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Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Champagne Diaries - Part 3: A visit to Les Halles in Troyes

     The last installment of my Champagne Diaries related to my trip to that region involved visiting the local market.  In France, any central city market is referred to as Les Halles (or "The Halls").  Reminiscent of the famous Les Halles of Paris, I visited the one in Troyes, which was just as well, as I was in serious need of exercise after my gourmet meal at La Mignardise (read all about that post here).

I thought I'd let the pictures speak for themselves.

The entrance to the eponymous market.

Truffle-stuffed quails.

Farm-made Chaource, one of the local cheeses of the region.

An assortment of home-made farm cheeses, made by the local fromager.
The smallest ones are no bigger than an olive.

Farm-made yoghurt, with flavours as exotic as Pear Vervena
and Tangerine-Almond.

Charcuterie at its best: from left to right, paté de foie, fromage de tête and boudin noir.

Vegetables of the highest quality.  No preservatives here!

A rare sort of mushroom which intrigued me to no end.  I would've loved it
in an omelette.

A tomato-anchovy tart that just made me want to dive into it.

Freshly caught fish.  From bottom to top: sardines from
Brittany, sardines from Provence and anchovies.

More fresh fish: clams scallops and oysters.  All in
their shells.

Hare and peacock! Still with their skins and feathers on respectively.
Merchants offer all kinds of products, including ready-made meals, like the soufflés and seafood
vol-au-vents in this picture.

Supreme-quality Charolais beef.

Ready-to-prepare rabbits.

Partridge and pheasant.

Home-made rabbit terrine and smoked slab bacon.

     My first visit to a French market left me absolutely dumbfounded.  It is certainly not for the faint of heart, yet the exuberance of it all consumes you.  Dare to visit one, and marvel in person.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Queen of Four Kingdoms... and foie gràs

     I did some leisurely reading during my vacation, and since I’ll be stopping by Reims again later on in the year, I thought a novel that would illustrate the allure and mystique of the Middle Ages would certainly put me in the mood.  French Royalty has a history as full of debauchery and bloodshed as there has ever been one.  Deep in the throes of the Middle Ages, amidst war, plague, extreme weather and hunger, monarchs and aristocrats lived lives of luxury, enrobed in silks, taffetas and furs, adorned with priceless jewels that were passed on through generations.  It is in this world that HRH Princess Michael of Kent anchors her first novel of what she named “The Anjou trilogy”.  It is not the first book I read by Princess Michael, but it is the first fiction one, and I must say, the book is as beguiling as its author.

     The story centers about the reign of Charles VI “le folle”, and his insecure son Charles VII, but it is told from the point of view of the astute Spanish Princess, Yolanda de Aragón, the renowned “Queen of the Four Kingdoms”.  When Yolanda left her native Zaragoza in NE Spain, it was to marry Duke Louis II of Anjou in Provence, a claimant to the throne of Naples.  Louis II was also cousin of the then current French King, Charles VI.  The story develops around Yolanda’s influence in the world of the King and of his heir, the future Charles VII, the King whom Jeanne d’Arc helped, but got nothing in return other than a horrific death; and whose mistress, Agnès Sorel, gave birth not only to 3 illegitimate daughters by the King but also to the concept of the royal mistress in itself; and who also died a very bad death.  One can speculate Charles VII was indeed cursed, and anyone who came near him would have a fatal dénouement.  Personally, I find that the King’s insecurity, due very much to his upbringing, and which the novel delves into, had much to do with the conundrum of death that seems to have surrounded him.

     The story begins with Yolanda’s betrothal.  Quite a long one this one – 9 years, after which, Louis II of Anjou came home defeated and without the throne of Naples.  On the eyes of Princess Michael of Kent’s, she made a good marriage and she and her husband lived a happy, although quite unstable life.  What with Louis having to consistently attend last minute councils in Paris due to King’s ill health (it is now thought he suffered from epilepsy), and his own fixation with winning back his Kingdom in Naples, Yolanda was left to care for their 5 children and their magnanimous landholdings throughout France. 

     But Yolanda also had enormous power and influence over the future Charles VII, whom she nurtured as her own, and to whom she gave Jeanne d’Arc and Agnès Sorel, for two very different, yet very strategic reasons.  All of this, for the Kingdom of France, a Kingdom that did not give her much in return.  

