Let's decipher the very plain German label.
The year 2004 and the name in big print, August Kesseler, are self-explanatory. The bottom of the label says "pinot noir," which also helps.
As to the rest, including the fine print laid out sideways around the back of the bottle. Erzeugerabfullung means bottled by the producer, which is Weingut (winery) August Kesseler. Qualitatswein: legally this is a middle-tier quality of wine, made under more stringent conditions than a table or country wine, but under less stringent conditions than a Qualitatswein which has also earned the right to call itself either a Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiet (QbA), wine from a guaranteed specific place, or a Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (QmP), wine of guaranteed place and special characteristics.
It's trocken (dry), from Assmannshausen, a village in Germany's Rheingau noted for its -- guess what -- red wines made from spatburgunder (pinot noir). This word incorporates both the German spat, meaning late, and the word burgundy, which is of course the French province that is pinot's home. "Late" refers to the grape's habit of ripening late, although Ron and Sharon Herbst tell us that Germany also grows another variant of pinot noir which ripens early and is called Fruhburgunder (The New Wine Lover's Companion).
russet-purple, autumn leaves color
plum juice, plum skin
tiniest bit of earth or smoke
I'm told, and reading in books confirms, that the spatburgunders of Assmannshausen are vinified in the French style, that is, they are meant to be light, delicate, and subtle, and not the roaring California grape jelly bombs that pinot lovers now complain about. Indeed, it seems a German pinot noir can't help but be delicate and subtle, since Germany's climate and the mountainous terrain of its grape growing regions gives pinot the long, cool growing season it needs. Pinot is the fragile, frustrating, siren grape. If it can struggle slowly to some ripeness without giving up the natural acidity which balances sugar levels, gives interest, and eventually helps the wine age in bottle, then it will come through at its best. And pinot, at its best, comes from cool, hilly places: Burgundy, the Rheingau, Oregon, the cool coastal valleys of California. Elsewhere, in hotter, flatter lands, including elsewhere in California, intense heat and sunshine send any grape's sweetness zooming up to boring plushness in no time, wiping out its acid levels and resulting in, well, the "California style" -- dark color, high alcohol (all that fermented sugar), and unctuous jamminess.
This August Kesseler was not at all unctuous, was instead very lovely. (A customer at Ye Olde wine Shoppe once got irate with me because I used words like "lovely" and "nice" to describe a wine. "That means nothing to me," she fumed. However, I only used those vague words because she had already told me she knew nothing about wine and so didn't want to hear any jargon like "acidity" or "tannin." That too "meant nothing to her." How on earth do you describe a wine, or any product at all, to someone who forbids the use of language? "Well you old battle axe, it's not chocolate milk"? But one mustn't alienate the customer.)
Yes, lovely. It seems to me that with a little experience you can begin to distinguish a good wine from a more commonplace one -- and even here, we are not talking about $30 or $50 wines, although Kesseler languished on the shelf at $25 -- by the way a good wine tastes almost like a food. Wine writers will gabble about wine being a food when they are trying to defend its not being a drug, a depressant, a mere alcohol delivery system. They'll cite studies about its healthful properties and so forth. But a good wine is foodlike in another way. It can be as interesting as a food, can seem to have the varied tastes, textures, and aromas of something solid. It can tempt you back for sip after sip just for its own sake, not at all for mere purposes of study and cogitation. And if the alcohol levels are normal, rather than California jam jar style (there is a wine called Jam Jar, a sweet syrah), your head will stay nice and clear too, and you'll be able to enjoy your actual meal into the bargain.
If you can find August Kesseler spatburgunder from Assmannshausen, snap it up, but do be careful about serving temperature. It must be just cool enough -- too cold, say straight from the fridge, and it becomes thick, sluggish, and grainy-gummy, too warm and it turns harsh and spiky, as do all warm red wines. Take your bottle from the refrigerator on a warm summer day, pour the wine into a glass, and let it sit for fifteen minutes. That should be just about right.
Retail -- originally, $25; alas, now $9.99 on the closeout rack. No one is going to plunk down serious money for (triple threat) an unknown German red.
For more on German wines, you might consult the blog Schiller Wine, especially the article on Walter Schug's journey from Assmannshausen to California's Carneros AVA.
Pretty names, aren't they?
2002 Peter Lehmann Eight Songs shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Sometimes a wine will put funny ideas into your head. This shiraz first called to mind words like satiny -- blackberry -- finishing acidity -- soft, lush, and then it made me think: "a great actor departs the stage."
What an odd image for wine, and how odd that it should leap into words without my struggling over it. I suppose the combination came to me because this very good wine had a good-tasting but somewhat lean and faded strength and stature, no longer resembling what a fresh-from-the-harvest shiraz can be -- nearly black with prunes and chocolate, brawny with tannin, and fiery with alcohol.
(Retail, about $35 to $55 if you can still find the 2002 vintage. Wine Searcher lists the 2007 vintage as averaging about $16.)
As for the pretty name, "Eight Songs," it has a convoluted etymology. According to the back of the label and other sources, it refers to a set of paintings by Australian artist Rod Schubert, privately owned by Peter Lehmann and hanging on the walls of his The Cellar Door. The paintings' theme is based on a sort of mini-mini one-man operetta about King George III originally composed and produced in the late 1960s (Eight Songs for a Mad King), a work in turn based on the fact that the king once used a mechanical organ, which played eight songs, to try and train wild birds to sing.
