Thursday, 28 May 2009

Bayonne Ham, the Basque and Gascon Pigs and Recipe

Bayonne Ham can only be made from one of the 8 designated breeds of pig and depending on where they are situated the locals will tell you that the best comes from either the traditional Basque pig (Pie Noir du Pays Basque) or the Gascon Black pig.

The Basque Pig

The Basque pig originates in the Basque country, Béarn and the Haut Pyrenees regions of south west France. Nearly extinct in the early 80’s it owes its survival to the perseverance of a handful of local breeders. From 140,000 pigs in 1929, the number of Basque pigs had dropped to just 20 in 1981 when the breed was designated an endangered species. A few years later a group of farmers from the beautiful Aldudes valley, led by Pierre Oteiza, decided to save the pig from oblivion and return to traditional methods of breeding and salting. Oteiza tells of how he discovered his home region's rare breed of pig when he went to the Easter Show in Paris in 1988. Instead of returning with a diamond ring for his fiancée, he turned up with two pigs under his arms.

The pigs live outside all year round, foraging for food on the wooded hillsides of the Aldudes Valley. Their diet of chestnuts, acorns and roots is supplemented by a daily helping of grains and beans to ensure that the pigs don’t roam too far from the farms. Oteiza has built traditional hay-stacked sties with a chestnut tree in each enclosure so that the pigs can graze on the windfalls.

The Basque Pig is easily recognized with its black head and bottom, and its big ears!

The Black Gascon

The Gascon pigs used in ham making are black and the heritage breed is the Noir de Bigorre pig. This is claimed to be the most ancient breed of pig known in France. The geographer Strabo himself, in Roman times, praised the quality of black pigs, claiming "they were the best of the Empire."

Similar to the Spanish Iberico, this breed is deep black in colour and originated in the foothills of the French Pyrenees in the area around Nébouzanne, which stretches between the departments of Haute-Garonne, Haute-Pyrénées and Gers. The Gascon Black Pig has been revived as a species in the French Pyrenees after their numbers dropped to just a few hundred in the late 1970s.

The most important product made from the Noir de Bigorre pig is an air cured whole ham, called Noir de Bigorre. These hams cure from 18 to 24 months and are served thinly hand-sliced at room temperature. The ham is fine-flavoured with a warm, long-lasting scent and flavour. Other specialities made from Noir de Bigorre pig include cured sausage and rolled bacon, both of which can be aged.


Pipérade is a Basque dish, traditionally prepared with Espelette peppers – the colours coincidentally reflect the colours of the Basque flag.

2 onions, finely chopped
6 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 green peppers, cut into strips
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt, pepper
9 fresh eggs, beaten
6 pieces sliced Bayonne ham

Sauté the onions in the olive oil for about 5 mins. Add the tomatoes, bell peppers, and garlic, and cook gently until almost all the juices have evaporated. Pour the beaten eggs over the vegetables. Over low heat, stir the mixture so that it resembled soft scrambled eggs. Season with salt and pepper and then add the ham before serving.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Bayonne Ham

Bayonne Ham (Jambon de Bayonne) takes its name from the ancient port of Bayonne in the far South West of France. Contrary to common belief, the ham was not born in this city, but comes from the surrounding of the valley of the Adour. The hams were transported to Bayonne for shipment in Galupa (flat-bottomed boats) on the Adour. Originally used to supplement farmers provisions over the winter months the Bayonne Ham very quickly became a sought after delicacy. Bayonne Ham is slightly golden, sweet, delicately flavoured, moist and with very little salt to the taste. If cut thinly, is almost translucent.

Bayonne Ham is an air dried, salt cured ham which is similar to Prosciutto. The salt used in the production of Bayonne ham is locally produced, from the 14th century salt pans of the Adour Estuary or from those near Béarn (200 million years ago this area was beneath sea level), and many hams are also rubbed with locally-grown red peppers (Piment d'Esplette) during the air drying process. Most Bayonne hams are also rubbed with a paste of lard and flour to keep them moist through the warmer and drier spring and summer months. When handled and cured well, Bayonne ham is dark red in colour, with a very tender, mild flavour which has only a hint of saltiness.

The modern drying methods mimic those used in the past. Each drying storage chamber has temperature and humidity controls set to match seasonal variations and the changing humidity conditions produced each year by the foehn (southerly wind) and the Atlantic ocean.

The meat itself has to be produced from one of eight clearly defined breeds of pig reared in an area from Deux Sèvres in the north to Aveyron and the Aude. The regulations are very strict and cover the zone of origin of the pork, the regime for feeding the animals (no steroids, no fish oils, no antibiotics), and each animal must be clearly and uniquely identifiable with a brand – the traditional Croix Basque or Lauburu also known as the Basque Cross.

