Posted tagged ‘French wine’

Slow Walnut Wine

June 27, 2014

DSC_8552There’s a verb in French, patienter, that we don’t really have in English. It means to wait patiently, and you’re asked to do it often, like when you’re on hold on the phone with the notorious French bureaucracy, for example. The ATM will even tell you veuillez patienter, please wait patiently, as you’re waiting for your Euros to be dispensed. The French know how to wait.

And if you want to make this beautiful French walnut wine, called vin de noix, you’ll need to be patient too – actually, in this case what you need to do it hurry up and wait. Because you have to go pick the walnuts right now, meaning, in the next few days. The walnuts must be soft, easily pierced through with a needle, and in France the optimum day to do this is the day of St. Jean, which is June 24th. So I was already a couple of days late when I picked these this morning, but hey, the climate’s cooler here, and the walnuts are probably a little behind their French cousins. So, if you have access to a walnut tree, rush out now and gather 15 of  the small green nuts.

Making the wine is child’s play, and takes a matter of minutes. It’s waiting for the wine to be ready to drink that takes patience. First you let all the ingredients rest quietly together for about 40 days. Not so hard, right? But then you filter the wine and let it rest for another….year. And if you can wait two years, it will be that much better. So run right out and get the nuts, and then, veuillez patienter. It’s a lesson in French culture, both the waiting for and the drinking of, vin de noix, that’s completely typical and utterly charming. And yes, this recipe makes quite a lot, but you won’t be sorry you have it, and neither will all the friends you’ll delight with your bottled patience.

Abra’s Vin de Noix

15 green walnuts
3 large walnut leaves
5 bottles red wine (nothing expensive, but something good to drink)
1 bottle inexpensive brandy
3 star anise
3 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 pound of sugar

Cut the walnuts in half, or in quarters if they’re large. If they’re hard to cut, they’re already too old and the wine will be very bitter. Place the walnuts in a very large jar, or divide them among 3 half-gallon canning jars. Add the rest of the ingredients to the jar(s), cover, and place in a cool corner of your kitchen. Now wait for 40 days and 40 nights. The wine will darken in color, and if you want it even darker you can put it outside for a few hours on a sunny day or two and let it get a little sun. When the 40 days have passed, filter out all the solids and place the wine back into the jars, or into wine bottles if you like.

I know that you are going to want to taste it at this point, and if you do, it will be horrible. Horrible, I say. Undrinkable. Don’t despair, don’t throw it out, veuillez patienter. Set it aside in a cool, dark place and forget all about it for a year or two. When you taste it after that long wait, you’ll be overcome by deliciousness. This is a wine to drink with a simple, unfrosted cake, or to drink all by itself instead of dessert. I promise you that your patience will be richly rewarded.



La Fête De La Charette

October 16, 2013


A charette is a cart, in the old days usually two-wheeled and pulled by handles. But in this case, because it would be sort of silly to hold an entire festival in honor of of a two-wheeled pull-cart, it’s the cart that brings the grapes in from the vineyards, to be blessed, then crushed, then made into wine. And in the little town of Montfrin, they really know how to hold a fête de la charette.


The morning began with a super parade, and believe me when I tell you that this little girl, with her tiny charette in which she pulled a small chicken, was the hit of the day. I’ve never heard so much oohing and aahing in France before.

More predictably, but still wonderfully, there were:




school children,

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IMG_8103couples looking as old as the hills, and lots and lots of animals.




IMG_8124Right, these guys are herding geese, and as I heard one lady say


Faire défiler les oies, c’est pas évident.” Getting geese to parade, nicely and in formation, not an easy task. As you can see, a lot of sticks were involved, but no one hit the geese, they just kept them kind of caged in.

