Friday, 31 July 2009

French Liqueur

French brands include Bénédictine, a plant liqueur first produced in 1510 from one of the most closely guarded of all formulas; Chartreuse, made from a formula developed in 1607, including yellow and green plant liqueurs, Cointreau, a proprietary brand of Triple Sec; Grand Marnier, produced in the Cognac region, an orange Curaçao; and Vieille Cure, a plant liqueur made in Bordeaux.

The popularity of liqueur in France is often attributed to Catherine de' Medici (1519 – 1589) who, at the age of 14, married Henry II of France and some of today's liqueurs have a parentage traceable to those times. In 1667, when Louis XIV laid siege to the city of Lille he invited 4000 guests to his large and luxurious encampment, from there to watch him assault the fortified town. One of the guests, the Duke of Saint-Simon, wrote that:

"the siege itself was quite a bore, there was never a spectacle so brilliant, so astonishing as the hundreds of tables, always freshly laid, that were ready at all times for the entertainment of any officers, courtiers or spectators who might drop in. In addition to marvellous food, there was every sort of liqueur that you can think of, and so popular were these beverages that a small army of couriers had the daily responsibility of bringing in fresh supplies from Normandy, Holland, Brittany, England and the Mediterranean."

Up until the early 17th century most of these liqueurs were made by the monastic orders as medicinal cordials. For example, in 1750 a Doctor Cornelius Bontekoe is known to have prescribed a liqueur for use against scurvy. This liqueur is believed to have been a blend using mace, nutmeg, cloves, with the peel of lemons and oranges, laced with brandy and sweetened with sugar.

The recipe for Chartreuse was originally an 'Elixir de longue Vie' (an elixir of long life), given in 1605 to a Carthusian monastery by the Marechal d'Estrees, a captain under Henri IV. Cusenier Mazarine, a French Anise liqueur, dates to a 1637 recipe of the Abbaye de Montbenoit. Recipes, too, for the herbal liqueurs of Aiguebelle, Carmeline, La Senancole, and Trappastine were also originally monastic elixirs.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

French Nut Liqueurs

France has some lovely liqueurs that are made from nuts - Crème de Noix is made from unripe, green walnuts that appear in early summer, Crème d'amande from almonds, Liqueur de Châtaigne from chestnuts and Crème de Noyaux from apricot kernels. Villagers in France still make Crème de Noix and they can be sweet or bitter depending on the family's preference. It's easy to make and if you have a walnut tree in your garden then it is a good way to use up all those walnuts!

Liqueur de Noix

2 ½ cups sugar
1 bottle vodka
2 sticks cinnamon
10 whole cloves
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
zest of one lemon
30 green walnuts; washed, dried, and quartered

Mix everything in a large jar, one that will be big enough to hold everything. Stir until the sugar is mostly dissolved, then add the walnuts. Tightly close the jar and let stand for two months, not in direct sunlight, shaking the jar every day. When it's ready to bottle, filter the liqueur through cheesecloth or a coffee filter and pour into a clean bottle. For the first few days, the steeping walnuts will take on a green hue, which is normal. After a week or so, it'll get darker and darker. Liqueur de noix will keep for years stored in a cool, dry place.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Liqueurs Made From Trees?

Marie Brizard's Eau de Cèdre got me thinking about the topic of liqueurs made from trees. Cedar Liqueurs can still be found in Russia and are named Kedrovka and are flavored with the nuts of the Siberian cedar - kedr is the Russian word for cedar. Pine Liqueur is still made in France - Un Sapin is a speciality of Pontarlier but is very hard to find. It is prepared by an alcoholic maceration of 24 different plants including tender young pine buds harvested in Spring. The mix is then distilled and finished with macerated pine buds, sugar and natural colouring. This drink is intended to be sipped chilled, neat at the end of a meal, however it is great over vanilla ice cream!

Another Pine Liqueur is Eau de Vie de Bourgeons de Sapin d’Alsace, made from the buds of the spruce tree and one of the more obscure eaux de vie in the world. Austria makes Zirbenz Stone Pine Liqueur of the Alps from Arolla Stone Pine fruit from the fresh, young, (not dried out) pine cone.

