Friday, 22 October 2010

Halloween, Bobbing Apples, Calvados and a Ghost Story

Now the children are older we don't do Bobbing Apples at Halloween any more – but it used to be a lot of fun. Apart from the fact that apples are in season at this time of year they have been associated with Halloween for centuries due to their association with immortality, resurrection, and knowledge. One reason for this is that if an apple is cut through its equator, it will reveal a five-pointed star outlined at the centre of each hemisphere. This was a pentagram -- a Goddess symbol among the Roma (Gypsies), ancient Celts, ancient Egyptians, modern-day Wiccans, etc.

An old superstition that we used to follow when I was a girl was to peel an apple and throw the unbroken peel over your shoulder – it was supposed to fall and show the initial of the boy's name that you were going to marry. A lot of these Halloween apple myths seem concerned with marriage – the first person to take a bite out of an apple whilst Bobbing Apples was believed to be the next to marry and peeling an apple in front of a candle-lit mirror was believed to produce the image of one's future spouse.

Apples around us in the orchards here mean cider and although you all will know by now that Bordeaux wine rules my heart, I am also partialed to a glass of cider. Well, why not? I live in cider making country. The fields around me are bristling with a heavy crop of apples, so much so that some of the branches are falling off the more derelict varieties under the weight of the fruit.

Cider apples are quite deceptive. They cluster on the tree in an inviting manner but try tasting one! They are mouth blisteringly bitter and have the cheek puckering effect of making your eye balls want to jump out. It is only when they’ve been pressed and fermented that they show their true virtue. There are Cider Barons here who have been making Scrumpy for centuries and generations of locals have discovered its more lethal qualities when their legs fail underneath them.

French Cider makers, however, make a more wine-like style of cider. Their Ciders are often lower in alcohol and less sweet than their British counterparts, with fruitier flavours, a lighter texture, and higher acidity. Texturally they often resemble Champagne, and in fact they bottle their Ciders in Champagne bottles, with cages and corks. Rather up market don’t you think? We normally get our Cider delivered in an old pop bottle and with a wink.

Cider’s French home is Normandy, where apple orchards and brewers are mentioned as far back as the 8th century by Charlemagne. Normandy is also the home of Calvados - this is Apple Brandy French style and it is delicious. When the phylloxera outbreak in the last quarter of the 19th century devastated the vineyards of France, Calvados experienced a "golden age". During World War I cider brandy was requisitioned for use in armaments due to its alcohol content!

Calvados is the basis of the tradition of le trou Normand, or "the Norman hole". This is a small drink of Calvados taken between courses in a very long meal, sometimes with apple sorbet, supposed to re-awaken the appetite. I don't have an apple sorbet recipe but I do have one for Gambas au feu de pommes (Apple Flamed Prawns). I am always looking to find new and different dishes to help use up our gluts come harvest time and this one is lovely . . .12 to 16 prawns, depending on their size

130 g salted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
8 sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 bunch regular parsley
100 ml (6 tbsp) Calvados

Season the prawns with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, melt half the butter in the olive oil; heat; add the prawns and cook for 6-8 minutes. Pour in the Calvados; add the thyme and flambé. Add the remaining butter and continue to cook for 3-4 minutes. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately. The mouth watering strawberry and redcurrant flavoured Chateau Ballan Larquette would go well with this as would the gold medal winning Clairet du Chateau des Lisennes with its intense raspberry and blackberry aromas.

I also have a Halloween ghost story to tell you about that originated in Calvados – it's well documented but it took some research to track down the actual chateau and family concerned. The story goes back to an account in the Annales des Sciences Psychiques in 1893 by M. J. Morice but he was requested by the family concerned not to reveal their identity or the location of the chateau. The ghostly disturbances took place over a number of years in the 1860s. The master of the chateau recorded them on a daily basis from October 12th 1875, to January 30th 1876 and the supernatural phenomena were witnessed by the family, their friends, servants and clergy brought in to assist.

It turns out that the Chateau in question was the Château des Noyers du Tourneur at the village of Le Tourneur in Calvados. The chateau had been owned by the Baudre Noyers family but had fallen into ruin and decay. A new chateau was built 150 yards away from the derelict one in 1835 and after the death of Leon Baudre in 1867 the Maneville family inherited the estate. It was Mr Manville who recorded the events in his diary. The phenomena seems to have been mainly poltergeist activity which rampaged for months on end. Banging, screaming, the moving of furniture, smashing of plates, upending of beds and music coming from the locked organ terrorized the chateau's household.

