Outrés

Hand-pressing wine

Here in France it is traditional to celebrate the arrival of les vins primeurs – the most famous of which is the ‘Beaujolais nouveau‘ – on the third Thursday of November. It seems that this year our attention has been on politics and past terrorist acts rather than festivities around the young wines. There’s been barely a ripple in the news and even in the shops I’ve seen little noise around les vins nouveaux.

To be fair, the French are not crazy about young wines, believing that they give you a headache, and tend to view the whole Beaujolais Nouveau craze as a marketing scheme to attract foreigners. It has certainly been more successful overseas.

I happen to enjoy the young wines of the Beaujolais and the Rhône valley and over the years have been an avid consumer of our local produce.

A few kilometres away from our former hometown in the Monts du Lyonnais was the village of Taluyers. The road to that town had but one attraction for us, but one that kept us coming back regularly for years: Le Domaine de Prapin, a grower of the wine called Coteaux du Lyonnais. The Chardonnay whites were truly magical, the still hand-pressed Gamay reds pleasantly fruity. Best of all, we discovered that you could buy directly from the producer. Our car beat a path to their door on many weekends.

wine-skinWe were delighted to learn that you could buy the wine in bulk, en vrac, in a box container with a vacuum-packed bag inside, to keep the wine from spoiling (chance would be a fine thing), and a handy spout for serving. What the English pragmatically referred to as a bag-in-a-box, they simply called une outre, the term loosely referring to a traditional wine skin.

Not only was it more economical to buy the wine this way, it was a relief to have fewer bottles to dispose of. Glass is recycled in collective containers on street corners in France, and there were times when I was tempted to take out our recycling by cover of night – if it weren’t for the noise. Our empties made a satisfying smash as they landed in the container but it was impossible to get rid of them discreetly. I felt as if I should wear a sign that said ‘I am not an alcoholic, I support the local produce’.

In a comedic quirk of the French language, the word ‘outrer’ means to push to the limits of the acceptable, to the outrageous or outlandish. When we ran out of wine, my husband would joke that we were ‘outrés’ and make a quick run over to Prapin.

Outrageous.

Have you enjoyed any of this year’s vins nouveaux? Do you care whether your wine comes from a bottle or a box?

Arriver un pépin

vendanges-1000

We are in the midst of grape harvesting in our region at the moment, les vendanges. You can see the people with their trucks and machines along the little country roads, and there are signs warning you to be wary.

I am more than happy to oblige. It seems that this vital activity is always on the verge of a crisis – whether from hail or poor weather conditions, pests or other pépins.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post. The seed that is found inside the grape, along with other fruits like apples, is called le pépin. For reasons that I have not been able to elucidate, this tiny seed or pip is associated with trouble.

To encounter un pépin means to run into a problem of some sort along the way. Readers of this blog will have gathered by now that such things occur not infrequently in France. So although I do not know the etymology of the expression, I can easily imagine how the pip could be associated with trouble and strife.

Eating fruit, for example. Personally, I would much rather drink grapes than eat them. But for those who are amorous of the grape itself, running into pips can be problematic. Do you spit them out? And then there’s wine making. Perhaps the grape seeds themselves are not good for the wine? Something to do with the tannins?

On the other hand, I have recently learned that grape seed oil is a healthful choice for cooking as it has a relatively high smoke point, is full of antioxidants and promotes good cholesterol. And according to this source, you should chew and swallow the seeds as they are healthy for you.

My dear late mother was a source of many wonderful things, not the least of which were her expressions. “She gives me the pip” was one of my favourites.

Pépin le Bref was also the name of a king, the father of Charlemagne. I am useless with history, however, and will leave further explorations of his rather fascinating name to those more qualified.

Will 2016 be a good year? It is hard to say. The summer was slow to start but hot and dry for a good long while. In any case, we’ll find out before long. The first young wines will be out in November.

Until then, may you stay clear of les pépins!

 

 

Arrête la tutute!

Rose-Baby-Shower-sucette-boisson-Tags-Charms-verre-à-vin-marqueurs-Wedding-Party-décorations-couleurs-personnalisées.jpg_640x640In familiar French ‘la tutute’ means a baby’s pacifier – a dummy or soother for you Brits – also known as a tétine, sucette or tototte. In the parlance of my belle-famille, however, it was always used as a snide reference to drinking.

“Arrête la tutute!” my beau-père said with a laugh one day when he saw me with a beer. There is something oddly shocking in France about women drinking beer so perhaps it was only half in jest. I had heard this term used before, always with the gesture of thumb towards mouth, implying excessive consumption of spirits.

Usually ‘la tutute’ is used to jokingly describe a family member who over imbibes at parties. (“Il y va la tutute!”) We all have one in the family. In our case it was my late aunt, who famously was in her cups at our wedding in Paris. Husband’s family also had a few members who tended to over-indulge. As much as drinking is part of the culture in France, and wine is de rigueur at any social event, it is badly viewed when consumed in excess. It is not done to get visibly drunk or even tipsy, unless perhaps on New Year’s eve.

I suppose the connection with the pacifier is apt. Drinking soothes the soul and pacifies nerves in most social situations. Freeing us from our inhibitions to let loose and have fun.

The secret, as with most things we enjoy, is moderation. How much is too much? And why can’t we all have an alarm bell in our brains to tell us when we are one drink over the line?

