AponienteFirstCourse

Sweet, creamy plankton piped into nori: one of the starters of our multi-course dining adventure.

“Do you know what course we’re on?”

“I think this is 14. The first five dishes counted as one.”

“And how many courses are there total?”

“Twenty-two, I think.”

“Oh, look. Plankton.”

So went the conversation at our table that afternoon in Cadiz. Ten of us, including Sebastian, were lunching at Aponiente, a beautifully modern, two-star restaurant in a rustic, converted tide mill. We had arrived in the industrial area of Cadiz at 2:30pm and settled in for a four-hour, 22-course seafood meal with sherry pairings.

Our group of 10, too large for one table, was seated separately: Zandra, James, Kati, and Sebastian at one table; Bob, Dorothy, Kyle, Roxanne, Jeff, and I at another.

“You know,” Dorothy said when the waiters were out of earshot, “Kati isn’t the biggest fan of seafood. I wonder how she’s doing.” We mused, sipped our sherry, and readied ourselves for the next bold creation from the kitchen.

FinoSherry

A crisp glass of Fernando de Castillo’s fino.

***

That morning, Sebastian met us at our hotel in Sevilla and we drove south toward Jerez, the epicenter of global sherry production. After the memorable Flamenco night, Sebastian was eager to show off his home turf and introduce us to the diverse world of sherry. “Most people think of it as the sweet stuff that their grandmother drank after dinner. But here, people drink sherry like the rest of the world drinks wine,” said Sebastian.

Our driver deposited us in chilly but sun-drenched Jerez de la Frontera under an azure sky near a shop-lined corner. A clutch of local gentlemen sipped coffee (or perhaps sherry) and regarded us with the familiar countenance of locals, curious but wary.

F&CSherryTasting

Sebastian (left) and Jan Pettersen prepare for our tasting.

We trailed Sebastian down a curved alleyway flanked by hulking bodegas and entered through the open iron gates of  Fernando de Castillo, our destination. Jan Pettersen, the tall, dapper Norwegian proprietor, greeted us in the tasting room. Sturdy wooden chairs clustered around low tables set with glasses and bottles of sherry promised good things to come. Before we commenced with tasting, our charming host led us across the road to visit the production area. Here the sherry is aged in dark casks and bottled for distribution.

In the cool, damp aging cave amid the familiar smell of earthy oak casks and wine vapor, Jan told the story of the Fernando de Castillo winery: Opened in 1837, it was run by the same family until 1999, when he took over. “I’m a sherry romantic,” he confessed. Romantic: a term echoed from last night’s gypsy performance. Passion and romanticism were recurring themes on this trip, and Jan’s devotion to his work was apparent in the pride with which he spoke. 

JanandBob

Sherry’s classroom.

He described the sherry-making process: The Palomino grape, grown in Jerez de Frontera, is pressed in early September and made into base wine, which is fermented in steel tanks. By February, the wine is fortified with 40% to 80% alcohol and put in American oak barrels to age.

“Sherry is radically different from other kinds of wine, and goes well with various foods,” Jan explained: Grilled vegetables, oysters, and hard-to-pair foods like artichokes, match well with fresh, young manzanilla. Earthy flavors like mushrooms go with darker amontillado; and richer foods like fois gras are lovely with oloroso.

BobandDorothySherry

Cheers, Bob and Dorothy!

After our tour of the caves and the bottling facility, we arrived back in the tasting room and sat around the low tables. Jan slipped foil off plates of salty snacks and pulled corks from bottles. As we nibbled cheese, crackers, and jamón Ibérico,  we sipped the wines our host had described, and noted their differences in color and flavor: crisp, saline fino, reminiscent of a dry white Bordeaux; palo cortado with its slightly richer color and nutty, caramel flavors; and finally Pedro Jimenez, the throat-coating sweet brandy whose grapes are sun-dried for four to six days, concentrating the sugars.

“In Spain, sherry has always been a regular food wine,” Jan said.

AponienteFish

A very kissable fish graces the entry hallway of Aponiente.

That afternoon, at Aponiente, we had the chance to experience sherry’s capacity to pair with food, although Aponiente’s menu is anything but “regular.” Chef Angel Leon’s innovative seafood-driven concept makes generous use of bycatch and underused sea organisms like plankton.

If you’ve never considered plankton a human food source or flavoring agent, you’re not alone. We hadn’t either, and two among us were marine scientists. Of course, the nonmotile sea organisms are a critical source of nutrition for many aquatic creatures, and you’ll occasionally see boxes of dried plankton in well-stocked health-food stores. But this meal portended to be a wholly different beast.

AponienteEntranceGarden

Sun-drenched courtyard.

We arrived at Aponiente in midafternoon — lunchtime in Spain. Located next to the train tracks near the Guadalete River, in an industrial part of town, Anponiente is an oasis in a severe landscape. We passed through the minimalist, desert-inspired courtyard and through the grand doors. Inside, sun flooded through windows embedded in the original stone walls, providing views to the surrounding river marsh. A hole in the floor covered with thick glass revealed the retired mill, which once harnessed the power of the tide to process grains. The long entry and hallway leading to the dining room had whimsical under-the-sea touches such as a giant bronze fish sculpture and overlapping metallic fish scales on the some of the walls.

AponienteChefs

The Aponiente kitchen staff at work.

Tall glass barriers separated the hallway to the dining room from the kitchen, where a team of chefs in crisp toques tweezed, piped, and frothed. In the dining room, well-spaced, linen-topped tables were encircled by high-backed upholstered chairs shaped like blue fish tails. We arranged ourselves at our two tables and settled in for an adventure.

Our decorous servers, dressed in dark suits and matching wooden bow ties, offered greetings. Their English was limited, but we were grateful for the effort, given that there was no printed menu. They uncorked the first bottle and the sherry started to flow, starting with a crisp, slightly saline Fino César from Bodegas César Floridio, located in Chipiona on the Atlantic coast of Cadiz.

AponienteTinSeaUrchin

A tin of beautifully mild sea urchin garnished with caviar.

The first course comprised five dishes that set the tone for the meal: yellow meringues resembling Twinkies were filled with a creamy, savory hake filling; beautiful half-moon sardine ravioli were single bites of salty ambrosia; small tims of silky sea urchin pate arrived garnished with caviar. The fino’s hint of salinity complemented the briny flavors and our seafood extravagance was off to a promising start.

The second course featured martini glasses with “seafood cocktail”: a saffron-laced prawn tartare resembling pink ice cream, topped in airy foam that disappeared on the tongue. This dish, like many of those to come, had a deceptively strong seafood flavor despite its flirtatious appearance. We realized this was not going to be an easy meal for the seafood novice. 

AponienteMackerel

Mackerel, sea asparagus, pickled radish, and dehydrated photoplankton dust.

Dry manzanillas dominated the first several courses, allowing the forceful flavors of the food to shine and resetting the palate with every sip. Dishes manifested in inventive and unusual presentations. Course six was a colorful, minimalist composition, with a morsel of mackerel framed by sea asparagus, bright pink pickled radish and fine lines of dehydrated photoplankton dust. Even the ceramic tableware commanded attention, with unexpectedly chunky shapes and textures. One bowl resembled the sea floor, with a pitted surface and jutting barnacles.

Many plates were completed by our tag-teaming waiters pouring broth or sauce at the table. Course 11 required diner participation. Our waiter instructed to us make a fist, on the back of which he placed small clear gelatinous disks. He piped a bit of plankton accented with wasabi and lemon on to the disc and instructed us to slurp the bite all at once.

“Algearific!” exclaimed Kyle.

AponienteInnovativeBowls

Cockles and clam cutlets in creamy tomato-water gazpacho.

Some dishes hinted at seafood flavor, like the cuttlefish ravioli served with bright lemongrass-coconut broth. Others were bracingly pungent like the creamy bycatch liver mousse topped with ground coffee, which was offset by sips of complex amontillado. We remarked on the flavors and techniques Chef Leon used to transform and elevate the food, which ranged from humble plankton to sweet crab. We didn’t have the chance to meet him, but we imagined he might describe himself as a romantic as well, lured by the endless complexities of the sea. Innovation was central to his mission.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, seafood components sneaked into the dessert courses as well. A small, crisped meringue cylinder was dusted with plankton powder. When cracked, the meringue revealed tangy green apple ice cream. Creamy, mellow pear ice cream was served atop sea algae, olive-oil soaked bread, and ginger. Though we were too stuffed to fully enjoy them, we were grateful that the chocolate petit fours that capped the meal excluded any hint of plankton. 

OutsideAponienteAfterDinner

Twilight in front of Aponiente’s iron gates.

