In the photo above on the left is the beautiful beach at Sandy Lane
, where we would have their world-renowned lunch in their Bajan Blue restaurant at beach level. Most of the food at the celebrated brunch, while delicious, was international fare, but I carefully chose the local dishes, including an eddoe
soup, the barbecued suckling pig, and grilled tuna. We also sampled dozens of desserts and the best one was hands-down the only truly regional dish, a moist cake filled with freshly grated coconut.
is taro, the root of an elephant ear plant, Colocasia esculenta
, several varieties of which many of us grow in our gardens for their dramatic, tropical foliage. Closely related is another variety known as dasheen, coco, cocoyam, malanga, tanier, tannia, yautía, or baddo. The leaves are called callaloo
and are the principal ingredient in the what is probably the most famous West Indian soup, also called callaloo. (See my blog entry for November 19, 2007
). The names are confusing even to locals. At Sandy Lane I asked if eddoe were the same as manioc (Manihot esculenta
, also known as yucca or cassava), and they told me yes, but, it is not.
Again I refer to the wonderful, encyclopedic books of Elizabeth Schneider
as my primary source.
Even more confusing are sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batata) and true yams (Dioscorea species), both of which are popular on the island. Here’s a photo, taking from our moving car, of folks digging yams in a field along the Ronald Mapp Highway that runs down the center of the island. Note the old sugar mill in the background.
We rented a car and did some day trips out from David’s beautiful home, but driving in Barbados is very much like driving the back roads in Ireland, where the roads are narrow and the hedgerows lean heavily into the road, often allowing the passage of only one car at a time. In Barbados, there are often sugar cane fields on both sides of the road, the canes reaching several meters high, well above the cars. Like the hedgerow pruners in Ireland (there’s a photo here
), there are often cane cutters on the narrow roads in Barbados. And they drive on the “wrong” side of the road!
The island is so small, though (166 square miles, less than 25 miles long at its longest, and less than 15 miles wide at its widest), that getting places rarely takes long (unless, of course, you’re trying to reach your plane!), and just beyond the scariest bend in the road you’ll find the most beautiful views, such as these along the rugged east coast at Bathsheba.
The Pandanus estate sits high above the Platinum Coast of Barbados, where one luxurious hotel and/or restaurant after another hug the beautiful western shoreline that boasts some of the prettiest beaches in the West Indies. The island is coral, not volcanic, so the beaches are soft pinkish sand and the waters are ever-changing shades of turquoise. Our first night there we were joined by Cilla Black
, the iconic British singer and television star, who regaled us with stories of John and Ringo when they were all young in Liverpool.
I was surprised to see barracuda on the menu at the stylish Tides
restaurant in Holetown, because I had always heard that the fish caused ciguatera poisoning. It certainly does in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Virgin Islands, where I have come in contact with the fish before. But I was assured that the barracuda of Barbados was not only edible, but delicious, so I ordered it and was pleasantly surprised by its delicate texture. Since the fish is known as such a fierce predator, I thought its flesh would be tougher, like that of a swordfish. It was anything but. I was constantly amazed at just how apart from the rest of the Caribbean the island is.
We ate out every night but two, David wanting to share with us the world-class restaurants that his island home-away-from-home boasts. After our huge lunch at Sandy Lane, I rummaged through the refrigerator and
was able to come up with ingredients for salmon croquettes
, as I have done on other trips, serving them again with poached eggs the next morning. Another night, David invited friends from England and Jersey over for dinner and Les Carloss and Jeff Corrigan, of Bluff City Bayou in Memphis, treated us to jambalaya and bananas foster. Here’s Les in the kitchen preparing salad for thirteen.
One day I made cheese straws
, using a rum punch bottle for a rolling pin. But I don’t care for bottled punches any more than I care for bottled margarita mixes, so I bought a bunch of oranges and limes and made rum punch with just-squeezed juice. The classic Bajan recipe for rum punch goes, “One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak,” with lime juice, sugar syrup, rum, and water as the ingredients, dashed with Angostura bitters. Mikel and I had toured the fascinating St. Nicholas Abbey (not an abbey at all but a Jacobean rum plantation) where they served us a rum punch with tonic water. My recipe, which everyone loved, follows.