Peter Lehmann, I'm told, is the Robert Mondavi of Australia. That is certainly a less convoluted image to remember him by.
2007 Hess chardonnay Su'Skol vineyard, Napa Valley
Sound; banana-pineapple -- acid/hardness smoothed in vanilla oak. "Entry-level serious wine for the newbie ready to move up" (according to the sales rep.). The pretty name, Su'Skol, was given to the vineyard to honor the indigenous Su'Skol people of that area of Napa, who "used the site as a meeting place and valued the nearby sources of fish and game." This christening is evidently fairly recent; wine drinkers at CellarTracker can remember when the chardonnay was just Hess. Retail, about $20.
The reason why one salesman could pigeonhole Peter Lehmann for me, plus let me in on the secret of a chardonnay designed to be "entry-level serious," is because both wines belong to one portfolio, that of Hess family. It's a good-sized portfolio. It also includes Glen Carlou wines from South Africa, Argentina's Colome, and California's Artezin (they produce Mendocino County and Sonoma County zinfandels) and Sequana (they make single vineyard Russian River pinot noirs -- in other words, the labels of these will say, "(1) Sequana, (2) Sundawg Ridge Vineyard (or "Dutton Ranch" or "Sarmento Vineyard"), (3) Green Valley of Russian River Valley (4) pinot noir"). Incidentally, the Russian River valley is in Sonoma County.
I can't help being fascinated by the way winemakers at once boast what they do, and yet sometimes wish to cloak what they do. I ask myself when and why, or when not and why not. For a long time I've entertained ambitious plans to make a flow chart of the California wine industry, so that I can begin to understand exactly where Gallo leaves off and everything else begins -- which just might be essentially the whole story. "All ye know on earth, and all ye need to know," as the poet (Keats?) said. I thought I could practice my plan with Hess Collection, as it seems small and manageable, and yet reaches out and puts its stamp on things all over the world that you must work a bit to identify.
But what a fool I was to imagine any such flow chart could be simple to produce. Take Hess, for instance. That smiling, healthy, golden-aged couple in the publicity materials, he with his black cowboy hat and she with her draped orange scarf, simply glow with arugula-fed West Coast sunshine, and with the joy of living the life they want making great wine, expanding the business -- even to the point of owning the Robert Mondavi of Australia -- and opening art galleries and things. More power to them. Have you guessed by now that the family are Swiss, made beer and then bottled water for more than a century in Bern, and only bought land in Napa in the late 1970s? Good guess. But it means that in sheer California seniority, Gallo outranks them by far. And now how do I start any of my flow charts, even the simple ones?
This is one of our family's absolutely tried and true, favorite dinner recipes, especially useful for either a quick meal or a hot-weather meal, or both. I devised it years ago following ideas taken from a woman's magazine, possibly Family Circle. The original version called for strips of zucchini and carrot to be peeled off with a vegetable peeler and tossed in to boil among the noodles, which assemblage you then drained altogether and sauced with (I think) a jarred tomato sauce.
I have imprew-ved it, which of course means adding butter, garlic, and mushrooms. If your family dislikes mushrooms, cackle evilly and add them anyway -- baby bella and oyster will be nice choices. In winter, the wine you want to accompany this is any spicy warm zinfandel or any buttery, caramel-y chardonnay. In summer, you shall choose a chilled dry rose. Really. I must insist.
Spaghetti with vegetable ribbon sauce
Start by melting 4 Tbsp of butter and/or olive oil in a heavy skillet. Then add 1 or 2 onions, diced, and soften them just to the point of browning slightly, cooking about 10 minutes. (The onions will caramelize better in butter than in oil. The chemistry behind this humble culinary truth is unknown to me.)
Then, add the strips you have peeled from 1 or 2 carrots (peel the rough outer parts of the carrots first), and 1 or 2 zucchini.
Toss and stir the vegetables together, adding salt and pepper to taste, and then a few sprigs of fresh thyme and a few fresh basil leaves. (Substitute dried thyme and basil if you prefer, about 1/2 teaspoon of each to start.) Add an 8 ounce package of fresh mushrooms at any time, depending on whether you want to give them a little browning, in which case you will want to cook them in a fairly empty pan, or whether you want to just let them cook with everything else and release their juices anyhow.
Moisten everything with about 1/4 cup white wine, and then add a diced fresh clove of garlic. Cover the pan and simmer while you slice 4 to 5 fresh tomatoes. Place them on top.
Then, simply simmer away for about half an hour, until all the vegetables wilt, the tomato skins can be peeled off easily with a tongs, and you have a delicious (if somewhat watery, to be sure) sauce.
Meanwhile, you can boil a pot of water for noodles and grate some cheese for serving. Parmesan works, but at our house we have recently discovered Kasseri, of which I know as little as I do of onion-caramelizing chemistry. It is very tasty, however.
And P.S.: don't forget the giveaway, which now has 10 (count 'em!) entries and which will close at noon CDT tomorrow. Good luck to all.
We're talking about the good people at Gallo, of course. (Why do I add "of course"? Perhaps because we're going to talk about a delicious wine at a good price. That's Gallo. They spend their working lives going to the mat for us.)
