Vagabond Gourmand goes wine-shopping

April 14th, 2006

Well, is the market on the wine shopper’s rounds?  This query from a visiting American friend prompted me to think about how we find our way to the wines we like best.  For years, our wine-shopping options have run from trips to regional winemakers, buying bottles or boxes of wine at the hypermarché, popping into a local wine shop for a lovely selection (at a price), or buying wine in weekly markets.  Which shopping mode do we follow?  All of the above!  For each suits a time and mood, and fits into the dips and surges of income and available time.

The dynamics of wine shopping have changed in the dozen years since we arrived in southwest France, in the Bergerac vignoble to be specific. At first we took a large cubitainer (sturdy plastic barrel) directly to a winemaker and said: “Fill ‘er up”! Using an antique corking apparatus, the wine had to be quickly bottled, then stored for the upcoming months (or weeks, with the arrival of thirsty visitors). All of this depended on storing clean wine bottles, buying corks, and having time to swab down the kitchen floor.

Once I took into account the time and bottle-washing (being chief cook and bottle-washer), it seemed there must be other alternatives to stocking a supply of wine.  The empty bottles are dusty now, waiting for another round of rinsing and corking.  A recent visit with a wine maker supplied our ‘best’ racks with bottles of Côtes de Bergerac red and a case of lovely, fruity Bergerac white–my preferred apéritif.  From the village grocery, a row of mineral water bottles filled with basic reds and whites are always on hand for various cooking and marinating uses.  Still, weekly markets offer opportunities to explore wines of a wider region, attracting makers of sweet Pineau de Charentes northwest of the Dordogne, reds from the Côtes de Duras south of Bergerac, and with a bit of luck- from any part of the vast Bordeaux vignoble to the west.

A Sunday morning jaunt to a picturesque market serves to update this wine-shopper, taking our enthusiastic friend along for his first market dégustation.  In the medieval village of Issigeac, the church square is the setting for their weekly market, drawing shoppers and Sunday dawdlers to savor its historic ambiance.  We can count on seeing small scale vignerons who make red wine when they are not raising ducks or chickens, as well as larger stalls displaying a wider range.  Often – not always – dégustations or sample sips of a wine are part of the wine selection ritual. This pause offers a good chance to ask vintners about the problems and pleasures of wine-making.  Interspersed in the market between fruit, chickens, cheese and flower stalls, there are half dozen vendors of wines.  Organic wine-making methods are gaining ground in the Bergerac terroir, with several producers of vins biologique  (organic wines) represented in the Issigeac market.

We step up to a vendor of organic wines who displays their 2005 millésime –last autumn’s harvest, now ready for sipping. Would we like to sample red or white, dry or sweet? The steps of a tasting, even on a chilly spring morning, are always the same:  admire the color, take a little whiff of the bouquet, then sip.  Allow a forgiving margin for the reds that need to be warmed to room temperature – which this tasting in the chilly air limits.  It is a better time to sample cool white wine – just before noon on a Sunday morning.  Our friend nods in agreement.  The organic white is fresh and crisp, so we buy a packet of three bottles. He winks: Next dégustation

Along a narrow side street lined with half-timbered houses, we find an elderly wine-maker from the Lussac-St.Emilion region selling his red wines.  He recognizes us with a broad smile and apologizes that he is not equipped with dégustation glasses. We engage in a jovial exchange, assuring him that we have enjoyed his wines before and would like to have a bottle of his 2003 with our Sunday dinner.  As we turn to leave with a three-pack of red wines, I nudge our visitor:  Next dégustation, on the terrace at home – under our blooming plum tree!

Market delights, spring in the Tarn

April 14th, 2006

The pull of an open market is magnetic. On a bright spring morning in the Tarn, I am drawn past stalls –not too fast –dodging shoppers intent on their conversations with favorite vendors. We are in Castres, an hour east of Toulouse, for a weekend exploring a region of dramatic landscapes, sweeping panoramas, and colorful markets. On Saturday mornings the tidy marble-paved place Jean Jaurès is transformed into a jumble of greens and cheeses, plants and poultry, all under bright awnings in the center of this river town.
Heaps of spring onions, glistening apples from the renowned orchards of the Tarn, and more charcuterie (sausage and meat) vendors than I’ve found anywhere fill the square and spill over into streets lining the river Agout. The pink garlic of Lautrec as well as local breads –the Fouace in all its plump forms- are on my list, and at the edge of the square, I spot willow baskets full of garlic, as pink and perfect as porcelain. They are set out with pride, alongside boxes of fresh eggs, a few bouquets of snowdrops, jonquils, and little bundles of new garlic: the first aillet is ready! Small tables or planks hold these few items brought by farm women to Castres’ market, just as their mothers did a generation earlier. The aillet, or early shoots of new garlic are pulled out to thin the rows before the bulb begins to form. This mild touch of garlic is always stirred into the traditional first of May omelette in farm kitchens across southwest France. I’m delighted to find the aillet, and add it to my basket as well as a sack of sweet onions from Citou- a variety rarely found beyond this region. The Citou onion festival is held in November, and by March, most of the sweet onion supply has disappeared. Before moving on, I can’t resist a few bundles of new radishes. In the Tarn, these are served in a warm salad –briefly sautéed or sweated and stirred into a spinach salad, often with seared chicken livers or foie gras.

