Not to get all la-dee-dah on you, but we just got back from visiting a couple of our wine producers in France. Yes, we had great food and of course great wine, but the best thing is always the conversation, even when we have to use our pathetic French. One of the topics was organic and biodynamic wines, and our producers wanted to know what Americans thought of them. It occurred to us that while most people have at least a vague idea of what organic farming is, biodynamic production is something new to most of us. So here’s a bit of information on both. (Prepare for denser-than-usual reading. If you’re not up for it, just skip to the fabulous recipe at the end!)
Organic production is relatively straightforward, even if the rules can be a bit loosey-goosey, and it’s regulated by government authorities in the U.S. and other countries. (The U.S. doesn’t necessarily recognize other countries’ organic certifications, but that’s another story.) In general, organic crops are grown without the use of synthetic chemicals, and in ground that has been free from use of those chemicals for a minimum period of time. As we mentioned last month, French and Italian wine producers who want to follow the rules of their winemaking authorities don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and they don’t irrigate. So they’re part of the way to organic production. Although they don’t all use it, wine grape producers in some parts of France are allowed to use a fungicide if needed, especially if there’s a lot of rain in May and June. (The vines can go moldy in a couple of days, ruining the crop for the year.) It’s possible to avoid using fungicides depending on how you tie your vines to the wires that support them – and some producers do this, avoiding the use of fungicide entirely. Still, they may not want to apply for organic certification because they want to be able to use the fungicide if they need it. (By the way, organic wines can contain sulfites in small quantities. They’re added as preservatives to keep the wine from oxidizing during the winemaking process.)
Biodynamic production isn’t regulated, but it ultimately implies being more responsive to the environment and life in general. While there are independent organizations that certify biodynamic producers, there isn’t a universally agreed-upon definition. At its best, biodynamics preserves the traditions that developed through generations of farming and observing nature. It makes sense to us to look to other plants for warning signs of how your grapes are doing. Or that you can fine-tune natural fertilizer from the dung of animals that feed on particular parts of plants. (Like animals that eat roots if you want to strengthen your vines’ root systems.) Or even that electric motors and pumps might have a perceptible impact on the wine, so that you can design the winemaking process with gravity feed to avoid using them more than necessary (and additionally, use little or no sulfites). But at its extreme, there seems to us to be more mysticism. Like the idea that proper farming and harvesting is done by the phases of the moon. Or that the geographic orientation of your buildings has an impact on the wine. (After all, it’s just as plausible that moonlight was essential for “traditional” farming back before we had machines to get it all done during the day. And geographic orientation could have been a response to prevailing winds for controlling temperature.)
There is a potential problem with wine labeled as organic and biodynamic, that both can be used as marketing gimmicks that have nothing to do with quality. If producers follow the spirit as well as the letter of organic and biodynamic farming, the wine is more expensive to produce, at least initially, so it commands a higher price. But organic labeling allows the use of non-organic content in products and may allow producers to apply treatments to plants that might not be totally safe for human health or the environment in the long run. And evidently you can claim that you’re farming biodynamically if you say you pay attention to what the moon’s doing. Unless you know how the wine is really made, you can end up paying more for something that’s just not what you think it is.
So what’s a new-age, nouveau-hippie enviro guy or gal to do? Why, look to first vine, of course, because we know our producers and how they make their wines, and we select them based on quality. We love a good story as much as anyone, but there are limits. Rest assured, we’ll never stick you with wine from grapes someone claims to have grown in the shadow of a monthly interpretive moon dance, unless the dancers are really cute and scantily clad – then you’ll just pay more
On to the recipe. While in Paris, (are you getting ready to kill us for tossing that in?) we decided that we’d had enough of the traditional brasserie look; you know, the casual shabbiness surrounded by wood paneling, brass railings, and old cigarette ads on the walls. Nothing against the food in these places, which is often stunning. But being the new-age, nouveau-hippie enviros we are, we also craved something a little more modern-looking. So on our walk back from the Eiffel Tower (now are you ready to kill us?) we stopped at Café Central on Rue Cler, which is a food market street nearby. Café Central looks modern-ish and serves traditional food, all of it good, but there was one dish that stood out: Oeuf “en Cocotte,” which was a small terrine containing two poached eggs sitting in a mushroom sauce, topped with thin slices of foie gras pâté. The terrine lid kept in the heat, softening and nearly melting the pâté. Oh, my. Needless to say, there wasn’t any of that left over.
The recipe below is our version. The sauce is a soup adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s mushroom soup recipe. You can make both the soup and the poached eggs ahead, and can substitute vegetable broth for the chicken stock if you like. If you don’t eat foie gras, you can substitute a good vegetable or mild fish terrine as long as it isn’t flavored with something that would clash (like too much dill or fennel). Or even slices of roasted eggplant. Serve it with a salad and good bread, and open a bottle of Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Granges Rouges. It’s made from 100% Grenache, and brings out the earthiness of the mushrooms. Valerie Chaume-Arnaud farms organically and harvests by hand. She hasn’t applied for organic certification, but her wines are better than many we’ve tried with the organic label. As far as we know, she doesn’t dance in the fields under the moon, but if she does, we like the results!
Dare & Tom
ps — In the wine column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Dave McIntyre talked about the quality and value of Southern Rhône wines, which, of course, you first vine customers already know. Take a look at the article and, if you have a chance, click on comment and suggest which of your favorite first vine selections he ought to try. We’ll put together a package of your favorites for him!
Poached Eggs in Mushroom Soup with Foie Gras
Serves 6 as an appetizer, 4 as a main course
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms (a little more than one cup)
One half cup dry white wine, heated with one half cup water
One and a half pounds (24 ounces) fresh mushrooms, preferably a mix of shiitake, cremini, and other flavorful mushrooms, stems trimmed if they’re tough (a must for shiitakes)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 onions, finely diced (about 2 cups or so)
One-half teaspoon sugar
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Three and a half cups chicken stock, homemade if you have it, low-sodium if you use canned
One half cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
6 to 8 poached eggs, depending on how many servings you’d like (you can do these ahead and put them in ice water in the fridge a day ahead, reheat by putting them in hot tap water)
6 to 8 thin slices of foie gras pâté or terrine de foie gras (check the ingredients, you want one that doesn’t have much other than foie gras in it), at room temperature
Break the porcini into small pieces, and if they look gritty, rinse them under cold water. Place them in a bowl with the hot wine/water mixture, cover the bowl, and let the mushrooms soak for 45 minutes or so. Lift them out of the liquid, squeeze them over the bowl to remove excess liquid, and chop them. Strain the liquid through a coffee filter or cheesecloth to remove the dirt and set aside.
Slice about a quarter of the mushrooms and set them aside, chop the rest of them (the food processor works well for this). Melt the butter in a large saucepan, and sauté the onions with the sugar over medium heat, until they’re golden brown, about 15 minutes. Add all the mushrooms and sauté for another 10 minutes or so; they’ll release liquid and then much of that liquid will evaporate away. Stir in the flour and 1 teaspoon of salt plus some pepper, and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the wine/water mixture and stir until smooth, then add the stock and keep stirring until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the cream, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.
To serve, divide the soup among bowls that are deep enough to hold the ingredients below the rim, then put one or two poached eggs in each bowl. Put a slice of the pate on each egg, then put a plate over each bowl for a minute to melt the pate slightly.