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FrenchFeast: Fizz, Frites, Fromage and Philosophical Fermentations

Oct. 16,2018

My article from the December issue of TheWorld of Fine Wine (Reprinted with permission from the publication.)

My Article the New Romorantin, focusing on the grape as well as three superb producers.

(Posted with permisstion from the publisher.)

October 11, 2016

Huge thanks to editor Neil Beckett for allowing me to publish it so early. (A request from the great ampelographer Jose Vuillamoz is hard to resist!)

March 19, 2016

Below please find the link to my article in the December issue of The World of Fine Wine. Many thanks to Neil Beckett, my wonderful editor, for his permission to offer it here.

The article discusses why I believe it's more important to marry a wine to the context in which it will be drunk than to a particular food or recipe. See if you agree.

My Article on Matching Wine to Context


January 24, 2016: Why I'm asking you to boycott the wines of Domaine Michel Redde

Sometimes we wine scribes get no respect – from the very people who, by all rights, ought to value us the most: the vignerons we interview, whose wine we taste Slowly, whose evolution we track and analyze, and, by extension, whose wines we publicize in our works.
Thus today’s Newsletter.
As many of you know, my last book “Earthly Delights from the Garden of France: The Wines of the Loire, Volume One: The Kingdom of Sauvignon Blanc: Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé and the Sauvignon Satellites” was self-published.
I made this decision because I’m allergic superficiality. I had a contract to update my first book “A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire” with the University of California Press. But the word limits would not permit me to explore all the changes that had occurred in the Loire since that book was published. I did not want to write “Loire Lite.”
At the same time, self-publishing had evolved to a point where it was no longer a “vanity” project but a real option for serious authors. That, then, was the path I took, starting with the Eastern-most part of the Loire.
As you may imagine, writing such a book is a 24/7 job. Even as you sleep, your mind is sorting out facts, descriptions, analysis. And everything – trips, daily life, design, formatting, indexing – constitutes and out-of-pocket expenses, not to mention blood, sweat, even tears.
Regrettably, the rewards are meager. It’s difficult to make a comparison in terms of compensation but let’s put it in vinous terms, no matter how far a stretch that may be. In that case, I’d be realizing about one litre a hectare.
So it’s serious for me when someone steals my work. And that is what Domaine Redde has done. They took the roughly 1000 words I wrote on their domaine, had that text translated into French and then published it on their website.
Frankly, I had always known that I had overrated them in the book. When producers are on the cusp of two categories, I usually give them the benefit of the doubt, to wit, the higher rating.
As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. But I thought that just maybe I could make things right and that we could reach a solution satisfactory to all involved.
I saw the current generation – Michel’s two grandsons -- at a tasting in Paris on January 18, 2016. I spoke with each individually and got identical responses.
I told them that I had seen their website with my text and pointed out that, while they had the right to quote a sentence or maybe a paragraph, they needed my permission to print the entire text.
“So what,” was the response, each time, accompanied a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders followed by turning their backs on me.
I asked if their winery had a shop. Yes. Did they sell my book in their shop? No.
In that case, I said, we should come to a financial agreement on your previous use of the text as well as its continuing use.
In a manner as rude and as lacking in respect as you might imagine, each told me to get lost.
They removed the text from their website though I assume it had been posted ever since the book was published – at the end of November 2011.
I wrote to Redde’s USA importer, Kobrand, and they basically told me to get lost as well.
I also contacted the Authors Guild of America, of which I am a member, and got this answer from one of their Senior Attorneys.

"Dear Ms. Friedrich: Under US law, yes, that would constitute copyright infringement and you could potentially sue them for such. I imagine this would be the same under French copyright law, but as we are not educated on French copyright law, I cannot say so with 100% certainty. You definitely seem to have grounds to pursue an infringement action if you wish to do so."

As the attorney also noted, the cost of pursuing such a claim may, however, prove too time consuming and financially uninteresting.

Therefore I’m seeking another solution, one that may bring home to the Redde family, and possibly to similarly arrogant winemakers, that stealing the product of hardworking writers is dishonest, abusive and entirely impermissible.

That’s why I’m asking you to boycott wines from the Redde family – in restaurants and in shops – and to ask all your wine-loving friends to do the same.

And to those of you going to the Salon des Vins de Loire, I’ll ask you to boycott the Domaine Redde stand. If you want to taste really nice Pouilly-Fumés, let me direct you to one or more of the following:

In sum, whether or not you go to the Salon des Vins de Loire, please boycott Domaine Redde wines. Send this newsletter to your wine-loving friends and request that they do the same.

January 10, 2015: Below is a link to my article on the vinous revolution in Azay-le-Rideau. The article appeared in the June issue of The World of Fine Wine. Many thanks to Neil Beckett, my editor, for having given me permission to post it here.

The Vinous Revolution in Azay-le-Rideau

December 18, 2015: Below is a link to my article on Bernard and Matthieu Baudry, true ambassadors of the wines of Chinon. The article appeared in the March issue of The World of Fine Wine. Many thanks to Neil Beckett, my editor, for having given me permission to post it here.

Bernard Baudry, Matthieu Baudry, Chinon, Cabernet Franc

This is page is something of a blog in which I discourse on the delights of living in France.(Displeasures are now in Jackiezine.)

And there's a brand new -- temporary -- category:

Mystery Wines: Every now and then – starting with the Gardening Day meals – I will mention a “Mystery” wine. This involves a Loire wine I love from a producer who doesn’t, as yet, have a high profile but whom I intend to rate very highly. My editor and wine and writer friends have counseled me to keep these ‘discoveries’ secret. I don’t like doing this but I’ve noticed that a number of my trouvailles have been picked up by others. All will be revealed when Loire2 is published. And I thought, why not make a game of it? For those readers who can correctly match the Mystery wines to the producer there will be a wonderful, amazing prize (yet to be determined).

Please note that Restaurants and Hotels previously described here are now in Out&About.

If you want to comment on something you read on another page, send me an email saying that and I'll introduce it here or in Mail & Events.

Sept. 4, 2012: When Life Gives You Too Many Mirabelles

You have probably been reading advance reports on the 2012 harvest. It is true that the 2012 growing season has been bizarre and difficult -- for those of us who are not, for example, in Chateauneuf-du-Pape where they expect another banner vintage. It may well be for the best that the crop is small.
It has also been a difficult year for tomatoes. For some time now, I've been convinced that a good year for tomatoes meant a good year for wine. 2012 confirms my scientifically impeccable suppositions.
On the other hand, 2012 has brought us a veritable plague of mirabelles. Plague? you say. Yes. When you have to gather them -- taking care not to get bitten by the wasps snacking on them -- and then do something with them in the day or two before they start to deteriorate.
Were I not planning to move back up to Paris on Saturday and, with any luck, go to NY in October, I would have been delighted by this embarrassment of riches: I'd have made eau de vie. But, alas, I won't be here to babysit the fermentation. And, if my freezer hadn't conked out a couple of weeks ago, I'd simply have frozen kgs upon kgs of plums -- and served mirabelle clafouti for every dinner party I give from here to eternity. Another thing: if the world had a better system of distribution -- so that places that find themselves with a surplus of produce can redirect the bounty to places where the population is starving -- I'd have happily shlepped my fruit to the closest depository.
No such luck. And I not only hate waste but seem to be allergic to it.
Invited to spend the weekend with friends who live near Chateauroux, I brought a wine carton full of mirabelles as well as several bottles of wine. The wine was received with enthusiasm, the mirabelles, not so much. They, too, had plum trees and had already made 50 jars of jam.
So I've been cooking with them. Easiest first: I bought prepared pie crust (all butter) and spread the pitted mirabelles in them -- tightly -- sprinkled a packet of vanilla sugar and a fair amount of lemon zest on top and had mirabelle tarte for breakfast for the next couple of days.
I had some confit de canard on hand and decided to finish their cooking by placing them on a bed of mirabelles. That was fantastic. A keeper. I drank a 2005 Bourgueil from Yannick Amirault with them but I think an off-dry white would have been even better.
Now, when I'd made that tarte, it occurred to me that the deliciousness was all due to the cooked plums and not to the crust. So I decided to bake the next batch of mirabelles. Here's how:
Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
Wash, halve and pit your mirabelles. Lightly butter as large a baking dish as you think you'll need. Place the mirabelles in them, cut side on top, as close together as you can. Sprinkle the mirabelles with a packet of vanilla sugar.
Mix 3 TBSPs of Madeira, 3 TBSPs of fresh orange juice, and the grated zest of one orange. Pour this mixture over the mirabelles.
Bake the mirabelles for 20 to 30 minutes or until they look ever so slightly caramelized.
Note that you should make much more than you think you need as they do shrink and they are so delicious that you go back for seconds. Should you have any left over, you can serve them cold as jam.
This is the good news. The bad news is that the plum trees are still full of fruit, the pears are ripening and the peaches will ripen some time later -- after I've left for Paris. Well, you can only do what you can do.

Aug. 18, 2012: Mini-pre-lunch tasting. As anyone insane enough to undertake the writing of a regional wine guide will know, it's not always the bold-faced names. But here is where the discoveries are.


Iconic image of Pic St. Loup (photo:Audrey Domenach)

Thus begins a lengthy post describing a recent trip to the magnificent Languedoc sub-region, Pic St. Loup. (It has taken me over an hour to figure out how to transfer Audrey's photo (from Facebook) to this page. So bear with me.)
Introduction to the region:
The northernmost of the Languedoc’s sub-regions, the Pic St. Loup lies 10 km north of Montpeller and less than 30 km from the Mediterranean coast. Its 800 hectares press up against the foothills of the Cevennes mountains and are spread out within 13 villages, 12 of which are in the Herault department and one in the Gard. There are 59 producers of which 3 are cooperative cellars. Yearly volume averages 28,500 hl and covers red and rosé wines, made from syrah, grenache, mourvedre, carignan and cinsault. IMHO, the whites, the breeziest of the Languedoc, merit the Pic St. Loup designation as well.
I have often found the ensemble of its wines the freshest and most elegant of the Languedoc. Surely, this is partly explained by its northern location, by altitude as well as by its complex intermingling of soil types, from the limestone summit of Pic St. Loup to the Massif de l’Hortus, the result of the creasing of the bed rock toward the north at the end of the Secondary Era. Briefly, the high slopes are covered in fragmented stone from the Ice Age; the soils of the lower slopes are characterized by marl rich in limestone and soils deposited by the Mediterranean 90 million years ago.

That's the idea! (photo by Constance Brown)

I recently went to Pic St. Loup (early June) to participate in the annual Vignes Buissonnières. In the age of enotourism, this is a particularly worthy and deservedly popular event in which a 5 to 6 km trajectory is mapped, basically encircling the vineyard area. (It changes every year.) The path is then cleared and marked and, at regular intervals – of say one km – a way station is set up, food is served, and a dozen or so vignerons pour their wines. It’s hugely successful: they can only accept about 3000 participants and there’s already a waiting list with 1000 names for next year. So far as I know, Rasteau is the only other appellation that does this but it’s a fantastic concept, bringing people into the appellation, letting them see the vines, taste the wines, have fun and get exercise, in one fell swoop.

Suiting up: There were wide-rimmed girls' hats and there were these boys' hats. Just about everyone chose the latter. (photo: Constance Brown.)
Suiting up #2: We each get bandolieres, the pockets of which contain a wine glass, a notebook, a pencil and a meal ticket. (photo Constance Brown)
And We're Off! (photo: Constance Brown.)
A stroll through the vines. (photo: Constance Brown.)

Second Installment:
Don't be fooled by this smooth, easy path. No hills or cliffs or loose stones here. As I said, a stroll. (See photo with hikers looking at map for better idea.)

First Stop: First Course: First Wines. (photo: Constance Brown.)

After roughly a km, we arrived at our first pit stop. It was here that we were served our mise en bouche, a "cocktail" of three creams: gazpacho, cauliflower and zucchini. Nice idea but, frankly, too smooth, too bland, and too much like baby food for me.

Winemaker and wine drinker (photo: Constance Brown)

At each pit stop there were tents under which at least 10 vignerons stood behind upturned barrels, pouring their wares.
It was hot. Very hot. Though there were three tempting reds on offer, I went for the whites and the rosés, of which I'll single out the following four:
2011 Chateau Lascours rosé: made by bleeding the red vats, this was a fragrant blend of syrah, grenache and cinsault. High-strung, strong and solid, it was a tasty food wine.

2011 Mas Brugière blanc: I know the domaine but I didn't know it's white. A blend of roussanne, marsanne and vermintino, 20% of which had fermented in demi-muids, it was fresh and strong, with light flavors of oak and lemon.

And the following two discoveries, ie completely new to me:

2010 Domaine St. Daumary "Boca Loca:" This 32 year old vigneron took over the family vineyards. (The harvest was previously brought to the cooperative.) Farming is organic. A big, Rhone-style white, this was a blend of 80% roussanne and 20% grenache blanc. Excellent.

2011 Chateau Pech-Tort rosé: One of my favorite wines of the day, this charmer was made by a young vigneronne. Its pale color suggested it was made by a direct press of the harvest and not by bleeding and 80% of it was. A blend of syrah and grenache, we couldn't drink enough of it.

And off we go again! (photo: Constance Brown.)
How much further do we have to go? (photo: C. Brown.)

Third Installment:
The "cold appetizer" at the next stop involved cold cooked and smoked salmon and Puy lentils; at the next stop, the "hot appetizer" was a mix of sauteed asparagus and girolle mushrooms. And my favorite wines were:
2010 Ermitage du Pic St. Loup "Tour du Pierre": a blend of 40% each of syrah and grenache with 10% carignan, this was a succulent, airborne red, as fresh as it was delicious. It's organic and it's the domaine's entry-level red.
2010 Bergerie du Capucin, Dame Jeanne: A racy, fluid and fresh expression of syrah. Gourmand.
Now, the two following wines were real curiousities:
2011 Domaine de l'Hortus, Bergerie de l'Hortus blanc: A red from this domaine was the first Languedoc wine I ever tasted. I was mighty impressed. Later, I'll describe some recent (and recently tasted) red beauties. This white, however, while tasty, came across as anonymous. A Vin de Pays, it was a blend of roussane, grenache, sauvignons gris and blanc and a drop of petit manseng.
2010 Chateau de Cazeneuve, Cazeneuve, blanc: Unmistakable in its blue bottle, this white was a blend of barrel-fermented chenin blanc (!) and grenache blanc. It was quite oaky and both hot and tart. I wanted to see what chenin would do in Pic St. Loup but couldn't get much of an idea because the oak masked the fruit.

Pig en croûte cooked in hay. (Photo: C. Brown)

Well, I told you I'd get back to Hortus. In this case it's the 2010 Grande Cuveé: It had been bottled a month earlier but was already a stunner: fresh, focused with jewel-cut fruit. For the record, the 2007, tasted the previous night, was equally delicious.
2010 Chateau Lascours "Nobilis": another entry-level winner, this unoaked blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, was a pure gourmandise.

The mood in Pic St. Loup was as animated as the mood in the film.
Click on the link under the photo but don't forget to come back!

Pelardon, local goat cheese (photo: C. Brown)

Fourth Installment:
Tasty little disks of local goat cheese. Just perfect with 2011 Chateau d'Euzière "Grain de Lune", a vinous, lightly perfumed white blend of roussanne, rolle and grenache blanc.
Somone said that the young vigneron of Domaine Sigalière was a rebel. So, of course I had to taste the wine he presented, the 2009 Ammonites, a dark, extracty, beautifully scented red, chiefly syrah with some grenache and carignan. Got to Slow Taste this one.

Dessert (photo: C. Brown)

We ate a lot of tasty things over the course of the day but this was my favorite: brioche slices laden with strawberries and myrtilles and accompanied by ice cream flavored with local verbena.
Now, I didn't find my ideal wine pairing for this dish so, as promised in a different post, I'll now give my tasting notes on two wines we drank at the Auberge du Cedre.
2009 Ermitage de Pic St. Loup "St Agnès" blanc, a focused, grippy white, lightly perlant, with ripe fruit flavors, great freshness and lovely structure.
2006 Mas Foulaquier "Gran' Tonillières" , a fragrant, mellow red based on old carignan and grenache vines, with alluring flavors of cherries, red figs and baking spices.

Guilhem Viau, the dynamic and generous head of local growers syndicat and the master of ceremonies. Un grand merci.

counter for myspace

May 28, 2012: I've been going through old food magazines, ripping out the recipes I want and then throwing out the rest. (A significant move for a pack rat.) I found the following recipe for Amish Chicken in the December 1999 issue of Gourmet.
Adapted from Carol's Calico Kitchen, the recipe comes from a self-published Amish cookbook. I did some adapting of my own.
You should know that this is absolute comfort food. It's not elegant but it's mighty tasty. And real easy to make.
Here's the recipe, with my adaptations (among other things, I halved the recipe):
1 C all-purpose flour
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 tsp white pepper
1/2 TBSP salt
1 tsp paprika
1/6 C finely chopped fresh parsley
1 Chicken, quartered
3/4 C heavy cream
3/4 C water

Preheat oven to 350. Stir together flour, white pepper, salt, and paprika in a large bowl. Pat the chicken pieces dry. Dredge them in flour, knocking off excess. Arrange, skin side up, in a roasting pan. Stir together the cream, the water, the garlic and the parsley and pour over chicken.
Bake the chicken in the middle of the oven for 1 1/2 hours or until the skin is golden and crispy. (Note: the recipe did not call for basting. But I am an obsessive baster, so from time to time, I spooned the liquid over the pieces of chicken.)
With it I drank a 2006 St. Nicolas de Bourgueil "Les Rouilleres" from Frederic Mabileau. If I can figure out how to use the photo function of my very basic cell phone, I'll take a picture and post it with tasting notes.

GARDENING DAY (aka May 1, 2012)
After what seemed like an eternity of rainy days, the sun shone in a clear blue sky on Gardening Day. And it was warm enough to have aperitifs outdoors! (The next day it started raining again.)
About those aperitifs: they were Guy Bossard's mousseux made from a blend of gros plant, melon, chardonnay and a direct press of cabernet franc, and Francois Pinon's Vouvray brut.
Francois had also brought a Mason jar of rillettes. In the old days, the Pinon family made their own rillettes. Now, they buy an entire pig and bring in the local charcutier to cook it to their specifications. Take it from me, these were fabulous rillettes. You don't find them this good anymore unless the person serving them has had access to an entire pig and has supervised the preparation. Rillettes are supposed to be fatty but the fat should have been cooked down to a delicious nonexistence. In most store bought rillettes these days, the fat is too much of a presence and seems simply like a stretcher, a way to make more from less.
As is his wont, Guy had arrived with two bushels of oysters, the sweetest I've ever eaten. And we made a tour through Guy's 2011s, starting with his Gros Plant du Pays Nantais, and continuing through his Muscadets, from Gneiss, to Orthogneiss to Granite.
Francois' quince-and-pear scented Vouvray sec "Trois Argiles" accompanied Annette's reheated (and better on the second day) salmon and leek quiche.
The main course was poulet a l'Angevine which I made using a recipe from Anne Willan's excellent cookbook, Regional French Cooking. (I was going to serve potato gnocchi with this but, after seeing how much food we had already eaten and how much there was still to come, decided to put the salad on the table with the chicken.)
Figuring a red was wanted -- though a white would have done very nicely -- I decided to go hors Loire with two vins de pays d'Oc, the 2005 Mas Champart and a 2004 Grange de Quatre Sous.
To the immense cheese tray of the previous night, I added a Marie Harel raw milk Camembert and we drank Francois' Vouvray Moelleux Premiere Trie .
For dessert, I had been planning to make Maida Heatter's East 62nd Street Lemon Cake for the millionth time but got waylaid by a gorgeous looking panettone at Leclerc. The store was doing an Italian promotion and had these beauties -- by a company called Loison Pasticceri dal 1938 and I could not resist. Alongside, there was a huge bowl of local strawberries, sliced and slightly crushed (to make some juice).
With this we drank Francois' 1996 Vouvray petillant, demi-sec. I had pleaded with Francois to bring this and believe I have drunk the major part of the production. I cannot tell you how fabulous this wine is with non-chocolate desserts, as an apertif or with a multitude of dishes.
And then there was coffee and cookies and my Mostly Mirabelle.

We didn't get everything done in the garden. (I still need to replace the lawnmower broken by last year's teen-aged 'helper'.) But we got a lot done and had a great time doing it. Kind of makes life worth living.

May 9, 2012 With Annette and Pascal on the Eve of Gardening Day: Time for RED wine.
The liquids:
2005 Sancerre rouge "Cuvee Prestige, Lucien Crochet: Fluid, alluring, all about charm.
1995 Brunello di Montalcino, Banfi: This was a new experience of Pascal and Annette. Initially, Pascal thought the wine too old. I said, no, I thought it was only at an intermediary stage --somewhat hard and ungiving -- and had yet to blossom and the wine did open up nicely in the glass but could have gone further if we hadn't finished the bottle. That the wine had held up so well reassured me about storing some of my wines in the house. I do keep the house cool for the wines but it's not quite as ideal as storing the wines in my cave en roc.

The Solids
Yet more charcuterie. We'd made a pit stop at the local Leclerc -- now the centerpiece of a mall outside of Chinon -- because all the small shops in the area are closed on Mondays. We still had charcuterie from the previous night but Annette was determined to by the rosette aux pistaches from the prepared food counter and along with it some Speck and jambon de Paris.
Next course, cepe ravioli tossed with butter and parmesan. Then cheese and salad and for dessert Daim's ice cream. This is based on the crunchy chocolate and caramel candy called Daim's and, much as Oreos, has proven to be a popular addition to ice cream. (Check out MacDonalds.) Annette has a passion for Daim's and, as I have a passion for ice cream, she had an eager partner. Verdict: I'm glad I tried it but, calorie for calorie, there are much better ice creams.

Before posting the second installation of meals relating to Gardening Day, I offer one of the photos Pascal took on a recent trip to India.

Not only is the photo amazing (IMHO) but, when Pascal sends such snaps to friends, he usually attaches them to long, long narratives of the events in question. They are brilliant and often hilarious.
In Friends & Their Stories , a rubric mostly in hiatus, I have posted a narrative Pascal sent from a trip to Laos. It's in French and Google would not be able to translate it. But, if you can read French, it's well worth the effort.

Consider this an amuse-gueule.

May 4, 2012: Gardening Day:
Completing this post may take awhile. I work on it when I'm not tasting, taking notes, putting said notes onto MacBook, calling producers -- all in the interests of forging ahead with Earthly Delights Volume II. So it's stolen time. But it shall be done.
You may remember Gardening Day. It's when I invite a bunch of friends over to get my garden into shape. I make a big meal and it's all like an old-fashioned harvest. (Scroll down to April 2009 to read about a previous Gardening Day. I'd provide a link if I could master HMTL codes.)
Gardening Day regulars include some of my favorite vignerons and their wives -- Guy and Annie Bossard, Francois and Odile Pinon, Abel and Dominique (nee Nau) Osorio -- as well as good pals from Bordeaux, Annette (who works for Chateau Fourcas Hosten) and Pascal Faucounneau, talented photographer and a distressingly gifted natural writer.
As has happened in previous years, Annette and Pascal arrived before the actual day. FWIW, I'll give a somewhat annotated list of what the three of us ate and drank.
A couple of generalities: I'd stocked up on organic bread from a good baker in Richelieu who sells his wares throughout Touraine, several kg of good cheese, as well as a new raw milk butter I found at Leclerc.
This provender was augmented by the carload of supplies brought by Annette and Pascal which included charcuterie, bread, and a veritable mountain of good cheeses -- including some completely new to me. (In fact, the only one of my cheeses we opened was the Marie Harel raw milk Camembert.) And just about every meal ended with my very own eau de vie, "Mostly Mirabelle" -- "Admirabelle" is the name one appreciative tippler gave it -- coffee and biscotti.

Annette and Pascal (sorry for the angle)

Meals and Wines with Pascal and Annette: Night One:
The Liquids:
2005 Sancerre d'Antan: Pascal said it recalled Champagne -- without the bubbles. This lead me to talk about soils -- the Kimmeridgian soils of both the Sancerrois and the Aube, though this particular Sancerre came from Silex soils and most of Champagne country is on chalky soils. Oh, well.
2006 Vouvray "Les Fondraux" from the Champalous: I described this as a sec-tendre. Pascal and Annette had never heard that term. This, of course, lead to a discussion of the many styles of Vouvray and the many levels of sweetness.
2007 Quincy Domaine de Tremblay: We had finished the Sancerre and decided that the sec-tendre, lovely as it was, didn't really go well with the bellota, so I grabbed this bottle from the fridge (where it had been chilling for several months after not having been served at a previous dinner party). 2007: we had finished the Jadis and decided that the sec tendre was not the best choice for the iberico so grabbed bottle from fridge where it had been chilling for several months after not having been served at a previous dinner party. Perfect.
2007 Touraine blanc liquoreux from J-C Pelletier, a very good Chinon producer. This wine was too sweet to qualify as Chinon blanc so it was demoted to Touraine AOC. Big deal. It was stellar, slipping down the gullet like liquid silk.
1989 and 2003 Coteaux du Layon- St. Lambert, "Cuvee Prestige" from Vincent Ogereau. Both were shimmering, deep, magnificent -- and were the remains of bottles opened earlier that week.
My Mostly Mirabelle

The Solids
Assortment of nibblies, eg radis roses, tiny piquillo peppers stuffed with fresh cheese, Dippa chips (which I normally deny myself), cherry tomatoes (see below) etc.
Wild boar pate made by my neighbor, retired boucher-charcutier and erstwhile hunter, 80+ year old Guy Foucault. So good you don't want to hear about it.
Charcuterie brought by Pascal and Annette, including the Bellota, smoked magret de canard, jambon de Bayonne and more.
Salmon and leek quiche made by Annette. (Very good, enormous, and better the second and third day.)
Salad and cheese, including an 18 month old Comte, a vieille Gouda, a bunch of cheeses I'd never met before but want to meet again, particularly the round cheese that looked like a Couloummier but was held in place by a wood band, much like a Vacherin which it resembled in taste. It, as well as the other cheeses served that night, had been purchased by Annette from an excellent cheesemonger in the Medoc. I aim to find out more about those that were new to me.
My attempt at a variation on the theme of tiramisu with fresh strawberries. It's the very beginning of strawberry season. So early I normally would have waited before succumbing. But these were locavore -- they came from the next village (as did the cherry tomatoes). The tiramisu was ok but I'm not sure I'd try it again. Very much an improvisation. I brushed the lady fingers with homemade ratafia. Not bad but better on paper.

March 18, 2011: Another year, another St. Pat's in Saint Patrice, chez Abel and Dominique. (A work in progress.)

Parsley and Salad from the garden, sitting by the front door, awaiting their turn

St. Pat's 2011 found me too inundated with visitors from the USA and Italy to do more than take the train down to Touraine in the morning and return to Paris at night. Odile and Francois Pinon, who were driving to St. Patrice from Vernou (next to Vouvray), picked me up at St. Pierre des Corps. When we arrived at the Osorio-Nau's, the windows had been flung open, Dominique was whipping up a thick mayonnaise and Abel was rushing out the door to greet us. As we entered, we were careful not to trip over the parsley and the salad from the family garden.

More stuff from the garden, under the kitchen window

More produce from the Osorio-Nau garden, including carrots and cabbage, and all the garnishes for the many dishes. Also, a couple of daffodils.
Take a look at those thick green leaves. Cooked down, these would provide a delicious bed for one of my favorite edibles in the world -- a chicken sausage apparently unique to Portugal. Abel's brother had sent them for us -- along with a variety of cheeses. I tried taking pictures of these sausages but...

Francois Pinon

Francois tasting and pouring his 2008 Vouvray Petillant. Super. All sparkling Vouvrays should be Petillant. He later served the 2009 which had just been bottled the day before. Then we tasted all his 2010 still Vouvrays.

Desalted cod

Here's the desalted cod, just waiting to be cooked. Abel has a new, authentically Portuguese cod recipe every year. I think this one comes from a restaurant in Oporto but I'm still awaiting more precise info from the chef.

The Cod Dish

The cod dish, fresh from the oven. One of these days I will succeed in getting the name and the recipe from Abel and I will post them here.
The mayo was layered on top of the mass before the dish was put in the oven.
What I can say is that it was the most delicious cod dish I have ever eaten. I hope Abel makes it every year but he says he's still got an encyclopedia's worth of cod recipes to work through.

Francois and Abel

After the Vouvrays, we taste through all Abel's cuvees of Bourgueil. Based on the wines from these two properties, 2010 should be one helluva vintage.
You can see Dominique in the background, probably still drizzling oil into the mayonnaise.

Part of the Cheese Selection

Yum. Yes, there was Port to accompany this. Also a '97 Coteaux du Layon, badly oxidized but still delicious.
I tried taking pictures of the bottles, the glasses, the decanters but the sun was not cooperating.

A Tray of Pasteis de Nata

Pasteis de Nata are small, Portuguese tarts that are so delicious you could vacuum an entire tray of them down your gullet before explaining that the pastry is brik-thin and the filling is an ever-so-slightly lemon-tinged cream.
Although neither has ever said as much, I am sure Abel (Portuguese) persuaded Dominique (French) to master the fine art of Pasteis de Nata baking before they were married.
These delectables always end our St. Pat's meal. Sometimes I find that Dominique has slipped one or two in my coat pocket. They are always welcome but they never last long.

September 5, 2010: La Rentree and My Sad Tomato Story:
Yes, it's that time again. Back to Paris tomorrow. At least for the month of September. Deciding which notebooks and winemaker documents to bring and how much I can carry and whether I should take fruit from the garden before it rots.
Anyway, last Sunday lunch outside in the courtyard: the first ripe tomato from my garden (to be explained). Just sliced. No salt, no pepper, no vinaigrette, no mayo. Just the tomato. With 2005 Pouilly Fume Chateau de Tracy.
Then veal marengo. Full disclosure: it came from a traiteur in Chinon. With the 2008 Melusine, a new cuvee, a blend of cab and pinot noir, barrel-aged, from Xavier Coirier/Fief Vendeen-Pissotte.
Then perfectly ripe, farmhouse St. Nectaire, garden plums (the last mirabelles and Ste. Catherines) and a drop-dead 2007 Chaume from Pierre-Bise.
Ok. About that tomato. I got around to my garden late. Also, I try to follow the lunar calendar when planting or sowing. This didn't matter for the salads -- mesclun and arugula -- which came up very quickly. I had bought my tomato plants and was waiting for the right time in the lunar cycle but it rained on every single one of those days up until the end of June. So I put my poor tomatoes in the ground at the end of June.
Now you see all these articles about eating the last of summer's tomatoes and here I am eating my first!
I'm going to Paris tomorrow and have asked my neighbor to water my salads and my tomatoes and to pick my tomatoes when they're ripe and keep them in a cool place for me. My peaches and half of my pears aren't yet ripe. I've told him to pick them when they're ready and eat them. (They don't last more than a day or two.) I'm hoping my apples will hold out until I get back in October.

August 11, 2010: Sometimes the small irritations of life get in the way of blogging about the small pleasures of life. A wasp sting (I'm allergic), losing internet connection for 3 or 4 days and fallen tree in my courtyard as a result of a sudden fierce storm, kept me from posting a couple of pictures of my sometime neighbors, Fabienne and Angus, on the site.

Fabienne, in foreground, and various birthday guests

Here we are in beautiful downtown Usse. On my street. Fabienne's garden is next to mine (which starts beyond the bushes behind her).
Fabienne is French and was born near Rigny-Usse. Then she married Angus, a Scot. They live in Scotland but bought a little house on our street as a vacation home.
Fabienne speaks perfect English -- with a pronounced Scottish accent. No French accent discernible.

Angus, playing Scotland the Brave on the bagpipes with the Chateau d'Usse au (Belle au Bois Dormante) in the background

It was an all Scottish party: bagpipes, haggis on the BBQ, potato scones, gammon, sausage patties, black pudding, Scottish beer and, for the kids, Scottish soda that tasted like bubble gum.
One French touch: a sparkling Touraine-Noble-Joue rose with the cake. Good choice.

April 5, 2010: Mike and Mac Make it Legal after Ten Years:The Wedding, in a municipal office in western Massachussets

Why is this in French Feast? Because I just had dinner with Mike and Mac -- now in Paris. Mike is a great home cook. Made coq au vin. I brought wine: a 2006 Vouvray "Les Argiles" from Francois Chidaine and the sample of 2009 Langoa-Barton.
The Vouvray, off-dry but very balanced by minerality, went well with the pate; the Langoa-Barton, no surprise, was beautiful with the coq au vin. What was a surprise was how very drinkable the 2009 was. And that's what a lot of us who attended the primeurs in Bordeaux experienced.
Right now I'm finishing what remains of the sample of 2009 Leoville-Barton. Sumptuous. They always give "tradition" a good name.

March 23, 2010: Reflections on "Vintage."
I’m preparing to go to Bordeaux at the end of the week for the annual en primeur extravaganza. You probably already know that 2009 is being touted as a great vintage, perhaps as great as 2005 for the reds and downright prodigious for the Sauternes and Barsacs.
I’m going for work, for an article assignment. Essentially I disagree with the whole en primeur procedure which basically consists of judging and buying wines in their infancy, particularly those heroic reds which have just begun their aging in barrel and won’t be on the market for another two years when their flavor, their texture may, for many reasons, have evolved in ways not entirely predictable.
Make no mistake: these are hard wines to taste. Demanding even when they are ready for sale, red Bordeaux are rough-sledding at this stage of their development. Plus, you’re tasting hundreds of raw, spunky, tannic, complex, opaque versions a day. Not only judging them but, if you’re in the business of selling them or communicating about them, presumably forming some kind of opinion on each wine you taste – and passing that judgment on to people who look to you for advice.
And that’s if you’re living in a bubble. Most tasters come to the event with some preconceptions and are influenced not only by the people with whom they taste but by memories of previous vintages. Take 2001. It had the misfortune of following the epic 2000. With the exception of the exceptional Sauternes and Barsacs, the wines were widely deemed, well, anti-climactic.
Guess what? Those 2001s have evolved quite nicely, thank you. Maybe they’re not monuments; maybe, in vinous terms, they’re not the triumph that, say Hamlet, is in literature. Maybe they’re the organoleptic equivalent of, say, Middlemarch. Not bad.
Beyond that, as time goes on I put less and less stock in vintages. Excluding the catastrophic – eg frost or hail wiping out an entire crop – most good winemakers make good wine in most years, whether the weather is fair to middling or sublime. True, there are differences from vintage to vintage. But what’s that the French say? Vive la difference?
Think about it: Increasingly we decry standardized wines. Yet if we’re serious about this, why not rejoice in the differences created by differences in growing seasons? Sure, maybe some years produce wines with structures that demand cellaring and others that cry out to be consumed immediately. Where’s the problem? In the first case, you’ll cellar that age-worthy wine and bring it out ceremoniously for your yet-unborn daughter’s marriage; in the second, you’ll keep the bottles close to hand to enjoy when good friends come for dinner – taking care to carafe those young reds at least an hour beforehand.
And often there are very pleasant surprises which reveal themselves as the wine ages. I’m thinking Loire right now and I’m thinking 2007. What a disaster, we all thought, except for the sweet whites from Anjou. As the years pass, as I taste hundreds of 2007s for the update of the Loire book, I have an increasing admiration for the dry whites from 2007 – across the long Loire Valley, from Muscadet to Pouilly. And what I most admire is the quality of the acidity. That’s something I don’t think I ever paid much attention to in the past. But 2007 has brought home a wine truth: not all acidities are created equal. The white grapes were harvested at phenolic maturity. The acids are very, very fine. And perhaps the relative leanness of the wines makes the exquisite nature of the acidity more apparent. And this increases my thirst for those disparaged 2007s.
Work demands I stop 'blogging' now but I will have more, much more, to say about "Vintage". In the meantime, think about the quality of acidity the next time you drink a 2007 Montlouis or Sancerre.

