800's, there was almost constant tension between the United States and England.  When the English became deeply involved with a series of battles against Napoleon, the U.S. decided to take advantage of the situation by attacking the British settlements in Canada.  The U.S. government believed that all they had to do was march into Canada and the residents would renounce Great Britain and join with the U.S.  Wrong!  The Canadians were very serious about their loyalty to the British crown, and they put up an enormous defense.  As a matter of fact, the only important victory that the U.S. forces had was here in Toronto, at Fort York, in the spring of 1813.

Today, Fort York has been rebuilt into a historic monument that will give you a clear idea of what life was like in a military garrison of the early 1800's.  The reconstructed fort is an ideal place to take a look at what a kitchen was like in 1813.  Fiona Lucas is a historical researcher who specializes in information about cooking.

FIONA LUCAS:  This whole thing here is called down-hearth cooking.  So what we're doing is, we have the cauldron -- at the moment it's got herical [?] mutton soup in it.

WOLF:  You can decide how hot you want the cauldron to get by the length of ...

LUCAS:  Right.

WOLF:  ... the hook you hang it on.

LUCAS:  Right.  It's actually forged so you can do that.  The hooks are different lengths; you can move the equipment back and forth along the crane -- the crane's the bar at the top there; you can rotate most of the equipment.  And then the other thing, of course, is the size of the fire ... okay, because that will vary ... a tremendous amount ...

WOLF:  That's the hardest thing to do.

LUCAS:  Yeah.

WOLF:  It's much easier just to pull it out.

LUCAS:  Right.  And that's actually one of the important points of controlling the heat as well, simply moving it back and forth, you know.  In front here, we have a gridiron, with a long-handled frying pan on top.  Underneath you can see there's a whole pile of coals here.  When you do this kind of cooking, you have to use the entire expanse, so that means coming out in front of the hearth as well, so we often pull shovelfuls of coals in front here.  So, for instance, right here we have the onions and the potatoes frying up in the juices that have come from the chicken, which is roasting as well.

WOLF:  How does the chicken roaster work?

LUCAS:  Well, it's ... the British called it a tin kitchen, and it was a very, very efficient piece of equipment.  So it would be here, facing into the fire, and of course ‘cause it's tin, the heat's going to reflect off the back as well, so it bounces back on it.  What you do with this is you simply rotate it around ... there's a whole circle here of little holes, and you simply adjust it around.  So eventually the whole bird moves around in several occasions...

WOLF:  It's really very flexible.  You have a frying system going on ...

LUCAS:  Very, yeah.

WOLF:  You have a boiling system going on.  You have a roasting area there.  You can increase or decrease the number of burners or the number of ovens that you have ...

LUCAS:  Yeah, very much so.  And there's ...

WOLF:  ... very easily.

LUCAS:  ... there's actually room to accommodate two or three cooks as well.


WOLF:  Fort York was the defensive garrison for the British during the early years of the 1800s.  Today it's a teaching museum for early 19th-century Canadian life.  Tourists and students come from all over to see what was going on.  Part of the Fort York program is devoted to the reproduction of recipes from the early 1800s.  This is a period recipe for lemon sponge cake that was originally written in 1810.

Take the whites from ten eggs and beat them ‘til stiff.  Take the juice from a lemon, and the rind, and put it into the whites.  Put in three tablespoons of rose water; a pound of sifted sugar.

If you were lucky enough to get sugar in those days, it came in the form of a cone like this, and you'd break off a hunk, put it into a mortar, grab your pestle, and break it up into small pieces.   (POUNDING)  When it had a nice even consistency, you would dump it into a strainer — called a tammy, actually — and work it through ... until you had a nice container of very smooth, fine sugar.

Next, beat ten egg yolks.  Blend them with the whites.  The blending tool at the time was the hand, and quite frankly, it still does the best job; you get right down to the bowl and blend everything together very gently, so the air stays in the egg white, which makes it a light and spongy cake.

Three cups of flour are added.  Then into a buttered mold, and into a moderate oven for an hour — that'd be about 350 degrees these days.  The tubed baking mold was a great invention.  You have a heavy batter that's very delicate; if you cooked it in a solid form, the outside would be burned before the inside got cooked.  This allows the heat to get into the center so it all cooks evenly.


Toronto was a valuable settlement in England's development of their Canadian territories, and today the British and their descendents represent the city's largest cultural group.  But right behind them come the Italians.  Italians were part of the first British units to explore Canada, and Italian pioneer families show up in the records as early as 1831.  But the first immigration of any significance was in 1885, when Italian laborers showed up in large groups from southern Italy.

