The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

January 19, 2010

Sneeking a peek at the beer book — Bob, Beer, and Me — the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels

The Beer Book is moving along well, though late, and I’m excited to finally see it’s ending on the still somewhat distant horizon.  So here’s an excerpt from the book which takes us to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium where we entered the strangely organic world of  lambic and gueuze beers.  Hope you’ll take a look.

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The Cantillon Brewery — Brussels

There is nothing glitzy about the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels.  If you’re looking for shiny stainless steel and squeaky clean equipment, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Think dust bunnies.  Think stray cats rummaging around accumulations of cobwebs and musty smells like peat, compost and orchard floor.  Think reverence for indigenous spiders who keep the brewery clear of other more pesky bugs. Think Mother Nature because, even in the midst of a bustling city, that’s what you’ve got in Cantillon – Mother Nature at work preparing sweet delicacies for those who wait.

Traditional lambic beer, like that brewed at Cantillon, is made from 35% raw wheat, 65% malted barley, and flavorful three-year-old dried hops[1] added at a ratio of 5 grams per liter of beer.  First produced more than five centuries ago, today’s lambic retains much of the same old-fashioned dry, sour funkiness of lambics of old – as long as it is brewed under the same conditions of old – which is exactly how the brewing of beer goes down at Cantillon.

Miraculously.

And I mean that literally.  While the Cantillon brewers certainly know better and are perfectly capable of controlling and orchestrating the product of their labors, they are happy to sit back, wait on nature, then harvest the half-millennium-old extraordinary process in which wild ambient yeasts floating naturally through the air convert barley and the sugars from raw wheat into this unusual, yet elegant brew called lambic beer. Hence the cobwebs, open windows, and dust bunnies visitors find when peeping behind the scenes at the magic that is Cantillon Brewery.

If you have tasted lambic beers at home you may find yourself equating it with fruit – and there’s a good reason why.  Young (year old) lambic and aged (two to three-year old) beers, called gueuze,[2] are often blended with one another to produce a variety of tastes that can range from sparkling and sour, if the young lambic takes precedence, to off-sweet and fruitier, if the gueuze does.  When the young and old beers are blended, the unfermented sugars in the young beer cause a second fermentation to take place in the bottle.  If fruit has been steeped in the beer, as it often is, the process will result in the classic dry kriek beer you may have tasted when sour cherries are used, or frambois when raspberries are the fruit of choice.

According to Belgian beer expert Tim Webb, there are vagaries in the Belgian beer regulations which may create some confusion as to whether or not a brewer has to use spontaneous fermentation for a beer to be considered an authentic lambic.  In other words, some brewers may avail themselves of short cuts by using prepared yeast in the brewing of their beers, rather than the natural spontaneously occurring yeast, endemic to the Senne River valley.

But not Cantillon.

We entered the warehouse-type building somewhat skeptically and stood near the door for a few moments trying to ascertain the procedure for viewing the premises.  A knowledgeable looking guy with a large pallet of empty bottles rolled through just as we were taken note of by one of his few co-workers, given a pamphlet and told to follow the numbers posted along the way for our self-guided tour.

The tour started in the mashing house where wheat and barley[3] are put into a large crushing machine in the middle of the floor to be crushed before they are mixed with warm water in the mashing tun.  The sugar-laden liquid, called wort, which is eventually fermented to produce alcohol, is extracted from the tun then pumped into beautiful red copper hop boilers.  Next, the mashing room led us to the granary, an amply ventilated room where hops, malted barley, and wheat are stored during the brewing season lasting from mid-October until the beginning of April.

But it was in the next room along the route, the cooling room, where we realized how different the Cantillon brewery tour is from many of the generic brewery tours we had been on before, or have been on since.  We accessed the room by climbing a short set of stairs into an attic-like space with shuttered windows in the walls.  Sitting in the middle of the floor was a huge, but shallow, hand-riveted, open-topped, copper vessel, looking more like a sculpture than a tank, called the cooling tun.  The tank was empty while we were there but we immediately knew that we were where the miracle that is lambic beer takes place:  the place where spontaneous fermentation occurs.

Cooling of the wort happens most often during the night and always during the coolest months of the year.  It is then that tiny micro-organisms living in and about the room inoculate the wort with a variety of airborne wild yeasts[4] which will ultimately result in spontaneous fermentation once the wort has been transferred to the oak and chestnut barrels in which the wort will be stored.[5]

We next wondered through the bottling area where Cantillon beers, rather than being capped, are closed with crown corks like Champagne bottles and transferred via conveyor belt to the cellar where they are horizontally stored.  The brief tour ended where it started and we were ready to taste some of the funky, sour stuff we had been learning about.


[1] Until the twelfth century flavors like rosemary and coriander were used where hops are today.

[2] Pronounced “gurze” or “kurze”.

[3] Cantillon has used only organic cereals since 1999.

[4] At least 86 known yeasts are present in lambic beers.

[5] The folks at Cantillon are quick to remind us that in the days of old, all beer was produced by spontaneous fermentation – today, only lambic beer is.

November 10, 2009

Here’s to a seat at the Nick, The Cellar on Greene, the TRUSTUS Tasting, birthdays, family and food — cheers Y’all!

