Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Venturing into viticulture: my weekend in Chablis

Avid readers of this blog may remember that back in March I was invited to take part in the Chablis blogger challenge, which involved suggesting dishes to pair with two bottles of Chablis I was sent in the post. (Yes, it's a hard life. If you're thinking of getting into food blogging, do consider it carefully - you never know when you might find yourself in the desperate and tragic situation of having to accept free wine). I came up with this four-course tasting menu, inspired by the Burgundy region of France and featuring dishes that I, lacking any knowledge whatsoever about wine and food matching, thought worked pretty well with the bottles I received.

Much to my delight, I won the challenge. My hard work eating cheese, curing salmon and making biscuits paid off, and I won a trip to the town of Chablis a couple of weekends ago, which included a place on the Balade Gourmande, a 12km walking tour around the vineyards of Chablis with stops to drink wine and eat a five-course lunch along the way. I'm sure I've put you off food blogging now, haven't I?

Chablis is a well-kept secret. It's not particularly easy to access - apparently they have not yet started work on the high-speed Cambridge-Chablis train line, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time. We went to Paris via the Eurostar, then had to catch a train to Laroche-Migennes, which is on the main line to Dijon. A 30-minute taxi ride later, and we found ourselves in Chablis. All this time I'd been rhetorically asking why we couldn't just get a train to Chablis itself. 

The answer soon became apparent when we explored the town a little further - it has only 2,700 inhabitants and you can circumnavigate it in about the same time it would take to circumnavigate a large branch of Tesco. This, however, lends it a certain charm.

The first accounts of Chablis date from the year 510, when a small monastery was founded there. Around three hundred years later, the monks of Tours sought refuge there when fleeing from the Vikings, and the wine-making tradition of Chablis begun; monks were synonymous with wine production in the Middle Ages, as they required it both for religious ceremonies and for entertaining and lending prestige to the abbeys. Gradually the reputation of Chablis grew, and the wine was exported to England. By the 19th century, it was also exported to Holland, Belgium, Germany, the US and Russia (there's a mention of it in Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina).

Unfortunately, 'Chablis' has now come to describe almost any white wine, regardless of origin or grape. Because of this, in recent years the Chablis winemakers have fought hard to protect their origins, pressuring foreign countries to recognise their region on wine labels; it now has an AOC qualification meaning only wine produced in Chablis can officially bear the name.

True Chablis is made from chardonnay grapes only, and has been recognised as possessing one of the 'purest' tastes of any chardonnay wine due to the simple, traditional winemaking style still used in the region, and its distinct terroir and climate. Chablis is frequently described as a 'flinty' or 'steely' wine, though Grand Cru and Premier Cru can be aged for around fifteen and ten years respectively, developing honeyed aromas with age. It was fascinating to imagine that all this distinguished wine was being produced in an area with such a tiny town as its epicentre.

Chablis, as seen from the Grand Cru vineyards
Although the town has had its fair share of hardships (it was pillaged by the Hugenots in 1568 and the vineyards destroyed by the phylloxera bug at the end of the 19th century), it remains a successful wine-producing region, largely due to its fertile limestone-rich soils - the Chablis region was once underwater, and its 'Kimmeridgian' soil (so-called after the soils of Kimmeridge in England, as they share the same fossil oysters) is ideal for producing wine. 

We stayed at the Relais de la Belle Etoile hotel in the centre of the town, a quaint former coaching inn with lovely old-fashioned rooms (and a great little sign in the bathroom informing guests that they might have to run the tap for a while to wait for hot water in the morning due to the age of the house...but 'When there is no hot water, here we shower with Chablis!'). Also, it had this fantastic car parked below our window, which I can't resist sharing.

Our free time was spent wandering Chablis, which is generally everything you'd expect from a charmingly rustic French town. There were medieval-looking buildings, little winding alleys, a small church and, perhaps less traditional, an overwhelming number of cats. I suggested they should rename the place 'Chatblis', which is the first and probably last French joke I will ever make. We saw a little old French lady open her door and glimpsed about five cats ambling around her heels; whether they belonged to her or she was just a cat lady befriending the strays, I'm not sure. One of these cats seemed to be the sole feline resident of Chablis's only bar (called, appropriately, 'Chablis bar'), and took great delight in claiming possession of various surfaces (tables, people's laps, etc.) by simply sprawling luxuriantly across them.

