When we started this blog, I said to myself that I wouldn’t post gratuitous vacation/wine trip photos if there wasn’t a back story about a winemaker or a particular wine.
Today I’m throwing that out the window. Not because I have run out of wine stories – that’ll never happen 😉 – but I’m strapped for time this week.
It never fails: Dare and I alternate writing the blog posts, and we each manage to have to write them on the weeks when we’re busiest. Last week Dare started a new job and wrote her post. This week, Cy and I are getting married on Saturday, and my to-do list isn’t getting any shorter no matter how many phone calls I make!
So I hope you’ll bear with me. At least the pictures were all taken in a wine region. I’ll do a follow up to this entry, but then the one after that will be the lecture you’ve come to expect from me!
On to the trip. Cy and I, along with our friends Darrene and Chris, went to the Southern Rhône Valley in May to visit some of our producers. But we began and ended the trip in Lyon, which is a wonderful city. It’s rumored to have the best food in France, even better than Paris. We ate well, but it was reassuring to see that the stereotype of France having the best food in the world wasn’t necessarily true, as you can see from these photos!
We drank some of the local Lyonnais wine, and it was pretty good. Certainly cheap. Being the foodies we are, we spent an entire morning in the market, the Marché Paul Bocuse, where we found the best macarons ever. We also ate at two of Bocuse’s restaurants, which serve regional French bistro food. At Nord we had the northern French butter/cream/more butter/more cream style of food we all know and love, especially on vacation (where calories don’t count, after all). But somehow it didn’t seem greasy or heavy. Miraculously, we left under our own power and made it back to the hotel.
Then we departed for the land of olive oil and sunshine for a week.
Although we visited winemakers five out of the seven days we were in the south, all but one of them was a producer we’ve been buying from for at least a couple of years. So it was business, to be sure, but also a visit to people who are becoming our friends.
I say “becoming” because we’re just now getting to know them as people rather than businesspeople, even though we met them more than three years ago. That may seem odd to Americans, but things are a little different in France than in the U.S. While the producers are friendly and cordial, there isn’t the instant informality we have here. Even among people who are our age or younger. So we knew we’d arrived at the beginning of friendship when Valerie Chaume-Arnaud, owner and winemaker of Domaine Chaume-Arnaud, invited us to her home for lunch. It happened to be Pentecost, which is an optional holiday in France, and she invited some of her winemaker friends as well.
The setting was absolutely perfect. We ate with a view down the vineyard and Mont Ventoux in the distance. As I mentioned before, I had never seen Valerie in anything but overalls coming straight from the fields, but at home we saw another side of her. She’s as warm and welcoming as always, but it was a treat to spend time not talking business. We had a five-hour lunch, with wine from all of the winemakers at the table. Really fabulous. It was as nice a time as I’ve ever had, all the more remarkable since when we got there we only knew Valerie and her husband. But everyone was interesting to talk with and made allowances for our very bad French.
A highlight of the trip was the almost daily trek to a local farmers’ market. There’s one every day somewhere in the area. Local food and crafts, and the bigger ones have antiques and housewares too. And best of all, it was strawberry season, so we ate a lot of the local Fraises de Carpentras. It seems a little incongruous that they’d be named for the city of Carpentras, which is one of the biggest towns around, and has no strawberry patches in sight. But they’re amazing. You’d swear the vendors are sprinkling sugar on them before you buy them, but they’re just naturally sweet. And they taste like strawberries. Imagine that! We also got to eat the local cherries, and of course, freshly-made goat cheese.
We were also lucky to get the word on a great bakery in the village of Faucon. Not every little village in France has a bakery anymore. And while all the bakeries have pretty good stuff, finding the really good ones is a treat. After we got back I did some checking and found that every vacation rental in the immediate vicinity mentions its proximity to this bakery, Boulangerie des Tilleuls. It’s that good. We visited a couple of times and stuffed ourselves silly. I won’t show you any of the photos we took of ourselves there because we’ve all got powdered sugar on our clothes and faces.
