December 17, 2014

Relaxing Lunch

The Golden Rule of French restaurant dining is to never make noise above a whisper. The silence is such that, in a brasserie filled with diners, a blind person would feel himself alone, were it not for the clinking of silverware on a plate. This presents myriad challenges for Americans; we are in the decibel business. But, now that we have been here a year, we are trying to adapt.

Thus, on Saturday, on the sidewalk in front of the pizzeria, I had a long conversation with my oldest son. In French, I told him all the rules of being sage at the table: no crying, no whining, no yelling, staying with his fanny on his chair, and, of course, no playing with his silverware. He followed the conversation beautifully, filling in some of the blanks for me ("no shouting!") and concluded with, "Je t'entends, Papa." I hear you, Dad.

In we went. A solo woman occupied one table and a couple with a 10 year old boy occupied a second. Other than that, the restaurant was empty. The noise level hovered between a funeral and a monk's bedroom. 

We were seated next to the family, and as I strapped the baby into his high chair, my wife moved to get Luke into his chair. While Archie and I battled over the tightness of his security belt, I heard a few, "Luke, no, please sit down, Luke what did we say?" from my wife's side of the table. And then an audible gasp of pain and surprise. 

My wife's hand was covering her left eye, her other hand locked around Luke's wrist. He was wielding a fork. "Are you ok?" I quickly asked. She removed her hand and a teardrop of blood bubbled up a quarter inch below her eyeball, a whisker from her cornea and general rods and cones mayhem. 

The family next to us cast one or two appalled looks in our direction. I had not yet removed my coat.

"What happened," I asked my son, "to 'je t'entends, Papa?'"

Luckily no permanent damage. We managed to keep the noise to an acceptable level the rest of our stay and had a nice lunch as a family. We thought it only fair, however, that Luke pick up the tab.

December 15, 2014

Deomonstrably Delicious

With the holiday season in full swing, the local kitchen store in Arnay le Duc offered a series of cooking demonstrations. I attended the final installment on a recent Saturday afternoon. The proprietress had invited a chef from one of the restaurants in town to prepare some warming treats for her customers.

In the middle of the store, there was a Lacanche stove set up. These are super high-end stoves manufactured just a few minutes away in the town of the same name. (They are called the "pianos" of cooking; Americans, apparently, drool over them.) There was an assortment of chairs for the, ahem, somewhat less-than young members of the audience, and a good crowd of 25-30 people was on hand. 

The proprietress supervises the chef
The chef, Daniel (not that Daniel), was chatting away while he prepped one of the undisputed flagship dishes of Burgundy: oeufs en meurette, or poached eggs in red wine sauce. He had a few dozen eggs in their cartons, a pot of bubbling water on the stove, and a pot of sauce that made the store smell just this side of heaven. Soon, eggs were gently rolling in the pot, removed onto paper towels in a stainless steel service pan. When the chef needed a chinois to strain the sauce, the proprietress simply plucked one off the wall from her inventory. As he finalized his sauce, the local caviste, who had been invited to pair wines with the afternoon's offerings, suggested that he should put 5cl of the wine he was planning to serve with the eggs.

The crowd enthused at this idea, even if the chef recoiled a bit in horror at what he clearly thought was a break with tradition. He commented to the assembled guests, "If it is no longer good, it is no longer my sauce!" Plastic plates appeared, and were adorned with an egg, a couple spoonfuls of sauce, and a toast point. The aromas and visuals proved stronger than the Iron Rule of France ("on ne mange pas entre les repas," or "one does not eat in between is practically religion. My wife recently offered five women one madeleine at 11am, and they refused to a person. I cannot recall the last time I saw a French person snack.), and the guests happily accepted. 
No need to send back this poached egg for being hard in the middle
While the dish is simplicity itself, it is also delicious. This version was no exception: the egg white was set perfectly, the yolk spilled out in a lava-like flow of deep, golden yellow, marrying with and enriching the acidic red wine sauce, studded with onions and lardons. Mopping it up with the toast point was not quite sufficient, and spoons were passed around, helping induct a gaggle of locals into the Clean Plate Club. Our friend the caviste had poured everyone a healthy glass of Chroey les Beaune ("Pourquoi un Chorey les Beaune? Because it is fruity, not too tannic, and fresh.)

This would solidly qualify as an appetizer in most restaurants. But we were far from done. Next up was a creamed mushroom mixture spooned into little hills on toast, covered in grated emmental cheese, and passed into a hot oven to gratinée it. 