Our 22-course marathon complete, the late-autumn sun slipping over the horizon, we strolled out into the twilight and snapped some photos in front of the restaurant’s iron gates. Back in the bus, we recounted the day and the meal. Kati survived, and even confessed to liking a few dishes. But she also admitted that she probably wouldn’t eat seafood again for a while. We applauded her for having put on a brave face.

We also agreed that the meal would go into the annals as one of our most memorable. If there’s one thing we’ve learned traveling with the Weises, it’s that experiences are priceless, especially when dusted with plankton. 

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La Masia Lunch

Lunch at La Masia

Gathered around an enormous table at a cervecería in Toledo with the Weis family and Kati’s Spanish host madre, it was easy to feel the love. Platters of simple, homey food appeared, wine poured freely, laughter erupted from every sector. It was a genuinely happy moment.

That morning, we had been driven from Madrid to Toledo, where Kati had spent a college semester a few years prior. We spent the morning with Gerry, hiking the cobblestone mazes of the hilly medieval city, exploring churches, mosques and synagogues, learning about the art, architecture and history of the area.

It was here, an hour southwest of Madrid, that Kati fell in love with Spain. Upon meeting Tomy, her host mother during her semester abroad, we understood why her experience had been so profound.

 A couple of weeks before we left the States, we heard that Tomy’s husband had passed away. We thought this sad event would alter our Toledo itinerary. But after talking with Tomy, Kati assured us that her madre wanted to meet for lunch as scheduled. The only change: Rather than having Tomy cook for us, we would go out.

Tomy

A lovely portrait of Tomy.

So around 12:30, after our morning tour, we dropped Gerry at the train station where we bid adieu (or rather, adios) to our affable Madrid guide. From there we drove to a modern apartment complex in the Toledo suburb of Polígono, where Tomy lives. When we arrived, she met us in the foyer. A beautifully petite woman with a warm smile and an air of fortitude, she greeted each of us with besos.

“Ah, it smells the same!” Kati declared as we filed into the tidy apartment, despite the fact that it was not the same home she occupied during her studies here.

Kati and Tomy prepared nibbles and caught up in the kitchen while the rest of us sipped wine and made ourselves comfortable in the living room. A tiny yellow bird chattered in its cage next to the front window. The TV was tuned to a cooking show featuring a hunky Spaniard preparing a delicious-looking tripe stew. Though I had just met her, I realized Tomy was a kindred spirit.    

She speaks no English, but it was, in the words of Dr. Bob Weis, “no problem.” Kati confidently translated as we snacked on crackers, salami, and Spanish cheese. Sipping a second bottle of Rioja, we talked about Kati’s semester in Toledo and how much we had enjoyed spending the morning there.

With typical enthusiasm, Gerry had revealed the layers of history behind the ancient plaster walls. The region’s multireligious tradition meant Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted for centuries, at times literally building on top of one another. “When you renovate anything in this region, especially churches,” he said, “you end up with an archeological site on your hands.”

We recalled seeing a pair of young newlyweds posing for pictures earlier that day on the medieval Puente de San Martín spanning the Tagus river, which prompted Tomy to bring out her own wedding album. We oohed and ahhed over pictures taken more than 50 years ago. There were smiles among us; suddenly there were tears, too. The absence of Tomy’s husband weighed heavily in the room.

Lunch at La Masia

A table filled with delicious, homey dishes.

Soon it was time for lunch, so we clambered into the bus, which was captained by our smiling, taciturn guardian and driver, Bea, and headed to La Masía.

The cervecería was buzzing at 2pm on Sunday afternoon as the 10 of us squeezed past local families through the wood-paneled bar, down a wide curved wooden staircase to an area that better accommodated a group of our size. 

The sprightly waitress brought us menús del dia, en Español, and Tomy took the lead in ordering several bottles of young tempranillo. She may not understand a word of English, but she clearly speaks our language.

We spent several minutes quizzing each other on unfamiliar vocabulary. “Do we know what guiso is?”

“I think it’s stew.” 

“And what’s buey?”

Tomy sensed our struggle. She and the waitress conferred with an amiable fellow we took to be the manager, or maybe the chef. He and Tomy commenced a spirited discussion about what and how to feed our linguistically-challenged crew. Their rapid-fire exchange might have been mistaken for an argument had it not been punctuated by laughter and, ultimately, a verdict: We would order everything on the menu and share, tapas-style. 

The rustic fare was precisely what the day called for: fork-tender pork cheek luxuriating messily in a succulent red-wine reduction; filet of beef bathed in a white sauce that practically begged to be eaten by the spoonful; creamy scalloped potatoes, dusted with paprika, alongside sautéed shishito peppers; seared tuna steak served with a piquant sesame mustard; a simple salad of tomatoes, onion, and flaked tuna; and small loaves of bread, for tearing and sopping, placed directly on the tablecloth. Unfussy and  satisfying, it was an ideal family-style meal.

Liquor de Tomillo

Chupitas de Liquor de Tomillo and gummy candies.

At the end of the feast, Tomy ordered chupitos (shots) of an electric-yellow beverage called Liquor de Tomillo (thyme), a digestif typical of Toledo. A row of glasses arrived on an oblong platter amid a scattering of gummy candies. We were dubious. The syrupy liquid had the day-glo quality of a medicinal — the kind of drink most of us politely refused after experiencing our first real hangover, decades ago. But a sip or two revealed a smooth, herbaceous tonic, semi-bitter and not too sweet. Roxanne aptly described it as limoncello without the limon.

Having gorged ourselves, no one was hungry for dessert. Tomy wouldn’t have it. Eyes narrowed, finger jabbing, she scolded us in Spanish: “When you see my dessert, you all will be so jealous!” Though stuffed, we were swayed. The ice-cream cake and custard appeared, and then disappeared as if by magic.

The day faded to twilight as we left the restaurant and returned Tomy to her apartment. Grateful for her hospitality, we shared tearful farewells aboard the bus. Then Kati walked her to the door where, no doubt, a few more tears were shed.

It was a gift to have had a glimpse of everyday life in Spain. With such warmth and support, it was no wonder Kati fell in love with Toledo, with the culture, with her Spanish familia. Bea turned the bus around and set course for Madrid. As we looked back, Tomy was still waving goodbye.

Lettuce - cropped
Brussles SproutsIf it’s true that you are what you eat, Jeff and I have dual identities. During the work week, I’m known as Salad (my friends call me Sal), and this is my husband, Veg. Mondays through Thursdays, our dinner routine is for the most part just that: routine. I fix a chopped salad for me and Jeff stir-fries veggies for himself. Not that the routine isn’t tasty and satisfying and, in its own way, essential — it just doesn’t vary much.

Weekends are a different story — we cook bold dishes. We eat out. Our identities revel in spice and richness; they relish the perfect dumpling or plate of pasta dressed in butter and cheese and cream; they savor the crisp rind of roast pork; they quench the thirst for wine. Weekends are delicious.

In food, as in most of life, balance is key. But traveling through France, our weekday identities were continually tested. On day one, Jeff was already craving vegetables, and by day four, after a steady diet of duck and goose liver, we came to terms with the idea that veggies and salad may not find a prominent place on the menu for another 10 days. Strange, too, since the markets we visited overflowed with tantalizingly beautiful produce.

Salade Lyonnaise.

Salade Lyonnaise.

And then, a miracle happened: salade Lyonnaise. The perfect balance of weekday and weekend identities. A mound of lovely torn bitter greens, usually frisee or curly endive, dressed in Dijon vinaigrette; a generous strewing of chewy, salty, thick-cut lardon; crispy, butter-toasted croutons; all topped by a soft poached egg. A tap of the fork opens the yolk, spilling yellow richness onto the ingredients below. Technically a salad, but so much more. James decided it would make a beautiful breakfast. Why not? Suddenly Tuesday is best friends with Saturday, dinner is breakfast, and all is right with the world.

 L’ Essential Restaurant – Avignon

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The grand dining room at the Palais des Papes.

The Setup: Our final day with Kelly, and he was eager to introduce us to Avignon, his stomping grounds. We piled into our vehicles and headed into the city for a day of sightseeing. We started with a walk around the grounds of the Palais des Papes, then took a tour of the palace, where our group unraveled into smaller bunches. Afterward, pooped and hungry, Kelly, Jeff and I met up with Brett, Amy and Aiden and the hometown guy steered us through the streets to a nearby restaurant, L’Essential. Small, bright, modern and quite upscale, the dining room was still nearly filled with fancy lunch patrons finishing their meals. We took a table near the back and contemplated the menu. As at many restaurants we’d visited, L’Essential’s menu of the day was less expensive than choosing a la carte. Yesterday’s stuffing still fresh in my memory, I briefly considered ordering just one item, but in the end it didn’t make sense from a dollars-and-cents standpoint. Onward I went into another delicious three-course midday meal.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Raspberry parfait with cotton candy.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

Prawns over crispy polenta.

