Bottles of wine and the mail’s on time!

One of the little details that I love about living where  I do is the “beep-beep” of a small yellow scooter in front of my house every day around 1 pm. I know that Serge le facteur–my postman is at the door. From time to time, if he’s got a special delivery or just needs a drink,  he’ll open up and shout at the top of his lungs “MCLEEEONN”. Normally though, the mail just drops into the box and he’s on his way.

But the month of September is not a normal month. Serge’s got a sparkle in his eye. And he can’t stop talking  about some very un-postman like stuff; bung holes, leaf thinning, maturity checks, pumping over and so on. No, believe me, he’s fine;  in fact he’s a great postman – always helpful and never short of a good story. He’s just excited about his other job. For you see, Serge is the only full time postman/wine maker in France.

Serge pumping over this years red. The cellar is modern and well equipped.

Serge Scherrer is a droll, wiry 48-year-old who grew up a stones throw from the great vineyards of Alsace in the north-east of France.  In his teens he dreamed of making his own wine and even took a viticulture course at a local college. The problem though, was that vineyard land in Alsace was scarce and very expensive and Serge had neither the right connections nor loads of money. So when a job came up at the local post office, Serge applied and got in.  And before long he had a wife and two small boys. The wine making dream started to look more and more like the pipe variety.

Fast forward to 2000; Serge and his young family are transferred to Uzès, a small town in the Gard department of southern France,  in the midst of the biggest viticultural region in the world – a more or less uninterrupted sea of vines that covers the mediterranean coast of France like a giant green belt. The region used to be the source for an endless supply of cheap, undistinguished table wines that nourished thirsty workers in France and northern Europe for decades. But those easy markets started to fall away in the late ’90’s and within a few years co-ops were closing and thousands of hectares of vines were grubbed up. Land prices fell dramatically and Serge saw an opportunity.

Low yielding, old vine grenache and cinsault vines; Serge's first vineyard.

Starting in 2003 he began the hunt for a small parcel of top quality vines. By 2007 he found what he was after: a prime, half hectare plot of old vine Grenache and Cinsault not far from Uzes. After a tense period of negotiation, the deal closed in mid-August, just in time for harvest. The dream was back on track.

Agarrus, the name Serge chose for his domain, comes from the Provençal word for the small kermes oaks that grow all over the dry hillsides of southern France. The first two vintages produced a small amount of concentrated, intense wine. But wanting to paint with a bigger palate, Serge added three more parcels of Syrah, Carignan and Grenache to the mix in 2009. Today, with 4.5 hectares that’s all farmed organically, Serge has his hands very full indeed. It’s amazing to see how far passion, determination and vision can carry a man. And he readily admits he couldn’t make it all work without his wife Lucile’s full support.

Quality starts in the vineyard

Quality grapes-soon to be fine wine.

This year he figures he’ll make almost 15,000 bottles, most of it red. The wines are uniformly good to very good and have a real sense of terroir (see tasting notes). And since he’s not in a prestigious appellation, the prices are reasonable. He sells a quarter of his production locally and expects to be distributed in Germany and Switzerland soon.

The high point each year for Serge has to be les vendanges-the harvest. His many friends (the warrior included) offer to help and in spite of the hard work and the long hours everyone has a great time.

The harvest lunch; a well deserved break for hungry pickers.

Defenses and stress fall away, laughter is king and everyone seems to get along. Around 1 pm each day the loud call, à table, summons the team to lunch, a time to unwind, drink a bit of wine or beer and kibbutz with your co-workers. Lucile prepares the delicious home-cooked food and we rise an hour later refreshed and energized. I feel lucky to be sharing the moment, for this traditional part of French culture is slowly dying off, a victim of harvesting machines and the increased costs involved. Here in the south only the smaller, quality oriented domains harvest by hand. For Serge, who has to make it on the excellence of his wines, it’s an essential ingredient.

Les Vendanges - a really festive time for all.

Son Pierre-Louis cleans up; he also designed the Agarrus label.

This same attention to detail carries over to the winery where Serge invested last year in a nearly new pneumatic press and seven stainless steel tanks with full temperature control. He admits though that he is still learning and dealing with the odd moment of panic–like the terrible grinding his pump made, until someone realized it had to be primed with water to work–but they’re becoming rare.

Teamwork saves the day.

As a guy who makes top rate hand made wines Serge qualifies as a true garragiste. The fact his winery is located in the back-end of a real garage makes him doubly worthy of the name.

