maandag 13 april 2009

Early Spring 2009

Should I go for quantity rather than quality? I was musing about the number of my blogs as they become fewer and further apart. Or was it just the novelty that went out of it?
We still had plenty of cold and wet during March but as the month ended, the sun made some discrete appearances and all of a sudden, we had a few days favoring short sleeves and bermudas.
Early March always highlights our daughter and granddaughter’s birthday, which we celebrated with a family party and lots of cake and bubbly. A welcome distraction from an otherwise busy schedule.

Spending a couple of nights in Lyon, I booked a hotel downtown and had time to enjoy a walk in the city center in the evening. Luckily, in-between showers. The quayside of the Saône gives a nice view of the surrounding hillside and some of the monuments look prettier by night than by day.

Spring is nearly there and some of the trees lining the streets show their first green. I thread my way through the rue Mercier that reminisces me of our own rue des Bouchers in Brussels: restaurant next to restaurant, with some displaying seafood.

Instead, I favor an authentic Bouchon Lyonnais for my evening meal. There are fewer and fewer of these bouchons left in downtown Lyon. Rising real estate prices due to the prime location make it almost impossible to maintain a low-budget dining place in the city center.
Le Jura is conveniently located close to my hotel and has a simple bourgeois kitchen. The mirrored walls carry warnings and advise. “Vous avez la montre, j’ai le temps!” “Une cuisine de qualité ne connait pas le mot pressé!” Cute!

I liked it, so I went back a second time and took some pictures (after all guests had left). In Lyon, you inevitably drink a “pot”. This medieval measurement of 0,46l can be of traditional Beaujolais or Côte du Rhône but on my first evening, I have a Côteaux du Languedoc from near the Mont Ventoux, an excellent accompaniment to my Terrine de Veau followed by the Foie de Veau à la sauce Moutarde.

On these trips, eating in restaurants every day, I regularly fancy a very simple meal and on the second evening, Le Jura is almost fully booked, I settle for the Jambon du Pays as a starter and a plain steak with baked potatoes as a main dish. Just like at home. Following the tradition, I have the inevitable “pot” of Beaujolais.The event of the evening happens when the elderly couple sitting next to me prepares to leave the restaurant and the woman mistakenly puts on an overcoat of more or less the same color and size belonging to somebody else. The following exchange of commentaries between the elder couple and the foursome sitting next to them brings a smile to everybody overhearing their conversation. My hotel is located next door and as the insulation of the rooms is below standards, I have a Mirabelle to top off the evening. A delicious deadly sin!
At the end of the same week, I spend a night near Auxerre. To be close to the account I have to visit the next morning, I pick the Hostellerie Saint Pierre in Cravant ( from my guide des Logis de France. There are only few guests in this small family hotel and those not present don’t know what they miss! The restaurant only offers a fixed menu but it is fantastic (I had it all written down in detail but lost my notebook 2 weeks later).

As far as I remember, it contained potage en croûte, foie gras et rhubarbe, saumon fumé et milkshake à la menthe, roulade de poulet en sauce and a delicious gateau, coffee with sweets on top. With all of that, I had an excellent Crémant de Bourgogne (what else?) to start and a very good Irancy 2005 – Palotte – from Caves Bienvenu, at a more than reasonable price. The wine list is very complete with a nice selection from Burgundy and other regions and the prices are a bargain. Céline and her two young assistants perform service at the table in an orderly and very friendly manner. It was noticeable that all other guests appreciated both the food and the service.
After this gargantuan experience, I retired to my room (Volnay). I’ll admit that I am used to just a little more comfort but I have experienced a lot worse as well. For a short stay, it was certainly more than adequate and if you book early, you’ll probably get one of the better rooms. Need I say that I slept well? Except for the morning where I woke up early by the noise of flushing and showering in an adjacent room. However, I wasn’t there to stay long in bed and a marvelous, very un-French, buffet breakfast compensated for that. For those preferring more luxury and class I can recommend the nearby Hostellerie des Clos in Chablis ( I stayed there on a previous trip and this hotel has an excellent restaurant with a wonderful selection of Chablis and other wines. The bill will just be a little more painful.
As we come close to Easter, our garden all of a sudden explodes in a festival of colors and H’tje’s mood improves by the day as she can

