January 14, 2015

A Tale of Two Lunches

No photos at lunch, so here is Benoît on the hunt
 The email from my friend Benoît was succinct: 

"Are you available to have lunch with a winemaker, a former manager of a wine shop, and me in Pommard at 11:30?"

Rule number 1 in France is "Always say yes," so away I went. Like some pseudo-clandestine black-ops caper, we were to meet in front of the church. "It will be simplest."

At the arranged time, my host awaited. His winemaker friend, a burly gentleman in his 50s sporting jeans and a thick sweater approached, quickly followed a debonair, grey-haired Frenchman in glasses with a scarf neatly wrapped around his neck, tucked into the top of his leather jacket. We chatted for 20 minutes, telling snippets of our life stories, before getting back into our cars to go to the domaine, or headquarters, to begin tasting the nectars of Pommard and Monthelie. We would start by tasting the 2014 vintage, which was harvested in September, before heading to his home for a casse croûte, or snack, while tasting older, bottled wines. 

In a cuverie that dated from 1945, the winemaker removed the plug from five or six oak barrels. He dipped his glass wine thief, a magic tasting wand, into the barrels and extracted several centiliters of wine, which he distributed into our glasses. Imagine four men in a windowless cave drinking wine on a Thursday morning. That's pretty much how we behaved. More than once I was admonished, "What happens in the intimacy of the cave stays in the cave." Vegas, French-style. 

Back at the winemaker's house, we met his wife and quickly shuffled to a table set for what sure looked like lunch, not a small snack. Little squares of pâté en croûte began our dining experience. Corks popped out of bottles, our host excited to show off the full range of his products. (A stainless steel bucket was placed on the table for us to dump our glasses; if we finished every pour he gave us, our new home was going to be spelled J-A-I-L). 

Next, a significant bowl-shaped hunk of jambon persillé appeared. The vigneron cut thick slabs for each of us. The meat orgy was on, and I was a little nervous about what was to follow. We were clearly drifting away from casse croûte and towards "gigantic meal." When our hostess disappeared upstairs for the next course, I was fairly certain we weren't going to see a plate of crudités or a fluffy omelet with a little green salad as our main course. 

My instincts were right on. A steaming pot of boeuf bourguignon landed on the table with a disquieting thump. As I mopped up the last of the sauce on my plate with some bread, I had a moment of pride in my heroic eating abilities. This moment was quickly replaced by incredulity as Madame reemerged with a dish full of mashed potatoes. I am not sure why these did not come at the same time as the beef, but it was now clear that I would need to find some space on the inside for potatoes and, unbelievably, seconds of the boeuf

No meal is complete without cheese, so why not some roquefort, some Chaource, some Abbaye de Citeaux, a few slices of bread...I was officially sweating now. A rich chocolate pastry with a cookie crust completed our meal, chased by an espresso. The three of us emerged from the table in darkness under a considerable rain shower. "Lunch," which featured lots of conversation, a visit from the winemaker's mother, and the arrival of their pre-teen daughter, who was a little miffed that her parents had not met her at the school bus, had lasted six hours, with no fewer than 15 different wines tasted. I rolled into our house after a long drive home, and announced to my wife that I would not be needing dinner.
Lunch #2: All Those Who Enter Leave Full
The next day, we were invited to the home of our French friends Maurice and Annie. We would be joined by another American friend of theirs who was married to an Egyptian woman. When we were all convened at 12:30, I wagered it was the most international crowd in the history of Arnay le Duc.

I had been assured that, with the holidays still fresh in our minds (and perhaps showing a little bit around the waist), the meal would be a simple affair. Because I have been here for over a year now, I knew this to be total baloney and steeled myself for an eating marathon.

Our host offered Champagne and...little squares of pâté en croûte. I began to worry about a repeat of the previous day, and contemplated joining my new Egyptian friend in a pork-free world. Gougères, the little cheese puffs that appear with great regularity in the region, provided a "lighter" option.

We made our way to the table. Annie served a delicious salad of endives, walnuts, beets, and apple. Her secret was hazelnut oil, which, she commented, doesn't spoil as quickly as walnut oil and gives a refreshing taste to the dressing. (I am continually awed by how the French have a reason behind every culinary choice they make. An American would answer the question, "What's in the dressing?" by ticking off the ingredients. Here, every ingredient is a choice. "I chose this oil, I prefer to use salt from Brittany, some people like balsamic vinegar, but I find that it is too sweet when paired with the apples, etc.") I may have muttered, "Hello, fruits and vegetables. It's been a while. Nice to see you again." 

Maurice served a crisp Pinot Blanc from Alsace to ease us into the meal. I commented that it was unusual to see Burgundy people serving not just one but two wines from outside the region. He assured me I had nothing to worry about.

Madame shuffled off to the kitchen, returning with a trolley weighted down with boneless leg of lamb that she had cooked sous vide at very low temperature. She had risen at five that morning to start cooking it. It was accompanied by pommes dauphinoises, a delicious potato gratin. The lamb melted in my mouth, a flavor bomb of the best kind, and, my short-term memory obviously failing me, I greedily took seconds. 

Maurice had taken out a 2005 Savigny-Lavières, a Burgundy red I had never heard of before. The fruit was luscious, the acidity spot on. The marriage between the plate and the glass would have inspired Baudelaire. Smiling, I marveled at the French's ability to get these little things just right. "Parfait," I said. "Parfait."

I have been lucky to dine with Maurice on several occasions. He has a wonderfully charming habit of announcing everything on the table, eager to make sure his guests understand just what it is they are about to enjoy. When the cheese course appeared, his voice danced across the room. "Ça, c'est du comté 18 mois. Il y a aussi du vrai Époisses au lait cru. Et là, c'est une spécialité du nord: la boulette d'Avesnes." This last, a conical, soft, washed rind cow's milk treat from the north of France, was a wild departure from the cheeses we normally see in the region, pungent and powerful.

For our fourth bottle of the afternoon, he had selected a 1993 Gevrey-Chambertin. It was like drinking a flute sonata.

Because this is January, the dessert was a galette des rois, a traditional French pastry made with frangipane and associated with the Epiphany. Maurice deemed it prudent to let his guests guide him, so he put bottles of Champagne, hard cider, Burgundy red, and Maury, a fortified port-like wine from Southern France, on the table. We went with the latter, and applauded our choice.

After a neat espresso, chocolates made the tour of the table. Maurice proposed alcohols: a homemade prune liqueur, perhaps? Or maybe this Chartreuse, which is only 108 proof? I went with a thimble of the green liquid, pronounced it the perfect end to a memorable meal, and we staggered out into the streets of Arnay le Duc, a bit surprised to see the sun slipping below the houses. It was 4:45, and I realized that in a 29 hour stretch, I had spent 10 hours eating "lunch."

Sometimes, saying yes is dangerous.

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