The Wine Table Has Arrived!

Hurray! My book The Wine Table is finally here!

Wine Table.jpg

The Wine Table is the tale of my travels to visit and cook with 18 winemakers in France and Italy. It explores their food and wine cultures with the aim of answering “What does the winemaker’s family eat?’

 I’ve always felt that winemakers know best what food goes with their wines and I base a good amount of my personal pairing advice on the idea of matching food with wines of the same region. I like to tell people they should “Eat What the Winemaker Eats.”

 Three chapters in the book are about my time cooking for the harvest and winery workers at three French domaines during the grape harvest: Domaine Weinbach in Alsace, Champagne Legras & Haas in Chouilly and Domaine de Sulauze in Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. Other chapters detail parties at wineries in Chianti and Muscadet, visits to small family properties in Saint-Pourçain and Marcillac, a hike in the Pyrénées with Jean-Marc Grussaute of Camin Larredya in Jurançon to visit a Shepherd/Cheese Maker of High Pasture Cheeses, a lively luncheon at Domaine Joseph Voillot following a carriage tour through the vineyards of Volnay in Burgundy, and a stop in Sicily to taste and cook with Arianna Occhipinti. A visit to Franciacorta, Italy included a lunch and winery tour with Mrs. Monique Beretta at Lo Sparviere her family winery.  The final chapter of the book is about several trips I made to the Aube to visit Cédric Bouchard of Champagne Roses de Jeanne and to cook with him and his wife Emilie.

 In addition to recounting my visits to wineries, the book dispenses tips on shopping for both food (be prepared for a gentle rant on meeting your local farmer and a lengthy discussion about salt—including which type to use and quantity advice) and wine with the instruction to make friends with your local wine merchant!

 The last chapter of the book covers Wine Table Favorites—a list of my favorite Restaurants, Wine Bars, Shops, Market Streets and Covered Markets. While this list is by no means exhaustive, I highly recommend all of the locations. I know I enjoyed them and I hope you will as well!

 The Wine Table is 500 pages long and includes 70 recipes from winemakers, information on the wines of their respective regions, their own wines, the food culture of the region and original hand-illustrated maps, personal photographs and details of my visits with the winemakers.

 Ask for The Wine Table at your local bookstore. Additional purchasing information can be found at https://www.skyhorsepublishing.com/9781510730830/the-wine-table/

 

Simple and Seasonal Advice from the Winemaker’s Wife…Two of Them!

 Lovely quince

Lovely quince

I was at the farmers’ market the other day and couldn’t resist buying some of the lovely quince on display. Although they are a fall fruit (generally seen October to December in the Northeast), they are not as readily available as some others, for example, apples to which they are related.  Quince are quite pretty and very fragrant when ripe though they are rarely eaten raw as their flesh is extremely hard, pithy and tannic in its uncooked state.

The joy of quince comes when you cook them.  Naturally high in pectins (a thickening agent), they lend themselves to jams and marmalades—think membrillo the delicious Spanish quince paste that adorns cheese plates around the world.  I’ll be frank.  I didn’t really purchase enough to make jam. I was simply enjoying their pretty yellow skin, gnarled leaves and fragrant perfume.  I had no real idea what I was going to do with them.  Then inspiration arrived by way of a friend and fellow chef. Jennifer McIlvane is an American Chef who lives in Umbria with her Italian winemaker husband.  She posted a photo of some beautiful quince on her Facebook paged and basically shamed me in to using mine. 

I decided to bake them and use them in a cake.  I must admit I have not cooked a lot of quince, but I peeled, quartered and seeded my 5 large quince as fast as their tough skin and flesh would allow, dropping them immediately into lemon water to prevent them from browning.  Once that was done, I left enough lemon water in the pan to come half way up the fruit, and then I added 2/3 cup of sugar, 5 cloves, a teaspoon of salt and half a star anise.  I baked them in a 350°F oven for an hour until they were fork tender, turning them a couple of times in the process. 

 Karina Lefevre, Domaine Sulauze, Miramas, France

Karina Lefevre, Domaine Sulauze, Miramas, France

I didn’t want my cake to be light and fluffy, but I also didn’t want something heavy.  I remember Karina Lefevre and all of the wonderful cakes she made for the harvest workers when I was cooking with her at Domaine Sulauze in the fall of 2013.  She had an easy basic recipe (the French version of a pound cake) and she just varied the fruits and flavoring agents—using apples one day and poppy seeds the next.  You get the idea.  It worked perfectly with the quince.  The buttery lightly sweet cake was a perfect foil for the tart lightly orange colored quince.   

I particularly love the fact that this cake combined simple seasonal advice from two winemakers’ wives.  Two birds—one cake!

Quince Cake

 Quince Cake

Quince Cake

Yield:  One cake (8 in. x 8 in.)
Wine pairing:  Vin Santo or Muscat Beaumes de Venise

Ingredients:

For the Quince:
4-5 large quince
Juice of one large lemon
2 cups water
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tspn. kosher salt
5 cloves
½ star anise

For the cake:
2 sticks softened butter
8 oz. sugar
4 large eggs
8 oz. flour
½ tspn. Kosher salt
Pan spray
Extra flour

What you’ll need:
Nonreactive bowl large enough to hold the quince
Nonreactive baking pan large enough to hold the quince
8 in. x 8 in. square cake pan
Electric mixer
Rubber spatula
Toothpick

Timing:
Prep Time: ½ hour to peel, quarter and seed the quince
15 minutes make the cake batter
Cook Time: 1 hour for the quince
40 minutes for the cake

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

For the quince:
Squeeze the lemon into the water in your large bowl.

Quarter the quince, cut out the seeds and peel the quarters and place them in the lemon water.  Repeat until all quince are done.

Transfer the quince slices to your baking pan. Add sugar, salt, cloves, star anise and enough lemon water to come half way up the fruit.

Bake in a 350°F oven until the quince quarters are soft, turning once or twice in the process to coat the quince.

When they are finished you may store them covered in their own syrup in a jar in the refrigerator for a week.

For the cake:

Coat the cake dish with pan spray and flour to prevent the cake from sticking.

Slice 1-1/2 to 2 cups of the quince in thinner slices.

Cream the butter until it is soft and smooth.  Add the sugar and mix it until it is fluffy and the sugar has dissolved.  It will be much paler than before. With the mixer running add one egg at a time.  When all eggs have been incorporated and the batter is fluffy again, stop the mixer and add one quarter of the flour and then turn the mixer on slowly and mix in the flour.  Repeat until all the flour has been incorporated. 

 Remove the mixing bowl from the mixer and fold in the quince pieces.  Place the quince batter in the cake pan being careful to smooth it as best you can with a spatula. 

Bake in a 350°F oven until the cake springs back to the touch.  After 30 minutes, test for doneness by piercing the center of the cake with a toothpick.  If the toothpick comes back with no crumbs, your cake is done, if not, return it to the oven and continue baking it until the toothpick test comes back clean.

 

Simple Pleasures

 Ripe Olives, Il Molino, Montefiascone, Italy

Ripe Olives, Il Molino, Montefiascone, Italy

Three ingredients.  That’s all it was.  And yet it was one of the most satisfying dishes I’ve ever had.  Ok, technically, if you count salt and pepper, it was five ingredients, (and just so you know, I have planned whole vacations around salt, so I usually do count it). I guess at times, I also consider smoke an ingredient, but let’s not get carried away.

As it is throughout most of the northern hemisphere, October is harvest time in Umbria, for both grapes and olives.  On a recent trip to Umbria with my friends Bill and Suzy Menard (who have just recently become my employers--yet another story), I had the great fortune to visit two different olive producers.  One, the amazingly inspiring Il Molino, whose owner Annalisa Torzilli was helming a gorgeous extensive organic olive and grain farm in Montefiascone (in neighboring Lazio) and the other, Frantoio Cipolonni, a multi-generational olive mill nestled in the hills near Foligno.  Foligno is one of the top olive oil towns on Umbria and I count myself lucky that Bill and Suzy’s friends at Cipolonni were able to accommodate a visit from a small group in the middle of harvest.  I count myself even luckier that they provided us with a simple yet soul-satisfying snack. 