March 17, 2010: TERROIR: Smile When You Say That!

Last week a FB friend recommended a wine column on Huff Po. I read it and went ballistic. It was late in the evening when I read the post, however, and I was not in the mood -- after a half bottle of very good Quincy and a couple of shots of single malt -- to write a long comment. I posted a short one. Next day, still apoplectic, I posted a longer comment. This prompted a comment by a fan of the article's author, a response I found as ill-informed as the original article. I posted another comment.

I was pleased to receive a lot of supportive responses, notably from Tyler Colman who reprinted parts of my post on his excellent site,, and by Michael Steinberger of Slate who tweeted his appreciation. I'll let you decide.

I don't know what the protocol is about reprinting Huff Po's posts. To be clear, I'm posting the relevant part of David Downie's article, which was published on March 9, 2010, followed by my first two posts, the post written by Downie's fan, and my answer to that post.

The Huff Po Blog Post:
David Downie

Paris-based writer
Posted: March 9, 2010 10:37 AM

Burgundy: Of Pinot Noir and Terroir

When is a Pinot Noir not a Pinot Noir?

When it is grown in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France and marketed under a variety of tantalizing labels to unsuspecting consumers in the US -- at least in one ongoing case of fraud.

On February 17, 2010 a group of about a dozen French co-op and independent winemakers in the Aude and Hérault départements of Languedoc-Roussillon were found guilty by a French court of making and exporting some 18 million bottles of faux Pinot Noir from 2006 to 2008. Much of it was sold in the US under the Red Bicyclette label, owned by E&J Gallo.

(cuts for length, relevance and maybe legality. Back to article.)

What the case appears to suggest is that even some experts can no longer identify the variety of grape used to make certain wines. It clearly proves that many American "connoisseurs," not to mention average wine drinkers, enjoyed and sometimes lavishly praised the unsung Vin de Pays d'Oc, which is what the faux Pinot Noir turned out to be.

Inky, oaky, soft, redolent of cinnamon and spice, highly alcoholic and made using multiple cheap grape varieties raised in of wine, often unkindly termed plonk, gives a new spin to the concept of French terroir.

It raises a second inconvenient question: When is terroir not terroir?

The answer: Much of the time.

Terroir is a slippery subject, a concept hard to define and easy to abuse. What it means when not adulterated by copywriters is a food or wine embodying trueness to type, respectful of traditions, and made only in a particular locale with which it is intimately associated. By this definition an authentic terroir wine is the time-tested product of the soil and the seasons and the winemaker's art.

The tale of Languedoc-Roussillon's faux Pinot Noir would be comical if it weren't typical of the kind of worldwide trends in wine denounced in the landmark film, Mondovino, which includes a segment on Boisset. The case shows how many consumers happily accept what is predictable, standardized, easy to quaff, and relatively cheap, especially if the product is gussied up with packaging, and described enticingly.

"Terroir Délicieux" is how Red Bicyclette is presented on The site claims that the term terroir, in French, "links the taste of wine with the place where the grapes are grown."

If so, Thompson Seedless (Sultana) grapes grown in southern France would qualify as components of French terroir wine. Prolific, the variety makes millions of gallons of America's cheap, sweet, bulk blending wines.

Modesto terroir? Maybe. But not French terroir.

Unsurprisingly Thompson Seedless is not a traditional variety of Languedoc-Roussillon. Neither is Pinot Noir, a grape that could never produce an authentic terroir wine in this torrid, Mediterranean landscape. A discerning palate might wonder what the fradulent Pinot Noir had to do with the traditional winemaking techniques associated with the variety, or the peculiarities of the region's soil, or the climate, and by what rights it could represent French terroir, other than the fact that it was grown in France.

Another cut for reasons of length. Back to story.

Though the fraud went on for several years, no one seems to have noticed, and no one in America complained, including Gallo. The scam was exposed by a perspicacious French customs officer. He noticed that the region could not possibly produce the quantities of Pinot Noir needed to fill 18 million bottles of wine.

The civil action against the winemakers was filed by the radical French farmer's union Fédération Paysanne, whose longtime leader, José Bové, has crusaded against everything from genetically modified crops to the opening of a McDonald's franchise in Millau. The Fédération was awarded a symbolic 1 euro.

(Cut for length. Back to story.)

The Languedoc-Roussillon Pinot Noir fraud is a landmark case precisely because it points to trends more troubling than the neo-Barbarian passion for misleadingly labeled plonk. It illustrates the danger of discrediting authentic terroir wherever it may be. Terroir is all about smallness of scale and uniqueness of product. Terroir is most often the result of mom 'n' pop passion. It is slow, sustainable, and sometimes unprofitable. Terroir is the natural enemy of big money. When it becomes the stock in trade of big money, alarm bells should ring.

Those who prefer snazzy labels and zingy blends over boring old peasant products will be glad to know that the masters of corporate marketing are busily transforming Europe into a theme park of gastronomy and oenology. Will they succeed? Maybe, maybe not. Increasingly they are meeting resistence from curmudgeonly food and wine lovers, and critics, many of them from the New World. On the ground, people like José Bové and the Fédération Paysanne continue to raise hell. Had the Fédération not filed a complaint, the Pinot Noir scandal would have disappeared in deafening silence.
(Last graph cut for length.)

My First Post:

I've spent all day writing about French wine in my little house in a French wine region and, after having tasted some 20 terroir-driven wines and taken copious notes on them, have been relaxing with some single malt Scotch. So I can't be as loquacious as I'd like to be. Let me just say that this article is so wrong & or misguided in so many ways that I'd need at least 2000 words to explain why.

posted Mar 09, 2010 at 15:47:56

My Second Post:

Just to respond to three points, some of which have already been mentioned.
1) As a previous post-er said, rightly, Pinot Noir is a grape. It is not an appellation. Plant Pinot Noir anywhere – in Canarsie, in Wasilla, in Helsinki – if it bears fruit, that fruit is Pinot Noir.

2) That thing we call Terroir: The language that you cite comes from INAO texts, the decrets by which appellations are defined. The words “tradition” and “typicity” have done more to subvert the quality of French wine than a Gallo-Boisset partnership could accomplish in the wildest of their dreams. IMHO terroir applies to that which is immutable: the soils, the subsoils, the elevation, the exposition, the opening of the countryside, the microclimate. While finding the right grape variety for a specific place is important, it is not the most important factor: terroir is.

3) As long as we encourage the production of great, terroir-specific wines, there is nothing wrong in allowing a parallel universe of beverage wines. II was not born with a tastevin in my mouth. I started out with Mateus and company. We all start somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with reliably pleasant, affordable wines – so long as they don’t endanger “real wines.” In fact, they probably introduce people to wine in a non-threatening way and may lead a large percentage of those people to drink better and more authentic, site-specific wines.

posted Mar 10, 2010 at 10:18:34
Burgundy: Of Pinot Noir and Terroir

Post by Downie fan,
Ken Payton
Being genetically unstable, Pinot Noir may be a grape but it has hundreds of clones fruiting worldwide. But why Burgundy matters, why the region's best bottlings remain the organoleptic baseline... more >>
Being genetically unstable, Pinot Noir may be a grape but it has hundreds of clones fruiting worldwide. But why Burgundy matters, why the region's best bottlings remain the organoleptic baseline for connoisseurs, is what is interesting.

The INAO says a great many things. Its texts are historically varied, and today hotly contested quasi-political documents. Words such as 'tradition' and 'typicity' are concepts renegotiated through time.

From my reading, Mr. Downie did not intend to offer a formal definition of terroir. His point was that the concept of terroir is dumbed down, discredited and rendered irrelevant by industrial winemaking, by their exploitation, through marketing, critical apologias, and cheating, of the simple agricultural fact that Pinot Noir may indeed be grown in Wasilla.

Terroir is not immutable. And it is easily defeated. The dynamics of monoculture, human-engineered biodiversity, irrigation regimes, petrochemical and organic inputs, climate change and generational differences in the winery, all contribute to make of terroir, its elaboration, an on-going process.

I see little evidence that people acclimated to drinking 'reliably pleasant, affordable wines' move on to 'more authentic wines. The reason for this has much to do with marketing today's palate as the only one that matters, that history is bunk. The beverage wine industry has, after all, sprawled unchecked into every corner of the world.

My Final Post:

Geez, I really don't want to spend my life responding to the misconceptions about viticulture, winemaking, grape varieties and French law that flow like a tsunami here -- and besides, I'm limited by word count. Just one or two or three things:

1) Pinot Noir is an authorized grape for VdP d’Oc. Deal with it.

2) Typicity/Tradition: I've written a lot about these hobgoblins -- in my books and in articles. Let me just refer you to a story I wrote years ago for the WSJ, French Vintners Want Liberte on my website, under article archives.

3) Immutable: first of all, there are regulations severely limiting or entirely prohibiting irrigation. Everywhere in France efforts are being made to restore vitality of soils depleted by monoculture with various forms of organic farming, biodiversity, planting wildflowers in plots alongside vineyards, and other advice coming from soil consultants like Claude and Lydia Bourgignon. Climate change, indeed, would affect terroir – in my definition of terroir – but other factors – exposition, altitude, volcanic versus sedimentary subsoils and bedrock – are not so easily manipulated.

If David Downie, Ken Payton or The Huffington Post object to my use of their text, they should contact me. The offending text will be removed.

January 10, 2010: An auspicious date -- 01/01/10. I'm recovering from my various holiday illnesses which, surprise, did not include hang-overs. First I was felled by a head cold but slept whenever I wasn't partying and managed to get by. Then went to Muscadet country to ring in the New Year. Everyone in the Bossard household had had a stomach flu. I promptly got one. If you can believe it, I drank no wine -- zilch, zero -- for a week! And even the though of white truffles that Guy had brought back from Alba when he went to lecture Italian winemakers on biodynamics couldn't tempt me to eat anything but bread, potato and leek soup and more bread. Herewith, some annotated pictures.

Some of the raw materials for Xmas meals

You'd never guess, but I'm no food stylist. So be it!
The cod was shipped from Portugal by Abel's mother and brother.
The potatoes and carrots came from Abel, Dominique and Marie-Francois's garden.
The cabbage did, too, but it's Portuguese cabbage, planted in Touraine by Abel.

On Xmas eve, Abel had all of us mince cloves of garlic directly on to our dinner plates. I don't think anyone, except maybe his wife Dominique, minced to Abel's satisfaction. He did not stint on the criticism. Then we poured Portuguese olive oil on the minced garlic so that it made a kind of emulsion.
We drank an Alvarinho -- photo to come -- with the dish.

On Xmas day, Abel minced a truckload of garlic, diced the remaining cod and vegetables, liberally doused all in olive oil and cooked it all up. This, apparently, is traditional. It was one of about 10 courses. I never even got to the ginger men or the sweet meats.

Part of the Liquid line-up

I think the Alvarinho's here but I can't really see. There is, however, an excellent Moscatel de Setubal. As gifts -- ie not to be drunk during the festivities -- I brought Dominique and Abel a bottle of Baumard's Vin de Pays made from the Verdelho grape and a bottle of my very own eau de . I made a label for it, calling it "Mostly Mirabelle" -- which it is -- and "eau de vie d'Usse" which it also is.

Oysters on a sunny Xmas day

Dominique's sister and her family made the trip from near Paimpol in Brittany -- bearing oysters and scallops. Here is one platter of the oysters.
I was supposed to have spent the night at Abel and Dominique's cottage in nearby St. Patrice (location of the Abel's yearly Portuguese feast on the name date of St. Patrice) but insisted on driving back to Usse so I could select some prime bottles of Muscadet to go with the oysters. I chose Jo Landron's 2007 Fief de Breil and Guy Bossard's 2006 Expression de Granite. I also brought along a 2005 Layon Cuvee Le Paon from Baumard -- which I think earned me an invitation for life.

Abel, hiding his light under a flower pot
1985 Ramos Pinto Porto

October 31, 2009 Very End of Season, Going Back to Paris Soup:

I've basically been living in the country since Easter. Monday I go back to Paris for at least the month of November. This means figuring out which wine regions I'm going to write about so I can be sure to have all my tasting and interview notes, all the producer documents, as-yet unpaid bills, which clothes I really ought to bring, laundry, and, not the least, to close up the house and put the garden in some kind of order.
My neighbor, Jean, has offered to come over to stir up the fermenting muck that will one day be gorgeous eau de vie so I want clean whatever bare areas are exposed and not covered by stacks of wine cartons. And I need to do something with the remains of this year's harvest.
Don't get me wrong. I love having a garden. When I let myself garden without feeling guilty about the work I'm not getting done, it's so de-stressing. And it's so satisfying to "grow your own." And it's really a godsend to be able to go into the garden and cut some baby mesclun salad and arugula for dinner, some parsley and chives for seasonings. Everything here is organic -- partly by conviction and partly by laziness/​incompetence. And this year of 2009 was a year of plenty -- a plethora of peaches, an ocean of apples, a pandemic of prunes. The prunes, at least, went into the future eau de vie and so did some of the apples.
Now I've spent days "putting things by." Two types of peach jam, peach ratafia, apple sauce (to freeze), zuccini and onion confit (to freeze) and so on. I'm left with salads -- which I'll try to bring to Paris -- and crates of apples, two bags of peaches that I'd put in the fridge, and chili peppers that I planted thinking they would be bell peppers. I ended up harvesting four, long, beautiful red peppers. I froze three because I just didn't have time to do anything else with them and thought it would be nice to be able to use them in dishes in the dead of winter. (Hmmm, no one ever says the 'dead of summer.') But I had cut into one and needed to use that up. I had also stored up on expensive limes because of recipes I planned to make but never got around to cooking. A couple of scraggly zucchini asking to be composted or cooked. And the apples. I had hoped bring some to Paris and keep the rest in a cool place so I could eat them when I came down to the country. But these apples -- so full of flavor -- turn quickly, developing ugly brown spots that spread through the outside and inside of the fruit.
So this morning I attacked the first chore: the soup. As it happens, my stomach has been a bit queasy and I've been wanting only soup for the last couple of days. So I figured I'd put a lot of these things together and try to make a tasty soup out of it. It's going to sound weird but it is, indeed, tasty:

2 nice onions, chopped
3 or 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
3/​4 long, mild chili pepper, seeded and chopped
2 medium zucchini, chopped
2 large apples, peeled, cored and chopped
sunflower oil or some other neutral cooking oil
fresh thyme
bouillon cube

Put the onions, the garlic, and the chili pepper in a heavy casserole with 4 TB butter and a similar amount of oil. Cook over medium heat until tender but not browned.
Add the zucchini and the apple and the thyme. Cook, stirring, until these, too, are soft.
Add three cups of water and a bouillon cube. Bring to a simmer, stirring. Partially cover and let simmer for 15 minutes.
Pulverize or mash in any way that works for you. I only have a Robot Marie that I got as part of a mixed auction lot. So I ladled most of the solids into a bowl and 'liquidized' them with it, then returned them to the casserole and stirred.
I thought I might buy a little creme fraiche to serve with but it's flavorful enough all by itself.

Later I'll attack those peaches and see if I can bear making yet another load of apple sauce.

Guy and Renee Foucault

Oct. 29, 2009: A Dinner Tweet
Last evening, after a hard day's writing, I was brooding about what to have for dinner while watching Rachel Maddow on the internet machine when a knock comes at the door.
It's my neighbor Jean (whose picture you can see on the WineTastingNotes page). He had brought me a gift from Guy Foucault -- a boudin blanc and a boudin noir. Guy used to be the village butcher before his retirement. But he and Renee still make Tourangeau charcuterie for themselves and for friends. And I have become a lucky beneficiary.
So, in a flash, I knew what I was having for dinner: the boudin blanc and sauteed apple slices, paired with an achingly regal 2006 Jasnieres "Caligramme" from Eric Nicolas. (Tasting notes will be posted later on the appropriate page).
I generally find boudin blanc too bland and too processed. This was delectable, one of the two best I've eaten.(The other came from Rivesaltes and I tasted it at a Slow Food event.) It was meaty and gently but perfectly seasoned. Great with the lightly caramelized apples -- which are from my garden. (My entire house smells of apples right now. It was a big harvest.) And the wine was perfect.
The picture of Guy and Renee was taken while we were sitting down for lunch after a boozy, two-hour aperitif with the aperitif regulars. We are all showing the effects of having tasted a dozen wines.

October 13, 2009: A recipe to help recovery from a weekend of excess aka good use for an overgrown zucchini:
I will fill in the brutal details of the weekend of excess (cf WineTastingNotes). First, however, before it slips off my radar screen, the following recipe adapted from one I found online:

* 1 overgrown zucchini (about the size of an airplane neck rest) or one that stayed on the vine a week too long, chopped
* 1 cup chopped onion
* 2 garlic cloves, chopped
* 1/4 cup olive oil
* 3 cups water, divided
• 1 bouillon cube
• crème fraiche to add to soup when serving


Cook onion and garlic in oil in a large, heavy casserole over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add chopped zucchini and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Add 3 cups water and bouillon cuve and simmer, partially covered, until tender, about 15 minutes. Purée soup.
Season soup with salt and pepper. Serve with a good dollop of crème fraiche in each bowl.

September 16, 2009: A Trip to Vendome to Celebrate Pineau d'Aunis, a Great, Misunderstood Grape

Clusters of Pineau d'Aunis Grapes

Pineau d'Aunis is the signature grape of the Vendomois and, along with Chenin blanc, of the Coteaux du Loir immediately to the east. Chenin also has a privileged status in Vendome, though I think that the wines Chenin makes here are never as distinctive as the roses (gris) or reds based on Pineau d'Aunis.
One of my favorite "Quiet Reds", (See May 19, 2009 post in WineTastingNotes), these are exotic light reds with flavors of white, black and cayenne pepper. You can serve them with almost anything.
Regrettably, the appellation's laws dictate blending Pineau d'Aunis with pinot noir, gamay and cabernet for the reds. Some producers make a small amount of pure Pineau d'Aunis rouge. IMHO, thisis the way to go.

Smoked haddock being barbecued

It's a chilly morning in mid-September. We're at the crest of a Pineau d'Aunis vineyard watching ravenously while kippers and boudin noir are grilling over the hot coals.

The remains of our morning snack

Call me a cheap date but this is just about my favorite kind of food.The kippers were glorious; the boudin noir,from a local butcher, was equally superb. Many bottles of Pineau d'Aunis gris and rouge were consumed.
We later had lunch in Dominique Norguet's troglo cave (see below). It was prepared by a local caterer and not nearly as delicious as our hearty casse-croute.

Dominique Norguet, one of the appellation's best vintners

The Vendome region is riddled with troglodyte caves. These serve as houses and wine cellars. We're having lunch in Dominique Norguet's vast and byzantine cellar. Dominique is pouring his seductive 2006 Cuvee Benjamin: pure Pineau d'Aunis.

August 19, 2009: A Heavy PortugueseFeast on a Hot August Day in Touraine

Abel and Mama

Abel Osorio, a FrenchFeast regular, and his mother. She and Abel's brother, Alberto, had just arrived from Oporto. And Mama had cooked up a pure Portuguese meal.
We're in Abel & Dominique's country house -- near the vineyard -- in St. Patrice. (This is the spot where Abel & Dominique throw a yearly St. Patrick's day party -- a Portuguese meal on the name day of the saint and the village. There's always a brocante in the village on that day too. (I bought a very nice soupiere there one year.)

Mise en Place

Dominique, Abel's wife and another FrenchFeast regular, and Mama. The table is set. The bowls, covered with plates, are filled with "migas" preparation -- cod and thinly sliced rye bread and greens. Hot broth will be ladled into each.

Alberto ladling broth into a prepared bowl.
Mama doing the service.

Abel, Alberto and Mama claim that this dish was traditionally served to grape harvesters. They thought at lunch but we wondered how anyone could work after eating a meal this heavy. Maybe a harvest dinner, or a feast to celebrate the end of harvest? The last idea was nixed because migas is a poor person's dish, not a celebratory one.

A Bowl of Migas

It was heavy but it was very delicious. Real soul food. And it made me think of bread soups in other cultures. In fact, Chinon vignerons used to serve harvesters a wine-spiked bread soup. I think it was also sweet. It may also have been served cold. I have to refer back to my 1993 notes.
Speaking of wine: I brought 5 whites, 4 of them dry. The wine that went perfectly with the Migas was the 2006 Quartz from Claude Courtois/Caillous du Paradis. It was a sauvignon blanc and in most cases would have been a Touraine AOC sauvignon. But Claude, a legend-in-his-own-time iconoclast, sells it as a vin de table.

An Iconic Portuguese Cheese
Serving the Cheese -- Like a Vacherin Mont D'Or

Though I'd have preferred a riper cheese, this was, nevertheless, to die. The sweet chenin blanc I'd brought -- a 2006 Coteaux de Loir "l'Effraie" from Eric Nicolas/ Domaine de Belliviere -- went spectacularly well with it.

A Bottle of Port Salvaged from Abel's flooded wine cellar.
A Traditional Dessert

This dessert's name translates as Angel's Hair. It looks like the classic French dessert oeufs au lait but it's not just an eggy custard. This is cooked with vermicelli.

One For The Road


Last night I harvested, cooked and ate the third head of first the batch of broccoli I ever planted. It had never occurred to me to cultivate broccoli until friends I consider to be the ultimate Parisians told me they had planted broccoli in their garden near Limoges.
I love broccoli. It’s not cheap. And I thought I was at least as good a gardener as these Ur-Parisians. What’s more, the region I live in is commonly called “The Garden of France.”
The first thing I learned is that broccoli, when bought from a greenhouse, comes in 12 plant barquette. Oh well. I imagined I’d be swamped with broccoli, all coming in at the same time. Broccoli eau de vie? Jam? I later learned that from that 12 plant barquette, you’re lucky, if you’re me, to get 6 good heads.
First, I should have planted them earlier. I waited until the little plot that would be their home had been tilled and the compost spread. Two plants died before that day arrived. Another died as I was putting it into the earth where the good lord intended for it to be. Then there were the vagaries of weather not to mention the mysteries of electricians’ agendas. It was hot, hot, hot. My soil is of the light, alluvial variety. When loosened, it flies about like dust or sand; when compact, it’s like thrice-baked cement.
I think the baby broccolis were expecting cooler weather.
What’s more, my well wasn’t working. This is not unusual. It ceases to function on a regular basis. This is more problematic than you might think because my the house-visits of my plumber-electrician -- or even getting him on any of his phone numbers – is as irregular as my plumbing problems are predictable.
Here in France we pay for our water. Dearly. So we are very thrifty when it comes to things that call for turning on the tap. But I had no choice. I had seeds of arugula and parsley and cilantro and dill to water as well as my vegetables. So, 11 litre watering can in hand, I shuttled back and forth between my kitchen sink and my potager. This solution was fine for my seedlings but not for any plant with serious thirst like zucchini or the broccolis.
Two plants seem resolutely stunted. And then there are one or two heads sprinkled with tan flecks that make me think, “ricing.” I don’t know what “ricing” means but I get the impression it’s something a gardener does not want to have happen to her broccoli. Nor could I find adequate explanations in my various gardening books or on Google – though on the latter I did find enough broccoli and rice recipes to fill the OED.
When one of the flecked heads got large enough to look market-sized, I cut it off its stem, blanched it and then swirled it around in a pan filled with a lot of sweet butter. No complaints. (Yes, it’s more delicate than store bought.) I did the same with head # 2 but I finished this one in the oven with a covering of butter and grated cheese.
Then, hallelujah! the electrician’s assistant got the pump and well working again. I was able to give all my salads, aromatics and vegetables a good soaking. Last night I picked myself a fine head of broccoli.

A pathetically stunted head of broccoli.
Despite the symptoms of drought, a pretty good head of broccoli. Probably to be eaten this weekend.

Cooking the broccoli:
I decided to try a counter-intuitive-seeming recipe I’d read long ago in “Eat Right, Eat Well – The Italian Way” by Ed Giobbi, a professional artist who used to be something of a muse for Craig Claiborne, called Giobbi the finest Italian home cook he knew. Giobbi was also a lovely man. I got to know him a little bit back in the ‘80s.
The recipe calls for heating the oil, garlic and red pepper – I used pure olive oil which is what Giobbi would have done if he hadn’t been writing a ‘health’-oriented cook book which induced him to compromise with a percentage of safflower oil – and then adding the raw (cut up) broccoli and the pasta, a cup of water. Stir well and cover. Keep stirring, and, if necessary, add more water.

Trust me. This is a very simple recipe, provided you stir very well before covering and then keep on stirring.
Last night, however, I had some unanticipated ‘issues’.
First, the recipe calls for spaghettini or linguine broken into 2 inch lengths. My pantry is always stocked as if for a fall-out shelter. The atmosphere in my house when I was growing up was “post scarcity” so cabinets were always full. Mine continue to be. This mentality has provoked untold hours of obsessing since the advent of expiration dates. What do these dates mean when they’re stamped on products I’d always considered immortal? Olives, for example, or Sun Maid raisins, canned beans and peppers, jam, and, yes, pasta. Do these products actually deteriorate or do the expiration dates serve as a defense to potential litigation?

It should come as no surprise that my pasta shelf was overflowing. Even though my house is so humid I have to buy cookies that are packaged singly for children’s lunch boxes, I’d never had a problem with pasta. When I took out a half-full package of DeCecco spaghetti, the strands were covered with an ominous looking mold. Packet #2: same mold. OK. Orrechietti? Fusilli? Penne? Ah! Farfalle. That might work though I’d have to adopt cooking time.

Then came the question of cooking recipient. I admit I’m challenged and habitually have to use my hands to figure out left from right. And I had imagined that the recipe could be made in my nicely capacious cast iron skillet. I did have doubts but didn’t listen to them. I even persisted when the broccoli started to top up the pan and this was before I had added the farfalle. But, undaunted by reality, I poured a half pound of bow tie pasta over the rest of the ingredients. Needless to say, the pieces spilled over the stove, some of them scattering across the kitchen floor.
Faced with near culinary catastrophe I pulled out a Le Creuset casserole, one I usually use for recipes like coq au vin, and I dumped the contents of the skillet into it, all the while trying to make sure that some of the oil got to the bottom of the casserole, as the pasta, having been the “Last In” would, by the laws of gravity (not to mention certain business contracts), be the “First Out.” Which brings me back to stirring.
Stirring is the most difficult thing about this otherwise very easy recipe. This keeps the pasta from sticking. Since I’d gotten off to a very bad start, I knew I needed to compensate. But it worked! With only a film of pasta stuck to the bottom of the casserole.

And it was incredibly delicious. Ideally I’d have paired it with a Loire sauvignon blanc. Maybe not as high falutin’ as a Sancerre but a good Touraine or Touraine-Amboise. But I happened to have the rest of a 2000 Coteaux du Loir Pineau d’Aunis from artist-vigneron Eric Nicolas. Pineau d’Aunis is one of my quiet reds. This one, rather older than any you’d find on the market, turned out to be swell with the broccoli/pasta dish. Pineau d’Aunis is, characteristically peppery (black pepper, not green bell peppers) and this one was no exception. With age, it had developed autumn leaf flavors as well as fleeting notes of rose petals. Lovely, though the garlic did tend to wipe out the rose petals.

So I sat down with this feast and turned on Tele 1 for CSI: Miami, the English and not the dubbed-in-French version, and prayed that my pump would not go on the fritz. Leftovers tonight.

The fireplace being readied for the BBQ.

July 19, : Hangover cured, a couple of notes on the BBQ with the neighbors:
The grillade (BBQ) was being held in the Teiller's garage. There are so many beautiful places in the village that I thought it was somewhat sad to hold festivities in a garage. Then I learned that the garage used to be the shop of the village smithy. This fireplace was built to meet the needs of shoe-ing horses. If you look next to the pile of logs you may just be able to make out a rectangular hole cut into the stone. That was where the smithy put hot tools that needed to cool down.
A long table had been set diagonally across the garage. We would be at least 17, a fair percentage of a village whose inhabitants number 506. (It seems the golden days were in the mid 1800s when the population was over 1200.)

The core group.

Jean Teiller, my neighbor, is the slender man more or less in the center, facing the man in the pale green shirt. That man is Jacky. He is holding a bottle of moonshine (grappa) from 1955, still aging in an acacia barrel. He used to make Gamay which he sold to a local negociant. He still makes a little wine for home consumption. His wife, Rejane, made delectable fruit tarts for dessert. I want the recipes. The man to Jean's left is Guy Foucault, the former butcher. I took several better pictures of Guy as well as of his wife, Renee, but they somehow got lost on my cell phone.
I want them to adopt me. Renee made a scrumptious fish terrine. I normally don't like fish terrines because they usually have too much gelatin. I don't think she used gelatin at all. So I want that recipe, particularly since I have so many vegetarian friends. Guy said, "You'll come to the house and have it."
The man to Guy's right, only partly visible, is Jacques.
Once we started drinking I stopped taking pictures.
The menu (all homemade): quiche Lorraine; terrine; fish terrine; grilled sausages, merguez and pork cutlets; salad with walnut oil dressing; cheese; fruit tarts.
The wines (tasting notes to come): Cremant de Loire x 2 (one was a rose), Chateau du Petit Thouars; an overoaked Menetou-Salon; a Pouilly-Fume from Didier Pabiot; Cheverny blanc from Domaine du Petit Chambord; 2 Vouvrays (Domaine des Aumones and another); Touraine sauvignon, Chateau de Vallagon; 3 different cuvees of Chinon from Domaine de la Roche Honneur; 3 different cuvees of Chinon from Patrick Lambert;Chinon "Les Peuilles" from Olga Raffault; Bourgueil "Nuit d'Ivresse" from Catherine & Pierre Breton; Coteaux de l'Aubance from Domaine de la Haute Perche and a Coteaux du Layon from a domaine that is new to me.
After the meal the men spread out a square cloth made of green felt and covered with designs like a board game. The deck of cards came out and hands were dealt. I think they were playing belote but I knew it was time for me to wend my way home which, fortunately, given my state if ivresse and the darkness of the night, was just around the corner.

July 15, 2009:I’m finally getting back to my may 24 post with significant updates.
Let me start by explaining my reference to Sundays in the Vendée, a French department on the Atlantic coast, south of Nantes.
Way back in 1989 when I was researching the first edition of the Loire book, I’d often spend Sundays in the village of Mouchamps in the heart of the Vendée. My friend Jean-François Dubreuil grew up there. His mother, Simone, still lived there and, since he and his wife Martine went spent every weekend with her, they’d invite me down for Sunday lunch (my favorite French meal).
Before lunch Jean-François and I would make the rounds of the wine cellars, drinking a local aperitif called troussepinette, homemade wines made from French-American hybrids like Plantet, Chambourcin and Baco Noir. These tastings went on for hours and were (and are) among my happiest memories. (You can read more about them in my Loire book in the essay called “Wines of Memory and Sentiment.”)
So when the impromptu Sunday aperitif took place back in May, it reminded me of those happy Sundays in Mouchamps. I wanted them to continue and so did all the participants.(I should add that these events motivate me to taste more wine as I don't like these good bottles to go to waste.)
Because of various scheduling conflicts the next aperitif event didn’t happen until the first weekend of July. My neighbor, and the titular host, Jean had set the scene with an adequate number of garden parasols to protect us from the relentless – but blessed – sun. My friend, Mary McKinley, had come for the weekend for a belated celebration of each of our birthdays and the local group had grown significantly, including all of the previous participants – minus Guy Foucault who was in the hospital for a hip replacement – and adding Jean’s brother (I think) Pierre, his wife, Odile to whom I am greatly indebted: when I moved to the village years ago I wanted to buy a cave, a wine cellar carved into the tuffeau walls of a hillside, and she linked me up with some former residents who were living in the Paris area and wanted to sell.) There was also Jacky, who used to make gamay which he sold to a Chinonais negociant, and Marylene, the aunt of Jean’s wife, 90 years old and still bicycling around the village, Jean-Louis, Jean’s brother-in-law and his longtime significant other (aka femme) Jacqueline. Altogether, we were more than 12.
By the following Sunday the group had grown to more than 15. Guy was home from the hospital and brought his wife, Renée. Isabelle, one of Pierre and Odile’s daughters, was visiting from Lyon. There were others whose names I still don’t know, including someone whose nephew is married to one of my favorite Coteaux de l’Aubance producers. (Or to one of his brothers.)
I’m going to post tasting notes on some of the wines – in that section of the site – but will give you an idea of the line-up:

-- Four Muscadets from Bruno Cormerais
-- Two Quincys from two different producers
-- A Sancerre rose and a bunch of white Sancerres
-- A Pouilly-sur-Loire and a bunch of Pouilly-Fumés
-- Sweet and dry Touraine chenins and sauvignon blancs
-- Vouvrays
-- A sweet Chinon

At some point, well into the tasting, Jean announced that our new tradition could not take place the following Sunday as a pilgrimage to the villages old church (11th and 12th centuries with 14th and 15th century frescoes) was scheduled to take place. At my instigation -- I suggested that Sunday morning was not the only time we could meet -- a groundswell of protest arose and, as a result, we’re having a grillade – a French BBQ -- on Friday night. In the meantime, I’m selecting and beginning to taste the wines for Friday night while snacking on apricots, oozing with juice, from Guy Foucault’s trees.

Below I've posted some images of Rigny-Usse. Tasting notes to follow.

19th century engraving of the Chateau d'Usse (from Wikipedia Commons)

This 1856 engraving gives an accurate idea of the view I have of the Chateau d'Usse when I walk to the end of my garden. Charles Perrault used the chateau as his inspiration for Sleeping Beauty. The rue Principale now runs in front of the chateau, where the people are gathered in the engraving.

The Indre River in Rigny-Usse. (from Wikipedia Commons/Antonov14)

This picture truly represents the stretch of the Indre River that runs through Rigny-Usse. My garden ends at a tow path that borders the river. It is always a pleasure to walk along the banks, past woods, fields and well-tended vegetable gardens. I'm looking for some other free pictures.

