May 2008


I believe I learned the word preprandial from my mother. She is a staunch supporter of “cocktail hour,” a custom I also approve of whole heartedly. In these summer months, when darkness kindly waits to descend upon us, five or six o’clock is really too early for dinner and yet that’s exactly when one wants to begin socializing. 

Sidling up to a table, preferably outdoors, and enjoying an apéritif with something salty to eat is an excellent way to begin an evening. A memorable cocktail hour for me was spent with my husband in the Piedmont village of Barolo, on the 2nd floor patio of Hotel Barolo. It was February, and I’m convinced there were no other guests there at the time. Yet one early evening as we wandered into the bar looking for a way to kill time, the family running the hotel sensed our presence and asked us what we would like. My husband communicated that we would like an aperitvo, preferably something sparkling and local, and all was understood. She suggested we sit on the patio (it was strangely warm for February) and moments later she brought us two beautiful glasses of sparkling wine and a jar of grissini — a long skinny breadstick invented in Torino, capital of Piedmont. There was something wonderful about sitting on the patio in our fancy dinner clothes, looking out at the hills and fog while sipping and noshing. I believe I announced outloud my love of the apéritif right then and there.

Some beverages are better suited to being an apéritif than others. They should be refreshing and cold. I don’t see much room for a red wine as an apéritif, except for a good lambrusco perhaps (which satisfies the cold and refreshing requirements while still being red). They really should be accompanied by something to eat. It is common to have nuts, olives, or charmingly, potato chips. It is my fondest wish that the United States would develop a stronger apéritif culture. Recently I attempted to have a preprandial drink with a friend, and we asked if we could have some nuts with our glasses of wine. I didn’t imagine that they would somehow be free like they are in Europe, but I also didn’t think it was too much to ask if they had them at all. The young waiter looked at me in amazement (possibly tempted to make a “deez nuts?” joke), and eventually (more than halfway through my glass of wine) provided me with a small bowl of unsalted chopped walnuts that I assume they had reserved for a salad topping. It was better than nothing, but it wasn’t right. In peoples’ homes there are often appetizers served before dinner and that custom provides something similar to what I desire out of a café or restaurant in the early evening hours. A little time to talk casually before digging in to dinner. I’ve come to the point where I must nosh while drinking wine. A simple bowl of salted peanuts will do! In fact I prefer it to an over-priced cheese plate which is what you’d be offered at a wine bar. At any rate, I’ve developed a short list of my favorite preprandial drinks for your reference and amusement:

Champagne or sparkling wine from just about anywhere else. If you are traveling, I recommend asking for a local sparkler — just mumble the words cremant (FR), spumante (IT), espumante (PT), espumoso (ES), or sekt (DE) depending what country you are in. The high acid in these wines make your mouth water, and prepare you for dinner.  The effervescence is just festive and makes the evening seem full of possibility. This may be a cliché, but I find it to be true. I’m not a fan of adding anything to the bubbly wine, such as creme de cassis for a Kir Royale, or peach nectar for a Bellini. That may be a good idea if you are drinking really wretched sparkling wine, but I prefer good wine with nothing added.

Fino or Manzanilla Sherry are classic apéritifs! Spain has been pouring them with tapas for centuries. Very refreshing and tasty with salty nuts and seafood. These are about 15% alcohol, so you don’t want to knock back too much before dinner — a mistake I’ve made before. Their richer counterparts, Amontillado, Palo Cortado, and Oloroso are better suited to after dinner.

Txakoli, another white wine from Spain, provides an antidote to the above problem — this utterly refreshing, appley delight from the north of Spain is usually just about 9% alcohol, which will leave your head clear enough to choose from the menu.

Pastis is an excellent apéritif. This is extremely popular in France, though probably less so with the younger generations. It is a concoction based primarily on anis, but on other herbs as well, invented in the early 20th century as a wormwood-free alternative to absinthe. It is always served with a little pitcher of cool water and some nuts. When you pour the water into the pastis, it opalesces, dilutes the high alcohol, and becomes a cooling drink, perfect for the midday sun.

Generally speaking, a glass of light, refreshing white wine will do. In other words, an intense white wine that’s been aged or matured in barrel is probably better-suited to your main course. I do not advocate actual cocktails as apéritif, because the high alcohol content of stuff like vodka will kill your taste buds before you even sit down to dinner. Many people drink bitters before a meal, but to my mind those are ideal as a digestif — a topic covered in a forthcoming post.

