Sour Grapes

P1080971Waste not, want not.

One of the easiest things to DIY is vinegar. Here’s what you need:

A vinaigrier, or vinegar crock, with a spout and a lid. Vinegar likes to live in the dark.P1090104Une mère–a mother–the starter.

Wine. Yes. It’s clearer in French. Vinegar is vinaigre, or vin aigre–sour wine.

Long before we met, the wise Carnivore had acquired a vinaigrier and a mother (of the vinegar variety). Whenever we have a bad bottle–whether it’s corked or past its prime or left over from a party and not sealed up–we dump it into the vinaigrier. The resulting vinegar mostly goes on salads. P1090106It’s possible to make your own starter. Plenty of foods rely on starter cultures–sourdough bread and yogurt, for example. You can buy a mother of vinegar or you can make one. I don’t have a photo because you can’t tell what it is–just a blob of slime.P1090111You put the mother and the wine into the crock and wait a few months. It takes us that long to go through a bottle of vinegar–and to round up enough wine to add to the crock. Red ferments faster than white.

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Many choices at the vide-grenier.

You can get a vintage vinaigrier around here for between €10 and €50. Pretty and useful!P1050575

 

 

 

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Another Adorable French Village

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Is there no end to the prettiness? Let’s wander through the overwhelming charms of Bize-Minervois, a village of about a thousand people in the Aude department of the south of France.

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People tasting coffee (we don’t just have wine here; there’s locally roasted coffee!) in the courtyard of the former royal fabric factory, today home to gîtes.

The excuse for checking out Bize (which delightfully sounds like la bise, or the French custom of greeting by kissing on each cheek, though some do more than two–going up to three or four kisses, and starting on left or right depending on how far north) was “Tastes en Minervois,” a mix of gastronomy and wine, with some art and music thrown in for spice.IMG_4389The areas around the wine-tastings had plenty of people, but otherwise, the tiny village mostly let one see its true colors. (We were badly organized and arrived after the food had been served.)IMG_4609IMG_4395IMG_4604

For example, beautiful doors.

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This one makes me think of the huge lengths of fabric of the village’s past as a textile center.
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Fit for a Hobbit.

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A foulerie was a place for pressing textiles. The snake theme is thanks to the Carndinal de Bonzi, who was archbishop of nearby Narbonne in 1673 and who originally hailed from Milan (I know, you’re saying, oh, of course! The symbol of Milan-based Alfa Romeo cars is a snake eating a person).

The windows weren’t so shabby either.IMG_4593IMG_4576IMG_4658

There was cuteness and postcard-picturesqueness at every turn.IMG_4399IMG_4406IMG_4407IMG_4581IMG_4655

The town nestles, warily, next to the Cesse river, which usually is tiny but which, as you can see by its bed, can get a little crazy.IMG_4637

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Local swimming hole

That reminds me of a riddle: what can run but never walks, what has a mouth but never talks, what has a bed but does not sleep, what has a head but never weeps?

A river.IMG_4585

The town of Bize went all-out decorating. There were numerous spots to kick back and taste wine or food. The one above had “furniture” made from tires. And the décor was street signs. I thought the sign, affaissement was hilarious–it sounds like afessement, which isn’t a word but if it were it would mean to lay your butt down (fesse is buttock); affaissement is what happens when a pile of something like sand or rocks kind of slumps down. And slumping down seems to be the same outcome as afessement. I ran it by some native French speakers, who thought it was pretty funny, but the Carnivore informed me that it was completely wrong because the French don’t go for puns like that. I’m not so sure.

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Mandatory pallet furniture.

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But as lively as the festivities were, the best parts of Bize were the tiny lanes, the quirky old buildings, the clearly sleepy ambiance.

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No fear of traffic. But what happens if the fridge goes out and you need a new one delivered?

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Note the parking spot outlined in white (big enough for a Smart), and the yellow no-parking line…as if! I bet if a car is parked in that spot, it’s no easy thing to get around that curve. Anyway, a car? Here? Maybe every few days.

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The planters for the climbing vines!
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Undoubtedly a fine institution.

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That wasn’t all. On the way I kept pulling over to bark at my photographer/offspring to take pictures of various beautiful things. Even though all the villages around here have similar levels of cuteness, it’s foreign enough to me despite all the years of living here that I go ga-ga over it every time. Tant mieux.

