Archive for the ‘France’Category

As spring blooms, Sancerre launches season for whites

Sancerre with lentil salad and grilled chicken
Pat has fond memories of traipsing through the Loire Valley one summer. As much as the rolling green land and the amazing fairy-tale châteaux, she remembers the food-friendly local wines. Then this winter we encountered some Cabernet Franc that reminded us how good Loire Valley reds can be with fish and lighter summer fare. The valley is home base to some of the greatest French wine grapes not called Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. With summer on the horizon, we realized it was time to rectify our lack of attention to Loire Valley wines—some of which are the quintessential sips at the end of long, warm day.

We got a respite from our chilly, damp spring last week in time for the forsythia to burst into bloom. It was warm enough to light the grill, so we brushed some lightly brined chicken with sesame oil and slow-grilled it over indirect heat. The non-vinous star of the meal was the accompanying cold lentil salad with crumbled goat cheese. (See recipe below.)

The wine was a 2015 Sancerre from Domaine de la Perrière. It’s the flagship white of Saget Perrière, ninth generation winemakers from Pouilly-sur-Loire, and worth far more than its $24 list price. U.S. consumers often dismiss Sancerre as “merely Sauvignon Blanc.” That’s a little like saying that a grand cru Burgundy is “only Chardonnay.” Sancerre is one of the best-rounded expressions of Sauvignon Blanc—full of luscious white fruit, full but not tart acids, and a minerality that cuts through unctuous cheeses or fish. This particular Sancerre has a remarkable freshness from the flower aromas of the first sniff to the lingering lemon zest in the aftertaste. It’s made entirely with wild yeasts and aged at least three months on the lees, where it picks up some bread-y aromas and an almost meaty mouth feel.

FRENCH LENTIL SALAD


This recipe is adapted from a version that David Leibovitz published in My Paris Kitchen. He has another variation on his web site (www.davidlebovitz.com), and we’ve found additional variants in several French cookbooks. But we credit Leibovitz for turning us on to the dish, which we’ve altered and adapted over the years. Thanks, David.

Makes 6 cups

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups Le Puy green lentils
4 cups water
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 cup peeled and finely diced carrot
1 cup peeled and finely diced celery
1 small onion, peeled and finely diced
1 tablespoon wine vinegar
1 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup olive oil
1 shallot, peeled and minced
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped to small pea size
1 cup crumbled fresh chèvre

Directions

Place lentils in a 3-quart saucepan. Add 4 cups of water and 2 teaspoons salt to cover lentils by about 2 inches. Add bay leaf and thyme. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, and onion and cook 5 minutes more. Be careful not to overcook lentils.

While lentils are cooking, whisk together the vinegar, salt, mustard, oil, and shallot in a large bowl.

Drain the lentils and vegetables well. Stir them into the dressing while still warm, coating the lentils completely. Remove the bay leaf and let mixture cool to room temperature, turning it over a few times as it cools to distribute dressing. Add a few twists of black pepper and stir in parsley, walnuts, and goat cheese before serving. We like to serve in small crowns molded in a 1/3 cup measuring cup.

05

05 2017

Cheese-loving Americans in good company

Jean-François Marmier with his herd of 60 Montbèliarde cows
Here in the United States, January 20 is National Cheese Lover’s Day. We’re not really certain how this designation originated but there’s no doubt that we Americans have a genuine affection for the food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, each American consumed about 35 pounds of cheese in 2015. (That’s the most recent year for which statistics are available.) And that figure is way up from a little over 14 pounds per person in 1975.

That’s certainly a lot of cheese love. But Americans still have a long way to go to catch up with the French. They consumed more than 59 pounds of cheese per person in 2015, according to the Canadian Dairy Information Centre, which tracks global cheese consumption. That’s the world record, by the way. Denmark, Finland, and Iceland were close behind.

cheese course at Bon Accueil Cheese plays a big role in the French diet and economy, but it’s almost impossible to actually come up with a definitive number of cheeses produced in the country. (Charles de Gaulle once famously lamented the impossibility of governing a country with 246 varieties of cheese. All agree that the number has only grown since the general’s day.) In any case, the number-one selling cheese in France is Comté, the staple of the croque monsieur and a natural for cheese fondue.

