Astonishing Dinner Parties

It is a known fact that as cash gets tighter good, old-fashioned dinner parties come back into fashion?

In the old days, we would all pull together and do a dinner party fit for a king.

But in the old days (20-30 years ago), we girls didn’t know much about wines.

We left it all up to you guys.

Haven’t we all changed?

We girls know so much more about wines, these days.

Not only about wines, but about our own personal taste in wines.

We are no longer afraid to say what we like and what we don’t like.

So, I am putting together some really good-value, easy-preparation dinner parties for 5/6 people, with hints for recipes, and their matching wines to please both us girls and you guys.

The French spend a lot of time and energy on cooking and preparation as you know.

Wine is always a vital part of a dinner party being a success.

A carefully chosen, matching wine is always served with each dish.

The French would never serve the same wine throughout the whole dinner.

(However, please do so if you personally prefer it, after all wine is a pleasure and should be savoured as such.)

Assume 6 glasses per bottle 75cl.

Fill the glass 2/3 full, no more. You must be able to swirl the wine around the glass!

Wine is taste and pleasure.

If you prefer a different wine, feel free to change it. My wines are suggestions which, I know from experience, work well with these dishes.

Remember, you drink the wine, not the label!

All the recipes ideas I am going to give you have been passed to me over the years by friends, or friends of friends, both in the UK and in France; or real recipes from cookbooks which I ticked around with because they were too time consuming or finicky.

My heartfelt thanks go to all of you. I have used most of these recipes over and over and over again.

COCKTAILS

As people arrive and have deposited their coats somewhere, it is nice to put a glass of something delicious and out-of-the-ordinary into their hands.

Touraine METHODE TRADITIONNELLE

Sparkling Rosé Brut Touraine Sparkling Rosé

This is an absolutely stunning dry sparkling rosé made in exactly the same way Champagne is made.

In fact, all Crémant wines and Méthode Traditionnelle sparkling wines are made in the same manner in France. They just come from different regions.

That is the only difference, other than the price, which is about ½.

Serve very chilled. 8°c.

It is soft on the palate and goes down a treat with just a good mixture of dried fruit and nuts. Pistachios, almonds, cashews, peanuts, etc. A selection of raisins & sultanas, dried pawpaws, dried mangos, dried bananas. You can usually buy the mixture already done for cocktails in a good supermarket. Easy!

However, if you like doing complicated cocktail bits; please feel free to do so.

STARTERS

I must admit I always find the best and easiest starters are fishy.

At this time of the year, and after such a chilly spring, shellfish is lovely!

If you have a good fishmonger; fish section of your supermarket; or a farmers’ market, get prawns and shrimps.

Fishmongers usually have a selection of different types of prawns, or shrimps.

Snip off the long whiskers from the prawns.

On each small plate put:

A few leaves of nice quality lettuce, lambs lettuce is nice,

2 or 3 cherry tomatoes, halved,

4 or 5 fresh prawns,

A few fresh shrimps,

If you enjoy making a good fish terrine or mousse, then a small portion of homemade terrine or mousse is lovely with a couple of fresh prawns and a bit of salad.

Make a sauce for it of crème fraiche, a couple teaspoons of water, and chopped chives, mixed well.

A few drops of good quality vinaigrette (not too strong, balsamic vinegar is nice) on the lettuce.

A small blob of good quality mayonnaise on the side to dip the prawns into.

Chunky white and brown bread. Butter.

A spare paper napkin per person.

A plate in the middle of the table to put the shells on


ALTERNATIVE STARTERS

Fresh asparagus.

Not everyone can get these and they can be very expensive. They come into season in May.

You might have some growing in your garden! (They grow wild in our vines.)

The green ones have a stronger flavour than the white ones.

Scrape off the woody outer part of the stem (with a potato peeler).

Boil slowly in a large open pan (frying pan) for about 15-20 mins. Be careful the little tender head doesn’t fall off. This can be done well in advance.

Serve with good quality vinaigrette (not too strong); lemon mayonnaise; or hollandaise sauce.

Same accompaniments as above.

2 spare paper napkins per person.

