A heritage of fine wines

September 21st, 2010

September's glorious grapes

Château de Tiregand, a seventeenth century vineyard and château rising above the town of Creysse on the north bank of the Dordogne river, swings open its château doors just once a year. The vagabond joined the crowds swarming around historic sites during the weekend, the Days of our Heritage/Journees du Patrimoine, to venture inside.  Since the Count de la Panouse bought the property in 1827, members of the Panouse and (through marriage) the Saint Exupéry family have added or subtracted from the extensive quarters (over fifty bedrooms at last count), to suit their taste and the times. No longer inhabited by the family, only parts of the vast interior are in good repair.  We stood in the shade, listening to the intriguing story, from the first structure on the site built by Edward Tyrgan (a natural son of England’s King Edward III in the 13th century) to the state of this Monument Historique today.

South facing rooms with a view of the Dordogne valley

Washed in September sunlight, the formal château entry stands apart from wings running perpendicular to the long, south side shown above.

A grand formal entry, seldom used today

Once inside, a dark circular stairway dominates the space, and lures visitors up – until the guide motions:  non, s’il vous plait!

Jours de Patrimoine visitors...tempted by stairways

As our guide, Francois-Xavier de Saint-Exupéry, told the story of his family and their vineyards, it was clear that they shared set-backs of blight and weather with the region’s many vintners.  The phylloxéra infestation of the late nineteenth century, and a devastating early spring frost in the nineteen-fifties hit all of the Pécharmant vineyards equally hard.  Vine stock, replanted and thriving for decades after the blight, was frozen just at the time when the spring pruning was on the 1956 calendar. Now the vineyards occupy forty-three hectares of the four hundred sixty hectares of the Tiregand domaine.  Red wines in the Pécharmant appelation are their primary focus, with 54% merlot vines, cabernet sauvignon 23%, cabernet franc 18%, and just 5% malbec to blend into these well-balanced wines.  For their Bergerac dry white wines, they have 1.2 hectares planted in white grapes. During the upcoming vendange, seven hectares will be harvested manually, while the remainder will be mechanically harvested before being spread on tables for sorting by hand. Only one of the reds, Cuvée Grand Millésime will spend twelve to eighteen months in French oak barrels.  Tiregand’s red wines are best after about four years, so their Gold medal (at the Maçon wine awards) 2007 Grand Millésime is ready now.  In the Pécharmant tradition of well-structured red wines, this lightly tannic cuvée is a good value at less than ten euros a bottle.  Consider the terroir, the vintners’ persistent efforts to make each millésime better – and add the element of heritage for these wines, of the place, of the people – when tasting in Tiregand’s spacious chais and tasting room.

As a civet de lapin simmers on the back burner, I lift my glass to the Saint-Exupéry family in thanks for opening the château and grounds to us all, for taking a weekend every year to welcome both locals and visitors from afar.  Santé!

The Tiregand chais and tasting room is open year round

All across France, historic sites and certain private properties are open to the public during mid-September every year.  It is worth planning travel to a region of interest to visit, listen and taste during Les Journees du Patrimoine.

Wines, vines and Italian tastings

February 25th, 2010

When a first sip is infatuating, I yearn to learn more. Such was the case with Primitivo, encountered over a plate of savory orecchiette at Pasta e Basta in Paris’ 13th.  First the dense – almost inky – robe, deep fruit aromas, then the wine’s structure persisted through the meal. The impact of this wine, so different from French wines, carried a complexity that intrigued me.  Where can this wine be found in context, I asked Armando, the chef at Pasta e Basta? “From Bari south to Lecce, and all along the Salentino, a rocky strip of southern Italy”, he responded.  So, serious travel is involved, and some time-juggling, but as  Italy continues its magnetic tug, why not plan on exploring this wine at the source: the heel of Italy’s boot.  Apulia, or Puglia, is the home of many ancient vine varieties planted along the the Salento peninsula in the sixth century B.C. – long before Roman legions marched past the trulli, clusters of white dry-stone huts.

