Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sauternes’ “Rotten Luck”

When Ambassador Thomas Jefferson, a great wine lover and soon to be President of the United States, visited Sauternes in 1790 this area was already known for producing sweet wines.  Following his trip, he sent the following letter to the area’s premier winery, Chateau Yquem:  I have convinced our President, General Washington, to try a sample. He asks of you 30 dozens, Sir, and I ask for 10 dozens for myself…”   Nearly seventy years later another dignitary visiting Chateau Yquem would alter the course of wine history when he purchased wine made from rotten grapes as in the photo above.

The dignitary was the Czar’s brother, the Russian Grand Duke. (Russia’s aristocracy had long been a great fan of Bordeaux wines.)   The vintage that changed everything was  1847.  That year a horrible black fungus stuck the Sauternes vineyards and created a huge disaster of decaying fruit.  While Chateau Yquem harvested some of the grapes, the quality was so poor that it decided not to release the wine for sale.   When the Grand Duke visited Yquem in 1859, however, he fell in love the 1847 wine which was like no other he had ever tasted ---not only that, but he ended up paying a small fortune for 100 cases of it.  From this point forward, Sauternes attacked by this mold has commanded lofty prices. 

How could rotten grapes possibly make a fabulous wine?  The culprit is Botrytis Cinerea, a fungus that only grows on very ripe grapes.  It attacks the skin of the grape causing it to loose nearly 75% of its water.  More than dehydrating and concentrating the flavors, however, Botrytis actually causes a chemical change in the aromas and taste of the wine.  At the same time, it also increases the grapes’ acids so that the wine is not cloyingly sweet.

The terroir in Sauternes is instrumental in setting up the perfect conditions for Botrytis organism.  Two rivers, one cold and the other one warm, meet in Sauternes.  The mixture of the warm and cold waters creates a mist.  This mist, in tandem with warm afternoons, creates the perfect environment for botrytis, often referred to as “noble rot.”

Coming with us to Bordeaux?  Wine-Knows will be staying in Sauternes at a Grand Cru wine-making chateau and will visit Chateau Yquem where the Russian Grand Duke changed rotten luck into the noble rot.  The sweet life doesn’t get any sweeter than this.


Friday, June 22, 2012

A Truffle University?

OK, I now it sounds bizarre but it’s true.  To make it even more wacky, it’s a university for dogs that hunt truffles!  Founded in 1880 by the current owner’s great-grandfather, the Universitá dei Cani da Tartufo is located in the world’s truffle capital---Italy’s Piedmont district.  To be specific, it’s located in the hilltop town of Roddi in the only faculty member’s garage. 

Giovanni Monchiero says that it takes up to four years to train a dog well at his university.  Well trained dogs---and their noses----are essential to finding truffles as these culinary treasures only grow underground.   Now that truffles have surpassed caviar as the world’s most expensive food, expert truffle hunting dogs have become targets of theft…and even kidnap for ransom. 

Monchiero, somewhat of a celebrity in Piedmont, has been featured in magazines such as National Geographic, as well as interviewed by major newspapers around the globe.
His rock-star status was further enhanced from his recent find of a nearly one pound truffle---a monstrous find considering the average truffle weighs less than an ounce.

If you’re coming with us on the Truffle Tour this October you’ll have the opportunity to meet Signor Monchiero when he takes us on a truffle hunt.  Beware….you may need to be blind-folded part of the way as he is extremely secretive about his location for finding truffles.  It’s guaranteed to be an exciting day!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Piece of Paradise in Provence

Being the owner of a company that conducts food and wine tours throughout the world I am frequently asked regarding my favorite spot for a personal holiday.   Both my husband and I agree that it is Chateau Talaud in Provence.   We’ve been here too many times to count and each time this charmer exceeds our oh-so-very-high expectations.

I particularly love the attention to detail of the chateau...from the luxurious fabrics to the carefully chosen cutlery and dishes. It's easy to understand why the property has been featured in the European edition of Architectural Digest.   But, the property is any thing but stuffy---it is quiet country elegance with a “comfort-food-for-the-soul” kind of vibe.