Tasty travel in Franche-Comté

Pat had the chance to visit the Comté region where brown-and-white Montbèliarde cows graze in grassy meadows and their milk is transformed into cheese in small cooperatives. (That’s Jean-François Marmier in the photo at the top of the post. The girls are his herd of 60 Montbèliardes.) We could use our stash of Comté just to make croque monsieurs, but Pat discovered that the cheese also adapts well to other recipes. Please see this post for her full account.

20

01 2017

Château La Nerthe delivers warmth, finesse, and power

Turkey lentil cassoulet with 2012 Château La Nerthe from Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Châteauneuf-du-Pape might be the ultimate late autumn comfort wine. At its best, it’s rich, nuanced, and warm. It has a gentle power that responds to those hormones that surge when the days get shorter. It also plays very well with food.

Château La Nerthe from Châteauneuf-du-Pape on tableThe 2012 Château La Nerthe is the very model of what Hugh Johnson once called “a glowing, roast-chestnut warmth” characteristic of good Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Admittedly, good wines from this southernmost portion of the Rhone cost enough to be out of our league for everyday drinking. But this bottle comes in at a reasonable $65 suggested retail price—closer to $55 at discount wine shops. Just entering its drinking years (now through 2023, we’re told), it blossoms when double-decanted and served at around 60° F. We opened the bottle two hours ahead of dinner and found it tannic and tart. Placed back in the bottle after decanting and rested on a cool windowsill, it was spectacular with a classic cool-weather cassoulet.

Great Châteauneuf-du-Pape in tough year

Châteauneuf-du-Pape had a difficult year in 2012. A severe winter froze a lot of buds and some entire vines. Grenache was afflicted with coulure (a tendency not to develop grapes after flowering). Plus the region had a very dry summer. The 225 acres of vineyards at Château La Nerthe weathered these vicissitudes better than most.

Château La Nerthe vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape Certified organic since 1998, the vineyards depend on a thick layer of glacial cobbles (galettes) that seal in moisture and radiate heat up to the vines at night (see photo at right, courtesy of Château La Nerthe). The vineyards were harvested on schedule in late August. The vintage ended up with a blend of 44% Grenache Noir, 37% Syrah, 14% Mourvedre, and 5% Cinsault. That’s about a quarter less Grenache than usual for Château La Nerthe, but Grenache still dominates the finished wine. The nose is rich with blackberries, dark cherries, and aromatic spices. Hints of oak remain on the palate, and just a hint of leathery Syrah comes through.

It was the ideal wine for the dank weather that followed Thanksgiving in New England. Low turkey prices inspired the following cassoulet using Puy lentils, roasted garlic, and charcoal-roasted turkey thighs in place of duck confit.

POST-THANKSGIVING SMOKED TURKEY CASSOULET

cassoulet-for-recipeTurkey is ridiculously cheap in the weeks running up to Thanksgiving. We butcher the birds, saving the breasts to brine and roast separately. The backs and wings go into stock. We slow-roast the thighs and legs in a charcoal grill to produce the next best thing to duck confit without the fat. Rub the legs with 2 teaspoons ras al hanout and 1 teaspoon sea salt and refrigerate in a plastic bag overnight. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to the bag and rub well to coat. Roast about 15 minutes per side in closed but vented Weber grill with fire built on the other side of the grill. This produces smoky, overcooked turkey. Let cool and strip the meat. It should yield 12-14 oz. of stringy, smoky pulled turkey.

8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces smoky thick sliced bacon, cut in 1-inch strips
12 ounces chicken garlic sausage
1 head of garlic
white wine to deglaze pan
meat from charcoal-roasted turkey legs

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
3 medium carrots, peeled, diced
3 celery stalks, diced
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh sage
2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh thyme

1 bay leaf
2 cups French green lentils (lentilles du Puy)
8 cups chicken or turkey broth, preferably homemade
3 cups breadcrumbs made from day-old white bread (or panko, if necessary)
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, melted, or equal amount of olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

Directions

Set oven at 350ºF. Place half the bacon strips, sausages, and whole head of garlic in heavy-bottomed roasting pan or 12-inch cast iron skillet. Roast 25-30 minutes, turning sausages at least once, until sausages are browned, bacon has rendered its fat, and garlic is roasted through. Remove sausages and bacon to a plate to cool. Place garlic on separate plate to cool. When garlic is cool, cut head in half horizontally and squeeze out roasted garlic for use later with vegetables.