These days, there are over 400,000 people of Italian heritage living in Toronto, and their historic influence is clearest in two areas:  construction, where the talent and strength of Italian stonemasons can be seen throughout the city; and in food.

Italian immigrants set up some of Toronto's best markets.  They prided themselves on presenting great fruits and vegetables.  Pasta factories have been turning out their products in Toronto for over 100 years.  And the Italian restaurants of Toronto will match anything in Italy.  Quite frankly, the Italians have done more to improve and maintain good quality cooking in North America than any other immigrant group.  Milli grazie!

The first Italian to set foot in Canada was a man named Gianni Cabatto.  He was a skilled navigator who had anglicized his name to John Cabot and gone to work as an explorer for the British.  He arrived in Canada in 1497.  Today, his historic influence is being celebrated in the kitchens of Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel by chef Susan Weaver, who's cooking up a bowl of orecchietti pasta.  Orecchietti means "little ears," so listen carefully.

Four quarts of water are brought to a boil.  In goes a little oil, to keep the pasta from sticking together and the water from foaming over.  Then the pasta.  When the pasta has been cooking for ten minutes, three cups of Italian broccoli rapi are added.  Can't find rapi?  Just use good old American broccoli.

The more research that scientists do on broccoli, the more we find out how valuable a vegetable it is.  It's packed with vitamins and minerals that are important to our health; they appear to be cancer blockers and improve our overall well-being.  So get that broccoli into your diet!

Let the broccoli and the pasta cook for five minutes more.  Then drain off the water, and hold the pasta and the broccoli aside.  Put a little oil into a hot saute pan.  Add a tomato cut into strips; some chopped basil; the pasta; fresh pepper.  A few flips to blend everything together, then into a serving bowl.  A garnish of sun-dried tomatoes and a few shavings of parmigiano cheese.

Right down the road from Toronto's Little Italy is a neighborhood heavily populated by people of Portuguese ancestry.  A number of historians believe that the Portuguese knew about North America long before Columbus arrived in the neighborhood, but they never told anybody about it because they considered it a trade secret.  For hundreds of years, Portuguese fishermen had followed the codfish across the Atlantic Ocean to the Grand Banks which are just off the coast of Canada; and there's considerable evidence that those Portuguese fishermen came ashore quite regularly.

Today, Canada has a large Portuguese community, with well over 100,000 Portuguese living right here in Toronto.  The central Portuguese area of the city even has street signs that read "Portugal Village."  And because many Portuguese hold dual citizenship, Portuguese politicians regularly show up in Toronto all the way from Europe, looking for votes.

When it comes to food, they must feel very much at home.  The neighborhood is packed with Portuguese restaurants and take-out stores serving their traditional dishes.  And the bakeries are in a class by themselves.  The Portuguese have a highly developed sweet tooth.  And everywhere you'll find the dried codfish that brought the Portuguese here in the first place.

The history of Portugal is the history of men and the sea.  For hundreds of years, the best ocean navigators came from Portugal.  Even Columbus went there when he was planning his voyage.  Portugal is a great place to learn about the sea, and that goes for cooks as well as explorers.  Portugal has some of the world's great seafood recipes.  Today, chef Susan Weaver is preparing a classic Portuguese spicy shrimp.

A little vegetable oil is heated in a stock pot.  Then in goes a quarter cup of minced garlic; two cups of sliced red onion; two cups of sliced white onion; some finely chopped red chili pepper; eight tomatoes that have been cut into quarters; a little salt and pepper; and two pounds of shrimp that have had their shells removed.  Cook and stir all that for about five minutes.  Then pour in four cups of tomato juice.  Bring everything to a simmer; add in a half-cup of green onions that have been sliced into rounds, some chopped parsley, and some fresh coriander.  That's it.  Into a serving bowl, and you're all set.

When Consumer Reports magazine surveyed luxury hotels, they found that the gold standard was the Four Seasons group:  great attention to detail, luxury accommodations, fabulous service; hotels and resorts in a class by themselves.

The group's headquarters are in Toronto, and their Toronto Four Seasons is a perfect example of what makes them so popular.  It's located in the heart of the town's fashionable Yorkville district, surrounded by the best shops and galleries, and minutes away from the business area.  The public rooms are elegant, and the private rooms packed with every comfort and convenience you could imagine ... and quite a few you might not have thought of.

