Sparkling wines to welcome the new decade

December 31st, 2009

Bubbles to bring in a New Year

As festivities continue, and as the wallet is a little thin, I look beyond Champagne to find other bubblies to ring out the old year. A first choice is my old standby, a sparkling Vouvray – one of many delectable vins mousseux from the Loire valley. Along with Saumur, this sparkler fits into a holiday menu ranging from savory tapenade-toasts to creamy fish or chicken entrées, roast pork… and all the way to flaky tourtières or galette des rois pastries…the truly versatile sip. Crémants de Bourgogne or de Bordeaux, Blanquettes de Limoux, all would fit the bill for a festive toast on New Year’s Eve.  So what, I wondered, is the difference? Each region’s wine varieties are part of the equation, and of course – terroir – that hard-to-pin-down element embracing soil, exposure and daylight hours, mist and altitude – are involved in making up a crémant’s character. Crémant is also used to describe certain Champagnes, Crémant de Champagne, with a light foam.  Crémant d’Alsace is made from pinot blanc grapes, while Crémant Blanc de Bourgogne’s aromatic, floral nose issues from a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend – and toss in the difference in terroir to accentuate the style.  Crémant de Loire can be a blend, mostly Chenin grapes but Chardonnay, Cabernt Franc and Pineau d’Aunis can be part of the composition. Across the globe, from Devonshire to the tip of Argentina, and from southern Russia to Rutherglen Australia, sparkling wines are made to both quench thirst and accent celebrations. And whether your taste is for sec or brut (dry) or demi-sec (sweet), wherever you lift a glass of bubbly, it holds its own as an expression of its winemaker – and of the moment:  Happy New Year….Happy New Decade!

City lights, country candles

December 25th, 2009

December moon over Bordeaux Grand Théatre de Bordeaux, in profile

Events during this festive month have led the vagabond to Bordeaux and Paris, where shoppers are in last-minute rush mode.  Bordeaux’s long Allées de Tourny boulevard is transformed into a Marché de Noël with wooden cabins to shelter vendors of giftie temptations from around the world. Kids peer from strollers and ride high on Papas’ shoulders, bight-eyed and munching on Chi-chi beignets and Barbe à Papa (cotton candy).  The toasty aromas of roasting chestnuts fill the air as it does in Paris along my (current) favorite shopping street in the 14th arrondissement, Rue Daguerre, near the Denfert Rochereau RER station. In fact, the neighborhood watering hole, Café Daguerre is a treat for a morning café machiato before perusing the cheese vendors, pastry and fruit shops.  A stop in Cave des Papilles, the specialist in natural-wines, is always fascinating, as is a browse through the diverse fish choices in poissonnieres (how many ways can salmon be cured, smoked or sliced?) and great range of breads at Richesses de la Nature (around the corner). Winter’s primo cheeses are up for selection on this street-shoppers’ buffet – French or Italian, Dutch or Swiss.  All this leads me to the Savoy specialist, Le Brasier Daguerre, for Raclette: melted cheese and potatoes – hefty fare for a winter night in a neighborhood for lingering.

Paris 14rh, neighborhood shopping street

As all the overhead sparkle fades into memory, we return to the country and tranquil evenings at home. A candle and Santon – from a memorable provençal Christmas past in Apt -  grace our table, as the vagabond wishes you all a peaceful, delicious Christmas!

Santon, vin de Cahors, a bougie for Christmas

Which whisk, which dish, which cook…?

December 19th, 2009
Favorite basic whisks

Favorite basic whisks

How do you whip up a quick mayonnaise, a meringue or sweet sabayon? The essential, basic whisk comes in all sorts of sizes, some with stiff handles, others shaped more ergonomically.  And each chef fancies a particular variation on the bundle of looped wires that blend eggs into a mousse or add air to egg whites.  To whip eggs, most chefs join Michel Roux in choosing a large balloon whisk as the wonder tool to incorporate maximum air volume.  His clear instructions about Eggs steer me clear of disasters in the seemingly simple process of whipping this most basic – but fragile – ingredient.  So the balloon is the wunderkind, most useful member of the whisk family, but other whisks are better suited to specific preparations.  Whenever I use my Mom’s old spring whisk, I remember her smooth béchamel for green beans and cream soups.  A vinaigrette needs another type of whip to bring oil and vinegar into an emulsion, so to sum it up:

*A flat or roux whisk with horizontally arranged loops is suited to cream sauces in shallow pans, de-lumping gravy and delicate operations.

*A vinaigrette whisk is a single loop with wires wound around it to blend oil and vinegar for sauces and dressings – also my standby for making yogurt.

*A ball whisk has beads on the end of each wire to swirl into corners and incorporate flour with butter in a roux, and is good for frothing milk- but don’t use it in cephalon or coated pans.

* A spring whisk, also called a spiral or twirl whisk with its conical shape, does wonders for béchamel, reduces lumps in gravy, and works well blending quick sauces in shallow pans.

* A jug whisk is a very long and narrow balloon type tool, suited for odd jobs like mixing settled sugar back into lemonade.

* A silicone wrapped balloon whisk is designed for use on fragile surfaces and delicate operations like a buerre-blanc sauce.

* A mini whisk comes in handy for blending small quantities of chocolate sauces, and is perfect for mixing up cocktails (if you go with the stirred, not shaken formula!)

As you tick off your list of gifts for a favorite cook, why not pop a whisk into his or her stocking – or tie it onto the top of a larger, wrapped culinary surprise?