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Mailhac, on the way to Bize. You see? Where does it stop, all this picturesqueness?

Wine Harvest

P1080694Today may be Sept. 1, but Monday is la rentrée–the great return to school, to work, to routine. For winemakers around this part of the south of France, the end of summer comes with le vendange, or grape harvest, and they are hard at it.P1080487At night, a welcome cool breeze slips through the open windows, along with the low growl of harvesting machines already toiling as early as three a.m. Wayward grapes stain the sidewalks and streets of the village. P1080474Within the time we’ve lived here, the harvest has gone from being all-hands-on-deck to being something that happens in our peripheral vision. The fête du village is always Aug. 15, a last fling before grindingly long days of harvesting. The village gym class didn’t start until after the vendange, because nobody had time for exercise when the vineyards were in full swing. Eventually, only two gym-goers were working with wine.

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This photo and the one just above were taken a while ago; these are all dark purple now.

French wine is celebrated for its quality, and rightly so. Sure, you can find some bad stuff, but that’s the exception, not the rule. The AOCs–appellation d’origine côntrolée, a kind of certificate of quality linked to geographic location–are a very safe bet. Each AOC has strict rules about what winemakers can and can’t do with their wines, including which cépages, or varietals, they can include.

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Can you spot the lonely vigneron tending the wires? Obviously from earlier this year.

Lots of people overlook the AOCs because they require some memory work. AOCs generally are blends of varietals, and the wines that are trendy tend to be monocépage, or single varietal, like Chardonnay or Cabernet sauvignon or Pinot noir. One AOC that’s monocépage is Burgundy, with Pinot noir for red and Chardonnay for white. As far as marketing, it’s easier to sell a Cab or a Syrah/Shiraz than a Minervois that’s predominantly one or the other, with some other varietals mixed in. That mix is the special cocktail, the individualism. When I was in the U.S., most wine stores offered only a few, well-known French options, and the shopkeepers would explain that AOCs were just too complicated for customers.

P1080704Let me tell you, nothing is easier.

Look at the bottle. If it has high shoulders, it’s in the style of Bordeaux, which are mostly Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon for reds. These are fuller, bolder wines. A local favorite for this style in Minervois is Domaine la Tour Boisée (which also produces wines, like 1905, in the Burgundy style).

P1080705If the bottle has sloping shoulders, it’s in the style of Burgundy, even if it doesn’t contain pinot noir. That means soft, complex wines. One of our favorite wineries is Château St. Jacques d’Albas, which uses a lot of Syrah in its red Minervois wines.

Around Carcassonne, one finds several AOCs: Minervois, Cabardès, Malpère, with Corbière and Limoux a bit farther. Minervois, Cabardès and Malpère are some of the smallest AOCs in France, made up mostly of very small, family wineries.

And so when things go badly, we see the long faces.

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Hit by frost.

Our winters are mild, and temperatures only occasionally drop below freezing at night. But this spring, frost struck low-lying areas a few times as late as April, devastating the vines just as the fruit was budding out.

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Big gaps.

A large field where some optimistic winegrower had planted new vines early in the spring turned into rows of shriveled dreams. Some plots that belonged to the ancient vigneron, who died about a year ago, were hit and tumbled into abandon. I suppose his son, no spring chicken himself, gave up on them.P1080476

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Lost cause.

Another plot nearby was completely dead and eventually torn up and plowed over. I met a worker pulling out the stakes that had held the wires for training the vines, and he said they would plant again later. Maybe.P1070939The piles of souches, or stumps,  look like heaps of bones, a cemetery of hope.P1080473The harvest this year is two weeks early because of the hot summer, but the output is expected to be 30% to 40% lower than last year. The wine is expected to be of excellent quality, however. So keep an eye out for Minervois 2017 (though in the meantime you would do well with 2016 and 2015 and 2014….)P1070946

Cheers for a Good Cause

packed streetSparkling French wine, good food, church. The perfect combo, right?

Every April since 1990, the Toques et Clochers festival raises money for the restoration of a church bell tower around Limoux, in the south of France. A clocher is a bell, and a toque is the tall white hat worn by chefs. The festival is sponsored by the Sieur d’Arques cooperative of Limoux, purveyor of blanquette de Limoux and crémant de Limoux.

pitcher blanquette
Clever pitchers of bubbly

Blanquette de Limoux goes back to 1531, when the monks at the nearby Abbey of Saint-Hilaire made the first sparkling wine (supported by documents dating to 1544). Supposedly, Dom Pérignon was one of them, before he was transferred to Champagne in the north; however, like a lot of legends, this one is off because Dom Pérignon was born a century later.

pouring a glassMore about blanquette de Limoux and Saint-Hilaire another time. Today, let’s go to the party.