And of course there was wine. We were excited to drink the excellent 2007 reds, and also intrigued to hear that the producers think that 2009 will be even better.
Next time, more wine news from the producers and some more travel pictures. Thanks for your indulgence!
This week’s recipe is a tribute to the fun and fine food we had in Provence. We stayed at a gite called Le Clos St. Michel in Malaucène, a village at the base of Mont Ventoux. Our hosts, Laurence and Eric Tabardon, grow grapes and cherries. Eric used to be the Export Manager for Cave la Romaine, the cooperative winery in Vaison la Romaine, so he and I met in 2007 when I first opened First Vine for business. This was our second stay at the Tabardon’s gite, and it’s a wonderful place. Laurence and Eric invited us for drinks one evening and Laurence made a tomato and cheese tart with basil (but no mozzarella, so Dare would probably like it too 🙂 ) The tart is simple when you use frozen puff pastry. There’s only one brand of all-butter puff pastry available in most of the U.S., it’s called Dufour and it’s worth looking for (I’ve found it here in DC at Whole Foods). Of course, great tomatoes help too, and we’re just starting tomato season at our farmers’ markets. So if you’ve run through all of Dare’s salads and are looking for something else with tomatoes, give it a try.
The tart is great warm or at room temperature. You have to slice and salt the tomatoes an hour before assembly to remove some of the liquid. Putting the Gruyere cheese on the bottom also helps waterproof the puff pastry as it melts. The key is to go light on the ingredients. I sometimes like to add a little diced fresh tomato on top along with the basil when I take the tart from the oven. You get two sheets of puff pastry in a package so it’s tempting to make two tarts at once, but if you’re not going to eat them both that day it might be better to make only one. The package directions always say to thaw the puff pastry in the fridge, but you can take it from the freezer and let it sit on the counter until it’s pliable enough to unfold and then use it right away (you have to drain the tomatoes anyway, so you’ll have time for the pastry to thaw a little more before assembly).
This simple tart goes beautifully with an elegant wine, like Valerie’s Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Vinsobres ($18) or something a little more rustic like her Le Petit Coquet ($13). Both are tasty reds, perfect with a range of different foods, and great on their own too. Pick your nicest view, set up a little table in the shade, and survey your own domain (or Domaine, if you’ve got one) with the taste of summer.
Serves 6 with drinks, 4 as appetizer
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed enough to open it without cracking at the folds
2 large ripe tomatoes, cored
salt and freshly-ground pepper
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
2 to 3 ounces fresh goat cheese or Feta cheese
Handful of fresh basil
Open the puff pastry and set it on a baking sheet. With a small, sharp knife, score a border 1/2-inch from the edge of the pastry, going about halfway into the pastry. Measure the dimensions of the pastry inside the border (you’ll see why in a minute), then sprinkle the Gruyere evenly inside the border. Set the pastry aside in the fridge, uncovered.
Slice the cored tomatoes about 1/8-inch thick. Put a triple thickness of paper towels on a large plate, and lay the tomato slices on the towels, overlapping slightly, to make a square or rectangle of tomato slices about the same dimensions as the area inside the border of the pastry. You may have some slices left over, you can set them aside for garnish if you want (or eat them immediately!). Sprinkle about a teaspoon of salt over the tomatoes and let them sit for an hour.
Take an additional rimmed baking sheet at least as big as the one holding the pastry. A half hour into the tomato resting time, put the sheet upside down on a rack in the middle of the oven, then preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. You can also use a baking stone, but allow at least 45 minutes of preheating.
Using additional paper towels, blot the tomatoes dry. Don’t be afraid to press on them, they can take it! Lay the tomato slices over the pastry in more or less the same pattern as they were on the plate, staying within the border of the pastry. Sprinkle with some ground black pepper. Break off small pieces of the cheese and scatter them evenly across the tart. Carefully put the baking sheet containing the tart in the oven on the upside-down baking sheet. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the border puffs and browns nicely, and you see a little color on the cheese. Remove from the oven, and scatter torn fresh basil leaves over the top. If you like, you can chop some of the extra tomato slices and sprinkle them on too.