Honey Poached Pear

March 2009
I am by no means a wine aficionado; nonetheless I’d like to say a word or two about the wonderful elixir. I was in the States over the holidays and took the opportunity to look around for a couple local California wines I could serve at my niece’s wedding in May, to accompany the cuisine I’ll be cooking for the celebration. Plant-based cuisine - and therein is the catch. Having now lived in France for sometime, perhaps my palate has grown European: by that I mean grown used to - expectant of even - the overabundant array of lighter, well-balanced, lower-alcohol wines from bountiful varietals, terroirs, and regions, which accompany the typical cuisine of the land and unabashedly, might I say, the humble vegetable. I was, of course, in search of exactly that: lighter wines with mineral undertones and crisp acidity.

Wines that dance on the palate with the earthy character of fresh, seasonal vegetables… Wines made from varietals such as Arneis, Erbaluce, Cortese, Dolcetto from Italy’s Piedmont region; Corvina, Garganega from the Veneto region; Campania’s Falanghina and Fiano; Tuscany's Vernaccia and Trebbiano; Montepulciano from Abbruzzo; Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Romarantin from France’s Loire Valley; Savagnin and Poulsard from the Jura; Jurançon’s Gros Manseng; Provence’s Marsanne and Ugni Blanc; Carignan, Mourvedre and Grenache from the Côtes de Roussillon, and on and on… It proved not an easy task: wine culture in America seems to have developed more around a devotion for the "robust" varietals and less focused, in my opinion, on the intricacies of wine-food melodiousness; and America's young wine palate followed suit.

Combing the shelves of numerous wine stores, I was struck by the plethora of bottles full of the juice of the “noble” grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (as well as Zinfandel) - and the lack of other more subtle yet amazingly generous European varietals. They are noble grapes, to be sure, which make noble wines… but wines perhaps a bit too noble for the modest origins of the vegetable kingdom. And given the “new world” methods of wine making, resulting in reds and whites of such high alcoholic content (reaching above 16 percent!?) - wines oh so bold, so brawny, so jammy - the subtle chant of a Risi e Bisi risotto, the sonorous percussion of a Pepperonata is literally drowned out. How nice it would be to have the option to hear, to taste those luscious operas!

The recent comment by Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a leading authority on global warning, urging people to eat less meat in order to help tackle climate change, coupled with the fact that American chefs are increasingly putting more emphasis on plant-based cooking, (listen to Mark Bittman's assessment), it would seem a propitious moment for winemakers throughout the country to begin researching, growing, vinifying more "less-noble" varietals. And I'd ask them to pay special attention to the interplay between fruit and acidity, giving more voice to the mineral qualities of terroir and, need I say again, tending toward lower alcohol content. With their enterprising spirits and creative ingenuity, it would seem both a marvelous challenge and a rewarding experience all the way around. It seems a few have already come to such a conclusion. Read what Ojai Vineyards’ Adam Tolmachat had to say on the subject in this LA Times article.

By the way, I did finally get my hands on a few California wines that quite nicely fit the bill. One afternoon, I meandered into Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street in San Francisco and wine buyer Josh Adler generously pointed me to a wonderful 2007 Arneis and 2007 Dolcetto from Palmina Wines in Lompoc, as well as a delicious 2007 Cabernet Franc from Lang and Reed Winery in Saint Helena. Well-crafted wines subtle enough to let that Pepperonata and Risi e Bisi's arias sound forth.

Now since my last newsletter I‘ve collected a smattering of articles and such that you might find inspiring or of interest:
- An organic farm in Kenya’s largest slum : article, photos.
- A Washington Post article on a budding epidemic in Kenya's wheat fields.
- From Roots of Change (in pursuit of a sustainable food system in California by 2030) an article on the CA drought.
- A NY Times article about Obama’s new chef, Sam Kass. We might yet get an organic garden on the White House lawn!
- A TED video of Jose Antonio Abreu: Help me bring music to kids worldwide (TED Prize winner) and a video of his protégé Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra from Venezuela. Truly inspiring!

- Nota bene: If you live in San Francisco, next time you’re looking for an exquisite "natural" European wine, drive over to Terroir Natural Wine Merchant and Bar on Folsom Street. You’ll find three enthusiastic guys passionate about their wines. And you won’t be disappointed. The wines notes on their website make the mouth water!

Now on to this month's recipe. In keeping with the subject of wine, I couldn't resist my Pears Poached in White Wine with a Honey-Thyme Syrup. I know it's no longer pear season... You can put the recipe away until next autumn; it'll be here before we know it. (And I promise some wine pairing tips for plant-based dishes in subsequent newsletters.)

Pears Poached in White Wine (serves 4)

4 Conference pears, just under ripe (or other long-necked cooking pears)
2 cups or so (1/2 liter) good dry white wine
1/2 cup or so (170 gr) light honey
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Juice and zest of 1/2 lemon (zest cut into thin strips)
Good-sized handful of hazelnuts, roasted, skinned and coarsely chopped
Crème fraîche (optional)

Peel pears (or cook them unpeeled as is often done in Italy's Piedmont region), leaving stems attached. Place them upright in a tall saucepan, just large enough to hold them. Add the white wine to almost cover them, add a bit more if necessary. Add the honey, lemon juice and zest. Cover and bring to a boil, lower heat and gently simmer until just tender 15-30 minutes (depending on the ripeness of the pears). Test with a toothpick. Let pears cool in the pan then remove. Strain the poaching liquid into a small saucepan, and boil to reduce to a syrupy consistency (5-10 minutes). You may add a bit more honey if the syrup doesn’t seem quite sweet enough). Immediately strain, and set aside to cool.
Serve pears with a plentiful drizzle of syrup. Garnish with hazelnuts and a few thyme flowers. Add a dollop of crème fraîche or mascarpone if you wish.

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