Fresh asparagus is always eaten with the fingers!

Both the above dishes are a dream with a really good, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc.

Young and zesty.

Not many people know that Sauvignon goes with asparagus. But now you do.

MATCHING WINES FOR STARTER COURSE

Either: Touraine Sauvignon Vieilles Vignes 2006    

Or:      Sancerre White

MAIN COURSE

Butter chicken.

Sorry to tell you this but using butter is the tastiest way to cook. Any French chef will tell you this. The dishes you do will taste that little bit more exciting if you use real butter. Yes, I know, we are all trying to lose weight. But if you are going to do a dinner party, you might as well make sure the food is tasty!

So, take 200 gr. butter salted or unsalted (I use unsalted) out of the fridge early afternoon so that it can soften to room temperature.

Then mix it with a couple cloves of crushed garlic and some parsley.

Fresh, if poss, free range Chicken 1.8 kgs. If you get it from the butcher he will truss it for you.

Heat the oven to 200° Celsius.

Loosen gently the breast skin from the chicken and very carefully push the butter up between the skin and the breast. Very, very carefully so as not to break the skin.

Rub the rest of the softened butter all over the chicken.

Make sure every part of it is covered with a thick layer of butter. Especially the wings and legs.

Put in the cavity a few sprigs of whatever fresh herbs you can get.

Thyme, oregano, rosemary, herbes de Provence.

Also, a few whole cloves of garlic, peeled. A couple of shallots.

Salt & pepper to taste. Just pepper if you have used salted butter.

Cook for about 1½ – 2 hours. Baste it occasionally.

Make gravy out of residue in dish. Adding water and a spoon of dry sherry to it.

Veggies: Roast parsnips; roast Swedes; roast red and yellow bell peppers;

steamed or boiled new potatoes.

ALTERNATIVE MAIN COURSE

8-10 Chicken breasts done the French Asian way.

Slash the breasts in a couple of places acrosswise so that the flavours penetrate the flesh.

Sprinkle each side with flour, whole cumin seeds, black onion seeds, salt & pepper.

Pat onto the breast to make it stick.

In a wide, heavy-bottomed pan put 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil (I use olive), a walnut of butter; 4 chopped shallots, 4 chopped cloves garlic, salt & pepper. Sauté until just soft.

Add the chicken fillets. 2 heaped teaspoons garam masala

Sauté until a lovely golden colour.

Mix in a bowl:

50cl. Crème fraîche

150ml. approx water;

A very large heaped tablespoon of very lazy ginger. Chili to taste.

Mix it all up and add to the chicken fillets.

Cover and cook for about 20 mins.

If you don’t want to use crème fraîche you can use undiluted thin coconut milk but it is not quite as nice.

This is tastier if it is all done in advance. Add water if sauce gets too thick.

When reheating, make sure not to “overcook” the fillets in the microwave as they go tough.

Veggies: steamed Basmati rice; steamed broccoli.

MATCHING WINES FOR MAIN COURSE:

Either: Chardonnay (white)                                           Chardonnay

Or: Touraine-Mesland White 2006                                Mesland White

Or: Touraine Gamay (red)                                             Gamay

CHEESE COURSE

The French always keep a little place for a little cheese and it is served after the main course.

A good cheese board in France usually has a selection of:

A hard cheese such as Comté or Cantal;

A blue cheese such as Bleu d’Auvergne or Roquefort;

A cheese that goes straight to the hips such as Brie or Camambert or Reblochon;

A goats cheese (unfortunately good French goats cheese is still difficult to find in the UK)

Served with a salad of mixed lettuce leaves and vinaigrette (not too strong).

Good quality UK cheeses work well, too.

MATCHING WINES FOR CHEESE COURSE:

 Either: Touraine Côt 2005 (red)                        Touraine Côt 2007

 Or: Touraine-Mesland 2005 (red)                    Touraine-Mesland 2005

 

Or: Sauvignon Blanc with the goats cheese as per starter course.

Or: All of the above

PUDDINGS

Apple Crumble is just lovely at any time of the year.

