OTTAWA — Alex Cuba’s father told him he couldn’t be a singer. This most unlikely of Canadian music stars not only proved him wrong, he’s become a globally celebrated artist in the past two years — even though you’re not likely to hear his songs on 102.7 the Edge or other well-known radio stations in Toronto.
VIENNA — About a year ago, a friend of mine came up with the name for The Great Dessert Search — a compilation of the absolute best sweet treats on the planet (or at least near Toronto). With space in the Toronto Star Travel section tight, we haven’t been able to start it up there. So, I’ve decided to run the series here. If you’ve got a dessert you’d like to nominate, let me know, or write about it yourself and send in photos if you have them.
First, though, we start with one of the world’s most famous and decadent desserts: The Original Sacher-Torte.
This treat has everything a renowned culinary creation should: a global following, a history as rich as its ingredients and the ever-present term “secret recipe” attached to it. First invented in 1832 by Franz Sacher, the treat will remind you of a Black Forest cake but with a much smoother, firmer chocolate icing and a more elegant fruit spread between the two cake layers.
The cake’s great history includes a fight over its ownership. When Sacher invented it, he was a 16-year-old apprentice to the personal chef of a Viennese prince. His son, Edouard, reputedly perfected the recipe while working at Demel bakery. Edouard then started the Sacher Hotel in 1876 and brought the cake with him. A lawsuit ensued between the hotel and Demel for rights to the name “sachertorte.” Cafe Demel and the Sacher, which are about 600 metres apart in the lovely historic district of the Austrian capital, now serve their own versions of the cake. “The Original Sacher-Torte” (about 4.90 euros, or $6.70, a slice) is what you find at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna and Salzburg, and the “Demel Sachertore” (3.70 euros, or $5.05) is on the menu at the popular café that employs only women in the kitchen.
It’s become custom for visitors to Vienna to try both to decide which is best. It’s not a taste test anyone I know of has passed up. While the Sacher Hotel says it still holds the original recipe, the main ingredients are well known. The chocolate sponge cake layers are separated by apricot jam. Dark chocolate icing covers the cake and a chocolate medallion with the Sacher name is pressed to the top of servings at the hotel. A dollop of whipped cream comes with it on the side and a cup of melange (cappuccino-style coffee) is recommended to accompany it.
Sounds divine, right?
To tell you the truth, the first time I tasted sacher-torte I wasn’t all that impressed. It was earlier this year at Roy Thomson Hall, when a delegation from Vienna were in town for a performance from the city’s famed Philharmonic Orchestra. They brought with them pounds and pounds of the cake to share with Torontonians. I thought it was a touch tart and the chocolate flavours not memorable enough. After a recent stay at the Sacher Hotel, though, I’ve joined the cult.
OTTAWA — Nearly 24 hours before the nightmarish destruction of the main stage at his festival, Ottawa Bluesfest founder Mark Monahan sat outside a trailer that was away from the crowd and talked about the dream that had come true. It started nearly two decades ago on a hunch and has turned into a multi-million-dollar, non-profit celebration of music. In the aftermath of what’s been called a freakish accident that reportedly sent four people to the hospital, talk of what Monahan has accomplished has to be tempered with somber acknowledgement of the incident on Sunday night that brought a premature end to what looks like another record year of attendance and revenue for the festival.
Still, despite the storm and near 100-kilometre winds that forced Cheap Trick away from the stage, the Ottawa Bluesfest remains one of the most noteworthy music events in North America. It started when Monahan was running the Penguin, a music club in the nation’s capital that booked a range of artists, including jazz acts who collectively would garner large numbers at festivals in Montreal and Vancouver but individually — without a massive marketing effort — didn’t bring in crowds.
[This article about Nelson Mandela’s overwhelming presence in South Africa was published in the Toronto Star in June 2010, just prior to the start of the World Cup. Here it is again, on Mandela’s 93rd birthday.]
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—On top of everything else, Nelson Mandela could probably provide the most compelling argument there is against capital punishment. Convicted of treason and terrorism against South Africa in 1964, Mandela would likely have been executed were it not for international pressure to spare his life. The thought of a world without Mandela and his astounding magnanimity is sad; the thought of a South Africa without him is enough to cause a shiver.
Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 with every reason to chase vengeance. Instead, he chose a divine path of forgiveness and reconciliation that lifted the country out of apartheid and showed the world the power of grace. Now, his name has become an industry in South Africa.
You can see where he was born, the home where he lived prior to his arrest, the location where he was taken into custody, the university that bears his name, some of the houses he now owns and, of course, the place with which he is most identified: Robben Island, the 12-square-kilometre dot of sand and limestone where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration.
The island off the coast of Cape Town became known as Mandela University, because the lawyer would educate both inmates and prison guards. Tours that include a round-trip ferry ride and a discussion by a former prisoner cost 400 rand (about $55). From those ex-inmates, you learn about the degradation of apartheid that occurred inside the prison too, where the subordination of black political prisoners was constantly reinforced. Prisoners who were Indian or mixed race, for example, would be given six ounces of meat with their dinner, the blacks five.
