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Howard Anglin: The ten best things I put in my mouth in 2023

Commentary

An apologia, not an apology: There is no way to write about food and drink without annoying someone. No matter how much you love your favourite food writers—Charles Baker, Jay Raynor, Jonathan Gold, Elizabeth David, A.A. Gill, Anthony Bourdain—I guarantee that someone else finds them gratingly pretentious, twee, smug, or macho. Bad food writing primps and simpers over its subject, but worse are critics who refuse to take the topic seriously.

I will warn you upfront that this piece offers the worst of both worlds: a soupçon of the euphuistic school of culinary criticism with some lumps of “it’s just a f*cking burger, man” grub talk. I don’t apologise. Each entry is an honest reaction to something that soothed, stroked, or smacked my palate, as the occasion demanded. Some would have been extraordinary under any circumstances, while others were (as true delights usually are) a matter of the right time and place. Each was memorable in its own way.

1. First, chronologically, was the Eccles Stout, from St John. St John was my local restaurant when I lived in London 20 years ago, and I would often end dinner at the bar with an Eccles Cake, a wedge of crumbly Lancashire cheese, and a glass of madeira. This beer combined the dense, dark raisiny richness of the cakes with the creaminess of a stout. Although the cakes are a year-round treat, the currants, citrus, nutmeg, clove, and allspice make the beer more Christmassy than a drunk uncle singing both parts of “Fairytale of New York” just a little too loudly at the kid’s table. I’m already looking forward to this year’s batch.

2. Jambon de la Petite Bourgogne. Any year I visit Vin Papillon in Montreal, this dish will have a place on this list. As simple as food comes, and simply as good as it gets. Thinly sliced ham, ribbons of cheddar, and a drizzle of browned butter. The first time I had it I was convinced there was no better dish on any menu in the country, and almost a decade later I’ve yet to be proved wrong.

3. Poutine. A late-morning departure from Montreal to Quebec City meant arriving in the outskirts of the capital absolutely famished. A stop at Casse Croute Chez Micheline cured that. Is it the best poutine in the province? I have no idea (and I’ve had a lot), but on that day it was everything poutine should be. Crisp golden fries, curds squeakier than motel bedsprings, drowned in a glossy smooth pepper gravy. It’s hard to imagine something lumpy and brown being beautiful, but it genuinely was.

4. Bollinger Grande Année Rosé, 2004. I don’t remember where or when I picked up a half case of this wine, but I’ve been rationing it with the parsimony of a cook in the 6th Army at Stalingrad. I popped a bottle this summer before a dinner on the terrace of the Ranchmen’s Club in Calgary. Faintly oxidised, paler and dryer than you would expect, with a rich core of dry summer fruits. It must have evaporated in the summer heat, as every time I looked down my glass was empty.

5. I could have chosen half of the dishes on Pilgrimme’s summer tasting menu, but I’ll go for one described as “aged duck, west ham gold potato, galiano fig”. I don’t have the words to do the dish justice, so I’ll leave it to that laconic description and your imagination. It helped that it was the triumphant final savoury course of a menu that somehow, impossibly, gets better with every visit. What an exclamation point, like the ecstatic bell-ringing climax of Mahler’s 5th… but with aged duck.

6. There are passing few advantages to modern life that surpass the ubiquity of great cheese, but this year’s stand out was an old workhorse: Godminster’s Bruton Beauty Cheddar, served after a lunch at Winchester’s Chesil Rectory. The butter-smooth, buccal-tingling Bruton Beauty proves that good food doesn’t have to be expensive or distant.

7. I will take the fact that I had the 1983 Palmer at a special tasting of the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society as an excuse to go over-the-top wine geek on this one. All the classic Left Bank notes were still there—black currants, brambles, sweet decaying leaves, cedar cigar box—but with a mature Keatsian “mellow fruitfulness,” plus that ethereal Margaux perfume, like dried violets crushed between white crinoline. If I had to go full Brideshead, I’d call her an ancien regime courtesan confident in her allure and unashamed of her price.

