Friday, 28 January 2011

Haggis and What Wine to Drink With It

As Burns Night fell this week I thought it only right and proper to write about the Haggis. Scots all over the globe will be celebrating the life of Robert Burns, as they have done for over 200 years. Traditionally the celebration takes the form of the Burns Supper. Burns is known the world over as the author of “Auld Lang Syne” which is generally sung as a folk song at Hogmanay and other New Year celebrations. The suppers are normally held on or near the poet's birthday, January 25th, known as Burns Night.

The first suppers were held in Ayrshire in 1801 by his friends on the anniversary of his death, July 21st, In Memoriam and, although the date has changed to the 25th of January since then, they have been a regular occurrence ever since.

The Burns Supper involves Haggis, Scotch whisky and poetry. The Selkirk Grace is said at the beginning of the meal:

“Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some would eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.”

The supper then starts with the soup course. Normally a Scots soup such as Scotch Broth, Potato Soup or Cock-a-Leekie is served. Everyone stands as the main course is brought in. This is always a Haggis on a large dish. It is brought in by the cook, generally while a piper plays bagpipes and leads the way to the host's table, where the Haggis is laid down. The host, or perhaps a guest with a talent, then recites the Address To a Haggis.

The traditional Haggis contains sheep's 'pluck' (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock and stuffed in a sheep's stomach. I love it. It is served with mashed potato and neeps (mashed swede).

There are lots of debates about the origin of the Haggis. People claim its is English, French, even Scandinavian but to me it will always be Scottish. It's thought that the Ancient Greeks and Romans were the first people known to have made products of the Haggis type. Popular folklore has it that the dish originates from the days of the old Scottish cattle drovers. When the men left the highlands to drive their cattle to market in Edinburgh the women would prepare rations for them to eat during the long journey down through the glens. They used the ingredients that were most readily available in their homes and conveniently packaged them in a sheep's stomach allowing for easy transportation during the journey.

Those that favour the origins of the Haggis hailing from France trace it back to the Auld Alliance. French influence remained strong in Scotland until 1603 and traces of that tongue remain in the Scottish lexicon. A leg of lamb is called gigot and a serving dish is an ashet - assiette in French. Haggis is supposed to come from the French verb hacher - to chop up or mangle. However, no dish in France seems to resemble anything we’d recognise as a Haggis, and the French didn’t seem to use the word hachis to refer to Haggis either: During the Auld Alliance, the French called it Le Pain Bénit d’Écosse, (Scotland’s blessed bread) and . . . much more recently Puding de St André.

Clarissa Dickson Wright in her book The Haggis - A Little History makes a case for Haggis originally being from Sweden. Scandinavians from Sweden eat Haggis with great relish and invariably remark on its resemblance to a dish in their local cuisine. Relations between Scotland and the Nordic world go back to the 9th century. The impact of the Norse was far greater than that of the French; they are part of Scotland's historic fabric. The root of the word Haggis could have come from the Swedish word hagga, meaning to hew or chop; and the Icelandic hoggva, with the same meaning. The Norsemen also conquered Normandy so maybe the French verb hacher derives from hagga as well?

As to what to drink with the Haggis – back in 2008 Nick was asked to give a talk on food and wine pairing at the Clifton Club in Bristol where Haggis was on the menu. It's important to chose a wine that will not over power your Haggis but one that is well balanced, smooth, with good fruit and a firm structure. A blockbuster, fruit bomb or anything too tannic or oaky will not do your Haggis justice!

Here is the menu and Nick's wine suggestions to accompany the dishes:

Home Smoked Salmon on Brown Bread – Château Tour Chapoux
Asparagus in Parma Ham with Tomato Fondue – Montagnac Chardonnay
Prawns in Filo Pastry with Tarragon – M de Malle
Parfait of Mushroom Scented with Date - Château Pessan
Haggis – Château La Roc de Pellebouc
Baby Yorkshire Puddings with Beef in Horseradish – Château Chadeuil
Rolled Ham – Clairet de Château des Lisennes
Rolled Pork – Clairet de Château des Lisennes
Grilled Foie Gras on Toast – Château St Helene
Rosemary Bread filled with Melting Roquefort – Château St Helene
Christmas Pudding in Icing Sugar – Château St Helene

And finally for those of you who are convinced that the Haggis is a small wee beastie with one set of legs longer than the other so that it can stand on the steep Scottish Highlands without falling over – here is a picture of one. (According to one poll, 33% of American visitors to Scotland believe the Haggis to be an animal) .