Their newest endeavor, at least at our store, is Apothic Red. It's a blend of zinfandel, syrah, and merlot, and I was hugely proud of myself when I first tasted it in an upstairs office because I guessed right about the zinfandel. The aroma of chocolate was my clue. Unfortunately, I guessed wrong about the rest of the blend.
I'm not sure that anyone's brilliantly recognizing the grapes contributing to the rest of the blend, nor even the nature of the grapes themselves, matters much anyway. Not that syrah and merlot don't add their own characteristics, not that zinfandel overwhelms all or that I wouldn't have been thrilled to guess right about it all, but: I think the winemakers intended to create just one experience here. They intended to give us a friendly, jammy, sticky-luscious, California fruit bomb red. We might even put it more dramatically, the way hysterical newspaper headline writers sometimes do. California. Fruit. Bomb. Red. Syrah and merlot and zinfandel, on their own you know, or in more judicious mixtures, can do far different, more austere, flinty and noble things. Here they have been thrown together into a kind of sumptuous, blowsy purple mess, which I hasten to admit I entirely enjoyed.
As we sat there tasting that afternoon, the good man from Gallo hoping to "place" Apothic Red on the shelves allowed calmly that "It's nice. It's got a touch of residual sugar ... " I looked at him somewhat askance albeit deeply respectfully and thought, It's got more than a touch of residual sugar. It's loaded with it, I daresay not only because that makes it tasty but because -- I have since been told -- it is intended to compete with the other luscious fruit bomb reds just down the aisle, wines like Menage a Trois or (I would think) Marietta Old Vine Red. At the $9 to $10 price point, it should compete very well.
But I've saved the best for last. I've saved for last the reason why I love the fine people at Gallo. They make yummy inexpensive wines, yes. More importantly, who else would have the sheer gall to tell us, on the back of Apothic Red's label:
Inspired by the "Apotheca," a mysterious place where wine was blended and stored in 13th century Europe, Apothic Red offers a truly unique wine experience.
Well of course it does. Why wouldn't wines have been blended and stored in a mysterious place called the Apotheca in 13th century Europe? What the hell, it's possible. That was a long time ago and Europe is a big place. I can just picture some brand new hire buried in the marketing department somewhere amid the giant tanks and pipes and office blocs in Modesto, on her first day on the job, thinking this one up, emailing it to her boss and him replying, "Hey, go for it." And there it is, on the label. I wonder if she was told to keep it to exactly 25 words.
Now the good people at Gallo are no fools, so before we begin laughing out the other side of our mouths, we ought to remind ourselves it's quite possible they have done their homework and actually have some sort of reasoning behind this extraordinary and insouciant claim. Can we recreate their homework?
Apotheca sounds like apothecary, an old word which means druggist, stemming from Latin and Greek roots having to do with shopkeeping, warehousing, "putting away" (apotheke). That seems small help. I hurriedly consult the indexes to some large books of European history and some large books on wine, and I find no place, however mysterious, leaping out from the 1200s called such. When I consult the internet's far flung sources, I get quite a few references to the word, but all lead back to this particular wine. One reviewer thinks the verbiage about the Apotheca is unprovable but "pretty cool," tastes everything in the wine from blackberry sorbet to fern and elder fruit, raves about its excellent value, and thinks it will "drink well through 2013." I daresay. But they will no doubt keep making it through 2013 anyway.
What's remarkable is that if we keep on surfing our far-flung resources, we find there is another wine called, not "Apothic," but Apotheca. Named also for that mysterious place in 13th century Europe? Who knows? At any rate, you can't have any of this one. It is the creation of Andy Erickson, a Napa Valley winemaker renowned for the achievements of his own Favia winery as well as for the glorious juices he concocts for a roster of clients, among whom Screaming Eagle stands paramount. A Manhattan-based blogger and wholesale wine merchant at Drink the good stuff! got a chance to taste this Apotheca about a year and a half ago (March 2009), at the same time she was tasting a first release of another of Mr. Erickson's wines, Ovid. Mr. Erickson seems to appreciate classical or medieval references.
Anyway, of Apotheca, she writes:
"We moved on to taste a barrel sample of a 2007 wine that was made solely for the Premier Napa Valley Auction. Apotheca is a blend of Andy and company's favorite lots [vineyard areas and their grapes], all of which were fermented in concrete. This wine is super concentrated, WOW! Too bad it will not be available commercially because this stuff is killer.
"Too bad it will not be available commercially." With this we approach an extremely rarefied world, the world of superfamous, superexpensive, luxury trade Napa Valley wine making. Art wine, literally. We are beyond anything so mundane as cliques, boutiques, tastings closed to the public, or industry secrets. We are in a world where the best wines are simply not made to be sold to mere people at all -- they are made, as medieval stone cutters carved cathedral gargoyles that would never be seen again once the scaffolding was taken down, for the joy of artistic creation and apparently the pleasure of God. Screaming Eagle, Dancing Hares, Ovid, Pritchard Hill (where Apotheca was made) -- these are wines released perhaps 5 cases at a time, and sold for tens of thousands of dollars to wealthy collectors once a year, at beyond-exclusive trade auctions that are California's equivalent to France's annual en primeur, straight-from-the-barrel Bordeaux sales. The Nakagawa Wine Company of Tokyo bought 5 cases of Toto's Opium Dream (cabernet sauvignon) for $80,000. The navigation buttons for the website of Napa Valley Vintners' "Premiere Napa Valley Auction" are in (I presume) Japanese.
