ANCIENT Beverage meets NEW World

Karl Wells
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Invite the 'Lady' for some fine dining

Every autumn I drive across the island to see the colours. We may not have the variety and volume of leaves seen in New England or Quebec but the Newfoundland landscape does put on a pretty good show. However, it would be nothing without the birches. The golden birch leaves of fall are spectacular. Recently I learned that the birches of "spring" yield up something equally wondrous. It is birch sap.

Several years ago Craig Lewis of Fleur de Lys went into the woods with a drill and a bottle. He made a hole in the trunk of a birch tree and filled his bottle with what poured out. He calls it "birch water" because it's clear and has the same viscosity as water. That was the beginning of an adventure - triggered by an article he'd read about birch sap - that has so far seen Lewis and his SapWorld company develop a birch sap wine called Lady of the Woods, a birch vodka named Birchwynd and a non-alcoholic beverage he calls Sapalicious. Only Lady of the Woods has gone to market.

Bacaloa's Lady of the Woods creme brulee.

Every autumn I drive across the island to see the colours. We may not have the variety and volume of leaves seen in New England or Quebec but the Newfoundland landscape does put on a pretty good show. However, it would be nothing without the birches. The golden birch leaves of fall are spectacular. Recently I learned that the birches of "spring" yield up something equally wondrous. It is birch sap.

Several years ago Craig Lewis of Fleur de Lys went into the woods with a drill and a bottle. He made a hole in the trunk of a birch tree and filled his bottle with what poured out. He calls it "birch water" because it's clear and has the same viscosity as water. That was the beginning of an adventure - triggered by an article he'd read about birch sap - that has so far seen Lewis and his SapWorld company develop a birch sap wine called Lady of the Woods, a birch vodka named Birchwynd and a non-alcoholic beverage he calls Sapalicious. Only Lady of the Woods has gone to market.

Lewis has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of birch sap. There's much more to the liquid than you might think. For example, Koreans have been consuming it for hundreds of years because of its perceived health benefits. He tells me that it has "24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids and four different types of sugars, fructose being its main sugar." According to Lewis birch sap is consumed in many forms around the world.

Right from tree

"Basically, most people consume it raw. It's bottled right from the tree and then it's consumed shortly thereafter. In Russia they add malic and citric acid to it and it's consumed almost like an apple juice or orange juice but it's "birch" juice. And then there are other companies that are actually making wine. There are five in the world that we know of, two in Canada and I believe we are the only ones to make a semi-sweet wine. The rest of them are kind of dry, so we're unique in that regard."

Markland Cottage Winery makes Lady of the Woods for SapWorld. When the first batch was ready almost three years ago, wine expert Tom Beckett was asked to do a blind tasting and evaluation of the product. Beckett knew he would be tasting wine but was given no other information. He found it to be delicious and unique and scored it 18 points on what's known as the Davis Scale (used by USC Davis). I asked him if he felt it was an acquired taste?

"Not as much as single malt Scotch whisky or Guinness. In fact, for many wine drinkers around the world, particularly those new to the grape and just leaving the Pepsi generation, the bouquet, flavour profile and sweetness level are very appropriate. For those who enjoy Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, and Sylvaner grape based wines - the gap is minimal. But if one's wines are now Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio - there is a huge difference. For those who enjoy an eclectic wine and dine style, Lady of the Woods has a place in the repertoire."

Incredible aromas

Andrea Maunder, co-owner of Bacalao Restaurant, is also a fan of Lady of the Woods. In fact, she describes it in the restaurant's tasting notes as having "incredible aromas of Asian pears and oranges, off-dry. Sake-like in its delicacy on the palate. Serve chilled. Great as an aperitif or with dessert." Maunder and husband, Chef Mike Barsky, have successfully used Lady of the Woods in recipes. At a tasting hosted by Craig Lewis we enjoyed Lady of the Woods with a few of Bacalao's creations. Maunder gave me the story behind the dishes.

"When we first tasted the wine we really felt that it had an affinity for shellfish and seafood and, of course, we have a lot of that in Newfoundland. So we played around with that a little bit and we serve it very popularly with local lobster and we do a Lady of the Woods cream sauce with that and that works very beautifully, the creaminess and the lightness of the sauce. A little bit of the aromatics transfer (from the wine) and that goes really well with the sweetness, the lightness and the creaminess of lobster. And I make the desserts here at the restaurant as well and I've been using it in a crÈme brulee, which again is beautiful. CrÈme brulee is rather neutral, it's rich and light but the little bit of the aromatics that come from the Lady of the Woods work beautifully in the crÈme brulee, too."

See PLEASANTLY, page E2

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the Lady of the Woods worked as an ingredient in both dishes, especially the crÈme brulee. As a beverage accompaniment it went very nicely too with the crÈme brulee. The best pairing of the day, by far, was with an off menu plate of nori bound sushi served with a spicy orange dipping sauce. The fruit flavours in the wine matched perfectly with the tangy citrus flavour of the dipping sauce, the sticky rice and fresh seafood.

Asian harmony

Tom Beckett agrees that Lady of the Woods harmonizes well with Asian dishes. He says, "My preference would be to have Lady of the Woods accompany slightly spicy Asian foods where there is often a sweet component added to the food. Perhaps think Newfoundland shrimp in garlic and chilli-sesame oil with a side of Basmati rice being one course of an Asian style banquet."

SapWorld has developed some cocktail recipes that seem interesting as well. One features Lady of the Woods with vodka and another with gin. Lewis says both recipes have become popular and are personal favourites of his. Andrea Maunder plans to create a house cocktail for Bacalao featuring the birch sap wine. She and her staff have already done that with other locally produced wines and spirits.

Given that everything starts at the tree I was curious to know where SapWorld found its sap. Craig Lewis told me, along with his plans for expansion this coming spring.

"We have 1,500 to 2,000 trees in the Millertown area that we've been collecting sap from but we're looking at the possibility of moving to a new site at Home Pond by Gander. We want to expand that site by approximately 20,000 trees, hopefully this fall, and we're looking at the idea of making a birch syrup. There's quite a demand for that product. The actual supply is not there for the demand and we hope to fill some of that void. We collect a gallon of sap per tree per day. The season is April and May months and the season lasts between 10 and 20 days. So if we have 1000 trees, we'll collect about 10,000 gallons of sap a season."

Challenge

Finally I asked Craig Lewis if selling a wine made from the sap of a birch tree was challenging. He was unfazed by the question.

"When I say birch sap they kind of screw up the face and they think it's thick and sticky. It's not; it comes from the tree just like water, the same viscosity and clarity. You can drink it straight from the tree. You can hardly taste any sugar in it. So, I guess you just present it to the people and let them taste it and they're totally amazed with it. That's what's been happening with regards to our wine shows. We'll go to a wine show and we're getting 70, 80 per cent positive response to it. The only negative response would be that it's a little bit sweet for them. But we're hoping to put out a dry wine possibly with our next batch so we hope to capture that other 20 or 30 per cent."

SapWorld's marketing consultant, Diane Hollett, who attended the tasting added, "It's on the lips that this product is sold. People will only purchase after they've tasted." If Craig Lewis's success to date is an indication, it seems that many people do enjoy Lady of the Woods. Having introduced the product to Newfoundlanders, SapWorld will next make Lady of the Woods available in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

It looks like Craig Lewis should be making good use of those extra birch trees next spring.

Hardwood Martini

2 oz. Lady of the Woods

1 oz. vodka

Twist of orange

Pour the ingredients into a shaker with ice, strain into a martini glass.

Serve with a twist of orange.

Pinewood Martini

2 oz. Lady of the Woods

1 oz. gin

Slice of lime

Pour the ingredients into a shaker with ice, strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a slice of lime.

Softwood Spritzer

3 oz. Lady of the Woods

Soda water or tonic water for topping up

Slice of lemon or orange

Pour the Lady of the Woods into a wine glass.

Top up with soda or tonic water.

Serve with a slice of lemon or orange.

(Courtesy SapWorld)

Organizations: Guinness

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Quebec, New England Fleur de Lys Russia Canada Millertown Alberta Ontario

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Recent comments

  • Craig
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    Thank you Karl for your wonderful article. It was a great pleasure to have met and share Lady of the Woods with you. To enjoy our wine with the lovely dishes that Andrea and Mike of Bacalao Restaurant prepared for us was a great pleasure and very pleasant surprise. The paring of the dishes with the Lady was delightful! Highly recommended that all go to Bacalao and enjoy. Again Karl thank you and have a wonderful weekend :)

  • Wine Sampler
    July 02, 2010 - 13:27

    Over the past couple of years, some friends and I sampled a new bottle of Newfoundland brewed wine every month. We all agree that Lady in the Woods has to be the best of the best.

  • Gabe
    July 02, 2010 - 13:26

    Nice to see culinary creativity thrive with resources available right in your backyard. I enjoyed Bacalao's food very much. Looking forward to eating there again upon my return : )

  • liz
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    Wouldn't all that drilling kill the tree. I can't see how it would be healthy to do that to the tree.

  • Craig
    July 01, 2010 - 20:19

    Thank you Karl for your wonderful article. It was a great pleasure to have met and share Lady of the Woods with you. To enjoy our wine with the lovely dishes that Andrea and Mike of Bacalao Restaurant prepared for us was a great pleasure and very pleasant surprise. The paring of the dishes with the Lady was delightful! Highly recommended that all go to Bacalao and enjoy. Again Karl thank you and have a wonderful weekend :)

  • Wine Sampler
    July 01, 2010 - 20:15

    Over the past couple of years, some friends and I sampled a new bottle of Newfoundland brewed wine every month. We all agree that Lady in the Woods has to be the best of the best.

  • Gabe
    July 01, 2010 - 20:14

    Nice to see culinary creativity thrive with resources available right in your backyard. I enjoyed Bacalao's food very much. Looking forward to eating there again upon my return : )

  • liz
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    Wouldn't all that drilling kill the tree. I can't see how it would be healthy to do that to the tree.

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