June 27, 2009
A busy day gardening, tasting wine and cooking for my birthday. It has been hot, hot, hot. And humid. Heat lightening and thunder the other night but no rain. My soil is compacted dust. So I hoed all the vegetable, herb and rose quadrants this morning and will water tonight. I’m stupidly obsessing about my zucchini plant which seems stunted. It produces new leaves and flowers but the leaves turn yellow and don’t grow and the flowers fall off. I try to be philosophical: so you won’t have garden zucchini this year. But I doubt I’m alone in experiencing this kind of thing – albeit on a very minor level – as a personal failure. (Of course, I couldn’t have put in two zucchini plants but then both would have flourished and I would have been prisoner to my zucchini crop the rest of the summer.)
Happily my “aromatics” are doing fine. And their presence has inspired the birthday menu(es).
Tonight, the eve of b’day, I intend to indulge in decadent pleasures, the kinds of things a card carrying foodie shouldn’t admit. I have prepared two types of daiquiris – both with fresh lime juice and pulp, both with brown sugar, one with white rum (51 proof) and the other with amber rum (45 proof). Two jars. Both in the fridge. I’ll put them in the freezer for a bit before drinking.
I love cocktails. My default cocktail is Campari (poured from a jar of Campari I keep in the freezer) and diet Schweppes tonic – with or without fresh orange or lemon. This is light and always refreshing. But birthdays call for a treat, thus the Daiquiri – which is not only a good hot weather cocktail but will also go well with my first course: guacamole.
My cilantro crop inspired the guacamole. It’s also one of my favorite foods. Del Paso tortilla chips on the side. (Really, I should be embarrassed.)
For the first time in France I have a successful crop of dill. In my old home I couldn’t grow dill because there was wild anise growing all over the place. For some reason, that discourages the growth of dill. No such problem here. So I decided to make a salad of shrimp, mayo, dill and chives (also from the garden).
I confess I bought frozen shrimp. But I have a reason. When I first moved to the French countryside I was surprised to learn how difficult it was to get fresh shrimp. So I just didn’t eat shrimp in the countryside.
Then I discovered Picard, a chain of upscale frozen foods. Don’t believe your French friends who say they never eat frozen food. Everyone, at some point or other, has shopped at Picard. In the countryside, they deliver. (Check out their website to see the offerings: So I bought 500 grams of large shrimp that had been fished off the coast of French Guyana. A minute and a half in simmering water, left to cool, shelled and then mixed with mayo, chives and dill. Mmmmmm.
Confession: store bought mayo. I used to make my own. Frankly, making mayo from scratch is somewhat more laborious but no more complicated than making vinaigrette. But a couple of companies – Maille, in this case – produce excellent mayo that’s kept in the refrigerated milk sections of grocery stores. Once I discovered this, I thought, why bother?
Dessert will be mara des bois, the most flavorful variety of strawberry. I’ve washed them, cut the large ones in half, squished a soft one to get some juice, added some brown sugar and a good squeeze of lemon and, later, I’ll season some good crème fraiche and top the berries with that. (I may break down and have some Champagne with this, a nice 1er Cru from Larmandier-Bernier is already chilling.)
Then tomorrow I prepare for guests. Deliberately low key this year. I thought I was going on a press trip to Italy next week so decided against doing anything major. Then, around about Wednesday, it dawned on me that although my name had been submitted, I had not been invited. No problem. But that meant I could invite some pals for my birthday but I still didn’t want to do anything major. (By major I mean one day – at least – shopping; one day – at least – cooking; the day itself, being cook, bartender, sommelier, waitress; and the day after, washing dishes.)
One of my guests – Annette – is vegetarian. That tends to skew the menu. Annette also eschews white wine. That tends to skew the wine selection.
So, given the heat and given the food limitations, I’ve decided to make a buffet of some of my favorite salads: jaziki – a heavy on the cucumber tzakiki with diced red onion, red pepper, garlic, mint and yogurt; chick pea salad with more diced red onion and red pepper, chopped garden parsley and a highly seasoned vinaigrette; my version of the old Jefferson Market pasta a broccoli salad. For this, I adapt a broccoli salad recipe from Alfredo – remember him? – Viazzi’s cookbook which calls for anchovies, olive oil, vinegar, and garlic. To start, I think we’ll have nice olives and I’ve made a sardine spread adapted from a recipe in Penelope Casa’s book Tapas.
Wines: Still many Loire wines to taste before I sleep so we’ll drink Loire. I’m thinking two – a white and a rose - from Langlois-Chateau. (Annette, like many who shun white wine, will drink white if it sparkles. Go know.) I’ve prepared four red Chinons, two from Olga Raffault and two from Pascal Lambert. But I think the foods I’m preparing call for whites or roses. So even if Annette won’t drink them, other people might. (I surely will.) So there’s a Sancerre rose from Daniel Chotard, a white Sancerre from Domique Roger and a 2002 Muscadet from Bruno Cormerais. Annette’s husband, Robert (he of the spectacular seafood pizza) is making a peach pie. While I don’t normally like “dessert” wines with dessert, I think an excellent Layon should go well with this and have one chilling at this very moment.
Reports on the wines, etc will follow.

June 17,19,22 2009 : I just returned to Touraine after having spent a long weekend with my friends, Mike and Mac, in Eymoutiers, in the Limousin.
I'm preparing a post on the religious parade, Les Ostensions, that took place while I was there and will post that when it's done. I'll also annotate this list of our sumptuous meals but would like to add, right away, that Mike and Mac get their meat from a butcher shop in a neighboring village, Chateauneuf-le Chateau. Run by two brothers who raise their own beef (Limousins, natch) and lamb, and who truly love their metier, it's some of the best meat I've ever eaten.

Friday night: food: charcuterie followed by epaule d'agneau with mogettes (white beans specific to the Vendee), fresh fruit. Wines: Chardonnay Vin de Pays du Lot from Ch. Belmont (hint: not just another Chardonnay); rich Roussillon red, Les Carerades from Mas Amiel.
Saturday night: charcuterie; farmhouse chicken roasted on a bed of carrots, garlic and onion, garden salad, seasonal fruit. Wines: 2001 Chassagne-Montrachet, Domaine Guy Amiot & fils; 2005 Gigondas, Domaine Brusset.
Sunday night dinner party, following the procession: lots of charcuterie; tomato salad and my standby Tuscan white bean and tuna salad, boeuf bourgignon with boiled potatoes, cheese platter -- with particularly good St. Nectaire, Salers, and honest-to-god Camembert, followed by flognard, crepe-clafouti-like dessert typical of region. Wines: people brought some ho-hum bottles. I brought out a 2005 Medoc from Jean Faure (Olivier Decelle bis), and a 2000 Listrac from Fourcas Hosten. Just perfect for this type of meal. (I could only manage to carry six bottles in my suit case, particularly as I had six transfers from my house to Eymoutiers.)

Mike, wearing his "laicite" tag, in a cafe in Eymoutiers.

General history of Les Ostensions :

Unique in France, the Ostensions religious ceremonies existing for more than 1000 years and particular to the Limoges diocese. Originally celebrated occasionally for particular events or circumstances, in 1518 a seven-year calendar was established. Interrupted in 1547 due to the plague and in 1799, all the religious objects in gold, silver and copper listed in the churches were offered to the Convention in November 1793. They were taken back in 1806 after official recognition of relics devoutly saved by private individuals.

The relics of Limousin saints are exhibited in the churches to be worshipped by the faithful. Processions, with both a religious and historical meaning, solemnly carry reliquaries that are often very old works of art along the decorated roads of the Ostension towns.

The first Ostension took place 12 November 994 while the terrible "St Anthony’s Fire " epidemic raged. During a council that took place in Limoges, those participating; Guillaume le Grand, Duc d’Aquitaine, the Bishop Hilduin, Abbot Geoffroy, the Aquitaine Bishops and Abbots with their relics and their lords and the remains of Saint Martial, first bishop of Limoges, were "lifted up" then transported onto a hill overlooking the town in the middle of a large gathering of people and the epidemic ceased. The hill was given the name of Mont-de-la Joie (Mons Gaudii - Hill of Joy), Montjauvy and is known today as Montjovis.

On this occasion God’s Reprieve was proclaimed and several years later, the Limousin clergy hit out against the Lords’ curse that did not respect this Peace of God towards the weak and the poor.


Ostension paraders.

The collegiate church houses relics from St Psalmet, a hermit who took refuge in the 6th century in Grigeas Forest. The last Ostensions called "Ostensions of peace" took place in 1939. Ostensions are celebrated the patron saint’s, St Psalmet, feast day. 3 PM — mass and procession.

Relic on display in the Ostension parade in Eymoutiers.

Not every inhabitant of the Limousin was in favor the Ostensions, however. Far from it. It seems that the Limousin is a hot bed of free-thinking and its free-thinkers or libre-penseurs believe in a strict separation of church and state. Public funding for the Ostension parades was deemed to be a breach of the fundamental principles of the Republic.
At the center of this was the little town of Eymoutier -- the sole "diocese" to have voted against funding the Ostension festivities.

I've lived in France for 20 years and have never seen this kind of public face-off between church and state. And I've taken the liberty of posting a petition I found on the internet, calling for people to take a stand against the use of public funding for essentially religious purposes. (It's in French. I assume anyone who has read this far speaks enough French to get the gist of the petition. But if anyone wants me to translate, I will.)(NB: italics and bolding have been added by me.)

Espace associatif Charles Sylvestre
association des libre-penseurs de la Haute-Vienne pour la défense de la laïcité

A l'attention de : Conseil régional, Conseil général de la Haute-Vienne et communes ostensionnaires

Alerte aux laïques de Haute Vienne

Madame, Monsieur, Citoyenne, Citoyen,

L’église catholique organise en ce premier semestre de l’année 2009 ses 71ème Ostensions qui seront célébrées dans 15 communes de la Haute Vienne, deux de la Charente limousine, une de la Creuse et une de la Vienne.

Le numéro du Sillon « spécial Ostensions 2009 », publication de l’église catholique éditée à 40 000 exemplaires pour la Haute Vienne et la Creuse nous informe si besoin était en page 2 et 3 des origines et des buts de ces manifestations septennales :

« Les Ostensions limousines sont des manifestations religieuses millénaires particulières au diocèse de Limoges. Le mot « ostensions » signifie « montrer », « donner à voir », « présenter ». Du latin « ostendere », action de montrer, exposition de reliques en langue liturgique.

C’est une sortie des reliques des saints et de leurs reliquaires et de leurs châsses au cours d’une célébration chrétienne ou de plusieurs (reconnaissance, eucharistie, procession) pour les montrer, les lever, et les donner à la vénération du peuple rassemblé.

Les reliques des saints limousins sont exposées dans les églises à la vénération des fidèles mais aussi dans les rues pavoisées et sur les places des communes dites « ostensionnaires » au cours de processions religieuses, parfois accompagnées de cortèges historiques. » Le Sillon page 2

Sous le titre « Les Ostensions, vivons-les avec bonheur et avec foi » nous pouvons lire en page 3 dans ce numéro du Sillon :

« En fidélité à nos racines humaines, spirituelles et chrétiennes, les Ostensions nous conduisent :

- à la source de la foi et à l’acceptation de la sainteté de Dieu en nous,
- à l’œuvre de paix, de justice, de solidarité de Dieu dans le monde,
- aux sacrements de la vie chrétienne, Parole de Pain pour notre vie.

Comme en témoignent les phases qui précèdent, depuis 1000 ans, les Ostensions ont été et demeurent des manifestations religieuses, organisées par l’Église catholique. Libre bien sûr à ce culte d’organiser de telles manifestations, mais encore faut-il que cela se fasse dans le respect des lois de la République, dont certaines ont institué la séparation des églises et de l’Etat.

En ce sens, nous laïques soussignés, estimons que les collectivités publiques que sont le Conseil Général de Haute Vienne, le Conseil Régional du Limousin, les conseils municipaux des villes ostensionnaires, en votant l’attribution de subventions publiques pour l’organisation des Ostensions violent les lois de la République et particulièrement la loi laïque du 9 décembre 1905 (le Conseil général a voté une subvention de 26 300 €, le Conseil régional de 42 000 €, la municipalité de Saint Junien de 20 000 €, celle de Rochechouart de 10 000 €, celle d’Aixe sur Vienne de 3 000 €, celle de St Léonard de 9000 € etc….)

La loi laïque de 1905 dans son article 1er, proclame que la liberté de conscience et de culte, le droit d’adhérer à une conviction, d’en changer ou de n’adhérer à aucune sont garantis par le fondement laïque de l’Etat. Dans son article 2, elle décide que « l’Etat ne reconnaît, ne salarie et ne subventionne aucun culte ». L’Etat s’interdit donc toute aide publique à un culte quel qu’il soit, la sphère publique où s’exerce la citoyenneté doit être désormais nettement séparée de la sphère privée où s’exercent les libertés individuelles (de pensée, de conscience, de conviction). La laïcité traite à égalité croyants et non croyants, athées, agnostiques, chrétiens, juifs, musulmans en reléguant leurs convictions dans la sphère privée.

Nous soussignés, citoyens laïques, affirmons qu’attribuer plusieurs centaines de milliers d’euros d’argent public, celui de tous les citoyens, qu’ils soient croyants à différents cultes ou non croyants, relève d’une atteinte flagrante aux lois laïques de 1905, à la laïcité des institutions de la République.

Nous n’acceptons pas que des centaines de milliers d’euros d’argent public soient attribués pour soutenir des processions avec prières, cantiques et exhibitions publiques de reliques, pour des pratiques essentiellement cultuelles à l'heure où le Vatican cause un scandale hebdomadaire par ses prises de positions qui, si l’on en croient les médias, heurtent aussi nombre de croyants.

Nous n’acceptons pas que des centaines de milliers d’euros d’argent public soient versés pour des manifestations religieuses et donc privées alors que dans le même temps de nombreuses associations publiques ou parapubliques qui travaillent dans le domaine social, culturel, de l’économie solidaire, de l’environnement… subissent des amputations de leurs budgets ou des refus d’aides alors qu’elle défendent des projets d’intérêt public et général. Et à ces aides publiques votées par les collectivités pour les ostensions, s’ajoutent les prêts de locaux, de matériel de toutes sortes et – plus grave encore– de main-d’œuvre, avec l’affectation de fonctionnaires publics territoriaux à la préparation de ces manifestations religieuses.

Nous estimons ces subventions publiques aux Ostensions illégales au regard de la loi. La jurisprudence abonde de multiples arrêts d'annulation de subventions publiques qui ont déjà été rendus par les tribunaux administratifs dans des cas semblables, dès lors que les manifestations financées avaient un caractère essentiellement religieux. A notre connaissance, une seule collectivité à ce jour-la ville d’Eymoutiers- a renoncé, à l’unanimité du conseil municipal, de voter la subvention demandée par le comité organisateur des Ostensions.

Nous soussignés décidons d’alerter les citoyennes et citoyens de Haute Vienne, de les appeler à se joindre à un collectif en cours de constitution, pour dénoncer ces atteintes à la laïcité et pour demander – si nécessaire en justice - l’annulation de ces financements publics.

Ce collectif n’entend bien évidemment pas s’opposer à l’organisation des manifestations religieuses que sont les Ostensions et qui peuvent être importantes pour les croyants. Mais il rappelle qu’en Limousin, tous ne croient pas et que, ici comme ailleurs dans notre République, l’argent du citoyen-contribuable doit être utilisé exclusivement dans l’intérêt général et non pour des intérêts particuliers et privés.

Pour faire un lien vers cette pétition, cliquez-ici

Signer la pétition

Example of lay protest against Les Ostensions: a facsimile of the male sex organ fashioned out of bone (I believe) with some ironic text concerning St. Psalmet.
Musicians in the Ostensions procession in Eymoutiers. My tax money not having funded the event, I could enjoy the parade as much as the little old ladies in their Sunday best.
Another picture of musicians in the Ostensions parade in Eymoutiers.
Last picture of musicians in Ostensions procession in Eymoutiers.
Relics of St. Martial on display in the Ostensions procession in Eymoutier.
Mac and Mike spied buying slab bacon after the procession part of Les Ostensions in Eymoutier.

Mike had forgotten to buy the bacon at the butcher shop in Chateauneuf. (Sorry about the reflection from the shop window. An even more pronounced reflection off the window of the local bookstore prevented me from photographing a very fine Ostension protest: the bookshop owner, Guy, had put on display all his anti-religious books. Many of the relics were gold globes. Guy put in the window a gold globe holding a Groucho nose and mustache -- fine relic, that -- with the notation, je suis un Marxiste, tendance Groucho .)
Someone had made badges saying laicite -- one such badge now adorns the lid of my MacBook -- and one of Mike's friends had written an elaborate tract describing this history of a saint who had lost one of his testicles. Said testicle was later found in the belly of a trout. Stapled to bottom right hand corner of each copy of the tract was a plastic aperitif sausage.

May 24, 2009 (continued from home page):
At 11:30, by which time the speeches from the Mayor of Tours and the préfet of the Indre & Loire were to have given their speeches and the first glass of vin d’honneur drunk, the room was filled with FOC (friends of Charles)– fellow artists from Paris and fellow winemakers from the Loire like Philippe & Claude Alliet, Noël Pinguet, Pierre & Colette Couly, Eduard Pisani (Chateau de Targé) and Guy Bossard, my chauffeur, who had also brought his eldest daughter Bérengère. There were various Chinon-area merchants, too, like Ricotier, who’d sold me my first Renault and who plays French horn with an oompah band that is always featured at the dinners of the Les Entonneurs Rabelaisians, Chinon’s wine confrérie.
But the dignitaries were nowhere to be found. And the wine glasses stood like gleaming soldiers lined up on the long linen tablecloth.
The bigwigs were probably roaming the Bouldevard Heurteloup, Tours’ main drag, which was lined with fair tents for VitiLoire. Vignerons from throughout the many wine regions of the Loire – but mostly from Touraine – were pouring their wines for eager tasters among whom were surely our tardy hosts.
Now, the Tourangeaux are, by nature, slow to action and perpetually late – a habit with an habitual excuse of being only “le petit quart d’heure de Rabelais.” But a Tourangeau has a prodigious appetite and doesn’t like to wait for a meal. And so it was that the grand hall of the Hotel de Ville gradually emptied as the time for lunch approached.
We were among the last to leave. Charles had recommended a restaurant/café/bar diagonally across from the Hotel de Ville as having a surprisingly good price/quality ratio. Whatever. The Bossards, me and the Alliets were too hungry to split hairs. I won’t name the restaurant. Suffice it to say that the meal was at the extreme end of mediocre. The very short wine list, however, did have a nice 2007 Chinon from Bernard Baudry. We were happy enough campers.

I had sworn to myself that I’d spend Sunday writing and gardening. The sky was a dense grey when I got up, not promising for working in the broccoli patch. A perfect excuse for a former New Yorker to read the Sunday Times online, listen to NPR (also online) and drink coffee. Then the sun came out – with vengeful force, like a blast from on high. And it was hot, without the merest whisper of a breeze to freshen the air.
At about 11:30 I put six bottles of (mostly full) wine that I’d finished tasting in a carrier and, as I usually do on Sundays, brought the wines round to my neighbors, the Teillets.
Jean Teillet and a couple of other menfolk from the village were sitting around a concrete table in front of the Teillet’s garage, drinking the last of a good bottle of Muscadet I’d delivered the week before. Raising their glasses, they all thanked me and beckoned me to come “toast” with them. I did.

The quality of the wine was discussed, as was the general improvement of Loire wines, of all French wines. Sancerre was discussed, Reuilly, Menetou-Salon, and Quincy, too. (Modesty restrains me from describing more fully the conversation as mostly it consisted of me playing teacher and answering questions.) Someone mentioned that our local châtelain, the resident owner of one of the most famous castles in the Loire, was planting a vineyard. This subject was duly explored and evaluated. Then one of the men asked me if I’d ever tasted an Oberlin. Well, yes, I had.
Oberlin, one of many hybrid grape varieties, was created by a hybridizer after the phylloxera louse ate through the French vineyard. By crossing American plants, which were resistant to phylloxera, with the more sensitive European vinifera vines, the vineyards were saved. Vinifera varieties were now grafted onto resistant hybrid rootstocks.
While the experimenting and replanting were taking place, wine was made from hybrid grapes which were called producteurs directs. The French spent a long time trying to rid its vignoble of these ignoble vines but patches of them still exist. And this particular neighbor was able to get 5 bottles a year of Oberlin from a producer in the Loir & Cher. Only five bottles. There was very little supply and a lot of demand.
He went to get it. It was deep purple and smelled of crushed raspberries and blackberries. And it was sweet. Short but sweet. I don’t think it was fortified but I would like to know how the fermentation was stopped. The men loved it. Jean went to fetch his wife, Françoise; M. Foucault went after his wife, Renée. And I went in search of two more bottles of moelleux that I'd previously tasted and loved, a fully botrytised late-harvest Touraine and a Vouvray.
The morning was beginning to remind me of blissful Sunday mornings in Mouchamps in the Vendee. ( more to come -- tomorrow, I hope).

Roses climbing through tamarisk tree.

Confession: it's much, much easier typing my Loire notes into my MacBook when I'm sitting in the garden, birdsong and the fragrance of flowers all around.

Not the world's greatest shot but I've tried to capture the wisteria growing in my wild cherry tree.If you look closely you can just about make out the purple flowers.

I'm very excited to see teeny mirabelles and embryonic plums and pears on my fruit trees. Last year there was a spring frost and it rained during the pollination period. Zero fruit. In 2009 There Will Be Fruit.

Guy and Annie Bossard

APRIL 2009
Part 2 follows Part 1.

Part 1:
Gardening Day Completing this post may take awhile. I work on it when I'm not tasting, taking notes, putting said notes onto MacBook, calling producers -- all in the interests of finishing Loire2. So it's stolen time. But it will be done.
You may remember Gardening Day. It's when I invite a bunch of friends over to get my garden into shape. I make a big meal and it's all like an old-fashioned harvest.
Gardening Day regulars include some of my favorite vignerons and their wives -- Guy and Annie Bossard, Abel and Dominique (nee Nau) Osorio -- as well as good pals from Bordeaux, Annette (who works for Chateau Fourcas Hosten) and Pascal Foucaunneau, talented photographer whose works I hope, someday, to post here.

The Menus:

Eve of Gardening Day:
Solids (aside from packaged snacks): Saucisson à l’ail, Paté de Paques, selection of cheeses, Maida Heatter’s Java Cake.
Gardening Day:
Solids:new carrots and baby radishes, cod croquettes, home-smoked salmon, chicken with rosemary, white wine and garlic, accompanied by bowtie pasta tossed with butter, chopped chives and parmesan, cress and Batavia salad, selection of cheeses, Maida Heatter’s Java Cake (the recipe makes one large loaf cake and one small one.)
Liquids: Dry Whites: 2004 Muscadet de Sevre & Maine sur lie “Gorgeois” Christophe & Brigitte Boucher, 2006 Pouilly Fume “Les Cris” Alain Cailbourdin, Guy Bossard’s 2008 tank samples; Sweet whites: 2004 Quarts de Chaume, Domaine des Baumard; Mystery Wine (Layon)*. Reds: 2006 Sancerre Rouge “En Grands Champs,” Alphonse Mellot, 2008 tank and barrel samples from Domaine Nau, Bourgueil, 2005 Chinon “Les Picasses,” Chateau de Coulaine.Magnum of Champagne Ayala NV.
Spirits: Rum, eau de vie de la propriete.

Part 2

In my years as an aspiring actress I kept body and soul together in the time-honored way, by working as a waitress . I worked in many restaurants – Max’s Kansas City, The St. Adrian Company, etc – but most of all in an Israeli restaurant on the corner of Bleecker and Barrow called Keneret.
It was here that I developed an undying love for falafel, hummus, baba ganouj, tahina , and so forth. (Though I killed my love for baklava by volunteering to cut the huge slabs into diamond shapes, I ate so much of the crumbly bits that I overdosed. That’s beside the point.) Anyway, we waitresses ‘plated’ all the appetizers, which, in the case of hummus and company, meant spreading the dip in great swirls and drizzling them with olive oil and, if memory serves, with paprika.
After moving to France, I learned, to the great detriment of any diet plans, that I could buy very good ready-made hummus in the grocery store.
I tell you this to explain why I served hummus to Annette and Pascal as an hors d’oeuvre. In my defense, I also served saucisson à l’ail from my excellent butcher, Francois Beugnet in the neighboring village of Huismes.
A dry white or rosé was in order here and so I served the 2004 Muscadet de Sèvre & Maine sur lie “Gorgeois” from Christophe & Brigitte Boucher, and the 2006 Pouilly Fumé “Les Cris”from Alain Cailbourdin. (Tasting notes for these and the other wines will be posted on the TastingNote page.)
I had been planning to regale Annette and Pascal with a garlicky shoulder of lamb but they said they wanted to eat lightly, as they would have had two heavy meals the day before.
So I succumbed to tradition: from M. Beugnet, I purchased a pâté de Pâques. This is a pastry enclosed terrine made of a mixture of meats and hard boiled eggs. M. Beugnet, 3rd generation, regularly wins awards for his version in the regional competitions that take place every year.
It’s delicious but, in truth, I don’t like it any better than I do Beugnet’s other charcuterie, his museau à vinaigrette, for example, or his more workaday terrines.
In any event, this kind of tradition is fun to observe. And though it could easily – and nicely – be paired with a slightly off-dry chenin, I opted for a gentle red. (I knew this was the only place in the meal where a red would be appropriate – since I was serving dry and sweet whites with the cheese course.) The wine was the 2006 Sancerre Rouge “En Grands Champs” from Alphonse Mellot.
Annette and Pascal had brought an enormous selection of cheeses from Jean d’Aloze, a top cheese merchant in Bordeaux. Aged Goudas, 40-month–old Comtés, St. Nectaire and Cantal but my favorite was a concoction made from Brie, sliced horizontally, and stuffed with mascarpone and black truffles. The voyage from Bordeaux had been rough and the cheese looked like road kill but it tasted like heaven.
I retrieved the bottles of dry whites previously mentioned and brought out a 50 cl bottle of Layon, today’s Mystery Wine (yes, tasting notes will appear on the TastingNote page). I’d have drunk the sweet wine with all the cheeses. Pascal and Annette preferred the dry. When I insisted they taste the Layon at least with the Brie, they acquiesced and were totally convinced. At least as far as the Brie and the Layon went.
convinced. At least as far as the Brie and the Layon went.
Dessert was the small version of the Java Cake. Flavored with coffee – as its name suggests – and iced with bitter chocolate, its natural liquid partner is a good cup of coffee. I don’t like red wine with chocolate, even fortified red wine. I do like rose sparkling wine or Champagne with chocolate cake but hadn’t planned on that. What came to mind was rum. Actually, this was a lovely marriage though I wish I’d thought ahead and bought a special rum. As it was we made do with what I had on hand, Saint James “Royal Ambre, AOC (if you please) from Martinique. And we managed to put quite a dent in the bottle.

Talking Points:
-- Annette is going to be a grandmother. Her daughter Emilie will give birth in June to a girl whose name will be Lara Syrah. I didn’t like the Syrah – too rhyme-y. Maybe Roussanne, Marsanne? The father of the future Lara Syrah has an 8 year old son named Swan. Annette and Swan adore each other so Annette does not at all mind that she has been assigned to take Swan away on a vacation immediately following the birth so that Emilie, her husband hopes, can regain her girlish figure by resting in bed for several weeks. First time any of us had heard of this theory.
--Pascal, for his part, has always wanted to have a child. As Annette is 17 years older than him and, theoretically, beyond childbearing years. They’ve been together – on and off but mostly on – for more than the past ten years. They keep trying to split up so that Pascal can meet a potential mother. They never manage to stay apart. So I very helpfully suggested that they find a lesbian couple who want to have a child and … well, you know.
-- Our shared outrage at the awarding of two Michelin stars to Atelier Rabenel in Arles. We’d each had separate infuriating experiences there. Long stories. I loved that Rabanel turned purple with rage when Annette said to Pascal, don’t bother arguing with this con (transl: anything from jerk to prick).
-- Stories about work. From me, work on Loire 2 and a recounting of the dismal state of journalism in the USA; from Annette, tales of how the Hermes family, the new owners of Fourcas-Hosten, are renovating the chateau and the grounds; from Pascal, how his bread-and-butter employer Castel, is going crazy trying to stop a Chinese company from usurping its name and trademark images.

Gardening Day: In the Garden:

The hard-core usual suspects arrived -- Abel and Dominique, Guy and Annie – and the usual amount of time was spent fussing over where to store victuals that they’d brought and finding shady, safe spots to store the samples of 2008. A dead pear tree was ripped, root and branch, from the ground (and it gave such glorious white fleshed fruit!); roses were pruned – and I stuck about a dozen lopped off yet good-looking canes into the damp earth next to the chives and the parsley to see whether or not any of them would take. The buddleia between my house and the barn was pruned hard by Guy who then attacked the wisteria that had been taking invading my gutters, saying “Either the house owns the wisteria or the wisteria owns the house.”
An ill-placed Ceanothus Gloire de Versailles was transferred to a spot where I could more easily see and appreciate it. Pascal mistakenly ripped out the clematis. Second time this has been done by well-meaning gardeners. Fortunately they never dig up the roots so I’m sure it will grow again. My rosemary continues to sing its swan song and I continue to be bewildered about why it’s not flourishing – though I did have what might be an important “Eureka” moment when I realized that my first rosemary bush, which had also died inexplicably, had been planted in the same horizontal line, albeit eight feet away from this bush. So where to replant? Not anywhere near the old sites, that’s for sure. Abel planted a what looked like a ball of arugula. He has the best arugula I’ve ever tasted so even though I plan to sow my own seeds – with the new moon – I wanted some of his. Everyone took clumps of my Japanese anemone and of my self-seeding chervil. (My gardening book says that chervil rarely grows over a foot high; mine is at least 3 feet high.) And we all wondered what to do with the celery plant that Odile Pinon – an absent regular – had planted several years ago. It started off small, grew wider and taller and would be towering over the willow tree had I not tried to rip it out entirely last year. Now it’s starting all over again. If it served any purpose I’d happily keep it but when I asked Francois, Odile’s husband, what they did with it, he said she sometimes used a leaf or two to flavor a soup. That takes up a lot of space for a leaf or two now and then. I’d rather transplant my Queen Elizabeth rose bush there.

Meal Time

Whetting the palate: new carrots and radishes from my local “cressiculteur.” (As the word implies, this is someone who cultivates watercress.) My cressiculteur is located in the next village , and, on Saturday morning’s, sets up a stand in front of my butcher shop. (This is one stop shopping I can believe in.)
Annette had peeled, trimmed and plated the carrots so that they looked like they belonged in a Michelin-starred restaurant and these were set on the table with fantastic country bread that had been baked in a wood fired stove. (Guy had been given more bread than he could eat or freeze by the baker in exchange for organic vegetables from Guy’s garden.) And then there were Abel’s cod fritters.
If the Guinness Book of Records had a category for Person With The Most Cod Recipes, Abel would be a contender. I’ve never had a less-than delectable cod dish chez Abel but this was to die. (He has been avoiding giving me the recipe for the past two weeks.)
They were lozenge –shaped fritters, light as air, ever so slightly burnished in color. They looked like bonbons or pastries and we didn’t so much eat them as inhale them with the merciless force of an industrial vacuum .
Entrée: Guy had either bought or been given a smoker and he was eager to give it a test run. So he ordered an organic salmon and home smoked it. To say he was disappointed by the results would be a grave understatement. He was desolate. And he was angry. The salmon was mushy and Guy was convinced he’d been sold a frozen, not a fresh, fish. This turned out not to have been the case but he and Annie hashed the smoked fish and served it, in individual clam-shell-shaped plates, with a Breton “pesto” based on seaweed. The salmon was delicious and didn’t need any sauce at all.
The wines accompanying all of the above were Guy’s 2008 Muscadets, brut de cuve. (Tasting notes will be posted on the appropriate page.)
Main Course: My default chicken recipe – with white wine, rosemary and garlic. I make this all the time and felt guilty about getting off so easy – and I had proposed lamb or a more elaborate poultry recipe – but Guy voted for this. Abel and Dominique are vegetarian and one of the reasons I was ‘letting myself off easy’ was that I thought I’d have to make a separate dish for them. No. Mr. Guy leapt at the opportunity to repeat a recipe he’d once before made for me – indeed, this seems to have become one of his default recipes, depending on the season – of John Dory with a rhubarb sauce.
The chicken proved a much greater hit than I imagined it would. I must say that it was a particularly successful version. The juices emulsified into a real sauce, which doesn't always happen. (Often, it's more like a jus or a gravy. And even vegetarian Abel was caught dunking bread in the serving dish.
And I made my default garnish – bow tie pasta tossed with parmesan, butter and snipped garden chives. (Some nervousness here as Abel had previously accused me of undercooking pasta.)
Wine accompaniments: Abel’s 2008 Bourgueils, brut de cuve, and a Chinon from Patrick Lambert. (Again, tasting notes will be posted.)
Salad (Batavia and cress), then the cheeses – the same as the previous night – with a 2004 Quarts de Chaume from Domaine des Baumard.
Dessert: the larger version of Maida Heatter’s Java Cake – flavored with coffee and iced with thick, dark chocolate. At this point I opened the magnum of Ayala Champagne that Annette and Pascal had brought.
There was coffee, of course, and, for those of us not driving, my very own eau de vie.

Dominique, but in a different garden.
Annette and Pascal the morning after Gardening Day, all of us the worse for wear. I took the picture with my new cell phone and have been unable to turn it right side up. I'm learning.

March 2009 :
In the ‘better late than never’ scheme of things, I’m finally getting around to writing about some of my end-of-year feasts. I’m starting with December 24, 2008 because there are recipes and the recipes are perfect for spring and summer.
My friends, fellow expats Annette and Robert were in Paris for the holidays. Normally they live in a fabulous, design-magazine-ready semitroglodyte house on a cliff leading into Saumur. They rent out their pied-a-terre in tony St. Germain des Pres but, as their tenant was in the USA for the holidays, they came up to the City of Light for a change of scenery – as well as to see just about every exhibit taking place at the tine, including the truly obscure, like the one on the history of demonstrations in Paris. (This led to a discussion about whether or not the Rosenberg affair had evoked more of a reaction in France than in the US.) I should also note that Annette and Robert are the only people I know who currently subscribe to The Nation.
Several things to know about eating with Annette and Robert: they are vegetarians. At least I’m sure Annette is and I think Robert is. Also, they – particularly Annette – seem to be anti-ritual, particularly if that ritual has any religious overtones. I love ritual and I’m an equal-opportunity holiday celebrator but I accepted the fact that there would be no carols, no tinsel and the like as I knew the rest of the week would offer plenty of that.

When Annette, Robert and I together the three of us usually start with a bubbly. Since I’m tasting wines for Loire #2, I brought along a sparkler from Jean-Francois Merieau. For the meal, I brought two 2007 Bourgueils from Domaine de la Butte (Jacky Blot) and an Anjou Villages from Vincent Ogereau that I’d opened two weeks earlier and had half finished (if it was undrinkable we could pour it down the sink).
Merieau’s bubbly was very tasty – sprightly, well made and lightly mineral. Robert thanked me for “the discovery.”
For dinner, Robert had prepared pizza. He makes the best pizza in the world. The two recipes are given below. Both are superb but the second, the seafood pizza, may be the best pizza I’ve ever eaten. It’s like a great seafood salad on a crust with light cheese flavoring.

Note: I have not tested these recipes myself. I simply offer them as Robert, who is ultra-reliable, wrote them. He based them on recipes in Alice Waters’ Pizza, Pasta & Calzone. (I have this book, too, but have never used it, finding the recipes a bit precious. But Robert’s pizzas are tempting me to take another look.)

Robert did not supply his pizza dough recipe but did offer the following advice:
Use the best organic flour you can get. I usually substitute spelt (épautre) flour for the rye flour in the recipe.

Pizza with Brandade de Morue, Roasted Potatoes and Olives

Slice 3-4 small potatoes, toss with olive oil and sea salt, and bake for 50-60 minutes at 200_ C (400_ F), until they're starting to brown.