The Feast: Up first, butternut squash soup, poured at the table into a deep wide bowl containing a creamy cannelle topped with thinly sliced mushrooms. The main course brought a lovely little tower of crispy polenta and flaky cod crowned by a giant prawn, served in an herbed tomato sauce. Then the dessert I could have done without appeared: a fancifully garish highball glass half-filled with yogurt, half with raspberry sauce. Across the rim of the glass rested a puff of pink cotton candy. It was mocking me, I was sure of it. The yogurt and raspberries were cool, creamy and bright, and thankfully Aiden was more than willing to take one for the team and eat my cotton candy — in addition to his mother’s.

Most Memorable:  Another beautiful restaurant, another lovely meal. But I’ll remember the sight of well-coiffed French patrons swirling pink wisps of cotton candy around their tongues.

La Beaugravière – Mondragon

La Beaugravière's handwritten wine list.

La Beaugravière’s handwritten wine list.

The Setup: Our final night in Provence also marked Kelly’s last night with us, and a celebration was in order. La Beaugravière in Mondragon is known for showcasing the region’s truffles in traditional dishes. To get there, we had to drive through the Provencal countryside for about an hour. When we arrived at nearly 9 pm, the spacious dining room was still humming, a few large tables hosting what looked like family gatherings. Our large group took seats at a vast table next to the crackling fire and marveled at the wine list, a voluminous tome entirely handwritten in perfect curly script.

Scallops and spinach puree.

Scallops and spinach puree.

The Feast: Most of us went for the deluxe truffle tasting menu, regularly priced at 120€, but this night, for us, they offered it at 100€, a relative bargain. Jeff, Zandra and I, unable to bear the thought of another gut-busting binge, decided on a more moderate menu with fewer courses. Our meal started with beautifully plump seared sea scallops and a dollop of spinach puree in a buttery cream sauce. Simple, light-ish, off to a good start. According to the menu we were not supposed to have a second course, but the concept of the Empty Plate was apparently not practiced here and we were served a familiar and always satisfying butternut squash veloute. The main course of the “light” menu featured the region’s famous, plump-and-pampered Poulet de Bresse, ours roasted and served with mushrooms and a spoonful of custard-like cake filled squash and other vegetables. The others in our party were treated to the same roasted poulet with truffles tucked under the skin. A restrained cheese course followed (only two pieces), and then dessert: orange laden crepes Suzette for me and a raveable apple tarte for Jeff and Zandra. Two, sometimes three wines with each course was now standard, and tonight was no different.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar's finest.

Kelly shows us one of the cellar’s finest.

After dinner, Kelly treated us to a brief tour of the restaurant’s basement wine cellar. A creaky narrow wooden stairway descended to a musty low-ceilinged labyrinth of shelves and  stacked crates, filled with wine bottles sporting faded labels and vintages spanning the 20th Century. Just another evening with Kelly. Quite a treat.

Most Memorable: The meal itself was rich and remarkable, but this night is remembered bittersweetly as our last with Kelly.  After dinner, in the parking lot, we said goodbye to our friend with three alternating cheek kisses as is tradition in the region. Bise, bise, bise … multiplied by 11.

Restaurant Aux 3 Maries- Lyon

The Setup: The high-speed rail made short work of the kilometers between Avignon and Lyon, and we arrived with enough time for a quick lunch before our afternoon appointment.  Jack discussed nearby options with the hotel’s front desk, and we headed a couple of streets over to a little bouchon, Restaurant Aux 3 Maries. Upstairs, in an area quieter than the bustling dining room below, we sat at a large table by the window.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

Egg, lardons, crouton. Oh, and greens.

The Feast: Compared to the truffle banquent of the previous night, this meal was relatively light and casual, with each of us ordering just two small courses. I started with salade Lyonnaise, as did a few others at the table. My second course: a few wedges of salty, creamy cheese with baguette. Lovely and light.  Jeff, James and Amy were tempted by the andouille sausage listed on the menu, but when it arrived it was not the familiar, spicy encased meat we’re accustomed to in the States. This andouille was a looser sausage with a pungent, gamey aroma and flavor. It was only after lunch that we learned the sausages’ primary ingredient was tripe. Well, that would explain things.

Most Memorable: That splendid moment when the egg yolk ruptures, cascading over the salade Lyonnaise. Heaven.

Le Merciere Lyonnais Bouchon – Lyon

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in Sherry.

Comforting gratineed onion soup made richer by egg yolk in sherry.

The Setup: Our final day in France. We spent the morning trying to keep up with our fast-walking guide, who took us on a circuitous tour through traboules and markets, past the old cathedral whose detailed carved facade comprised a multitude of ancient stories and characters, to a silk atelier, and eventually over the Rhone into the more modern part of town, where we ended at Les Halles de Lyon, the enormous marketplace of food purveyors and cafes. (I envy the U.S. cities that support these Euro-style markets and feel fortunate that Portland may soon be home to one.) We wandered for a bit, tasting a few samples, then said goodbye to our guide. Then back to old town, where we found a cute, casual two-story bouchon tucked in an alleyway. Up the impossibly narrow spiral staircase we went, to the lengthy, narrow second-floor dining room, much of whose space was consumed by our large table. It was here that we parted ways with our friend Jack (many hugs and handshakes) and here that we met yet another good-natured waitress, who traversed the tight ringlet of a staircase a dozen times carrying plates of food and bottles of wine, feigning fatigue and mock exasperation.

The Feast: The menu was filled with traditional Lyonnaise dishes, each one so tempting it was difficult to choose. Having fallen for it the day before, I started with salade Lyonnaise.  After that, French onion soup gooey with melted cheese and soft caramelized onions. But this version had a kicker: On the side was a ramekin with a raw egg yolk and a bit of sherry meant to be stirred into the soup for even more delicious richness. An unbelievably wonderful idea. Other dishes at our grand table included a hearty, sweet-tinged chestnut soup and incredibly rich pasta in a dense cream sauce. With Kelly not there to guide our wine choices, we ordered one at the suggestion of the waitress and proceeded to drink a total of five bottles. Heathens.

Most Memorable: The addition of the egg yolk in sherry added a luscious richness to an already-rich soup. But even more memorable was our server, whose sweetness and good sense of humor shone despite having to make several trips carrying dishes up and down those narrow, winding stairs. Great way to cap off our most memorable of vacations.

****

Post Script

When people ask, I gush about about our trip to France, but my words fail to do it justice. Gradually I’ve arrived at a quick, digestible version that most people can relate to: the food, the wine, the people, the countryside, it was all amazing.

Fifteen glorious, fast-paced days. Eleven great people. Eight versions of butternut squash soup. There is so much that we did and saw that I didn’t even begin to touch on here. All the chateaux and wineries; the many medieval villages and castles; pizza in Sarlat; pho in Lyon; the private tour of the caves in Dordogne; more foie gras than we could begin to quantify. I am so grateful to our travel companions, a wonderful family who so generously invited us into their fold. It was an adventure we’ll never forget.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

Setting up for wine tasting at Dalmeran.

“Daddy, I want a chateau!”

Zandra said aloud, in jest, what the rest of us were thinking as we filed, dumbstruck, through the beautiful Dalmeran castle. (Why not speak up if your father is in earshot? Bob responded with a smile and an arched eyebrow.) Had we stepped into an issue of Architectural Digest? Million-dollar mosaics and paintings by masters — originals! — decorated rooms that exuded elegance but also comfort, a tricky balance. The inclination was to kick off the shoes and drop onto a lavishly pillowed sofa for a nap. But no, we were visitors here, and there were wines to be tasted. So we soldiered on.

Jeff's new best friend.

Jeff’s new best friend.

Earlier that morning, Kelly’s million-dollar connections had secured a private tour of a well-respected winery nearby, Domaine de Trévallon. We briefly met the winemaker, Monsieur Dürrbach, before his daughter gave us a tour of the property and the barrel cave. A jolly yellow lab had joined us, eager to be friends, propping himself heavily against each of us in turn, hoping for a scratch on the ears. We ended with a sampling of wine in the early stages of fermentation, drawn from the huge vats where that process takes place.

We then drove to the beautiful estate Dalmeran where we were treated to the quick chateau tour. We were there for our second degustation of the day, this one to be conducted by Kelly. The tasting room, located in a side building, was a warm den carved out of stone, with arched ceilings, a long stone bench along one wall with cushions for seating, and a central tasting table. Kelly poured and held forth in his spirited, passionate way on the unique qualities of the area’s wines — Châteauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône, wines farmed in soil so rocky it looks unsuitable to grow anything, let alone the productive vines it somehow nourishes.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

The beautiful Dalmeran estate grounds.