IMG_8141 After the parade there was a Mass in Provençale, even though Montfrin isn’t really in Provence. Actually, the costumes were Provençale too, I guess because we’re so close to Provence here and the line is somewhat arbitrary. We didn’t attend the Mass, but we were waiting outside the church

IMG_8159when the wine that had been blessed was carried out. These two look like they’re making off with it, but I think it was served later in the day. There was such a huge crowd around the apéritif table that we decided to sit calmly in a café nearby and pay for our wine, unblessed though it was.


From our café seats we watched people have a large communal lunch, the highlight of which was sausages cooked in moût de raisin, which is the grape must and detritus left after crushing the grapes. The sausages looked intriguing, but since the rest of the meal consisted of a huge boiled potato and a boiled carrot, all plunked on a paper plate, we decided that watching was probably more fun than eating.


And there was plenty to watch, including a long and very pretty dance program.




IMG_8203Finally, there was a brocante, which is a sort of second hand market, where we again looked at but did not buy all sorts of cool things.




And if “look but don’t touch” is seeming like it was the watchword of the day, witness these really cute guys


who, you guessed it, got exactly that same treatment. It was a beautiful day in Montfrin, a tiny town that we’d never before had reason to visit, and will now always remember fondly.

Voyage en Vaucluse

April 30, 2011

We’ve been traveling a lot lately, that and having guests, which kind of go together since our guests have come from other countries just to see our corner of the world. And, atypically for us, a lot of that traveling has been in the Vaucluse, the north-western edge of Provence.

A must for Sunday visitors is a trip to l’Isle sur la Sorgue, which has a huge and astonishingly diverse Sunday market specializing in antiques,

but which also sells clothing,

food, including these rather antique-looking cheeses,

and knick knacks and treasures of every stripe.

You eat well in the Vaucluse, with specialties like calf’s head terrine, and tripe and sheep’s foot stew, although if you have the time and are inclined towards a luxurious lunch

you should go directly to the gorgeous terrace of Le Vivier, where, surrounded by ducks and the gentle plashing of water wheels,

Louise and I dined on cod with lemongrass, calamari, and a vegetable purée,

while Shel had one of the most beautiful dishes ever, a pithiviers of pigeon, each perfectly rare pigeon breast tucked snugly into its pastry nest.

Every dish is gorgeous there, from the cheese plate

to the mignardises, the little treats that come with coffee. I can’t wait to go back there, it’s really a wonderful place.

We walked off our lunch on the breathtaking sentier des ocres, the ochre cliffs of Roussillon, which you can see in more detail here when I wrote about our last trip there,

followed by a visit to the Village des Bories, where we tried to imagine what it must have been like to live on stone, surrounded by stone, without color except the blue sky and the green grass. It’s quite stark, coming from Roussillon, and we wondered whether the people who had lived there so long ago had even known about the splendors of the ochre cliffs that are just a few minutes away, if you have a car, which of course they didn’t.

On another day, with Wolfgang, we went to the town of Sorgues, in and of itself not especially pretty or welcoming, but which is home to the charming little Restaurant Gérard Alonso.

The langoustine welcomed us with open arms,

the veal and asparagus were fresh as Spring,

the cheese trolley was incredibly well-stocked,

and the table was showered with desserts at the end of the meal, this being just the first of three.

We had gone to Sorgues specifically to visit Chateau Gigognan, which sits tranquilly  outside of town

and where we were also welcomed with open arms, this time by Claude Cante, who led us through tasting their exceptional Côtes du Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  These wines are available in the US, and it’s definitely worth looking for them.

Afterwards, we refreshed ourselves in Fontaines-du-Vaucluse, a jewel of a town, if one could only sweep it clear of tourists. That green in the center of the picture, looking like a perfectly groomed lawn? That’s the river, which flows through the town and is heart-stoppingly beautiful everywhere it goes.

There’s a tiny museum/shop, showing how paper was made in a mill by the river, which must have looked much different in those days of water pollution

shops selling every sort of resistable item (yes, even Shel, who has Coca Cola running in his veins, managed to resist these),

as well as those with more tempting wares.