Coat the pizza dough (see below) with a thin layer of brandade de morue. Add a layer of roasted potatoes. Add a layer of mozzarella di buffala (about 125 grams), cut into small pieces. Add 25 chopped pitted French-style black olives (Niçoise would also work well but you'll need more of them) mixed with 2-4 tablespoons of chopped chives and parsley. Bake at 250_ C (480_ F) for 10-12 minutes on a pizza stone, until the dough is nicely browned.

Sprinkle with more chopped chives and olive oil.

Seafood Pizza

Spread 300 grams of gruyère or comté fruité cheese over the pizza dough. Bake at 250_ C (480_ F) on a pizza stone for 6 minutes.

Remove pizza from the oven. Add 300 grams of squid which has been cleaned, sliced into small rounds and sautéed in olive oil for 60 seconds. Arrange 12 raw prawns over the pizza. Spread on a mixture of 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, the zest of a lemon and 2-3 large chopped cloves of garlic. Continue baking for another 4-6 minutes, until the dough is browned.

Sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, some chopped parsley and olive oil.

Normally I would have brought a range of white wines and roses to accompany these pizzas but, Annette doesn’t drink white wine– unless it’s Le Montrachet or something else worth the headache. But she will drink bubbly. (This constantly confuses me: many people who say white wine makes them ill – headaches usually – don’t hesitate to drink sparkling wines even when those wines are made from white grapes. I keep suggesting it has to do with the quality of the whites they say give them headaches – too much sulphur and all. You can lead a horse to water…)
So I selected some good Bourgueils I needed to try – from a producer we all like, Jacky Blot, and from a light vintage.
Le Haut de la Butte, the lightest of Blot’s Bourgueils, was fresh and smooth with accents of mint and cassis. It went surprisingly well with the seafood pizza – thanks, in large part, to the nature of the 2007 vintage which resulted in reds that drink like very characterful, meaty roses. Le Pied de la Butte, was somewhat meatier but still a sapid, supple red to be drunk in the near term. The Anjou Villages was another surprise. At first it came across a bit hard and closed but after a bit of aeration it became fragrant and rich with scents of dark berries and black cherries. I think Robert hogged that bottle.

There was a lovely salad of delicate baby greens and Annette had made delicious cookies that would have proved addictive had I not stuffed myself on pizza. (I have asked her to make them again. And I will get the recipe.)

February 2009 : I've moved all my tributes to Didier Dagueneau to one page. It's under Selected Works. I haven't added anything to this page for awhile -- out of some kind of respect for Didier's memory. Now I can get back to it. I might even got back as far as holiday meals!

Blast from the Past : The following is a post from November 2006. It somehow got lost in all the migrations my little site has made. I found it, not where it should have been (natch), but in emails to friends I'd asked for comments. Herewith:

For the week of November 13, 2006: 2001 Cotes du Rhone “Roche Sauve” Domaine de la Favette. Not your usual Cotes du Rhone in many ways. First, it comes from the Ardeche, an often overlooked subdivision of the large CdR appellation. Second, it’s made from pure, old vines Carignan, an often overlooked grape variety. Third, it’s all charm and fluidity and not a blockbuster, a truly mouthwatering red.

I drank the wine at a dinner in the depths of the Ardeche, in a small, rather peculiar, love-it or hate-it hotel in Bourg St. Andeol on the banks of the Drome. Aggressively “designed,” the theme of the décor is, allegedly, the Route de Soie (or silk route) and there are oriental knickknacks all over the place (some quite beautiful), as well as oddities such as a fleet of straight-backed chairs upholstered in red velvet that looked like a collection of corsets created by Jean-Paul Gaultier.

It was a chilly autumn night, just the kind of night when you want a comforting meal in a cosy kitchen by the hearth. Which is what we got – if you don’t ask for details. But, although the hotel’s public rooms were large and airy, the kitchen/dining area was about the size of a falafel stand. And we were numerous: ten journalists, one organizer, three winemakers (including Philippe Faure, the owner of La Favette), four representatives of Ardeche’s cooperative cellars – you do the math – all scrunched around two tables that ordinarily would have seated four comfortably and six in a pinch. And, although the hotel’s owner and chef had spent time with Paul Bocuse in Lyon, had traveled widely in Malasia – and had laid out an artistic array of spice packets – the only flavor in the food was salt. (Luckily we’d had a big, delicious lunch and a tasty snack of local goat cheeses (small, tangy disks of Picodon) and chestnut cake at a winery.)

Happily, there was that hearth and that succulent Roche Sauve carignan. A couple of other wines stood out as well. They included a basic Cotes du Rhone from La Favette and a 2004 Cotes du Rhone Villages “le Cardinal” from Domaine du Chapitre, another Ardechois producer. Made from old vines syrah, it was suave and cool and bordered on the elegant – which seemed to fit the personality of Frederic Dorthe, the man who made it. Dorthe, a petit, reed-slim young man who is unabashedly in love with the 18th century, squeezed himself into a corner at the end of our meal and serenaded us with a powerful rendition of an aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo. A treat but not exactly the mood of the evening. Which led me to beg journalist Pierre Carbonnier to sing us some Brassens. Everyone knows a bit of Brassens, of course, so we could all join in for the refrain.

This was not intended but Brassens actually would be a good music-wine pairing for the most unusual wine of this particular trip, Chatus, a rustic little red made by a grape of the same name. Unique to the Cevennes, Chatus is a member of the vinifera family and was cited by the great agronomist Olivier de Serres in the 16th century. It almost disappeared entirely but, given its originality as well as a burgeoning interest in local oddities, it is now made by two wineries – the Cave Cooperative la Cevenole and the Domaine de Grangeon – and will soon be bottled by another 20 local winemakers. It’s not about to be tomorrow’s merlot or pinot noir but it is unique and agreeable and would make for a delightful by-the-glass discovery in a wine bar.

October 6, 2008
Take to Your Stoves!
Herewith a very useful recipe for a savory loaf cake flavored with goat cheese, raisins and mint. Not only is this a delicious way to use up over-the-hill, back-of-the fridge goat cheese, it’s also immensely adaptable. I can be served warm or cold; cut into small pieces as a canapé or larger slices as an appetizer (accompanied by some kind of salad); and it marries well with a lot of different wines (see below).

I’ve adapted the recipe from one I found in the French magazine Cuisine & Vins de France (November 2003). They allegedly adapted it from Jean-Luc Poujauran, a star boulanger in the 7th arrondissement of Paris (though when I asked him about it, he pleaded ignorance).


7 ounces of semi-moist, flavorful goat cheese, crumbled
3 1/2 to 4 ounces of Comte, Emmenthal or Swiss cheese, thickly grated
1/3 C of white raisins
20 small, fresh mint leaves, snipped
salt and pepper

3 large eggs
2 1/4 C flour
1/2 C milk
1 packet of yeast
1/2 C olive oil

Preheat the oven to 210.
Line a loaf pan with tin foil. Soak the raisins in boiling water for 15 minutes.

In a bowl, beat the eggs, the flour, the yeast, the oil, the milk and the salt and pepper. (You will not need an electric beater.)

Add the crumbled goat cheese, the Comte and the mint and the snipped mint to the mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mix gently but thoroughly. Delicately pour the mixture into the loaf pan and cook for 45 minutes.

When Ahmed and Lena visited for the weekend I had no idea what time they would arrive or how hungry they would be. I prepared this loaf cake knowing I’d be able to use it during their stay.
First, it was an appetizer at dinner, paired with a chick pea salad seasoned with fresh, chopped parsley and chives from the garden and dressed with a vinaigrette. (I liked the contrasts in both flavor and texture.)
My wine selection was a 2006 Sancerre Cuvee Reservee from Domaine Serge Laloue, a pure-fruited, mineral and stone sauvignon blanc.

The next day I served small squares of the loaf to go with aperitifs before dinner. I think this is where it really shines and it goes beautifully with an off-dry white. I paired it with the 2005 Vouvray “le Portail” from Didier & Catherine Champalou, a masterly, demi-sec barrel-fermented chenin.

August 31, 2008


It engulfs me from time to time, often at life-changing moments, like moving to a new home or the weepy end of an important relationship. I return to the foods of my youth. In a big way.
Now you might not necessarily consider the Democratic convention a sufficiently significant moment for me --- 3000 miles away in deepest France – to warrant such culinary backtracking. You would be wrong.
Like many, I have been obsessing about this election. So much so that, enamored of sleep as I am, I was determined to adopt American hours during the course of the Democratic convention, watching CNN (for want of better options) until 6AM CET.
I brought a blanket downstairs, rearranged the pillows on my couch, and stocked the fridge and pantry with foodstuffs that could only be called a nutritionist’s worst nightmare.

Herewith, the sickening details:

Dippas Tortilla chips: I’d have preferred the lime-flavored ones but either Dippas has stopped making these or Leclerc, my local hypermarket, has stopped carrying them.
Chopped beefsteak tomatoes with Sadie’s Russian dressing. Sadie, my grandmother on my mother’s side, lived with us when I was growing up in South Orange, New Jersey. She was a good but a haphazard cook, too impatient for fine points, like filling her blintzes so that they looked like something more than empty envelopes. (More on Sadie’s blintzes later.)

Anyway, this Russian dressing is surely not unique to Sadie but it is through Sadie that I came to know and love it: you simple mix good commercial mayonnaise (Hellmann’s is just fine) with Heinz ketchup to taste. Voila! Easy. Delicious. On one of the convention nights I think I was actually energetic enough to get off the couch, cut some chives from the garden and snip them in to the dressing. It’s pretty good. Try it.

Roast Loin of Pork: Like many single people I often cook a dish on Sunday that will carry me through a couple (or more) meals during the week. I have a really good butcher in the neighboring village and love to shop there. Having bought and roasted the loin of pork before the convention started, my culinary exertions were essentially over. I used a James Beard recipe. I often turn to James Beard when I want to find some normal, unfussy, tried-and-true, back-to-basics recipe. This was practically effortless, very delicious, and fed me for most of the week – sometimes reheated, more often sliced and made into a sandwich with that good commercial mayonnaise and seven-grain bread.
Southern Fried Chicken: I have tested many recipes – calling for milk, marinating in milk, eggs, etc – but not one of them had the Proustian effect I was after. I grew up on Tessie’s southern fried chicken. Back in the ‘50s you didn’t have to be rich to have a live-in maid. Tessie lived with us and was more, much more, than my surrogate mother. I still feel she and her daughter, Ernestine, were the only people who ever understood the child that was me. Let’s give the lie to stay-at-home moms. My mom was often out playing bridge or mah-jong. Tessie raised me. She was an amazing cook – both Jewish and Southern soul food -- and, basically, a farm girl, with mostly afro-American but partly Native –American bloodlines.

We are talking suburbia of the 1950s. Tessie had turned our backyard in to a vegetable garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, and more. She stuck one of my brother’s plastic rifles vertically in a vegetable plot to scare off birds. She made ice cream out of snow. I always pulled up a kitchen chair to the stove to stand on and watch her cook – apple pies, greens, latkes, Jewish chicken soup, kugel, and, yes, fried chicken. (We also opened up Sadie’s skinny blintzes and really loaded them with filling.)

This was the fried chicken my soul was searching for and, again James Beard came through. When I read his recipe I thought, this is Tessie’s method. Nothing more than shaking the chicken pieces in seasoned flour (in a bag), patting off the excess flour but rubbing the rest into the flesh, then letting the chicken rest for about 30 minutes before essentially deep fat frying it.
Finger lickin’ good doesn’t even come close. I remember once eating an entire chicken. This event brought an end to my boycott of chicken. Back in the 50s, when food was food, there was a neighborhood grocery in which the owner used to kill and pluck the chickens in the back of the shop. Once I happened to witness this operation and swore I would never eat chicken again. I can’t remember how long that lasted but I do remember watching tv with Tessie one night after she’d cooked her basic fried chicken recipe. I ate one piece, then another, until I’d finished the entire chicken. ( I will get to the wine pairings later.)
Ice Cream: Anyone who grew up in South Orange, New Jersey knew we had the best ice cream in the world: Grunings. No going home again. Move on. For years I’ve been making “Jean Hewitt’s Lemon Ice Cream”, the recipe for which I found in Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts. (Another standby for me, as anyone who reads FrenchFeast will know.) But that didn’t last forever.
French industrial ice cream is an insult to the genre. I settled for the oxymoronic mini-Magnums, sort of wee Dove Bars. I ought to have bought the full size bars because the mini-size evidently did not meet the needs brought on by the Democratic convention. So I generally followed the mini-Magnum with the least awful industrial vanilla ice cream I could find. And into the bowl I broke specoloo cookies – crunch, and flavored (I’m guessing) with cinnamon, clove and mace.

Gin & tonic with a slice of fresh lime.
Diet Coke with a recycled slice of fresh lime.
Wine: The choice was daunting. I’m still tasting for Loire #2 and had, earlier in the day, delected in the 2005 Sancerre blanc “Edmond” from Alphonse Mellot. Much too elegant for the fried chicken. I thought maybe a Sancerre rose from Henry Natter would be just the ticket. Nah. Too pretty.
I had just tasted a bunch of really nice, peppy Muscadets and one of them might have been perfect with the chicken. Alas, they were no longer in my house as I had just effectuated one of my customary wine exchanges with my neighbor , Jean Teillet.
I get a lot of wine samples. As I’m not always home, Teillet often accepts my wine deliveries and stores them in his basement. When I taste wine, I generally consume very little. I hate waste. So I give the remainders to friends, much of the time Jean and his wife. If it’s only six bottles, I’ll deliver them myself. When it tops twelve, I call. Jean comes over with a wheelbarrow filled with cartons of wine I haven’t yet tasted. He returns home with the wines I’ve put aside for him. I think he recorks most of them.
So the Muscadets were gone. But I had a pleasant light red, a Cote Roannaise chilling in the fridge, and, if it wasn’t the dream match, it went down just fine.
But after ice cream, I like something dry and searing. A single malt, for example. I had already gone upstairs, put my contact lenses in their soaking case, and put on my pjs. I wasn’t going downstairs for the whisky. Closer to hand, however, was a bottle of nice Bourbon. (On my night table, actually. In my defense, it’s been there for over two years.) I poured myself a finger – yes, just a finger – drank it and so to bed.

And now I’d better get on a diet.

August 12, 2008

I realize that I use -- or want to use -- this common French expression often so I thought that I ought to explain it. This is the perfect place.

As you might suspect from the hyphenated word, it means a lunch that lasts so long and is so copious it becomes dinner. Few things give me as much pleasure as enjoying this kind of meal with good friends. This is part of the reason I live in France. Americans tend to eat like this once a year, on Thanksgiving.

It's true that France's equivalent of Generation X tends to be too busy to eat like this -- except on Sundays or holidays when they visit their families in the provinces. I hope the tradition doesn't die. That the children of the Gen Xers, influenced by grandmothers, will perpetuate it.

Here's a menu from a family in Anjou, who lived in Rablay in the Coteaux du Layon and made wine, including Coteaux du Layon-Rablay. (The person who gave it to me cautioned, "We weren't rich.")

Wait! There's no need for anonymity here! The menu was given to me by Mme Robin, the mother of Chantal Morgat, former owner of the Chateau du Breuil, where I was, at the time, renting a room. Chantal is the mother of Eric Morgat, a rising star on the Savennieres horizon. (Eric was living at home. He had just started business school. He would later drop out to become a vigneron.)

The menu is printed on a small, hand decorated card, with the name of the person whose seat it marked written on the back.

MENU 12 Aout 1905

Consomme Marie Louise

Poularde sauce Mayonnaise

Escalope veau aux champignons

Gigot roti/ Flageolets


Dessert varie

Fruits de saison, St. Honore

Vins Fins

Thouarce le Champ, Rablay

Cafe, Liqueurs

IMHO that's a meal!

July 11, 2008: Birthday Meal

The Guests: Guy Bossard, Henry and Marie-Jose Marionnet, Jean-Francois and Martine Dubreuil (cf Wines of Memory and Sentiment in my Loire book).

The Menu:

Hors d’oeuvres: (In the small courtyard behind my house. I had wanted to have aperitifs in the garden but the mosquitoes* have gotten downright militant over the past two years – particularly in hot, humid and storm-threatening weather, which is the weather we’ve been having. So the courtyard would have to do, even though my adorable gardener had just mistakenly cut my clematis at its roots and I hadn’t had time to replace it or renew my geraniums. Still, we’re surrounded by greenery: rose bushes, grape vines, boxwood, acacia, spent irises, Japanese anemone, Virginia creeper, sage.) (*Mosquito update: my friend, Annette, just alerted me to an article in the Courrier de l'Ouest entitled Moustiques: du jamais vu depuis 1977! Mosquitoes! Not since 1977 have we seen such an invasion -- is my liberal but faithful translation.)

Graber Olives: a souvenir from California. I’d arrived at the site of the competition two days early and got to hang out with the olive oil judges (whose judging, for some reason started and ended before the wine judging). We visited an old olive producer, Graber Olive House, in the leafy suburb of Ontario (near Pomona). There are two very pretty gift shops and the olive-making facility-cum-museum. All of the equipment is vintage and very beautiful in the ‘form-follows-function’ sense. The olives are grown and harvested and canned with great care. Picked at optimal ripeness, they are hand harvested in velvet-lined buckets, three olives to a bucket. Then they are sorted several times and separated by size. Size 12 seems to be the most popular. You must try these olives. They’re soft as butter and very mild and as addictive as peanuts (All the wine judging tables had plates of them and we gobbled them up like popcorn.) (

Saucisson a l’ail: from my boucher/charcutier in the neighboring village of Huismes. 3rd generation. A guilty pleasure.

Bordier’s seaweed butter on sourdough bread from Chinon's best boulangerie: Bordier, one of most famous butter producers in france. Started in his shop in St. Malo on the coast of Brittany. The business was subsequently pruchased by Triballat, a large Brittany-based dairy. Bordier still has his shop but works mainly in Triballat facilities outside of Rennes. His butter is pretty fabulous. (A lot of restaurants serve it.) and he has several ‘flavored’ varieties, including the butter flavored with algae. I first tasted this when visiting him. The butter tasted like oysters. He gave me samples and I froze what I didn’t use immediately. The butter served on my birthday had spent about 6 months in the freezer. It was still delicious but the oyster flavor had calmed down significantly; the butter now seemed faintly seasoned with seaweed.

Wines served as Aperitifs:

2005 Cour-Cheverny, Domaine de la Desoucherie; 2006 Cour-Cheverny Domaine de la Desoucherie Cuvee Solea; (2005) Romorantin VdT Les Cailloux du Paradis; 2005 Plume d'Ange VdT blanc, Les Cailloux du Paradis; 2005 Pouilly-Fume Chateau de Tracy; 2005 Pouilly-Fume HD- Haute Densite du Chateau de Tracy.

The Romorantin from Courtois was so much like a fino sherry I thought it would be great paired with the olives, a tapas moment. I thought just about all the other wines would be fine with the saucisson a l’ail and that the pungency of the Pouillys would be make them perfect partners for the algae-butter.

Finally we sat down to eat. And, as has become traditional on my birthday, we started with Guy’s langoustines. And what langoustines they were! Truly the master of the langoustine, Guy had shopped for them (at the Marche d’Interet National in Nantes), cooked them (no one cooks a better langoustine) and arranged them on a big platter. He also has a knack for extracting the meat from the teeny claws. (I guess they’re called claws. Correct me if I’m wrong.) And he’d brought an excellent mayonnaise.

Here duty requires that I open a parenthesis: the Vendeens* in our group, Jean-Francois and Martine, ate their langoustines with butter and the rest of us with mayonnaise. I don’t know why this is but it is. (*The Vendee is a department in western France, south of Nantes, between the Atlantic Ocean and Poitou-Charentes. More importantly, it is a region, a defiant one as evidenced by its role as the seat of the counter-revolution in France.)

Back to the langoustines: I had thought that a rich and/or a slightly off-dry chenin would go best with the fresh sweet meat of the crustacean – and had therefore selected the Chinon blanc from Domaine de la Noblaie – but it’s altogether fitting that it was Guy’s Muscadet “Expression de Granite” – so fresh and mineral and tingling – that won everyone’s hearts, minds and palates.

For the main course I’d made coda alla vaccinara, a traditional Roman oxtail stew. I love oxtail for many reasons. Flavor and texture, of course, but also this cut of meat demands long, slow simmering and such dishes tend to benefit from being made a good day or so ahead. Great for the single hostess. The fair amount of pork rind called for in the recipe gives the oxtail a silky, slithery veneer ; the hours of gentle bubbling at the back of the stove rendered the meat fork tender , infused with the flavors of carrots, onions, and white wine.

This kind of dish highlights the subtlety and suppleness of non-bombastic reds, graceful reds with finely etched fruit and mineral notes and soft tannins. The winners here were the Chinon “Pierre de Tuff” from Domaine de la Noblaie, the California Pinot Noir from Clos PepeEstate, and, of course, the ’88 Chinon Clos de la Dioterie from Joguet -- in the days when Joguet was Joguet – which was probably the most magical match as the wine’s mature scents and flavors harmonized effortlessly with those of the slow cooked meat.

There were four cheeses on my platter, one served blind. This was a cheese given to me by chef-superb food person-angel in America Karen (aka Odessa) Piper. Here’s her backgrounder:

“The cheese is called Pleasant Ridge Reserve. (Reserve) because it is aged any where from 8 to 12 months before it is released. It is produced about an hour west of Madison Wisconsin by MIke and Carol Gingrich at Uplands Cheese. They always grazed their cows on pasture; long before it became fashionable/profitable in the midwest to do so. They did their home work, researched and invested in good infrastructure and the cheese has nailed down some very prestigious awards. They were pioneers when they set about to make this cheese. Other facts, the milk is organic, cheese made only when cows are on pasture , the rind is washed with red b-linen molds and the cheese is made by blending the morning and evening milks. MIke would send me samples during the inception and ask for my feedback, so I tend to indulge in a tiny little bit of bragging rights. (NB: at the time, Karen was the chef-owner of L’Etoile, the leading restaurant of Madison, Wisconsin.) Another really cool about this cheese is that it comes from the 'driftless' region, geographically bordered by the Blue Mounds and the edge of the last glacier. A lot of Wisconsin's best cheesemakers are clustered here, and there is some talk that it has identifiable terroir. Your piece is aged 12 months. It might be fun to let your friends taste it with out knowing its origin and report back to me. wish I had given you some Hickorynuts to serve with it.”

My guests were duly impressed and, of course, surprised to discover that the USA could actually produce serious cheese. Instead of hickory nuts I served walnuts from my very own tree -- the first thing I planted when I moved into this house in the summer of 1997. The other cheese selections were all French. There was an organic Reblochon, brought by Guy and so ripe it was literally pouring out of its rind, a good, farmhouse Ste Maure, the log-shaped goat cheese whose AOC area includes the Chinonais, and a raw milk Camembert. I bought the last two cheeses at the Chinon branch of Leclerc, one of France’s leading hypermarket chains. Both were very good and of high quality but the scandal is that in a shelf of maybe two dozen Camemberts plus another 6 “Lite” versions, there was only one raw milk version. It’s the only one I’ll buy there. (Raw milk Camembert-Leclerc update: Monday, when I went shopping, there was NONE to be had!)

There was plenty of red wine left for those who wanted red with the cheeses. I prefer white almost across the board and, in many cases, sweet whites. I’ll drink a bouncy young red with fresh goat cheese, a more delicate red with a fine old Beaufort and Port or Banyuls with blue cheese but in almost all cases, a white will go just as well, if not better. The pungency of stronger cheeses -- I find – obliterates most red wines while whites manage to stand their ground, at the very least, and, in the best cases, marry well with the cheese. (Think of Champagne and parmesan.)

KO (Karen Odessa) had specified a sweet wine for her cheese – which is what I was going to serve anyway. I like to serve sweet wines with the cheese course because I don’t like them with dessert. Sweet on sweet is too much of a good thing, they end up defeating each other, a case of food & wine overkill. But a sweet white with firm, vivid acidity with a full-flavored cheese is downright mouthwatering.

The 2006 Quarts de Chaume from Domaine de la Bergerie and the 2005 Bonnezeaux 'Malabe' from Domaine des Grandes Vignes took to the task royally. Now Quarts and Bonnezeaux are, in wine world terms, kissing cousins. But, as one came from the relatively light (for sweet whites) 2006 vintage and the other from the very ripe, ultra-rich 2005 vintage, together they presented a brain (or palate) teaser: do you prefer svelte and lithe or voluptuous and near syrupy with your cheese? To me, it’s like those English teacher questions, Tolstoy or Dostoevski? I say, why should I have to choose.

Dessert was Maida Heatter’s orange cake – the recipe that uses yogurt. (If you cook and you don’t have Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts, get it immediately.) To close a big meal, I often make something with a citrus flavor – lemon-lime creams, lemon ice cream, or mousses or cakes. I had made this cake for the funeral of Jean-Francois’ mother. That might seem a bit sinister but it wasn’t meant that way and it wasn’t taken that way.

More than anything else, this meal was about memory, about the importance each of us had had in each others lives and I had been wanting to bring us all together for a meal for over a year. None of us had seen Jean-Francois or Martine since J-F had had a stroke about 18 months ago. We all wanted to know how he was. Though even speaking with him on the phone I could tell that his recovery had been nothing short of miraculous . Like anyone else my age, I know a fair number of people who have had strokes. Most of them are clearly diminished, some incapable of leading a normal life. J-F was his old self, with the exception of a dragging left foot. And he warned me that, when it came to drink, he would be “less valiant” than he used to be.

I also like sparkling wine with dessert. This statement will no doubt induce either the gag or the sneer reflex in many wine buffs. My reasons: the palate, by this point, is somewhat saturated; the body and mind are feeling sated too. A good bubbly cleans off the palate and revives the spirit. It also tends to go pretty well with an orange cake.

And when Guy is present, there’s always a nicely chilled bottle of his mousseux on hand. A blend of gros plant, chardonnay, melon and cabernet, it’s better than most of the sparkling wine coming out of Saumur. And it does the trick.

I also brought out my mirabelles in eau de vie (summer, 2006) and my eau de vie de mirabelle (summer 2007). (2008 will yield nothing: frost, rain and chilly weather during flowering.)

(Coming Attractions)

What we talked about.

July 14 meal with other friends. Here's a photo.

July 14 in Yzeures s/Creuse. I'm the fat one with my back to the camera -- and that's all I'll show of me. Abel, with the curly hair, is at the head of the table. Dominique, his wife, is next to him. Paul, a great artist and our host, is across from me. Helene, his wife, took the picture.

June 23, 2008: Moonshine, Mine

My garden, while not exactly an orchard, has plenty of fruit trees -- plum (mirabelle, greengage), pear (Williams, Duc de Bordeaux-- or is it Bourgogne), peach (white, yellow and red fleshed) and apple (Golden, I was told but the fruit looks more like Canada to me). No matter how dismal the flowering season -- this one was cold and rainy -- I have too much fruit to deal with. Particularly mirabelles. I'm not a jam person. I give away cartons full of plums to anyone who comes to visit. I freeze plums (great for clafoutis in winter). I put plums in eau-de-vie. In fact I always wanted to make eau de vie but I thought the process would be too complicated. In 2007, faced with a record harvest, I decided, 'Why not?'

I got hold of a 60 litre container, put it in my barn, and filled it with about 40 litres worth of fruit. (My tree actually yielded more than twice that but I had already given away the rest.) I had no idea what I was doing but, figuring I'd spent a lot of time around fermenting fruit, I gently punched the fruit down with a long wooden spoon and covered the container, airtight.

Over the next week or two I added whatever fruit I picked, finally filling the 60 litres with an assortment of pears, apples and the occasional greengage plum or quetsch from my neighbor. And I waited.

After a week a froth of bubbles covered the fruit. Fermentation had started. Every once in awhile I stirred up the fruit, shooed away fruit flies and inhaled the (already) intoxicating aromas.

This process lasted through early autumn when my schedule demanded I spend most of my time in Paris. I'd return to the country on the weekend or every other weekend, smell my sludge-like fruit mixture to make sure I didn't detect any volatile odors, stir it up a bit and put the lid back on the container.

It was time to think about distillation.

Once upon a time the French countryside was loaded with small distillers. Just about every village had its own distiller -- who would go from house to house, turning the fermented fruit into moonshine. He (it was always, to my knowledge, a 'he') was called a bouilleur de cru.

After the war -- whether due to concerns about alcoholism or under pressure from the big aperitif companies -- such distillation was outlawed. Those who already had licenses, however, were grandfathered in. These bouilleurs de cru often had stills in various villages within, say, a 50 kilometer radius and, from November through June, they made the rounds and distilled the fermented harvest of local home gardeners and vignerons.

It's a dying tradition but it still exists. I found my distiller, a young man named Laurent, through an article written about him in La Nouvelle Republique. His still, in an aluminum hangar, is in Seuilly, the village where Francois Rabelais was born. On the lowlands of the village, it turns its back to the main road and lies beside a small stream. Inside, an ancient, wood-fired alembic occupies 3/4 of the room.

One reaches Laurent by mobile phone. I explained my circumstances and he advised me to bring him a sample. I was nervous. I was convinced he was going to tell me my stuff was merde and that I should just throw it out.

I don't think that's why I got a flat tire going to the still but I was obliged to hobble to a garage and get TWO (don't ask) new tires before proceeding to Seuilly.

There are always a handful of men hanging around stills and Laurent's still was no different. I handed him the wine bottle containing about a cup of my brew and we went into the still for him to judge it. He poured about two-fingers worth into a duralex glass and sniffed. He nodded in the affirmative. Whew!

Then he stuck a finger into the muck and licked his finger. Again, a nod in the affirmative. Double WHEW.

Now, distillation -- which presented a complication. My batch wasn't big enough to make a whole chauffe. It would have to be mixed with someone else's sludge. I was in no position to make demands but I did point out that my juice was almost entirely mirabelle and was 100% organic. He nodded.

That was in March and I had to go back to Paris. Would my nice juice spoil in my absence? Not to worry, he said. And he was right. I told him I would be back around Easter. He thumbed through his diary, checking his various distillation dates, and told me to bring the container over when I could. A month later, I did. The juice already smelled like eau de vie.

And a week later, it was eau de vie. Laurent had distilled my batch with a batch of fermented plums (he said), reduced the alcohol from 100% to 51% with the water from the process (this I have to witness some time) and put my share in an 8 litre container.

"Is it good?" I asked when I went to pick up my brandy. He nodded, very slowly and sagely. There was a group of senior citizens from a nearby village "touring" the installation.

I brought it home and funneled the eau de vie into various-sized wine and alcohol bottles. I've never seen a liquid that clear, that transparent, in my life. The full Laphroaig bottle looks pretty droll. And I've put a label on the Bombay Sapphire bottle -- to avoid any potentially dangerous misunderstandings.

But there it is. My own eau de vie. And it's really, really good. I regretted not having brought a sample bottle to Los Angeles for the wine and spirits competition. Maybe next time.

May 1, 2008: On a Snowy Day, a Feast in a Cave near Chinon

This meal took place in 1991. I'd been planning to write about much more recent meals but came across the notes on this one while looking for something else. I couldn't resist posting the story.

Charles Joguet, for those of you who don't know him, is a former winemaker, a painter, a sculptor, who lived, as he liked to say, on the left bank of the Seine, in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, and on the left bank of the Vienne, in the winemaking village of Sazilly, outside of Chinon. At the time of this meal Charles, 60-something, with an honorable pot belly, was regarded, and appreciated as being sui generis, one of a kind. Simultaneously the urban bohemian (bobo in today’s parlance) – with his well-groomed white hair (which he would surreptitiously pat with the frequency of a nervous tic), his neat beard, and a scarf tied bandana-like around his neck no matter the weather – and a man of the earth, a homeboy, a prodigious story teller, always ready to uncork a bottle, to bend an elbow at the bar, to while away afternoons and evenings in wine cellars. In other words, a true Rabelaisian, here in the land of Rabelais. One of Chinon’s best winemakers, with a cult-like following in Paris, London and the United States, he had also become -- and still is – one of my best friends.

“Does it ever snow in Chinon?” I’d once asked Charles.

“Boff. Just enough to knock the flies off the wall,” he’d answered. So it was as surprising to him, a Chinonais from birth, as it was to me when several days of snow were followed by a freak blizzard on an otherwise unexceptionable day in February.

Cars refused to start. Snow blocked the road between Chinon and Tours. It blanketed the vines on the slopes of the Clos des Olives as it did the low-lying vines on the banks of the river Vienne in Cravant. It covered the cobblestones on the rue Voltaire in Chinon’s medieval quarter, making that picturesque street with its ankle-murdering outcroppings of unevenly laid stones – the street has since been repaved – even more treacherous to navigate than usual. And, overlooking the town and the quais and the river, the chateau of Chinon, its color drained, seemed to merge with the blanched, soft, winter sky.

Local life came to a dead halt. Except that the menfolk met, as usual – perhaps more than usual, with the inconveniences caused by the snow as an excuse as well as a surefire topic of conversation and occasion for opinionating – in the Café de la Gare across from the train station, the Café de Panurge near the town hall, and the Café de la Paix on the quai, facing the statue of Rabelais. One small glass of sparkling Vouvray or light, red Chinon would follow another, and then one more, and everyone would try to recall when last it was that such a thing had come to pass, here, in the heart of Touraine, where the weather is invariably and famously mild.

My day would not be much changed, however. Charles had arranged for me to sample the Ur-tete de veau. But for the fact that he he had to come fetch me as my car was among the many that would not start, our meal would take place pretty much as planned.

Tete de veau is firmly ensconced in the Hall of Fame of France’s most beloved dishes but it’s not for the faint of heart. An entire calf’s head is simmered in seasoned water, then cut up and served with a tangy vinaigrette or sauceGribiche. And this particular tete de veau – which Charles had described as a “pure masterpiece” – was one of the specialties of Gaston Beduit, a drinking buddy of Joguet’s.

A very gentle man in his late 60s, Beduit was simultaneously self-effacing and confident. He seemed to work more since his retirement than he did when he was a full-time boucher-charcutier. His friends see to it that he is permanently employed. When they throw big fetes for important birthdays, say, Gaston is the one who roasts entire lambs or goats on spits. And, on an irregularly regular basis, he prepares meals – for card games, for the end of the hunting season, or when someone’s landed a particularly large fish or has gotten hold of a wild salmon – in his cave outside Chinon, on the road to Marcay, where there is a Relais& Chateaux in a 15th century castle.

Everyone in Touraine has a cave. I now have a cave. Caves, troglodyte caves, are an integral part of the landscape of that part of the Loire Valley that stretches from Vouvray in the east to Gennes, north of Saumur, in the west. The soils here are tuffeau, a soft limestone. When the stone was quarried to build the region’s castles, churches, bridges, and homes, caves of all sizes and shapes were left behind. Originally used as dwellings, and, during the revolution, as churches and escape routes, they are now, for the most part, used to cultivate mushrooms or store wine. They are also used for entertaining, particularly if they have a fireplace or a bread oven.
Gaston Beduit’s cave was like a million others in the region. Enter a dirt courtyard and a door, seemingly built into the cliff-face, leads into a small front room with a huge hearth at the base of which lie a clutter of pots, pans and casseroles. A large wood table, surrounded by stools made of tree trunks, takes up most of the room. A small broken fridge stands against one wall, next to it, a sink, a tiny work table and two electric burners. The stone walls are covered with 50s era cheesecake girlie calendar photos. And behind a curtain is Gaston’s larger cave, where he stores his wine.

