(Originally sent June 25, 2009)
One of the things we like best about visiting our winemakers is taking in the history of nearby villages. Some have medieval buildings and fortifications that are nearly a thousand years old. As Americans, we’re star-struck by structures like these still in use in people’s daily lives and not just museum pieces. In the Southern Rhône Valley, many of them were built by the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar have intrigued people since the order began. The past decade has seen a resurgence of interest thanks to The Da Vinci Code and its predecessors and knock-offs, some of them labeled as fiction and some non-fiction, with lots of claims and stories. But whatever super-secret activities the Knights were up to, the documented history is fascinating and shows that the Templars were instrumental in developing international banking, multinational militias, city planning, and the tourism industry too.
The order was supposedly created in 1119 by two crusaders who saw the opportunity for a business venture protecting Christian pilgrims coming to visit the recently-captured (or was that “liberated”) Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem’s not far from the Mediterranean coast, the journey wasn’t easy, because while the city was in church hands, the rest of what is now Israel wasn’t. The church realized that the more (wealthy) pilgrims who visited Jerusalem, the greater the response to the call to keep it in Christian hands would be. Within a year, the king of Jerusalem officially recognized the order and gave them land on the Temple Mount inside the city, built on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple. This led to the order’s name: Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, shortened to Knights Templar, or Knights of the Temple.
The Knights may have started out poor, but that didn’t last long. Wealthy landowners gave lavishly to finance the Knights’ military operations, generating significant income that enabled the Knights to become an advance force in subsequent crusades (a good way for nobility to demonstrate piety without the bother of fighting themselves). Another arm of the order developed because of the donations as well – after all, someone had to manage the donated land and optimize its income-generating potential. The Knights were made exempt from local laws in 1139, which allowed them to consolidate their power and extend local control without interference.
The Knights were arguably very good managers in some ways. They built new infrastructure (churches, roads, bridges), facilitated trade, managed farms and vineyards, and integrated themselves into daily life throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. They also standardized winemaking techniques and greatly improved the quality of local wine. As their presence and wealth expanded, they created the forerunner of international banking. Landowners who wanted to go off and fight in the crusades (or who were coerced as the battles dragged on and on) put their land in trust to the Knights, both for management and as collateral. Beginning in 1150, the Knights issued letters of credit that the crusaders could use to get money from Templar orders along the way to Jerusalem. The idea was that the crusaders would be able to repay the Knights through plunder and payment for the return of hostages. And it didn’t stop with the crusades, not when there were so many intra-European skirmishes from which to profit.
This turned out to be the Knights’ undoing. As we know, the crusades were a bust for the church in the end, and the decline of the order’s military operations meant that their militia was free to roam. Soldiers with nothing to do began expressing interest in creating their own Templar state. With many of the European nobility in their debt, especially French nobility, the Knights became a threat to the status quo. In 1307, King Philip IV of France, deeply in hock to the Templars for financing his war against England, pressed the church to disband the order, under the guise of a charge of heresy resulting from the Templar’s supposedly secretive ways. Since the Pope was the King’s prisoner nearby in Avignon, there wasn’t a whole lot of debate on the issue. Virtually overnight, Knights Templar members were seized, tortured, their holdings taken, and within seven years they disappeared.
The Knights Templar left a legacy of buildings and wine in Southern France, and that legacy is still visible today in Villedieu, a village in the northern Vaucluse. Villedieu’s Templar church and fortifications are still in use. One end of the wall forms the edge of what must be the most charming village square in all of Provence. Visit on Sunday evening and stay for dinner; practically the whole town will be there. You can get take-out from local restaurants or the pizza truck, and the bar on the square will serve wine from the cooperative winery in town. If you want a bit of water between wines, fill your glass from the old fountain in the square and drink up. As night falls, the lighting in the square illuminates the plane trees and casts beautiful shadows on the Templar wall and church. You can almost picture yourself back in time, at least a little bit!
Our recipe is an homage to the pizza truck in Villedieu and a variation on the classic French Pissaladière, an onion tart. The tart is usually made with pie dough or puff pastry, but that makes it awfully rich (which is why it’s almost always served as an appetizer in small pieces). The ingredients – sautéed onions with thyme, black olives, and optional anchovies and capers – make a great base for a pizza, and we add a little diced tomato and some cheese. If you have a good local pizza maker who will sell you pizza dough, go and buy some. The dough for a large New York-style pizza will make two of these (although you’ll have to bake them one at a time unless you have two ovens and enough of the right equipment).