A ruin presides over it all, here dwarfing Wolfgang and Shel,

and the houses have a sun-drenched beauty that makes you want to move there immediately.

So there’s a little tour through some highlights of the Vaucluse, and tomorrow we’re off for a week in Belgium.  We’re very excited, never having been there. We’ll be renting a vacation house in Bruges, and we plan to travel all over the country during the next week. Allons-y! Next stop, la Belgique.

Good Intentions Gone Astray

November 14, 2009

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Vaison La Romaine.  They call it that because it was a Roman town, now the site of some of the most important Roman ruins in the area.  We went there with every intention of visiting them, learning abut the history of the place, steeping in the ancient atmosphere.  Instead, food and wine captured our attention and, ruins be damned, we were forced, forced I say, to leave them for another day.

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Driving there we were surrounded by brilliant vines that reached to every horizon.  Unfortunately, when there are vines as far as the eye can see

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there’s likely to be huge wine production.  And huge wine production is, let us say, usually not the best.  Here in Suze-La-Rousse wine is being made in 80,000 litre tanks that dwarf our car.  I actually didn’t have the nerve to taste the wine here, but I think I’m safe is assuming that it’s not something you’d normally want to drink.  Even in France there’s plenty of wine that’s cheap and nasty, and this is sure to be in that category.

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But as a saving grace, the moment we arrived in Vaison we happened to park in front of this phenomenal cheese shop.  Madame Déal, whose shop it is, is a Meilleur Ouvrier de France, one of the best workers in her field in France. The Meilleur Ouvrier designation is very prestigious, and those awarded it wear a special collar with their work clothes, every day for life.  If you get a product or service from a Meilleur Ouvrier, it’s sure to be excellent.

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And indeed, the cheeses I bought from her were among the best I’ve ever had, good enough to have me thinking about making that 80 kilometer drive again just to stock up on cheese.

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But the thing that really derailed our good intentions was the fact that, unbeknownst to us, Vaison had chosen that very day to have a huge food and wine expo, with tastes and samples of almost everything.

I felt kind of guilty about it, since I knew I wouldn’t be buying, but I took the opportunity to taste some very nice Châteauneuf-du-Pape, something that’s normally outside my budget.  The foie gras folks weren’t giving out samples, but we bought a bit anyway, for the holidays.

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Shel didn’t feel at all guilty tasting from this stand, a small coffee roaster, because he fully intended to buy several bags of coffee.  For some reason there’s no good coffee in our town, and we got quite hooked during our time in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val on having a coffee roaster in the weekly market.  These guys did very nice coffee, and invited us to visit their shop in Avignon, which we might just do the next time we feel like driving for 45 minutes to stock up on coffee.

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There was all sorts of charcuterie and sausages

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and the knives to cut them with.

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There was a chocolate sculpting contest going on, and this carniverous-looking plant was made entirely of chocolate.

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There was beautiful dried fruit that looked like it had come straight from the orchard,

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and smoked black cod that had come from Alaska, although it must have been by some very circuitous route, because do you see that price?  At today’s exchange rate, that 109 Euros per kilo is $74 per pound!   The lady at the stand asked me if I were taking a picture because of the price, and when I admitted that was really my motivtion, she said “well, I can certainly understand that!”  Needless to say, they weren’t giving out any free samples either.

I do still feel a bit guilty about having missed those ruins though., and I’m sure we’ll be going back to see them in the near future.  The fact that we’re fresh out of cheese has nothing to do with it!

Drive On, Dionysus

October 10, 2009

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Now tell the truth.  Would you go chasing all over the countryside for these two guys?   What’s that you say, either one of them?  Well then, we’re in synch.

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‘Twas a dark and stormy day when we embarked on our last road trip in this corner of France.  We were in search of the black wine of Cahors, and weren’t going to be deterred by a little rain and thunder.