Perfectly fine. But since I can't find, and think it highly unlikely that I will find, any proof that there was ever a mysterious and inspirational place called the Apotheca in 13th century Europe where wines were made and stored, I can only guess that as we come down to earth and drink a glass of scrumptious Apothic Red, we are enjoying, with the good people at Gallo, a little joke at Andy Erickson's expense. Maybe at Screaming Eagle's, at all Napa's expense. And yet maybe it's a more serious joke than we think. After all, what is in the bottle of Apotheca that is not in the bottle of Apothic Red? Yes, yes, "artisanal, handcrafted, soulful expression of the land," etc., and yes, we understand for a start that trainloads of grapes from all over California will not have the taste and strength of a few baskets of grapes lovingly seen to their destiny at one favored vineyard in Russian River valley. But. In the end, we do have two bottles filled with grape juices that the winemaker likes to experiment with, juices that earn some of the same enthusiastic adjectives -- power, opulence, ripe berries -- whether from the genteelly whispering Napa Valley Vintners or from the rather more chest-thumping Las Vegas Review-Journal. It's your ten dollars, for you can only experiment with the one; you decide if you like it.
A joke then, a jab, a gauntlet thrown down? How medieval. Not that Napa will deign to notice. However I do hope that that first time hire in Modesto who got this brilliant idea, or possibly the upper-echelon, gray-flannel-suit man who had it and then delegated it, each get a raise. Who knows but that this is the closest most of us will ever get to the legendary Screaming Eagle?
Dear Gallo. I love these people.
There's a great on-line store called Cookware.com, which sells all kinds of nifty kitchen gadgets, and from good makers, too -- Le Creuset, Calphalon, Zwilling-J.A.-Henckels among many others. If I had a $50 gift certificate in my hand to go shopping online anywhere, I think I'd go there. However, the $50 gift certificate that I can actually give away very soon -- no kidding -- is good at a huge array of shopping sites, taking us to the kitchen and then some. CSN Stores is the sponsor. The company's 200+ sites sell every imaginable thing for home, office, and beyond, from dining room sets to tailgating supplies to baby things to luggage to, of course, cookware. They've even got a Luxe by CSN site where you can hunt up those to-die-for shoes and your next "the Sak." And yes, you can find wine accessories, too.
So, let us delve into the details, and launch this giveaway. I know that the next kitchen-y item on my wish list is an immersion blender, a handy tool for mixing soups that I only learned about very recently. To be entered into the drawing for CSN'S gift certificate, leave a comment on this post and tell me (and the whole world, bwaaaah ha ha ha) what tops your "home, office or beyond" shopping wish list. Remember, I may be obsessed by the kitchen, but the $50 is good at any of CSN's more than 200 stores.
When you leave your comment, be sure of course to include your email. I'll keep the comments board open for ten days, until July 29 (does the date ring a bell? It was the day of Princess Diana's wedding, 29 years ago), and then I'll put all the emails into a hat and pick a winner at random.
Now this should be fun. Good luck to all.
Much more like a peach cake. As Madeleine Kamman sniffs -- and she rarely sniffs, but here I think she does -- in the great New Making of a Cook, "Coming as I do from Europe, I have always had a lot of trouble understanding why quick breads, which contain so much sugar, can be called breads. For me and pretty much all Europeans, they are a heavier form of cake, truly cakes not breads."
Note, a "heavier form of cake." And she is probably right. Perhaps the simple and unexciting reason our quick breads are so called is because we bake them in loaf pans, and so they come out looking breadish.
What follows is a recipe for a spiced peach nut (bread) cake, heavy indeed with sugar, fruit, and eggs, and not anything that our Madeleine is responsible for. It's from the Pillsbury company's "Simply From Scratch -- Volume 3" booklet, published in 1981. I'm glad to report it calls unabashedly for canned peaches (and their syrup), which are so easy to work with and tasty too. I went so far as to choose canned chopped peaches, which were easier still. They were "the bomb," isn't that the word?
Spicy peach cake
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease and flour a 9 x 5 or and 8 x 4 inch loaf pan. (Aha.)
In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, spices, butter, eggs, peaches and 1/2 cup reserved syrup. Beat well. Stir in nuts.
Pour into the prepared pan, and bake for 40 t0 50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Remove from pan, and cool completely.
In a small bowl, combine the glaze ingredients:
Notice the glaze is rather thin, and the finished cake, as good as it is, not the most attractive-looking thing in the world. Perhaps another reason why we call such confections by the humble name of bread?
Lot 10, Napa
Clear bright ruby
as usual with cabernets, near scentless
light -- could this be subtlety?
smoke and berries come through later
acidic along the tongue -- little tannin
(label claims "firm tannin" -- we think not)
next day, butter -- meat -- licorice
Retail, about $17
This wine wants a steak to accompany it, I think. But I have also gotten into the habit of pairing all my wines, of an evening, with a few crackers and a few slices of fresh mozzarella cheese. The plain creaminess of the cheese and the salty richness of the crackers (I'm a fan of Town House wheat myself) seems to flatter whatever is in the glass. In this case, something very elegant and so tasty.
