Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

La Capitelle – a Little Corner of Paradise

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

 

Chef and owner of La Capitelle, Sylvain Croce

Chef and co-owner of La Capitelle, Sylvain Croce

I first met Sylvain Croce when he was the chef at the best restaurant/hotel in my home town of Nyons, “Une Autre Maison”. With his patisserie training showing through, Sylvain’s cooking was precise, assured and beautiful to look at and Michelin thought the place worthy of inclusion in its Guide.

A couple of years ago ago Sylvain and his partner Ludivine grabbed the chance to buy what was a slightly-down-at-heel (but fundamentally lovely) hotel in the picture postcard village of Mirmande, around 25 minutes north of Montélimar. Mirmande is a collection of centuries-old buildings perched on a hilltop and is built entirely from the local honey-coloured stone. So charming is the village it has been named as one of the most beautiful in France and, as you can see from the photo, La Capitelle hotel more than does it justice.

La Capitelle

La Capitelle in the setting sun

Inside there are more stone walls, polished stone stairs and a cosy vaulted restaurant, open to all but with priority given to the hotel guests. If the bedrooms aren’t huge (what did you expect, this is 400 year-old building in France?) then they are comfortable, tastefully decorated and spotlessly clean. And Sylvain’s food is still delicious.

The menus follow the seasons and make inventive use of ingredients – I remember once eating a beetroot crème brulée that sounded bizarre but which turned out to be a highlight of a meal that wasn’t short on high points. And many of those menus and ingredients are locally-based and sourced – caillettes (a sort of spinach-laden, warm ball of pork paté), guinea fowl and quail, picodon goat’s cheese are all specialities of the Drôme hills, while olives and tapenade reflect the Nyons connection and the fact that the southern Drôme forms the border with Provence.

Looking down the cobbled streets of Mirmande towards the Ardeche hills on the other side of the Rhone.

Looking down the cobbled streets of Mirmande towards the Ardèche hills on the other side of the Rhône.

Recognition has followed pretty quickly – Gault & Millau lists the restaurant and Sylvain has even become a semi-regular on the daily cooking programme on one of the Rhône’s main radio station, France Bleu Drôme-Ardèche. (Not that that stops him being behind the stoves in the evening.)

Evening sun coming through an archway.

Evening sun coming through an archway.

As you might imagine, the wine list makes extensive use of Rhône producers. I love the fact that hotel sells the wines of the one winemaker in the village, Domaine Besson, but if you want to try wines that are truly local but absolutely world class then the Brézème reds and white of Domaine Lombard are the ones to go for.

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

Mirmande is worth visiting just for the sake of it – wandering round the village can be a delightful way to spend a couple of hours – but stay for a night or two and it makes a convenient mid-point if you want to visit the vineyards of the northern and southern Rhône. And if you’re staying, what better place to be than La Capitelle?

Santé,

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. You can also find shorter bits and pieces on Facebook (@RhoneWineTours). You may even think about booking a tour or tasting. Go on, you know you want to.

It must be pretty obvious by now that I know Sylvain and Ludivine, so you might say that this blog is biased. Well firstly I wouldn’t risk my hard-earned reputation (ahem!), especially without a payment, if I didn’t think La Capitelle merited it. Secondly, I don’t care.

Happy Birthday Nyons Olives, Happy Birthday to You

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
A view over Nyons, with an olive tree in the immediate foreground and the silver-green leaves of the tops of further olive trees at the bottom of the picture.

A view over Nyons, with olive trees in the foreground.

Why Happy Birthday? After all, I’d be lying if I said I could pin down the date when the first olive trees were planted in Nyons. Nobody’s quite sure – perhaps it was the Greeks who introduced them over 2,000 years ago? If not the Greeks, then the Romans. But one thing’s for certain, 2014 marks several milestones:

Birthday No. 1: 20 years ago Nyons olives and olive oil were the first in France to be given “appellation d’origine contrôlée” status. Like the system used for French wine, the “AOC” recognises the special qualities of Nyons oil (“Unique in All the World”, as the local signs say) and the tanche variety used to make it.

In the olive groves above Nyons. This photo was taken in late October when this tree held a mixture of unripe green olives and some that had already turned purple and black.

October in the olive groves above Nyons. The olives (some still green) are two months away from being harvested.

Nyons olives sold loose in the market.

Prepared Nyons olives being sold in the market.

The olives are picked when black and fully ripe, after they’ve been softened and wrinkled by the first frosts, usually around New Year. The bigger olives are sold for eating; the late harvest helps to remove any bitterness, making them rich and savoury, with soft flesh underneath a firm skin – perfect as an aperitif. The smaller olives are pressed to make an Extra Virgin oil which is noticeably rounder and mellower than many other premium oils with their more peppery bite.

Oil from one of the many independent producers.

Oil from one of the small independent producers. Nyons oil is soft and buttery with a mild grassiness.

Sadly, as in all things, premium means expensive: you can expect to pay around 17€ per litre if you buy Nyons olive oil directly from a grower, but I’ve seen it advertised at 23$ for a bottle one quarter that size (250 ml, roughly 8½ fl.oz) in America. But then it’s an oil to be brought out for special occasions, not used to fry potatoes (although boy would they be good).

The growing of Nyons olives is dominated by small-scale farmers and local residents, many with just a few trees in their garden, most of whom are members the 1,100-member-strong growers’ co-operative, Vignolis, which takes its members’ crop and brines it whole for eating or crushes it for oil. The rest of the harvest is shared between the numerous private producers.

In the co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers...

In the Vignolis co-operative. The olives are kept in these stacked containers…

...while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

…while the oil is kept in these spotless stainless steel tanks.

