Thursday, June 13, 2013

France Adventure, Day 12 – Monday, June 3, 2013 – Strangers Became Friends

Bonjour, mon amis!  Hello, friends, and welcome again to Cépage et Cuisine, Mary’s and Brian’s wine and food blog.  Today was a beautiful day in Provence, sunny, crystal clear, pleasant temperatures, and no mistral wind!  And we experienced the wonderful pleasure of people from different walks of life coming together to share a meal and become friends. 

I went for a jog in St. Rémy, then I cooked breakfast for Mary.  We bought eggs and fresh parsley yesterday, so I scrambled them up, made a pot of coffee, and we relaxed around the maison for a while.  We decided to skip lunch.  I called for an appointment at a domaine that was recommended to me by other wine enthusiasts.

Speaking of telephoning, here’s a travel tip for France vacations.  Skype offers an inexpensive subscription service that allows using its telephone function (not video) to call specific countries, 60 minutes per month for $1.09.  We don’t use our cell phones in Europe because we decided it is too expensive.  Both rental properties where we have stayed on this trip don’t have landline phones, so a laptop and wi-fi are essential.  We made appointments and restaurant reservations using Skype.  Then, I needed to call home for a family issue and bought $10 of Skype credit, which allows calling pretty much anywhere in the world for 2.3¢ per minute.  A 10 minute call is only 23 cents!

We struck out into the countryside to find Mas de Gourgonnier.  Although only a half hour or so from St. Rémy, the location is remote and beautiful, what I might almost describe as wild. 
Small country roads, practically lanes, curve through rugged limestone hillsides and scrub brush.  Some of the mountains are sheer cliffs with what is sometimes called chaparral in California but called garrigue in Provence … sage, thyme, and rosemary growing in the wild.  Some of it is pine, cedar, olive, and wildflowers.  The fragrance is wonderful!

Mas de Gourgonnier farms biodynamically, which is a step even beyond organic.  You can see from their sign that they also grow olives and the photos show a vegetable garden and fruit trees.

Mary took these photos to show how much more vegetation is already on the vines in comparison to the much cooler climate of Burgundy.

Although the fierce mistral was not blowing today, this tree shows the effects of the powerful winds.

The tasting experience was fine and the tasting room was more developed than we expected.  In addition to wine, they had fruit and vegetable products from their own estate, as well as others from nearby. 
This photo shows apricot nectar and non-fermented raisin juice.  The tasting didn’t take very long.  The person in the tasting area didn’t speak any English at all and conversation about the wines was difficult.  What I like about them, though, was their freshness and balance.  They had great fruit and aromas and flavors of herbs and that savory, peppery note I like in a Provençal red, but not jammy or compote flavors with high alcohol.  We enjoyed the white wine enough to take a bottle with us for dinner later in the week.

We had dinner reservations at Bistrot Decouverte, recommended by TripAdvisor.  It’s right on the main street in St. Rémy, which is a circle around the old part of town.  You can see how leafy and pretty it is.

Once again, we asked for an interior table in order to avoid smokers on the terrace.  And once again, we were about the first to arrive at 7:00 p.m.

We started with our usual sparkling wine aperitif, this one an actual Champagne.

 The restaurant was decorated with attractive artwork of wine and food.
The amuse bouche was crisps of French bread with a tuna spread, paté de thon, which is quite popular here.

Mary decided not to have an entrée first course.  Remember, the entrée in France is what Americans call an appetizer.  I had a Caesar salad, which was more elaborate than most Caesar salads I’ve had.  This one had grilled chicken and sundried tomatoes.  It also had anchovies, which I love. 

The evening's carte was listed on a chalkboard. 
Mary selected risotto de St. Jacques, seasoned and seared scallops on a bed of risotto.  She said the dish was incredible.  She makes risotto at home quite often and I think it is delicious, but she said this risotto was much richer and creamier than hers.  Her risotto calls for chicken broth, but after tasting this creamy, smooth risotto, she said she’s going to try adding some cream to her recipe next time.

I had dos de cabillaud en gratin d’aioli, cod with aioli, browned and served over a bed of mashed potatoes.  I snapped a photo, but it doesn’t do it justice.