The origins of how Bayonne Ham came about are long lost in the mists of time but legend has it that in the 16th century the Count of Foix and Viscount of Béarn was hunting Wild Boar one winter The hunting party chased the Boar into the saline springs at Salies de Béarn. The following season the Boar was discovered perfectly preserved at the bottom of the stream, dried and salted. Covered with a thin white layer, it seemed in perfect condition. On tasting it they found it excellent and thus Bayonne Ham was born!

Bayonne Ham certainly existed as far back as the 12th century - on the portal of the church of Sainte-Marie Oloron, there is a carving in the stone representing it at the depicted Wedding of Cana. Henry IV enjoyed Bayonne Ham, requesting it at his Court in Paris, Rabelais wrote about it and Louis XI authorized two annual fairs in Bayonne in 1462 for its promotion – the Spring Fair survives to this day.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Landes Grey Goose, Aquitaine Foie Gras and Recipes

Geese in the Landes are fed on Landes grown maize and in certain parts of France, goose fat still takes the place of butter or oil in cooking, particularly in the South Western regions of Aquitaine, Gascony and Périgord. Traditional dishes include pommes sarladaises (potatoes cooked in goose fat), Confit (from the French verb confir, which means to preserve), which is essentially goose cooked slowly and then cooled in its own fat and Cassoulet, a classic French bean stew which is flavoured with Confit.

The Grey Landes Geese have the Toulouse Goose and the White Poitou Goose in their ancestry. The Poitou is said to have been introduced in Poitiers under the Dukes of Aquitaine by some Dutch gentlemen who settled in that town. The Landes grey Geese were bred for their flesh, feathers and down. Traditionally the fattened geese were taken to market on Saint Martin's Day (11th November). Long after Saint Martin's death, two legends were told connecting Saint Martin with geese. One legend says that on hearing that he was to be the new Bishop of Tours, Saint Martin hid in a goose barn, thinking he wasn't worthy of the honourable office. The loud honking of the geese betrayed him, though. Another legend says that noisy geese disturbed a service Saint Martin held, which annoyed him so much that they ended up as a roast on the table and have done so ever since.

The Martin's goose was said to have healing powers. Its fat (rubbed in) was thought to help against gout and its blood against fever. A feather from the left wing, burnt and mixed with wine, was believed to be a miracle cure for epilepsy. Even the wishbone of a goose had a meaning: if two people held one end each and broke it, the one with the larger end was thought to have their wish fulfilled. If the bone was pale and white, the winter was expected to be meagre and cold but if it was of a red colour, supplies were expected to last through the winter. It is said, too, that one can predict what sort of Winter one will have by the conditions of St. Martin's Day: "If the geese at Martin’s Day stand on ice, they will walk in mud at Christmas."

For gastronomes, the Landes, with Gascony, is France's largest foie gras producing area. Foie gras is a popular and well-known delicacy in French cuisine. It is the liver of a goose (or duck) that has been specially fattened through force feeding the bird maize or corn – and as such is controversial. Its flavour is described as rich, buttery, and delicate, unlike that of a regular duck or goose liver. Foie gras is sold whole, or is prepared into mousse, parfait, or pâté, and is often served as an accompaniment to another food item, such as steak.

Foie Gras has been produced since the time of the ancient Egyptians who noticed that migrating geese built up energy reserves to prepare for the long flight by fattening themselves. After the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans continued goose and duck fattening. The word liver (foie in French) comes from the Roman population, who used to eat fattened geese liver with figs: ficatum. Pliny the Elder in the 1st century credited his contemporary, Roman gastronome Marcus Gavius Apicius, with feeding dried figs to geese in order to enlarge their livers.

After the fall of the Roman empire, goose liver temporarily vanished from European cuisine. Some claim that Gallic farmers preserved the foie gras tradition until the rest of Europe rediscovered it centuries later, but the medieval French peasant's food animals were mainly pig and sheep. Others claim that the tradition was preserved by the Jews, who learned the method of enlarging a goose's liver during the Roman colonisation of Israel or earlier from Egyptians. The Jews carried this culinary knowledge as they migrated farther north and west to Europe.

Roast Goose with Pears

1 goose
salt & pepper
2 tsp ground ginger
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 orange, sliced
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion, chopped
8 pears, peeled, cored and quartered
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
6 tbsp sugar
1 ½ cups pear liqueur
2 ½ cups chicken stock
1 tbsp flour

Pre heat the oven to a slow/medium heat. Remove the giblets and neck from the cavity. Pull out any lumps of fat. Using a sharp fork, pierce the skin of the goose all over. Rinse the goose inside and out; pat dry with absorbent paper. Sprinkle inside and out with salt, pepper, and 1 tsp ginger. Poke a few slits in the skin of the cavity. Place garlic slices into body cavity slits. Place the carrots, onion, and celery into the body cavity.