 Wood Grill, Frantoio Cipolloni, Foligno, Italy

Wood Grill, Frantoio Cipolloni, Foligno, Italy

As our minivan pulled up to the small mill building, I saw a woman tending a wood fire under the trees in the parking lot.  Everyone else in our group went to see the wagon full of multicolored olives but having spent years cooking on a wood grill at Buck’s, I made a bee-line for the fire.  I chatted with her long enough to assure myself that it wasn’t simply a wood fire, but rather a grill.  There was no doubt in my mind that whatever came off that grill was going to be delicious and I only hoped that I would be able to sample it.  I saw towering stacks of sliced rustic loaves of bread so I was extremely hopeful.

 Lucio must think I am taller than I am! He was worried I would hit my head!  Olive Press, Frantoio Cipolloni, Foligno

Lucio must think I am taller than I am! He was worried I would hit my head!  Olive Press, Frantoio Cipolloni, Foligno

Our tour of the mill showcased machinery designed to destem, wash and crush the olives before extracting delicious neon green goodness—the miracle known as new oil.  Newly pressed oil is startlingly green and surprisingly bitter.  Both Annalisa and Lucio Maltempi (Frantoio Cipolloni’s manager) explained that the bitterness lasts about 10 days and after approximately 30 days the oil has mellowed to a perfect balance.  The color also tones down a little.  After tasting the oil fresh from the spigot—delicious but yes, still markedly bitter--we found our way back to the grill area where, as I had hoped, there were plates and silverware arranged next to the large bottle of new oil we had just filled directly from the press. 

 Lucio Maltempi, Frantoio Cipolloni, Foligno

Lucio Maltempi, Frantoio Cipolloni, Foligno

Armed with a large metal fork, Lucio extracted charred chunks out from their hidden position beneath the embers.  I took one look at them and thought, “Whatever that is, I’m eating it”.  It was a mass of potatoes and onions cooked in the embers of the fire.  Crazy! Although I had spent time chatting with the cook, I hadn’t even known the potatoes and onions were there! The potatoes were Colfiorito, a red skinned variety from Foligno and the onions both red and white were from nearby Cannara.  Both vegetables were special local varieties and the slow food movement, an important force in Italy, recognizes both. Lucio cut them in half, serving one potato and one onion per plate.  He sprinkled a generous amount of sea salt and several grinds of black pepper over the plate before pouring—not drizzling, pouring--a cascade of vibrant fresh olive oil over everything.  Decorum prevents me from repeating what I said when I saw it but let’s just say the sight of that brought out the rather rustic/kitchen side of my vocabulary. 

The dish could not have been simpler--charred potatoes and onions, salt and pepper, and that incredible oil.  I would like to say the surroundings didn’t hurt, it was fall in Umbria after all, but the simplicity and perfection of that dish were flawless—easily one of the best dishes I have ever had and I feel like I would have loved it just as much no matter where I was.  It will be nigh on impossible to recreate.  After all, I don’t have Colfiorito potatoes or onions from Cannara, let alone new oil pressed only minutes before, but I will try. The lesson was clear and it is one I preach on a daily basis.  Buy the best ingredients possible and get out of their way.  Deliciousness will follow. 

 

 Simple perfection:  Charred Colfiorito Potatoes and Cannara Onions, Salt, Pepper and new Olive Oil.  Frantoio Cipolloni, Foglino

Simple perfection:  Charred Colfiorito Potatoes and Cannara Onions, Salt, Pepper and new Olive Oil.  Frantoio Cipolloni, Foglino

Cookies and Beer...Harvest Fare

This time two years ago I was packing to leave for a three-week trip to France during which I was scheduled to cook the harvest at three wineries in different parts of the country. 

 Farm table, Domaine de Sulauze, Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, France

Farm table, Domaine de Sulauze, Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, France

Harvest isn’t like Christmas.  It doesn’t fall on the same day every year.  Its timing depends on the weather and the ripeness of the grapes. Given that I was cooking at wineries in three different regions, the exact details of the trip were difficult to iron out. If I had extra time, I planned to spend it touring wine regions along the way, which since I was beginning my trip in the Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence near Marseilles on the Mediterranean Sea and ending up in Alsace on the North Eastern border between France and Germany was a considerable distance.  What I found out (in addition to the fact that I drive so much better in France than in Italy and that I definitely need to buy a Fiat Panda because I like them so much!) is that harvest—not shockingly—is a huge amount of hard work with sanitation in the winery taking up a massive portion of the time.  I also saw first hand the truth in the rather cutesy statement that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine.

 Harvest worker, Domaine de Sulauze, Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, France

Harvest worker, Domaine de Sulauze, Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, France

All that hard work in the fields and the winery makes for some very hungry folks. Consequently, behind the scenes there is an additional amount of effort and thought put into feeding said folks.  Each winery has its own food culture surrounding harvest.  Some provide two to three meals a day while others expect the harvesters to feed themselves. 

 Outside my room in the Gîte, Domaine de Sulauze, Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, France

Outside my room in the Gîte, Domaine de Sulauze, Côteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, France

Obviously, since I was there to cook, the wineries I visited provided food for either their pickers or the winery employees.  At Domaine de Sulauze an organic and biodynamic property in the Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, Karina and Guillaume Lefèvre provide accommodations for their harvesters in a super cute gîte (guesthouse).  They also provide a casse-croûte or morning snack and lunch.  Dinner is more informal with the harvesters and Karina taking turns cooking for the group. On evenings where the harvesters fended for themselves, Karina and Guillaume ate separately in their nearby home—relishing the little bit of downtime they had with their two adorable children, Jorge and Carmen.

Karina and Guillaume also have an organic brewery on their farm and the beer they produce was a welcome addition to the end-of-the-day routine.  With Guillaume and his team busy in the winery processing the newly-harvested grapes and Karina and her office staff dealing with the continuing business involved in running a winery (even during harvest) not to mention Karina and her mother Angela taking care of their two active children and planning meals for the next day, there was a lot of downtime for the harvesters. It's kind of a hurry up and wait scenario.

 Tiny beer glasses.

Tiny beer glasses.

As they trickled in from the fields, the beer keg at the gîte was one of the first stops the harvesters made—a welcome respite after the hot physical effort of picking grapes. This was not Germany, however, or even the U.S.  There were no beer steins.  They were using wine glasses for the beer and as anyone who has ever poured beer from a tap knows, you have to let the first little bit of beer escape to get rid of the foam.  That meant a considerable amount of beer was wasted for each 4 oz. glass of beer and they were going through kegs faster than a college fraternity on homecoming weekend.  After watching them run out of beer the second night in a row, I suggested that they use a pitcher to capture the beer and pour it into their wine glasses from there.  The young gentlemen explained to me in a polite yet somewhat condescending fashion that beer needed to be drunk quickly to retain its bubbles.  They didn’t come right out and say it, but they were clearly thinking “what does this spoiled American woman know about drinking beer from a keg?”  Equally polite, I suppressed my three-word answer—“Kansas State University.”  Drinking beer wasn’t my major in college, but I did devote several block periods of time per week to studying it. I also didn’t mention that I was the beer buyer for a short amount of time at Comet Ping Pong—the pizza and craft beer restaurant where I had worked in DC. Frankly, there is only so much interfering that you can do when you are the guest, whether you are cooking for them or not.  Beer shortages not withstanding, Guillaume and Karina provided a warm and relaxing environment for the people doing the important yet seasonal task of bringing in the grapes. And having a brewery on site certainly made it more enjoyable.

Enough talk of beer.  Time to discuss food, specifically casse-croûte.  Casse-croûte means break the crust.  It’s a mid-morning snack (kind of like second breakfast for you Lord of the Rings fans).  It can range anywhere from cookies and coffee to sausages and cheese or leftover meat from dinner the night before slapped between some crusty bread and a glass of wine.  Each morning around 10 a.m. at Domaine de Sulauze, Karina Lefèvre would pack up a basket filled with coffee, fruit and a sweet of some sort and take it to the harvesters and the winery workers.  Her ability to whip up a pound cake while accomplishing a million other things was impressive, but as she told me, after awhile she wanted to vary the casse-croûte menu.  That’s where I came in and quite by accident I might add. 