Tangley Oaks winery
The distinct chardonnay aroma -- the words "smell" and "nose" both seem wrong to me -- of bananas and maybe some sort of tropical flower, and caramel -- remember the scene in The Last Emperor, when the deranged, beautiful young Chinese empress eats an orchid at the Japanese embassy reception? -- then the taste and the mouthwatering acidity of pineapple; and the full but not gooey body of a fine chardonnay, a chardonnay that is not all banana candy and an oak plank. You keep on sipping and smacking your lips and trying to decide what you taste more of, the tartness or the acidity or the caramel or the lush but not overripe tropic fruit. I think the winemakers would call all of this balance.
The words Sangiacomo Family Vineyard on the label open up an interesting window into the California wine industry, indeed any wine industry anywhere. The novice asks (if he thinks of it) who are all these people, and how do they make wine? One way is for a winery like Benziger to not only grow its own grapes to make wine, but also to buy some grapes from another family farm entirely. In the present case, Benziger is a client of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, and one of many clients at that. Steele, La Crema, and Acacia are just a few others that you might see fairly regularly on wine store shelves. The Sangiacomos used to grow fruit, until choosing to make a switch to grapes in the 1980s.
Smart move. Good wine.
And fairly affordable. Retail, about $15.
We may balk at the idea of hot soup in summer. We would be wrong.
Julia Child tells us, in The French Chef Cookbook, that early summer in the Mediterranean is the time for eating soupe au pistou, a light vegetable soup finished off au pistou, with a cupful of thick garlic and basil paste stirred right in. (Think pesto, the Italian fresh mashed basil garnish.) This is the season when the soup's prime ingredients, not only basil but the first young beans plus zucchini and maybe peas and sweet peppers, come in fresh from the gardens. Elizabeth David, quoted in the compilation South Wind Through the Kitchen: the Best of Elizabeth David, does not mention Mediterranean summers but largely agrees with Julia's roster of ingredients for this easily made, delectable, and potently garlicky soup.
What follows is a Midwestern amalgamation of both divas' recipes. I felt free to amalgamate because it's summer here too, and la soupe, it seems, though made in all kinds of ways, still always contains ingredients easily to hand here. Potatoes, pasta, carrots, and beans are required -- young green beans certainly, but also white beans of the sort (Navy or Great Northern) that we are used to seeing only dried or canned; what Julia Child means, I presume, when she mentions fresh "horticultural" beans. I reached for a can of Great Northern, because there they were and anyway, another French authority, Madeleine Kamman, assures us "the American bean canning industry is excellent." The liquid needed is plain water, not a heavy wintry beef or veal stock. The pistou will always contain garlic, basil, and olive oil, but may also boast grated cheese, tomato paste, and in Elizabeth David's case, pine nuts. I admit I skipped those.
By the way, in her instructions Julia goes all out and recommends 2 Tbsp salt to 3 quarts of water. Perhaps when she wrote this she had already met and heeded James Beard, who said in one of his books that most people's biggest cooking problem is timidity with the salt shaker. Still, the proportion given makes a pretty salty soup. Feel free to cut it a bit.
The accompanying wine? -- would you believe, a cool, bright, strongly citrusy sauvignon blanc from Kim Crawford? It was clean, cleansing, refreshing, and just right.
You will need:
To begin, heat the 2 to 3 Tbsp olive oil in a large soup pot. Add in succession the onion, carrot, potatoes, and leeks, and saute all until the onions and leeks are limp and fragrant. (Elizabeth David adds a fresh tomato here, and then eliminates tomato paste from her pistou.) Pour in the water and add the salt. Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, for about 40 minutes. This is the soup base.
About half an hour before serving, add the zucchini and both kinds of beans, and any other fresh vegetables you are using. Julia Child suggests peas and either green or red sweet peppers. Return the soup to a simmer while you make the pistou. It's traditional to add a handful of pasta at this point, but if you want the soup gluten free, you will skip that step.
In a small bowl, or using a mortar and pestle, mash the garlic, basil, cheese, and tomato paste into a thick paste. Slowly dribble in the olive oil, beating with an electric beater, until the oil forms an emulsion and the mixture is thick and lightens somewhat in color.
Before serving, stir the pistou into the soup by spoonfuls. Combine thoroughly and reheat completely. Serve hot with a good bread, more grated cheese -- and the summery wine of your choice.
In which we do a number of things, to wit:
The theme of the passage: women are (or should be?) natural lovers of good food. From the Physiologie du gout, by Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin (first published, 1825).
Les Femmes sont gourmandes. Women are gourmandes.
Le penchant du beau sexe pour la gourmandise à quelque chose qui tient
de l'instinct, car la gourmandise est favorable à la beauté.
The fair sex's penchant for la gourmandise is something instinctive, since la gourmandise goes hand in hand with (is favorable to?) beauty.
Une suite d'observations exactes et rigoureuses a démontré qu'un régime
succulent, délicat et soigné ...
The following observations, exact and rigorous, demonstrate that a succulent, delicate, and careful regime [i.e., a good diet]
repousse longtemps et bien loin les apparences extérieures de la vieillesse.
pushes far away, and for good, the exterior appearances of old age.
