Charity dinner kicks off annual Taste of Cayman

Rounding off Culinary Month in style, Taste of Cayman brought hoards of hungry people to Camana Bay for a truly spectacular celebration of Cayman’s cuisine. An equally hungry crowd joined John Conover, general manager of Plumpjack winery, in a stellar culinary achievement, Blackbeard’s annual Taste of Cayman charity dinner and auction, which precluded the main Taste of Cayman event.

Taste of Cayman is the Cayman Islands Tourism Association’s biggest fundraiser of the year, allowing it to continue to create the best tourism product for the Islands as well as help the community with a variety of projects. Three years ago Cayman Distributors Group Managing Director Hugh Treadwell, who also sits on the CITA board, saw that as the annual food festival entered into a long term new venue at Camana Bay, it could now be perfectly suited to becoming a world class food and wine event.

With CITA’s agreement, they entered into a substantial cash, in-kind, discounts and volunteer sponsorship arrangement to help make it happen.

“Three years ago it was a very different event to what it is today,” he confirms. “We all have managed to take something great for food and turn it into something extraordinary – incorporating both food and wine with music and local culture in one of the biggest festivals of its kind in the region. Further, by moving the event to January last year and CITA launching Culinary Month, along with all the Cayman Cookout events from the Ritz Carlton, it has really put Cayman on the culinary map.”

Going one step further, and having been inspired by charity winemakers dinners all around the world, Hugh decided that Taste of Cayman ought to have its own charity wine dinner to raise further funds for the CITA charities. Thus the Taste of Cayman Winemaker’s Charity Dinner was born.

The first dinner, a Spanish-themed event at Luca (at which Blackbeard’s featured several super premium Spanish wines and also launched Bacardi Limitada rum with Bacardi owner Joaquim Bacardi), took off, closely followed a year later by an unprecedented Veuve Clicquot Champagne dinner at Pappagallo’s with the Veuve wine maker, Pierre Casenave.

“Each one has been special and unique,” Hugh says. “This Plumpjack dinner gave us the chance to sample wines from one of the most iconic and innovative vineyards in California today. Selecting Ortanique for this dinner was easy also as both the restaurant and the winery are very serious about quality and execution but both are informal and fun operations with great people.

We knew this year’s dinner would really be a fun time, like a big house dinner party of sorts, and it was. John and I didn’t finish surfing the night of the dinner until 6.30pm, so you get the idea.”

Award-winning Plumpjack wines

John Conover joined Plumpjack as general manager in 1999 to provide strategic direction for the newly established property. The winery released its first vintage in 1997 with winemaker Anthony Biagi at the forefront of the wine production, alongside consulting winemaker Nils Venge and over the years John was able to steadily increase production as well as demand.

Plumpjack is renowned for its Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that has succeeded in putting Plumpjack well and truly on the map. Indeed Robert Parker rated the 2004 Plumpjack Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 96 points and in 2004 their 2001 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was named number one wine in the world by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Partners in the business with John include San Francisco philanthropist Gordon Getty and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newson, both avid wine enthusiasts.

John is also a partner in Cade, a new estate winery on Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley. Cade released its first white wine, the Cade Sauvignon Blanc 2005 in 2006 and its first red, a Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Cuvee 2005 in 2007. Cade produces estate grown wine grown on 21 acres of organically farmed land and created in their LEED-certified winery. It is, according to John, the most green winery in the entire US.

Genius in the kitchen

Another iconic feature of the Ortanique charity wine dinner was the chef herself – Cindy Hutson, who has carved a name for herself across the US and now in Cayman, opening up Ortanique restaurant with husband Delius Shirley, a dynamite duo whose passion for fresh flavours and Caribbean cuisine have driven them to create this already heaving restaurant in the heart of Camana Bay.

Cindy is totally in tune with flavour, having treated myself and Blackbeards wine sales manager Jodie Petts to a unique pre dinner wine and food pairing session a couple of weeks before the dinner, in which we sampled selections of Cindy’s delicious sauces and flavourings alongside a selection of Plumpjack’s finest wines, in a bid to find the pairing perfect.

Cindy says she’d rather taste the wines first and create a menu around their unique flavours, rather than present a menu and work the wines around the food. In this way she says she can be flexible to all the nuances of the wines to create a better marriage of the two. 

The dinner

In the end diners were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres, which consisted of lobster tiradito spoons, served with Aji amarillo, green mango, cucumber and yuzu; curry chicken cigars, with orange-scented guava chutney and spinach and callalloo balls with parmesan sabayon.

Cade’s zingy 2009 Sauvignon Blanc was a really excellent pairing with all these lovely fresh flavours, while Plumpjack’s 2008 Napa Chardonnay Reserve was a fine choice for the following course of roasted mushroom caps stuffed with leek and scallop flan. Cindy had toyed with the idea of creating a mushroom soup initially but the inclusion of the scallop was a masterful stroke that brought the course together, the lack of obvious oak influences allowing the true flavours of the Chardonnay grape to shine through.

The following course comprised a Blue Mountain coffee and cocoa encrusted duck breast served with a blackberry soy agave glaze with butter sautéed baby bok choy. In the earlier tasting Cindy had us taste the sweetness of the agave syrup to appreciate how she would develop the flavours of the dish, deciding there and then to incorporate the bitterness and depth of both coffee and cocoa in the final dish. These flavours served to enhance the cocoa and coffee nuances of the delicious 2007 Cade Napa Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon which accompanied the dish.

“This Cabernet Sauvignon really speaks to the terroir of where it is produced,” John explained. “The Cuvee speaks to the Napa Valley floor with its rich alluvial soil producing a rich and opulent wine.”

Next course continued the earthy flavours with a Cabernet-braised beef short rib with truffled gnocchi, toasted almond-pea shoot salad and vanilla bean espuma, served alongside a 2007 Plumpjack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

John said: “This wine reminds me of our winemaker’s black Labrador –it’s generous with its affections, upfront with what it delivers and totally unpretentious. Actually it’s quite a dangerous wine because you can easily drink a bottle before you know it.”

The fourth course of oven roasted Australian lamb chops, with black olive and bacon breadfruit gratin, Brussels petals and an amarena cherry demi was a riot of flavours, all of which melded seamlessly.

The 2007 Cade Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain which was paired with the dish was, according to John, quite different from the two previous Cabs – more austere, a little standoffish and a little intellectual in its approach. Never-the-less it made another spot on pairing, the dryness of the wine counteracting the richness of the dish magnificently. Cindy was at odds as to which wine she thought went best with her deeply satisfying dessert – molten lava cake (what’s not to love?) with star anise braised berries and vanilla bean ice cream – as well as a chef cheese selection. Both a Plumpjack 2007 Syrah and a Plumpjack 2006 Merlot Napa Valley were suggested and so to do justice to the wines, both were served.

All in all Blackbeard’s managed to raise a healthy $7,000 from the dinner, which also comprised of an auction in which a painting by Sue Widmer, a John Hardy necklace, a Philip Stein wine wand and of course coveted large format Plumpjack wines were auctioned for the CITA and their charitable projects, with auctioneer Jay Ehrhart making a sterling attempt to excite the crowd and get them to dig deep at the end of this sumptuous dinner.


Trina Christian and Jay Ehrhart