 Casse-crôute in the vineyards. Puligny-Montrachet, France

Casse-crôute in the vineyards. Puligny-Montrachet, France

Karina had been an exchange student in Texas and while there had taken quite a liking to peanut butter cookies.  Now, I am loathe to admit it, but as much as I love cooking, I have never been much of a baker and given the fact that I am not a dessert person, I do not have a bunch of cookie recipes committed to memory.  I had to email my mother to ask for her recipe.

I will say the cookies turned out quite well considering that the texture of the peanut butter that I found at the organic market in Miramas, France was somewhat different than the Jif my mother uses.  At least the harvesters seemed to like them.  I gave Karina that recipe and a chocolate chip cookie recipe as well (which, frankly is the recipe off the bag of Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chips so I won’t be giving that to you.  I assume you know where you can find it!).  Hopefully they have helped provide a little extra variety to the casse-croûte at Domaine Sulauze since then. 

MOM’S PEANUT BUTTER COOKIES 

 Cookies and Milk, another perfect pairing

Cookies and Milk, another perfect pairing

It had been years since I had made peanut butter cookies when I made them at Domaine de Sulauze in September 2013.  Even though I don’t love to bake, I have fond childhood memories of using a sugar-coated fork to squish crisscross patterns on the balls of peanut butter cookie dough in my mother’s kitchen.   

Yield: 40 medium cookies   
Wine Pairing:  None.  Milk or coffee please!

Ingredients:
1 cup lightly softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar (plus 1/3 cup reserved for the crisscross garnish)
1 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tspn vanilla extract
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tspn baking soda
1/8 tspn salt

What you’ll need:
Electric Mixer with a Beater Blade attachment
Two cookie sheets(My Mom uses Airbake cookie sheets, the ones with the cushion of air in them)
Rubber spatula
Thin metal spatula
Cooling racks

Timing:
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time:  7-10 minutes turning once

 Preheat Oven to 350° F.

 Cream the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. This will take a couple of minutes.   While the butter and sugar are creaming, combine the flour, soda and salt. 

Once the butter and sugar mixture have reached the desired fluffiness, stop the mixer and scrape down the side of the mixing bowl. Restart the mixer and add one egg at a time and mix until incorporated and fluffy.  Lower the speed of the mixer and add the vanilla and peanut butter and mix until incorporated. 

At this point, turn off the mixer and add ½ cup of the flour mixture and blend in at a slow speed.  Shut off the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl and then repeat the process adding ½ cup of flour at a time until it is all incorporated.  It will be slow going towards the end as the dough gets really thick.

Roll the dough into balls slightly smaller than a golf ball and place on your baking sheet.  Coat a fork with sugar and press down on the cookies to make a crisscross pattern.

Bake them in a 350° F turning once after 4 minutes.  Check the cookies after 3 more minutes.  They may be ready.  Be careful not to over bake the cookies.  You should to take them out when they are still soft as they will firm up when they cool.  Ideally they will look golden, but not brown.

Difficulty:  Easy
Sourcing:  Easy (unless you are in France where finding peanut butter isn’t quite as easy.)

Notes:
#1: If you prefer to use peanut butter with minimal ingredients, i.e. peanuts and salt, you will need to taste the dough to see if the sugar and salt content are at your desired level. If you use unsalted peanut butter, you will need to add more salt.
#2:  Creaming butter. The most important part of this recipe (as with most cookie recipes) is to cream the butter and sugar until it is light and fluffy.  I find this gives the cookies a lighter texture.  Begin by putting lightly softened butter in the mixer and beating it until fluffy.  Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides, then add the sugars and begin mixing again.  Continue mixing until the color has lightened and the texture is extremely light and fluffy. A friend of mine said he creams the butter until there are no discernable sugar crystals but this takes a considerable amount of time and considering we are using chunky peanut butter in this recipe is not quite as crucial.  
#3:  I like my cookies chewy.  If you like yours crispy, cream the butter longer and cook them a bit longer as this will make them crispier.

Ask a Different Expert

 Osteria La Fortunata, Rome, Italy

Osteria La Fortunata, Rome, Italy

Finding restaurants while on vacation is easy.  Finding good restaurants? Not so much.  And let’s face it, unless you are retired and have unlimited financial resources, your vacation is probably no more than a week or two long and there just isn’t a lot of time for trial and error.  A mediocre meal on vacation seems so much more disappointing than an equally lackluster meal in your hometown.

Your restaurant search becomes even more difficult if you have dietary requirements like I do.  I’m just kidding.  It’s not that I have dietary restrictions so much as I have a certain type of restaurant that I like.  As I have already stressed in my blog (and to anyone who will listen to me in person) I prefer restaurants that specialize in fresh local ingredients with classic preparations that are true to the culinary history of their region.  A good wine list of local wines at fair prices is also quite important to me.

Finding high-end fancy gastronomy is simple.  Open your Michelin guide and have at it.  Likewise, a web search will likely turn up a “best of” list frequently populated by restaurants touted for their “new take” on classic cuisine.  These are great resources if that is the style of dining you prefer.  Also helpful is an internet search for advice from news sources you trust. 

But what if you want traditional but very high-quality food—preferably (and I know this is a big ask and completely hypocritical) without a lot of tourists?  That is generally considerably more difficult. I always feel comfortable armed with recent articles from the New York Times or Saveur Magazine to name two, but I must stress that recent is the key word in that sentence. Let’s face it.  Time changes things.   If you found that six-year old article in the New York Times stating that Café Perfection (not their real name) is the best traditional restaurant in town with an amazing menu of local specialties, then other people have probably found it as well. Café Perfection (still not their real name) used to be my favorite restaurant in Paris, but they have become so popular that the experience that was once relaxed and unhurried has become frantic and rushed--more cattle car and less “La Vie en Rose”.

The usual candidates for advice all come either with their own agenda: the Concierge at your hotel (“mention our name and get a 15% discount”), your taxi driver (“my brother-in-law has this great restaurant”) or in the case of online review websites from people with whose tastes you are unfamiliar.

What do I mean by that?  I mean a website where anyone can post a recommendation and you don’t know who they are or what they like in a restaurant.  I trust the New York Times, the Washington Post and Saveur because, having read their reviews for years, I am familiar with their viewpoint and know that I can trust them.  Understand that I am not dissing online travel sites.  I have successfully used these sites to find hotels in unfamiliar cities and have been very happy with my choices because for the most part, people generally want the same things in a hotel—cleanliness, cordial service and a safe location.  The ability to search for specifics like air conditioning or pet friendliness make these websites extremely helpful for hotel recommendations. However, in my case, they do not work as well for restaurants because I am unable to ascertain whether or not a reviewer has the same requirements as I do. 

So now that I have told you why I don’t rely on some of the traditional “experts”, i.e. your cab driver, concierge or travel websites, I’ll tell you the method I have found to be most reliable.  It takes a small amount of time, but I swear by it.  Ask a different expert—one whose sensibilities have a greater chance of aligning with your own.  I have a friend who is very athletic and health conscious.  I would recommend that she consult a neighborhood health food or bike shop.  In my case, when I arrive in town, I look for a local high-end food store—it can be a cheese shop, a small wine store, a butcher or a gourmet grocer (and here, you can ask the concierge for a recommendation).  I drop by the store, peruse their selection and if the quality of what they are selling looks good, I ask them where they like to eat, being careful to mention that I want simple traditional food using local ingredients.  I have yet to be steered wrong with this method.

The first time I tried it, I was travelling with my family in the impossibly beautiful town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in France’s Dordogne region.  The streets were lined with restaurants; their menus reading like an all-star roster of dishes from the Dordogne.  In fact, in some cases it wasn’t even necessary to read the menu with its multi-lingual translation of each item, because everything was illustrated with photos.   There was no way of knowing which restaurant to chose and the very real possibility that the choice, once made, was going to disappoint us (well, mostly me). 