When Charles and I arrived at noon the table was set and the sole window was steamed up from the heat generated by the fire in the hearth where the tete de veau was simmering in a big cast iron pot. Gaston shuttled back and forth, between work table and fire, and then disappeared into his wine cave, emerging with a white from Turquant, a troglodyte-rich wine village near Saumur. It was sharp and metallic and cold as the snow. As we drank, the others becan to arrive, a stone mason, an electrician and a garage owner who had origianlly declined the invitation to lunch because he had a Renault meeting in Tours. The meeting cancelled because of the snow, he showed up for lunch.

Then there was Guy Piella and his brother, Francois. Piella, a 30-ish orb of a man, drove a truck when he was not distilling. One of the few remaining bouilleurs de cru, he would travel from village to village, distilling into strong, clear eau de vie and marc the mashed and fermented ‘wine’ that local residents had made from the last season’s plums and pears or the left-overs of the winemaking process.
Charles once observed, “Guy is like a mole. You don’t see him but he’s everywhere.” He knows who was having an affair with whom, who was secretly a homosexual, who was bankrupt,not to mention more practical things like where to buy the best andouillettes and saucisson a l’ail (a charcuterie in Sache) and boudin (an artisan in Loudun) and where to scavenge for coulemelles, the king of wild mushrooms. Piella has since died in a car accident but on that day he was in typically awesome form, having arrived with a half dozen bottles of different eaux de vie as well as game he had bagged – a hare, seven woodcocks and as many pigeons as we could eat after the tete de veau.

As the men stamped the snow off their shoes and stood with their banks to the fire, rubbing their hands, Gaston placed on the table enormous platters of tete de veau, the chunks of meat nicely interspersed with cooked carrots and fresh parsley. We dug into the succulent meat, the chewy cartilege, the marrowy brains and dipped the pieces into Gaston’s pungent sauce which practically stung the palate with flavors of capers, vinegar and shallots.

Meanwhile, Gaston had skewered the hare and the birds on a large cast iron spit. As it rotated Gaston basted them using a capucin, a long cast iron rod with a triangular cone at one end. He placed the cone in the embers until it was red hot, then loaded it with lard which melted on contact, anointing the hare and the birds as Gaston methodically drew the capucin across the spit.

They were beyond delicious. Nothing could have been more lipsmackingly good or more elemental. This was Food. Not Robuchon. Not Gagnaire. Not Ducasse. The world of toques and stars and silver plated globes seemed superfluous when faced with the simple act of sitting around a rough-hewn table in front of a fire on a snowy day and eating woodcock seasoned with pepper, garlic and herbs, its delicate brains the texture of sea urchin, and the fine meat of the pigeon and the strong visceral flavor of the hare that Gaston had stuffed with foie gras.

We were drinking Chinon that Charles had brought – seven consecutive vintages from his vineyard Le Chene Vert, a sunny, five acre slope facing the Chateau of Chinon. We started with an ’86 (plush and vigorous, tasting of black cherries and sweet spices) and ended with an ’80 (light, very dry, with fleeting aromas of sandalwood, dried fruit and flowers).

Charles had chosen those wines because Gaston loves Chene Vert. As a boy he’d apprenticed for its former owner and it was the first vineyard he ever knew.
“Did I ever tell you how I came to own Chene Vert?” Charles asked the assembled group. Astonishingly – for this was an oft-told tale – there was someone who hadn’t heard it.

Charles folded the pocket knife he always carries, dabbed his lips with his handkerchief, and said, “Vous permettez?”

Nods all around.

“Well then, one day my friend Bernard Vasseur from Chinon saw me in the Bar du Theatre where, by the way, I was drinking a ’76 from old man Taffoneau, a minor masterpiece, and he said, ‘Listen Charles, I’m going to show you something really special. Come with me.’
“It was sunset and he brought me to Chene Vert. Hoh!” Charles paused, shaking his head in memory of how he felt that day, at the moment when he first saw this hillside, with its southwest exposition, and realized that here he could produce truly great Chinon.

“Evidently the vines were very old,more or less well planted, and Bernard told me that he was obliged to sell it. The only potential buyer wanted to graze sheep on it. Well, to see it all at once, at sunset like that – the stone cave, the oak tree smack in the middle – an oak, mind you, that had been planted at the same time as the vineyards, by the monks of Bourgueil. It’s certainly one of the two or three vineyards first planted by the monks, 900 years ago.

And they planted an oak and an entire clos – one hectare on each side of a central path. To the right of the path, the soils are chalk mixed with silex; to the left, it’s pure tuffeau but with big stones.

“Very strange. I thought what a beautiful vineyard you could have here. In three weeks the sale was to take place. I told Bernard that I would like to buy it but I had no money. I went to the sale anyway, however. It was a vente a labougie (auction by candle), the kind of sale conducted to determine rights of succession for minors. Sometimes this kind of sale is necessary. I’d heard talk of it. I’d seen it at Druout and knew what it was about. You light a candle that burns quickly and the last bid in before the candle expires gets it.

“The sale was in a notary’s office – which is always a little dark, a little sad. I went and stood in the back of the room. The man who wanted to graze sheep was there too, up front. In the beginning they burned almost two candles in little bids of 50 francs, 100 francs, on a property whose offering price was 4000 francs. So during this time, the candles burned and I watched the flame of the last one going down and, Cluck! Shlock!” Charles clicked his tongue, sliced the air with his hand, “Poff! Sold! That’s it. I had it for 4800 francs.Less than 5000 francs, all expenses included for the 2 hectares. I was as shocked as the guy with the sheep. Ok I had to replant it. And I’ve only just finished paying of those expenses. But I’ve very happy that I bought it because I truly love that vineyard.”

Story over, Charles took a swig of the ’80. Gaston was beaming and I could see tears in his eyes.
By this time there was a tray of local chevre on the table, night was falling and four thirsty railroad workers appeared, included Eusebe, whose arrival caused Charles to double over in laughter.

“You know what he does?” Charles said to me. “He’s supposed to blow a trumpet when a train approaches. But there’s maybe only one train a day on this particular route so he never has anything to do.”

Eusebe nodded, glass in hand. “All the same, “ he said, “I’ve rigged up the trumpet to a gadget so it blows on its own when a train’s coming. I don’t even have to be there.” Instead he goes in search of litres of red for his co-workers.

The electrician and the garage owner left and others arrived. Guy’s bottles of eau de vie were put on the table – Pear William, Ste Catherine plum, hawthorn, marc. Searing and strong they were, but any finer points were lost on my: my critical faculties were finished for the day.

February 21, 2008: Truffle meals in Touraine:

A couple of weeks ago I participated in one of those “it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it” press trips to the Rhone Valley. It was truffle weekend, replete with odoriferous markets and meals. Somehow I’ve left my notes from that trip in Paris – and I’m in Touraine – so that report will have to wait.

I came away with a truffle larger than a golf ball and brought that truffle to my home in Touraine where I do most of my serious(ish) cooking, and based two dinner parties and two comfort meals of eggs and truffles around it. I had invited an expat American couple, Robert and Annette Bonnell, who live in a Life-Style magazine-ready semi-troglodyte house on top of a cliff at the entry to Saumur, for dinner number one.

Before leaving Paris I’d stopped by Tito’s, a very good Italian shop in my neighborhood, for some fresh tagliatelle and good parmesan. I’d gotten leeks and was hoping to find some wild mushrooms, preferably girolles and/or trompettes de la mort but no luck. In the end I sauteed the leeks slowly in a lot of butter, cooked the pasta (excellent quality here) and then tossed the pasta with the leeks, more butter, parmesan and grated truffle. I grated more truffle on each portion of pasta at the table. (Oh, we started with a nice fish soup from Belle Iloise.) This was followed by a farmhouse Ste. Maure – the log-shaped goat cheese – I bought on impulse. (It was too expensive and, when I tasted it, not very good; too early in the season, I suspect.) And we ended with an apple cake made by Annette.

The wines, which I’ll discuss later, were just fine, more than just fine, but the evening was for and about truffles – from inhaling it, each of us in turn, immediately after I had opened the vacuum-sealed plastic bag it was in, to shaving the first bits, then shaving more and more, with extravagance and abandon on second helpings. In addition to its normal truffle forest underbrush aromas which I won’t even begin to try to describe here, there were also notes of black olive. First time I’d noticed that. And the fettucine was silken and absolutely perfect with the truffle. (Thanks, Tito.)

After the meal I parked the remainder of the truffle in a plastic container filled with organic egg and later that week or the next, when I made myself a dinner of scrambled eggs and truffles, I noticed some little white blotches on my black beauty.

No time to waste. The degradation of the truffle was very much on my mind as I was having a bacchic meal with my friend Ilona Uskalis, a full-throttle Latvian who is, as the French say, toute une poeme. (She’ll be more fully described at a later date. She merits an entire tome) Care to come over for truffle and pasta? Says I. You’re on, answers Ilona, toasting me with a glass of one of the six bottles of Coteaux du Giennois I’ve brought after having tasted them at home. I also invited some other local myths, Bernard Chauvelin and Nicole Lambert, a delicious couple who live separately (is there any other way) in the neighboring village, Bernard in an honest-to-god troglodyte cave.

I’d made my standby Tuscan white bean, red onion and tuna salad and then followed it with penne tossed with butter and then with a mixture of heavy cream, parmesan and truffle. I shaved the remainder of the truffle over the top but, sadly, there was less of it than I’d hoped. I had cut away parts that seemed too soft to the touch. If such a thing were possible, they seemed to be fermenting. In truth, this dish was more about butter and parmesan than it was about truffles but some of the flavor did come through. And Ilona, who had only smelled truffles grubbed up from the ground, with mud still coating them, and who thought they smelled like beets, had a Eureka! Moment.
Salad and cheese followed by an experiment I’d been wanting to conduct: a pineapple and rum variation on tiramisu. It worked pretty well – fresh flavors which gave it a lightness you wouldn’t imagine with 250 grams of mascarpone in the mix – but I think it tasted better the next day. Ilona, as impulsive a shopper as I am, had seen an array of nougat in one of Chinon’s better chocolate shops. She bought slabs of two varieties and I think Bernard polished off an entire block by himself.

So what did we drink? I’m still tasting the wines from La Region Centre – and I will be for quite awhile. So, over the course of these meals, we were drinking Quincy, Menetou-Salon, Chateaumeillant and Sancerre, plus a delightful Vouvray brut from Didier & Catherine Champalou which I’d for, and which was terrific with, the tiramisu.

To be specific, here are 13 of the wines we drank:

-- 2003 Sancerre blanc “Etienne Henri” from Henri Bourgeois;
-- 2006 Quincy Domaine Mardon;
-- 2006 Quincy Jean Tatin (Domaine de Tremblay)
-- 2006 Chateaumeillant rose Domaine Lanoix
-- 2006 Coteaux du Giennois rose “Frenesie” Domaine de Villegeai (Quintin Freres)
-- 2006 Chateaumeillant rouge Cuvee du Chene Combeau, Domaine Lanoix
-- 2006 Coteaux du Giennois rouge “Premices” from Emmanuel Charrier
-- 2006 Menetou-Salon rouge Domaine de Chatenoy
-- 2006 Menetou-Salon rouge “Celestin” from La Tour St. Martin
-- 2005 Sancerre rouge “le Connetable” Joseph Mellot
--2005 Sancerre rouge “La Grange Dimiere” Jean-Max
--2006 Sancerre rouge “Antique” Claude Riffault
--2006 Sancerre rouge Vincent Pinard

For several reasons I’m going to describe the wines tomorrow (I hope). The tasting notes won’t be here, they’ll be in Book Updates. This is because I’m trying to get myself ready for the new site to go live. As readers have told me that the sometimes have difficulty finding the tasting notes, I’ve decided to try putting them all in one place. The new title, when it happens, will be, drum roll, please, Tasting Notes.

Moving right along, the subjects we talked about included:

-- Sarkozy
-- Sarko & Carlo Bruni
-- Private Lives of Public People
-- The US elections
-- A new truffle oak plantation a couple of miles from our homes
-- Global warming
--Yachts and the people who buy them (Bernard has built them and captained them and called in at just about every port you would ever want to visit – which is very frustrating for Nicole because Bernard is less than enthusiastic about visiting places he’s already seen.)
-- Marseille (Bernard has been consulting there recently and we all love the city.)
-- Latvia:Ilona was born in a Latvian refugee camp and grew up, married and raised her children in Yorkshire. Three of Ilona's four children have moved to Latvia. They are the New Latvia.
-- Amsterdam
-- Food in Amsterdam
--Global warming
--Sicily (Yes, I’ll be finishing my Sicily notes. The news is, however, that I’m going back to Sicily in two weeks so I have an excuse to wait.)
--Global Warming
-- The Berry: a) the disagreeable character of people from, as exemplified by Nicole's ex-husband; b) the great cuisine of as exemplified by two of my favorite restaurants, Cheu l'Zib in Menetou-Salon, and La Cognette in Issoudun.
--Making your own eau de vie and finding a local distiller
--Wine and WineSpeak (see tasting notes in Book Updates)
--Latvia: Ilona's youngest daughter just had her second child. And, despite the help she gets from a doting husband and a child-loving sister, she's alone most of the time with healthy, rambunctious Otis and Vigo. All of which makes Ilona shake her head mournfully, "She's a Latvian alone in a field." (I have come to understand that "a Latvian alone in a field is Ilona's idea of utter desolation.)
-- An ambitious new school for autistic children in the Paris region. (Nicole's oldest son is autistic and is doing very well there. But it should be noted that I've never seen anyone better with autistic children than Nicole.)
--Lots of local gossip.

You get the picture. Bernard and Nicole left at 2am. Ilona doesn’t drive so I’d invited her for the night. We stayed up til 4:30, drinking Marc de Champagne, and got up the next day not too much worse for wear.
After breakfast we walked along the Indre river, which flows through my village. I didn’t hear any hunters’ guns so I guided us on my “default” walk – the walk I take when I lack imagination and when the hunters aren’t shooting. It’s a lovely walk – following the Indre as it twists and turns and makes its way past farms and fields, bordered by thickets of poplars, walnut trees, brambles, pussy willow, wild roses and whatever wild flowers are in season, like snow drops this past Sunday.

I wanted to walk down to the weir in the direction of the Chateau to see whether or not the heron that had been standing like a statue two days earlier was still there. He (or she) was. And in the same position. There were also two foxes but the heron didn’t seem to be paying them no mind As we walked the sun hit the river in such a way that it transfixed us. Not that I've never seen sun on water. But the breeze was such and the timing was such that when the rays of sun hit the ripples, it looked as if hundreds of stars had alit, just above the water's surface. It was a magical light show and, as it lasted, it hypnotized us. We could not move.

It was unseasonably warm (uh oh) and sunny and we decided to have aperitifs in the garden. Daffodils are flowering, new leaves are sprouting on the hydrangea and the early rose bushes. It was time to put our feet up, have a drink and sigh with contentment. Which we did until a chill set in.

Then Ilona made a souffled omelet with the eggs that had been keeping company with the truffle. There was salad and cheese and the rest of the tiramisu and some of the above mentioned wines. After coffee I drove Ilona back to Chinon and got home just in time for Meet the Press. A Sunday well spent.

January 13,15, 2008: FrenchFeast Goes to SicilyPalermo: Part I:

I’ll be writing more on the power and the beauty of the landscape but for now, I’ll cut to the chase: what we did when we arrived.

It was late Sunday afternoon on December 30th. We made our way through the crowds on their passegiata strolls, checked in to our hotel and changed clothes in in time to go to the opera.

Our hotel. Hotel Gardenia. On the 7th floor of a building in a commercial gallery. The reception desk, where you check in, and the breakfast room are several doors away, in another hotel which has (more expensive) rooms on the first floor of what is probably the same building.

Gardenia’s rooms were prison basic. The furniture made Ikea look like Claridges. But the beds were comfortable, the location convenient,the staff at the reception desk helpful and nice, and, it might have been hard to find better at the price as it seems, that Sicily’s hotel industry is still in a very early state of development. A single room, about the size of a prison cell, cost 45 euros; a double (some with balconies), 90.

We had tickets to Norma which was being performed at the Teatro Massimo, the grand neo-classical structure which was the setting for the climactic scene that ended Godfather III.

It’s a huge, glorious jewel box of a theatre – all gilt and dreamy frescoes and red velvet. We were in the peanut gallery, the 6th balcony, so plebian that its seats weren’t even numbered. Many had no view of the stage at all. So it was interesting, though not surprising, that so many of the people seated here got up to walk around – either to get a better view, find friends or stretch their legs. The production itself was fair: the direction was pre-Peter Sellars bombastic, with the crowds just shoved around like so many sheep; the scenery was eery and effective; and the performances were good enough but not great. In any event, it’s always a treat to hear that bel canto and the setting could not be beat.

I want to open a couple of parentheses here. The Teatro Massimo, one of the most important theatres in Europe, is the second largest employer in Palermo. Which either tells you something about the Sicilian economy or about the importance of the Teatro Massimo, or both.

Next: the Christmas decorations. The theatre was a vision from a fairy tale: the central third of its great marble staircase a carpet of red poinsettas; its columns and palm trees clothed in glittering white lights. And this tasteful extravagance was true throughout Sicily. I’ve never seen such lovely Christmas decorations, elegant profusions of shimmering white lights, hung like swags along main thoroughfares, climbing up stone pillars and up the trunks of palm trees. There were also swags with Renaissance putti at their center gathering the strands. And Christmas trees, even in the most modest hotels, were beautifully adorned. The tree in our hotel, for example, was as sweet as a sugarplum – with its white lights and its tennis-ball shaped ornaments, the color of the flesh of blood oranges frosted with stardust.

Since the opera started at 5:30, it ended in time for a good dinner. We went to the Osteria dei Vespri, on the same square as (and possibly a part of) the palazzo owned by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard.

We loved this restaurant so much we went back again and I would certainly go anytime I find myself in Palermo. A small room, with a wood mezzanine, stone walls and a vaulted stone ceiling, its wine list is phenomenal, its cooking, based on top ingredients, is creative but not bizarre and the service is caring and competent.

As it was rather late, we all opted for one savory course and dessert. First came baskets of homemade baked goods – breadsticks and an assortment of tiny rolls, some flecked with fennel seed, others made from cornmeal, and so forth. My main course consisted of long-simmered, fork tender pork jowls and pearl onions set mashed potatoes and served on a very reduced sauce based on Nero d’Avola. Superb. (And rather “French bistro-gourmand”.)

There was a pre-dessert -- orange-scented crème brulee – and a post-dessert – a platter of mixed petite fours such as chocolate truffles and tiny fruit tarts, all delectable. For my main dessert I had “cassaletta” – a fried pastry disc covered with powdered sugar and filled with ricotta cream flavored with lemon peel and chocolate. (It was as delicious as it sounds.)

The wines: First of all, the wine list is to die, with superb selections from all over the world as well as an encyclopedic range of the best of Italy. But I wanted to focus on Sicily. And so:

2005 Nero d’Avola (IGT) from the pioneering winery Planeta. Actually, it was 95% nero d’avola, our very savvy waitress told us, with 5% of a “world grape.” (35 euros.) Young, rich and very tight, it exuded aromas of black cherry, blueberry and licorice. After about five minutes, the barrique aging became evident and later, more evident. The wine, which recalled a very good red from the Languedoc-Roussillon, needed aeration. I ordered a second bottle and asked that it be decanted. The wine opened up beautifully, a stately presence, a weave of rich, dark fruit flavors and a velvety texture.

While waiting for it to breathe, we drank a 2005 Nero d’Avola “Il Moro” from Valle dell Acate (22 euros). Good value here, and a very nice wine, with a smooth attack and good structure, but a bit raspy and it suffered by comparison to the Planeta.
I may well be built backwards. I like to end a meal either with Champagne or with something dry and alcoholic -- or both – and start with something off-dry or downright sweet. Keeping within the Sicilian mode, I opted for a dry Marsala, the Pelligrino 1880 Reserva del Centenairo 1980, which was all coffee, toffee and nut flavors with a steel backbone – something of a cross between a Palo Cortado and an Oloroso. (I’ll describe our second meal here later. In the meantime: Osteria dei Vespri, Piazza Croce dei Vespri, 6, 90133 Palermo; tel: 091.617.16.31;; closed Sunday.)

Palermo: Part II

(The first and last parts of this day remain to be written. So far I've only done dinner.)

Dinner: The Big Night:

I had selected Sant’Andrea. Based on everything I’d read, I was sure that this would be the star restaurant of the trip, that we’d want to go back again and again. Well, it was a major disappointment on every level. But before going into some of the sorry details I do want to say that it’s an attractive, contemporary, popular place with good food (as in a squid ink ravioli stuffed with a mousse of broccoli). But it’s not what it’s cracked up to be.
First of all, the service. I may sound mean but I spent many years as a waitress while I thought I wanted to be an actress. So even though it was New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t going to give the restaurant that was supposed to be the best in Palermo a free ride. Everything was timed to the minute: to the kitchen’s minute. What we received had nothing to do with who had or hadn’t arrived, with who had or hadn’t finished the dish they were eating. It had everything to do with the timing they had obviously worked out down to the minute. And they paid so little attention to our needs that eight of us drank only two bottles of wine! Scandalous! I can drink that much on my own on a summer Sunday in the garden!

There was a set menu of four courses for 60 euros with a three possibilities in each course. For my first course I chose “Mediterranean raw fish”: a “king prawn” on fennel, sping onion and ginger; oysters on “scalora riccia”, and fish carpaccio with artichokes and orange. I think this is the last time I will try to like raw prawns. I adore them cooked but raw? The oyster was good but whatever the ‘scalora riccia’ was remains a mystery: I didn’t taste anything much less anything I could identify. Was it a typo, as in “the Mean (sic) course”? I’ll have to ask Maureen. The raw fish – sorry, I forget what it was--was tasty but there wasn’t much evidence of the artichokes and orange.

Next course: risotto with cumin, fish of the day, artichokes, wild fennel, broad beans and fresh caciocavallo cheese. Risotto it wasn’t. The rice was al dente. The fish was a different fish of the day than the one in the first course – one, I think was sea bream, the other sea bass – and was a bit overcooked. The pleasantest thing about the dish was finding the molten strands of fresh cheese at the bottom of the bowl. I was still desperately trying to like this restaurant.

The “Mean” course: stew of Tusa lamb, flavored with and wild fennel and served with a basket made of fried bread and filled with a compote of dried fig and date. I ordered this because I knew that for most of the trip we were going to be eating fish, fish, fish; because I love lamb; and because if they used the name “Tusa,” I assumed it was a special, regional lamb – though they were too busy to answer any questions.
In any event: just a really ho-hum lamb stew, not quite as mediocre as cafeteria level but not far.This, on a New Year's Eve menu in what was supposedly the best restaurant in Palermo? The dried fruit compote was tasty but by this time I had pretty much lost patience.

And dessert: yellow cream and fresh goat cheese with puff pastry. What’s the yellow cream? I wanted to know. “Yellow cream.” Well, it was more of a savory-ish soup than anything else and I ate about two spoonfuls of it.

The Wine: The list was far from great. Mostly big houses like Donna Fugata and when they had a small property, they were out of the wine. Still, we were very happy with our 2006 Cerusualo di Vittoria from Planeta. Made principally from Nero d’Avola blended other indigenous red grapes (eg Frappato, Nerello Mascalese) it was seductively fragrant, with the texture of velvet and rich flavors of black cherry, cherry pit, raspberry liqueur and crème de cassis. We could easily have downed another bottle or three.

Older Entries

December 28, 2007: I just noticed that Terry Theise quoted part of the following email discussion in his German wine catalogue. The email back-and-forth took place almost two years ago. I was writing the Alsace chapter of The Wines of France and tasting Champagne samples. I need to point out that I was reading Terry’s catalogue on his Champagnes and the discussion started when I found I didn’t “get” what he said he “got” from one of the wines.) (I have cut a bit of the meandering.)

Me: What's wrong with me? I've tasted two terrific Vilmart wines but only got faint wood in one and zero wood in the other (the '96 Cuvee Creation). I must say that I didn't get the smoky woodsiness you got tho I did get the lunar silvery aspect.

TT: There's nothing wrong with you; I had two entirely different impressions of the last 2 Cuvée Creation `96I've tasted.

Me: Care to share those impressions with me?

TT: I thought one was spiky and unknit and the other was more seamless and more deeply fruity. The awkward one was at the winery last May; the good oneover here in late October.

Me:The one I had was absolutely seamless, deeply fruity but also bracing, cut like a diamond, shimmering with vivacity. BTW, I think I may be going off the deep end right now with Deiss and Zind-Humbrecht!

TT: Easy to see why. I had ZH's 2002 Goldert Muscat a few weeks ago and nearly wept, it was so beautiful.

Me: But I'm getting worried about my Vilmart reactions. (Nothing unusual, I always question myself.) But I had a wonderful champagne -- although not as terroir-driven as the other cuvee I tasted -- and I didn't taste any wood. (I think Andrew Jefford questioned the use of oak combined with lack of malo. But you'll get no such complaints from me. Who is right? Is there a "right"?)

TT: Rhetorical though your question was, I offer an answer nonetheless. And the answer is: NO.

Me: You see, this is where we get into discussions of taste and it's valid, I think. After all, I've seen (famous wine couple) totally disagree about particular wines.

TT: I like to think intelligent tasters of good will are able to agree on broad matters of aesthetic values even when they disagree about individual bottles. And I also hope people like you and I can discern the difference between a matter of toe-may-toe vs. toe-mah-toe and a more fundamental disagreement. I'd say if there's something illuminating in your complex responses to Vilmart, then do please share it with us. I like wines which evoke complex responses!

Me: Well, I've polished off the Vilmart and am about to taste a Margaine rose. (You see, I DRINK all these champagnes.)

TT: If it's the same degorgement I had last May you're gonna have the very sheen charmed off your cheeks by that wine. I tasted it and a nanosecond later I had a huge crush on it.

Me: Well, I don't know if it was the same disgorgement or not. Drinking it was sheer pleasure -- and I have enuf left over for today. I think it's a really, really nice meal champagne. But it didn't do to me what the champagnes from Gimonnet, Vilmart and Larmandier-Bernier (to name just 3) do.

Re Deiss and ZH: I wonder if you agree with me on the following proposition: maybe, just maybe, there are other wines this inspired and heartstopping in the world. But I can't imagine wine being "better" than this. I mean, how much can you demand of a wine? How much can you demand of Bach? Deiss and ZH are making the vinous equivalents of the Mass in B Minor.

TT: In my German catalog {note: TT now quotes part of this discussion in his German catalogue.} I quote David Schildknecht's definition of"perfect" as "better than which cannot be imagined". David's an armchair-philosopher and is interested in the ontological aspect of the question: how can we claim there is a "perfect" wine? I think his locution grounds it in a reasonable subjectivity.

As regards your two Alsaciens, I don't drink either of them often enough to assert my "agreement" with you,but I'm inclined to agree based on my limited experience. And I know whereof you speak; I feel it often at Müller-Catoir and Dönnhoff, to name but two. Again, I'd love to see you answer your own rhetorical question "How much can you demand of a wine?" That's the kind of wine-writing I just can't read enough of. I'd also find it fascinating if you identified your own tipping-point, i.e. what exactly is it that finally convinces you a wine is "perfect"? For me, a wine enters my palate and the first thing I notice is its gestalt, followed by its innate flavor - or Flavor - followed by any intricacy it unfolds, followed by a sense of the harmonies of those elements, followed by a sense of their length. And all of these things can amount to a sort of hypothetical "perfection", but my own tipping point is a feeling of sadness. This is an aspect of my own response to beauty - or,again, Beauty - to which I'm especially sensitive. When I feel the wine has sent me somewhere, or perhaps taken me somewhere, larger, older and deeper than itself, then I feel the presence of the sublime. And that is my marker for perfection. It's no accident your analogy was to religious (i.e. divine) music. Or so I suppose.

Me: Maybe it’s the laywer in me but "better than which cannot be imagined" is flawed: one can have a failure of imagination. Also, I'm not sure that "perfect" is the right word. It's like scoring 100. And it leaves out the very important factor of “context.” I might, for example, find that a certain Touraine Gamay was "perfect" for an autumn Sunday picnic with rillettes and goat cheese on a hill in Candes St Martin overlooking the confluence of the Loire and the Vienne. I think contex may be key, at least when you're using numbers or words like "perfect." is the Mass in B Minor 'perfect'? Is Van Gogh 'perfect'?
One of the problems -- as we all well know -- is finding the words to describe intensely sensual and subjective experiences. I use the word subjective in a restricted sense.

I do believe that there are objective standards -- for painting, music, wine, etc. but once we agree on those, then the value or reaction beyond the basics becomes subjective.

I have just finished the Margaine and have tasted a somewhat disappointing but nevertheless tasty Cote Rotie. So maybe that definition would work with a little tweaking: better than which people with broad, deep experience cannot imagine. But let's ditch the word 'perfect.' it's too loaded and reminds me too much of numbers. Also, think about how we judge beauty in humans: Elle McPherson is "perfect;" Brad Pitt is "perfect."

Are you sorry you started all this?

TT: In a sense I don't care what we call it, and I agree with your wariness about "perfect". But maybe we have to find SOMETHING to call it, I think. And we have to describe it somehow, so that people have a chance to see what we mean. For me it is a quality of incandescence. And you're absolutely right, it isn't like comparing a 100-watt with a 60-watt bulb and saying the 100-watt is X-percent "better" or closer to some notion of perfection. It is something that suddenly blazes into light.

Not sorry at all: this is the most fun I've had in weeks.

December 22, 2007 My Wine of the Year for 2007 is the 1997 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Domaine du Banneret.
Owned by Marie-Francoise and Jean-Claude Vidal, the estate – which comprises roughly four hectares spread out over five different parcels – is an ancient one: existing documents date as far back as 1405. Jean-Claude, an architect, decided to become a vigneron when he retired from his day job in 1989.
Tradition – in the best sense of the word – is the operating principle here. The vineyards, with a high percentage of old vines, are planted to all thirteen varieties. The low-yielding vines are, of course, harvested by hand, mostly by the extended Vidal (and Espinasse) family.
A blend of 60% grenache, 10% syrah, 10% mouvedre, with the balance a mix of the other nine varieties, the grapes are not destemmed.They ferment together in concrete tanks and then age in old Burgundy barrels for 18 months. The wines are not filtered, they are bottled (with the help of a pipette)and labeled by hand. 80% is exported to the USA. (Vidal’s nephew, Jean-Marc Espinasse, is married to an American. Each has a website: his is; Kristin’s (his wife’s) is www. French-word-a-day).
The texture of velvet, the wine – tasted in March 2007 – was a tapestry of flavors – black cherry, cherry pits, eau de vie, sweet spices and minerals. Its coherence and purity took my breath away. You could spend an entire evening observing (and delecting in) its evolution in the glass, now the dulcet syrup of grenache gently dominates, now provencal herbs. The words ‘truth’ and ‘soul’ came readily to mind. Here was a wine of discovery, a wine to bring tears to a winelover’s eyes, a wine that makes you shake your head in awe -- to think that a cluster of grapes could do this.

And it raises various issues: can a wine have soul? By me, no question. I had been moved by this wine before I learned that the grapes had been harvested a mere month before Vidal’s son died of cancer. Before I learned that this was a barrel sample that Vidal, because of the wine’s place in family history, was unlikely ever to bottle.

Another issue is the thorny one of tradition -- in its good, bad and indifferent manifestations. Well, tradition and wine fads. Take the issue of fermenting a red wine with the stems. This is not currently the mode -- though it once was common practice. I hope to explore this issue more thoroughly – though I’ll beg off for the moment; I've had several shots of gin, I hear the village clock chime 7 and have dinner to cook.

One more note before I log off: when and where I tasted this unforgettable wine was also remarkable. That will be Part II of this story.

Jean-Claude Espinasse sent me a lovely thank you note as well as the above picture of the extended Vidal-Espinasse family at Xmas -- with a little too much water in view!

December 12,13, 2007;
November 28, 2007:
Thanksgiving in the time of Train Strikes:
This was an atypical Thanksgiving for me – and not only because of the transit strikes. Usually I do a blow out. This year, thanks in large part to a dismal performance by Flat Tire Press, I was not in a particularly festive mood. I even considered giving Thanksgiving a pass but, on reflection, thought that would be unbearably depressing. So I decided to meet the situation halfway.
Though the dining table in my 46 square metre apartment seats a maximum of 8 people, previous Thanksgivings have found a dozen or so brave eaters scrunched together around it. Edit the guest list was step number one. So I invited only Americans this year. Then, instead of roasting an enormous, 15 kg farmhouse turkey, I decided I’d buy a juicy, herbed leg of turkey from my excellent rotisseur on the rue St. Lazare. (It can easily feed five.)
Come Thursday November 22, the strike was officially over but the transit situation was in such turmoil that most of my invitees cancelled out. In the end, it was just me and Don and Petie Kladstrup (authors of Wine & War and altogether delightful people).
This was the menu: nibblies: tuna rillettes, cubes of Brin d’Amour, popcorn and chips; first course: pate en croute Richelieu with Waldorf salad; Main course: Turkey, baked yams, chestnuts braised with onions and Marsala, cranberry sauce; dessert: pecan pie.
Wines: Champagne Palmer “Cuvee Amazone”; 2002 Pinot Gris GC Furstentum Paul Blanck; 1996(or 1990) Saumur Champigny Clos Rougeard; 2005 Cotes du Roussillon Villages Clos des Fees.
Every single item has a backstory.
Nibblies: Usually Virginia brings the nibblies, along with some prime baguettes (very moelleux thanks to long rising) from Gosselin which is across the street from her apartment. This year, she didn’t come because of the strike and, more to the point where Virginia’s concerned, she had a tango date. 75 years old and she’s a tango addict. As we speak – December 11 – in Buenos Aires dancing up a storm with Miguel, her 20-something Mexican protégé and professional folk dancer. (But Mexico is another Virginia story.)
So, back to the nibblies:
Tuna Rillettes: I love tuna. Cold tuna. Raw, as in sushi, or canned, as in salad. I am a sucker for cold tuna preparations which means I often buy tuna rillettes made by some fancy food outfit. This version came from La Belle Ileoise (spelling uncertain). Named after the popular Breton Island, Belle Ileoise specializes in maritime-ish specialties which they sell all along the Atlantic coast. I have a sixpack of their soups that I bought in La Rochelle. They’re pretty nice. But the tuna rillettes, true to form, were a real disappointment. I much prefer my tuna spread – basically tuna, lots of good mayo (Hellman’s would be fine) and lots of capers. Sometimes diced celery and/or red onion.
Popcorn: Why would I even mention this? Because I’m thanking the food gods that the French have finally started selling prepopped, unsweetened popcorn. I don’t own – and never will own – a microwave and, up until a couple of months ago I could only find sweet, Cracker Jack-type popcorn (sans box and trinket). So I make a point of buying a bag or two of the unsweetened variety every time I go to the grocery store. I figure I have to show solidarity, not to mention demand.
Potato Chips: One of my favorite foods – except for Pringles. And these are extra-special: Tyrell’s handfried, low fat, maybe organic, made on a farm in the English countryside. (Apparently the producers have gotten their neighbors up in arms because they want to make artisanal vodka from the potatoes too small to use for chips.) They’re more expensive but they’re excellent. Tyrell’s also makes chips from beets, parsnips etc but I find them a bit too sweet.
First Course: Usually I don’t serve a first course on Thanksgiving because there’s so much food to follow. But I was thinking that, since I hadn’t roasted a turkey and hadn’t made stuffing, I should put more food on the table. Thus:
Pate en croute de Richelieu: I bought this at the fancy butcher shop mentioned earlier. They don’t make it. They get it from a charcutier in the town of Richelieu in southern Touraine. I had been wanting to try it for months since Waverly Root, in his Foods of France, mentions the charcuterie of Richelieu and even a specific preparation called “Richelieu.” While researching A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire I asked and searched and nagged and wheedled but never found any charcuterie with the Richelieu moniker. So I’d been eager to taste this and here was the perfect occasion. Now it turns out that Root was talking about boudin de volaille Richelieu – which I never found and never put in my book -- and what the Richelais charcutier was selling in Paris was a pate en croute. Whatever. The croute was fresh and solid and it enclosed well-seasoned pork pate surrounding a circle unctuous chicken liver mousse. Perfect with the Pinot Gris. More on the wine later. But just a note on Richelieu: the town is named after the Cardinal who dismantled much of the Chateau of Chinon to build his own stately pleasure dome further south.
With the pate I served a Waldorf Salad. My reasoning: a) the pate would look lonely on the plate; b) the cranberry sauce would have been perfect but that had to go with the turkey and I couldn’t serve it twice in the same meal; and c) Waldorf Salad would be almost as perfect and it reminds me of my grandmother, Sadie, who lived with us but whose wanderlust occasionally led to her taking me to Manhattan to see a show (eg My Fair Lady) and stay at the Waldorf – where I first experienced Waldorf Salad in Peacock Alley.
Main Course: The turkey you already know about. Here’s more about the trimmings:
Cranberry sauce: Joyce usually makes this but she was stuck in Chinon because of the strikes. The only place I could find cranberries was at the much written about, eco-friendly, Anglo-French Rose bakery around the corner on the rue des Martyrs. 8 euros for 400 grams! I used Craig Claiborne’s very easy but effective recipe. It calls for cooking the cranberries with sugar, orange juice and orange zests. Foolproof.
Yams: I love yams – so long as you don’t sweeten them. These were simply baked. You could add butter or not.
Chestnuts: I searched the web for chestnut recipes and now have a big file. This one called for Port which I didn’t have. I substituted Marsala, which I did have. It worked beautifully. Lots of chopped onions, nicely sauteed until just turning brown, thyme dried on the branch and a kilo of chestnuts, slow simmer for about an hour. Yum.
Dessert: I always ask a guest to bring dessert. The Kladstrups brought a pecan pie – fresh from Haagen Dazs. I didn’t know H-D did pecan pie but apparently they sell it by the slice. Petie caused a minor commotion when she asked for an entire pie. It was truly good. All it wanted was a scoop of vanilla.

