Tequila Tasting in Toronto

It never fails to amaze me the many unique opportunities and experiences Toronto has to offer. There are the obvious: the CN Tower, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Hockey Hall of Fame, and the many orchestras, ballets and theatres, to name a few. It’s the hidden gems that continue to inspire me, delight me, educate me and make me thankful to be living in such a dynamic, colourful, and culturally diverse city.

El Caballito is one of these hidden gems. How does a tequila and tacos cantina qualify? First off, El Caballito, located in the heart of the entertainment district, is not just another tourist trap. The robust and lively atmosphere, with dimmed lighting and music pumping, instantly transports you from the hustle and bustle of traditional downtown Toronto to the vibrant streets of Mexico City. The place oozes authenticity and Manny Contreras will attest to its street cred, Certified Master Tequilier and bar manager, was born and raised in Mexico City.

El Caballito offers patrons more than just incredible Mexican cuisine. Whether you’re a scotch aficionado, a wine sipper with penchant for Merlot or a lover of craft beer, after some time in the private tequila tasting room with Manny, you’ll leave El Caballito at the very least with an appreciation for the art of tequila and quite possibly a new affection for the spirit.

Manny Contreras himself is a hidden gem. There are less than one thousand tequiliers working in North America and Manny is one of only two working in Canada after years honing his taste buds in Mexico City. He began at the age of 13 working behind his father’s bar and he is truly steeped in the tradition of tequila.

“You need to know everything about each tequila before you can sell it,” his father told him. Manny sipped from each bottle, discerning the various flavours before he had his first full glass at the age of 21. Manny’s interest in his country’s national drink was more than just a means to make money; it became a passion that propelled him to enroll in a five-year course to become a Certified Master Tequilier.

Tucked away in a room lined with his collection of tequila, that includes everything from Jose Cuervo to Clase Azul, the candle light flickers on the brick wall and the scene is set.

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Manny explains with vivid detail how tequila evolved from being the drink of the peasants to the kings and cycled back again to the peasants. Folklore, European invasions, wars, and big corporations have all had a hand in transforming tequila from pulque (fermented sap from the agave plant) to what we know it to be today.

“You have to be ready to really taste the tequila. You have to take your time with it. Let it be still in your mouth.” Manny guided us through our tasting with patience while describing the proper way to enjoy tequila. Drinking tequila is somewhat analogous to the vision that I have of the quintessential Latin lover.

There is much fore play: rolling it around in your mouth, breathing in the heady sensations, allowing the first sips to cleanse and prepare the palate.

There is much sweetness and intensity: the lightest in colour the blanco is young, and bites the tongue, while the darker anjeo is aged and has a sweeter, lasting flavour.

There is also the morning after that can leave one groggy and remorseful but Manny maintains it’s not likely if you savor the experience of a fine tequila instead of absently shooting it back in a flurry of debauchery.

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If you’re looking to experience something truly unique, even if you think you hate tequila because of a wasted night in Mexico on your 18th birthday, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.   Book an evening with Manny. He offers a variety of tasting experiences that are suited to all tastes and budgets.

Manny’s Picks

All Time Favourite: Don Julio 1942

Best Value: Tromba

Under-The-Radar: Casa Amigos

For Deep Pockets: Clase Azul

The Leslie Street Spit: A Man-Made, Nature-Filled Wonder

220px-OHEHOpenStreetMapThe Leslie Street Spit is a man-made headland that extends five kilometers south into Lake Ontario from the bottom of Leslie Street.  Since the 1960s, the site has been used for dumping all of the rubble and dirt from excavations from new building construction.  What came out of the ground with excavators got dumped down here until it had grown to its current size.  What the city did not anticipate was that this man-made land would be so quickly colonized by plant and bird life, and what began as a dumping ground has become a bird sanctuary and a haven for city-dwellers looking for a long and car-free walk by the lake.

The site is now a park, but because it is still an active dumping zone, the park is only open on weekends. Parking at the gates to the park is a bit haphazard, and while there is a lone hot dog stand at the end of the route, you will keep your little campers happy if you come well stocked with snacks and drinks.