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We crossed over the Lot river, leaving behind the Tarn et Garonne that’s been our home these past five weeks, and entering into a wild and wine-soaked part of France.

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The harvest is over here, and the vines are turning.  Cahors wines are made of mainly Malbec, known locally as Auxerrois or Côt, plus a little merlot and tannat.  You probably think of Malbec as a wine from Argentina, but they had it here first.  In fact, the Romans appreciated it, trade wars have simmered over it, it was exported to Russia in the time of Peter the Great, and it tastes not a whit like its South American cousin.

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We headed first to Clos de Gamot in Prayssac, hoping to buy some of the wine that accompanied this meal. After tasting through 5 years of their excellent wines, I was very happy to come away with a few cases of their delicious 2002 that’s 100% Malbec, although not actually black.  I was also happy to see that an ancient and venerable wine house

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retains a proper sense of perspective.  The poster rhymes nicely in French, although the translation doesn’t:  one glass opens the way, three glasses bring joy.  Their wines made me really wish I had a cellar, since they’ll only keep getting better over the next 10-15 years.  However, the 2002 is ready to start drinking now, and that’s just what I plan to do.

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The wines I wanted to compare with the Clos de Gamot were wines from Chateau de Gaudou in Vire-sur-Lot, also hundreds of years old and widely venerated.  I was interested because this domaine is represented in the US by our friend Michel Abood of Vinotas Selections, and if Michel likes it, I’m pretty sure to like it too.  These wines are made in a more modern style and are ready to drink earlier, but are still very carefully structured and complex.  And they’re more nearly black, but not inky like I was expecting.  I guess that actually black wine doesn’t exist anymore, with modern winemaking techniques.  Or maybe it was just poetry all along.

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Fabrice Durou took the time to let me taste through a large selection of their wines

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while his Dad Jean Durou undertook the less glamorous task of repairing the bottle labeling machine.

The low point of the day came when I found out that my two favorite wines weren’t available to buy, although I felt a little better when I learned that the 1994 that I totally loved would cost, if it were available, which it isn’t, about 200 Euros for a half bottle.  Oh well, at least I got to taste it, and if only all the wines that pass my lips were that good, I might have to give up food altogether and just stick to drink.  But although the ones we did bring home are pretty darn good indeed, it’s just that I’m permanently spoiled by that little half bottle of 15 year old magic potion.

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Leaving Chateau de Gaudou we admired the pastoral and peaceful view they have out over the valley,

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although just 40 minutes down the road we found ourselves in a sort of gravel dune desert.

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We crossed back across the Lot with a little sigh of regret.  It’s a remarkable countryside, deserted, wild, alternately forested and teeming  with vines as far as the eye can see.  There’s wine on every corner, and I wish we’d had time to taste more of them, although we really started at the top and so avoided disappointment.

And now our wine bounty is fighting for trunk space with other essentials like clothing, because tomorrow we leave here and head to our home in Uzès.  I have lots more to tell you and show you about this part of France, but that will have to wait for a day or two or three, until we get settled in and back in the swing of normal life.  In the morning we’ll stuff Beppo and Zazou in the car, in amongst the wine bottles, and head off into the east.  See you when we get there.

Bored In Bordeaux

October 6, 2009

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It will probably come as no surprise to you when I say that Bordeaux is all about the wine.  Oh, there’s good food, too.  But mainly, it’s all about the wine.  And the tourists.  I was expecting something different: a gracious old waterfront city where one could drink well while enjoying the town and the waterfront.  Mais non, that wasn’t exactly our experience.

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The waterfront, such as it is, is way below the level of the city, pretty much invisible.  Or it would have been had not this great honking cruise ship been ensconced there, probably the source of the seemingly endless number of Americans in the streets.  It was very hot when we were there, and one of the best things was this huge ankle-deep wading pond, usually filled with teenagers and assorted other refreshment seekers.