Faye Dunaway looks regal and plays a masterful portrayal of Yolanda de Aragón
in the blockbuster movie “The Messenger”
     She did live a life of luxury though.  With several palaces in the Loire valley, as well as the one in Tarascon in Provence, the households could feed (and usually did) an army.  Princess Michael takes us into the aristocracy’s preferred method of transport at the time – boats, and describes idyllic picnics by the river.  Yolanda’s palaces used to entertain constantly, and the kitchens had staffs of 30 or more. 
     Early on in the novel, we are privy to the beginnings of the wonderful tradition of foie gràs, as when she first arrives at her castle in Angers, she is offered a tasting by the Chef, of goose liver.  The cook explains that the geese are brought up in the farm, and then “the dogs chase them to make them run and the alcohol enters their bloodstream – especially the liver – before they meet their end” (pg. 39).  He also admits to mixing ground almonds into the final preparation.

     Foie gràs is something I have loved ever since I can remember.  I have my mother to thank for having introduced me to it at a very young age.  Notwithstanding the controversy that surrounds its production, in France it is found all over, and any good épicerie stocks it or even offers their own.  One brand I discovered back in the 90’s is LaComtesse du Barry.  Just like the name it is associated with, the maison offers the most delicious assortments of foie gràs, either fresh or canned.  I used to be able to order them online, but since the new customs regulations, the only way to bring them is in your suitcase.

     My favorite are the flûteaux de jambon, which are none other than duck foie gràs rolls, saucisse-style, wrapped with the very best ham.  They used to make only one version, but they now offer two, both with cooked ham, but one with extra special jambon de Bayonne.  It is this latter one I had as a special treat these past few days, and the one that reminded me of Yolanda’s story with her cook.

    Although I doubt the company makes their geese run after giving them alcohol these days, this is a wonderful delicacy, which can be served with a simple green salad or a side of green beans, and quite a few toasts for spreading or just making your own canapé.  A chilled Sémillon blanc or a dry rosé will pair perfectly for a relaxed, luxurious holiday lunch or picnic.  You can also make one of the cocktails I suggested here, especially the Sunset Rosé.

The flûteau in all its glory, enrobed in its own gelée and duck fat.
     Alternatively, you can lounge in your own backyard and have your own private moment of indulgence while having this sumptuous feast and reading The Queen of Four Kingdoms.  I guarantee you won’t be disappointed by either.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Champagne Diaries - Part 2: A gourmet meal in Troyes

     It may seem strange to place together the elegance of champagne and the austerity, almost roughness of Troyes.  The city is an hour and a half drive south of Reims, and it is the former capital of the region.  No champagne vines around Troyes, but this medieval jewel, full of wooden cantilevered structures, has overabundant charm to offer.

The typical wooden architecture of Troyes

     The cuisine of Troyes is a rustic one.  In the cold climate of the region, walking through its ancient streets, all housing made out of musty wood, one can imagine troubadours and peasants in need of a good warm-up.  The specialty from Troyes is the andouillette.  It is a dish for the adventurous (quite a few French people do not dare try it, even when they may be consummate pork lovers).   Andouillette is none other than sausage filled with pig’s intestine, stuffed into yet another intestine.  Due to its composition, it even smells – and tastes - like… well, you can guess, I suppose.  But I am an adventurous traveler… 

     If one is going to eat andouillette, one must make quite sure it comes with the AAAAA labeling standard from the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique.  This guarantees one’s eating the authentic, prepared-to-standards andouillette.  One place to eat a superb andouillette is La Mignardise, a restaurant in the heart of the old city, run by Chef Didier Defontaine.

     The restaurant offers a set price menu that includes the dish, which I stubbornly obligated myself to like.  It wasn’t hard actually.

     The restaurant’s décor is simple yet welcoming, and a hostess will take your coat and hang it in a visible rack as soon as you step inside.  In the summer, La Mignardise will offer sitting in the outdoor patio, but at the time that I visited (early Autumn), this was not an option.

     The meal started with puff-pastry amuse-bouche, which were brought to the table along with the menu.

There were three, but I ate one before I even took the picture.
     They incorporate the lamb of the region into some of these (agneau de l’Aube), which is raised only a few kilometers from the restaurant.  Talk about regional cuisine at its best!

     Then came another amouse-bouche.  A tiny verrine of chestnut soup, served lukewarm, and topped with herbs.  

     After all these, the menu offers three courses.  For the first one, I chose the foie de canard over a bed of mushrooms of the region.

