Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Wierd" Wines: Moving away from Chardonnay

I love "weird" whites. When sales reps pour wines from unheard-of grape varietals at our wine shop and bar, they can annoy me to no end with their overly involved, never-ending stories of the ancient, indigenous magical grapes from Never-Never Land. Even so, I’m a sucker for the grapes I’ve never tasted, names I haven’t uttered, and even for the common varietals that misbehave and taste like something they shouldn’t.

The 2005 Suavia Soave made by the four lovely sisters of the Tessari family (pictured candidly above) is a great example. The winery name is Suavia, the region in which it's made is Soave (located in Verona), and the grapes used for the classic Soave blend are most often Garganega, Trebbiano. And yes, Soave blends are relatively commom, table wines from Italy. But this Soave doesn’t taste like a normal Soave. Think Riesling and Pinot Grigio’s lovechild - apple, pear, lemon, lychee, and by god, even petrol. All in one bottle, I swear.

So, for a cook, the first question that arises is, what does one pair with an interesting white wine? What do you do with so many flavors going on in one place, with so much junk in one trunk?

Good news - contrary to popular belief, “interesting” whites are consistently easy to pair with food. For example, the Swiss Chasselas-based wines meld better with most cheese than the average California Chardonnay. Riesling sings for Thai food while Sauvignon Blanc keeps asking for goat cheese, and, well, this Venetian Soave could seduce any of the above without even looking. Rico Soave.

Here are two food ideas for this lovely wine:
1) Fish in Banana Leaves: Buy some banana leaves from your local Asian food store. Soak them in water overnight. Go talk to the fishmongers at your neighborhood fish market and ask them to pick out a sustainable white-fleshed fish for you. Wrap the fish, along with a touch of ginger and lemongrass in the leaves, and toss on the Weber. Open the wine while waiting ten to twenty minutes for the fish to cook. (Peek inside and eat when fish begins to flake).

2) Springtime Risotto: Asparagus is still cheap, and carrots are still sweet. Drop the chopped veggies in the stock in which you’ll be cooking the risotto for a couple minutes, set aside until the rice grains are nearly cooked, then add to the almost finished risotto before the last dab of butter coats the rice grains. Mix it up with some chopped fresh tarragon and enjoy with a glass of Soave.

And finally, consume on patio as the sky begins to darken.

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Friday, May 4, 2007

The little cheese from Sancerre

And now for the cheese. Our Crottin de Chavignol, which seductively translates as "animal poop" or "dung," named in honor of its similarity in size and shape to French horsey droppings, first saw the light of day in the 16th century. Unlike the American dish, "shit on a shingle" that is fortunately served in even rarer instances than its distant cousin, green jello with canned fruit and mayo, the sweet little goat cheese disk had a much brighter future.

Although le Crottin was first made in Chavignol and still carries the village's name, it is now primarily made in the towns of Pitou, Berry, and Perigord that border Sancerre, in the Loire Valley. Cheesemakers take the whole milk of the famed goats in the area and ladle the smooth liquid into its tiny molds. The milk stays in the mold from twelve to twenty-four hours, where it starts to take it's "Crottin-like" shape. The wrinkled, rippled surface develops on the cheese after it's removed from the mold, salted and ripened from 10-12 days in a dry environment.

Then its sent to Parisian cheese shops, or shipped to us.

Fresh or fully mature, le Crottin de Chavignol exists in multiple forms that can soothe the dairy pains of many a particular cheese-eater. At different stages in its life, it seems to morph into entirely different types of cheese. Ranging from white and butter-colored when young to gray or off blue when older, and it's texture respectively alternating from crumbly and lush to thick and hard enough to employ as a door knocker when one's knuckles grow weary, le Crottin is a shape shifter.

With bright, herbaceous and lemony flavors, le Crottin can be enjoyed shortly after its creation as a spreadable or melting cheese . It is white or slightly yellow now, and soft and crumbly. One of the favorite ways to eat this Crottin young is warmed over toasted bread in a Chevre Chaud Salad in Parisian bistros.

Later, as it matures- sometimes as soon as a month or so after it arrives in the U.S., it develops a firmer texture that allows the cheese to be grated or sliced. This is the time to Introduce this Crottin "of a certain age" grated over gnocchi, or sliced atop artisan salumi with tarragon in a crusty baguette.

When young, le Crottin screams for a Sancerre, or other bright, fresh Sauvignon Blancs. But at this early stage it really pairs well with anything. As it ages, try it with another wine from the Loire Valley, where the cheese is made. Try it with a Cabernet Franc- the red grape of the region, or with a Chenin Blanc from Vouvray. Another good match is a Grenanche based wine. Fair warning: when young, notre petit Crottin can stand up to a Pinot Noir, but when it ages, it becomes a tad to strong for the delicate grape.

If le Crottin de Chavignol has caught your heart as it has mine, check out the site listed below. Janet Fletcher is a food writer for the SF Chronicle that is in charge of the wine and cheese pairings. A couple years prior, she wrote an awesome article on le Crottin. It'll keep you occupied as long as you can keep your seat in the chair before running to your local fromagerie


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