James, the groundskeeper.

James, the mower.

After the tasting, we strolled through the Dalmeran estate’s garden, admiring the sprawling grounds and perfectly manicured lawn. We pitied whoever was responsible for mowing until the groundskeeper introduced us to him. His name, coincidentally, was James — a squat little four-wheel contraption parked under a shrub. The groundskeeper explained that James mowed the lawn on a schedule, without human interference or instruction, venturing out every couple of days to glide over the expansive green until no blade was left unshorn. Then he would return to his roost under the shrub and connect himself to the charger until duty called again. I imagined what it must be like to own this beautiful place, sitting on the veranda, drinking coffee, looking up over the newspaper to see James dutifully patrolling the premises, back and forth, section by section. Good man, James. A fine servant indeed.

Private chef #1 a La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

Our chateau for three nights.

Our château for three nights.

The Setup: Departing from L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, we drove north toward our destination for the next few nights: La Verrière. We left paved roads near Crestet after dusk and headed deep into what, in the darkness, seemed like wilderness. After a good 20 minutes of bumping along the rugged dirt road, we rounded a corner and saw the lights. Nestled in the hills at the foot of Mont Ventoux, La Verriere is a winery and estate with quarters that can be rented — and we had the place all to ourselves. Seeing the welcoming glow from within the expansive villa, we could only chuckle at our increasingly opulent accommodations. “Eh,” we joked, “this’ll do.”

The sitting room at La Verriere.

The sitting room at La Verriere.

Home dining at its finest.

Home dining at its finest.

A former priory dating to the 9th century, the estate has been beautifully renovated with attention paid to its history and environment. The guest rooms, each with a theme reflective of the area, have beautiful views of the surrounding vineyards, rolling hills and the looming mountain. (Jeff and I stayed in Lavandes — the lavender room). But the living and dining rooms with their arched white stone ceilings and thick stone walls inspired awe. Even more awe-inspiring: Chef Guilhem Sevin from Avignon restaurant Christian Etienne was preparing dinner for us when we arrived.

The Feast: After we settled into our various wings of the estate, oohing and ahhing over each other’s rooms, we gathered in the sitting room, sinking into comfortable chairs and couches. Kelly opened a bottle of wine and the staff served nibbles from the chef: a spoonful of fresh clam in a light mignonette; a luscious little cup of artichoke puree; tender sweetbreads. After the aperitifs, we assembled at the grand table, each setting furnished with two wine glasses that portended the goodness to come.

First course: fish.

First course: fish.

First course: flaky red mullet alongside a tender artichoke heart stuffed with mushrooms, served with a dark bouillabaisse sauce reduced to a thick, deeply rich gravy. Sopping with bread was the natural thing to do, though no one would have questioned motives or etiquette had someone licked his or her plate clean.

Main course: partridge.

Main course: partridge.

The main course brought partridge topped with Spanish jambon Bellota pata negra, the same kind that we encountered our first day, alongside a mushroom terrine and a crouton cradling a little slather of foie gras and a slice of mushroom.

A small bit of cheese served with dandelion greens followed, and finally, for dessert, a nest of angel-hair pasta fried crisp and topped with basil cream and stewed quince. Light, crunchy, bright, green and delicious. Two different glasses of wine per  course allowed us to compare flavors and food pairings.

Most Memorable: Let’s recap: A private chef in our private 9th century abbey-turned-winery. Two wines with each course. The biggest exertion of the evening was to walk upstairs to our separate wings for a restful sleep, breathing in the crisp Provençal air. God, we’re so lucky.

Truffle Hunting in the Var – Richeranches

Fresh black truffle.

Fresh black truffle.

The Setup: A beautifully sunny morning greeted us as we headed out for a pre-lunch truffle hunt. Only slightly reluctant to leave our estate for the day, we piled into our vehicles: James, Zandra, Brett, Amy and Aiden in the Jumpy with Kelly; Jeff, Bob, Dorothy and I with Jack. We started down the hill toward our first appointment, chatting with Jack about how much we’d loved the trip. Having had a large hand in the itinerary, he was pleased that we were enjoying ourselves. When he arranges trips, he said, he strives to orchestrate that “wow” moment, the one a client will remember forever. Sometimes it’s as simple as a perfectly timed sunset dinner; sometimes clients require a grander experience to achieve the moment — he called them “tourgasms.”  To which we responded we’d had multiple.

We drove to the town of Richerenches to meet truffle producer Erich Devontue. He and son Franck offered us coffee in the dining room of their establishment, with its open sunken kitchen and grand stone fireplace. We learned the farmhouse had been converted to an inn and Franck, who had attended cooking school, was in charge of the kitchen.

Ready for the hunt.

Ready for the hunt.

One of many finds.

One of many finds.

We chatted for a few minutes and then left Franck to his cooking. Erich led us to his shop for an abbreviated truffle lesson, similar to the one we received in Périgord. We then crossed the road in the company of Erich’s spirited hound and ventured deep into rocky groves of green and white oak. The dog, a stout wiry-haired mongrel, did all the work. We dutifully followed, careful not to interfere. As soon as the dog pawed the ground, Erich would call him off, dig up the truffle with a pick and place it in his canvas bag. The outing netted a good number of black beauties and after 90 minutes we headed back to the house where Franck was preparing a grand, truffle-laced lunch.

Truffles and chickpeas.

Truffles and chickpeas.

The Feast: We warmed ourselves on the sunny patio and Kelly opened a bottle of crisp Chardonnay to accompany the small bites: a cup of creamy pumpkin soup topped with shaved black truffle; warm chickpeas drizzled with truffle oil and infused with flecks of truffle; and truffled oeufs brouilles, this version a bit more scrambled than Carole’s smooth rendition.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Pork cheek and gnocchi.

Then we headed indoors and sat around the large square table next to the crackling hearth, where we were served beautiful butter-seared scallops over spinach and dandelion greens in a light vinaigrette, topped with shaved truffle. The main course was comfort food defined: fork-tender pork cheek served with a veal stock reduction and, of course, more shaved truffle. On the side, a terra cotta dish of creamy, cheesy gnocchi atop red onion jam. One bite and Jeff declared that he’d just had a porkgasm. Flushed and dizzy from the earthy flavors, we knew exactly what he meant.

A cheese course followed: warm Camembert with truffles, and a soft truffled Corsican sheep’s cheese on a crouton. Finally, dessert: truffle infused creme brulee with — what else? — shaved truffle on top.

Most Memorable: Decadent. Rich. Delicious. Gracious hosts. A wine and truffle education in one. A tourgasm and a porkgasm, all in one day. This was, hands down, my favorite meal of the trip.

Private chef #2 at La Verrière – Vaucluse Region

The Setup: Our late, leisurely and rather large lunch at the Devontue farm ended around 4 pm, and as we drove home we realized that dinner was not far away. When we arrived at La Verrière, we had a short time to digest before our second personal chef of the trip arrived to cook us a truffle-themed meal.

Still absolutely stuffed, we mentally prepared ourselves. Day 12 of the gavage was coming to a close, and we were beginning to feel the effects.

Working for our supper.

Working for our supper.

This night was different, however, because chef Pascal Ginoux of nearby Les Bories would involve us in the cooking. While it was a fantastic concept, the idea of preparing of a gourmet truffle meal under the tutelage of a Michelin-star chef, I couldn’t help but feel the cruel beauty of it all. Already bursting with truffles from an earlier feeding, now we were helping prepare the ingredients for our next. Sort of like building your own gallows.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Chef Ginoux plating croquettes.

Jeff, Dorothy, Amy and Brett peeled root vegetables. James dismantled a pineapple. Zandra and I were in charge of dredging and breading foie gras croquettes that were to be fried for our first course. But how could there be so many? Were we expected to eat them all? We briefly contemplated staging a croquette “accident.”  A nudge of the tray over the edge of the counter — “oops!” Perfectly innocent. But after careful consideration we decided that standing and moving our hands from flour to egg to breadcrumbs was the only exercise we would have that evening. We told ourselves to suck it up.

Our work done, we retreated to the media room for a final rest before the re-gorging began, coaching ourselves with words of encouragement: We can do this. Sit up straight and take little bites. We’ll be fine.

Three wines per course was now the standard.

Two wines per course was now the standard.

Veal and root vegetables.

Veal and root vegetables.

