Friday, September 24, 2021

Cold Soups of Southern Spain

                         In Andalusia gazpacho is commonly served in small glasses to drink

I’m on the island of Mallorca but will soon be heading to Spain’s southernmost mainland province, Andalusia.  Home to the magnificent Moorish cities of Granada, Seville and Cordova, it’s also the epicenter of Sherry wine.  But, another compelling reason to visit Andalusia is that it offers the best culinary experience for discerning foodies.   While there are many Andalusian dishes I love, its cold soups are simply stunners.

An Andalusian gastronomic specialty, these cold soups come in several different colors.   There’s probably not a traveler who has been to southern Spain during the summer that has not enjoyed a refreshing brilliant red gazpacho soup.   Gazpacho is synonymous with Andalusia for many reasons.  First, the temperatures of inland Andalusia pulsate during the summer  at >100 degrees so a cold, light soup is the perfect choice.  Secondly, Andalusia is the agricultural capital of Spain---it is where the country’s tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, onions and garlic are grown.   Home to millions of olive trees, Andalusia is also ground-zero for Spain’s olive oil.  Sherry wine vinegar is also produced in the area.  All of these are the ingredients of gazpacho.

                                         Salmorejo looks super creamy but there is no cream

Gazpacho, however, is only one of the cold red soups Andalusia has to offer.  A “cousin” of gazpacho, Salmorejo, is made using only tomatoes.  It is thicker and creamier than gazpacho because of bread that is added.  The way that the tomatoes, bread and olive oil emulsify make some think that there is cream in the soup, however, there is not.   Salmorejo, is typically served in a bowl with a diced hard-boiled egg on top and small pieces of cured Spanish ham so it can easily be a meal in itself.  

                                  Gazpacho verde (aka green gazpacho) is a crowd pleaser

But, wait.  There’s another relative of gazpacho that you must try.  It’s called green gazpacho and here’s why:  it’s made from green tomatoes (popular in Spain), green bell peppers, cucumber, spinach, parley, mint and avocado---along with the traditional onion, garlic, olive oil and sherry wine vinegar.  Try it.  You’ll like it!

                                                Ajo blanco is sometimes called "white gazpacho"

Ajo blanco is yet another cold soup of Andalusia.  While it literally translates to “white garlic soup,”  this is not a vampire dish as there is very little garlic.  In fact, it’s mostly Marcona almonds and it’s often made with the addition of a green apple and topped with green grapes.   Ajo blanco is thought by some to be the original cold soup of Andalusia and the precursor for today's gazpacho (before tomatoes were bought from the New World).

Why not celebrate the first days of autumn by making a refreshing cold summer soup?

Friday, September 17, 2021

France’s Quintessential Wine Village

                               Grand Cru vines surround the medieval village of St. Emilion

Out of the several hundreds of wine villages in France, the one I would pick to visit is o St. Emilion in the Bordeaux district.  Located <25 miles east of the city of Bordeaux, this village has it all:   enchanting history,  stunning hilltop location surrounded by a sea of vines, spectacular medieval architecture, and of course stellar wines.  I’m in St. Emilion today and this town of 2,000 feels like it may have doubled in size---it’s swarming with visitors from around the world who have come for the annual Ban Des Vendanges (wine harvest festival).    

St. Emilion is named after an 8th Century monk who was traveling to the Holy Land.  As the legend goes, when the monk reached Bordeaux his gourd of water supposedly turned to wine.  He took this as a sign that he was supposed to stay there….and he did so until his death, taking care of the sick pilgrims who were also bound for the Holy Land.

       St. Emilion's limestone was used to build most of the grand buildings in the city of Bordeaux

The village of St. Emilion is legendary for its limestone.  Bordeaux's Opera House and its beautiful Stock Exchange buildings are just a few examples of stone from St. Emilion.  Quarrying has left St. Emilion with large underground areas from where the limestone blocks were removed.  Some of these subterranean parts are so large that they will fit hundreds of people.  Others are small chambers with secret passageways under St. Emilion.  

