Le Nid Restaurant, Flayosc

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Once upon a time, when I first started visiting Provence seriously, back in the mid 1980s, Flayosc was a rural medieval hilltop village, some 7km west of the sleepy town of Draguignan. Then the by-pass was built, which saved the village from the horrors of cars snarling up its tiny main road, but it suddenly become quiet and nearly died. Cars whizzed by – going on to Salernes, Lorgues, Aups…

The hills around Flayosc

The hills around Flayosc

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Wining and Dining in Budapest

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One of the perks of judging at international wine competitions, such as VinAgora, is that the hosts put on a programme for the judges to showcase local wine, gastronomy and culture. This has several purposes.

The judges get to know each other – which in an international competition is an achievement in itself. The languages amongst the judges included: Hungarian, Romanian, Czech, Croat, Bulgarian, French, German, English, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, Polish… Between us, most managed in French or English, with the few polyglots translating for those without a common language.

Vinagora judges

The judges and organisers of Vinagora 2015

The gastronomic and cultural programme also acts as a form of promotion for the host country. When the competition is based in a wine producing area, this involves visits to vineyards. As Christine Collins, organiser of five varietal competitions in Alsace, said, her competitions are structured to encourage judges to stay in the region either before or after the competition, with the aim of promoting local tourism. Continue reading

Galettes des Rois (king cakes) and the Nabatean Spice Route

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In January 2014 I visited vineyards in the Negev desert and the archaeological remains of the ancient Nabatean kingdom. Splendid remains of buildings and extensive evidence of large scale agriculture, complex irrigation systems and large scale winemaking, indicate the richness of this area in ancient times.

Avdat

Remains of the Nabatean city of Avdat, looking out over the Spice Trail across the Negev

The 1st century BCE historian Strabo described the Nabateans as being ‘temperate and industrious,’ although the king enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, dressed in purple (a luxury in those days), drinking wine in golden beakers and being entertained by dancing girls. Continue reading

Christmas in Provence: Vin Cuit and the 13 Desserts

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Vin cuit and the 13 desserts are a traditional combination served at Christmas in Provence. Today, however, the 13 desserts are often only symbolically represented – with baskets filled with a selection of dried and glacé fruits and nuts, available in most food shops around Christmas – and few people know of vin cuit.

Cooking Vin Cuit at Ch Beaulieu

Cooking Vin Cuit at Ch Beaulieu

Vin cuit, meaning “cooked wine”, has a tradition going back to antiquity, with the method for making this largely unchanged for over 2000 years. Vin cuit wine is made by slowly heating the grape must over a direct fire in a cauldron, and allowing it to simmer, sometimes over two days. Care must be taken not to overcook it, to avoid a burnt or strong caramelised taste. Some 30 to 55% of the juice will evaporate. After cooking, the boiled must is encouraged to ferment. Traditionally fermentation was allowed to continue to a level of 20% alcohol. Now this rarely exceeds 14.5%, where the wine can be considered a table wine, with a lower level of tax. Fermentation can be long, usually 2 weeks to 3 months, but may take up to a year. Continue reading

Saffron – the Red-Gold of Venanson

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Christophe Marro with a basket of harvested saffron crocus

Christophe Marro with a basket of harvested saffron crocus

Today local saffron producer Christophe Marro, at his alpine farm, Le Cabane Safran, below the village of Venanson, opened his doors, well  gate, to the public to help with the harvest of their saffron and to introduce people to the different ways of using saffron. Their southerly exposed field, lies sheltered in a half basin between the mountains at 1000m.

The most expensive spice in the world comes from the purple saffron crocus which needs to be cultivated in well drained soil and which can tolerate frosts and temperatures to -10C.

The saffron crocus is unknown in the wild; its most likely ancestor is the Crocus cartwrightianus which originated in Crete or Central Asia. The crocus and the saffron stamens featured in Minoan art and culture. The saffron crocus is native to Southwest Asia and was first cultivated in what is now Greece.

Harvested field of saffron crocus

Harvested field of saffron crocus

Marro planted 4000 saffron bulbs in early 2010 and, with Mélanie Cassard, runs his organicsaffron farm as well as growing apples, quinces, pears and plums and also makes jams.

Melanie also works at the restaurant O a la Bouche at le Boreon and saffron themed meals are held during the autumn saffron season.

Saffron is a traditional ingredient in the Provençal fish stew Bouillabaise. According to the Michelin Guide Vert, the four essential elements of a true bouillabaisse are the presence of rascasse, the freshness of the fish; olive oil, and an excellent saffron.

La Cabane Safran

La Cabane Safran

Saffron Harvest

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Basket of freshly harvested saffron flowers

Basket of freshly harvested saffron flowers

A gorgeously sunny morning seemed an auspicious start for the first harvest of the autumn saffron crocuses in the sheltered fields of the southern alpine village of Venanson. A small field full of the bright purple flowers was carefully harvested. The flowers would grow back in two to three days allowing for four or five harvests during the season.

The golden stamen would be removed and dried before being packaged and sold at 35 euros a gram – almost literally worth its weight in gold. Ready powdered and cheap saffron is often bulked up with turmeric.

Saffron stamen and bee

Saffron stamen and bee

Saffron has an exotic and aromatic character, as well as a delicious golden glow, which cannot be replaced by any other spice and as such it is an important ingredient in many dishes such as Provencal bouillabaise, Spanish paella, and Swedish saffron buns.

It also can be found in drinks, such as the Roman drink written about by Apicius and in Indian sherbets.

Celebration at the 30th Oxford Food Symposium

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The theme ‘Celebration’ had been chosen for this Symposium to celebrate the fact that this was the thirtieth event. From the small cosy events held at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, this is now a big event with participants from all over the world, specialising in food as chefs, writers, historians or as amateurs.

The proceedings have been published – with one of my postcards on the front cover! I gave a paper on “Celebrating Christmas and New Year with Punch” which was included in the book.

With many fascinating people from all over the world, mealtime conversations take on a new slant,  discussing every dish in an intricate detail I am more used to hear over wines.

Meal Times at the 2011 Oxford Food Symposium

Meal Times at the 2011 Oxford Food Symposium