Grappling with Grapes

French wine harvest 2017 set for ‘historic low’ after frost, Italy faces ‘one of smallest wine harvests for 60 years’, Frost: Obstbauern und Winzer zittern um Ernte. The weather hasn’t been kind to European winemakers. Frost, hail, drought, heatwaves, you name it, they were visited by it. A major drop in production seems inevitable. Still, if you ask about this year’s harvest in France, for example, it is said to be weeks early due to a hot summer, and of promising quality. (Of course it is. Wouldn’t you say so too?)
I could turn this posting into a harrowing tale on climate change, but I’m not in the mood. I’d rather share with you my own harvest report.
The weather hasn’t been kind to me, either. Frost has damaged two thirds of the crops; yields, however, exceeded expectations. The one vine that was not affected (a Boskoop Glory), produced three topped colanders with healthy looking bunches, an increase of roughly 80%. The harvest was early (first half of September) and of excellent quality (of course).

For a non-winemaking household of two that’s a lot of grapes. Spouse had pondered on making verjuice but somehow we forgot it is made from unripe grapes. Not to worry. We found out that fresh grape juice is delicious, but quite a bit of work to make (destemming by hand; 1 kg makes about 450 ml). Making grape jelly is hardly more work. Stephanie Alexander’s suggestion to add grapes to an olive bread, proved to be a revelation. Here is her recipe (slightly changed):

600 g flour (preferably unbleached, organic and stone-milled); 20 g fresh yeast; 150 g stoned black olives or Calamatas, roughly chopped; 1,5 teaspoon salt (less if olives are salty); 2 teaspoons chopped rosemary, olive oil; 300 ml warm water; two handfuls lightly crushed grapes; sea salt
Mix flour, salt, olives and rosemary in a bowl. Dissolve yeast in half of the water. Make a well in the flour, tip in oil, yeast and rest of the water. Knead with hands or in mixer until dough is elastic. Place in lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film or clean towel. Allow to rise for about 45 minutes (it should double in size), then spread dough gently onto large baking tray covered with baking paper. Press down (don’t knock back), push grapes into dough and allow to recover (10-15 minutes). Drizzle with olive oil, scatter some sea salt on top. Bake for about 25 minutes at 240 °C.
Eat with a green salad, a little (white) cheese, some charcuterie.

On y boit une bonne bouteille

In the 1970s I saw a mango for the first time in my life and it must have taken another ten years before I tasted one. Spouse even remembers her first paprika. We have come far.
How far, is described in Primeurs en delicatessen. Hoe Nederland leerde eten (First Fruits and Delicacies. How the Dutch Learned to Eat), by culinary journalist Ronald Hoeben and Roselie Kommers (Nijgh & Van Ditmar 2015). In telling the history of Dikker & Thijs, a famous Amsterdam delicatessen and restaurant, they picture the development of Dutch ‘(haute) cuisine’ in the 20th century. For Dutch readers born before 1970 it is a joy to read about the then upcoming chefs, the clientele, and the food fashions of times not so long past.
If the Dutch needed to learn how to eat, the same held true for learning how and when to drink wine. And though the book title indicates that the focus is on eating, one does get an insight in the way Dutch drinking habits changed as well.
In an advertisement from the 1920s the restaurant claims (in the culinary lingua franca that appealed to the well-to-do): On y mange très bien; On y boit une bonne bouteille. That ‘good bottle of wine’ was not only available in the restaurant, but in the shop too (though I do not know to what extent). Think traditional French (Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Champagne) and the odd bottle of German Rhine wine. An indication is provided by the intriguing list of wines that Henry Thijs offered his guests for his wedding anniversary in 1938. Melon, lobster, celeriac, salmon, sweetbread, chicken, cheese, pudding, and strawberries were washed down by Oppenheimer Goldberg, natur 1934; Champagne Delamotte, sec ou brut 1928 (one could choose?); Château Pontet Pachau 1926; Château Gruaud Larose Sarget 1919; Charmes Chambertin 1923; and a Champagne Lanson père et fils of 1915. Note the vintages: the youngest wine by far is the 4 year old Oppenheimer Goldberg (Rheinhessen), the oldest the Lanson (for which Thijs functioned as their first Dutch importer).
Let’s jump to the 1950s, Amsterdam, my grandparents’ apartment, a birthday. As Dikker & Thijs was not the shop for the upper lower middle class, way too expensive, no Champagne or oysters here. Instead: ‘zoete Spaanse’, a sweet Spanish red, eggnog with whipped cream, raisins in rum, and bowl to accompany diced cheese and crackers with a slice of sausage and a small dollop of mayonnaise. Beer was considered vulgar. Sweet Spanish red was for many their first encounter with wine. Only slowly Dutch customers were exposed to other wines, for example during holidays in France. Portuguese rosés became popular, sherry became fashionable for women, supermarkets sold more and more wine and started to stock not only cheap pinard. The sweet Spanish red remained popular for decades with my grandparents. Change came with the next generation, be it via restaurants, holidays in southern Europe, grocers, or other (outlandish) influences. My mother as a young woman in the late 1950s, having a flirtatious fortnight with a dashing Australian émigré who took her places in her home town she did not know existed, ordered a glass of that same plonk in a pub but was gently corrected. Would she care for a different glass of wine?
As I wrote: we have come far. How far? Lanson, the Champagne brand that boasts their royal clientele, once imported by Henry Thijs for the happy few, is now available at our biggest grocer.


