Monday, January 28, 2013

2012, Thank you for a great year! Bring on the next one!

What a year! It is now well into 2013, and I can comfortably look back on 2012, and exclaim that The Goose in Toulouse has had quite a fantastic year! 

Having the first year completed I want to remark on the growth of The Goose in Toulouse:
- It's an official, tax-paying business!
- In the summer of 2012 several "trial" tours took place, providing much needed feedback and polishing
- The year has been bountiful in research, providing more cheeses, wines, and dishes to taste, and churches, landscapes, and cities to view then could have been expected. 
- In November, 2012 we ran our first official tour with an alumni group from the University of Chicago
- We've had thousands of blog and website views from all around the globe
- Looking into 2013, several groups from the US and Europe have expressed interest in organizing tours

I want to take this time to thank all of you who have been crucial to the developments of 2012.

Firstly, thank you to Agnes and Stan whose ideas sparked the founding of The Goose in Toulouse and whose generosity, originality, and energy are stitched throughout our creation. Without this family there most certainly would not be a Goose in Toulouse! And thank you to her parents, Madame and Monsieur Bordeau of Hotel Eychenne who became my family. Our daily lunches and dinners at Hotel Eychenne were inspirational for these gastronomic tours. I have learned much (not just for the Goose in Toulouse, but personally) from their elegance, joie de vive, generosity and down-right amazing taste! It is their spirit of hospitality that I wish to share with each and every guest who joins us on a Goose in Toulouse tour. 

Thank you to Sylvie, Directrice of Hotel Eychenne, who tirelessly helped me to meet local farmers and producers; always provided a hand translating; helped me with the daily nitty-gritty work of contacting vendors and negotiating; and provided friendship and hospitality for which I will always feel grateful! Sylvie and Gil provided me encouragement, many great meals, confidence and love, without which life would have been less graced by butterflies in fields of long-grasses with a belly full of garden-fresh foods, and the resources to pick-up and carry on.

Thank you to Lola Vardigans, a true mentor! Lola's ideas, expertise and suggestions are written all over the future direction of The Goose in Toulouse. She was a crucial co-guide on the UChicago Tour, sharing with us her research on the local resistance movement during WWII, welcoming us into her lovely home Chateau du Bardies, and accompanying us with her knowledge and love of life. Lola is a true inspiration to me: she alone is proof that it is possible to live a life filled with pressing intellectual pursuits; great meals on a table surrounded by company; a tireless desire to learn, question and appreciate; and the courage and confidence to grab a hold of life and let one's self adventure! 
Thank you to Stephen Bolger, COO of Chateau Lynch-Bages and founder of Crushpad France, for the collaboration and organization, particularly during the November tour. Stephen is a true innovator! It has been a pleasure to work with him, and I look forward to another year of more visits. 

Thank you to Jean Moueix, Elisabeth, and the Berrouet Family of Petrus for opening doors for me in Bordeaux  and for the enlightening visits. I cannot wait to work with you more in the upcoming year! 

Thank you to Chris Freemont who has fed my passions for good eating, and who gave me the encouragement to try.  His impeccable taste, knowledge, conversations, ideas and support have been immeasurably inspiring.  I'm still waiting for him to come out here and co-host these tours-- there is no better person in the world to share a meal with! 

Thanks to my parents for the endless scanning, mailing and driving around States-side. And to my sister Tracy who was always ready to give advice, listen to ideas, and provide contacts. 

Thanks to Gleb Kozyritsky for always offering a helping hand! To Kara Mallia for the blog advice and encouragement. And to Analisa Lafontant for the encouragement, helpfulness, and cheese!

Thank you to the Hotel Eychenne kitchen for the great meals and cooking lessons. You have spoiled me silly! Life will never consistently taste so good. 

Thank you to Federico for the support, sacrifices and encouragement. In more ways than I immediately realized you have given me the drive to keep at The Goose in Toulouse. 

Thank you to every farmer, cheese maker, cow herder, boudin noir-maker, escargot raiser, cheese refiner, market stall keeper, oyster harvester, enologist, waiter, sommelier, izard hunter, chef, and dining companion who has given me so many memorable meals and pleasurable tastes. Life has been a dream! I can't wait to share the fruits of your labors with more people. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The prehistoric caves of the Ariege

You've heard of the caves of the South West of France. You've seen the photos of the bison drawn in black on the walls of stone. Most likely you have heard of the caves of Lascaux, in the Dordogne, closed to the public. But the caves of the Ariege in the Pyrenees, though less known, are equally worth knowing about.