Mastichato Chio is a Greek liqueur made out of the resin from the evergreen Pistacia lentiscus (a member of the Pistacio family). When the bark of the tree is injured, the resin exudes in drops. It is transparent and pale yellow to green in colour. It is native to the Aegean Island Chios, which is widely known for its Tears of Chios Trees.

The fertile island of Naxos in the Cylcades produces the liqueur Kitron made from the leaves of the Kitron tree. This tree is similar to a lemon tree, but with a stronger, sharper taste. It comes in three colours, green, transparent and yellow, depending on the sweetness and alcohol content, the yellow being the driest and most potent. The fruits of the tree are made into a preserve, which is referred to as a spoon sweet and served to guests, but Kitron itself is delicious with ice and mixes well with juices to make imaginative cocktails.

Quinine is the ground bark of cinchona tree and is used in the French liqueur Amer Picon invented in 1830 which contains essence of gentian and Calisay liqueur is a Spanish liqueur made in Barcelona from an original Bohemian recipe also containing quinine.

Quinine is an effective muscle relaxant, long used by the Quechua Indians of Peru to halt shivering due to low temperatures. The Peruvians would mix the ground bark of cinchona trees with sweetened water to offset the bark's bitter taste, thus producing tonic water.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Bordeaux Liqueurs Part Two

Parfait Amour

Parfait Amour appears to have several forms - exactly who invented it remains unclear but the House of Lucas Bols in the Netherlands claims to have originated the liqueur but so does France . The colour is a magenta and violet hue and it is flavoured with orange peel, rose petals, vanilla and almonds. It was very popular in the 19th century and was once served in French brothels as an aphrodisiac!

Crème Liqueurs

Despite the name, crème liqueurs contain no cream. Instead, they're liqueurs that have been heavily sweetened and have a thick, syrupy consistency (don't confuse them with Irish cream liqueurs, which really are made with cream).

Crème de Cassis

Crème de cassis is a sweet, blackcurrant flavoured liqueur, and is an ingredient of Kir, an aperitif named for Félix Kir, a former mayor of the town of Dijon in Burgundy where the black currant plant thrives). The original cassis liqueur was invented by French monks as a cure for ailments as diverse as snakebite and melancholy. The modern version of the drink first appeared in the Burgundy region in 1841, displacing "ratafia de cassis" from prior centuries. It is made from blackcurrants crushed into refined alcohol, with sugar subsequently added. It is the favourite drink of the fictional detective Hercule Poirot by Agatha Christie.

Friday, 24 July 2009

EIS - Tax Efficient Opportunities in Fine Wine

Traditionally there have been three ways you can invest in wine. There is now a 4th which ties in the tax benefits of an EIS scheme: The 1855 Club.

The first three ways of investing in wine all have advantages but the main disadvantage is one of cost.

1. Use a wine merchant and buy it yourself. You are then responsible for selection and storage

2. Buy through a Wine Merchant with a Private Cellar Plan. They will advise with choices and budgets as well as storage.

With the first two options you have some control over the wines you are buying but you will be buying at retail prices - which come with a margin anywhere between 12 – 35% depending on the wine. The most popular for investment purposes will attract the higher margin for the merchant. Plus you have storage costs, which in the scheme of things is not very expensive but when you wish to sell your investment the wine merchant will charge a further 10% commission on the selling price. Therefore you may have to gain somewhere around 50% of the wines original value before you are into a profit or gain situation. Although HRMC (Inland Revenue) look at wine as a wasting asset (life expectancy of less than 50 years) and therefore free from Capital Gains Tax (GCT) they have the right to demand proof that the wine was bought for drinking not purely as an investment.