The vagabond has found a guide for this wine and culinary adventure:  a bi-lingual ace photographer and host of a well known Lecce cooking and wine school, The Awaiting Table.  Silvestro Silvestori’s New Wine School and Cuisine classes have been covered by the Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine magazine. Their harvest season wine course this year runs from October 10 to 16, and includes visits to vineyards, a cooking class or two, and much discussion with local artisans – in addition to comprehensive wine lectures and tastings. Without further fanfare, I refer all and any wine tasting enthusiasts to www.awaitingtable.com

For more on Puglia, its cuisine and traditions, read Anne Bianchi’s superb, thorough Italian Festival Food, Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Regional Country Food Fairs, published in 1999 by Macmillan, USA.

Embrace October…

October 3rd, 2009


As golden and plump as a ripe quince, autumn is here at last.  Something about the fullness of this season, always a mixture of pleasure and melancholy, brings more to do than hours in a day allow. Beyond finishing up some desk work, beyond raking a fresh ton of maple and elm leaves, then pulling out dry tomato plants – it is a season that draws me into la petite cuisine. With a bowl of firm quince at the ready, what is stopping the vagabond from taking a new tack with a pork roast?  And stirring up a pot of duck stock for vegetable soup fits into the week end’s goal: a Sunday lunch with friends. The menu is lined up:  a pork roast has been rubbed with minced rosemary, garlic, sage and a little pepper, then wrapped in jambon de pays/cured country ham to mellow overnight. Quince and sweet onions are ready to sauté in duck fat to accompany the pork.  Sweet potatoes and carrots will roast slowly, drizzled with pan juices for an hour. A ripened bleu de Gex and lait cru/raw milk Camembert are cool, waiting their turn on the table. My master chef/MC has cooked the apple sauce and formed his special pastry dough into a ball to rest overnight – ready to roll in the morning for Tarte aux pommes à la Michel - before slicing firm apples for the garniture/topping. A few recipes will follow after the true test: tasting on Sunday.


Monday’s report adds a few details to the pork roast recipe sketched above. A 3 pound/1.5 kg rolled pork roast for 7 or 8 begins with the seasoning and wrapping in four slices of jambon de pays/cured country ham. Let the seasoned roast rest overnight, then bring to room temperature in the morning. Allowing about 2 hours roasting, preheat oven to 350°f/175°c; a meat thermometer should show 185° f/90°c  when done. Heat a heavy skillet and sear the roast on all sides before putting it into the roasting pan, on top of a bed of sage leaves. Insert meat thermometer. After 40 minutes, add 2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into rounds (some may be tucked under the roast). Season with white pepper and nutmeg, drizzle with olive oil or melted butter, return roast to oven – but baste every 30 minutes. Remove from the oven 20 minutes before serving in a heated dish, surrounded with the rounds of sweet potatoes. Garnish with parsley & sage leaves. Serve with a side of brown rice or wild rice. Well balanced wines from our Bergerac region, the Pécharmant, compliment the rich flavors and sweet tones of this menu. Look for the Pécharmant reds of Château Tillerai, Château Terre Vieille – or splash out with a Graves from Château d’Ardennes….to toast the golden season.

Quince in focus: The fruit, the tree, the lore of cydonia oblonga are brought into focus on the site – scroll down to October 27 entry:


Next up: report on the almond harvest, making chèvre at home (at last), and a visit with vintners.

Wine lovers will weep

May 13th, 2009

“Damage, major damage today in Aquitaine vineyards” – news carried like wildfire about hail the size of pigeon eggs.  “It was raining ice the size of 2 Euro coins”… or pingpong balls, depending on which report I read.  About sundown last night, violent hailstorms swept from Angoulême in the Charente across Cognac vineyards, with force enough to leave car roofs dappled with dents.  Some mighty pigeon eggs, I would say. The winds, lightning and hail swept across the Médoc north of Bordeaux, leaving vines in Margaux vineyards with barely a leaf intact.  Two phases of grapes, just in delicate first growth have been stripped from the vines across Blaye, Bourg, Fronsac, Entre-Deux-Mers, and St. Emilion.  Counting on 300 to 500 grapes per vine, winemakers are faced with less than 50 fruits per vine, but the leaves that should protect them from summer sun have been put through nature’s  shredder. Estimates of loss in some vineyards run between 70% and 100%.

