29 January, 2009

Popping corks on the roasted slope.

For a few days every January, somewhat anonymous little Ampuis, tucked in a bend of the Northern Rhone, becomes the center of the wine world as it hosts its own "little" Marché aux Vins. The wine fair's focus is the connoisseur's Côte-Rôtie, which is not very surprising since Ampuis is located in the region of Côte-Rôtie, or Roasted Slope (mm, it just doesn't have that je ne sais quoi in English...).

A place of steep slopes and plentiful sun--hence the name--the area is considered by many to be where wine was first cultivated in Gaul. While Côte-Rôtie was for centuries the wine of French royals, its circle of influence outside the court was fairly limited, and by the twentieth century, neglect had led to a somewhat shabby reputation. This has been nearly singlehandedly turned around since the 1970s by the then-unorthodox wine-making and marketing approach of one family, the Guigals. (Full disclosure: our party was rather disappointed by the Guigal wines on offer at the fair.)

After world wars and economic difficulty, neglect is not unimaginable. One look at the extremely steep slopes--or more accurately hills--around Ampuis, and you quickly realize that here, wine-making is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. The cotes have a gradient ranging from 20% to 28%, and the extreme steepness sometimes requires pulley systems, and winches, for hauling grapes and equipment up and down from the cheys (the local term for the man-made terraces). Given the intensive labor involved, many of the cheys have been taken over by lower-maintenance fruit trees. Only the cheys facing south or southeast have vines, and those plants have to be hardy enough to withstand the persistent problems of high winds and erosion. I wish I could offer a photo, as the cheys are impressive, but it was raining cats and dogs (and their offspring) when I arrived with friends at the 81st annual marche last weekend.

Côte-Rôtie wine, like Hermitage, is made from red Syrah grapes. Sometimes, to give that little extra accent of difference, a small amount of white Viognier grape is added. Côte-Rôtie is a good wine for setting aside in the short to medium term, with, broadly speaking, somewhat more delicate aromas than Hermitage. Of course, once you start tasting, there is such a startling degree of variation...

In addition to the Côte-Rôtie and the Hermitage, the Ampuis wine fair spotlights other Rhone Valley reds such as the Saint-Joseph, Croze-Hermitage and the Cornas, which is the one of the smallest Rhone AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). Among Rhone whites, the fair features the very distinctive Condrieu, Saint-Joseph white (my discovery this trip), Croze-Hermitage white and Hermitage white. While the Condrieu is purely Viognier (love it or hate it--and I am generally a fan), the others are varying combinations of Viognier, or Marsanne and Roussanne grapes.

For 8 euros, you are given your own tasting glass and are sent in the direction of the masses milling around stands of the over 60 producers present. The professional wine merchants and writers go all four days, perhaps staying with either red or white on a given day, I imagine. In one day, it is impossible to visit with even half the producers. At least in our cases, it became more and more difficult to clearly distinguish between glasses after a while, despite diligent use of the spittoons. As we were there with friends, I did not take tasting notes. I suppose this is a bit of a mistake if one wants to be able to write about it later. But we certainly enjoyed ourselves--despite the crowds. (A tip: give yourself a good three hours, and arrive just before lunch, to stand a better chance of elbowing your way to the front of the more popular producers.) And here's a bit of what I did retain from the day's labors:
The Delas house is gaining in popularity due to strong and steady improvements in the past few years; the resulting praise from Robert Parker hasn't hurt. Unfortunately the photo I took above highlights a bottle of white I was underwhelmed by, having found it a bit astringent. To the right sits a bottle of what we quite liked: their Les Challeys 2007, St. Joseph white. So refreshing and, well, flirty, I was already busy imagining summer afternoons on the terrace.
I can say that we very much enjoyed the various Côte-Rôtie on offer by the gracious Levet family, pictured above. They have a small, independent operation, with a storefront in Ampuis itself. It was hard to choose, but we walked away with their 2006 Amethyste, and 2005, both Côte-Rôtie reds. Voluptuous and rich, with a lingering finish. Stephane Otheguy makes organic wine, on a tiny scale. We found his 2006 Côte-Rôtie red a pleasure, but the bottle of 2006 Les Massales was the real show-stopper. It is made from 75 year old vines of petites serines, which, as I understand it, is the genetic precursor to the syrah. I wanted it badly (even knowing it would likely outshine any dish paired with it), but cooler, budget-minded heads prevailed: it is 39 euros, which was decidedly more than we paid for any other bottle there. (Perhaps a visit to Monsieur Otheguy later in the year...) Ampuis is a half an hour from downtown Lyon and just off the main highway toward Marseille and the coast, thus eminently accessible, and the wines make it worth a detour, rain or shine, wine fair or not.