Overwhelmed, I popped into a gourmet shop that was selling foie gras, truffles and walnut oil—all specialties of the region.  The array of delicious products in the shop was impressive and I seriously wanted to buy one of everything (admittedly a bad habit of mine).  That was when inspiration struck.  I asked the shop owner (who obviously shared my taste in food) where she liked to go out to eat and mentioned that we weren’t looking for Michelin stars, but rather wanted to experience true Cuisine Sarladaise without the accompanying side of tourism.  She recommended Le Présidial, a lovely restaurant slightly off the beaten path but still within walking distance of the town center.  Housed in a stately 16th century building that was the former Sous Prefecture of Sarlat, this charming restaurant boasts outdoor garden seating in the summer.  The food was fantastic.  I particularly remember that the ravioli stuffed with truffled foie gras were out of this world and although I am often annoyed at restaurants that serve foie gras and truffles on everything, in Sarlat where these famous delicacies are local? I’m all for it. 

 Rolling and cutting gnocchi, Osteria La Fortunata, Rome, Italy

Rolling and cutting gnocchi, Osteria La Fortunata, Rome, Italy

I tried the method again in Venice—a city famous for its challenging restaurant scene, enquiring at a local organic cheese and wine shop.  The result?  A delicious meal at Ristoteca Oniga a small osteria and winebar in the Campo San Barnaba that served delicious Venetian food in a relaxed atmosphere with an emphasis on organic ingredients.

A pattern was developing.  A visit to a marvelous butcher on the Campo dei Fiori in Rome resulted in a very satisfying lunch at Osteria La Fortunata, a small restaurant just down the street where the woman making pasta was installed in an open window, chatting with passersby while rolling out and cutting gnocchi.

 Charcuterie plate and 2010 Schueller Pinot Noir, Sezanne Epicerie, Colmar, France

Charcuterie plate and 2010 Schueller Pinot Noir, Sezanne Epicerie, Colmar, France

Alsace is a region of France justifiably proud of their cuisine, but again the choice of restaurants isn’t always evident.  My husband Jeff and I were in Colmar enjoying a glass of wine and a plate of charcuterie in the tasting room of Sézanne (one of the best gourmet food and wine shops I have encountered in France) when we struck up a conversation with the gentleman at the table next to us.  Before we knew it, our new friend Ludo had called the shop owner to our table.  Soon afterwards, they had not only made an appointment the following afternoon for us to taste wine with Bruno Schueller, the winemaker whose Pinot Noir we were drinking, but they also called and secured a lunch reservation for us at their favorite place in Strasbourg. The restaurant, Le Pont du Corbeau--filled with a noisy local lunchtime crowd--had an extensive regional wine list and a menu of well-prepared classic Alsatian dishes all served in a cozy traditional atmosphere.

I would never have found any of these restaurants (or many others) if I had relied simply on standard methods of researching restaurants using traditional “experts”.  So, if a less touristy and delicious authentic restaurant meal is your goal (and I feel like it is pretty much a given that most people would prefer that), take my advice and ask a different expert.

When Life Gives You Oranges...Sicily Part Two

And now for the important stuff…the food. (And because I am me, the wines that go with it).

 Snails at the Piscaria Mercato, Catania

Snails at the Piscaria Mercato, Catania

The quality of the seafood in Sicily was really impressive.  Everything was fresh and for the most part prepared simply with a minimum of fuss.  While there are quite a few Michelin-starred restaurants on the island, my husband Jeff and I did not seek them out, as usual preferring to eat traditional fare.  The one restaurant that we did eat at which employed more sophisticated techniques only confirmed my prejudice.  Although perfectly prepared and using very fresh local ingredients, the food did not really speak to me.  In fact, it left me cold. 

 Spaghetti Alio, Olio e Pepperoncino, Lido Tropicana, Taormina Mare

Spaghetti Alio, Olio e Pepperoncino, Lido Tropicana, Taormina Mare

We had some very good meals in Taormina which was a harder task because the town is the number one tourist destination in Sicily.  Ristorante Nettuno, Da Nino, Tira Misu, Paladino were all good, offering versions of local fresh fish, seafood or pastas with bottarga and sea urchin.  Surprisingly enough, the restaurants at the beach concessions were quite good, though we did stick to some pretty safe choices like grilled squid or pasta with garlic, olive oil and red pepper—one of my favorites! 

Another surprise?  Dessert!  As I have stated before, I am not a dessert eater. I am a cheese eater.  However, in Sicily? Pistachio heaven? Source of the much sought after Pistachio di Bronte (grown on the slopes of Mt. Etna)?  I had to try Pistachio Gelato.  I had a scoop of it while lazing under an umbrella on the beach at Isola Bella and while it might be true that the scenery enhanced my enjoyment, I cannot deny that that was pretty darn good gelato--nutty, slightly salty and not overly sweet.

The other dessert that I had to try?  Cannoli.  I have always known that Cannoli are from Sicily, but I’ve never really been impressed with them.  Oh my goodness, have I been wrong.  The crisp hollow shells break when you bite into them, causing the lightly sweet chocolate chip studded ricotta cheese filling to gush out--so delicious.  It’s dessert, but it’s cheese too.  What more could a cheese-loving woman like me want?  (I could want them to be as good in Washington DC as they are in Sicily, that’s what).  One of the secrets is piping the filling into the crunchy barely sweet shells at the last possible moment before serving them.  This seems like a viable new hobby, finding perfect cannoli in Washington DC that I don’t have to make myself. 

The wines, like the food, were pleasing and affordable--white wines from Etna like the Sabbie dell’Etna from Firriato made from Carricante and Cattaratto.  I was particularly taken by the Etna rosés made from the local Nerello Mascalese grape. Highly regarded in wine circles, Nerello Mascalese is thought to be a cross of Sangiovese with another grape (which one is still up for debate).  It ripens late and produces red-fruited wines with good acidity and light tannins.  In its rosé form, I found the cherry fruit and salty minerality to be a perfect pairing for seafood.  It becomes a more serious grape when made into red wine.  Of particular distinction was the 2013 Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso “Santo Spirito” which maintained the cherry notes found in the rosés but emphasized minerality and smoky soft herbs while exhibiting silky tannins and impressive length.  It was recommended at Da Nino, a traditional Sicilian restaurant with an impressive wine list and a talented sommelier to guide you through it.

Away from Taormina with its throngs of tourists, Antica Marina served up my favorite restaurant meal in Sicily.  Located in the bustling fish market that is Catania’s Piscaria, the seafood and fish available to this small, established restaurant provide a bounty of ingredients to make the chef in me sigh. 

 Frittura di Paranza, Antica Marina, Catania

Frittura di Paranza, Antica Marina, Catania

Here, once again, we stuck to very basic dishes, meltingly tender octopus salad, sautéed baby clams, their olive oil, lemon and red pepper spiked broth almost as delicious as the succulent bivalves themselves and a new take for me on a classic seaside staple, fried fish or in this case—Frittura di Paranza. I don’t mean to imply that they did anything revolutionary with this dish of fried fish and calamari; it was the fish itself that made the difference.  First, they were very small—the longest fish was about two and half inches in length and served headless but otherwise whole, bones and all. The calamari tentacles served with it were tiny—some of the smallest I’ve seen.  Second, they could not have been any fresher.  (Paranza means fish net or trawler in Italian, but in this case, it means small freshly caught fish—likely right out of the fish net.)  Wow, just wow. The crunch of the breadcrumb coating and the crispy yet completely edible bones made for such an amazing contrast with the flaky flesh—so delectable. Served with a perfectly chilled glass of Grillo, an aromatic, full-bodied Sicilian white wine, this dish hit it out of the park.  