I have walked and biked the 10 kilometers round trip from the street to the lighthouse at the tip of the spit with the kids many times, and there is always something new to discover.  One year, students from Guelph University were there tagging monarch butterflies; the spit has become a stop on the butterflies’ migration route.  There are 45 species of birds that breed on the headland, and more than 300 species have been spotted there.  Budding bird-watchers will find a lot to spot.  There are marshes and woods and bridges and bright sky and a lake wind.  There are cormorants perching on wooden pilings and butterflies to chase.  The entire route is paved, with makes biking, roller blading and walking with a stroller all equally easy.  You may see one city pick up truck, but the route is closed to cars.  It is amazing to walk here and see how much work nature has done to make this space its own in such a short time.  It teems with life.  It’s a place to go on a wide-open day, when you have no pressing business elsewhere, to meet with the wide open sky and the lake.  Wide open days are precious enough, but when you can say that you have walked among the cottonwood trees or seen the lake’s whitecaps at your leisure, I think the day has been truly well spent.

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Facts and map from Wikipedia.

 

 

Theme Week: Hidden Gems In The City

I can’t tell you how many times I have discovered something- a place or an activity, a restaurant or a park and thought, wow, I can’t believe that I have been living in this city for this long and never knew this existed!

This summer when we explored the Evergreen Brickworks and No.9, I felt very smug. I wanted to proclaim to every non-Torontonian that we have these places in our backyard. I have that same feeling whenever I venture to the Toronto Islands or walk along the Beltline Trail, heck, I even feel that way when I gaze up at the CN Tower. Boastful? Prideful? You bet! I am continually awe-struck by the amazingness this city has to offer.

This week we are going to share a few of our favourite hidden gems in the city. It was painstakingly difficult to narrow it down so we may just have to make this an annual series!

What are some of your favourite places in Toronto? If you’re not from Toronto, what are the hidden gems in your town that everyone must know about?

Tips For DIY Fall Floral Arrangements

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Oh, the Fall! Be still my heart! Nature’s display of oranges and reds almost makes up for the dull, dreary winter that is looming before us and what’s better than bringing those colours into our homes to brighten up the day?

I remember reading somewhere years ago, when North Americans seemed hungry for everything French and their je ne sais quoi, that French homes often have fresh flowers throughout. While I am not a fan of foie gras or mass transit strikes, I can firmly assert that I side with the French on two things: champagne and flowers.

Lured by the vibrant colours and clusters of blooms, I stopped into neighbourhood florist Gilded and Green where I met owners Nancy and Charlotte.

If ever you’ve wondered why arrangements from florists cost more than corner store bouquets wrapped in cellophane, I can tell you. Nancy and Charlotte are artists. They agonize over every detail of each arrangement: the perfect vessel, the balance of blooms to greenery, the length of each stem and the overall composition. With their discerning eye and unwavering dedication to quality, they select only the best for their shop. Like curators of a museum, each vase, plant and flower is part of a larger story.

On the day that I was in the shop, oranges, reds, yellows and purples prevailed. And oh, they were just so pretty!

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I was amused by these whimsical moss sculptures that I was assured were low maintenance.

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I said that I thought they would make for lovely gifts and Nancy was quick to offer some other suggestions for thank-you or hostess gifts that are not the traditional bouquet.

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I couldn’t leave the shop without asking if they could share a few tips for budding wanna be florists (pun intended!) like myself.

  • Keep it simple. Stick to 1-3 different varieties of flowers.
  • Always add some greenery.
  • Don’t be afraid of using colour but keep the colours in the same family, or go monochromatic.
  • Cut the stems! Lop ‘em off! Very few arrangements actually look their best in tall vases. Tall arrangements are a tough look to pull off and you need the perfect space in your house to display them (think: hall foyer, large dining room table)
  • Think about the vessel. If you have a vessel that you want to use, make sure that the flowers are cut down, and there are enough to fill it.
  • Hire a professional. You may pay a bit more but a professional brings an understanding of the flowers as well as an artistic eye.

Want to see more of Gilded and Green’s work? Check out our Instagram here, and Gilded and Green’s website here.

Have an arrangement you want to show off? Send us a tweet, an Instagram or Facebook message – we’d love to see it and we like to share!

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My First Clothing Swap – So Much Fun!

020When a friend recently downsized to a smaller home, she suggested to a few friends that we do a clothing swap.  I replied with a quick “yes” even though I’d never participated in one before.  I didn’t really know what to expect or (a bit worryingly) whether I’d have much to offer to the swap, but it sounded like a good excuse reason to get together so I was in.

The morning arrived.  Just four of us showed up in the end.  Somehow even though we’d never done this before, we seemed to bring similar sized bins of clothing.  We decided to meet in my shop (I have a shop! will tell more soon), in a large room that served as a collective changeroom, complete with gigantic mirror.

