Saturday, September 19, 2015

Peter's Roasted Duck - Magret de Canard

In the Pyrenees Mountains duck is the poultry of choice: duck sausage, salami, confit, stews, cassoulet. The duck breast, or magret de canard, is simple to prepare and makes for an elegant dinner. I give all the credit to Peter, who has been cooking this dish for years in the family's home in SW France.

Duck breast is a great piece of meat: the meat is flavorful, best nearly raw, and kept moist by a thick layer of fat. David Lemasson is an excellent brand of local duck and geese products-- they also make fantastic foie gras.

Preparing the duck breast is simple:
1. Preheat the oven to 215° C or 420°F
2. Score the fat
3. Sprinkle with salt and pepper

A trick I stole from Peter was to layer the duck breast on a bed of ginger, just for a delicate taste that won't over power neither the flavor of the meat nor any sauces you may wish to use. Fat side up.

Pop into the oven for 20 minutes. The key to making good magret de canard is to let it sit! Don't worry: when it comes out after 20 minutes it will very rare. After sitting for 10-15 minutes, the meat is ready to be thinly sliced and served.

Having heaps of extra plums from the neighbor at hand, I made a Chinese-inspired plum sauce with star anise, cinnamon, ginger, a dash of vinegar, and a splash of soysauce.  For the recipe, try the first one listed here.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

August Cooking at Chateau de Bardies

August was a soft month in the town of Montesquieu-Avantès in the Pyrenees Mountains. Blessed with graceful sunny days that never scorched, and bursts of rainy grey days that never lingered too long, it was a lovely summer month to spend cooking in this big, rambling, curious house. Bardies puts on her best sunday dress when guests arrive and the many rooms that long sit dormant take on a new energy and buzz.  Alone, it's a home in which to reflect or to write; but once company piles in the walls cheer for another glass and the tables are more becoming with plates as multicolored as the surrounding gardens or the artwork on the walls. Ah, to dine in good company! And that we did.

Fennel, black olive, toasted pine nut and orange salad.

It's dusk and the table is set.

Grilled on the planca with nothing but a sprinkle of salt, these fresh zucchini were nutty and crisp. 

A lunch with Sylvie and Gil.

Left: a cold night calls for roasted chicken in a pot. Right: Phoebe's Pistachio Meringues

Lemon Syllabub. A freshly made lemon curd. Whipped marscarpone with white wine.
Grilled sardines and a squeeze of lemon.
And dinner begins: Agnes style!

I can be a bit of an old woman, but there is no better way to enjoy a whole fish than poached and served with a freshly made aioli. For Peter's birthday, the family selected a gorgeous salmon. Luckily there was a kettle large enough for this beauty. I nestled it in lemons, bay leaves, parsley and onions, covered it in salted water, brought it to a boil, and let it rest until just cooked through. Aioli is a treat and makes the most simply cooked vegetables served alongside the fish become vessels for the lemony, garlicky sauce.

Plums picked from the trees.
Breakfast at Bardies

Yogurt, beetroot soup.

No meal is complete without the cheese course.

Monday, August 10, 2015

What's Cooking Part I

This month I'll be cooking in Chateau de Bardies for a fantastic family and their many friends.

Here are a few quick photos I've snapped.

Our neighbor, and a dear friend, brought over this unusual vegetable in the squash family. I roasted it with salt, and served it as a puree with just a drizzle of French walnut oil. Simple and tasty as a side to roasted duck.

 Another treat from Christian the neighbor! These teeny plums are bursting with tangy flavor. Thank goodness I had an olive-pitter handy otherwise making this crumble would have taken ages.

 A hot sunny August lunch, and a cool lemony cold cucumber soup.

A quick summer lunch for two: a beet root tart with goat cheese, thyme and orange rind, and a simple salad. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Hiking in the Pyrenees Mountains

There is life in the Pyrenees, by which we tend to mean quaint villages, bustling biodynamic markets, and plenty of cheeses and saucissson; and then there is life in the actual high Mountains. Up in these heights, you reach another world.

 Upon returning to the area, I wasted no time in calling a good friend and experienced hiker. I needed to get up into these Mountains again.

We left the car by the Guzet ski station, which is already a fairly steep drive with stunning views of the surrounding, lush, green mountains. From here we followed a well-marked trail that led us onto cliff-faces with metal-hand grips drilled into the rock face to scurry across. Great! Up, up, up we climbed.

Head down to watch one's footfalls, a hike in the Pyrenees offers time to reflect. 

By the early afternoon we made our way to our Chalet, a small stone structure which was formerly a sheep herder's shelter. The departaments of France have generously up-kept many of these structures for hikers to spend the night free of charge.

A stone Chalet in the pyrenees, once used by sheep herder's, now a refuge for hikers.

No matter what you've brought along in your backpack-- no matter how melted, smushed, packaged, or bruised-- food is never so rewarding as high in the Mountains after a challenging climb. An apple feels like a celebration! A warm spoonful of food from a "just add water" packet tastes thoroughly fulfilling.   

