Backroads of Provence: The Yellow Wine of Kings Monday, May 30 2011 

Provence is full of surprises and perhaps what should not be surprising is that the discoveries that make a vacation in Provence so delightful today, so often have deep and rich historical significance. Wine is an excellent illustration as we discovered on our visit to Rochemaure Castle.

Enter stage left my French brother-in-law Loic < l-o-eek>. He is so reserved and stoic <st-o-ick) that in my nearly 15 years of knowing him I can count the times that we have had a good belly laugh together on one finger.  So any sudden change in his demeanor can be an excellent litmus test to validate whether something is truly special, such as the new and yet unsurpassed fruit of the vine we discovered in Provence a couple of weeks ago. Loic’s family has been in the wine business for generations. While he is no longer in that business himself, he certainly knows a good wine when he tastes one.

French Merguez BBQ

The other night  as we settled into the kitchen at Loic’s fabulous country home near St. Paul Trois Chateâux for a simple meal of grilled merguez and rare artisanal country sausages,  it was a fair assumption that the standard Côtes du Rhône set out on the table might not be the only wine we would be drinking that night.  Côtes du Rhône has been called the “anti Cabernet” and is known for it’s versatility in matching with a range of foods from filet of beef to pizza.  Therefore is was a wise selection for grilled sausage.  Towards the end of the meal, however, Loic quietly left the table and emerged from his storage room with a couple of new bottles. He casually opened a bottle of what looked like a white and began to fill a small aperitif glass. I immediately noticed the odd bottle which resembled a cognac bottle.  In the glass the wine looked like a Chardonnay but had a more yellow colour to it.  It certainly didn’t smell like any white I have ever encountered.  The fragrance resembled cognac. In his usual stoic manner Loic explained to me that the wine had been aged in special oak barrels for a long time and the process was extremely unusual. He urged me to taste it.  I looked at Loic in astonishment. I asked him “what is this?  It tastes like a crisp light white wine but smells just like cognac!” That’s when Loic broke out in an ear to ear smile and with a laugh he exclaimed “Isn’t it incredible? I can’t explain it and it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted!”

With that rare reaction from my bro, I knew we were enjoying something special. He asked me if I have ever heard of “yellow wine”. The answer was “no” of course and I could do little more than invite humble instruction at the foot of the master. I was also shocked that he was actually laughing and talking (he really tries to avoid speaking English at all costs.)

Vin Château Chalon

The Emperor Napoleon was once served a wine at a sitting with the Prince of Metternich in Germany.  Napoleon complimented the Prince by declaring this wine that he had just tasted from the Prince’s region was the best wine in the world.  The Prince looked at him, so the story goes, and apologetically informed the Emperor that the wine was not from his region but in fact came from a small town within Napoleon’s own empire..a town called Chateâu Chalon.  What we were enjoying at dinner is perhaps the most unique wine I have ever tasted.  Chateâu Chalon continues to be claimed by some as the best wine in the world. 

Château Chalon Abbey

In the year 280 A.D., Roman Emperor Probus declared Chateâu Chalon as having exceptional soil for grapes and mandated that vines be planted there.  The process of making Chateâu Chalon is unique in that the wine is fermented in small oak barrels for the minimum legal duration of six years and three months.  The barrels actually have a gap in them for evaporation of what is called “the angel’s portion” of the wine. 

Napoleon 1

The wine is derived from a special grape called the Savagnin, which itself has mysterious and historically significant origin.  It has been served to kings and nobles throughout history including Tsar Nicholas II at his coronation.  Loic was able to taste a bottle that his friend had brought back from a wine trade show.  He and some friends went in on a case, which he chose to break out at dinner.  Another attribute worth mentioning is that the unfinished bottle is still corked and resting peacefully at our home in Provence.  You see this wine is also called “vin de gard” because you can keep it a very long time after opening.

So when visiting Provence don’t forget to ask the butcher for a bunch of merguez, some secret local sausages and a wine with “cachet”. You’ll never know what surprises come next.

Ciao for now!