Every few metres we would pass a 'Cave', a wine cellar offering free wine tastings, though the knowledge that we'd be tasting Chablis all day during the Balade Gourmande prevented us from going in. In retrospect, I wish we had, but I definitely got to experience my fair share of different Chablis wines in the end, so it's not all bad. Plus I was worried I'd be coerced into parting with large amounts of money for high quality wine that I had tasted and become hooked on. Given that I'm becoming a student again next year, I don't think it would be the best time to develop a taste for Chablis Grand Cru.

We wandered along the river, swollen and fast-flowing due to the amount of recent rain (it seems that our Gallic cousins are equally inflicted by bad weather at the moment), where we found the 19th century communal wash house (a sort of pavilion at the edge of the river so you could wash your clothes in it) and eventually ended up at the Pâtis, a stretch of former marshland now planted with trees, where we basked in the sun for a little while. We passed the city gate, known as the Noel-Gate, featuring two medieval-looking round towers, and visited the Petit-Pontigny, a wine cellar built by monks in the 12th century which still remains, though the rest of the buildings were burnt down in 1568 during Protestant plundering. In the courtyard we could see an old wooden lever-beam wine press.

While this was all very exciting, for me the most exciting part was finding this white asparagus at the town grocer (which, incidentally, was better-stocked than most big city grocers in the UK). I've heard of white asparagus but had never seen it in the flesh before; it was curiously beautiful, in an anaemic way, with its delicate purple-hued tips and chunky cream-coloured stems. I bought some to take home. Surely I'm not the first to travel back on the Eurostar with a cargo of asparagus?

I can confirm, two weeks later and having eaten it all, that it tastes exactly like normal asparagus, only slightly more watery. You have to get the idea that you're eating chubby human fingers out of your head, and then it's quite nice.

We ate very well in Chablis, particularly on the first night where we ended up at the kind of French restaurant you often only dream about: simple, rustic, with wooden tables and garishly-coloured water tumblers, paper napkins, and a menu featuring flavoursome, delicious French classics generously portioned. It was called La Feuillette (named after the wooden barrels traditionally used to age the wine in) and conveniently sat right next door to our hotel, so we could just roll into bed after inevitably stuffing ourselves with the wonderful food on offer.

I began with a 'tarte fine' of tomatoes and goat's cheese, which was rather like a tomato tarte tatin. The combination of feather-light flaky pastry with deep, sweet tomatoes and that tangy goat's cheese was just wonderful. Next, an entrecote steak, which the waiter assumed I'd like 'bien cuit' because I am English - I rather indignantly corrected him. It was incredibly tender, slathered in herby butter and served with - rather oddly - a jacket potato, whose contents had been scooped out, mashed with chives and seasoning, then replaced and covered with cheese. Superbe.

Then an unexpected plate of cheese, which I hadn't realised was part of the set menu I'd ordered, or I never would have eaten that entire potato. I had Epoisses, a famous Burgundy cheese that apparently was Napoleon's favourite, and for good reason - it has a sticky orange rind and a gloriously ripe, oozing centre, pungent like camembert but stronger. There was also Chaource, another Burgundy cheese that looks rather like a large goat's cheese, with a chalky white centre that is soft around the edge and almost crumbly in the middle. It's hard to describe its flavour; it's tangy like goat's cheese, but with the creamy softness of a camembert or a Brie. I also had Brie de Meaux, which - as its name suggests - is a Brie produced in the town of Meaux. They were all fabulous, but the Chaource was my particular favourite.

