Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thank you - a great research trip!

I feel blessed. 

Throughout, I have always been showered with love. Of course, it started with my parents, but it continued. I have met the kindest people who I have the pleasure to hold forever as my best friends. I have been loved by the most generous, biggest hearted, most intelligent, creative, excited, respectful men. And the older I get the more I feel gratitude for this. 

When I made the decision to leave Chicago now nearly four years ago, I had purchased my ticket, started to pack up five years of belongings and collections, and planed to quit my job. A huge weight had been lifted at that moment because I had chosen. I was no longer in the phase of indecision that torments so many new graduates. I had chosen to leave Chicago and move to Italy. And after having made my choice, I was able to breathe deeply and enjoy the city. Perhaps the last symphony I went to -- my favorite Chicago ritual-- was Mitsuko Uchida's 23rd Mozart Piano concerto. 

I sat in my favorite seats on the lower right balcony. Amy and Brian attended and during the pause gifted me with the complete Piano Concertos so that I could ask to have it signed and get to meet Uchida herself. During the second half of the performance, the 23rd concerto, I felt the confines of my body matter blur as my happiness seemed to shake out of me and melt into everything surrounding me-- it melted into the height of the concert hall, into the flute who beckons the piano to come, it exhaled from my lungs which had been filled with deep breaths of charged, clean air. I felt that life was great. So big. So special. And here I was-- just a little element in it, but a little element who is treated so unbelievably well in it. 

Today I feel the same.

I had a difficult week, the events of which had tested the limits of my patience, grace, and stress levels. To add insult to injury, I had missed a much coveted Chateau visit and was feeling like the world's biggest idiot. But throughout the week someone was always there to share with me the joys of life and to teach me another of life's wonders-- my traveling companion, Lola, with whom I shared many great conversations, laughs, hotel rooms, meals, and adventures in wine country; Carla, the owner of Chateau Lamothe who welcomed me and made me feel at home for nearly a week; the troupe of humorous and good-hearted English visitors who had just the right joke to keep me laughing until my abs were sore; the winemakers in the Languedoc who invited me into their vines and fermentation rooms to teach me and share with me; Veronique in Provence who hosted me, fed me, and taught me so much... life never smelt so good!; Sabine in Toulouse who rode me around the ancient quarters of the city from the wheelbarrow attached to the front of her bicycle; and most recently, Jacques Thienpont, who has gifted me his time during two informative visits through Le Pin and Vieux Chateau Certan, his conversation, and a lovely meal in the company of two spirited young friends, and cumulated this sense of wonder and gratitude that now so inspires me. 

These last two weeks have felt like a year. I have lots to share with you, and I will post individually on each of the vineyards, hotels and restaurants who are cultivating beauty. 

So, here's to life! Thank you! 

With gratitude,

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Château Haut-Brion & La Mission

Château Haut-Brion is austere. 

The more vineyards I visit the more I notice that each has such cohesion and symmetry down to the details seemingly most irrelevant to the taste of the wine. 

I wonder if you lined up Château employees (owners, ambassadors, tour guides), could a good sommelier-- rather than pinpointing the vintages of a wine-- determine at which vineyard each individual worked based only on the reflection of the wine in their style, or vice-versa? 

Certainly these details are not overlooked, and an institution such as Château Haut-Brion spares no expense to align all details such that they compliment with the elegance and austerity one observes in its wine. 

Haut-Brion is located in Pessac-Léognan appellation just on the border of the confines of the metropolis Bordeaux. In fact, the first time I visited the Château I was surprised by the fact that I had hardly left the city when the grand gates sprang up before me. 

A visit starts with a movie. The noble voice of owner H.R.H. Prince Robert of Luxembourg introduces the viewer to his vineyard, taking one through the history, winemaking process, and, most importantly, underscoring what makes Haut Brion and La Mission so unique. The oldest of the First Growths in Bordeaux, Château Haut-Brion is also the first to give the name of its chateau to its wine, thereby creating one of the first "brands", and underscoring, the now ubiquitous ideal of all well-made clarets, terroir: the idea that a wine should express its particular land, climate and people.

The Château has its own onsite cooperage, in which wood from carefully selected parcels of forest is brought in on site to be hand-worked into barrels specifically created for the wine. Each barrel is toasted to give off delightful aromas of baking spices, vanilla, and general coziness. 

The cooperage at Chateau Haut-Brion


In terms of style, La Mission and Haut-Brion are strikingly similar. If you had invited them to dinner, despite their different dresses, you could certainly tell that they are sisters from their elegance. These are truly elegant wines. I would invite both sisters to dinner often, as they are not over-stated, slightly reserved, and slowly and intriguingly revel their secrets with great pleasure and patience. 

We tasted Château Haut-Brion 2007, and La Mission 2007. Despite their relatively young age, tasting this vintage was a pleasure as both wines are showing such balanced freshness, structure, and character. La Mission offered a truly spectacular nose with fragrances picked up from the toasted barrels, fresh ripe dark fruits, and earthiness. Though it goes without saying for most readers, it is important to note that the two wines are both of the highest-quality. Haut-Brion may be older and more famous, but its sibling is no small fish. 

The year 2007 was a tricky one: by no means ideal with its humid winter and spring, this year required a good amount of labour to secure such a lovely result. The 2007 Haut-Brion opens up very slowly, so slowly you hardly notice it and then you are sipping away with pleasure. She does not tire you. Intriguing, the drinker is urged to take another sip. It's soft with very well-integrated tannins, creating a nice round mouth feel. It's not worth describing the specifics of flavors: I cannot remember the exact words she said to me, but I will never forget the overall effect of her presence. 

I'd gladly enjoy many more bottles of this.  

The tasting room of Chateau Haut-Brion

Comparing La Mission and Haut-Brion

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.