In the Ariege I've started to learn when I think I am coming near to caves: the land suddenly becomes rockier, with outcrops of white stone in the grass. There is a feeling that it would be difficult to find mushrooms.

Certainly the best cave to visit is Niaux, with paintings as impressive as those at Lascaux, this is the only prehistoric cave currently open to the public (though with limited access). Participants carry torches, as they make their way through the caves that are stunning for their own geological beauty. All together the network of caves at Niaux make up 13km. The tour of the caves leads participants through the opening deep into the cave into the "black chamber", a room with terrific acoustic qualities where the best of the paintings are found.

Unfortunately, for this post, I have no images to add, since photography is strictly forbidden inside of the caves in an effort to reduce the damage done to the paintings by visits.

Mas d'Azil, less renown for the quality of their paintings, is perhaps one of the most stunning drives imaginable (and perhaps the most exciting of the Tour de France!). The road, following the Arize River, goes right through the very caves that the river has carved thousands of years ago. In the car (or in my case, on the bicycle) you are literally speeding through a massive, 500 meter long prehistoric cave! The air is cold and damp, and flocks of birds cawed at the entrance, flying in and out of its nooks.  There are no visible signs of cave paintings in this main cave, though there are many signatures on the walls of more contemporary dating.

Biking into the entrance of the cave
Inside of the Cave the road is lit with lights. It was impossible to capture the enormity of the chamber to my left

While in the Ariege it is worth taking a drive through Mas d'Azil, as they are truly stunning, and the country side nearby is equally worth viewing.

In the town of Mas d'Azil

And now for the secret. Perhaps the most important archeological cave art is a cave that I had never heard of: Tuc d'Audoubert cave at the entrance of the Trois Freres Cave in Montesquieu-Avantés. Tuc d'Audoubert is the only known prehistoric cave with three dimensional artwork, in other words, sculpture! The cave was discovered in the early 20th century by Henri Begouen. The letter written by the discoverer is fantastic to read: he describes chipping away stone to make his way into the cave network, discovering the death bed of a bear, and finally discovering the sculpture: two bisons made of un-cooked clay, which Begouen describes as unbaked gingerbread cookies. A woman I know who has entered these privately owned caves claimed that the sculpture was absolutely moving: you could still see the thumb prints of the people who worked the clay so beautifully during the Ice Age. The cave boasts 350 figures, mostly bison and horses, as well as 7 humans / part humans, 1 rhino and even 1 grasshopper!  

*Please note that any photo of cave art or cave maps are not my own and I do not have the rights to them. They are just to give you an idea of the artwork.

October: The Most Beautiful Month Yet

October has raised the skies; the humidity of the summer has parted, and we've enjoyed consistent, crisp days. But, what's swooned me by October is her light. Long shadows are contrasted by saturated hues. And a sky so crisp and blue has emerged behind the hills and Mountains, like the cloth curtain in the background of a Dutch painting that steals the glory of the fruit in the foreground.

Last week, the car I had been using went to the shop for a standard checkup that ended up taking a week! What seemed like a negative, turned out to be advantageous, as it finally gave me the excuse to get off my lazy bones and put myself smack in the middle of gorgeous landscapes, taking in the views all the more appreciatively after having peddled up to them. 

This region of France is famous for hosting the highest routes of the Tour de France. Hundreds of cycle groups come to the Ariege annually to try out these daring routes for themselves. I did no such routes. I did not climb to the high cols. But after a day of peddling up and down somewhat steep and always hilly land, I could certainly feel it in my thighs!

Mid-way through the month the dark-green high Pyrenees in the background turned bright white with the first snow. They were beautiful green, but they are truly captivating when white: they command you to stop and gaze. With the bright blue October sky, the white mountains gleamed. Now, at the start of November, we are watching as the first of the leaves on the green hills begin to turn hues of yellow and red.

Making my way back after a long day of cycling 41 km (oddly, uphill both ways!)