Also excellent were the Ravioli Maniace (housemade ravioli stuffed with shrimp and orange zest and coated with a creamy orange, pistachio, tomato basil sauce) and Fish Soup for two at Osteria Seby in Ortigia.  Because we had been eating out every meal and that is a lot rich of food, I ordered a fennel and orange salad preferring something light for my first course.  As I watched my husband Jeff happily consume his ravioli, I asked myself why I wasn’t enjoying my salad to the same extent.  It occurred to me that my salad was a perfect example of what not to do in Wine Table cooking. 

One of the key rules I live by is that if you use very few ingredients, they have to be perfect—which they should have been.  In this case my complaint wasn’t with the sourcing of the ingredients.  You can’t get much better than buying Sicilian oranges in Sicily.  The problem was the way the ingredients were cut.  The fennel and onions for the salad were quite thick—so that rather than get a mouthful of the three ingredients melding together, you got chunks of onion or fennel with the flavor of the oranges relegated to a distant third place. Simple techniques are not the same as careless ones, rather the opposite.  If you only have a few ingredients, the texture of those ingredients is key and careful knife techniques are important. 

As I watched Jeff finish eating his ravioli with what I can only term as indelicate haste, my mind wandered to ways of making my salad better—plotting to improve the dish upon my return home.  Would grilling the ingredients blend the flavors together?  In the end, rather than putting an extreme twist on the salad like grilling it, I tweaked it slightly, finely shaving the fennel and onions, substituting red onions for white ones, using a high-quality olive oil (in this case the Occhipinti Gheta 2014) and garnishing it at the last minute with chopped toasted pistachios—an homage to the flavors of Sicily. 

Orange, Fennel and Red Onion Salad with Pistachios

En route to visit winemaker Arianna Occhipinti, we saw orange groves with trees laden with ripe fruit, the ground surrounding the trees dotted with fallen oranges.  In fact, one such grove abutted the highway and the gutters along the road were filled with oranges.  Arianna quoted an old Sicilian saying “Those who own oranges will cry,” because growing oranges takes so much work and yet their sales price is so low that there is little profit from the endeavor, which is to say, it is a hard way to earn a living.  It’s really a shame. The oranges are juicy, sweet and delicious.  It’s no wonder we saw this salad on the menu at numerous Sicilian restaurants. When life gives you oranges….

Yield:  4 servings as a side dish
Wine Pairing:  Sicilian Grillo or Insolia

Ingredients:
3 large ripe oranges
1 medium fennel bulb
½ small red onion
1/8 cup extremely good quality olive oil
kosher salt
Dash of crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup finely chopped pistachios, toasted very lightly (Sicilian if you’ve got ‘em!)

Timing:
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Chilling Time (the salad’s, not yours): 30 minutes

 What you’ll need:
A very sharp knife
Cutting Board
Salad Bowl
A Mandoline (optional)

Shave the fennel and red onions on the mandolin or slice it as thinly as possible with your knife. Place them in the salad bowl.

Cut ¾ inch slices off the ends of the oranges.  Squeeze the juice from these six end pieces of oranges, reserving the juice to dress the salad. You should have approximately 1/3 of a cup of juice.

Using a semi-circular motion of your knife, remove the rinds and the white part of the orange.  Slice the orange in 1/3 inch slices.  Cut these orange slices in quarters.  Add the quartered pieces of oranges to the shaved fennel and red onions in the salad bowl.

Pour the orange juice and the olive oil into the bowl.  Add a couple of pinches of salt and a dash of red pepper flakes.  Stir the salad ingredients together and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.

When ready to serve, taste the salad to see if you are happy with the salt content.  Adjust for seasoning and at the last minute before serving stir in the lightly toasted pistachios. 

 Difficulty:  Moderate
Sourcing:  Easy

Notes: 
#1:  It would be great if we all had access to Sicilian oranges, Pistachios from Bronte and Arianna Occhipinti’s amazing oil.  However, we do have excellent substitutes for these products in the United States.  Use the best quality you can find and enjoy.
#2:  Mandolines are extremely useful tools.  Prices range from very expensive French versions to cheaper Benriner Asian models that work really well.  I use a nifty little Oxo version because it fits easily in my utensil drawer and is dishwasher safe.  A word of caution:  Mandolines should be used with extreme care.  Keep your fingers away from the blade.  They can and will take the tip off an unsuspecting finger in the blink of an eye.

Sicily Report - Polarizing Paradise

 Mt. Etna, Taormina

Mt. Etna, Taormina

When I first got the idea to go to Sicily and mentioned it to my friends, I generally got one of two reactions.  On the one hand, some people couldn’t control their raves.  It’s so beautiful…amazing…nothing like it…you’ll adore it.  They described its perfection in such glowing terms that I was expecting some sort of flawless Mediterranean paradise. On the other hand was the group who warned of its dangers, cautioning me to watch my purse, not bring any jewelry and generally painting a dim portrait of the safety level of the island.  Clearing it was a polarizing subject. 

In the end, neither extreme was correct, although I will say the scales tipped pretty heavily towards the Mediterranean paradise side of the equation.  Were there parts of the region that felt unsafe and not particularly attractive?  Sure.  But they were no seedier than the outskirts of many a large city in the US or other parts of Europe.  Did I hold my purse a little more tightly in the Piscaria Mercato, the bustling fish market in Catania? Yes.  Would I have done the same in the train station in Naples, in touristy areas of Venice or in any number of crowded places in New York, Baltimore, Boston or my hometown of Washington DC for that matter? Yes.  Was the section of the town of Gela traversed by the highway possibly not the most attractive urban area I’ve ever seen? Absolutely.  But once again, this is hardly unusual.  Highways are rarely built in the swanky part of town.

 Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Syracuse

Piazza del Duomo, Ortigia, Syracuse

There were, however, shining examples of beauty and shocking spic and span cleanliness that almost seemed unreal.  Piazza del Doumo in Ortigia, the small island quarter of Syracuse, was so pristine that one might imagine it a Disneyesque recreation of an Italian town square.  Likewise, the coastal hilltown of Taormina in the shadow of Mt. Etna, with it’s steep cobbled roads, picturesque staircases and colorful ceramic shops would not have seemed out of place perched on a hill in Provence or Tuscany. 

Italy’s largest region, the island of Sicily is dotted with Greek ruins—the Greek Theater in Taormina with its expansive views of Mt. Etna is a must see, and the Valley of the Temples high on the hills near Agrigento is stunning. But be warned, both require a quite a bit of walking if you want to see them up close.  Baroque Ragusa, a World UNESCO Heritage Site is also quite lovely.

 Isola Bella, Taormina

Isola Bella, Taormina

My husband and I visited beaches where the sand was dark gray, no doubt a remnant from the Mt. Etna volcano.  Below the water level, the footing was a bit slick with stones tumbled smooth from the gentle waves of the Mediterranean. The water was crystal clear and calm albeit quite cold despite the brilliant Sicilian sun.  Views like the Isola Bella below Taormina and beach cafes with chilled glasses of Aperol Spritz didn’t hurt the cause one bit.

The Piscaria Mercato, Catania’s famed fishmarket and Le Saline, the salt ponds with their quaint windmills between Trapani and Marsala on Sicily’s western coast are food lover’s meccas--examples of for-the-most-part unspoiled food tourism.  My biggest regret was not having a kitchen in which to cook all the lovely fresh seafood (some types I had never seen before) and not having a suitcase big enough for all the salt, olive oil and pistachios I wanted to bring home.

 Le Saline, Salt Ponds and Windmills, Trapani

Le Saline, Salt Ponds and Windmills, Trapani

Two other oftheard comments regarded the weather and the food.  Beware the hot weather, they would caution, which considering the relative pallor of my skin was not a misplaced concern.  The topic of food I’ll get to later, however, the temperatures when we were in Sicily were a good ten to fifteen degrees cooler than on the mainland of Italy.  In fact, one day when we were enjoying 85° F weather in Taormina, it was 106° F in Rome—Yikes!  I don’t know if this is universally true in Sicily but though the weather we encountered there was warm, even hot, at times, it did not reach the oppressive heights that I had expected.  According to Arianna Occhipinti, the young Sicilian winemaker I wrote about in my previous blog entry, this is the norm for her neck of the woods—altitude and cooling winds helping regulate the temperature somewhat.  It rendered an already enjoyable vacation even more fun.  Perhaps it wasn’t paradise, but it was certainly worth the trip!