Tie the bird up. Place the goose on rack, breast side up, in large roasting pan. Place the orange slices on top of the bird. Roast the goose 1 ½ hours, basting with drippings. When the wings begin to brown, cover with aluminium foil. Turn goose over, breast side down. Cover the wings with aluminium foil. The roasting pan will have accumulated lots of fat; spoon 6 tbsp into a metal bowl and reserve.

Roast for another 1 hour and let the goose rest, covered, for 10 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the pears so they can be roasted with the goose. Toss pears and lemon juice in large bowl. Pour 6 tbsps goose fat into large baking dish. Place the pears in baking dish and toss with fat. Add sugar, ½ cup liqueur and remaining ginger to pears; toss. Bake pears alongside goose until very tender and golden, about 1 hour. Spoon the pears into a serving dish with a slotted spoon to reserve as much liquid as possible. Pour the liquid into a saucepan, add the stock and remaining liqueur. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half a cup. Sprinkle in flour while whisking and continue to cook a few more minutes so it is slightly thickened. Serve goose with caramelized pears.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Barbary Duck and Château de Sainte Hélène, Sauternes

Traditionally Sauternes are paired with desserts, crystallised fruits and chocolate but Château Sainte Hélène can accompany rich dishes such as Confit de Canard very well indeed. Sauternes can also be paired with fish such as monk fish, prawns, scallops and sea bass as well as Roquefort cheese. Chicken is very often served with Sauternes and creamy sauces made with ginger, honey and spices bring out the fragrance of the wine.

Château de Sainte Hélène is the second wine of the Second Growth (2ème Cru) Château de Malle (see Discovering M de Malle). Sainte Hélène has the creamy sweet taste of honeysuckle, orange peel, apricots, cinnamon and honey. It is made by the same team as the first wine and the cultivation of the vineyard is carried out with the same measure of rigorous attention and meticulous care. The wine is made following the same classical tradition as for great Sauternes and is the result of a draconian selection process.

Château de Sainte Hélène is produced from vines that are 10 to 15 years old and the grapes are 68% Semillon, 29% Sauvignon Blanc and 3% Muscadelle. However the variations in proportion used in the final blend may fluctuate between 10% and 15 %, depending upon the vintage, in order to benefit from the various characteristics desirable in the wine : youthfulness, freshness and finesse. Only grapes fully infected by Noble Rot, botrytis cinerea, are vintaged by successive selective pickings.

Sauternes is 25 miles south east of the city of Bordeaux and is in Graves and is famous for producing sweet dessert wines. Sauternes lies in the hollow where the river Garonne and its tributary the Ciron converge and its vineyards span 4,500 acres. The source of the Ciron is a spring which has cooler waters than the Garonne. In the autumn, when the climate is warm and dry, the different temperatures from the two river meet to produce mist that descends upon the vineyards from dusk till dawn. The mist helps the development of the botrytis cinerea fungus (known as noble rot). Noble Rot makes the the grape concentrate the flavours and sugars whilst keeping a high level of acidity. By mid day, the warm sun will help dissipate the mist and dry the grapes to keep them from developing less favourable rot.

Making Sauternes is labour intensive - grapes have to be hand picked so that only those with Noble Rot are selected and yields can be low. It is said that one grape vine only makes enough juice to make one glass of wine. Although these are dessert wines their sweetness is not cloying due to their zesty acidity. Flavours can include apricots, peaches, dried pineapple, nuts and honey and the finish lasts on the palate for a long time. Their colour is gold which darkens with time to a deep copper. The wine should be served chilled at around 11ºC. These dessert wines have an incredible ability to age and continue to develop for decades.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Le Canard de Barbarie - Muscovy Duck

The Muscovy duck was brought to France in the 16th century and despite it's name (Muscovy means from the Moscow region) the duck is native to South America. It's known in France as Canard de Barbarie – Barbary being the region of North Africa on the Mediterranean coast between Egypt and Gibraltar which was used as a base for pirates from the 16th to 19th centuries. Perhaps it was given this name to signify that the duck came from foreign climes. It's not clear either why this duck acquired the name of Muscovy in English – one theory has it that the Muscovy Company traded these ducks to Europe after 1550, another connects the species with the Muisca, a Native American nation in today's Colombia and believes that the Muscovy's name is a corruption of theirs.

