WHOOSH! and they are GONE!

“Get Up.  Beau needs food for school”

Those were the exact words that shook me from a deep, heavenly dream of walking through the Sunday market in l’Isle sur la Sorgue with a rustic baguette from the wood burning oven bakery and transported  back to my bed in La Quinta.  “Honey, get up, Beau needs lunch.”

Half awake, sipping my morning cafe au lait, holding communion with distant plantations and tranquil pastures as Antoine St. Exupery once wrote, The joy of living.  Those first swallows of steamed milk and espresso.

“The joy of living, I say, was summed up for me in the remembered sensation of that burning and aromatic swallow, that mixture of milk and coffee and bread by which men hold communion with tranquil pastures, exotic plantations, and golden harvests, communion with earth.”

The smell of garlic and red chili flakes sizzling in olive oil.  I have been up four minutes and the house is filled with the sensual aromas of magic happening on my stove.  The act of transforming raw ingredients into the poetical act of love.  Fresh basil splatters and sputters. adding to the amazing bouquet in our house.  Two little feet running circles around me, still only half awake, I stir the pot.

Chopped fresh onion from the La Quinta farmer’s market and some San Marzano tomatoes and just let it simmer.  AS I do, I look over and notice Beaumont is mimicking me, cooking on his little fire engine red toy kitchen range.  He notices me glancing over and brings a spoonful of imagination for my me to taste and compare to my tomato sauce.  Shit, his is better.

I finish preparing his lunch of Spaghetti AOP with freshly grated Reggiano Parmesan and a drizzle of Mere Goutte olive oil lovingly known in my kitchen as “Mother’s Milk”.  Within three seconds they are gone…  The house is empty except for the sweet memory of preparing something so simple, with so much love, for someone I love so deeply.

Whoosh, they are gone!

Day Four: More Champagne… Will my Liver Survive this Onslaught?

We arrived back in Epernay with the same foreboding feeling my friend and Vietnam vet buddy Jim Groeger must have felt when returning to the scene of a horrendous battle a few days later only to retake the same hill again.  I imagined the streets littered with empty bottles from yesterday’s excesses.  Thank god the ghosts of bottles drank were gone and the streets clear. Whew!

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Looking at road signs in a wine region is a bit like reading a great wine list. Every direction offers great possibilities.  Which way to turn, towards Bollinger or Rene Geoffrey?  Today we headed to one of the best small producers in the region at the behest of my friend Peter Zitz who works for America’s foremost distributor, Michael Skurnik.

Rene Geoffrey is one of the superstars in this neck of the woods, and one of the few who does no malo fermentation and actually makes rose champagne the way rose champagne ought to be made.  Trivia tidbit, only two percent of rose Champagne is made saignée.  In short, saignée is one of the methods of making rosé wines, along with blending white and red wine.  It is simply macerating (allowing contact with skins to leech out color and flavor) the wine with the skins for a short period of time.  98% of rose Champagne is made by adding red wine.

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Jean Baptiste Geoffroy started making Champagne closer to his vineyards with part of the production occurring at his, his father’s and his grandmother’s houses.  Life was chaotic and confusing and spread out.  Luckily he found a building an old cooperative had operated that he modified with an ingenious gravity fed wine making system and moved his production there.  The size of the building allowed grapes to be trucked to a higher street where his two huge wine presses are located.

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The grapes are pressed and the juice passes through a series of pipes that go down one level, deeper into the caves.  Using gravity rather than pumps is gentler on the wine and therefore preferred.  Everyday each and every bottle is given either an 1/8 or 1/4 turn.  Every one of his 10,000 bottles he makes each year.  Some of this is mechanically done and some by hand.

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After the tour we tasted three different Champagnes and a rustic still wine he makes using solely Pinot Meunier grapes.  We were excited because we had never tried one.  Look at the crazy stairs between levels of his cave.