Scottish Wine&Dine

Scottish wine? Yes, like there are Scottish birds, so the title of my bird watchers book says. I.e. birds to be spotted in but not confined to Scotland. Depending on species and season one can come across them in Iceland, Senegal and, mind you, England too. And so Scottish wine: wine one can buy in supermarkets in Scotland. Tesco in my case.
The dining part I tried to keep as local as possible: venison, (British) chicken, and of course: bog myrtle.
Bog myrtle, also known as sweet gale or Scottish gale, is an aromatic shrub growing in boggy places in the North-West Highlands. It was used to keep fleas (in mattresses), moths (amongst the linen) and flies (in the kitchen) at bay (Chris Lowe, Torridon, the Nature of the Place, p. 183). It is also said that midges won’t bite you if you tuck some leaves behind your ears. Well, I can’t say I have seen that happening. But there is definately good use for it in the kitchen: under the skin of a chicken and in the venison stew (use it like bay leaf but the fresher the better, and as with bay leaf do take the leaves out before you serve the food). Bog myrtle provides a tasty, herbal flavour.

Crispy bog myrtle chicken
Just rinse the bog myrtle to get rid of little beetles or flies, though I seldom find them. Shake off the water and push leaves liberally under the skin of a ‘happy’ chicken. The leaves are small, so you will need a handful. Salt, pepper, a little paprika. That’s all. You could add some garlic under the skin as well, but why not go for the bog-myrtle-total experience? Roast the chicken until crisp and (being in the Nanny State I feel inclined to add this adverb) thoroughly done. A few green vegetables or a salad, a new potato, no more is needed.
What to drink with this savoury dish? A light red wine would do best (Pinot Noir, Gamay, Fer Servadou) but an aromatic white is also a good choice. I paired it quite satisfactorily with Tesco’s Finest Gavi, an Italian white from Piemonte.

Venison stew (serves 2)
There seems to be hardly a butcher left in the Highlands, except for the ‘bigger’ cities, but some small local supermarkets get a biweekly supply of venison (and maybe also of beef and lamb – I didn’t pay that much attention) by a big retailer from, in my local shop, Kyle of Lochalsh. Excellent meat, and happy by the supermarket’s initiative, though I do miss the butcher who cut the steakes from a huge leg before my eyes, pointing with his knife to the other side of the loch where the animal had roamed not long ago.
I still had some bog myrtle left, so I opted for the diced venison. Fry an onion till soft and transfer it to a plate. Add some more oil and/or butter and fry venison till brown. Add some salt, the onions, a sprig or three of bog myrtle, chopped garlic, a little red pepper (freshly chopped or flakes), two small fresh tomatoes and a drop of vinegar. Fry for one minute, than add a splash of red wine and some water. (Less is more here; the juices of the venison should give this dish its taste, not the wine or the tomatoes.) Let simmer for about two and a half hours at least. Serve with roasted parsnip and crushed potatoes. In the glass a good claret or a red Rioja, preferably one that is not all vanilla and dried plum. As we were out of those, we settled for a Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand: Oyster Bay 2014. A decent Pinot for just under 10 pounds, fruity, no New-World sweetness here if rather high in alcohol (14%). It did the job well enough.