Il donne aux yeux plus de brillant ...
It gives to the eyes more brilliance,
... à la peau plus de fraîcheur
to the skin, freshness,
... et aux muscles plus de soutien;
and to the muscles, support;
... et comme il est certain, en physiologie,
and it is certain, in physiology,
que c'est la dépression des muscles qui cause les rides,
that it is the depression of the muscles which causes wrinkles,
... ces redoutables ennemis de la beauté...
those redoubtable enemies of beauty;
... il est également vrai de dire que, toutes choses égales,
it is equally true to say that, all things being equal,
... ceux qui savent manger,
those who know how to eat
sont comparativement de dix ans plus jeunes
seem ten years younger in comparison
que ceux à qui cette science est étrangère.
to those to whom this science is a stranger.
When he says "those who know how to eat," I feel sure he means "those who know how to eat and drink" too.
Image from GlobalGallery.com
But sometimes it does. Occasionally, you will get a bad wine. Not an unluckily bad bottle; a bad wine. Sheer, unadulterated crud. Remember Bohemian Highway? These are like that.
Finca Vieja tempranillo (from Spain) looking and tasting like purple Kool-aid, complete with the sugary afterburn in the throat. Retail, about $5. Big, industrial-farming-practices companies like Barefoot and Beringer and Sutter Home can deliver decent wine at that price point; smaller companies, I daresay, cannot possibly.
And Timberwood merlot (California): a washed-out brick color. Smelled like bad breath. The punishment of tasting seemed unnecessary. Retail, about $10.
Both make the wine drinker grateful that indeed, this level of achievement is unusual. A wholesale representative who comes to the wine aisle all the time says that when people ask him to recommend a good wine, he simply laughs and says, "Pick one." He's right. And well-known wine writers agree with him that now is the best and tastiest of times for the average wine drinker on an average budget. The big companies competing for your business are all, for the most part, turning out lakefuls good, fresh, sound product. Is it all a tad uniform? Perhaps. But for $5 or $7 or $10, yes -- relax, and pick one.
Just please don't pick either of these.
Voruta: a Lithuanian black currant wine, priced well under $10. Of its appellation, I can only transcribe the address on the label, not being fluent in the language:
JSC ANYKSCIU VYNAS
Dariaus ir Gireno str. 8
The label also says, in English, that the currants are harvested from Lithuanian gardens and that the wine is recognized as a part of Europe's Regional Culinary Heritage. My tasting notes follow, as usual for what they are worth:
Vegetal -- greasy -- brambly-briny -- sweet smell
sweet but not horribly so, tart --
no body or "grip" (it vanishes instantly)
No finish. Clear bright garnet color.
How explain "flavors of black currant" in other, red wines -- ?? (This very plain, not lush or "jammy.")
How indeed? Other people's tasting notes for cabernets and merlots abound with comparisons to black currant and cassis. But when was the last time a wine reviewer, especially an American reviewer, tasted or even saw a black currant? My having a chance to sip Voruta was unusual enough. To me it did not taste explosively of one of Napa's best. I suspect the comparisons of good red wines to black currants amount to a piece of received wisdom. And it's a received wisdom sensibly emanating from Europe which is the home of good red wine and of black currants, too. Perhaps the sensory image seems right upon reception because powerhouse red wines are so black in color, and because "currant," so little known, covers a multitude of safely unexamined taste possibilities.
Consider. To hail from the U.S. is most likely to lack a native European's experience of this little fruit, or other little fruits that go by its name. We must cram with the Oxford Companion to Food (delightful big book, do run get it), and then we'll soon sort the whole thing out.
It would seem currants lead rich inner lives. One type, wouldn't you know it, is a dried black grape grown in Greece and used since antiquity, making an appearance still in that English pudding sadly known as Spotted Dick (see the article "Currants, Raisins, and Sultanas"). The other kind of currant, what we might call a true currant, is a berry, either red, white, or black, which grows on shrubs of a plant genus classified Ribes (see the article "Currants").
Ribes grow in the United States too, but they are put to far more use across the Atlantic. The red variety, Ribes rubrum, has long been made into expensive Bar-le-duc jam, named for its town of origin in northeastern France. Locally grown black currants, R. negrum, are distilled into famed creme de cassis liqueur in Dijon, in Burgundy. Beyond the Companion, in our own previous reading -- in English country house novels, in European or very European-influenced cookbooks -- we might remember encountering "red currant fool," a dessert of crushed currants and whipped cream, or recipes calling for a red currant jelly glaze for meat, poultry, or for fruit tarts. Not a Bar-le-duc jam glaze, to be sure. Far too exalted. The enchanting little book To Marry an English Lord (1989, do run get that, too) recalls the days when even very upper-class Victorian children were warned, when visiting the greatest houses, "'...and don't touch the Bar-le-duc jam!'" It was reserved for royalty. By the by, "'never comment on a likeness'" was the other ironclad rule.
