Véronique Guibert de La Vaissière is the founder and owner of this famous Languedoc estate, not to mention a doctor in ethnology, writer, lecturer and painter. Her charming new book evokes the magic of the Mediterranean, interweaving recipes with lively anecdotes and memories. Here she tells us about her early days at Mas Daumas Gassac, and its cultivation, and shares some recipes from the book.
Being an ethnologist, I have seen much of the world and from my travels I bring back not only ideas, but new or rediscovered flavours. At harvest time grape pickers arrive from all over the world bringing with them new taste experiences and different traditions.
My taste buds developed in Gascony, Lot-et-Garonne where cooking has been elevated to the level of art, not because of superficial trimmings, but by a belief in its own terroir. Later, in the Languedoc, my palate was formed by the Mediterranean cult of a dedication to simplicity and freshness of natural flavours. I am not a gastronome but rather someone on a quest for tastes…throughout the year I circumnavigate my garden and larder, aware of everything they have to offer.
Let me talk first about where this 'cuisine' was finally formulated, because without this soil, without this vegetable garden that we planted and have been cultivating for the last 40 years, everything would have been different. We, that is, my husband Aimé and I, did not settle at Mas Daumas to become winemakers, but to make a home. I was a junior ethnologist at the University of Montpellier, looking for promotion. Aimé was an industrial tanner in Millau. At no point could we have imagined ourselves as becoming 'pioneer' winemakers. Mas Daumas became our home in June 1974, two months after the birth of our second son Gaël.
Once at Mas Daumas – no question of Daumas Gassac yet – it very soon became obvious that the vines, though in a poor state, were in their element and that these remarkable vineyards should not only be preserved but developed. Whilst my husband, coming from the Aveyron, was dreaming of cereals, corn, grains and other bizarre things; I, a girl born between the sea and the étang (marshes as found in the Camargue); would never capitulate: vine and olives it had to be!
Why this change of mind? Why this decision to do something with the land? Quite simply, because we could not bring ourselves to rip up and transform this extraordinary place which had been lovingly cultivated for thousands of years and was now our home. It was clear that we did not own Mas Daumas but that it now owned us.
The second stage was the protection of our environment. Once again, my husband's natural instincts were betrayed by his origins, putting forward the concept of 'serious' soil management: he was prepared to strip the hillside opposite our homestead in its entirety, since his friend Henri Enjalbert (professor of geography at Bordeaux University) had revealed that our terroir had the potential to make exceptional wines.
My stand was tough and uncompromising. The hillside above Peyrafioc (the principal vineyard), covered with the wild garrigue, would never be touched beyond a certain point. This unique site, an old Languedocian farmstead on the bank of the Gassac stream, built against the Séranne mountains and facing the enormous and impenetrable Arboussas garrigue, would remain protected. There would be no vast vineyards, but small pockets of vines interspersed with the garrigue. The banks, the ditches, the hedges would all be saved. We were not colonisers but guardians.
The next step was our decision that only organic matter should be fed to the land since the earth, teeming with life, had never been contaminated by synthetic chemicals. My first impression was of old Jean Daumas, knees bent behind the horse-drawn plough, surrounded by robins. For centuries the only humus enriching the earth and giving joy to the birds was horse manure. It was crawling with earthworms and all forms of life and we were not going to destroy it.
Organic was not yet fashionable and those venturing into organic farming were not labelled in positive terms as ecologists and environmentalists. We were foolish idealists who understood nothing of yields or rationalisation and even less that the wine's very existence depended on an arsenal of diverse 'medicines' purchased from (industrial) powder salesmen: strong chemical fertilisers, blockbusting insecticides, weed-killers galore... enough to frighten you to death!
Our vineyard is organic because our spirit and our beliefs lean naturally toward respect for and protection of the earth, the environment and nature. No insecticides, weed killers or chemical fertilisers have ever been used at Daumas Gassac. Horse and sheep manure are the only organic supplement enriching the earth. The birds from the hedgerows and the scrub surrounding the vines are our natural pesticides.
Our vegetable garden is cultivated along the same lines as our vineyard and is more often than not the source of my recipes and inspiration. I am not a professional cook and I believe that good cooking is not about grandiose ideas and hours spent in preparation but about the quality and freshness of the raw ingredients. My recipes are easy to follow and are for those that get pleasure from giving their family and friends precious shared moments around the table.
Of all the happy times at Mas Daumas, mealtimes have been and still are the most special. This is the spirit that I hope to evoke and to share in my book.
Search for wines from Mas Daumas Gassac
Members interested in purchasing a copy of Savours and Flavours of Mas Daumas Gassac can do so online at daumas-gassac.com or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org com or writing to Mas de Daumas Gassac – attn: Anaïs Postal, 34150 Aniane, France. The special price for Wine Society members is €25 instead of €30, including postage to the UK.
If you are interested in learning more about the early days at the estate, Wine Society member Alastair Mackenzie's book Daumas Gassac, the Birth of a Grand Cru can also be purchased on the estate's website.
RED PEPPERS À LA CATALANE
It was at Les Arcades restaurant in Aigues-Mortes, owned by Marie Pierre Merquiols, that I first tasted this dish. Thirty years ago! During the war, our fathers had gone to high school together in Montpellier. Marie Pierre and her husband, Pascal, started out at the famous La Camargue restaurant in Aigues- Mortes before they set up on their own two streets away. Sadly, Pascal passed away, but Marie Pierre, supported by her daughters, carried on running the restaurant and hotel with charm, elegance, simplicity and generosity.