As some of you may be aware, this time last year I had just celebrated the inauguration of the Year of Wine — or the year of wining and whining as the Beer Doctor is so fond of saying.  I had chosen the occasion of my humphth birthday to embark on an intense study and appreciation of all things wine, having known just enough about wine initially to know that there was oh-so-much more to learn.  Well, much to my dismay, the months on the calendar whisked right away in the wind, and before I knew it, the same date rolled around once again, sadly bringing the year of wine to a close.

I’ve learned quite a bit.  My travels have taken me to several of France’s wine destinations where I’ve wondered through the Champagne district’s chalky caves, gotten lost in Burgundy’s enumerate vineyards, and immersed myself in Alsace’s spicy Gewurtz’s, Rieslings, and Pinot Gris’s.  We’ve traveled twice to California’s beautiful rolling hills and, happily, I only broke my nose there once.  I even gave the wines of Virginia a shot and found that, though inconsistent, they did present a brand new quality of delicacy to my palate — which shouldn’t be dismissed just because it is so different from most other wines.  We had hoped to also travel to Argentina, as well as back to Italy — just for the wine — but just as it did with the Bob’s Year of Beer, time got away from us — so these countries, and more, are still on our to-do list.  Our cellar is far fatter than it ever was and has taken over our fairly large walk-in pantry — there is literally nothing edible in there at all anymore — and will soon be spreading to the closet under the stairs — thanks for that idea to my friend, who will remain anonymous because she is having her closet converted into a cellar for her beloved as a birthday surprise — hmmm … wonder if I could score a little trompe l’oeil on my closet door, too? The one casualty of the Year of Wine, other than my nose, is the reality that bad wine is far more difficult to stomach than it ever was — and in many ways I have Ricky Mollohan, Kaitlin Ohlinger, and the rest of the good people at the Cellar on Greene to thank for that.  There is no such thing as bad wine at the Cellar, and my palate has effectively been spoiled.  Thanks guys, thanks a lot.

I celebrated my birthday on Sunday this year, and rather than the fairly immense blow-out wine tasting party that we enjoyed last year, I was more in the mood for a quiet family gathering at Muddy Ford.  It was a decision deliciously well made.  The Beer Doc created for me a beautiful Chateaubriand with bernaise sauce, my second favorite liquid — next to vino — in the world.  Annie put together a phenomenally rich potatoes dauphinoise and her lovely signature sauted vegetables.  Bonnie even got into the kitchen (she found it on her own and all!) and whipped up a scrumptious asparagus and mushroom saute — a dish of which she and I share a love.

If you’ve ever been to a meal at the Ford, you know how long it takes us to cook.  But that’s ok, because we have to also take the necessary time to fully enjoy the wines we are drinking in the process.  We started our Sunday in the kitchen off with a Clicquot Yellow Lable bubbly, followed by a 2003 Schramsburg Brut, which we much preferred.  With dinner we vertically tasted one of Helen Turley’s 2001 Magnificats — which was glorious — alongside an amazing 2006 Darioush cab — easily one of the best wines I’ve tasted this year.  Presents were served with red velvet cake — and I’m happy to say that everyone shopped locally this year, with an emphasis on jewelry and assorted creations by local artists.  My favorite (and most highly requested) gift, however, was my very own seat in the Nick’s new theatre on Main Street.  So, Larry, if  you’re listening, I’d like to take my seat as soon as possible, dear.

Even though the Year of Wine is officially over, I can promise you that the wining and whining is not.  Just for one example, I will  happily be attending the TRUSTUS wine tasting benefit at City Art in the Vista on Tuesday night, killing two very important birds — the drinking of good wine & the support of TRUSTUS Theatre, one of the most important arts institutions our city can claim — with one only slightly tipsy stone.  You can be there, too.  We’ll be tasting 8 wines — two bubblies, 2 whites, 2 reds, and 2 ports — for a cost of only $45 in advance, or $50 at the door.  I hope you’ll join me for a taste and a toast — to all good things – wine, family, food, friends, and art.

Cheers, Y’all!

July 13, 2009

Bob, Beer and Me excerpt — Heidelberg

            While not necessarily known for its beer, Heidelberg, Germany is known for its university and, as everyone who has ever matriculated into an institution of higher education knows, a college town is a beer town.

            We chose Heidelberg as the first stop on a short beer journey in the early spring of 2008 for three reasons:  it is easy to reach via train or bus after flying into Frankfurt; it is known for its historic university-oriented “drinking clubs” as well as Vetter’s Brauhaus, a revered brewer among the drinkerati; and, it has a castle.  Both Bob and I are suckers for castles, having spent hours when our girls were young either climbing over the ruins of castles and abbeys on one of our escapes to another country; reading about the people, both real and mythological, who had inhabited castles in days past; or planning, saving for, and daydreaming about our next trip when we’d be able to go castle hopping again.

            For so many of us Americans, castles are depicted in our minds as imaginary – crayon creations that fade easily into the clouds, or miniature sand structures that wash away before they’re even completed.  That’s one thing so many European children have over America’s kids – castles exist right in many of their back yards.  Their entrances and aprons are rarely roped off and seldom will you find black and yellow safety tape limiting children from climbing the ramparts or peering out through arrow loops or murder holes.  The castles are stone cold real.  And with this reality comes intrinsic connections to two vital pieces of the puzzle that help construct life and life expectations for a child. 