3. Invest in a Wine Fund.

Wine funds can be costly for the investor with high performance fees along side management fees and in some cases storage costs. Management and performance fees are based as a percentage of the valuation of the fund as a whole and are based on unrealised prices. Although the valuations are through independent professionals these charges can be rather high and restrictive, which can eat heavily into your gains such as a 20% performance fee over an agreed hurdle rate with some on an annualised basis. Other costs can include initial set up costs, storage costs as well as the annual management fee. They boast of no CGT on the gain but the same caveat may apply as with the personal cellar. As a fund will be managed you will have very little input into its running or control.
With the 50% tax band looming for higher income earners Tax planning is an important consideration when looking at potential investments.

Based on this assumption the 4th alternative route into Fine Wine investment offers qualifying UK tax payers a very advantageous and tax efficient opportunity which can benefit the investor from exemptions of Capital Gains, Income Tax and Inheritance Tax. Investors can also qualify for GCT refunds if they invest in this scheme as it has been created under Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) which is designed to support enterprise.

EIS provides income tax relief of 20% if you hold the investment for at least 3 years. In addition if you have previously crystallised capital gains attracting a tax rate of 40%, the gain can be deferred if you invest into an EIS company within 3 years of creating the gain. You still have to pay capital gains tax on the deferred gain but only when you sell the shares in an EIS company. However under current rules this is at a reduced rate of 18% resulting in a further saving of 22% on past gains.

Shares held in EIS companies for the relevant period are also exempt from capital gains tax and inheritance tax. The recent budget has further enhanced their benefits as investors now have the option to treat an investment made in this tax year as eligible for relief against their tax bill for 2008/09, so the benefits are received earlier.

EIS companies, to some, are seen as a risk especially when they operate in more spurious activities. However, if they are strongly asset backed they tend to represent a safer investment. The minimum entry level for an EIS trading company is £500 with a maximum level of £500000 for anyone individual.

The 1855 Club, is a company trading in Fine Wine which has been created under the rules of EIS having received advanced clearance from HRMC and has been designed for the benefit of the shareholders. It combines all the benefits of the traditional routes plus it offers greater tax efficiencies along with involvement for the investor through Châteaux visits, tastings with wine makers and much more. With a minimum entrance level of £25000 it currently is the only EIS Company to take advantage of the EIS rules trading in fine wine in the market place and offers an interesting opportunity as an alternative investment. Shareholders will find this a participative and a life style investment giving them the opportunity to indulge in a hobby where they will gain wider appreciation of fine wine at the same time receiving gains on their investments - targeting 8% return per annum.

Professional advisors would consider about 5% of a balanced investment portfolio to be placed into alternative investments. As a product this could fit well into any portfolio. If you would like to know more about this topic please contact me , or ask your IFA or agent to do so. Call 01452 840116 or by email at

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Bordeaux Liqueurs

We are all familiar with the great wines of Bordeaux but the region has also produced liqueurs for centuries . . .

Cordial Médoc is a difficult liqueur to find although it was once held in high esteem. Apparently it was a liqueur flavoured with orange Curacao, cognac, Médoc claret, herbs and violets but some accounts also say it was made with either coffee or chocolate. Has anyone tasted it or know anything about it? Another mystery is Perline d'Aquitaine as all that remains is a poster!

However Bordeaux is full of surprises and its liqueurs range from the long forgotten and obscure to the world famous and elite: a llittle known fact is that the prestigious First Growth Chateau Mouton Rothschild makes an Eau de Vie de Prunes (Plum Cognac) and a Liqueur de Cassis (Blackcurrant Liqueur).

Bordeaux is also home to one of the most important liqueur manufacturers: that of Marie Brizard and Roger of Bordeaux. In 1755 Marie Brizard, the daughter of a barrel maker in Bordeaux, discovered Thomas, a West Indian sailor from the ship Intrépide, lying in a corner of the Place de la Bourse burning with fever. Marie nursed him back to health and in gratitude he gave her the recipe for Anisette, a liquorice flavoured liqueur.

Marie's nephew, Paul Brizard, was a sea captain and he brought the ingredients for the recipe back to his aunt, and together they established a company making liqueurs. Anisette de Bordeaux was Marie's most famous liqueur and the drinks were introduced to the court of Louis XV. Soon after the company became a supplier of the Royal Court of Versailles.