Here are David, Mikel, Sandy (David’s sister), Jeff, and Les with an afternoon punch in the pool. The sorrel syrup called for is made from the bright red sepals of the tropical Hibiscus sabdariffa
, also known as rosella
and flor de Jamaica
. You can find the syrup in West Indian markets. It is in no way related to French sorrel (see the final entry in August 2007
8 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice
16 ounces freshly squeeed orange juice
12 ounces Barbados rum
8 ounces tonic water
4 ounces sorrel syrup
Several healthy dashes of Angostura bitters
Stir all the ingredients except the bitters in a pitcher, add the bitters, stir again, and fill the pitcher with ice, stiring once more. Serve in tall glasses (plastic, please, if you’re poolside!) and garnish, if desired, with a sprig of mint, a lime leaf, or a slice of papaya, mango, or pineapple. Serves 6.
We ate at seaside tables at both The Lonestar
and The Cliff
, the latter having been mentioned that very morning in The Times
(which David has delivered to Pandanus) for being selected as having made “The Grade” as one of the top restaurants in the world according to British Airways business travelers. They were both lovely restaurants, but I was far more intrigued to find a local lamb curry made with the heritage Barbados
. I noticed the animals shortly after we arrived, and, assuming they were goats, asked Judy Codrington, David’s charming housekeeper, where I could sample the local goat curry, which I thought I remembered from my youth as local fare. Judy corrected me, and pointed me toward some small local places where she thought I might find the dish. After several false starts, we finally found a delightful dish of the gently flavored lamb (said to be mild because of its lack of unnecessary fat) in an equally mild, but perfectly balanced, curry sauce at the unpretentious seaside Zachary’s Island Grill in Speightstown, an old Bajan village that is still not spoiled by modern development. Here’s Frank, the owner of Zachary’s (named after his partner’s son), with the lamb curry, and Mikel and I with Judy.
Speightstown still looks like old Barbados and it acts like old Barbados, too, with gardeners selling their wares on the streets. I bought delicious tomatoes and okra from one of the vendors and made lunch on our final day for Sandy’s birthday. I also made her a German Chocolate Cake, one of my favorites, using local coconut and sugar, but using two smaller pans instead of the three that the recipe calls for, because that’s what I had to work with. The recipe is below.
The highlight of any trip for me is the people and the food, but one sight that is not to be missed on Barbados is St Nicholas Abbey
, one of only three Jacobean plantation houses existing in the Western Hemisphere. The plantation was built about 1650, but there have been many additions throughout its 350-year history. The original owner was murdered by John Yeamans, one of the original Lords Proprietors of Carolina and South Carolina’s first Governor.
The current owner, one of the island’s most successful architects, is restoring not only the buildings, but the operations as well. He is growing sugarcane again, grinding it with the ancient, now restored, steam engine, and refining both sugar and rum, aging the rum for 10 years and hand-bottling it for sale in one of the outbuildings where we sampled the delicious rum and punch. Unlike other West Indian aged rums, the Nicholas Abbey vintage rum is not blended with other, younger rums, but presented in its pure, brandy-like form. It’s delicious.
If you find yourself at St Nicholas Abbey, give yourself time to tour the grounds and outbuildings, buy some rum, and be sure to take in the fascinating 20-minute vintage film taken by the former owner’s father in 1935 and showing passage from England and the complete workings of the sugar plantation at the time. The grounds are filled with plantings such as orchids, a 400-year-old sandbox tree (Hura crepitans), a formal herb garden, breadfruits, mangoes, papayas, avocados, palms, heliconias, and dozens of other tropical favorites.
Creole Sauce for Fish (from Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking)
Throughout the West Indies, the natives steam the fishy coral-dwelling fish such as Old Wife and triggerfish, as well as the more delicate flying fish, in the same Creole sauce that we serve here with fried fish. It is but the famous salsa criolla crudaof all Latin America. The olive oil is optional, but if you are steaming non-oily fish filets, it does wonders.1 onion, chopped
1 large tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
1 hot pepper, such as a jalapeño, seeded and chopped
2 finely minced cloves garlic
salt and pepper to taste
the juice of a lime
1/2-3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, optional
fresh parsley or cilantro
a tablespoon anchovy paste, optional
Mix all of the above ingredients and allow to stand at room temperature for about an hour. Serve raw with fried fish and boiled seafood such as shrimp or cover a fish with it and steam it.German Chocolate Cake (from The New Southern Cook)
When I was growing up, my mother’s best friend, Cassandra McGee, would always make a “German Chocolate Cake” for birthdays. I loved the coconut-pecan icing and the wholesome chocolate cake layers. When I asked Cassandra for the recipe, she told me to buy some Baker’s German’s Brand © Sweet Chocolate and follow the recipe on the inside of the box.