            One is not just a link, but a relationship with the past.  It is tangible.  The evidence is there.  While America’s children have been asked to believe in a combination of the vagaries of an ideological identity shaped by Hollywood, the executive office and the power of pride, the best they can hope for is an occasional en masse field trip to a Civil or Revolutionary War battlefield.  The past is not even past, for so many American kids; it never even existed.  For kids growing up in cities like Heidelberg, with a castle dating from 1214 AD, they need only look over their shoulders to Heidelberger Schloss, to witness scenes from a living history book on a daily basis.  Preservation of the past is an important lesson to learn from our elder countries.

            The other and equally important puzzle piece that castles can offer children is the association of the imaginary with the real.  When castles and palaces and thatched roofs and stone cottages can only be found in story books, it may serve to encapsulate fantasy, imagination and creativity – turning the act of making the impossible possible into a box that can be shut – a book than can be closed – a dream more easily dismissed than believed in.  Maybe castles that we can touch and feel and climb through can serve as reminders that what we imagine can come true no matter how fanciful it may seem.

July 7, 2009

Brussels, Delirium Cafe, How to (Properly) Taste a Beer (and previews)

I haven’t written for a few weeks because, glory of all glories, I’ve been working diligently on the beer book — and not being the reluctant writer! 

That said, I bring to you an excerpt of the book that I hope you’ll enjoy.  (I also promise to finish my story of the wine journey in Burgundy soon — as well as the recounting of a lovely beer tasting from Greenville’s own Thomas Creek Brewery held recently at my favorite place in Columbia, the Cellar on Greene.)

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Brussels is famous for its waffles (gaufres), its mussels (best served as moules frites– a delicious working-class combination of mussels and French fries), and its sprouts.  But more importantly Brussels is famous for its beer – not necessarily the brewing of beer, although one of the most unique beer experiences we enjoyed was our tour of the Cantillon Brewery in the Anderlecht area of the city – but the drinking of it.  And while there are a number of places to enjoy the distinctive selection of beer that accumulates in Brussels, a few places stand out famously.

Delirium Café, hidden in the medieval area near the free township of the Ilot Sacre, has the distinction among watering holes of housing the official world’s record of most beers on one menu.  Located in an 18th century cellar, the Delirium Café might be mistaken for just another drunks’ bar and, given that such a large part of the character of any establishment is determined by the patrons within, sometimes I guess it is just that.  But don’t let the rowdies and the tourists deter you: Delirium has much to offer the beer connoisseur – starting with a menu the size of a major metropolitan area telephone book.  With more than two thousand beers available in bottles and on draft, a good five hundred genevers, and a vast collection of rare, vintage and hard to find beers, particularly Belgians, Delirium Café is not to be missed when visiting Brussels.

We dropped by Delirium Café twice during our time in Brussels and both times found the bar crowded, but not boisterous.  Vintage beer signs line the walls and metal beer trays are affixed to the ceilings.  The place is nothing fancy, but few good beer bars are.  There is no table service so patrons have two options:  gather around one of the huge old beer barrel tables, grab a stool if you can find one, and make relays to the bar; or, do as we do wherever we are, make yourself at home at the bar and enjoy all the added benefits of having bartenders at hand who, if the spirit moves them, may just enlighten your palate even further.  While the crowds at the café during our visits were for the most part made up of patrons born many years after us, there was a respectable number of mature beer aficionados, as we have come to call ourselves, and we were able to strike up conversations with several other folks just as young at heart and palate as are we.

Delirium Café is also the place where we first encountered one of the many beer-raters we were to meet during our travels.  This particular rater had wisely taken his seat at the bar as did we.  We first noticed him writing carefully in a small booklet that he lovingly guarded close to his chest.  Then we noted that he approached his beers much in the same manner as us.  First he took a good look at his beer as it set before him on the counter, appraising the color and liveliness.  Then he picked the beer up in his hand and searched in the darkness for a clear white light to which he could hold the glass in order to more fully assess the beer’s color.  Is it amber?  Yellow?  Cola-colored?  The color of weak or strongly brewed tea?  Is the beer clear or cloudy?  How lively are the bubbles – sedate like a British real ale or vivacious like a top-fermented kolsch?  Each beer is an organism unto itself; don’t be surprised to find that beers from different kegs served at different bars at different times of year look, well, different.  Such is the nature of real beer.

Next, our beer-rater friend looked at the beer’s head – the foamy, frothy meringue-like substance that floats on top as the carbon dioxide within rises up through the beer to the surface, holding fast to the malt-created proteins along the way.  Beer head can vary in appearance and consistency depending upon, among other things, the type of beer, alcohol content, the glass and the condition of the glass in which it is served, and how quickly or slowly the beer is poured.  Tiny, tightly knit bubbles will result in a head that is smooth and creamy, but heads can vary from appearing foamy and sudsy like bathtub bubbles to heads that are rocky and large, standing up of their own accord over the edge of the glass.  Color is dependent upon the style of beer, snowy white to light brown, taupe or darker, like the foam on a root beer float.  Too many people are surprised when they find that their dark beers taste sweet or mild and their lighter colored beers taste strong.  Color in a beer is created primarily by the malt in the beer and the manner in which the malt is dried.

The next step for a beer-rater is to smell the beer.  Smell, not sniff.  The beer-rater we studied brought his glass to his face, as if to drink, then thoroughly introduced his nose into the odors and fumes and mists that his beer released as it slid down the side of the glass.  Smell deeply, when you’re investigating the olfactory components of your beer.  Smell, exhale through your mouth, then smell deeply again.  Between eighty and ninety percent of what we call tastes is actually attributable to smell.  Fundamental elements of taste and smell tell us whether our beers are sweet, salty, sour and/or bitter, but beer can smell like so much more:  fruits, herbs, spices, leathers, meats, milk, coffee, chocolate, tea, tobacco, even barnyard and bubblegum.  Don’t disregard the smells you think you smell in your beer – if you smell them they are real.