The Muscovy is bred in Les Landes and is popular as they are large birds with stronger-tasting meat – sometimes compared to roast beef – than the usual domestic ducks which are the descendants of the Mallard. In fact the Muscovy is the only domesticated duck that is not descended from the Mallard. The meat is lean, unlike the fatty meat of mallard-derived ducks, its leanness and tenderness being often compared to that of veal. The Muscovy Duck is also much heavier than that of most other domestic ducks, which make it ideal for the dinner table.

Other duck breeds in France are the Canard Nantais (the Nantes Duck - originally from France’s Vendée region, an area once known for its marshland, long since drained, where migratory birds would make an annual stop-over), the Canard Rouennais (the Rouen Duck - the domesticated variety of a now-rare mallard variety) and the Canard Challans (the Challans Duck). Legend has it that the duck of Challans originated in 1650 from a cross between wild ducks and ducks brought over to France by Spanish sailors. Sometimes known as a Black Barbary, the Challans was once the preserve of French Kings, was served to Hiro Hito the Emperor of Japan and graced the wedding feast of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. It has also been served for over 100 years as the speciality of La Tour d'Argent, one of the most famous Parisian restaurants, known as "Canard au Sang".

Confit is a speciality of the Aquitaine and is the French for “preserved” - Confit of Duck is duck legs that have been cured (partly or fully) in salt, then marinated and poached in duck fat, typically with garlic and other herbs.

Confit de Canard

Duck Legs, with thighs (one or two per person)

Coarse salt, pepper, thyme, bay, etc.

Extra duck fat (you can strip the carcass rather than buy fat).

The classic preparation uses a fattened bird for use as fois gras. Slowly cooking the meat in its own fat keeps the flavours and juices from escaping, while the salt and gentle heat convert tough collagens into delicate gelatines which makes the meat moist and mouth wateringly tender.

Mix coarse salt with an almost equal quantity of herbs and spices. Rub the flesh and skin of each leg with this mixture. Leave covered in a cool place for 12-48 hours. (The cure can be varied: try dried tangerine peel or crushed juniper berries in place of thyme, for example.) Wipe the excess salt from the meat with kitchen paper towel. Lay the legs out, skin-side-up, on a baking tray with sides deep enough to catch the fat, and sear in a hot oven until the skin is nicely brown (about 15 minutes). Pack the legs in a casserole; add the fat rendered from the legs, and sufficient extra fat to cover the meat - it doesn't matter if the legs stick out. Put the covered casserole in a slow oven) for 90 minutes. The legs can be kept, in their fat, in the refrigerator for several weeks, or used immediately. Try to give them a few days for the flavour to develop, before succumbing to temptation.

To serve - remove the duck from its fat, and lay it out on a deep-sided baking tray. (Warm the casserole if necessary until the fat melts.) Cook in a hot oven for about 15 minutes, transfer the legs to a warmed serving platter, draining excess fat off each one.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Montagnac Chardonnay and White Asparagus

Asparagus and wine are one of the hardest food pairings to make but Montagnac Chardonnay would accompany it very well indeed. Chardonnay is the grape responsible for some of the world’s greatest white wines, has become so fashionable and familiar to consumers it is now an international brand. In bars and restaurants all over the world you hear people asking for "a glass of Chardonnay" – but it doesn’t all taste the same!

In fact, the variety of styles of Chardonnay continues to increase as winemakers experiment further and it is planted in an ever growing number of locations. Although it is planted everywhere now, from Lebanon to Argentina, some of the best value Chardonnays are produced in areas such as the Languedoc in the south of France.

You can see how wide the scope of the Chardonnay grape is when you realise that many of the world’s best sparkling wines, including Champagne, rely on Chardonnay as part of their blend. Chardonnay is also used to make the Chablis wines in Burgundy. The fact that Chardonnay grapes are used to make Chablis surprises many people who dislike the Oaked Chardonnays that have been mass produced using oak chips (Montagnac Chardonnay is un-oaked, crisp and fresh – and half the price!)

One of the great advantages of wines from the Chardonnay grape is the ability to take on oak flavours from the barrels in which they are matured and sometimes fermented. However this was over-milked and some wine producers over oaked their Chardonnays – this was particularly the case in Australia and California, which went through a phase of producing wines so over-oaked that it was difficult to detect the flavour of the grape. Although the consumers are now discovering the beauty of un-oaked Chardonnay there are still some wines that are drastically over-oaked, however; sometimes, one suspects, to obscure the mediocrity of the underlying wine.

When you contemplate buying a bottle of Chardonnay, read the front and back labels carefully. Somewhere there will usually be a statement of the oakiness to be expected. Look for phrases like ‘barrel fermented' and 'matured in oak barrels'. Only tasting the wines will tell you whether they have got the balance right or to your taste.

