Saturday, May 31, 2003

Honeymoon Souvenirs

A lot of excitement in our household tonight. We got the rest of the souvenirs we had shipped from our honeymoon.

What kind of souvenirs do Melissa and Derrick buy on their honeymoon? (The wine all got smuggled in with us on the flight)

From E. Dehillerin, my favorite restaurant supply store, which happens to be in Paris, a bunch of items that are either hard to find here in the U.S., or that you can only buy for at least twice the cost here. A copper champagne bucket is the nicest thing we got, real Mauviel copper no less. A Le Creuset casserole for half the price we'd find it here (when we asked if they had different colors, they responded with "This is not Williams-Sonoma. We have orange. We have black." I love this store). Various other cooking utensils that are tough to find here (teeny-tiny melon ballers for doing Parisienne "cuts" of vegetables, three tamis, and some pretty chocolate molds, as well as a tiny pain de mie pan and a cylindrical pain de mie pan).

And the other big score? A copy of the El Bulli cookbook, which is difficult to find here in the U.S., to say the least. Melissa discovered that they will soon have an English version, which hadn't yet been revealed when I bought my copy. My copy is in Catalan, which is tough to read, but a lot of the food terms make sense. This guy does wacko stuff. I also found these adorable pamphlets, each of which offers ten preparations focused on a single ingredient. I would've bought one of each if they weren't 6,50 euros each, but I ended up with one for artichokes, one for lavender, one for balsamic vinegar (given the quantities in the recipe, they want you to use nothing but the real stuff), and one for honey. I'm looking forward to trying things from all these new cookbooks.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

High-Tech Ice Wine

Just noticed this link on Slashdot.

Sounds like a cool setup, and I'm certainly all for someone trying to make great ice wine.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Wines of the Touraine

If you are in the Touraine region of the Loire Valley (the city of Tours being roughly in the center of the region), looking for things to do, the natives will tell you about a handful of chateaux. Each one will tell you a different set. If you mention that you are looking for things to do focused around food and wine, you will still get a list of popular chateaux. You can not avoid them in the region, each one the summer residence of this or that noble, each one enjoying at least one historically significant episode in its history.

So Melissa and I saw a lot of chateaux. But conveniently, the route between many of the more famous chateaux is also the Route des Vignobles, a long twisty path which tries to steer you by as many wine makers as possible. Each wine maker along the route (and there are zillions of them), is indicated by a single sign. If you're lucky, this points straight at their driveway. If you're not lucky, it points to a road that wends up and down through some village, and, most frustratingly, to forks in the road. Like I said, each wine maker gets one sign.

Still, Melissa and I managed to visit a good number of wine makers and learn something about the various wines of this part of the Loire. What is astonishing about the Loire is the vast array of different wines which are produced. The Touraine region contains a number of appelations. In most if not all of them, there are only two grapes used: Chenin Blanc for whites, Cabernet Franc for reds. From this meager selection, Loire wine makers produce whites at all level of sweetness, sparkling wines as well as still, rosés, and both fruity, nice reds and powerhouse reds that you'll want to cellar.

One of the most wonderful things about Loire wines, in my opinion, is the commitment to expressing the terroir of the various regions. You won't find wines that have been elaborately sculpted by the wine maker to appeal to the international market; most aging takes place in stainless steel, with oak only being used for those wines that are meant to be laid down for a decade or so before you enjoy them.

While Melissa and I visited perhaps an octet of wine makers, two in particular stood out. The first one was Domaine Charles Joguet, which produces wines in the Chinon appelation. Domaine Charles Joguet (which is no longer owned by Charles Joguet but his protegé Alain Delaunay) is one of the greats of the region. My Encyclopedia of Wine mentions them, and the Guide Hachette says (roughly; it's in French) that the winery has a good-size and loyal fan base, and gives their Clos de la Dioterie a single star (they've taken their cue from the Michelin guide; inclusion itself is something of an honor, and above that rankings go from 0 to 3 stars). We knew about them because in the wine class Melissa took, her teacher called these wines out as particularly good when they covered the Loire.

I should mention that Alain, who led us through our tasting, was kind enough to give us a "wedding gift", not letting us pay for the three bottles we had chosen. But I should further add that we would have bought the wines anyway. We tasted nine wines, and for each one Alain told us about the vineyard which produced it, trying to convey the difference in the landscape around us. This was all done in French, however, so I caught the gist but not the specifics so well.