Drain fat from roasting pan into a Dutch oven. Deglaze pan with wine and reserve liquid.

Add remaining bacon to Dutch oven and heat over medium-low until bacon begins to color but is not yet crisp. Remove bacon to plate with sausages and other bacon.

Turn up heat in Dutch oven and add turkey meat. Cook, stirring often, to crisp up edges. Remove from pan and reserve.

Add olive oil to Dutch oven and add onion, carrots, and celery. Reduce heat to medium low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to become translucent and vegetables are al dente. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add cayenne, fresh herbs, and the mushy garlic squeezed from roasted head. Cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Remove from pot and reserve.

Turn oven up to 375ºF.

Deglaze Dutch oven with a little chicken stock. Then add lentils and bay leaf. Add remaining stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook about 15 minutes, until lentils are tender but not mushy. Remove bay leaf. Stir in vegetable mixture and turkey. Cut cooked sausages into 1/2 inch slices and stir in. Add reserved deglazing liquid.

Assemble and finish

At this point you can transfer everything into a 4 quart casserole, if desired, but the Dutch oven will work fine as well. Mix bread crumbs with melted butter and spread evenly over surface. Place lid on Dutch oven or casserole (or use aluminum foil) and bake in oven about 30 minutes. Remove lid or foil and continue cooking another 20 minutes until breadcrumb topping has turned dark gold.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with chopped parsley. Let rest about 15 minutes before serving with a green salad topped with pear slices and dressed with a mustardy, garlicky vinaigrette.

15

12 2016

Bargain reds from Lafite ward off the fall chill

Lafite bargain reds
It’s almost scary how we start craving heavier meals the moment that there’s a nip in the air. With November already hinting of the winter to come, we’re digging into the wine closet for reds instead of whites. Like many wine lovers, we find several massive reds that need more age before drinking and very few wines really ready to drink. Moreover, we’ve learned the hard way that cheap reds usually deliver exactly what you pay for—along with some additional next-morning misery.

Lafite Rothschild (www.lafite.com) has come to our rescue with some superb reds that don’t require a special occasion. Listed at under $20 each, the Légende 2014 Bordeaux, Los Vascos Grande Réserve Cabernet 2013 from Chile, and Amancaya Gran Reserva 2013 from Argentina actually cost closer to $15 at better wine warehouse stores. (Those are Massachusetts prices; your mileage may vary.) We alluded to the quality of Lafite’s secondary lines in a post in May 2015, but we thought we’d put this group of bargain reds to the test with some of our standby autumn meals big enough to cry out for red wine. Because all three wines are on the young side, we double decanted to smooth out any rough edges with aeration.

Légende 2014 Bordeaux


Légende with roast chickenOne of our go-to fall dinners is a simple roasted chicken breast with roasted creamer potatoes and garlicky roasted peppers. The flavors are strong and satisfying, and the dish demands a fruity red. Légende from 2014 has the great blackberry fruit and vanilla/cocoa nose to complement the garlic and sweet red peppers. Purists might pooh-pooh the idea of drinking Bordeaux with roast chicken, but if the bird is mature and of high quality, an unfussy claret is a perfect pairing. Sure, we’d all like to drink Chateau Lafite Rothschild on a regular basis, but sometimes simple country Bordeaux is just right. This example (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot) is nicely structured with generous, rounded fruit and a lip-smacking, spicy finish. The summer of 2014 was cold and wet, but a sunny September and October miraculously ripened the grapes.

For the accompanying dinner, brine a large chicken breast (2 pounds and up) for a day in the refrigerator, then roast it with potatoes at 425°F. Broil the red peppers and peel them, then sauté strips with the creamy pulp from a roasted head of garlic. When the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 145°F, layer the peppers over the breast and return to the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 155°F. Remove from oven and let stand for 10 minutes before slicing.