Whatever style you prefer, you are guaranteed to see more progress and developments in the type of Chardonnay produced around the world in the future.

Montagnac Chardonnay comes from Hérault in the Languedoc. The Languedoc-Roussillon region shares many terrain and climate characteristics with the neighbouring regions of Southern Rhone and Provence. The region stretches 150 miles from the Banyuls AOC at the Spanish border and Pyrenees in the west, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to the Rhone River and Provence in the east. The northern boundaries of the region sit on the Massif Central with the Cévennes mountain ranges and valleys dominating the area. Many vineyards are located along the Hérault River. Some of the vineyards are laid on top of ancient riverbed stones similar to those of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Due to its location its terroir produces wines with some dense and complex aromas reflecting the diversity of the terrain. With the mountains on one side and the Mediterranean the other side the Languedoc is becoming a popular wine growing region.

The history of Languedoc wines can be traced to the first vineyards planted along the coast near Narbonne by the early Greeks in the 5th century BC. Along with parts of Provence, these are the oldest planted vineyards in France. The region of Languedoc has belonged to France since the thirteenth century and the Roussillon was acquired from Spain in the mid 17th century. The two regions were joined as one administrative region in the late 1980s.

From the 4th century onwards the Languedoc had a reputation for producing high quality wine. In Paris during the 14th century, wines from the St. Chinian area were prescribed in hospitals for their "healing powers”. During both World Wars the Languedoc was responsible for providing the daily wine rations given to French soldiers.

The region's Mediterranean climate is very conducive to growing grapes. The tramontane inland wind from the north west often accentuates the dry climate. The composition of soil in the Languedoc varies from the chalk, limestone and gravel based soils inland to more alluvial soils near the coast.

The wide range of growing soils, as well as the winemaker's influence, produces a diverse spectrum of Chardonnay wines with varying characteristics. Their flavours can be described as buttery, creamy, nutty, smoky and steely; popular fruit descriptors include apple, lemon, melon, and pineapple.

Montagnac Chardonnay is pale gold in colour, crisp and fruity. It produces flavours and aromas of summer flowers, green apples, tart lemons and vanilla. In the mouth it is smooth and simple with good acidity and plenty of fruit flavours coming through with the added attraction that there is no presence of oak! It leaves you with a “clean” mouth feel unlike the Oaked Chardonnays at the other end of the spectrum which are heavier and has gone through a process called malolactic conversion/fermentation to give it a thicker, more viscous feel in the mouth.

The Chardonnay grape’s origins are believed to be from the Pinot family on one side and Gouais Blanc (a nearly extinct grape variety) on the other. The Gouais Blanc grape originated in Croatia and is believed to have arrived in France with the Romans. The Chardonnay grape is also called Beaunois, Gamay Blanc, Melon d'Arbois, and Pinot Chardonnay. A ripe Chardonnay grape is a golden yellow in colour with plenty of juice. Grapes are small, fragile, thin skinned and require careful handling during harvest.

The ideal foods to pair with Montagnac Chardonnay are Tuna, Oysters, Chicken and Pork. It’s ideal for summer salad dishes and BBQs. Sea food products are an essential part of the Languedoc Roussillon cuisine and their wines marry with the local produce.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

White Asparagus in Aquitaine

Les Landes and Blayais are renowned for their white asparagus which flourishes in the sandy soil there. The two varieties grown are the Sable des Landes Asparagus (Sabline) and the Reine Blanche du Blayais.
White asparagus is considered to be slightly milder in flavour and a bit more tender than green asparagus. The colouring of asparagus depends on the length of its exposure to the sun. Asparagus has a leaf bud which lengthens underground searching for light, and becomes coloured when it is exposed to it. This is why the producer has a real race against the clock to obtain beautifully fleshy white asparagus – it's labour intensive and this explains its high price.

Asparagus has been used from very early times as a vegetable and medicine, owing to its delicate flavour and medicinal properties. A syrup of asparagus is still employed medicinally in France: and at Aix-les-Bains it forms part of the cure for rheumatic patients to eat Asparagus. The name Asparagus is derived from a Greek word signifying the tearer, in allusion to the spikes; or perhaps from the Persian spurgas, a shoot.

There is a recipe for cooking asparagus in the oldest surviving book of recipes, Apicius' 3rd century De Re Coquinaria. So prized were these perennial shoots by the Romans that not only did they enjoy eating them in season but they were also the first to preserve it by freezing as early as the 1st Century AD when fast chariots would take the fresh asparagus from the Tiber River area to the Alps where it kept for six months until the Feast of Epicurus. The Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus coined the phrase 'velocius quam asparagi conquantur', meaning to do something faster than you can cook asparagus.