"A nice little apéro," says the chef
As an obscure white from northern Burgundy appeared (in fresh glasses...good heavens, people, what did you think? They'd use your red wine glass for a white wine?), one of my new friends in Arnay happily accepted and began to drink, commenting that "mushrooms are not my thing. Sure, I enjoy a poulet de Bresse with morels, but I won't eat what he's prepared," violating Iron Rule Number Two: drinking booze without food. For the rest of us, however, we enjoyed a fulfilling (if a little gluey) second snack.

The crowd thinned out a bit, but Super Chef was still going. A bunch of egg yolks got mixed with some softened butter while chocolate chips melted in a bain marie

0% chance this will be bad

We miss our machine in storage in VT
In a Kitchen Aid mixer, egg whites and a little bit of sugar were whipped into Minimanjaros, the white summits airy, like a summer cloud. Once the melted chocolate had been incorporated into the butter/yolk mixture, the whites were folded in until homogenized.

Not his first time
The final preparation was placed into a fancy plastic tube that was a 21st century version of the pastry bag (conveniently on sale in the store...remember, this is a business) and piped into plastic bowls for the crowd. 

SO much better than the traditional pastry bag! Only 8 million euros!
It was light, fluffy, and deeply chocolaty. The thought of dinner in three hours began to make me nervous, and the double-whammy of local cremant and a Muscat sweet dessert wine from "outside of Montpellier" made the four minute drive home a little daunting. 

L to R: Emcee, Chef, Caviste (the last a noble man)
The spoons from the chocolate mousse licked clean, most of the people felt like their work here was done, and they promptly said their thank yous and goodbyes, leaving the onerous chore of making the cash register sing to some other poor fellow. Just another 900 calorie afternoon in Arnay le Duc.

Recipe for chocolate mousse (enough to fill a big glass bowl like in the pictures):

6 egg yolks
9 egg whites
250-275g of chocolat (he used 55%)
120g of butter
80g sugar

In a big bowl, mixx yolks and softened butter together while the chocolate melts in a bain marie. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, adding the sugar when they begin to firm up. Mix the melted chocolate with the yolks and butter. Fold in the egg whites. Eat.

December 12, 2014

Chasing Christophe Legout

The French are big joiners. (No, not carpenters.) They like being in groups (they also really like close-standing, which is annoying) and create new clubs at a brisk pace to satisfy this hunger. Want to get together casually and talk about photography? Better create a club, with by-laws, elections, an org chart, meeting minutes, dues, and strategy for the future. 

In our hometown of Arnay le Duc, 1700 souls-strong, there are clubs for handball, hunting, walking, local history, municipal music, soccer, art, judo, tennis, blood drives, cycling, dance, and one for the parents of elementary school students. Nearby are clubs called Desperate Scrapwives, Hold 'Em Poker, Friends of the Club of Burgundy Writers, Popcorn, Burgundy-Vietnam Solidarity (number of Asian people spotted in Burgundy in the last year: 4), and Mouthwatering. All are registered with the regional government. This may not seem unusual, but here is the kicker: it is difficult to practice any of the things here on your own. The only legally authorized hunting is in a group. Want to walk with a gaggle of gals every once in a while? Gotta join up, playa. While nothing prevents you from riding your bike on your own, why wouldn't you join a bureaucratic organization, replete with internal politics, petty bickering, and financial concerns so that you can...ride your bike?

It has taken about a year for me to understand this fundamental difference between our two cultures. Imagine telling an American that he had to register his a cappella group in the state capital in order to be allowed to perform. Envision a small, informal walking club that meets weekly in rural New England requiring its members to submit a letter of health from their doctor before allowing them to walk. I dare you to tell a Texas hunter that hunting is only allowed on Sunday, and he will, of course, need to be part of a club, inform the local newspaper where he will be hunting and during what hours, ensure that every member of the club is wearing the regulation, state-mandated safety gear, and, oh yes, pay the several hundred dollar license fee. (In Texas, a hunting license is $25...I looked it up.) Superficially, it is a small difference, but below that surface, I now see that it is a major deviation in our cultural spirits. The French enjoy being in groups with lots of paperwork and following the rules of those groups. I won't speak for all 300 million Americans, but I can guarantee that I ain't joining no club if I want to help plan the blood drive.