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The fetching clocher of Cépie, also in the top photo.
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Inside the church. Less is more, except for chandeliers. So French. What worries me are the metal supports going across the church. It dates to the early 1500s.

The festival has grown over the years, but the villages haven’t. It no longer is possible to park nearby (you can forget about parking in the villages even when there isn’t a festival because the streets are tiny). All cars are directed to Limoux, and festival-goers go through security before being channeled through a sports hall to buy their glasses (now in plastic) and tokens for tastings, as well as other merchandise. The line was surprisingly quick. Then we went through security again to get onto one of the shuttle buses to Cépie, this year’s village. Cépie was completely closed off except for one point, where we went through security again. The French weren’t messing around. Gendarmes were everywhere, and all the roads to the village were blocked with concrete barriers.

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Cross-body bags! Remember! I see five here.

A note here: backpacks were not allowed. This has long been common practice in museums, and a good thing, too, because nobody wants to get whacked by somebody’s backpack when the person wearing it turns around. It seems that backpacks are being rejected elsewhere, so remember to pack a cross-body bag for your travels.

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A brilliant example of French innovation: A very chic cross-body bag becomes a double glass holder. And I like her shirt, too–great details.
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But had madame above bought the glass holder, she would have been even better equipped, like monsieur (who was from NEW YORK!!!!).
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More innovation: stick your pitcher …. well, anyway. Her tattoo (or other?) says, “First Bubbles,” kind of like first class.
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Pitcher, glass hanging, glass going to the lips. Not judging!
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Misspent youth.

Not only did the organizers think to have event-specific tokens (no refunds), but they even put them on lanyards. You also could buy a cord with a holder for your glass. No wondering where you set it down or which one is yours. They also sold T-shirts, bandanas, aprons and straw hats.

prices tasting
Jeton = token. TTC = tout taxe compris (taxes included).  Cordon de 6 jetons = a string with 6 tokens. Dégustation = a tasting (a glass; they were generous); bouteille = bottle.
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Cordon = cord; porte verre = glass holder; canotier = wide-brimmed straw hat (like the Renoir painting); tablier = apron. You can figure out the rest, right?
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Tokens on lanyards. If you don’t drink them, you have a souvenir. Win-win.

It was packed. Cépie covers just over six square kilometers and has a population of 665 when everybody is home. This weekend, a record 45,000 people packed in for Toques et Clochers. The weather was heavenly and the setting was gorgeous, with the peaks of the Pyrénées peeking above the rooftops.

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C.R.O.W.D.E.D. But not disagreeable. Surprisingly (well, not really surprisingly, but very) civilized.
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The Pyrénées: close enough for skiing at will, far enough that we have much better weather!

We arrived just in time for the parade of church replicas. Each village whose belltower has been restored had a replica, often carried atop a wine barrel or wheeled along on a wine barrel by costumed villagers. I loved the variety of epochs for the costumes and the contemporary interpretations.

Malras
The church of Malras (pop. 349).
St Polycarpe
The church of Saint Polycarpe, named after the bishop of Smyrna (aka Izmir, Turkey), who was burned at the stake, but didn’t die, so they had to stab him to death. Pop. 167. I was thinking polycarpe? lots of carp? Why one should google everything.
Magrie
Magrie, pop. 514. They are wearing canotiers!
Loupia
Loupia, pop. 219.
Limoux
Limoux, a comparative metropolis with a population of 9,781. It is a very pretty town, with an awesome brocante the first Sunday of the month. And home to the Sieurs d’Arques.
La Digne d'Amont
La Digne d’Amont, pop. 288. The poor guy in front was losing his Star Wars foil neck scarf, but clearly cares not. The hanging pendants are little cups, typical of the various gastronomic/oenological brotherhoods of various foods and drinks.

There were several bands, marching and later on stages around the village (which is so small, the music all mixed together a bit–strains of jazz on the left, country on the right). Drums seem to be a big thing. There was a kids’ corps, a women’s corps, a mixed corps…. Miss Cépie led a throng of small and smaller children, who were dressed (decorated?) as flowers and sunshine. Awww!