Wine&Dine: Giovanna’s Gift

I sometimes remind myself, or Spouse does, that ‘Giovanna was a most original and gifted pasta cook’. I don’t know Giovanna, nor do I know anything about her apart from the scarce details Elizabeth David shared with her readers: that she was young and worked in a country restaurant in Tuscany in the 1970s (An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, p. 107 [Dutch edition]). And that she could make a mean spaghetti.
The combination of ingredients may seem a bit unusual, and the amounts rather odd (only a 100 gr of liver and no less than 200 gr of parmesan) but do stick to the recipe as much as you can. Giovanna is, after all, an original and gifted cook. (I must confess that I am not always that obedient, being more generous with some ingredients and less with others, and turning to bacon if per chance the fridge does not provide me with coppa. The result is still tasty, but not as good as it could have been.)

What to drink with it? In my opinion a light red wine would be best. A fruity Cabernet Franc, for example, that pairs a certain earthyness with freshness, as does this dish.

Dine: Spaghetti with chicken livers and lemon (serving 4)
Cook the pasta al dente. Sauté finely chopped chicken livers (100 gr) with 4-5 gloves of chopped garlic (better still: rub garlic with coarse salt into a paste), 100 gr coppa, and the grated peel of 1 lemon in olive oil for ca. 3 minutes (be careful not to overcook). Beat 1 egg and 4 egg yolks with 200 gr of grated parmesan or pecorino. Pour egg mixture into the pan with the livers (heat off) and mix thoroughly. Drain pasta and add to the mixture. Keep stirring and mixing till sauce and pasta are amalgamated.andides

Wine: Les Andides Saumur Champigny
Les Andides Saumur Champigny 2013, 12.5%vol, € 6 (sale price at Albert Heijn)
Fruity with earthy tones, soft tannins, easy. Good value for money. Cave de Saumur is part of the cooperative Alliance Loire, a big player in the region. The same wine may be found with other retailers under a different name. Serve slightly chilled.


To Tell or Not to Tell?

Before I had time to formulate the question, Spouse had solved my dilemma: ‘Do not say a word!’, she hissed, and though with regret I obliged. We were dining at a Middle Eastern family run restaurant in Amsterdam where they serve great mezze and decent mains (it’s the mezze you go for). I ordered the ‘Chateaux (old) red’, to which our soft-spoken waiter reacted with his thumbs up. He brought a bottle of Clos St. Thomas Rouge Les Emirs 2010, poured us a glass and left to wait on other guests. I can live with that, depending on the restaurant, and this one simply is not the kind that treats wine with any ceremony whatsoever. But it was corked. No doubt about it. And I said nothing. ‘He would not understand, leave it be,’ Spouse begged.
At the end of the evening the boss asked us if we had liked the wine. An educational opportunity we grapped with both hands, explaining about corked wine, meanwhile playing down the damage in our bottle. Did he have to throw away all bottles, he asked alarmed. But we assured him it was probably only this one that was infected. We will be sure to check that in due time.


Alsace Pinot Noir Grand Cru?

Good tidings were brought by a few Pinot Noir makers in Alsace. Now that quality and quantity have improved, they will apply for the grand cru status for this noble grape, the official noble grapes at this moment being Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Gewurztraminer and Zotzenberger Sylvaner. Though Alsace is perceived as a dominantly white wine region, which is hardly surprising, reds have always been made and were sometimes highly valued. Documents have been digged up by the initiators that state that in the 15th and 16th centuries the reds from Rouffach were more expensive than the whites, which we obviously should recognize as proof of their superior quality.
Past performances can have a long influence, as the Bordeaux classification shows, but at the time the Alsace classification was established Pinot Noir was not deemed worthy. The grape was used only for Crémant or for light rosé-like summer wines.
My first encounters with Alsace Pinot Noir were in that area: light-bodied, sometimes greenish, at best served slightly chilled with a plate of charcuterie. That is okay, but okay does not nearly qualify for grand cru.
IMG_1452968318924Nowadays some vintners have made serious work of this difficult variety and are trying a more Burgundian style. More skin contact, (old) oak barrels. I would say they are successful. Last summer I visited Cave de Turckheim. Their Pinot Noir was a revelation, showing it can be done, making high quality Pinot.