By the end of a week of harvesting, Serge seems pleased. The grapes are perfectly ripe, he says, with good deep colour. The potential is there to make some great wines. The team or core of pickers are a bit sore and tired but everyone feels proud to have contributed a small bit to Serge’s amazing adventure and can’t wait to start all over again next year. Long may he run.

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Learning about wine from the ground up

Lets face it. Most people I know like wine and drink the stuff in varying amounts. Eventually some even get passionate enough about wine to want to learn the ins and outs. The road to fulfillment on the education front can be intimidating at best. And along the way one runs into more than a few wine snobs who don’t really get the point. You know. That wine is mostly just a humble beverage that brings people together and offers some small pleasures.

So you can imagine my excitement when I was invited to spend an amazing day learning about wine amongst the rolling hills of parasol pine,  old gnarly vines and a deep blue sky at Domaine Clavel in the Côteaux du Languedoc.  The day was organized by a young French company called mesvignes.com. They’re betting on the down to earth (literally) trend that brings together professionals from all walks of life to worship the golden grape.

An organic vineyard is full of life

Mes Vignes has partnered with 15 top wineries throughout France to offer their customers a hands-on way to learn about wine. People sign up for one to three workshops that take place at the winery of their choice and initially harvest the grapes that are destined for the cuvée Mes Vignes.  After a year of more of periodic workshops and lots of online updates, these web vignerons receive a couple of cases of “their” wine.

The participants, myself and 15 couples from all over the south of France are greeted by Stephen, Mes Vignes enologist/host for the day, Pierre Clavel and his wife Estelle. Over coffee and croissants we’re briefed on the day’s events.

Off to the vineyard

Before long, with shears in hand, it’s time to head out to the vineyard and pick grapes. The group is relaxed but excited at the same time. The steep, rocky vineyard is not the easiest of terrain but who cares  when the senses are teased by the stunning views of  nearby Pic Saint Loup and the intense scents of savoury herbs and parasol pine.

The “work” part of the day only lasts for an hour or so and then we’re off to learn about  tanks, vats, barrels and all the other hardware that help turn those ripe, succulent grapes into great wine. The information is precise without being overly technical and the crowd laps it up.

Pierre Clavel explains the primary fermentation

...under the watchful eye of Bacchus.

By noon our hosts sense our brains are full and in need of serious refreshment. The Domaine Clavel 2009 rosé is lovely, fresh and full of ripe, strawberry scented fruit. Soon we sit down to an excellent four-course meal and get to taste the domain’s best wines. By the time dessert is served almost two hours later, I and likely several others,  feel like a wee siesta, but duty calls so we all gather round the modern press where Pierre explains the intricacies of pressing grapes.

Stephen explains the art of using barrels to age wine.

Then it’s off to the barrel chai where some of the domain’s wines are matured in 228 l. oak casks. Stephen explains the reasons behind oak ageing and by the end of his talk we’re all fascinated by this complex and mysterious part of fine wine making.   Finally, our very satisfied albeit slightly tired group, heads to the tasting room, where those who want to can purchase additional wine.

My verdict? A great hands-on way to learn about wine from the people who make it their life’s work. And you’ll get a feel for the life of a vigneron to boot. The amazing vistas, the warm welcome and the knowledge one picks up,  make for an unforgettable experience, one that you’ll be reminded of each time you open a bottle of “your” wine.

More information can be had at; www.mesvignes.com (French only; a new site in English will be online by mid October) http://www.vins-clavel.fr/

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Local heroes – Organic style, part 1

Succulent heritage tomatoes

One of the best things about living in this corner of our little planet in space is the great produce one can find locally. Farmer’s markets abound and I was thrilled we arrived home to learn that our village has, in addition to the regular Friday market,  a producers only Tuesday morning version.

Three years ago when we packed our bags to head back to Canada the only local farmer’s market was up the hill in Uzes and there was only one organic producer.Now both the Tuesday and Friday market here are teeming with dedicated, young farmers who care about what they grow and sell.