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After the tasting and a prix fixe lunch at a non-descript brasserie we headed back to the Chateau with high hopes of napping.  Eating and drinking takes its toll on your body.  Please, no tears for our excesses.  Upon arrival, Beaumont decided he would torture us by carting him around the property for a survey of the fountains and moat.  That boy is single minded…

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The Chateau was originally built in the 12th and 13th century and received many notable members of the French royalty including both Louis the XIII and Louis the XVI (obviously before he and his head became separated during the revolution).  Parts of the castle crumbled with time and some, such as the original bridge, crumbled under the weight of royal carriages.  Parts were added throughout the centuries and parts faded into memories.  Beaumont is related to the Louis line through my father’s side of the family.

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Dinner brought us back to the city of Epernay and onto what seems to be the only street we drink and eat on.  We arrived promptly on time for our 7:30 reservation at Caves du Champagne for a bit of local cuisine and more Champagne.  The tiny storefront restaurant was packed and the guests looked decidedly unhappy to see a 15 month old boy enter.  Thank god Beau did not let the crowd down with a rare performance that hurls this tiny gourmand into the annals of terror with his ear splitting screaming and chucking of water glasses.  Times like this make me want to crawl under the table and curl up in fetal position sobbing incoherently.  As a parent you quickly realize who has had children and who hasn’t.  Other parents look at you with sympathy, kindness and understanding.  Non parents shoot visual death daggers at you.  We ate three delicious courses and drank Champagne quicker than you can say “ah”.  Lisa started with a terrine of foie gras with Ratafina Gelee, a local sweet aperitif while I inhaled six oysters gratinee.  I ate them so quickly I didn’t notice they  scorched my throat till later.  For our main courses, Lisa had a wonderful Magret of Duckling with Green Grapes and I sautéed Sweetbreads with Girolle Mushrooms.  Beaumont paused his tantrum long enough to eat most of my sweetbreads.  As a parent, you learn to give whatever petit Satan wants just to quiet him long enough to recoup.  Both courses were very very good and complimented the champagne well.  I must admit the small amount of sweetbreads Beaumont let me eat really brought out the apple flavors of our R. Pouillon Cuvee de Reserve.  Slight reprieve before Beaumont’s act two began.  Somewhere during dessert Lisa fled under the table and tossed Beau at me.  Everything was hunky dory till he grabbed a small water glass and doused me with holy water as if to exorcise the demons from within.  This actually brought the Chef owner out who clearly was not a parent.  With Lisa now trying to speak French and pretend neither Beau nor me was related I fled the dining and escaped to the technological world of our über modern Peugeot.  In retrospect I think the dining room was too small and crowded and offered too much stimulation for Beau.  One day we will return, though I probably will wear a fake set of glasses with a plastic nose…  For those keeping score I believe it is Christians 0, Lions 1…

bon soir and bon nuits and tomorrow brings Burgundy in all her splendor!

The Importance of Sunday with Your Family

Que up Louis Armstrong’s version of La Vie en RoseIf I were a better storyteller I would seduce you solely with my words, but since that’s not the case, pour yourself a great flute of Champagne and feel the love.  I currently am drinking a bottle of Agrapart et Fils 2004 bubbly and life is just fine and dandy.  Spending time with your family and loved ones is vital to the health of your soul, PERIOD.  It is what gives the rest of your week meaning and clarity.  I love cooking professionally, but I also love to see my wife and son.  My son Beaumont is at that perfect age where he is trying his best to copy me cooking imaginary works of edible art.  He sits on the counter, next to my heavy butcher block with his wooden knife and vegetables mimicking my every move. Priceless.

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This Sunday was the best day ever.  It started bright and early with Beaumont giggling as he poked first maman than daddis, his current name for me.  6:30 came quick on my day off considering I went to sleep well past 1:15 am.  A single short shot of Espresso would have been my preferred wake up method but the giggle of a precious little boy did well in a pinch.  The sun shined into my morning and life.  Today was just going to be a special day.