The limestone also serves an important purpose in the area's wines.  Grapes love limestone soil because it provides a perfect drainage system.   Many of St. Emilion's vineyards sit on top of subterranean caverns from where stone was quarried.   When touring these underground caves it’s normal to see vine roots cascading down through the ceiling from vineyards located 20-30 feet above.

Centuries-old ramparts still surround some of the hilltop St. Emilion

The village of St. Emilion is also a medieval architectural jewel-box.  It’s no wonder that several movies have been filmed here as the city appears much as it was > 500 years ago. The United Nation’s cultural arm now protects the entire village and its surrounding vineyards.  Under UNESCO, no changes can be made without approval of the World Heritage Council.     

Wine-Knows has several special events planned this weekend.  Tonight is a private dinner at Chateau Coutet with the owner/winemaker, and tomorrow is dinner at Chateau Guadet at the owner’s home.  Sunday Wine-Knows will breakfast with the Mayor of St. Emilion at City Hall, and then indulge in the festivities of the harvest festival:  the blessing of the wine at a formal mass, followed by a 3-4 hour lunch with the members of St. Emilion’s esteemed Jurade.

If you're ever in southwest France, St. Emilion is definitely worth a detour.  Plan to spend at least a couple of nights as there is much to soak included.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Tarragon's Origin Will Surprise You!

          Tarragon works magic with seafood, chicken & veal, but it can also create magical desserts

I will be in France in just a few days and I'm already looking forward to my first Wine-Knows' meal....which, by the way, will include a dish made with tarragon.   This herb is often associated with classical French cooking (e.g. Bernaise sauce is made with tarragon, as is the country's quintessential "fine herbs" blend).  Our first group dinner will be at jaw-dropping Chateau Bychevelle (Wine-Knows has leased the entire property for four nights).  The starter will be lobster poached in a tarragon-infused butter and white wine sauce.  While the French adore tarragon, the herb's origin is far from France. 

        3 Michelin star cannelloni of crayfish over a tarragon consummé served with a sprig of tarragon

Tarragon originated in either Siberia or Mongolia.   While the Greeks were using tarragon 500 BC for medical purposes such as toothaches, the herb seems to have worked its way into Europe's cuisine sometime after Genghis Khan's army invaded Europe in the 12th century.  While the Mongolians never made it to France, they did capture parts of Germany and Italy, both of which border France.  History indicates the Mongolians were chewing tarragon both to clean their teeth and as a sleeping aid.

The tarragon herb has an anise-licorice taste so it's understandable how chewing it morphed to using it in cooking.  While there are millions of recipes that use tarragon (in countries that range from the Middle East to Asia in savory and sweet recipes), the one that really stands out in my mind is Julia Child's veal scallopini with mushrooms:  Escalopes de Veau a l'Estragon (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1, pages 367-8.)   If you don't have the book just Google the recipe as there are copies her recipe on the web.

One last tidbit.  Did you know that tarragon was a member of the sunflower family?

Friday, September 3, 2021

The World’s Oldest Wine Society

                             The Jurade harvest festivities are a wine-lovers' dream experience

The year was 1199.  England controlled the entire southwest of France, including the Bordeaux region.  King John (the brother of Richard the Lionheart), commissioned a brotherhood of wine to be formed in the medieval town of St Emilion located across the river from the city Bordeaux.  Known as the Jurade, this elite organization received special dispensation from the English Crown.  In return, England was given the first rights to St Emilion’s wine.

The freedom provided to the brotherhood of the Jurade (composed of the area’s top winemakers), allowed the Jurade to maintain rigorous quality control.  If the vintage was poor, winemakers were encouraged not to make wine that year.  Over 800 years later, the Jurade of St Emilion is still active.   Wine-Knows’ participants on the upcoming harvest festival tour to Bordeaux will be guests of the Jurade at their extravaganza private luncheon.

                        June Dunn, owner of Wine-Knows, became a member of the Jurade in 2016

On September 19, Wine-Knows will attend a private breakfast in St Emilion’s City Hall with the Mayor and members of the Jurade.  Dressed in long flowing theatrical red robes, the Jurade will depart city hall in unison and parade down the people-lined cobblestoned streets (with Wine-Knows marching right behind them in the procession).  This is one of the most important events in the Bordeaux wine district.  Photographers and television cameras will abound.

