Friday, September 28, 2012

France’s To-Die-For Melon

I’m in Provence and have timed my visit perfectly for the height of the Cavaillon melon season. If you’ve ever smelled a Cavaillon, you’re an instant devotee. The melon is named after the town of Cavaillon, about 20 miles east of Avignon.  (If you’ve not been to Provence, that would be about 50 miles north of the Mediterranean).  For any foodie, a sojourn to Cavaillon during the melon period should be on your Bucket List.  You’ll know you’re in the right place when you enter the town of Cavaillon…there’s a 9- ton sculpture of a melon to greet you. 

Melons have been cultivated in Cavaillon since 1495 and there have been many lovers of the area’s delicious melons throughout history.  In 1864, Alexandre Dumas (author of The Count of Monte CristoThe Three Musketeers, etc.), donated all 194 of his published works to the city of Cavaillon on just one condition:  that he be sent 12 melons each year for perpetuity.  The town fathers were delighted to grant Dumas his request, and until his death in 1870 a dozen melons were dispatched to the author every summer.

Cavaillon melon has become internationally famous.  San Francisco Bay Area farmers’ markets have been selling a melon called Cavaillon for nearly 10 years…but they are only a distant cousin.  You should be able to smell a true Cavaillon from 10 feet away.  When its cut, the intoxicating fragrance should envelop you.  One bite, and the authentic Cavaillon would seduce you completely.  Regrettably, none of this is true for the knock-off from California.  While they are good (as are many California cantaloupes), they simply can’t compete with the real thing.

I love to eat Cavaillon plain, however, I have to say that the best dish I’ve ever had with the melon was a cold soup at Chateau Taluad in Provence, just miles from the town of Cavaillon (Wine-Knows has leased the entire chateau for the 2013 Harvest Tour to France.)  The owner, who trained with many of France’s Michelin star chefs, developed the glorious recipe---you can be assured that the Cavaillon soup will be on the dinner menu the first night we arrive at the chateau.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Roquefort---a Cheese and a Village

In 1980 I was in a remote part of southern France 10 miles from the town of Roquefort… regrettably, I didn’t know the town was nearby.  I’ve returned to France >30 times, however, I’ve never been back to this particular area in the mountains of south-central France.  I’m a huge devotee of Roquefort cheese so I decided a visit was long overdue to this famous village.  Today, I am in Roquefort with a professional appointment scheduled at the highly acclaimed Roquefort Societe, producer of nearly 60% of Roquefort’s cheese.

Roquefort is France’s second most popular cheese (Comte is number one out of nearly 500 cheeses), but Roquefort is the country’s most historic cheese.  Dating back to ancient Roman times, Roquefort’s rich flavor was discussed by Pliny in his book written in 79 A.D.  In 1411, Charles VI granted the village of Roquefort the exclusive monopoly on making this special blue cheese in their nearby caves.  In 1925 the French government granted the cheese France’s first AOC (controlled origin appellation).  From that point on, only cheese made in Roquefort caves, from local milk, could legally be called Roquefort.

The mold responsible for Roquefort’s distinctive character, penicillum roqueforti, is found in the caves surrounding the town.  The temperature of these caves, a constant year around 45 degree with a humidity of 95%, is the perfect environment for mold to thrive.  Traditionally, huge loafs of bread are placed in the cave and act like monster Petri dishes to grow the mold.  Today, however, most of the mold comes from a laboratory.

Unlike England’s coveted Stilton cheese, which is made from cow’s milk, Roquefort is made from sheep.  The isolated town (actually called Roquefort-sur-Soulzon) has nearly a million sheep that graze on the surrounding hills…. but fewer than 1,000 inhabitants.  The local sheep give milk from December until July and during these months the town swells by several hundred workers who come to work in the making of Roquefort.   At 10 days of age, the embryonic cheeses are transferred to the caves where they are punched full of holes to help stimulate the growth of the famed blue-green mold.

The tour of the production facility and caves ended with a tasting of several cheeses in varying degrees of aging.  All I can say is it was worth the > 30 years wait!  Merci a pencillum roqueforti.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cantal...My Love Affair with French Cheese

Let me count the ways I love thee, Cantal.  I remember my first bite of you in the early 1980’s at Le Ambassade restaurant in Paris.  You were in their regional specialty from the Auvergne district called aligot, a luscious blend of potato & cheese.  Let’s just say it was love at first bite.  I have since rendezvoused with you at several of France’s Michelin star restaurants…you were on their cheese carts.  Now I am in the village in which you are born…and I feel you close to my heart.