Critical paper
But, I live here now, so when my friend Eric said he was the President of the Table Tennis Club in Lacanche (more precisely, L'Association sportive de tennis de table de Lacanche, or, in that unforgettable acronym, ASTTL) and invited me to come "practice" with the club one Thursday evening, I said sure. We were at Eric's house, enjoying a casual meal for nine of gougères stuffed with foie gras; eggs poached in white wine with bacon and a cream sauce (accompanied by a Chevalier-Montrachet grand cru, naturally); a poulet de Bresse with morels and vin jaune, the unique wine of the neighboring Jura region; a gratin of leeks; four cheeses; a homemade baba au rhum; coffee; and chocolates. He informed the assembled guests that there had recently been outrage on social media when one of his club members was pictured wearing sweatpants instead of the regulation shorts. Some posters claimed he was "dishonoring the tradition and seriousness of the sport." This is ping pong, remember.

Second thoughts began to creep in, and I pawed at the air in front of me, trying to take back my acceptance of his invite. I wasn't going to be wearing short shorts to play ping pong.

Alack, I was committed, and as I got myself ready for Thursday night, I emailed Eric and told him I would be arriving in jeans and a T-shirt. I also boasted to my wife about my hand-eye coordination, betting that I would be able to hold me own at the table. After all, said I, "I grew up playing golf, ice hockey, and lacrosse. These people ride bikes and play soccer." Plus, I had played basketball with ten French people on Bastille Day and, well, if I was the best player on the court, (a fact that would make Naismith roll over in his grave), then drinking wine with lunch and eating cheese hadn't totally eliminated my athletic superiority to the average Frenchman. 

I did a little research on the club and discovered my president friend was no joke. He was quoted in the newspaper this fall saying, "Seuls les jeunes intéressés sérieusement par la pratique du ping-pong seront acceptés." In English, that reads "Only young people seriously interested in the practice of ping pong will be accepted into the club." PING PONG!

I had a brief crise de confiance, beginning to doubt if I would be able to hold my own. 

These doubts were well-placed, as I got schooled at Ping Pong Club last night. My first match (games to 11 points, best-of-five) was doubles (hardly a nice entry into the gig), and I felt myself compelled to let my adversaries know that the last time I played ping pong, there were 20 cups of beer on the table and "losing" could easily be considered "winning."

The balls were spinning, jumping, dying, and squirting all over the table, my racquet sometimes waving at the air, like George Costanza's hand trying to jump and touch the awning. My team lost in quick order.

Next, I moved to a friendly singles match against the President. When I found myself leading the first game of our match 10-8, a smart aleck 18-year old kid commented to the President that I played better than he did. I paused, the ball in my left hand as I prepared to serve, and, in English, told the kid, "A friend of mine taught me about the concept of courtesy golf. It's when someone pays your greens fees, you don't go out and beat him by 20 strokes...even if you could. This is courtesy ping pong." I'm not saying I tanked, but Mr. President emerged victorious, 12-10.

After a little training with a man who has been coming to Ping Pong Club for fifteen years, we played one more match of doubles, and I am happy to report we took it, three games to none. 

It was a great night, two-and-a-half hours of table tennis, occasionally interrupted for cigarette breaks, sparkling wine breaks, and, most common, abrupt disruptions so that Mr. President could sign myriad forms for the club, keeping the crew on the good side of the law. In the season's first match, they had to forfeit because only one of the required four players had turned in their medical certificate declaring them "fit for table tennis." The group's €2000 account had recently gained a new treasurer, which led to much paper being signed in triplicate. I was the only person surprised.  

At the end, I took solace in one player telling me "tu joues bien. Tu as des bonnes gestes," and went home, promising to return (still without my medical certificate, however).

December 10, 2014

A Special Time of Year

"Do you like lentils?"

It was an innocent, straightforward question to a friend of mine in town who is going through a difficult time. I wanted to do something nice for her, but I remembered that she had always left something on the plate when a guest at my house (white beans, green peas). I figured it made sense to ask her if she liked lentils before I attempted to make her a culinary cadeau.

The reply came in the affirmative, and ten minutes later, some chopped onion was gently heating in a stock pot with some olive oil. A shower of finely chopped carrots followed, a fresh bay leaf, a twist of the pepper shaker, and a blizzard of lentils hit the pot next, all of which I dusted with curry powder before covering the whole in chicken stock. I let it bubble for 30 or 40 minutes, until the lentils and carrots were tender, pulsed everything (minus the bay leaf) in the blender until "chunky smooth." I tasted, thought it a delicious lentil soup, and divided it into two Tupperwares: one for my family, one for hers.

I dropped off my soup with her daughter and, a few hours later, got a text from my friend. "I got your box. Many thanks. Just a question...Do we have to heat it? Is it a soup? Or can we make toasts with it?"

