I’ll raise my glass…….

December 16th, 2008

‘Tis the season for toasts, for good times with friends old and new, and a season to find gifts for your favorite wine-lover. Two suggestions come to mind, in fact they are directly at hand while I plot a project. These are books, of course….since it is a little late to order tools and gadgets (the ultimate streamlined corkscrew that I found in Helsinki answered any such details). The vagabond is inherently a geogrophile (if such an animal exists – I just made it up!) and after over fifteen years of wandering, tasting and taking notes, the connection between terroir and what grows or swims or munches is clear: direct correlation, different taste – a connection between terrain and product long established. So, while browsing in a Sonoma bookstore last April, I was intrigued by a book on The Geography of Wine. When I read on…”Geography is in every drop of wine we drink”…it seemed like an answer to many questions about soils, sun, rain and varieties that built up during many tasings. The author, Brian J. Sommers is as clear and crisp as they go, and wine writers are not always so crisp. He deftly links the distinction between regional cuisines to the identity of the people before tackling the daunting subject of the diverse wines of the Loire. This is a Plume book, published by Penguin group (USA) in 2008, a paperback, 280 pages of fascinating reading.

Another approach to wine takes us to the “roasted slope” of France, the Côte-Rôtie, where the author has agreed to meet two old friends/arch rivals on the same day. To find out what followed, do pick up Jay McInerney’s A Hedonist in the Cellar, Adventures in Wine, published by Vintage Books, New York, 2007. Travel with him through the caves of Cheval Blanc in St-Emilion, into Salon de Champagne and on to Australia, a truly bubbly tour of terroir: cheers…salut…kippes…skol!

Next up: Notes on holiday wine pairing…from soups to sweets.

A few words on almond butter

December 13th, 2008

Today I hauled out the food processor (in a tiny kitchen, this is an Event) and thought I would whizz up a batch of almond butter. An inviting recipe for Poppyseed Cake on Chocolate&Zucchini sparked my interest, and it called for 1/4 cup of almond butter. The organic almonds from our corner grocery, plump new-crop nuts, measured 1 1/3 cup, so I whizzed, pulsed, and blitzed (as Jamie O. would say). With 3 teaspoons oil (a flavorless colza oil instead of heavy olive oils- I couldn’t find coconut oil in local shops) and a pinch of sea salt, the blitzing continued to grind finer and finer. A little more oil and I had almond butter pasted to the sides of the processor bowl and a nutty streusel-like mix remaining on the bottom; this was blended with the spatula a couple of times. More blitzing, as I thought: should it take this long? Finally I was satisfied and scooped-scraped the brown nut butter into a clean 10 oz. jam jar.  Next time, I’ll whizz less than a cup of almonds at a time, and I’ll sacrifice a few vitamins for a lighter butter – using blanched marcona almonds. The result with raw almonds is dark and nourishing, but an elegant Poppyseed Cake deserves a more delicate butter.

Jarnac truffle market alert

December 8th, 2008

The truffles I wrote about last year are but petits pois by comparison, as I heard an alert about tomorrow’s truffle market in Jarnac: a truffle weighing 1 kilogram 600 grams (about 3 1/2 pounds) will be auctioned on Tuesday! This is a milestone in truffle history, found last Saturday in Mérignac in the Charente (not a truffle perfumed with jet exhaust from the Mérignac airport at Bordeaux). This tuber melanosporum, or truffe noire du Périgord is reported to be the size of a volleyball. Regretting that I won’t be in the crowd to mark this truffle moment, a follow-up will appear after a visit early in 2009. And I wonder, who will bid and out-bid to own this truffe extraordinaire?

Well known in the Cognac region of western France for this seasonal market, Jarnac’s Marché aux truffes draws crowds every Tuesday morning from early December to late February. The market opens at 9:30, but it is advised to arrive earlier to be on the scene at Jarnac’s Hôtel Renard, Quai de l’Orangerie.

Mega truffle after-market report: 400Euros/$518 (at rate of $1.29) was the price tag on this truffe noire, weighing in at 1.02 kilos (with some shrinkage due to natural dehydration since it was dug on Saturday). It is now in the hands of a Lyon Charcutier, who will “perfume” many a terrine de foie gras during the upcoming festivities. Other weekly truffle markets across southern France, from Sorges in Périgord to Aups in the Var, have begun to open their doors. Security is tight in all these markets to screen out faux truffe from China, which look like the real thing – but lack the true truffle’s richly distinctive aroma and taste.