Thank goodness I had room for dessert, because it was the second-best tarte tatin I've ever had in my life (the first was in Nice, and I've reminisced about its glories on this blog before, but basically it involved a flaky, buttery pastry base drenched in caramel and supporting cloud-like chunks of fluffy, juicy, sugar-burnished apple). Like the Nicoise version, this had a barely-there crust, allowing the chunks of apple to really shine in all their caramelly glory, sticky and sweet and slightly charred on top. It was served with a really lovely vanilla ice cream, which I believe is the only true partner to a tarte tatin; I'm sure the garden of Eden featured vanilla pods alongside those legendary apples, so God's favourites could help themselves to a dose of this dessert delight. Or could have if, you know, it wasn't hugely prohibited and would result in their certain damnation.

Naturally I couldn't go to Burgundy without indulging in a spot of boeuf bourgignon, so the following night we went to Le Bistrot Grand Crus, the sister restaurant of the much more glitzy and expensive Hostellerie Clos, which we sadly could not afford (when the desserts are fifteen euros, you know you're in trouble). Here we had a tasty starter of molten goat's cheese on toast, followed by the beefy classic, which was dark, sticky, rich and delicious, laced with smoky bacon and earthy mushrooms and falling apart under the gentle pressure of a fork. It was served with mash and some really fabulous buttery carrots, which were actually my favourite part. You can tell I'm not cut out for this carnivorous French lifestyle...I'm sure they were glad to see me go.

For dessert, another apple tart. This time a tarte aux pommes rather than a tarte tatin - a feathery puff pastry base groaning under the weight of juicy, tangy apple slices; soft and sweet and crispy and buttery, it came in a huge portion - to my delight - and swiftly disappeared. You hear a lot about French restaurants being pretentious and stingy with portion sizes, but in Chablis it's the opposite - this was by far the biggest dessert I've ever eaten in a restaurant (obviously I don't count my own kitchen - when I make desserts for myself, they're generally about the size of the previous course).

On our free afternoon, we wandered over to some of the vineyards at the end of the town, and ended up on a two-hour hike around what I later found out are the Grand Cru vineyards. When driving into Chablis, we saw these gnarled stumps lining the hillsides and figured they were newly-planted vines due to the total lack of growth. However, when we realised all the vineyards looked like this, we concluded they must just prune the vines every year, and these were still waiting for their spring growth; we did see some budding leaves, but generally they bore a rather creepy resemblance to wizened, haggard witches' arms protruding menacingly from the underworld. It was hard to believe these lowly stumps span an area of around 5,000 hectares and produce 35 million bottles of Chablis every year.

You'd look like this too if you spent a weekend eating tarte tatin
We were to find out far more about Chablis viticulture the next day, on the Balade Gourmande. This is a gastronomic walking tour that covers a 12km stretch of the Chablis vineyards, with five stops along the way to drink a glass of Chablis and eat one course of a five-course lunch.

When we woke up on Sunday morning, though, it looked more likely to be a gastronomic swim; torrential rain was battering against the windows while the wind whistled threateningly. Miraculously, it completely cleared up in time for the walk and we ended up with glorious sunshine (though there were still gale-force winds - I know it's windy when I have to take my earrings off because they are acting like small vigorous wind chimes suspended from each of my earlobes).

This was the first year of the Balade, but an amazing 400 guests turned up in the wind to explore the Chablis vineyards and eat along the way. Actually, when you remember that there is a lot of free wine involved, suddenly it makes more sense. My absolute favourite thing about this tour was that at the beginning you were given your own glass to taste the wine in. It was a proper, elegant wine glass with 'Chablis' written on the side. You had a little pouch to put it in and carry it around in, from tasting to tasting. You got to keep the glass afterwards.

This is conclusive proof that the French take these things seriously. If the same event were to be hosted in Britain (OK, pretend we have vineyards for a second), you would so just be given a disposable plastic cup at each stop to sip your lukewarm wine from.

During the tour, we were accompanied by Eric from Au Coeur du Vin, an absolute expert on Chablis and its viticulture, and driver of this fantastic car (her name is 'Lulubelle II', if you're interested; Lulubelle I is, worryingly, dead). He claimed upon meeting us that he spoke only a little English, which soon proved to be completely false as he regaled us throughout the entire tour with perfect, lucid explanations about every single aspect of Chablis wine and wine production.