This was starting poorly.

I explained it was indeed soup, and that she could add some crème fraîche or lardons to it if she desired.

The next day, I spotted her in the street in front of her house. She invited me in to give me the container back, and told me that the whole family had eaten some of the soup the previous night, even her mother (who is in her 80s). "It was good," she said.

I tried to maintain my balance under this tidal wave of gratitude.

Her mother, after greeting me with four kisses (two on each cheek), said that they "don't have a habit of eating lentils like that." She continued, "C'était spéciale." Alarm sounded in my head. When the French say "spéciale," it does not mean special like a fur coat or caviar. While it can connote extra-ordinariness, it more frequently means "uncommon" or "abnormal" or, my favorite, "against nature." 

My friend and her partner quickly said it was good, even "very good," but...well. I wonder.

And that was my first experience giving food as a gesture of kindness in France. As I consider whether I will do it again, I am thinking about how "special" I want to be.

December 8, 2014

Pig Plus Parsley

One of the great culinary treasures of Burgundy is jambon persillé, or parsleyed ham. Dans le temps, as they say here when referring to the old days, it was a specialty eaten at Easter. It is essentially ham, spices, herbs, gelatin and parsley, placed in a terrine and served as either apéritif or as an entrée, which here means the entry to the meal. (Some in the new world would call it an "appetizer.") 

Nowadays, it is ubiquitous in the region, served in restaurants, homes, and during any respectable social gathering. That does not mean, however, that it is uniformly good. Just like some pizza is better than others, some parsleyed ham dazzles and some depresses. 

There are two major potential problems: the ham is too chunky, leaving the diner with a mouthful of, well, ham; and the parsley is not present enough. When both faults are combined, it is a gastronomic catastrophe: chewy hunks 'o ham, no special ingredient love.

In September, I chanced upon a jewel of this specialty. I had been invited into a home in Arnay le Duc after a day of grape harvesting. The master of the house took me down to his wine cellar to regale me with his Pommards, Gevrey-Chambertins, and other appellations from the area. (Needless to say, nary a Bordeaux in site...and certainly not an American Chardonnay!) He plucked a bottle of Santanay white from the racks and we went back into the kitchen, where five of us huddled around a table as he poured the perfect take-the-edge-off wine after a long day toiling in the vineyards of Burgundy.

The lady of the house was more than ready to feed these smelly harvesters, dropping gougères, crackers, and some jambon persillé on the table in front of us. The layer of parsley was thick and pronounced. The flesh had been shredded, like pulled pork, ("he does it with a fork, à l'ancienne, it was explained to me) and we Hoovered up squares of it on toothpicks. My hostess explained that it was made by a retired restaurateur who made it in his home, just for friends. It was a flavor explosion, a mix of salty ham, bay leaf and thyme, all topped by the green goodness of gelled parsley. It married the wine to perfection, and they urged me to live up to my American reputation by finishing the plate well after I was sated. I, of course, obliged.

A few weeks later, I encountered my hostess in town. I wondered if she could put me in touch with the retired chef so that I might watch him work one day, hoping to uncover a few secrets of the trade and improve my understanding and appreciation of this culinary treat. 

I forgot about my request until the other day, when my hostess said he was making a batch this week. Would I be available Friday afternoon? Yes, I would be.

Jacky at Work
I arrived at Jacky's house in the early afternoon, and we walked through his dining room and kitchen, out a door to the backyard, walked through a small shed, and emerged in a secondary backyard, where we took a right turn to enter his "other kitchen." This one had all the signs of a professional cuisine: stainless steel tables, sinks, and stoves; a wide variety of knives; and giant pots and pans. (Poaching a whole salmon? No problem.) 

On the stovetop sat an enormous metal pot, bubbling with 15 pounds of pork shoulder, white wine, carrots, onions, bay leaves, thyme, and other secret ingredients. Jacky described how he had injected the meat with a special salt to give it flavor on the inside, as well as its characteristic pink color. (Anyone who has seen a cooked pork chop knows that pig flesh, is, in fact, the other white meat, and not pink.) A Cuisinart bowl brimmed with chopped parsley. Jacky took a tray out of the refrigerator that was dotted with little plastic tubs containing a bottom layer of parsley and gelatin. He ladled a little bit more gelatin into each one and returned the tray to its chilled home.

He then lifted a whole pork shoulder (which he had purchased from the slaughter house in Autun) out of the boiling pot. He proceeded to remove the outer layer of fat with his fingers, placing it in a tray, and pulled the meat off the bone, slopping it into a big plastic tub about four inches deep. He donned latex gloves and began tearing it apart with his fingers. 