Wines: tk

September 5,6, 2007

La Cognette
What’s that line about all happy families being alike? Well, can this particular family – the Nonnets and the Daumy-Nonnets – adopt me? Please? (I bet Tolstoy wouldn’t have minded being a foster child here either.)
Alain Nonnet, the father of the clan, is as cheerful and as generous a chef as you are ever likely to meet. His food is a fine reflection of his personality. When I was researching the Loire book (first edition) in 1990 I interviewed him about traditional Berry food. We were sitting in the overstuffed, period armchairs of the front room while dinner was starting in the jewel-box of a dining room beyond. “It’s heavy,” he said of Berrichon cooking. And he’d punctuate his description of each specific dish, with a ‘you see’ nod, saying “Heavy!”
So he’s there in his chef’s whites and his toque, as is his son-in-law Jean-Jacques Daumy (who had just begun working with him in 1990), and the women, mother Nicole and daughter Isabelle, as cheerful as Alain,
I had loved this restaurant in 1990 but hadn’t been back since. I think it has dropped from two Michelin stars to one. If that’s in fact true, it’s nuts. What this recent meal showed me was that La Cognette is better than ever. In fact, if you want really traditional (ever so slightly updated) Berrichon food that will have you salivating in you memory of it, make a beeline for this place. (The hotel is as heartily recommended.)
There have been a couple of changes – a PVC terrace added to the façade, for example – but the soul of the place remains intact. This is Masterpiece Theatre meets Balzac. In fact, Balzac wrote “La Rabouilleuse” while living in Issoudun and frequented this restaurant/auberge when it was owned by M. and Mme. Cognet. The décor seems properly vintage – thus, those overstuffed chairs, armoires, bibelots etc.
And the food! Dieters, search elsewhere. You will be miserable. Big eaters, however, will want to move in.
After some perfectly lovely amuse-bouches – eg a “capuccino” of green pea – we started in on the heavy Berrichon-alia with a Cognette classic, cream of green lentils from Berry. The nod to modernism throughout was that everything was served on a slate slab so that the soup came with side dishes of sliced truffles and tiny, diced croutons. You added what you wanted when you wanted it – which meant after you’d stopped sniffing the truffles. The soup was heavenly – in the earthily soothing sense (sorry.) Then came a chausson filled with snails in a garlicky cream sauce. You know there can be nothing bad about a well made garlicky cream sauce. The stunner came with the chausson, about as delectable and as buttery a turnover as I’ve ever eaten. Also large enough for a meal.
Next came individual souffled omelets with ecrivisses.The crayfish were right out of Escoffier. The omelet – the size of a CD – was a minor miracle – light as air, a pillow of flavor. You couldn’t stop eating it.
Then, a Nonnet signature dish and a Berrichon staple, filet of carp stuffed with bread crumbs, sausage and mushrooms. To die. Needless to say, I was so stuffed I couldn’t touch the cheese. I did, however, eat the little salad made from wild purslane -- which made me rethink ripping out the purslane that grows weedlike in my garden. Instead, I should harvest it when it just begins to sprout from the earth.
There were lots of very pretty little desserts but I couldn’t eat the ones flavored with rosewater as that’s one of the few flavors I really dislike. So my tablemates vacuumed them up. Then came platters of minuscule friandises – chocolate truffles, very creamy, very teeny financiers, and microscopic goblets filled with passion fruit cream or a mystery cream which turned out to be a mixture of beet and tomato flavored with pepper.
The vigneron Claude Lafond was with us so it’s no surprise that the sommerlier selected a cuvee of Lafond’s Reuilly blanc made for la Cognette. He also chose a wine new to me, a 2005 Valencay Cuvee des Griottes, 80% gamay/20% pinot noir from Francis Jourdin that was a succulent, nicely balanced, spicy, light red.
La Cognette, rue des Minimes/Blvd Stalingrad, 36100 Issoudun;;

You read it here first: l’Aubergeade has one of France’s best and best-priced wine lists. You could spend two years here, drinking a different and differently great bottle every day, and still have money left in your bank account. Just focusing on France, the encyclopedic list includes Guy Bossard’s Muscadet “Expression de Granite,” Vernay’s various Condrieus, Mas de Daumas Gassac, a range of Gauby and so forth. I visited this restaurant with other wine journalists. So it won’t remain a secret for long: Raoul Salama intends to feature l’Aubergeade – because of its wine list – in the Revue du Vin de France.
But, to begin at the beginning: if you didn’t know about this restaurant beforehand, you’d pass it by. A no-frills building on the side of a main local road not far from Issoudun, it looks like a truck stop. And the reasonably priced meals might, indeed, appeal to hungry truckers. (We had the royal treatment: a private room, 3 fancy-ish courses, plus cheese, and all the bottled water and wine we could drink and still paid only 40 euros a person.)
Jacky Patron, the chef-owner (yes, his name is really Patron), knows how to cook. He starts with top-notch ingredients and treats them with great intelligence. You could eat his food every night. (I could, anyway.) First came silky homemade ravioli filled with foie gras. Girolle and morille mushrooms were piled on top and infused the light cream sauce with their woodsy flavor. Yum. Then there was a perfectly cooked, herb-encrusted saddle of lamb garnished with more mushrooms, buttery cabbage and polenta rounds that appeared to have been formed with a cookie cutter. The very good cheese tray included some lipsmaking Stilton; and, for dessert, we each got our own individual fig tart: a buttery, crunchy, CD-sized disk covered with flavorful fresh figs. Couldn’t have been better. Even the coffee was delicious.
So, what did we drink? Well, we’d spent the morning with Reuilly producers so, noblesse oblige, we drank Reuilly, reds and whites from two growers: a 2006 blanc from Guy Malbete had turbo-powered, ripe sauvignon blanc fruit; athe 2005 blanc “La Raie” from Claude Lafond was rich and textured but somewhat redolent of pipi de chat – as sauvignon will be when it’s not entirely phenologically ripe. Malbetes 2006 red was pleasant, balanced and went down easily but that’s about it. Lafond’s rouge, “Les Grandes Vignes,” had attractive plum and tea flavors and was just fine for a Sunday lunch in a country restaurant. Somehow I couldn’t stop drinking it.
L’ Aubergeade, 321 Route d’Issoudun, 36260 Diou,

August 8,15,16,23, 27,28,29, 2007: The Shaggy Wine Weekend of July 27th through 29th (To be told in installments.)

About seven years ago I decided to create a wine group. Actually, I didn’t realize it would be come a yearly event but it has – though the participants have changed almost entirely. The idea was this: I’d bring togther a group of vignerons, we’d taste, discuss burning issues (eg EU wine reforms), eat, laugh, get to know each other and taste some more. My motivations were as follows: as a reporter I get to meet a lot of interesting people. Some I like a whole lot and regret that I won’t have some kind of ongoing relationship with them. At the same time, I get to meet a lot of winemakers that other winemakers – in farflung regions – don’t get to meet. Why not bring everyone together?
The first reunion was held at my cottage in the Loire. The participants were Andre Ostertag and his wife and son (who stayed with me); Guy and Annie Bossard, Charles Hours, Jean Thevenet and his wife (Domaine de la Bongran in Macon); Marc Parce (Domaine de la Rectorie and Domaine de la Preceptorie), his wife and four of their nine kids; Claude and Joelle Papin (Domaine de la Pierre-Bise); and Jean-Francois Dubreuil, a caviste, and his wife Martine – all of whom stayed in the tiny hotel in my tiny village.
Each year the reunion took place in a different wine region, hosted by a vigneron-particpant from the region in question – eg Guy Bossard in Muscadet, Charles Hours in Jurancon and, though meals, tastings and chatting/networking remained the raison d’etre, we also started visiting other vignerons in the host region.
This year I decided that since we hadn’t visited any vignerons in the Chinonais, I should host the reunion again. Guy Bossard and I were the only members of the original group who participated. Alain and Isabelle Hasard (Domaine des Champs de L’Abbaye) had joined several years ago. They brought along Pablo Chevrot, a young Burgundy producer, his wife and their three year old son. I also invited Matthieu and Isabelle Champart (St. Chinian), Sophie and Pierre Larmandier (Champagne Larmandier-Bernier), Claude and Lydia Bourgignon, flying soil analysts, and Jean-Francois Vaillant (Domaine des Grandes Vignes).
Our visits: Domaine des Champs-Fleuris (Saumur-Champigny etc); Bernard Baudry (Chinon); Yannick Amirault (Bourgueil).
Obviously this is a long story. I’ll add to it everyday until I get through it.
Part two
Since members of the group would be arriving from all parts of France – some after a nine hour drive – we’d arranged to meet at the first winery we’d visit, Domaine des Champs-Fleuris in the heart of the Saumur-Champigny appellation.
I’ve written about this domaine before on the site – both in my tasting notes from the Salon des Vins de Loire and in FrenchFeast. I wanted to bring the group here because I think it’s one of the new Loire stars and I, personally, wanted to visit, particularly as I hope to feature it in the updated version of my Loire book.
The domaine consists of 30 hectares of vines in the commune of Turquant – a village between Montsoreau and Saumur, noted for its troglodyte-pocked cliffside. Most of the vineyards occupy the tuffeau-based hilltops overlooking the Loire and are planted to cabernet franc. There are four hectares of chenin, a half hectare of caberent sauvignon and a couple of rows of chardonnay which goes into the Cremant.
When Fernand Retiveau retired in 1990, he was succeeded by his eldest daughter, Catherine, her husband Patrice Retif, and her brother Denis Retiveau, all of whom studied viticulture and enology at local schools in Amboise and Montreuil-Bellay. They run the domaine with Cartesianlogic and reflection: every operation in vineyard and cellar is thought through and thoroughly analyzed. Viticulture is tres raisonnee; harvest is by hand – with tris in the vineyard and meticulous sorting at the winery; after pressing (pneumatic), there’s a severe analysis and selection of the best juices. The division of labor seems strict and adapted to the talents of each of the three associates. Catherine, for example, is in charge of the vines. To say she is passionate about her job is to put it lightly: when we visited she was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of her work. “A vine plant must be given a methodical education,” is how her husband described her philosophy. (This viewpoint, at least so articulated, was new to me. I hope to get Catherine to elaborate.)

After a brief walk through the cellar – standard, modern but not high-tech, clean – we began tasting,starting with the 2006 Saumur blanc. Their simplest white, it ferments in tank at 18 degrees, goes through malolactic and spends three months in tank, on its lees, before being bottled in the spring. Hardly a simple, wine. Its delicate fruit seemed to float atop a profound base of minerals and stone, giving full expression to the silex in its soils. The structure was straight as an arrow, the texture was suave, combining silk and Rabelais’ taffeta; the finish was long and fresh with the revivifying flavors of lemon zests.
Next came the 2004 Saumur blanc “Les Demoiselles,” a cuvee based on a more rigorous tri of the harvest , more severe decanting, followed by fermentation in newish barrels (four year rotation) and malolactic. Here was a big mouthful of very fine white, the kind of white you’d want with your first course at a starred restaurant. Rich, vivid and specific, it was the very model of a modern chenin, with its perfectly ripe, focused fruit, well integrated oak. The finish, with lingering flavors of the wine, left the palate fresh. You’re ready for more.
The 2003 Les Damoiselles, “ heavier and richer than the 2004, was a very good wine. Although I preferred the airiness and the tension of the 2004, I thought the 2003 might convert fans of big Chardonnays to the chenin cause.
Now the 2005 “Les Damoiselles” was another thing entirely. Bottled in March after a year in barrel, it still needs time to come together but promises to be a monument. Beautifully structured, it wraps your tongue in its richness, with layers upon layers of textured fruit, minerals, verbena, linden blossom and lemon zests, it is fully the equal of Savennieres.
From barrel, we sampled the 2006 Les Damoiselles. Vibrant and luminious, it will be different from the 2005 but equally exquisite.
A Cremant de Loire – pleasant but hardly their strong point – served as a transition to the reds, starting with the 2006 Saumur-Champigny “Les Tufolies,” a tank fermented cabernet franc which represents 60 to 70% of the domaine’s production.
It could not have been a more classic representation of the vin de plaisir –style of Loire cabernet franc – all finely focused, beautifully succulent fruit, a chiseled cameo of a fresh, young red.
Next up was the 2005 Saumur-Champigny Vieilles Vignes. The vines, between 20 and 30 years old, come from the domaine’s best plots. The grapes go through a short prefermentation at 18 degrees and then ferment in tank, the vatting lasting for three weeks. There’s no wood in this wine. It’s a silky beauty with lipsmacking black cherry and cherry pit flavors.
“Les Rotissants” is a cuvee named after its lieu-dit. And its name alone tells you what kind of microclimate this particular vineyard enjoys. The succulent 2003, aged in newish oak, had more gravitas than the previous reds – with its rich, dark fruit accented by licorice – and was equally delectable.
The domaine’s most serious red is the cuvee “Les Roches.” It ages for a year to 18 months in new oak. The 2004, an ambassador for Loire cabernets, was a smooth silk stream of freshness and tight, ripe, red and black fruit. An super meal wine. Prunes joined the black cherry mix of flavors in the 2005 La Roche, the texture of which was as velvety as it was silky. Excellent.
We ended on a mini-vertical of the Cuvee Sarah, the domaine’s sweet Coteaux de Saumur, which is an assemblage of the harvest from a single parcel mixed with grapes from the best tris in other parcels. The 2004, with 12.5 degrees alcohol and 130 grams of residual sugar, was a lush silk tapestry of quince, honey, pineapple and verbena. The chenin grapes were so healthy in 2005 that there wasn’t much botrytis. The domaine’s Cuvee Sarah, nevertheless, was richly honeyed and almost billowed with peach and apple scents. We finished with the luminous ’97 Cuvee Sarah (12 degrees alcohol and 180 grams residual sugar). There was a light note of oxidation as well as evolved flavors of butterscotch, wax and peach compote but , in all, it was a sumptuous, crystalline wine, a pure, honey and herbal tea nectar.
My bottom line on Retif/Retiveau: they don’t put one foot wrong. Ever.

Part 2(a)

The tasting over, I went home immediately to begin dinner preparations but recommended that anyone who wanted to do a little tourism, stop in Candes-St. Martin, with its flower-covered tuffeau-and-slate houses lining the banks of the Loire and its magnificent medieval church anchoring the main square of the fairytale village.
I had hoped we’d eat outdoors, in the garden, but, as you may know, we’ve not had much of a summer in France. The weather was gloomy and cold. At best, we could drink aperitifs outside.
Now, I’m often frustrated and frazzled when the most interesting and note-taking worthy wines are served during the meal, especially a rather festive one. I can’t give the wines the attention they deserve. So I decided that, in lieu of ‘happy hour,’ we’d do a formal-ish tasting before dinner -- going through a number of the samples that the various vignerons had brought as well as wines from my cellar and that this would enable us to pay attention to and talk about the wines. It went on for hours. And we sustained ourselves with potato chips – which happen to be one of my favorite food groups. We were also hoping that the Bourgignons – who had just returned from consulting in Uruguay – would arrive from their home in Burgundy in time for dinner.

The menu: langoustines and clams purchased and prepared by Guy. (He has been the supplier of the best langoustines I’ve ever eaten.) Then poulet au vinaigre prepared by me and served with string beans tossed with butter. Now I love poulet au vinaigre and make it often. This one time it didn’t work. And it didn’t work because of the honey I used – an artisanal miel de chataignier (chestnut tree) from the Ardeche so fragrant that it dominated the dish instead of melding with the other ingredients. It became a sweet-and-sour chicken and a less friendly wine partner than the French classic I’d been expecting. Then some cheeses, including local chevres from the Loire and the Languedoc, followed by two desserts I’d made, a chocolate cake from Maida Heatter’s first book and, inevitably, clafouti aux mirabelles.

Preprandial Tasting Chez Moi :
The first two wines – dry whites – were from Pablo Chevrot, a young Burgundian winemaker. I was meeting Pablo and his wife Kaori (Japanese) for the first time. They are friends of Alain and Isabelle Hasard who had recommended that they join the group. Pablo has a sizeable domaine which is converting to biodynamics. He’ll be joined in the cellar by this brother who, most recently was the winemaker at Heritiers Lafon in Macon.

2006 Bourgogne Aligote Domaine Chevrot “Cuvee des Quatre Terres”: rich, well built and well made, with some minerality, it comes across like a chardonnay. Too good for a kir.

2006 Bourgogne Blanc Hautes Cotes de Beaune chardonnay, Domaine Chevrot. Fermented in tank and barrel, the wine, which comes from Chevrot’s best parcel, was bottled a week before we tasted it. It was quite pure and very precise, rather (traditional) Macon-like, the kind of wine that could unify a jury. I expect it will flesh out with some time in bottle and gain in personality.

Alain Hasard was disappointed that we were going to Savennieres. (I pointed out that it’s a good hour and a half drive from my house.) To make amends, I found two bottles of Savennieres in my “cave du jour” – the hundred or so bottles I keep at home and not in my cave in tuffeau.

1997 Savennieres Clos des Perrieres, Pierre-Yves Tijou: The wine was surprisingly oxidized. ’97 was a very forward year but I expected the Savennieres to stay the course. Although it was extremely mineral, with a core of iron, it seemed well past its prime. Disappointing, especially as I normally love the chenins from Pierre-Yves Tijou.The bottle?

2002 Savennieres Moelleux Chateau d’Epire Cuvee Armand Bizard: A ctually, we drank this wine later in the line-up – after the reds – but it makes sense to include it here. It was a delightful wine, distinctly terroir-driven and bursting with character. Nicely structured, it had appetizing flavors of honey and herbal tea.

2005 Bourgogne rouge Domaine des Champs de l'Abbaye (Alain & Isabelle Hasard): lovely pinot noir fruit, lovely structure, simply delicious.

2005 Santenay 1er Cru Clos Rousseau, Domaine Chevrot: Pablo has 1.5 hectares in this PC, with a large percentage of old vines. The wine was partially aged in new oak (about 30%). Fresh, berried red with mint accents and succulent flavors of plum and cherry. There’s some depth here, a vin de plaisir with gravitas.

2005 Vin de Pays d’Oc Mas Champart: On land outside the St. Chinian appellation, the Champarts planted cabernet franc and syrah. The former, planted in ’88, accounts for 70% of the assemblage of this wine; syrah, the remaining 30%. Tank fermented, it’s a juicy red that I found particularly impressive because of the very true expression of ripe cabernet franc. The wine was fresh, not at all heavy or jammy, and had fine, focused fruit, almost Loire-like in its buoyancy.

2005 St. Chinian rouge Mas Champart Cote d’Arbo: A deeply fragrant red, chiefly Syrah and grenache with carignan and a bit of mourvedre, it exhaled aromas of black cherry, cherry pit, blueberry, eau de vie and violets. It was rich, supple and beautifully balanced, again Loire-like in the chamber-music clarity of its fruit. (How smart not to have ‘oaked’ it!) The wine weighed in at 13.5 alcohol but was fresh, light on its feet, with a lipsmacking finish. A ravishingly pretty wine.

The Cote d’Arbo is a specific parcel – with calcareous soils unusual in the area. I think the Champarts have named the parcel Arbo after the old vigneron who used to work it – pushing his bicycle uphill so he could ride down like a thrill-seeking kid.

Champagne Premier Cru Blanc de Blanc (Vertus) Larmandier-Bernier: A base of 2005 with reserve wine from 2004 and a dosage of 5, this was a full, ripe Champagne with broad appley flavors that, happily, never veered into the cider camp. The richness of the wine initially masked its chalky minerality, though that, as well as citrus zest, ginger, and stone, came through loud and clear on second tasting. The finish was a long echo of the above flavors.

When we were roughly midway through tasting the reds, the Bourgignons called from the road, thinking they were within striking distance. No such luck. They were between Orleans and Blois. It would take them the better part of an hour and a half to get to my house. So, at about 9:30 we decided to attack the first course – the langoustines and clams brought and prepared by Guy.

Now, the Larmandier’s Blanc de Blanc Champagne would have been exquisite with this course. But we’d finished the bottle. Never mind. What we did drink was equally satisfying. Guy had brought a magnum of ’96 Muscadet de Sevre & Maine “Expression Granite” ‘Hermine d’Or.’ Granite, which comes from a vineyard called La Baziliere, is his most mineral-driven cuvee and is almost always my favorite of his wines. It is a very serious Muscadet and the ’96, a year for the ages, was drinking beautifully, fresh and stony as a mountain stream. (Hermine d’Or refers to a label of quality devised by group of vignerons – Guy is a charter member -- who submit their wines to be tasted by their colleagues during a scheduled meeting. Wines that qualify may affix a strip saying ‘Hermine d’Or’ across the necks of the bottles.)

We had almost polished off the two huge seafood platters when The Soil Whisperers arrived. That’s my own personal moniker for Claude and Lydia, flying terroirists who advise such bold-faced clients as Aubert de Villaine and Anne Leflaive how to reanimate their overworked soils – and thus enhance the typicity of their wines – by using natural methods like plowing with a horse and digging in biologically correct fertilizers, ie compost. They also tell people what to plant where – chardonnay on this slope, malbec on that. In other words, when the Bourgignons talk, friends of the earth listen. Claude also has a way of issuing provocative dicta: he famously claimed the soils of the Cote d’Or were so depleted from overuse of chemicals that they had no more life left in them than the Sahara desert. He also claims that great red wine can only be made where there is chalk or limestone in the soils. And he has been known to dig far enough into the subsoils to find the single vein of chalk running through the slate-and-quartz dominated subsoils of the Priorat region of Spain. So I thought I’d pull out a red made from the schisty soils of the Layon area – Pierre Bise’s 2000 Anjou Villages “Spilite”. Those who know the proprietors, Claude and Joelle Papin, know that they, too, are committed terroirists. Spilite is the name of the soils from which this cabernet comes. And chalk or no chalk, I often find the Papin’s cabernets – Anjou or Anjou Villages – to be amongst the most elegant and long-lived of the region’s reds.
This wine fully lived up to my hopes for it. Sadly, I can’t recall the exact conversation. But it may well have been at this point that Claude and Lydia began talking about how wines from different soil types stimulate different salivary glands. So we all started paying attention to our saliva. (So much to learn, so little time!)
I also brought out a 1994 Madiran Chateau Montus “2000 Jours.” This was a special cuvee that (then) owner Alain Brumont made to commemorate the year 2000. It was pure tannat and had aged in new oak for, yes, 2000 days. Actually, Brumont made the wine in association with two buddies, the fashion designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and the painter Jean-Paul Chambas, none of them strangers to publicity. The wine wasn’t bad but it was – surprise, surprise – oaky. I’m saving the bottle, however, as the label – a kind of collage in the form of a picture-less picture frame with reprentations of Mona Lisa, Hollywood starlets etc – is probably as collectible as a Mouton one-off.
A 2002 Gewurtztraminer VT “Fronholz” from Domaine Ostertag easily carried us through artisanal blue cheese (from the Languedoc) and chevre (from the Loire) and the mirabelle clafouti. I imagine I brought out some sort of brandy to go with the chocolate cake. But I don’t remember. All I can say is that I got to bed at 3:30 AM and our first tasting was scheduled for 10:30 AM with Bernard Baudry in Cravant.

Day Two

Somewhat the worse for wear, we made it to Bernard’s cellars on time. If you have read either of my two books, you know that I consider Bernard one of the most conscientious vignerons in the Loire and one of the top producers of Chinon. I have great faith in him and, when I want to know the truth about something relating to Chinon wine – the health of the harvest, the evolution of a particular vintage – I go to him. He now works with his son Matthieu, a serious, hardworking, charming young man, who had just left on vacation.

Bernard had just returned from Corsica the night before. The vines there were impeccably healthy. I think our visit enabled Bernard to put off the inevitable face-to-face with his vines –which would likely not be as lovely to look at as those in Patrimonio.

On their 30 hectares of vines, Bernard and Matthieu produce a rose, a white and no less than four versions of red Chinon a year.
A lively, direct press 2006 Chinon rose prepared our palates for a series of fascinating red Chinons;
2006 “Les Grange” (a lieu-dit): Now here’s a red you just want to slurp up. No oak here, just vibrant, juicy fruit, light tannins and a touch of heat in the finish. I could drink it by the bucket.
2005 “Domaine” – assembled from various soils, aged in large wood barrels, bottled the following spring, filtration not systematic. Focused black cherry fruit accented by old wood; succulent but a bit hot and drying in the finish – not surprising with 13.7 alcohol and I’m sure a little time and/or aeration will resolve my minor reservations.
2005 “Les Grezeaux” – gravelly soils, wine aged in 6-year old barriques– Great freshness and fluidity, lovely fruit mingled with forest underbrush and chalk. Again, a touch of heat in the finish.
2005 Franc de Pied (Planted in ’93, this is a one-hectare plot of ungrafted vines in the Clos Guillot vineyard. The soils are sandy chalk, which may explain why these vines, unlike other ungrafted vines in Chinon, have not been attacked by phylloxera.) Rich, concentrated red fruit. A stunning wine. I do believe that the Bourgignons took great pains to point out which of our saliva glands were working here – because they did, indeed, seem to be working overtime.
2005 Clos Guillot: 14.5 alcohol here yet you don’t feel it. Yes, it’s a very rich Chinon, but fruity, silky elegant and structured. Not one false note. An excellent Chinon.
2005 La Croix Boissee (pure chalk soils): A beautifully mingled nose; on the palate, a lipsmacking wash of black cherry, elegant and soigne. Another excellent Chinon.
2002 Grezeaux: Fresh, gently fruited, airborn, very focused, a direct and seamless flow over the palate.
2002 Croix Boissee: Great freshness, stony, light, some veggie notes but quite agreeable.
’95 Grezeaux: Focused, straight as an arrow, airborn, with notes of sandalwood. Drink up.
’95 Croix Boissee: Faded roses, sandalwood, fresh and mouthfilling. Drink up.

We were going to finish the tasting with some of Bernard’s white Chinons but time marches on: we had a 3:30 appointment with Yannick Amirault in Bourgueil and a “no later than 1:30” reservation at le Moulin Bleu, a pleasant restaurant next door to Amirault’s cellars.

Owned and run by Michel and Chantal Breton – a smiling, very professional couple -- the restaurant occupies a renovated 15th century mill on a hillside overlooking Bourgueil and its best vineyards. (Alas, it also overlooks the nuclear power plant in Avoine. But never mind.) The weather was agreeable enough for everyone to want to be on the terrace – an undeniably pleasant place to be. The 19 euro lunch menu is a fine bargain and the food, with its focus on hearty local specialties (eg salad with rillons, coq au vin) is just fine. (Though fewer but better garnishes would be a plus.) The very good, reasonably priced wine list is particularly strong in Touraine appellations, with plenty of excellent Vouvrays and Bourgueils. Should you want to go: Le Moulin Bleu, 7 rue du Moulin Bleu, (Ask to sit outside.)

We arrived chez Amirault a bit late – le p’tit quart d’heure de Rabelais, as they say in Touraine – and to the frowns of Madame. But when Yannick saw Claude Bourgignon, he was so impressed he nearly fainted. Yannick is converting his vineyards to biodynamic farming. There was talk of the effects of the lousy weather and this and that and then we got down to tasting.

Now, I’ve known Yannick (and his wines) since 1990 and it’s exciting to have watched him develop from a diligent and reliably good vigneron to his current status as – for me – the best winemaker in Bourgueil and St. Nicolas de Bourgueil. Over the years he has gone from being a fine craftsman to emerging as a poet of wine.

2006 Bourgueil “La Coudraie”: this cuvee comes from three parcels. The soils are a mix of sand and gravel; the average age of the vines is 30 years. The wine was bottled barely a month before we tasted it. A pellucid attack with vivid flavors of black cherry and cherry pits. The finish, for now, is a bit abrupt and lightly hot, but the wine will surely calm down with a bit of bottle age. Very promising.
2006 St. Nicolas de B “La Mine” (from tank): (from gravelly soils): dark purple, very pure, very juicy, rich black cherry flavors, great freshness. Lovely.
2006 Bourgueil “Les Quartiers VV” (from barrel): (soils = argilo calcaire): Intense, focused cherry pit flavors; a sumptuous, velvety wine, it envelops the palate yet remains crystalline. Superb.
2006 Grand Clos (from barrel): (soils: argile a silex): A gorgeous onslaught of blueberries, blackberries, flint, and salt, it’s so elegant and delicious. A tomber.

It was at about this point that Claude declared Yannick “an artist, a poet!” – in an exclamation that recalled Zoltan Karpathy’s triumphant recognition of Eliza Doolittle as a Hungarian-born princess in “My Fair Lady.” (Ok, a bit far to go for an allusion.)
2005 Les Quartiers: (The wine fermented for over a year. 14.4 alc.) The color of blueberry concentrate, with aromas of cassis, black cherry, and eau de vie. Despite a somewhat drying finish, the wine is exquisite.
2005 St. Nic de Bgl “Malgagnes" (argilo calcaire (tuffeau) covered by 40 centimeters of argilo-siliceux): Another wine to die for. Black velvet, Ellington’s Satin Doll, it’s elegant, rich and fresh. This is definitely a cru. Never mind the grape variety; it’s closer to Burgundy than to Bordeaux.
2005 Bourgueil “La Petite Cave” (Yannick’s best parcel in Bourgueil): Quite reduced but very promising – cinnamon and velvet, and lovely, fresh fruit.
It was time to leave. We were all somewhat giddy. Not from the alcohol but from the elation induced by having tasted great wine.

Wine of the Week: August 13, 2007: 2003 Chablis Premier Cru Fourchaume, Francine & Olivier Savary: Yes, 2003, the vintage we francophile winegeeks love to hate: the poster vintage for the evils of climate change, the unprecented heatwave resulted in full-blown (frequently over-blown) wines which often a) lacked phenolic ripeness; b) lacked balance and were too heavy; and/or c) lacked acidity or whose acidity had been clumsily ‘enhanced’; and a host of other things. Well, here’s a 2003 that any wine lover can get behind. Yes, it’s atypically rich for a Chablis. But it’s light on its feet. It’s hugely mineral and flinty, with rich aromas of preserved lemon and verbena. It’s even pleasantly fresh, with an appetizingly bitter tang in the finish. It’s a really good, really “Chablis” Chablis from a very, very, very ripe vintage. Deal with it!(Or accept standardized wines that don't reflect their vintage.)

July 10, 2007 Report on July 4th:
My birthday, Mary's birthday and Independence Day:
I was hoping for warm and sunny weather, and imagining a nice, balmy evening in the garden. And so I was thinking: equal parts red, white, rose, with the reds slightly chilled. But it was cold and dreary, with on and off showers. Nevertheless, I had set aside two dozen bottles of good, easy-drinking wine and, if tastes really changed, I figured I could punt. We polished off about 16 bottles, some of them the recorked Alsace samples (of which I still have about six). Here’s a list of the others: (Note: it will not make you jealous but my it did make my guests happy.)

2003 VdP d’Oc Viognier La Baume (screwcap): La Baume is a leader in the fighting varietal war being waged against New World wines. The Viognier was quite pleasant, fresh and fragrant.
2003 VdP des Coteaux du Libron Chardonnay Domaine Caumette
2002 VdP Cotes de Gascogne Chardonnay Tariquet
People kept telling me, “I love the chardonnay,” but, being chief cook and bottle washer, I never had the time to ask “Which Chardonnay?”
2003 Cotes du Rhone blanc Domaine de la Presidente: see notes below.
2004 Cotes du Rhone rose Domaine Guy Musset
2003 (I think) VdP d’Oc Rose de Syrah Clamery: a nice, big, flavorful rose.
2003 Irouleguy rouge Premia, Les Vignerons du Pays Basque. A drink-me-up Tannat – to the extent that such a beast exists.
2000 VdP d’Oc rouge “La Bergerie” Domaine de Ste Croix: good and juicy. I should have included it in my book, if only as a mention.
2003 Cairanne ‘Grands Classiques’ Domaine de la Presidente: When tasting wines for my book, The Wines of France, I didn’t much care for the samples sent from this domaine. As they’d sent duplicates, I had a chance to retaste two – the two noted here – for the party. Each was a good, solid Rhone – and should have been mentioned in my book. Both were ripe and rich, as the vintage would indicate, but neither was heavy or exaggerated. Nice, easy drinking.
2005 Bourgueil Freres Nau: Abel brought a magnum of this wine and it was the star of the evening. People – including yours truly – kept chasing Abel around the house in search of refills. It’s a delicious Bourgueil from an often overlooked domaine. Try it; you’ll like it.
The wines fit the food and the mood. I’d made a chickpea dip (Jaime Oliver recipe, very easy), tuna and caper rillettes, and blue cheese biscuits. Most people brought food. In addition to balloons and sparklers, Mary brought quite a few cheeses – as did other people – as well as mini hotdogs, mini hotdogs in a spicy sauce, mozzarella and cherry tomato kabobs, watermelon, prunes wrapped in bacon, devilled eggs, spicy meatballs with quails’eggs inside, and sliced dried sausage. She also made a birthday cake – classic American devil’s food sheetcake. Other guests brought piroshki, eggplant caviar, and charcuterie; as well as cranberry crumble and petite fours. Dominique made pasteis de nata but forgot to add the flour to the filling. They were delicious anyway.
Now it doesn’t look as if we drank all that much – at least not by my standards. I had a hangover the next day anyway. So did most everyone else.
Abel had forgotten his jacket – with wallet and papers (licenses, passport) inside. So he came back to fetch it the following day and observed that he was surprised by the large percentage of French people at the party. “You’ve really made your home here,” said he.
I replied that there were representatives of no less than seven nations: France, USA, England, Portugal, Latvia, Serbia and Holland. Is the French countryside more of a melting pot than the USofA?