Finally comes the fun part.  Tasting our beer.  Few things can be as personal as the way in which beer-lovers approach the tasting of their beers.  Unlike with wine, it is difficult to splash beer around in one’s mouth by swirling air into the liquid mix, but it is equally important to be sure your beer blankets your mouth, stimulating all the taste receptors found lurking on the surface of the fifty to one hundred taste cells that each taste bud holds.  We watched as our Delirium beer rating friend took his initial sip of beer – a smaller amount to start with allowing him to let the beer wash over his tongue and into the back of his mouth.  Swallow.  Breathe.  He then took his next and more substantial mouthful, swallowed, breathed and then, the important part: he thought about what he was tasting. 

But it doesn’t stop with the first or second taste.  Notice how the passage of time affects your beer:  how it settles into itself as the head erodes (if it does erode) and the temperature drops.  And temperature is something to actively consider.  The flavor of good beer has been done a disservice by all the hype over drinking a cold beer.  It’s not that drinking a cold beer isn’t enjoyable – but think about what you’re enjoying:  is it the beer itself or the fact that something liquid and chilly is traveling down your throat?  As with wine, overly chilled beer has a numbing effect on the palate, potentially disguising the myriad taste sensations hiding there and waiting for your tongue to find and celebrate them.

June 26, 2009

California, Bonnie, the Giants and Wine

One of the great things about having kids who are active, independent and just as jazzed about life as you are is watching them fly and then visiting them in the places they’re nesting for a while.  Bonnie has been our child who tends to hit the road a lot.  Her dance adventures have taken us to New York City, Boston, Prague, Ascoli Piceno, Italy, the Berkshires, and DC, among other exciting places — and last weekend they took us to visit her in San Francisco where she is immersing herself in Alonzo King’s LINES ballet program this summer. 

We took this opportunity to combine a visit with Bonnie with a celebration of Father’s Day and a little more research into California’s exquisite wine country.  Annie came along with us which made this the first time the original Boiter-Jolley clan had spent anytime together away from Muddy Ford in quite some time.  We missed Kyle, but it felt nice to re-visit our little nuclear unit for a few days.

The three of us flew into San Francisco airport on Friday morning about noon, then spent over two hours waiting on the local Fox Rental Car company to issue us our pre-ordered convertible PT Cruiser.  That gave us just enough time to sit in traffic on the way to Napa, enjoy a brief but glorious sparkling tasting at Domaine Carneros (a division of Taittanger of Reims —http://www.domainecarneros.com//index.cfm ), then sit in traffic again as we drove back into the city to meet Bonnie.  As a Father’s Day surprise Bonnie had purchased tickets to see the Giants play Friday night, so we easily made out way to the stadium and hunkered down for a cold but fun night. 

We devoted all day Saturday and all day Monday to visiting wineries we had missed on our last trip in March.  Farrari-Carano http://www.ferrari-carano.com/ easily offered us the best wines of our visit — luscious chardonnays, lightly oaked, with long, complex finishes and pleasant spice.  If you hit the Farrari-Carano winery, be sure to take the stairs down into the cellar for their reserve tasting where you’ll find a knowledgeable staff and absolutely scrumptious tastings.  And please do try the 2007 Dominique Chard, the 2007 Emelia’s Cuvee Chard (which is unfiltered) and, for a big, fat, tannin – rich meritage, try the 2005 Prevail Westface — a hard-to-come-by lush red that I plan to keep in my cellar for at least another 5 years.  It was actually our server at FC who directed us to a small winery we’d never heard of before — Bella. 

Like Ferrari-Carano, Bella Winery is located in the Dry Creek Valley; it is a small, family-owned and, obviously, well-loved winery and facility.  Bounteous lavender plants line the modest drive and lawn where rolls of yoga mats invite visitors to take a load off and enjoy the scenery and wine.  Dry Creek Valley is known for producing big fat zinfandels and the Bella Winery has a wonderful example of the best the area has to offer — the 2007 Two Patch Zinfandel, awarded a nice 95 by Wine Enthusiast.  Visit their site at http://www.bellawinery.com/

In the interest of brevity, here’s the Siskel and Ebert version of the remainder of our tastings with a few brief notes where needed.

Mayo Family — thumbs down, at least for the diner-like tasting room we visited — no problem here, just no atmosphere either and wines which didn’t really float our boats — http://www.mayofamilywinery.com/mayofamily/index.jsp

Gloria Ferrer — Sparkling is always a great way to start your winery visits wherever you are, and we thoroughly enjoyed sitting on the beautiful terrace here overlooking vineyards and sharing 4 flutes of the winery’s offerings (but still highly prefer Schramsberg and Domaine Carneros) — thumbs up —  http://www.gloriaferrer.com/

Ledson — thumbs way down — big informal corporate tasting of mediocre wines — not even gonna list the website

Benziger Family Winery —  thumbs way up — don’t miss this historical site or its embrace of biodynamic viticulture — wines range widely — http://www.benziger.com/