Friday, 21 January 2011

Crème de Menthe

I tend to think of Crème de Menthe as a retro drink but I find myself wondering if it is starting to make a comeback. It certainly makes a refreshing aperitif in the hot summer and its deep green colour is so alluring! Originally Crème de Menthe was made with peppermint and it seems that Emile Giffard was responsible for creating the liqueur in the heat wave of 1885. Giffard was a dispensing pharmacist in Angers (in the Loire Valley) and undertook research on the digestive and refreshing properties of mint. He invented a pure, clear and refined white mint liqueur which he tested with the neighbouring 'Grand Hotel''s customers, in the Ralliement's place. It was a resounding success and changed his pharmacy into a distillery. He named his new liqueur Menthe Pastille and it became a fashionable Victorian after dinner drink. A green coloured version seems to have originated shortly after. Generations later Giffard's is still a family business with a wide range of classic liqueurs, sirops and eau de vie.

Although originating in France, Giffard's Crème de Menthe was made with peppermint leaves imported from Mitcham in Surrey in the late 1800s. Peppermint was not discovered in Britain until 1696, in Hertfordshire. Peppermint was cultivated, particularly at Mitcham in Surrey, from the 1750s onwards and the mint was renowned for its flavour. This resulted in a particular variety called Mitcham Black. To this day, in fact, the French call peppermint Menthe Anglaise.

During the Second World War only 'essential' crops were permissible and mint fields became a thing of the past and Surrey's mint growing dwindled to the point where the Mitcham Black had not been grown in Britain for over 50 years . . . until recently. Sir Michael Colman (of mustard family fame) founded Summerdown Pure Mint a few years ago. During the last decade, Colman and his team have re-learned lost mint-farming skills and combined them with the latest production technology. Summerdown Mint now has over 80 acres of Black Mitcham mint.

Peppermint is sometimes regarded as 'the world's oldest medicine', with archaeological evidence placing its use at least as far back as ten thousand years ago. Its the oldest and most popular flavour of mint-flavoured confectionery and the English were the first country to manufacture peppermint creams as a product.

Peppermint is actually a cross between the Watermint and Spearmint and grows throughout Europe. The Greeks believed mints could clear the voice and cure hiccups. In fact, mint is part of Greek mythology and according to legend - "Minthe" was originally a nymph, and beloved by Pluto. Persephone, Pluto's wife, in a fit of rage turned Minthe into a lowly plant, to be trod upon. Pluto, unable to undo the spell, was able to soften it by giving Minthe a sweet scent which would perfume the air when her leaves were stepped on - the aromatic herb Mint.

Get 27 is a French crème de Menthe made with Spearmint (despite erroneously being named Pippermint Get a century ago). This mint liquor was invented in 1796 by distiller Francois Pons in the town of Revel in the Haute Garonne. The first employees in the company, Jean Get (who married the manager’s daughter) and his brother Pierre took over in 1853. It took name Get 27 after the figure of its alcohol level, which went down with time and is now only 21 degrees. The drink is known worldwide for its taste but also for the peculiar shape of its bottle, inspired by a petrol lamp and created in 1860. The old Get factory in Revel has now been turned into a cultural centre with a library, a dance school and a cinema called Cine-Get. The famous bottle hangs over the front door of the building, which in the past gave Revel its special mint smell. Get 27 is now owned by the Bacardi Group.

There are several cocktails you can make with crème de Menthe but I prefer mine fairly plain – Giffard have some great suggestions on their website and I liked this idea for the summer:

20 cl Crème de Menthe (clear or green)
½ Cucumber
½ lemon
sprig of fresh mint leaves
40 cl Still water
some Chives, chopped

Mix the crème de Menthe with the still water in a large bowl and keep for 3 hours in a freezer. Each hour crush the mixture with a fork in order to make a Granita. Once the Granita is ready add the cucumber cubes, the juice of half a lemon, fresh mint leaves, some chopped chives, salt and pepper.


Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Wines of South West France – Saint Mont

When I started looking into the wines of Saint Mont the only things I knew about it were that it was a small area I hadn't heard of and that it lay to the north of Madiran and to the north east of Tursan. Little did I realise what a treasure trove it is. Or what a contradiction. On the one hand you have a very, very old vineyard and on the other a dynamic – and determined - set of wine makers who are remaking history.

