Road trips to dream about…

November 4th, 2010

Dream drives was my working title for National Geographic Society’s latest book, the fifth illustrated tome in their 500 series. The vagabond has been commissioned to write destinations for them all, and it is true:  Drives of a Lifetime, 500 of the World’s Most Spectacular Trips packs in far-flung dream circuits for motoring in all corners of the globe.  Recently released, this comprehensive book covers a dizzying selection of dream trips in eight chapters.  Some cover the world’s back roads and popular local circuits, while others illustrate well known highways.  Australia’s Great Ocean Road, a twelve hour loop tour, is one of the “Ultimate Road Trip” features – a longer text found in each chapter.  Mountain lovers will be thrilled with diverse destinations, from Alaska’s Yukon Golden Circle to a Madrid Mountain Drive.

The vagabond's favorite trail through the Barolo & Barbaresco vineyards

A map illustrates every destination, as sea and shore, river and canyon, village byways, and urban excursions themes all fuel the reader’s wanderlust. The Driving Through History chapter includes a stunning range of trips, from a pre-Columbian trail in Mexico to Puglia’s olive groves on the heel  of Italy’s boot.  Although most trips are for four wheels, some could be adapted to two (or even to a dune buggy in Peru!).  And at last, ramble from Kentucky’s Boubon Trail and on through the Langhe valley’s vineyards in the Piedmont as the Gourmet Road Trips chapter wraps up this tantalyzing collection of road trip adventures.  Don’t miss the vagabond’s favorite 10 European Food Drives, as well as the U.S.  10 Wayside Bounty drives to enjoy regional specialties in season, from blueberries in Rhode Island, pumpkins and chocolate in Pennsylvania to late winter citrus harvest in Arizona’s roadside stalls.  It all leaves the reader hungry for more luscious images and succinct, spirited text…maybe the next in the series will be 600 journeys!

Gifting idea for active or armchair travelers on you list: order through the National Geographic Society site,  www.nationalgeographic.com/books or at your local independent book store.

Wines, vines and Italian tastings

February 25th, 2010

When a first sip is infatuating, I yearn to learn more. Such was the case with Primitivo, encountered over a plate of savory orecchiette at Pasta e Basta in Paris’ 13th.  First the dense – almost inky – robe, deep fruit aromas, then the wine’s structure persisted through the meal. The impact of this wine, so different from French wines, carried a complexity that intrigued me.  Where can this wine be found in context, I asked Armando, the chef at Pasta e Basta? “From Bari south to Lecce, and all along the Salentino, a rocky strip of southern Italy”, he responded.  So, serious travel is involved, and some time-juggling, but as  Italy continues its magnetic tug, why not plan on exploring this wine at the source: the heel of Italy’s boot.  Apulia, or Puglia, is the home of many ancient vine varieties planted along the the Salento peninsula in the sixth century B.C. – long before Roman legions marched past the trulli, clusters of white dry-stone huts.

The vagabond has found a guide for this wine and culinary adventure:  a bi-lingual ace photographer and host of a well known Lecce cooking and wine school, The Awaiting Table.  Silvestro Silvestori’s New Wine School and Cuisine classes have been covered by the Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine magazine. Their harvest season wine course this year runs from October 10 to 16, and includes visits to vineyards, a cooking class or two, and much discussion with local artisans – in addition to comprehensive wine lectures and tastings. Without further fanfare, I refer all and any wine tasting enthusiasts to www.awaitingtable.com

For more on Puglia, its cuisine and traditions, read Anne Bianchi’s superb, thorough Italian Festival Food, Recipes and Traditions from Italy’s Regional Country Food Fairs, published in 1999 by Macmillan, USA.

Pairing a season with Corbières

November 16th, 2009
Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Gate to Fontfroide Abbey cloisters

Grapes are everywhere in the Corbières – not only rippling up and down hillsides, but carved into the culture, the consciousness of the Midi, the windy and dry Languedoc – Roussillon.  Across much of this land along the French Mediterranean coast and inland from Narbonne, the soil is  so poor that a hillside can resemble a rocky riverbed.  Grapevines and olive trees are  tolerant of these stark conditions, in fact the Roussillon wines and oils hold a true concentration of terroir.  When a friend asked what terroir was all about, I summed it up:  the land, soil, site/exposure to sun, proximity to seas or rivers, even altitude.  On a recent sundown walk  between rows of old, twisted grape vines we had a clear picture of this tortuous terroir.  The grape varieties, cépages for Corbières are sun loving grenache (a major component for spicy notes and color), syrah or shiraz (to add acidity and tannins, and for depth), late-harvested carignan (for rich, earthy tones – used more in Fitou wines) and on the lowest slopes to thrive in morning fog, mourvedre vines (condense the dark berry notes in Corbières, enhances structure as the wine matures).  We admired the hillsides – each cépage turns a different tone of bronze in autumn – and between the rows I noticed footprints of wild boar.  The sanglier, though tasty in a pâté or ragout, have become many a vigneron’s headache as they root out new vines and trample through the vineyards. No wonder hunters are welcome in these hills!