Los Vascos Grande Reserve Cabernet


Los Vascos with arroz con polloThis Calchagua Valley wine was estate grown and bottled, and the grapes were handpicked and sorted. It shows a classic Chilean expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, with dark, plummy fruit notes complemented by cherries and strawberries in the nose. The herbal notes in the mouth make it a nice complement to the saffron intensity of a good arroz con pollo. We published a Super Bowl version of arroz con pollo back in 2010. See this post for the recipe. The dish can be a little overwhelming, so we cut the Spanish paprika in half to let the fruit of this delicious Cabernet come through. This wine has the soft tannins and acidity to age well, but it also drank nicely against the spicy pork of the Spanish chorizo.

Amancaya Gran Reserva 2013


Amancaya with Patagonian shepherd's pieWe’ve been very pleased with wines from Bodegas Caro, which is a joint venture in Mendoza between Lafite and the Catena family of Argentina. This particular wine balances the power and intensity of Argentine Malbec with the refined fruit of Cabernet Sauvignon. The modest price belies the sophistication of the wine. At 65% of the blend, the Malbec dominates. It presents the classic high-altitude Uco Valley combination of cloves and white pepper on the nose and a finish of dry cocoa and cured tobacco. The Cabernet Sauvignon contributes distinctive raspberry and cassis notes to the nose and a supple fleshiness that hangs nicely on the Malbec’s bony skeleton. Double decanting definitely helped this wine. It continued to grow in the glass as we drank it with dinner.

We went with a humble recipe adapted from the great Patagonian chef Francis Mallmann. It’s really just a fancy shepherd’s pie. But just as the French and Argentine winemaking traditions combine in Amancaya, so do the British and Spanish culinary traditions of Argentine’s coldest region. The piquant spices and dark olives completely remake the flavor profile of the pub standard. Mallmann’s recipe in Seven Fires is a little different. It’s also meant to feed four to six people. This version serves two—just right for splitting a bottle of Amancaya.

FRANCIS MALLMANN’S BEEF AND POTATO PIE


Serves 2

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
1 pound lean ground beef
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons dried mustard
1/2 cup dry red wine
2-3 medium salad tomatoes, peeled and thinly sliced (about 1/2 pound)
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
1/2 cup whole milk
3 large egg yolks
2 hard-boiled large eggs
1 teaspoon white sugar

Directions

In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, combine olive oil, onion, and carrot. Sauté over medium-high heat until vegetables soften and begin to brown (about 5 minutes). Crumble in the ground beef and cook until it begins to brown. Stir in the bay leaves, rosemary, oregano, cumin, Spanish paprika, pepper flakes, and mustard. Add red wine and let mixture bubble gently a few minutes.

Stir in tomatoes and olives and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the meat is very tender and the liquid is reduced but not completely evaporated. (The finished dish must be moist.) Remove from heat and set aside.

While meat and vegetables are cooking, place potatoes in a medium pot and cover with cold water. Add salt to taste and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and boil gently until potatoes are very tender when pierced with a fork (12-15 minutes). Drain the potatoes thoroughly and press through a food mill or potato ricer.

Bring milk to a boil, and beat it into the potatoes. One by one, beat in the egg yolks, and continue beating until well blended, fluffy, and yellow.

Set oven at 375°F with rack in the bottom third.

Slice the hard boiled eggs into six slices each and arrange them over meat mixture in cast iron skillet. Spoon mashed potatoes on top and smooth the surface with a spatula. Use the tines of a fork to create a pattern of narrow decorative ridges. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until potatoes are nicely browned.

14

11 2016

Paul’s baguette makes elegant bread pudding

lemon poopyseed bread pudding made with baguette from Paul The poppyseed baguettes from the Paul boulangerie (see previous post) are a taste treat unto themselves. But like all great French bread, they are best the day they’re baked. We decided that the logical thing to do with stale poppyseed bread would be to make lemon poppyseed bread pudding. The custard does not have any strong additional flavoring (like vanilla extract) and we didn’t make a heavy sweet sauce to go on top. Compared to most American bread pudding recipes, this one is almost austere. The dish is really all about the toasted nuttiness of the poppyseeds, the aromatic freshness of the lemon, and the delicious wheatiness of the bread.