He told us about how the monks who first settled in Chablis would taste the soil to discover the best places to plant certain grapes; they were so skilled in the art of winemaking that they could use their tastebuds to detect the chemical composition of the earth and its suitability. He gave us a brief history of Chablis winemaking, from this early monastical phase to the devastation of the vines in the late nineteenth century due to the phylloxera bug, a problem eventually solved by grafting the roots of American vines onto the French vines; these roots are tougher and more resistant to the bug, and every single vine in the vineyard has them instead of its natural variety. He pointed out younger, sprightlier vines as well as some growing alongside that were more than eighty years old.

The vineyards, some 5,000 hectares, stretch out in all directions, all almost identical with their gnarled black stumps and the occasional green glimmer of a leaf. Eric told us that each vine makes approximately 1.5-2 bottles of Chablis; it was slightly mesmerising to look around us and imagine hundreds of bottles of wine standing there instead of the vines. We spent most of our time climbing hills spread with identical expanses of vine, but occasionally passed through some of the forest that stands in patches across the landscape.

Eric pointed out objects that looked like large blackened tins standing at intervals among the vines; he explained to us that when there's danger of a frost during the night, the winegrowers place lit candles in these cans and they radiate heat, thereby preventing the vines from freezing. I could hardly imagine the sheer amount of manpower it would take to light all those candles, considering they were spaced about one every three vines. Apparently it's quicker to use petrol, which is pumped along the vineyards and then ignited at intervals in small burners, as it burns more fiercely so you can spread it out more. We saw some petrol burners too, and huge tanks to contain it at the side of the vineyards - but Eric pointed out that these are kept empty, as otherwise people just steal the petrol.

I asked about the harvesting of the grapes; Eric explained that in an ideal world, it would be done manually rather than by machine, but that this isn't practical for the lower-cost Chablis wines, like Petit Chablis and Chablis. The benefit of this is that the vine isn't shaken vigorously, potentially causing it damage, and that the grapes are picked with their little individual stalks attached. The machines rip these out, leaving a small hole in the grape which causes them to begin to oxidise and affects the quality and flavour. However, it is expensive, requiring huge amounts of manpower, and therefore isn't viable in terms of cost for a wine that will sell for about five euros a bottle. For the Premier and Grand Cru, Eric believes it's important to harvest the grapes manually for the best quality.

I had read when I entered the Chablis blogger challenge that Chablis has a very high export rate; Eric told us that apparently it isn't drunk much at all in France, instead finding favour in foreign markets, particularly the UK, which accounts for around 40% of sales. I asked why this is, and he simply told me that that's how it has always been, ever since merchants in the Middle Ages took wine over to England and it was discovered and enjoyed there by both natives and other traders from places like the Netherlands. Obviously, in the town of Chablis, Chablis is the house wine on all menus and it would seem absurd to drink anything else, but this clearly isn't the case in the rest of France.

The balade gourmande wasn't just about wine, though, as its title suggests. There were five planned stops along the route, and at each the opportunity to sample one course of a five-course lunch and drink an accompanying glass of Chablis.

At our first stop, we sampled an 'aperitif' alongside a glass of Petit Chablis; a young (around 2 years), fresh, easy-drinking wine with floral and citrus notes, often paired with meat or seafood. I was delighted to taste proper French gougères, which I'd attempted to make as part of my Chablis tasting menu, but had no idea what authentic ones would be like. These were seriously delicious - like giant savoury profiteroles, somehow managing to be really crisp on the outside and moltenly gooey with cheese within. There was also a cube of jambon persillé, skewered on a cocktail stick - this is a kind of terrine made with ham, ham jelly, and liberal amounts of parsley to cut through the richness. We also had several slices of sausage - a thicker variety which was quite nice, and a thinner variety, which turned out to be slices of andouillette. But more on my opinions on andouillette later. As Eric pointed out, "jambon persillé...sausage...it's fat. And the acidity of the wine destroys the fat". I couldn't have eaten it without the wine, as it was indeed rather rich and meaty. Except for the gougère, which I could have eaten several times over quite happily.