Luxury hotels are expected to offer bathrobes to guests, but this is the first time I have seen them in children's sizes.  Of course there's soap in your room, but there's also a selection of non-allergic soaps; and if your skin is dried out from the zero moisture of a long flight, they'll put a humidifier in your room.  One of the most impressive examples of the hotel's attention to the needs of its guests are the digital display systems that send and receive messages through the use of typewriter-style keyboards.  They are installed into the rooms of guests that are hearing-impaired.

The Four Seasons Toronto also delivers some of the very best food in the city, and it does so in some of the most beautiful dining rooms.  The Studio Cafe serves dishes that reflect the traditional cooking of Italy and other countries of the Mediterranean:  light, airy, and open.  Pastas and pizzas are their specialties.  All of the artworks in the Studio Cafe are originals created by Canadian artists, and the glass pieces are available for sale.  The whole place is what you might call a real "glass" act.

Truffles is the hotel's award-winning restaurant, with the ambience of a country chateau.  And whatever it is you would like to have prepared, the skilled and attentive staff always responds to your request as if it were no "truffle" at all.

The history of European cooking places women in the home and men in the professional kitchen, and it's been that way for thousands of years.  But no more.  These days women chefs are becoming the stars of Western gastronomy, and I don't mean to limit that statement to small neighborhood restaurants.  The ladies of the ladle are running major multi-million-dollar operations for giant corporations.  Carrie Nahabedian and Susan Weaver are perfect examples of what I mean.

WOLF:  Do you think there's a difference between the way a woman runs a kitchen and a man runs a kitchen?

SUSAN WEAVER:  I think if women add anything to a kitchen and to a business, it's the natural art of cooking and pleasing people around them ... nurturing and making people happy with the emotions of food.  Women have done that forever ... our grandmothers, our mothers.  And if we can add something that's distinctly special, I think we can add that to our profession.

CARRIE NAHABEDIAN:  We try harder because it's expected of us.

WOLF:  Carrie, what do you feel the difference is between a restaurant kitchen and a hotel kitchen?

NAHABEDIAN:  In a hotel, you have to worry about everything.  You are responsible for the entire operation of the kitchen, you have banquets, you have room service.  It's literally a hub of activity.  You are constantly on the go, and your day flies by before you even know it.

WEAVER:  Working in a hotel has the advantages of the fact that you have a corporation that has a business of housing people, feeding people, and catering to the luxury market, and that's a very good umbrella to work under.

WOLF:  If it's true that women chefs tend to have a more mothering attitude towards their customer, as chef Susan Weaver says, then her recipe for a marvelous chocolate roll is a wonderful result of that instinct.

Three-quarters of a pound of semi-sweet chocolate and two ounces of butter go into the top of a double boiler and are melted together.  Then the bowl comes off the heat, and in goes a half-cup of crumbled cookies; a cup and a half of dried fruits; a cup of pistachio nuts; a half-cup each of macadamias and almonds; and three-quarters of a cup of raisins.  All that gets mixed together; then a quarter-cup of sugar goes into the melted chocolate, followed by the fruit and nut mixture.  A strip of plastic wrap goes onto a flat surface, the chocolate mixture goes on, and it's shaped and rolled into a cylinder.

Into the refrigerator for four hours to harden, and it's ready to be sliced into rounds.  Strawberries are mixed together with powdered sugar and a little fruit juice, and everything's ready to be plated.  Pound cake or ice cream, chocolate rounds, strawberries, a leaf of mint.

The strawberries that were used in that recipe are one of the favorite fruits of the Canadians.  The growing season here is small, but the appreciation of the strawberry is big.  Each year 80 million pints of strawberries are brought in from California.  But the strawberry has its own long history in Canada.

One of the earliest European explorers of Canada was a man named Jacques Cartier.  Cartier had been sent by King Francis I of France to find a short route to Asia so he could get his spices at a discount price — same project that Columbus was working on for the King of Spain.  Cartier discovered the St. Laurence Seaway and sailed deep into Canada.

In his diary of 1534, he noted that there were vast patches of strawberries along the great river and in the woods.  Cartier was probably the first European to taste our giant North American strawberries.  Strawberries have been around since Neolithic times, but they had always been little bitty things, very delicate; you had to eat them in the forest where you found them.  During the Middle Ages, they developed a reputation for being a medicine, which is kind of interesting when you think about what we are learning these days about strawberries and nutrition.