For more about Jarnac, visit:  www.jarnac-tourisme.fr

Advent Sundays, fruit cakes….and the house smells of spices

December 6th, 2008


Time begins to shrink as St. Nicolas rolls around again, the sixth of December marks the season of treats for young and ….less young. Memories of the St.Nicolas Festival in Nancy and St.Nicolas-du-Port in Lorraine flash past – such a long and sparkling parade, many tots perched on their papas’ shoulders to see above the crowd as Saint Nicolas’ poly-bubble of a float rolled past, the red-robed man with whiskers waving to all. Then everyone squeezed into crowded cafés for hot chocolate: the festive season’s very social grand opener. This tradition was one of the pleasures discovered while researching La France Gourmande, my first book about food festivals and traditions. Now I hunt for holiday recipes using honey, inspired by the pain d’épice discovered in Nancy and in Marchées de Noël across northern France.

Honey and almonds go hand in hand, I find – from Greece to Galicia, from north to south in France, Spain and Italy. For this round I’m reviving an adaptation of a Christmas cake with honey and dried fruit from northern Italy, a moist cake so surprisingly delicious, without eggs and very little butter. For years, my standard fruitcakes were basically butter cakes, dense with all kinds of dried, rum-soaked fruit. But last Christmas I baked a Certosino, and a new “tradition” began. Preparations begin la veille, the evening before baking: the moon, as translucent as a turnip slice, rises in the winter sky as I set the raisins to plump in port for Sunday’s baking, and a pot of applesauce (or pears and quince?) bubbles on the back burner. Baked a few weeks before festivities, the Certosino needs a week or three to mature – like so many good things, it improves with time.

Recipe for Certosino: This is a standard Christmas cake in the region around Bolgona, where it is also called Pan Speziale. In some kitchens, Certosino is made with grated apples, and the proportion of honey ranges from 2 teaspoons to 2 cups. The chopped chocolate is sometimes replaced by cocoa, and a few versions add eggs, while others add cookie crumbs.

Begin by soaking 1/2 cup of white raisins in port or marsala to cover, left overnight or longer. Pare 4 apples, core and chop them to yield 2 cups, then cook in 1/4 cup of water with 2 1/2 T.sugar and 1 T.lemon juice. When cooked (about 15 minutes, depending on the variety of apple), mash or strain them and measure out 2/3 cup of applesauce; let cool (this can be done a day before making the cake).

Butter a 9 1/2inch/24 cm. springform cake pan. Preheat the oven to 325°f/160°C. Toast 6 oz/170 g. blanched almonds in the oven for a few minutes to heighten flavor (if you use Marcona almonds, they will begin to sweat beads of oil – a signal they are toasting), cool them and chop coarsely; also toast 2oz/50g pine nuts (check freshness, as they go rancid quickly) – leave them whole. In a double boiler, warm 12 oz honey (I used chestnut honey this year, which gives a deeper flavor), and add 2 oz. sweet butter and 1 tsp. cinnamon, grated nutmeg, 2 tsp anise seed (or fennel seed and ground cloves if you wish); stir all together and set aside to cool. Sift 13 oz. flour (not self-rising) into a large bowl, stir the honey-spice mixture into the flour, adding 2 1/2 oz shaved dark(70%) chocolate, mixing it with the chopped almonds, the pine nuts and 3 T candied orange and lemon peel to coat with the flour. Dissolve 1 1/2 tsp. of baking soda in 2 T port (of the raisin-soaking bowl). With a wooden spoon, fold all together gently and pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for an hour, check with a piece of spaghetti or a knitting needle – if it is done, this will be clean; the cake will pull slightly away from the pan. Do not overbake. Let it cool on a rack, slip onto a serving plate, and spread 3 T (or more) apricot jam over the top, garnish with glazed cherries and perfect nuts. The glaze serves to keep the cake moist. Keep in a cool place, wrapped in foil, for a week or two before serving – to 8 or 10.  Sip a ten year old Monbazillac or amber Amaretto with the Certosino.

Acknowledgements: This recipe is adapted from New Country Kitchen, Henrietta Green’s classic and ever-inspiring collection of seasonal delights. It was published in 1992 by Conran Octopus Ltd, and I found it in a corner of Hagelstam’s Bookstore in Helsinki early in the new millenium. Not only do the recipes reflect the seasons – all across Europe – but illustrations are fresh, photos superb; it is my seasonal guide. Nordic travelers might enjoy a visit to www.Hagelstam.net for books, new and used, in a variety of languages.

Next up: Notes on almond butter, plus some fowl advice: whether mulard or barbarie, getting the ducks in a row.