Gundlach-Bundschu — thumbs up — another old (1858) winery with a lot of history, a healthy dose of irreverence and some quite decent wines — http://www.gunbun.com/

Schug Carneros Estate — thumbs up — but if you’re from South Carolina you should know that our home state is the major market for this winery — so don’t bother with the first tier tasting of wines you can find on almost any grocery store shelf in the state — go for the reserve tasting where you’ll find some happy values and very nice wines that are easy to ship home — http://www.schugwinery.com/schugwinery/index.jsp

Landmark — thumbs up — knowledgeable staff, good, afforable wines, lovely setting with a place to picnic which we used to its fullest — http://www.landmarkwine.com/home.html

Wilson Winery — thumbs up — under the direction of winemaker and general manager Diane Wilson, who is also the mother of three teenagers, Wilson has a tasty array of fruit-forward reds.  Stop in to see the small assembly — http://www.wilsonwinery.com/

June 18, 2009

Down the rue toward Eguisheim

We awoke our first morning in Riquewihr to a room full of smoke.  Upon rising it became obvious that the crisp cross ventilation we’d enjoyed as we drifted off to sleep the night before put us downwind from myriad chimneys spewing forth morning breakfast smoke.  A sense of anachronism flooded me as I looked out over the antiquated tile rooftops at the gushing chimneys interspersed with antennae and satellite dishes. I envied the residents who seemed so capable of blending the most root-bound of the old with the most convenient of the new. 

From Riquewihr, the Rue Du Vin led us through villages competing with one another for awards of quaintest, cutest and most delicious in their offerings of local juices.  One of our favorite stops was Ribeauville (pronounced “ree-bo-vee-yay),a beautiful gathering of medieval buildings sneaking in and out of the shadows of the Vosges mountains.   It was in Ribeauville that we visited the house of Trimbach, Alsatian wine producers since 1621.  Trimbach is an Alsatian label many people may recognize from our wine shelves in the US and, in fact, Trimbach does export in the neighborhood of half of their product.  Trimbach is also one of the exporting wineries that does not list their wines as Grand Crus, despite their meeting Grand Cru standards.  (There are 51 Grand Crus in the Alsace region, but some controversy over the whether the lines for grand crus were drawn too large.) 

Our Alsatian travels these days also allowed us to taste select wines from Hugel (another label that may be familiar to you) as well as Dopff and Irion, JungSchneider et Fils, Jean Ziegler, Preiss Zimmer, and one of our favorites, Luis Sipp.  The Jean Ziegler 2005 Grand Cru Sporen Gewurtz was among our favorites — round and spicy with a long and complex finish — delicious.  We also enjoyed the Trimbach 2002 Pinot  Gris Reserve which we found to also have a heavy, honeyed nose with a long finish that proved both smokey and spicy.  Particularly fun in the Trimbach line up was the 2002 Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives (means late harvest and therefore somewhat sweet and robust).  It was unusually balanced for a sweet wine and should keep for another twenty years.  Other highlights included the Louis Sipp  2003 Riesling Kirschberg Grand Cru and their 2004 Gewurtz Osterberg Grand Cru (spicy enough to find its way home in our suitcase), and the Siegel 2004 Guwurtz Mauberg (out of Kazersberg) and Pierre Sparr’s 2004 Gewurtz Grand Cru Sporen (who took the journey as well.) 

I’ll just take a moment here to sing the praises of a little treasure I found on the Interwebs called the Wine Mummy.  These are resealable super-padded sacks for transporting ones vino surreptitiously in ones suitcase.  (We also purchased hard-sided luggage to further protect our souvenirs on their journey to our humble cellar.)  The Wine Mummies worked wonderfully, allowing us to safely bring home five bottles, the only mishap being a small leakage in the Mauberg, requiring us to consume it within days of arrival — but that was probably due to a less than snug cork.  Here’s the link: http://www.winemummy.com/

Transporting wine from Europe is one of those things we though we’d get around once we got there but so far have been unable to.  We did purchase a pricey case of a mixture of lovelies from Aux Marches Vins in Beaune — but have been in negotiations with someone with an Hispanic accent (no idea on this)  for a few days now about how to get it to our doorstep.  Fingers crossed.

After three days in Riquewihr it was time to move on down the Alsatian wine road to it’s lower end.  As it was Saturday and we had some experience with the vast Colmar market from a previous visit, we set our sights on making it there.  Village markets are one of those glorious aspects of travel that everyone should experience some time.  Depending on the size of the town, markets happen only once or twice a week.  The streets are cleared of parking and traffic, and vendors of everything from comestibles including fruits, vegetables, cheeses, sausages, meats, candies and baked goods, to clothing — both basic and fashionable, to toys, antiques and art fill the open spaces.  If you’re in Germany you may smell the sizzle of freshly cooked sausages; in the Netherlands, stroopwaffles crisping on the griddle.  At a later market in Beaune we saw whole pigs roasting on spits and tables full of freshly cooked lamb and chicken.  These weekly markets have been going on in their respective villages for literally hundreds of years.  Yes, most villages also have clothing stores and groceries, and some even have the equivalent of our supermarkets and department stores.  But weekly markets are so much a part of culture and tradition that many of the chain type merchants actually close their doors on market days.  For the visitor, it’s a feast of sight and smell and sound. 