The wine and food scene at Chateau Talaud is another compelling reason to visit.  The chateau is located in the southern Rhone near Chateauneuf de Papes.  Talaud makes its own wine from the >30 acres of vineyards that surround the chateau.  The owner, a gourmet chef, has trained under some of France’s most famous Michelin star chefs.  Breakfasts, typically served in the garden, are beautiful little feasts.  Private dinners are held in the castle's dining room, however, dining outside with the vineyards as a back-drop is magical.

The entire Chateau Talaud property has been leased by Wine-Knows for the harvest tour to France in 2013 (Burgundy, Champagne and the Rhone).  
Viva la France!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Latest Cocktail Craze---Pisco Sours

I still remember my first Pisco sour.  We were dining in Santiago, Chile years ago and I kept seeing stemmed glassware filled with a frothy opaque drink served to nearly every table. I learned from our waiter that the popular libation was akin to Chile’s “national drink” and promptly ordered one.   I haven’t stopped ordering them since.

Pisco is a kind of grape brandy that originated in Peru, however, Chile is now making it,too.  Thankfully, Pisco from both countries is now available in the U.S. at places like BevMo.  The Pisco sour cocktail is prepared with ice, egg whites, citrus juice, simple syrup and bitters.  It’s refreshing…almost too refreshing.  Pisco packs a powerful punch, so it can sneak up on you faster than you can say “I should have only had one.”

Coming on the 2013 harvest trip to South America with us?  You’ll be guaranteed to have one before each dinner.  If you can’t wait until them, here’s the recipe for the popular cocktail:

  • ½ cup crushed ice
  • 2 oz. Pisco
  • 1 oz. fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 1 raw, small egg white
  • 2-3 dashes on Angostura bitters
Making only one or two cocktails?  Put the first 4 ingredients in a martini shaker, shake, and strain into stemware.  If you’re making them for a group, use a blender and vary your ice according to how strong you wish them.  Put the angostura bitters on top before serving.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Opposites Attract---Dining in Charleston

                               Glorious Wentworth Mansion, home of Circa 1886 Restaurant

These two restaurants couldn’t be any more different…one is a “joint” located in a former gas station (cleverly, it’s been named “Fuel,”); the other, situated in one of the city's finest grand dame mansions, offers fine dining.  Both, however, offer superbly cooked food by chefs boasting culinary degrees.

In researching the restaurant scene prior to leaving for South Carolina, I discovered the chef/owner is a graduate of the well regarded Johnson & Wells Culinary Academy.  My interest was further peaked when I learned that Guy Fieri had showcased the unconventional Fuel on his hit show, Diners Drive-ins and Dives.   Having grown up on Mexican food, it was an “I’m already there” place when I learned that pulled pork tacos had been one of Guy’s faves.   

We lunched at Fuel on an 85 degree Saturday afternoon with high humidity.  The parking lot of the “station” was packed and as I suspected, there was a wait.  Thirty minutes later we were seated outside in the covered back patio area.  In spite of the sweltering heat, there were enough fans and shade to make it quite tolerable. 

The two melt-in-your-mouth tacos were really open face sandwiches (with four tortillas substituting for the bread.)  Lettuce and tomatoes had been replaced with a tangy coleslaw which paired wonderfully with for the killer slowly roasted pork.  Green chile aioli and a fresh salsa completed the package. For $11, this more-than- I-could-almost-eat meal was a flavor-bomb.

Fuel has a “happening” vibe.  The place was jammed full of young professional types.  There were plenty of places to lounge and mingle, along with a bocce ball court.  The only negative that I noticed was their simplistic wine list---this may not be an issue as there’s a full bar and local beers are only 2 bucks. 

Signs were posted indicating the restaurant was closed that night for a private event.  Turns out that a wedding rehearsal party had rented out the entire place.  Can’t think of a more hip place in which to say bid adieu to the single life than Fuel.

The polar opposite of Fuel has to be Circa 1886.  Located in the carriage house of the 24,000 foot beloved Wentworth Mansion (voted one of the “Top 50 Hotels in the U.S.” by Conde Nast Magazine) the restaurant wreaks of old-world charm.  Small and intimate, but with beautifully set tables placed amply away from one another, the historic venue seats only 50. 

