S is for silent

Cécile Dusserre, owner and winemaker of Domaine de Montvac, was featured in Le Point in 2011.  She makes great wines and justifiably receives lots of accolades.

Cécile Dusserre, owner and winemaker of Domaine de Montvac, was featured in Le Point in 2011. She makes great wines and justifiably receives lots of accolades.

In a second look at some of the most popular search terms leading people to this blog, I was surprised to see that a bunch of people wanted to know about French pronunciation.

Specifically, about how to pronounce the names of certain towns in France that end in “s.” While for most French words ending in s the s is silent, it’s not always the case for proper nouns, including village names.   It turns out that in the south of France, and in villages with wine that First Vine imports, there are plenty of village names ending in a non-silent s.

Four years ago I wrote a profile of one of our producers, Cécile Dusserre, who makes excellent wine from grapes that come from both Vacqueyras and Gigondas. And, more or less as a throwaway, I included the fact that you pronounce the final s in both of them. From a blog hit perspective, it was a very good thing, since lots of people want to know about it.

When Cy and I began regular visits to the southern Rhône Valley, we were surprised to hear the final s in Vacqueyras and Gigondas — before that, I’d only heard them pronounced the way you think they would be in French, without the s. Even by U.S. wine merchants who were selling wines from those villages. We also visited Nyons, another village with an audible s at the end (and the olive capital of France). All three of these villages are within 20 km or so of one another. But in that same area, you’ll also find silent s names like Vinsobres, Puyméras, Baumes de Venise, Sarrians, Ste Cécile les Vignes, and Carpentras. So there’s no way of knowing a priori how to say any of them.

A map of some southern Rhône wine villages.  Guess which ones end in a silent s!

A map of some southern Rhône wine villages. Guess which ones end in a silent s!

It’s not just the southern Rhône valley that has these anomalies. Go north and you’ll come to Valréas (pronounced Val-RAZE). To the west, in Aveyron and the Languedoc you’ll hear Rodez pronounced with the z (not Ro-day, the way you’d think the French would pronounce it) and Pézenas with the s (not Pe-ze-nah).  I’m sure there are a lot more of them I don’t know anything about.

The reason for all this is that many of these names aren’t French in origin. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French became the only language allowed in public primary schools in the country. Before that, you’d find all sorts of different regional languages spoken.   In the 1950s, the French government began recognizing regional languages as part of the country’s heritage. But they clearly were spoken all along. Cy and I have found that people we’ve met there — and their parents and grandparents — still speak languages such as Alsatian, Occitan, and Provençal. We even saw a local newspaper in Occitan, which was pretty neat except that we couldn’t figure out a single word.

Some village names have been Frenchified over the years, and when you drive through them you may see signs indicating the name history. In Vaison-la-Romaine, for example, you’ll see that the town was called Visun, which got changed to a more French-sounding Vaison. (The la Romaine was added later, because of the town’s Roman ruins that are a major attraction). But others kept their earlier names and pronunciations, so you get the uncharacteristic final s sound with some of them.

As someone who started learning French only when I began the wine business, I found French pronunciation rules pretty difficult to remember at first. Of course, I can only imagine it’s worse for people learning English as anything but a first language. But after Spanish and German, both of which are pretty much “pronounce it the way it looks” kind of languages, French was a challenge.   I’m happy to say that no one in southern France gave a single grimace when we mispronounced the names of their villages — they seemed to be glad we were making the effort at all. Still, if you’re going to visit, it’s nice to get the names right. The locals will be even happier to see you if you do.


Vaison-la-Romaine was apparently once named Visun, but the name became the more French-like Vaison.  The "la Romane" part was added later to call attention to the village's plentiful Roman ruins.

Vaison-la-Romaine was apparently once named Visun, but the name became the more French-like Vaison. The “la Romane” part was added later to call attention to the village’s plentiful Roman ruins.

While I’m set to order more of Cécile Dusserre’s wine in the spring, we still have some of her 2005 Vacqueras and Gigondas wines left. It was a year that gave more than the usual amounts of tannins and the wines took a while to soften up. The tannins also gave them greater longevity, though, and preserved the very rich fruit and earthy tobacco flavors. The wines are interesting and complex, but thoroughly drinkable. The Vacqueyras ($22) and Gigondas ($27) are both 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre, although the Gigondas is aged in oak while the Vacqueyras is aged in concrete tanks. The Vincila ($24) is a special cuvée that’s 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, aged in oak.

When I profiled Mlle Dusserre, I included a recipe for beef stew. It’s a good one, but my recipe has evolved a little. (You can also see the original here.) Since then, I’ve tried tweaking things and also making other recipes, and the result is even tastier. The biggest change came from trying America’s Test Kitchen’s (ATK) recipe, which doesn’t require any browning on the stove. I liked the flavor, but found the meat was too tough even with long cooking and following the recipe exactly. But they did one thing that was really ingenious. Since you have to cut up a large beef chuck roast to get the two-inch cubes for the stew, you’ll end up with probably 25% of the original piece as scraps. Instead of discarding them, ATK browns them and uses them to flavor the stew. So you’re getting the flavor of four pounds of beef even though you’re only eating three.

