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Friday, May 17, 2019

Hidden Gems of the Riviera

                                                 Valbonne's backstreets are out of a movie-set

Tomorrow I begin two weeks at the villa in which Julia Child wrote her hallmark cookbooks.  The Riviera offers some sleek and sexy towns to visit such as Mougins, St Paul de Vence and Antibes.  While I enjoy them all, I am also fond of the towns away from the crowds where a more authentic Provence exists.

Valbonne is one of my top choices.  Although the town gets its fair share of tourists on Friday when its 17th century arcaded central square hosts one of the best outdoor markets on the Mediterranean, the remainder of the week it’s relatively quiet.  The entire ancient town is pedestrian-only-cobblestone-streets.  One minute off the main square is like being on a movie set.

The center square of Valbonne is magic

The town of Valbonne has a rich history.  Evidence exists that Neolithic man was here in the Iron Age.  But, it was the Romans in the 3rd century A.D. who put Valbonne on the map when they build an aqueduct from the town’s river to their nearby strategic port in Antibes.   Today, Valbonne has a thriving economy due to its proximity to the French equivalent of Silicon Valley, only minutes by car----but a world away from Valbonne.

Tourrettes sur Loup requires a trip on a windy road but the journey is well worth it

Tourrettes sur Loup is really off the radar for American tourists.  Located about five miles from popular St Paul de Vence, this hill-top charmer gives the visitor a real idea of what living in a genuine Riviera village is like.  Similar Valbonne, its interior is closed to cars which promotes the feeling of stepping back in time even further.

                                     Tourrettes is a dreamy quiet get-away on the crowded Riviera

The village of Tourrettes sur Loup, with approximately 3,000 residents, is considerably smaller than Valbonne.   It’s filled with Romanesque and medieval buildings.  The Riviera is known for growing flowers for the perfume industry and Tourrettes is the center for violets.  In the town you’ll find violets in everything from violet ice cream at the outdoor cafes, to violet soap and cologne in the stores.

                           Life in Biot is a world away from the glitz and glamour of the Riviera

Last but not least is Biot, a tiny village nestled in the hills above Antibes. Like the other two towns, Biot does not allow cars.  The village is surrounded by ancient walls with only a few thousand residents, however, the hills circling the town are filled with villas that triple or quadruple its population. 
Biot's bubble glass is difficult to resist 
There are many reasons to visit Biot, one of which its famous bubble glass.  Although quite pricey, these stunning works-of-art can dramatically transform a dining table from ho-hum to magnificent.

                                  One of the entrances into hilltop Biot

Another reason to visit charming Biot is the authenticity of the village.  Wander the alley-like backstreets of the medieval center and you’ll find laundry hanging on clothes lines.   You’ll also find local children playing, hear French music coming from centuries old dwellings, and smell delectable scents of Niçoise cooking rafting from kitchens.

                                  Arcades offers real-deal regional cooking 

Biot has a handful of shops and a small center square ringed with outdoor restaurants.  The best place to eat, on the other hand, is a few blocks off the main square at Les Arcades.  Julia Child loved this place in the 1960’s when she lived nearby.  It is still owned by the same family and the owner (now in her 80’s) remembers the “tall American.”  Both groups on the Julia Child week will dine here to pay homage to the connection between Julia and this family.

If you find yourself on the Riviera, don't miss these special towns where you can still find authenticity.

Friday, May 10, 2019

A Taste of Nice

                                     One of Nice's most famous dishes is Salade Niçoise 

I am on the French Riviera preparing for two different groups at the estate in which Julia Child wrote her famous two cookbooks, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.   One of the Riviera’s best foodie experiences is in the historic part of Nice.  The cobblestoned streets of the old town are a treasure trove for any food-lover.

I love Nice’s Perouse hotel for many reasons and one of the most compelling is its location on the sea and right next to the city’s magnificent outdoor market.  The largest on the Riviera, the Cours Saleya market is filled with food vendors whose families have owned the same stalls in the market for many generations.   No foodie's trip to Nice would be complete without a visit to this beguiling culinary paradise.

                            This family has owned its stall in the market for 100 years

One of the items you will find at the Cours Saleya market is Socca, a crepe-like snack made from garbanzo beans.  The woman who sells the best version is the one who cooks it in a giant cast-iron skillet over a wooden fire.  It's the perfect gluten-free edible as this high protein street-food contains no wheat flour.   Originally from neighboring Italy (the border is less than 25 miles away), this classical Niçoise dish actually originated in Genoa (where today it is known as farinata).