The Baker’s version assumes you have a microwave, which I didn’t have when I wrote the book. Their icing calls for evaporated milk and sweetened coconut, but I use whipping cream and unsweetened fresh or frozen grated coconut. This is really a wonderful cake and an American classic. According to The Southern Heritage Cakes Cookbook, the recipe first appeared in a Dallas newspaper in the 1950′s. Whatever its origin, it is delicious.
When I made this on Barbados, I didn’t have buttermilk, so I used plain yogurt thinned with a little milk.
For the cake:
4 ounces sweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup boiling water
4 eggs at room temperature, separated
1 cup butter (2 sticks or 8 ounces), softened
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or 2-1/4 cups soft southern all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grease 3 9-inch cake pans, line the bottoms with wax paper, and grease again. Preheat the oven to 350o.
Combine the chocolate and boiling water, stirring until melted. In the small bowl of an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks, then set aside. With the same beaters (don’t bother to wash them off), cream the butter, then gradually add the sugar, beating constantly. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each. Add the melted chocolate and beat in well.
Dissolve the soda in the buttermilk. Sift the flour and salt together, then add in thirds to the batter, alternating with the buttermilk, and ending with the flour. Stir in the vanilla.
With a large whisk, reach down into the beaten egg whites and make sure they are still whipped throughout. If not, beat them until they are. Pick up a whiskful of the whites and mix into the batter, then fold in the remaining beaten whites.
Divide the batter among the three prepared pans and bake for 30 minutes or until a wooden pick stuck into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 15 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans to wire racks and cool completely.
While the cakes are cooling, make the icing.
For the icing:
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
4 ounces (1 stick) butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 ounces (1-1/4 cups) fresh or frozen grated coconut (See Note.)
1 cup chopped pecans
Combine the cream, sugar, yolks, and butter in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring often, until the mixture is very thick, about 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla, then fold in the coconut and nuts. Allow to cool completely before icing the cake.
To ice the cake, remove the wax paper from one of the layers and place it right-side up on a cake platter. Spread a third of the icing on the layer, then repeat with the remaining two layers, stacking them. Do not ice the sides of the cake, but allow the cake layers to show through.
NOTE: Coconut is sold frozen in 6-ounce packages as “flaked.” (On Barbados, they had several brands of local coconut, frozen in 1-lb packages. Use whatever unsweetened coconut you can find.) Don’t worry if the coconut isn’t completely thawed when you go to stir it in. You’ll have to stir it more rigorously to get it to break up evenly, but the icing will cool off more quickly.
This recipe yields a three layer cake — at least 12 servings.
This cake was our last bite on Barbados, and this was our last sunset.
January 18, 2008
: I’m off to Barbados for a week to visit my friend David Evans (Lord Evans of Watford). This is the fourth time this year that I’ve got to see David, who is one of the nicest, most upbeat, and successful people I’ve ever known. (See my February 2007
blog and Travels: London
). More to follow!
January 14, 2008
: I spent the weekend with my father and his wife in Welaka, Florida. I always am always pleasantly surprised by the landscape in north-central Florida, where rolling pastures of horses and cattle are punctuated by stately live oaks, evoking more England than palm-fringed stereotypical Florida beaches. Here’s a photo I shot yesterday morning as I was leaving in the fog.