Over the centuries the Marie Brizard brand has produced liqueurs such as Parfait Amour, Eau de Cèdre (Cedar), Eau de Café (Coffee), Eau de Cacao (Chocolate), Eau de Cannelle (Cinnamon), Eau de Angélique (Angelica), Crème de Barbade and Vanille de Madagascar as well as the more traditional Apry (Apricot), Crème de Cassis (Blackcurrant), Liqueur de Fraise (Strawberry) and Poire William.

Today the company is known as Marie Brizard et Roget International and also produces spirit brands Cognac Gautier, San José Tequila, and Old Lady's Gin; as well as wine, vodka and whisky.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Bayonne Chocolate

Bayonne is where the secret of chocolate-making first came to France, brought by Sephardic Jews driven from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition in the 15th century. Many Jewish families settled in the Saint Esprit quarter of Bayonne and began producing the chocolate drink, quickly acquiring a reputation for the quality of the chocolate and the precision of their blends. Bayonne was thus the first town in France to successfully work the cocoa bean and today still enjoys a reputation for its famous chocolate. Bayonne was also the first European country to establish a chocolate factory in 1761.

Chocolate was discovered by Christopher Columbus during his expedition to the New World between 1502 and 1504 and the story goes that he was convinced he would encounter Jewish traders on his journey so he brought along a Jew as a Hebrew interpreter. Although he met no Jews in the New World, he did find oddly shaped "almonds" that were highly valued by the natives - cacao beans. It was his fellow explorer, the Spanish Conquistador Don Herman Cortes, who first realised their commercial value. He brought cocoa beans back to Spain in 1528 and very gradually, the custom of drinking the chocolate spread across Europe, reaching England in the 1650s. Drinking chocolate became very popular at the court of King Charles II and the first London Chocolate House was opened in 1657 by a Frenchman who produced the first advertisement for the chocolate drinks to be seen in London:

"In Bishopgate St, in Queen's Head Alley, at a Frenchman's house, is an excellent West Indian drink called Chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time and also unmade at reasonable rates."

A display in the Musée Basque in Bayonne shows how, as early as 1609, Jewish merchants would roast the cacao in a small oven, and, after cooling the beans in a canvas bag, crush them into a paste on a heated, concave stone platform mounted on a tripod. The platform had to be schlepped from house to house, with the chocolatiers kneeling in front of the platforms for up to an hour to coax the beans into a form that could be whipped into a proper cup of hot chocolate. When Anne, daughter of Phillip II of Spain married King Louis XIII of France. The French court adopted this new exotic drink with great fervour. It was considered to have medicinal benefits as well as being a nourishing food.

Gradually the secret of chocolate's manufacture got out, and in 1761, a group of Catholic chocolate makers banded together into a corporation that excluded the original Sephardic merchants from the trade. Reputed to have medicinal value, the chocolate of Bayonne was discovered by Parisian physicians, who prescribed it to the royal family. By 1875, the city boasted 31 chocolatiers, who employed a workforce larger than all the chocolate-makers in Switzerland!

Nowadays there are 11 chocolatiers in Bayonne and the French treat their chocolate very much like wine. The flavour nuances depend on the quality and origin of the cocoa beans used to make it. The best chocolates are an artful blend of four or more different beans, each with its own flavour, force and persistence - each from a different geographical origin: Venezuela, Brazil, the Ivory Coast, Madagascar. The chocolatiers treat the characteristics of different cocoa beans as a vintner praises the qualities of different grape varieties and crus. A heightened understanding of different crus of beans has spurred a trend in recent years toward labelling chocolates by the origin of their predominate bean. For the real chocolate connoisseur, the appellations "dark chocolate" and "milk chocolate" seem as vague as "red wine" and "white wine." Fans of French chocolate now look for references such as Guanaja, Manjari, Pur Caraibe or Guayaquil on their chocolate bars.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Roman Snails

48 fresh Roman Snails
Vegetable broth (dry white wine, 1 onion, carrots, shallots, soup green, parsley,
bay leaf, thyme, garlic, salt, pepper)
125g butter
4 crushed garlic cloves
2 shallots
Parsley, chervil, salt and pepper

This recipe deals with live snails as its an ancient Roman recipe – of course nowadays you can used tinned!