The Gironde (now matched by the Hérault region in the Languedoc) is the largest wine-making region in France.  Damage wrought by the storm stretches south of Bordeaux into the Graves, Barsac and Sauternes region, about which I have recently been absorbed in research. When I heard an interview with the mayor of La Brède (yes, the home of the philosopher and winemaker, Montesquieu) in the Graves, the news struck a chord. These horages devastateurs not only compromise the harvest of 2009, but will have an impact on wines of 2010. The regional news’ apocalyptic images of bare vines in the Cognac region only reinforce the impact of this disaster for winemakers – and for wine lovers.

For more (in French) see: www.france-info.com/ or www.sudouest.com/charente/actualité, or www.aquitainemeteo.com

The food & the mood, be sweet…be spicy

February 13th, 2009

Oysters, truffles, chili peppers, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, chocolate, oh – cinnamon, mint and almonds – the list of notorious aphrodisiacs is long. Is it the zinc in oysters (and pine nuts as well) that lends credence to their legendary powers? How much of the allure rests in nutrition, for garlic’s medicinal heat as one case, has stirred research into the pungent bulb’s properties.  Certainly each ingredient’s sensual qualities, the color and aromas come into play when preparing a menu with a hint of seduction. Fragrance is on almond’s side, as Samson knew when he courted Delilah with sweet almonds. Did cinnamon do the trick when the Queen of Sheba set her cap (or crown?) for King Solomon?  Spices are legendary, as Romans knew when they munched on anise seeds to stimulate their libido. There appear to be several winning combinations on the list, depending on the setting and mood, the season and personalities involved in the plot…..and seduction is a plot, non?

The plot… er the menu: in truffle season, pull out a paring knife, trim a small truffle and dice it, slice a log or a round of fresh chèvre cheese horizontally. Sprinkle truffle dice between the layers and wrap this appetizer in baking paper or a small brown paper bag (NOT in plastic) and tuck it in a cool place for a day or three before your dinner.  Garnish it with arugula/roquette (also on the list…). Stir up a hearty soup based on garlic, ginger, tomatoes, with basil and even a little fresh mint (to add at the end of cooking). Use chopped chicken or lamb for texture and protein, and toss in a touch of chili pepper, let it rest to mellow overnight. A fresh baguette or crusty roll is perfect on the side.  All of this can be ready well before dinner time, to allow maximum time for “conversation”.  The wine, a fresh white Vouvray with the chèvre truffé, and later a subtle and complex Bordeaux Supérieur or the dark fruit of a Gigondas would be my choice – but possibilities abound. Now, what’s for dessert? A gooey chocolate-almond-nutmeg fondant cake would be superb (with or without a dusting of chili).  Stay tuned, the Valentine recipe is being tested…and tasted.

Fondant Chocolate, a cake that is almost done retains a molten middle if not baked too long – but is not bad as a cake….if you get distracted before dessert.  Stir it  up ahead of time, it can be popped into the oven and bakes at 350°f for 8 to 10 minutes in individual ramekins (1/2 cup+1 tablespoon/150 ml) or baking cups. Melt 3 packages of 70% chocolate (each package 100g, broken into little pieces – half milk chocolate is milder) in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water; let cool while mixing 1/3 cup light brown sugar with 6 tablespoons butter cut into bits and 5 medium-sized eggs.  When blended, add 1/2 cup ground almonds (or 1/2 cup flour, sifted), 1 teaspoon grated nutmeg. Orange zest or cinnamon could also be added at this point if you wish. Blend in the chocolate – it will be grainy at first, but blend steadily – and then add 2 tablespoons dark rum. Pour batter into 5 or 6 buttered ramekins, each 2/3 full, place them on a baking sheet, dust with a little sugar, and bake until edges firm up, begin to rise but middle remains soft, about 9 minutes. Serve warm in the cup or turn out (carefully, to retain the soft center) onto a dessert plate and garnish with sour cream or whipping cream sprinkled with crimson pomegranate seeds.  If desired, dust with cocoa mixed with chili powder for an extra zing. To cut the recipe in half, use 2 large eggs to make 3 servings.

