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Bacchus: the Greek god of wine and drunkenness. His spirit has visited Toulon at the beginning of every spring, and for the last three years (since I’ve moved to France) it has become part of our tradition as well.
The Fête de Bacchus is a wine event that the husband and I look forward to in order to replenish our stock of good wines for the spring and summer months, while patiently waiting for the foire aux vins that happens all over France in September. For three days, Friday to Sunday the big white tent is erected in Place d’Arms in the center of the city, and the wine makers, sellers, and connoisseurs come rolling in every morning from all over France to peddle their noble fare. They open their stands at 10am and the place is packed by 10:30.
Bottles are uncorked and lined up. Let the tasting begin.
We had a list of what we wanted this year. Chateauneuf Domaine du Rempart had returned and we made our usual purchase of their 2005 and 2001, both excellent years with very different characters. The 2005 we’ll be drinking this summer with something humble but heavy on a stormy day. The 2001, a deeper wine that needs to be aired, enjoyed, sipped along side something like boar will be saved for December.
Alsace wines are always a big purchase for us at any foire aux vins. Sure, you can buy Rieslings and Pinot Gris in the supermarkets here, but the wines from the smaller producers that come to Bacchus have much more flavor, as complex as they are subtle. We bought one of each – the Riesling, the Pinot Gris and a Gewurztraminer each with a different undertone and melody. The Riesling is dry and lemony, the Pinot Gris a bit spicy and the Gewurztraminer is soft and peachy.
There were two discoveries this year. As I’m looking to continue my studies in gastronomy at a school in the Anjou region, I insisted that we take a taste of the Angevin wines. Our first taste was of an older variety of grape the Grolleau noir which neither the husband nor I had ever heard of, let alone tasted. The producer told us it was a grape that was “out of fashion” at the moment having been replaced by the Cabernet.
A interesting scent hit our noses when we took a sniff. “It smells like a light, creamy cheese,” the husband said. I was relieved, I thought my nose was playing tricks. The taste was oddly the same. A very fruity flavor, but with a creamy taste that reminded us of, yes, a creamy cheese spread with some sort of berry sauce. According to some wine experts, all the Grolleau vines should be ripped up and replaced with something with more potential, but I am interested in opening this bottle and tasting the strange flavor again to make my final decision. Maybe it doesn’t have aging potential, but neither do I.
By this point we were hungry and a bit tipsy and our tongues were incapable of tasting further. It was time for a snack.
At any wine tasting event, there are always produit du terroir, because you can’t buy wine without being inspired by the food. Or vice versa. Mushrooms, macaroons, cheeses, foie gras, sausages; they were all out in force.
On our way through the meat and cheese section we came upon a lone wine stand. It was odd to see this one separate from the others of its kind until we looked closer. It wasn’t just wine- it was hypocras.
I was excited. Ever since I first tasted this medieval beverage at Château Trigance a few years ago, I’ve loved having it as an aperitif, but it’s not something that’s easy to find. La Cuvée des Elfes had many varieties, hypocras flavored with rose, raspberries, even pepper. It was the last one that we purchased and promised the producer that we’d check out his website in case we wanted to order some more at a future date.
There was more tasting. Many of the vendors themselves were nipping at their own glasses between lulls of customers and curious tasters.
There was a lull for us too, as we had lunch at the local Japanese restaurant – and I continued my tasting with one of the biggest glasses of a local red I’ve never needed.
When we got home I rounded up the bottles and looked them over. Three whites, an Angevin rosé with a flavor completely different from that of their Provencal cousins, one hypocras, two Chateuneuf, our Anjou red and a nice Saint Emilion 2007 – a red Bordeaux that is fast becoming my favorite of the region. We won’t be going thirsty this season.
All in all, it was a festive morning and afternoon devoted to the grape. Confrères were wearing their ceremonial robes and medals in honor of the occasion – this is the twenty year anniversary after all – and we humble consumers were mostly drunk by noon. Just at Bacchus intended.
There is something completely unacceptable happening in Provence this weekend. It’s worse than chilling a 20 year old Château de la Tour. Worse than mixing a good Epoisse with tomatoes and onions. Worse than clam ice cream.
No, really. It’s snowing. Big wet flakes coming down from the sky covering trees and cars.
I grew up in New England, so you’d think I’d be okay with this. But I’m not. At all. After living in Phoenix for four years I got used to the happy times of heat and bright sun all year round and never wanted to leave. I thought I’d have something similar in Provence. It is, after all, a Mediterranean climate.
Nevertheless, there it is. I got up this morning, made my morning coffee and oatmeal and opened up the blinds. I was bringing my oatmeal to the couch, when I saw it. My expression was horrified, a terrified, disgusted gasp escaped from the deepest parts of my belly. The cats sat up on their hind-legs and pressed their paws to the glass. Snow.
The husband and I had plans to go to the market and buy some items for the weekend and cat food for the cats – who eat like horses – and so we bundled ourselves up at 10am and set out.
On the way back we were discussing what to have with the lamb and red wine we had purchased and I suddenly remembered: “We still have a can of Cassoulet in the house from L’Esprit du Vin.” Lamb was forgotten. Red wine wasn’t. Cassoulet was on the menu.
Cassoulet. White beans, goose or duck, sausage from Toulouse, slow cooked in duck or goose fat.
It’s direct from the producer. I added tomatoes and onion, to which the husband said “you know there are no tomatoes in cassoulet.”
“So, I’m adapting it. I’m using a small dice.”
“Ok, I just wanted to be sure.”
There are also carrots in cassoulet, but I omitted those because I knew the husband would complain about my vegetable obsession.
Anyway. Into the pan it went over low low heat. The fat melts and heats up quickly becoming such a thick, wonderful sauce. With a glass of red wine it is truly winter-stick-to-your-ribs food. Comfort food. Perfect for watching the snow out the window and Iron Chef on the computer alternately.
We drank a Crozes Hermitage, 2007 made of only syrah grapes. It was a simple purchase from the supermarket. A light wine but with a full-bodied fruity flavor that worked well with the soft, subtly of the white beans without anything being over powering. Not a complex flavor, no oaken-tones or rosemary and herbs like you find in many Côtes du Rhone, but it was a delightful taste.
And ice cream. Vanilla and Nutella ice cream with fresh strawberries. I found these at the market, coming from Spain, and while I try to only buy French produce, Spain – as I’ve reminded the husband – is not that far away – and I couldn’t resist this touch of summer in the midst of winter. Ice cream might not have been the warmest option in the middle of snow, but I can never resist ice cream. And warm coffee with a piece of chocolate soon followed.
Curling up on the couch with a belly full of cassoulet and red wine and cheese is the way to spend a snowy Saturday. The emergency of this sudden and horrific change in climate has been averted and I have dealt with it admirably, if I may say so myself.