Monday, July 13, 2009

L'ecole Francais

French people got it right, man. I pretty much live and breath by all things culinary, oenophilic, and sartorial, and the French pretty much invented all. Last night's farm dinner wasn't entirely French inspired (Duncan said the salad reminded him of his high school days) but all of our favorite wine pairings ended up coming from the land of croissants and confit. So, as such, I called this installment of Your Week in Wine "The French School" because I feel like we should all take a leaf out of the books of the folks who decided that eating and drinking could actually be entertainment as well as sustenance.

Monday, 07.13.09

Course 1: Shooting Star little gem salad with Maytag Blue Cheese dressing, house made pancetta, pickled shallot, and brioche

Preliminary Pairings: 2006 Couly-Dutheil Les Chanteaux Chinon Blanc, 2008 Triennes Rose

Romaine with blue cheese and bacon: a fancy wedge salad? Kind of, but the greens were leafy and the bacon house-made. Pickled shallots added zest and brioche croutons were, well, delicious. Wines? Easy-peasy. I needed high acid to stand up to the richness of blue cheese, fruit to balance pickled shallots, and some secondary components to interact with pancetta. Couly-Dutheil is a chenin blanc from our favorite rose producers, with all the typically Loire honey-aromatics in the nose but a very clean, mineral-driven palate. We've enjoyed tasting different wines from the Loire lately, and Chinon is proving to be a very interesting region with all the fascinating particularities associated with cabernet franc for reds and roses (lots of black pepper) and chenin blancs for whites (honeysuckle, stone fruit, and slate) The nice creamy texture of the C-D proved a lovely match with the salad dressing and the juicy fruit a solid partner to pickled shallots. I (along with Kendal and Tracey) enjoyed Triennes (a cinsault dominated rose from Provence) quite a bit, but in the end the decision was that Triennes was too fruity and the minerality of the chenin blanc allowed the flavors of the food to shine.

Favorite: C-D Chinon Blanc

Course 2: Slow roasted Gunthorp Farm pork belly with haricot verts and chanterelles, summer potatoes, white anchovy, and cucumber-red currant relish

Preliminary Pairings: 2008 Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence Rose, 2008 Sainte Eugenie Corbieres La Reserve, 2005 Jerome Gradassi Chateauneuf du Pape

The phrase "pork belly" brings about tears of joy in some people and strikes fear into the hearts of others. Industry types and foodies tend to regard pork belly with the kind of reverence I might hold for Christian Louboutin's classic nude peep-toe platforms (you can wear them with anything in your closet) or my dad might reserve for an original, sealed vinyl copy of the White Album. Other folks (particularly those squeamish about eating most organ meat that hasn't been fried to the point of being unrecognizeable) might not understand that when prepared, ahem, correctly, (as it was last night) p.belly can actually be spectacularly tender, flavorful, and delicate. I like to describe p.b. to novices as "3-D bacon," which I think sounds kind of cute and might cushion the unpleasant reality that one may be about to eat a 5oz square of pork fat.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Belly is not my favorite; it does tend to be very fatty and I prefer to ingest my calories in the form of buttercream icing (or something equally as sweet and sugary) but I can appreciate well-prepared offal, especially when the accoutrements are as scrumptious as the ones on Farm Dinner last night. Also, we are talking about piggies from Greg Gunthorp's organic farm, and meat of such high quality is an entirely different (pardon the pun) animal.

So I'll get to the point. The bellies were cooked sous vide, which is a fancy method of braising. The sous vide method allows temperatures to be strictly controlled so as not to over or undercook. Also, food prepared sous vide retains much of its nutrients and flavor because such precious qualities are not lost in the cooking process. Before braising, the p.bellies were marinated in mustard, fennel, salt, and sugar, and Hammel poached Green Acres summer potatoes in that braising liquid / marinade juice and nestled them under the bellies. The final rendering was a masterpiece of layering, with the bellies cradled over the potatoes and surrounded by Nichols Farm haricot verts, West Coast chanterelles, and topped with a tangy salad of sherry vinegar-soaked cucumbers and red currants (a truly inspiring and refreshing addition, perfectly balancing the richness of the dish). Living Waters hothouse tomatoes that Jason had marinated in olive oil and herbs du provence and dried overnight dappled the plate. Finally, JH poured some of the belly braising liquid over the whole shaboodle.