                        The Jurade's private lunch is one that would even impress Bacchus

The spectacle continues all the way to St Emilion’s church where a mass for the blessing of the harvest will be held.   After the mass, new members of the Jurade will be sworn in.  Then, the wine begins to flow as the Jurade and Wine-Knows will move to the city’s famous medieval Cloistures for a glass of Champagne to celebrate.   The coup de etat, however, will be the private luncheon in one of St Emilion’s ancient palaces.   At the last Jurade Wine Knows attended, lobster was the first course, foie gras the second, and the main was a tenderloin of beef.   Ten bottles of premier St Emilion adorned each table for 8 persons.  The lunch typically lasts for 3-4 hours.

A toast to the Jurade, s'il vous plait !


Friday, August 27, 2021

What Not to Miss in Bordeaux City

                              Bordeaux's Cite du Vin architecture is a must-see for wine lovers

When I first visited Bordeaux nearly 40 years ago, this forlorn city had little to offer visitors.  Many sections of the town were derelict….in fact, most of its waterfront was ramshackle with dilapidated piers and crumbling wine warehouses.  There was only a handful of decent hotels.  The world’s most famous wine city was a wasteland for gourmet dining.  Buildings, while beautiful, couldn’t be appreciated as they had decades of grime and grit.  Thankfully, there have been sweeping changes and Bordeaux is now thriving.


Twenty years ago Bordeaux's leadership (with backing from wealthy wineries and the United Nations' World Heritage arm) instituted sweeping upgrades. The rundown and abandoned waterfront has now become home to upmarket apartments with breathtaking water-views.   A massive public transport effort was undertaken:  traffic-snarled streets in the decaying old town have been replaced with a sleek people-moving-tram through the heart of the glammed-up downtown.  The historic center has many city streets that are now pedestrianized.  The entire “feel” of the city has drastically changed.

                   Chateaux owners are now proudly using the city as backdrop for their wines

Bordeaux has become a spot finally worthy of being the gateway to one of the most famous wine districts of the world.  The city is now a food lover’s paradise with a plethora of Michelin star restaurants, food-trucks, a cooking school for professional gourmet chefs, organic food stores, wine bars, craft beer pubs, and a full complement of fusion foods.


Here are my suggestions for what not to miss:


Capuchin Market

This is the city’s biggest daily market.  You could spend hours strolling through the aisles of local just-plucked-from-the-sea oysters, the splendor of Southwest France’s gastronomic produce, or a plethora of duck products from the nearby Dordogne.  If you are here at lunch-time, there are several spots to snag a bite to eat.


                               Bordeaux's best wine shop has floors of liquid treasures

L’Intendant Grands Vins de Bordeaux:

This wine store located near the Opera House is nothing short of mind-blowing.  Looking for hard to find vintages or special bottles?  Look no further.


Cheese Shop Jean d’Alos

A few minutes’ walk from the above wine store is the premier fromagerie in Bordeaux.   Below the retail store is several floors of aging rooms.  This guy knows his cheese!


Walks along the River and/or Over the Bridge:

There’s nothing better to counteract jet lag than a walk along the Garonne River.  If you can possibly drum up the energy to cross the bridge Pont de Pierre, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous panoramas from the other side of looking back at the city.


Cite du Vin:

It’s a very long walk from the downtown along the waterfront, so I suggest you take a tram.  "The City of Wine” is the Guggenheim of wine.  Designed by Frank Gehry, it’s worth going if nothing more than viewing its dazzling architecture up close.  There are inside exhibitions, a cafeteria, and a wonderful view of Bordeaux from its top floor.  I found the wine tasting lame, but sometimes it's not about the wine.


                                    Don't leave Bordeaux without a taste of a Canelé


This is Bordeaux’s hallmark sweet, a carmelized treat like no other you’ll ever find.  They come in small sizes (about the size of a wine cork) so that you can have a taste without feeling guilty.