Salt the for 1 hour in water. Clean them carefully with warm water and put them in boiling water. Cook them for 30 minutes, drip off, take them out of their shells and remove the bowel of each snail. Afterwards simmer them during 3 hours in the broth and cool them down. Clean all houses carefully. Then prepare a filling with butter, garlic shallots, parsley and chervil. The butter should not be overheated. Put a snail back and a bit of the filling into every shell. Finally put the snails for some minutes in the warm oven. Then serve them still warm to your guests

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Snails – Escargots

Love them or hate them (I love them) snails are a delicacy in French cuisine, where they are called escargots. Although France is the country most associated with snails on the menu they are actually a legacy from Roman times. The Romans loved them and as their Empire spread across Europe the distribution of snails and snail recipes spread to the furthest regions of Europe and the Mediterranean. Snails shells often are found in ancient kitchen waste heaps that are excavated around former Roman settlements. They imported choice varieties and set aside certain places for fattening the snails, providing them with a diet of bran, flour, and herbs, with a mixture of wine dregs. Pliny tells us that Fulvinus Hirpinus was the first to engage in snail-farming at Tarquinium about the year 50 B.C. That said it's thought that Europe's appreciation of the snail may pre date the Romans to Celtic times. Greeks, Phoenicians and other pre-Roman cultures in the Mediterranean were eating them long ago.

Snails are also eaten today in other European countries: traditional Spanish cuisine uses snails caracoles in several spicy sauces, soups and paella. In Greece, snails are especially popular in the island of Crete, but are also eaten in many parts of the country and can even be found in supermarkets, sometimes placed alive near partly refrigerated vegetables. In this regard, snails are one of the few live organisms sold at supermarkets as food. They are eaten either boiled with vinegar added, or sometimes cooked alive in a casserole with tomato, potatoes and squashes. In Sicily, snails (or babbaluci as they are commonly called in Sicilian) are a very popular dish as well. They are usually boiled with salt first, then served with tomato sauce or bare with oil, garlic and parsley. Snails are similarly appreciated in other Italian regions, such as Sardinia. Snails bebbux are a dish on the Mediterranean island of Malta, generally prepared and served in the Sicilian manner. In south western Germany there is a regional speciality of soup with snails and herbs, called Black Forest Snail Chowder Badener Schneckensuepple.

Although there is not usually considered to be a tradition of snail eating in Britain, common garden snails Helix aspersa were eaten in the Southwick area of Sunderland in the North East of England. They were collected from quarries and along the stone walls of railway embankments during the winter when the snails were hibernating and had voided the contents of their guts. It is thought that this tradition was introduced in the 19th Century by French immigrant glass workers. "Snail suppers" were a feature of local pubs and Southwick working men were collecting and eating snails as late as the 1970s, though the tradition may now have died out.

In the Middle Ages snails had the crucial advantage to be neither fish nor meat, so they could be eaten during the time of Lent. Consequently most monasteries had a snail garden, where the monks could keep the tasty snails, to eat them with a hump of beer. At that time, though, the monks were not the only people to eat snails. Snails were food for the poor. Snails were free, they could be picked in nature, and they were (and are today) very nutritious.

Subsequently a snail trade developed and snail farmers competed to make their snails fatter, tastier and better than all others. The idea of feeding snails with a diet of special herbs that gave them an especially fine taste arose in these times. There was also a place in that time's medicine for snails. It was well known, that a cure against cough and other breast problems could be produced from snails, as well as a remedy against consumption.

The success of Northern European snail merchants speaks volumes: on the waterway the snails were transported by special transport boats to Vienna. There the snails were sold on the markets. There was a roaring trade with in Vienna until well into the 18th century. Later the main target of snail trade moved towards Paris, where snails could be transported overland. Even in 1908 the village of Guttenstein alone sold 4 millions of snails to Paris. Snails even accompanied Napoleon's armies on their campaigns as army rations!