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Those kids not wading were lounging on the steps of the Opera House.  There’s almost nowhere to sit in public in Bordeaux, unless you’re in a park, or paying to sit in a cafe.  And when I say paying, I mean to the tune of $12 dollars for a coffee and a glass of wine.  And that in a place where the waiter had to sneak us a glass of water because one was technically required to buy bottled water, the only place in France that I’ve even encountered that.

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There were certainly beautiful old buildings to be seen

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some of which had a special look that we haven’t seen elsewhere in France.

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But a lot of central Bordeaux looked dingy, and as if it co-existed uneasily with the modern world.  And we couldn’t find anything to do.  There were wine tours galore, but they took 5 hours and the timing didn’t work out for our short visit.  There was a city tour bus and a joint-cracking shock absorber-less little tourist train.  And really, that was it.  If you want to be in Bordeaux, you really have to plan to do a lot of wine touring, or else….ta da…a lot of shopping and eating.

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I managed to find a pair of black boots that fit like a dream, thus ending my fruitless months-long search.  By visiting two phone stores we found out how to end our frustration with our wireless service.  Those things are very good, but they’re not at all why we thought we were going to Bordeaux.

However, I knew that we would be having three meals in restaurants, and I planned them rather brilliantly, if I do say so.

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Every food lover who goes to Bordeaux visits La Tupina. It’s a shrine to traditional southwestern cooking, one that I’ve wanted to visit ever since I first read about it in Paula Wolfert’s Cooking of Southwest France.

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When you walk in the front door you can see your lunch roasting on the spit.

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We sat by a lovely window and savored that iconic roast chicken

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with its disk of delicious stuffing and a juice-soaked crouton, and I thought about how that plate alone cost 24 Euros, which is $35.  Although I didn’t have the fries cooked in duck fat that also come with it, and I don’t want to sell them short.  But I thought a lot about how I could feed four people a roast chicken dinner for that price, and that it might not be quite as good, but it would be close.  And then I thought that Paula had been here and eaten that and so, maybe, that made it worth it.  And it was very good.  In the end, I bought their cookbook, which is stuffed with great recipes, and now I can say I’ve been to La Tupina, and that maybe everyone should go there, once, and after that they can come to my house where I’ll be making a lot of those dishes over the coming months.

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At the other end of the spectrum was La Brasserie Bordelaise.

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It’s the kind of place where for 12.50 Euros you get a huge piece of cold roast chicken with homemade mayonnaise, a heap of fries, a giant salad

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and cheese or dessert just like Mom used to serve you.

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Unless, of course, your Mom actually brought you to the brasserie, set you up at the bar with something good to eat, and joined in the happy, noisy crowd of lunchers who know they are in the right spot.  Incidentally, this was one place where we didn’t hear a word of English, always a good sign.

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I’d love to go back there sometime with a big group and eat downstairs in this tantalizingly beautiful room.

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And speaking of beautiful rooms, it’s hard to imagine dining anywhere more beautiful than La Belle Époque. The food is delicious and creative, but go there for the room, lined in every direction with gorgeous tile work

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that was hidden from the Germans in WWII under false fronts, and rediscovered later after it had been long forgotten.  They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

I do have to say that everywhere I ordered wine by the glass, letting the server choose for me because I don’t know the wines of Bordeaux, something very good appeared in my glass.  I learned that the white wines of Bordeaux are very nice, and I’m not much of a white wine person normally.

But honestly, it’s the first time ever in all of our travels that we’ve arrived in a major city and not been able to find anything we wanted to do.  It was a weird experience, and not one I’m in a hurry to repeat.  So I’d say go for the wine, go for the food, take lots of money with you in either case.  But if you’re looking for any other sort of fun and adventure, you too may find Bordeaux boring.

Okay, you can call me a Philistine now.