LEMON POPPYSEED BREAD PUDDING


Makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients preparing poopyseed baguette for bread pudding

1 tablespoon butter
6 cups (375 grams) 3/4-inch cubes of day-old poppyseed baguette
4 large eggs
1/2 cup (125 grams) brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
zest and juice of 2 lemons
3 1/2 cups whole milk
confectioner’s sugar for serving

Directions

1. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan. Spread bread cubes in it. Add the poppyseeds and crumbs from cutting up the bread.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Add milk and mix well. Pour the mixture over the bread cubes. Let stand, pressing down on bread occasionally, for at least 20 minutes or until bread is saturated.

3. While bread soaks, preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Have a large shallow roasting pan ready.

4. Place bread pudding pan inside roasting pan. Add very hot water to come about halfway up the sides of the baking dish. (Do not overfill, as bubbling water can flood the dish.)

5. Bake until a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean, roughly 55 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

26

11 2014

Paul brings real French bread to Boston

French bread - Nicolas Gautier of Maison Paul Boulangerie, Boston We’ve been known to drive from Boston to Montreal to get our fix of good bread, but even the Quebecois can’t make a baguette like the French can. Neither can we, and we frankly gave up trying years ago. Now we don’t have to. Whenever we get a jones for French bread, Maison Paul is now a 15-minute drive away. The famed French boulangerie began in Croix, near Lille, in the north of France in 1889. Some 125 years later, it has 600 locations around the world, with several spots in the Miami and D.C. metro areas, and now in Boston. On Friday, November 21, Paul started serving at Assembly Row in Somerville. The local flagship is opening in Boston’s Downtown Crossing in January.

French bread loaves baking at Paul in Somerville There are a lot of reasons why Paul’s baguette is so good (and so French, which is sort of the same thing). First, it is made with T65 flour, which is hard to find in the U.S., although King Arthur sells it in three-pound bags for $9.95. T65 is flour made with wheat that retains 65 percent of the chaff and germ. The protein content is rather low for bread flour (about 10-11 percent) but since the dough is proofed under refrigeration for nine hours or more, it develops very complex flavors and a stretchy texture. Second, it’s cooked in steam-injection ovens, which keeps the crumb moist while ensuring a perfect glaze on the skin of the loaf.

MaisonPaul3 Paul uses huge mixers with spinning arms that lift and stretch to mix the dough. But chef baker Nicolas Gautier (above), who will oversee all the Boston bakeries, and Thomas Crombez (a chef baker from Paris shown at right here) gave us a quick lesson in making baguettes by hand. In the tiny kitchen of the Somerville shop, they had us spill 500 grams of flour onto a wooden counter and measure out 300 grams of water. We used a little water to dissolve 10 grams of cake yeast in a cup, and 10 grams of salt in a separate cup. (Put salt and yeast together and the yeast will die.)

French bread dough cut into loaves at Maison Paul in Somerville We made a well in the middle of the flour pile and poured in half the remaining water. We mixed by hand, made another well, and added the rest of the water. When that was absorbed, we made a well in the center again and incorporated the dissolved yeast. As the dough began to develop, hand-blending turned to rough kneading. Finally we added the salty water and kneaded until the loaf was smooth and elastic and had the texture of an earlobe. This dough ball was set aside to proof (rise). It was enough to make almost three baguettes, each about 18 inches long (45cm, to be exact).

Thomas Crombez and Nicolas Gautier remove baguetts from oven at Masion Paul in Somerville The Paul bakeries proof their dough in trays and use an ingenious pneumatic dough divider to measure each baguette to a precise size, producing 10 baguettes per tray. (Before cutting, some trays are covered with poppy seeds on each side.) Each baguette is placed on a rolling cloth, five to an oven, and scored with a sharp knife to create the release points for extra steam. If you want to get fancy, you can use kitchen shears and snip alternating diagonals, then lift and twist the tips to create “ears.” (It’s a good technique for people who like lots of crust.)

French bread shows perfect crumb at Maison Paul in Somerville We then rolled the baguettes into preheated ovens (250°C, or 480°F) and cooked them for 22 minutes (21 minutes for loaves cut with ears to avoid burning the tips). To confirm that they’re done, Gautier explained, turn a loaf over and tap the bottom. It should sound hollow. Crombez carefully sliced a loaf in half lengthwise so we could see the honeycomb texture of the crumb—and observe that it gummed up if you don’t wait for the bread to cool a little before cutting. It was perfect, even before he brought out some French butter.

