Monday, May 5, 2014

Stuffed like a Goose

Today I have really dined. Upon recounting my meals to a friend, he responded, "After all you are the Goose, aren't you?"

I have taken the name, The Goose in Toulouse, to mean many things: to acknowledge the bird who has provided such a staple and delicious product to the region and to compare these journeys to a children's story or a fairy tale. But, my friend is right: I too am the goose, in the sense that France often stuffs me to the brim, and that I share this pleasure with those with whom I journey. 

Today was no exception: from breakfast to dinner, France has been a champ! 

I have told you of the splendid magical house in the mountains (La Maison du Sylvie) in previous posts. In the springtime the house is perhaps at its prime: The mountains glow in the distance with the remains of winter snow, and the world shines with every shade of green. 

A vegetable well-prepared is never forgotten. In my memory, the taste of Sylvie and Gil's wild salad with home made vinegar will forever stand out as a taste of freshness and earthiness. This time, Sylvie garnished the salad with some small field flowers.

Their foods are always simple but crafted with such care: perfectly cut potatoes roasted so that each surface was uniformly crispy and a guinea fowl stew with slow-cooked, sweet onions. With the wine flowing freely and abundantly, their food beckons seconds and thirds until everyone must wilt with satisfaction upon the backs of their chairs, breathing deeply, marveling at the landscape, and radiating with pleasure.

And it is after a few moments like this, that the little decorative plates for the cheese course emerge, and there in the center of the table, is placed a plate of the most delicious cheeses of the Pyrenees. My favorite goat cheeses (the two round ones) made with such fresh, spring milk, and two wedges of a hearty cow's milk cheese from the mountains that boarder Spain.

And just when you think you cannot manage another bite, you are presented with a fresh, tangy berry sauce that refreshes after a satisying meal. The dessert is a croustade, a typical desert from the Ariege made with lots of butter, apples, and in this one prunes. 

And after such a meal, there is only one thing you would like to do: lounge in the grass, take in the sun, and strum a guitar. 

Well, after such a lunch I returned back to Saint Girons. Just when I couldn't imagine eating any more, dinner was announced ready. A glass of Saint Emilion in hand, my appetite was quickly regained at the sight of this plate:

Cassolettes de fruits de mer- Scallops and shrimp pan-seared in butter. Simple enough. But as the French do, the dish was accompanied by the most perfect sauce. The cream and spice nicely bathing each savory morsel of seafood. But the real charm to this dish was the unsuspecting dollop of  creamy vegetables in the middle. This was so delicious I ran to the kitchen to inquire what this vegetable was, and low and behold it was a cream of baby leeks (pictured below). 

And just when the flavors in your mouth are so so happy you could not imagine that gustatory pleasure could possibly increase, you are served with a magret de canard stuffed with foie gras entier, pan-seared so that the fat gets nice and crispy, and then drizzled with a port jus.

And the second cheese course of the day did not disappoint-- a trio of goat cheeses from various Mountain villages in the Pyrenees. To finish off a splendid meal and a spectacular day of dining, a mix of fruits topped with tangy, alcoholy zabaglione.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

... And I'm Back.

I was right to budget myself a few extra days in the Pyrenees before the group from Yale arrives to prep my appetite. Some of my friends are getting ready for spring time marathons. I'm getting ready for four-course meals ending in cheese courses followed by creme brûlée. To each his own.

Today my regiment was entirely rewarding and I feel that I am making great progress.

Back in the Pyrenees I have been welcomed to my usual spot at the dinner table with my two lovely hosts. Never in my life have I eaten so consistently well as when I ate lunch and dinner at this table for six months. Coming back, my hands miss the knifes with handles made of horn, I instinctively remember how to fold my napkin, and I get giddy with excitement when the plates for the cheese course are served.

I'm back.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Countdown to France

Like a true goose I have migrated.

This year has brought me off to many far away lands on so many improvised journeys that I started to feel like Odysseus: Tossed about more or less around the Mediterranean, from France to mainland Italy and to Sicily; meeting new friends (but no foes); and of course dining and wining splendidly.

But something about spring gets my feathers itchy to return to the lands of the greener pastures at the foothills of the Pyrenees. I know there, at this time of the year, I will find flowers in bloom; the last bit of snow melting off the tips of the high pyrenees; baby goats, chicks, and lambs; and the richest rounds of goat cheese. I am ready for a lungful of this air.

And I'm ready for some fat.  And fat I will find in the Pyrenees. It will be coated on the beans and plumped in the sausages and sizzling on the duck skin in a bowl of cassoulet. It will be baked into the curves of a fugasse bread. It will be melting in my mouth and radiating in giggles of pleasure contained in the bite of fois gras enterier.  It will be crunching in the crackling of pork skin. It will be in the beautiful ripples of cream filling a baba rhum.

Ah, the Pyrenees and their foods.

In just a few days I will lead a tour from the Pyrenees Mountains, to the markets of Toulouse, and into the grandest estates of the Bordeaux region. From May 7th - 17th I will be pleased to be in the company of fourteen members of Yale University's Epicurean Society. Our itinerary, designed by me and Lucas, the impressively capable and prepared President of their club, is jam-packed with all the culinary wonders of the southwest. My plan is to spoil silly these kids who have just come off of finals week, with 9 days of the world's best cheeses, glasses of ridiculously good wines, nightly feasts, and more!

If your appetite can handle it, keep checking in for updates throughout the week.

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