Backroads of Provence: Drink Fruits and Flowers at Domaine Eyguebelle Monday, Jan 3 2011 

If you find yourself on the backroads of Provence near Montelimar and exploring the wine road area you may run across Domaine Eyguebelle just south of the city. If you are not in the area, then make a point of getting there. Bringing tasty items like fruit syrop back from Provence in your luggage is always an exercise in the art of compromise. Bottles are heavy and the luggage weight limits on international flights are down to 31.8 kilos per check in bag. So if I had a choice of bringing home a bottle of French wine or a bottle of Eyguebell syrop, it would have to be a fairly rare bottle of wine for me to leave the Eyguebelle behind. You can always find a bottle of French wine back in the states. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who sells or even knows who this greatest of all distilled fruit syrops and liquers is. Even if someone made a lucky guess and suggested that you can buy Creme de Menthe at their shop, it is unlikely that they would know that it was actually invented by the monks at the Eyguebelle Monastery.

Hai Karate Aftershave

Ah yes, that wonderfully green forgotten liquer that tastes like mint.  The first time I had a taste of this concoction it was back in the 1960s when I was just a boy.  I was at a neighborhood friend’s house and there was a crystal decanter on the living room coffee table filled with an electric green liquid.  I don’t know whether it was just a 1960s era attraction to anything that would look cool under a black strobe light, or a James Bond attitude of “suave and debonaire” having purchased Hai Karate aftershave for dad at Christmas that heightened my curiousity.  Perhaps it was simply a kid’s fascination of things like bug guts that made the green liquid too hard to pass up.  I took a snort and recall being somewhat underwhelmed.  I am not a real mint fan.

But I didn’t even find out that the Eyguebelle monks had invented creme de menthe until I was about 1/2 the way through the factory tour.  I had been drinking other syrops like Tessier for years.  My wife’s family would send them to us each Christmas and the kids absolutely love mixing real fruit syrops like raspberry, almond and cassis with Perrier, San Pellegrino or even ordinary tap water.  I realized that these commercially available syrops were indeed “kids stuff” when it compares to the world of Eyguebelle.  Following the short factory tour and museum walk we wandered into a factory store with a bewildering array of shelves loaded with bottles of syrops, aperitifs and liquers for sale.  The entire family drifted away in a state of wonder, looking at all the flavors.

Eyguebelle Syrops

There was syrop for just about every natural fruit extract you can imagine.  Then there is a complementary alcohol-based liquer that matches each syrop in the same selection of fruit flavors.  For example, I was drawn to the fig syrop.  It just sounded interesting.  So when I elbowed my way up to the syrop bar – that’s correct, Eyguebelle has a syrop bar long enough to serve about 10 people and the boy behind the counter asks you for your flavor, pulls a full bottle from the rack behind him, puts in a shot, adds spring water and delicately places an ice cube in the glass – I asked for the fig syrop.  Tasting that cold fig in ice water was heavenly.  Then the bartender asked with a smile if I would like to taste the creme de figue.  This alcohol-based version of the syrop I had just tasted, he explained, won the bronze medal at the 2006 industry competition in Paris.  He was right.  This liquer, not mixed with water but taken with a simple ice cube in th glass, was over the top.

Fois Gras & Carmelized Fig

I think the reason I was so attracted to the fig flavor is that during my recent gastronomic adventure across Provence, I was turned on to the fact that fois gras goes very well with a sweet fruit and figs are often served to be eaten with fois gras.  So I hatched the plan that during Christmas, when fois gras is served at our home with friends, creme de figue would be introduced and blow the guests away.

So much for fig.  My wife was not terribly interested in fig.  My kids were wearing out thebartender with everything but fig.  I guess nobody else connected the fois gras thing.  Sometimes enjoying top shelf gourmet cuisine can be a lonely adventure.  The reality is that kids just like spaghetti.