We brought several loaves home, enjoyed one with beef stew, gave some away, and found ourselves with leftover poppyseed baguettes. See our next post for our take on Lemon Poppyseed Bread Pudding.

21

11 2014

Summit cocktail gives Cognac real sass

Yoann Saillard mixes Cognac Summit cocktails I was surprised to learn at the Camus Cognac House that the French are rather tepid Cognac drinkers. Sales in France account for only a paltry 3 percent of the brand’s market. (America, by the way, is the leader, followed by Russia and Asia.)

Perhaps that Gallic lack of enthusiasm spurred the Cognac trade association to assemble mixologists to devise new cognac cocktails that might give the storied brandy a modern edge. One such concoction, the Cognac Summit, appears to have caught on and a great place to try it is at the Bar Louise at the Hôtel François Premier Cognac Centre. It occupies a gorgeous, newly renovated old building right in the heart of town.

Young mixologist Yoann Saillard (above) hails from Normandy and knows that region’s signature Calvados apple brandy well. But he has become a big fan of Cognac. “It’s a most interesting spirit,” he said. “It has all the complexity of wine. Lots of people drink it on its own.” Saillard, however, is a showman at heart and mixing cocktails is his thing. For the Cognac Summit he prefers VSOP, which has at least four years of aging. “This cocktail respects the Cognac,” he told me as he sliced ginger and limes and muddled them with the spirit in a chilled water glass. “All the flavors are equal.”

The resulting drink is refreshing and bright, with a peppery sass from the ginger, a fruity tartness from the lime, and bubbly effervescence from the soda. Here is Saillard’s version of the simple, soon-to-be classic Cognac Summit. He uses Fever-Tree Sparkling Lemon but Sprite makes a good substitute here in the U.S.

Cognac Summit cocktailCOGNAC SUMMIT

Makes one serving

Ingredients

3-4 large slices of fresh ginger
slice of lime
1 shot (40 ml) Cognac
sparkling lemon soda
cucumber peel for garnish.

Directions

Muddle the lime, ginger, and Cognac in a chilled water glass.

Add ice to fill.

Top with lemon drink.

Garnish with cucumber peel and serve with a straw.

03

11 2014

Learning to blend Cognac at Camus

Cognac grape vines “You cannot make a mistake,” Frederic Dezauzier assured my small group as we filed into a blending workshop at the Camus Cognac house. We must have looked intimidated by the sparkling clean room and the array of beakers and flasks waiting for us on an orderly workbench. I pushed memories of high school chemistry class out of my mind and concentrated on the four small glasses of amber liquid at each work station. “The best cognac is the cognac you prefer,” the former cellar master and global brand ambassador told us with a smile.

Founded in 1863, Camus is the largest Cognac house still in family hands. On a quick tour en route to the blending room, I learned that Ugni-Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche are the three white grapes (above) most commonly used in making Cognac and that they grow in the abundantly sunny rolling hills surrounding the town of Cognac here in the Poitou-Charentes region of southwestern France. cognac copper alembics at Camus To intensify the grape flavor, wine from the grapes is double distilled in traditional red copper alembics (right). Each distillation concentrates the flavors into only one-third of the original volume of liquid.

Although it’s often said that wine is made in the vineyard, Cognac is truly a product of the blending room. Each bottle has a mix of different grapes and different vintages artfully combined by a cellar master with a refined sense of smell and taste and years of experience. Nothing to be intimidated about here.

Frederic Dezauzier in blending room at Camus For our workshop, Dezauzier (left) had selected four XO Cognacs from grapes grown in four of the six zones strictly delimited for Cognac production. Together they make up the Cognac AOC, which stands for appelation d’orgine contrôlée, or “controlled area of origin.” Each distillate had been aged from 6 to 18 years and I felt a little more confident knowing that we had such good spirits to start with.