It’s definitely “cracker” territory, where wooden boats and cotton shrimp nets are still made by hand and grocery stores are 30 miles apart. Welaka nestles up to a large bend in the beautiful St John’s River, which flows north (!) through cypress bottoms dripping with Spanish moss. I saw gallinules and coots, herons and egrets, hawks and eagles, and an otter. I also found boiled peanuts and sampled the delectable local satsumas and calamondins at a roadside stand.My father is a great cook and he managed to replace on me
the weight that I had lost the week before walking on the beach! My first night there, he prepared my mother’s version of Paella Valenciana. The recipe, from her Purdue collection
, follows. For breakfast the next morning, we had his version of Eggs Benedict, with thin-sliced country ham, eggs, and hollandaise atop an authentic rusk. I don’t know where my father got the rusk, but I saw his old copy of the Brennan’s cookbook pulled out over on the sideboard, so I imagine he rekindled his recipe recall with a quick look in that book. The country ham is so much better than the traditional Canadian bacon! For dinner my last night, he made old-fashioned Italian-American spaghetti with meat sauce. Who doesn’t
Dad’s a ham radio operator and a racing fan, but his tv was on the blink when I was there, so I didn’t have to lose him to the cars on the tube. We talked a lot about the Manhattan Project, for which he worked during the War, the current political situation, and the amazing latest developments in electronics. Lila, his wife, added to my waistline with her scrumptious cookies, several of which were made from my mother’s old recipes.
Here’s my wording of my mother’s version of this old Spanish classic. Like pilau from the Lowcountry, paella has as many versions as there are cooks. In Valencia, it often includes rabbit and snails, but this version can be done just about anywhere, even in north-central Florida!
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chopped celery
2 cups chopped onion
4 cups peeled and chopped ripe tomatoes or one 28-oz can peeled and chopped tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled, green shoot removed, and minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 skinless and boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size chunks
¾ cup raw white rice
1 cup chicken stock, boiling
1 pound peeled shrimp
½ pound country ham, cubed
½ pound green peas, fresh or frozen
1 cup small artichoke hearts
½ cup sliced roasted pimientos or other mild red peppers
fresh chopped parsley for garnish
Preheat the oven to 325º. Heat the olive oil in a paella pan (or large shallow casserole dish) over medium heat and add the celery and onion, cooking until the onion begins to become translucent. Add the tomatoes and garlic to the pan, cover, and place in the oven until all the flavors have mingled, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add the chicken to the pan and return to the oven for another 30 minutes.
Add the rice and the boiling stock and cook for another 30 minutes. At this point, or 30 minutes before serving, add the shrimp, the ham, the peas, and the artichokes. Just before serving, add the roasted pimientos, toss, and serve. Garnish the plates with fresh parsley.
Mother always served this with a tossed salad and cornbread. My father likes to serve a Greek salad, with feta cheese and black olives.
Makes 8 servings.
When I got home, Mikel and I went out for a late lunch at Brasserie Beck
, Robert Wiedmaier’s young French/Belgian spot downtown. Mikel had mussels with fennel and chorizo and the brilliantly re-imagined salade niçoise
with seared sushi-grade tuna. I had the deceptively light pea soup with airy veal meatballs, followed by a stellar rabbit leg and loin with a intriguing sauce of Kriek beer. The crispy fries are twice-fried, tossed with chopped parsley, and served with three homemade mayonnaise sauces. I haven’t had better since I was last in Belgium. The sommelier steered us perceptively toward the dark and fruity 2005 Sentido Ribera del Duero Tempranillo to complement all of our choices. I saw Robert as I was leaving and told him that everything about the food and service had been perfect, even the bread (their own, and the best I’ve had in a DC restaurant), the butter (actually room temperature and spreadable!) and the water (glasses always filled, very little ice). I don’t eat out very often and when I do, I’m often disappointed. The food is not fussy at all and the flavors were at once bright and bold. This wasn’t my first visit to Beck and it certainly won’t be my last. Kudos all around!