After Colmar we found our new temporary home in a tiny, off-the-beaten-track village called Eguisheim (pronounced “Egg-ish-heim”) — the Auberge du Remparts.  http://auberge.du.rempart.free.fr/site/  Remparts may best be described as a circle of medieval buildings that encompass the original town center, or centre ville.  Think “ramparts” in English.  The Auberge du Rempart is built within these walls.  The hotel itself is built around a large and antiquated fountain that also serves as the center piece for dining alfresco, lunch, dinner and breakfast.  We ate dinner there every night — honestly, we couldn’t think of a reason to not.

June 16, 2009

Alsatian paradis — Strasbourg, Obernai, Barr, Riquewihr

Filed under: France,travel,wine,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 02:44
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If I had to pick a favorite wine — it would have to be an Alsatian Gewurztraminer.  There is just something about the complexity and round layers of spice that I almost always find satisfying.  That’s one of the reasons we planned to spend such a big hunk of our time in the Alsace region of France — to give us time to really explore and soak up the Gewurtz, along with the Riesling and Pinot Blanc prevalent in the area.  We weren’t disappointed.

The Alsatian region of France is, throughout, very much like the fairytale photos you see in story books.  Half timbered houses, ancient fountains and village walls, carvings,  Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance architecture all crowded in together, beauty for the sake of beauty.   It is easy to get comfortable with beauty and intricacy surrounding you.  It is less easy to get comfortable with the cuisine which centers on pork, sauerkraut and tarts flambe.  (Who doesn’t like the occasional Alsatian meal, you may be thinking?  Go back and re-examine the term occasional and ask yourself if that means more than a dozen times per week.  Enough said.)

It was a quick train ride from Reims to Strasbourg where we began the Alsatian leg of our journey, and another short walk from the train station to our hotel, The Hotel Monopole-Metropole.  (www.bestwestern-monopole.com/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/lang,en/).  We had been looking forward to returning to the Monopole-Metropole (Bob and I had stayed there on one of our earlier jaunts years before), and as I dragged my suitcase along the uneven sidewalk I remembered the place and it’s one-step-up-from-a-fleabag charm.  Musty old furniture once beautiful in its day, ornate carvings in unexpected places, deep cast iron tub providing the opportunity for a proper bath.  We had barely walked down the hall to our room before we realized something huge had happened to one of the favorite hotels — it had been remodeled.  Majorly.  It’s hard to complain about modern comforts, but we were a bit disappointed. 

Our one night in Strasbourg was spent visiting our favorite European cathedral with its overabundance of delicate carvings and statuary, then eating spaetzle along the canal in a fantasy area of the city called Petit France.  And drinking Gewurtz — a  nice AOC Vielles Vignes (old vine) by Gerard Metz.

By the next morning we had our little rented Citroen packed up and were ready to take on the Rue du Vin.  The Rue du Vin is an ambling roadway that stretches through vineyards from Strasbourg south to just beyond Colmar, which is arguably the cultural capitol of the area.  Along the way the road snakes in and out of one quaint and totally authentic village after another — and each village is inhabitated by locals, many of whom make their livings by working with wine.

We visited villages like Obernai where we tasted the wines of the Seilly Winery — visiting with Mr. Seilly himself who spoke virtually no English but somehow persuaded us to purchase two of his bottles.  Just down the road in Barr we happily found the Leip-Leininger Winery where we met Luc, the son in the wining family.  While we tried his 2008 Saveur D’Agruma, a light summery blend of Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Muscat, it was his 2007 Riesling Grand Cru Kirchberg that we really enjoyed (and at the bargain price of only 11 Euros, we purchased a couple of bottles of these as well).

Some 55 miles from Strasbourg we ended the day’s travels in a town called Riquewihr (pronounced “Reek-veer”) where we would settle for a few nights.  Medieval, beautiful, touristy by day but all ours and the locals at night.  We checked into the Hotel Dolder, (http://www.dolder.fr/index_gb.html) named after the upper town gate built in the 1291.  The house itself was built in the 16th century and the rooms, though renovated, still fall at the end of winding staircases and have windows that look out over the village’s historic rooftops to the vineyards that surround the town.

If you’re wondering if we thought we were in heaven — well, yeah, actually we did.

June 14, 2009

Reims, French showers, Chagall, Taittinger, Clicquot and Pommery, Oh my!

Filed under: France,travel,wine,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 00:44
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We rose early the morning after our anniversary and left our hotel in the Rue Cler area of Paris — La Motte Picquet http://www.hotelmottepicquetparis.com/  in the 7th arrondisement near the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides — via taxi.  La Motte Picquet is a small, two star establishment with accommodating staff and just the right amount of Parisian charm.  Located around the corner from Rue Cler,  a short street that serves as a sort of microcosm of French culture with its boulangeries, patisseries, fromageries, etc., all gathered on a few short blocks.  We’ve never stayed in this area before, usually opting for the 6th and sometimes even the Marais, and we probably won’t again — too many Americans!   (We  didn’t travel that far to hang out with a bunch of Yanks!)  We also had one little complaint with the hotel — the shower.

At the risk of sounding ethnocentric here, what is it about Europe and showers? 

Now, I am perfectly aware of the beauty and the texture that multi-culturalism provides — I am the resident preacher against judging the content of another culture based on the content of ones own.  But really, what is the benefit of a shower that drenches an entire room and all its contents?  And, I know that many of the French are certainly smaller (fitter) than many Americans, but seriously, Kate Moss couldn’t fit in the tiny shower in our otherwise lovely hotel in Paris.  A little off topic here.  Sorry.