crawl around the garden, wield her rake and do all those funny things that people with green fingers enjoy. Knoert, impervious to all her flurries, enjoys the luxury of the chaise-longue.
The Holy Week brings me down the west of France in a full week trip to la Rochelle, Rochefort, Saint-Pierre des Corps, Montlouis sur Loire and back to Valenciennes and Crespin. Unwittingly, for one of the nights, I have booked rooms for our party of three in a real chateau. A fantastic experience featuring a very large room (Henri IV) with a canopied bed, a bathroom as large as some of the smaller rooms I had to stay in and a beautiful view over the surrounding garden.
Couple that to the absence of a television and the absolute quiet during the night and you’re in for a wonderful experience. The bedding and cushions deserve a special mention: top class! Don’t wait until you feel romantic again! (
We have about just the time to make the trip to nearby Amboise and enjoy the view on the chateau d’Amboise from the Loire and make a short walk through the medieval streets of the borough. At the cave of the Vignerons Indépendants, I buy a few bottles of red and rosé Amboise-Touraine AOC.

The trip is not ended yet, a last evening meal with a customer at la Gentilhommière in Artres, deserves more than a mention. The food is superb. I understand why I never succeeded in booking a room there because they only have 9 rooms and are always fully booked. Luckily, they’re expanding and are adding another 17 rooms. There is hope after all.

zondag 8 maart 2009

Second half of february

A wintery sun, foreboding Lent, is warming up the earth and whilst Knoert is basking under its first rays, a gigantic tribe of moles is attempting to re-furbish our garden. They’re digging up mountains that will soon look like the pyramid of Cheops if we don’t put a stop on it! In the old days Knoert has caught more than a few but alas, in the winter of his life, blinking with one eye at those huge mounds is as far as he gets. The old warrior has earned his rest. Htje will have to handle shovel and spade to get rid of the root-gnawing bastards. She already tried the stink-balls but to no avail. Let’s see who’ll win this war; bets are open.
The 14th went by unnoticed, except for a delicious (unplanned) mezze at Zorba’s in Mechelen. A lucky encounter with a couple near-table guests, who turned out to be almost neighbours, ended into an animated conversation and made me forget to write down the name of the white wine we had. Made from one of those many indigenous grape varieties from Greece that we don’t know well enough. Probably Athiri because I seem to remember the wine came from Santorini from where this grape variety originated. A sure reason to go back and taste it again! (Yes, Htje, that’s a promise!)
A day later and we find our way to Averbode where Nelly and Lucien now abide. Luckily they moved the wine-cellar too! As we don’t see each other all that often, our family dinners are always worth experiencing. Needless to say they outclassed themselves again and served us a dinner worth to remember! Saumon fumé avec asperges en remoulade accompanied with a bone-dry full-bodied, strikingly mineral 2003 Hermitage from Roland Betton, récolatant (sic!) à la Roche de Glun according the label. Well, as long as he is not frélatant, I don’t mind.
Fricassée de marcassin aux pommes et airelles, it’s still winter after all, an excellent match for the 2000 Saint-Aubin 1er Cru. Earthy, fruity but with an undertone of leather and undergrowth, making it easy to picture in your mind the boar digging up the acorns. Houbahouba! We all truly enjoyed it.Dessert: a rich, creamy mascarpone accompanied with a ten year old Madeira. Heaven on earth! I hadn’t had Madeira in many, many years and forgot how good it can be. Stupid!