Love the belly or hate the belly, this was one tasty version. And the wines, ohhhh, the wines. OMG. Ok, where to begin? . . . I knew I was going to go Rhone because of the use of herbs du provence in the pork belly dish. What are herbs du provence, you say? Thyme, basil, summer savory (sort of a soft rosemary), and sometimes lavender. And why would those herbs indicate Rhone wines? Because the wines from the Southern Rhone Valley and parts of Provence are imbued with an essence that the French call garrigue, which refers to specific quality of the terroir found in the arid, brambly, shrubby soil of those very locales.


Well, ok, so thyme, basil, summer savory, and lavender grow wild in Provence, hence the name herbs du provence, as well as brambly, brackish shrubs. Similar growing conditions exist in the Southern Rhone. In any winemaking, the natural vegetation of an area affects the properties of the soil in which grapes are planted, which in turn indicates their characteristics and eventually defines the wine made there. So, wines made from grapes grown in areas where herbs du provence also grow contain elements reminscent of that same flora (don't ask me how it works). Mas de Gourgonnier, from Provence, is a knock-your-socks off rose that drinks like a red (in terms of the body and slight tannic bite) but still exhibits the softness, delicacy, and food-friendliness we like about rose. MdG is high in acid, cutting through the fat of the pork belly, while still showing backbone to stand up to the starch of potatoes and crunchiness of haricot verts. Yum.

Now here is something interesting: Gradassi CdP is all light herb and velvet with a hint of dark cherries and currants, very soft and unassuming. Corbieres is more powerful, with juicy dark fruit and spice, leather and tobacco. I suspected that the CdP, though tasting well, would disappear behind the belly while the Corbieres would remain strong and flavorful. But look out for that garrigue! Unbelievably (and happily) the CdP couldn't have been more perfect. Slightly more complex and older than the Corbieres, Gradassi took on a whole new level when paired with all the elements in the pork belly dish. The herbs in the wine complemented the herbs in the food, and the fruit aspects actually became more pronounced when tasted with the juicy cucumber-currant relish. Corbieres fell a little flat. It is still a wonderful wine, but I think the layers of the Gradassi were a better fit for Jason Hammel's intricately constructed invention.

Favorites: MdG, Gradassi CdP

Course 3: Klug Farm bing cherry clafoutis with black pepper touille, PX sherry, and cherry ice cream

Preliminary Pairings: M. Chapoutier Banyuls, NV Vin du Bugey-Cerdon Rose

Clafoutis are traditional French pastries that are basically individual-sized custard tarts with a soft crust. Melissa added semolina to the custard to thicken the texture and surrounded it with melt-in-your-mouth shortdough. Klug Farm bing cherries, halved and pitted, studded throughout. A compote of yellow cherries, fresh laurel leaves, whole peppercorns, and sherry gastrique snuggled up to the clafoutis and cherry ice cream and a black pepper touille topped off the plate. Oh my good gardenias. Banyuls: Done, son. Bugey: Done, son. Seriously, sometimes I choose dessert wines simply based on the color. I go "Hm, cherries are red, and the Banyuls is dark red, and Bugey always tastes good with red things." And 90% of the time it totally works. Both of these pairings were rad and it is simply personal taste as to weather you want a dark and ripe berry fruity port or a light and tart berry fruity sparkler.

Favorites: Both! Banyuls and Bugey, mon amis!

Do I have to say it? C'mon in and have a taste! Belly will definitely be on, and I'm pretty sure the clafoutis is here to stay. Not sure about the salad, but I think it may stick around while supplies (little gem romaine, that is) last. Au Revoir!

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