Saint Mont's origins go back to the 4th century BC and the village is perched on a cliff overlooking the River Adour. The old town is rich with Medieval Gascon architecture with narrow streets and picturesque half-timbered houses. It's name translates into English as Holy Mountain or Mountain of Saints but its roots are pre Christian. The Romans built a hill fort here as the attitude made it almost inaccessible and therefore easily defensible. A thousand years later in 1050 a Benedictine Abbey was founded over the ruins of the Roman fort.

The story goes that when the region was in the grip of the plague, the local lord, Raymond de Saint Mont, profoundly affected by a menacing dream, swore an oath to found a an abbey and to wear the monk's habit. Despite opposition from his mother and brothers, he carried out his plan thanks to the support of the Count of Armagnac, Bernard II Tumapaler. The Abbey became an important stage on the route to Santiago de Compestela with pilgrims finding board and lodging there. Pilgrims were not the only people who stopped off at Saint Mont. Close by the Monastery was a 'Sauveté', a sacred place represented by a cross, where any individual being hunted down, even if guilty, could find refuge and assistance from the monks for three days. The first written records at Saint Mont date back to the vineyards of the 11th century and reveal that religious congregations were the chief architects of the development of the region, particularly in terms of vine cultivation.

After the French Revolution the Revolutionary authorities confiscated the Monastery and expelled the monks. In 1795 Count Jean-Jacques de Corneilhan bought the property and the Monastery became a Chateau. The de Corneilhan family owned the property for almost two centuries and in 1995 it was bought by Françoise Laborde, the French author, journalist and television presenter. Having discovered where sections of the former vines were originally planted, the Producteurs Plaimont have now recreated the vineyard of the Monastery.

And this leads me on from the old to the new.

The forward thinking co-operative Producteurs Plaimont was founded in 1979 by André Dubosc, a local man determined to reinvigorate this wine producing region. Plaimont not only represents Saint Mont but the surrounding appellations Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh and Vin de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne. Dubosc has spent his life researching, replanting and promoting local grapes varieties which, without him, would have otherwise disappeared. A trained ampelographer (expert in the study of vines and grapes), he set up the Conservatory of Saint Mont wines and saved many grapes from extinction.

Saint Mont now holds a unique collection in France (around 116 different grape varieties) and this botanical heritage is now attracting attention from researchers, scientists and vintners alike. Much of Dubosc's work has focused on the vineyard of René Pédebernade, which, according to the French wine critic Michel Bettane, contains the oldest vines in France. Some of the vines are believed to be 300 years old, giving new meaning to the term Vieilles Vignes (old vines).

The vines survived the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out thousands of acres in the 19th century as they are rooted in ten metres of sand, making them invincible to the pest. What’s remarkable is that Pédebernade’s vines give a glimpse into viticulture hundreds of years ago, and they have preserved varietals long since forgotten. Added to this are over 30 unknown varieties – their names lost long ago - discovered abandoned, yet still thriving, in deserted plots.

These vines are of vital importance as they hold the genetic keys to today's grapes and can help winegrowers of the future. The grapes grown today are the red grapes Tannat, Fer Servadou, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and the whites are Arrufiac, Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Petit Courbu. However as the climate changes the old varieties may have qualities that come back into the fore and we might be drinking wines made from grapes named Arrat, Canaril, Aouillat, Chacolis, Miousap, Claverie, Morrastel and Morenoa in the not too distant future!

If you would like to find out more about the wines of Saint Mont there is now a new website up and running here.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Tursan – Wine of South West France, Cellars of Sand and a Michelin Chef Saves the Baroque Grape

Tursan is one of those wine regions that you never seem to hear of outside France – which is a shame as it is home to some fascinating practices and long forgotten grapes. Wine has been made in Tursan for over a thousand years – gracing the tables of Roman Emperors. In the Middle Ages Tursan wines could be found in major Spanish cities such as Cordoba, Seville and Valencia as well as in England or Flanders.

Tursan lies in the western foothills of the Pyrenees mountains in the back-reaches of the Landes department, surrounding the walled town of Geaune and pretty villages of Eugénie les Bains and Samadet. Part of the region just spreads into the Gers and Tursan takes its name from an historic area of the region which survives in the names of two local parishes - Castelnau-Tursan and Vielle Tursan. It is bordered by the River Ardour in Landes, on the west by the Chalosse, south of the Béarn, and east by the Armagnac.