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Before the parade.
young drummers
Young drummers…
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Seen from the back. I wasn’t able to get a clear answer on the light-bulb theme, but light bulbs were all over.
odawa drummers
Adult drummers of the Odawa troupe, very serious, well-decorated, though the drums seemed to be a little phallic.
Odawa big pants
Many of them followed the leader and wore outrageously wide-legged pants, gathered at the ankle. Just sayin’, if you see it later, you can say you saw it here first.

The whole village seemed to have taken up the cause. Houses were spiffed up and decorated, mostly with recycled materials–plastic bottles and corks were turned into flowers, insects, even furniture.

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Toques in a tree!
courtyard decor
Quite a few courtyards were done up like this, with dummies drinking and random giant insects flying above. Note the ubiquitous wine barrel…even the flowers are in cases of wine.
bouchon furniture
A little relaxation spot in what would otherwise be a bus stop. Everything covered with corks.
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That took patience.
grape decor
Many clusters of grapes, though the main grape varieties are all white: mauzac, chenin blanc and chardonnay.
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A maypole. Everything is early this year!
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A group of locals dressed for the occasion. Note the beret. Lots of berets were worn, completely without irony.
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Check out Dionysus on the left. Quite sure he was a local and not driving home.
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These two guys are a matryoshka-doll kind of French in-joke. They are a parody of a parody of Starsky and Hutch, who appear in TV commercials for one of the telephone information lines (like 411 in the U.S.). If you want to blow your mind, google 118 218 and watch the videos. Every French resident can sing the 118 218 jingle. I will be hearing it all night in my head for having written this.

We wandered up and down the little lanes, sticking to the shade. Not everybody was prudent; lots of winter white skin was broiled to a painful red by late afternoon. It was a sea of humanity–or at least a good-sized lake. In French, the term is la foule, and when candidates plunge in to shake hands (and there were many local politicos present!),  ils prennent un bain de foule–they take a crowd bath. The Carnivore wasn’t careful and as he tried to scratch his head found his hand grabbed by some ballot-seeker.

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Granted, the street on the right isn’t for cars but still, what do these people do in the winter?

Despite the ubiquity of alcohol, the relative youth of the attendees and the tight quarters, the afternoon was extremely good-natured and well-mannered. The organizers had wisely switched to all-plastic, from the glasses to the bottles of wine, and had provided lots of trash points, so there was little litter despite the intense concentration of humanity.

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Musical entertainment, with the cemetery as a backdrop.
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An event for all ages. I know I’m in a safe space when there are old people (OK, considerably older than me) out and about.

The “toques” part was well-represented, with purveyors of gastronomic goodies, such as bio, or organic, veal burgers, specialty macarons, seafood, cheeses, and lots and lots of duck and foie gras.

magret sandwich
Sandwich of magret de canard (duck breast).
hams
Hams roasting, and dripping onto onions.
hams menu
Sandwich with ham cooked on a spit with its “little” onions for about $5; a container of homemade fries for €3… CB acceptée = carte bancaire = credit/debit cards accepted.
seafood
Seafood stand: pulpe (little octopus); oysters; fries; fries + mussels; mussels.
frites graisse de canard
Magret = duck breast. Frites graisse de canard = fries cooked in duck fat.
foie gras poele aux pommes
Fois gras fried with potatoes; cold cuts; cheese. I had a cheese plate and it was lovely, with six kinds of cheese.
bio burger
Organic veal burgers. We had some; they were OK. Honestly, veal isn’t fatty enough to grill, though they were VERY rare.
sausage
Sausage and sauerkraut (saucisse et choux-croute).

Before catching the shuttle bus back to the parking lots, the gendarmes helpfully had a table set up for people to voluntarily test whether they were sober enough to drive.

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Not all French are reasonable, though I have to give him credit for still being vertical. After he gets through those tokens, not so sure….plus TWO glasses?!?!?!

We avoided that problem by inviting friends to come with us to fill up our car, and then I was the designated driver–water only–called the capitain de la soirée in France and “Bob” in Belgium. I remember driving around Brussels and seeing the electronic signs that usually warn of traffic jams reading “Avec Bob au volant, les fêtes se passent en sécurité” or something like that. I was perplexed. I knew that voler means to fly or to steal (yup!), so volant should mean flying or stealing–the present participle. “With Bob stealing…???” Main non! I just hadn’t acquired an adequate automotive vocabulary–un volant is a steering wheel–flying/stealing/steering…of COURSE. So the slogan was “With Bob (designated driver) behind the wheel, the holidays are safe.” A good idea in any language.