The Church of Riuebach along the D119 has what looks like 13 little churches on the hill side behind the main church. Upon walking up to them, each chapel commemorates one of the Stations of the Cross.

The famous Crustages of Clermont, a thin pie type desert made of a flaky pastry crust and jam of various fruits

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vieux Chateau Saint Andre: The wines of the Berrouet Family

Off a winding, narrow road that passes through the indistinct, small hamlet of Saint-Georges in the vicinity of Saint Emilion, there is a gate. Were it not for spotting a young man with the exact same face as I had seen earlier that day during my visit to Petrus, I would have thought that I was entirely lost.

Vieux Château Saint Andre is the property owned by the Berrouet family. Jean-Claude Berrouet was the producer of Petrus for 45 vintages, starting at the young age of 22 when Jean-Pierre Moueix (owner of Petrus) appointed the young winemaker. Their combination has made Petrus into the wine it is today. I wanted to meet the man whose hands are responsible for producing several of the best wines in the Bordeaux region (Petrus, the Moueix owned vineyards, Dominus in California and even his own small wine in the Pyrenees mountains in the Basque country, his home region). His oldest son, Olivier, has now filled his father's shoes as the director of Petrus, while his younger son, Jeff, manages  Vieux Château Saint Andre. 

Jean-Claude Berrouet is humble, kind, interested, generous, and extremely knowledgeable. I came away from the visit with the strong feeling that I had met a truly great man. He is easy to talk to, and with him I had the most fruitful and natural conversation about wine. Not seeking to judge and with no need to impress, a conversation with Berrouet is honest. 

Berrouet asked us, "do you you like to drink wine?". I quickly responded, "of course". But only after, I realized the importance of this question. Wine for many is status, wealth, a touristic visit in France, an emblem of cultural capital. It is a very good question: do you like wine. Berrouet spoke for himself, with no value judgements. I understood that wine for him is a matter of the pleasure of drinking it. 

Jeff, who manages the property, led our tour, occasionally looking to his father to field a question. His father graciously encouraged him: it was a bit like I was watching the torch being passed on. 

Not unsurprisingly, the Berrouets are using the same techniques to produce this Merlot wine as he is using at Petrus (see my article on Petrus for the technicals). He explained the philosophy that Elisabeth at Petrus repeatedly emphasized: Merlot must be handled delicately. Concrete tanks are used for the fermentation. Slowly and carefully, the wine in the tanks is poured off at the bottom to be re-added at the top, so that the wine will have contact with the skin and pulp layer that naturally rises to the top of the tanks. There is no mushing or stirring. Everything is done gently. 

Like at Petrus, the wines are aged in typically about 50% new oak, thus creating a wine where the grapes and not the wood take the forefront in taste. 

Jean-Claude explained that everyday (my visit was on September 10th, 2012) they are tasting the wines for the maturity of the grapes. He explained that there is a peak of maturity: if picked to early you end up with a "green" taste. If the grapes are picked too late you have, and he struggled for the word, snapping his fingers and looking at me for help, "what's that the americans say… 'ammy?' 'gamy'"? He asked. Wincing with the failure of not understanding, I nearly gave up, before I recalled… "jammy!".  "Yes," he carried on "if picked too late the wines have a jammy taste. It's important that they are picked at the right moment. This you can tell by tasting the berries." 

I found it interesting that he used this word 'jammy', as it is so trendy now to have 'jammy' wines. I also found it interesting that this new word for him was on the tip of his tongue after returning from California that very morning. American restaurant servers love this word and use it frequently, and they are right to do so, as so many wine-lists are stocking these 'jammy wines'. 

Stepping out on a limb I said, "It's funny you should use the word jammy. Perhaps it's just me, but I find that now, especially with Californian wines, there are so many jammy wines. It's quite in fashion in the states, at least." As a side note I added, "To me this is terrible." 

Jeff his son laughed and nodded in agreement. And his father stepped forward with his pointer-finger raised. "It's interesting you should say that," he said beaming. "There are two reasons for this. Firstly the sweet taste is the first we like. Think of children: when we are children, we all like sweet things. Then, for some people, as we get older we start to like some of the other flavors. Secondly, the mouth. The sweet taste is on the tip of the tongue," he said motioning to his mouth. "The acid on the sides, the bitter in the back. When journalists go to taste wines they are tasting hundreds in a sitting. You cannot distinguish a wine after taste number twenty-one. So what are they tasting? The wines that are standing out are ones with a lot of sweetness which is noticed first in the mouth. The pleasure of the bitterness of wine comes on the finish. If you are tasting so many wines, you do not have time for the finish. And so, these sweet wines get high scores, and have become popular to people who value such scoring." 