     Again, the dish was just warm.  Every single mushroom of the region was there – chanterelles, amanite des Cesars (a breath-taking one, coming up in a future post on the local market).  The liver was cooked to perfection.  Not a single nerve in sight, and so soft it melted in my mouth.  I would have been fine with just dessert after this.  But it was the turn of the famous andouillette.

     The andouillette was served over a sauce made out of Chaource, one of the regional cheeses, and a bed of mushrooms.  The heady cheese sauce and the mushrooms provided a strong bed for the sausage to be aromatic, yet not overpowering in its aroma.  Mr. Defontaine has found the perfect balance in making this dish absolutely palatable.  The sommelier suggested a glass of white Burgundy from Coulanges, both floral and mineral, strong enough to stand up to the andouillette, as well as the rest of the meal.  Roasted potatoes rounded up a succulent main course, which I couldn’t finish as I was already too full.

     But in a gourmet meal one MUST have a cheese course.  I was served a Chaource fermier (locally produced) and a Reblochon, along with fig compote.

     Quite stuffed by now, yet dessert was coming.  I chose the lightest one I could find on the menu - which wasn’t, by the way.  What the heck.  You only live once.  Sabayon de fruits au miel de notre rucher, basically, a fruit salad with sabayon on top.  I don’t know how local the mangoes would be, but the fruits were fresh, and the sabayon creamy.

I rounded up with an espresso from Comptoirs Richard.
     The total cost of the meal was 55€ (not even USD $60), including wine and gratuity.  A superb value no doubt, especially after paying almost the same at Le Procope in Paris for half as much and not even of this caliber.  La Mignardise is just as ideal for a romantic dinner or as a get-together for lunch, which in fact I saw on that day – a large table of friends, another one with a young mother, her baby and another lady who appeared to be the baby’s great-grandmother.

     When in Troyes, treat yourself to La Mignardise.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Fat is good for you

     “To know how to eat is to know how to live”, claimed Confucius.  And he was absolutely right.  For all the food culture growing steadily in America, I still find, time and time again, that there is no true conscience of nutrition and what eating well is.  Eating well will change your life, but not because you will feel better and healthier – although you will, undoubtedly – but because it will just give you a new perspective by being selective, and by not eating for instant gratification or as an excuse to deal with a problem.  Instead, it will shape your life and your character, enabling that better person that we all want to become.

     I’ve been told I have high cholesterol.  I do, yet my doctor is not worried.  Why?  Because although my low density levels (the bad cholesterol) are bit high, my high density levels (good cholesterol) are SO high that they break the bank.  How is this achieved, one might ask?  Simple.  I follow the diet of the Cretians.  I eat lots of protein… and fat.  I admit I do like butter quite a bit, and when I eat it I eat it with gusto; but mostly on weekends.  Otherwise, I eat loads of olive oil, olives and raw fish.  My favorite course after a day at work is an open-faced sandwich with a base of crème fraîche and a slice of salmon topped with a sprinkle of lobster oil, or some delicious “pan con tomate”, sprinkled with garlic and olive oil.  I even marinate my cheese in olive oil.

     Sardines are always a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.  I love the ones that Connétable has, and they meet their match with a dry Vouvray from Domaine Clos Naudin.

     For your appetizer, here is a dip worth plunging into, both for its benefits and its flavor:

  • 18 oil-packed cured, sliced anchovies
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup chopped flat parsley
  • 3 Tbsp. of lemon juice
  • 2 tsp. lemon zest
  • 2 tsp. chopped shallots
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
Mix it all and dip your best baguette in it.  And tell me how your heart – and soul – smile.

    For a quick snack, or even a light lunch when accompanied with a green salad, try rye bread spread with a very good sweet butter and smoked cod, a highly fatty fish made highly palatable in this way and which melts in your mouth.  Sprinkle chopped chives to finish for a spark of flavor.  Or even go for a slice of sourdough spread with cream cheese and lax-style salmon.  I particularly enjoy the Darjeeling-marinated one found at my local Whole Foods, which has a hint of sweetness to it.  This time, top with red caviar or salmon roe.

     Fish is always well-paired with white wine.  I found a particularly inexpensive one yet ideal with this type of food, a white Bordeaux by Baron de Rothschild 2014 Réserve Spéciale, which accentuated the flavours of the fish in a truly unique way, without the acidity characteristic of a Sauvignon or Chenin.  It is also a great wine to savor with a splash of cassis for the classic kir.