The heat proved too much, and he soon grabbed a long-tined fork, using it to pull the hunks of ham apart. The resulting strings were an olfactory orgasm: salty, herbaceous, root vegetables, and, bien sûr, a little white wine all delighted my nostrils. 

Mixing Fat
Jacky, who has done this approximately 57,148 times, was the picture of calm. (He later said that he had made tons of poached eggs in his time at the restaurant. Think about it: tons of eggs. As in several thousand pounds of poached eggs. I have poached probably 75 eggs in my 39 years. Some of my most loyal readers may hover around the "never" zone.) 

He pulled that ham apart until the tub was 2/3 full. Next came a secret step. Some people, he said, either leave the fatty bits in chunks (not a pleasant surprise in the mouth...too chewy), or, worse by far, don't include it. He wagged a finger and said, "It's what makes it moelleux (unctuous), so I put it in the Cuisinart and mix it in." As the chef chopped and stirred the pork fat into the pile of ham, he commented that it was not ideal for one's health, but it was delicious. 

Chopped Fat
Once the new mixture was done, he took the tray back out of the refrigerator and started spreading the meat mix on top of the jellied parsley. He alternated meat, parsley, meat, parsley, meat, topping it all with extra gelatin. "It will not be ready for one or two days, and lasts in the fridge for about a week," he explained. 

Throughout, his wife helped him chop parsley, wash dishes, and, in a little intimate moment that this American was touched to witness, she rolled up his sleeves for him, as his hands were covered in pig parts. 

Once the final product was back in the cold zone, we retired to the main house for -- what else? -- a kir. He showed me several hundred of his more than 7000 flies for fishing, offered me pate sucré made with quince and pineapple, and shared stories of his and his wife's world travels. She is Yugoslavian (she still calls herself as such, despite the conflicts in her country). These two unassuming, humble, hard-working people have been to Venezuela, Utah, Argentina, Vietnam, China, Florida, Egypt, Mali, Germany, Las Vegas, Russia, Tunisia, and Switzerland, among other destinations that figure on the average person's life list. Jacky laughed at the end, saying, "I could tell you about every part of the Atlantic Coast of the United States, but I've never been to the Atlantic Coast of my own country!"

You never know what you are going to find when you visit a retired restaurateur in small town France.

Finished Product

December 7, 2014

A Thousand and One Eggs

It is really simplicity itself: heat, pan, butter, egg=omelet=deliciousness. 

When the French do it, of course, there are many many rules about how much heat, the type of pan, the quantity of butter (more is probably better), the number and temperature of the eggs. Add to that formula the technique, which has spawned books and articles and videos and true terror for the home cook, and one begins to recognize that the omelet is, in fact, a simple wolf in sheep's clothing.

Before we get too deep into the different types of omelets, let's celebrate an ingredient that ranks right up there with cheese and ham for inclusion: the mushroom. White ones, brown ones, old ones, new ones, mushrooms always find a spot in a puddle of well-mixed raw eggs destined for the ol' cast iron skillet. And then there are fancy ones, with fancy names in English and French: chanterelles (girolles in French), morels (morilles), black trumpet (trompette de la mort, or black trumpet of death..."I'll have a huge serving of black trumpet of death please! Tell my friends and family I died happy!"). Lastly, there are the king of tubers, the queen of fungi, the TRUFFLE...and, no, not the chocolate one. 

Assembled guests
These are celebrated in three places that I know: the white truffle of Alba, in Italy, for which I once paid $200 for one truffle only to serve it to a guest who said, and I quote, "I hate mushrooms. They make me sick."; the black truffle of Périgord, in southwest France (by far the most famous; it is called the "black diamond" and has been the subject of an abnormal amount of research and fascination, including a detailed analysis of its aphrodisiac qualities [digression: if it is rumored to be an aphrodisiac, why not serve it to your date saying as much? Even the thought that your food might make you horny seems a worthwhile pursuit]); and the Burgundy truffle, which I had never encountered before moving here.

Oh, some might say it is "inferior to" or "the lesser of" the two French truffles, but, even if that is so, if the black truffle ranks close to sex, perhaps the Burgundy one is akin to heavy petting. 