While the above love letter may be a little crazy, it’s true…I am crazy in love with  Cantal cheese, and to prove it, I’ve just driven several hours on hair-pin roads over mountains that were once volcanoes to get to this fairly remote part of central France.  I am in the Auvergne, in the town of Salers, the epicenter for the region’s famous cheese. 

I’m here to experience the birthing place of Cantal.  One of the oldest cheeses in France, Cantal is made from cow’s milk.  Even the cows are special…they are a special breed by the name of Salers, named after the town in which they were originally bred.  The cheese from their milk has a fat content of a whopping 45%, but because of its richness, a little goes a long way. 

In many ways, time has stood still in the land of Cantal (after driving here, I can understand why).  The village of Salers was awarded the prestigious honor as one of the “most beautiful villages of France.”  Now I understand why.   Many of its medieval streets are narrow cobble-stoned lanes...thankfully, too small for cars.  Vistas from the village are pure eye candy---bucolic picture-postcard views of green-carpeted mountains dotted as far as the eye can see with Salers cows against a crystal-clear blue sky (there's no pollution within hundreds of kilometers).

But, Cantal is not the only cheese for which the region is famous.  Auvergne produces the largest number of "PDO" cheeses ("Protected Designation of Origin") of any other area in France.  (In case you haven’t been to France, PDO guarantees character and high quality of cheese.)  Only 38 cheeses among the hundreds in France are granted this status, and 5 of these are from the Auvergne.

Like any lover, I’m not going to reveal the details of my affair today with Cantal.  Suffice to say, it was worth the harrowing drive and more.  And, I’ve now added another reason to the “I love thee” list.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Oyster Capital of France

Today we arrived in oyster nirvana.  Since ancient times, oysters have been very popular along France’s southwest coast not far from the town of Bordeaux.  The Romans, who were supposedly so enamored with oysters that they sent thousands of slaves to the Atlantic beaches to gather them, paid for these mollusks by their weight in gold.  By the time of Emperor Napoleon III in the 19th century, however, oysters were nearly wiped out.  Concerned, Napoleon set up a plan to ensure the species’ survival.

One of the elements in Napoleon’s plan was farms for the oysters….these farms still exist today and are located in the gigantic Aracahon Bay.  Over 50% of France’s oysters come from this bay.  Considering the long love affair with the French of these morsels from the sea, that’s beaucoup. (It is said that Marie Antoinette ordered carriage loads full of them sent on a regular basis to Versailles; also claimed is that Henry IV ate 300 oysters regularly as an apéritif.)   

On my first visit to this area in 2004, I’ll never forget walking along the Bay when the tide was out and being astounded to see huge collections of curved tiles that looked like they had been taken off someone’s roof.  The tile perimeter was surrounded by large poles that were 10 feet high.  At the time I did not realize that I was looking at oyster farms.  These tiles, apparently, are the perfect object in which oyster larvae attaches and grows.  The poles were there to signal boaters when the tide came in to avoid this area.

France is Europe’s largest producer of oysters and the industry, like wine, has huge economic implications for the Bordeaux area.  The oyster business was all but wiped out in the early1970’s when a disease killed most of the mollusks.  Just when things began to return to normal, there was a severe issue with the oysters that had survived---they were not re-producing.  The culprit for the later issue was environmental:  marine paint that was used on most boats in the bay contained an ingredient (TBT) that is known today as being one of the most toxic environmental poisons.  It has been since been outlawed in the area.

To add further insult to injury, the Bay of Arcachon took a huge hit from the disastrous oil spill of the super-tanker Cadiz in 1978 off the coast of France.  Many oyster growers simply went out of business after this third insult and the industry almost collapsed.  The French government stepped in and provided generous financial subsidies for the oyster growers on the Bay.  Today, the industry seems to be making a comeback.

Tonight we’ll be dining on a platter of oysters and washing them down with a bottle of white Graves from nearby Bordeaux….a marriage made in heaven!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Malbec: Bordeaux’s Potential Renaissance & Argentina’s Shining Star

Today, the Wine-Knows tour to Bordeaux kicked-off.  We are surrounded by a sea of vines at the fabulous Chateau Beychevelle (which we have leased for the next 4 nights).  Beychevelle currently has no plantings of Malbec, but if you go back to the year 1855 when Bordeaux’s famous wine Classification was established, all of the chateaux had Malbec in their vineyards.  In fact, in 1855 Malbec was the most planted grape in Bordeaux with an estimated 60% of the plantings.  First Growth Château Lafite’s vineyards, for example, at the time were dominated by Malbec, and First Growth Château Latour’s was mostly Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Then, came a little louse by the name phylloxera which destroyed most of Europe’s vineyards, including Bordeaux’s.