8-10 eating apples such as Golden Delicious which make the best apple crumble of all. Peeled, cored, cut into quarters or smaller.

Put into greased, high sided tart dish and put into microwave for 10 mins. Or until they are soft and watery.

Turn oven to high 250° Celsius.

Make crumble from a large cup of sifted flour,

large cup of golden brown cane sugar crystals (cassonade),

130 gr. butter.

Crumble it all up by rolling it around and through the fingers.

Put on top of apples. Cook on high for about 10 mins or until the crumble begins to turn pale golden, then turn right down to 120° Celsius for another 35 mins. You will see the water turn syrupy in the dish.

Chocolate mousse, no butter, no sugar:

6 eggs separated.

200 gr good quality cooking chocolate.

Melt chocolate in a bain marie or in microwave. Mix with yolks.

Beat egg whites. Fold altogether. Put in fridge.

WINE FOR DESSERTS

The French always open a bottle of sparkling wine for dessert.

The sparkling rosé Touraine you had for cocktails would be lovely – but that is entirely up to you.

If you have a sweet tooth our medium/dry and sweet Vouvray wines are just yummy!

I can offer mixed cases of some of the wines above to make the choice easier for you:

You can also mix your own online. I have made it very easy.

Mixed Case Reds

First published April 2008

Grape Vine Pruning – The Next Stage – Lowering The Branch

Summer is a-comin’ in

Loud sing cuckoo!

Anon

All you happy gardeners have come back over and over and over again to look at my article about Pruning Grape Vines which I posted earlier. Actually it was my first article.

The May bank holiday is over. A bit of a wash-out this year, really. However, all this rain is very good for the plants. You just have to be a little careful of the “mildiou” which appears when the weather is warm and wet. So far, so good, though.

At this moment we are way past the pruning stage, so I decided to do a follow-up article to the next stage so you can see how the vines progress.

First thing you need to do after the pruning, is to pull off all the dead wood from the vine and make nice little bunches of faggots. They burn very well for winter fires and are very useful for barbecues in the summer.

The vines which have been pruned following the “Guillot” (Guyot) system have a long branch. This branch needs to be lowered onto the bottom wire, so that the spring shoots can sprout upwards. There are 3 wires on a grape vine. One on the same level as the top of the vine, and 2 above which are used to entrap the vines as they get thick and heavy.

(I took a photo of this earlier this month. This gives you an idea as to how the vines are looking at the moment.)

The long branch is quite bendy. Better to do this when the temperature no longer freezes and the Spring frosts are out of the way otherwise the young shoots are susceptible to being frozen and easily knocked off.

If possible, the lowering of the branch should be done after the “Saints de Glace” on or around the 15th May. The 3 days of the “ice saints” are always a lot colder than the other days. (No one puts their window boxes out until after these dates.)

Most of the growers, however, lower the branch beforehand due to the timescale. Once the warm weather starts, the vegetation grows very, very fast.

Lowering the branch is backbreaking. Occupational hazard!

Once this has been done and clipped onto the bottom wire, the little shoots need to be removed from the base of the plant. When they are very young they come off very easily. In fact, they can just be brushed off. These are called “les gourmands”.

Then, the vegetation starts to grow very, very fast.

The vines start to get heavy.

The two upper wires should be placed on the ground until the vines have grown enough to put them back up again thereby entrapping the vines between the two upper wires.

Some grape varieties grow a lot faster than others. The Chardonnay varietal is easily the fastest, followed by the Pinot Noir, the Cabernet Franc, the Côt and the Cabernet Sauvignon varietals – the Touraine reds; then lastly the Sauvignon Blanc.

In France, all this care for the vines is still done by hand!

First published April 2008

UNDERSTANDING “TERROIR”

The notion of “Terroir” (pronounced tair-hwah).

To understand the flavours, complexity and typicity of French wines, you must understand the notion of terroir. The word “terroir” does not translate into the English language. So it needs to be explained.

The root of the word is “terre” which means earth.

Terroir is based on a geographic area, including the geological structure of the soil in any given region, however small. This is then combined with the region’s micro-climate, the traditional way the soil is cultivated, and the grape variety. These factors make up a terroir.