Hedwige and Loic Martin

Take Loic and Hedwige Martin for example. In their thirties, the couple farm about 2/3 of a hectare of prime land near St. Siffret. They were originally certified organic but to differentiate themselves from other organic farmers, they’re now using a relatively new technic called Ramial Chipped Wood (RCW). This revolutionary method was developed in the mid 80’s  by a team of researchers at Laval University in Québec. They discovered that the best way to regenerate a spent, dead soil was to cover it with a thin layer of chipped hardwood branches. But not just any branch will do. Loic explains to me that only young wood of 7cm diameter or less have the proper balance of carbon and living cells. He sources his wood from local landscaping firms then roughly chops them up and spreads them over his soil. Over time this thin layer of wood decomposes through the action of a white mould, basidiomycota. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basidiomycete. The result is a moist, dark, living soil that Loic claims is 500 times more nourishing than a standard agricultural soil. Although his vegetables don’t look as perfect as those from traditional producers, they are full of complex, intense flavours.

The very strange, mediterranean plant, Ficoide Glaciale.

As an added calling card, the couple grow some very distinct plants – ficoide glaciale, a furry leafed lemon flavoured salad green and something called Para watercress that leaves me with a stinging, tingling sensation in the mouth. An acquired taste I think.

A few stands away I run into another not so young organic producer named Luc Descoins. After many years in the insurance business he decided at 50 that the best way to do something meaningful for the planet, his community and his family was to go into organic farming.

Luc Descoins

Luc’s wife, Azra, took a year-long, hands on class at a local agricultural school to learn how to make it all work and the couple took the plunge in 2008. Today he grows salad, zucchini, aubergine, green beans, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables on a hectare of excellent, certified organic land that he leases from two local landowners.

Luc finds more and more people are buying organic, even though a recent study pegged organic fruits and vegetable prices  a whopping 70% higher than conventionally grown produce. Luc’s prices, however seem mostly in line with the other traditional producers at the market and he explains to me that buying direct from the farmer as opposed to a distributor keeps the price down. As if on cue, a Parisian woman wanders over to his stand and is amazed by his low prices.

As for the future of organic farming in the south of France, Luc is optimistic. The key, he feels is to get the consumer out of the supermarket and back to local farmer’s markets where one is guaranteed the most nutritional, healthy produce available. The reward for Luc is the direct contact he has with his growing base of satisfied customers. The wide smiles on their faces makes it all worthwhile. www.lesjardinsbiodeluc.fr

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Market mania in St. Quentin

One of my favourite pastimes during the long, cold winter months of our three-year stay in the interior of British Columbia consisted of dreaming about the amazing farmers markets I’d left behind in France. Our thrice weekly forays to the local supermarket were always an adventure — at least until we traded our bikes in for a car. The thrill of navigating through slush and snow on two wheels wore off quickly once the shopping began. Greeted by row upon row of uniformly tired, sad-looking fruits and vegetables, my mind wandered often to the warm, colourful, scented markets I’d known in France and I felt instantly soothed.

And now that we are finally home in our very special village, I can confirm that the reality is even better than my reminiscing. The local market has almost doubled in size and attracts huge summer crowds every Friday morning.

Amazing tapenade

Delicious unfiltered grape juice

But it’s not full of the gawking tourists who frequent the more trendy Saturday Uzes market. There are some to be sure but the core users are villagers who want to support local farmers and at the same time catch up with friends. On Tuesdays there’s a more intimate producers only market with several excellent organic growers.

This morning I was up by 7 am to get to the market early. The sky was a deep, clean blue and the air crisp. Many merchants were still setting up their stalls, all the while joking or sharing a coffee with their colleagues. An air of lively anticipation of big crowds and good sales seemed to float about effortlessly. Another good day to be sure. The only customers this early were older, retired locals who get their shopping done before the crowds and the heat arrive.

Always time to chat

The whole scene took me instantly back to all those early mornings several years ago when I sold wine five times a week at markets throughout the region: the routine of packing the truck the night before; the piecing pain of those 5 a.m. alarms followed by a lonely drive in pre-dawn half darkness.  But the hard part was quickly forgotten once I got set up and that same anticipation kicked in. A kind of perpetual optimism that kept us coming back for more regardless of the days outcome.

So what makes my market and any good market so much better from a sterile North American supermarket? Well you buy your veggies from a farmer who picked them just hours earlier and your meat from a butcher who greets you by your first name. Christian, the honey guy always has a good story or two. 

Solange, lets me taste her wines and at the same time she brings me up to date on the latest news in the wine business. The recession has brought about a lot of closures, lower prices and slack sales but she is optimistic about the future. With this years harvest her Mas Mouries will be an official organic wine. Crises come and go but these tough, resilient people always find a way to make things work.  I can’t wait till next Friday.