     I like to serve an amuse-bouche like peppered-filled green olives wrapped in anchovies, this time not cured, yet to add even more amino acids to my diet.

     I definitely encourage you to try these suggestions often with the next 3 or 4 months, then go and have your cholesterol checked again.  I am sure you will see considerable improvement.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Valentine's Day simplicity - and elegance

     Sometimes one just needs to take a shortcut in order to impress.  Although I certainly do not advocate doing so on a daily or even a weekly basis, it is important that once in a while, we do minimal work in the kitchen – or even in the running of the household, simply to enjoy ourselves and our loved ones.  This was the case for Valentine’s Day this year at my house, when we were just too busy and too tired in order to have a more formal meal.

     First, grab your pasta.  Make it a special one though.  I had some strangozzi al tartuffo (a not-too-thick, not-too-thin pasta flavoured with black truffles).  I cooked them till “al dente” (the only way to eat pasta for me), tossed them with some unsalted butter, opened a small jar of sliced black truffles and sprinkled them throughout.  I then added some shavings of the best, 22-month aged Parmeggiano and served them.  It is quick and astonishing way to impress with minimal effort.

    For dessert, go the package route.  Not the supermarket package route though.  Williams-Sonoma has the most utterly delicious Red Velvet Molten Lava Cake kit, which will make you shine like no other as the pièce de resistance of your romantic dinner.  The kit contains enough mix for 8 mini cakes.  I used individual ceramic soufflé dishes to cook them.  Just add some butter to melt the chocolate chips, then add them to the red cake mix, along with water and a spoonful of white vinegar.  I do recommend doing as the package suggests and add a teaspoon of cream cheese in the center of each cake.  Once one cuts into it, the inside will spill out with some white cheese, providing for the full effect of a red velvet cake. 

Presentation is just as important.  Topped with whipped cream and fresh 
mint, the dessert becomes a show-stopper.
     We also did have some cold days recently.  In keeping with the red theme so typical of this month, how about a twist on the classic hot chocolate?  I found this recipe through the Aldi 2016 Calendar, and I must say is the best homemade hot chocolate I’ve tasted so far.  The whipped cream with cream cheese gives it enough stability so it does not melt immediately.  It is very rich, and a dessert in itself.  Serve it with some nice chocolate shortbread or dipping biscuits.

Red Velvet hot chocolate with cream cheese whipped cream

Ingredients for 2 or 3 servings:

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 3 cups heavy whipping cream, divided
  • 2 tsp. white vinegar
  • 2 ½ tsp. Mexican vanilla extract, divided
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 6 Tbsp. baking cocoa
  • 1 tsp red food colouring
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • ½ cup powdered sugar


     In a medium saucepan, combine milk, 2 cups of heavy cream, vinegar, 1 tsp. vanilla extract, sugar and cocoa powder.  Simmer over medium heat, whisking till smooth.  Add the red food colouring, salt and heat through.

     Using a mixer, beat the cream cheese and powdered sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Slowly beat in the vanilla and remaining heavy cream until stiff peaks form.

     Pour the hot chocolate into a glass and topped with the whipped cream.  Garnish with coloured sugar or crashed candy canes.
We didn't go the the Westgate Smoky Mountains Resort, but their glass cups
fit our hot chocolate perfectly.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Champagne Diaries - Part 1 - A visit to Ruinart

     The first time I traveled to France, I made it a point to visit the region of Champagne.  The drink to which it gives its name is considered the “King of wines” and the “wine of Kings”, and it is a special one for celebrations and the epitome of refinement worldwide.  It seemed like a natural destination to start exploring France outside of Paris.  During the next few months I’ll intersperse blog posts about my personal discovery of this most gourmand region of France, both because of its wine and its delicate cuisine.  Welcome to “The Champagne Diaries”.

     The story of champagne as a drink begins in the late 17th century, when a Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Pérignon, who was in charge of the cellars at the Abbey of Hautevillers,  managed to produce a wine with bubbles after a second fermentation of the grape juice in the bottle. 

     While visiting the region of Champagne, one cannot help but feel the connection with ancient history while sipping this most delicate of wines.  Beginning with the ancient Cathedral of Reims, which saw the coronation of most French kings starting with Clovis in 449, Champagne offers quaint medieval villages and the most manicured vineyards I have seen.  Particularly in Hautevillers, vineyards are everywhere, even as one walks by on the street, and they extend through the hills (Haute – villers meaning literally, “village perched on high hills”)

    The must thing to do while in Champagne is to visit at least one of its famous houses, or even a small producer.  What made me choose Ruinart is the fact that it is the oldest of the most famous champagne houses, dating back to 1729.  Its founder, Thierry Ruinart, was a contemporary of Dom Pérignon and even exchanged ideas with him on how to best produce the sparkling wine of the region.  Nowadays the house belongs to the big conglomerate LVMH, but the original family still visits on occasion.