Needless to say we also made a thorough visit to Lucien’s wine-cellar. I picked up a beautiful 2005 Côt de Touraine from Gibault in Meusnes (do I have some customers in that neighbourhood?). Cabernet Franc at it’s best. That particular dry undertone pushing up the fruit against the light tannins makes it very typical. We had an older vintage (98, 99?) a few years ago and I distinctly remembered it less fruity. This one was superb. What better way to end a glorious afternoon with a noble Côte des Francs 2000 from Michel Guillon in Tayac. More than pleasurable and superb value for money.To top off the day my godson Philip came by to show off his twin daughters – Anke and Bo - and his now one-year old son, Jesse. A shame that we don’t meet more frequently.Luckily my sister has an excellent couch allowing us somehow to recuperate before taking our leave. Bieke grew weary of us.Barely 2 weeks later and we have to visit Htje’s niece Marie-Louise and husband Jean-Claude in Glimes. This is the south of the province of Brabant-Wallon, a region otherwise known as la Hesbaye and just a few kilometres down from there they grow wine. We’ll definitely have to arrange a tasting at the Château de Mellemont in Thorembais-les-Béguines, the next time. Maybe we have a surprise waiting for us!
This was another long overdue visit. When Sara left for Vancouver, Marie-Louise took Lola in. A relief for Sara who was worried her darling wouldn’t be properly looked after while she was away. Within 2 weeks Lola took over the household and now reigns over her domain in true matriarchal way: Praline, Maya, Simi and Pompon bearing the brunt.
Having lost nothing of her shyness she fled to upper regions when we came in but later just came by to peak at us and give me a chance to take a picture.

We started with 6 Petit Gris du Namurois (from a local grower). On a par with my favourite Burgundian crawlers but lacking just a little bit of seasoning. But otherwise perfectly cooked. Not to the soggy rubberlike consistency that you obtain when cooking the (deep-frozen) variety from the supermarket. Definitely worth to try again.
We now have to dig up some superlatives to describe the wonderful experience that followed with le Lapin à la Geuze. Used to the more traditional preparation to which we are treated at home; with prunes, speck and doused in a very light dark beer; our taste buds were delighted. A lighter, subtler preparation that allows the tender taste of the young meat and the sweet herbs to delight the palate. In one word: delicious! What better accompaniment could we have had than the more than excellent Pécharmant from Château La Reynaudie 2005 in Lembras. I bought some at the Foire du Vin in Lille, last November.I have precious little left of the 2003 but this 2005 will stand its ground. The 3 bottles of Vieilles Vignes 2005 will be jealously kept for a very special occasion indeed.
To pay honour to “the land of the beast” we also tasted a 2004 Rioja Crianza from Covila (Sdad. Cooperativa Vinicola Lapuebla de Labarca). 250 hectares of vineyards in Labarca and Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa). Nothing less than 100% Tempranillo and 12 months in barrel followed by 6 months in the bottle. A modern Rioja, full of ripe fruit over a mellow tone of vanilla and chocolate. Awesome. The bottle brought back some fond memories of our stay in the Rioja a few years ago. The walled city of Laguardia with its deeply hidden wine cellars being one of the highlights of our holiday with a visit to the local winery. Why did I only buy 3 bottles?

Another memorable bottle during this period was a delicious Brouilly 2005 from Mommesin. Anybody criticizing or looking down at Beaujolais should taste it first or hold their peace forever!
We also tasted the first of our Marsannay 2006 from Georges Lignier, our regular Côte de Nuits supplier with veal and pasta al pesto. Mamma mia, la vita è bella! Dry, flowery, buttery but already fully round. A great experience.
Sadly, we finished the last bottle of our 2006 Où Est Donc Passé Ornicar from Jean-Baptiste Senat in Trausse-Minervois. A very man-made Minervois, the most spicy wine I ever had with strong, very ripe fruit. Difficult to combine with food, only something like a traditional rabbit with prunes will sustain it, I guess. But the memory of the degustation at the estate in 2007 - it was pouring rain and we caught him while bottling up the last of his 2006 vintage - with Jean-Baptiste rambling on and on and on, will stay forever in our memory. And now heading for Spring time!