Sugar-studded rings of Fouace seem to sparkle (or is it my imagination?) on a baker’s stall, and I pop for a small round loaf, carefully wrapped with little twisted ends on the paper. The special anise biscuits that I recall finding on a previous visit to this region are not to displayed. The pert vendor explains: “Oh, that is a spécialité Albigoise, you might find it in the Albi market”. On our way to the car, I weaken at a cheese vendor’s vast selection of tommes. It is still too chilly for a picnic, but I buy a wedge of bleu d’Auvergne and a slab of ewe’s milk brebis de Larzac. Next, a pot of Miel de Laucun, mountain honey to drizzle on fresh cheese, is irresistible. With great will power, I pass up pre-peppered magret de canard, and garlicky sausages. Our route leads north to Albi, the next market for this spring Saturday.

It is almost noon by the time we find Albi’s old market hall and I’m surprised to find it hoisted onto posts, shrouded in construction wrap. The belle epoque ironwork details under the roof are still exposed, but a pit has been dug below the building. A large sign explains that a three level parking garage is being constructed below, and directs us to a temporary market on the edge of the city’s historic center. This project, we learn later, is being designed by Sir Norman Foster, the architect whose Millau bridge is one of the technical design wonders of our time. Working with a French engineering firm, they have undertaken renovation, keeping the existing hall intact. Within a few years, the refurbished hall will once again welcome shoppers. Meanwhile, with a quick stop at the temporary market tent I find that échaudée, the anise biscuits are still made in Albi, and a sackful is gingerly tucked into my heavy basket. Perfect! We’ll enjoy these with an aperitif, a light rosé from Gaillac vineyards, when we are back at home in the Périgord after a sunny marketing weekend.

Taste the best Brie in…Coulommiers

April 14th, 2006

Celebrate Spring: Coulommiers Foire Internationale aux Fromages et aux Vins/ Cheese & Wine Fair

A smooth sliver of Brie and a sip of fruity Saumur seemed like a perfect marriage. When I discovered that an entire family of Brie cheese exists, I decided to meet all the relatives! Every year the weekend before Easter is circled on my calendar, the ideal time to taste Brie from Meaux, Melun and Coulommiers. The focus of the weekend is assembled under the shelter of vast white tents: the annual International Cheese and Wine Fair. Hundreds of cheeses are displayed –not only Brie, but mountain tommes from the Auvergne and the Basque country, tangy chèvre from the Loire and Provence; the selection is amazing. Other regional products (to be tasted, bien sûr!) run from wines to tiny ravioli from Royans, an on to croissants and crusty baguettes baked in wood fired ovens on the spot.

The land of Brie, le pays briard, lies on the eastern edge of the ÃŽle-de-France, just an hour from the heart of Paris. Our route leads through the banlieue and soon we are rolling into open country, past heaps of round, rain-washed sugar beets stacked at the edge of broad fields. My husband, Michel, is at the wheel, and I navigate. Scanning the map, past the turn to Disneyland I notice that the river Seine defines Brie’s southern limits, while the Marne snakes along its northern border. We traverse a landscape of woodlands and flat fields, of turreted brown fieldstone walls hiding manors and farms built during centuries of wealth and power, vestiges of grain and dairy richesse. The major cheese market for the historic pays briard has long been Coulommiers.

At the edge of the city, near La Sucrerie cultural center halls, the Foire Internationale aux Fromages et aux Vins assembles makers of cheese, bread, sausages and wines. Just as we arrive on Friday morning, a fanfare of trumpets leads a parade of regional officials and confréries. A black limousine pulls up to the red carpet, the first lady of France steps out and proceeds to cut the ribbon and inaugurate the fair. Judges have finished their work of tasting and awarding prizes for the best Brie, so this jocular group falls in step behind the President’s wife. Flat, Brie-like hats of the Confrérie du Brie de Meaux bob along above purple, cream and crimson robes of cheese brotherhoods as they march into the fair.

For a sample and a few tips on choosing cheese, I follow the amusing Brie-topped hats of two confrères straight to their stall. The shorter of the two ivory-robed men, eager to expound on the finer points of this famous cheese, explains: “There have been two distinct Brie AOC’s for about thirty years. The zones are clearly defined and regulations are strict for dairies and cheese-makers of Brie de Meaux, and the smaller region of Brie de Melun. Raw cow’s milk must be used for both to merit the label”. With broad smiles, they slice sample tidbits, then wrap up half-wheel portions of Brie for earnest cheese shoppers. When there is a brief lull in tasting and wrapping, he continues: “Affineurs, play a key role in preparing Brie for market. These cheese-aging specialists take the cheese one week after moulding. At first each cheese is turned several times daily, then weekly as the Bries ripen on straw pallets, with conditions closely monitored for about two months. Brie de Nangis, de Provins, and rarer Brie de Montereau are made in regional dairies. Experts have noted that the smaller rounds of Brie de Coulommiers most closely resemble the original Brie. Now…” he remarks with a furrowed brow, “we worry about regulations from Brussels on the use of raw milk”.

When ripe and ready, the powdery crust will take on a few reddish-brown points, as though woven under the snowy cover. A Brie’s pale, straw-toned interior should be even in texture when cut –with perhaps a few tiny bubbles. The refined and balanced Brie, reportedly the favourite of Charlemagne, has been called both the King of Cheeses, and the Cheese of Kings. Perhaps this first French king chose a goblet of champagne from neighboring Epernay to sip when he savored an aromatic Brie. And he may have remarked that a sweet note lingers after a bite of Brie- just the right note before setting out to explore a wealth of flavors in the enticing pays briard.