So on an October Saturday, it was time to check out the fête de la truffe in the town of Is-Sur-Tille, about 20 minutes north of Dijon. The town was obviously ready for a party under sunny skies and temperatures that seemed more August-ish than October. After a brief foray into the market, where one could ogle the truffles for sale, taste some on pasta proffered on a plastic fork, check out live rabbits, geese, and chickens in cages, it was time to migrate to the town social hall for the omelette géante, or giant omelet. I had fielded questions about what to expect from visitors, but I had to confess my own ignorance and attempt to assuage curiosity by saying we would all discover the event together.

Outside the hall, there was a small fire pit over which was placed an iron ring. The wood was burning white hot, and soon the assembled volunteers placed an enormous cast iron pan on the ring. As the pan heated, the guys threw slabs of butter into it, pushing the yellow globs around with three-foot long wooden spatulas. When it was time, they started to dump slurry eggs from white plastic buckets into the pan. 


...bucket of eggs
At first, the chef was concerned that his team wasn't dumping fast enough; the eggs were cooking too quickly. But, as the brigade found its rhythm, everyone calmed down and soon there were enough eggs to fills a kiddie pool being stirred and shoved and shoveled around the inside of the pan. 

In all, there were 1000 eggs put into the giant omelet, all of them mixed with chopped pieces of the local truffle. Five or six people continually stirred the eggs with the spatulas, moving the curds towards the middle and scraping the bottom of the pan continuously to prevent burning or stagnation. Within a minute or two, a man called out, "The spatulas are available to borrow; feel free to take a turn." 

A Natural!
He assessed the crowd after delivering this news and said, "Suddenly, you are a lot more quiet!" But people got the message, and soon the general public was relieving the initial team, notably two heroic Americans. It was far from scientific, and the guests had a great time making their own meal.

As the eggs coagulated, an organizer stadium-whispered that the appetizers were being served inside. The omelet maestro invited people to go to their tables and enjoy the first coure of jambon persillé, the famous parsleyed ham of the region. Dutifully, off we went, to find ourselves at the tail end of one table among perhaps twelve that stretched across the entire gym-like room. There were easily 40 people on each side of each row of the tables, with no break, so if you were in the middle, you had to walk past 20 folks to get to the outside of the row. The ham showed up family-style, and patrons served themselves and their friends and family from the platter. It was delicious. Women in the Confrerie outfit made the rounds with giant baskets of cut up baguette. As we wound down this opening gastronomic salvo, volunteers could be seen coming in from the door outside of which eggs were being cooked. They held a plastic white plate in each hand, weighted down by an impressive quantity of eggs (really more of a scramble than an omelet). They walked down the rows, starting with the people farthest from the door. In a flash, entire rows were served. When it was our turn, we saw in front of us a rich egg dish smothered in a creamy truffle sauce. 

The Pride of New Canaan Chips In

Even the kids loved it. It was an explosion of deep, mushroomy tastes, earthy, pungent, and remarkably long on the finish (to use a wine term). The assembled guests seemed universally content, and the eggs had people in a betting mood, hazarding guesses (five euros a pop) on the weight of one monster truffle being shown about the room. (I think it was around 250g, or about 8 ounces.)

After a fresh cheese whipped with truffle, and while we waited for coffee, I found a woman I knew from the confrérie. We discussed how smoothly the event had gone, and complimented the food. She said, "Frankly, for anyone who couldn't detect the taste of truffle in that dish, I suggest they have no tastebuds." She was clearly proud and pleased with the star product of the day, and I told her six Americans were leaving with fond memories, satisfied appetites, a new appreciation for this culinary treat, and, for two of them, sore shoulders from cooking one giant omelet. 

December 6, 2014

Best Wine Guy

On a recent Monday afternoon in Burgundy, the Best Sommelier in France contest was concluding in Beaune. Figuring that, as far as spectator sports in France go, this had to be better than handball or fencing, I hopped in the car.

A grape vibe asserted itself from the very beginning: the finals took place in a wine cellar more than a century old, retrofitted for stadium seating. On the stage, experts were assembled, ready to judge four contestants. The finalists had been winnowed down from a larger group of 10 semi-finalists from all over the country, all of whom had passed a preliminary exam in Paris in March. The four, all in their twenties, were dressed in black suits and white shirts of service. They looked more likely to discuss prom dates than Chardonnay, and one had to wonder how they were competing for the title of “best in France” when they had only had the right to drink wine for a few years. Surely a more experienced master could run away with the title?

