Wednesday, January 28, 2009

New(ish) Staff Picks

First Fruit

After a mostly lazy day, I made a tasty soup for dinner tonight - spicy carrot, sweet potato, and ginger, topped with roasted beets and a dollop (or three) of the luscious, Creamy Goat Cheese from the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company. Yum. Little did I know that it would prove a nice match for my chosen staff pick this month, the First Fruit Hard Cider from Foggy Ridge Cider.

I first heard about this cidery when I spent a few days with the fine folks at Meadow Creek Dairy. After hearing the stories about the cool people who were trying to revive some old cidermaking traditions, their fantastic orchards full of American heirloom, French and English cider apples, and the tasty ciders they were creating, I decided that I would stop by on my way back to Richmond. Why not? I was all the way down in southwestern Virginia anyways, I had a cooler full of delicious cheeses from MCD and some time to kill - what could be better than some great hand crafted hard cider to go with them? Perfect! So, I got a map and some detailed directions on how to find them and went on my merry way, heading towards the Blue Ridge Parkway.

After a delightfully, gorgeous drive down some seriously small, windy roads, (complete with a bounding deer and a low-flying hawk) I was there! Yay! It was a gorgeous day - sunny and bright, with little cloud puffs here and there - and I was ready for a sip of cider and an orchard walk! Ha. Well, you can only imagine my sadness when I pulled up and realized that they were closed! Doh! I suppose it would have been wise to call first and see if they were open, but whims don't often work that way and besides, the drive really was lovely and well worth it, even with the unfulfilled expectation!

Thankfully, I have since had the pleasure of having a few conversations with Diane Flynt, the cidermaker at Foggy Ridge and have finally tasted at least one of the several different types of small batch ciders that she makes! The First Fruit is a blend of early season heirloom apples including Hewe's Crab, Graniwinkle, and Parmer. It is slightly sweet and bubbly, with bright, crisp, twangy apple flavor followed by a dry, lingering finish. It is thirst quenching and refreshing and really easy to drink. Almost too easy, in fact. I've never been much of a cider drinker even, but can already imagine a bunch of food concoctions I want to try and pair with it. And cheeses? I can't wait to see what works best! Most exciting of all? Diane, Julia and I are hoping to have a cider/cheese pairing class at some point! I'll keep you posted...

Until then, cheers!


Tissot 2007 Arbois Chardonnay

This may come as a shock, but my one remaining New Year's resolution is to drink more wine! (The other two were to keep the dog's nails trimmed and to do something, anything with my yard--talk about setting myself up for failure.) But frankly, we all get in ruts from time to time, with food, music, news sources, etc., and have to shake out of it. Sometimes we stumble on something new, sometimes we have to turn our backs on the tried and true and see what crosses our path. In this case I've all but abandoned red wine for the last few weeks, and I'm delighted in the shining light of discovery that has fallen recently on some amazing white wines.

For example, our wine of the week this week (a Chenin-Chardonnay blend from Dom. de la Bergerie. Loire) is a fabulous, inexpensive and expressive Anjou Blanc; a happy little Chardonnay (also from the Loire, also really affordable) from Chat. Coing will be making its way onto our shelves soon; and finally, yet another Chardonnay, this one from Jura, made me forget my manners and wheedle the rest of the bottle from my poor beleaguered rep and former employee Ryne Hazzard. That's right, the ABC* girl is rethinking her stance. Granted, I always have room in my heart (and glass) for Champagne and Chablis. Who doesn't? But I'm thrilled to find new examples of terroir-driven, interesting wine made from such a ubiquitous, often anonymous varietal.

This particular bottling, made by the illustrious Stephane Tissot, is made near the Swiss border in the Arbois appellation of Jura, France...not your usual Chardonnay go-to region. Such a cold, remote, alpine area seems an unlikely gastro-tourist hot-spot, but it's quite famous in certain circles--for the local raw milk cheeses Comte and Morbier, and for the cult following of a wine geek's dream, "Vin Jaune"--and the annual festival celebrating the local food and wine arts attracts some 50,000 enthusiasts every February.

The wine? Full disclosure: this does not taste like 90% of the Chardonnay-based wines out there. As my boyfriend and fellow oenophile puts it, I'm a sucker for the weird stuff. Arbois Chardonnay is lean and stony like Chablis but much sturdier, like a mountain goat compared to a gazelle. Upon tasting it my bon mot was elitist but heart-felt, "I'd drink this Chardonnay the way other women drink chardonnay." It's rich but taut, with hearty acidity and serious minerality to back up all the fresh fruit notes of pear, apple and lemon creme, and that wonderful lees-y middle note. My favorite part, the part that makes it say, "Bonjour, je suis Jurassien!" comes at the finish. There is a little Amontillado-like zing, followed by a flourish of hazelnut. Classic.

If you like Manzanilla sherry you'll love it. If you like brut-zero Champagne you'll love it. And best of all it pairs exquisitely with Alpine cheeses. Aged Comte especially, because, as Peter so eloquently put it, it's a spirited debate between equals, but other good complements include cave-aged Swiss Gruyere and, for an extra, strangely salty twang, Appenzeller. The dream match would be a rich fondue with all of the above plus Raclette. Ah, the quest for provocative pairings, when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here's to the right kind of resolutions!

*Anything But Chardonnay


Domaine de la Bergerie 1989 (sic) Coteaux du Layon

My wife Celeste and I do not entertain nearly as much as we would like to. Like everybody else, we have time (and money) constraints, but once in a while, we like to pull out all the stops and put together a lavish multi-course meal.