Statue of Dom Thierry Ruinart on the grounds of Ruinart’s Champagne house

    Ruinart is centrally located on the outskirts of Reims but it took me a few turns until I ended up on the correct street (streets in a medieval city are generally not straight and unexpected turns appear out of nowhere).  In any case, I arrived just before 10:00AM, and our guide Marie, a lovely young woman born and raised in Reims, met us just outside the main atrium of the property – by the statue of Dom Ruinart.

     The tour lasted 2 hours.  We were 6 people, 2 couples from Umbria, a man from Australia and myself.  After the introductory greetings, we were directed inside one of the main buildings, where we were explained the itinerary of the visit.  Mainly, during the first hour one tours the underground caves and cellars, and the second hour is dedicated to the tasting.

     The cellars are located in caves, 40 meters underground.

Starting the tour with our lovely Marie

Although it was quite a chilly day, I was surprised to notice that the caves were quite mild temperature-wise, albeit very humid.  Marie explained this is due to the chalky limestone terroir, which makes it quite permeable.  It is the reason vines do not rot in the otherwise very cold weather of this region.  The ground is in fact so chalky, that it easily scratches away with a finger nail.  This permeability gives champagne its dry, yet lively body.

Man-made, carved stairs inside a cave

    Through the centuries, people have carved everything in these caves, from stairs to shafts, to even altars, and during WWI, when Reims was under serious siege; people lived in these caves for months on end.  Although they did offer a relative refuge from the cold, I shuddered to think the horrible diseases that living long-term under such humidity would have caused.

One of the shafts, used in the olden days to access the caves

It never hurt to pray to St. Vincent for a good vintage...

     Champagne is an expensive wine because the process of making it is long and tedious.  From the extraction of the grape juice, to the first fermentation, maturation, then a second fermentation, then weeks of “remuage” (the removal of the sediment), to the bottling, it might be up to 10 years until a vintage hits the stores.  It becomes very labor intensive, since the remuage must be done by hand over a period of several weeks.

Aisles and aisles of bottles during first and second fermentations

A wall of bottles undergoing fermentation.  Another 2 walls exactly like this one are just behind

Bottles undergoing remuage show the collected sediment on their caps.  This will later be expelled under pressure

Special crates for famous customers

A wall of Ruinart’s Blanc de Blancs.  The cage prevents glass from blowing all over the place in case of a bottle explosion

     After an hour of walking the caves, we went back to the room where we were initially instructed on the itinerary of our visit.  It was time for the tasting.  We tasted a brut and a millesimé.  I chose the Blanc de Blancs, made with 100% chardonnay grapes, for the brut. 

     It was quite fresh yet dry, and would have paired wonderfully with seafood, especially oysters, just like Marie suggested.  The colour was a light amber, transparent as a mirror, yet the bubbles were almost inexistent.


   For the millesimé I chose the Rosé.  It was 2004 vintage, and let me tell you, one has not tasted champagne until one has tasted a millesimé.

     The refinement in this champagne could be tasted from the first sip.  The bubbles felt as if they were dancing on my tongue, and even after I’d swallowed, its effect endured.  A lovely orange-salmon in colour, this wine can transport its drinker places.  Marie recommended it to be paired exclusively with a carré d’agneau.

     Of course the right glass makes all the difference when tasting champagne.  We were advised to ALWAYS use tulip-shaped crystal glasses, which help both develop the bouquet and encourage the bubbles to circulate in spiral motion throughout the tasting experience.  The long, straight flute was strongly discouraged, as it does not allow the champagne enough room to “breathe”.  The “coupe”, so traditional during the 1920’s and 30’s, was recommended only for demi-sec or doux champagnes, which would be paired with desserts.

     Ruinart’s tour is currently one of the most expensive ones - 80€ per person, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  One observation I would make is that it would have been nice to have some amuse-bouches during the tasting, for it was early in the morning, and on an empty stomach, all that lovely wine does go to one’s head.  It was all for the better I’m sure.  After I left, I felt just like Dom Pérignon himself, “seeing the stars”.