The parish priest was invited to come to the castle and spend the night, he recalled the next day that he had heard the heavy footsteps of what must have been a giant of a man descending the stairs in the early morning. He believed that events at the castle were of a supernatural nature, and left the castle with great haste. A Canon, sent there by the Bishop seemed to quieten things down for a while but the haunting began again. On the night of January 26th, the parish priest arrived to conduct the rites of exorcism. He had also arranged for a Novena of Masses to be said at Lourdes that would coincide with his performance of the ancient ritual of putting a spirit to rest. This appeared to work but several days after the exorcisms had been performed the poltergeist was back.

The family sold the chateau for a pittance and moved out. It was bought by Mr Decaen, who already owned the Chateau Soubressin – which interestingly also once belonged to the Baudres family. No more was heard of the hauntings but Chateau des Noyers du Tourneur mysteriously burnt to the ground in 1984. Today the village holds a scary evening at the fire scarred ruins with a light show and storytelling based on the school notebooks of Celine Bisson who was a servant girl there when the supernatural events took place.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Haunting Wines

With Halloween around the corner I decided to find some haunting wines – there are plenty of New World ones to choose from: Gray Ghost Gewurztraminer from Virginia, and Savannah-Chanelle Pierre's Ghost Red Table Wine from California's Central Ghost, sorry, Central Coast. Australia has its own quota of supernatural activity amongst the vines and Cockfighter's Ghost Pinot Noir from Western Australia commemorates the vineyard's ghost and there is also Hermitage Hideaway Estate Ghost Riders Vineyard Shiraz in the Hunter Valley.

However when it came to Old World wines the best I could come up with were those named for Sirens and Witches: La Sirène de Giscours (the Second Wine of Chateau Giscours (Margaux), Domaine du Clos des Fees Les Sorcières (Languedoc Roussillon) and Gewurztraminer les Sorcières (Alsace).

La Sirène translates as The Siren and I wonder if the wine was named after château's famous muse: Eugénie, the last Empress of the French? The Château was built in order to receive her by the Count de Pescatore, a great Parisian banker, in 1847. Eugénie was the wife of Napoleon III and she was renowned for her beauty, elegance, style, intelligence and charm. Her story is an interesting one (see Nick's Blog Château Giscours and Eugénie, the Last Empress of the French).

In French the word for a witch is Sorcière, which gave us the English "sorcerer" and "sorceress". Bordeaux is well known for its infamous judge Pierre de Lancre who conducted a massive witch hunt in Labourd in 1609. Witches were accused of flying through the air and plundering wine cellars. De Lancre turned Labourd upside down and in less than a year some 70 people were burnt at the stake. De Lancre wasn't satisfied: he estimated that some 3,000 witches were still at large (10% of the population of Labourd in that time). However he was eventually dismissed him from office – much to the relief of the French countryside.

Vestiges of witchcraft still hold on in the rural south of France where black cats are referred to as matagots, "magician cats", that bring good luck to owners who feed them well and treat them with the respect they deserve. The earliest known image of a witch flying on a broomstick comes from France and is in a manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Martin Le Franc's Le Champion de Dames dates to 1440, and shows two witches, one on a white stick (apparently a common mode of transport for French witches), and the other on the familiar broomstick.

One notorious witch trial in France implicated none other than the Madame de Montespan, one of the most celebrated mistresses of Louis XIV. When Louis's affections showed signs of cooling, Mme de Montespan is alleged to have resorted to Black Magic in order to get him back. The incident is known as the Affaire des Poisons and Mme de Montespan was accused of using poison and witchcraft to dispose of her rivals. She visited the so-called witch Catherine Monvoisin, known as La Voisin, in 1665. Mme de Montespan supposedly went so far as to allow a priest, Etienne Guibourg, to perform a black mass in a blood-soaked ceremony. La Voisin was executed and Mme de Montespan ended her days in a convent.