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Slap me again, it’s not a dream

I’ve had several bouts the last few weeks of a strange disorder I’ll call lost in transititis. You know, it’s that displaced person sensation. Everything looks so familiar but it sometimes doesn’t register that I really am back in my charming village in the south of France. I haven’t done so much moving around since I was a restless twenty-something. I think I remember that it was pretty easy to adapt to new locals way back then– more brain cells without a doubt.

The good news is I try to put what I’ve got left to much better use. Seriously, though, my condition is improving and I am no longer tongue-tied each time I stroll about the village. It feels so good to run into all my old friends and get into the way of life here again.

Michel, king of the Accra

Today I cycled into Uzes, the large Medieval town just up the hill. Saturday is market day and to avoid the huge summer crowds I arrived a bit after 9 am. I could feel the energy and excitement building. The calm before the storm of Dutch, German, British, American and French tourists arrived in late morning. It felt so familiar, normal I guess since I sold wine at this same market for several years. Not much had changed; my good friend Michel was still at his habitual stand, slaving away like a madman dropping tiny teaspoons of salt-cod accras into hot oil all the while chatting with me. Elsa, his smiling young assistant was selling the golden morsels as fast as he could  make em. Michel’s stand, Les Accras de Marius, is known throughout Provence as the king of accras and falafel. His brandade, a salt cod and olive oil paste, is legendary. As luck would have it,  today was his 50th birthday. I couldn’t leave the market without doing something special so a bit later I passed by a second time with a nice bottle of red. Come September when the hordes of tourists have mostly gone home, we’ll get together and catch up, minus the smoking hot oil and the crowds of other displaced persons.

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The Warrior returns

I’m back. The last two months have been filled with travel, reunions, fast food, poutine (it gets its own category-lets call it ethnic super fat food) great and not so great wine, changing time zones and a mildly upset tummy.

Bowen Island sunset

Not the easiest of tasks moving a family of four over 10,000 km to the east but we made it in one piece. And it feels so good to be home. Not that I didn’t enjoy the three years we spent in the interior of BC. It is an incredibly beautiful region of pristine lakes, wild mountainous terrain and natural beauty with an arid, sunny climate and loads of fabulous wines. But this place, I realize now, is home.

Many images come to mind over the last two months; the incredible send offs we got from all our friends in Kelowna, the pristine, natural wonder of Bowen Island and the great cooking of Françoise, the stellar pinot noirs from Prince Edward county, Black River cheese, the ethnic diversity of Montreal and the fine home cooking of Huron county. It was all a bit quick and I was never quite sure where I was on awakening each day, but it was great fun.

Great cheddar since 1901

Vickies organic veggies

One of the more interesting discoveries I made was Prince Edward county. This pres’qu’ile close to Belleville, Ontario boasts over 30 recently opened wineries, an artisan cheese producer and a score of organic farms that sell their produce as far away as Toronto. The poor, stoney limestone soil on the western end of the county is perfect for the fickle pinot noir grape. The wines have a good local reputation and within a few years could prove to be world-class.

When one puts food and Montreal together two specialties jump to the fore. The renowned beef brisket called Montreal smoked meat and the recently trendy poutine. The standard version takes crisp, golden fries then smothers them with thick beef flavoured gravy and cheddar cheese curds. This strange mélange was invented in 1957 by a creative guy named Ferdinand Lachance. He might not approve of the modern variants; Italian poutine, Mexican poutine, the T-rex and even a foie-gras poutine for the gourmet on the go. I wasn’t a fan in the past but I can see the attraction, especially after a cold day on the slopes.

Arriving back in France, however, poutine faded quickly from my mind. Even the first humble pain au chocolat that I devoured at the airport waiting for my daughter was excellent. Stunning pastry shops (I’d walk miles for a great florentine), fabulous green grocers and top artisan butchers are encountered throughout the city of lights.

macarrons - yum!

By the end of a long Saturday afternoon walkabout that stretched past dusk to darkness we were famished, tired and a touch désagréable. But Sylvain, our host, insisted our sore muscles and aching feet would vanish after dinner at Chez Chartier. And he was bang on.

This storied 114 years old Bistro serves up simple, well prepared bistro classics at very affordable prices: veau normande, tête de veau, escargots, raie au beurre noir, ile flottante and even compôte de pomme. Serious French comfort food, quoi! And the menu tops out at 13€50 for roasted sea bass with fennel.

