Tuesday, June 28, 2011

More food and wine in Italia

On Sunday morning, we drove through the villages of Parma (can you smell the ham?), Reggia (can you say Parmesan reggiano?), Modena (can you taste the aged balsamic vinegar?) and then Bologna (yummy meat sauce!) – one does not lack for good food and wine in Italy!  We choose to stop in Modena for lunch and discovered a very sleepy little town, that had a few cafés and one or two restaurants open.  Probably not a recommended stop on a Sunday afternoon in Italy where most things are closed.
An homage to Atlanta in Gino's trattoria window!
 We arrived in Firenze or Florence in the late afternoon, checked into our hotel, a renovated abbey near the main train station that was a quiet haven in the midst of the bustling city.  We did a bit of shopping in the market and freshened up before dinner at Gino Noci’s I'Cehè Cé Cé Trattoria.  Gino travels to Atlanta about once a year as a guest chef in several of the local country clubs and to teach Italian cooking at the Cook’s Warehouse – the classes are always sold out months in advance!  Gino’s wife, Mara warmly welcomed us into their small, vibrant and very warm trattoria.  She offered us menus, which we immediately declined, leaving the selection of dishes up to Gino – we could not have made a better decision!  8 courses, 3 ½ bottles of wine and 4 ½ hours latter, we were a happy group as we walked through the moonlit streets of Florence back to our hotel.

Mara cutting our Florentine steak!
 Dinner started with coccolo, (know by different names in different regions of Italy), which is basically fried pizza dough and glasses of prosecca.   Dishes kept coming, including sformatino (a sort of flan made from potatoes, apples, flour and cream served with a poached pear and a Parmesan cream sauce), a small taste of lasagna (prepared for a large table of 20 next to us who were celebrating someone named Luco's birthday), a spaghetti dish with fresh anchovies, tomatoes and capers (probably my favorite dish of the evening), a Florentine steak, which gave me a new respect for our T-bones, although this one was about 2 inches thick, prepared with herbs and olive oil and cooked rare to medium rare and melted in my mouth in a way that not many American T_bones do!  We had two desserts, some of Luco’s birthday cake (a delicious Italian cream-filled pastry) followed by a succulent flourless chocolate with which Gino opened a bottle of Pugnitello  2003, an ancient Italian vine that has recently been discovered.  A true once in a lifetime evening!  [Donna, this was for your Italian tummy as well!]

Monday morning, we left Florence and headed for the hills of Tuscany, our stop for the day was Campogiovanni where we met the wine maker, Leonardo Bellacini.  After a tour of the vineyards and winemaking facilities, with barrel tastings, we had a light lunch with Leonardo, during which we tasted four bottles of their wines.  We spent some time in Montalcino in the afternoon, most of it in a leather shop – another local speciality!  Then we headed to Borgo San Felice to meet with Leonardo again for a tour, tasting and eventually dinner that evening.  Leonardo is the wine-maker for both properties, and as it turns out, is endurance rider who is ranked in Europe (that added a bit of spark to our dinner conversation).  Borgo San Felice was a small family estate (where several other families lived in exchange for a portion of what they produced) that was purchased in the 1980s and has since been renovated into a 4 star property - this may be the only time in my life that I stay in a hotel that was featured in Travel & Leisure!  Needless to say, it was the epitome of sublime.  When we sat down at our table for dinner, before I could even get my purse ½ way down to the ground, a waiter was there with a small stool upon which to set it – the service only got better throughout the evening.  Here we tasted the Italian sparkling Ca-del Boso, followed by three more wines from the estate, including an 07 Pugnitello, an ancient Italian vine that Leonardo, with the University of Florence, has been working to bring back.