Just after the main courses were served, we were joined at an adjacent table by another couple.  I smiled and nodded to them, but we didn’t chat right away.  Then another couple took the table on the other side of us, so that we were in the middle.  They looked at our dinners, so I said, “Le risotto de St. Jacques est magnifique.” 
That made them think I actually speak French, so off they went, chattering away.  I then said, “Je parle un peu le Français,” which I say all the time and translates to, “I speak only a little French.”

Then the first couple joined in.  They are Belgian and it turns out he teaches French as a second language in Belgium.  He’s 84 years old and they drove all the way from Brussels for a vacation. 
The second couple is French, down to Provence on a holiday from their home in Paris.  English is the language that all three couples had in common, at least to an extent.  From there, a three-way conversation evolved quickly to discussion of our trip, families, grandchildren, a little bit of world politics, and the next thing you know, we’re all getting photos taken of each other.

We laughed and clapped and just had the best time.  Our new Belgian friends had a cheese course of chèvre, which is quite popular in Provence.  I asked him if he enjoys chèvre and like the good French teacher I’m sure he is, he corrected me to say I should have said “fromage de chèvre.”   He said asking him if he likes chèvre without including the word for cheese means I’m asking him if he likes the goat. That set off more gales of laughing all around.

We didn’t exchange names or contact information, but we all had a fine time.  Strangers became friends … a couple in their eighties from Belgium, a French couple from Paris, and Americans on their first visit to Provence.  It was a highlight of our trip.

Mary’s dessert was a sorbet de fraise et ganache au chocolat, strawberry sorbet and a chocolate muffin with a warm hot chocolate center.  Mary thought she was in dessert heaven.  And we both had coffee, of course.

The wine for the evening was also outstanding, a Bandol rosé by Domaine Tempier.  We have an appointment tomorrow at Domaine Tempier and I’ll describe their wines in more detail in the next blog post, but this is definitely not just another rosé.  It is what the French call a vin gastronomique, a serious wine for serious food. 
It is mostly Mourvèdre with lesser amounts of Grenache, Syrah, and Cinsault.  The Mourvèdre brings a savory, meaty quality to the wine, similar to its character in red wine.  It is a much more complex and interesting wine than almost all other rosé we’ve tried, in France or at home.  It has the cool, refreshing qualities of rosé, but the character of a much more serious wine.

With all the fun we were having with our new friends, the wine probably didn’t get as much thoughtful attention as it deserved, but that’s ok and that's what wine is for.  A good wine serves three main purposes … it provides pleasure, it enhances food, and it is shared among friends.

That’s our post for today.  We hope you enjoyed it.  We had such fun, we learned some things, and we made new friends.  Keep checking back at Cépage et Cuisine for more as we explore the wine, food, culture, and geography of Provence.  In the meantime,



Saturday, June 8, 2013

France Adventure, Day 11 – Sunday, June 2, 2013 – Le Mistral

Hello, everybody, bonjour tout le monde, and welcome to Cépage et Cuisine, Mary’s and Brian’s wine and food blog.  Today was our first full day in Provence.  Happily, the boulangerie is only steps from the maison.  We walked together and Mary selected a chausson aux pommes, which translates to apple turnover, but looks a lot like my mother’s fried fruit pies.
The house where we’re staying, la maison, is more than 200 years old, but nicely updated with modern amenities.  The kitchen appliances are new, it has a nice, big bathroom with a tiled shower, washer and dryer, everything we really need.  We’re in the old part of the city with old hotels, homes, fountains, courtyards, all very, very old and very beautiful, all around us.
The doorways in the maison were built for inhabitants who were much shorter than I.  Take a look at these nighttime photos of me standing in the door to the house and the kitchen with the same photos of my cute and much shorter wife.

The weather in St. Rémy is sunny with pleasant temperatures.  Le mistral kicked up again, but not too severe in town.  For lunch, we strolled to La Brasserie du Commerce across the street from the boulangerie.  The terrace was nice, but cigarette smokers made it less appealing, so we had the inside nearly to ourselves.  Smoking is prohibited inside restaurants, but is permitted on patios and terraces.

The carte was conveniently printed in French and English, an indication of St. Rémy as an important tourist destination. 
Neither of us wanted a large, multi-course lunch, so Mary selected a salad called the Glanum, in recognition of nearby archeological sites.  It was a nice salad of greens, bacon, and croustillants topped with chèvre and herbes de Provence. 

My lunch was an omelet with Emmenthal and potatoes.

A demi-bouteille, a half-bottle of a rosé by Mas de la Dame, a nearby producer, was perfect with a light lunch on a sunny day, cool and refreshing, with the characteristic rosé notes of berries and melon.

Here’s Brian putting his nose in the glass to assess the aroma profile.  Rosé can be simple or complex, depending on many factors, but especially the specific grapes included, the cépage, and whether the grapes were mature at the time of harvest.  I like to sense savory, meaty, peppery notes in a rosé from this part of France.

Notice the interesting bottle shape here in Provence.  We saw several of these on tables last night.  Also, check out the plastic bag with ice water for keeping the wine chilled, an alternative to the traditional ice bucket.

We struck out for Les Baux, a nearby cliffside village over the mountains from St. Rémy.  As we approached, we could see a long line of cars and tour buses snaking up the mountainside to Les Baux.  Neither of us wanted to get into a big crowd, so we decided to wait until another day.

Le mistral was blowing again, just as fierce as yesterday.  I pulled over and talked Mary into recording this short video.  It’s shaky because I had difficulty with keeping my balance in the wind.  Aside from Mary’s hair, notice the shrubs and trees being whipped by the wind in the background.  We both got a laugh out of the experience.  But imagine what this is like when it's day in and day out and how it would feel in the winter!

Mas de la Dame, the producer whose wine we enjoyed at lunch, is close by and did not require an appointment.  We noticed that many wine and olive oil producers have “Mas” in their name.  Mary inquired about its meaning and learned it means “house,” but is a specific style of house, not a château or a maison.  In the case of Mas de la Dame, it can be translated to “house of the lady.”
Mas de la Dame seemed a fairly large producer with large vineyards along the roadside.  These photos show the vineyards leading to the house and the Alpille Mountains in the background.  You can also see how this tree in the vineyard is being whipped by the wind. 
You can also see that olive trees are abundant.  We noticed as many olive oil producers as wine domaines, possibly even more.  The mountains are huge, limestone peaks with limited vegetation and arid valleys and plains.  Mary said the terrain had a baked or hot appearance that reminds her of parts of California and Arizona.
We enjoyed the tasting experience at Mas de la Dame and both had the same impression.  There were lots of people at the tasting counter, elbow to elbow, and the tasting room was stocked with a variety of food products, wine, and souvenirs.  I said to Mary, “What does this remind you of?”  She immediately replied, “California tasting rooms.” 
The wines themselves were nice, especially the white and rosé, which were fresh, fruity, and easy to enjoy.  The rouge, which contains a blend of several grapes, principally Grenache, but also Syrah, Cinsault, and Cabernet Sauvignon, had a distinctly ripe style, rich, fairly low in acidity, with dark fruit flavors, blackberry, plum, and high in alcohol.  Anne, the very nice member of the family who tasted us through their wines, discussed the need for Grenache to reach high sugar levels in order to achieve proper ripeness, which means high alcohol when the sugar is fermented by yeast.  We know that this is not a universally held view, but is certainly common, both here and in the New World.
Back at St. Rémy, we were walking around town, which was quite busy, even on a Sunday afternoon, and decided to stop at a sidewalk café and bar.  The wind was not quite as fierce as the afternoon progressed, the temperature was pleasant, and we were glad to stop, relax, and watch the world go by. 
Mary enjoyed a cool rosé. 
I had a coffee.  As I mentioned in a previous post, ordering a coffee with cream doesn’t always mean you’ll get what we think of in America as coffee with a little cream added to it.  Sure enough, I ordered café crème, and what came out was basically a latte, which is fine, I suppose.  I’ll have to be more specific if I want the American style of coffee.
We shopped at the neighborhood marché earlier in the day with a plan to cook dinner at the maison.  We both thought brochettes de canard, duck breast kabobs with apricots, looked interesting.  Mary seared them on the cooktop and finished them off in the oven, sautéed some haricot verts and parsley potatoes, et voilà!
We enjoyed Yves’ and Marie’s Hautes Côtes 2011 from their own vineyard for dinner, just a plain, unlabeled bottle.  It was not highly complex, it was straightforward and aromatic and flavored of cherry and red berries, but very nicely balanced and delicious for a casual dinner.
That’s our post for today.  We hope you enjoyed it.  We’re still settling into our new surroundings.  Keep checking back at Cépage et Cuisine for more as we explore the wine, food, culture, and geography of Provence.  In the meantime,