Chez Chartier, a classic parisian bistro

Not the best bistro in Paris but perhaps the one that transports the guest to a time of horse-drawn carriages, mustachioed gentlemen and ladies of the evening. A must do in Paris. Highly recommended. 7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, tel: 01 47 70 86 29, to reserve write to bouillon.chartier@wanadoo.fr

After a lazy Sunday picnicking in the Parc de Vincennes and an exciting World Cup final, we boarded the TGV to Avignon to begin the last leg of a long journey. The grey, rather damp day was perfect for daydreaming. Images of smiling faces, heartfelt reunions, tall trees and a certain small dog swept by as quickly as the blurry French countryside. In what seemed like an instant, the sun was shining and the train was slowing into Avignon. After a teary reunion with friends we  and our bags were loaded into two small vans, direction St. Quentin. A red and white Canadian chapter of my life was closing and a more sensual, chaotic and vibrant French one beginning. 



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Alfresco dining, Okanagan style

You may have got the impression from some of my earlier posts that I have many fond food memories of the years I spent in France. Well you’d be bang on. And now that we are in the final preparations of moving back to France, I am getting excited about all the great little moments of life that I miss so much here.

But my wife and I were reminded last week that real food prepared with care and talent can be found in BC as well. The opportunities are just harder to find.

We were invited to attend the premier alfresco dinner at a stunning Bed and Breakfast called God’s Mountain Estate, high above the shore of Skaha lake, south of Penticton http://www.godsmountain.com/index.html.

White walls, blue sky, striking vistas

This Mediterranean styled, 14 room small Inn is by far the funkiest, most relaxing B&B I’ve encountered in a long time. Owner Sarah Allen fell in love with the property by chance in 2003 and within two years sold her Bowen island restaurant and along with her husband Richard purchased God’s Mountain.

The stunning 115 acre hillside property is a functioning organic farm growing apples, plum, cherries, apricots, grapes and a horde of vegetables. Hence the guest book at GM is filled with glowing comments on the food. There are no phones or TV’s in the room and if you like something different there’s even a roofless room for romantic star gazers.

Sarah has found a unique approach to staffing her estate too. On arrival we were greeted by a friendly young girl offering us a glass of sparkling Blue Mountain, one of Canada’s top bubblies. Turns out she’s  a woofer from Germany. A what you may ask? After some digging, I discovered a website for World Opportunities on Organic Farms. It’s an organization that helps travelers  find temporary work on farms worldwide and at the same time discover a new culture. In return for their labour woofers are given room and board.

But back to the food. The kick-off alfresco dinner was prepared Joy Road Catering, http://www.joyroadcatering.com/, which is run by two Stratford Chef’s School grads, Cameron Smith and Dana Ewart. They’ve lived in the Okanagan for several years and want to show the world what they can do with the top quality organic food being grown in the BC interior.

They are committed locavores and even spent much of the day before our dinner gathering wild greens, morels and herbs. The hard work and great ingredients really did make a huge difference. My wife stated it was the best meal she’s ever had. I wouldn’t go that far but it was the best diner I’ve had in several years.  And outside of a dash of olive oil, a shaving of pecorino, a few lemons and a handful of coffee beans, everything was grown or raised in the Okanagan. Wines of course, followed the same theme and all were excellent, especially a God’s Mountain Riesling from Wild Goose that was sourced from the vineyards on the property.

Just to make you drool some more, I’ll list a few highlights from the menu.

Selection of Oyama salami, pork rillets, market radishes with goat’s cheese – served with Blue Mountain Brut- one of Canada’s best bubblies

Chef Dana preps dessert

prepping the charcuterie platters

Wild herb, leek and spinach potage – served with God’s Mountain Riesling

Salad of shaved fennel, wild watercress, picked baby beets and quail eggs

Cider brined and charcoal grilled leg of pork, served with roasted asparagus, wild mushroom risotto –  served with Pentage Syrah from next door – superb

An amazing lemon tart served with strawberry rhubarb compote and crème fraiche

The combination of great food, the incredible view and the joyful,relaxed mood was truly memorable. By the end of the evening conversation at the communal table flowed as easily as the wine and I was left with a warm feeling of deep satisfaction.  If you want to see just how good the Okanagan can be I highly recommend you make the effort to attend.

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