In 19th century France there were snail shell collectors Marchands de coquilles d'escargots who rummaged through fine restaurants' rubbish to collect used snail hells. They resold them to cheaper restaurants. The shells were not cleaned so that the remaining butter sauce would flavour the cheap grease used in the second restaurant and they could be sold to the hoi polloi as escargots au beurre.

You may be relieved to know that before preparing snails to eat, the snails are fasted for three days with only water available. After three days of fasting, the snails are fed flour and water for at least a week. This process is thought to cleanse the snails.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Snail Caviar

No, you have not misread the title of this blog – it does read Snail Caviar. With the demise of the sturgeon there are quite a few alternatives out there, Avruga Caviar is made from herring roe and Danish black coloured Lumpfish Caviar is sold throughout Europe in small glass jars . A more expensive sturgeon caviar alternative, sold in Sweden and Finland, is the caviar from the vendace. In Finland caviars from the burbot and the common whitefish are also sold and in Scandinavia, a significantly cheaper versionof caviar, made from mashed and smoked cod roe (Smorgaskaviar or Sandwichkaviar) is sold in tubes as a sandwich filling. When sold outside Scandinavia the product is referred to as creamed smoked roe or in French as Caviar de Lysekil, named after the Swedish coastal town of Lysekil from which this type of caviar may have originated. However there is now a Snail Caviar – which are snail eggs produced by De Jaeger in France.

The French started eating snail eggs on a small scale in the 1980s, but the pasteurized product failed to catch on. Dominique and Sylvie Pierru revived the Caviar d'escargot (also known as Perles de France) by making it more pure and fresh in 2004. The Pieurru's have about 50,000 Gros-Gris (big grey) snails from north Africa, at their farm in Soissons, in the Picardie region north east of Paris. The company raises its snails in the open in outdoor pens on a nutritious diet of vegetation and cereal grains, resulting in plump, great tasting snails. Being hermaphrodites, all snails lay eggs, but at the slow rate of 100 a year. The eggs are conserved in a brine of fleur de sel de Guérande and essence of rosemary, before being marketed in 50g tins that cost £50 each - about the same as farmed sturgeon caviar.

The Pierru's recommend serving the caviar on a sliver of toast, at room temperature, lightly peppered with a touch of sour cream - and naturally a glass of chilled champagne. The taste – apparently - is reminiscent of ‘a walk in the forest after the rain, with the aroma of mushrooms and the undergrowth, with hints of oak leaves and moss’. People have described it has having the flavours of angelica and horseradish.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Caviar Beauty Treatments

Remember that commercial on television where a Hollywood celebrity justifies buying an expensive hair product with the tag line, ‘I’m worth it’? Cosmetic companies are banking on the fact that their customers will feel the same way and purchase some of the newest luxury products – and yes caviar is one of them. Maybe there is method in the madness. Adding caviar to cosmetics may not be just a gimmick. Adding caviar extract to products offers a wealth of vitamins and minerals to nourish the skin and reduce the signs of ageing. Caviar is after all, the eggs of sturgeons. And like all eggs, it contains many nutrients. For years cosmetic companies have added egg powder to shampoos. The oil of the egg yolk has been used to create face masks to give the skin that “firm’ feeling.

Caviar extract is said to be an ideal additive to repair skin damage as well as stimulate the metabolism of the skin cells. It is easily absorbed and is especially effective in moisturising those delicate tissues around the eyes.

While the scientific effects of caviar extract as an anti-ageing agent have yet to be proved, some experts argue that omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish oils, have moisturising properties essential for skin nutrition. Research shows that caviar actually has a cell format similar to human skin and its extract helps to speed up the natural production of collagen.

The thought of rubbing myself all over with caviar as a beauty treatment does not appeal to me (I'd rather eat it) but Angelina Jolie uses caviar beauty treatments to stay looking young. The skin cream is made from the eggs of the Baerii sturgeon - which is reared on farms in the South of France.

The treatment, which can last up to three hours, involves the actress being wrapped up in tight bandages so her body sweats out toxins before she is slathered in the youth-restoring body cream - which claims to fight "slackened skin and loss of firmness".

