Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Wines and Spirits Based on Herbs and Spices

I was wondering if Europe had a history of making wines from herbs as we do have a tradition of making wines from flowers (I've just made a batch of Elderflower Wine). Asia has a long history of herbal beverages and Nick came across some archaeological research which suggests that the ancient Egyptians infused wine with herbal medicines as early as 3150 BCE. The data revealed the presence of tree resin and a number of possible herbs in the wine residue, including savory, balm, senna, coriander, mint, sage, and thyme.

The Egyptians were not the first to make wine, but they were the first to record the process of wine making and celebrate its values. The Ancient Egyptians recorded the harvest of grapes on stone tablets and the walls of their tombs. The Egyptians also had designated areas for growing their vines, much like Bordeaux has today.

I suppose that the nearest European equivalent to these ancient wines would be the aromatised wine Vermouth such as Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi and Cinzano (for more information on see Nick's Blog on Fortified Wines, Ancient Egypt and Vermouth).

I have spotted that a Slovakian spirits company named Karloff has recently launched what it claims are the world's first wine-based saffron drinks. Saffroni Aperitivo and Saffroni Vermouth are made from white wine, natural herb extracts and saffron, renowned as the most expensive spice in the world. The producers recommend that you try it in a cocktail called Safrito:


6cl of Saffroni Aperitivo
2 cl of Saffron Gin
2 cl of apple or orange juice
Serve with an olive and decorate with a slice of orange

France's leading micro-distiller Gabriel Boudier of Dijon (founded in 1874) makes Saffron Gin from a recipe that they rediscovered in their archives. The gin is made from saffron and an intriguing mix of juniper, coriander, lemon, orange peel, angelica seeds, iris and fennel.

Sub Rosa make an Saffron Vodka as well as an unusual Tarragon Vodka. Sub Rosa Spirits is an Oregon craft micro distillery and their Tarragon Vodka has the slightest hint of liquorice that occurs naturally in tarragon. They suggest a Martini with a lemon peel or a touch of Limoncello is the first cocktail you should try with their Tarragon Vodka.

The Saffron Vodka is intense and complex and has toasted cumin on the nose, lemony coriander on the mid-palate, a hint of ginger, just a touch of heat and the aromatics of saffron at the end. Sub Rosa Spirits are available in Oregon, California,Washington State, Colorado, New Mexico and Washington D.C.

If anyone knows of other wines or spirits based on herbs and spices please let me know! If these are not to you taste then wines I can recommend that have a herby or fresh cut hay taste to them are those with Sauvignon Blanc in the blend (try Chateau Sainte Marie – this wine pairs well with summer salads of rocket, balsamic vinegar and laced with nuts or for a red wine try Chateau Millet Lartigue with its notes of cedar and dried herbs). For a peppery and spicy touch I'd suggest Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends such as Chateau du Touginas or Chateau Loyasson.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Marjoram, the Herb of Grace – Recipes for Barbeques and Good Wine!

Looking out at the dark steel blue thunder clouds coming in off the horizon there is one little plant in the herb garden that shines out against them – my Golden Marjoram (Origanum vulgare 'Aureum'). It's small, bright yellow-green leaves stand out in the gloom and are soon to burst out into lavender coloured flowers. Folklore has it that if Marjoram and Wild Thyme are laid near milk in a dairy, they will prevent it being turned by thunder. I will have to try this out one day!

Marjoram is of the Oregano family and my plant belongs to the Sweet Marjoram group that have a milder, sweeter flavour than their cousins. It has a distinctive aroma and a taste of citrus and sweet pine which is a sort of cross between Thyme and the stronger flavoured Oregano. When used in cooking it's best to add the Marjoram at the end as its delicate flavour can get lost in the dish if you don't.

Marjoram is used across the Mediterranean – in France it's called Marjolaine and is used in the Herbes de Provence. There is even a Chateau de Marjolaine in Bordeaux! Shakespeare referred to it in his Sonnet 99 and called it “the Herb-of-Grace" in All´s Well that Ends Well.

It was believed that the goddess of love, Venus (Aphrodite), created the plants and gave them their wonderful sweet flavour and scent. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans would crown bridal couples with wreaths of Marjoram to symbolize love honour and happiness and this was still common practice in the UK in the Middle Ages. Indeed our modern bridal bouquets have their origins in the posies of herbs. Folklore has it that if you anointed yourself with Marjoram you would dream of your future spouse. Marjoram was called amaracum in Latin and this is thought to have come from the word for love, amor, so that might explain Marjoram’s reputation as aphrodisiac in Roman literature!

Marjoram was also used as a strewing herb on the floors to sweeten the air as it was trodden upon and in 17th century England it was an ingredient of snuff. They then decided to put it in their beer, as a preservative and to give an aromatic flavour! Over the years, Marjoram has been used as a remedy to aid digestion and Marjoram Oil is said to relieve toothache. Marjoram continues to be used as a steam inhalant to clear the sinuses and relieve laryngitis. European singers have been known to preserve their voices with Marjoram tea sweetened with honey.

I have two good recipes for Marjoram that are suitable for summer al fresco dining or a barbeque.

Pork and Marjoram Pâté

300 g pork liver
2 onions
2 cloves of garlic
50 g butter
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a small glass of port
300 g pork loin
300 g ham
250 g of single cream
large handful of fresh marjoram
slices of streaky bacon

Cut the liver, pork loin and ham into small pieces, peel and chop the onion and garlic. Brown the liver and pork loin all in the hot fat and stir, season with salt and pepper and then add the port. Cool and then liquidize with the ham. Add the cream and marjoram.

Line a tin with strips of streaky bacon and fill it with the liquidized mixture. Cover with slices of streaky bacon. Cover the tin with foil and bake for 1 1/2 hours in a moderate oven in a bain-marie. Cool.

Garnish with black peppercorns and sprigs of marjoram.

Pork Chops with Marjoram

4 pork chops
4 tbsp olive oil
large handful of fresh marjoram
salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the best effect you can season your olive oil with sprigs of marjoram and use this once the herb has steeped in the oil long enough to impart its flavour. Brush the pork chops with your marjoram oil and marinate for 1 hour.

Grill the chops on the barbecue. Garnish with fresh marjoram.

A good wine to pair with these recipes is Sancet (£6.84) which comes from the Côtes de Gascogne appellation. Domaines de Sancet lie in Saint-Martin-d'Armagnac on a sloping plateau facing the Pyrenean mountains. This area is very well-known for its strong culinary tradition with duck and foie gras and the production of Armagnac (the oldest brandy in France). Domaine de Sancet is owned by the mayor of the village, Alain Faget, who also makes Armagnac, Floc, liqueurs and wines under the Madirans and Pacherenc appellations.

Sancet is beautifully balanced, bright, and refreshing with lush flavours of ripe pear, melon, guava, cucumber, apple and lemon. There is a light beeswax note which adds complexity, a hint of slight sweetness and a touch of minerality on the finish. It is great with pork as well as poultry, game birds (Guinea Fowl), seafood such as Bouillabaise and Paella, Asian cuisine and strong cheeses.