Today I walked outside. Our little chick was huddled in the crook of my elbow, the sun was radiant, and it was bitterly cold.

I'm tired, I've got a take-no-prisoners, ugly virus, and I am ready for summer.
(The natives insist it's the greyest, coldest, most humide winter in 20 years. Hmm.)

26 January, 2009

Small fowl, big sound.

So now we're the proud caretakers of a black Marans chick, happily adopted from our neighbors. While the life of this highly tame, social little fellow (gender as yet unknown) has been short so far, the history of its breed stretches back to the 12th century.

From then and until the 14th century, the Marans area of western France was controlled by the English. For this reason the port town of Marans was frequently visited by English ships, whose sailors would bring ashore the fighting cocks they kept for entertainment during their time at sea. Once in Marans, the scrappy yet splendidly feathered fighting cocks would be bred with the local hens, who were, as I understand it, marsh-dwelling fowl. (The name Marans itself is derived from marais, or marsh). This parentage is one of the reasons why I am hoping for a female: apparently the males often have the pugnacious attitude of their forefathers... In the nineteenth century, the very old Chinese Langshan breed was introduced into the line, resulting in large, chocolate-colored eggs. This is another reason I am rooting for a feminine outcome. (The other reasons: I'm not a morning person, but even less so after a cock's crowing at dawn; and I'd never be able to twist that neck nor could I ask anyone else. I do realize that this last reason is a bit inconsistent given my eating habits; but I digress somewhat). By the turn of the twentieth century, the Marans characteristics had been developed and refined, and it was officially recognized as one of France's unique breeds.

In the chaos of the Second World War, the breed was almost wiped out. Indifference and lost records made for a creeping, fragmented return until the 1990s, when a small but committed group of breeders ensured a stronger Marans presence. While the breed is still considered rather rare, it is desirable, mostly for those amazing colored eggs.

In our case, we aren't even sure whether we'll have a "Silver Cuckoo" or a "Black Copper", since our neighbor has chickens of both colorations; there are nine Marans standard color varieties in all...

For now, this guy prattles his continuous, often penetrating (and sometimes surprisingly melodious) story usually in my left ear, as he--or she!-- roosts on my shoulder. He follows the kids around like a puppy, commenting all the while on everything. Our "other" puppy--of the bird-hunting Weimaraner breed--finds this chirpy new companion positively riveting. He just seems occasionally dismayed that he isn't allowed to at least taste the latest addition to the family. This remains an on-going challenge for him, as we have been keeping the voluble chick in our kitchen. The next project is to build a coop, once this chick has survived the dog's passionate interest and can handle the outdoor cold.

Coop-building volunteers, chicken advice and transition encouragement are all highly sought after and greatly appreciated.

19 January, 2009

Dear Mr. President,

As an American citizen, I do not think I have ever been more proud. I understand that, despite an exhausting campaign, the reality is that your task is just beginning. I, along with many others, realize change takes time under any circumstances, let alone the ones you face. I recognize that and am sincerely willing to do what I personally can. I ask only that, in this time of limited means and seemingly unlimited challenges, that you do not neglect the neediest, whether they are within or beyond U.S. borders, and that you give both attention and funding to the needs of the unfortunate, whether caught up in the horrors of war, preventable disease, or other extreme circumstances.

Your voice is strong. Please remember to speak for those who don't have one.
Lake Malawi, 2008.

18 January, 2009

The blessed truffle.

The most well-known truffle market of the Gard (in the Languedoc) takes place in Uzes. While the Perigord in the Southwest is arguably better known for its black truffles, it is actually the southeast--primarily the Provence and the Languedoc--which produces by far the lion's share of French truffles. (France as a whole accounts for nearly half of the world's supply of this costly fungi, the tuber melanosporum).