From Here You Can See Perfection

September 28, 2009

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You love France and all things French, right?  So I’ll bet that you’ve read Michael Sanders’ From Here You Can’t See Paris, the story of the year he spent in the kitchen of La Récréation, watching a young couple committed to serving great food struggle to create a restaurant in a tiny town that’s hard to even find on the map.

Shel and I both loved the book when we read it a few years ago, but never for a moment did we imagine that we’d one day find ourselves dining there.  So when we realized that it was not too far from our current temporary home, it was pretty much a done deal that we’d go there tout de suite.  But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

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To get there from Saint Antonin we drove north to Cahors, home of the famous and ancient vin noir, or black wine, and also home of Léon Gambetta.  Just about every town in France has a Boulevard Gambetta, but Cahors also has a statue of its native son, a rabble-rousing statesman of the mid 19th century.

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Cahors is also home to a covered market with an excellent fromagerie. The selection here was the best I’ve seen anywhere this side of Lyon, so of course we had to buy some local cheeses

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as well as some of this beautiful butter.

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We did manage to resist the offer of a foie gras sandwich with a free glass of wine, although it was tough.  Foie gras is as common as baguette here,  and we had better plans for our lunch.

The first part of those plans involved driving for another half an hour into the absolutely most remote corner of France that we’ve seen thus far.  Tiny one lane roads through forests with nary a car in sight, which is a very good thing given the size of the roads, lead us finally to the minuscule hamlet of Les Arques, and to La Récréation.

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After parking our trunkful of cheese in a shady spot, we were greeted by the vivacious and charming Noëlle Ratier, wife of chef Jacques Ratier.  She’s the public face of the restaurant, and we watched in awe as she moved from table to table, lingering with each guest, making each one feel like the guest of honor.

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The pretty dining room was empty, because we all wanted to be outside on one of the last perfectly warm days of the season.

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Since I was interested in vin noir Madame Ratier  deftly helped me choose a half bottle, as well as selections from the menu to complement the wine.

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We sat on the sun-splashed terrace under a 68 year old wisteria and started with a light bright tomato bisque that tasted of the last days of summer.

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A terrine of foie gras followed for me

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and fillets of rouget on a bed of artichoke hearts for Shel.  This dish, and the artichokes in particular, were what made me realize that our lunch was in the hands of a maître saucier, a sauce-making genius of a chef.  I’d go back to La Récréation just for those artichokes, and I might be tempted to sell my soul for the recipe.

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Next I had a ballotine of poultry with girolles, a savory golden mushroom

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while Shel had quail with foie gras and a sweet grape sauce that was far and away the best quail I’ve ever tasted.

Following the tiny and perfectly creamy cabecou that we both had as a mini cheese course

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Shel had this gorgeous tarte tatin with a caramel crème anglaise and I had an eau de vie of plums that sent me searching for a bottle to bring home.  So there you have it, a brilliant 5 course lunch for 33 Euros a person, served in a lovely setting by a friendly and super-competent staff, which has got to be one of the most incredible deals in France.

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After lunch we strolled through the town to the other attraction, the Zadkine Museum, which is absolutely worth visiting.

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It defies understanding how such an admittedly lovely but minute village, which boasts a population of 181 people, could house two such major attractions.  And nothing else, mind you, neither butcher nor baker, not a grocery store, not a hardware store, nothing else at all, in the middle of what really does appear to be nowhere.

As we strolled we talked a lot about what life would be like, so far off the beaten path. But you know what?  I kind of have the feeling that if you can see La Récréation, you really don’t need to see Paris.

The Grapes of Gaillac

September 13, 2009

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Loin de l’oeil (or len de l’el), mauzac, duras, braucol (or fer servadou), ondenc, the names of the grapes that make up the excellent wines of Gaillac sing an unfamiliar song.  Sure, they use syrah and sauvignon blanc and muscadelle, but it’s the old grapes, and their ancient names, that really capture the imagination.  In a world where all too often one bottle of cabernet tastes just like another, no matter which hemisphere it was made in, the wines of Gaillac stand apart.  They’re interesting, different, delicious.

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If you’re making a Gaillac wine tour, a great place to start is at the Maison des Vins, where they offer free tastings of the wines made by over 100 wineries in the region.  It’s there that I learned that most of the Gaillac grapes, including those that went into some of the wines that we really enjoyed, are mechanically harvested.  This surprised me a lot, since I tend to have a bias toward wines made from hand-harvested fruit.

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Grapes that are mechanically harvested are roughed up in the process, which can cause them to start fermenting while they’re still in the truck on the way to the winery.  Also they can’t be carefully sorted for ripeness by the harvester, and a certain amount of detritus enters the crusher along with the fruit.  Although mechanical harvesting is done for economic reasons, allowing for a greater yield and a lower price per bottle, hand harvesting generally produces a higher quality finished product.

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Here stems and leaves pop out of the other side of the crusher after mechanical harvesting.

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The other end of the spectrum is a place like Domaine Plageoles, where every step in the wine making process is done by hand and whose wines reflect that care and attention to detail.  I fell in love with their Duras, for all of their wines are monocepage, made from a single grape variety, and managed to snag a few of the hard to come by bottles to bring home.

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Don’t leave the Maison des Vins without stepping into the cathedral next door, the most beautiful one I’ve seen in this region.

And then, all that tasting is going to make you hungry, right?

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It’s a short walk to La Table du Sommelier, where not only can they really cook, but they do it for an amazingly low price, and they’ll recommend and serve the perfect wines to accompany your meal.

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For only 13 Euros, a weekday lunch menu, I had this delicious duck salad and

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this medley of bass and fresh cod in a fennel and butter sauce.  It was not only a brilliant meal, eaten on their shady terrace, but we walked out of there lugging several cases of the wines they introduced us to, which made it a really wonderful find.

This is a part of France where you can eat and drink really well, which I’m busy doing myself, and which I recommend to you, if you’re looking for an out of the way corner where la vie est douce.

Wine On The Line

March 22, 2009


First the grape, then the winemaker’s magical touch, then the sound of the cork popping.  That was pretty much my whole train of pre-glass wine thought,  until recently.  But now I’ve taken wine tasting classes, been to a huge wine convention, acquired a modest wine vocabulary, spit out countless mouthfuls in the quest to understand what makes wine good, and even pruned a few vines.  What remained missing from my rudimentary education was a good bottling.  To remedy that, since it’s bottling season here and now, I begged an invitation from Jean-Marie Popelin at Château Haut-Musiel in the tiny town of Domazan


and we set out on a bright and windy day to see how it’s done at a small winery without its own bottling facilities.


Right off the bat, one illusion was shattered.  When I see mis en bouteille à la propriété on a label, I at least know the wine hasn’t been blended into an anonymous amalgam somewhere far from the vineyard of its origin.  That had given me a sort of cozy, homey image, perhaps of the winemaker deep in the cave, bottling by hand, or something of the sort.  It was fuzzy in my imagination, yet artisanal.  But no, not at all.

We arrived to see the mobile bottling plant, contained in a semi trailer,  installed in front of the cave.   This baby can turn out 3500 bottles an hour.


Everything you need to wash and sterilize the bottles, fill them, add the cork and the capsule, and then label them, is contained inside.


The bottling teams travel from one winery to another all through bottling season and are prepared for everything.  They even bring their own generator.


Bottles come in on giant pallets


and are placed by hand on the bottling line.  If all goes well, no one will touch the bottles after that until they pop out the other end of the trailer ready to be put in cartons.


The first bottle of each run is filled and sampled, just to be sure.


Once given the go-ahead, the line cranks up.  But in this case there were lots of fits and starts, because the bottling we watched was of a vin liquoreux, a sweet wine, and the smaller bottle size wasn’t perfectly matched to the requirements of the bottling line. 