Vagabond Gourmand goes wine-shopping

April 14th, 2006

Well, is the market on the wine shopper’s rounds?  This query from a visiting American friend prompted me to think about how we find our way to the wines we like best.  For years, our wine-shopping options have run from trips to regional winemakers, buying bottles or boxes of wine at the hypermarché, popping into a local wine shop for a lovely selection (at a price), or buying wine in weekly markets.  Which shopping mode do we follow?  All of the above!  For each suits a time and mood, and fits into the dips and surges of income and available time.

The dynamics of wine shopping have changed in the dozen years since we arrived in southwest France, in the Bergerac vignoble to be specific. At first we took a large cubitainer (sturdy plastic barrel) directly to a winemaker and said: “Fill ‘er up”! Using an antique corking apparatus, the wine had to be quickly bottled, then stored for the upcoming months (or weeks, with the arrival of thirsty visitors). All of this depended on storing clean wine bottles, buying corks, and having time to swab down the kitchen floor.

Once I took into account the time and bottle-washing (being chief cook and bottle-washer), it seemed there must be other alternatives to stocking a supply of wine.  The empty bottles are dusty now, waiting for another round of rinsing and corking.  A recent visit with a wine maker supplied our ‘best’ racks with bottles of Côtes de Bergerac red and a case of lovely, fruity Bergerac white–my preferred apéritif.  From the village grocery, a row of mineral water bottles filled with basic reds and whites are always on hand for various cooking and marinating uses.  Still, weekly markets offer opportunities to explore wines of a wider region, attracting makers of sweet Pineau de Charentes northwest of the Dordogne, reds from the Côtes de Duras south of Bergerac, and with a bit of luck- from any part of the vast Bordeaux vignoble to the west.

A Sunday morning jaunt to a picturesque market serves to update this wine-shopper, taking our enthusiastic friend along for his first market dégustation.  In the medieval village of Issigeac, the church square is the setting for their weekly market, drawing shoppers and Sunday dawdlers to savor its historic ambiance.  We can count on seeing small scale vignerons who make red wine when they are not raising ducks or chickens, as well as larger stalls displaying a wider range.  Often – not always – dégustations or sample sips of a wine are part of the wine selection ritual. This pause offers a good chance to ask vintners about the problems and pleasures of wine-making.  Interspersed in the market between fruit, chickens, cheese and flower stalls, there are half dozen vendors of wines.  Organic wine-making methods are gaining ground in the Bergerac terroir, with several producers of vins biologique  (organic wines) represented in the Issigeac market.

We step up to a vendor of organic wines who displays their 2005 millésime –last autumn’s harvest, now ready for sipping. Would we like to sample red or white, dry or sweet? The steps of a tasting, even on a chilly spring morning, are always the same:  admire the color, take a little whiff of the bouquet, then sip.  Allow a forgiving margin for the reds that need to be warmed to room temperature – which this tasting in the chilly air limits.  It is a better time to sample cool white wine – just before noon on a Sunday morning.  Our friend nods in agreement.  The organic white is fresh and crisp, so we buy a packet of three bottles. He winks: Next dégustation

Along a narrow side street lined with half-timbered houses, we find an elderly wine-maker from the Lussac-St.Emilion region selling his red wines.  He recognizes us with a broad smile and apologizes that he is not equipped with dégustation glasses. We engage in a jovial exchange, assuring him that we have enjoyed his wines before and would like to have a bottle of his 2003 with our Sunday dinner.  As we turn to leave with a three-pack of red wines, I nudge our visitor:  Next dégustation, on the terrace at home – under our blooming plum tree!