So my kids were downing the raspberry (of course) and the strawberry and then advancing to the more sophisticated tastes of mandarine and green bannana (wow!)  My wife starting dipping into the flowers (yes flowers) and shared with me the poppy and the lavender syrop.  I began to realize that we were arriving at an impasse, yes a battle of wills.  With luggage already filled to the brim, how many bottles would it take to get the bag weight to within a gram of 31.8 kilos?  Then she did it.  My wife pulled out the famous Melonade liquer.  That single ice cube floating merrily in a couple of shots of this light orange liquid all resting in a pure crystal glass is nearly impossible to beat.  It tastes just like you are biting into a cold slice of fresh canteloupe.  So now I am thinking of prosciutto and melon rather than fois gras and fig.  She had me dead to rights.

Prosciutto & Melon

But alas, three children means six extra suitcases!!  So I am looking at my bottle cabinet with creme de figue, melonade and syrop of lavender, poppy, raspberry all at the same time.  What’s that hidden back there?  Could it be?  Yes!  It’s green bannana! What a holiday it will be.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience, visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence!

Backroads of Provence: Cuisine Experience that is “Over the Top” Sunday, Nov 7 2010 

My wife and I were presented an anniversary gift from her sister Isabelle (merci beaucoup Isa!) during our last trip to Provence. (as an aside, Isabelle is a successful entrepreneur who has built an on-line clothing empire called Boutique Magique, specializing in unique wedding ensembles for the attendants to the bride and groom).  The gift consisted of a day touring an area of the Drome region of Provence located not terribly far from the area of The Wine Road discussed in my last blog.

The first part of the day was a visit to the Domaine St. Luc near Solerieux. (Both the Domaine and  Solerieux deserve blog entries unto themselves, so more on these later.) After the wine tasting and tour, we hit a short stretch of back road to enter the medieval village of La Garde-Adhemar from the south. 

Une Village Medieval

La Garde-Adhemar was a 12th century fiefdom of the Adhemar family and an outpost that guarded the southern route to the Adhemar’s residence in Montelimar.  I have always wondered whether the writers of the film A Knight’s Tale borrowed the name from this village and used it for the name of the villain Count Adhemar, played by actor Rufus Sewell.

The Black Count

After circling the tiny medieval roads of La Garde in our rental car, we finally parked at the top public parking lot near the North Gate of the village and took a quick promenade inside.  You could easily spend an entire day at La Garde-Adhamar wandering the sleepy hamlet, being stared at from local cats hanging on the balcony’s of quaint renovated apartments and choosing a shady alley bar to hang out and sip on a pastis, a Cotes du Rhone, or perhaps a nice Tricastin.

Ricard Pastis

Our little walk was short-lived when a local explained to us that our dinner destination was back down the hill towards the A7.  So down we went wondering where on earth the destination of our coveted gift certificate would be.  To find Le Logis de l’Escalin, one has to have a bit of the chasseur de truffes (truffle hunter) in them.  A couple of switchbacks down the hill we finally spotted an open gate and a narrow and concealed driveway heading into the hotel property.  We parked and sauntered down a short walk to what looked like a bed and breakfast.  Stepping through the landscaped entrance we found ourselves on a sprawling stone patio with fine linen tables and a small crowd of people thoroughly enjoying a brilliant orange sunset on the other side of the Rhone valley.  Wow, what a view!  We were given a patio table for two. 

The first gentleman to hit our table asked us what we would like to drink and I requested a Cote du Rhone from the Rochegude area.  He paused and explained “one moment while I ask.  I am the cheese expert.”  I knew at that point we were somewhere special.  This was a gastronomic meal that lasted four hours.  It was absolutely “over the top” magnificent.  I did not know that fois gras could be prepared in so many ways.  There seemed to be about 12 gourmet courses, but I lost count.  We had fois gras fried, layered with delicious fig, plates of assorted Provencal delights such as olive tapanade, pates and sun-dried tomato crostinis.  The main courses (yes of course there were two) included a delightful filet of beef and a succulent fish similar to a Chilean sea bass.  We had our cheese indeed.  The gentleman we initially met wheeled out the table.  It looked like a live encyclopedia of cheese.  He took the time to walk us through the varieties, but unfortunately that far into such a meal we could only whimper out a request for a few small slices of a chevre (goat) and a vache (cow).