The structure of the soil could be sandy, or clayey, or flinty, or chalky, or even irony, or a combination of several elements. Whatever the structure, it is the soil which gives the indigenous flavour to the finished product. i.e. the wine. The vines are grown in the soil. The roots often go down as much as 20 meters or more in search of water. In France, the irrigation of vines is not allowed. The plant’s roots are totally steeped in the soil, suck up the water from deep, deep down, and pour all this flavour into the grapes.

If you have the time to visit lots of different wine producing areas in France, you will, as time goes by, understand the different flavours of the different areas.

Never be afraid to ask the grower about his terroir. He will then spend many happy hours explaining it all to you.

Take our area on the left bank of the Loire River. Our soil is clay and flint. There is a lot of flint in the soil. Therefore, the wines come up tasting very smokey, especially when they are young. Smokiness is one of the flavours of a flinty soil. It is very pleasant in the Sauvignon blanc which is our benchmark wine. (The Loire Valley probably produces the best Sauvignon blanc wines in the world.)

Now take the area about 30kms due south from us on the Cher valley. The soil is very sandy. Sandy soil makes very light wines. Therefore, the flavours of the wines are much lighter and fruitier than ours. They are extremely good “summer drinking” wines.

Then, there is the micro-climate to consider. The aspect of the vineyard has to be taken into account to get the most out of the climate. You must always plant vines so that they get as much sun from the south and south-west as possible. While driving through the South of France, you may have noticed vineyards on the tall, steep banks of rivers, facing south or south-west. This makes sure that the parcel of vines gets as much as possible out of the micro-climate. The steeper the slope, the better the aspect, as long as it gets lots of sun. There is an appellation in the south of France called Côte Rôtie where the slopes are so steep that the only way to access the vines is by helicopter. Of course, this is a very expensive way of caring for the vines but the wines are out of this world. (So are the prices!).

While we are on the subject of appellation, you need to understand that an appellation is the official name of a particular terroir. “No terroir, no appellation”.

An appellation is basically a rubber stamp (or trade mark, if you like) of a geographical region which produces products to set standards which make up the terroir, i.e. a geographical area, the micro-climate, the grape variety, local history and man’s know-how.

I was recently taken to a restaurant in the UK who only had wines on their wine list which were mass produced from somewhere in the new world. They tasted like an alcoholic version of Ribena.( I used to like Ribena when I was 9 years old.) There was no terroir in the flavour of the wines whatsoever. The grapes were probably bought in from half a dozen different countries.

When you get used to drinking terroir wines, you find the rest totally boring! But that is another story…

First published March 2008

Celebrating with our Wine Guild “Les Grandgousiers”

From the early Middle Ages until the general distribution of refrigeration, food in France was stored in salt, pork or duck fat, (fruit) alcohol or dried.

Food did not keep very well. There were lots of illnesses during the winter months due to poor conservation. Meals were often scarce and were always washed down with a glass or two of wine, diluted or not, to kill any bacteria and aid the digestion. (In northern parts they washed food down with ales).

At the end of the long winter, food was beginning to taste very, very ropey; as were the wines. There were no modern methods of storing wines in those days and it was invariably oxidized and sour. So they added honey, spices and herbs to give it some palatable flavouring.

By early spring, the new wines, which had been harvested the previous autumn, were just beginning to be really good. They were young, fruity, easily drinkable, palatable and above all pleasurable!

So, from the Saint Vincent (end January) patron Saint of wine growers, to Easter there was much jubilation and celebration of the new wines. People could eat, drink and be merry again in the knowledge that the worst of the winter was over and spring on its way.

The end of February is the time we have our “Grandgousiers” celebration.

The full name of the Grandgousiers is “La Confrérie des Compagnons de Grandgousier”. This translates as « The Fraternity of the Companions of Grandgousier ». It is a fraternity, or brotherhood, or guild, whose sole purpose is to promote the wines of Touraine sector Chaumont and Touraine-Mesland.

The character, Grandgousier, was a giant in the book by Rabelais, Gargantua (1534), who liked peace, easy living and all things good in life. His son, at birth, opened his eyes, felt thirsty and asked for a drink!