Jan 10, 2008
: Jacksonville, Florida, has had large numbers of Middle Easterners since the twenties. Dearborn and other Michigan cities have always had larger populations, but when I wrote The New Southern Cook
, Jacksonville had a higher percentage of Middle Easterners than any other American city. I’ve been in north Florida for a week and am amazed, if not surprised, by the continued development at every turn. I was saddened to see that the colorful and popular Gold Room restaurant on Beach Boulevard is now closed. I went to the public library (where I am now using their wifi service) in search of population records and see that Jacksonville is now 10th on the list of cities with the highest Middle Eastern populations. The figures, however, are based on the notoriously intricate and confusing 2000 US Census, which had residents check whether they self-identify as Arabic, Middle Eastern, or North African. Most chose to simply to identify as ”of general Arab ancestry.” Nearly half of the 1.2 million Arabic immigrants in that census were from Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt (in that order), but most of the people I interviewed in Jacksonville12 years ago were Palestinian Christians. In Ponte Vedra, south of Jacksonville Beach, I have found one Middle Eastern restaurant. The Lebanese owners moved there 5 years ago from Boston and admitted to me that they do as much business in hookahs and tobacco as they do in hummus and baba ghanouj. It’s 77º here as I write this. I bought some tabbouleh for lunch. There is nothing more cooling on a hot summer’s day. Ironically, back in Washington, I often can find better tomatoes in supermarkets in the winter than those I find during the height of their summer season. Some of them are the remarkable UglyRipes©, a successful commercial heirloom with bright, bold flavor and a meaty texture. (You can read more about UglyRipes here
.) Here’s a recipe for tabbouleh:Tabbouleh
(from The New Southern Cook
Tabbouleh, the traditional Middle Eastern salad of cracked wheat, cucumbers, parsley, and mint, is widely popular in the South, where its cooling effect is welcomed in the 100-degree summers. Burghul is cracked wheat that has been precooked; it need only soak a little to rehydrate. The following recipe is a traditional one from the Palestinian community in Jacksonville, Florida. Because tomatoes, cucumbers, and lemons have widely varying amounts of water, this recipe might result in a very juicy version. Don’t worry, it’s delicious. I’ve given instructions in case you need to “fix” it.
1 large cucumber (optional)
1/2 cup fine burghul
2 large or 3 medium fresh, ripe tomatoes, diced
1 cup finely chopped scallions
3 cups finely chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
juice of 3 lemons
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Peel the cucumber, halve it along its width and length, scoop out the seeds with a spoon, and cut each quarter into four or five strips. Place them in a colander or sieve and sprinkle with the tablespoon of salt. Set aside to drain.
Soak the burghul in cold water for about ten minutes, then thoroughly drain it in a colander lined with damp cheesecloth. Wrap the burghul in the cheesecloth and squeeze out any excess water. Place the burghul in a large bowl and toss gently with the remaining ingredients. Refrigerate for about an hour so that the burghul can absorb the juices.
Remove the tabbouleh from the refrigerator. If the mixture is too juicy, simply put it in a colander and drain off some of the liquid. Dice the reserved cucumber, which should be well drained by the time you’re ready to serve, and mix into the salad. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Makes 4 servings.
Florida is rarely thought of as Southern, though the northern part of the state shares similar history, geography, and culture with the rest of the Old South. Jacksonville, with its stately live oaks, meandering rivers, and barrier islands, resembles the Georgia Lowcountry which it neighbors. Not far south of the city is the “frost line” that divides the tropical from the subtropical, the very Southern northern part of the state with the vacation playground for which the southern half of the state is best known.
Jacksonville is a huge city — the largest incorporated city in the United States, in terms of physical size. It spreads from the state line in the north to the ocean in the east, through rolling farm land and subtropical swamp. The city center is home to many insurance companies; their headquarters are dramatic modern office buildings that rise up from the St. Johns River in stark contrast to the sleepy live oaks and palmettoes that hug the banks of the river in suburban areas.
Some of those suburbs are neighborhoods built in the 1920′s, when the pride in the state’s Spanish heritage was at an all-time high. Houses are tiled and stuccoed. Many churches and buildings in shopping districts resemble the Spanish-motif structures built in southern California at the same time. It was during that building craze that Middle Easterners began moving to Jax and opening their restaurants and sandwich shops. From Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine they have continued to come to the city. Pita is the daily bread of many of the city inhabitants. It has even replaced Sunbeam (the Wonder Bread of the South) in the convenience stores.
Joe Assi was a Lebanese baker who provided the city with khubz, or Arabic bread, for forty years. At one point, he made 2000 six-loaf bags of bread each day, but reduced his output to only 2400 loaves per day before he finally closed the Gold Room. Louise, his wife, has been in Jacksonville even longer. She was Louise Abood; her brother owned the popular restaurants Brown Derby and the Steer Room, both now closed. “Jacksonville was the tourist town. We had film studios here back in the old days. We were before Miami. It was very different. My parents used to walk to St. Augustine, can you imagine, in this heat? Joe came down from Georgetown, South Carolina — there was a settlement of Lebanese there — and when he met me he decided to stay….By then (1964), there were a lot of Syrians and Palestinians here, too. We were the only ones making the Arabic bread for the Middle Eastern community at first. We never called it pita.”