Before we could lay out our clothing on the table, one woman dived into her bin and pulled out a beautiful pair of beaded sandals.  They claimed to be a 7, but were much too big for her.  Two sets of feet later and the sandals had found a new home.  Our toes were in the water; time to jump in!

Three of us were similar enough in size, and we tolerated the other one whose clothing tags bore numbers like 2 or 0.  0!  But even she got a few things… the pieces that had become way too tight for the rest of us seemed to hang on her just so.

We brought the clothes out, suggested them for someone, picked up something else, passed something on, nodded approvingly when a good swap was made.  There were no rules or order really; it just seemed to work out.  Especially nice was being able to part with those particular pieces, sometimes quite treasured, knowing the good homes they were headed to.

In the end, we all had armfuls of new-to-us clothing, with the rest destined for the local thrift store.

I don’t even know what to say about all this, except that it was So. Much. Fun.

How often do you get together with friends and play dress up?  I didn’t even do this as a kid.  Maybe some of you manage it, especially if you like shopping with company.  I don’t though, and being a bit more serious-minded than is may be helpful sometimes, finding a morning to strip off clothes and put more on with three girlfriends doing exactly the same thing was just plain good fun.

I felt so light and happy after our gathering, and of course this was so little due to the (amazing new) digs in my bin.  And it wasn’t just me; everyone chimed in to comment on the pleasure of the swap.  I got the feeling it was almost a needed good time.  We each carry our loads – this friend was in tears over some trouble with her child, that friend’s husband just had another stroke – and we weren’t even really talking!  Our clothing swap experiment may have been, even briefly, just a really effective antidote to our very real, everyday cares.  I know I couldn’t have spent my morning in any better way.

Plus you should see my new camel coat.

[We just winged our clothing swap and it worked out beautifully, probably because it was small and among friends.  For more specifics on how to organize one - which I'd so recommend! - there are some good articles out there.   For Torontonians, there's Swap Don't Shop!, which hosts regular clothing swaps in the city.  Next up for us might be a jewellery swap!] 

How-To: Fall Tablescapes Made Easy

Toronto has a plethora of great restaurants. Whatever you’ve got a hankering for; chances are you can find it among the city’s thriving foodie scene. In the past few months I have eaten out a lot and with November looming and the holiday parties about to start, I want to change gears, simplify and return to the “dinner party”.

I love eating at friends’ houses and hosting at ours as much as I do patronizing Toronto’s finest restos.   It’s fun to play the host, decorate the table and fuss with the menu. My partner-in-crime is a fabulous cook (thank goodness one of us is!) and so while he handles everything in the kitchen, the table is left up to me.

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Here’s my take on a casual dinner setting. I never buy “all new”, instead I prefer to buy versatile pieces to add to my collection and re-purpose what I already have in my cupboards. The napkin is 100% linen and adds some whimsy to the table. Ideal for Thanksgiving, but it works for any meal because aren’t we always thankful to break bread with loved ones?

The chalkboard napkin rings work double duty as place cards and writing the guest’s name is the perfect job for little helpers.

I love fresh flowers on the table, but we all know the cost of larger arrangements can quickly burst the budget. A trick that an event planner once taught me was to create several smaller arrangements using cheaper flowers (think mums, carnations, baby’s breath, daisies) for the bulk of the display and then add a few stems of a more expensive bloom. Baby food jars, mason jars, small glasses are all easy, affordable vessels that can be dressed up with spray-paint, ribbon, twine or left as is. I am crushing on these green mason jars!

My glassware is a mason jar with a handle and instead of a traditional wine glass I opted for a terra cotta wine chalice.

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I swapped out my everyday flatware for a gold set that works well with this ivory plate and matching “thankful” bowl. I like the weight of this dinnerware – it’s rustic and reminds me of the harvest.

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To increase the “wow factor”, I traded the dinnerware for a bone white plate and an inexpensive gold charger from the party store. Here’s a tip: share! My sisters-in-law and I shuttle serving dishes, chargers and linens back and forth from each other’s house whenever one of us is hosting a dinner. It cuts down on the cost, and you can have more fun setting the table.

The stem-less wine glasses go well with these liqueur ones that add a pop of colour to the table. Indigo has a collection of reasonably priced linen napkins in a variety of colours. This barn-red reminds me of the autumn leaves but will work on a holiday table too.