Viva Bordeaux!


Friday, August 20, 2021

Merlot is Queen on Bordeaux’s Right Bank

                                                            Medieval St Emilon is surrounded by a sea of vines

Last week we reviewed Bordeaux’s Left Bank super-star, Cabernet Sauvignon.  Today, however, we move across the Gironde to the Right Bank.   Bordeaux’s "Right Bank" is home to the famous vineyards of St. Emilion and Pomerol.  The Right Bank is also reigned by the Merlot grape.   Yes, Cabernet Sauvignon is grown here, (as is Cabernet Franc), but her Royal Highness is definitely Merlot. 

The Right Bank wine growing region of St Emilion and Pomerol is only twenty-something miles as the bird flies from the Medoc’s Left Bank, but it might as well be two hundred miles.  The Right Bank’s terroir is completely different from the former swamp of the Left Bank’s Medoc.

Merlot thrives on the Right Bank because of its soil, climate and topography.  The soil is clay and limestone.  While clay retains moisture, limestone provides a great drainage system.  Merlot likes the moisture provided by clay, but has the best of both worlds with limestone’s ability to wick away too much moisture.   The Right Bank is topographically different from the flat Left Bank.   The Right Bank’s small hills also facilitate drainage.  The Right Bank is located further inland from the Atlantic than the Left Bank.  This means it’s less susceptible to Atlantic storms.   

     Right bank Merlot wines are softer and thus more feminine than tannin-driven Left Bank Cabernet

The St Emilion and Pomerol wine districts on the Right Bank produce softer wines because of their larger percentage of Merlot.  The Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines of the Left Bank are more masculine due to this grape’s higher tannin content.  Merlot wine is more feminine with softer tannins, thus, Right Bank wines tend to be more approachable earlier.

Right or Left Bank?    Do you like poodles or German shepherds?  Both wines can be divine.  A few pointers:  consider the vintage (e.g. if it’s a really young wine, choose the Merlot-based St Emilion).   If it’s a really old bottle, remember that tannins in a wine help it age more gracefully….so you may want to opt for the Cabernet Sauvignon-centric Left Bank wine.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Cabernet is King in Bordeaux’s Medoc Region

              Wine-Knows has leased the entire Beychevelle Chateau for its September harvest tour

Most serious Bordeaux-lovers know that the red wines of Bordeaux’s huge wine region are always blends (there are very few exceptions).    Cabernet Sauvignon is represented in all of these blends.   But, there is one wine district of Bordeaux where Cabernet is King.   Known as the “Medoc” (or Left Bank), this north region of Bordeaux has many famous chateaux that will ring a bell such as Mouton-Rothchild, Margaux and Latour. 

Formerly a swamp and marshland, the Left Bank of the Gironde estuary was drained in the 17th century by Dutch engineers who had honed their trade learning the building of dikes to protect the low-lying lands of the Netherlands.    Voila.   Once this swamp area had dried out, bankers in Paris (aka the Rothschild family) saw the potential for growing grapes in the Medoc.  The rest is history.

                        Rocks churned over centuries by rivers were deposited on the Left Bank

The Gironde estuary, however, had left something that would prove vital to winemaking.   Over centuries, rivers from the Pyrenees mountains had carried down huge rocks.  These rivers emptied into the Gironde estuary.  In fact, the Gironde, which had often overflowed its banks, had actually created the marshlands.  When the Medoc’s swamp was drained the surrounding land was filled with small rocks and gravel.  Centuries later, this gravel soil is known to be an instrumental part of the Left Bank’s terroir.

Cabernet thrives in gravel soil.  Gravel offers the perfect drainage and Cabernet hates to be in wet soil.  The rocks also retain heat, so they protect the vines from the intense cold winter nights in which vines can freeze.

Cabernet is definitely King on the Left Bank with most of the red wine having Cab as its majority.  While the largest planted grape in all of the Bordeaux regions is Merlot, Cabernet rocks in the Medoc (pun intended).   Next week on this blog we’ll move to the Right Bank of the Gironde where Merlot is Queen.