The recipe is no longer on the menu there, because it's a little old fashioned now and they are always creating new ones! But here it is, just as I loved it and the way everyone still loves it; made with the peppers from the Mas all beautifully reddened at the end of summer. It is an easy recipe but takes a little time as the peppers have to be peeled very carefully.
- 8-10 large, ripe red peppers
- 12 anchovy fillets
- 2 cloves garlic
- Olive oil and a pinch of sea salt
Put the whole peppers into a hot oven and allow them to char – just until the skin puffs up, don't allow to blacken as they would lose their perfume and consistency. Allow to cool.
Remove the stem and the seeds; peel them with your fingers; quarter them or slice them lengthwise. Lay them on a large platter and salt lightly. Sprinkle with fine rounds of garlic sliced across the width of the cloves and add the anchovy fillets. Sprinkle with olive oil.
It is delicious served right away but it loses nothing if you put it in the fridge overnight well covered with a plate.
SCALLOP AND LEAK RAGOUT
This is a winter dish, kept light because of the leeks. I like to serve it for dinner on Christmas Eve, before going to midnight mass. It is a real treat and not too heavy at the same time. Try and find whole scallops because this will ensure their freshness and they will also have their coral. Estimate 2-3 large scallops per person remembering you will be slicing them in half. If they are small, then three per person should do.
- 2-3 scallops per person
- 1 large leek per 2-3 people
- 1 truffle (optional)
- 30g-50g butter
- 1 or 2 glasses water
This 'ragout' can be served as a main course or if you reduce the quantities it can be a starter.
Wash and clean the leeks. Remove a third of the greens (you can make a healthy slimming bouillon with these or bake them in a gratin.
Slice the white and the remaining green bits into about 1cm slices, keeping colours separate!
Pour one glass of water into a saucepan, add a good dollop of butter and the leeks, green bits and steam until they reduce their volume; then add in the white bits and cook until the leeks are tender. Do not stir them too much as you want the rounds to stay intact.
Season with a little salt. Add more water if needed. Do not prepare these too far ahead: you can slice the leeks when you wish but do not cook them more than an hour ahead because you will be reheating them which will affect their taste and texture.
At the last minute, quickly sear the scallops in the pan on their own or with a little butter. Transfer the leeks to a serving dish and slide the scallops on top. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
You can plate it up individually. And top your presentation with some fine truffle shavings if you have any to hand. Everyone will love it!
FLANK OF BEEF IN WINE SAUCE
I do not know why but this recipe often reappears at harvest time. Having made it once for our Romanian friends, who adored it, it is a joy for me to remake it and treat them every year.
Generally there are 20-25 pickers and family members at the table, exhausted and starving after another day in the vineyard and I always plan to have plenty of meat. During normal times small slices of 150g maximum will do. I use bavette or the even tastier onglet which are cuts we have in France. You could use flank steak. Take two pieces and leave them whole like little unrolled roasts.
- Slices of flank, onglet or bavette
- Strong mustard
- 12-24 shallots
- 3-4 glasses of red wine
- Salt pepper
To make the sauce: soften the finely chopped shallots in some butter or duck fat. When transparent, add salt and pepper and the wine. If you think there is not enough wine then add some more. Allow it to simmer for quite a while to reduce the sauce. Add a sugar lump or two and I sometimes add some redcurrant or quince jelly or leftover meat juices or gravy. Seal the beef, which you will have generously spread with mustard, in a very hot pan. Cook them quickly. Keep the meat rare because you will be serving it covered with a very hot sauce which will draw out its juices and cook it further.
AUNT HELENE'S STEAK
I always remember the first time, as a young woman, I watched Aunt Hélène prepare this marvelous dish. Leaning over into the big open fireplace, she would stir the fire to create good embers and then go back to the table to chop the shallots. She would then prepare the trivet and place the meat on it and put two plates to heat by the fire - one to receive the cooked meat and another to cover or seal the meat. Personally I am not really a carnivore because I eat little meat but this preparation is magical! It is not a bit like boring fried steak in the pan …. This complexity of flavour and aroma is powerful and refined at the same time. Difficult to describe! You have to try it…
- 1 or more entrecote steaks or thick slices of sirloin
- 12 shallots
- 2-3 tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper
- 1 open fireplace…
… because you can really only achieve this taste when the meat cooks over the embers. And it is not the same at all as a barbecue.
Chop the shallots and put them on a plate and drizzle with olive oil. Put them in a corner of the fireplace or in a hot oven. Also heat the plate which serves as a cover.
Put your meat on the trivet or wire rack. When the fire is ready, push the logs to the back of the fireplace and flatten out the embers with a small shovel so that the meat does not touch them or get burned. Position the trivet on the embers and cook the meat 4-5 minutes each side.
The meat should be seared and cooked about a quarter of the way through each side, but still rare in the middle .Why? Because you are going to put the meat onto a very hot plate, salt and pepper it and cover with another very hot plate and so it will continue to cook! Believe me, your meat will not be rare!
Leave it to ooze for 5-6 minutes and when you lift the covering plate, you have a double treat in store; first of all the powerful aroma and then the outstanding taste of the meat. The shallots in the meat juices will be perfect, melting in your mouth and as tender as you can imagine.
Slice the meat as you prefer and serve hot, covering each piece with the shallots and juices. Cèpes, spinach or potatoes (French fried or sautéed) are the perfect accompaniment.Or the potatoes can be baked in their skins, wrapped in foil in the embers or the oven 30 minutes before you cook the meat.