8. The Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce at Milan’s Fondazione Prada looks much better on Instagram than in person, but after walking an hour in the sun almost anywhere with a roof would have felt like an oasis, even this fey re-imagining of a mid-century Milanese cafe. I ordered a birra alla spina (too parched to ask what brand it was), followed by the house aperitivo, followed by another birra. I defy you to find anything more refreshing on a humid day than Giass gin, Bitter Campari, orange bitters, Rabarbaro Zucca, and Fernet Quaglia, stirred over ice and drunk between two cold Italian pilsners served in perspiring glasses.

9. There had to be a place on the list for my mum’s extraordinary home cooking, and this year I’m going with a classic. Thick bloody slices of aged roast beef, teetering towers of Yorkshire pudding, sweet charred carrots and parsnips, and roast potatoes under a deluge of hot gravy, all lifted by the musty vinegar tang of pickled walnuts and a spoonful of sinus-clearing hot mustard. No London chophouse ever did it better.

10.  The regular sushi is good enough to make Shokunin a regular Calgary haunt, but the wagyu “sushi” makes it unmissable. This fatty quintessence of beef on rice with a dab of wasabi melts, floods, and assaults the senses so completely that a second piece would be gross superfluity. Which, given the price, is just as well.

Finally, a special shout out to the humble cup of coffee. Not an americano, which is watery espresso, but the real thing: brewed black coffee. What would I do without it? Too many good ones to choose from this year, but some regulars were: Phil & Sebastian and DeVille in Calgary; the Marina Cafe and Hide + Seek in Victoria; and Brew, the Missing Bean, and Colombia Coffee Roasters in Oxford. Nine days out of ten, it’s the best and most important thing I put in my mouth, so it really deserves a category of its own.

Here’s to topping this list in 2024.

Richard Shimooka: If you care about Canada’s security, 2023 was a year of substantial disappointment

Commentary

As the calendar turns over to 2024, I’ve been reflecting on the year that was in Canadian security and defence. It started off with great promise. There was the potential for a new defence policy update that would address many of the government’s shortcomings with respect to defence policy and the military capabilities of the armed forces, and there was the potential for the procurement of the P-8 alongside a number of other capabilities.

Furthermore, there was hope for progress in dealing with substantiative issues around culture change and recruitment/retention. After General Eyre’s directive on reconstitution in October 2022, there was good evidence to suggest that the political leadership understood the poor material shape the Canadian Armed Forces were in and would become more discriminating as to what missions it was sent on. Relatedly the government as a whole seemed to better understand the national security environment it found itself in, especially after the publication of the Indo-Pacific Strategy in November of 2022

Yet the close of 2023 highlights just how much this was a year of substantial disappointment for those who care about Canada’s military, defence capabilities, and its place in the world. 

Rather than the beginnings of a renewal, the CAF is in a worse state and facing an even deeper hole it needs to dig out of. The delay of the defence policy update, reportedly due to its cost, as well as the shuffling out of Anita Anand, a popular minister within the department, tore out the tender shoots of hope many military members had nurtured for the military’s revival. The announced budget cutbacks of approximately $1 billion dollars over the next three years further put this to bed.

While there were some funding announcements, such as the P-8 and the Remotely Piloted Air System program, they are being layered onto a military that has haemorrhaged much of its key personnel. Many individuals, who are already overtasked, rightly wonder who will be there to integrate, operate, or sustain these new capabilities. 

None of this even acknowledges the increased threat environment or the massive technological change that is affecting a CAF that desperately requires modernization. While National Defence has outlined several efforts to address this challenge, such as the pan-domain strategy, its requirement to simply survive on an austere budget means there are no resources or intellectual capacity left to implement them. 

Looking back at the past year, I have been searching for historical precedents to compare it to. One has come to mind a few times: 2003. 

Similar to the present, the country was faced with a number of serious security challenges: 9/11, Afghanistan, and the debate over the impending Iraq war. The 2003 CAF faced serious material and manpower challenges—what General Rick Hillier would later describe as the “decade of darkness” of the 1990s. In 2003 the military faced multiple crises simultaneously: a rust-out crisis of aging military equipment, a personnel crisis, and multiple open-ended missions. As one influential study, titled “Canada Without Armed Forces” published in 2003 suggested: 

The next government will be caught up in a cascading policy entanglement initiated by the rapid collapse of Canadian Forces core assets and core capabilities. This problem will inevitably disarm foreign policy as Canada repeatedly backs away from international commitments because it lacks adequate military forces. In these circumstances, new policy initiatives aimed at ‘being useful to the United States in our own interests’ may well be derailed.