Wine of the Week: July 10, 2007
Domaine du Grand Cros 2005 Cotes de Provence Rose “Nectar”: Now here’s a wine to convert those who turn up their noses at the very idea of rose and to delight those who never needed convincing. It might also go a fair way to proving that such a thing as a “serious” rose does, indeed, exist. The basics: carignan, mourvedre and syrah, with an average yield of 35 hl/ha; cold prefermentation before vinification in barrel and aging sur lie. A deep salmon-pink, this is a big, taut, rich rose with the texture of satin. It’s very fruity with strawberry flavors accented by peach. But it’s more mineral and stony than it is fruity and has a long, dry finish. The Domaine du Grand Cros, an eco-friendly, state-of-the-art winery, makes three levels of wine in each color. Nectar is the haute de gamme. I’ll be reporting on their other wines in the near future.

Wine of the Week: June 25, 2007:Domaine de l’Alliance, 33210 Langon. Sauternes and Graves. Young Daniel and Valerie Alibrand met at La Tour Blanche, a famous winemaking school in the Bordelais. From Valerie’s family, they inherited land, including 6 hectares in Sauternes – on the same crest as Rieussec and de Fargues. Their first vintage was 2005, a blessing for most vintners. Not for Daniel and Valerie. They find their 2005 Sauternes too heavy and prefer the freshness and balance of 2006. They’re being a bit hard on themselves – in the best possible way: both vintages are excellent. The 2005, predominantly semillon, aged in used barrels from Yquem and de Fargues, is crystalline, fresh and rich with flavors of honey and mango. The 2006, a barrel sample of pure semillon, still had flavors of fermentation but was extremely promising, a cascade of freshness, with flavors of apple compote, minerals and quinine and a long, long finish. Some might find it atypical of Sauternes but it’s the kind of atypical authenticity that I love. And there’s an explanation: Daniel worked in Vouvray and prefers the balance of those wines to Sauternes. He won’t use new barrels (and evidently has very good sources for used barriques); he won’t harvest botrytised sauvignon blanc, preferring instead, shrivelled grapes (passerillage). Each is extremely appetizing, one sip leading to the next. They also make a mighty fine Graves Superieur, the 2006 of which is focused, balanced and bracing, a rich, bright, demi-sec.

June 5, 2007: Another Shaggy Meal Story: June 2, 2007: Asparagus Day Chez Marionnet:
If a collection called “The Sayings of Chairman Marionnet” were ever to be compiled, the first entry would surely be his claim for his wines: Ceux sont des vins qui desoulent. (These are wines that sober you up.) Now, Marionnet’s wines are as close as wines get to thirstquenching but I have never really believed that they restore sobriety.
And so it was that, when invited to spend a gastronomic Saturday at his home in Sologne, I opted for the train, rather than my ’87 Renault 5, arriving in Blois where Henry met me.
The day was grey and overcast. We took the long route to the Marionnet HQ – touring plots on which Henry had planted his ungrafted vines (all of which go into his Vinifera line). From a distance, all were bursting with health – which was, in fact, the case with most -- though on closer inspection, some of the leaves and some of the embryonic bunches showed signs of hail damage from the violent storms that had swept through the region two weeks earlier. The damage was nothing that a stretch of warm, sunny weather wouldn’t cure, but Henry fussed and clucked like a mother whose 8 year old has skinned both knees.
Then it was on to the homestead where Marie-Jo and a cook were peeling mounds of white asparagus. Henry walked me into the most recent addition to his house, a spacious, luminous ‘winter garden,’ lined with breakfronts whose shelves were filled with vintage Brittany and Blesois (from Blois) faience, the latter – which I’d never seen before – characterized by turquoise-colored backgrounds, gilt-edging and Baroquely geometric borders.
It’s not unusual in France for a host to wait until all guests have arrived before serving the first glass of wine or spirits. I didn’t, however, think this would be the case with Henry Marionnet – of all people, the crowned king of carousing!
So as we sat on opposing couches, a tray of gleaming (empty) wine glasses on the coffee table between us, I did a most unFrench thing though in a classically Marionnet way. When in a situation in which glasses are empty or not present at all, the Chairman pronounces another of his signature Sayings, “On se croirait dans une ferme dans la Beauce.” (Loose but faithful translation – ‘We might as well be in a Beauce farmhouse.’ The Beauce being the breadbasket of France where people drink milk, not wine.)
And he leapt into action, returning with a bottle of 2006 Chenin Blanc from his Vinifera line which was soon joined by a plate of delicious rillettes.
I’m often very critical of Chenin blanc made beyond the eastern limits of the Vouvray appellation. But here was a shimmering exception. Also an exception to my rule-of-thumb that Loire Chenin is not for quaffing. Here was a fresh, ethereal white, with floral and mineral flavors as delicately spun as a vintage handkerchief. One of those wines that just slips down the gullet.
We had been talking about old times and old friends and, as often happens when our conversation takes this turn, we began trading stories about Jean-Francois Dubreuil, a brilliant, hilariously funny wine merchant from the Vendee who, because of health reasons, retired a year or two ago.
When Jean-Francois would begin a round of drinking – whether in one place or as part of a moveable tasting, from one cellar to another – he would, Henry recalled, address the liquid he was about to swallow in the following manner, “Places-toi bien. Tu vas voir defiler des choses!” (Position yourself well. You’re going to see quite a parade!)
Enfin, the other guests arrived – a thirtysomething couple – Benjamin, a fireplug, a real lover of wine and, not least of all, the director of wine sales for the hypermarket chain Carrefour, and his pretty wife, Marie, a schoolteacher in the posh suburb of Neuilly – and their very calm, very content infant, Augustin Pierre Gaspard (and those are only his given names; he’s also got a double-barreled family name).
Immediately Henry piled us into his car and drove us to see his small plot of sculpturally gnarled prephylloxera Romorantin vines. Romorantin is cultivated only in small pocket of the Loire and is the only grape allowed in the tiny appellation Cour-Cheverny. It makes an interesting, chenin-like white and Henry’s remarkable Provignage may be the finest of the lot.
It’s a suave, mineral white, rather rich and supple even when fully dry. It can easily be drunk all alone – as Henry likes to do – or with a multiplicity of dishes, starting with melon and prosciutto, maybe, and moving on to main courses of white meat or fowl. On this day, however, Marie-Jo brought out rillettes, rillons, and pan fried rounds of boudin noir, all from an excellent charcuterie in the small, nearby town of Contres.
Thus commenced a meal that was 1000% Ligerian (ie from the Loire). First, those white asparagus – picked earlier in the day – with a thick sauce based on crème fraiche and red wine vinegar. To go with the asparagus, what else? Henry’s rich but bracingly fresh 2005 Vinifera Sauvignon Blanc.
Then came a matelote d’anguilles – eel stewed in red wine – with a side of tiny girolle mushrooms.
With it, Henry served the 2005 Premiere Vendange, his juicy, mineral, completely unsulphured Gamay. It’s such a pretty wine, particularly in 2005, that I thought it too tame for the eel. I’m hardly a stickler for food and wine marriages but I suggested that Marionnet’s Cepages Oublies – based on a not quite legally permitted grape, the Gamay de Bouze – make a better match. Out came a bottle and, voila!, it was perfect, a spicy, lipsmacking red with a hint of the wild about it that went perfectly with the innate rudeness of eel.
Next, yes next, came farmhouse chicken, roasted to perfection, with crispy skin and juicy, flavorful meat. This was paired with more girolle mushrooms and mashed potatoes that give the Robuchon version a run for the money. (Though chez Marionnet the puree focused on potato rather than on butter.) I am still dreaming about that roast chicken and that puree. And although I’m on a much needed diet, I regret not having eaten more.
I think Henry wanted to serve his Vinifera Gamay with this course but I begged, successfully, for the Vinifera Cot. The deep blackberry color of a Cote Rotie, it’s about as succulent as wine can get, with profound flavors of ripe, dark fruit.
Cheese (local goat and artisanal Roquefort) was followed by sorbet and a pie-shaped galette, crunchy and rich with the flavors of sugar and butter.
At some point Henry disappeared into the cellar and came back with a 1976 Gamay de Touraine which tasted for all the world like a mossy Pinot Noir.
It’s common at times like this to marvel at how well a wine that was never meant to age has actually managed to age; then to up the ante, saying that it’s still got a good life ahead of it and can age some more. Trust me. This was the time to have drunk that wine.
Speaking of time, you will not be surprised to hear that with all this eating and drinking, combined with animated discussions of burning wine issues, I missed my train back to Paris. Luck was with me however. I hitched a ride with Benjamin, Marie and the baby. And though I’d hoped to nap, we talked wine and food all the way home.

May 17, 2007: Picking up where I left off in my Arles diary, two new restaurants. Scroll down to April 19.

May 11, 2007:Boating on the Seine
At about the time the new president of France was returning from his yachting vacation, a group of wine professionals embarked on a rather shorter but no less sweet boating trip in the City of Light.
On a sweater-cool day, with just enough sun to avoid complaints about the weather, we set off on a sleek little yacht called Act III for a two hour cruise on the Seine. During this time we would taste the “Top Twenty” wines from the appellation Entre-Deux-Mers. The wines would be accompanied by the “creations” of Jean-Pierre Vigato (Restaurant Apicius) and the mises en scene (transl. “staging”) by Lenotre.
Once upon a time, as I’m sure you recall, Entre-Deux-Mers was a cheap, bland, near transparent white that tasted like alcoholized water. It’s still pretty cheap, as prices go, but it’s much richer, more flavorful and more textured these days.
Better winemaking, not to mention a more competitive market, can be credited for that. But a couple of factors that go into the new, improved winemaking style deserve to be singled out. The first would be the increased (and increasing) use of sauvignon gris, a grape that adds richness to the usual sauvignon blanc, semillon (and sometimes muscadelle) blend. The second is the increased (and increasing) practice of aging the wine on its fine lees for a period of time after fermentation. And yes, skin contact and very cool fermentation temperatures also affect the final outcome.
The wines tend to be more alike than they are different. In general, expect bracing, zesty whites, often rather pungent, with vivid flavors of grapefruit and grapefruit zests, some herbaceousness, minerals (in the best), as well as the marrowy texture and thread of fine bubbles that come from aging sur lie.
The price that you’d pay at the cellar is below (often well below) 10 euros. And the wines, in general, are best well iced. Perfect for those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.
Herewith, some recommendations. (Prices ex-cellar, in euros).
Best Buys:
Chateau Chantelouve, 3,40
Chateau Haut Garriga, 3,40.
Chateau Lestrille, 4,90.
Cave de Rauzan, 3.40.
Very Good:
Chateau Bonnet, Lurton family, 6,75 euros.
Chateau Lalande-Labatut, 5,50. (40% sauvignon gris).
Chateau Martinon, 4,65: Chiefly semillon.
Chateau Sainte-Marie: 6,30. One of few, maybe the only, wine made entirely with hand harvested grapes. Very light filtration. One of the most textured.entirely hand havest.
Chateau Tour de Mirambeau, 7,25. Creamy (in the ‘everything’s relative’ sense) and a touch hot.
Chateau Vignol, 5,80. Fresh as a breeze though a streak of bitterness intrudes.
Chateau Vrai Caillou, 8 euros. The most expensive but also the most textured, the most marrowy, the most subdued, with the most gravitas and the most minerality.
Best Ratio Price/Quality/Atmosphere:
Chateau Fontenille, 5 euros. I was appalled to see our yacht doing an about face – which meant we were returning. More appalled to realize I’d been below deck, tasting, while the boat passed the Eiffel Tower. Not on the way back! So I leaned against the railing, with this delightful white in my glass, and simply ENJOYED. Delightful.
Now, all the while, we were being served exquisite amuse-bouches/tapas. There were many delectable fish-based nibbles and other confections that looked like jewelry – teeny, glistening squares of foie gras on pain d’epices, mini boxes of dark chocolate filled with semi-melted foie gras. As a serious professional I was going to avoid the last two until I’d finished evaluating the wines. Then I saw how rapidly they were disappearing and snatched one of each.
Which just goes to show you that when you’re in a yacht on the Seine there are absolutely no ‘food and wine pairing’ issues presented by the marriage of bone-dry, ice cold, light white wine with deep, dark, rich chocolate and foie gras.
Finally, it’s amazing how quickly two hours pass when you’re not eg listening to a presidential debate but gliding along the Seine with tasty wine and gorgeous food, admiring the tracery work of the Eiffel Tower, the champagne-colored stones of the Louvre and so on. But, dear reader, not all tastings are like this.

May 3, 2007 Gardening Day Update:
The sky was a leaden grey but it did not rain – or not more than a couple of drops now and then – on May 1, at least not in the time frame that mattered. (The storm arrived after 8pm. Satellite reception was knocked out, so no tv, but the hours of plowing, pruning and weeding, as well as the hours of eating and drinking were over by that time.)
Right now I’m sitting outside, under the pergola, nearly intoxicated by how lush and beautiful everything looks. Roses, lilacs, ceanothus all in full bloom, irises spent, wisteria (finally) creeping up the most sunlit pergola support and getting tangled in the dead branches of a wild cherry tree. Peonies ready to burst open, clematis budding here and there, as well as new shoots of lavender and sage. There’s the sound of a distant lawn mower, of the Indre River rushing over its weir, and of the conference of the birds (pace Peter Brook). The air is as fresh and fragrant as if it had been scrubbed clean. And it’s cool and fresh, not hot and muggy as it has been for the past week.
Now if only I could get rid of that last lingering bit of hang-over.
Ah, we drank! Starting with Guy Bossard’s 2006s – an invigorating Gros Plant (better than 90% of mass market Muscadets), and the deeply mineral “Granite” from the single vineyard Baziliere. Then came Francois Pinon’s Vouvray. (He’d arrived late, having exhausted himself over the weekend during his annual two-day Portes-Ouvertes when clients (actual or potential) come to taste, snack and chat. But he was in time for the meal and piqued our appetites with his vibrant 2006 sec and his luscious 2005 Cuvee Botrytis. (More on these in my Loire notes, once I finally pick up where I left off, with the “P”s.)
In all, we were 11, a really tight squeeze around my dining room table: Abel and Dominique (see Gardening Day #1), Monique and Charles Joguet (bearing two bottles of ’88 Dioterie, ’95 Chene Vert and ’96 Varennes du Grand Clos), Joyce (who often appears in my diar-etic notes), Michel and Guilhem (of site mug shot and Tarte Tatin fame), and Ilona (Latvian ambassador and Brenda Blethyn look-alike who was born in deportee camp in Germany, grew up in Yorkshire, has four grown kids and is a natural comedian and singer).
Back to what we drank. For my hard working gardeners, I had put out a bottle of mineral water (which went unopened) and a bottle of 2003 Irouleguy rose from Domaine Ametzia, strong and taut and fresh. There was none of this left.
With the first course, two Tavel roses: 2004 Domaine Lafond-Roc Epine (pleasant and flavorful but a bit ‘obvious’ and 2003 Domaine Trinquevedel (bracing, taut and tasty).
Guy did not bring any eels or langoustines so I made the aforementioned Tuscan white bean and tuna salad. (With chopped red onion, a vivid vinaigrette, and, at the last minute, some squirts of fresh lemon and a lug or two of rich olive oil.) This was on a bed of cress (from aforementioned cressiculteur in neighborhing Huismes) and was garnished with toasts covered with tapenade.
With the main course: two Bandols: 2001 Domaine Tempier and 2002 Domaine du Gros Nore. These were major hits with everyone, as was Joguet's very, very different ’88 Chinon Clos de la Dioterie, all sandalwood and dried flowers and sweet spices. In their various ways, each was wonderful with the Tuscan rabbit. (Basically from the cookbook Soffritto except that I added a whole lot more garlic – which I didn’t mince – as well as more sage and rosemary, both of which I left on the branch.) This was accompanied by farfalle tossed with lots of sweet butter, snipped chives, parmesan, salt and pepper.
Two more Chinons and one of my recorked Alsace Gewurtztraminer Grand Crus with the cheeses which segued into dessert, Maida Heatter’s East 62nd Street Lemon Cake, accompanied by last year’s mirabelles which I’d put by with a mix of alcohol and sugar.
And Dominique had made pasteis de nata. The pastel de nata is an iconic and addictively delicious Portuguese pastry. In the way any woman marrying a son of Nantes must learn to make beurre blanc, I assume that any woman marrying a son of Portugal must master the pastel de nata. And Dominique could win the blue ribbon at the Coimbra county fair with hers. And then digestifs and coffee.
The mosquitos are getting to me so just a word on last night’s presidential debate: WAY TO GO, SEGO!

April 2007 : For notes on the 2006 vintage in Bordeaux, check out Book Updates; Loire notes continue. click on Works, then click on "A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire.

April 30, 2007, 8:45pm
Anguish. Gardening Day is tomorrow. The weather forecast is far from favorable. Predictions include scattered showers and, later, possibly violent storms. But the weather forecasts are often wrong. It was supposed to rain today and, so far, it hasn’t. So if the predicted precipitation can hold off until around 2:30 tomorrow, that would be just great. What with our June-in-April weather, the garden has become a jungle so work urgently needs to be done. (But if the weather cooperates, working in the garden will be a fragrant pleasure – with the lilacs, roses, ceanothus and muguets all in bloom.)
Preparing for Gardening Day means I don’t get to write anything “serious.” I’ve already made Maida Heatter’s East 62nd Street lemon cake. I’ve got two rabbits in the fridge – having made a spread out of their livers that I sauteed with red wine and capers. Dilemma: having consulted some 30 cookbooks, I’ve narrowed the choice down to two: do I make a classic lapin a la moutarde or a recipe from Benedetta Vitali’s “Soffritto”(white wine, herbs, garlic)? Further dilemma: I like to make things the night before but, since I’m afraid the rabbit will dry out if cooked that much in advance, I’ve accepted that I’ll just have to be more stressed than I like to be tomorrow and cook the main course as people are arriving and waiting for their “assignments”.
Also in the fridge are baby carrots, baby turnips, fat bunches of cress and several lettuces from the cressonier in the next village. Also local goat cheese, farmhouse St. Nectaire, Camembert moule a la louche and an 18 month old Comte. For a first course, I’m ready to make a Tuscan white bean and tuna salad but I’ll hold off because Guy Bossard may well show up with langoustines or oysters or a freshly smoked eel.
Guy will also bring his 2006 Muscadets for us to taste. If Francois Pinon shows up, he might bring some of his Vouvray. And if Charles Joguet doesn’t forget the date, he may bring a nicely aged Chinon.
I have, however, put some good roses in the fridge for the (possible) Tuscan salad; and, for the main course, Bandols from Domaine Tempier and Domaine du Gros Nore; Roussillons from Domaine Cazes, Faugeres from Leon Barral, and Vin du Pays de Lot from Domaine Belmont. The best of the last 20 unconsumed recorked Alsace samples have also been lined up and ready to be put in the fridge – as soon as there’s room for them.
Now I just have to pray for sun.

April 26, 2007

There we were, five jolly friends in the middle of a lovely dinner, at my buddy (see Arles) Joyce’s apartment in the medieval quarter of Chinon. After the group had polished off a delicious Chinon from Wilfred Rousse, I went down to J’s cave and brought back a red we both like a lot, the succulent, unfiltered Cotes de Bergerac from Barde les Tendoux. You guessed it. Corked. Back to the cellar? Settle for a ho-hum Bourgueil J had opened several days before? Eureka! “Bring me some Saran Wrap!” I cried. I had already poured the wine into a carafe. Now I balled up three generous lengths of Saran Wrap, stuffed them into the carafe and sloshed them around. Faster than you can say Rabelais, the cork taint had disappeared. As Hamlet said to Horatio: there are stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.
So what does this have to do with Mel Brooks? Those of you who know his hilarious recording “The 2000 Year Old Man”have no need to ask. Those of you who don’t, should do yourself a favor and buy the CD.
In the meantime, here’s why Mel Brooks: on the album, Mel Brooks plays the 2000 year old man. Carl Reiner is his brilliant straight man cum internviewer. At one point Reiner asks, “What was the greatest invention of all time?” The 2000 year old man answers, in a very strong Yiddish accent, (and here I’m operating from memory): “Saran Wrap. You can wrap 3 olives in it; you can wrap six olives in it; you can wrap a small sandwich in it; you can wrap a big sandwich in it; you can look through it…”
When Carl Reiner asks: “What about space travel?”
The 2000 year old man answers, deadpan, “That was good.”
Well, here’s yet another reason why Saran Wrap is the greatest invention of all time: it eliminates cork taint!

April 19, 2007
Arles Diary: A Continuing Saga (I lost my first set of Arles notes while I was still there so immediately set about recreating them. When I got back to Paris and wanted to write about Arles I couldn't find the second set of notes. And, after having spent 8 days swilling great Rhone wine, my memory of things preceding the Decouvertes was, well, less than limpid. A couple of days ago, eureka!, I found the notes. And now will start to recount the happy story of 3 days in Arles. NB: My entries here will be more haphazard than not. Today I'll list hotels. But I'll get around to restaurants, sights and an overview in due course.)
LE CALENDAL: 5, rue Porte de Laure,; A fine, moderately priced hotel, ideally located between the two major Roman monuments – the arena and the theatre. The rooms are spacious and have large, modern bathrooms. There’s WiFi connection and if you haven’t brought your laptop, you can use the computer in the lobby. The hotel is also child-friendly, with plenty of books and toys in the public rooms. There’s also a tea parlor.
L’AMPHITEATRE 5 rue Diderot,; This budget hotel set in a charming 17th century townhouse, on a charming sidestreet near the Roman Theatre was our second choice. We never went inside but, personally, I wouldn’t hesitate to reserve here. It’s worthwhile noting that they offer deals on the internet.
NORD-PINUS: place Forum,; At the high-end of Arles hostelry, the Nord-Pinus is located on the Place Forum. The décor in its public rooms is an engaging mix of baroque, Art Deco and ephemera related to bullfighting. Cocteau and Picasso are among the luminaries who have stayed her. The hotel’s popular brasserie was closed when we were in Arles but I look forward to visiting it in the future. Or at least to stopping by for a digestif.
WHERE TO EAT: (We went during a school vacation which meant that many of the restaurants that interested me were closed, eg the very enticing looking, one-Michelin-star Le Cilantro. No matter: we found plenty of good places to eat. In addition to the four places reviewed here, we also liked Le Cricket which is less touristy than it looks and serves a mean rack of lamb.)
BRIN DE THYM: 22 ru du Docteur Fanton, 13200 Arles, t/f:
This engaging mom-and-pop restaurant is, to me, the bedrock of French gastronomy. It’s homey and friendly, has delicious, forthright food, a nice wine list and a downright charitable 17 euro menu. (Perhaps, the best price/quality ratio in Arles.)
We both started with tellines, wee mollusks that I’ve also eaten (with enormous pleasure) in Seville. These seem to have been cooked in a garlicky broth with, perhaps, some white wine. We each got a big bowl of them and enjoyed every second it took to suck them out of their fragile little shells. Yummo! Then I had Rouille a la Setoise. With a lifelong weakness for garlic and mayo-like emulsions, I’ve long been addicted to the saffron-colored rouille that lends its delectable pungency to Provencal fish soups and stews. This dish was more solid than liquid – the rouille binding a huge portion of potatoes and cuttlefish – and, not only was it loud enough to ward off vampires for the next decade, it was also so copious I could hardly make a dent in it. (It’s evidently a local staple. At the town’s Saturday market I saw preprepared versions of it at several different fish stands.) Joyce had a tasty, very light variation on brandade that seemed to have no potatoes in the blend, just salt cod and egg whites. (Or so it seemed.) It came with toothsome Camargue rice and ratatouille.The desserts that came with the menu were good versions of classics: chocolate mousse and crème caramel. We drank a 2003 Vacqueyras, a deliciously fleshy Rhone red from Montirius, a domaine I love (which should come as no surprise to those who’ve read my latest book).
LA CHARCUTERIE: BOUCHON LYONNAIS: 51 rue des Arenes, 13200 Arles,
Why, you might ask, go to a Lyon-style restaurant when visiting Arles? Let me count the whys: it’s authentic; it’s delicious; it’s fun; it’s cheap; and it’s a real window into daily life in Arles. Now for specifics. La Charcuterie is your basic no-frills hole-in-the-wall located on a side street around the corner from the Place du Forum. Half of its narrow room is taken up by a workspace–cum-bar. Tables are squeezed together with not a centimetre wasted. Except for Joyce and me, zero tourists. Everyone seemed, not only to be Arlesian, but to be a ‘regular.’ There was much faire-ing of la bise (when socialites pretend to do this we call it ‘air kissing’). People come with their dogs – nothing new in France – but when the dogs start to bark at each other, the owner of the restaurant joins in. It’s a pretty happy, lively place. And the food is honest-to-god Lyonnais bouchon, right down to the Bobosse sausages and the St. Marcellin from La Mere Richard. Joyce and I shared what may have been the best Lyonnais salad I’ve ever had – complete with perfectly poached egg and bacon-kissed croutons that were to die for. To be in the spirit of our host city, we had saucisse d’Arles – wonderfully moist and meaty and served with a gratin of potatoes and cepes. Then a pungent, runny St. Marcellin and, to wash it all down, a full-throated house red, a Vin de Pays d’Oc.
BISTROT A VIN CHEZ ARIANE: 2 rue du docteur Fanton, 13200 Arles;
A home away from home for winelovers, this warm, casual restaurant is just want you want when overeating and type-A tourism mandate a friendly, laid-back setting, friendly, laid-back food and good wine, most of the hypernatural persuasion. Though she’s aided by a really nice waitress, Ariane (I’m assuming that’s her name) does it all: cooks, selects and tastes the wines, and does whatever else needs to be done. We had sauteed lamb served with rice from the Camargue and a fresh green bean salad. It was as if Ariane had read our minds (or stomachs): perfect. And the 2004 Costieres de Nimes Domaine Perillieres (Vignerons d’Estezargues) was structured, flavorful, wonderful with the food and very reasonably priced at 16 euros. It was a slow night – a holiday weekend – and so Ariane came out to chat with us when we’d finished eating. She opened a bottle of Eric Pfifferling’s pure Carignan, a vin de table, and we shared opinions about wines, winemakers, Parisian bistrotiers – by which point I was ready to go into partnership with her.
The last restaurant in the Arles diary will be Atelier Rabanel. It will take me some time to write that one up but I hope to post it in the near future.

April 16, 2007
A dream of a neighborhood bistro, Georgette has everything going for it, starting with the downright niceness of its hostesses. It’s a small, tidy place with vaguely late50s- early 60s décor – a vintage, tiled bar, formica tables in Matisse colors – and the kind of fresh, imaginative, often organic food you could eat every day such as a ‘gateau ‘ – read: cross between a flan and a souffle -- of herbs, arugula and three cheeses.
My last visit was for Friday lunch in late March. The joint, as they say, was jumpin'. We started with a scrumptious, lightly fiery soup of curried Jerusalem artichokes. My good buddy Joyce, who was with me, was intrigued by the daily special of pigs’ ears braised in white wine but was turned off by the gelatinous texture. (When the waitress offered – repeatedly – to bring her something else, however, Joyce refused. Well, she did have a train to catch.) I thoroughly enjoyed my succulent, beautifully cooked slices of veal with sauteed potatoes. Ice cream addicts will love the top-notch versions that come from an ice cream artist in the outskirts of Paris. Fig sorbet which tasted like concentrated fresh fig accompanied a moist financier that had been cooked like a loaf cake and then thickly sliced. And sensational caramel au beurre sale came with a tasty cookie, both posed on a sensational dark chocolate sauce. Know, too, that the prices are reasonable; and though the wine list is short, every bottle is worth trying. We drank a very polished, fine-grained 2004 Saumur-Champigny from the rather cultish Chateau Yvonne.
Georgette: 29 rue St. George, 9th arrdt,

April 5, 2007
LUNCH AT CHEZ MICHEL WITH KO (Or, bistro gourmand defined):
When describing wines I often find myself saying that they would be ideal options in a bistro gourmand. What, you may have wondered, does she mean by bistro gourmand? Well, Chez Michel, in the 10th arrondissement of Paris, exemplifies the bistro gourmand. Chef-owner Thierry Breton , who had all the right talent, training and apprenticeships to aim for one or more Michelin stars, chose instead to open a laid-back bistro in which he just happens to serve some of the best food in Paris. No fireworks here – either in terms of smarmy amenities or culinary frippery. (In fact, the waitresses have taken to wearing distressed jeans.) But the fact that Michelin consistently ignores Chez Michel – save for a ‘damning with faint praise’ single knife and fork – underscores how out of touch the Red Guide is with the food scene. (Ok, I still study it like the Talmud, but…) Suffice it to say that, any chance I get, I go to Chez Michel.
This day -- at the end of March -- was a very special one. I was having lunch with my dear friend Karen (Odessa) Piper, the former chef-owner of L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin and truly one of the Angels in America. KO (as I call her) was taking the train in from Reims where she’d been accompanying her husband, legend-in-his-own-time importer Terry Theise, as he visited the producers of the wonderful grower Champagnes he brings in to the USA, eg Gimmonet, Pierre Peters, Vilmart, Margaine.
For years I had been aching to convince TT (as I call him) that we should all eat at Chez Michel or a restaurant like it. TT, however, always wants to go to Pierre Gagnaire and Astrance and Carre des Feuillants. Been there, done that. I don't mean to sound jaded. And essentially I'm not jaded. But I’m so tired of gratuitous pomp and circumstance! (Not that I’ll reject an invitation to, say Astrance, mind you, I just have my preferences.)
This time KO was coming alone. She’d be arriving at the Gare de l’Est. Chez Michel was, therefore, perfect – in terms of location (proximity to station) , excellence of cooking and relaxed atmosphere. If time permitted – which it didn’t – there were even some excellent food shops and markets along the way to visit.
Thierry Breton comes by his family name naturally: a son of Brittany (and of Breton restaurateurs), he features the best of that region’s produce. He offers a 30 euro 3-course menu – from which you can eat one of the best and best-priced meals in Paris – and has a full complement of blackboard specials every day. These carry supplements, sometimes quite hefty supplements, but they are always worth it.
On the table when you sit down is a bowl of periwinkles and a mustardy emulsion in which to dip them. I asked for a slab of butter because I wanted KO to taste it. Made in Saint Malo by Jean-Yves Bordier, it has become so celebrated that it’s known as “le beurre Bordier”. (Where but in France could you become a star because you made great butter?) This was lightly salted and, with Chez Michel’s sour dough bread, was really all I needed (aside from a good red) to make me happy.
To start, I chose a special of scallops. Normally this is a main course but more and more people order it as an appetizer and a magnificent starter it is. Gorgeous scallops (in the shell), perfectly cooked, served with a foamy (NB: I didn’t say “foam”) and buttery puree of celeriac. The combination was so complementary in both appearance and sweet flavor that one ingredient seemed a continuation of the other, yet one was the essence of the sea and the other was the salt of the earth. KO started with Brittany oysters served cold and delicately seasoned with lemon zests and what seemed like white wine vinegar. The oysters were superb; the oyster juices were even better.
Next, I had roasted farmhouse duck served in a profound, blood-thickened gravy, and accompanied by little ratte potatoes (think Fingerling). After a week of deluxe dining in Champagne, KO had groaned“no foie gras.” She ordered the culinary opposite: beef cheeks long simmered with winter vegetables. The kind of dish you want to come home to.
And for dessert, ethereal crepes which had been given the Suzette treatment in the kitchen instead of tableside, and kouignn amann, a traditional Breton puff pastry galette that is nothing less than the apotheosis of sugar and butter.
If you are like me, you are asking, “So what did you drink already?” We started with a 2004 Condrieu from Barge that was mineral, floral and beautifully textured. Then we broke the bank with a ’96 Clos de Beze from Prieure-Roch at a mere 210 euros. Now there are many things to be said on this subject, starting with the price. I was ready to order Gramenon’s “Meme” – which I adore. But TT was paying for our lunch and his marching orders to KO had been “You treat that girl!” So KO instructed me to order whatever wine inspired me the most. I love Prieure-Roch. I love Clos de Beze. I knew that this was the red that TT would have ordered. And ’96 is a mighty good year. So how was it? It should have been carafed at least two hours before. But who knew?
There was a very grand Burgundy there but as it presented itself, the wine was dominated by grilled aromas which I’ve come to associate with reduction. There were flashes of majesty, of a beautifully regal Gevrey-Chambertin – which increased as the wine had a chance to breath – but we’d have had to extend our meal into the dinner service for the wine to have come into its own. I have often encountered these grilled aromas in white Burgundies – the very best white Burgundies – and at first, ascribed the syndrome to charred barrels. When asked, however, the vignerons in question inevitably replied that their barrels had been subjected only to the most delicate level of toasting. What, then, could it be? I always asked. Those who had any opinion at all said “reduction.” And, indeed, with sufficient aeration, that charred aspect evaporates. So until wiser wine lovers than I come up with the definitive explanation, I’ll stick with what I now call Cote d’Or reduction. And I sure would like to have the opportunity to drink that wine again – with proper aeration.
Chez Michel, 10 rue Belzunce, 10 arr. Lunch or dinner? If you can, opt for lunch. The clients are all French regulars. Dinner, because of scribes like me who insist on raving about Chez Michel, is often dominated by tourists. Also, ask to sit upstairs. And if it’s completely booked, know that Thierry Breton has a “bistro” spin-off of his bistro gourmand called Chez Casimir which is just two or three doors down the street.