There are 230,000 olive trees within the Nyons appellation. That may sound a lot, but the amount of oil made is still a drop in the ocean compared to some other parts of France, never mind Spain, which produces of 40% of the world’s olive oil.

Birthday No. 2: 30 years ago Nyons held its first annual “Alicoque” festival to celebrate the release of the new season’s olive oil.

Dancing in traditional local costumes.

Dancing at the Alicoque in traditional local costumes.

“Alicoque” comes from the name of  the traditional post-harvest supper taken by the pickers and oil mill workers. The festival, which takes place in late January/early February each year,  is a chance to taste the brand new oil poured onto a garlic-rubbed crouton but, almost as importantly, it’s also a chance to parade around the town in costume. Talking of which…

Birthday No. 3: 50 years ago the Confrérie des Chevaliers de l’Olivier (“Brotherhood of the Knights of the Olive Tree”) was formed.

The French love the chance to dress up. These are the Knights of the Olive Tree,

The French love to dress up – the Knights of the Olive Tree

There’s a certain type of French person (or should that be French man?) that loves an opportunity for a bit of dressing-up, but the Brotherhood was created with a more serious purpose in mind:

Nyons is on the climactic limit for commercially growing olives – any further north and they won’t ripen successfully, consistently. The long growing season this gives is part of what makes Nyons olives and oil so special. But being (relatively) far north has its disadvantages – the devastating winter freezes of 1929 and especially 1956 killed around three quarters of  Nyons’ 1 million olive trees and many growers contemplated pulling up those that had survived in order to plant hardier vines or fruit trees, particularly apricots. The Brotherhood brought together growers and helped to protect the local industry while it got back on its feet.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Selling oil on Alicoque day.

Obviously the best way to celebrate these anniversaries is by coming to Nyons and buying your olives and olive oil straight from the producer, perhaps taking the opportunity to sit outside a bar, nibble your delicious olives and sip a glass of chilled Côtes-du-Rhône rosé made in the vineyards that surround the town. But if that’s not possible, here are some stockists who may be a little more local:

You can buy Nyons oil and olives in America. Googling “Nyons olive oil” will do the trick, but you could start with Todaro Bros. in NYC – www.todarobros.com – who are currently selling 1 lb of olives for a very reasonable $6.98. From what I’ve seen, most of the oil available in the USA comes from the Vignolis co-operative and you can spot it by the “NYONSOLIVE” label. Prices vary significantly, so shop around. A few places sell Domaine Rocheville’s independently made oil.

It’s harder to track down either the oil or the olives in the UK. Neal’s Yard in Borough Market certainly used to sell the olives. The Ham and Cheese & Company, again at Borough market, but also www.thehamandcheeseco.com, recently mentioned Nyons olives on their Facebook page. You could also try The Fresh Olive Company – www.fresholive.com.

Wherever you are, happy hunting. And Happy Birthday.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. Can’t see any mention of wine? Try some of the older blogs, or our photo-filled Facebook page. Can’t see any mention of tours? You need our website – www. RhoneWineTours.com. We even have a winemaker who makes organic olive oil – two for the price of one!

 

 

 

 

Bonne Année

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, well December in general really, what better way to start 2014 than with a long, vigorous walk? In my case, 3½ hours up hill and down dale starting in the village of Condorcet in the Baronnies hills, 15 minutes drive from Rhône Wine Tours base in Nyons.

All that's left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870.

All that’s left of the old village of Condorcet, abandoned around 1870. The vineyards in the foreground produce Coteaux des Baronnies reds.

This is a favourite walk, starting with a steep climb from Condorcet church, up past vineyards, the old hilltop village abandoned in the late 1800s in favour of the current valley site, and then on into the woods before dropping into the hamlet of Saint-Pons. It was here that seven French resistance fighters were shot by a firing squad in 1944.

Plaque attached to the wall of a house in the hamlet of Saint-Pons commemorating the execution of seven resistance fighters.

Climbing again from Saint-Pons, on past the apricot orchards, you come to one of the best places in the region for picking sloes. The locals leave them alone as there’s very little you can do with this little wild plum other than make sloe gin, which doesn’t seem to be to the French taste. This is unusual, as almost everything else edible and free for the picking gets used in one way or another – wild herbs and walnuts, gentian root and  mushrooms, the fruit from the occasional remnants of old orchards, brambles and wild raspberries growing high on Mont Ventoux, you name it.

Sloes growing wild near St-Pons

Sloes growing wild near Saint-Pons

Tradition says that sloes should be picked after the first frost, so New Year’s Day couldn’t be better. If I take a bag or a tupperware container I can grab a couple of hundred grams, enough to make half a litre of sloe gin. If you’d like the recipe, get in touch. (If I had the distilling know-how, I could also pick juniper berries on the same walk and use them to make my own spirit, taking the whole process right back to basics. Although, given that home distilling is illegal here in France, perhaps it’s better that I stick to cheap supermarket gin as my base.)

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet.

Juniper grows abundantly in the woods around Condorcet, but it’s hard to get at – those spikes are sharp.

By now, I’m at the half distance mark and my legs are starting to tire. Although it’s a favourite, it’s a long time since I’ve done this walk and I feel unfit and out of practice. So it’s a good job that I’ve brought a packed lunch – sandwiches made with the remains of last night’s roast duck and apple sauce – and that the path starts to zig-zag downhill to the stream that runs along the bottom of the valley.

You're going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

You’re going to get your feet wet whatever you do.

With Saturday’s rain, the stream is swollen and the banks are muddy – enough sticks to my boots to double their weight. But I’m quickly back on gravel and the mud drops off as I climb gently towards the the first vineyards since the start of the walk, past the hunting dogs’ kennels, the fields that are full of poppies in summer and a handful of farmhouses before I’m finally back in Condorcet.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

A winter vineyard waiting to be pruned.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year's day. The snow-capped peak of the Angele mountain is just visible on the horizon.

In the hills above Condorcet on a beautiful New Year’s day. The snow-capped peak of the Montagne d’Angèle is just visible on the horizon, to the right.

By the end, I’m stiff and tired. But I wouldn’t want to start the year any other way.

Wishing you an excellent 2014,

Bonne année et bonne santé surtout,

Paul

This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to experience the delights of the Rhône Valley, whatever the time of year, you can contact us at info@rhonewinetours.com. You can also visit our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where there’s loads of information about our tours and wine tastings; things to do and places to stay while you’re here; our winemaker friends; and probably some other stuff too. Our Facebook page is home to smaller pieces too short to justify their own blog and plenty of photos. And we’re always looking for more “likes”. Hint, hint.

On the Scent of Black Gold

Monday, November 25th, 2013

If you’re looking for black gold, it’s not oil you want, it’s truffles. And the new season has just started.

Tuber Melanosporum - that's a black truffle to you.

Tuber Melanosporum – that’s a black truffle to you.

The southern Rhône is blessed with the limestone-rich soils and hot, dry summers that the black truffle prefers. So although Tuber melanosporum (to give it its botanical name) is often called the Périgord truffle in honour of the other major French growing region, production, if that’s what such a random process can be called, is greater in the Drôme and Vaucluse. So much so that the truffle market in the tiny village of Richerenches handles around 30% of all the truffles grown in France during the short mid-November to early-March season. Richerenches, I was told proudly by one trufficulteur, sets the world price for black truffles. And as the price last winter reached 950€ per kilo, even before middlemen and retailers got involved, that makes them one of the world’s most expensive food items. So it’s surprising that the trade is dominated by small-scale truffle growers and hunters, “paysans” or peasants in the French, non-pejorative sense of the word.

Truffles in the market at Richerenches

Truffles (the cheaper Tuber Uncinatum this time) in the market at Richerenches

The problem with black truffles, and the reason they’re so expensive, is that they can’t be grown or farmed in the normal sense of the word – they’re far too fussy, far too complicated for that. I’ve mentioned the limestone soils and hot summers (with short, sharp showers too, please), but that’s only half of it. They will only grow around certain trees – hazel, beech, but especially oak – and in fact they form a parasitic relationship with their host. But sadly the reverse isn’t true – where there are oaks there’s no guarantee that there will be truffles. Even where oak copses are deliberately planted and the ground inoculated with truffle spores, perhaps only 20% of the trees will go on to host truffles, one grower told me. And did I mention that it will take 15 years before the freshly-planted oak will show the first signs of truffles and that you can forget ever finding a crop once the tree hits 40?

Truffle oaks

Truffle oaks

Plus you’ve got to find them. Unlike mushrooms, truffles never appear above ground. So they have to be dug out, which means knowing where they are, and we’ve just seen the problems that can cause. Growers therefore take advantage of the highly developed noses of dogs or pigs to sniff and root out the highly scented tubers. Dogs have to be trained to search while pigs will go at it enthusiastically. But, given half a chance, a pig will eat whatever it finds, so on the whole growers in the Rhône stick with man’s best friend. Dogs will also start rooting excitedly around a truffle, but at least the grower has a chance to jump in to rescue his prize, while at the same time feeding the dog a small treat for its hard work.

Hunting for truffles under the oaks

Hunting for truffles under the oaks

Every Saturday morning during the four month season the growers take their spoils to Richerenches in the Enclave des Papes, the heart of truffle country, where they set up their trestle tables to display their wares (although it’s rumoured that more deals are done away from prying eyes, from the backs of vans or down quiet side streets). The public are welcome, but restauranteurs and brokers from as far away as Paris bring the big money (cash only, bien sûr).

This is where the real business is done - out the back of a parked car.

This is where the real business is done – out the back of a parked car.

As well as fresh truffles, both melanosporum and cheaper, less fine varieties, at Richerenches you can find them preserved, flavouring oil and even as an aperitif; you can pick up a mandolin for finely shaving your truffle; you can even buy a young oak if you fancy your chances at growing your own.

Truffle oil, truffle-flavoured aperitif

Truffle oil, truffle-flavoured aperitif

Fancy growing your own?

Fancy growing your own?

Then, of course, there are the stalls typical of any market in the region, those selling fruit and vegetables, jams and preserves, cheeses and charcuterie, nougat and pastries. The local bars, which unlike their neighbours in Nyons or Vaison-la-Romaine are relatively quiet in summer, are standing room only and thick with the smells of strong coffee, hot chocolate and rough wine.

Some of Provence's favourite winter vegetables. Those are cardoons at the front and they make an excellent gratin.

Some of Provence’s favourite winter vegetables. Those are cardoons at the front and they make an excellent gratin.

By 1pm the market is finished, the stalls are packed away until the following week and the crowds pile into one of the places serving truffle omelette for lunch. Given the main ingredient’s associations with luxury, you might think that fine dining would be the order of the day. Not a bit of it – the omelettes come on disposable plastic plates and are washed down with more rough wine. And given the truffle’s peasant roots, maybe that’s how it should be.

Recipe – Truffle Pasta

If you’re a dab hand with an omelette pan, by all means use your truffles that way. But this recipe for truffle pasta is, if anything, even simpler (or at least requires less technique) and well worth the effort. It brings out the truffle’s haunting, undergrowthy smell and a flavour that is at once both delicate and intense. (By the way, melanosporum are not absolutely necessary here. Last winter at one truffle “farm” near Grignan I bought the similar Tuber brumale, which cost me 25€ for 100g, or roughly ¼ the price. Unless you’re Donald Trump, the brumale will do fine and 100g goes a long way.)

You don't need much (thankfully).

You don’t need much (thankfully).

Ingredients – serves 2

Enough pasta for two people. Home-made egg tagliatelle would be perfect, but good dried tagliatelle (or pappardelle for that matter) works well. 

50g of unsalted butter

30-50g of cleaned truffles. This partly depends on the size of your truffles (and your wallet). My 100g from Grignan gave me 6 little nuggets. I used 2, but you can up the quantity for a stronger flavour.

Freshly grated Parmesan to taste.

A very little truffle oil (optional)

Method

1. While you’re bringing a large pan of well-salted water to the boil, gently melt the butter in a small pan. It should get warm rather than hot.

2. Grate your truffle into the butter and turn off the heat. At this stage you can add a little dribble of truffle oil if you want to heighten the flavour. But be careful, it’s powerful stuff. (All the recipes I looked at involve finely slicing the truffles but mine were used straight from frozen – they keep their flavour well – and were too small to use a mandoline without risking my fingertips. A relatively fine grater worked well and in the end I liked the way the truffles shavings were dispersed through the “sauce”.)

That's the sauce done

That’s the sauce done

3. Once cooked, drain your pasta reserving a little of the cooking water.

4. Add the pasta to the butter/truffle mixture, mix well and slacken with a splash of cooking water if it seems too stodgy.

5. Serve with the parmesan sprinkled generously on top. You may want a touch of seasoning, but the parmesan provides plenty of salt.

6. Eat with great pleasure.

It might not look much, especially in this photo, but boy does it taste good.

It might not look much, especially in this photo, but boy does it taste good.

There are plenty of people who will tell you to choose a white wine to go with the pasta. Me, I’d go for a red. But whichever you choose, I think this is a case where older is better. A young wine packed with fruit will clash, as will a very oaky wine, but time will soften both of those elements and may even bring out flavours that pick up on the truffles’ woodsy side. Mature Burgundy (red or white) would be pretty special, or maybe an older Barolo or Barbaresco. But given that I live in the Rhône and the truffles were grown here, I’m picking Alain Verset’s Cornas 2006. And while I’m down in the cellar I’ll grab a bottle of Domaine Lombard’s Brézème blanc for those who want a glass of white.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where I write about anything food/wine/Rhône related (and not necessarily in that order). Richerenches market is just one of the many reasons for coming to the region. If you’d like to see a few more, you can follow this link to our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where there’s also information about our wine tours and tastings and potted biogtraphies of some of our favourite winemakers (like Alain Verset and Domaine Lombard mentioned above). There’s also a Facebook page with plenty more wine stuff, photos especially – click on the link, have a look round and feel free to like us.

 

 

 

Octopus Stew

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

I would have called this blog “Squids In”, but sadly I didn’t plan ahead and bought the wrong cephalopod. Any octopus puns would be greatly appreciated for future reference.

Actually, I think the recipe works better with octopus, but squid would be fine – in fact, the recipe is loosely based on the squid stew recipe in Rick Stein’s French Oddysey. Whatever you do though, don’t try it with cuttlefish. It tastes great, but the ink! I ended up cleaning them in the bath and trying to shower away the mess.

My two octopus (octopuses?)

Anyway, for 2 healthy portions you need:

2 or 3 small octopus, about 1 kilo pre-prepared weight in total – not always easy to find, but when I lived in London I could get them at my local Morrisons. Otherwise 4 decent sized squid. And as a last resort, a bag of squid rings from the freezer section of the supermarket (but not calamari in breadcrumbs). Just so you know – Rick Stein suggests 750g for 4 people.

1 onion, finely chopped

1 tbls fennel seeds, gently dry fried until they start to smell strongly then ground, either in a pestle and mortar or a coffee grinder, or even under a rolling pin.

A splash of pastis (Pernod etc, although that bit of old ouzo or raki you have lying around would probably work, too)

1 glass of dry white or rosé wine

The same of stock (fish, or even better shellfish, would be ideal. Typically I use Marigold stock powder)

2 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped (possibly harder to find than the octopus) or half a tin of tomatoes drained of juice.

1 large bayleaf

1 strip of orange peel, white pith removed

A pinch of saffron (optional, but a nice touch)

A pinch of chilli flakes (optional, I like a bit of heat)

2 or more cloves of garlic

6 small potatoes, peeled (or as many as you think you’ll need to fill you up)

1 bunch of parsley, chopped (flat or curly as long as there’s a good handful)

1. If you have an understanding fishmonger, get them to clean out your octopus. Otherwise you’ll have to do it yourself. Just behind the eyes, the body sack is attached to the body at a couple of points. Snip through these with a pair of scissors and then pull back the sack, which should come of fairly cleanly leaving you with a head that has tentacles attached at one end and the innards at the other. Cut off the tentacles and throw away the head/stuff. Give the body sack and tentacles a good wash.

Find the section of skin where the sack and head meet…

 

…put your scissors into the “hole” (see photo above) and snip the attachment…

…peel back the sack leaving head and innards…

Fully dissected octopus

2. Cut the octopus into chunky pieces (it will shrink with cooking) and then drop into boiling water for a few minutes. I don’t know what this does, other than generate lots of scum, but all the experts suggests you do it. Drain. Experts also suggest peeling off the by now pink/purple skin. Ignore them.

Note: If you’re using squid, that will also need to be dismembered. You won’t need to bother with the par-boiling . On the other hand, I would suggest taking off the layer of very fine membrane that covers the body sack and the little wings.

3. In a hot pan, gently fry your onion in enough oil to cover the base. Olive oil for authenticity, but only the cheapest. Fry until soft and straw yellow. If you want a mellow garlic flavour, fry that too, but add part way through the process or it will burn. Otherwise the garlic will be added raw at the end.

4. Add the crushed fennel seeds and fry for another minute or so.

5. Then, either with dexterity or a friend and a match, pour the pastis into the pan and set it alight. It will produce tall purple flames. Panic not! They will die down within 20 seconds.

6. Add the wine, stock, tomatoes, bay leaf, orange peel, saffron and chilli (if using). Season lightly with salt and pepper, remembering that the sauce will reduce.

The octopus has just gone in and the slow simmering starts.

7. Add the octopus, bring to the boil and then turn down to a gentle simmer. You will then need to leave the whole lot to cook slowly for at least an hour, and preferably quite a bit longer if you don’t want rubbery octopus. The smell is fantastic though.

8. Towards the end of the cooking time, bring a pan of (heavily) salted water to the boil and boil your potatoes until not quite fully tender. Drain the potatoes and add them to your octopus pan. Carry on simmering for a few minutes so that the potatoes finish cooking.

9. Stir in the raw garlic if you have kept it back until now. I then let the stew sit for 5 minutes so that it starts to cool – the flavour is better when not piping hot.

10. Serve in shallow bowls and sprinkle with the parsley.

Not quite in focus, and not the tidiest plate ever, and I’d forgotten the parsley. But apart from that, job well done. And it tasted great.

This is good with a glass of very cold rosé, lots of bread to mop up the juices and aioli (garlic mayonnaise) or rouille (a sort of spicy, garlicky mayonnaise) stirred in, but none are essential. You can cheat on the aioli by crushing a couple of garlic cloves and a touch of salt to a paste with the flat of a knife. Put that into a cup with a couple of big spoonfulls of Hellmans and mix together. Then add a couple of slugs of olive oil (for the – ahem -genuine taste of Provence) and mix that in. Voilà. Just don’t tell the taste police.

Santé,

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. There’s more on our website – www.RhôneWineTours.com – where there are also potted biographies of some of “our” winemakers, suggestions for things to do in the region and, sneakily, we also suggest you book tours and wine tastings. You can also find Rhône Wine Tours on Facebook, where smaller pieces and photo galleries tend to get posted. We’d be delighted if you join the literally several who already “like” us. Finally, you can also follow us on Twitter, but as I struggle to keep things down to 1,000 words never mind 140 characters, we don’t exactly pester you.

 

 

L’Auberge du Père Monnet

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

If you’re travelling down through France this summer or doing a bit of wine tourism in the northern Rhône (in which case, why haven’t you been in touch?), you could do far worse than take lunch at L’Auberge du Père Monnet in La Roche de Glun. It’s a few minutes from the A7 autoroute, but a world away from the traffic roar, overlooking the water in the centre of the old village.

Monday lunchtime at Père Monnet

I stopped there on a mid-March Monday, expecting to find it fairly quiet. But the place was buzzing with locals (including a few winemakers), most of whom were sitting down to the 14,50€ set menu, which that day consisted of a creamy quiche flavoured with tuna and lots of mustard plus a side salad, followed by bœuf bourguignon  and finally apple crumble (the French have gone mad for “croomble”). It was all home-made and, if the food wasn’t worthy of a Michelin star, it was good, honest cooking at a very reasonable price. And the service was friendly and efficient.

That day’s lunch set menu

But the best reason to go, especially if you’re not the driver, is the brilliant wine list. The photo below shows just the Croze-Hermitage reds section, and that alone runs to almost 40 wines.

39 (count them) different Crozes-Hermitage reds, including the super Christelle Betton. Then you start on the St. Joseph…

The patron suggested a glass of Matthieu Barret’s “Petit Ours Brun” (Little Brown Bear) 2011 Côtes du Rhône, a 100% biodynamic syrah from vines planted in (I seem to remember) Cornas. There had been no attempt to make a big, burly Cornas – but the wine was lively, juicy, aromatic and full of personality. And just the sort of thing to go with the beef (and it worked surprisingly well with the tart).

Little Brown Bear. It’s not just obvious choices on the list.

Including a coffee and that glass of wine, a meal for two came to 34€. If someone hadn’t come up with the phrase first, I’d say it was worth a detour.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where we write about all things Rhône-related (and quite a bit that isn’t). If you’d like to experience the region and its wines first-hand, visit our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com – where you can read all about our tours and tastings. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter for more of this sort of thing.

Ripaille – noun feminine: blow out, feast

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

When I left London, an extremely generous friend gave me a lovely parting gift – a voucher allowing me and a guest to eat at my pick of 160-odd restaurants throughout France. The nearest to Nyons was Michelin-starred “Le Grand Pré” in Roaix, which I thought might be a hardship, but what the hell. Madame insisted on being the guest, but then as she was willing to drive while I drank that seemed like a fair swap.

We booked for eight, the “de rigueur” starting time for most French meals, only to find that when we arrived there was only one table taken on the garden terrace and none indoors. I was worried that we were in for one of those self-conscious meals where the customers whisper and waiters hover, but clearly in Michelin-land normal rules don’t apply – most people drifted in at 8.30 or later, including some who seemed to be regulars (at these prices!). By then, our little 15 year old Nissan Micra (with large scrape and multiple dents down the side) was surrounded by Range Rovers and Maseratis. Perhaps the other customers thought it belonged to the cleaner.

The garden at dusk

We started with a little amuse bouche of raw bonito tuna marinated in soy, ginger and lime – brightly flavoured, fresh and lively. Not exactly adventurous by London standards but fairly out there in these parts.