Bordeaux’s vineyards were completely replanted after the phylloxera epidemic...mainly with Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc because Malbec didn’t take well to grafting (grafting was necessary to prevent a return of phylloxera).  In the 20th century Malbec lost further ground due to its sensitivities to mildew from Bordeaux’s wet climate, as well as frost brought by the bitter Atlantic storms (the severe 1956 frost wiped out a significant portion of the Malbec vines).  Today, however. Malbec may be making a come-back in Bordeaux.

Some experts predict that if global warning occurs, Malbec would be perfectly positioned to accommodate this change in weather.  With warmer temperatures, Malbec would ripen more consistently and would not fall victim to mildew and frost. Some chateaux have begun replanting the grape to hedge their bets.

Regardless of where in the world Malbec is grown, it is known for its big structure, its blackberry-plum-and-leather notes, deep color, as well as its early ripening capabilities.  In Bordeaux it’s blended with 6 other varietals allowed by law.  In Argentina, however, Malbec is a single variety and the star of the show.

While acreage of Malbec has declined in Bordeaux, in Argentina the grape is surging and has become a somewhat of a "national brand.”  Introduced by a Frenchman in the mid-19th century (pre-phylloxera), Malbec thrives in Argentina.  In fact, Malbecs from this area have received the highest scores of any Malbecs on the globe--- in the high 90’s from both the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker. 

What makes Malbec in Argentina so special?   Located at the foot of the Andes, the high altitude vineyards benefit from >300 days of sunlight per year.  Vines are grown on the slopes of the Andes up to 5,000 feet.  This unique terroir produces wine with explosive aromatics, concentrated mouth-feel, balance, and silky texture. 

History has shown that the Malbec grape can grow successfully in Bordeaux.  With all of the advances in viticultural technology, regardless of global warming,  Malbec may even hold more promise for a renaissance in Bordeaux.  Regardless of Malbec’s future in Bordeaux, the grape’s outlook in Argentina is stellar…there are some dazzling, world-class Malbecs (with jaw-dropping prices of more than $100) being produced.  But, there are also great quality/price ratio examples under $25. 

Viva Argentina!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Great Bang-for-the-Buck Pinots

I’m a member of the San Diego chapter of the American Wine Society (AWS).  Recently they had a BLIND tasting of Pinot Noirs from around the world.   I loved that the tasting was blind so that none of our prejudices could stack the deck…in my way of thinking, all wine should be tasted blindly.

The group was told in advance that there were wines from Burgundy, Italy, Argentina, New Zealand, Oregon and California. We were also told that the wines were poured in a random order that had been determined by drawing numbers from a hat prior to the tasting.

AWS provided a scoring sheet that was based on a 20 point system.  Categories and points were as follows:

  • Appearance (0-3 points)
  • Smell:  (0-6 points)
  • Taste (0-6 points)
  • Finish (0-3 points)
  • Bonus (0-2 points…given for any outstanding attributes)
We were asked to analyze each wine and score each.  After tasting and scoring all wines, we were then asked to rank them from highest score to lowest.  I was sitting between 2 men, one of who was my husband, the other a friend.  The 3 of us did not compare our thoughts until after the tasting.  While our point values were different for each of the wines, it was uncanny that the 3 of us had all ranked the same wine for the #1 spot, the same wine for #2, and the same wine for #3.  Considering the number of wines, our same rankings for the top 3 wines were very unlikely due to chance.

Three wines floated to the top with high scores well beyond the others (i.e. for the 3 tasters mentioned above).  The best news of all is that all of these wines were terrific buys for the generally pricey Pinot…each came at (or less than) $20.   First place?  Point Conception Salsipuedes from Santa Barbara County 2010.   The close runner-up was Decoy’s rendition from the Anderson Valley, 2010. (Decoy is owned by Duckhorn, one of Napa’s longstanding powerhouse’s for Merlot).   The bronze medal (again, according to myself and 2 compatriots) went to a Kiwi, the 2009 Vavasour.  (When Wine-Knows heads to New Zealand in 2014, Vavasour will be sure to be on our list!)

For more information about AWS chapters in your area, check it out: