cookin' artisan and drinkin' natural in the Loire

I was yearning to get out of the city (even if it is Paris), Didn't hesitate about the destination. I jumped in my rented car and headed for Couffy, a speck of a town hanging just above the Cher River in the Loire Valley, or more specifically la Touraine  dans le Loir-et-Cher dans la Vallée de la Loire.

I threw a few kitchen tools and ingredients into the trunk, as I was going to cook up a robust vegetable dinner for a bunch of vigneron-de-vin-nature (natural-winemaker) friends.

Whenever I can, I love cooking up a host of earthy dishes for these paysans, les gars du Loir et Cher (sons of the soil), as Noëlla, the one woman winemaker among the bunch, called them when I was putting together the menu for the diner des vignerons at their wine tasting salon in Blois, the beginning of December—to emphasize the fact that, yes, they are hardy eaters, and do love their charcuterie and a satiated belly.

I suppose I like the "challenge," and love their company, but it's also that I have, without a doubt, a passion for both vegetables and natural wines, especially when savored together... After all, mineral does echo mineral, and natural wines are a great showcase for the "smack" of the terroir, resonating with the earthiness of all else that grows in the soil, plunges its roots towards the mother rock, sways to the movement of the air (poetic it is that the rhythm, the caress of the wispy atoms it carries furnish to the calm loitering leaves, 95% of a plant's constituent elements and perhaps has an impact on the depth of its flavor, while the slow yet industrious roots supply the remaining 5%), soaks up the sun, embraces the cooling grey of a covered sky, drinks in the water those same clouds produce, and laps up the morning dew.

That weekend happened to offer the only exuberant expression of winter that we've really experienced so far in this part of the old continent. Mostly cool temperatures and way too many grey skies for any thriving soul these last couple of months... But snow was forecast and snow we did have, along with freezing rain. Luckily I managed to arrive at my destination before the routes turned slippery and the countryside was carpeted in white. We did manage a trip to a nearby village, Chateauvieux, where Christophe has a cellar, carved into the hillside from ages past, and where we gathered together a bottle or two or three of his delicious wines.

On the menu was focaccia, winter squash soup, orecchiette with broccoli rabe (unfortunately not to be found at the local marché, although I did get my hands on some lovely locally produced escarole, as well as dandelion greens—that was exciting—which made for a scrumptious substitute), and for dessert pears poached in red wine and spices. I've included the pear recipe way down below.

I'd brought along my faithful Nikon camera, thinking I'd capture a few scenes from the soirée, knowing all the while that once I started cooking and serving I'd have no mind to clicking away. Yet by the end of the night, some 300 shots had been taken, thanks to two of the winemakers who gleefully framed and clicked away as the hours passed, the plates were eaten clean, the bottles of beautiful wine they'd all brought devotedly emptied. 

I couldn't help but sharing with you their delightful photos, depicting the jovial communion of the evening. Thanks to Noëlla and Joel !

Oh, I should mention the names of the wonderful winemakers present at la fête :  Brendan Tracey : les vins de Sainte Anne,
Christophe Foucher : la Lunotte, Joël Courtault : domaine de Bel AirNoëlla Morantin (with Laurnet Saillard, soon to be coming out with his first vintage !), and Pascal Simonutti.

I do plan on writing an updated post on natural wines in the next wee bit of days. In the meantime, you can find links to some great natural wine blogs and a list of some of many natural winemakers in the Loire Valley here

But before, the link to a report that came out in August 2012, but which I just read it on the Huffington Post—the French version—this morning. Here's the same same article on the Guardian : Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists
Might as well join the program early !


escarole and dandelion melange

pears, wine and, yes, charcuterie

Pascal's magnums of gamay and pnieau d'aunis

pasta in the making

those smiling, and contemplative, faces



bonne nuit

PEARS POACEHD in RED WINE - 4 servings

4 Conference pears, not quite ripe, stems attached (or other long-necked cooking pears)
300 ml good dry red wine (not too heavy, a Cabernet Franc works great, or a Sangeovese)
200 ml cold water
80 gr | 2.8 oz honey
70 gr | 2.5 oz cane sugar
1 cinnamon stick
Pinch of fennel seeds (from wild fennel, if findable)
5 cardamom seeds
1 FRESH bay leaf
3 – 4 strips lemon rind (use a vegetable peeler)
Generous handful walnuts
1 sprig fresh thyme
Crème fraîche (optional)

||| Preheat the oven to 160 ˚C (325 ˚F). Spread the walnuts out in a baking dish and toast in the oven on the middle rack for 10 - 15 minutes, until you begin to smell that lovely roasted scent seeping from the oven. Coarsely chop when cool.

|||  Peel the pears, leaving the stems attached. (I like to leave a strip of the skin between each peeled part—gives a nice look). Pour the wine and water into a pan large enough to hold the pears lying on their sides. Add the sugar, lemon zest, and spices and bring to a boil. When the sugar has dissolved, add the pears. Lower the heat and cook at a gentle simmer until just tender, 15-25 minutes (depending on the ripeness of the pears), turning them a couple times as they as they cook. Carefully test with the point of a sharp knife, which should easily enter the bottom of the pears when done. Turn off the heat and let cool in the cooking liquid.

|||  Strain the poaching liquid into a small saucepan, bring to a boil and cook until reduced to a syrupy consistence, 5-10 minutes depending on how much evaporated during cooking. A good way to judge the right consistency of the syrup is by watching the bubbles; when they become greatly numerous and as you tip the pan they rise feverishly, you're there. Feel free to add a bit more sugar or honey if the syrup doesn’t seem sweet enough. Set aside to cool. (If when cool, the syrup doesn't seems thick enough, reduce it a bit more i the saucepan.

|||  Serve the pears in dessert bowls or on small plates. Generously drizzle with the syrup and garnish with the walnuts and a pinch of thyme leaves. If serving with crème fraîche, place a dollop in the bottom of each bowl and place the pears on top.


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