Le Gavroche: A fine, rough-and-ready bistrot:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Americans eat early. Whether or not a restaurant has a policy of two seatings a night, chances are that if you are willing to dine late, you can get in almost anywhere. What’s more, most of the crowd will be Parisian. La Gavroche, on the rue St. Marc (2nd), is known for keeping its kitchen open late. And a welcome thing that is – after a movie or a play, or, in this case, after the presentation of my book at WH Smith. And so it was that we (me, Alain Hasard – excellent Burgundian winemaker and my ‘introducer’ – and Mike Spingler – wine bar pal, French professor and Alain’s translator for the introduction) arrived at Le Gavroche at around 10:30 on a Thursday night.
Le Gavroche calls itself a wine bar. But it’s really a rough-and-tumble bistro with plenty of damned good cru Beaujolais by pitcher and bottle. Plus excellent homemade fries. It was more raucous than I’ve ever seen it -- packed with serious eaters and even more serious smokers. (What will they do next year when the smoking ban in restaurants comes into effect?) We squeezed into a banquette, ordered a cote de boeuf (for two) and boeuf aux carottes, some goose rillettes to start us off, and a bottle of cool, tasty Cote de Brouilly. The food was better than it needed to be. The cote de boeuf, glistening with gros sel, was bloody rare, as ordered, and served in thick slices. Enough for three. No matter how many fries they give you here, however, there are never enough but, though taking a doggie bag of the last slab of steak, I stopped myself from asking for more frites. An appropriately rum-soaked Baba ended the meal nicely. (They also make a fine and sultry millefeuille or Napoleon.) Le Gavroche,19 rue St. Marc,
ps:today, May 16, 2007, Francois Simon wrote a devastating review of le Gavroche in Le Figaroscope. It's true that some of the food is less than stellar but the cotes du boeuf w/frites followed by Baba au Rhum or a Napoleon should put a smile on most faces.

Wine of the Week: March 27, 2007: 2005 Chateau la Vernede Carignan Vin de Pays de l’Herault : What a friendly, inviting wine ! And the price -- at 5,20 E (at the winery) – is friendly and inviting too. Vibrantly juicy, with succulent cherry and plum flavors, it’s based on carignan vines planted in 1952. And, in addition to the wine’s abundant charm, you get the depth of old vines on the palate. A streak of minerals, a whiff of licorice characterize the appetizing finish. A caviste friend says of charmers like this, “on peut en boire des sceaux”(one could drink buckets of it). I think that gets it about right. See more on Chateau la Vernede in Book Updates .

March 7, 2007: Pizza in Paris: Cantina Clandestina: Maybe, if you're just visiting Paris, you don't even dream of wanting to eat pizza. Believe me, once you live here, you crave a good pie, one with real mozzarella and not swiss cheese. I have been searching for a long time. And,lo, one month ago, an adorable -- 20 seat -- little hole in the wall called Cantina Clandestina opened, offering hand thrown, gorgeous pizzas. You can smell the garlic from 3 blocks away.The pie crust is to die. The toppings are copious and each is showered with a fistful of arugula before serving. Sample toppings: "la Clandestina" -- tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovy, chorizo, bell peppers and cherry tomatoes; "la Cantina" -- tomato sauce, mozzarella, grilled eggplant, gorgonzola, olives and parmesan; and my choice "Sole" -- mozzarella, buffalo milk mozzarella, braesola, artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. I went with two friends -- one American, from Boston, and one Parisian -- neither of whom were wild about pizza. We were all very happy campers. Note that the place is tiny and you must, must, must reserve. Here are the specifics: Cantina Clandestina, 17 rue Milton, 9 arr., tel:

February 27, 2007: See first installment of Loire tasting notes: click on Works, then click on "A Wine & Food Guide to the Loire.

WINE(S) OF THE WEEK: FEBRUARY 23, 2007: A second amuse-bouche to whet your appetite for my tasting notes from the Salon des Vins de Loire – which I hope to finish before the end of the month.
Domaine les Grandes Vignes: Bonnezeaux.

Here’s a sizeable (50+ hectares), eco-serious domaine run by two brothers and a sister, Jean-Francois, Dominique and Laurence Vaillant. They make the full range of Anjou wines – all of which I love and all of which I’ll describe in my Salon tasting notes. Here, however, I want to single out the wines from Bonnezeaux.
IMHO, the Vaillants are the new stars of this great appellation. Their vines are on the steep terraced slopes (more than 50% incline) of Malabe, one of the AC’s best lieu-dits. The Vaillants prune severely, deleaf, harvest by successive passes through the vineyard, picking only grapes attacked by noble rot. Yields average 21 hl/ha. Fermentation takes place in barriques – never 100% new but, depending on the cuvee, some new and some new-ish, eg two or three wines – and age in barrels, with periodic stirring up of the lees, until bottling before the following harvest.
Although the vines are relatively young (ten years), the wines are already profound. Additioonally, each cuvee, from each vintage tasted, managed to be rich and ripe yet still ethereal.
The 2004 “Malabe”was lipsmacking, regal and harmonious; a luminous weave of silk and taffeta; the 2005 “Malabe”upped the ante: it was richer, with amazing focus and a core of luscious fruit, honey and citrus zests. Silky and lacey, it’s a future monument, simply superb. These two wines were both under 12 degrees alcohol, with 110 and 172 grams of residual sugar per liter respectively. The SGN cuvees, called “Noble Selection,” is similarly under 12 degrees alcohol but weigh in with 187 to 253 grams of residual sugar. The 2004, purely exquisite, was an airborn essencia of Chenin; the 2005, richer and more honeyed, was luscious but still fresh; and the ’97, still youthful, was drinking beautifully, a heavenly melding of honey and citrus zests…and a whole lot more.

See February 20, 2007 notes in Book Updates.

WINE(S) OF THE WEEK: FEBRUARY 13, 2007:A Taste of the Salon des Vins de Loire: DOMAINE DES CHAMPS FLEURIS: The more I get to know this domaine, the more I fall in love with its wines. Every single one of them. But let me begin at the beginning. Owned and run by three enologists -- Patrice and Catherine Retif and Denis Retiveau (Catherine’s brother) --, Champs Fleuris is not a completely new domaine. The three started in 1985 with seven hectares overlooking the Loire in the village of Turquant, just beyond the little town of Montsoreau and its stern chateau. They now have 35 hectares of tuffeau-based soils, all ideally located atop the cliffside facing thegreat river. They produce the entire range of Saumur wines, including an oaked and an unoaked white, four versions of Saumur-Champigny, a rose, a Cremant de Loire, and, vintage permitting, a nectar-like Cuvee Sarah Coteaux du Saumur from vines facing the confluence of the Loire and the Vienne. I intend to supply complete notes from my tasting with Denis Retiveau once I finish the Hugh Johnson material. For now, I’ll just single out four favorites: the 2004 Saumur Blanc “Les Damoiselles,” a stylish yet terroir-specific barrel fermented dry chenin that’s all freshness and light, minerals, discreet fruit, and cream; the barrel-aged 2003 Saumur-Champigny from the lieu-dit les Rotissants, an ambitious, succulent red the color of Cote Rotie, with lipsmacking flavors of black cherry and soft oak set against a scrim of chalk; and two vintages of their most powerful and structured red, the Saumur-Champigny “les Roches” which comes from the heart of the Les Rotissants vineyard.The 2003, the fleshiest of their wines, approaches the right bank of Bordeaux in flavor and structure – perhaps not surprising given the vintage and the presence of 10% cabernet sauvignon in the les Roches mix. The 2005, bottled only two weeks before I tasted it, was more Loire-like, a voluptuous red with seductive flavors of kirsch, black cherry and cherry pits – something of a nuanced exploration on the theme of perfectly ripe cherries – with the freshness and effortless elegance that seems characteristic of wines from tuffeau soils. Too, too delicious. If you see any of their wines anywhere, order them.

WINE OF THE WEEK: FEBRUARY 3, 2007: Here’s a fresh, delicious white for every budget. It’s the 2005 Cotes de Saint Mont “Les Vignes Retrouvees” from the dynamic Producteurs Plaimont. Made chiefly from gros manseng – blended with petit courbu and arrufiac – and aged on its lees (with a regular stirring up of same), it’s very mineral with plenty of that wonderfully marrowy sur lie texture. At about 6 euros (at the winery) it was among the more modest wines shown at a celebration of the 25th anniversay of the VDQS Cotes de Mont. But I fell in love with it and so did about every other journalist with whom I spoke.
The tasting was held at the 2-Michelin-star Carre des Feuillants and, as the speeches were about to begin, trays of hors d’oeuvres were passed around. Best was the friture of tiny fish which was exceptionally delectable paired with Les Vignes Retrouvees. Pure gourmandise. (I found the food served at the sit-down lunch too fussy. In Yiddish we’d say it was ongepotchket in the sense of being overly baroque.)
But let me not overlook some of the other wines served, particularly the reds, which are based on tannat, a varietal that has recently been proven to have remarkable health qualities.(In his book The Wine Diet , professor Roger Corder claims that his research shows that tannat, particularly when vinified traditionally (ie long fermentation and maceration), produces wines that are exceptionally rich in heart-protecting procyanidins.)
The Producteurs Plaimont produce 98% of the wines of VDQS Cotes de Saint Mont. (They also make wines in Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh and various Vins de Pays.) Grower members must adhere to admirably strict rules – eco-friendly farming, hand harvesting– which get stricter as the category of wine to be made gets higher. Green harvests and leaf-removal by hand are among the obligatory viticultural practices for the level “Grand Vin.”Among these is a cuvee from an experimental vineyard on the grounds of the 15th century Chateau de Sabazan , about 12 euros at the cellar. While I’d be happy to drink any of the Plaimont’s red Cotes de Saint Mont, of which there are at least ten – all of them predominantly tannat with small percentages of the local grape pinenc as well as cabernet – I consistently single out those from Sabazan, which, like Plaimont’s other Grand reds, age in newish oak. At the Carre des Feuillants tasting there were four Sabazans: 2004 (painfully young and closed up tight but promising); 2001 (more open, full, oaky, nuanced and evidently ambitious but needing more time); ’98, muscular, chewy, tannic and darkly fruity; and the ’89, a strong yet fluid red with black olive, black cherry flavors and pleasingly chalky flavors. It had an engaging geographical specificity: here was a red whose flavor, texture and structure placed it solidly in the on the landscape between Spain and Bordeaux.
In these days of reds that can be drunk in their infancy, it’s heartening to come across versions that absolutely must be aged. And even when nicely aged, must be carafed – a good two hours before serving. A young tannat-based red from Southwest France – and here I include Madiran and Irouleguy – is virtually black, nearly impenetrable and would, if it could, put hair on your chest. It can turn off those unacquainted with the style. The trick is to let it mature – or open it the night before, drink a glass, and carafe it the next day and pair it with full-flavored foods. Cassoulet comes to mind, as does magret de canard. Then you can’t help but smile with pleasure at this singular, distinctive red which you just know is good for your health.

This minuscule, 16-seat storefront with minimalist décor and an open kitchen is drawing Parisian foodies – celebrity chefs, front-line journalists with weekly columns, wine importers and sommeliers – to a sidestreet in the north of the ninth arrondissement. Daniel Rose, barely 30, American, self-taught (though he’s worked in some famous kitchens) offers a single menu daily: 4 courses – two appetizers, main course, dessert – for 36 euros. Which is pretty much of a bargain if you take the time to do the math for a three-course meal at an average bistro with good-enough food. But Broadway Danny Rose (I can’t help but call him that -- and he doesn’t mind) gives much more than good enough. His food, based on the best and freshest ingredients, is thoughtful, masterly and very, very delicious.
What you won’t find: post-Ferran-Adria chemistry experiments such as pulverized,extruded seaweed in the form of garden snails, or squid on a bed of black, licorice flavored foam; nor will you find architectural adventures that must be deconstructed in order to be eaten. What you will find are keen,incisive flavors – as in a zingy appetizter of marinated sardines (as fresh as anything you’d get from the herring vendors of Amsterdam) on chopped cucumber and apple; sophisticated comfort food like suave, flavorful pumpkin soup so soothing you want to put it in a baby bottle and drink it in bed; and bespoke home cooking like roast duckling on a pillow of turnip and almond puree. And the sardines come garnished with chips made of turnip and sweet potato; the soup is boosted with a chunk of lightly curried guinhea hen, and the duckling is napped with a nuanced sauce subtly flavored with coffee. And when you’ve polished off your toothsome chocolate tarte you realize that you’re nicely full. You’ve eaten just enough to be completely satisfied but not so much as to make you feel bloated and guilty. And you want to come back. ASAP.
SPRING, 28 rue de la Tour d’Auvergne, 75009,,

Wine of the Week: January 25, 2007: Chateau Clauzet Situated on a river-facing ridge that runs from Margaux to St. Estephe, Chateau Clauzet’s neigbors include Cos d’Estournel, Montrose, and Calon-Segur . If recent tastings are any evidence, the 24 hectare Chateau Clauzet, currently a Cru Bourgeois Superieur, shows every sign of of becoming a worthy rival of those popular classified growths.
At a January 18 tasting put on by L’Alliance des Cru Bourgeois du Medoc the 2002 and 2004 Clauzets were silk stocking St. Estephes. Fresh, refined and extremely elegant, they slipped down the gullet as smoothly as swans sliding down a stream.
These beauties are the result of fine terroir, naturally, but also the TLC lavished on vines (leaf removal, cluster thinning, hand harvest etc) and vinfications (long maceration, seven different barrel-makers, bungs made of glass, not silicone) by owner Maurice Velge, who purchased the property in 1997, and winemaker Jose Bueno, who worked for Mouton-Rothschild for 23 years. At roughly 16 euros a bottle, Chateau Clauzet is an affordable delicacy. Parisians can buy it at Caves Taillevent (8th arr) or at Caves Petrissans (17th arr). It is also available via the net at
Also at this tasting were the 2004 and the 1996 Chateau Phelan-Segur , a Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel located on the same ridge as the above St. Estephes. While the 2004 was closed up tight and resolutely muscle-bound, the '96 was smooth and savory, with a kind of Brooks Brothers manliness.I've written about Chateau Petit Bocq, another St. Estephe Cru Bourgeois Superieur (also Belgian-owned, as is Clauzet) in Book Updates: November 2006. Owner Gaeten Lagneaux was showing 3 vintages at the l'Alliance tasting, 2004, 2003 and 2002. All were promising but it's worth noting that the 2002 might be a great choice in a good restaurant -- Chez Michel in Paris, say -- particularly if you like young Bordeaux with a sense of place. All it needs is a little aeration and a fine, red-friendly plat du jour.
And while I'm on the subject of St. Estephe, a wine that evinced a lot of enthusiasm at the January 18 tasting was the '99 Chateau les Ormes de Pez , a cru bourgeois exceptionnel. A tad barnyardy and quite truffle-y, I'd say it was ready to drink and should be paired with a good roast beef -- to soften its drying finish.

HOLIDAYS 2006/7: OR THE BEST LAID PLANS… (you know the song) ... A SHAGGY MEAL STORY:
As a single person and a lover of celebrations, I make sure to plan my holidays well in advance. A typical Christmas finds me in my cottage in the Loire. Christmas eve dinner is usually chez Joyce; Christmas lunch, chez Hilda. (Eventually I will draw up an annotated cast of characters.) And so it was to be this year. I am usually responsible for wine coordination and so had planned the bottles to be drunk at each event. Then I was felled by a virus that was circulating the hexagon – or at least the region centre, of which the Chinon area is a key part – and took to my bed, sick as a dog and weak as a kitten, feeling very sorry for myself. Sinus congestion made the idea of opening a good bottle or three for myself a less than appealing idea. I drank a lot of cocoa. Somehow Chivas Regal went down very nicely. Particularly when paired with Bordier butter – both sweet and demi-sel – I had brought down from Paris smeared thickly on some very good sour dough bread I’d also brought along. (Bordier, by the way, makes some of the world’s best butter. And I would rather eat good butter than foie gras.)
By December 27th I was feeling somewhat better, better enough not to cancel my mini-gardening day, which event I will now describe. (Fast forward on tips in this dispatch:
Wines to be discussed: 2006 Muscadet Sevre & Maine Expression de Granite Domaine de l’Ecu; 1994 Collioure “Seris” Domaine de la Rectorie; 1999 St. Maurice (Cotes de Rhone Villages) “Expression” Domaine Viret; 2002 Coteaux du Languedoc Montpeyroux Domaine d’Aupilhac; range of Alsace wines and ’89 Veuve Cliquot Grande Dame.
Food to be discussed: smoked eel; oxtail stew (including recipe); 36 month old Comte; clafouti aux mirabelles with recipe indications.
Plus helpful tips on: wine conservation; summer fruit conservation; and the fire-starting attributes of alcohol-soaked corks.)

What is Gardening Day? Born of necessity, it’s a day in which I invite a number of friends who are good gardeners to help get my patch in order. They weed, prune, add compost, plant and transplant while I cook a big, harvest-type meal. In general a whale of a good time is had by all. My last full gardening day was May 1, 2006. Finding little time in which to garden this autumn – partly due to lots of rain and storms, including one so violent it uprooted a pear tree – I felt my garden needed more attention than I alone could give it. And so I invited some of the usual suspects over for a half day of field work (winter weather, not to mention hours, oblige and gourmandise.
The Participants
Key to any gardening day is Guy Bossard, the man behind Domaine de l’Ecu, and his wife Annie. They arrived first – only natural, as they had the farthest to travel, coming from Le Landreau in the Loire Atlantique department. As usual, Guy brought samples of the most recent vintage – brut de cuve or drawn directly from the tank – as well as some older, bottled vintages. He brought that 36 month old Comte which he’d gotten from Pascal Beillevaire, a sensational cheese affineur and another great maker of artisanal butter who has a shop in Nantes. (When I was writing my Loire book I visited Beillevaire’s dairy in Machecoul – also in the Loire Atlantique – with Guy, Annie and their girls.) As if that weren’t enough, Guy had also gone to visit a Loire fisherman who plies the banks alongside Ancenis, a provincial town just upstream of Nantes, and had come away with a 3 foot long eel, recently caught and home-smoked by the fisherman.
Arriving almost simultaneously with the Bossards were Annette and Pascal. Actually, they had traveled the furthest, coming from Listrac-en-Medoc, but they had arrived late the night before and stayed at the Agnes Sorel, an adorable budget hotel on the banks of the Vienne in Chinon, and so were only fifteen kilometers away.
Annette works for Chateau Fourcas Hosten – which is how we know each other. I was a Fourcas “regular” when Peter Sichel was the primary shareholder. A small, round, cheerful brunette in her mid 50s, Annette immediately endeared herself to me one Sunday morning some 8 years ago as we were all sitting around the breakfast table at “the chateau.”As we ate our croissants and drank our tea, she – smiling with a delicious mix of wistfulness and mischief – described her idea of a Sunday morning snack: oysters and a nice little dry white. I knew we were kindred spirits. We have since traveled together – with or without Pascal – and the feasts have been epic. Pascal is a gifted photographer with a “day” job at one of the world’s largest wine companies. Some sixteen years Annette’s junior, he is every bit her equal in his generosity, humor and compassion in the face of human fallibility. (More on that some other time.)
I had asked them to bring the following: two lemons, a loaf of bread, a couple of logs (as my boucheron had failed to deliver the stere of wood I’d ordered). They brought a trunkload of logs – enough for almost a week of fireside chats – four baguettes and a big round loaf from the best baker in Chinon, a six-pack of 2005 Fourcas (which we ended up distributing to all the other gardeners), a cagette filled with lemons and avocados, and a Christmas present of two long, elegant glass candlesticks with one green and one red candle as well as two candles which Annette labeled “tendance” (trendy) as they were a subtle sandy-greige. They got right to work building a fire in the fireplace – with an innovation so brilliant I must share it: alcohol saturated corks . Yes. They save wine corks, put them in large jars, cover them with alcohol and let them macerate. The liquid turns pale amber from whatever color the alcohol has leached from the corks, making the whole look like home canned provender, or corknichons. Forgive the punologism and try it some time. It’s cheaper than commercial ‘starters’ and, hey, it’s recycling.
Guy has started pruning the rose bush that climbs up the barn as the last car turns into the dirt path leading to my house. In it are Odile Pinon and Dominique and Abel Osorio de Castro. Odile, the wife of Vouvray winemaker Francois Pinon, has the greenest thumb I’ve ever encountered. She’s bearing a commercial plant today but my home and garden are filled with horticultural oddities she’s grown from cuttings. My favorite is the charmingly named “On mama’s lap” but there’s also dwarf sedum, “perpetual” celery (which invades the garden like an imperialist) and many others. Francois has not come because he’s got some important Vouvray appellation meetings. But he’s sent a mixed case of his 2005s – which I immediately pass on to Annette and Pascal. Dominique, nee Nau, is the daughter of a producer of Bourgueil whose wines were bistro favorites in the 70s and 80s. (The following day Dominique, who stopped by to collect her pocket book (someone always leaves something behind), brought brut de cuve samples of two cuvees of Abel’s 2006 Bourgueil. I immediately put them with the bottles I was bringing to Bordeaux. More on them later.)
Calm, kind and intelligent, Dominique is a nurse in one of the largest hospitals in Tours.Believe me, if you ever get sick in the Loire, Dominique is the nurse you want to see walking into your room: she’s practically got TLC written across her forehead. Abel was born in Portugal and has taken over the winemaking at Freres Nau. He’s small, sinewy and possessed of a wit so wry and so subtle he’s a natural foil for the plainspoken humor of his best friend, Francois. Together they form one of a number of odd wine couples I know. (Others include Guy and Mark Angeli (Ferme de la Sansonniere, Bonnezeaux), and Charles Hours (Clos Uroulat/Jurancon) and Francois Laplace (Chateau d'Aydie/Madiran).
(Lest you take me for a pie-eyed Pollyanna, know that I’m a case-hardened misanthrope. These people are actually more wonderful than I’ve made them sound.)
The Garden
The garden is the reason I bought the house. Longer than it is wide, it stops abruptly at a towpath bordering the Indre River. (I can always hear water rushing over the weir.) From the towpath you get a fine view of the Chateau d’Usse, the castle that inspired Charles Perrault to write “Sleeping Beauty.” And the garden, itself, could be magical – in a Midsummer Night’s Dream sort of way – if only I had the time (not to mention the money) to tend to it. The part giving onto the towpath is deeply shady, almost wild, with a weeping willow, a 50’ bay laurel tree, an old decrepit quince tree, and some of my more recent plantings, including a lilac bush and a walnut tree (which this year finally produced a respectable harvest). The “front” garden is edged by espaliered fruit trees – apple, mirabelle and greengage plum, white, yellow and red fleshed peach, Williams and Duc de Bordeaux pear. There’s a wild cherry tree that is useless except for its beautiful form, a tamarisk with an heirloom rose growing up its trunk and through its spindly branches, a variety of bushes and shrubs, hydrangea, peonies and more old roses. I’ve added additional roses (a catalogue of varieties), daffs, tulips, peonies, lilacs, two types of false lilac, syringa, wisteria, clematis, azalea, much lavender and all the perennial aromatics with an emphasis on rosemary, sage and thyme. And the weeds! Industrial amounts of bindweed, purslane and nettle. And I consider my acacia trees – despite their mauve blossoms – as weeds because I’m constantly sweeping up after them and trying to rip up their offspring.
This isn’t all but it gives you a good idea why I need a Gardening Day.

The Meal (Finally!)
I always like to start a meal with aperitifs away from the table – in the garden in the summer, before a nice fire in the chimney in the winter. Gardening Day was certainly no different in that respect. I had a panoply of Alsace wines for our delectation. They included: a 2002 Klevener de Heiligenstein from Jean & Hubert Heywang; a 2000 Gewurtztraminer GC Altenberg from Sylvie Spielmann (which actually spanned cheese and dessert, along with other things); and a 2002 Riesling GC Rangen from Paul Zinck.
Each of these wines is described in my book. In fact, each of these wines was tasted for this book in the very same bottles I was opening for the apero. That’s what I want to share with you.
I tasted about 500 samples from Alsace between Christmas and New Year’s 2005. I hate waste. I gave my neighbor about 80 bottles – which he trundled home in a wheelbarrow – and I topped up and recorked the others. I had several recorking options. I’d purchased nice “AOC-quality” corks and borrowed Joyce’s corking machine. (Everyone in the Loire buys wine in bulk and bottles it at home.) I’d also purchased some plastic corks that my farmer friend Pierre Doucet uses when he bottles his reds and roses made from hybrids (like plantet and Marechal Foch). These “corks” look like sewing thimbles with ridged interiors. There’s a special corkscrew that serves to both shove the cork into the bottle and pull it out. It’s simple, easy and it works. What I’d do was taste through a range of, say, forty rieslings, top up the ones I wanted to keep with a riesling of very good quality, put the plastic corks in hot water and then ram them into the bottle.
So these wines had, in effect, been uncorked for a year. Of course they tasted different than they had in 2005 but they were still delicious. Not a one was oxidized. Instead, they had aged gently but more swiftly than they would have had they never been opened. It was something like the time-lapse photography of a bud blossoming into a flower in the space of 10 seconds. All the wines were mellower than when first tasted and most of them came across slightly sweeter. Perhaps a bit of nervyness and rigor were lost but that’s not bad under the circumstances.
It is psychologically impossible for me to serve any sort of alcohol without putting some sort of food alongside.Not because of drunk driving concerns, simply because, IMHO, that is the way nature meant it to be. I had not, however, come up with an inspired companion to the various Alsace wines and, in fact, offered a canape that was anything but: celery sticks stuffed with sardine butter.
I can explain. I didn’t know that Abel and Dominique would be able to come until the 25th. By that time I’d already made the oxtail stew – which needs to be made three or four days before serving so that its flavors can develop. Abel and Dominique are vegetarians. So I scoured my kitchen cabinets for items that might work together as a substantial first course. The sardine butter was dead easy to make: mash the sardines with butter, a little lemon juice and whatever herbs you like. I hadn’t used all my celery for the oxtail stew so the remaining stalks became sardine boats. I was going to put these on a big platter accompanied by sundried tomatoes, toast with good tapenade (that had been part of a goodie bag), and a white bean-tuna-red onion salad – all garnished with the avocados brought by Annette and Pascal. This hispano-tuscano-provencal appetizer would marry nicely with Guy’s Muscadet. However,when Guy arrived with the 3 foot eel I realized that , not only would it go equally well with his wine, it would more than suffice as a first course. And so the sardine butter became an hors d’oeuvre. Oh yes, every celery boat was eaten.
At long last it was time for the eel which Annie had spent two hours carefully skinning and slicing. It was the best smoked eel I’ve ever tasted. Incredibly fresh, natch, delicately smoked, and almost unbearably rich with a fine balance of oiliness-to-meat. Its texture was moelleux. Now here I’d like to open a parenthesis to explain my use of the word moelleux which most wine buffs associate with sweetness, as in Vouvray. The French also use the word to describe texture – like that of a thirsty bath towel or a cuddly teddy bear. Literally translated as “marrow-y”—as in the unctuous, dauntingly caloric glop that you scoop out of the bones of well cooked meat – moelleux might describe the feel of a thirsty bath towel or a cuddly teddy bear. We’d garnished the eel with slices of avocado that had a similarly marrowy texture (but, alas, not a lot of flavor).
Accompanying the eel were two cuvees of Guy’s 2006 Muscadet brut de cuve (drawn directly from the tank in which the wines were still ‘resting’ on their fine lees). Fresher and more mineral than this would be hard to find, particularly my favorite cuvee, “Granite,” which comes from a parcel called “La Bazilliere.” Aerodynamic and as terroir-driven as an archeological dig, it was a perfect foil for the eel. With food and wine and friends like this I can (and did) get misty eyed and come out with lines like “We may not be rich but we eat like kings.”
The oxtail stew had been simmering on a low flame – reheated with a very healthy splash of red Cotes du Rhone – for a good hour, with occasional stirring by the chef. The recipe comes from Jean-Claude Rigollet whose one Michelin star restaurant, has been the leading table of the Chinonais for many years. Rigollet, who seems to have a sense of flavor and balance in his DNA make-up, was one of those child prodigy chefs, winning awards when he was still in his teens. (He had been planning to retire and sell the restaurant buthas changed his mind – for the moment – so waste no time in going.) Don’t look for culinary fireworks here. Classicism with a healthy dose of regionalism is where he excels. I got the recipe from him well over ten years ago – since I loved the dish and couldn’t find any oxtail recipe that looked as delicious.

RECIPE accidentally deleted. to be replaced.

Now this recipe is a friend to just about any good red wine in the world. On this particular day we (me and Guy) decided to start with the ’94 Collioure “Seris” Domaine de la Rectorie as we both felt it was the most delicate of the reds we would be tasting.
Does this go against the conventional order of wine service? So it would seem. But here’s a rule that just begs to be broken – not to mention re-examined. What with the Alsace aperos and the Muscadets, our palates were really primed to appreciate a fine, subtle red. Had we started with the younger, sturdier reds, our palates – or mine, anyway – would have been blunted. So I say, bring out the heartier reds later, particularly in a meal like this.
(This may be the longest meal in history. It’s January 26 and I’m finally getting to the salad and cheese course!) The clear stars of the cheese platter were the 36 month old Comte and the Vacherin du Mont d’Or that I’d brought down from Paris. The first was deeply fruity, nuanced (almost winey) and crunchy; the Vacherin was less pungent and billowy than I’d have liked which may, in part, explain why it had the silkiest texture I’ve ever found in this cheese. Now most of the reds on the table would have been – and surely were – just fine with the Comte but they’d have been killed (IMHO) by the Vacherin. With cheeses like this I much prefer a white wine, particularly one with some residual sugar. I’d basically been saving Sylvie Spielmann’s Gewurtztraminer GC Altenberg for that purpose. Lush, with descreet fruit, and not overly sweet – roughly demi-sec – it spanned beautifully the succulent Vacherin and my clafouti aux mirabelles.
I used my own simplified version of Julia’s recipe for the clafouti. The mirabelles were from my garden. I’d used some of that harvest during the season – for eating out of hand, for tarts and the like – and had put some by with eau de vie and sugar. In an act of desperation, I froze about ten kilos, only to find that once defrosted, they’re damned close to fresh.
We brought coffee and biscotti into the living room, in front of the fire. Abel thrust a box in my direction. I’d presumed it was more dessert – pasteles de nata, the ethereal and wonderful Portuguese cream pastries that Dominique makes like a pro. No. The box contained two faience ducks on a tray. Each duck had an open beak (pouring spout) and removable tail (for filling with oil or vinegar). I’d fallen in love with these ducks when the three of us saw them on the stand at a flea market after a big meal at their country house near Bourgueil.
The mood, as you might imagine, was mellow. I think I might have put on some Argentine tango CDs. And I opened a bottle of ’89 Grande Dame which was part of the prize I got when my Loire book won Veuve Cliquot’s Best Wine & Spirits Book of the Year in 1997. It was still vigourous, quite toasty, delightfully decadent, with flavors of forest underbrush. I wonder if they’ve made anything this good since.

Early December: Tasting Champagne Outdoors on a Dark and Stormy Day:
Sunday morning, early December, in Paris, the City of Light. Except that the sky is a leached out nuclear winter ash grey that could make credulous doomsayers head for the hills believing that the sun had upped and died. My Paris flat is cold because, being a wine geek, I have not turned on the heat in order to keep my Burgundies, Rhones, Bordeaux etc as happy as they might be in a dirt cellar beneath a limestone cliff. I look longingly at my bed. I want to fluff up my half-dozen pillows (you can never have too many), crawl between my inexpressibly soft, 350 thread count sheets custom-made in Florence with their lady-like almost Toile de Jouy pattern, and under my pile of quilts. But such lazy luxury is not to be. It’s time for Work. Dress, strong coffee, left-over lime curd tart, out the door and onto the newly fashionable rue des Martyrs where early morning shoppers bearing rotisserie chickens and baguettes wear the beleaguered expression of people who know that there’s still the patisserie and the charcuterie, as well as their respective lines, to deal with before heading home to warmth and light and slippers, lunch and a nap.
But I have miles to go – literally -- past various architecturally insignificant churches, past the Gare St. Lazare and Starbucks, to the Boulevard Haussmann and the Caves Auge where a Champagne tasting is under way.
Now Caves Auge is about as adorable a wine shop as you could wish. It’s small and cramped, every last centimeter given over to wine and wine paraphernalia. It looks like something out of Dickens with its old wood shelves and cashier’s cage. And the winter light outside makes the inside look all the more alluring. But we are talking a single-lane aisle no wider than a ballet dancer in leotards. The tasting is held outside. Yes, outside.
This is great and greatly atmospheric in summer months and mild autumn Saturdays. But twenty minutes ago it started to drizzle. Umbrellas appeared from Tati shopping sacks. Then it started to pour and the wind began to blow with a vengeance, flipping umbrellas inside out and nearly ripping up the (supposedly) protective awning under which ten top Champagne houses presented their wares, their ice buckets, bottles and Champagne flutes crowded on the tops of old oak wine barrels.
There are roughly 30 Champagnes to taste. Usually a Caves Auge tasting brings out the professional crowd – bistro owners, sommeliers, journalists, some bold-face food names like Pierre Herme, and a handful of wine groupies. And usually the tastings are well attended, as the regulars of our “petit monde”of Bacchus workers schmooze, taste and spit. Expectoration occurs on the sidewalk, a place that would seem ideal for that function, though well-heeled denizens of the 8th and 16th arrondissements on their way to the Grands Magasins (Galeries Lafayette, Printemps) and cineplexes on the Grands Boulevards look askance and skirt the sprays of spittle as if they were tainted with Putin’s Polonium 210.
On this Sunday the event merely seems to be crowded: in a vain attempt to keep dry, the few brave attendees huddle in the fissure-wide gaps between the barrels, making the appproach to each stand as much of a rush hour jostle as it is on sunny May afternoon. And the Bacchus workers have given this tasting a pass. Auge’s one-day-only, pre-holiday Champagne sale has brought out not most of my fellow freeloading pros but the serious shoppers: Dom Perignon for 99 euros a bottle rather than 109. A bargain. So as the awning strains valiantly against the howling wind, I valiantly taste and spit.
What I am spitting, among other Champagnes, is: yes, Dom Perignon (’98), Bollinger Grande Annee ’97, the recently released Salon ’96, Krug Grande Cuvee, Amour de Deutz ’99, Jacquesson Avize Blanc de Blanc ’96, and ’98 Pol Roger. (Why is it that they always serve the best wines when you have to spit????)
Of course some head straight for the Krug. No starting at the low end – with a generic Moet, for example, and working your way up. I tasted everything. Well, almost everything. My tasting came to an inauspicious but instructive – in the realpolitick sense – end at the double barreled LVMH stand. LVMH stands for Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey – the luxury magnate that, along with those famous brands, also owns Veuve Cliquot, Krug and Ruinart Champagnes. Double barreled in the literal sense: the wares were spread out over two wine barrelheads. The DP and two lesser versions of Moet on one barrel and a range of Cliquot and Krug on the other.
Behind them stood a flashy fifty-something woman wearing a snappy black-and-white houndstooth waistcoat, faux Chanel if you like, and striking under the circumstances since everyone else was dressed in foul weather wear as drab as the winter skies. Notre Dame de LVMH juggled a fair number of customers through the various quality levels of her merchandise, mixing technical details with sales spiel and turning to yours truly at one point with what I guess was her closer: if I bought a case of Grande Dame I’d get a set of six Cliquot flutes. Free. At that point I was tasting (and swallowing) the Krug Grande Cuvee and looking forward to the vintage Krug chilling in the ice bucket. Hating to mislead this nice person, I mumbled something about being a journalist, finished my NV Krug and held my flute out for the vintage version. Faster than you can say millesime, she turned to me, hiding the barrel behind her cinched waistcoat. “That’s all there is to taste, “said she. But, I spluttered, you said there was a vintage Krug. “It’s not to taste,” she rejoined. Not to taste? What’s it for? Decoration? Ambiance? Wishful thinking? Ah, yes, the dime dropped. I wasn’t a buyer. I was a journalist. No vintage for me. So home I headed, back to slippers, soup, nap, The Daily Show: Global Edition and Meet the Press. And so it goes when you’re neither a millionaire nor Robert Parker.