The trick is not to overload the pizzas with ingredients so they get crispy on the bottom. The olives, anchovies, and capers cut the richness of the onions, so be sure to use at least two of the three. The goat cheese adds a nice tang, and the parmesan and the mozzarella, fontina, or gruyere make it more like a pizza. If you don’t want to bother with the dough at all, get some good rustic bread and cut it into thin slices. Then put on the ingredients and bake until they’re just the way you like them. They’ll be tartines instead of pizza, but equally delicious.
Either way, we can help to make it a real Villedieu experience: fresh off the boat, we have the Cuvée des Templiers white and red wines from the coop in Villedieu. Named for Villedieu’s Templar associations, the wines were first vine’s best sellers for the past two years. You cleaned us out, but now they’re back! The 2008 white is a mixture of White Grenache, Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Marsanne/Roussanne. It’s light, crisp, has a little floral nose, fabulous. The 2007 red is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Carignan, and Cinsault. It’s light-bodied and perfect with everyday foods. At $10, they may be the best wine bargains around. And you won’t have to mortgage your life to the Knights Templar to get them!
Pizza à la Pissaladière
Makes two 8- or 9-inch round pizzas, serves 8 as an appetizer, or 4 as a main course with salad
Pizza dough for a large New York-style pizza
2 large red onions, peeled, cut in half, then sliced thinly
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil (plus more for drizzling)
2 branches fresh thyme
Salt and pepper
Pinch of red pepper flakes
About 20 medium-sized brine-cured black olives (such as Kalamata), pitted and cut in half
6-8 anchovy fillets in oil, drained, rinsed, and blotted dry, then broken in half (optional)
2 tablespoons small capers in brine, drained and blotted dry
1 medium tomato, cut in half, seeded, then diced
About 4 ounces fresh goat cheese (chevre), crumbled into small pieces
About a half cup shredded fontina, gruyere, or mozzarella (the supermarket kind, not fresh mozzarella)
One-quarter cup grated parmesan cheese
Fine cornmeal, plus some flour for sprinkling the work surface
Directions: divide the pizza dough in two, form each half into a ball and then wrap in plastic to rest at room temperature for at least a half hour. Place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. If you have a pizza stone, put it on the rack. If not, place a baking sheet at least 11 inches wide in the oven (if it’s a baking sheet with sides, put it upside-down so it makes a flat surface). Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F for 30 to 45 minutes if you’re using the stone, 20 minutes if you’re using the baking sheet.
Melt the butter in a skillet and add the 3 tb of olive oil. Add the onions, with some salt and pepper, (not too much salt), and the branches of thyme. Sauté until the onions are very soft and just beginning to brown. Remove the thyme branches and set aside.
Take a piece of parchment paper and sprinkle it well with cornmeal. Lightly flour the counter. Unwrap one of the balls of dough and put it on the counter. Start pressing down on the ball using your knuckles about a half inch from the edge. Continue around and moving toward the center until you have a flat disk that has slightly raised edges. Then pick up the disk and put one fist under the center. The dough will start to stretch around your hand. Using your other hand to hold the disk, move your fist around to allow the dough to stretch all over except the very edge. You can pull on the dough very gently to encourage it, but not too much or it will shrink back. You should end up with a circle about 9 inches in diameter that’s thin in the middle and a little thicker on the edge.
Put the round of dough on the cornmeal-covered parchment. Leaving a small border, top with half the onion mixture, half the olives, capers, tomato, and anchovies (if you’re using them). Drop half the crumbles of goat cheese evenly on top, then sprinkle on half the parmesan and half the other cheese you’re using. Carry the parchment near the oven carefully using both hands. Put it down, then quickly open the oven door, grab the parchment, and put the whole thing with the pizza on top of the baking stone or baking sheet. Close the oven door and bake for 8-12 minutes, until the edges of the dough are nicely browned and the cheese has melted to your liking. Take it out (including the parchment), let the oven heat up for 5 minutes and then repeat with the other round (you can get it ready while the first one is in the oven). Drizzle the pizzas with a little fresh olive oil before serving.
For the tartines, line a baking sheet with parchment and then put the bread slices on. Top with the ingredients and bake. You should still use the preheated baking stone or baking sheet to get the bottom of the bread slices nicely crusted.