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One more shot of Cépie.

 

 

 

 

Time to Wine

looking down hillThe vines are almost all pruned now. The pieds de vigne, or woody parts, stand in perfect rows like so many well-behaved students at assembly. Or sentries, silent, brooding. With a little lower-back pain.

bent and held up with crutchThe vines are old, sometimes 30, even 70 years old. Wine takes time.

The one above reminds me of an old vigneron, or winegrower, who was similarly bent over. He drove a rickety old tractor that putt-putted down the street to his vines. It was a Lamborghini, something that never failed to make me chuckle.

My kid and I always smiled and waved to him as we headed to school and he passed on his way to work. We probably also said bonjour, which I doubt he ever heard over the racket of the Lamborghini’s finely tuned engine. He always brightened and waved back. He seemed amused by children, a good thing for somebody who lives next door to a preschool.

I was amazed that he kept working. He must have been around 90. Years later, somebody told me that he was a mean guy that nobody liked. I felt terrible for him. How did he get such a reputation? Was it deserved? Or was it a label slapped on by somebody for one falling out and then became part of village lore? He seemed sweet to me. And his tiny tractor, with some yellow paint still clinging to its sides, was cause for great excitement for a preschooler.

rows toward vlrzlAfter a good frost but before the first buds on the vines, the vignerons are out pruning (tailler) the vines. It’s usually a solitary job. A beat-up car or camionette parked in an odd place (OMG, what is that car doing there? was there an accident?) is the first clue that somewhere in the expanse of row upon row, a bent figure will be clipping away.

In the years since our kid graduated from the village school to upper grades in town, I no longer get out morning, noon and evening, and I miss out on local news. There are three main sources of information: the knot of parents waiting outside the school doors; the local commerce–bakery and grocery store, mostly; and a loudspeaker system by which the mairie broadcasts announcements. These are preceded by very badly recorded clips of music, usually some pop song that was popular 15-20 years ago and just as often in English as in French, then the announcement, read by one of the mayor’s secretaries with a lavishly thick local accent. More music, the announcement one more time in case you missed it, then more music and out.

However, sometimes the snippet of music is the “Kyrie” from Mozart’s Requiem mass. And then you listen for who died. I knew most of the old people by sight, not name, smiling and waving on four-times-daily school commutes (9 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 5 p.m.). When our kid declared independence, meaning going to school alone, I had to agree yet I was so worried that I would creep behind, working to keep up while staying far enough back not to be seen. There are some benches near a fountain, under the platane trees, where several old men gather to watch the world go by. My kid would greet them, a high point–well, four points–in their day, often the only person to go by.  And these papis would smile and assure me, as I peeked around the last corner from which I could see all the way to the school down an ancient street too small for cars,  that everything was fine and I could go home. Our little secret.

I missed the announcement of the old vigneron’s passing. I realized I hadn’t seen his tractor in a while, nor did I see him tending his vineyards. Finally I asked someone and learned he had died a few months earlier. I think of him every time I pass one patch, where I often saw him, bent like the vines he was pruning. Sometimes I wave anyway.

vine in the skyI wonder whether the vignerons talk to their vines, which seem so much like individuals, with personalities. I would ask, but I suspect they would look at me like “this American really IS crazy.”

tangle near bgnlPlenty of people talk to their plants. My grandma had a way with African violets. One day, she confided that her secret was that she talked to them. She pulled me into her sun porch, where African violets lined the window sills, to demonstrate: “If you don’t bloom, you’re going out!” she barked at the plants. Bloom they did. Tough love.

The trimmed branches are called sarments, good to add to a barbecue fire for flavor. The word “sarment” often figures in restaurant names.

gnarlyIn 2008, the European Union launched a program to reduce a glut of wine and keep prices from crashing by reducing EU vineyard area by 94,000 hectares a year. Kind of like OPEC for wine. People love to complain about the EU, but united we stand, divided we fall. Without an overall plan, everybody would have said, let the other guy tear up his vineyards. And they all would have suffered as prices fell further. Overall, vineyards in the EU shrank 24% between 2008 and 2015.

ripple effect
Ripple effect. Isn’t it amazing that creeping green shoots can harden into such shapes?

