Good learning is forever relevant, it’s said. Two decades of food and wine matching for The Society, several thousands of Wine Without Fuss recommendations and a somewhat ambitious determination never to repeat myself made me appreciate the solid principle that ‘what grows together goes together’. It made me dig hard into the DNA of regional cuisine to match our buyers’ wine discoveries. Now, with wings still clipped by the pandemic, I’m dusting off this intelligence anew, as foreign affairs became, perforce, something to be organised at home.
A lingering reluctance even to hop on Le Shuttle means I’m missing France, where the art of the holistic regional gastronomic package is second to none in terms of diversity. In all of its brilliant corners, from Alsace to the Spanish border, local food and wine have a hard-to-define ‘rightness’ that transcends the basic principles of parity of acidity and weight or the balance of sweetness and spice. Nowhere is that more evident than on the cheeseboard. What could be better than the rapport between say, a goaty Crottin de Chavignol and a bracing Sancerre, a ripe Munster and a just off-dry Alsace gewurz, or – le comble as they might say – a true-blue Roquefort and a glass of Sauternes? One could mull interminably over the meaning of terroir, or one could just say ‘thank you very much’!
Thanks to our infinitely welcoming attitude to the world’s comestibles, a summer gastro-tour of France without leaving home turf is eminently doable. A glass of pre-prandial Champagne is the obvious start, but so much of this spot-hitting nectar is downed without solids that it’s easy to overlook the fact that it’s one of France’s most consummate food wines. Whole menus are devoted to it in Reims and Epernay, from truffles to game but home cooks need only think rapier-like acidity and nutty, biscuity overtones, which will lead naturally to thoughts of rich dairy fat and, perhaps, something quite surprising – that cheeseboard again. Your average Brut is exceptionally versatile but local hero Chaource, all lovely, bloomy butteriness, spread on a lightly toasted slice of brioche always transports me to the banks of the Marne. Another ambrosial amuse-bouche moment is the luxurious combination of a serious rosé Champagne with rare slices of top-notch grass-fed beef.
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Not far away is the tip of Burgundy, where the crystalline elegance of Chablis lends itself to the peerless morel mushroom, an element of which is often detected in the taste profile of older wines. Their short French season marks the end of summer and the onset of autumn but I find them almost tastier and readily available, if ruinously expensive, in dried form, ready to be plumped up for risottos or a grand fricassee forestière. For that you’ll need a proper chicken, the art of which we’ve sadly all but lost here, but for one or two good guys, supported by serious butchers. You might even luck into a poulet de Bresse, in which case, keep it simple, head for the Côte d’Or and open your best red and white Burgundies. Chardonnay and pinot noir are king here and while they have countless imitators the world over, nothing tastes quite like them, just as nothing tastes quite like that Bresse chicken or a chunk of Charollais beef. But you can get that here, too!
There are many cheaper pleasures. The king of ham hock terrines, a parsley-flecked jambon persillé, is easy to make and cheap as chips once you’ve simmered the least expensive ham joint there is and remembered not to throw away (yes, we’ve all done it!) the unctuously jellied stock. Moreover, it’s also delicious with the junior grapes of the region, the bone-dry, refreshing aligoté, which in recent years has proven just how unfair its consignment to kir, and easy-to-love gamay which kicks in in Mâcon and Beaujolais beyond. And if all this seems like a lot of work, has anyone come up with a better combo than garlicky bangers, wine-braised butter beans and a glass of Villages?
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Talking of pork, keep going south and you’ll come to Lyon, carnivore central and the world’s most bewildering selection of lip-smacking charcuterie. A pig’s head terrine might be pushing the boundaries, but no deli worth its salt should be without something like a Rosette, or Jésus de Lyon, and you really would have to be stuck in a gastro-backwater not to find a creditable dry saucisson to slice thickly on a rustic wooden board. The wine to pour here is a seductively fruity Côte Roannaise and what could be better than the house wine at Troisgros, Roanne’s three-starred temple of gastronomy? Your Society has, obligingly, been listing the warrant-holder, Domaine Sérol, for many years, and at an unstellar price. How easy is that?!
Lingering awhile by the mighty Rhône, whose reds need no help from me, the best tip I can share with keen food and wine matchers is the impressive versatility of Rhône white wines here, notably those made from marsanne and roussanne grapes. Saint-Péray, once best known for sparkling wines, has reinvented itself with white knights that can step up to any plate. They effortlessly make the transition from hearty, rib-sticking winter fare to lighter, spicier summer dishes like langoustines with aioli.
Somewhere around Montélimar, where as we know, the streets are paved with nougat, the hail, freezing fog and layers of very necessary thermals suddenly disappear as the continental weather system of the northern Rhône gives way to the balmy Mediterranean south. It’s the same river, but a veritable sea-change. Exquisite, sun-ripened vegetables begin to loosen the iron grip of meat, and before you know it, you’re in Provence, with the bounty of the sea on tap. This is perhaps the easiest corner of France for home-based escapism: even before you’ve reached for your well-thumbed Elizabeth David, a shaft of sunlight (the only hard part), a fruity but elegantly dry rosé wine, from prime red grapes like syrah, grenache, cinsault or carignan, and a simple bowl of good olives will do it. Break out the barbie and you’ll find that roast aubergines, courgettes and peppers - even ‘Dutch dullards’, as the FT’s former food editor Philippa Davenport once famously called glass-grown Med veg – will assume pleasing Provençal authenticity when basted with oil-dipped rosemary sprigs.