Our promotion is basically a big lunch once a year. The lunch takes place on the last Sunday in February.

Sunday morning Mass is held in the local church and all the winegrowers give thanks for the good, new wines by offering bottles of it to the vicar.

After Mass we proceed around the little town with our musicians, dressed in all our splendid robes, dispensing cake (brioche) to the locals and inviting them to the next step which is the enthronisations or enthronements.

Anyone who is deemed to have promoted our wines over the year can be enthroned, (accepted into the Guild) but he must be supported by one of the board. A short synopsis of his life is read out in front of the audience. He must then swear to drink at least 100 bottles of our best cru every year and generally adopt our wines as his own.

The enthronements are humorous and light-hearted. The enthroned person then gets a sash, a plastic bunch of grapes to wear around his neck, a diploma and a few bottles of wine.

There are usually about 20 enthronements. When they are over we all go and have an aperitif accompanied by a small selection of wines and some local rillettes which are pork scratchings mixed with pork fat and made into a sort of pâté. It is really lovely. It sounds rich and greasy. It is not.

Then we go to our local “Relais-Château” hotel and restaurant and continue our slap-up lunch which lasts from 1pm to about 8pm. Our local Relais-Chateau’s restaurant has 2* Michelin stars. The lunch is FABULOUS!

There are 4 courses interspersed with little nibblies of exquisitely prepared “things”. The wines have been carefully selected to properly match each dish.

When lunch is over, anyone who feels like it can then go on to dance the night away.

And the French do… They can pasa doble, and waltz, and tango, and cha-cha-cha, and rock-and-roll, all to the music of our small band whose main instrument is …the accordion.

First published February 2008

PRUNING VINES – January to March every year!

When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,…
(Shakespeare)

I have been living in the heart of the Loire Valley for over 15 years and these cold, crisp mornings always remind me of those poems I had to learn as a kid in the early 1960’s. They all come back to me. I wonder if kids today still have to learn them by heart.

It really was “brillig” this morning. And if “Dick, the shepherd” had still been around he would have been blowing his nail, too. It was the week before Christmas.  It was minus 11° celsius! This is very good for the vines, however. It freezes all the little bugs in the wood of the vines and enables the plant to carry forth without hindrance of pests during the budding season. Jean-Marc always tells me that we need at least minus 8° celsius for 3 consecutive days in winter for a good grounding for the spring buds.

The pruning of the vines is the work which most wine-growers hate. It is invariably cold, grey, dull, snowing or raining and, above all, tedious.

Every single vine has to be prunedby hand!

It lasts from late November to the end of March. The growers do little other than prune during these months.

Most of them take a CD or radio into the vines so they can listen to their favourite programmes or music.

I have tried to get the viticulture associations to make a CD for the growers to learn enough English while pruning to be able to communicate the splendours of their Loire Valley wines to passing tourists. My pleas have fallen on deaf ears so far.

In our region, or appellation” (Touraine), there are two different ways of pruning depending on the type of grape and the required abundance of the harvest – the “goblet” style and the “Guillot” (Guyot) style.

The goblet style is cut quite short. The branches are pruned close to the stump. They are about 2 inches in length. They each have about 2 eyes only. This type of pruning is for the young, vital vines which have an excess of zeal in the spring budding season. This is typically used for the gamay and côt (malbec) varietals.

Guillot/Guyot pruning is used for the more subdued, older and less abundant vines, such as the sauvignon blanc or cabernet varietals. The Guillot pruning is very short apart from one (or, in some cases, two) very long branch. The long branch has about 7 eyes. Later in spring this branch is lowered and clipped onto a wire.

In either case there should be no more than 10 eyes left on the vine.

Jean-Marc has made himself a « prune-mobile ».

This is a small vehicle in which he sits. He manoevers it sideways down the vines. It is covered on the top and there are flaps on the ends so he is out of the way of intemperate weather! However, that’s another story…                                                                            (Guillot style pruning)

I shall continue to keep you updated with the life of a wine-grower in France.

First published January 2008