This explains a lot.

In the barrel room, Jean-Claude described that they source from 6 different coopers, handpicking the right barrels. After years of wine making Jean-Claude says that all barrels are slightly different. Like the grapes themselves, some years the trees are better than others. 

Jeff opened his bottle on a table beside an old-fashioned sink, which Jean-Claude proudly pointed out, with a youthful fascination with this time-honored action of washing the hands. Jeff meticulously smelled the wine, swirled it in the glass, and then poured the wine into all three glasses before throwing it down the drain. He then poured three nice glasses. We saluted. 

The style is very elegant. Nothing jumps out at you. It is not overly fruity, nor dry, nor tannic, nor woody. It's balanced. It's all of these things. The tannins are long and dry. The mouth is full and soft, with some taste of dark berries, chalk, stone. And the finish is pleasurable.  Overall, it is an extremely elegant, supple, silky wine with exceptionally balanced fruit and structure. In its qualities and style, I could taste that it was made similarly to Petrus (yes, it lacks the nuance flavors, that incomparable velvety texture, and the rockstar finish, but this is nonetheless a quality wine). It too has a beautiful potential to age. This is a bottle to have on the table, with good food, and to drink with friends.

At 11Euro a bottle, I took home a case of 2009/2010 wines. Generously, he also gifted me a bottle of his Herri Mina, which he explained means "homesick". It was chosen in reference to the Homer's Odyssey and because it is made in Berrouet's home region in the Pays Basque Country, for which he feels nostalgia. 

I asked Jean-Claude how long the Chateaux Saint Andre should age for. He laughed. "I laugh now when people ask me this," he said. "Perhaps I asked it too once. You want to know how long it can age? Perhaps 30 years. Perhaps more. But I know this wine-style, and it's definitely capable of 30. But me, I am not. And so I don't care anymore. The more important question is when should I drink it, and the answer is in 10 years." 

The frown I made when he said this was sincere. After a short visit, his kindness and greatness was astounding. I cared for him. Perhaps it's just my sentimentality, but in the wine I tasted on his property, his own gentleness, conviviality and elegance comes through. And each bottle I open in ten years I will toast to him. 

Thank you, Jean-Claude, Olivier and Jeff Berrouet! 

Me (center), beside Jean Claude Berrouet (left) and his son Jeff (right)

Vieux Chateau Saint Andre's view of the vineyards and town church

Monday, October 15, 2012



It's as good as you hoped it wouldn't be.  

Its air of exclusivity and understatement speak loudly. It need not throw open the doors of a grand Chateau to visitors, firstly, because it simply doesn't have one, but more importantly that's just not their style. Enough is said simply with the word "Petrus". A little pit of envy has hardened in the stomach, and illusions of Billionaires begin to lounge in the mind. But once we get past the price tag of its reputation, most wine drinkers are left with the question: is it really that good?


And when we enter Petrus (mind you through a gate, and not the doors of a Chateau) we learn precisely why.

I am impressed: not just with the wine, but with the entire visit to Petrus. 

Firstly, there is Elisabeth, the ambassador to Petrus who led me and two NY lawyers through the grounds. Elisabeth, also from the NY region, led us with a casual elegance. She was brilliant. She had the finesse of communication like a great teacher. Concise, clear, and informative, Elisabeth shared the ins and outs of the process of wine making at Petrus. Elisabeth's energy and clarity, bring a joy to discussing the technical details.  I've never had a more thought-provoking and thorough tour of a vineyard. 

We started outside. 