Uzes remains one of my favorite cities to wander--in the off-season. The first duchy of France, Uzes has had a long, extremely wealthy past that can be traced to the Romans. In fact, the 17th century chapel in which the remains of the dukes are buried was built upon the remains of the first century temple honoring Octavian Augustus, the first Roman emperor.
I arrived early in Uzes in order to attend mass at Cathedrale Saint-Theodorit. While I am not a Catholic, I am incurably curious, and this was no ordinary mass: there was to be a benediction of truffles involved.With pomp and pagentry, some of the finest truffles were carried to the altar. There was a large choir, and the priest made interesting parallels and invoked lessons from the life and harvest of the humble, precious tuber. Afterward, we all gathered behind the truffles to slowly make our way toward the main square where the auction of the blessed truffles was to be conducted (with proceeds to go back to the parish).
Mr. le President of the trufficulteurs du Gard waits for the blessed truffles, empty basket in hand and daughter by his side.

The auction was competing for visitors' attention with the preparation of the giant brouillade aux truffes (scrambled eggs with truffles--didn't it sound more special in French?) This involved a gigantic saucepan that was stirred simultaneously by four strong men over a bonfire. For those with higher culinary expectations, a number of Michelin-starred chefs had prepared mouth-watering menus. The rest of us just wandered from vendor to vendor, eyeing every possible culinary permutation of and/or literary treatise on the truffle.

You can buy special truffle-delivering oak trees (certified--of course--as having been impregnated with the fungus), and products to help train your dog in the art of truffle-sniffing. You can watch demonstrations of truffle-sniffing dogs (no pork was present). You can buy all the requisite tools to harvest and prepare truffles--all sorts of hand picks, brushes, mandolines, etc.
Or you can get a little light-headed with the dense, enveloping aroma of the truffles, seek out a slightly dirty, fresh treasure (of a quite modest size given the cost), find an empty conserves jar at home, tuck the little black purchase in with five new eggs and close the lid tightly.

We'll be having our own little brouillade in a few days, once that truffle has infused the eggs, through their porous shells, with the deep dark essence of itself.

16 January, 2009

Braising with honey: Souris d'agneau confit au miel.

I don't know my meat cuts in English very well, but a souris d'agneau is the last narrow bit on the leg of lamb. (No mice are involved in the preparation of this dish, despite the name). Braised for two and a half hours in a blend of oil, honey, and herbs, then paired with a puree of celery root and potato, this becomes winter comfort food par excellence. It has the added advantage of being extremely easy on the nerves as it is incredibly easy to make, using a minimum of ingredients. When you've finished, you'll find the meat falls away from the bone.

The recipe is enough for four to six people. If fewer people are at the table, make four souris anyway, as you can use the leftovers to make lamb rillettes--a coarse-textured, easy to make pate. Or you can make delicious sandwiches. Simply flake the meat, removing any fat, salt and pepper generously and refrigerate. The next day, enjoy on a split baguette with mayonnaise or mustard and some arugula or mache.

  • 4 souris d'agneau

  • 8 tablespoons olive oil (or duck fat, if you have some)

  • 6 tablespoons honey (the fuller-flavored, the better)

  • 4 tablespoons fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary...)

  • 1 head of garlic, optional

    Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celcius, or 350 degrees fahrenheit.

    If (and only if!) you have the time, cover the souris with rock salt and refrigerate overnight. Wipe off the salt before cooking.

    Pour the oil and honey in your cocotte*. Heat on a low fire, just until they combine nicely. Toss in the herbs (crushing them a bit beforehand with a mortar and pestle helps release their flavors). If you are using dried herbs, use half as much. Put in the souris, coating them with the oil and honey. Break apart the head of garlic, throw in the cloves with their skin still on. And that's it.

    Put the lid on, pop the cocotte in the oven. After an hour and a half (or so), make sure that the lamb doesn't seem to be drying out; if there is barely any sauce left, stir in some water. Pour the sauce on the lamb. Your souris will be nicely browned and ready after two, to two and a half hours in the oven. Please note that longer does not always mean better; in this case, overcooked will still be tender but also dry, so calculate when it will need to be on the table and work backward to figure out the best time to start cooking.