They're low in calories; a cup of strawberries has only 45 calories.  They're high in vitamin C -- that same cup has more vitamin C than a medium orange -- plus potassium and dietary fiber.  My kind of medicine.  I'd gladly take a daily dose of these.  And you gotta love a fruit that has the audacity to wear its seeds on the outside.


If you've ever wondered why we eat the way we do, or almost anything else in terms of human behavior, then you will love meeting Toronto's expert on eccentricities, Margaret Visser.  Margaret Visser is a classical scholar whose field of study is everyday life.  She's written two amazing books about food and the way we eat:  Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner.  They tell us about the unexpected history that joins us at our dining-room tables.

MARGARET VISSER:  The dining-room table really only came to be a commonly-used piece of furniture in the last third of the 18th century ... and it really only became really widespread in the 19th century.  What people had before  ... if you were rich, you had trestles put on sort of ... trestles and then a board, very simple stuff, and you put very very expensive tablecloths ...

WOLF:  Sawhorses and a big board on top.

VISSER:  Just very rough stuff.  And the rich would have a huge place or a hall, you know, would put up this banquet table whenever they felt like it.  The poor would eat, as people have always eaten for hundreds of thousands of years, near the fire.  So they would have a solid table in the kitchen by the fire.  What happened was, in the 18th century, we were getting the rising bourgeoisie.  Now, they are people who have risen from the crowd who were eating by the fire, as the peasants have always done, and so those were solid tables they were used to.  But they had become rich, so they introduced the idea -- and the aristocracy began this shortly before -- of the dining room.  A special room for nothing but eating?  It was an inconceivable idea; I mean, nobody's ever had this before ... really bizarre, you know, we've got to have a special ... not going to do anything else, we're just going to eat.  So the bourgeoisie have this dining room already there, and then they go, "Oh, look, we're not going to have this trestle table, we're going to have a solid table.  Ah.  And it's going to be a solid table that's made of really good wood."  So you had this great big glossy dark table, polished, like us ... I mean, we're the bourgeois, we're getting polished, and we wear dark clothes, right, and it's solid, and it lasts ... continuity.

And then there's another whole thing.  Dining, for the Victorians, we're talking about Victorians, and France, and the same is true in Italy as well ... but it becomes the recreation.  Eating becomes recreation for the rich.  Because, you see, especially in England and the North where people had the most money, “we are respectable, you know, we don't go out in public ... we don't flaunt our money.  We have it, oh boy, do we have it, but we don't flaunt it, we don't go public with it, we are respectable.  And we are exclusive.”  Now, I put it to you that the table is an absolutely brilliant tool for this, because it means... see, a table is limited by nature, okay.  Only a certain number of people can sit around it.  It's not like, you know, if you're eating in India, for instance, you have a huge crowd, and we're all sitting on the floor, we're eating with our hands, we're eating vegetarian; so if somebody else rolls up, you say "Ah, join the crowd," you put a few more beans in the pot, you know, just move up, you know, and we can all just share this stuff.

No, no.  We're now Victorians.  We have the room, we have the table first, then the room, then the house, and so you've got to penetrate to the tables of the rich.  The table holds a certain number and no more, and they're eating a roast ... a roast, which is put on the table, right, and there you have this beast, the whole thing on the table -- I mean, the Chinese found this absolutely the most barbarous thought, of having this whole animal on the table.  And then the pater familias -- who's sitting, incidentally, at the head of the table, and his wife is at the foot of the table, okay ... (LAUGHS) the table's wonderful for hierarchy, see, it's oblong, and only the top person sits at either end, and then the lower people at the sides, right -- and then he rises and he carves the roast with his knife, which is the male prerogative, and he says, you know, "Some for you and some for you" ... but he asks in the order ... "Aunt Mabel, what would you like" ... "Oh, I like a little bit of breast, please" ... white meat is higher than dark meat, and who asks first matters, cause you get what you want.

In other words, there's a whole ... the whole of society, really, can be summed up in that table and that joint.  (LAUGHS)  That's what food does, you see.  It's so expressive of social aims and desires.


WOLF:  Toronto is certainly a good town to eat in, and it owes many of its special flavors to its ethnic diversity.  When that happens in terms of food, everybody is in for a treat; you end up being able to eat your way around the world, and every recipe is just a cab ride away.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for things that taste good and make it easier to eat well.  I'm Burt Wolf.