People ask me if my background as a chemical engineer helps me in the wine business, and in general it does. There’s a lot of chemistry involved in making wine, and fermentation on a large-winery scale is definitely a subset of biochemical engineering.
Still, I didn’t really expect to encounter hard-core engineering stuff, the kind I studied in school, in a winery. In April, while visiting wineries in southwestern France, though, I did. And in came in the form of a shape that seems totally non-engineered: the egg.
One of the winemakers I met was Pascal Dalier, from Domaine du Joncas in Montpeyroux. As he was pouring his wines, he was discussing one of his higher-end cuvées made in brand-new equipment — egg-shaped tanks made of concrete. Lots of First Vine’s producers age their wines in concrete tanks, but M. Dalier’s tanks are somewhat porous, which our producers’ tanks aren’t. So in this way they act a little like an oak barrel, which also lets a little air diffuse inside, but without the flavor of oak in the wine.
But that wasn’t what got me all techno-tingly about it, it was the shape. I actually first learned about the use of egg-shaped vessels in an engineering context more than 25 years ago, as part of water pollution control. (For some reason, the wastewater treatment thing doesn’t seem to be part of the pitch for the producers of egg-shaped wine vessels, even though they’re both about micro-organisms.)
Why would an egg shape make a difference? It turns out that it saves energy. Part of the trick of cleaning up wastewater is to keep it mixed with the microorganisms that are eating all the pollutants. Typically this is done in large tanks, and the larger the tank the more energy is required to mix everything together and keep solids from settling to the bottom. The egg shape naturally helps with mixing because the curved sides push material back toward the center from every direction. This might not seem important, but when you’re dealing with tanks that are 150 feet tall, energy for mixing is a significant thing. Reducing it reduces operating expenses.
And even when there’s no mechanical mixing, the shape promotes mixing at the micro level. Microscopic particles in liquids and gases are always in motion, they naturally move and bump into one another. This motion is called Brownian Motion, and the egg shape helps amplify it slightly and keeps liquids and solids moving.
This is why it’s so beneficial in winemaking too, because it keeps the fermented juice in contact longer with particles from the grape skins and yeast that give it flavor. Wine aging in tanks or barrels has to be mixed in order to do this. In large stainless or concrete tanks, mixing is done by machine. In oak barrels, the winemaker usually does the mixing by hand. This is called batonnage, and it affords the winemaker the opportunity to see how the wine is doing (Cécile Dusserre, the winemaker at Domaine de Montvac, also claims that it keeps her upper body in great shape). The egg shape reduces the need for batonnage — or at least means that it needs to be less intense. Not that the winemakers are concerned about saving their physical energy so much, but some are definitely interested in disturbing the wine as little as possible.
As for M. Dalier’s wine made in the egg, it was very good. I was excited to get to geek out this way, too. Of course, the engineer in me wanted to compare it to the same wine made in a different vessel of the same material but the same capacity. (I don’t expect that’ll happen anytime soon, but I definitely volunteer to be the tasting guinea pig when it does. In the name of science, of course!) While this technology is touted as one of the latest advances, it actually mirrors the shape of ancient wine amphorae, and it makes me wonder if that shape wasn’t one of the keys to good-tasting wine from the beginning. So I guess we have the answer to this which-came-first question ;-).
After this egg discussion, you’re probably expecting an egg-based recipe, and I had to think hard about it. I’ve given you recipes for souffles, a Persian egg dish, egg-based sauces, bread pudding, and ice cream, and hard-boiled egg sandwiches. So what’s left? Something for breakfast or brunch, or even a quick late-night dinner, like Eggs in Purgatory.
Eggs in Purgatory is basically eggs poached in tomato sauce, just like Huevos Rancheros is eggs poached in salsa. The “purgatory” comes in because it’s a spicy tomato sauce, which presumably causes a little burn before the creamy egg yolk cools it down. Serve it with some bread and you’re all set. But there are as many variations as there are people who make them, and you can add almost anything to Eggs in Purgatory, including sausage, onions and peppers, little meatballs, and even pasta. The key is that the sauce has to be thick, because you want to make little nests for the eggs to sit in while they poach (although some recipes use potato pancakes or portobello mushrooms as cups for the eggs to sit in while they poach, but I think that’s too much).
I think the simplest version is great, not least because it’s easy to make. My usual add-in is cheese, which is still easy. I’ve also listed a couple of others, like sausage, roasted red peppers, and leftover pasta, which don’t take more than one pan and beef up the dish a little.
I’ve talked about pairing wine with eggs before, but it’s no problem with this dish since there’s so much sauce. (Generally, the sauce makes the wine pairing for any saucy-based dish, whether it’s fish, meat, vegetables, or eggs.) You might not drink red wine with Eggs in Purgatory if you’re eating breakfast, but for brunch or dinner, open a bottle of Cave la Romaine Rouge Volupté ($12), put it in the fridge for 20 minutes, and make the eggs while it’s chilling. The Volupté is 80% Grenache, 20% Syrah. French Grenache-based wines stand up to spice because they’re earthy rather than super-tannic, and they’re delicious just a little below room temperature. By the time the eggs are ready, the wine will be too.
It’s up to you whether you think about egg-shape sludge digesters or wine vessels while you eat!
Serves 4 – 6
8 large eggs, right from the fridge
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 28-ounce can good-quality diced tomatoes (I like Muir Glen)
2 small cloves of garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper.
4 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
6 – 8 pieces toasted crusty bread
If you have a bunch of small dishes, it’s easier to crack the eggs into separate dishes before you start — that way you can pour them into place instead of getting your hands near the hot sauce trying to open the shell. If you’re pro at opening eggs, though, don’t worry.
Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet until it shimmers. Add the red pepper flakes plus some salt and pepper and cook for minute. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds, then pour in the tomatoes. Stir everything up, bring to a simmer, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for salt and pepper. Keep the sauce simmering.
Using a ladle, make 8 depressions in the sauce and gently pour an opened egg in each little nest. Tuck the mozzarella pieces around the eggs, and then top each egg with a pinch of pepper and some Parmesan cheese. Put the lid on the pan for two minutes, then remove it and continue to cook the eggs until the whites are set, about 3 more minutes. Drizzle with extra olive oil, then dish out to shallow bowls. Serve with the bread, or put the bread pieces in the bowl and put the eggs and sauce on top.
Variations: stir in 1/2 cup roasted red pepper strips that you’ve rinsed and dried with a paper towel a couple of minutes before you add the egg. Or stir in 1 to 2 cups of leftover cooked pasta. For a sausage add-in, brown 4 links of breakfast sausage in the oil. When the sausages are browned, remove them to cool on a plate for a couple of minutes and proceed with the sauce by cooking the red pepper and garlic. When you add the tomatoes, slice up the sausages and add them to the pan with the sauce to cook.