Pinot noir fût de chêne 2011, Cave de Turckheim, AOC Alsace, 13,5%vol, ca. € 12
In the nose red berries, a little vanilla. Relatively full-bodied, cherries, spices. Very tasty.

So who says: ‘Lack of acidity and complexity often prevent Alsatian pinot noir from achieving anything more than pleasant, easy drinking, quality levels’? Wikipedia does. About time to edit that piece of information, wouldn’t you say?


Inspirerend chauvinistisch

Wijn die ruikt ‘zoals het in een ouderwets-goede groentewinkel ruikt die in het hoogtepunt van het seizoen is volgestouwd met exotisch fruit, groente en kruiden’, aldus de wijnmaker. Een neus vol was het inderdaad, herinner ik mij, al rook ik meer groente en kruiden dan exotisch fruit. Dit was geen ‘spoorlijnwijn’, geen makkelijk chardonnaytje, geen allemanswijn. We spreken 2004 en voor mij was deze witte wijn van De Linie in Made, de eerste Nederlandse wijn die ik proefde, een plezierige verrassing. Het was Diny Schouten die mij op de wijnmaker wees, in een van haar columns over de kwaliteit van ons eten en drinken voor Vrij Nederland, verzameld in Het spek van slager Blom (Bussum 2003). ‘We zijn zo rijk, maar waarom is ons eten dan zo armoedig?’, schrijft ze in haar nawoord. Om vervolgens de schuld bij zichzelf (onszelf) te zoeken: gebrek aan warenkennis, geen oog voor kwaliteit en dus doen we geen moeite.
Is er ook sprake van schuld, mijn schuld, dat ik weinig Nederlandse wijn heb gedronken? Gebrek aan warenkennis, geen oog voor kwaliteit, geen moeite willen doen? Een beetje wel. Gelukkig is er pas een boek verschenen dat het mij (en u) makkelijk maakt om die schuld in te lossen: Wijn van eigen bodem, door Mariëlla Beukers en Irene de Vette (Baarn 2015). Het is een inspirerend en vrolijk makend boek dat misschien niet heel diep gaat, maar daarvoor wel de volle breedte van de Nederlandse wijncultuur laat zien: wijnboeren, wijngaarden, wijntoerisme, wijnverkoop (waaronder in restaurants), wijn/spijs, adviezen voor de beginnende wijnboer en een bepaald niet obligaat hoofdstuk over de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse wijnbouw.

Le Coq Frisé, Epen

Rijpende druiven, Le Coq Frisé, Epen

Anno nu blijkt er meer wijnbouw onder Neerlands bleke zon te zijn dan ik voor mogelijk had gehouden, tot in Noord-Friesland en op Texel aan toe. Er blijken zelfs drie wijngaarden te zijn binnen een straal van 15 km van mijn huis. Wist ik niet. Waarom niet? Deels omdat ze nog maar net bestaan, deels omdat ze hun wijn (nog) niet/alleen ter plekke/alleen in die ene buurtbiowinkel verkopen. Je moet wel een beetje moeite willen doen.
En wat heb je dan in je glas, als het je toch gelukt is om ergens bij een leuk klein wijnboertje een fles op de kop te tikken? Over de kwaliteit van de wijn laten de auteurs zich niet erg uit, behalve in het algemeen: die is met sprongen vooruit gegaan. Niet alleen omdat er beter druivenmateriaal beschikbaar is dat het in ons klimaat goed doet (resistent tegen schimmels én smakelijk), maar ook omdat er bij de boeren meer kennis en ervaring is.
Maar waarom zouden we die moeite doen? Omdat, zo schrijven de auteurs, je ook lokaal vlees koopt, en kaas. En omdat de wijn lekker is. Proef zelf maar. Met dit boek in de hand, ga ik dat ook maar eens wat meer doen.