Mandela’s prison cell attracts a crowd, making it the only lock-up in the world people are eager to get into. They can’t; its bars remain shut but visitors can step into a similarly cramped pen a few cells down the tight hallway that fills with echoes. Just about everyone who walks in spreads their arms to get a sense of the space. You’ve been in walk-in closets that are larger.
“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”
When you leave Robben Island, you can stop at the gift shop to purchase Mandela merchandise, including a “presidential collection” line of shirts similar to those he wore during his presidency. Another set of fashion blares “466/64”, his prison number. It indicates he was the 466th prisoner to arrive on Robben Island in 1964.
While Mandela or his lawyers approved the sale of goods at Robben Island, not everything tied to his life has his support. On the contrary, he’s often said his name is not for sale. But as his legacy builds the potential for him to be exploited grows.
“There’s a lot of people in the country making money off of his name and he’s not seeing any of it, his children’s foundation isn’t getting any of it,” says Tanya Kotze, owner of Africa Direct, one of the country’s leading travel agencies. “I wish they would let the old man be.”
No one seems ready to let go of him, however. South Africans are delighted with even a glimpse of Mandela these days, when politicians are carrying on in ways that would be laughable if the nation wasn’t on a precipice.
OTTAWA — About 11 years ago, around 80 people crammed into the Mercury Lounge, one of New York’s smallest and most beloved clubs, to listen to this country-blues band from Canada with a psychedelic side and Wilco-esque jam panache. They rocked, we sang and it all made the little spot in the East Village a little happier that night. The show went unnoticed in the rest of Manhattan, and elsewhere too, making the words at the merchandise kiosk resonate with those of us who did attend. On mugs and bumper stickers was the slogan: “In a just world, Blue Rodeo would be as popular as toast.”
On Friday night, beneath a nearly full moon, the world and universe as those in Ottawa knew it seemed to be in perfect order. A hockey arena-sized crowd gathered on the grounds of the 2011 Ottawa Bluesfest at LeBreton Flats, behind the Canadian War Museum, for what had to be the largest and most enthusiastic audience Blue Rodeo has played in front of in recent memory. The band was more than up for the occasion, delivering an energetic show on a steamy night that also featured East Coast rapper Classified. Many of his younger fans not only stuck around for the old-timers from Blue Rodeo, they sang along to the band’s classics — including the too-sensitive-for-the-frat-house “After the Rain” — from start to finish.
It is one of the two best shows I’ve seen from Blue Rodeo (and you’re talking double digits; I have enough ticket stubs for each finger and toe, from everywhere from the deceased Bottom Line in Greenwich Village to the Orpheum in Vancouver); the other top show from them was that night at the Mercury Lounge, when then-keyboardist James Gray tore it up with some heavy-duty hammering of the keys.
At the 17th annual Bluesfest, Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and crew opened with “It Hasn’t Hit Me Yet.” They followed with “Five Days in May” as the setlist featured most of their greatest hits — although “Diamond Mine” and “Rose-Coloured Glasses” still don’t make it into the show often enough. Wayne Petti from Cuff the Duke, who’s practically a member of Blue Rodeo, he’s been on stage so often with them, helped out on vocals and guitars, and talented Colin Cripps, Kathleen Edwards’ husband, joined on guitar for the full show. (Edwards didn’t show up, though.)
[Published in the Toronto Star on Bastille Day, 2011. I visited the Palace of Versailles for the first time in May and came away with a clear understanding of why there was a revolution!]
VERSAILLES, FRANCE — When Louis XIV built the Palace of Versailles he said he wanted it to be the envy of Europe. The man who believed he had divine right managed to outdo himself. He horded wealth, talent and labour to construct one of the most spectacularly grotesque displays of lavishness humanity’s ever known.
Maybe God does listen to Bono.
On a night where rain was such a certainty the restaurant I dined at prior to Monday’s show wouldn’t open its patio because of the dire forecast, the panels of the ’Dome stayed curled back, allowing the selected songs from U2’s 30-something-year-old catalogue to lift off into the Toronto night.
VIENNA — This enchanted city’s Fête Impériale began the way I expected a Viennese ball to unfold, with pomp and circumstance in the form of a marching band and speeches by politicians and organizers. A crowd of about 3,000, including luminaries such as Frank Stronach, attended to witness performances of ballet, opera and the waltz on Thursday night. I jetted over for the spectacle, which I believed would be fittingly grandiose but also as stuffy as a tuxedo collar. After all, it was a black- or white-tie affair, and such evenings can descend into the unbecoming sight of very wealthy people measuring each other up.
Turned out, though, that Vienna did what it so often seems to — it surprised and amused.
As the “William Tell Overture” played, ballet dancers emerged — with the men dressed in Fred Astaire-like long tails and the young women in slinky red gowns — to perform wonderfully for 15 minutes to a medley of classical favourites. Nothing unusual about that. But just as some of us in the audience were thinking the men had to be sweating through their bow ties, they stripped. Ripping off their tuxedos and pants, and baring themselves to boxers short of the full monty. With their clothes went any notions the ball would be overly mannered.