Natural European associations, all of them. The nice man tasting out Voruta for us in the wine aisle a few months ago naturally knew none of them. He got himself into quite a muddle as he poured, explained, and answered customers' questions. What with the confusions of berries, "currants," grapes, and wine - and it's no help that wine grapes are casually referred to, botanically, as the "berries" of their vines -- he eventually faced puzzled people asking him how Voruta's makers "get the currants into the grapes." I was too busy to eavesdrop on his answers. Anyway it was no one's fault. I was as puzzled as he was.
Yet I at least grew up eating peanut butter and red currant jelly sandwiches. No boring grape for me! That jelly is hard to find now, and it seems there's a reason. In his book Food, written at about the time I was still eating those unique PBJs (1980), Waverley Root explains that Ribes shrubs host a parasitic fungus, Cronartium ribicola, during part of the fungus' growth cycle. It does no harm to the currant bush, but when it moves on, apparently inexorably, to nearby eastern white pine trees for the next part of its life, it "girdles and kills" the trees. Since white pines are valuable in America for timber, they have to be kept away from currant bushes, or vice versa. The upshot is, if you live in the United States and you would like to plant a lovely Ribes in your garden, and so go surfing the net to find a supplier, be forewarned that mail-order nurseries offering currant plants for sale probably know your state laws better than you do. They can't ship to a handful of eastern states, from Maine to the Carolinas. Nursery websites don't reference Waverley Root or indeed give any explanations at all, but I can only assume the fungus he mentioned remains the problem.
All this leaves us, if not hip deep in small globular fruits, at least clutching our bottle of European garden-harvested, European Culinary-Heritage-recognized Voruta as our only link to the gospel attestation that this is what cabernet tastes so like, beautifully, "explosively" even. Indeed? Vegetal-greasy, brambly-briny, not horribly sweet, and grip-less? Not to be unkind, but perhaps there is something in the fruit, or in cassis or in Bar-le-duc jam, which is far more resplendent and cabernet-like than Voruta. At any rate I look forward to sampling other decoctions made from other obscure fruits which are also honored as received-wisdom placeholders for indescribable tastes in wine. "Gooseberry" (a Ribes fruit, as it happens) to approximate sauvignon blanc, and the ridiculously parroted "lychee" for chardonnay, are my next favorites.
It's a mystery to me why a cookbook called Of Tide and Thyme, first published in 1995 by the Junior League of Annapolis, Maryland, should have ended up for sale in a GoodWill resale shop in Munster, Indiana. But there it was.
These bars are easy to make and, be forewarned, very sweet. And everything will go quicker if you start unwrapping your caramels, and melting them in cream, before doing anything else.
"Chocolate Caramel Oat Melts"
Unwrap the caramels, and begin melting them gently, in the cream, in a small saucepan.
Meanwhile, combine the flour, oats, brown sugar, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. Cut in the cold butter, in small chunks, until the mixture is moist and crumbly. Set aside 2 cups of the mixture, and press the remainder into an ungreased 13 x 9 inch baking dish.
Sprinkle the chocolate morsels over the mixture in the dish. When the cream and caramels are melted and smooth, pour that over the chocolate. Then sprinkle on the remaining 2 cups of cookie mixture.
Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. Let cool and cut into squares.
The recipe further recommends refrigerating these bars for at least 3 hours before serving, and then serving them chilled, but -- although I am sure they might be a bit melt-y on a hot summer day, and the refrigerating of them is a good precaution -- they taste just as good at room temperature.
It's a mystery to me, too, why wine writers always agree that one must never drink a dry Champagne or sparkling wine with a sweet dessert. I think the combination is very sensible and tasty. A freezing cold mocha might be good, too, but it will have no fizz. Unless some bright soul thinks hard, and combines the two.
Or, Julius Caesar's favorite wine, by way of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
The back label says -- and I adore Italian wine labels -- "Bottled by S.A.S. GEBO - TENUTA AMALIA -- VILLA VERUCCHIO -- ITALIA -- DA -- BY ICRF 11013 RA -- ITALIA. Imported by LO DUCA BROTHERS, INC. New Berlin, WI. ITALIAN FRIZZANTE CHARDONNAY -- VILLA VERUCCHIO, ITALY."
It was delightful and delicious, with a chardonnay's fresh apple flavors, but without a serious chardonnay's (sometimes tiresome) banana syrup and wood effects. Sweeter than not, but offering the tongue an interesting zip of dryness at the end; the bit of sparkliness (frizzante) was just refreshing enough to complement a warm summer's day and a light meal. Thoroughly enjoyable, and not appalling to the pocketbook -- it was on sale for about $10.
Now about Julius Caesar. That same back label says that Mamertino was first commissioned by Caesar in honor of his being elected Counsel of Rome. I think we want a very scholarly-looking [sic] after that word. He was elected Consul, surely. And did people, even the very greatest people, commission special wines to be custom made for them, many thousands of years ago? Anyway how do we know Caesar's Mamertino was our own modern chardonnay?
Perhaps when enjoying such nectar it's ungracious to cavil at details. But press on. The website ItalianMade.com offers a little more solid information about Caesar's wine: "Mamertino," it seems, has always come from Sicily, from an area of the island named for ancient inhabitants (the Mamertini), who enter the historical record as winemakers as of 289 B.C. ItalianMade goes on to say:
This wine was deemed so good that it was served at the banquet for the celebration of the third anniversary of the consulship of Julius Caesar. Caesar mentions this event in his book De Bello Gallico [The Gallic War]. Strabo, the great Roman geographer, claimed that Mamertino was the best wine of his time, while Pliny the Elder placed it fourth among 195 wines. Elsewhere, Martial wrote: "Give the Mamertino whatever name you want; give it perhaps the name of the best of wines."