 

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Thierry Puzelat is a wonderful producer from the Touraine region in the Loire Valley. He runs his family estate, Clos du Tue Beouf, with his brother as well as his own negociant business.  For the negociant wines he sources grapes from organic and biodynamic vineyards, many of them from a grower based in the village of Tésnieres, where there is abundant limestone and silex in the clay soils, which contribute to the extraordinary minerality found in all of his wines.

One of the things I like so much about Puzelat is that he is a champion of ancient local varieties commonly snubbed by mainstream winemakers. Menu Pineau and Pineau d’Aunis are both native to the region and all but extinct. Neither grape is related to the Pinot family, but their names seem to suggest that somebody thought so at some point. Menu Pineau is a white grape which makes wine full of spicy, woodsy, apricot flavors. Pineau d’Aunis is a red grape which makes light reds, full of mineral and fresh berry character. They both tend to have a certain cedar-like quality that is difficult to explain. I once sold his Tésnieres Pineau d’Aunis to customers in a Chelsea wine shop, and they’d either come back and buy a case or return the bottle as faulty! I eventually took to selling the wine with a warning — “This wine is super weird” — which scared off the people who wouldn’t like it and enticed the people who would. Puzelat’s sparkling blend of Menu Pineau and Chenin Blanc, “Pétillant Naturel”, is a lovely, earthy apéritif; and I once had the pleasure of ordering it for a reasonable price at ICI, one of my neighborhood restaurants in Brooklyn.

The Pétillant Naturel is made not by the méthode champenoise, but the méthode ancestrale — an approach to making wine sparkle also used in Bugey-Cerdon, Gaillac, Limoux and Die. The wine is fermented to about 6 degrees of alcohol, and then bottled.  The fermentation to about 7 or 8 degrees of alcohol is completed in the bottle with additional yeast or sugar, and the primary yeast is often not removed, leaving a cloudy sediment in the finished wine.  This is how all sparkling wine use to be before the Widow Cliquot developed the riddling process.  This process of gradually turning the bottles upside down brings the yeast sediment to the tip of the bottle where it is then frozen and shot out like a bullet. Its a very inventive way to remove the yeast from a sparkling wine, but I’ll take a flavorful, cloudy bottle of Puzelat’s sparkling Chenin over Cliquot’s flavorless, clear as crystal “yellow label” Champagne any day.


Robert Mondavi, born in Minnesota and raised in Lodi, California, was a formidable businessman and very important figure in California’s wine industry. He passed away today at the age of 94.

I’ve recently been introduced to the legendary Time-Life series of cookbooks called Foods of the World, published in 1968. In response to my question about what to do with my freezer full of game, Darrell Corti suggested I make paté, and that I buy the Cooking of the British Isles edition of the series, written by Adrian Bailey, as a resource. Each edition of the series came with a hardback book — full of beautiful photographs and lots of narrative — and a spiral bound recipe book. The hardbacks cost about $1 on the internet, as well as being fairly easy to find in thrift stores, but the spiral recipe books are a bit more rare. The hardbacks on their own are less useful as cookbooks than they are as history books, but there are a few recipes in the back. Buying the complete set of 27 can cost you a pretty penny. The impressive thing about this series is that Time-Life managed to pull together some of the best food writers of the time. The Cooking of Provincial France is written by M.F.K Fisher and Cooking of Italy by Waverly Root! There are also contributions by Julia Child and James Beard.

At any rate, I started with Bailey’s British Isles, and also bought Cooking of Vienna’s Empire, because I saw that it was written by Joseph Wechsberg — author of the wonderful Blue Trout and Black Truffles and numerous New Yorker articles.  Soon after these arrived in the mail, my very good and very resourceful friend deposited a stack of several other editions on my doorstep (she’s the type of person who has everything worthwhile at her fingertips, so as soon as she knows you’re interested in something, she brings it to you).  Among these, was Wine and Spirits by Alec Waugh (Evelyn’s brother and Auberon’s uncle. A very hard to find book that I desire is Auberon’s “Waugh on Wine.”) Wine and Spirits is a delightful book, elegantly written. Here is an excerpt from a section called “The Cocktail Hour.” This sort of cultural history is like treasure to me:

“When I started to go to dinner parties in 1919, the cocktail habit had not reached London.  You were invited for 8 o’clock; you were welcomed by your host and hostess, you were introduced to the lady whom you were to “take in” to dinner, and you stood around. It was le mauvais quart d’heure — and very bad it could be on occasions, particularly for a young man of 21, as I was, not too sure of himself and anxious to make a good impression.  The young of today are lucky to have been spared that experience. And even after the cocktail had made its first appearance in the more avant-garde circles, it was only one cocktail, and you had to drink it quickly if you arrived seven minutes late; if you were invited for 8, at a quarter past you went in to dinner.  The cocktail dissolved le mauvais quart d’heure and that was all it did. Today, almost 50 years later, the preprandial session may last an hour or more and is considered by some to be almost as important as the meal itself.”

In 1968, the world of wine hadn’t yet been modernized, so the photographs capture techniques and cultural practices that are all but gone now. For instance, there is a picture of women weaving the straw flasks coverings once common on bottles of Chianti and Bardolino.  And the Portugal section features young men thigh-high in a trough of grapes, pounding drums and playing harmonica to keep themselves entertained while they crushed the grapes for hours. In the Madeira section there is an adorable photo of a naked boy being bathed in Madeira to “promote health.” The book also covers beer and spirits, a subject which is introduced with a photograph of a smiling blond biergarten waitress in Munich and one of an international cocktail party overlooking the newly built U.N. building respectively.  There is a section called “Cellars to Fit Three Budgets,” which has charmingly outdated pricing. For instance they suggest that it would cost $100 to set up a cellar with 6 bottles of estate-bottled red Bordeaux, 2 Graves blanc,  and 1 Sauternes; 4 village level red burgundy, and two bottles of village white; 2 bottles of rosé, 6 bottles of “local wines” (a category which includes Beaujolais, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes de Provence, Cotes de Rhone, Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, Alsace, Muscadet, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre and Vouvray); 2 American reds, 2 American whites, 2 estate-bottled “Rhines” or “Moselles”; and 2 American “champagnes.”  The list is laughable now — one bottle of the “local wine” Hermitage would just about exhaust the $100 budget these days.

After examining the series, I realized that I had previously been familiar with one of these books. My mother had Cooking of Southeast Asia and the Pacific by Rafael Steinberg, and I remember that she used it for her Gourmet Club back in the 1970s. I recently looked at her spiral recipe book, and felt a tug at the heart when I saw all the splatters of sauce and grease on the pages. It’s the kind of thing that would be gross if you saw it in a thrift store copy, but for me it was a visceral bridge to a time when my mom was whipping up dishes wrapped in banana leaves in a Colorado college town. 

I’m excited about collecting the rest of the series, reading them and using them as a resource in the kitchen. In addition to covering international cuisine, there are eight devoted to American foods! My favorite so far is the American Cooking: Creole and Acadian due to my extraordinary love for soft shell crabs.

After that, I’ll have to move on to the Time-Life series called The Good Cook, published ten years later and edited by Richard Olney. That series has titles like Eggs and Cheese and Beef and Veal; and contributors like Jane Grigson.  Apparently, these are more focused on technique, and have plenty of recipes.

 


Alsace is not my favorite wine region in France. I like the wines, but it is rare that I’ll get as excited about an Alsace Riesling as I will about a German one. Regions like the Loire, Jura, Champagne, or Burgundy are always going to capture my attention first. However, one of my favorite french producers is making wine in Alsace. Domaine Marcel Deiss is located in the Alsace village of Bergheim, and the family has been making wine there since the mid-18th century. Jean-Michel Deiss currently runs things, and he’s been farming the vineyards biodynamically for the last 5 years. He ferments the reds and the whites very slowly in large wooden barrels with indigenous yeasts. What really sets him apart from his colleagues are his field blends of multiple grapes. Alsace, unlike most of France, labels their single-varietal wines with the name of the grape, rather than the name of the village or vineyard. There are some grand cru vineyards whose name appears on the label along with the grape variety. And there is one common blend called edelzwicker, or “noble blend.” Edelzwicker is typically a humble blend of Alsace’s noble grapes — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurtztraminer, and Muscat — grown on humble soil.