The name "Petrus" derives from the word 'rock', which in one way or another was chosen as Petrus is situated on top of a very unique hill, the highest elevation on the Pomerol plateau. When you're actually at Petrus, it's difficult to make out this hill, which at its peak is about 45cm high. But it's not this altitude in particular that makes the difference (though it does help provide natural drainage); it's the soil beneath this hill that Petrus attributes to the quality of their wines. The soil is uniquely clay; and not just any clay. After just 5 or 6 inches of top soil is to layers of  clay: the first is several inches of dark clay, and then underneath the precious, impermeable clay not found in any other wine region in the world. The clay is approximately 40 million years old. The clay does several things: 1. It forces the roots to grow horizontally rather than vertically, which helps to keep the soil and the plant evenly watered. 2. Retains moisture in the teeny gaps in the clay, which the plant continues to use during the dry summer months, and 3. Adds minerals which happen to add structure and complexity to the generally more delicate, fruity Merlot grape. This divine clay hill is almost entirely owned by Petrus, making it have a uniquely perfect terroir for the cultivation of Merlot. It is this unique terroir that adds such depth to the grape, that has allowed the 'Chateau' to throw open their doors to invite other wine makers to learn from their tactics, because, simply, they know no one else will have this soil to compete. 
Small in comparison to the spacious Medoc vineyards, Petrus is only 11.5 hectares, 11 of which are planted with Merlot and the rest with Cabernet Franc. Although they do grow some Cab. Franc, this is not often added to the wine; most years Petrus is 100% Merlot. 

Jean-Claude Berrouet is the now retired wine maker of Petrus for the past 45 vintages (whose son is now Director of Petrus). He was appointed winemaker at the age of 22, by JP Moueix. The pair have built the wine into the renown brand of today. Berrouet, who also consults for several top right bank properties as well as Dominus in California and his own vineyard in the Pays Basque Country, told me that Petrus has truly exceptional terroir, and even within their land some of the individual rows are singularly phenomenal. 

On my visit through Petrus, I found myself hearing over and over again about the specific properties of the Merlot grape. It seems that not only have the winemakers at Petrus gone out of their way to understand this grape to a science, but then they have pampered and meticulously cultivated their vines to bring out this best expression possible. (To learn more about the wine makers, Monsieur Jean-Claude Berrouet and his son Olivier, now the director of Petrus, visit my blog entry on Vieux Chateau Saint Andre.)

Different vineyards have different strategies for the upkeep of their vines. Firstly, Petrus has started to clone their own vines when they routinely need to plant new vines (the average vine age is 40 years old). Of course, like all of Bordeaux, the root stock is 100% American (as American roots were resistant to the phylloxera pests that destroyed European roots in the 19th century… the American root stocks are resistant because the pesky bugs themselves are American. Today French vineyards graft the old french vine species, Vitis vinifera, onto the American root stock, such asVitis aestivalis). 

Many vineyards arch the vines from which the grapes hang, but Petrus has found that they prefer to nudge this vine into as straight a line as possible. To do this takes many gradual adjustments. Petrus does partake in an extensive green harvest, which is the trimming of the green leaves that cover the grapes. The leaves are helpful, as they protect the grapes from getting a sunburn, but allowing them to grow too wildly will take away energy from the plant that would be better directed toward the grapes. Likewise just select bundles of grapes are allowed to grow per vine, the others trimmed off to concentrate the plant's energies into the better bundles. 

Doors inside of Petrus with the signature keys of Saint Peter

Unlike some left bank properties which have a topsoil heavily peppered with granite stones, Petrus leaves just a few scattered stones around. Elisabeth explained that too many white, granite stones actually burn the delicate Merlot grapes. She gestured to the row beside the granite walkway and noted that this row perennially experiences  over-exposure to the sun. 

Merlot is finicky, and timing is essential. Firstly, it is extremely important that the grapes flower simultaneously. If they're not flowering together this can throw off the timing on the grape development, and finally a consistent harvest. Everyday in the beginning of September, Berrouet is out in the fields tasting the grapes to determine when they have reached their optimal ripeness. This progress is charted. There becomes a point when, Berrouet explained, the grapes have reached their perfection: if picked too early they are left with a green, unripe taste; if picked too late they have a "jammy" taste (see Vieux Chateau Saint Andre). If you go out into the vineyards and you taste a grape, you can tell if it's nearly ready by if the seeds are quite crunchy as you bite, and when the flesh of the grape doesn't attach to the seeds. For days preparing up to the moment when the Berrouet's and the Moueix's declare the grapes are ready a team of harvesters are awaiting the call to action. Elisabeth explained that the harvesters at Petrus are nearly always the same people at each harvest and often wine professionals. The harvest sounded quite fun in my opinion, with days of collective eating and festivities following up to the harvest. The harvest itself must be done quite quickly, and usually within 48hours. Again, this is due the finicky Merlot grape: there's a small window of time for the grapes' moment of perfection, and at a vineyard producing wine of the quality of Petrus, each must be at perfection.

After the grapes are harvested and sorted (Petrus is now using the color sorting machines), the grapes go into concrete tanks. Yes, concrete. Not wood, not stainless steal, but concrete. I'm not sure who started the trend of putting Merlot into concrete fermentation tanks (it could very well have been Petrus), but it's certainly taken the right bank and even some vineyards on the left bank by a storm. Both Elisabeth and Berrouet stressed that concrete is a more stable substance for Merlot, as the magnetic fields on stainless steel can alter the wines. Concrete, on the other hand, does not have this magnetism, and provides stable temperatures. Because concrete is slightly basic, it must be sprayed with Tartaric Acid to neutralize the walls before the grapes are added. 

Inside of the tanks. The streaks on the wall are the acid stains.

Once in the fermentation tanks, the key is to try to bring the grape into as little contact with oxygen as possible while making sure that the juice of the grape comes into contact with the solids (skins, seeds, etc.). Again, here is another aspect in which Merlot is finicky: it must avoid contact with oxygen. Berrouet explained that they slowly drain the wine from the bottom of the tanks and to add back to the top (where the solids are floating). Slowly, and gradually, the wine is turned in this manner to assure that the liquid has gotten plenty of contact with the flavorful solids. The wine is aged for 18-20 months in French oak barrels. 

On touring Petrus, you will be surprised to see how simple the facilities are. The fermentation room is pleasant: it has the feel of a working farm, simply painted concrete tanks. The double doors are marked with the signature of Petrus, two crossed keys, which are the keys of Saint Peter, better known as the gates of heaven. This symbol was chosen by Petrus by Lily Lacoste, who owned nearly all of the shares of Petrus, who played upon the reference of Petrus and Saint Peter, and claimed that the quality of wine was so good, drinking it was an entrance through the gates of heaven. Walking through such doors one enters the small aging room, filled with red-striped wooden barrels. It smells good here: the air is dry, the scent of french oak is strong. It was here that we stopped to taste Petrus.

The 2011 Petrus is 100% Merlot, and is said to be notably more delicate than previous vintages. Elisabeth noted that the bottle is extremely young, and will continue to develop structure and concentration as it ages. Both Elisabeth and one of our companions (who had visited Petrus just months before) noted that in only a few months this structure is beginning to form. But here's what I thought. 

I am not a scientist wine drinker. I do not swish vigorously, and then run through a checklist of qualities in my mind before I can determine it's quality. I simply smell and taste. I know if a wine is of superior quality by one reason: by the third sip, has the warmth of happiness radiated out from my stomach throughout all of my limbs and is it trying to escape through my mouth in contained squeals of delight? Petrus made me happy. 

To the nose, Petrus was a delight. What amazed me about Petrus was the texture. I'd never before had a wine that had this magician-in-the-mouth qualities. Upon first sip it was noticeably light and clean. Flavors of fruit, boysenberry, and a bit of earth were twirled around; and then somehow, mid-sip, as I bounced it on my tongue it started to develop a silky, meaty texture. It was the texture of having a beautiful slice of O-toro on the tongue! The same silky, velvety (is it appropriate to say…) fats, were melting in my mouth. And this was wine. And here at this stage came the dark flavors of spice, stone delicate wood. And the tannins began to play on the insides of my cheeks. And it all occurred so effortlessly, so balanced, and extremely elegantly. And these tastes which came into being on mid-sip, just grew stronger and stronger in harmony and stayed in my mouth bounding off of the happiness radiating from my stomach for a finish that just continued.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Snail Man: escargot

Some people have true passions; and a rare percent of these people are able to eek out a living on these passions. Such is Marco, a man in the south west of France who lives life gloriously in pursuit of what is clearly his love and passion: snails.

Just a few kilometers north of Saint Girons is the little Hamlet, Barjac. I had heard often of the escargot farm here in Barjac (la Ferme aux escargots de Barjac), one of only two escargot farms in the region. 