 There was a lot of fiddling around inside the trailer, and a lot of standing around and waiting outside, but since I didn’t hear any yelling or swearing I imagine that this must happen fairly often.


Once the line is running smoothly, corks by the gazillion are stuffed into the waiting bottles before they’re labeled


and placed in cartons.  A carton of six bottles is the norm in France; in fact, I don’t think I’ve even seen a case of a dozen, which is the common thing in the US.


Before the bottles are tucked away in their boxes, every label is checked by hand, then the carton is placed


on a roller belt where it slides down into the anxious hands of the waiting winemaker.  These are his babies, these bottles


and they’re handled tenderly right up to the moment they go out into the world.


“Wine is bottled poetry” said Robert Louis Stevenson, undoubtedly talking about wine in the glass.  But bottled wine is so much more than that.  It’s the journey from grape to glass that makes all the difference, and there’s no end of hard work and expertise needed along the way.  The poet’s craft, perhaps delightfully fueled by a glass of wine, seems an easy one by comparison. 

So let’s raise a glass to the guys in red jumpsuits driving those big semis all over the back roads of France.  If it weren’t for them, a lot of that poetry would be falling on deaf ears.

A Vineyard After Winter

March 5, 2009


On the second warm and sunny day of spring my wine class set out to learn how to trim the vines.  There’s a lot to learn, and it’s actually fairly daunting, since every cut affects the summer’s production.  First up, trim away any remaining dried grapes that have somehow managed to hang on through the winter’s storms.


In this vineyard, as in most of the vineyards in the south, the initial pruning is done by machines, which lumber down the aisles between the rows of vines, whacking and lopping them all to a set height.  It’s a crude cut, but it saves a lot of hand labor.  People with giant pruning shears follow, performing the annual spring ritual of taille des vignes,  which in this case translates to pruning done by students with more equipment than skill, making the final decisions about the shape of the vine to come.


All vines here are grown by grafting the French varietal vines onto native American rootstock, since it’s the American vines that are resistant to the phyloxera bugs that almost wiped out the winemaking industry in the 1870’s.  You can see the graft at the bottom of the vine. 


These vines are 25 years old and have been through a lot, but their American roots have kept them healthy.  I like that.  This guy, showing the scars of many seasons of pruning, will produce gamay grapes, fewer and fewer each year as the vine ages.  Fewer is better in wine grapes, as the vine concentrates all of its efforts on the flavor and color of the chosen few.


And when I say chosen, well, that’s because the vine needs a human touch.  Here a classmate learns how to select the number and location of what will become this summer’s fruit-bearing branches.


These vines are being converted from an old-style pruning, in a goblet shape that resisted even the fiercest mistral winds without outside supports but had to be entirely hand trimmed, to a shape that lies flat along the support wires and can be trimmed mechanically.  It takes years to change the plant’s habits, just as over the years the wine drinking habits of the French have been changing.  The French drink less wine now than in the past, and the government is encouraging them to drink even less, to the general outrage and disgust of the growers and winemakers


The amount of wine produced from a vineyard is also affected by the amount of water the vines get during the summer.  So while it’s esthetically pleasing to plant grasses and flowers between the vines, they’re more than just pretty faces.  When there’s too much rain, the grasses thrive and suck up the excess moisture, providing the vines with the necessary amount of water deprivation.  Vines like to suffer for their art.  But in years of severe drought, the grasses and flowers are removed so that the vines get every drop of  rainfall.  And those red rose bushes that you see so often at the ends of vine rows in Provence?  They’re there to indicate the presence of the oidium mildew.  Flowers at work, I like that too.


It’s a long road from last year’s dried grapes to this year’s new wine.


And an even longer road to reach something you actually want to drink.  But no matter how modern, no matter how mechanized and sanitized and standardized many parts of the wine business have become, it all starts, each and every year, with a pair of hands and a set of clippers.  And I like that a lot.