It couldn't have been a trip to Burgundy without that French classic, escargots, which greeted us at stop number two. I'd only tried these once before, in Paris, and I remember them tasting solely of garlic butter. Which makes me think, if you need to slather something in so much garlic butter to make it palatable, that's probably a hint that underneath it isn't very nice.

These, however, were quite nice. They were served not in their own shells, but in little 'shells' made out of a kind of crispy pastry, so you could pop the whole thing in your mouth. Each little shell had a small snail inside, drowning in a buttery, garlicky bath. The contrast in texture between the crisp exterior and the soft, melting inside was quite pleasant, but I didn't particularly relish the moment of biting into the chewy mollusc within. It's a bit like if you stop too long to think about what you're doing while eating an oyster...if you start to chew on it a bit, or it lingers for a split second too long in your mouth. I think perhaps it's because I kept snails as pets for years as a child, and I still feel a curious fondness for them...or maybe I'm just more squeamish than I like to think. I ate a few, but after about five it was all just too rich, buttery and snail-y for my liking, and I had to leave the rest.

Not horrible, by any means, but not something I'd ever go out of my way to eat. Lord knows why they're making such frequent appearances on Great British Menu at the moment. The snails were accompanied by a glass of Chablis - a dry, delicate wine normally enjoyed young (2-3 years), and the one with the largest production area - which again was a pleasant foil to the extreme butteriness of the whole affair.

There was an interlude as we strolled through forest to get to the next part of the vineyard tour, and I have to say the most exciting part of this for me was witnessing an incredible natural phenomenon - a line, about two or three metres long, of furry caterpillars nose-to-tail, wiggling slowly across the forest floor. I had no idea caterpillars moved in a pack like this; it was a little bit exciting. Eric was less pleased, however, informing us that they do this and then go and attack all the trees and vegetation. He clearly thought I was a bit mad as I stood there squealing with joy and taking numerous photos of this furry phenomenon. I'm sure they were actually just going for a nice Sunday walk, not to pillage the forest.

For the main course of our lunch, we sampled Jambon Chablisienne, which is ham served in a rich sauce of cream, Chablis and tomato. It was delicious, and accompanied by creamy, melting potato dauphinoise. There was also a cooked andouilette sausage to accompany it.

Andouillete is a sausage made from pork (or occasionally veal). But not just pork meat. This sausage incorporates the colon of the pig. As a result, it both smells and tastes of - essentially - pig excrement.

I was all ready to like this, honestly. Generally I kind of figure that sausages use dodgy bits of the animal anyway, but normally taste lovely, so what could be the difference?

Everything, apparently.

I should have followed my nose and not even taken a bite. The smell of the sausage cooking was enough to close up my throat in repulsion. I've never smelled anything like it. It was a cross between excrement and rotting flesh, wafting rancidly on the air like some black cloud of doom and pain. Even then, I determined I would try it, in case it tasted better than it smelled.

It didn't.

I took one bite, my teeth closed around the squishy coils of pig intestine, and I immediately grabbed my napkin and spat the whole thing out. It was, without doubt, the vilest thing I have ever put in my mouth. I can't even describe how utterly foul it both tasted and smelled; like nothing that should ever, ever be eaten. The texture didn't do it any favours, either - it wasn't uniform and meaty like a normal sausage, but had thick chunky fatty bits of gut in it. Dear lord, it was horrendous. To give you a further idea, apparently the French parliamentarian Edouard Herriot once said: "Politics is like an andouillette - it should smell a little like shit, but not too much."

The French actually accept that they produce an ingredient that reeks of excrement. There's something wrong with that.

A minute or two later, Eric leaned over and whispered conspiratorially:

"I tell you a secret...I hate andouillette."

I was so, so relieved. I had worried he'd seen me spitting it into my napkin and would be offended at my visceral rejection of his beloved country's regional speciality. But if a native Frenchman hates the thing, you really do wonder why on earth it can be allowed to exist. I saw a few people leave theirs too, but - more shockingly - a lot of them were eaten in their entirety. Not even a glass of Chablis Premier Cru, the accompanying wine, would have salvaged my tastebuds had I attempted to swallow that piece of gut sausage. Thank god there was ham too, not just fatty porcine colon. I am still bristling with horror at the thought of it, sitting here writing this. I might go and wash my mouth out with Chablis just to be on the safe side.