Well, I have yet to find a wine called Poison but I have found a wine called Spellbound, made in California by Robert and Lydia Mondavi, Patti McKiernan and Geoff Whitman! Can you think of any others?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Damsons, Mirabelles and Les Eymeries

Our old and sparsely leaved damson tree is hung with fruit this year despite it being a little late in the season and I am determined to make the most of these lovely little fruits. They are hard to reach as they cluster at the top of the tree but they are well worth it. There are lots of ideas as to how damsons came to England – some say that the Duke of Anjou discovered the fruits in around 1220 during the Fifth Crusade and others claim that the Romans introduced them (damson trees are often found around sites of Roman camps).

Damsons were first cultivated in the area around the ancient city of Damascus, capital of modern-day Syria, hence the name. This might suggest they need a Mediterranean climate, but in fact damson trees grow very easily in cold climates or situations where other plum tree species might not flourish. In the UK the centre of commercial damson production is the Lyth valley in Cumbria, north-west England, notable for its wet climate.

Apparently ancient writings describe the use of damson skins in the manufacture of purple dye. It is said that damsons were used to dye RAF uniforms in the Second World War and hats for the Luton hat trade. In France damsons are used to make an eau de vie in Alsace called Quetsch but the eau de vie made from their cousin, the Mirabelle, is better known. Damsons trees belong to the species Prunus insititia, which also includes Bullaces, St. Juliens, and Mirabelles.

I did wonder if the St Julien had anything to the appellation Saint Julien in Bordeaux but it doesn't seem likely. The St Julien is the preferred rootstock used for grafting as it produces a tree which is substantially smaller than plum trees grown on their own roots. It is compatible with almost all plums and gages. (In fact it is also widely used for peaches, nectarines, and apricots, which are very closely related to plums). It was originally bred in France from a seedling and is still widely used today as it is compatible with all varieties.

Mirabelles are either bright red or golden yellow and although they are used for making jams and similar preserves, they are also the variety most often used in plum brandy and similar plum-based spirits. The Mirabelle is a speciality of the French region of Lorraine, which produces 80% of global commercial production. It's thought that René I, Duke of Anjou and Lorraine, planted the first Mirabelle trees at the Chateau Mirabeau in Vaucluse (Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur) during the 15h century, before introducing them to Lorraine.

Another legacy of the damson are the Agen Prunes which are named after the port and market town Argen upriver to the Lot and Garonne valleys where the plum trees grow. In the 13th century after the return of the Fifth Crusade the monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Clairac, near Agen, crossed local plum trees with damsons brought back from Syria, producing a new variety of plum called "Prunier d'Ente" (from the old French word "enter," meaning "to graft.") The Clairac monks were also the first to realise that the fruit could be preserved for an entire year once they had been dried in the sun.

In the past, the plums were first left outdoors on trays or straw and then dried in bread ovens or special kilns, remains of which are sometimes found on farms in the Lot-et-Garonne. The prunes grew popular in the 19th century with the development of merchant shipping, since they were greatly appreciated by sailors making long journeys through Northern Europe. They were stocked as provisions on board ship for their taste and nutritional qualities.

The intense, tart flavour of damsons would work very well with lamb, pork, beef or duck. The Roman cookery writer Apicius mentions a recipe for roast venison with a piquant, dried damson sauce and there Moroccan recipes for Tagines using prunes. You can even use damson jam as a glaze for ham (which sounds delicious). I thought I would use my damsons in a Lamb Tagine and here is the recipe:

Tagine of Lamb with Damsons and Almonds

600 g lamb
1 lb damsons
50 g flaked almonds
pinch of salt &, pepper
1 tsp cumin
2 tbsp olive oil

Cut the lamb into cubes and brown over a high heat in the oil. Cut the damsons in half and stone them. Add the damsons and the rest of the ingredients to the lamb and cook over a low heat for about half an hour. Sprinkle with the flaked almonds and serve hot with couscous.

Nick has recommended Château Les Eymeries 2005 as a great wine to pair with Roast Goose Stuffed With Prunes and I think that it will be a good match for the Lamb and Damson Tagine. Les Eymeries comes from the little village of Margueron which lies on the borders of 3 departements: the Gironde, the Dordogne and the Lot et Garonne – not too far from Agen.
It's a lovely wine and is a deep pomegranate red, fine and subtle on the nose with hints of blackberries, vanilla, cherries and smoke. It is rounded and supple and with a good length on the palate and has fine and light tannins. Being Merlot based Chateau Les Eymeries will pair well with most dishes and I think it will handle the Tagine beautifully!