Anyway, …

A train awaited us at the Gare L’Est station which would take us just 45 minutes out of the city to a town called Reims, pronounced “Rahnce” in France.  Reims is the home of France’s Champagne region in large part due to its excessively chalky soil — perfect for growing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, the main ingredients in classic Champagne.  The chalk provides good drainage for the soil, absorbing the sun’s heat during the day and gradually releasing it onto the grapes through the night.  It also served as a fine source of construction for the vast underground caves — many of which are hundreds of years old — in which the wine bottles are stored and matured.

The train deposited us a short walk from out hotel, the Hotel Grand Continental, http://www.grandhotelcontinental.com/, set on a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, wine bars and shops.  Early for check-in, we stored our luggage and stretched our legs with a short walk to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Reims — home for hundreds of years to the coronations of France’s kings,  and home now to Marc Chagall’s gorgeous Apse Chapel stained glass windows.

Having given our respects to my one of the 20th century’s finest artist, it was time for some fruit of the vine. 

There are far more champagne houses in the Reims and neighboring Epernay area than anyone has time to visit, so we had carefully selected our choices, limiting it to the houses at which we had previously made reservations:  three for our day of arrival and two for the following day before continuing on our journey.  I noticed that Mo from the Hotel La Motte Picquet in Paris who had helped me make reservations seemed somewhat impressed that we were taking in as many as five houses.  I’d assured him that we were old pros at visiting and tasting, having researched a book on beer that required us to visit and taste for over a year’s time.  Mo had just smiled … or was that a smirk?

Our first stop was one of the venerable old houses of champagne, Taittinger, (pronounced Tat-tone-zhay).  As at many wineries, our visit began with a film educating us on the processes of viticulture and methode champenoise.  We had visited a few sparkling wine houses during our time in Napa and Sonoma earlier this Spring so the film served as something of a review for us and gave us a chance to catch our breath after racing in to make our reservation.  Soon though we filed our way down a long and winding flight of stairs that deposited us deep in the cold bowels of Taittinger’s chalky caves and under the ruins of the Saint Nicaise Abbey.  Beautiful, massive mountains of bottles were stored on their sides in the shadows of the caves which went on and on, further than we could see.  (During World War I, many of the residents of Reims took refuge in the champagne caves under the city, living there as most of the city walls collapsed above them.)  After wandering about a bit we were escorted back up the long flight of stairs which proved to be just as long, if not longer, on the way up as they were on the way down.  A quick glance at my watch told me we had only moments to scoff down the Brut we were offered and hurry on to our next destination — 

Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin — I am just a messy sentimentalist when it comes to this champagne and the story behind it.  Madame Clicquot, widowed at the age of 27 and in a time (1805) when even French women were thought incapable of  purposeful thought and action, changed the world of wine and put Reims on the map.  First she discovered a way to rid champagne of its previously cloudy appearance, (the process is called riddling and is still practiced either by hand or machine in virtually every champagne house today).  Secondly, she opened up shipping arrangements with Russia, creating the first real demand for the wine — a demand that also continues today.

The Clicquot tour began quite elegantly and we were pleased to mostly wander about as our tour guide used perfect English to draw attention to various items in the Clicquot collection — the Madame’s desk, photographs, etc.  But before we knew it, again we were descending another long dark staircase into the caves under the city of Reims.  And again, we were expected to climb back up them.  I’m not being a wimp here — I’m talking hundreds of stairs.  Again. 

Luckily there was a flute of Yellow Label at the top and a bit of another 2002 Vintage to boot. 

As we ran to our next appointment at the House of Pommery (hauling a heavy wooden box containing a Cuvee Saint Petersbourg and two Clicquot flutes) I remembered Mo’s smile from the day before.  He clearly wasn’t concerned about the amount of champagne involved in multiple tastings — he was concerned about the amount of steps.  And he was right.  Descending into the caves of Pommery — which interestingly enough looked very much like the caves of Clicquot and the caves of Taittinger and, I feel certain the caves of the other two houses we had planned on visiting but ditched, I vowed to be more proactive in discerning the difference in a smirk and a smile in the future. 

Happily, the House of Pommery was more forthcoming with their tastings, allowing us to sample their Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir, 2000 vintage Brut, and their Dry champagne, which is actually more sec or sweet than I would have thought.  Another bonus from the Pommery visit was the site specific art installed throughout the caves — innovative and exciting, it took the edge off the cold and made the Pommery tour much more unique.

June 11, 2009

Paris, Jules Verne, Obama and Us

As I mentioned last time, we began and ended our journey through France in Paris, flying in and out of the Jetsonian Charles de Gaulle Airport.  Visiting Paris is in so many ways like visiting New York City.  There’s a lot to see behind the doors of the cities’ museums and galleries — and we enjoy seeing it — but so much of the magic of both places happens on the sidewalks.  So we spent a lot of our time there — walking the sidewalks or sitting in their sprawling ribbons of cafes watching others do the walking.

 

It’s easy to over-do museums, particularly when you’re somewhere like Paris and almost every great known artist is represented.  Too many tours and eventually you may find yourself passing some of the world’s most stimulating works of art feeling a bit non-plussed.  Ho hum, another Van Gogh.  So we’ve learned to limit our exposure and only bite off small morsels at a time.  This trip we focused on The Picasso Museum, the newly re-opened L’Orangery featuring Monet’s water lilies, and the three big exhibits at the Pompidou — Calder, Kandinsky and Women in Art.  (The exhibition on Men in Art is at the Louvre — it is called, “The Louvre.”)