    Enjoy--and let me know what you think!

    *This is an oven-proof cast-iron, sometimes enameled, braising dish with heavy lid. While it can be a splurge purchase, it will pay you dividends in terms of being able to prepare a whole new range of meats, vegetables and desserts requiring minimal work.

    Leftovers (above), baking in a yolk-glazed tourtiere, or meat pie (below).

  • 14 January, 2009

    For the love of old-fashioned wheels.

    We dropped in on the classic car show and exchange in Nimes over the weekend, and the littlest one certainly got his automobile fix. Beyond cars, there was a whole range of wheels to check out: olde tyme bicycles, motorcycles, tractors, even wartime-modified Willys and Jeeps (with the tires removed, they rode on rails). Of the cars, the showstoppers were possibly among the Bugattis. There were a couple of pristine "one-of" Bugattis, and the collection was the most I'd ever seen together. They were brought together to mark the 100th anniversary of the company.

    As is the case at these larger-scale events, there was a little something for everyone. There was the authentic available-for-rent, ultra-stretch white limousine (a bit worn), flanked by a generous number of US flags and a generously proportioned platinum blonde (also a bit worn). She was attempting, it appeared, to channel both Dolly Parton and a stiletto boot-lovin' Nevadan good-time girl. (My shots of her were blurred--unfortunately spoiled by my giggling). God bless America's image abroad...The man below had a pretty good setup: his display collapses and locks up for easy towing. Comfortable seating is built in, the better to hawk his "Eclator."
    I've long been irritated by the merchandising of, well, everything (I mean beyond the nostalgia selling of old brands, as above). It can incense me, how so many vapidly surround themselves with labels and symbols. You can see Che Guevara's face everywhere on nearly anything, sported by people who have neither an inkling nor interest in what he did and stood for. The T-shirt vendor's display at the Nimes retro car show made me pause, however.
    All symbols, not only Che's portrait, have been utterly drained of meaning. Whether historically significant or politically sensitive, they now serve as entertainment-lite, a way to present yourself (perhaps with pretensions toward hipness or irony) to other consumers.

    Perhaps I need a glass of wine. And to settle down and play cars with my child.

    11 January, 2009

    (There's a) new Marechal in town.

    Right, so Marechal Gaspar has actually been plying his trade around here for some 15 years, but I'm a sucker for a play on words.

    The marechal ferrant is a farrier, and ours is Monsieur Gaspar. He explained that to become a farrier involves going to a special school. This is unsurprising: in France there is a special school for everything. It is a one to two year program, involving in-depth study of all aspects of the horse, as well as the profession itself. And yes, women do become farriers. He has had two female apprentices himself. There is obviously a period of apprenticeship before becoming certified in this physically demanding position.

    The marechals come every two months to replace the shoes of working horses; for less active horses like ours, they come every 3-4 months. It adds up to a lot of iron.
    They travel with all their equipment (often U.S. made) in modified pick-up trucks or delivery vans. Their trade is, in spite of the heavy tools, a delicate and most necessary art. The marechals lay out all their equipment first, tie on the heavy leather chaps (not a decorative accessory), and take a good look at the horse's feet.
    Each hoof is cleaned, the old shoe removed, the hoof clipped and filed (think of it as a single, seriously overgrown toenail). In the photo above, you can see the bits of hoof near the smoking horseshoe. Once this is done, the new shoes are heated and custom-shaped while red-hot with a hammer upon the anvil. I don't suppose too much of the basics has changed in the 3000 years of shoeing horses. Each hoof is fitted several times: the still hot iron is placed on the hoof, where it smokes and leaves a burnt impression. Each time, the farrier can verify how (more) closely the shoe fits. It's smelly, smoky and precise work. Accuracy is essential for the health and comfort of an animal who spends nearly all her life on her feet. Or, more accurately, her toes.
    Marechal Gaspar enjoys his work. He got into it because he rode and loved horses. He actually worked in a restaurant for a decade. In Paris. Before that incarnation, he worked (for another decade) across the street from the Sacre-Coeur on the most prestigious floor--les tissus d'ameublement--of the Marche St. Pierre (http://www.marchesaintpierre.com/). The enormous fabrics warehouse is a magnet not only for interior designers and stylists from the world over, but also for the cost-conscious housewife from down the street.
    It is difficult to imagine him cutting endless measures of sussurating, expensive fabric, but I suppose he handled the customers with the same ease and gentle direction as he does his equine customers. The more French people I meet in the Cevennes, the more I begin to suspect that there is a subtle yet significant movement toward an alternative, simpler lifestyle. Even in downshifting, however, we remain plugged in: if you'd like to engage our farrier, you can visit his site at http://www.marechal-ferrant-gaspar.com/

    07 January, 2009

    Horsing around in Montpellier.