                                     Chevre comes in every shape, size & flavor

The Cours Saleya is also filled with vendors selling Provence's famous goat cheeses.  You'll find multiple shapes and sizes, and many renditions including goat cheese coated with herbs of Provence, wrapped in chestnut leaves, or even chevre studded with Provence's black truffles. 

There are also countless stalls at the Cours Saleya market offering a cornucopia of olives.  Like goat cheeses, the olives come in multiple reditions from the colossal green picholine to the teeny-tiny Niçoise varietal----these petite brownish-black olives are only grown in this area of France and are prized for their pleasant nutty flavor.

                                                      Alziari is a step back in time
Not far from the Cours Saleya is one of the Riviera’s most famous olive oil makers.  Well known in the US for its attractive up-market packaging, Alziari has been producing "Grand Cru" olive oil in Nice since 1868.  The retail shop, actually it's more a museum than a store, is worth seeing.  Although it is very small, it is chocked full of history.  Up until 15 years ago, olive oil was sold in bulk and shoppers brought in their own containers to be filled from the giant stainless steel vats in the store.  The huge tanks are still in the store located at 14 rue Saint François de Paule.

Nice has its own cuisine.  In addition to Salade Niçoise, here are some of the classical Niçoise dishes that shouldn’t be missed…

                                                           Pissaladiere is a perfect lunch

Pissaladiere:   Think of this snack as Nice's version of pizza.  It is often topped with carmelized onions, fresh anchovies, and Niçoise olives.  

Le Pan Baginat:  This sandwich is a Salade Niçoise on a baguette.  It’s perfect for a picnic at Nice's beach.

                                            Grated Parmesean cheese tops a dollop of pesto

Soupe au Pistou:   Nice was once ruled by nearby Genoa, Italy.  Genoa is the home of pesto, and this soup is France's translation of minestrone with pesto.

Ratatouille:   This flavor-chocked dish is a vegetable stew flavored with the herbs of Provence.

Daube:  A complex-flavored beef stew, this dish is Nice's answer to Beef Bourguignon, only it’s cooked using hearty local red wine.

                                          Stuffed ("farcis") veggies are a must-taste

Les Petits Farcis:  One of my favorites, these delectable stuffed vegetables are rarely seen on modern menus as they are labor intensive.  Often stuffed with veal or beef, they also contain onions, breadcrumbs, tomatoes, and herbs of Provence.

Bon appetit!

Friday, May 3, 2019

Seductive Cassis-by-the-Sea

I’m on my way to Cassis and I have mixed emotions of letting this cat out of the bag for fear that the charming Mediterranean fishing village will change.  At the moment, Cassis is not known by most Americans.  Instead, it is frequented by Parisians escaping for a tres romantic weekend, or with families making an exodus from the interior of France to indulge in the many charms of this coastal hideaway.

                               One block from the harbor are scenic deserted backstreets

Cassis is sensational in that it’s one the few seaside gems left that feels authentic.  St. Tropez is about 50 miles away, but it might as well be 5,000 miles as the two have nothing in common except for the Mediterranean.  (Marseille is just 10 miles from Cassis, however, it is definitely is on another planet.)  Cassis feels like real people actually live and work there.  Cassis feels tres French…restaurants actually serve French food rather than sushi or tapas. 

                                 My friend Jill assembles ingredients to make ratatouille 

While the town does have tourists, its weekly market is mainly filled with French mom’s pushing strollers and grandmothers carrying classical French wicker baskets full of local produce.  Most visitors remain down by the harbor, or out on boat excursions.  Cassis, in spite of its popularity, manages to feel like a genuine French experience.

                               The nearby calanques are mother nature at her best

One of the most compelling things about this tony little seaside town is its abundance of natural beauty.   Cassis’ calanques are jaw-dropping beautiful.  These narrow inlets from the Mediterranean have dramatic steep-walled limestone cliffs.  You cannot drive to the calanques, and they are only able to be accessed by boat or by hiking.

                             Cap Canaille looms 1,200 feet above the town & its vineyards

Cassis, however, has even more eye-candy for the visitor.  There’s the commanding Cap Canaille, France’s highest sea-cliff.  This imposing headland can be viewed from every part of Cassis. 

                                   The 13th century chateau is now a bed & breakfast

There’s also the centuries old castle overlooking the city.  At night it’s floodlit and the entire village becomes front row seating for a spectacular stage. To complete the perfect package of glorious scenery, Cassis’ charming harbor is surrounded by brightly-colored buildings.  It feels like something out of a movie set. 

                  The village is famous for its Rosé  wine, although red & white are also produced

But, wait!  There’s more.  Cassis has its own wine appellation and the vineyards are just outside the village.  Production is very small so these wines rarely leave France.  My fave red producer is Fontecreuse, however, for rosé or white I lean toward Clos Magdeleine.   (BTW...Cassis liquor is not from Cassis but from Burgundy).

