Friday, May 24, 2019

How a Woman Changed the Course of Wine History

                               The "widow" was the first person to use colored labels

Most every avid wine lover recognizes the neon orange label of Veuve Clicquot Champagne.   What many may not know, however, is that the person who not only created the label but also the brand was a strong-willed woman.   Not only did she do so in the early 1800’s, but this break-all-the-rules thirty year old woman was a widow (veuve means widow).   All of this was done with the deck stacked completely against her as no woman in France before her had ever run a business.

Veuve Clicquot did many things that ultimately altered the course of wine history.  Her first bold move was to sell Champagne outside of France, an unthinkable notion at the time especially since Napoleon had declared war on most of Europe.  The widow was the first in Champagne to do so.  She also ingeniously figured out a plan to cleverly slip the wine shipments through the naval blockades.   But the veuve was just getting warmed up.

Veuve Clicquot was a force well ahead of her time

The widow Clicquot dramatically transformed the Champagne making process.  At the time, Champagne was cloudy due to sediments from dead yeasts.  She had a very keen eye on aesthetics. She was also the first person to use colored wine labels---up until this point wine labels had only been white.  But her biggest contribution to aesthetics was her revolutionary invention of a method that changed Champagne from cloudy to clear.  The ingenious process she invented, called riddling, is still used today by every Champagne company, as well as world-wide by makers of high-end sparkling wine. 

Veueve Clicquot wasn’t through yet, however.  She pioneered the making of Rosé Champagne, a revolutionary idea in the early 1800's.   With attention to the details of marketing, the widow played an instrumental role in establishing Champagne as the preferred drink of royalty and the wealthy.

                      Veuve's cellars are now protected by the United Nations World Heritage

Veuve Clicquot championed the entire industry of Champagne.  She was also the first business woman in France.  To pay homage to her contributions, the entire company was renamed in her honor.  Those of you coming to the sold-out Champagne tour in June will have a private tasting at Veuve Clicquot and will be able to toast her efforts in the extraordinary cellars in Reims.

A salute to Veuve Clicquot!

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!