Then, to keep us occupied while we perused the (very good) wine list, aperitif maison – blanc de blancs fizz with a little pêche de vigne syrup. Refreshing, wildly aromatic and rather delicious. So much so that afterwards we bought our own syrup to make the aperitif at home. The fact that a bottle cost 18€ probably helps to explain why the apero cost 14€ each.

Alongside the drinks, a few nibbles – crisp toasts not much thicker than a euro with home-made anchoïade and houmous. Amusingly for Brits, who eat so much houmous it has become an honorary national dish, the waiter felt the need to explain that it was made with chick peas. The thoroughly French anchoïade – a paste/emulsion based on anchovies, garlic and olive oil – got no explanation.

Starter No1 - deconstructed bouillabaise

The first starter (yes, that’s right, it was that kind of meal) was a sort of deconstructed bouillabaise made with rose dorade (the fish element) served on a bed of caramelised fennel and spiced up with a potent rouille and a shot glass of a saffron-y, seafood “essence” – to be drunk, the waiter stressed, not poured over the fish.

Not an egg yolk, but saffron seafood essence. Drink, don't pour.

Great stuff, the fish firm and meaty and the essence like, well, the essence of the sea. The suggested glass of Domaine des Escaravailles “La Ponce” blanc 2011 was good on its own – the blend of grenache blanc, marsanne and picpoul was rich with ripe pear and acacia – but something in the combination emphasised the wine’s alcoholic warmth.

Foie gras in a stack with fig/grain mustard relish off to the right

Starter two was poached foie gras, cooked just enough to firm it up, on top of a stack of peas, broad beans and green beans with a base of crisp walnut bread. Alongside, a relish based on wholegrain mustard and fig, the sweetness of the fig working brilliantly with the foie. The glass of white that came with it was Clos Bellane’s blend of viognier, roussanne and marsanne. A lovely wine, aromatic (as you would expect given the grape blend) and a good pairing.

Veal, beetroot and artichoke pot-au-feu. Delicious.

Main course was a pot-au-feu made with veal cheeks, beetroot and artichoke (veal, foie gras – not a meal for animal welfare addicts, then). Very good, especially the (deliberately) thin but slightly sticky broth, but the mushroom risotto served separately was even better, although it slightly overpowered the veal. (You must remember that in any other circumstances one would be delighted – judging gets picky at this level). For me, the best combination was a little of the veal and broth spooned over the risotto, just playing a supporting role.

Even better. Mushroom risotto - looks simple but intensely flavoured.

The suggested wine to go with it was Grand Nicolet’s Rasteau 2009 (70% grenache, 30% syrah) which had a surprisingly “cool”, sleek feel despite the heat of the vintage. I wouldn’t have chosen it from the list – the combination of 2009 and Rasteau sounding way too heavy – but it worked.

Yes, it's a glass of wine. Grand Nicolet Rasteau 2009, to be exact. And that's me, holding my knife and fork like a peasant, in the background.

Dessert number 1 was a chocolate mousse, flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom, with a ginger crumble topping and a chestnut cream. Yum.

Not much left of dessert number 1

Dessert 2, a sablé biscuit with raspberries and an elderflower sorbet. Yum yum.

Pretty as a picture - dessert number 2

With coffee a selection of caramelised almonds and pecans, home made praline, chocolate covered figs and  little cones of mixed spices that I didn’t know what to do with, so I poured the contents of one into my hand and licked it. Very Michelin, I’m sure.

Surely you can squeeze in a few chocolates?

I then have a scribble in my notebook  that says “Dom. Delubac/De Lubac? Les Brunneau Cairanne Rouge”. I can now see this is a reference to Domaine Delubac’s Les Bruneau grenache, syrah, mourvedre, carignan blend. Whether I drank it or whether it was a recommendation from the charming sommelier I can’t remember – it seems unlikely that I had another red after the coffee, but the time was getting on and I had already had a glass or two, so it’s possible. Anyway, I’m sure my note is significant.

We left stuffed but happy.

If we had paid the bill ourselves, it would have come to well over 200€, so it’s obviously out of the reach of many people. But if you have got the cash, is it worth it? I think I would have to say yes: it’s grand food, made from good ingredients put together with intelligence, expertly cooked and eaten in lovely surroundings, and all served by delightful staff. And there’s a cheaper bistro if you want the cooking skill without the financial pain – 29€ for the evening menu. By comparison, you will routinely pay 30€ plus per head, without drinks, for three courses of frankly mediocre grub at lots of Nyons/Vaison tourist trap restos. Now that, to me, is poor value.

Dedicated to the lovely Lesley.

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, where we revel in our gourmand nature. If you want to read something more specifically wine related, by all means have a look through the other blogs or follow the link to the website – www.RhôneWineTours.com – where there’s loads of stuff about the region and some of my favourite winemakers.

 

 

 

Pickled Walnuts – wild harvest part 3

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

If you have been following closely, you’ll know that we picked a crop of green walnuts from trees growing wild on a local walk. (If you haven’t been following closely, you can always catch up by reading the earlier blogs – click here.)

A green walnut, just picked.

Those of you who felt inspired and who managed to find your own stock of green walnuts – I know, thousands of you – may be interested in this recipe for pickled walnuts. It’s adapted only slightly from a Women’s Institute Book, “Jams, Pickles and Chutneys” by Midge Thomas, the adaptations being forced upon us for reasons of availability more than anything else. Mrs Beeton, Jenny Baker’s “Kettle Broth to Gooseberry Fool” and Jane Grigson’s “Good Things” all carry similar recipes with minor variations in method and spicing; the WI method just happens to be the quickest to prepare. (If you haven’t got a copy of “Good Things”, I’d recommend buying one if you ever come across it. For me, it’s Jane Grigson’s best book, which makes it one of the best cookery books full stop. I can’t think of any English food writers currently working who combine her level of taste, good humour and lightly worn learning. American readers may care to pick up something by John Thorne for a modern day equivalent.)