    Equisud is a large-scale horse exhibition and fair that takes place every November in Montpellier. Visiting Britta's stables made me rummage around for the photos of the show...

    Yup, Virginia, there really were line-dancing Frenchmen.

    There were well over 25 different horse breeds on display and for sale, and all the horse gear you could possibly imagine, let alone require. Horse earrings and matching skirt, anyone?

    A gorgeous "cow" horse (said Sophie), performing with an octagenarian.
    And only in France (or at least not in the U.S.): there was a horse cabaret. At ring-side, you could choose your seating according to which of the three restaurants you wanted to dine at. Tapas, yes, fast-food, no. Translation: we got to drink wine and linger for hours over a good Moroccan lunch while sitting directly ring-side with the kids. Parfait, especially given the crowds everywhere else. One performance followed another, and then, fairly saturated, we left to wander. (The thirteen-year-old in me--the one who lined her bedroom with equine posters-- was a little breathless.) Outside, they were lining up for the churros and sausage, which didn't look half-bad. We ducked into the auctions. And headed for home without a horse.

    05 January, 2009

    The Three Kings.

    Because my knowledge of French folkloric history is marginal at best and my familiarity with the Bible rather threadbare, I have been boning up on the three Kings and the celebration of the Epiphany itself--using French Wikipedia. (I know, I know. But there was, surprisingly enough, a decent amount of information.)

    For example (I did not know this): the remains of the three Kings in question can be visited in the German heart of the Cologne cathedral where they have been resting since 1164; for this reason throughout the Middle Ages they were actually referred as the "Three Kings of Cologne." According to tradition, their names were Gaspard, Melchior and Balthazar. Gaspard, who is supposed to have had Asian traits, brought incense. Melchior, an old bearded white guy, brought gold. Balthazar was black, and he brought myrrh. According to Russian legend, the fourth king was Father Christmas. The Finnish tell the same story, further explaining that he gave presents to children because he was too far north to see the Star, let alone arrive in Bethlehem in time.

    As in many other cases, the Christians simply incorporated pagan ritual in order to make their religion more palatable to their new converts. Thus, the Catholic galette des rois has its base in ancient Rome, where the one who found the feve became king of the festivities. Then, as now, the youngest participant hid under the table while the slicing of the cake took place, then designated each slice of cake to its owner. Then they made merry.

    The galette itself is of frangipane, an almond and pastry cream confection, which is encased in a package of puff pastry, and air. Sigh. It is sumptuous and simple at the same time, a balance of lightness and satisfying buttery richness. Many French rightly insist--oldest traditions be damned--that it be enjoyed throughout the month of January.

    As for the feve, it began ages ago as a humble dried bean, hence the name. Since the 1800s, however, the feve has been made out of porcelain, following every possible theme and representation. The chic bakeries of Paris, such as Poilane and Pierre Herme, come up with their own series of feves each year. Sigh. It's no wonder some people compulsively begin collecting these often very charming little trinkets.

    I found some handmade feves at nearby ceramicist (pictured below). Now I just have to decide which one to use first...Which one will I--I mean, the kids--most enjoy?

    (I should mention that they do it differently in the south of France, especially in Provence, where instead of a galette, they have a gateau, which is a brioche ring studded and stuffed with candied fruit. With the feve inside, of course. And on the bakery shelf, you can find the gateau des rois right next to the galette des rois).

    An afternoon in Pompignan.