Jennifer in the gardens at Borgo San Felice.
 With some reluctance, we left the Borgo San Felice on Tuesday morning and headed to the region of Umbria for another tasting at the Tabarrini winery in Montefalco.  Here we met the marketing director, a young Italian man who was very enthusiastic about the wines, as well as about speaking English and discussing American indie bands, toured us through the vineyards and then into the tasting room where we tasted several wines from their selection, along with bruschetta doused in the vineyard's homemade olive oil and a salted pork shoulder that had been prepared by the uncle - gotta love being in a country where people love to eat and love to share the experience!

Tuscan vineyards.
Our last evening spent with Joe and Frank was in Sienna, where, after all the wine tasting, multiple hour meals, etc., we opted for something more simple yet equally as Italian - pizza and pasta on Il Campo, the center square in Sienna.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Wine and food, Italian style!

On Saturday morning, June 18th, with our 2011 wine tour officially over, Don and I, along with Joe and Frank, headed off to explore several wine regions in Italia!  Our first stop of the day was the Tunnel de Mont Blanc.  While driving through the French Alps with gray skies and low clouds, Frank, our group Italiophile, commented that he would love it if, as we exited the tunnel into Italy, we saw the sun.  As if on command, when we first saw the sky in Italy, it was blue and the sun was shining!  So, our cool rainy days spent in the vineyards of Champagne and Burgundy ended just like that – well after the 7.2 mile  Mont Blanc tunnel.

A happy Frank in front of the Italian Alps with blue skies!
 We arrived in Milano and checked into our hotel just in time to head out for a late afternoon stroll and dinner.  Some say that Milano is the fashion capital of the world and it certainly appeared that way.   Near the Duomo and La Scala, is the fashion district.  On one street alone, we saw at least 3 Dolce & Gabbano stores, each with a different theme and displays in the windows.  In one of the windows we caught a glimpse of a reception and T-shirt signing for the D&G model, David Gandy.  Then we turned a corner to a red carpet spread across the sidewalk in front of another D&G store, with muscular Italian men in chic D&G suits, sporting earphones like the CIA behind heavy cordons and lots of tall women wearing very short skirts milling around.  It was quite the scene.  Since we were hungry and not really dressed appropriately, we decided not to venture into the mixture.  Instead, we headed across town to the Naviglio district for dinner.  For my Atlanta readers, we went from Buckhead to East Atlanta, to give you a comparison.  Naviglio consists of several streets along either side of a canal that are lined with restaurants, cafés, bars and the ever present gelateria.  We chose a small family-run osteria for dinner.  I couldn’t resist the Osso Bucco with saffron risotto, a Milanese specialty and then after strolling back along the canal, we ended the evening with gelato – mine was ciocolatta  and panne (dark chocolate and cream – two different flavors in one cone!).

Jennifer with Milano Duomo in the background.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Floating over Burgundy

On the last morning of our FrogAPC, Sherlock's Wine Merchants, Cook's Warehouse Wine Tour 2011, all 9 of us were up and on a bus at 6:30 am, headed to our take off location for a hot air balloon tour!

Heart-shaped lake in Burgundy, as seen from a hot air balloon
For everyone except for me, this was a 'baptême' or maiden flight in a hot air balloon.  I choose Air Escargot as our carrier of choice - I love the name and am happy to report that the owner and pilot, Pierre, has 36 years of experience and managed to float us just over the treetops up to 4500 feet and back down, then land the balloon, with 10 people, in a 10 foot space between vineyards and a field of rapeseed.  It was an amazing flight!

From left:  Michele, Don, Krystle, Jennifer, Crystal, Franck, Rose, Joe and Elaine floating over Burgundy!
After landing, we headed off immediately to meet Alex Gambal, an American who decided to move to Burgundy and begin making wine about 20 years ago.  He welcomed us into his winery on the main ring road of Beaune in a casual American style that allowed everyone to be at ease, ask lots of questions and learn a great deal about his wines, the region and what it's like to be an American living in France.  We tasted some lovely wines and enjoyed a great picnic lunch with Alex.

