Selected Works

Wine Guide
An indispensable, user-friendly guide to France’s best and best-value wines. Don’t leave home without it!
Wine & Food Guide
The first and only in-depth guide to the wines and foods of the Loire.
My various reflections on Didier Dagueneau compiled and posted here.
For Those Who Want Yesterday's Papers
My Previously Published (and retrievable) Articles
Wine Tours

FrenchFeast: Fizz, Frites, Fromage and Philosophical Fermentations

Truffle meals in Touraine

February 21, 2008

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.