The high oil and protein content of the sturgeon eggs is believed to be very good for the skin. As well as the full body treatments, Angelina also has facials using caviar-based moisturisers made by cosmetic company La Prairie. Angelina is not the only celebrity who has discovered the skin benefits of caviar. Gwyneth Paltrow, Catherine Zeta Jones, Rolling Stones star Sir Mick Jagger, supermodel Kate Moss and fashion designer Stella McCartney are all allegedly fans of caviar-based facial treatments.

Caviar with Champagne or Sauvignon Blanc?

The most renowned pairing perhaps for Caviar is Champagne. Its crisp acidity matches the Caviar's delicate flavours as does their complementary textures. The most compatible style is perhaps the less effervescent of the Champagnes. However Sauvignon Blanc is often drunk with it. Château Saint Thibeaud is one I would recommend – it’s a crisp Bordeaux white predominantly made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape.

It has plenty of body without being too heavy and has refreshing hints of pear and citrus fruits. On the palate it reveals a rounded, clean attack on the mouth with a good balance of fruit and dryness and the finish has gorgeous touches of lemon.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Of Caviar and Kings

For hundreds of years Caviar was reserved exclusively for the courts of Europe. The city of Kerch on the Crimean peninsula was the capital of the ancient Bosphorus Kingdom in 400 B.C. This Kingdom’s copper coins illustrate the sturgeon, as do coins minted around 600 B.C. from ancient Tunisia.

The sturgeon was known as a “royal” fish belonging to kings and feudal lords in Europe and Russia. King Edward III in 1307 declared all the great sturgeons to be his, and it was said that any sturgeon captured in the River Thames above London Bridge belonged to the Lord Mayor of London; all others belonged to the King by royal decree. Henry I is believed to have banned the eating of sturgeon at any table save his own. In his edict of 1675, Tsar Alexei Michailovich declared the exclusive authority of the court to market caviar.

However caviar was not always a favourite food of the kings of France . . . in 1750 Louis XV was visiting the Caspian Sea, tasted caviar – and spat it out immediately!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Types of Caviar

Not all caviar comes from sturgeon – red caviar comes from salmon. Traditionally the roe from 4 species of sturgeon was considered to produce the best caviar: the Beluga, Ossetra, Sevruga and Sterlet.

he small golden eggs of the Sterlet sturgeon were the caviar of the Tzars and was the rarest and, at one time the most cherished of all caviar. So insatiable was the Russian nobility's passion for this golden caviar that the species is all but extinct today.

Beluga is the largest of the sturgeon family (they can reach up to 13 ft), produces large, loose, glistening black to steel grey berries, has a walnut flavour. T
he lighter colours come from older fish, and are the most valued. A pearly white variety, called Almas (Persian for diamond), taken from a centennial female sturgeon, is the rarest type of Beluga .

Ossetra caviar ranges from warm brown to green-gray in color, to dark blue to jet black or even white and the eggs are slightly smaller than the Beluga caviar. The golden eggs, known as Golden Caviar, were favoured by the Shahs of Iran and have a delicate mellow nutty taste.

Sevruga caviar has the smallest eggs within the Caspian Sea and is usually light to dark grey. This caviar has the strongest taste of the sea and salt with a warm, aromatic and savory flavour.

Friday, 10 July 2009

How Caviar Came to Bordeaux

Caviar first became fashionable in France with the arrival of White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik revolution. Legend has it that in 1916 a Romanoff Russian princess observed French fishermen in Saint Seurin d'Uzet cutting up their daily catch and throwing away the roe. Horrified, she explained that sturgeon’s roe was a prized delicacy and arranged for her husband to teach the locals how to make caviar. The princess accidently left her umbrella behind before proceeding on her way, which is now housed in the town’s tiny museum.