It wasn’t the first time vines have been uprooted. In 92 A.D., the Roman emperor forbade planting new vines in Languedoc and ordered half the vineyards to be destroyed, because French wine was giving Italian wine too much competition.

Since last year, vines have been allowed to be planted once again.

modern dancers
These make me think of modern dancers.

Did you know that 85% of French households say they bought wine for their own consumption during the year, but just over half drink only a once or twice a week; only 16% of the French drink wine daily or almost daily. The average price of a bottle of wine in France is €6.33. And most of it is good stuff, even when it’s cheap.

against skyUpdate: I wrote this a few days ago, and the very next day, leaves popped out on the vines. If they made a noise, the countryside would sound like a popcorn machine right now. They seem to open right before your eyes. I’ll try to get out and Instagram some later today. The leaves have a “just woke up and blinking in the sunshine” air about them.

 

 

 

 

Spirits of Carcassonne

michelinCabanel is a cathedral of alcoholic beverages. This Carcassonne institution not only sells everything imaginable from around the world, but also makes its own spirits. Founded in 1868 by Joseph Cabanel, it’s been in the same Belle Epoque building since 1905, making it not just a shop but practically a museum, or a step back in time.

herbs
The herbs, spices and plant extracts that go into micheline.

Its signature product is micheline, which supposedly dates to the fourth century as a potion for eternal youth. Like other spirits, it originally was for medicinal purposes, and contains lemon balm, nutmeg, cardamon and many other spices. A framed box shows the different ingredients.

byrrh
Byrrh (wine plus plants like cinchona bark); Bonal (a chartreuse with gentian and cinchona); Ambassadeur (a wine-based apéritif flavored with orange); Cap Corse (similar to cartagène) and DuBonnet (an aromatised wine-based apéritif).

Other specialities of the house include Kina, an apéritif made of plants, including the cinchona bark, which is the source of quinine, and spices. Cabanel also makes Or-Kina (gold Kina), crème de noix (walnut liqueur) and Carcasso (walnut wine) among others. Today, they’re distilled on the premises by Jean-Marc Gazel. Another regional specialty is cartagène, a vin de liqueur, or wine of liqueur, drunk as as an apéritif. (Below, hover over the pictures for the explanation.)

This is a boutique to spend time in. The counter stands in the middle of the shop, as was the custom at the turn of the last century. A glass window separating the shop from the office has an opening marked “Caisse/Reseignements“–cashier and information.

The owners are more than happy to explain the different alcohols and liqueurs, from the ingredients to the history. It was fascinating. Did you know that alcohol comes from the Arabic word “al kohl,” or the metallic powder used to darken eyelids and provide relief from the sun?

The shop is full of cool old stuff, like the first phone they had–still with the same phone number, and many old photos.

caisseI apologize for the rotten quality of the photos. I went in on a dark, rainy day and didn’t use a flash. Plus I can’t see a darn thing with or without glasses, much less in the gloom, much less on a little screen. My bad. I took the outside shots on a better day.

frontCabanel is located at 72 allée d’Iéna, just south (uphill) of the Bastide. Don’t miss it!

horse
In the courtyard.
cour
More cool stuff in the courtyard.

St. Jacques d’Albas

tastingAmong the excellent wineries in the Minervois region, the Château St. Jacques d’Albas stands out for having a setting as beautiful as its wines are delicious.

chapel
The 11th century chapel on the property. The St. Jacques in the name indicates this was a stopover on the pilgrimage to St. Jacques de Compostelle, or Santiago de Compostela, in Spain.

chapel-towerThe owner, Graham Nutter, left a career in finance in London in 2001 to buy the property and meticulously restore both the buildings and the vineyards. He switched production from quantity-driven for the local cooperative to high-quality organic techniques.

grapes-2vineyardWine bottles have two dominant shapes: high shoulders indicate wines from Bordeaux or other wines that resemble the Bordeaux sensibility vs. sloping shoulders for wines from Burgundy and similar wines. Château St. Jacques d’Albas is one of the few wineries in Minervois to use bottles with sloping shoulders.

two-bottles

grapesHowever, whereas Burgundy wines are of a single variety–pinot noir–in order to carry the Minervois AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) wines must be a mix of certain grapes.

tower
A restored windmill that’s now a gîte.

stepsChâteau St. Jacques d’Albas also holds jazz and classical concerts in its large reception room. Some include dinner interludes; all include tastings.

concert-room
The concert room, which has a beautiful 19th century Steinway piano, with the wine-tasting room behind.
tapestry
A tapestry in the concert room.