Natural Woman

I had one wine goal in mind for my trip to Sicily—to visit and hopefully cook with Arianna Occhipinti at her eponymous winery located in the foothills of the Iblean Mountains in southeastern Sicily.  

I was elated when she agreed to meet with my husband Jeff and me to show us where her wines are from and to share her food culture.  I wasn’t expecting to be gutting and deboning fresh sardines by hand (I really mean by hand, the little devils are so small you can’t use a knife), but if she could take time out of her busy work day (we pulled her away from cleaning the irrigation lines in an old orange grove), I was more than happy to deal with a few fish.  Seriously, it’s no worse than all of the softshell crabs I’ve cleaned. I just don’t come across fresh sardines in Virginia on a daily basis.

As we sipped her SP68 white wine (a blend of Albanello and Zibibbo), I cleaned fish and cut onions.  Arianna trimmed green beans, peeled baby potatoes, prepared pesto and explained how she likes to entertain--preferring to keep it simple so that she can concentrate on her guests, selecting ingredients from the bounty available in Sicily and showcasing both the food and recipes of the region and her childhood.

Born in Marsala on the western coast of Sicily, Arianna Occhipinti is in her early thirties, incredibly young to have risen to such international acclaim.  Lithe and attractive with dark striking features, she is intense, charismatic and an extremely dedicated winemaker.  A media phenom, she has received rave reviews from the New York Times and is widely recognized to be on the forefront of the natural wine movement.  In fact, she has written an autobiography entitled Natural Woman.

Natural winemaking is not simply organic winemaking.  It involves minimal treatments of the soil and plants (and then only with acceptable organic products).  Instead of chemicals, beneficial plants are planted (or allowed to grow) between the rows of vines, and these plants either act to attract useful insects or are tilled into the soil at an optimal time to replenish the soil’s nutrients.  There are many other elements to natural winemaking but they all have the aim of producing healthy untreated grapes to be made into wine, again, with as minimal intervention as possible.  This process sounds simple, but it isn’t easy. As Arianna explained, the work in the fields and the meticulous cleaning needed to produce wines this way are labor intensive and exacting. 

We cooked and nibbled on almonds from nearby Noto and a local Pecorino Pepato, a black pepper sheep’s milk cheese (after I finished cleaning the fish and my hands, of course).  We were joined at lunch by Damiano Buscema, an attractive former sommelier who works with Arianna. It was a companionable atmosphere in the kitchen in her sundrenched corner of Sicily. 

On the menu that day:
Pasta with Pesto Trapanese: an almond pesto made with tomato, basil, mint and Pecorino Pepato-–a recipe from Trapani near Marsala where Arianna was born.
Wine pairing: 2013 SP68 Rosso (a blend of Frappato and Nero d’Avola)

Sarde a Linguato:  Sardines marinated in vinegar before being coated in finely ground whole wheat flour and fried in olive oil.
Green Beans, Baby Potatoes and Red Onion Salad:  A salad with subtle simple, summer flavors.
Wine pairing:  2013 Occhipinti Frappato

Green Beans, Baby Potatoes and Red Onion Salad

I loved all of the food we prepared and each dish was a great example of Wine Table cooking with very few yet perfect ingredients prepared simply and served in a warm casual setting with good conversation and a great glass of wine. At this time of year, one trip to the farmer’s market will arm you with the produce needed to make this delicious salad.

Yield:  Serves 4
Wine pairing: Occhipinti SP68 Rosso, Frappato or a light fruity red wine

Ingredients:
One quart green beans (approximately half a pound), destemmed and cut in half
10 baby potatoes, peeled
2 small red onions, peeled and quartered lengthwise
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup high-quality extra virgin olive oil
15 medium sized basil leaves
1-1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (or dried wild oregano if you have it)
kosher salt
black pepper, freshly ground

What you’ll need:
A large sauce pan (at least 5 quarts)
Strainer
A bowl large enough to hold all of the vegetables
Optional:  A decorative serving bowl

Timing:
Prep Time:  30 minutes
Cook Time:  20 minutes
Cooling Time:  30 minutes

We cooked all of the vegetables for this dish in a single pot of boiling salted water.  You may chose to cook the vegetables separately if you fear the vegetables will be cooked unevenly but I think the flavor is enhanced by cooking them together.

Place the potatoes and cold salted water in the large saucepan.  You will need to add enough water to cover all of the vegetables since you will be adding the green beans and onions later.  Bring the water and potatoes to a boil.

While the potatoes are cooking, mix the apple cider vinegar and olive oil together and set it aside.

Boil the potatoes until they can just be pierced with a sharp knife.  You may wish to test a small piece.  It should still be slightly al dente or crunchy when you bite it.  Add the beans and the red onions.  Cook until the beans are just tender.  Do not overcook.  You don’t want mushy vegetables.  Remove the saucepan from the heat, strain the vegetables and pour them in your bowl.

Add enough of the vinegar and olive oil mixture to the vegetables to generously coat the vegetables.  You may not need to use it all of it.   Add oregano and black pepper and toss all the ingredients together.  Taste for salt and add more salt and pepper if necessary.

IMG_4707.JPG

Allow the salad to cool in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or so.  Remove it from the refrigerator.  If all of the oil mixture has been absorbed, add a little more to wet it.  Just before serving, stir in the basil leaves and taste one more time to check the level of salt and pepper adding more if necessary.

Difficulty: Easy
Sourcing: Easy

Note:   Arianna used dried wild oregano from her farm.  I would too if I had wild oregano.  She simply shook and tapped the bundle of oregano until she was satisfied with the amount that fell into the mixture.  How’s that for measuring?  I estimated the amount to be 1-1/2 teaspoon for the purposes of this recipe.  Use either store-bought dried oregano or oregano you have dried yourself. 

Rustic is not a bad word

I always have to be so careful in France and Italy when describing my style of food not to use the word rustic.  What I consider a badge of honor, an homage to simplicity and restraint, they consider pejorative.  They always suggest the words country or simple but in English those words don’t really express what I want to convey.

To me rustic means simple and basic with a large dose of soulfulness.  It doesn’t mean sloppy or careless.  In fact, my style of cooking, relying so strongly on few ingredients and simple techniques is the antithesis of sloppy or careless.  The fewer ingredients you use, the more the quality of the raw material matters.  Pristine, perfectly sourced and carefully handled ingredients produce a purity of flavor that is frequently masked when too many components or techniques are utilized. 

I have three basic rules that define my style of cooking.
      1)   Buy the best, freshest ingredients you can find and get out of the way. 
     2)   Practice restraint.  Use as few ingredients as possible.  (Why use 4 when 3 will do?)
     3)   Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. 
          Complicated techniques for technique’s sake are meaningless and rarely enhance flavor.

You can call this rustic.  You can call it simple.  In the end, I just call it Wine Table cooking.  This is how I cook.  It is how my winemaker friends cook and it pairs wonderfully with wine.

 Bacon Wrapped Goat Cheese

Bacon Wrapped Goat Cheese

Bacon Wrapped Goat Cheese 

I adore this dish.  It’s kind of unusual but super good—the meatiness of the bacon, tartness of the goat cheese and fragrant herbaceaousness of the rosemary complement each other very well and the crunch and tannins of the walnut morsels are a nice addition to the dish.  With only five ingredients (I don’t count salt or pepper in my ingredient tally) and easy preparation it still manages to taste complex and soulful—rusticity at its finest.

Yield:  Serves 6 as appetizers
Wine pairing:  Pouilly Fumé
Difficulty: Easy


Ingredients:
2 each Le Chevrot goat cheese
12 slices thick-sliced applewood smoked bacon
1/2 cup walnut pieces
6 sprigs fresh rosemary
Extra Virgin Olive oil
Fresh ground black pepper

What you’ll need:
Sheet tray

Timing:
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time:  10 minutes

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Parcook the bacon slices just long enough to melt the fat and make them supple, approximately 3 minutes. 