In the calm that follows the frenetic holiday weeks of November and December, I like to pore over menus and recipes, vowing to try something new. The other night, we had our dear friends Jed and Dorothy over for dinner, and it was truly a memorable evening with plenty of good banter as well as delicious food and wine. I had put together a menu of dishes from central Italy with wines to match, and Celeste made an amazing crostata using some fig preserves that my parents had picked up at Claude Moore Colonial Farm (in McLean, Virginia). As much as we all enjoyed the Rosso di Montalcino served with wild mushroom polenta, the real star combination of the evening was this amazing (and very French) Coteaux du Layon served with the fig crostata. I knew that Celeste's baking efforts would be spectacular, but I admit that I was a bit worried about the wine. After all, this wine had gone into bottle sometime in late 1990, and I worried that like those contemporary, flannel-clad grunge rockers of Seattle, this wine just wasn't going to stand the test of time.

At River City Cellars, we rarely encounter wines with more than a half-dozen years of ageing, and when we do, the wines are usually fairly expensive or are past their prime. Julia went to a tasting in late November or early December (that I was unable to attend), and had had an opportunity to try and buy some of the 1989 Coteaux de Layon. Given that 1989 was not only a great vintage in the Loire Valley (where this wine is from) but also the year in which I graduated from Virginia Tech, I just had to get a bottle.

After a hearty meal involving cranberry stew and porcini mushroom polenta, Celeste brought out her magnificent fig crostata while I, with some trepidation, pulled the cork on a nearly twenty year old bottle of wine.

With a color somewhere between old gold and Hungarian amber, this unctuous Chenin Blanc definitely shows maturity, but on the palate it has a surprising freshness about it. Although it's twenty years old, I have no doubt that this wine will age for a decade more (I just bought a second bottle to enjoy in 2014 when I mark the 25th year of having graduated from VT). Sitting around the table, we were all surprised at how clean and bright this wine was. While the aromas recalled distinctly rich notes of stewed pears with clove, Calvados, and candied citron, there was none of that syrupy stuff that one might often associate with dessert wines (such as a famous and preposterously expensive one that sounds like EE-KEMM).

The really amazing thing is that this wine, approaching its 20th anniversary, is not only delicious AND available but that it costs a mere $35.99 per bottle. These days, you're not likely to find too many 20 year old wines of this quality anywhere near this price point, and I can't imagine that there are more than a few cases of this available, so if you are interested, I would recommend that you call River City Cellars as soon as possible to reserve whatever you want! I won't belabor the point, but act now!

BTW, check out the producer's website. They make a whole range of incredible wines!


Cowgirl Creamery RED HAWK

Well, it wasn't easy making up my mind as to what to write about as my very first staff pick. I took some time looking over the abundance of great, tasty things in the store, and I think the weather in the end might have played a part in the decision making, I was hungry. It took no time at all, once I zeroed in on the cheese case, to pick the RED HAWK cheese from Cowgirl Creamery. This cheese had been, and currently still is, demanding my attention from across the room. I'm quite fond of soft rind cheeses, and this cheese, while being an amazing example of this, has also something else very appealing. It warrants a good bit of investigating.

I started by preparing the cheese in some simple dishes that might accent different qualities I might not have noticed otherwise. Initially I ate a fair amount on bread. This being the most directly satisfying and probably the best way to notice all the qualities it has. After it had been out of the fridge for a while it started to get very gooey and stinky, plus the rind added a nice salty finish. Strong smells are common with soft ripened cheeses. Limburger is probably the most famous for this. Red Hawk is smelly, but no where near Limburger, or many other soft ripened cheeses, like Munster d' Alsace or some Tilsiters. Instead it reminded me more of Reblochon or even Morbier. Interestingly, the more I cooked the cheese, the milder the flavors became. I roasted some potatoes, after boiling them, and put some of the Red Hawk on top and then under the broiler. This proved to be exceedingly successful. The cheese that had slid off the potatoes formed a hard and very tasty consistency. The cheese that remained on the potatoes was somewhat milder, but lent itself thoroughly to the overall flavors of the dish. I also took some Red Hawk and put it on half of a pizza. On the other half I put Reblochon, just for some contrast. Here I was more surprised by how mild the Red Hawk became. It all but lost the smelly flavors, and tasted simply of cream, really tasty cream!

After examining the cheese, I looked to the Internet to see what I could find out about the people involved in making this. What exactly had they done that made this cheese seem more special than so many others? The initial thinking I had in mind was how interesting this obviously very new creamery (Cowgirl Creamery was founded in 1997), seemed to be making very old style cheese. These soft ripened cheeses often remind me of the cheese the Belgian Trappist monks produce. I guess this association makes me think of the middle ages, not just with orders of monks isolating themselves with cheese and beer, but how these funky smells must have been barely noticeable compared with the other smells of the time?

The Cowgirl Creamery is located in the town of Point Reyes Station. They have a large old barn where the cheese is made, plus a couple stores where they sell not just their own cheese, but cheeses from around the world. One of the stores is in D.C. where the two founders of this amazing company apparently hail from. Their efforts are tempered by the ideals found in small, hands on production with a responsible approach to the environmental impact. Two rather worthy concepts.

Check out their web site where there is tons of information.

Tonight I think I might try what Red Hawk I have left. Then comes the decision of what wine to drink. Gruner Veltliner is awesome with this, not to mention Pilsener beer or cider... But I'm thinking maybe splurging, buying the Domaine d' Elise Petit Chablis, and reading about warmer climates.