Dao bie de ranke in Wahlwiller

At least once a year I drive through the small ‘wine village’ (as the entrance sign states) of Wahlwiller, in the south of the Netherlands, between Aachen and Maastricht. Even the smallest of villages have embraced city marketing nowadays, with more often than not rather odd if not downright pathetic slogans. ‘Do it in D’, ‘Always A’, ‘T, you’re here’, ‘F, Adventurously close’. But ‘wine village’ sounds different, more fact based. That troubled me too. Though wine is made in the region, and more so every climate changing year, there is not a single vine to be seen when driving through. So when I heard of Wahlwiller’s wine feast, I decided to make a stop.
And yes, when you cross the burn and walk 5 minutes up hill, there is a parcel of vitis vinifera. So there is a vineyard, the annual wine feast, an official wine song (‘Dao bie de ranke’/’At the vines’) and a wine queen. If that doesn’t qualify one as wine village, what does? Still, I got the impression that wine has not settled in the village’s identity, and until now has failed to reach the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.
I happened to be there when next year’s wine queen was presented at the tavern, escorted by Home Guard St. Sebastianus, with brass band, from a nearby village. It took a while before all guards were standing in the right position: ‘Private first class, two centimetres to the right!’ Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. ‘Second gunner, 1 centimetre forward!’ Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Etc. ‘Port arms!’, ‘Salute!’ ‘At ease!’ All meticulously performed. They deserved a drink all right, the master of ceremony decided. Trays with beer were awaiting them already…


The Patriotic Tourist

‘What wines should a patriotic citizen of Switzerland pour on the first of August?’, a reader of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung asked the wine editor. On the Swiss National Day, celebrating the founding of the Confederation in 1291, he wanted to uncork the right bottles. The editor refrained from too specific a recommendation, so as not to be confronted with offended wine-makers asking why their wines were not mentioned. After praising Swiss wine in general, he shared his plans for the evening: a zippy sparkling wine from Ticino as an aperitif, for starters a Petite Arvine from Wallis, to accompany the ubiquitous grilled meat (grilling is a national obsession in Switzerland) an oak-barreled Pinot Noir from Schaffhausen and for pudding a sweet wine from the Vaudois. I wouldn’t have minded to join, wine-wise at least.
AfbeeldingI must confess, the same question troubled me, a tourist in this beautiful country, too. As Switzerland is a confederation and the National Day is celebrated rather locally, the only national item being the speech by the president, a local wine would be best, I thought. The good news was that we would arrive in Graubünden that afternoon, home to the Bündner Herrschaft where they make an excellent Pinot Noir; the bad news that all shops would be closed. (Already at the French-Swiss border we had been informed that on August 1 ‘la Suisse est fermée’.) The all-Swiss Coop supermarket came to my rescue: here I found Selection 1291, a Vallaisian Dôle for the bargain price of about 8 Euro’s, with the story of the oath printed on the bottle.

Selection 1291, Dôle AOC Valais, 2014, 12,7%vol., ca. € 8
Agreeable wine, good value for money. Roundness is typical for Dôle (Pinot Noir/Gamay).


Catch of the Month (Feb/March 2015)

I am not much of a smartphone addict nor an app fetishist, and no one would be interested in my ‘first screen’, but I’ve started using a wine app, and proud of it. As I do not want to share my tasting notes with the world unless I choose to do so via this blog, I favour Wine Notes. It’s a US centred app (American wineries are the first to pop-up) that enables me to type down my notes and take a picture of the bottle. I am still undecided about my tactics concerning the scoring system. No ‘BBBBW Points’, therefore.

Here are a few notes, rather ad random.

Il Fait Soif 2013 (Domaine Gramenon/Maxime-François Laurent), 13,5%vol., € 13,95
Red naturally made Rhône wine consisting of Grenache (80%) and Syrah (20%). ‘Diablement fruité’, the red berries jump out of the glass. In the mouth they are accompanied by earthy tones and some tannin. Light-bodied, not light-hearted. When the weather is thirsty, but very drinkable on rainy days too.

Regent Barrique Feinherb (Michel Schneider), 11,5%vol., ca. € 7

I should have been warned: Feinherb and only 11,5%vol. Somehow I tend to forget that German ‘feinherb’ does not mean ‘subtly herbal’, but ‘medium sweet’. First impression oddly was that of alcohol. Did an okay job with Ottolenghi’s polenta with mushrooms.

Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts 1er Cru 1991 (Domaine Thomas Moillard), 13,5%vol., € 5

If ever there was a catch: bought in a junk-shop for an incredible € 5 (not by me), this 24 year old Burgundy from a well-known house was still as fit as a fiddle. Okay, the colour, still dark-red, had developed a brownish shade and its fruitiness had faded, but only to make way for a deeper, complex taste. Paired with Toklas’s smothered pigeons. Still licking my lips.