Toast the walnuts in the same oven for approximately 5 minutes.  Be careful not to burn them. 

Slice each Le Chevrot cheese in three even rounds. Lay two slices of bacon on a cookie sheet in the shape of an X.  Place one of the rounds of cheese in the center of the X of bacon.  Drizzle the cheese with a little bit of olive oil, top with a few morsels of walnuts and a grind of black pepper.  Fold the bacon over the cheese and close it using the rosemary sprig as a skewer.  Repeat the process with all of the cheese rounds.  This may be done ahead of time.

Raise the oven temperature to 450° F. 

Place the tray holding the cheese bundles in the oven.  Heat until the bacon is crispy and the cheese is just starting to ooze out the side.  Be careful not to cook it until the cheese melts completely.  Remove the tray from the oven.

Serve it warm on individual plates or arranged on a rustic wooden cutting board with crusty French bread and garnished with a lightly dressed watercress salad.

Difficulty:  Easy
Sourcing: Moderate

Note:  Although I find Le Chevrot fairly easily in Washington, it may not be readily available everywhere.  If you cannot find Le Chevrot you may substitute any firm bloomy rind goat cheese.  The key is that the cheese portion of the dish should be about ¾ of an inch high and about 2-1/2 inches across.

Culinary Bordeaux

If you are looking to eat what the winemakers eat, or where they eat, you can’t do much better than having them sit down next to you at the restaurant where you are having dinner.

Seriously, it was a pretty cool coincidence. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Upon arriving in Bordeaux and dropping my bags at my centrally located rental apartment, I hurried off to Bar du Boucher where I had a dinner reservation for one.  I don’t mind eating by myself when traveling.  I’m somewhat accustomed to it, having traveled alone quite a bit and I’m happy to pass the time people watching.  (Although one downside is that you have no one to bully into ordering the other dishes you wanted to taste on the menu.)

Located right off the Place du Parlement in the Saint Pierre District of Old Bordeaux, Bar du Boucher is a raucous meat-centric restaurant dominated by long communal tables and a well-stocked meat counter where you are invited to select your cut of meat for the butcher to send off to the kitchen.  It seems a little touristy, but you definitely know what you are getting. 

I settled in to my place at one of the long tables, happily eating juicy cherry tomatoes from a small terra cotta bowl.  This is exactly the type of thing I love, restaurateurs who have the guts to find a source for a good ingredient and serve it simply. There was a lot to choose from on the menu but I knew what I wanted.  Oysters from the Bay of Arcachon, check.  Glass of white Graves, check.  Visit to M. le Boucher (butcher) to pick out my araignée or spider steak—a cut with which I was unfamiliar (not surprising, as French cuts of meat are different than those in the U.S.), check.  It was now time to sit back with my glass of wine and observe. 

When I had arrived at a little past 8 p.m., I had been one of the few people in the restaurant and had been slightly embarrassed that I had called from DC far in advance to make a reservation.  Shortly thereafter, I was relieved.  Within 20 minutes, the restaurant was completely full—the din of large groups of patrons making for a lively atmosphere (useful for keeping jetlag at bay).  With the help of a charmingly casual but extremely knowledgeable sommelier I sampled wines by the glass for my oyster starter and my second course, the araignée steak accompanied by thick fries cooked in duck fat.  Having no time constraints, I dallied over my meal, enjoying the sight of bottles of old Bordeaux (now that’s where I needed a dining companion so that I could have ordered an interesting bottle of wine from the list) being decanted into the huge long-stemmed glasses that served as decanters.

Cue the cheese course.  You should know that I will rarely order dessert—I’m a cheese girl through and through.  So I opted for some Ossau-Iraty, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees and a glass of Vigouroux Pigmentum Gros Manseng Moelleux, a moderately sweet wine from the Cotes de Gascogne, a region about an hour south of Bordeaux.  I was enjoying the pairing and mentioned it to the sommelier.  He said I could tell the winemaker myself because he was seated with the group at the end of my table.  I considered going over to chat with him but frankly the jetlag was catching up to me and he looked quite occupied with his large group of friends so I paid my bill and went on my way--still marveling that I really had eaten where the winemakers eat.

The following days reinforced my conviction that my remembrances of the food in Bordeaux had not been an exaggeration--every taste and smell brought memories rushing back.  Chocolatines (that’s pain au chocolate to you non-Bordeaux types), croissants filled with bittersweet dark chocolate from a bakery on Rue Sainte Catherine; Canelés de Bordeaux, small fluted cakes that are a specialty of Bordeaux--their chewy dark brown fluted exteriors hiding a soft incredibly moist center—perfect with my morning coffee.

I dined on duck confit and goose foie gras at La Tupina, Bordeaux’s venerable paean to Southwest cooking (where I was joined by a friend of mine and a group of Greeks from some of Greece’s most important wineries.); glistening pristine oysters and sole from the nearby Arcachon Bay and a really fabulous fish soup at Le Petit Commerce (where I ran into someone from Champagne Collet—wine people everywhere!); and cheese from Jean d’Alos, the well-respected cheese shop on Rue de Montesquieu.

The food in Bordeaux is delicious yet simple in its preparation, which is not to say it is fast or easy to make, but rather that it relies on fantastic ingredients and traditional cooking methods.  These are foods that go well with wine without stealing the limelight. They are what informed my food personality and what I keep going back to.  These are true stars of Wine Table cooking.

The Bordeaux Report

Back in the US and recovered from my jetlag, I am pondering Bordeaux’s recent accolades--UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2015 European Travel Destination of the Year to name two.

 Girondin Monument - Place des Quinconces

Girondin Monument - Place des Quinconces

Certainly, I understand the city’s inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Bordeaux has over 2,000 years of historical and cultural significance (first records of a settlement on the banks of the Garonne River date back to the 3rd century BC), including records of a university in 286 AD, the political and commercial link to the British (300 years of British rule from 1154 to 1453) and the Netherlands, and its undeniably important wine trade with its Grand Cru Classification ordered by Napoleon III in 1855.  With 347 historically protected buildings (second in France only to Paris), Bordeaux is a monument to 18th and 19th century Classical and Neoclassical urban and architectural unity and coherence.

But, European destination of the year?  I wasn’t sure about that before my arrival and frankly, I think I would need more than 5 days to be wholly persuaded, especially when the bulk of my days was spent tasting wine at the enormously overwhelming international wine trade show that is Vinexpo.  What I can tell you is that it has changed quite a bit since I was a student there—and definitely for the better.

When I was there before, Bordeaux was gray.  There is no other way to describe it.  The buildings were elegant architecturally, but unattractively stained from years of exposure to smoke from the coal fires used to heat the city.  There was a movement at the time to clean them of their soot covering and the sparkling facade of the Bourse (Stock Exchange) evidenced the success of these first efforts.  Back then I had no idea what a difference that would make.  What was once a rather dour, formal large collection of buildings is now an elegant cohesive urban center, their facades glowing with pale gold-hued limestone.  The bone structure of the city is the same, but the color palette is more flattering, bathing the city in a warm glow.  

 Miroir d’eau – Place de la Bourse

Miroir d’eau – Place de la Bourse

Nowhere is this glow more evident than at the Miroir d’Eau.  Built in 2006, 2 centimeters of water covers 37,100 square feet, making it the world’s largest reflecting pool.  The most photographed site in Bordeaux, its mirrored surface reflects the elegant 18th century Place de la Bourse and the large symmetrical Bourse and Customs buildings.  In the sun, it glistens. At night it glows and every 15 minutes tiny fountains produce thin streams of mist that create an ethereal fog effect.  

The Bordelais make excellent use of lighting, with blue spotlights rendering magical the Grosse Cloche (Grand Belltower) and golden lights spotlighting the Grand Theatre, the Pont de Pierre (an elegantly arched stone bridge spanning the Garonne River) and the churches of Saint Andre and Saint Michel among others.  Fountains in the squares dotting the town are likewise attractively lit, their radiance drawing you closer, inviting you to mingle with the locals and take part in the café or wine bar scene.