Dezauzier instructed us to first sniff and then sip each of our choices and to compare them to each other as we made our way down the line of glasses. Each was surprisingly different and Dezauzier described them with unpretentious good humor. The slightly salty yet sweet Fins Bois, he said, “was like a teenager, very enthusiastic and with a good body.” The delicate Borderies had a feminine quality and a floral hint of violets. More acid than the first two, Petite Champagne required longer aging to smooth out its masculine cedar aroma, which Dezauzier likened to a cigar box. Dezauzier was careful to be impartial, but I sensed that his heart belonged to the spicy Grande Champagne, which had been aged the longest and was redolent of cinnamon, dried fruit, and toasted almond.

labeling my own cognac blendIn the end I decided on a little gender blending. I took my beaker to the large barrels in one corner of the room and released the spigot to mix 200 ml of Petite Champagne with 300 ml of Borderies. Using a funnel, I poured my blend into my bottle. Each formula was duly noted in the Camus record book. I’ve yet to taste my bottle (which fortunately survived the flight home in my checked luggage), but I may have to amend Dezauzier’s pronouncement: The best cognac may be the one you make yourself.

For information on tours, tastings, and the Master Blender Workshop see www.camus.fr.

31

10 2014

Harvesting sea salt on France’s Île de Ré

sea salt Sea salt may be hot, but it’s hardly new. Since the 12th century, the “sauniers” on the Île de Ré have been literally raking it in. These days about 85 members of the Cooperative of the Sauniers of Île de Ré use the same traditional methods to harvest more than 2,600 tons of salt each summer. With its long, sunny days and mild breezes, this island off the west coast of France near La Rochelle has the perfect conditions for salt production, according to Hervé Rault, who learned the craft from his grandfather. Rault (pictured above) also has a steady job maintaining the dikes and marshes, but harvesting salt is his passion. “I do this after my other work,” he says, “just for fun.

coarse sea salt The whole process takes only two or three days, he explains as he leads a small group on a tour of his salt marsh plot. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Rault begins by opening a small stone dam to allow sea water to enter a reservoir big enough to hold about a three weeks’ supply. From there, water is pumped into a second reservoir until it is filled to about 20-30 cm (8-12 inches). To speed evaporation, the water circulates constantly and is eventually pumped into a third reservoir. By this point, the ever-diminishing water is only about 1 cm (0.4 inches) deep.

sea salt Rault uses a very long-handled wooden rake to bend into the harvest. He pushes away the shallow water to uncover the coarse gray grains that have formed on the clay bottom. Then he quickly grabs a shorter-handled rake with drain holes to pull them into little piles along the shore. The coarse salt is the bulk of the harvest. Like all sauniers, Rault keeps an eye out for finer grains that form on the surface of the water so that he can gently skim them off with a fine-mesh basket on a long pole.

 Île de Ré sea salt Rault recommends using the coarse salt for cooking while reserving the more delicate fleur de sel for use on the table. The natural Île de Ré salt has a pronounced minerality and the suggestion of a slightly toasted flavor. It definitely brings out the sweetness of the luscious melons and tomatoes that are happily in season during the salt harvest. Sea salt is sold all over the Île de Ré. The sauniers cooperative (Route de la Prée, outside the village of Ars-en-Ré) sells both gray salt and fleur de sel direct to the public along with a “pebble” of gray salt ready to be added to one liter (just over a quart) of cooking water.

20

10 2014

French chefs, Spanish ham & summer fruits

ile de re
During a recent visit to Île de Ré and Île d’Aix, the unspoiled islands off the west coast of France not far from Cognac, I also enjoyed a taste of Spain. In early September, swimmers and bicyclists were making the most of the warm, summer weather and chefs were looking for ways to highlight the last of the ripe tomatoes and melons. Several turned to Spain’s jamón serrano, an air-dried mountain ham, to add salt and umami to balance the sweetness of the luscious, ripe fruit.

jamon dishAt Le Grenier à Sel (www.grenierasel.fr/) in the town Ars en Ré on Île de Ré, a perfect starter consisted of a tartare of tomato mixed with the chopped ham. The next day, I encountered a slightly different version at Chez Joséphine (www.hotel-ile-aix.com/restaurant-josephine/) on the lovely, but much smaller Île d’ Aix, where Napoleon spent his last days in France. For a starter, the chefs paired a tartare of melon with crisp lettuce and even crisper jamón serrano for a lovely contrast of taste and texture. The dishes are simple and relaxed, yet they capture the elegance of the French table that even vacationers expect.

They also offer some good ideas about what we can do at home with the last bounty of summer.

19

09 2014