The Romans are responsible for having introduced asparagus to England, where it gradually gained favour with the nobles and by the early 16th century, it was widely served in many of the Royal courts of Europe. France's King Louis XIV even grew it in hothouses so he could enjoy it year-round. Near Narbonne asparagus used to be grown in between the rows of vines!

White asparagus has a shorter history. The technique of moulding earth around asparagus spears as they push up out of the ground, thus keeping them sheltered from chlorophyll-producing sunlight (which would turn them green), was apparently developed in France in the mid-1600s, and the practice soon spread to Germany and other parts of Europe.

Le Gratin d'Asperges (Asparagus in a Cheese Sauce)

1 ½ lb white (you can use green if white is unavailable) asparagus
2 oz butter
6 oz belly pork
1 pt béchamel sauce
2 oz grated cheese

Wash and cut the asparagus, keeping only the tender tips (you can use the stalks to flavour a soup). Heat half the butter in a frying pan and add the asparagus and pork. Add a pinch of the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover, reduce the heat and leave to cook until the asparagus is soft.
Make the béchamel sauce and fold in the asparagus and pork. Tip this into a buttered gratin dish, cover the top with the grated cheese and dot with the remaining butter. Bake in a hot oven until the top is crispy and golden.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Brissonnet Tinto and Cèpe de Bordeaux

Mushrooms are one of the most difficult foods to match with wine - the general rule when it comes to matching a wine with your mushroom dish is based on how they are cooked i.e. what the sauces and spices are. French cuisine advocates that “less is more” so in other words keep it simple and you will be able to taste the flavour of the mushrooms. Cèpe de Bordeaux have a slightly nutty taste, likened to hazelnuts and are slightly meaty, with a smooth, creamy texture so a soft, low tannin, spicy and complex red wine like the red Spanish Brissonnet would go very well.

The Brissonnet has a very pronounced nose with good ripe fruit. It's a very powerful fruity wine on the front palate, it's concentrated with no acidity and its cherry red colour with violet bloom are typical of its youth. Brissonnet is made with the Grenache grape – which is called Garnacha in Spain where it is particularly important in Rioja. Grenache is thought to have originated in Aragon but has since spread over the Pyrenees into Southern France. Grenache is the dominant variety in most Southern Rhone wines and some Chateauneuf du Papes are made entirely from extremely old Grenache vines. The Grenache grape does well in hot, dry regions, and its strong stalk makes it well suited for windy conditions. It ripens with very high sugar levels and is sometimes used to make fortified wines, including the red vins doux naturels of Roussillon such as Banyuls. In Ribera del Duero it is one of the grape varieties used in the fabled Vega Sicilia, one of Winston Churchill’s favourite wines.
Grenache has aromas and flavours of black pepper, rich black olive, dark chocolate, roasted game and sweet red fruits. It's a dark inky purple grape with thick durable skin and a vibrant red interior and is sometimes called Tintorera which refers to the red dye like quality the grape has in the wine.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Cèpe de Bordeaux

Cèpes are edible mushrooms from the Boletus family (more commonly known as porcini) and are a favourite ingredient in French gastronomy. The Cèpes de Bordeaux get their name from the old Gascon word cep which means trunk (due to its fat stalk) and from Bordeaux as they cluster in the wooded areas there and were shipped from the port there. The physician of Henry IV said in 1606 that the Gascons delighted in their Cèpes and they were traded between Bordeaux and Saint-Domingue in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the chef of the Grand Café Anglais in Paris (and author of "Treaty of Bordelaise Cuisine), Alcide Bonton, included Cèpes in the dishes of the day and their reputation was assured.

Cèpe de Bordeaux have caps ranging from brown to fawn and when the mushroom is young, the cap is smooth, dry and round like a champagne cork. They taste of hazelnuts and are slightly meaty, with a smooth, creamy texture. They can be eaten raw, canned or dried but are often eaten in soups, omelettes and risottos, as accompaniments to steaks or ground into pasta.

Cèpes a la Bordelaise

4 tbsp butter
2 tsp lemon juice
1 lb cèpes
3tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp shallots
½ tsp minced garlic
pinch salt
pinch freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

Melt the butter with the lemon juice in a frying pan. Add the cèpes, cover, and cook, for 5 mins. Add the olive oil, increase the heat, and cook, stirring, for 2 mins. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the shallots, garlic, salt, and pepper, and cook, stirring, for 3 mins. Remove from the heat , sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Chateau Toumalin and Bordeaux Beef

Château Toumalin is a classic French wine from Canon Fronsac and is the perfect accompaniment to Bordeaux beef dishes. Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac sit side by side with Saint Emilion and Pomerol. It is a small estate of only 8 hectares and is owned by Paul Bernard d' Arfeuille. Wines from this area are less well known than their famous neighbours but their wines are excellent and undervalued so you can buy wines that are made with great care but don’t cost a fortune. Nick discovered Château Toumalin and we both think it suits discerning palettes and lovers of traditional Bordeaux wine. It’s exclusive to Bordeaux-Undiscovered and you won’t find it anywhere else in the UK!