 Le Petit Commerce – Saint Pierre District

Le Petit Commerce – Saint Pierre District

That is the part of Bordeaux I liked the most.  I can be impressed by large buildings, elegant architecture and astute civic choices like cleaning the buildings and lighting the city’s undeniably attractive monuments, but I remain a devotée of the small, older sections of cities--the neighborhoods that envelop you in the warm glow of their welcome, no additional lighting needed.  

I feel very much at home in the slightly winding streets of the old town—many of them with limited vehicular access, closed for the most part to all but pedestrians and bicycles.  (You need a special pass to bring a car into the area.)  Small shops, intimate yet bustling restaurants, and trendy wine and beer bars line the streets.  The mood is not one of overt tourism--so common in most heavily visited European cities.  There are no pushy restaurant hosts waving you in, in fact, the locals both patrons and restaurant folk alike take little notice of the passersby, preferring it seems to concentrate on their own affairs—like drinking, eating and serving good food, wine and beer.  

As a traveller, I like these areas because these are the type of places where I would choose to live had I the opportunity.

Just as the small shops and intimate restaurants fill my need for a sense of place, the rustic simple cooking of Bordeaux is what I want to eat.  As promised in my previous blog, I did not seek out any fancy restaurants.  Rather I was comfortable in my quest for cooking defined by local ingredients prepared in ways traditional to Bordeaux and its environs.   I’ll detail my food journey in Bordeaux in the next installment of my blog.  But although my questions regarding Bordeaux’s place as a tourist mecca have yet to be fully answered, I remain bitten by the bug to go back and experience more.  So maybe I do have my answer, after all.

Bordeaux

I’m off to Bordeaux!  It’s a pilgrimage of sorts.  I was an exchange student in Bordeaux the Fall after I graduated from college and although I did stages (or internships) with several companies in the surrounding region, I spent a considerable amount of time in Bordeaux proper on weekends, hanging around with the students at the university that sponsored my exchange.  

Since then, my visits to Bordeaux have consisted of “quick strike” visits for meals or hotel stays with the lion’s share of my sojourns in the region concentrated on the vineyards—as they should be.  The Bordeaux of my youth was a businesslike city—a bit austere and gray.  Imagine my surprise when the city was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007—and then my shock when it topped the list of European Best Destinations in 2015 (so named by the eponymous European Best Destinations not-for-profit).  Clearly, I had to check this out!

So, I’m on my way.  

Let’s be clear.  Bordeaux is where I learned to drink red wine.  In fact, the first red wine I ever drank was Bordeaux—not a bad way to start.  One of my co-workers at Arrowine used to laugh because when we tasted red Bordeaux and people were searching for descriptors (as wine folks are wont to do), I always said, “It tastes like red wine.” Bordeaux is where I cultivated a love for the rustic cooking of the Southwest of France, with duck confit, pork rillettes, pâté and a simple sauté of cèpes (that’s porcini to you Italophiles) topping the list.

These are the foods my Bordelais winemaker friends have served me on subsequent visits.  It’s the kind of food they like to eat with their wines.  Could they go to Michelin-starred restaurants?  Sure.  Is that where they take their “in-the-know” clients?  No.  

So, I’m eschewing visits to any Etoilés (Michelin-starred restaurants).  I’m going to search out the rustic, the local, the heart-felt cuisine of the Southwest.  It’ll be like going home—and after all these years, I can’t wait.

Radishes

This time of year at the farmers’ markets a rainbow of radishes are available. I must admit a fondness for the slender white tipped ones they call French Breakfast radishes.  One of my favorite snacks is fresh radishes—add a little crunchy sea salt and some lovely butter and you’ve got an easy delicious snack.  What could be more French? 

As wonderful as radishes are, I have always lamented having no use for the green stems a.k.a. fronds.  That’s where this soup comes in. 

The recipe for this springtime soup comes from Damien Delecheneau.  He and his wife Coralie make wine at Domaine La Grange Tiphaine in the Montlouis region of the central Loire Valley, just south of Amboise.  Normally I recommend making it in very early spring when the radish and carrot fronds are at their most delicate, but I found some lovely tender fronds at the market last week—perfect for this delicious soup.

soup

Radish and Carrot Frond Soup

Ingredients:
1 quart chopped radish fronds
1 cup chopped carrot fronds
1 clove garlic
1 cup diced peeled potatoes
2 quarts water
kosher salt
black pepper, fresh ground
Crème fraiche

Optional Garnish:
Julienne of radishes
Radish sprouts

What you’ll need:
4-quart saucepan                                                         
Blender                                                                               
4-quart bowl                                                                        
Salad spinner (optional but recommended)

Timing:
Prep Time:  15 minutes
Cook Time:  20 minutes
Purée time:  10 minutes

Process:
The hardest part about this recipe is cleaning the fronds, which just goes to show you how easy the recipe really is.  Take the time to clean them well, preferably in a salad spinner.  You don’t want any grit left to spoil the texture of the delicate soup. Tear or lightly chop the fronds. 

Put the fronds, cubed potatoes and garlic clove in the saucepan.  Add enough water to just cover the vegetables.  (You may not need the full two quarts). Season with 2 tspn. kosher salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper.  Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer.  Simmer until the potatoes are very soft.

At this point the soup is done except for the pureeing.  The amount of time you puree it is a matter of personal preference.  I have processed it lightly so that there were small flecks of green and little tiny chunks of potatoes remaining to give it a bit of texture.  I have also pureed it until it was completely smooth. If you are making it your main course, a little texture might be preferable, but whichever you choose is fine.  Process it in batches, placing the newly processed soup in the 4-quart bowl.

Once you achieve your desired level of smoothness for the whole batch of soup, quickly wash the saucepan, transfer the newly processed soup back into the saucepan and return it to the stove.  Reheat the soup on medium high heat.  When it is hot, taste for seasoning and adjust it to your liking .

Serve it with a grind of fresh cracked pepper, a dollop of crème fraiche and if you like a garnish of julienned radishes or radish sprouts.

Yield:  six 8-ounce servings
Wine Pairing:  Dry or off dry Loire Valley Chenin Blanc (Montlouis or Vouvray) like Damien's La Grange Tiphaine Clef de Sol Blanc
Difficulty:  Easy

Sourcing: Moderate. 
You just need to find radishes and carrots with extremely fresh greens still attached, preferably from a farmer you know, or better yet, from your own garden.

Notes:
#1. Blenders are incredibly convenient, but they can also be dangerous—and not for the reason you might think.  Overfill the blender bowl and the contents can splash out, making a complete mess; and if that liquid is hot—wow!  It is a recipe for a bad burn.  Anyway, let your soup mixture cool slightly and do not overfill the blender bowl.  It may take a minute or two longer, but you’ll avoid both a messy clean up and a trip to the ER to treat the burns!

#2. Even if you do not plan to eat the soup right away, it is best to reheat it after pureeing it so that you can check the seasoning while it is hot.  When food is cold, the salt contents tastes muted.  If you salt it while cold, you run the risk of it tasting too salty when it is warmed to serving temperature.

 Damien Delecheneau of La Grange Tiphaine

Damien Delecheneau of La Grange Tiphaine

About Damien, Coralie and La Grange Tiphaine

La Grange Tiphaine is located 4 km south of the Loire River and Damien and Coralie farm it using organic and biodynamic practices.  They care about the land—believing healthy land produces healthy grapes.  They feel the same about the food they eat and as parents of two active growing boys, they practice what they preach—buying local and organic food, raising their own chickens and trading their organic hay to a neighbor who returns the favor by providing organic manure to be used as fertilizer in the vineyards.  Their boys chip in as much as they can, helping take care of the horses that are used to work the fields and taking part in meal preparation.

La Grange Tiphaine produces white chenin blanc-based wines under the Montlouis-sur-Loire appellation and Touraine and Touraine Amboise reds from Cabernet Franc and Cot.