A contestant considers his first wine
The contest was divided into several parts. First, the sommeliers did a blind tasting of five wines, one white and four reds. Each young man took a full two or three minutes with the white, offering an avalanche of adjectives to describe its appearance, smell, and taste. That is a long time to talk about a few ounces of liquid, but these were pros, and they had no difficulty finding words. The vocabulary was beautiful and rich, helping to bring the 500 audience members inside the wineglass. The white had harmony, structure, maturity, elegance, finesse, suppleness, and pronounced acidity. It was golden, thick, intense, expressive, ephemeral, luxurious, and spicy, with hints of apricots, pears, and peaches.

Frankly, it sounded like a woman every man would like to meet.

The four men each had a different conclusion: a 1995 Alsatian Pinot gris, a Vouvray from 2001, a 2000 Alsatian Grand Cru Reisling, a Chenin Blanc from 1988. This being the contest for the best sommelier in France, surely one of them would have it approximately right. If a Frenchman fighting to be the preeminent sommelier in the Land of Vines and Corkscrews doesn’t know, who would?

The finalists awaiting the Big Announcement
Well, they weren’t even close. The wine was a Vouvray Demi-Sec from 1971, a bottle that most likely no one in the audience had ever tasted or ever would. The guys did better identifying the pinot noir grape in three of the four reds, but all were tricked by a Gamay masquerading as pinot. The reds were from Burgundy, which, in this region of maniacally prideful oenophiles, was far from shocking. (Many a local has explained that Burgundy people drink Burgundy wines “because, well, ours are the best in the world. Why look elsewhere?”)

The second test was to serve three different sets of “customers” (really expert judges) who were assembled at tables on the stage. A couple of gentlemen greeted each contestant in heavily French-accented English (I was tempted to offer my skills to provide a more authentic experience), asking to be served a bottle of Burgundy crémant, the local sparkling wine. The sommelier served and discussed the wine in English, a mandatory talent in today’s high-end restaurant world.

Next, back in their native tongue, they poured a half bottle (about 12 ounces) of red 1996 Pommard to a group of six diners who were on their cheese course. Here, the eventual winner (Jonathan Bauer-Monneret, a 29-year-old sommelier at Spring, a Parisian restaurant owned by -- gasp! -- an American chef!) put the bottle in a wire basket, and, in a neat little display of cinema, used a long match to light a tall candle, which he placed under the bottle while he decanted the wine. This is a traditional sommelier tactic to illuminate the sediment in the bottle so it doesn’t get poured into the decanter. The audience later learned that the main challenge of this stage was to assess the candidates’ ability to pour six equal glasses from a half bottle, no easy feat.

Maman! Papa! I am really good at sniffing wine!
At the last table, the men answered questions about the difference between two local digestifs, marc de Bourgogne and fine de Bourgogne, the former made by distilling liquid made from the skins and stems left over from the grape pressing; the latter made from distilling the wine itself.

Finally, the contestants sat with a family to help match wines with their elaborate wedding menu featuring dishes by some of the most famous chefs in Burgundy: oysters in gelée; frog legs in garlic cream sauce (the French are not called “Frogs” by accident); beef with foie gras; and a cassis dessert. The candidates suggested wines to accompany each course, and provided estimates of quantity and price for the family. When one candidate suggested 15 bottles of Champagne at 130 euros a pop -- about $160 -- the heretofore silent and respectful crowd let forth a tidal wave of gasps and chatter, clearly appalled at the mere thought of pouring that much money down their guests’ throats. (He didn’t win.)

Throughout the examinations, the young men vividly demonstrated the intricate relationship between wine and food in France. They laid an audible table in front of us, conjuring aromas and tastes of gougères (a local cheese puff), or a sea bass tartar, that would marry the crémant; suggesting the Vouvray go with either roasted foie gras in lychee syrup or a veal chop; and musing that perhaps the Pommard would accompany a powerful blue cheese with a raisin fig bread. Occasionally, the public sighed in appreciation of the imaginary feast in front of them.

What did you think the prize would be?
After the winner was announced -- he raised his fist in emphatic satisfaction -- the spectators made their way to a tasting of the different climates of Burgundy, which are currently being considered for inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Naively, I thought perhaps we would be entitled to a glass of red or a splash of white. Instead, eight tables greeted us, each groaning under dozens of bottles. In all, there were more than 300 wines from every corner of the region for us to taste: humble Aligoté mingled with grand crus from Corton, Vougeout, and Gevrey-Chambertin. Beaune premier cru hung out respectfully with Pommard, Nuits Saint Georges, Saint Aubain, and Chassagne-Montrachet. After I gulped my first taste of mineral-laden Chablis, I recognized that everyone in the room was swirling and swishing and…spitting. This was not a crowd looking for a buzz, but rather looking to thrill their taste buds. I joined them in the theater, coating my tongue, cheeks, and gums with some of the finest wines in the world and then leaning over a barrel to spit down the hole. It is a wonderful combination of sophistication and vulgarity.

What I had thought was a wine tasting competition was in fact a quintessential display of French pride. One can mistakenly think that the French only brag about their food and wine talents in front of foreigners, but their passion is day-to-day, interwoven into their discussions, rituals, and stories. These shows of Gallic DNA happen all over the country, in moments extraordinary and banal, and, when one witnesses them, one cannot help but feel lucky and enchanted in this land.

November 28, 2014

Radio Week Part 2: Party Like it's 1621

Thanksgiving in France is more commonly referred to as "Thursday." No lining up at Wal-Mart, no turkey that hasn't defrosted, no hectic travel, no last-minute runs to the store for extra butter, no teeth-gnashing over the seating chart, no worrying about who was going to be drunkest.

For this Yankee, it seemed a good opportunity to bring a little Americana to the masses here in Burgundy, so I wrote to the local radio station offering to appear in studio to discuss this most American of holidays.

To my mild amazement, they accepted, and I found myself at ten of six in the evening in the colorful lobby of France Bleu Bourgogne in the center of Dijon. It was a beehive of activity as producers and on-air talent were gathered around a large table dotted with laptops, busily preparing the next half-hour's news update or the next day's morning show.

I was going to appear during a segment of the evening drive time called "La Bouffe Ensemble," translated roughly as "Food Together." The feed was piped into the lobby, and I could hear the hosts (a woman, Florence, and a man, Stéphane) teasing my appearance, talking about turkey and saying thanks.  

Florence came out to greet me and I realized I needn't have worried about the dress code. We were firmly in "radioworld," and casual attire ruled the roost. Stéphane, to my horror and repulsion, was rocking a New York Yankees hat, a t-shirt, and jeans. He talked faster than a hummingbird's wings. We did a super quick briefing (what questions they might ask, where I should sit, how do you pronounce your last name?, wave to the man behind the glass, you don't need headphones, talk into the mic, etc.), and bam! we were live on the air. After some pleasantries (and an extremely nice compliment from Florence on my French), I gave a quick rundown of the history of Thanksgiving: the first repast in Plymouth in 1621, Lincoln's Proclamation of 1863, and the 1941 law that established Thanksgiving as an annual national holiday on the fourth Thursday of November. I was done in two minutes. The hosts then called a French woman and asked her what she was having for dinner (she didn't know; her 23-year old son was preparing it for her; it would be a surprise), and then they played "Born in the USA" for the guest, a nice touch.

When the song ended, we were back live and I gave a rundown of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: turkey (46 million of 'em on tables across America), stuffing (when I said that some people liked to put oysters in their stuffing, Stéphane interjected, his face going white with disgust, and asked if he had understood me correctly. Clearly, his French palate was more that a little troubled by the idea of oysters inside stuffing inside turkey), cranberry sauce, gravy, mashed potatoes, peas, green beans, sweet potatoes, and apple, pecan, or pumpkin pie. While I tried to concentrate (it is a wild experience being on live radio  in a foreign language), I couldn't help being a little distracted by my hosts. Their eyes were constantly darting to the clock, checking the time. Stéphane looked at his phone a lot. Both of them would sporadically raise a hand or point to the producer behind the glass, the cue for a sound effect or some other trick of the radio trade. The five minute segment went by in a flash, and, after nice handshakes, some assurances that it had been "super," an offer to be a local events reporter in Arnay le Duc for the station (on a volunteer basis, of course), and a free pen, I was out the door.

After I left the station, I realized that I had forgotten to do the one thing I had been preparing for the whole day. On the streets of Dijon, people were headed home after work, perhaps thinking ahead to their meal at home that evening (blanquette de veau? duck breast with potatoes au gratin? lentil soup studded with cubes of pork? cod filet on a bed of creamed spinach?), all oblivious to the American in their midst. 

It felt, for a minute, very far away from home. While it is true that Thanksgiving in France does not have any of the unpleasant aspects of the holiday, it also lacks football, stuffing, crisp skin, the Snoopy float, the thick smell of roasting flesh, laughter, and, most of all, family.

Contemplating the distance between Burgundy and the Vermont table where my family was congregating, I realized with shame that I had forgotten my most important line for my cross-Atlantic listeners during my radio appearance: "Hi, Mom and Dad. Happy Thanksgiving. I love you and I miss you."