Anyway, on with the walnuts. You will need:

1 kg green walnuts (more or less, we had about 1.2)

For the brine, 1 litre of water and 100g salt (x 3)

For the spiced vinegar, 1 litre of vinegar (cheap red wine vinegar in our case, in the UK where there is no such thing as cheap wine vinegar of any colour, malt vinegar is the obvious, WI-recommended choice), 250 g of brown sugar, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp black peppercorns, 3 cloves,

Pickling spice mix, which is as follows: 2cm piece of fresh ginger chopped, 1½ tsp black mustard seeds, 1 tsp powdered mace which will end up sticking to the chopped ginger, not to worry, 3 tsp allspice ditto, 2 tsp black peppercorns, 2 tsp coriander seeds, a couple of dried chillis if you want a bit more heat.

First prick your walnuts all over with a fork – 4 or 5 stabs each.

Stabbing our nuts.

Dissolve the salt in the water (a large tupperware container or a kilner jar would be ideal) and add the walnuts. Seal and leave for a day. After 24 hours, throw away the brine and make up a new batch. Add the walnuts and leave for a further day. Repeat once more.

After the third brining the walnuts should be rinsed to remove excess salt and then put on a tray in the sun (UK readers may want to be reminded that the sun is a large object that appears in the sky in other countries). Leave them there until they turn completely black. This is supposed to take 48 hours, but in the south of France took half a day.

After brining but pre-sunbathing

 

Post-sun

Make up your spiced vinegar by dissolving the sugar and salt in the vinegar and then adding the cloves and peppercorns. Tie the pickling spices in a muslin to form a large tea-bag-like infusion and add that too to the vinegar. Bring the whole lot to the boil and let it carry on  boiling for 5-10 minutes. Remove the muslin tea bag.

Pack the walnuts into sterilised preserving jars of some kind (old jam jars etc will work) and pour over the vinegar. This amount should fill roughly 1½ litres worth of containers.

The finished product. Not that you can see much

Seal and leave to mature in a cool, dark place for 6 months.

Now to decide what to do with your pickled walnuts. One or two alongside cured meats, a pork pie or a strong cheddar would be just the ticket (make that jambon cuit, pâté en croûte and comté). But Simon Hopkinson has a rather lovely looking braised brisket with pickled walnuts in “Gammon & Spinach”, so there’s a thought. We just have to wait until February to find out.

Finally, a few more photos from the latest walk in the same valley with more good things to pick:

Sloes. To be picked later in the year to make sloe gin.

 

Plums

And more plums

And now I promise to stop writing about wild food for a while (cheers all round).

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, which witters on about all sorts of food related issues, even wine if you’re lucky. If you’d like to read more about the wines and winemakers of the Rhône, go to our website by clicking here. And if you’re sort of the person who feels au fait with technology, you can follow us on Twitter and Facebook – look for Rhone Wine Tours. Although I can’t promise to send much out.

Walnut Wine – wild harvest part 2

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Those of you who read the last blog (click here if you missed it) will know that we harvested green walnuts on a recent walk in a valley above Nyons. As far as I know, there are only two things you would want to do with green walnuts – make wine, in fact more of a liqueur, or pickle them. Here’s how to make the wine.

The recipe was given to us about 7 or 8 years ago when on a walk near Rodez in the Averyon (home to the distinctive, rustic, but often delicious wines of Marcillac). In fact, the start/finish point for the walk was a village called Nuces, the Latin word for walnut. We picked what we needed as we went along.

Walnut Wine (makes about two litres)

12-15 green walnuts, chopped into quarters – this may be your problem. Unless you have a walnut tree in your garden, or know where you can find one (I’ve picked walnuts in Stockwell, London), you’re unlikely to find green walnuts. By the time the hard shells have formed it’s too late. The nuts should look like the photo below and you should be able to piece them easily with a skewer. Be warned – they will stain your fingers brown once broken. You will look like you smoke 60 Capstan unfiltered a day.

A green walnut picked on St Jean's day

2 bottles of red wine – the original recipe said “good” red wine, but this isn’t the time for anything grand. A relatively rich, fruity Aussie shiraz would be perfect. This time round, we used a Languedoc merlot, Aussie shiraz being as rare in France as green walnuts are in England .

300 ml of vodka the original recipe specifies “alcohol” and in France you can buy neutral spirit for preserving fruit, nuts etc. The cheapest supermarket vodka is the way to go otherwise – believe me, any subtleties in a good vodka will be swamped by the walnut flavour.

300g of granulated white sugar

You will also need one large (1.5-2 litre) or two smaller (1 litre) preserving jars. Kilner jars are ideal. The sort in the photo below can be picked up for a few euros in France. General/hardware shops in the UK, particularly in areas with large Asian communities, also sell them cheaply.

Fill the large single jar with the walnuts, sugar and vodka or share them out equally between the two jars. Top up with the wine. You will have a little wine left over if you are using a single 1.5 litre jar.

That’s it.

Two batches of walnut wine. The first using French preserving spirit (40%), the second using cheap vodka (37.5%)

Leave to macerate for 2-3 months, then strain the wine off the nuts into sterilised bottles (old glass wine or mineral water bottles with a screw-cap are ideal).