Deiss has set forth, in the name of terroir, to make noble blends out of noble grapes from noble vineyards, and label the bottle with the vineyard name only. For this he received flack from the french wine authorities, but they eventually took him back into the fold.  His Riesling and other grapes are all grown together in the vineyard, then they are collected and fermented together. My favorite of his blends is from the grand cru vineyard, Mambourg. It is a white wine cleverly composed of multiple members of the Pinot family — Pinots Blanc, Beurot, Noir, and Auxerrois. I had the pleasure of enjoying the 2000 Mambourg with some pork chops and two great friends. I think it would have been better paired with a cheese plate, because the residual sugar is quite high. Regardless, it is a haunting wine, filled with aged notes of honey and yeast and flowers. There is that sweetness, but it is more than balanced by a racy line of acid running straight through the wine. I’m also fond of his Pinot Noir / Pinot Beurot blend from the premier cru site of Burlenberg. This vineyard has limestone soil, and the wine is very reminiscent of a red Burgundy. The 2000 Burlenberg smells of minerals, woodsy decomposing earth, ripe berries, and gingerbread spices. At seven years old it was still fairly dark and dense, with a decent amount of tannin. Surprisingly, I can’t remember what I ate with it! However, on his website, Jean-Michel suggests filet de boeuf en croute aux girolles et aux figues, or beef in pastry with mushrooms and figs.

Also on his website is a complete list of the wines that he makes, divided into three categories: wines of fruit, wines of time and patience (late harvest dessert wines), and wines of terroir. His vins de fruits are a series of varietally-named wines made from the traditional Alsace grapes. He describes them as being a showcase for the grape, as well as the peculiarities of the vintage — meant to be drunk quickly and easily. His vins de terroirs  however, he describes as expressing only the terroir itself. The site determines the personality, the style, and indeed, the humanity of the wine.

 


 

There is a great opinion piece in the LA Times today, written by wine writer and champion of natural wines, Alice Feiring.  I love the opening line, because it pins down exactly my frustration with the conflict between California’s food and and wine. We have a bounty of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and properly raised meat at our fingertips, and it is near impossible to find a local wine that won’t drown out the flavor of our tomatoes and fava beans and asparagi. This is largely due to the high levels of alcohol and lack of elegance in most California wine, a byproduct of bad decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar.  She mentions Clos Roche Blanche from the Loire Valley of France as an example of a producer of real, natural wine; I think that both their Pineau d’Aunis and Sauvignon Blanc would be ideal companions for most of our California cuisine. I’m glad she also pointed out a couple California winemakers who are doing something different — Cathy Corison and Mike Dashe. Sacramento’s own Darrell Corti is a champion of Corison’s wines. He recently hosted an event pairing past vintages of her Cabernet Sauvignon with various types of beef. I’ll add another winemaker to the list: Gideon Beinstock of Clos Saron. He’s making wines as natural as you can get right here in the Sierra Foothills.

Doesn’t it seem like wine isn’t advertised on television anymore? Perhaps you’ll see the occasional Arbor Mist (it is difficult for me to call that wine) commercial, but it seems like when I was a kid there were plenty of wine ads on TV. Spirits ads are also mostly absent, whereas beer commercials are all over the place.  According to this website, one out of seventy-seven commercials are advertising beer, one out of two thousand are for wine, and one out of six thousand six hundred and sixty-six are for spirits. Strangely, this seems to be a self-imposed limit on the wine and spirits industry in this particular advertising format, as opposed to some sort of legal ban like I previously thought.

At any rate, these old television commercials are worth a laugh:

Paul Masson was known as the “Champagne King of California” and made wine in the Santa Cruz mountains around the turn of the last century. His brand persisted through most of the century. This ad campaign with Orson Welles where they promise to “…sell no wine before its time,” made that a household phrase in the 1970s. Looking at the outtakes (also found on youtube) makes it evident that Welles was quite drunk during the filming of this commercial: 

Riunite, an industrial Lambrusco that I wrote about yesterday, was also popular in the 1970’s:

McWilliams is an Australian winery, who made this strange commercial in the 1980s for their “Traminer Riesling,” which appears to be a blend of Gewurtztraminer and Riesling (rather than actual Traminer, or even Savignin which occasionally goes by the name Traminer). The animation reminds me of the Smurfs, and I think using cartoons to advertise alcoholic beverages has become taboo since then:

I know nothing about this brand, Colony, “and that’s okay”: