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

Birthday Meal

July 11, 2008

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.) (www.graberolives.com).

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.