Château St. Jacques d’Albas is outside the village of Laure-Minervois, about 16 kilometers from Carcassonne.

gate

Wine Harvest

grapes-3The vendange, or grape harvest, is in full swing. Well before dawn, I hear the big harvesters rumble down the road to the vineyards. As I write, the hum of a harvester drifts through my open window.

machine-caunesThe hot, dry summer means this year’s harvest is small but good. When rain threatens at vendange time, the winemakers work around the clock to bring in the grapes before the precipitation dilutes their sugar content, or makes the vineyards too muddy to traverse, or, worst of all, brings hail that ruins the crop. This year’s clear blue skies have spared the vines of such problems.

Life around here still revolves around the vendange even though it no longer requires all hands on deck. For example, the village gym classes don’t begin until late September because traditionally too many participants had to work all day in the vineyards, harvesting grapes. These days, much of the harvest is done by giant machines that, when they roll through a little village, seem like contraptions out of horror movies, with their rows of teeth.

machine-villalier

amid-vines-villalier

tractor
Hauling off a load of future wine

Hand harvesting is back-breaking work. The grapes are just at a level where you have to bend over constantly. It was women’s work, while men collected the buckets of grapes and carried them to a wagon. It was a time for the locals without vineyards to earn a little extra money, though often they were paid in wine. I looked at help-wanted ads to see what seasonal workers earn now; it seems to be €9.67 an hour, which is minimum wage. With many easier ways for the French to earn the SMIC,  it isn’t surprising that the seasonal workers are mostly from Eastern Europe, Spain or Portugal. The New York Times had an article last week about volunteer tourists helping the harvest.

cite-vendange
Do you see the towers of la Cité to the left of the electricity pole?

The Domaine Fontaine Grande on the outskirts of Carcassonne is one that harvests by hand. A dozen workers quickly filled bucket after bucket, their secateurs, or clippers, snipping the generous bunches neatly. As fast as they went (most of my photos were blurs), they barely seemed to make headway in the vast vineyard.

It’s hard to miss the vendange. Traces of grapes on the roads. The heady scent of already-fermenting fruit drifting out from the cuves.

spilled-grapesBefore the vendange, taking grapes is theft, but after, the left-behind fruit is fair game. (Beware of the vendange tardive, or late harvest–those aren’t for taking either! The grapes are left on the vine until they start to dry out, to make dessert wine. It’s pretty easy to tell when a vineyard has been harvested–no big bunches are left).  Though it’s mostly the sangliers, or wild boars, that snarf up the last grapes.

climbing-ladder-1
The buckets of hand-picked grapes are collected into these bigger baskets….
climbing-ladder-2
Then dumped into the wagon.

Soon the 2016 millesime will be developing in the giant wine vats, and the leaves on the vines will change to brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow before falling off for winter.

vineyards
Minervois vineyards–a great alternative to pricier bordeaux and burgundy.

La Tour Boisée

wood caisseLa rentrée–the re-entry, to work, school and regular life after summer vacation–coincides with le vendange–the grape harvest. France has many famous wines, but also many smaller ones that aren’t as well known but often just as good.

bottlesMinervois is a small region just northeast of Carcassonne, with mostly family-run wineries. It’s one of the oldest wine-growing regions in France: around 6 B.C., the Greeks brought grape vines here.

tour
La tour boisée

We recently joined friends new to the region for a tasting at one of our favorite wineries, Domaine de la Tour Boisée, in Laure-Minervois. The domaine is a family operation headed by Jean-Louis Poudou, producing 14 reds, whites and rosés, on 84 hectares (about 207 acres). It recently took on the bio, or organic, label.

Poudou
Jean-Louis Poudou

Here, wine-making takes its time. We once went to a tasting in the U.S. where the vines were but three years old and the winemaker bragged about “aging on wood.” When we asked where he got his barrels–which are a big expense–he sniffed that he didn’t use barrels but wood chips in metal tanks. His wine was beyond awful.

cour
Pallets of bottles, ready for the next year’s vintage.