DSC_0007 Happy whisking!

Eggs, by Michel Roux, published in 2005 by John Wiley in the US, makes a super gift on any occasion.  ‘Tis the season for his Truffled Eggs en Cocotte (page 111) and the ‘pickled’ Pear & Cinnamon Omelet (p. 134) can be served as an appetizer….some welcome winter inspiration!

Versailles market, overflowing with tasty treasures!

December 12th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand – Versailles Market
Click on lamp post to view Versailles market gallery

Versailles in winter is truly overflowing with treasures, royal and otherwise.  It’s just a ten minute ride on the Transilienne train from Paris Montparnasse (lowest level) station. A bus from Versailles “Chantiers” station takes you to Notre Dame market, its square framed by a halle on each corner.  On a recent Friday, we were plunged into a hubub of activity:  vendors of cheese, fruit and flowers, salt and sausages fill the marketplace center, an intersection traversed by buses and bicycles dodging shoppers.  From clementines to fancy terrines, there are more upscale victuals to the square foot than any market I have ever seen. The vagabond was astonished by the cheeses alone, stall after richly appointed stall of fromages from across France and beyond.  Hankering for a wedge of gorgonzola , mimolette or spiced gouda, herbed chèvre from Provence, or curls of parmigiano-reggiano? This is your hunting ground.  Inside the halls, fish from all waters, glistening eyes a sign they are fresh today, are spread in a seemingly endless array. Sole, rouget or barbet/red mullet, rosy rascasse/red scorpion fish, and even slabs of dried morue/cod appeal to a variety of shoppers. With over thirty permanent stalls inside the halls open daily, and seventy vendors outside on Tuesdays and Saturdays, Versailles draws Ile-de-France shoppers to the best selection west of Paris.

And when it is time for a short break, step up to a plate of oysters and a glass of Muscadet – the only on-the-spot eating option I noted in Versailles halls. In the mood for something salty? Greek olives, capers, all sorts of pickled veg are ready to be scooped up. Almond-studded cornes de gazelle, among many honey-glazed Middle Eastern sweets tempted the vagabond during this market romp. Of course the market answers gift-shoppers’ quandries, too:  a little oval salt cellar with a wooden scoop, colorful packets of sugar-dusted fruit paste tied with a ribbon, even a chocolate Santa Claus will win up in someone’s stocking.

Vagabond Gourmand – Versailles Market Try just a slice, or buy an entire terrine for a “festive first”
All of these market aromas and visual delights can trigger appetites, so shoppers need not look beyond the halls’ periphery – take a few steps and you are sitting in the sun with a coffee or a tall Belgian beer. We joined the locals at a corner café bar, the Franco-Belge on rue du Baillage for hearty traditional fare. When the vagabond tucked into a mound of choux-farci, she thought it would easily serve four…an hour later, the waiter removed the empty plate. Markets do stimulate appetites!  After lunch, a stroll through eighteenth century ruelles of the Bailliage antique dealers’ quarter led past fifty shops filled with everything from arm chair frames (which Louis ?…. don’t ask) to lamps, statuettes and paintings. In fact, this first visit to Versailles was an appetizer, with a follow-up planned for April…to find signs of spring in the Potager du Roi.

Getting to Versailles: Trains to Versailles Rive Droit station run regularly from Gare St.Lazare and take about 30 minutes (closest to center). From Gare Montparnasse, it takes about 10 minutes, but is a 20 minute walk from Gare Versailles Chantier on the outskirts.  Or take the RER from St.Michel metro stop or Quai d’Orsay stop, about a 40 minute ride to V. Rive Gauche stop.

Inside tips: Tempted to linger for more than one day, especially when the Versailles center for Baroque music has a full concert schedule? Watch the concert listings on . Even on a slim budget, Versailles for a weekend is a treat:  Hôtel Cheval Rouge faces the market place, and has 38 reasonably priced rooms (less than 90 Euros for a double room) – simple, and recently renovated.  Located near the Rive Droit station for trains from Paris, it is five minutes’ walk to the château and gardens. Visit: for map and information in English.  Or, rent a car in Versailles for a few days and venture another 10 kilometers on the route to Dreux to stay in a dreamy B&B,  For 90 Euros a double room is yours, with breakfast in the conservatory….and do visit the Grand Marnier distillery in the village of Neauphle-le-Château. The 1810 mansion has just three guest rooms, so reserve in advance for a remarkable base to explore the historic region.

Saint Nicolas, my how you’ve changed!

December 8th, 2009
Gingerbread or chocolate, still Santa

Gingerbread or chocolate, still Santa

Oh, jolly old St. Nick  – the emblematic figure has gone through many transformations.  St. Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors, school children, and pawn brokers is honored with December feasts and festivals across northern Europe. Long before he began sliding down chimneys on Christmas Eve, St. Nicholas (spellings also evolve) was a bearded saint who left treats in childrens’ shoes on December sixth.  Last weekend, folks in the French city of  Nancy were nibbling on gingerbread figures of St. Nicolas as they celebrated with their annual festival and parades.  But it was in the Versailles market that a chocolatier’s display caught my eye, the first time I had ever seen the saintly figure side-by-side with more rotund Santas.  So here they are, the bearded men, all rolling their eyes, back again for our gift-giving season. Maybe they know whether we’ve been naughty or nice?

Daubos Chocolatier is in Versailles market hall, and the shop in Versailles’ Saint Louis district is jam-packed with temptations, worth a stop. For their Chocolate Crème Brulée recipe (in French), see recipes on #