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A Fish Story (September 22, 2003)

"I never cook with anything I wouldn't drink," says Art. A pause for reflection and then he adds, "But, then, I drink anything."

Art and I are in a boat on Westbury Lake in northern Saskatchewan, about 200 kilometres from the Northwest Territories border. Our guide, Rob, is looking disgusted because we're talking wine and food. He's used to conversations about tackle, lures, outboard motors and pike as big as one-man submarines.

Rob's contribution to the culinary discussion is a suggestion that we spray our lures with WD40. The sweetness, he says, will attract the fish. I ask him what was the weirdest thing he has ever used to catch a fish. "I once wrapped a marshmallow in cheesecloth," he says, "It worked for speckleds." Art recalls a guide who welded a hook to a car spark plug and swore by it. Chacun à son gout.

We are on our annual fishing trip, six guys who have fished together for years. We're looking forward to shore lunch because today Steve is cooking, on an open fire, what he calls Doré Provençale with Linguine.

  Steve, the chef, enjoys a glass of champagne while cooking shore lunch

This is something else that makes Rob and the other guides roll their eyes. Our shore lunches last three hours and involve the ritual consumption of three bottles of wine out of plastic glasses. (With the Doré – a.k.a. pickerel or walleye – we will consume two bottles of Cloudy Bay Chardonnay 1999 and a bottle of Dauvissat Chablis Les Clos 1998. With the Cajun Blackened Lake Trout tomorrow we will have a bottle of Pommery Champagne followed by two vintages of Camus Chambertin, 1995 and 1996. Friday's menu is Chinese style fish with... but I digress.)

Don't get the idea that we are not serious fishermen. In the eight days at the fishing lodge we will spend eight hours a day on the lake with our rods in the water. We fish for lake trout and walleye and pike and grayling so that we can have gourmet meals in the bush. (It's catch and release with barbless hooks.)

In order to make these annual piscatorial pilgrimages to Canada's northland happen each of us has our duties. Steve is the quartermaster who brings all the food we need plus the sauces, spices, home-made pates, etc. Sam has a great cellar and he brings the wine. Leo makes the Bloody Marys before dinner back at the lodge. He also brings the worms. Harold, who comes up from Sarasota, Florida, brings the malt whisky. Art brings his wife's fantastic biscotti. And I, well I am the historian/sommelier who records what we eat and what we drink in case there are disputes over the condition of the vintage port which we don't have at shore lunch but reserve for dinner because we need to decant it.

If future archaeologists dig in Northern Saskatchewan they will be very puzzled indeed. How did New Zealand green lip mussel shells come to be there? And corks branded with Egon Muller Scharzhofberger Riesling Kabinett 2000, Dauvissat Chablis Vaillons 1999 and Highfield Estate Elstree Chardonnay 1996 from New Zealand? They might even find a can that contained lobster. That, along with the New Zealand mussels, frozen scallops and shrimps, is going into the Bouillabaisse Steve made in a huge wok on the camp fire. Plus, of course, fresh fish we caught that morning. It was as good as anything you'll find in Marseilles and the entire lodge staff vied to attend that lunch. The accompanying wines were Pommery Champagne, Dauvissat Chalis Les Clos 1996 and Jaboulet Domaine Saint-Pierre Cornas 1998.

When we told a dentist from Chicago who was fishing for pike with his two sons that we had brought up canned lobster for the Bouillabaisse, he wondered aloud, "Aren't you guys meant to be roughing it?" Well, yes. After all, the lobster wasn't fresh.

What, you may ask, are the impediments to drinking fine wine under the Jack pines on rocky, remote islands? Well, there are the bugs and the mosquitoes, so now I know how brides feel on their wedding day. Drinking wine through a bug jacket must be like wearing a veil, but it's worth it. And I'm here to tell you that Camus Chambertin 1996 goes brilliantly with beer-battered lake trout. And saving your presence, Mr. Riedel, great wines taste just fine out of plastic glasses – but, then, a fine wine would taste terrific out of a Wellington boot.

Afterthought: This year I hooked the Moby Dick of lake trout. I played him for 45 minutes but he broke my line without me ever getting a glimpse of him. Ah well, there's always shore lunch.




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