The evening ended with a rainstorm.  Luckily the worst of it fell as we were getting settled into a little pizzeria just down the street from our hotel.  It's as if the weather was hearing the feeling of sadness that I had because our week had come to an end.  But never fear, more adventures are on the way!  Saturday morning, Don, Joe, Franck and I headed through the Alps into Italy for an Italian wine and food extravaganza, so stay tuned!  Our fellow travelers were headed for places as diverse as Paris, the French countryside and Turkey!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Reims to Beaune, via Dijon

On Wednesday, we drove from Reims to Beaune, with a stop in Dijon for a fabulous lunch and of course, a stop by the Maille boutique to purchase some real Dijon mustard!  Maille was founded in 1747 and the boutique that we visited was opened not long after that.  About 30 varieties of mustard are sold in the boutique and it's possible to taste the three most well-known.  If you're lucky enough to live nearby, you can purchase a mustard pot and return to the store for refills, direct from the pumps!

Lunch was at Restaurant Stéphane Derbord, a very chic restaurant with a rising star chef who prepared our Menu Surprise, much to every one's liking.

Amuse-bouche at Restaurant Stéphane Derbord
Thursday, our group spend the day with Vincent from Cottin Frères, a company that got is start manufacturing race cars in the early 1900's and is now a well-respected winemaker in Burgundy.  During the morning, Vincent took us on a bus tour of the Côte d'Or, or the 'Gold coast', which is arguably the best 48 miles of vineyards in the world.  We stopped at the world famous Clos de Vougeot - this is the vineyard where Burgundy wines got their start.  Cistercian monks began working the land in the 16th century and became so familiar with all of the hills, soil, micro-climates, that the vineyards they laid out are still used today.  The modern day Clos de Vougeot was the monastery where they lived and worked.  In the 17th century, they put in 'modern presses' to assist their feet (yes, stomping the grapes was common!).  These four presses are still in working condition, although they have been replaced by more modern versions, which allow for better control of pressure and require much less manpower to turn the wooden screws.

One of 4 17th century wine presses at Clos de Vougeot
Lunch was catered in the old cellars of Cottin Frères, which date back to the 16th century.  The afternoon was spent continuing the tour of the vineyards and ended with a tasting of 11 of their wines and a candlelit tour of the old cellars.

The new mode in working the vineyards!
Dinner was spectacular!  Our group of 9, along with Vincent and our bus driver, Thièrry, dined in style at Le Chef Coq, an aptly named place for an owner of 7 chickens (don't tell the French that mine are of English origin!).  We enjoyed 5 courses, starting with a watermelon gazpacho topped with a curry mousse - an odd combination that worked, followed by tuna ceviche, pork with a potato emulsion (I never knew that potatoes could be so light!), a traditional cheese plate and then a selection of desserts, all accompanied by excellent Burgundy wines!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Champagne tasting at Veuve Clicquot

Tuesday, we spent the day at Veuve Clicquot, which you may recognize from it's trademarked yellow label.  Veuve means 'widow' in French and the champagne is so named because Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin was widowed in 1805 and went on to run the family business, making it the worldwide success that it is today.

From left:  Krystle, Michele, Rose, Elaine and Crystal - the ladies waiting at Veuve Clicquot
We were wonderfully welcomed by Mélissa who explained the history of the company, took us on a tour of the caves in Reims (but not all 23 kilometers of them!), offered us our first tasting of bubbly for the day before leaving us to shop in the boutique - a good sales tactic!

Mélissa expertly pouring 9 glasses of La Grande Dame 1998
We were then chauffeured to lunch at the one of the many châteaux owned by LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the luxury conglomerate that purchased Veuve Clicquot several years ago).  Veuve Clicquot's 'ambassador', Edouard de Nazelle, a direct descendant of Edouard Werlé (the man to whom la Veuve left her business), welcomed us for a 5 course lunch, which began with a glass of bubbly in the gardens and then continued in the dining room, accompanied by, what else, Veuve Clicquot.  In all, we tasted 5 different champagnes from their selections.