The wines all had a tremendous flavor, and the three high-end wines we tasted definitely exhibited their oak still, but it was the first time I've tried an oaky, tannic wine where I could really detect the fruit underneath, waiting to burble up in a decade or so. Indeed, we tried an '89 Clos de la Dioterie immediately after the 2001, and the difference was remarkable. The '89 had mellowed and smoothed out into an elegant wine (Alain also pointed out that '89 was a great year) with wonderful balance. The wines we bought, or intended to buy, were two bottles of a simple, fruity white and a bottle of his rosé (which we had drunk the night before at a Michelin 1-star in the area). The rationale was that with our tiny luggage space (shipping wine being very expensive), we wanted the bottles we couldn't buy in the States. Kermit Lynch in Berkeley imports virtually all of Charles Joguet's wines. I highly recommend giving some a try; most of his wines can be drunk young, and the higher-end wines have a lot of capability for being a particularly delicious treat a number of years after their release.

The other winery of note, Vigneau-Chevreau, is in the Vouvray appelation (which you drive through on your way to Chenonceaux). The most notable aspect (though their wines were quite good) was the fact that they use the méthode biodynamique for growing their grapes. This is a peculiar growing philosophy which is perhaps most popular in the Loire valley, though it is used elsewhere. This is organic farming taken to a new extreme. Biodynamic growers often take into account astrology and they use "cures" of various kinds which smack of magic potions to my novice ears. Still, these wine makers feel that it gives the grape the best chance to express its terroir, and who can argue with the drive to show the grape in its purest, most distinctive form?

Edward Behr has talked about le bio, as this philosophy is called for short, extensively in his magazine, The Art of Eating, but it was interesting to hear from a wine maker directly (again, as best as possible, as the whole tour took place in French). It's a lot of work, as everything is done by hand, and you take a bigger risk, as you are more at the whims of Nature. And explicit demand for such wines is still tiny. One gets the sense that the wine making family at Vigneau-Chevreau, even more than farmers everywhere, works very hard and sees little financial reward. The psychological reward of making the best wine they know how, however, they have in abundance.

Monday, May 12, 2003

The Biggest Party We've Ever Thrown

OK. We're back. We had a great time on our honeymoon, full of good food and wine. But we're still getting back to reality. Or getting used to our new, married reality. So updates will hopefully appear every couple of days for a while, but there may be occasional lags.

I figured the best topic for starting out was the menu for our wedding. You might imagine that two extreme food lovers would spend a lot of time thinking about the menu for the wedding, and you'd be right. But Melissa and I are also Slow Food members, and we wanted our food to reflect not only our taste in food but our politics about it.

Not that we beat people over the head with that, though some did half jokingly request a handbook explaining everything we did. Instead, we chose our caterer partly for the quality of their food (which we had had at other weddings and always noted for its tastiness) and partly for their willingness to let us choose specific local producers we wanted, organic produce, and so forth. And then when we printed up the menus, we listed the exact producers for the various ingredients, so people would know where their food came from.

We kept feeling they must hate us, detailing all the nitty-gritty stuff like that. My favorite snapshot: seeing the "bread" option on the buffet, Melissa wrote "what kind of butter do you use?". However, they claimed to love having customers who were so passionate about the food they would serve. They were also amused that while most couples go through a whole deliberation along the lines of "well we need to have this so that person has something to eat" or "aunt mamie doesn't like this, so we shouldn't have it in the main course" or, a phrase we heard often, "that's not very traditional", we said, "this is what we want, and hopefully everyone will be able to find something to eat".

And they came through with style. Lots of the guests made a point of coming over to see us just so they could tell us how good the food was. My uncle, who has eaten his share of good food, simply said "Wow." And it was stunningly presented, at least the appetizers (I'm going off our tasting menu: the day is, as everyone warns you it will be, a big blur). And yeah, of course it cost more, but we divvied up the costs a bit so no one took the full brunt.

So here is our menu, with my notes:

Seared Ahi tuna on English cucumber with wasabi mayonnaise featuring Pacific Farms fresh wasabi

Most wasabi paste you get in the store--and at most sushi restaurants, for that matter--doesn't have any real wasabi in it. It's just colored horseradish. I find fresh wasabi more subtle, with a more vegetal, nutty flavor. And a more refined heat. So we loved the idea of this appetizer, but swapped in the real stuff.

Sweet lamb sausage brioche with James Ranch lamb.

This was my favorite of the appetizers, a roll of sausage encased in a brioche. The sausage was flavored with "baking spices" like cinnamon and cardamom. This lent it a North African air which I enjoyed a lot.

Pear and roquefort filo triangles

A pretty standard appetizer, it was nonetheless well done. The Roquefort was produced by Le Papillon and was also featured on our cheese board, about which more later.

The Main Dishes
Leg of James Ranch lamb with mint pesto

Lamb and mint. It's a classic, and we went for it. So sue us. We told them early on that we wanted the lamb cooked very rare. When they brought it out for us at the tasting menu, our point person held back a bit. "You did say you wanted it very rare, right?" Indeed we did, deciding not to care if people thought it a bit undercooked. Blue Heron cooked it just to the minimal level they felt safe with. While delicious at the tasting, the pieces we got at the wedding had a fair amount of cartilage, so made for tough eating, but the meat was good. Even the person doing the carving commented on how good our lamb looked.