Fortunately, there was cheese to follow. Not just any cheese. A beautiful plate of ripe, warm French cheeses, oozing and unctuous and the perfect thing to spread on a crusty baguette. We had Epoisses, two different goats cheeses, and a Camembert. What really amazed me about this wasn't just the delicious cheese, but how incredibly well it partnered with the glass of Chablis Grand Cru. Not knowing much about food and wine pairing, every now and again I try a dish with a drink that has been recommended for it by someone far more knowledgeable than myself, and I am just blown away. This was one such moment.

The wine not only tempered the richness of the cheese, but the cheese mellowed it and made it taste beautifully honeyed, almost sweet. It was like drinking sweet gold nectar. The Grand Cru vineyards only account for 3% of Chablis's annual wine production, which is why it is the most expensive of all the Chablis wines. It has the best ageing potential, developing a Sauternes-like aroma which I could certainly detect, and intense blossom and dried fruit flavours. We tried examples from three different vineyards (there are seven in total), and there was a marked difference in aroma and intensity between the three.

Having circumnavigated the vineyards, we ended up back where we began for dessert, which was a really beautiful 'Chablis mousse' prepared by the chef of Hostellerie Le Clos, the expensive restaurant we hadn't been able to afford to visit. At least we got to taste his cooking in some capacity. It was a sort of set custard flan, quite wobbly but with a genoise sponge base to give it a little texture. The flavour was beautiful; I couldn't detect any Chablis, but it had a light, sweet fragrance and was only too easy to devour in seconds, especially when paired with a sharp fruit coulis and chewy biscuits. I don't normally go in for creamy, airy sorts of desserts, but this had such a delicate, delicious flavour that I couldn't resist.

This was served with Crémant de Bourgogne, a sparkling wine from the region that is rather like poor man's champagne - it is made according to the same method but doesn't come from Champagne so can't be labelled as such - and is really delicious; we tried the rosé version and it went perfectly with the sweet dessert. Apparently it also makes an excellent Kir Royale. Eric pointed out that if you find a bottle of Champagne for ten euros, it is clearly inferior and shouldn't be bothered with, whereas with Crémant de Bourgogne, ten euros will buy you the best. Another strange truth from the world of winemaking. This was the perfect celebratory end to our tiring 12km trek, and to our weekend in Chablis. The sun had shone, I'd somehow burned the back of my neck, I'd pretty much walked off the entire calorie content of my giant lunch, I'd had the opportunity (though I didn't accept, not wanting to embarrass my host by falling catatonic to the ground mid-walk) to drink five big glasses of wine, and I had a bag of white asparagus waiting in my luggage. That's basically perfection, French-style.

I had a fantastic weekend filling in the (shamefully, rather large) gaps in my knowledge both about winemaking and about rustic French villages; seeing the effort and care put into a wine that I'd barely considered before I entered this competition was fascinating and so rewarding. The balade gourmande was a wonderful way to immerse ourselves in the culture of Chablis, both in terms of wine and food, and I'd like to give a special thank you to Eric for being such an interesting and informative guide; those tough twelve kilometres in the battering wind simply flew by thanks to his entertaining commentary. I'd also like to thank the Chablis wine board and Sopexa PR for hosting the Chablis blogger challenge and giving me this wonderful opportunity.

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  1. Sounds like you had an absolutely amazing trip, and congratulations on winning! All looks wonderful (except for that scary sausage, very impressed you even put it in your mouth!)

  2. Food blogging is definitely hard work sometimes...but you know. Someone's got to do it!  Sounds like an awesome trip!

  3. So pleased to read of your trip, except the andouillette of course.  I have always managed to avoid it.

  4. Jeanne @ CookSister!11 May 2012 17:06

    What lovely shots (both of you and of the scenery!) - love the 2CV too :))  Chablis is an area I know almost nothing about, but it certainly seems worth a visit! Pack the elastic-waisted trousers though I imagine!!


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