Appealling though this story is caviar has been known as a delicacy in France since the 1400s. Rabelais, an influential French writer of the time, proclaimed caviar the finest in hors d'oeuvres - he calls it caviat. He also refers to la bottargue, a red mullet roe product similar to caviar. La bottargue is the predecessor to today's Italian bottarga, the salted and air-dried roe sack from the tuna, grey mullet or swordfish.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Caviar as an Aphrodisiac

Incidentally the name caviar could originate from the the fact that the Persians were the first eaters of the tasty fish egg delicacy. They called it chav-jar, which loosely translates to "cake of power" as they believed that caviar cured a variety of ailments and improved their stamina. Caviar has been revered as an aphrodisiac for centuries – when Catherine the Great of Russia was urged to provide an heir to the throne she replied "Bring me some caviar, and tonight at supper, send me the best built of my officers."

Caviar’s reputation as an aphrodisiac is perhaps also because fish and their by-products have been linked to the myth of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love, who was born from the foam of the sea. Another reason for its reputation could also be that eggs were known to be a symbol of fertility. But more than anything else, because of its highly medicinal properties, most people were led to believe that it can nourish and enhance nerve cells, hence an extremely heightened romantic instincts.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Caviar and Bordeaux?

Caviar and Bordeaux does not quite have the same ring to it as caviar and Champagne but you will be surprised to learn that Aquitaine, the region in which Bordeaux lies, actually makes its own caviar!

French sturgeon swam wild in the River Gironde until the early 1960s and fishermen used to catch large quantities of them until over-fishing led to the trade being banned in 1982. The French sturgeon is the European sea sturgeon (Acipenser sturio), also known as the baltic sturgeon and is now a protected species. They are found on the coasts of Europe, except the Black Sea and have even been known to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the coasts of North America. Like many other sturgeons, they spawn in the rivers off the coast.

Sturgeon have been around for 300 million years and little in its snout-nosed structure has changed since Triassic times. It has no scales and no bones. Instead, a row of plates ranges down its back and sides which can be lethally sharp.

The modern industry in the Aquitaine Basin is based on farmed sturgeon (a Siberian species of sturgeon) which yields caviar with fruit and nut flavors similar to Ossetra. The main production facilities are at Saint Seurin sur L’isle, near to Saint Emilion. Caviar d'Aquitaine is still madly expensive at about £50 for a 30g tin but it’s also much less scary than other substitutes, like so-called Laotian Caviar, made from catfish roe.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Vergt – The Capital of the Perigord Strawberry

Situated between Périgueux and Bergerac, in the heart of the strawberry growing area, Vergt is a lovely little bastide built by the French in the 13th century. Well-known as the heart of the local strawberry industry, Vergt houses the “Grand Marché du Cadran”, where most locally grown strawberries transit for national and international markets. In May they hold La Fête de la Fraise – the Strawberry Festival.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Fraise du Périgord Varieties

France is the second-largest European producer of strawberries after Spain. When it comes to strawberries, the Périgord region has become a symbol of both productivity and quality. There, strawberry growers benefit from the only Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for a strawberry in France, and their label, Fraise de Périgord, is a guarantee of quality. Much like the exclusively French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the PGI is a European Union label that ensures place of origin as well as specific growing they are grown entirely in open fields), harvesting and packaging requirements. The strawberries must have an intense flavour and express the local terroir. Harvest is by hand, between the first and third hour of daylight, when temperatures are cool. Once plucked from the plant, each berry is placed by hand in a barquette lined with a paper cushion to protect the berry on its way to market.

All the varieties are cousins, descendants of those early imports:

The Gariguette

The Gariguette is elegant, juicy, fragrant and sophisticated with a clear tart finish and is undoubtedly the favourite of the French. It is characterized by its oblong, orange-red colour.

The Darselect

The Darselect is a bigger strawberry than its compatriots, is more rustic, durable and like the Elsanta, is heart-shaped.

The Mara des Bois

The Mara des Bois is astonishingly perfumed, with an unrivalled depth of flavour. It's subtle and delicate - closer to the wild strawberry. Juicy and sweet, it is highly prized by chefs.

The Cigaline

The aroma of Cigaline (which is a variant of Gariguette) is more musky than its peers and it has a deep vermilion colour.

The Elsanta

A heart shaped strawberry with glossy, highly aromatic orange-red fruit that have a good shelf life.