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For a centerpiece I took a pumpkin from my son’s collection (where does he keep getting these from?), a pinecone from our Christmas stock and a stem of hydrangea. I grouped them together on a white cake plate for a more polished look, but I really like how the cluster looks earthier on this wooden pedestal.

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My grandmother’s china is one of my most favourite possessions and it has taken me a long time to get over my fear of shattering a plate. Every time I use it, I think of her and I know that she wouldn’t want me to keep it the cupboard like some sort of shrine, so I use it. I am sure there will be a day when a bowl gets chipped, and I am sure that I will feel a pang of sadness or guilt, but at least the set is being used.

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Here’s a more glam setting complete with a silver charger and matching napkin ring. My best Waterford crystal red and white wine glasses (not many have survived the ten years since my wedding registry) and champagne flutes (that I trekked home from a European back-pack adventure more than 12 years ago).

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Instead of a cake plate, I used the same cluster and placed in my great-aunt’s crystal bowl – that usually holds oranges on the kitchen table.

Here are some tabletop accessories that would make a nice addition to any collection.

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Linen napkins from Madderroot via Etsy

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Linen napkins from RecoverMeDesign via Etsy

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Linen napkins from Rosyeco via Etsy

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Copper napkin rings from Indigo

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Skull napkin rings from Pottery Barn

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DIY Hand-dotted glassware via 4Mothers

Thank you Indigo, for sending over the plate, bowl, gold flatware, linen napkins and wooden pedestal. We sure do love your store! Indigo didn’t pay me to write this post or to use their products . . . yup, I just really like ‘em.

 

Halloween Candy Bar Graph

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What to do with all of that candy that is about to infiltrate your gluten-free, sugar-free, locavore pantry? Why make a bar graph of course! I have posted about this before, but bar graphs are a great way to make a meaningful connection between math (data management and interpretation) and every day life.

Start by dumping all of the candy into a pile. This is fun for the obvious reason: seeing a mountain of candy! But ask your kids if just by glancing they can see any natural groups. Once they’ve determined the grouping, start the sorting. Sorting is a great activity for the littlest ones and possibly the older, more experienced ones can oversee and make corrections when necessary.

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Ask lots of questions during this part of the activity. Do you think we have enough to make a group? Why or why not? What are some other ways we can sort the candy? Could we sort by chocolate, candy and chips?

Once the candy has been sorted, write the title of each group (for example: gum, suckers, Rockets, etc.) on a sticky note.

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Then the children count each pile. This is where you can encourage skip-counting by 2’s, 5’s, 10’s. After the tally, record the number on the corresponding sticky note.

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Now it’s time to create the graph. Ask your child to recall the components of a graph: title, X and Y axis labels, data labels, and scale. Listen to their reasoning for choosing the scale. When working on this graph my boys engaged in a discussion about the best way to capture the data because the smallest group was the Play-Doh with 2 and the largest group was the Chocolate Bars with 125. That’s quite a range!

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Get out the ruler, the pencil and the colour pencils to finish the graph.

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Now here’s a problem: What do we do once we start eating the candy?

Halloween Reads Giveaway

For the past few years, we have done a modified version of an advent calendar for Halloween.  (Read more about it here.)  In the two weeks leading up to the big day, we read one spooky tale a night from our box of Halloween books.  This year, we are happy to offer your littlest readers a trio of Halloween picture books.  Please leave us a comment, and we will draw for a winner on Friday, October 17th.  Canadian and American readers only, please.  Thanks to Sourcebooks for the bookish goodness!
 
Happy Halloween! By Lillian Jaine

It’s Halloween night, and Count von Count is dozing off in front of his fireplace. Suddenly, he hears someone knocking at his castle door, but when he opens the door, nobody’s there! Could it be a spooky Halloween spirit playing a trick on him, or is it something less sinister? Join Count, Elmo, and all of the Sesame friends as they celebrate Halloween!

 

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A Halloween Scare by Eric James

It’s Halloween night, and creatures and critters from near and far are starting to gather outside the front door. And now here comes a whole army of monsters, on broomsticks, buses, and bikes, all clamoring in the darkness. What is it they want? Are they coming for you?

This humorous, creative story is the perfect Halloween adventure for children and parents to share.

 

 

 

Pumpkin Time! by Erzsi Deák

The day the cows strolled down Main Street in fancy hats…Evy didn’t notice.