    A pair of Icelanders.
    The other day, we ran into friends we haven't seen in a long time. As usual, they invited us to their stables. It's the sort of invitation that, while very appealing, has always been over-ridden by whatever else was already going on. This time, warming ourselves with coffee at our usual cafe before hitting the frigid marche, we had nothing further planned. For once. So we accepted the invitation with pleasure and anticipation.
    A Lusitano stallion, au naturel.

    I've no idea why, but we've never been to the area of Pompignan before. It is certainly visit-worthy. It is beautiful and wild and wide, ringed on three sides by a gorgeous mountain range. Thyme, sarriette, box hedge and juniper are found everywhere. Hard to imagine, but before tanneries and glass-making became the primary 17th and 18th century industries, this wind-swept plateau was a dense forest. The one industry still active is quarrying, for Pierre de Pompignan, a limestone valued since Roman times.
    Dakar had to be on a lead, but we chose a box stall for him instead.
    Britta and Claude have over 40 horses scattered across some 220 hectares, and it was easy to see why we haven't seen them: they're far too busy. Britta is doing quite well in her immaculate, well-designed operation, as word of mouth has spread about her natural, gentle way to raise, train and educate horses (and their owners). In addition to boarding on a selective basis, they handle "problem" horses one-on-one, and provide full breeding services for Lusitanian horses. Britta has an extraordinary patience with horses, investing an enormous amount of time in them, and the operation is her life, as she freely admits. We had fun visiting with the horses and exploring her life. If you would like to know more about the stables, go to their website: http://www.lesugagnaux.com/. I, for one, would like to know more about the song playing on it...
    Sophie communing with the unofficial mascot, an award-winning, very friendly Percheron named Oscar. Note the horse in the stall next to his is a "normal" sized, adult horse.

    01 January, 2009

    Wine not?

    I am not a wine expert, but I do enjoy wine. Very much. So before the year's end (when everyone having anything to do with wine seems to shut down at least a week or so for new year's break) we had to replenish our wine cellar--especially the whites. Accordingly, we headed to the Chateauneuf-du-Pape area, in the Southern Rhone Valley, not too far from Avignon.

    Our first stop was in Courthezon, to the hospitable young brother and sister team of Baptiste and Dominique who head the Grangeon family's Domaine de Cristia. We were quite happy with their vivacious, floral Chateauneuf-du-Pape white and rather voluptuous red...of course this did not preclude tasting the full range, including some no longer available for sale. While the number of wines on offer is fairly small, the quality is focused and consistent; a stop by their table is easy to recommend. That Dominique speaks excellent English and can beautifully express the idiosyncrasies of her family's wine is of course very helpful to visiting Anglo-Saxons. If you find yourself around Avignon, give them at call at +33 (0)490 70 89 15, and stop by for a visit.
    Once the cases were loaded, we were on our way to nearby Domaine de Fontavin. You come to this domaine not necessarily for the warmth of the welcome, nor for the charm of the wine-tasting space (a rather sterile re-done entryway) but rather because you like sweet wine. They make a gorgeous Muscat de Beaumes de Venise that goes so well with foie gras, should you be so lucky as to have some. Failing that, it is an excellent dessert wine--particularly paired with my ginger-flecked apple tart...Others come no doubt for the rather ambitious range of other wines they offer, which include Châteauneuf-du-Pape white and red, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vin Doux Naturel Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, and Côtes du Rhône in red, white and rose. To offer such a range, they of course have bits of terrain in all the requisite AOC regions. As the 2009 Guide Hachette makes mention of their Chateauneuf-de-Pape 2007 white, we tried it; perhaps it needed to be uncorked sooner. At any rate, we stuck to our winner moelleux and left. I was somewhat distracted by thoughts of potential food-wine pairings; same wine, novel combinations...(Domaine de Fontavin, +33 (0)49 070 72 14).Our last stop was by Laurent Brotte. To welcome visitors to the storied wine region, they have built a Maison de Vin, which serves as a spacious museum and tutorial to the various processes around wine-making. It is worth a visit, as you can also pick up a few bottles of their award-winning wines while there (and you can even duck into the immaculately clean bathrooms if the need arises). While the children wandered through the museum, we stocked up on the spritely Côtes du Rhône Villages Chateau du Bord white. (http://www.brotte.com/).

    The weak winter light was fading. It was time to head home. Tomorrow we take down the Christmas decorations...Happy New Year!

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