Canon-Fronsac wines keep well and are a great choice when you are buying wine to lay down. The fine reputation this area enjoys in France is gradually becoming known around the world so from this perspective wines laid down in cellars now may well be an investment for the future.

Château Toumalin is gorgeous, shining, deep ruby crimson colour, has aromas of black fruit enhanced by a note of blueberry and with hints of roasted wood. It is fine, strong and ageable and gives an ample, full, sensation on the palate with refined tannins. The well balanced finish is pleasantly long-lasting and silky.

Château Toumalin is a little gem and will compliment stronger flavoured meats such as Feathered Game, Wild Boar and Venison whilst being equally complimentary to Casseroles and Stews. A Rump Steak would be perfect with it and it will enhance the meatier Pasta Dishes. Vegetarian Dishes based on Aubergines, Peppers and Cheese also pair well with this wine. Cheeses like Brie and Camembert are known for bringing out the complex fruity flavour of Canon-Fronsac wines. It goes well with French cheeses like Cantal, Comté. Maroilles, Reblochon, Saint-Nectaire and Langres.

The Fronsac and Canon-Fronsac wine region is a lovely area of hills along the Dordogne and
l'Isle rivers, west of Saint Émilion. Until the 19th centuries, Fronsac wine was one of the most popular in the region. Merlot is the most important grape giving to the wine body and richness although the wine keeps a strong personality. Château Toumalin is made from 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc.

Although the Canon-Fronsac appellation area is relatively small (283 hectares - 700 acres), it boasts an excellent terroir for vines. The soil is clayey-limestone, with some sand on the lower-lying land nearest to the Dordogne, on a limestone base, the Molasses de Frondasais. Like Saint Emilion, the area is honeycombed with quarries and man-made caves, many of which are now used for the cultivation of mushrooms.

The landscape is dotted with small hillocks and deep valleys. Along with its vegetation of holm oaks, the area has a Mediterranean feel to it, which is accentuated by hot, dry and windy weather. The climate is one of mild winters, early springs, typically hot summers and long, warm, pleasant autumns.

If you are wondering where the name "Canon" comes from it may be due to the fact that ships anchored on the Dordogne upstream of St. Michel de Fronsac in the 1600s used the western flank of the Fronsac hill as a landmark to fire salvos into the marshes, the only area at the time which was not given over to cultivation. The aim of these trials was to test the ballistics and power of the ships' canons. It was even possible to measure their range, by observing where the canon balls fell into the marsh.

There are some who claim that Fronsac was the first vineyard in Bordeaux. The vineyards descend down from the limestone bluff, the Tertre de Fronsac, and more than 12 centuries ago, the Emperor Charlemange commanded a fortress to be built in 769 to control the neighbouring area and to defend the Libournais against marauding pirates. The site was known as Fransiacus - the Chateau of the Francs.

Charlemagne was so fond of the red wine from his fine Corton vineyards in Burgundy that, in his enthusiasm, he would sometimes spill it, colouring his noble beard. His wife felt the stains were hardly appropriate for her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor. To silence her complaints, he ordered some of the red-wine vines of Corton uprooted and replaced with white.

He ordered that crushing of wine grapes no longer be done with the feet, but that a mechanical screw press be used. Likewise, wine was no longer to be stored in skins, but in wooden kegs instead. Charlemagne also introduced the securing of the wine barrels with metal hoops for transport.

He liked cheese as well as wine, pronouncing Brie to be "one of the most marvellous of foods," and ordered two crates a year. Viticulture became so successful during Charlemagne's reign that there was an excess of wine. Thus, "banvin" had to be imposed, which meant none of the tenants could sell their wine until the lord had sold his own. The ultimate indication of his affection for the vine occurred when he renamed the months of the year in his own language. October became "windume-monath" that is, the month of the wine harvest.

My favourite meal with Château Toumalin is Bordeaux Entrecote Steak and it is traditionally grilled in the open air over vine twigs. Luckily we have a vine clambering up the side of the barn so I can toss some of its stems on the BBQ. Don’t worry if you haven’t got access to vine twigs – the wine will more than make up for it!