 

The Pompidou Centre is what it is.  What once seemed shiny and innovative now looks rusty and very much shat upon by arrogant Parisian pigeons.  (The Pompidou Centre was revolutionary when it debuted in 1977, with all the structural and  functional elements exposed rather than hidden behind walls and ceilings and floors, and color-coded as well:  the electrical casings are yellow, the plumbing pipes green, and the heating and air conditioning ducts are blue, for example.  Patrons enter the museum almost midway up the building via a series of clear escalators located on an exterior wall.)  Maybe premonitions of its current state help explain why the French hated the Pompidou so when it was first built. 

 

I entered the exhibition hall as a sort of double shot espresso fan of Kandinsky — liking his early work (especially) all the way into his Bauhaus period — but left feeling more like weak coffee toward the artist.  And though I admit to feeling a bit like a poser even saying this (who am I to criticize the museum’s curator?) I think it all had to do with the redundancy of the selected pieces.  Kandinsky was nothing if not prolific, but the sheer number of the pieces displayed detracted from the impact they had as a whole. 

 

The Calder exhibition was completely opposite.  Selected pieces demonstrated both his tendency toward whimsy (Alexander Calder was the Texas born inventor of the mobile with a fascination for the circus) and his prowess at sculpture of literally monumental proportions.  (His piece installed at the World Trade Center — “Bent Propeller” — you may remember, was destroyed in the attack on 9/11.

~~~~~~~

Two of the highlights of our stays in Paris sort of overlap, despite having taken place on opposite ends of our trip. 

 

Bob and I decided to bite the bullet and celebrate our anniversary in style this year by having a once-in-a-lifetime dinner at the Jules Verne Restaurant atop the Eiffle Tower.  What can I say?  The food wasn’t as good as the view, but the view was as astronomical as the check!  This we did on the 25th of May.  Upon returning for our last weekend in Paris, we noticed on Saturday that one of the streets in the Latin Quarter leading to the Notre Dame was cordoned off and lined with French police.  After considerable multi-lingual eavesdropping we deduced that President Obama (pronounced OH – BA – MA, with equal inflection on each syllable in France) would soon be passing through.  Being above neither gawking nor stalking, we scored ourselves two primo spots on the curb and cheered along with all the French fans as his iron-clad motorcade sped by.  Twice. 

 

The cool part to me though was finding out that the president and first lady would be dining that night at the very same restaurant where we had celebrated our anniversary two weeks before.  I wonder if they sat at our table? 

 

What I didn’t know then was that the whole Obama clan would also be visiting the Pompidou on Sunday, the same day as us. 

 

Somehow we missed them in the crowd.

June 10, 2009

Vin français voyage – première partie (aka Clark and Ellen Griswold take on French wine country)

Filed under: aging,France,Paris,travel,wine,writer's life,writing — cynthiaboiter @ 17:32
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It’s been a while since I’ve written — both legitimate writer-type writing, and blogger-type writing as well.  But I really do have an excuse this time.  I’ve been traveling.  Read on.

 

Paris is one of those cities that, once you go there, you never really leave.  I remember so well mine and Bob’s first trip to Paris over twenty-five years ago.  It was part of our month-long adventure of back-packing through Europe on twenty-five dollars a day, financed via the South Carolina Student Loan Association.  (Never, everaccuse either of us of being financially responsible.)  We had our Monkey Ward backpacks, our Eurail passes, a strict budget and all the audacity of Southern born idiots savant.  Neither of us had ever been out of the country and I had never traveled in a plane despite growing up the daughter of the Greenville-Spartanburg airport manager and living, literally, on airport property. We were fulfilling childhood dreams of chasing horizons; of one day being passengers in those planes that flew constantly overhead. 

 
I’ll never forget rising up early morning out of the Paris metro, sleep deprived from an overnight ride from Amsterdam in a train compartment with a crazy lady who, convinced she was on her way to marry Baryshnykov, constantly packed and unpacked her trousseau.  Nighties and negligees hung from the compartment doors and the luggage racks over our heads.  We arose at the St. Michelmetro station in the heart of the Latin Quarter.  To the left of us stood Saint Michael’s fountain and to the right the Notre Dame.  Even today, I sometimes catch the scent of  how Paris, the city, smelled that morning wafting through the air — crisp and cool and clean.  (And Paris is an amazingly clean city still.)

 
Since then, we’ve had the good fortune of re-visiting this favorite city several times, both with our children and without.  This most recent time, we celebrated our 30th anniversary there and launched our explorations through some of France’s vast wine country from Paris’s Gare de L’est, as we traveled to Reims, the epicenter of Champagne country; then to Strasbourg, where we began our journey through Alsace and down the Rue du Vin; and, finally into the heart of Bourgogne to thoroughly explore Burgundy wines and the Cote d’ Or.  In the end, we returned to Paris for one last weekend of celebration and the completion of a sentimental circle, indeed.
Over the next few days I’ll use this space to share some of my thoughts and experiences garnered over this recent seventeen day long visit.  I’ll reflect on wine, hotels, tiny villages with names that sound even funnier with a Southern drawl, and what it’s like to travel now versus then. 

 

We had a great time — I’m looking forward to telling you all about it.

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