Fricassee d'Anitras: Slow-cooked Liberty Ranch duck with pancetta
I don't remember which cooking method gets used where, but this dish features two segments of two-hour-long cooking times, and was practically eat-with-a-spoon tender.

Moroccan vegetable tagine served over couscous

While we were only concerned with our own plates, Blue Heron made sure that there was a hearty vegetarian dish there so that the vegetarians in the crowd (which included our dear friends Hans and Mark) had something to eat. Quite good!

The Sides
Asparagus and morel bread pudding

I want the recipe for the lamb sausage brioche. Everyone else at the wedding wants the recipe for this dish. Fortunately, I'll be the one asking the caterers if they'll part with them, so I get both. A savory bread pudding with wonderful asparagus and morels, the latter just beginning to be freshly available here in the Bay Area.

"California Weed Salad"

This is not our caterer's description of this dish, but our best man's term for the California cuisine staple of mesclun, goat cheese (Laura Chenel), sweetened pecans, raspberries, edible flowers and honey cidre vinaigrette.

Seasonal fruit with orange blossom and lavender dipping sauce

I only got to try a little of this, but lots of people raved about the dipping sauce. Probably another recipe I'll try and pry out of them.

Vacherin Mont d'Or by Fromagerie de Doubs
Red Hawk by Cowgirl Creamery
Roquefort by Le Papillon
Ossau-Iraty by Fermier des Basco bearnais

We didn't just specify which cheeses we wanted on our cheese board, which is not uncommon, we cited specific providers that we wanted if they were available at the Cheese Board. Vacherin Mont d'Or, while at the tail end of its season, holds a special place in our hearts as it is our "engagement cheese": the cheese they served at The French Laundry when I proposed. Most of the recommendations for the best producers came from Cheese Primer, a book I wholeheartedly, nay zealously, encourage everyone to buy.

The Cake
Originally, I was suggesting we not get a cake. I know: " but it's traditional". But most wedding cake is wretched stuff. But a friend of Melissa's highly recommended a woman who runs a business out of her home, and who makes great cakes. I was inclined to just give all the money to the guy at XOX truffles in North Beach and get bucketfuls of chocolate truffles, but we decided to give Kate Dowling a shot based on the high praise we had heard, and arranged a tasting.

The cake was fantastic. Lusciously moist, it was unlike every other wedding cake I've ever eaten. With cake like this, I was okay with caving in to the traditionalists. We had a 3-layer cake, with one all-chocolate layer, one all-vanilla with strawberry preserves, and one with chocolate and vanilla layers.

Roero Arneis, Ca' Rossa 2000, Piemonte
Barbera d'Alba, Cascina Val de Prete 2000, Piemonte

Melissa and I went to a wine tasting event last May, and there was an opportunity to buy the wines at the importer's cost. As we tried to justify buying a--gasp!--half-case of this or that (ah, how times have changed), Melissa suddenly realized that we actually had a need for a lot of wine at a reasonable cost. So we got five cases of the Barbera d'Alba, 4 of the Roero Arneis.

It's a funny thing. Six months later, and we would no doubt have had a bunch of Germans for the whites, and who knows what for the reds. But we got what we got, and were happy with our choice. At our tasting, I thought the Arneis went better overall with the food, but they were both yummy.

Saison Dupont, Brasserie Dupont, Belgium

One of our favorite Belgian ales, we were distraught to discover that their West Coast distributor went out of business and that right when we thought about buying some for our wedding, it was suddenly impossible to find. The Internet to the rescue! We found a Chicago-based website that stocked it, and two cases showed up a couple weeks later.

Cuvée de Réserve, René Geoffroy a Cumières, Premier Cru, Champagne

Long-time readers may remember our Champagne tasting from way back when (figuring out the URL is difficult with my current domain-name setup; just look in the Archives for February). We opted to go with this one, which we thought was interesting but not horribly expensive. The caterers poured freely, so we don't have a ton left (in fact, we only have 3 1/2 mixed cases now; our guests did a good job on the booze), but we have enough for a few special dinners.

Zocalo Coffeehouse Sumatra
Zocalo Coffeehouse Decaf House Blend
Assorted dark and herbal teas
When we were choosing producers for our menu, we suddenly came to the realization that we knew a local producer of coffee: our friend Tim (again, troubles with getting urls to the archives; my write-up of this also appears in the archives for February). He and his wife Mitch were kind enough to arrange a tasting, which was mostly in Melissa's hands as for whatever strange reason I simply can not enjoy coffee.

So, it was quite the feast. It took a fair amount of planning on our parts, but the key to making it work was finding the right caterer. They did a lot of footwork on their own, and turned out some truly spectacular food.