A bit more effort and a decent fishmonger might result in an outing for southern France’s gorgeous but frankly underrated whites, perhaps with a bouillabaisse maison. There will be plenty of time for the spicy stalwart reds come the Glorious Twelfth and the game season. For now, and for me, a patrician pink Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence, with its smidge of cabernet sauvignon, is the way ahead with meat, notably little lamb chops, grilled pink, thickly spread with tapenade, or fragrant herbs pounded into an umami paste with garlic and anchovies. Having enjoyed the sublime pinks, as well as the gorgeous whites of Corsica and frustrated by not having been there in a while, I admit to having absolutely no solution to the heroic island sausage figatellu which, in any case is not strictly in season until late autumn. If you want to rock your inner Bonaparte, there are few better combinations than a pale and interesting Calvi pink alongside coppa, or cured pork shoulder. Unless, of course, it’s a glass of liqueur muscat with simple roast figs. It’s the next best thing to eating them warm off the tree, but I’m a great believer in leaving something to look forward to when we actually get there!
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Back to the mainland and heading west, through the Rhône delta to the enormous patchwork quilt of the Languedoc, whose food and wine has been so lovingly documented by buyer Marcel Orford-Williams and the distinctly Catalan spirit of the Roussillon, we come to a really effortless bit of virtual French leave. All you need is a tin opener, unless your cassoulet comes in a jar. This theme of beans, goose-fat and garlic has many variations, from Toulouse and Castelnaudry to the extreme sud-ouest, all claiming to be ‘le bon et le vrai’ and it must be said that unless you are going to be obsessive about finding, say, just the right, Tarbais beans, the ready meal has much to recommend it. The wine, at least is a no-brainer. It has to be tannat, the most tannic grape known to man with a record number of belligerent pips, and one that needs careful management before turning into a cockle-warming Madiran. One for the cooler nights, certainly, but you may find you can dispense with the patio heater!
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South-western France is, of course, duck central – with reds to match, from the feisty malbecs of the Lot-et-Garonne all the way to the Gironde and Bordeaux where your can opener will really come into its own. Leaving aside the gastronomy of that fine city, I can do no better here than to share with members an anecdote of a visit, many years ago, to a certain property in the commune of Margaux. While the proprietor busied himself with a vertical claret tasting, Madame announced somewhat tersely that it was cook’s day off and désolée, but she’d had to resort to ‘opening a tin’ for lunch. The starter was top-notch jambon de Bayonne, artfully garnished with little grapes in the shape of a bunch. There followed, from the aforementioned tin, that bizarre but delicious local speciality lamprey à la bordelaise, all rounded off with the kind of artisanal patisserie no self-respecting châtelaine would trouble to make herself anyway. Funnily enough, I’ve forgotten about the wine.
The king of tins here is, of course confit – duck legs preserved in shiploads of fat, though, for some reason, thinner on the ground, and much more expensive here, even before Brexit, than in France where every provincial supermarché stocks them. Best fill your boots for the larder when on the spot so that they are ready to reheat, at half an hour’s moment’s notice, with some of that ample duck fat deployed to tray-bake thin slices of potato, tossed with herbs and garlic. I love this with an unpretentious claret, but often I have a yen for a subtly oaked, new-wave Graves or similar white Bordeaux. If the claret is posher and a serious steak beckons, why not entrecôte à la bordelaise, veiled with paper-thin slices of shallot and served with frites and a green salad? Simple, elegant and authentic.
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Coming back up the Atlantic coast, the Loire has more for the frustrated French-leaver than the time-honoured partnership of fruits de mer and Muscadet. Rillettes de Tours, for a start, straight out of the pot – another one to grab for the larder – slathered on a crusty baguette or toasted sourdough with a few cornichons for good measure, and washed down with a chenin blanc on the slightly sweeter side - Vouvray or Saumur for example. Go the extra degrees of sweetness that define a dessert chenin (moelleux) and see how exquisite a match it makes with a tarte tatin or any incarnation of cooked apple with a bit of bite and an optional dusting of cinnamon. Further yet inland, in the Central Vineyards, prime sauvignons from Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre stand ready for river fish. I used to make a beeline for zander, an unholy alliance between a pike and a perch, but it seems to have dropped out of favour. Trout or salmon are a perfect match for the grassy hit of the wine and all you need is prime summer vegetables, if not from the Garden of France, then the Garden of England.
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Climate change notwithstanding, we can’t yet offer wines from France’s north-west but never fear: a pungent Pont l’Èvêque that would murder most wines, and our authentic cidre bouché will get you to Normandy in a flash. Members missing the hearty flamiches of Picardy that often marked the first pit-stop on a pilgrimage south – or the last one before boarding the Shuttle homeward – will find these savoury tarts a doddle to make once you’ve captured a ripe and smelly Maroilles and a bunch of leeks. Any number of crisp beers will complete the picture.
Finally, heading east again to come full circle, what can we say of Alsace, apart from foodie heaven? Here the possibilities are not only endless but endlessly doable. If asparagus is around still, its soulmate is surely dry Alsace muscat, just as a pinot blanc or auxerrois responds to a rich onion tart. I love the softer acidity and spice of pinot gris with a traditional choucroûte garnie – simplicity itself with pre-prepared cabbage. A summer evening is a wonderful time to uncork a prized bottle of riesling with the best bit of salmon you can catch, simply poached in a little of the wine as they do at the Auberge de l’Ill, at Illhausern. There It’s traditionally covered with creamy pike mousse, which, as with the zander, is not an option here, but I find scallops work a treat. And by way of a parting shot, who knew that gewurztraminer brings out the best even in the surliest northern tomatoes?
Bon appetit, and remember - whatever should happen to be on your plate this summer, even if it isn’t a spot of French leave, we’ve got the wine. All you need add is imagination.