Sound familiar? While some of the direst of predictions did not immediately emerge, they were only delayed. The military received substantial investments, but a large portion of it was tied to funding the operations in Afghanistan or helping build a military that would continue similar operations. Modernization was delayed on capabilities that would help defend Canada and its allies from great power conflict, and in some cases entire capability sets were retired with no replacement forthcoming. 

Looking back at the past year, one way to look at my columns is that they are chronicling the consequences of the inadequate modernization of the Canadian Armed Forces since 2003. It is a likely outcome that by 2028, the country will likely have a navy and air force that are effectively unable to provide a basic level of defence in key areas, and an army that will be unable to assist our allies with previously announced commitments. 

But this does not explain why we’ve arrived at this moment. Over the years, many observers of Canadian foreign and defence policy have noted that the fundamental “problem” of the country’s national defence is that there are no “pressing” threats to its security. I’ve personally had difficulties with this perspective, as it lazily excuses present-day inaction. It ignores (or, perhaps more accurately, confirms) the perspective that it is not actually to do with the threats themselves, but Canadians’ perception of them. One book, also published in 2003, diagnosed this problem well: Andrew Cohen’s While Canada Slept. It is still worth reading today. 

From 1945 to 1968, successive Canadian governments from Louis St. Laurent to Lester B. Pearson viewed international security as a critical focus. Many had fought or been a direct participant in one or both World Wars and saw the ruinous cost of inaction and unpreparedness. They had built close relationships with senior officials of all of Canada’s major allies, which allowed them to tackle problems in lock-step with each other. Canada was present at the creation of the key institutes that have provided for our economic prosperity and security. Cohen’s book lamented the decline of Canada’s principal foreign policy instruments due to neglect that occurred even as Canadians agreed that being a good international partner was in the country’s national interest. 

That really hasn’t improved over the subsequent twenty years. Rather, the reality is grimmer. Like in 2003, the international system has changed radically, this time with Russia and China actively undermining the rules-based order. In the 2000s, both Paul Martin (and later Stephen Harper) understood the poor material state of the CAF and made efforts to address it. Unlike then, however, the government of today has been extremely slow to acknowledge this reality, and in some cases ignores it for their own political interests.

This has given me the most pause over the past year. Rather than acknowledge or address the real possibility of capability collapse or the broader international challenges, the political leadership has chosen to obfuscate these issues and continue policies that have already contributed to the state it currently is in. There is a preference for big, showy announcements while ignoring the much more desperately needed substantial action to fix the armed forces and foreign policy writ large.

Just this week the minister of national defence announced the deployment nine helicopters to Latvia followed by sending a handful of personnel to support the multinational effort to provide security in the  Red Sea. These are token contributions that are unsustainable in aggregate for the military, yet they serve the political purpose of showing Canada doing “something.” Domestic priorities, no matter how small, will trump international ones for this government.

This was evident last July at the NATO meeting in Lithuania, which was focused on the threat posed by Russia and the war in Ukraine. Rather than focus on the topic at hand, Prime Minister Trudeau took to lecturing the assembled leaders on the threat posed by climate change, which was not well received by the gathering. Even in non-defence areas, such as with foreign interference, similar preferences are visible. The continual delay in establishing an inquiry while trying to control its scope is an example of putting parochial interests over that of the country writ large. 

Considering the hope that the year started with and how it ended, it’s unlikely that much will change in 2024. Even a cursory look at the political interests of the Liberal and NDP parties (joined by their supply and confidence agreement) suggests that it is unlikely that the government will accelerate their spending on defence—rather they are more likely introduce more delays. Yet the military and other instruments of the country’s foreign and security policy will not be able to wait. Their failings need to be addressed now, or we will collectively suffer its consequences.