No less than four great Roman authorities all agreeing on the worth of ancient Mamertino must signify something impressive. Today, Mamertino di Milazzo D.O.C., in Sicily, is one of those official denominazione di origine controllata which Italian law recognizes as places where particular important wines are made from particular grapes, albeit in this case it seems, not chardonnay; if it were a D.O.C.G., a denominazione di origine controllata e garantita, it would be a place whose wines were further guaranteed to present to the wine drinker particular characteristics, such as a flavor coming from a legally mandated aging process. Although "mere" D.O.C. wines can hold themselves to fine quality standards, too. (So can even "merer" I.G.T. wines. I.G.T. stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, and represents a guarantee of sourcing and production less traditionally strict than the D.O.C. levels which promise you that your Chianti, say, is an authentic Chianti. An Italian wine that is only permitted to declare itself "IGT" may nevertheless be, as ItalianMade says, a very fine merlot from "Tuscany." And did we mention that the European Union changed its wine labeling laws as of 2008? The website Wine Education Ireland reveals all, and assures us the consumer won't notice the changes on labels much until possibly 2010 or after. What a relief.) ItalianMade.com carries on, exploring Mamertino proper:
Nowadays, Mamertino di Milazzo D.O.C. is produced in four varieties: white, red, Calabrese (or Nero d’Avola) and Grillo-Ansonica. As further proof of their excellent quality, the first three of these varieties also have a Riserva appellation that calls for 24 months of aging, six of which in wooden barrels.
So, perhaps if Caesar wanted a taste of his special anniversary treat, he could venture to whatever aisle of the local liquor store stocks Sicilian D.O.C. wines. For our part as we go on caviling at details, we might also want to know whether our frizzante chardonnay Mamertino, brought to us courtesy of the Lo Duca brothers of New Berlin, Wisconsin, has any relation at all to Caesar's inventory in that aisle. It seems, as we say in the vernacular, not so much.
The source of our bottle, Villa Verucchio, or do we say simply Verucchio? -- is a town roughly in north-east-central Italy -- such a challenge, to site oneself on a peninsula -- near Rimini, in the Emilia-Romagna region. Quite a distance from Sicily ancient and modern. Tenuta Amalia, the estate whose image graces the front label, has a Rimini address, and claims an interesting history. It was a residence of Carolina Amalia of Brunswick, the unfortunate wife (and cousin) of the prince regent, later King George IV of England. These two royals did not get along, to the extent that he called for a strengthening brandy upon first meeting her, barely endured cohabitation, separated from her as soon as she managed to produce one child, and then exiled her for twenty years. She retaliated by behaving in eyebrow-raising fashion in Europe, among Italians especially. Her trial for adultery before the House of Lords the moment she returned, and her attempt to crash his Majesty's coronation the next summer (1821), were the most delicious scandals of the time. (For more, see Paul Johnson's The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830.) Tenuta Amalia's website is mum about what exactly was going on during Caroline's proprietorship of the place; in the early 20th century an operetta singer and senator's wife named Gea della Garisenda owned it, and "restored it to its original splendor." That seems nicer, and her profile in the photograph is very regal.
I suspect that the connections between our Mamertino and the identically named D.O.C. in Sicily are therefore nil. I suspect that the bright people at Lo Duca Brothers -- the company sells consumer electronics and musical instruments as well as wines and cooking oils -- realized that throwing Caesar's cloak, as it were, over a friendly, sweet wine would catch the American consumer's eye, give him a name and a bit of history to remember, and keep the company out of Italian legal trouble regarding the whole D.O.C.-no wait, it's not a D.O.C.-thing. The wine seems meant to be uniform and approachable from year to year: the 2007 version was made from trebbiano, my version from chardonnay, but both were kept fizzy and fun. Andre Domine's huge book Wine incidentally records that the Emilia-Romagna region is known for its frizzante styles.
All told, this wine and its label provide an object lesson not only in a few kickshaws of European history, but in what European wine production and labeling laws do. They help tell you exactly what you are drinking, but it takes a little experience to decipher the labels and especially to learn to see what isn't there. All the details that more serious and traditional wines carry, details assuring you, once you know the code behind them, of location, permitted grape variety, required vinification methods, necessary aging, and yes, historical background, are missing from this Mamertino. We know it's from Tenuta Amalia, but apart from that, it is permitted to say nothing about itself except that it's a "Product of Italy." The missing details matter more, the more money you want to spend and the more precisely you know what you want.
Interestingly, one of the biggest changes coming to a shelf near you, thanks to the recent changes in EU wine laws, is that European winemakers may now begin to add the name of the grape to their labels. That will be helpful for you and me, but imagine a serious collector, willing to spend money and knowing what he wants, looking (probably appalled) at his Barolo or his Petrus and seeing that each now helpfully says "nebbiolo" and "merlot" about itself.
Just like our Mamertino brightly announces, in bold capitals, "chardonnay." The smart people in New Berlin, Wisconsin may be way ahead of the curve here.