We breakfasted on strawberry buttermilk pancakes, Millionaire’s bacon and farm fresh eggs.  While eating we had the brilliant idea to drive to Idyllwild, California to play in the snow.  Yes my East Coast friend’s probably would laugh at our paltry 10 inches of fresh snow considering they just just three feet.  I laughed that it is 70 degrees and sunny in my driveway and 32 degrees and snowy a mere hour’s drive away.

Millionaire’s Bacon

Buy the best applewood smoked bacon you can find, rub it with brown sugar and red chili flakes and cook on a silpat at 350 degrees till it is brown and crispy.  The bacon gets a crunchy texture by allowing the caramelized sugar to cool.  I suggest refraining from drinking cold ice water and eating the bacon simultaneously, coagulation of fat in your arteries could occur.

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We arrived to a winter wonder in Idyllwild an hour and a half later  Snowflakes decorated the bushes, trees and streets giving us the feeling that we were nearer to Christmas than Spring.  We took Beau for his first sled ride at the Nature Park.  I think he was a bit confused by the snow and perhaps Lisa and I enjoyed the sledding part a bit more.  For lunch we stopped into a rustic little restaurant and dined on roasted garlic soup (Beau absolutely adored this), Roasted Polenta Cake and a bodacious meatball sub.  Delightful.  Sometimes, especially given that I cook for others in my career, it is utterly fantastic to go out and eat.

We drove through Winter and back into Spring with Beaumont happily snoring in the backseat.  Little babies have the cutest snore.  I try to instill in our family the custom of having at least one day a week where we gather together around the table, drink and eat something special.  I bought a beautiful chicken from De La Ranch, an organic farm in this region, some asparagus from another small farm (I still cannot believe that asparagus season has started and that heirloom tomatoes are still in the market). I made a rotolo di patate e spinaci to accompany the chicken.

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Little Beau sat contentedly on the counter next to my butcher block playing with old baby milk bottles as I seasoned up the chicken.  I stuffed the cavity with a fresh Eureka lemon, thyme from the garden and Espelette sea salt I bought in Provence last year.  While the chicken roasted I cooked a tomato confite and olive focaccia with a new dough I had been experimenting with.  Lisa and I drank our first glass of Agrapart et Fils 2004 and let the bubbles work their magic.  While the chicken roasted I got the rotolo di patate ready.  Sunday Funday Snow in Idylwild 28

This is not my recipe and I cannot remember exactly where I poached it…

Rotolo di Patate

1 pound of Russet Potatoes – boil till soft, peel then run through your food mill, season with sea salt and reserve to further in the recipe.

1 sweet onion, chopped – saute in olive oil till golden brown.

2 pounds of spinach – add cleaned spinach to your onions and cook till the spinach releases it’s water and wilts, about five minutes.  Transfer to a bowl and cool slightly.

1/2 cup ricotta

1/2 cup grated Parmesan

pinch of nutmeg and black pepper

1 egg yolk – add the ricotta, Parmesan, nutmeg and black pepper and egg yolk to the spinach mixture and reserve.

1 egg

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup 00 flour – Mix the whole egg, baking powder and 00 flour into the reserved potato mixture, turn out onto a floured surface and roll to roughly a 14 by 10 inch rectangle.

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8 ounces of Speck (smoked Prosciutto) – lay thin slices of speck across the potato then spoon the spinach mixture evenly across the top.  Roll into a giant tube shape, wrap in cheesecloth, tie with string and poach in simmering water for 30 minutes.  This is almost like a giant deconstructed gnocchi.

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After poaching, remove string and cheesecloth and cut into eight thick slices.  Lay in a buttered ovenproof dish, dot with butter, cover with a copious quantity of grated Parmesan and bake with your chicken for 30 minutes.  Sit down, enjoy more Champagne.  Have a fantastic day with your family, this is why we work hard and it is well deserved!

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