In my opinion, the very best way to experience Cassis is to rent an apartment for the week….the one I rented had a drop-dead gorgeous view of the harbor, the castle and Cap Canaille.   There are outdoor markets on Thursday and Saturday mornings, the perfect place to pick up dinner ingredients.  The other spot you shouldn’t miss for food is Le Caille d’Or, a wonderful deli with roasted chickens and delectable salads.

Bon voyage!

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Tapas Phenomenon

                       Tapas have moved beyond a bite before dinner....they're now dinner!

I'm on way way to Spain.  Tapas, which began in Spain more than 500 years ago, have morphed into the latest foodie movement.  Some years ago many upscale restaurants began offering “small plates.”  Now, it seems the new darling has become “tapas.”   Last week my local Vietnamese restaurant began offering “tapas” on their newly printed menu.  I have seen some Parisian bistros with “tapas” on their daily chalk-boarded specials.   In Italy this last autumn, I noted multiple bars in Venice now referring to their bar snacks (called cicchetti in Italian) as  “tapas.”  

The word tapa comes from the Spanish verb tapar which means “to cover.”  No one knows the exact origin of how tapas were birthed and there are probably as many tales about the origin of the dish as there are different kinds of tapas at a popular tapas bar in Madrid.  Regardless of story, most of them have somewhere the mention of a lid which has some logic since this is the literal meaning of the word.

                                           Tapas in Madrid offer the perfect bite or two.

One of the more common explanations about how tapas began takes place in Cadiz, near Gibraltar.  King Alfonso XIII supposedly ordered a glass of wine.  Seaside Cadiz is quite windy, so to protect the King’s wine from sand the bartender covered the glass with a slice of ham before serving it.  Apparently, the King liked it so much that he ordered another glass with tapa.

                       Tapas go up-market with the addition of quail eggs on top truffle deviled eggs

Other stories speak about a tapa such as a slice of bread being added to protect the wine from fruit flies.  Some folklore takes it another direction:  bars were crowded and there was no room to put a plate when standing at the bar.  Plates began to be placed on top of wine glasses out of practicality.

Tapas started out as a simple thing...a no frills "freebie" for patrons at humble bars in Spain.  Today, the scene is a quite different:  there are pricey tapas of foie gras at France's culinary temples, and every country of the world seems to have tapas on its brain.  Maybe it’s time to get in the spirit and plan a tapas dinner party to celebrate Spring.  Olé!

Friday, April 19, 2019

World’s First *CRYSTAL* Wine Barrel

     The Lalique crystal barrel cost hundreds of thousands of Euros

Wine-Knows will be conducting its last tour to Bordeaux during the grape harvest of 2021.   Rest assured that the group will be visiting this showpiece crystal wine barrel.  Made by Lalique, France’s leading crystal producer, it took artisans more than two years to perfect designs and meticulously construct.  It’s the first one of its type on the globe and according to experts it is a formidable achievement.

The stunning piece-of-art barrel is located in the cellars of one of Bordeaux’s Premier Grand Cru chateaux, Lafurie-Peyraguey.  The historic wine estate commissioned Lalique to make the barrel for the winery’s 400th birthday celebration.  It’s no accident Lalique was chosen…. the owner of Chateau Lafurie-Peyraguey is also the CEO of Lalique.

Chateau Lafurie-Peyraguey is located in the Sauternes district of Bordeaux.  The  pièce de résistance crystal container holds 300 bottles-worth of the estate’s 2013 vintage wine (the first vintage of the Lalique empire owner).  Leather straps have been designed to mimic metal hoops that typically hold a barrel’s wood pieces together.  The leather provides a small degree of protection to the crystal, but the piece is very fragile.  It is met for display only.

In addition to the crystal masterpiece, there are many reasons to visit Chateau Lafurie-Peyraguey.  First, the chateau makes flat-out stunning wine.  Second, Lafurie-Peyraguey just opened a restaurant and it’s already achieved a Michelin star.  When Wine-Knows last visited the winery in 2016, tour participants had an exquisite private dinner at the chateau.  All of the evening’s wines were served in extravagant Lalique wine goblets that had been designed special for Lafurie-Peyraguey. 