Our dinner began with a stunning clam bisque topped with white truffle oil  The clams in this  amuse bouche were from the nearby Foley River.  My husband couldn’t pass up the “chicken fried foie gras” appetizer.  Served with a pecan waffle drizzled with maple syrup, it was a sensational Southern rendition of a French classic. His pulled pork with a peach nectar BBQ sauce and local “dilly beans” was excellent.  My dish was a local bass that reminded me of Chilean seabass.  It was served with house-made udon noodles in a miso broth that was flavored with pieces of apple-wood smoked pork belly and local wild mushrooms.  A Carolina blue crab spring-roll completed the well executed dish.    

Dinner was accompanied by one of the restaurant's long-standing favorites, rice rolls served with a fabulous whipped olive oil (apparently whipping the olive oil is a laborious process that takes a couple of weeks with multiple whippings and resting sessions.),  According to the chef, “the best way to do it is to hire 2-3 line staff.”

Circa 1886 was called “one of America’s most romantic restaurants,” by Travel & Leisure, so it’s no wonder that all the other diners were couples.  That being said, this special occasion place could easily be the perfect venue for a business dinner.  An award-winning wine list (Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100) offers 250 bottles to tempt you.  We chose a Reilsing from North Carolina to accompany our above dinner---it worked well with all of the courses.

Coming with us to Charleston on our 2013 or 2014 tour?  We’ll be staying at the Wentworth Mansion which means that daily breakfast and one dinner will be included at Circa 1886.  Oh, yes, and Fuel will be definitely be on our list of places to “fill ‘er up.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Decandent Foie Gras

There’s no other word for this over-the-top, cholesterol-laden, piece-of- paradise-in-a-bite other than decadent.  Often times credited to the French, this delicacy interestingly was known to the Egyptians millenniums ago---they were the first to learn that certain fowl could be fattened through forced over-feeding to create a gastronomic indulgence.

France currently produces almost 80% of the world’s foie gras (pronounced fwa – graw).  Ducks and geese are force fed by the process called “gavage” (a French word which means to feed with an inserted tube).  Like many birds, ducks and geese have expansive throats which allow them to store large amounts of food in their esophagus (In the wild, this feature allows birds to swallow large foods such as whole fish.)

Gavage feeding for foie gras production has become controversial.  Some countries, including the US, have laws against doing so as it is thought to be inhumane.  I have witnessed the procedure in France and did not observe any type of angst by geese during the 2-3 second procedure.  If you are coming on our Bordeaux tour this fall you can witness the procedure for yourself as we will be visiting a farm where foie gras is produced.  This, however, isn’t just any farm----it’s been visited by some of France’s most famous Michelin star chefs.

Don’t like liver? (I don’t).  Don’t worry…foie gras bares absolutely no resemblance to ordinary liver.  Don’t eat foie gras?  No problem---on the tour we’ll make sure there is always another fabulous alternative for you.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Marriage Made in Heaven

Chocolate lover?  Hazelnut nut?  In the 1850’s, before Italy was even a nation, a chocolate-maker in the sophisticated food-loving city of Turin (the center of the powerful House of Savoy) invented the perfect union of these two culinary gems.  He named it Gianduja (john due yuh) after a marionette character who was the popular local folk icon. 

Gianduja was born out of necessity.  It was the era following the Napoleonic Wars and chocolate, a very precious commodity, was rationed.  The district surrounding Turin, callled Piedmont, was known throughout Europe for producing the best hazelnuts.   To circumvent the lack of exotic chocolate, one of the leading candy shops decided to create an intense mèlange of chocolate and hazelnuts…and the rest is history.

Today, Gianduja is a classical European chocolate, made by only the premier chocolate producers.   This fall’s trip to Piedmont for the Truffle Festival will include a visit to Turin’s super-star chocolatier…attendees will visit his artisanal workshop and be able to watch the birthing of Gianduja from the roasting of the cocao beans to the upscale packaging process.  Most importantly, you’ll be able to sample these exquisite morsels.

BTW...thanks to Piedmont, you’ll now find the pairing of chocolate and hazelnuts throughout Italy.  One of my favorite things is gianduja gelato.  Anyone else adore the little Italian chocolates wrapped in foil called Baci? (Italian for "kisses"). They, too, are made from chocolate and hazelnuts and were around long before the Hershey’s kiss.