The Feast: As we tucked into the meal, the delicious flavors and spot-on wine pairings made it all go easier. The first course, our breaded foie gras croquettes, appeared: fat little fingers deep fried to a golden brown, served with celery puree and a truffle olive-oil foam. Gorgeous and light-tasting despite the decadent ingredients. The second course featured tender veal served with roasted vegetables, the very ones so lovingly prepped by our crew. Chef Ginoux  supplied extra veal reduction to augment the rich gravy already on the plate. My bloated belly forgotten, I poured extra sauce and grabbed a piece of bread for sopping. Finally, dessert: a delicate meringue cylinder with deeply caramelized pineapple and a passionfruit puree. Bright, sweet and light. After dinner, the chef sat at the table with us, drank wine and chatted. Kelly translated. We snapped a few photos with our new friend before trudging up to bed for a much-needed night’s sleep.

Most Memorable: An incredible meal prepared by a very talented chef. But the whispered words between Zandra and me still echo in my head: “Are all of these croquettes for us? They can’t be — there are so many!”

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassone.

Gargoyle keeping watch over Carcassonne.

Adjacent to our hotel in Carcassonne stood the 12th Century Basilica of St. Nazaire, bristling with gargoyles. We had a few minutes to spare, so Jeff opened the heavy wooden door and we entered. Inside, dwarfed by towering stone columns, a nun with a broom worked quietly, her footsteps echoing faintly in the stillness. We moved up the dim nave, past the burnished pews, into the enormous transept bright with morning sunshine streaming through the tall stained-glass windows of the choir. Now we could hear music, a soft solemn hymn that seemed to emerge from the stone and surround us. Rosettes glowed like colossal jewels in either end of the transept. We stood silent, listening, and I thought again how fortunate we were.

The sunlight was an omen. After a week of near-constant cloud cover, we were headed east to Provence under blue sky. The weather wasn’t warm but, for a nice change, it wasn’t wet. I lit a candle, slipped some euros into the receptacle, and we were off.

Destination: Arles. Distance: 223 kilometers. That meant a few hours of quality Jumpy time, with a stop or two along the way.

We’d become comfortable with our seating arrangement: Zandra and I in back; Bob and Dorothy sharing the middle row with one of the brothers; the other brother co-piloting up front. The van was equipped with a navigation device, but the chirpy female avatar entombed therein had been deemed untrustworthy, so at Dorothy’s suggestion we named her Marilyn. (Dorothy joked that she owned a ditzy gadget of the same name back home in Alabama.)

This is what happens when you travel with a master sommelier.

This is what happens when you travel with a sommelier.

Sitting in the rear gave Zandra and I time to discuss and take notes, which was critical to remembering. We marveled at the over-the-top nature of this adventure, with its unbelievable food and wine, and the astonishing fact that we were traveling with a sommelier. In addition, we had met a host of other memorable specialists and authorities. Some that stood out:

●     Our own private archeologist guided us through the caves of Périgord. Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, an expert in prehistoric cave art in the region, shared her theories on the ancient artists who reverently and skillfully represented themselves and the world around them.

●     The exuberant walnut-mill owner with the grand pot belly and string of one-liners who demonstrated the centuries-old process for pressing oil from the fragrant nuts.

●     The proprietress of an organic foie gras farm who led us on a private tour. Her dedication to and respect for the animals in her charge was evident in the treatment they received.

●     The many local guides who so passionately introduced us to their cities and towns.

●     Numerous winemakers who shared the varied methods of their craft and enticed us to taste the fermented fruits of their labor.

Of all the people we had encountered, not a single one could have been more friendly or hospitable. And we were only halfway through the itinerary.

Chez François – Sète

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

Two guys and a pile of oysters.

The Setup: On the drive to Arles we crested a rise and there lay the Mediterranean Sea with its promise of les fruits de mer, which had come up in conversation during many a meat-heavy meal. (Bob and Dorothy live on the Gulf Coast; they know their way around an oyster.) Immediately we detoured into the the seaside town of Sète.

A wrong-way turn onto a one-way street prompted a honk and a curse or two from competing motorists, but Kelly ignored the commotion long enough to get a recommendation from an amused bystander. We backed out of our traffic predicament and headed to the waterfront, to the acclaimed Chez François, located on one of the quais.

After wedging the Jumpy into a tight underground parking space we ascended into the misty seaside sunshine. At Chez François, we pulled a few tables together on the tented sidewalk, inhaled the sea air and looked over the brief, fish-focused menu.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

Sea escargot with side of potatoes.

The Feast: We started, of course, with wine. Kelly suggested a light, crisp Picpoul to complement the briny freshness of the oysters. Jeff ordered pastis, which arrived with a carafe of water. A mixture of the two produced the cloudy, anise-spiced milk of Provence, cure-all for whatever ails — hangover, malaise, gray skies, sweltering days. Soon our seafood binge appeared: platters of plump oysters, bowls of pleasantly chewy sea escargot, pots brimming with mussels, and a tomato-rich fish soup, all of which contrasted delightfully with the duck-centric menus we’d grown accustomed to.

Most Memorable: Crisp sea air, sunshine and beautiful, briny oysters. What more need be said?

The Market Picnic – Arles

Market lettuce in Arles.

Market lettuce in Arles.

The Setup: Mention Arles, in France or elsewhere, and people rave about the market. “Not to be missed,” they say. If you’re anywhere near Arles on a Wednesday or a Saturday, it’s impossible to miss. It’s enormous and unavoidable, lining both sides of the Boulevard des Lices for several blocks and spilling into the side streets.

We made the five-minute walk from our hotel, the enchanting L’Hôtel Particulier, past tables piled with clothing and other dry goods, into the teeming, chaotic gantlet of food stands. Fish of every stripe lay bright-eyed and glistening in cases of crushed ice, and shiny squid shared stall space with pyramids of mussels and oysters. Yard-wide paella pans cradled steaming saffron-tinted shrimp and rice. Shoppers jostled one another to sample morsels of cheese, while tiny grandmothers weaved through the throng, their shopping bags bulging, little dogs trailing with noses to the ground.

Olives of every color.

Olives of every color.

Just-roasted chickens.

Just-roasted chickens.

There were fat sausages, and salami with powdery rinds; head and haunch and every other cut of lamb and pork; skinned splayed rabbits; vats of olives, green and brown and black, displayed alongside tubs of cornichon and pickled garlic cloves; bushel baskets of beautiful lettuces, tomatoes, onions, fennel; knobby carrots with soil clinging to them.

Bread stands smelled of warm yeast. There were nuts and fruit and pizza and smoked fish and a food cart selling egg rolls and noodles. Tall multi-rotisserie glass-cased ovens churned with succulent golden chickens, a dozen at a time, their drippings seasoning potatoes and tomatoes roasting below. The aroma was intoxicating. Would it be odd, I wondered, if I loitered here next to the poulet rôti for the next 30 minutes?

A pair of live piglets in a pushcart snuffled the hands of cooing admirers — not for sale, these two. Their owner was peddling hard candy to bankroll a long, healthy life for what apparently were pets. A scam? Perhaps. But it was worth the euros to feel those little suction-cup snouts on the palm of my hand.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

Bunches of fresh garlic.

We wandered, chatted with vendors, snapped photos, and bought delicious treats until our next appointment: a walkabout of Arles hosted by a willowy  Arlesienne — yet another expert! In the course of the tour, she led us to the hospital where Van Gogh convalesced after the unfortunate disagreement with his ear, to the cafe that was the subject of one of his famous paintings, and to the ancient Roman amphitheater. Afterward, we returned to the hotel and met up with some new arrivals. Zandra’s brother Brett and his family, Amy and Aiden, had flown in from England for the second half of the trip. Also joining us was Jack Dancy, co-founder of Trufflepig, the company responsible for orchestrating our awesome adventure. Jack and Dorothy had planned the itinerary, and when it became clear our growing group would need a second vehicle, he volunteered to accompany us at the midpoint. An energetic young Brit with a knack for conversation and a whip-smart sense of humor, Jack was a delightful addition.

Fromage.

The nearly liquid Mont D’Or Fromage.

The Feast: In a small rustic overflow dining room just off the hotel courtyard, we made a banquet of our market haul — fresh bread, salami, green and black olive tapenade, delectable rotisserie chicken, several cheeses, smoked fish, olives, pickled garlic, a few desserts and of course wine, some of it from Kelly’s personal cellar.

Most Memorable: That chicken haunts me to this day, but the pickled garlic was a clear winner too. Compared to the pickled garlic we’ve found in the States, the Provençal version has a milder bite and a mouthwatering savory acidity. Slightly crunchy and highly addictive, these exquisite morsels have obsessed us since we arrived home. Half the battle may be the garlic itself — the grocery-store bulbs here tend to yield too pungent a garlic flavor after pickling, but we keep trying. The meal was a reminder that often the simplest ingredients make the most memorable occasions.