I enjoy drinking and it is not easy for me to imagine a nice meal without at least a glass of wine. But when the NHS recently announced its updated guidelines for alcohol consumption, I decided it was time to moderate my consumption. That did not mean an entirely dry January or anything quite so radical. But I am keeping a closer eye on the units – recommended to be no more than 14 per week for both women and men – and trying to enjoy a few days a week with nothing more dizzying than sparkling water.

How about you?

Avec ou sans gaz?

Mineral WaterWine is often thought of as the national beverage in France but mineral water is a close contender. You will find it on the tables of every restaurant and most homes. Every region has its own local mineral water. The supermarket has an entire aisle devoted to l’eau minérale in all its varieties: flat, sparkling, flavored, high in magnesium salt to aid digestion.

The first thing a non-native needs to know is that there are essentially two kinds of mineral water on offer in French restaurants. I was somewhat surprised the first time I ordered ‘eau minérale’ to be asked: “Avec ou sans gaz?”

‘Gaz’ sounds a little too close to reality to be polite. Can’t they say bubbles?

“Avec gaz,” I replied, deciding to go for the gusto. When you sit down for a meal in France, there will be gas at some point.

Now the French have adopted a similar term for sparkling water: ‘eau pétillante’. (Maybe they realized that ‘gassy’ just didn’t do it?)

When I first came to France I only knew of one kind of sparkling water: Perrier. In fact, I used the brand name as a generic short form for sparkling water. Until I discovered that whenever I asked for Perrier, I actually got Perrier. In all its intensely carbonated glory. All very well as a drink on its own but there are so many finer, more delicate tasting mineral waters to accompany food.

Over the years I became somewhat addicted to sparkling water. I can give up wine, if forced, but please don’t ask me to go bubble-free. Most French people in my experience will prefer flat mineral water like Evian or Volvic. A few will insist upon tap water, a carafe of which must be offered for free by law in restaurants. But there is a general misgiving about drinking tap water in France, perhaps a holdover from bygone days when the water filtration system was less sanitary.

For years, Badoit held pride of place on our table. It tends to lose its sparkle just after opening, though, which is probably why they introduced a more intense version, Badoit Rouge, a few years ago. Now my house sparkling water is St. Pellegrino, which has just the right bubble for me. Yes, it’s Italian and many French people hate that. But hey, they’re all owned by Nestlé or Danone anyway.

OrezzaWhen on holiday, I love to try the local waters. This one from Corsica was beautifully refreshing.

The French are not the only ones with a predilection sparkling mineral water. In Germany I have often found it to be offered along with flat water in business meetings, with a choice of small, medium or large bubble. Some people drink it all day long, which even for me is a bit much gaz.

How about you? Flat, sparkling or non, merci?

Uncorked in Portugal

Cork oakIt is surely the world’s most reassuring sound. Whether eased from its niche with a gentle sigh or resoundingly and explosively popped, there is no other sound so associated with happiness than the uncorking of a wine bottle.

I speak from a certain, ahem, experience. No neophyte with the corkscrew, I am rather familiar with le bouchon as it’s called in French. It wasn’t always so. It’s taken years of nightly uncorking with my trusty tire-bouchon to master this skill. Now, I pop like a pro: 30 seconds max, zero to glass.

Imagine my surprise and delight in discovering that I was holidaying in the world capital of cork. Portugal. Who knew?

Let me explain that neither husband nor I are history buffs. Sure, he knows his world politics and has a much more precise mental geography of what happened when than I. But when we travel, we do not visit historical sites with anything more than a passing interest. I enjoy some of the stories but retain none of the details. Dates, names….I can always google it. More than once we’ve been shamed to admit that we visited a place without seeing (nay, noticing!) its world famous castle with the UNESCO heritage moat.

Instead, we like to wander around like free spirits and get a sense of a place, a feeling. This time in Sintra, near Lisbon, we decided to explore the area with the aid of e-bikes, and a guide to make sure we didn’t get lost. I’d never felt the need for such aids before, but heck, there were a lot of hills. And for once, I thought we could enjoy a holiday without arguing over which way to go. It was a brilliant plan.

Our guide showed us around the park and surroundings, stopping at key points to give us snippets of information about its various castles but without forcing us to take into too much detail. When he saw how interested we were in the subject, he told us all about the cork tree.

Cork treeThe cork oak is a wonderful thing. In Portugal, the bark is harvested every nine years. It is literally peeled away from the tree trunk, upon which the cork farmer paints the last number of the year in which it was harvested. Then, it regenerates before being harvested again. It is native to Portugal and a few other places but not that many. Oh well, if you want more detail you can always Wiki it.

Cork is used for many things. I love how light and airy it is, yet so strong. It makes a great coaster and is also used for flooring. I even bought a pair of cork sandals. Extremely comfortable and only a little nerdy looking. Mostly, though, it is used as a stopper for wine.

Wine producers have been using synthetic corks increasingly of late, so I had thought cork was an endangered species. But apparently it is a matter of cost. Now I make it a policy to prefer wines with the real thing and although it is hard to know before you open it, those that are ‘mise en bouteille à la propriété’ or bottled by the wine grower are more likely to use real cork.

For years, I have been troubled by one question: what to do with all the leftover corks? It seemed a shame to throw them away but there is no recycling program for cork. Last year, however, I discovered they make a wonderful natural fire starter, Soak them in rubbing alcohol* for a day or two then put a couple in with your kindling and voilà! Une belle flambée!

*Do be careful, though, that stuff is highly inflammable.

Have you ever been to Portugal? Any thoughts on the wonders of cork?