29 January, 2009
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
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
18 January, 2009
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.
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
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.
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
Perhaps I need a glass of wine. And to settle down and play cars with my child.
11 January, 2009
07 January, 2009
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?
05 January, 2009
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.
01 January, 2009
The weak winter light was fading. It was time to head home. Tomorrow we take down the Christmas decorations...Happy New Year!