Then came the unexpected.  The garcon approached the table with what appeared to be a watermelon puree cocktail and an assortment of delightful cookies.  Just as it seemed we had arrived at the end of the meal, he informed us that this was only the “pre desert.”  Following the pre desert was the dessert boat.  There were 7-8 small assorted desserts arrayed on a long white plate that looked like a work of art.  Sugar wafers in balls of ice cream, banana creme, fruit mousse, chocolate inventions and small pastries were all lined up and ready to go.  By the way, we each had our own plate of course.

Just as one’s mind cannot sufficiently wrap itself around the concept of the heavenly realm in a manner worthy to describe it, my description of the cuisine at Le Logis de l’Escalin cannot even begin to adequately describe our experience.  During our meal we were able to look through the large glass window of an addition to the original home and watch the head chef, his assistants and the sous chefs working like a well oiled machine moving hard throughout the evening.  They were absolutely incredible in their creations and control of the timing, temperature and delivery of every single item. 

Unfortunately we did not spend the evening there, but I would highly recommend Le Logis de l’Escalin to any traveler looking for a cool spot to crash for a night or two at the outskirt of La Garde-Adhemar.  And by the way, even if you are not a “chasseur de truffes,” you can always start any good meal with a champagne laced with oil of truffles…it is called a “Black Diamond” and it is out of this world.  According to P.T. Barnum in his book The Art of Money Getting, “You can’t work if your sick.”  Neither can you enjoy a vacation in Provence if you aren’t feeling well.  So we always start and end our day in France with a Reliv…unless you just at like we did and then it can be a bit of a challenge.

Ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence!

Backroads of Provence: Biking, Wine and Castle Cuisine! Monday, Oct 18 2010 

I spend about 60% of my conscious life working for a prominent high-tech information security company, but a trip to Provence will keep me juiced all year until the next “all too rare” opportunity to go back over and hang out.  Staying close to the “wine road” in Drome Provence is the best advice I can offer to anyone who has but a couple of weeks to enjoy summer in Provence.  France is a big country.  There is more to do in Provence than one can consume in several trips.  I have had friends actually ask me about doing a bicycle tour of Provence for a wine tasting tour.  Maybe in Napa; not in Provence.

Sure, you can make a day trip happen and a good place for that would be the main route between Suze-La-Rousse and Rochegude with perhaps an overnight stay in each.  This route is only a couple of hours of biking with plenty of quaint spots to stop.

I would say rent a couple of bikes and hit the market the evening prior to make sure you have baguettes, pate’, saucisson,

SAUCISSON ARDECHE

A must for the Provence picnic

cheese, local peaches and a good bottle or two of the Cotes du Rhone.  You can start in Suze-La-Rousse and head downhill (always a good way to start) just a few blocks and stop at the local wine cave where they will actually let you fill a few plastic jugs of the local blend for dirt cheap.  I would recommend, however, buying a nice Cotes du Rhone at the market because a good domaine or even château is quite affordable.  Also, the cave runs odd hours of operation and you don’t want to be sitting in the parking lot waiting for the doors to open.

Up the hill from the local cave is the Suze-La-Rousse castle which has been converted into the Wine University.  Climbing this hill is well worth it.  During the tour you can look out from the castle and see your biking destination; the Chateau Rochegude.  After gazing at the gargoyles and imagining life as a professional sommelier, set out in the correct direction and enjoy the day!

Arriving in Rochegude, one must visit the Chateau Rochegude and even spend the night before returning your bikes.  Take a backpack with some fine threads and enjoy a gastronomic dinner that will last about four hours.  You know that when the palate cleanser (perhaps the frozen red wine sorbet) is about the best thing you’ve tasted all year, then the meal will surely be over the top.  Thomas Jefferson actually stayed there and wrote in the guest book that the Chateau Rochegude was the best wine he had ever tasted.  Some endorsement!  Get up in the morning and after breakfast walk that path through the castle woods to the Roman pool across the grounds petting the tame castle deer along the way.  I start and end the day with a glass of Reliv which provides quick energy and soothes the muscles after the workout.

Too much to see, do and visit from here so ciao for now!

For a real TechVoyageur experience visit historic Rochemaure Castle in the heart of Provence!