So this is Corbières season:  game is hung to cure for civets de lièvre et de sanglier (long marinated and slowly simmered stews of hare and wild boar), and mushroom sacks bulge as hunters return from their foraging. All of the ingredients that perfectly match the full-bodied wines of Corbières come to the table in these chilly, appetite-generating weeks of late autumn. A savory list of pork pâtés and duck terrines, grilled herbed lamb or pork ribs call for wines that are,  in a word, robust.

Two reds for an autumn fête

Two reds for an autumn fête

After recent tastings in the Roussillon, the vagabond is impressed by wines made by  two women in the Boutenac area west of Narbonne. The sprawling Corbières region covers so many microclimates and styles of wine-making, I found it most reasonable to narrow a little wine shopping down to one area. First, the supple reds and glowing rosés made by Marie-Hélène Bacave near St. André de Roquelongue are examples of  how an independent winemaker pursues her own wine style. For two years since her husband passed away, she has been determined to continue making wine of high quality.  Taking us into her chais, where the wine rested in three huge stainless vats, her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm about the mourvedre grape:  “…many of my colleagues don’t want to be bothered with this variety, as it can be fussy with weather and a bit difficult to bring to vendange…it not only adds backbone as the wine matures, but makes the Corbières blend sing of blackberry and dark fruit”.  Her aromatic, deep garnet Cru Corbières Boutnac 2005 Crépuscule sings of her persistence in creating a stylish, supple red at  Château St-Jean de la Gineste. On a lighter note, we sampled her lovely Rosée de la St. Jean, a blend that stars the mourvedre grape for color and fruity aromas. This will be the pour for a poached chicken or lightly seasoned rabbit on our Thanksgiving table.

 A glowing rosé from the Corbières

A glowing rosé from the Corbières

In the same area near Montseret, midway between the Abbey of Fontfroide and Lagrasse, we found Jacqueline Bories at Château Ollieux Romanis, another dedicated independent vigneronne. More widely distributed across southern France, her Ollieux Romanis Cuvée Florence 2000 is a melody of ripe fruit, supple tannins and long finish, a perfect wine with an autumn daube, a roast pheasant, or canard aux olives – and keep a lichette in your glass to enjoy with a firm brebis cheese from the Pyrénées.

Tell us about your favorite Corbières, and food matches that  you enjoy!

Watch for the vagabond’s mid-month Food&Wine matchmaking series…and more on wines for the holidays/les fêtes de fin d’année coming up.

Rolling through the Roussillon

November 2nd, 2009
Russet vines in the Roussillon

Russet vines in the Roussillon

The sun was riding low on the horizon when we reached Montséret in the Roussillon, where a sundown hike through brassy and burnished russets of late October grape vines capped off a full first day on the road. We couldn’t have ordered better weather for an autumn whirl through Corbières country, a wine region of astonishing variety of climate and altitude. Historically, the Languedoc-Roussillon stretches from the Spanish border south of Collioure and Banyuls, curving along the Mediterranean coast to the mouth of the Rhône river in Provence.  Now the vineyards of this rugged region, planted over 700,000 acres (2,800square meters) of land, produce more than a third of French wines. And although the range of wines runs heavily to robust reds, there are remarkable rosés and crisp whites to be tasted as well.  For color and dramatic vistas, the Roussillon gets the vagabond’s vote for a late autumn escapade.

Fontfroide Abbey entry gate

Fontfroide Abbey entry gate

Historic sites are a major draw to this region of southern France, and our focus for the trip was the Abbey of Fontfroide, west of Narbonne. Oddly enough, we arrived just in time for a leisurely lunch – not unusual timing when the vagabond is on the road – before an hour’s tour of this other-worldly place. The Cistercian abbey was built in 1145 AD on the site of an earlier Benedictine abbey, hidden in a deep valley.  Within  its seemingly tranquil walls, a murder occurred that launched the Albigensian crusade, persecuting Cathar believers for over thirty years.  Silhouettes of ruined Cathar castles punctuate today’s Roussillon landscape; it all began at Fontfroide.*

La Table de Fontfroide

La Table de Fontfroide

The Table of Fontfroide, a restaurant housed in what was once the monks’ storage and stables, offers a range of meals, from light snacks to substantial lunches.  We were hungry and opted for the appealing and well priced (under 25 Euro) menu du jour.  With a glass of deep garnet-toned Corbières, I savored a meaty pintade (guinea fowl) thigh set on a bed of the chef’s spicy ratatouille: perfect partners.  During lunch, we were entertained by a haughty peacock just outside the window, apparently interested in what was on our plates.  In medieval times, the powerful bishops of Fontfroide would have dined on peacocks!

Pintade à la ratatouille

Pintade à la ratatouille

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Notes on pairing Corbières wines to follow.

*The vagabond recommends The Rebel Princess, a novel by Judith K. Healey, set in this region in the 13th century. Recently released by HarperCollins (U.S. & Canada), read more about the gripping story on: www.therebelprincessanovel.com