What was Evy doing?

Evy is so focused on watching her garden grow that she misses all the silliness going on around her—pigs DANCING, donkeys FLYING, and sheep HAVING A PICNIC.

But after Evy’s spent all year taking care of her garden, everyone’s invited to pumpkin time!

 

Best of The Blogosphere

Photography is one of those art forms that seems easy . . .until you try to perfectly capture a moment in time with a camera. Good photography manages convey emotion and beauty with one click and for this very reason, I remain in complete awe of good photographers. Elena Shumilova, a Russian artist and mother, photographed her boys with animals on the farm that she runs and the resulting images are simply breathtaking!

Someone I know recently lost her husband to cancer. She is a mom to three young children and for the past few years balanced caring for them and caring for her husband. There were times that I would snap myself out of a funk by thinking of her family and being inspired by the courage they demonstrated while faced with such incredible adversity. Paul Kalanithi wrote How Long Have I Got Left for The New York Times and so eloquently expressed his feelings about mortality, specifically his own. It’s a stark reminder of just how precious each day really is.

Have you ever called someone the wrong name, repeatedly? Even after being corrected? Or worse, like me, maybe you’ve chatted with someone so many times but have no clue what their name is? You can’t remember it for the life of you? I am guilty of this. I called my former neighbour, my neighbour for goodness sake, Michelle (repeatedly) but her name is really Sandra! It was comic relief for me to read Deanna’s account of Mistaken Identity on her blog A Mother’s Tonic.

Take a minute to watch this video by Kid President but don’t watch it alone; invite your kiddos to join. My middle one busted a gut laughing, and repeated “so true!” over and over, which begs the question, where on earth did he pick that up?

While your kids are at your side take a minute to flip through this slide show courtesy of Take Part. DIY World Change: 14 Kids You Should Know About and Their Incredible Projects is nothing but inspirational! There is the 12 year-old food blogger who is encouraging kids to eat healthy and the several teens dedicated to raising funds and awareness about a variety of worthy causes from Alzheimer’s disease to poverty. I was especially moved by Jessica Water’s Cupcakes for Camp benefitting kids and families with epilepsy – a cause close to my heart.

From Nathalie

Experience the power of a bookbook, a spoof commercial from IKEA for their catalogue (that paper thing that comes without cables or batteries).

We recently repainted all the boys’ bedrooms and included chalk walls for them to write and draw on.  Last year, Eldest did a unit in his art class about graffiti, and it’s been fun to seek out street art in the city and to think of ways to include it at home.  Here is a great article about ten female street artists from around the world.

We are going to try to keep up our drawing routine that we started in the summer.  (I’m going to need an intervention to stop me from buying any more absolutely adorable how to draw books.)  Good news: there is some absolutely adorable on-line instruction from Luke Pearson at The Guardian.  His is one in a series from children’s illustrators.  So great!

 

 

Yoga With Kids

270Along with pretty much everything else, yoga has been on a hiatus lately and I’ve been feeling it.  But I fit in it yesterday.  I was with my youngest babe, and for whatever reason, he suggested it.  It’s been a good long while since we’ve done any yoga and honestly I don’t even know how he would know to ask for it.  But I’ve been meaning to get back to it anyway, and there’s no time like the present, so in popped the video.

I did this even though in exactly six minutes I had to pick up my older boys from school, but I figured six minutes is a huge improvement on the nothing I’ve been doing, and my body would benefit from anything.

And then I had the happy (and kind of surprising) experience of mentioning it to the boys after school and hearing:  “Yeah!  Yoga!  Let’s do yoga!  Yoga, yoga!!”

So we traipsed up the stairs and into the bedroom where the computer is and got started.  There is absolutely no room for four of us; there’s barely room for two.  We squished two (sometimes three) on the floor, and one (sometimes two) on the bed.  Yes, my children did yoga on the bed.

Yoga with the kids is also more vocal than when I do it alone.  I heard:

I’m the best at this!

Is this supposed to hurt?

What does she mean take 5 breaths?  I already took 5 breaths!

My feet smell too bad.  I’m too close to my feet.

There’s space right here on Mommy!  See?

Who wants to play the game where we run and bump each other?

Meditation is not the name of the game when I do yoga with the kids, but it’s hard to imagine enjoying it more.  I am in awe of what practicing yoga can do for the body, mind and spirit, and yet there really is something to be said for a good belly laugh (or six).  I’m thankful for all of it.