The River Adour has been an important water highway for the region – it in High-Bigorre in the Pyrenees, and flows into the Atlantic Ocean via the Bay of Biscay near Bayonne. This region was first cultivated by the Romans and had a flourishing wine trade long before the Bordeaux area was planted. As the port city of Bordeaux became established, wines from the "High Country" would descend via the tributaries of the Dordogne and Garonne to be sent to markets along the Atlantic coast. The climate of the inland region was generally warmer and more favourable than in Bordeaux, allowing the grapes to be harvested earlier and the wines to be of a stronger alcohol level.

Many Bordeaux wine merchants saw the wines of the "High Country" as a threat to their economic interest and during the 13th and 14th century a set of codes, known as the police des vins, were established which regulated the use of the port of Bordeaux for wine trading. The police des vins stated that no wine could be traded out of Bordeaux till the majority of Bordelais wine had already been sold.

The winemakers of Tursan circumvented this set of codes in the 17th and 18th century by shipping their barrels down the River Adour through the port of Bayonne to Europe. Since the late 1990s Tursan has resurrected an old custom from these times. Whilst the wines were waiting for shipment at Saint Sever the barrels were taken to the seaside town of Hossegor Landes and buried in the sand dunes. This ancient method of storage ensured the best conditions for the wine to mature – the sand maintained a temperature conducive to the wines' preservation. Nowadays this revived practice once more takes place and barrels are stored for 6 months under the sand.

Sand also plays an important place in the terroir of Tursan's vineyards which are made up of tawny sand, limestone and clay. During the Mid-Miocene epoch, between 11 and 16 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean invaded the Aquitanian Basin. The sea laid down continental deposits that include molasse - sandstones, tawny sands, shales, or even gravel that were laid down as shore or fore land layers containing fossils of many terrestrial species. The fine clay is now used for making earthenware in the village of Samadet in the heart of Tursan's vineyards.

Tursan makes very dry white wines and subtle, smooth rosés and red wines. The red grapes used are Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Fer Servadou. The white wine grapes are Baroque, Sauvignon Blanc, Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng. Grapes such as Claverie, Cruchinet, Raffiat, Chenin Blanc, Claret du Gers and Clairette can be found there as well. The production zone covers potentially 4.000 hectares (but less than 500 hectares are covered by vineyards) and includes around 40 communes.

The Baroque grape is rare and is isolated to this area. Not much is known about this white grape but apparently it was widespread in the 1800s. According to the French ampelographer Pierre Galet , it was introduced to the region by pilgrims returning from Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. Essays written in the 1700s record the variety.
There seem to be several types or mutations of Baroque – a black, rose and beige version are known to exist. The black variety is thought to be genetically closely related to Manseng Noir and Tannat according to a study published in 2007 demonstrated that the varieties Baroque, Manseng Noir and Tannat are genetically very closely related (Etude historique, génétique et ampélograpfique of cépages Pyrénéo Atlantiques by Louis Bordenave, Thierry Lacombe, Valérie Laucou and Jean-Michel Boursiquot). They also found a striking similarity to the variety Malbec and the variety Claverie.

However the white variety is thought to be a cross between Folle Blanche and Sauvignon Blanc.
The white Baroque (often spelled Barroque) can make full bodied wines, high in alcohol and has nutty flavours. Interestingly it has amongst its synonyms Bordelais Blanc (I wonder if it was ever used in Bordeaux?) and Sable Blanc (meaning White Sand – is this a hark back to the soils it is grown in or to the Sand Cellars?).

Luckily the Baroque grape has been saved from extinction by Michelin starred chef Michel Guérard, one of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, and the inventor of cuisine minceur. In 1974 he moved to the spa town of Eugénie les Bains, with his wife Christine (the daughter of the founder of the Biotherm range and the owner of a chain of spas and hotels). Not only do they run a highly successful spa hotel and restaurant but they also bought the 13th century Château de Bachen in 1983. From these restored vineyards they produce the award winning wines Chateau de Bachen and the Baron de Bachen from Baroque grapes.

The Hachette Guide describes them as “chiselled shiny pale gold with a complex nose where floral and fruity blend with elegant oak vanilla, lemon zest confit, blond tobacco, pepper, woodland, cappuccino and, pineapple notes . . . A sophisticated wine that has substance.”

These little known wines sound well worth discovering and you can check out Tursan's website and newly established Route de Vins here.