La Chassagnette – Arles

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

Passionfruit souffle at La Chassagnette.

The Setup: Our final night in Arles. We drove into the countryside to a lovely restaurant owned by friends of Kelly’s. Reminiscent of a French country home, La Chassagnette features a spacious dining room furnished with sturdy wooden tables and sideboards and brightly painted murals. One grand table was arranged for our large family-and-friends gathering.

The Feast: Chef Armand Arnal welcomed us and explained the restaurant’s concept: everything local and seasonal, vegetables and herbs from the surrounding gardens, no butter or cream. Zandra and I exchanged a doubtful wink. No butter? Not possible. The vegetables we’d encountered on the trip had been slathered in it. But when the beautiful family-style dishes appeared, it was clear our skepticism was premature. This was fresh, clean food prepared simply so the flavors of the products shone. Among the first courses, bright herbal soup that was the very definition of green both in color and flavor; a frisee salad with crispy fried pumpkin seeds; beet and eel salad with wilted greens. For the main courses, a few at the table had lamb while the majority ordered sea bass baked in a salt crust, uncaked and served tableside. For dessert: airy souffle with passionfruit ice cream.

Most Memorable: A delicious meal made even more memorable by the hospitality of the house and the cooking of Chef Arnal. Coincidentally, this Nov. 10 dinner fell on the 20th anniversary of my first date with Jeff. A nice way to celebrate.

Picnic at Anthony’s house – L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge

Sidewalk cafe tables at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Sidewalk cafe tables at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

The Setup: The day dawned bright and sunny as we packed our vehicles and headed east to L’Isle-sur-la-Sourge, a charming village characterized by its canals and its location on the Sourge river. It was Sunday, market day. Kelly and Jack offered to forage for lunch while the rest of us explored. The plan was to picnic in a park, but when we reunited later we learned that Kelly had bumped into a buddy who happened to live nearby (not surprising given that Kelly seems to have friends everywhere). Anthony, also in the wine industry and apparently sympathetic to our lack of stemware, had invited us to have lunch at his home. Perfect! The 11 of us unloaded our supplies and made introductions as Anthony pulled tables together and set out plates, silver and, most important, wine glasses. We met his friend Ani, a petite Frenchwoman with a robust laugh, and staged our picnic on his sunny patio.

Picnic fare at Anthony's house.

Picnic fare at Anthony’s house.

The Feast: The fare was similar to the previous day’s lunch: garlic, olives, chicken, bread, cheese, salami. Pizza for young Aiden. Ani contributed little crocks of pork rillettes, creamy in texture and almost floral in flavor and aroma. I detected Provençal lavender in each bite. We sipped Tavel, faces tipped toward the sunlight, and feasted, one delicious bite after another, with our hosts.

Most Memorable: The warmth and generosity of strangers. On short notice, Anthony invited nearly a dozen visitors into his home as if we were old friends. His and Ani’s hospitality made this one of the most memorable meals of the trip, and the best picnic of my life.

View from Saint-Émilion church tower.

View from Saint-Emilion church tower

“Nine a.m. sharp.” Those were Kelly’s parting words on the eve of our departure from Bordeaux. Our next destination, Sarlat, was 200 kilometers away, and we had appointments en route, so we would hit the road early.

At 9:10 the next morning, two of the Jumpy’s seven passengers were missing.

A phone call was made, slumber disrupted, belongings were hastily collected. Several choice vulgarities, delivered in standard American English, undoubtedly resounded up and down the third floor of Le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux. Sixteen minutes later, Zandra and James burst out of the building, luggage clattering, with damp hair and linen-marked features.

All but two of us enjoyed a nice chuckle — this was, after all, a vacation. By the time J&Z recovered their sense of humor, we were 20 kilometers east of Bordeaux headed to Saint-Émilion, and we all had learned a lesson: Don’t trifle with jet lag. Jet lag always wins.

Wine Tasting in Saint-Émilion, Evening Picnic in Sarlat

Fonplegade Wine Tasting

Wine tasting at Chateau Fonplegade.

The Setup: In Saint-Émilion we began with tours and tastings at two quite different chateaux: Chateau Fonplegade, American-owned and très élégant; and Chateau Pavie Macquin, also lovely but a bit more rustic. At both, the wine and the hospitality were first-class. Thanks to Kelly’s contacts and expertise, finding a mediocre bottle, or a less-than-breathtaking venue in which to sample it, or an ungracious host, all were proving difficult.

After the tours, we drove into the centuries-old village of Saint-Émilion, a World Heritage site with daunting world-heritage-class verticality. We parked at the base of the hill and labored up the winding cobblestone streets to the town summit for lunch at bustling L’Envers du Decor. Afterward, Dorothy, Zandra and I thought we’d do a little shopping, but ended up climbing (more climbing!) the steep spiral steps of the tower of Saint-Émilion’s famous monolithic church, from which we enjoyed a splendid panorama. Meanwhile, the guys descended to Terres Millesime, a wine shop at the bottom of the hill, for another tasting appointment. We joined them after our excursion and were early enough to have missed only a couple of selections. Lucky us.

Terres Milleseme

Enjoying Saint-Émilion’s hospitality.

Many tastings — les dégustations — are polite, sedate affairs. The one at Terres Millesime was performance art.

Our amiable host, Manu — reminiscent of a young Joe Pesci — seemed unable to sit. He repeatedly leapt out of his chair to deliver a generous pour, a fist-shaking advocacy of the home-country viticulture, a boisterous celebration of his Burgundian heritage. Mostly in French. At one point he broke into song. He offered toasts, shook hands, patted backs. He sipped a fragrant Bordeaux, gazed heavenward and kissed his fingertips. Kelly, as translator, cheerfully tried to keep pace.

By the time we finished the tasting, we were entertained, a little tired, and a little buzzed. The performance, if that’s what it was, succeeded. We chose wines and placed orders, which given the work involved in arranging shipping took the better part of an hour. When we were ready to leave, most of Saint-Émilion was dark, and we were still 150 kilometers from our beds.

Boulangerie

La boulangerie, France’s answer to fast food.

The Feast: Figuring we wouldn’t find much to eat in Sarlat at that hour, James, Zandra, Jeff and I hurried down the street to a little boulangerie and bought a baguette, a couple of quiches and a sackful of ham and cheese croissants. Then back to the van. Kelly tested the speed limit, James navigated, and we made Sarlat in good time.

We arrived at the B&B, Les Cordeliers, and were greeted by innkeepers Chris and Amanda, an affable British couple who set us up in our rooms and then joined us in James and Zandra’s room for a picnic. Chris contributed plates and napkins as well as ham, cheeses and crudite, and we drank the wine left over from Manu’s tasting — a simple, light meal that struck exactly the right chord on our first night in Sarlat.

Most Memorable: Our gracious hosts, all of them — Manu, Chris and Amanda — and those flaky, buttery ham and cheese croissants. When it comes to fast food, the French boulangerie wins hands down.

Lunch with Edouard and Carole Aynaud — Pechalifour

Retired truffle dog

Retired truffle dog, enjoying the good life.

The Setup: Our final full day in Sarlat took us to the hamlet of Pechalifour to meet Edouard Aynaud. “Le Truffe,” as he is known — lanky, bespectacled, with a beak like a raptor — vibrated enthusiasm for his work: pursuit and promotion of the elusive Tuber melanosporum, or black Périgord truffle. The Aynaud cottage, which looked from outside like it might have been put up by masterful medieval stonemasons, was cozy and modern inside, and included a classroom featuring a resident retired truffle hound, an easy-going golden Lab who needed no invitation to show you his belly. Before leading visitors out into the truffière to hunt, Edouard conducts an introduction to truffles — the species and their differences, aromas, flavors, the risks of fraud. Turns out the Tuber indicum, or Chinese truffle, is tasteless and bounces when you drop it.

After class, we headed into the orchard led by the current top dog, Farrah. A spirited border collie mix, Farrah shares Edouard’s passion for unearthing truffles, because doing so means she wins a tasty prize hidden in her master’s pocket.

Truffle

Périgord black truffle.

oeufs brouillés

The beginnings of oeufs brouillés.

After the hunt (Farrah found two truffles, but neither was ripe), we returned to the house and met Edouard’s wife, Carole. She directed us to the kitchen and demonstrated classic oeufs brouillés: Grated truffle and butter mingle at room temperature in a pan on the stove; crack two eggs per person into a bowl and pour the eggs into the pan; over a low fire, whisk furiously for 10 to 15 minutes (taking care not to perspire into the mixture) until you have a smooth texture, neither scrambled nor lumpy.