Entrecôte grillé aux Sarments de Vignes
(Prime Sirloin Steak grilled on vine twigs)

2 entrecôte steaks
4 to 5 shallots
salt and pepper

Chop the shallots into fine slices and fry them in a knob of butter until tender. Get a good fire going with the vine branches. Once the flames have gone down, place the grill over the embers and wait a moment and then put the steaks on the grill. Cook for 4 minutes on one side and then turn the meat over and place the shallots on the top. Cook the other side for 4 minutes. 4. Add salt only once the steaks are cooked, and pepper when served on the plates. The ideal garnish is Bordeaux’s cèpe mushrooms.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Bordeaux Beef

Bordeaux is famous for its Entrecôte Steaks à la Bordelaise and for the ancient breeds of cattle that were once used as draft oxen to pull carts carrying weapons and goods. They were used for all kinds of agricultural and forest work, hauling wood and working in the vineyards up to the end of the 1950’s.

The Blonde d'Aquitaine

The Blonde d'Aquitaine is emblematic of these Bordeaux breeds. They are large sized, (1.50 meters at the withers and approximately one ton), well muscled, hardy animals with a docile nature, harking back to their days as beasts of burden. The Blonde d'Aquitaine have wheat coloured coats with white horns ending in blonde tips.

The origin of the Blonde d'Aquitaine cattle dates back to the 6th century in the South West of France. At this time, invaders entered France from central Europe and were used by the invaders to draw their carts full of plunder back to Portugal, Spain and Germany. These "Bos Aquitaine", as they were called, were chosen for their strength and robustness and for the their tender marbled meat, low in fat and for their milk.

The Blonde d'Aquitaine result from the merger of three different branches: the Quercy, the Garonnais and the Blonde des Pyrenees. These cattle are from the southwest part of France: from the plains of Garonne, the hills of Garonne, and the Pyrenees Mountains. The Garonnais were well suited to meat production, so much so, that during the 18th century, they were known as "the good cows that fed Paris".

The Bazadais

The Bazadais breed originates from the historic town of Bazas to the south of Gironde (approximately 30 miles from the city of Bordeaux). They are a light steel grey/sable colour with black hooves and have great stature. Bazadais is an ancient working cattle breed, once widespread from the forests of Les Landes, the marshes of the Gironde, the foothills of the Pyrenees to the vineyards of Bordeaux. At one stage Bazas beef very nearly disappeared; it was gourmets who saved it and now 180 French breeders are working to safeguard this heritage which has such a strong genetic potential.

The Bazadaise is an old breed of cattle possibly originating in Africa and arriving in Europe several hundred years ago with the Moors. They are highly adaptable to any terrain and will extract the best from any type of country and used to summer on mountain pastures up to 2400m high (7200ft). They were a working breed, vigorous, strong and resilient and are valued for their endurance to cold and heat and ability to cope with rugged, poor terrain. Today the Bazadaise is gaining a worldwide reputation for the fine flavoured low fat and well marbled meat.

The Bordelaise

The Bordelaise cattle, named for Bordeaux, are on the point of extinction. It was thought that this breed had completely disappeared about 30 years ago, until some animals were discovered in several parts of south west France. There is now a conservation programme: Conservatoire des Races d'Aquitaine in place to restore their numbers.

The Bordelaise is a dairy breed which originated from Dutch and Breton blood. They are black with a white speckled body (sometimes white spots). Their head and legs are always black.

The cows ranged on poor heathland and marshes, providing milk and butter as well as manure for the large vineyards of the Medoc and Graves. The reason for their loss of numbers was the introduction of the Friesian.

Beef Fillet with Périgueux Sauce

Périgueux Sauce is named for the ancient city of Périgueux in the Périgord region of Southwest France that is noted for its truffles. It's is traditionally served with Tournedos Rossini (beef fillet topped with a slice of foie gras).

Fillet of beef
3 tbsp olive oil
4 shallots
1 tbsp flour
20 cl dry white wine
20 cl beef stock
2 tbsp cognac
1 whole truffle or a small tin of truffle pieces
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C) and place the roast in an oven proof dish with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Peel and chop the shallots. (If you are using fresh truffles, peel them.) Cook the roast for 20-25 mins in the oven, depending on how well done you like it. When it is cooked, take it out of the oven, season with salt and pepper and wrap it in aluminium foil to keep warm.

Périgueux Sauce

Fry the shallots in 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan without letting them brown. When they are soft, sprinkle them with flour, stir it in, immediately add the white wine, mix well with a wooden spoon and add the stock. Stir again and reduce by half, so that the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Once the roast is out of the oven, deglaze the dish with the cognac, scrape it well with a spatula to break up the sediment and pour it into the sauce in the pan. Stir in the truffle pieces, adjust the seasoning and increase the heat a couple of times to warm it through. Carve the beef into slices and serve with the sauce.