If there is not a pita baker in your neigborhood, as there is likely to be in Jacksonville, try making it at home. It’s both easy and delicious. Pita makes wonderful sandwich bread. In Jacksonville there are several chains of fast food eateries where this pocket bread is used to hold “sheikburgers” and “desert riders.” Pita is especially good for picnics, and is often served with tabbouleh (see above), hummus, and baba ghanhouj, traditional accompaniments that are now widely favored in the South. Too bad cooks aren’t in charge of foreign policy. Middle Eastern food always seems to win everyone over. It is, after all, mostly the same for Arabs, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
1/2 ounce fresh compressed cake yeast or 1 teaspoon active dry granulated yeast plus 1/4 teaspoon sugar or honey
1-1/4 cups warm water (110º -120º)
1 pound (about 3-1/2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus flour for dusting
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
Dissolve the yeast (and, if using dry yeast, the sugar or honey) in about 1/4 cup of the water. Leave in a warm place for about 10 minutes to proof, or become active. It should be slightly bubbly.
In a large warmed mixing bowl, mix the flour and salt. Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast and mix in thoroughly. Gradually add the remaining warm water as you knead the dough until it is elastic and smooth, about 15 minutes. It should be firm enough to roll with a rolling pin and should no longer stick to your fingers. Rub a little olive oil over the top of the dough so that it does not dry out, and cover the bowl with a blanket or towel. Leave in a warm place to rise for about 2 hours, or until it is doubled in size.
Punch the dough down and knead again for a few minutes to make the dough uniformly smooth again. Cut the dough into six equal parts, then shape into six balls. Roll the balls on a floured surface into circles 1/4″ thick and 6 or 7 inches in diameter. Dust with flour and cover with the towel or blanket again, allowing to rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 500º and oil two baking sheets.
Bake the bread in the preheated oven for 5 to 7 minutes until the bottom is light brown, then
broil the tops for 1/2 minute until light brown. Remove from the oven and immediately wrap in towels. Serve warm or cool.
Makes 6 loaves.
January 3, 2008: Shopping for Champagne in the Leap Year
I had a very relaxing holiday and only had 9 folks in for our New Year’s Day feast (see my December blogs for a description of what I prepared). We ate for hours. And drank lots of Champagne!
We have been buying Champagne from small grower-producers for several years now. Their numbers seem to be growing as the huge comglomerates have taken over the big name brands and quality has fallen. There are over 100 Champagne houses, but over 15,000 grower-producers. The labelling is strictly controlled, but, in general, I have found that if I buy wines from houses that are designated RM (Récoltant manipulant
, or grower-producer) that I then also am likely to find a finely crafted gem of a wine. Foremost, buy wine from merchants who have sampled their merchandise and who can point you toward the type of Champagne you like. (There are so many!) My brilliant wine guru Debbie Marlowe
wrote the wine recommendations for my second book and advised: “Find a wine merchant you trust and ask him for details; he should be able to take … general recommendations and point out specific bottles when choosing the wines for [specific]… meals. If I have recommended, for example, an earthy red Bordeaux, tell him your price range and follow his suggestion. Share your wine experiences with him and let him guide you accordingly, but if you find him not in tune with your palate, choose another merchant — this is not divorce, just another part of your wine education.”
All you need to know when buying Champagne is what you like. If you like the wine to be on the lighter side, or to serve as an apéritif or a first course, you might prefer a blanc de blancs, made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. If you like a bigger, bolder, yeastier wine to continue drinking through the meal, you may want to open a bottle of blanc de noirs, made exclusively from the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Classic Champagne is a non-vintage (NV) blend of the three grapes, aged for at least 1-1/2 years. Vintage Champagnes are less common, and bottled only in the years that the cellarmasters think will produce a grand wine. They are aged for at least 3 years, but 7 or 8 years is not uncommon.
