I grew up in New England, which is history central for the English-centric version of the origins of the U.S. But my actual education in colonial history was spotty. Luckily, by the time I took an interest in U.S. history as an adult, we were entering what will probably be called a golden age of historical biography. As we hear voices and viewpoints that we might not have 20 or 30 years ago, we’re also in the midst of archaeological discoveries that shed light on daily life in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.
In the DC area, with Mount Vernon and Monticello nearby, we’ve learned a lot more about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The emerging portraits of Jefferson and Monticello also coincided with a huge expansion of the Virginia wine industry. So Jefferson has become the new/old face of Virginia wines: grape grower, wine maker, wine appreciator, and all. (Washington, who owned a whiskey distillery, will probably emerge as a symbol of craft spirits in the near future.)
Jefferson’s love for European wines was already well-known. Still, there’s a lot to learn about it. Earlier this summer I was pitching wines from the Gaillac region of southwestern France to a colleague. Part of their appeal is their relative rarity here in the U.S., and even in France. So I was surprised when my colleague told me he’d read about Jefferson having Gaillac wines in his collection, both in Paris and at Monticello.
In 2006, John Hailman published Thomas Jefferson on Wine, a book based on Jefferson’s own writings and household accounts. For five years, Jefferson served as the American minister in Paris. During that time, he took two long – and incognito – trips visiting wineries. The first trip included Burgundy, southwestern France, and Bordeaux, as well as Spain and northern Italy. Hailman describes finding wines from Gaillac in the inventory of Jefferson’s Paris wine cellar from April 1787. Jefferson ordered more Gaillac wine once he was back in the U.S., and the wine arrived in casks shipped through Bordeaux.
I was surprised to read about it, because even today Gaillac is difficult to get to. Its remoteness made it a stronghold for religious heretics all the way back to the 10th century. And the wines reflect that isolation. While Syrah probably came to the region with the Romans (who seemed to be able to go anywhere, regardless of terrain), the red wines are also made from Duras and Braucol, both indigenous varietals. The whites are made from Muscadelle, which was a very early import to the region, Loin de L’oeil, and Mauzac (which also made its way into the Languedoc from Gaillac). Other regions of France have their own varietals too, but the large number in a small geographic area makes Gaillac wines unique.
So I decided to do some reading on Gaillac wines and Jefferson’s collecting. While the Gaillac region had exported pottery since at least the third century BC, Gaillac wines also later made their way along the pottery trade routes – in locally-made amphorae that have since been found all over Europe. But I learned some fun facts I hadn’t known before about the history of Gaillac wines.
Apparently, today’s rarity wasn’t always the case. There are mentions of Gaillac wines in the British Isles as far back as the 13th century. The Gaillac region belonged to Elinor of Aquitaine in the 12th and early 13th centuries. She married Henry II of England, which is probably how the wine made it across the channel. (If you’ve seen the movie “The Lion in Winter” you’ll definitely remember Katharine Hepburn as Elinor). The wine’s reputation in England was sealed three centuries later by the 1520 meeting between Henry VIII and François I. At the “Cloth of Gold,” in a field near Calais, François presented Henry with 50 barrels of Gaillac wine. Evidently Henry liked it, and shipments to England increased. Bordeaux wine merchants saw their exports diminish, and levied a toll on Gaillac wines passing through their port in the mid-16th century. While the resulting drop in consumption reduced production levels, it forced the winemakers of Gaillac to focus on quality over quantity.
By the time Jefferson would have tasted Gaillac wines, the high-quality production had been going on for more than 200 years. During his first wine trip, Jefferson stopped overnight in Montauban while making his way from Toulouse to Bordeaux. Since Montauban is just downriver from Gaillac, and an important city for river transport, it’s likely that Jefferson had Gaillac wines there, if he hadn’t already tasted them in Paris.
The quality reputation continued through the mid-19th century, until the phylloxera epidemic hit the region hard. Recovery was slow, but steady. The French government, in the 20th century, tried to encourage growers all over France to replace indigenous varietals with international ones (like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay) in order to compete overseas, but this didn’t catch on in Gaillac. Perhaps it was another example of the ancient resistance to authority, but the region stuck with its own wines.
It’s easy to imagine that Jefferson would appreciate the region’s independence in wine production. Particularly since the wine today is made with the same grapes he tasted in the 18th century. I have to admit, it gives me a little thrill to import wine connecting Jefferson, Henry VIII, and Elinor of Aquitaine. Not bad for an engineering major who picked up history on his own, is it?
I’ve written about Domaine la Croix des Marchands, the Gaillac winery, and Jérome Bezios, the owner and winemaker, in a previous post. But both Jérome’s wine selection and ours have changed since 2011. We still carry the Galliac Rouge, a medium-bodied red made from equal parts Syrah, Duras, and Braucol. There’s a unique light earthiness in this wine that’s different from Rhône wines – in Rhône wines it’s the Grenache that’s the earthy grape, but here it’s from the Braucol. Also, the Syrah isn’t the bigger-bodied, spicy kind you’d find elsewhere, but it has a good ripe fruitiness. The 2012 vintage ($13) is the latest one available. The Gaillac Blanc Sec I described before has been replaced by a white called Fraîcheur Perlée. The name is traditional for the region, and refers to the light tingle on the tongue you get when you drink it. It’s equal parts Mauzac, Muscadelle, and Loin de L’oeil, aged in steel. The 2014 vintage ($12) is also in taller, thinner bottles like Alsatian wines – which means they don’t easily fit in wine boxes – but they’re appropriate for the wine. When Cy and I visited Alsace in 2009, every winery had its own proprietary mix of grapes for a blend, and the Fraîcheur Perlée very much reminds me of those Alsatian wines.
We’re also carrying Jérome’s Vieilles Vignes, from vines that are at least 40 years old. Equal parts Syrah and Braucol, and lightly aged in oak, it’s a bigger-bodied red that can still pair with some lighter foods like roast chicken. The 2012 vintage ($17) has a hint of mushroom aroma, at least to me. Finally, we have Jérome’s Méthode Ancestrale sparkling wines. The Brut (2014, $18) has a bit of residual sugar, as allowed by law, but it’s only very lightly sweet. The Demi-Sec (2010, $18) is sweeter but not cloying, an older vintage that’s still delicious. We’ll be getting the 2014 early next year. I’ll talk about these naturally-sparkling wines in a future post, but they’re fascinating – a glimpse into how sparkling wine was made hundreds of years before the Dom Perignon legend began.
When Cy and I visited Jérome in 2011, he made us a pork stew cooked in red wine, a recipe from his grandmother. He told me his grandmother would use wild boar meat in the stew when she had it, just cut into smaller pieces. She also made the stew with wild rabbit, something I’m going to try next time I can get my hands on one.
During lunch, I spoke with him and his staff about the local cuisine. They all mentioned a dish that they’d had since childhood: savory pancakes called Rouzole. I looked them up in a regional cookbook and found that the name probably comes from the verb roussir, which means to singe or scorch. They’re very brown on the top and bottom. The pancakes contain bacon and are traditionally also made with leftover ham or roast pork. You can also use leftover turkey, which I’m sure you have around this time of year. What makes them different from typical savory pancakes or crepes is that the batter is a mixture of fresh breadcrumbs, milk and eggs instead of using flour. Naturally, people used to use leftover bread, so the whole dish is really about using up what you have around.
Jérome’s assistant winemaker referred me to a particular recipe, and I’ve adapted it here to make it easier. They key is to get the bacon and the ham, pork, or turkey, very cold so you can chop them into small pieces without them turning into a pasty glob. You can also dice them and then put them on a plate in the freezer, then when they’re half frozen, pulse them in the food processor.
You’ll also have to cook them one at a time, in a small, non-stick skillet. They need the structure of the pan sides to set up, otherwise they just run all over the place. I have one that’s about 5 inches across the bottom and a little less than 8 across the top, that’s a pretty standard size.
Rouzole are traditionally served with soup, so if you have some vegetable or lentil soup, they’d be a good accompaniment. They’re also served as bar food, and you can make them smaller by cooking them on a griddle using crumpet rings (assuming you have them, of course). Serve them with either one of Jérome’s red wines, and enjoy!
Makes 4 pancakes
8 ounces firm white bread (about 8 slices), crusts cut off, and torn into small pieces
1 cup milk
¼ pound very lean bacon (about 4 thick slices), cut into ¾-inch pieces
¾ pound diced ham, roast pork, or cooked turkey (around 1-1/2 to 2 cups)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons butter
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F, and spray a baking sheet with cooking spray. Set it aside.
Mix the meat and bacon and spread out on a dinner plate. Put the plate, uncovered, in the freezer for about 20 minutes. You want the meat to be very firm, about half frozen through.
Meanwhile, mix the bread and milk in a medium-sized bowl and let it sit for 15 minutes. Put the eggs in a large bowl and beat until well-mixed. Using your hands, gently squeeze the excess milk from the bread. You don’t want to wring the bread out, just not have it dripping wet. Put the squeezed bread in the bowl with the eggs. Add the herbs, salt, and pepper.
Take half the meat mixture and put it in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the semi-frozen meat is chopped into very small pieces, no larger than 1/8-inch. Add the chopped meat to the bowl with the other ingredients, and repeat with the rest of the meat.
Stir everything together. Melt ¼ of the butter in a small non-stick skillet (about 5 inches at the bottom, 8 inches at the top) that you’ve heated over medium-low heat. Scoop out ¾ cup of well-mixed batter and pour into the skillet. Spread the mixture to make it even, and cook until the bottom is well-browned, about 5-6 minutes. Gently turn it over using a wide spatula, or slide it onto a small plate and invert back into the skillet. Cook until the bottom is browned. Then transfer the pancake to the greased baking sheet and put it in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining 3 pancakes.