On day two we climbed up to the nearest summit, about 2700m, from which we had a stunning view: rocks, valleys, towns that feel world's away, soaring birds of prey.

The descent was fun: a small glacier, a dip in a glacial pool, and climbing over and around big boulders. While hopping over granite rocks, careful of my footing, my brain registered shapes quickly. It seemed as though all of my childhood preparation of jungle-gyms and legos was destined for Mountain climbing. Child potential fulfilled!

The Mountains above Guzet. The notch in the ridge near the center-left is the border with Spain.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Domaine De Ravanes

Domaine De Ravanes - Marc Benin explaining his vineyards and land

What a man, what a vineyard! 

Marc Benin is a very clever person-- he is sharp, dynamic, generous, passionate, and adventurous. And you taste it all in his wines. Marc is the mad scientist of wine growers.

This is anything but ordinary. Domaine De Ravenes is a very particular vineyard. It breaks all of the rules, it veers off track, it gets creative, and it does it all fantastically. 

But how can a vineyard in such a strictly regulated wine-producing country like France be such a rebel? Marc got lucky for an experimental French enologist. He inherited a vineyard which does not have an AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée). Sure, this may make marketing a touch harder, but it gives Marc complete liberty to play. 

Domaine De Ravanes - Author, Lola Vardigans, takes a moment to take in the Languedoc light and vines

I'll be honest, I found Marc because of a review from Jancis Robinson who claimed that Marc's Merlot rivals Petrus. Come on, this has to perk anyone's interest. 

Let's see his wines. 

Domaine De Ravanes 

Sanceer & Sauvignon Blanc: Absolutely everything you want in a good-sipping Rose. This wine is exceptionally fresh, has a great scent of fresh ripe white fruits, and makes you hungry! 

Ibis Blanc, 2010: This is something to get a hold of. I warn you, it's strange, and it's likely not for everyone. Marc had some fun making this one. A 50 / 50 blend of grenache blanc and ugni blanc. Ugni blanc? Yes, it's the grape that famously makes cognac. And surprisingly, you can actually taste that cognac flavor in the final moments of its persistent finish. The smell is already incredible: hints of sulfur and minerals. Its well balanced with great acidity and a nice bite of mineral that adds some zing to the fruity flavors of the ugni blanc. 
2012: as above but a bit more fresh and acidic. I liked the bottle with a bit more age better, as the ungi tastes were more prevalent.

Domaine De Ravanes 

Le Renard Blanc 2011: Made from 80 year old vines, this wine is 85% Grenache gris, 15% Macabeau. This would be my summer party wine. It opens up to you with a great nose: tropical, cooked pineapple, fennel, lemony salad. The taste had great acidity and was quite aromatic (orange blossom, even bubble gum). Frankly, the aromatics make the wine one I'd prefer with food. 

Merlot / Cab 2010: Hang on, are we in the Languedoc? Yes. What makes Domaine De Ravanes so cool is that Marc takes from the best and makes it his own. Being a wine lover, of course a good Frenchman would only look to the Bordeaux region, the most famous region for the kings of grapes-- Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So he took them to the Languedoc where he rightly predicted that he could make something good. And he did. This wine has a pleasant, understated and balanced nose, which all comes through on the taste. It's nice.

Petit Verdot: Using pre-phylloxera vines, Marc makes one heck of a wine here. It's plush, balanced, fun, chalky, acidic, natural, fresh and with some tastes of cumin and spice. 

Domaine De Ravanes - Marc Benin 

Reserve '08: This is a lovely wine that I just wanted to sip more and more of. It could even use a few more years in the bottle. The nose was beautiful, with a coolness, the smell of soil and apple orchard. The taste was gamy with a bit of chew to it, and the long finish brought out balance and some tastes of baking spices.

Reserve Le Petit Verdot 2008: This rockstar has been en barrique for 40 months! The nose is exceptionally clean and fresh: it's great to just stick your nose into it and breathe! There are notes of new sneakers, leather and the moisture of a stone wall. The taste is austere, meaty, roasted, some rosemary. 

L'Ille 1998: This late harvest wine is 100% ugni blanc (again, the cognac grape). Left on the vines, these grapes pack in sugar making it a great cheese course wine. The nose has apple, cider, autumn and chilliness. The taste is sweet and sour… almost like a warhead candy with syrup and cider flavors. It begs a funky aged cheese! 

Domaine De Ravanes - Quinteszencia & L'Ille

Quinteszencia 20 Dec: This ugni blanc, late harvest has been en barrique for a whopping 76 months. This is a strange wine for a person who is as much a mad scientist drinker as Marc is a wine maker. It smelled a bit like a very aged balsamic (here we're getting the sugars and the wood) and tasted like toffee, carmel and walnuts. 

Here, I'll show you some photos of his beautiful vineyard and home. Not only is the wine fantastic, but this land just breathes vivacity and intrigue. 
A chapel in the woods of the property

Domain De Ravanes - the rugged land of the Languedoc