Leave for a long time and then drink in small quantities as an aperitif, if you’re feeling French, or as a digestif (or maybe with some Christmas cake?) if you’re more Anglo-Saxon. I’ve read that walnut wine should be left for 6 months. Our recipe says at least one year. Past experience suggests that after such a relatively short time the wine is incredibly tannic and bitter. And after two years, our first batch was still tannic and bitter. After 3 years it was delicious. Sorry,  patience is required. Talking of which, the pickled walnut recipe will follow in part three…

Santé

Paul

PS: I’d highly recommend getting hold of a bottle of Marcillac, if you can. It’s utterly distinctive whoever makes it (and I’ve tried nearly every producer). Mid-weight, with crunchy hedgerow fruit and a distinct mineral twang. Try it lightly chilled – 20 minutes in the fridge – which seems to highlight its individuality even more. Locally they drink it with herby sausages and aligot, the garlicky, cheesy potato purée. So bangers and mash would suit it down to the ground.

In the UK, Theatre of Wine and The Wine Society sell the wine of Domaine du Cros, The Sampler sells Domaine Mioula, Vine Trail has Domaine Laurens and Caves de Pyrene sells the wine of Jean-Luc Matha. In the USA, anybody who does sell Marcillac tends to sell Domaine du Cros. Google for a supplier. But a special mention must go to Wine Exchange in Orange, CA for stocking Domaine des Costes Rouges.

Notes: This is the blog of www.RhoneWineTours.com where we talk about whatever takes our fancy, which tends to mean wine and food. If you want to find out more about the wines and winemakers of the Rhone Valley click on the highlighted links to go to the website where you’ll find more blogs and pages devoted to the region and its winemakers. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter – search for Rhone Wine Tours. And if by any chance you would like to book a tour or a tasting while you’re in the Rhône Valley, well we’d still recommend going to the website first, but by all means contact us on info@rhonewinetours.com.

 

Wild Harvest

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Come late June it’s far too hot to go out hiking in the middle of the day in Côtes du Rhône country, so we wait until the early evening to go for a shorter walk of an hour or so. One of our favourites is in a valley close to Nyons; we don’t have to get in the car and the setting is beautiful.

Up above Nyons. If you know where to look you can see our house.

The initial climb out of Nyons is short but steep, coming through the woods up onto the ridge of the hills outside the town. But from then on the ups and downs are more gentle and on barely used roads. And it’s here that we have the other good reason for coming: it’s amazing what wild (and not so wild) food you can gather.

Olives trees - very definitely belonging to somebody

The olives are clearly being cultivated and so aren’t for picking, and anyway around Nyons they won’t be harvested until after the first frost, often well into December.

The remains of the cherries

And by now the cherries in the valley have been and gone (although later-ripening varieties, grown locally,  are still available in the market, and at prices that would make you green with envy). Local apricots have been on the stalls for a few weeks but in the valley, and on trees that have clearly been left to do their own thing, they are just on the point of harvesting.

Apricots, ripe for the picking. They have been pruned in the past - you can see the cut marks - but now have been left to their own devices.

Provence peaches are just coming into season, but don’t seem to have ever formed part of the valley’s economy. Certainly there are no signs of any trees, cultivated, abandoned or wild.

Tilleul (otherwise known as linden, lime or basswood) is grown locally, particularly around Buis-les-Baronnies, and used for tisanes (herb teas).  There are still trees dotted around the valley, but no organised cultivation. The flowers in the photo are close to being ready for picking.

Tilleul aka linden aka lime

There are a few quince trees scattered here and there, but as you can see, the quinces need another couple of months or more. Small and green now, they’ll end up large, yellow and downy. They can’t be eaten raw, but when cooked they make delicious puddings and preserves.

Quinces - come back in the autumn

And something we hadn’t noticed before on this walk.  The “things” in the photo seem to be the same as the cobnuts that I remember coming across for the first time in Chapel Market in Islington about 15 years ago (I’d led a sheltered life). Which means that they may well be hazelnuts. (If anyone can confirm their identity one way or another from the photo we’d be grateful, if only so we don’t poison ourselves. The Oxford Companion to Food suggests harvesting around St Philibert’s Day, August 22nd, so we have a couple of months to find out.)

Tell me, are these hazlenuts?

And these look like wild plums. In fact they may well be wild plums. But they taste horrible and they don’t get any better later in the year. Am I missing something? They look apertising enough.

Plums?

There’s little sign of viticulture. Up here, we’re a couple of hundred metres above Nyons in a narrow valley that gets morning and evening shade from the mountains, even at the height of summer. So it’s hardly surprising that it’s noticably cooler. And why struggle to ripen grapes when it’s so much easier so close by? The one sign of a vine (wild? an escapee from a long gone vineyard?) is this one growing through the branches of a walnut tree by the side of the road.

A grape vine growing wild

I know from experience that the grapes are black but very tart. In fact, not really suitable for eating or winemaking. The walnuts, on the other hand, are perfect for picking now, traditionally on St Jean’s day, 24th June, to be turned into walnut wine or pickled walnuts. Both require a bit of patience, especially the wine, but the results are worth it.

Talking of patience, that’s it for now. Recipes for both the wine and the pickle will follow…

Santé

Paul

Notes: This is the blog of www.RhoneWineTours.com where we talk about whatever takes our fancy, which tends to mean wine and food. If you want to find out more about the wines and winemakers of the Rhone Valley click on the highlighted links to go to the website where you’ll find more blogs and pages devoted to the region and its winemakers. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter – search for Rhone Wine Tours. And if by any chance you would like to book a tour, well we’d still recommend going to the website first, but by all means contact us on info@rhonewinetours.com.

And another thing. All the photos were taken on the same day, on the same walk, between 7.30 and 8.30pm. There was no cheating with return visits to get the best shots, although I will admit to a little tweaking on the computer to crop them and brighten them a bit. Buts that’s just because I don’t take a great photo.