Feeling adventurous, I decided to bike to Barjac. Yesterday was a perfect autumn day here in Saint Girons: the weather was a pleasant 70 degrees, the sun was still warm, and the air was crisp. The road led me over many hills (as my thighs are feeling today), and past rolling green pasture land where dairy and beef cows stared at me inquisitively. Hawks would beat their grand wings in ascent from wooden fence posts and let the warm air glide them over the valley. 

 When I descended into Barjac, I was greeted by a pleasant man. With a jovial smile, on a stout and strong frame, Marco welcomed us to his farm, restaurant and museum. He started by taking us outside where there was a large square garden covered in grasses. Marco explained that he owns 6 such plots, all lined with a miniature electric fence to keep the snails happily grazing on their combination of 5 types of grasses. All together he produces roughly 350,000 snails per year (after the large number which are eaten by predators such as pigeons, mice, hedgehogs, and oddly lightening bugs). He demonstrated each of these animals by flinging back a curtain like a magician to reveal a display of stuffed and plastic animals-- all of which feast on his snails.

He explained that they only sell mature snails, in order to give snails time to reproduce. A mature snail will reproduce about 6 times a season. He explained that one can tell the difference between the adults and children by wether or not their shells have formed a little upturned ridge near the opening for their heads. A mature snail will have such a "helmet". 

Using a black board and chalk, and paper diagrams, Marco explained how snails reproduce. Snails are hermaphrodites. During reproduction two mature snails will intertwine. Each open up a hole in the side of their heads, and each insert a reproductive organ into the other, continuing to slowly spin in intertwinement.  It's really quite beautiful. Several of his baby snails get sent off to Italy, Spain, other parts of France and even Lithuania. 

A snail in nature can need up to two years to reach maturity because they spend so long "inactive". It greenhouses, where the temperature and moisture are kept consistent, snails can mature within 3 months. Marco uses a combination, bringing the snails inside during the cold winter months, and his snails mature after about 6 months. 

Marco then led us past his restaurant-- a charming spot with great views on the countryside, where one can call in advance to come for dinner. For larger groups they offer two menus, an Ariege menu with grilled snails, boudin, pork chops, sausage, pate, an aperitif and wine; or a Catalonian menu with 3 styles of Catalonian snails. 

Above his restaurant is a snail museum! Marco has collected everything related to snails for the past 14 years. He has a collection of shells from all over the world. Escargo eating utensils, toy snails, books about snails, ceramic snails, paintings of snails, a snail obstacle course and even a snail race track! He tenderly picked up several items to share the story about how he had acquired them. 

Anyone who has ever touched a snail before knows they are quite slimy creatures, and as may be expected this slime is not the most appetizing. To consume snails, they must fast for several days in a dry environment. After several days, they loose most of their mucus, and are ready for consumption. 

I decided to try my luck cooking snails, and so I purchased 100 live snails. 

Firstly, it was difficult to even come across a recipe for how to prepare live snails. Every recipe I encountered called for canned snails. After preparing the live snails, I understood why. Live snails are a pain to cook. 

They must first be dropped into not-quite-boiling water for 4 minutes (cover the lid, as the scene is quite tragic to watch). The water must be drained, because it will be full of any remaining mucus. The snails then go into a vegetable broth, where they must be bathed for about 45 minutes to tenderize. We made a butter, shallot, garlic, anchovy and lemon butter. Ideally, the butter should be placed in the shell of each snail, and then popped into the oven for several minutes for the snails to absorb the buttery taste. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cheval Blanc

I felt like I was in a New York gallery. Sleek. Ultra-modern. Overwhelmingly sexy. And tingling with creativity and energy. 

This is Cheval Blanc.

A teacher of mine during University had praised Karl Marx's Capital for being a unique exemplar of a book whose form and structure (that is, the way it was written), actually enhances and supports the the arguments and the ideas that are produced. I came away from Cheval Blanc with a mouth still panting from excitement from a finish that just didn't stop, and a mind absolutely impressed with the experience of the visit to Cheval Blanc. I learned that the same principal holds for wine and the space that we drink it in. Our senses are inseparable. When a harmony exists amongst the senses, the unified whole of the experience is perfected and brought to its maximum. Cheval Blanc's brand, spanking new $20,000,000 showroom, cellar, and fermentation room was the architectural embodiment of the wine. It was the structure that underlined the principals of its product. 

We were greeted by Stephanie, a woman who exuded calmness and elegance. Like old friends to her home, she showed us around. The visit was nonchalant. In no rush, Stephanie gave us the time she knew was needed for our dropped jaws and wide eyes to come back to normal in each space we stepped into before she started her explanation. 

The first buildings of Chateau Cheval Blanc are traditional, and are now used as an office space, occasionally as guest rooms, and frequently for hosting parties.

Walking under an old stone archway, one changes from the 16th century into the 21st. It's shocking. And this abruptness is so pleasurable.

The new space boasts large glass windows to show off the fact that the building is situated in the midst of one of the world's greatest vineyards. And why shouldn't it? And, better yet, why haven't other Chateaux thought of this?

The Harvest space. Now empty, in two weeks it will be bustling with machines and people. 

Stepping into the fermentation room is like stepping into a religious sanctuary. Really. The silent, noble concrete vats wait like Pacific-island stone statues. Designed in Venice specifically for Cheval Blanc, the concrete vats are truly unique. These are some thick vats, to control and protect the wines, and also to hide the technology within the walls. Unlike every other concrete vat I've seen, at Cheval Blanc there is no central coil within to control temperatures. All of the technology is hidden, as is the case with the entire building (a problem when trying to use the elevators). The space is built of concrete with large, windows bringing in light. It feels like a museum. Each vat has a name tag with it's number, year, and grape content. 

Walking through the altar erected in honor of fermentation, one comes to a stairway. From the top it looks industrial. You don't expect anything. And then you start to descend. And midway down the steps you catch your breath. Soft lights hang from the ceiling providing sophistication, like the transmittance of light from a pearl earring dangling at the neckline. There in the basement is the most stunning cellar I have ever seen. A  crypt? A center of worship? When the glass doors open, the visitor smells the scent of 100% new oak barrels in a room which is light, spacious, and a pleasure. It is silent. The barrels are posited in curves under the dangling lights. One wants to spend time here. 

We walked through the barrels. Stephanie allowed for nearly a full 5 minutes of silence to take in this setting. At the elevator, she told us she was going to hop off to run some errands, and suggested we take a stroll on the roof. Afterwards, I understood why. Descending alone one goes from the holy cellar of soft lights and wood barrels, past the modern harvesting space, and then ends up…. on a beach sand dune?! Hang on?  Yes. It's true. Cheval Blanc has designed a green roof on their sloping modern roof that mimics a sand dune. It is covered in soft, long grasses which whisper when the winds blow across the Pomerol and Saint Emilion appellation. A path constructed of planked wood (exactly like at the beach) leads you curving around the roof, taking in vistas all around. There are seats and couches for relaxing. There are trees. And there are all of the good neighbors chateaux visible in the distance. It's brilliant. 

On the modern roof overlooking the old Chateau.

After hanging out for a while on the roof and feeling like the luckiest person in the world, I descended the ramp to the tasting room. Stephanie poured us a nice glass of their 2006 vintage. The 2006 is a 50/50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and aged in 100% new oak like Cheval Blanc does. What a wine! What a pleasure! Swirling around my mouth, showing off to every single tastebud and nook and cranny, this wine seduced me. At first there were woody notes of mossy ground, porcini mushroom, and dark fruits.  It was playful and full, and then it became sophisticated as long, dry, silky tannins coated the sides of the mouth. And once swallowed (because this wasn't going anywhere else), the finish was fantastic. Lengthy and very very sexy. Showing a fully potential to age, this wine was drinkable today due to the Cabernet Franc. In the mouth one could taste how both grapes were being combined to their maximum characteristics. 

Maybe it's just me and I'm too persuadable, but this wine drank tasted just like the building looked and smelled: sophisticated, impressive, and sexy. I can't imagine a better space to drink Cheval Blanc than in it's very home. 

Finishing my glass with pleasure, perhaps I committed a faux pas when I had to run back to grab the half-drunken glass of my companion (who was driving), as I could not have bared that thought of letting this go wasted. I sat myself outside under an oak tree, watching the vines, and savoring the last of this exceptional wine.