A handful of almonds & a chocolate square

November 30th, 2009
A daily energy dose

A daily energy dose

The pace picks up when Thanksgiving’s menus are (recent!) history, errand lists grow longer as daylight hours shorten and what-to-give-whom questions swirl in my head.  Needed:  a good dose of energy. Answer: a daily almond + chocolate pause. After lunch, about 2:30 every day I sit for a minute to collect my ideas for what’s on the afternoon list. Besides being relaxing, I remind myself that calcium-packed almonds and chocolate’s magnesium zap are so good for the nerves.  Almonds for protein and immune-system boosting zinc, chocolate for added energy in the afternoon – just when it might flag.  What are your favorite energy boosters?

The Thanksgiving salad toss

November 23rd, 2009

As turkey day approaches, put a few new salad ideas on the list….all the shopping, chopping, roasting, saucing and baking takes time and planning, but what about the salad? For the vagabond, a simple and savory salad offers a refreshing pause between the turkey, roast beef, pork or pheasant and the oncoming pies – a natural palate-cleanser. For special holiday meals, a salad need not be dull during a greens season of  ruby radiccio, ivory endive, fennel and curly green frisée. Talk color, talk about Trevisa and Chioggia, two towns in eastern Italy where winter lettuce is a market draw.

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Our local growers bring the round, firm Chioggia variety to November markets. Best after the first frost, Trevisa radiccio is elongated with deep red veins and a tangy, slight bitterness in the bite. Radiccios add snap to a tossed salad, color when shredded and stirred into a risotto, and perk up appetites as a grilled and oil-drizzled first course.  For a dramatic dish on the holiday table, mix them with chunks of white Belgian endive dressed with a classic, herbed vinaigrette.

Winter salads, toss as you please

Winter salads, toss as you please

Recipe: MC, our “Maître de Salade”, does a basic vinaigrette – whisked together in a minute:  2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, 1 teaspoon (or tablespoon if you wish!) French Dijon mustard, a pinch of salt, then whisk in 3 tablespoons of your best olive oil. Mix it up an hour ahead, let the flavors mellow and re-stir before tossing the salad. Variations on this theme run from adding peeled and deveined shrimp, a little dill or thyme and some pomegranate seeds to shredded Belgian endive, or add strips of cooked beets (add a pinch of sugar, ginger and black pepper to the dressing) and arugula leaves for diverse textures. Bring on the winter greens, whether before or after the turkey – that is your call.

Pairing a season with Corbières

November 16th, 2009
Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Grapes are everywhere in the Corbières – not only rippling up and down hillsides, but carved into the culture, the consciousness of the Midi, the windy and dry Languedoc – Roussillon.  Across much of this land along the French Mediterranean coast and inland from Narbonne, the soil is  so poor that a hillside can resemble a rocky riverbed.  Grapevines and olive trees are  tolerant of these stark conditions, in fact the Roussillon wines and oils hold a true concentration of terroir.  When a friend asked what terroir was all about, I summed it up:  the land, soil, site/exposure to sun, proximity to seas or rivers, even altitude.  On a recent sundown walk  between rows of old, twisted grape vines we had a clear picture of this tortuous terroir.  The grape varieties, cépages for Corbières are sun loving grenache (a major component for spicy notes and color), syrah or shiraz (to add acidity and tannins, and for depth), late-harvested carignan (for rich, earthy tones – used more in Fitou wines) and on the lowest slopes to thrive in morning fog, mourvedre vines (condense the dark berry notes in Corbières, enhances structure as the wine matures).  We admired the hillsides – each cépage turns a different tone of bronze in autumn – and between the rows I noticed footprints of wild boar.  The sanglier, though tasty in a pâté or ragout, have become many a vigneron’s headache as they root out new vines and trample through the vineyards. No wonder hunters are welcome in these hills!

So this is Corbières season:  game is hung to cure for civets de lièvre et de sanglier (long marinated and slowly simmered stews of hare and wild boar), and mushroom sacks bulge as hunters return from their foraging. All of the ingredients that perfectly match the full-bodied wines of Corbières come to the table in these chilly, appetite-generating weeks of late autumn. A savory list of pork pâtés and duck terrines, grilled herbed lamb or pork ribs call for wines that are,  in a word, robust.

Two reds for an autumn fête

Two reds for an autumn fête

After recent tastings in the Roussillon, the vagabond is impressed by wines made by  two women in the Boutenac area west of Narbonne. The sprawling Corbières region covers so many microclimates and styles of wine-making, I found it most reasonable to narrow a little wine shopping down to one area. First, the supple reds and glowing rosés made by Marie-Hélène Bacave near St. André de Roquelongue are examples of  how an independent winemaker pursues her own wine style. For two years since her husband passed away, she has been determined to continue making wine of high quality.  Taking us into her chais, where the wine rested in three huge stainless vats, her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm about the mourvedre grape:  “…many of my colleagues don’t want to be bothered with this variety, as it can be fussy with weather and a bit difficult to bring to vendange…it not only adds backbone as the wine matures, but makes the Corbières blend sing of blackberry and dark fruit”.  Her aromatic, deep garnet Cru Corbières Boutnac 2005 Crépuscule sings of her persistence in creating a stylish, supple red at  Château St-Jean de la Gineste. On a lighter note, we sampled her lovely Rosée de la St. Jean, a blend that stars the mourvedre grape for color and fruity aromas. This will be the pour for a poached chicken or lightly seasoned rabbit on our Thanksgiving table.

 A glowing rosé from the Corbières

A glowing rosé from the Corbières

In the same area near Montseret, midway between the Abbey of Fontfroide and Lagrasse, we found Jacqueline Bories at Château Ollieux Romanis, another dedicated independent vigneronne. More widely distributed across southern France, her Ollieux Romanis Cuvée Florence 2000 is a melody of ripe fruit, supple tannins and long finish, a perfect wine with an autumn daube, a roast pheasant, or canard aux olives – and keep a lichette in your glass to enjoy with a firm brebis cheese from the Pyrénées.

Tell us about your favorite Corbières, and food matches that  you enjoy!

Watch for the vagabond’s mid-month Food&Wine matchmaking series…and more on wines for the holidays/les fêtes de fin d’année coming up.

Visit Sauternes vineyards: Food Journeys of a Lifetime takes you there

November 10th, 2009

This week on November 11th, the wineries of Sauternes and Barsac graciously open their doors to visitors.  Each year, the first weekend in November is on the vagabond’s agenda:  this time around, the 11th has been added to November 7th and 8th.  It is an ideal time to visit the thumb-shaped strip of vineyards south of Bordeaux as the late harvest of sweet grapes is underway. Weeks of thick autumn fog have encouraged the development of botrytis cinerea, an essential fungal phenomenon condensing sweetness in each hand-picked grape. To find the region south of Bordeaux, trace the Garonne river to Barsac, which lies at the top of  the thumb, then follow the Ciron river south. Sauternes vineyards flank the river as it flows to the town of Sauternes at the base of the vignoble. But if a trip to the Bordeaux region isn’t in the picture for you this week, flip through the pages of National Geographic Books’ Food Journeys of a Lifetime to find my entry on French dessert wines, from Sauternes to Monbazillac.  To order this deliciously illustrated book, go to:

http://shop.nationalgeograhic.com tap: new books

For more on Sauternes’ special micro-climate and its elegant wines – both sweet and dry, visit:

www.sauternes-barsac.com , tap English, then Wine & Cuisine for a wealth of information on the grape varieties, pairing with food, and storage tips.

Color – November markets brighten grey days

November 6th, 2009
Squash & cabbage families reign in November

Squash & cabbage families reign in November

Beyond the mounds of yellows, deep violets and pink tints of Toussaint chrysanthemums, the Bergerac market never fails to brighten the first Saturday in November – always a foggy grey, often drizzly day.  Heaps of bright squash and pumpkin are ready for slicing into wedges.  Red, pale green and curly dark Savoy cabbage weigh in for soups and casseroles. What about roots?  Grab the fringy tops of carrots, just-dug beetroot, purple-shouldered turnip globes, fennel bulbs to be gratinéed, or fill a sack with oval red Rosamonde potatoes. Delicate chanterelle mushrooms may still be around, but the meatier cèpes (boletus) are found in many markets now.

Select mushrooms - or chestnuts of your choice

Select mushrooms - or chestnuts of your choice

Then, look for perfect, local persimmons – the glow-in-the-dark orange fruit visible on the farthest market stalls, or reach for rosy pomegranates packed in straw to cushion their journey to market. Whether the vagabond is in Brive or Bergerac, these nut growing regions never fail to supply wonderful breads for a simple market day lunch of salad (often endive with a mustard vinaigrette), nutbread and fresh cheese.

Artisanal breads, a market must

Artisanal breads, a market must

But what’s colorful about a loaf of nutbread?  Just roll a round of chèvre cheese in pomegranate seeds, slip a slab of it onto your slice of nutty bread – not only colorful…. but juicy!

Simply chèvre & glossy pomegranate seeds

Simply chèvre & glossy pomegranate seeds

Rolling through the Roussillon

November 2nd, 2009
Russet vines in the Roussillon

Russet vines in the Roussillon

The sun was riding low on the horizon when we reached Montséret in the Roussillon, where a sundown hike through brassy and burnished russets of late October grape vines capped off a full first day on the road. We couldn’t have ordered better weather for an autumn whirl through Corbières country, a wine region of astonishing variety of climate and altitude. Historically, the Languedoc-Roussillon stretches from the Spanish border south of Collioure and Banyuls, curving along the Mediterranean coast to the mouth of the Rhône river in Provence.  Now the vineyards of this rugged region, planted over 700,000 acres (2,800square meters) of land, produce more than a third of French wines. And although the range of wines runs heavily to robust reds, there are remarkable rosés and crisp whites to be tasted as well.  For color and dramatic vistas, the Roussillon gets the vagabond’s vote for a late autumn escapade.

Fontfroide Abbey entry gate

Fontfroide Abbey entry gate

Historic sites are a major draw to this region of southern France, and our focus for the trip was the Abbey of Fontfroide, west of Narbonne. Oddly enough, we arrived just in time for a leisurely lunch – not unusual timing when the vagabond is on the road – before an hour’s tour of this other-worldly place. The Cistercian abbey was built in 1145 AD on the site of an earlier Benedictine abbey, hidden in a deep valley.  Within  its seemingly tranquil walls, a murder occurred that launched the Albigensian crusade, persecuting Cathar believers for over thirty years.  Silhouettes of ruined Cathar castles punctuate today’s Roussillon landscape; it all began at Fontfroide.*

La Table de Fontfroide

La Table de Fontfroide

The Table of Fontfroide, a restaurant housed in what was once the monks’ storage and stables, offers a range of meals, from light snacks to substantial lunches.  We were hungry and opted for the appealing and well priced (under 25 Euro) menu du jour.  With a glass of deep garnet-toned Corbières, I savored a meaty pintade (guinea fowl) thigh set on a bed of the chef’s spicy ratatouille: perfect partners.  During lunch, we were entertained by a haughty peacock just outside the window, apparently interested in what was on our plates.  In medieval times, the powerful bishops of Fontfroide would have dined on peacocks!

Pintade à la ratatouille

Pintade à la ratatouille

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Notes on pairing Corbières wines to follow.

*The vagabond recommends The Rebel Princess, a novel by Judith K. Healey, set in this region in the 13th century. Recently released by HarperCollins (U.S. & Canada), read more about the gripping story on: www.therebelprincessanovel.com