The trick is to tie the browned scraps in a big piece of cheesecloth along with some carrot, onion and herbs, and add them to the stew as it cooks. I tried it without the cheesecloth, but then it’s tough to tell the scraps from the actual meat pieces. I used ATK’s method of browning them in the oven as I was prepping everything else so I didn’t have to spend even more time at the stove browning. (As someone who wears glasses, I can tell you there’s nothing like browning meat to get little blobs of grease all over the lenses. Especially since there’s a lot of fat in the scraps.  Gives you bleary vision whether you’re tired or not.) While the scraps were in the oven, I also roasted carrots and parsnips to add at the end, it made for tastier vegetables that didn’t fall apart.

Neither the original recipe nor the updated one is what you’d call easy cooking, but the individual steps aren’t difficult. It’s just that there’s a lot of them. But you can do the whole thing a few days ahead and reheat it. And it feeds a crowd. Nothing says festive like a pot of stew!

Bon Appetit!


Beef Stew Chez Moi, Revisited

Serves 6 with plenty of leftovers

3 pounds boneless beef chuck roast, cut into two-inch pieces — cut from a 4 to 4-1/2 pound roast, trimmings reserved and cut into smaller pieces

3 slices thick-cut bacon, diced

6 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional if necessary

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 bottle light- to medium-bodied red wine (for example, see our Everyday Reds page)

8 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

6 large fresh bay leaves

Fresh thyme and rosemary

2 red bell peppers

3 strips of fresh orange peel, cut from an orange with a vegetable peeler

4 carrots, peeled and cut into six to eight equally-sized pieces each

2 parsnips, peeled and cut into six to eight equally-sized pieces each

2 large onions (see recipe for treatment), plus 1 medium onion, chopped

1 pound whole Cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed

1 cup pitted black olives (such as Kalamata or Niçoise)

1 14-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 cup beef broth or stock (canned is fine)

Equipment: a large piece of cheesecloth, at least 2 feet square, a roasting pan, a large Dutch oven with a lid, and a rimmed baking sheet

The night before:  combine the beef, about a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, four of the garlic cloves, two of the bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme and rosemary, and the wine in a bowl or plastic bag.  Mix well, cover or seal, and refrigerate overnight.  You can also roast the peppers ahead any way you like to do it (I put them right on the gas burner to get them charred all over, then put them in a bowl covered with plastic until they cool off.  Peel off the charred skin, then core them and slice the peppers and refrigerate).

The next day:  preheat the oven to 400 degrees F, with two racks set in the lower third of the oven.  Use 2 tablespoons of the oil to oil the bottom of the roasting pan, then put in the beef scraps and bacon pieces. Put the pieces of parsnips and two of the four carrots on the baking sheet and toss with 4 tablespoons of oil plus a little salt and pepper. Put the roasting pan on the top rack and the baking sheet on the lower rack and roast for 40 minutes, stirring two or three times until everything is nicely browned.

While the scraps and vegetables are roasting, strain the marinade, reserving the liquid but discarding everything else except the beef.  Combine the marinade with the beef stock, bring to a boil, and turn to a very low simmer.  Cut off the top end of the two large onions leaving the root end on, then peel off the skin and just barely shave the root end off.  Cut each onion lengthwise in half and then each half into thirds, making 12 wedges that hold together by the root end. Dry the beef pieces with paper towels.

Remove the roasting pan and baking sheet from the oven and lower the heat to 325 degrees F. Using a slotted spoon, remove the browned beef scraps and bacon pieces to a bowl that you’ve lined with the piece of cheesecloth. Carefully pour the fat from the roasting pan into the Dutch oven — you should have about 6 tablespoons (use a little oil if you need it). Add the chopped onion and the pieces of 2 carrots to the beef scraps in the bowl, along with a couple of sprigs each of thyme and rosemary. Tie the ends of the cheesecloth together to make a bundle.

The roasting pan should have some nice browned bits on the bottom. Put it over a burner and turn the heat to medium. Add about 1-1/2 cups of the simmering marinade and scrape the bottom of the roasting pan to deglaze it. Pour the liquid from the roasting pan back into the pot with the rest of the marinade.

Heat the fat in the Dutch oven and brown the meat on two sides of each piece using medium-high heat, doing just enough not to crowd the pan and thoroughly browning the beef on those two sides.  Remove the beef to a plate as it browns, and add more oil if necessary to brown all the meat. Put the onion wedges in the pan and brown them for a few minutes on each cut side, then remove them.

Pour off the fat from the Dutch oven. Add the wine mixture and gently scrape the bottom of the pan. Put the cheesecloth bundle in and make sure it’s completely submerged, then move it to one side of the pot. Add the beef and any juices on the plate, olives, roasted peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, the four remaining bay leaves, the orange zest, a couple of sprigs of thyme and rosemary, the remaining garlic cloves, a teaspoon of salt, and a few grinds of pepper.  Stir gently to mix.  Bring to a simmer, then cover the pot and put it in the oven for 3 hours.  Stir it up gently halfway through.

Remove the pot from the oven. Carefully remove the cheesecloth bundle, and use a pair of tongs to squeeze all the liquid out of it that you can. Discard the bundle. Add the browned carrots, onions, and parsnips to the pot and heat gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it sit for another 20 minutes. Skim off as much fat from the surface as you’d like to, and serve.

This entry was posted in Cécile Dusserre, Domaine de Montvac, Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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