By contrast, at la Tour Boisée, the vines of carignan, a variety that’s typical of the Minervois, are 60 years old, and those of alicante, a Spanish grape, are 80 years old. There’s a special wine, called 1905, that mixes 23 varieties planted on a plot in the village in 1905. It’s VERY good.

And the Marie-Claude wine of syrah, grenache and carignan is aged at least a year in oak barrels. Real ones. An investment in time and materials.

aubrevoire
An abreuvoir, or watering trough

While choosing a wine is a personal affair, la Tour Boisée’s large selection caters to many tastes. What I want to focus on is the ritual of a tasting.

pouring

First, there was a discussion about our preferences. Our group of five adults leaned toward reds (though I’m a big fan of their chardonnay). Frédérique, the owner’s daughter (who has a wine named after her! Isn’t that sweet?), led us through seven wines. Small amounts were poured into stemmed glasses, swirled and sniffed. The wines’ legs were examined–the legs are the traces of wine that flow back to the bottom of the glass after you’ve swirled. Mouthfuls of wine were swished around, breathed through, and mostly swallowed. The drivers took advantage of the crachoir, or spitoon.

tastedWe spent two hours tasting and talking and learning. Then we filled the trunks of the cars with cases of wine. A big difference with the U.S.: it’s pretty much unheard-of to charge for wine tasting, but it’s considered bad form not to buy at least a case. Of course, if you don’t like the wine, you’re under no obligation.

Olive oil
We also got olive oil. The domaine has over 1,000 olive trees.

We didn’t leave without walking around the property. The namesake tower was part of the village’s ramparts.

tour 2

stairs down
Stairs to a secret walled garden. And the reason for the gate….
goat
…is a goat.
lower arch
Instagrammable cuteness everywhere you look

I don’t do sponsored posts, and this is no exception. We just are fans. Many of the Minervois wineries are too small to export their wines, but la Tour Boisée can be found in the U.S., including at Astor Wines in Manhattan.

under olivier

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Truffles

on breadOne of the saving graces of winter is tuber melanosporum: the black truffles that perfume dishes from December to February.

There’s another variety, called tuber aestivum, or the summer truffle, which is whiter and has a more subtle taste.

Barriere
Philippe Barrière

A couple of years ago, Philippe Barrière opened his Atélier de la Truffe on rue Trivalle, the street just below la Cité. He long was the person who inspected each and every truffle sold at the markets in Aude. As I mentioned before, the truffle trade has long been an under-the-table affair, with unknowledgeable buyers sometimes paying fortunes for nothing more than rocks. In Aude, by contrast, all the truffles sold at the markets are inspected.

Interior
A few tables inside, as well as seats at the bar. More tables outside in front and back. A bounty of good wines.

So M. Barrière knows his stuff, and we and a bunch of our friends decided to spend a summer evening enjoying his expertise.

sel
A tip from the master: a sprinkle of salt heightens the truffle flavor. It worked! Gruissan is not far from here, on the Mediterranean, and has sea salt production.

Truffles are costly, so we limited ourselves to having an apéritif chez Barrière and then moving to a main course in the Bastide. First, we went for foie gras with truffles on toast.

foie gras
There’s foie gras under each row. He wasn’t stingy with the truffles!

I am not a foie gras fan, but I must admit it was beyond succulent. When the slates were set on the table, the scent of truffle from the generous portions was intoxicating.

wineWe had a lovely bottle from Borie de Maurel in la Livinière part of Minervois. If you ever see a wine from la Livinière, you can bet it is good.

chevreThen we had truffled chèvre, again delicious, though the foie gras was better. It’s like poor Aly Raisman. She is an amazing gymnast, better than everybody at the Olympics….except for Simone Biles, who got the gold. (Raisman won silver.) The chèvre was amazing…except that the foie gras was even more amazing.

menuHere’s a quick translation of the menu (truffled plates):

Smashed summer truffle on toast

Shirred eggs with summer truffle

Potatoes with summer truffle

Goat cheese with summer truffle

Beef carpaccio with summer truffle

Foie gras and summer truffle (notice the “and”–it means they’re sliced on top and not grated and mixed in like the others)

Fish carpaccio (he said it was tuna), with foie gras, summer truffle

Homemade summer truffle ice cream

bread basket
Do you see what the bread basket is made of?

We’ll be back….

grattou
Truffle tools: a scraper for €60; €70 if it folds.