I’m not certain how Chateau Lafurie-Peyraguey can top Wine-Knows’ 2016 experience but I’m certainly betting that this class-act chateau will come through.  There are very few seats available for this last tour to Bordeaux.  Why don’t you join us?  Come see the magnificent crystal piece in person, dine with us at the Michelin star, and luxuriate in drinking these gorgeous wines out of jaw-dropping Lalique stemware.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Sassy Sauv Blanc

                   Wine-Knows will be visiting Bordeaux's Chateau-Haut-Brion in 2021               
Sauvignon Blanc is a feisty varietal that can produce wine ranging in flavor from grassy to tropical depending upon the terroir in which it is grown.  The popular grape variety is grown in most of the major wine countries of the world.  In cooler climates such as coastal New Zealand, the grape tends toward the “green profile” (grass, gooseberry, asparagus and lime/limon/grapefruit).  Warmer areas yield Sauv Blancs (think Sonoma) that focus on a ripe fruit profile:  passion fruit, pineapple and peach.

    Wine-Knows will be visiting New Zealand's Sauv Blanc vineyards in 2020

Sauv Blanc’s origin is France.  Sometime in the 18th century, this racy white grape crossed in the vineyard with the red grape Cabernet Franc and birthed a new variety, Cabernet Sauvignon.  Thus, Sauv Blanc is one of the parents of well-loved current day Caberent.

                          France's Loire Valley may be the birthplace of Sauv Blanc

Wines can be made with 100% Sauvignon Blanc or the grape can be blended.  The most famous blend is a white Bordeaux in which Sauv Blanc is mixed with Semillion.   Crisp Sauvignon is combined with voluptuously textured Semillon to complete a near perfect pairing.  A well-made white Bordeaux can be phenomenal.  If you can’t afford Chateau Haut-Brion’s outrageously luscious white ($500), than consider Chateau Brown ($40), a lovely rendition of the marriage.

Best food choices for Sauvignon Blanc?   It all depends on the style of the Sauv Blanc.  The “green” style herbaceous wines pair nicely with dishes containing green herbs such as cilantro, basil or mint.  This is why Sauv Blanc is one of the few dry wines that work well with Asian cuisine.  My favorite New Zealand wines in this style include Dogpoint and Greywacke (both the $25 range).  These two faves have integrated a lemon/lime/grapefruit profile with stone fruit and nuances of herbs.

                                                Sauv Blanc works well with sushi

Sauv Blancs from warmer climates often are made with some oak influence, thus they pair well with chicken or veal, and can work with anything containing butter or cream (including pastas or soups).  I can’t seem to get enough of Merry Edwards’ Sauv, a true benchmark for what a Sauv Blanc should be.  Selling for just under $35,  I think it’s the pinnacle for a Sauv with the tropical flavors.  I serve it as an aperitif, but also have served it with the first course (as long as it’s not a salad), and it is killer with Julia Child’s veal scallopini.

Sauv Blancs versatility makes it a wine to have on your buy list!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Global Warming Wreaking Havoc

                                      Australian winemakers are now spraying sunscreen

Climate change is creating huge problems for the world’s wine industry.  Warmer temperatures are altering how and where grapes are grown, the quality of wine, and are testing the world’s iconic wine regions on whether they can find ways to adapt.

Many factors can influence a wine's taste profile and warmer temperatures are already altering aromas and flavor notes.  Hotter summers makes for shorter growing seasons.  This means that grapes ripen more quickly with sugars, but not all ingredients in the grape are ready.  For example, a well balanced wine requires an equilibrium of acidity and ripeness.   This perfect symbiosis is more difficult to achieve in global warming, as are other nuances that go into making a wine complex.

Due to concerns of global warming, Bordeaux several years ago began experimenting with cooler climate varietals.  Researchers are testing a large number of grape varieties that ripen earlier.  Malbec, once one of the main grapes of Bordeaux, was destroyed by the Phylloxera bug in the late 19th century.  Cabernet and Merlot were replanted in its place.  Scientists now, however, are taking a second look at Malbec in Bordeaux.  With warmer weather, Malbec may be a good candidate as it could now ripen more consistently and avoid the issue of mildew.

Intensifying temperatures are not just troubling Bordeaux. In Australia where temperatures have risen to more than 110 degrees in summer, they are using sunscreen on the grapes to protect them from intense rays.    Many international vintners are experimenting with watering systems and shade strategies.  Others are hoping technology can help with a solution.  Many, are buying land in cooler climates.  Some of Europe’s biggest wine producers are buying land in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the cooler part of China, and in southern England---where the climate now resembles France’s Champagne region of fifty years ago.

On a recent trip with Wine-Knows this last autumn, we heard stories from many Barolo and Barbaresco winemakers about the warming trend.  One that sticks out in my head is a tale by a 50 year old winemaker.  When he was a young boy, the harvest of red grapes was always mid-October, give or take a few days depending on mother nature.  When he was in his twenties, the fruit ripened in late September.  This last harvest his winery began bringing in grapes in late August.

Let's all do our job to prevent global warming worsening.