The RM designation helps, but it’s not foolproof: RC is the designation for Récoltant coopérateur, a grower who is a member of a co-op. Traditionally, an RC can sell Champagne produced by a cooperative under its own brand and label. But co-op members who make their own Champagne but take the bottles to be disgorged at the co-op can now label themselves as RM instead of RC, even though that crucial step of the complicated process is provided by co-op machinery (almost no one does it by hand any longer) not on the winemaker’s premises. Look for the Professional Registration Code (RM, RC, NM, CM, SR, ND, or MA) on the label, usually on the last line, after the address.
Many of the best bottles I’ve sampled have been from very small vintners who previously grew grapes for the big producers but who have now returned to their family’s tradition of making their own wines. Many are brothers or brother-sister or father-son or entire family teams. Some of the smaller producers are among the oldest families in the Champagne region.
Here are some of the Champagnes we have been enjoying recently, all of which are reasonably priced:
Lilbert-Fils: For over 250 years, the Lilbert family has been crafting their lovely wines. They produce 2250 cases of grand cru blanc de blancs only (Compare that to Moët’s 25 million cases!), exclusively from their 9.4 acres. This father-son team makes a steely, tart, highly effervescent wine. It’s austere, like Catherine Deneuve, but even with its green-apple bite, it is much creamier and softer than the blancs de blancs the big boys make. (Of the 324 villages rated in 1927, only 17 were given grand cru status.)
Soutiran: If Lilbert is Catherine Deneuve, then the voluptuous Soutiran is Marilyn Monroe. Another grand cru appellation, Soutiran is all about the luscious roundness of pinot noir. Alain Soutiran grows 21 acres organically, but also buys grapes from neighboring family members, whose vineyards he oversees. We’ve had his grand cru brut (60% pinot noir, 40% chardonnay) several times and have been bowled over each time by the wallop it packs, a mouthful of fruit with perfectly balanced acidity.
L Aubry Fils: I’ve already praised the non-vintage Premier Cru Brut Tradition from Jouy-les-Reims in these pages before, but the wine’s qualities bear repeating. The Aubry twins were growers who used to sell most of their fruit to Veuve Clicquot. Now they make delightful, yeasty wines that are unique, using as much as 50% Meunier in some bottlings. The wine has a golden color and a grande mousse of millions of tiny bubbles. It is spicy and herbal with a pronounced taste of grain and fresh, tart fruit with floral notes as well. I love this wine and it goes so well with cheese straws!
R Dumont & Fils: This has to be the bargain of the year, even though I’ve seen its price go up twice. From Champignol-lez-Mondeville in the Southern Aube, the three Dumont brothers work exclusively with the grapes from the 54 acres that have been in the family for over 200 years. Geologically, the soil is identical to that of Chablis, but the land is planted mostly in pinot noir. Another wine with lots of tiny bubbles, this bright sparkler has a peachy nose and is light enough on the palate that even some non-drinkers found themselves quaffing 5 or 6 glasses at my house on New Year’s Day!!!
Thierry Triolet: From the village of Bethon (where the Gruet brothers came from), Triolet is another small grower-producer of 100% Chardonnay. Forget what you think you know about blanc de blancs: Triolet’s Grande Réserve Brut is left on the lees for 7 years, yielding a creamy, yeasty, buttery, citrusy, well-balanced wine with bright, clear bubbles. Like a perfect slice of buttered toast spritzed with lemon juice, if you can imagine that. Our friend Patrick Triano brought this one (he had also turned us on a couple of years ago to the Dumont) to our home on New Year’s Day and I’ll definitely be buying more of it!
There were others, some better than others. And a few glorious bottles of rare rosés. But the Champagnes mentioned here all embody the characteristics that I used to take for granted in a bottle of Clicquot or Perrier-Jouët and that I now seem only to find in wines made by artisans such as these.
I hope you can find these, or other similar gems, in your neck of the woods. And, please, share your finds with me. I’m always up for tasting another Champagne! The following photo, which has nothing to do with food, is of the tray of camellias that my friend Mary Edna Fraser
and her daughter Rebecca brought me from Charleston. They’re here for several days and Rebecca is a vegetarian. Now there’s
a challenge for me!!!! Camellias in winter are one of the things I miss most about living down South.
(Southwest Airlines) has a feature about Hoppin’ John in their January issue.