Truffle honey

Truffle honey and cheese curls.

The Feast: After the demonstration, we gathered around the dining-room table, where we were treated to the silky oeufs brouillés with their earthy hint of truffle, followed by succulent roast pork and fluffy truffle mashed potatoes. Next came a green salad and a cheese course. The cheese had been shaved with a cheese curler into delicate carnations, which drizzled with truffle honey were a bite of heaven. Last, we were served a small cup of ice cream with brandied plum and a dash of cognac. The meal alone made this outing worth every minute, not to mention we saw a truffe agriculteur in action.

Most Memorable: Edouard and Carole’s generous hospitality made this day one of the more exceptional of the trip. And while it was not the last time we encountered oeufs brouillés, it was the best.

Le Parc Franck Putelat – Carcassonne

Carcassonne

The walled city of Carcassonne.

The Setup: We ate many incredible meals in France, but Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassonne featured one of the top pedigrees. Putelat is a Bocuse D’Argent winner. His restaurant, a recipient of two Michelin stars, is a sleek, modern establishment at the foot of the beautiful walled old city. The muted earth tones and clean lines of the warmly lighted dining room contrasted perfectly with the adventurous dishes that emerged from the kitchen.

Bob, the senior omnivore of our party, ventured boldly through the menu, choosing the “Action Reaction,” a nine-course dégustation that showcased the chef’s latest inspirations. The rest of us opted for the six-course “Emotion,” our first real attempt at restraint on this vacation.

Pumpkin soup

Pumpkin soup topped with a cheese crisp.

Empty Plate

Le Empty Plate.

The Feast: The meal started with beautiful foie-gras-laced bites, including savory foie gras macaroons. A rich, creamy pumpkin velouté followed, served in a gourd capped with a lacy cheese crisp. Whenever Bob received a dish that was not included in the shorter menu, his tablemates were served empty plates over which they salivated until the Smartest Guy in the Room finished, dabbing the corners of his mouth with a napkin. Everyone’s plates were then whisked away.

IMG_1056

Pink duck breast and duck terrine.

The entrée for the table was duck breast, pink and perfectly tender. That was followed by a cheese cart laden with more than 40 varieties. From the cart the steward drew out hidden compartments to reveal additional aromatic selections, while diners at a neighboring table shielded their noses from the vapor drifting across the room.

It was in the course of this five-hour marathon that we were introduced to the concept of pre-dessert — that is, the warm-up dessert before the main desserts. (Yes, plural.) The pre-dessert was no smaller or less significant than the desserts that followed, just an addition to them. God, France is a beautiful place.

desserts

Pre-dessert (left), dessert (top right), post dessert (bottom right). Glorious.

Most Memorable: More than a delectable meal, Le Parc gave us the empty plate and the pre-dessert, two unforgettable but starkly conflicting concepts. I’ll also remember the nod of deference Le Parc’s silver-pinned sommelier proffered when he noticed the golden cluster on Kelly’s lapel. Not wanting or expecting any special treatment, Kelly was embarrassed — he had meant to remove his pin, which signifies his status. As far as we were concerned, it’s always good to have friends in high places.

Dinner photoAll things in moderation.

Wise counsel, unless you find yourself traveling through France in November, when the chill whets the appetite for hearty food and rich wine, and temptation lurks around every corner. Food and drink abound. Moderation usually is absent from the menu.

So how to summarize two weeks of gluttony? On a side trip out of Sarlat, we visited La Combe aux Oies, a family-owned organic goose farm and small-batch foie gras producer. There we made the acquaintance of a gaggle of astonishingly handsome geese undergoing the stage of the foie gras process known as the “gavage,” the 15- to 18-day tube feeding that enlarges the animal’s liver in preparation for harvest. In those plump birds we recognized ourselves, except that the force-feeding we endured was tube-free and wholly self-induced. Afterward, “gavage” was our mealtime exclamation, and the foie goose, which gives its all for sustenance and pleasure, became the emblem of our journey.

Photo by James Walton

Keeping watch at La Combe aux Oies.

And an improbable journey it was: that rare convergence of adventurous, generous, often hilarious travel companions and an itinerary bursting with gorgeous landscapes, knowledgeable guides, historic sites, memorable characters and, of course, unforgettable meals.

A couple of caveats: The posts that follow represent the most memorable meals and moments of our trip, with a few exceptions. Because of an untimely cold, I missed three knockout dinners. And of the feasts I did attend, the astonishing amount of food seven people can order makes it nearly impossible to recount everything, though I try to describe as much as possible.

Voila le gavage.

La Brasserie Bordelaise – Bordeaux

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

Outside La Brasserie Bordelaise.

 The Setup: The six of us arrived in Bordeaux on an overcast Friday afternoon, our luggage intact and our dispositions only slightly worse for the journey — we were a little tired and a lot thirsty. Kelly Mc Aulliffe, wine expert, translator, guide, chauffeur and fearless ringleader, retrieved us from the airport and ferried us into the the city to the Regent Grand Hotel. Our rooms were not available yet, so Kelly — a French-trained American sommelier who lives and works in France, a rarity — herded us out into the crowded cobblestone streets in search of a bottle and a bite to eat. Muddled as we were by jetlag, it was all he could do to keep us assembled, but after a short search he found a table for seven at Brasserie Bordelaise. We squeezed ourselves in alongside a table on which reclined an entire cured leg of pig from which the wait staff was shaving and serving thin slices, and l’hédonisme officially began.

The Feast: Not wanting to spoil dinner, we ordered a few “light” snacks, highlights of which were a delicately sweet, tangy steak tartare, and ribbons of the aforementioned jambon Bellota pata negra, salty and so tender they nearly dissolved in the mouth. It was at Brasserie Bordelaise that Monsieur Professeur Mc Auliffe’s wine instruction commenced in the form of a bright Sancerre, a Pouilly-Fuisse and then a Vouvray. We sipped, compared, contrasted, nibbled and chatted away two or three hours before the fog of weariness began to close in.

Most Memorable: The tartare was the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve been craving it ever since, but it’s the ham that haunts us still. It was a perfect way to ease into our trip.

La Tupina – Bordeaux

Jumpy

Le royal ride.

 The Setup: After a much-needed nap, we all piled into the Jumpy — the sporty Citroen nine-seater that would be our carriage for the next two weeks — and Kelly drove through the evening drizzle to La Tupina, a renowned bistro tucked down one of the side streets off the Garonne River esplanade. Inside, we were greeted by a bright display of autumn vegetables and the heady aroma of offal and other delectables sizzling in the hearth where much of the cooking is done. The establishment appeared to have once been a residence, giving it a rustic hominess. Our large round table in the corner of the dining room (nee living room?) accommodated us and the conversation nicely.

La Tupina

Coddled egg, foie gras.

The Feast: I started with coddled egg and foie gras served in a petite cocotte with a side of toast. Light and decadent all at once. For the table, Dorothy splurged on caviar, a festive opening to our first dinner in France. James and Zandra started with duck carpaccio. For entrees, Jeff and Bob had the house specialty: tripe with ceps (porcino mushrooms), a rich stew served tableside from a Dutch oven. I had a simple but perfectly pink duck breast topped with lardons, and a side of duck-fat fries.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

Filtering wine by candlelight.

More wine, of course, with a focus on reds, and Kelly expounded on the art and science of wine tasting (and here we thought we were already experts). First consider the color and the depth of color; swirl the wine and stuff your nose inside the glass for a good whiff, trying to pull out the characteristics (floral? fruity? earthy? mineral? animal?). Taste the wine — is it fruity? Acidic? Minerally? Assess its texture and its length. Then go through the process again. And again. More wine, more food, more talk, and by the end we were bursting — a recurring theme.

Most Memorable: Well, first, the food. That coddled egg and foie gras, to be specific. But aside from the food, the best thing about La Tupina was our lovely and gracious server, a petite French twentysomething with a sweet disposition and a future in wine stewardship. She, as much as the meal, made this a memorable evening.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte – Bordeaux

The Setup: The following morning, a gray, drizzly day of wine tasting began with a tour of a beautiful chateau, our first. Our host at Smith Haut Lafitte began by describing the surrounding vineyards from an upper deck of the complex, then led us down to the aging room, with its stacks and rows of oak barrels and the now-familiar aroma, a heady, damp mixture of wine and wood. Deeper into the chateau we went, to the fermentation room with its gargantuan oak vats, and on through another, larger barrel-aging chamber, before ascending to the ground floor. We toured the cooperage, the workshop where the wine barrels are made, where the oak is carefully chosen and cut into planks before being banded and fired. As wine ages in the barrels, the oak imparts its characteristics of toast and vanilla, flavors whose intensity depends on the length of time in the container, how long a barrel is fired and whether it’s new or being reused.