Bubbly in the gardens!  From left: Krystle, Franck, Mélissa, Michele, Elaine, Don,  Edouard de Nazelle (and Crystal peaking out behind him)

Monday, June 13, 2011

FrogAPC, Sherlock's, Cook's Warehouse Wine Tour 2011 - Day 1

Once again, Don Hackett, my colleague, co-tour leader and friend, and I are back in France leading a tour in Champagne and Burgundy, and we're off to an excellent start!

We began tasting at 10:20 this morning, at Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Champagne in Cuis, just outside of Epernay.  We tasted all of their current offerings - 6 different bottles, all made from Chardonnay grapes.  My favorites were the 2nd (2006 Gastronome) and 5th (2005 Champagne 'Special Club' made from old vines), but all of them were very good!

Champagne glass on the balcony overlooking the vineyards of Pierre Gimmonet & Fils
Our second stop was Champagne Gaston Chiquet, where Nicolas Chiquet (the 8th generation of Chiquets to work the vineyards) took us on a very detailed tour of the champagne-making process.  Not only was he very informative, he also shared his belief that the most important part of making an excellent champagne is the tasting.  So, naturally, we finished in their tasting room where we sampled three bottles of their offerings.

Lunch came next, thankfully!  On recommendation, we chose Bistrot le 7, which is the second restaurant of Patrick Michelon, chef of the one star Michelin restaurant, Les Berceaux in Epernay.  It was an excellent suggestion - lunch was delicious without being too overdone.  Don chose a wonderful bottle of rosé saigné champagne to accompany the meal.

Champagne cork art from Bistro le 7
After lunch, everyone was ready for a stroll down the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, past Moët et Chandon, Perrier Jouet and many more.  Amidst the large and well-known champagne houses, I saw this quaint and welcoming house that I think would be perfect and given that the street number is my birthday, it was meant for me!

Our last stop of the day was a bit of a pilgrimage to the man himself, Dom Pérignon.  We stopped by the church in Hautvilliers where he is buried just in front of the altar.

Statue of Dom Pérignon in front of Moët & Chandon on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay
Stay tuned for more tastings tomorrow!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Arrivée en France!

Today is day four of my 2011 trip to France!  I'm settled into my hotel room in Reims, the capital of the region of Champagne, after having spent three whirlwind days in Paris.  The flight was wonderful - and I say this in all seriousness, in an age where overseas flights are not always pleasurable.  I flew via Toronto, on Delta, but the overseas leg (Toronto - Paris) was on an Air France aircraft.  We were on an 747, which was not full, so the flight attendants asked some of the passengers if we would like to move upstairs to the business section, and then, they didn't seem to want it to fill up.  So, I ended up in business class, with an empty seat between me and the gentleman sitting next to me.  We enjoyed a glass of champagne, followed by a decent dinner, red wine and interesting conversation about the Jacques de la Compostelle pilgrimmage, which is a hike that I'd love to do someday.  My neighbor had hiked it twice, once alone and once with his granddaughter.

Arriving in Paris was a bit of a surprise... after the 90+ degree temperatures in Atlanta for the past month, I felt a bit chilly in Paris.  Shortly after I arrived at my friend's apartment, she had to leave for an appointment, so I went for a long walk in the Bois de Vincennes - the forest that surrounds the Chateau de Vincennes, just outside of Paris.  Here's a photo of a man feeding a couple of swans and their goslings.

You can see that the weather, while sunny, was not hot!

The next day, Thursday, I spent the day in Paris with a friend and student who came up from Geneva to meet me.  It was nice to catch up and walk around St. Germain des Près (yes, Donna, you were on my mind!).  Late in the afternoon, we crossed over the Pont des Arts (this time, Susan was on my mind) and she snapped this quick photo of me.

It was a whirlwind three days in Paris, a year's worth of catching up with Jeannine, seeing Vanessa, seeing Kristen (another friend and student) and seeing many members of my French family.