Barrels

Smith Haut Lafitte’s massive aging cave.

It was fascinating to learn about the many components of viticulture and winemaking — the soil, the weather conditions, the yeasts, new barrels vs. used barrels, the methods of pigeage — that is, pushing down into the juice the sturdy “cap” of grape skins and other solids that rise to the surface during fermentation (or, alternatively, pumping the juice over the cap). The solids impart tannins.

The morning culminated with a tasting. After a sample or two or three in the bright tasting room, the guide pressed a button. A James Bond-worthy trapdoor hummed as it opened in the floor to reveal a staircase descending to an underground cellar and tasting room, where we finished the tour.

Tasting room

Hidden tasting room.

Lamb Terrine

Lamb terrine and eggplant puree.

 The Feast: Lunch followed at the estate’s homey restaurant near a crackling fireplace: frothy pumpkin soup; tender lamb terrine accompanied by a reduced jus and pureed eggplant; roasted hake over mashed potatoes; flaky white sea bream filet over tender leeks and a butter wine sauce. Paradis.

 Most Memorable: Lunch was delicious, especially that lamb terrine, but it was the 007-style hidden tasting room that stole the afternoon.

Lobster pasta

A perfectly irresistible dish: Joe Palmer House’s Lobster Newberg.

Every once in a while, and never often enough, a perfect day comes around. With no set formula, no particular sequence, it’s impossible to create a day like this; if you try, it never feels exactly right. You can plan the events, but  something intangible happens to make a day perfect. Last Saturday was a perfect day.

After weeks of rain, the sun was shining and the weather forecast promised temperatures more in line with July than early May. Awakened by chirping birds through open bedroom windows, we started our day feeling optimistic. A mundane commitment, mulch delivery, was due sometime between 10am and 1pm, but the guys arrived an hour early, freeing up some time for a brisk walk before meeting James and Zandra for our quarterly wine-tasting tour. Joining us were Ken and Michelle, for whom this was a wine-club pickup round. We’d never met Ken and Michelle, but I could  tell by the laughter and they were genial and easy to be around.

Our first stop was Zerba Cellars‘ tiny tasting room on the main strip into Dundee. From there we went to Natalie’s Estate Winery in the foothills of the Chehalem Mountain AVA. And our last stop was De Ponte Cellars, a perennial favorite for the breathtaking views from the patio and, of course, their beautiful wines. Ken and Michelle had brought a small cooler with cheese, salami and crackers, so we ordered a bottle of De Ponte Pinot Noir rosé, and soaked in the still-novel sun. Cheese devoured, wine gone, we purchased the wine we can never seem to leave without, and were on our way to the Joel Palmer House, the culinary shrine to mushrooms in nearby Dayton. Seated at our pleasant patio table, early-evening sun filtering through the trees onto the crisp white tablecloth, we knew we had one of the best tables in the house.

Our meal commenced with an amuse-bouche trio: a delicate prawn, a bite of wild-mushroom risotto, and a taste of Dungeness crab salad.  This fanciful gift was followed by our shared appetizers that started with six delectable Yaquina Bay oysters, one for each of us. (For me, a single oyster evokes elation then disappointment, its fleeting perfection leaving me greedy for more.) But there were other small plates to distract us after the divine briny bite. Next came a beautiful plate of beef tartare, infused with white truffles and served with brioche triangles, the beef tender and silky on the tongue. A generous wedge of three-mushroom tart followed, earthy, dense and flavorful with porcini sauce. The guys ordered wild mushroom soup, and the rest of us dipped in, ooh-ing an aah-ing over the creamy deliciousness.

For entrees, Zandra had butter poached Maine lobster over pasta with a mushroom and white wine cream sauce that caused ripples of entree envy across the table. J also indulged in pasta, a rarity these days, but the offering of morel mushrooms in a creamy truffle sauce over penne triumphed over any lingering willpower. And speaking of lacking willpower, James and I both were unable to resist the over-the-top house specialty, beef stroganoff. The beef, soft and flavorful, recalled the silky tartare from earlier, and the rice reminiscent of the wild-mushroom risotto from the amuse, all bathed in mushroom cream sauce. Luxurious is the first word that comes to mind. Indulgent is the second.

If only to prolong our time on the patio — certainly not because we were still hungry — we ordered dessert: a trio of sorbets. By the end of it all, Zandra declared this her new favorite restaurant, and received no dissent from the rest of us. We will dine at the Joel Palmer House again soon. (Though, I have to say that our alfresco experience probably contributed to our heightened impression. Inside looks pleasant, but the patio is divine on a beautiful day.)

The air still warm long after the sun had set, we drove away happy and sated. In our usual meeting spot where we had left our car, we gathered our wine and said goodnight to our family and our new friends, grateful for the fine camaraderie, a perfect day in our rear-view mirror.

Sunday Dinner: Cacio e Pepe

February 5, 2012

Cacio e pepe finished

Fresh pasta, cheese and fresh ground pepper.

I’ve been sitting with this post for weeks now, unable to find words to adequately describe this beautiful simplicity of this dish. While I have many go-to recipes, my favorite dishes are often those with few ingredients that commingle perfectly. Cacio e pepe is one of those dishes. Fresh pasta, butter and olive oil, generous amounts of black pepper and salty Italian cheeses. Smug in my restraint, I thought: “This will be a beautifully minimalist post that shall represent the serene minimalist nature of the recipe.” How very zen.

But then I began to daydream about how this recipe may have come about. I imagined a slight Roman woman with knotted hands, children grown and in their own homes. She’s attending to the day’s housework in summer’s heat, sweeping, scrubbing, hanging laundry on the balcony to dry in the sun; and she’s cooking the night’s meal in a sweltering kitchen. I imagined that, after a long day of his own work, the tired husband returns home and sits down to his repast. They exchange tired looks and scant words about the day’s high points when he makes the fatal error:

“This needs more pepper.” “It doesn’t need more pepper.” “It does.” “It’s fine the way it is.” “I’d prefer it with more. Mamma makes it with more pep … ”

She snatches up the plate, whisking it back to the kitchen where she begrudgingly grinds a sneeze-inducing amount of pepper into the pasta, muttering: “Your mother (grind, grind, grind)… I’ll show your mother. You want (grind) more (grind) pepper (grind, grind, grind) I’ll give you  more (grind, grind, grind) blasted (grind, grind) pepper.”

And thus the spicy, salty, buttery combination was born, a happy accident born out of the weariness of a long day. That’s how I imagine it, anyway.

Cacio e Pepe (Adapted from Bon Appétit)

1 pound fresh egg pasta (like spaghetti)

4 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper, or more to taste (ahem)

1 cup grated Grana Padano

1/2 cup Pecorino

Bring four quarts of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta for one to two minutes — it should be slightly underdone. Drain, reserving 1 cup of the pasta water.

In a large skillet, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter along with the olive oil. Add the pepper, swirling to incorporate. Add 2/3 cup reserved pasta water and bring to a simmer. Add the pasta and the remaining butter; using tongs coat the pasta with butter and pepper. Reduce heat and add the Grana Padano, mixing with the pasta until melted. Remove from heat and add the Pecorino, working the cheese into the pasta until it melts and the pasta is evenly coated, and al dente, adding more pasta water if it seems dry.

Serve with a medium-bodied Italian red like Langhe Nebbiolo, and toast your beloved and your good fortune at having discovered this dish. And, for the love of god, please don’t bring Mamma into it.

Red Ridge Farms

The view of Red Ridge Farms' lavender fields.

The day after Thanksgiving, and the Christmas spirit had burst out of its bulging seams. Everywhere we turned were red, green and glittery decorations, miles of twinkling lights and of course, endless television commercials. But rather than join the Black Friday throngs, we headed toward wine country for a little holiday cheer of our own.

Thanksgiving weekend is an event for the Willamette Valley wineries, and most host open-house style functions with tasting tables set up in their cavernous barrel-laden storage rooms. We stopped at three wineries on Friday (Lange Estate, De Ponte Cellars and Argyle) plus we made a little side trip to Red Ridge Farms’ gift shop and nursery for olive oil. (Hint: If you’re looking for a gift for the food lover or gardener in your life, Red Ridge is a good bet. Tons of creative options for the cook or home entertainer, but if all else fails, locally pressed olive oil is always a welcome gift.)

We were lucky to have a gorgeously crisp, sunny day, and the indoor/outdoor tasting setups lent a festive note to the start of the season without being overbearing. I may be mentally ready to go Christmas tree cutting.