Thésée, Touraine (Loire)
We're here on the north bank of the Cher river, in an area thick with artisan-minded vignerons on both sides, like Bruno Allion and Vincent Ricard on this side in the same village, or Les Maisons Brülées, Noëlla Morantin, Laurent Saillard and others on the gg
other side of the river. Joël Courtault's father was in his time a grower who brought his grape to the nearby Coopérative of Oisly-Thésée, vinifying only a small share of his grape. On the vineyard side he was farming almost organic without boasting about it, taking care of the soil, eschewing herbicides and insecticides, and keeping in check the weeds through plowing instead. He wasn't rewarded by the Coop for that, his grapes being vinified together with the other, conventional loads.
Joël's father was for a long time the only grower at the Coop to bring such organic grapes, then came Michel Augé (who was also selling his grapes there) who made a conversion to organic farming, and much later Bruno Allion. There was also Alain Courtault in Thésée (not his direct family) who has started a conversion to organic at the time, the overall number of organic growers was far below what it has reached today with the new arrivals.
When Joël began to follow suit in 1999 he decided to officialize this organic farming and the conversion was much easier for the vineyard. Before that his father had used occasionally some chemicals against mildew but no insecticides, for example he didn't spray against grape worms (he had tried once but felt it wasn't worth it). At the time when he started there was a small group of vignerons around Michel Augé and through them he learnt about biodynamy, visiting growers experienced in this farming. This was very new to him and he began to apply these methods with the help of these contacts.
On the vinification side Joël vinifies without winemaking additives, relying on wild yeast only for the fermentation, and there's no added sulfites in his wines.
I went to the Louvre recently for a change, and with a few friends we had a special tour centered on wine related scenes, sculptures and vessels. This is an exciting way to go through the museum, passing vertically across the centuries with wine and other fermented beverages being the civilizational thread uniting all these vibrant cultures. B. was the one that could explain us all the untold stories behind these works, which certainly helps because the small plaques wouldn't tell much more than the author, the date and where it came from. In the Louvre, you can look at ancien historic eras and civilizations, but you can also manage to have on the side an intuitive understanding of the History of wine, because paintings and artifacts speak by themselves if you open
yourself to them. Wine has made all these civilizations beautiful, and thinking to the troublemakers who are doing a lot of harm today around the world, I'll repeat the great words of Benjamin Franklin they'd be wise to emulate : Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance...
Wine is as old as known and defunct past civilizations,
it is even certainly older than Civilization itself, prehistoric humans had soon understood that Mother Nature had given them the possibility to transcend and elevate their mood and social sharing by indulging in a few drinks. Give a few grapes or berries left to rot in a corner and there would be after a while this sticky inebriating juice that was possibly consumed for religious or pagan perspectives in these early human groups (like in this 6000-year old winery found in an Armenia cave). It's hard for us to imagine how all this began, we tend to project our preconceived view of "civilized man" toward our savage ancestors and we may be wrong all along, they may have had then an internal eye which allowed them to see the world much better than we do, and use its tools and herbs with a visionary intuition [my Rudolf Steiner training speaks here...].
There are so many things to see in the Louvre, most people go straight to a few works that have acquired a cult status worldwide, even among people not particularly into arts, and the Mona Lisa painting (La Joconde in French) must be in that regard the queen of selfies and Instagram. The good side of mass tourism is that crowds more or less concentrate on a few rooms in the large museum, pay for the general costs of running a museum and otherwise leaves much of the collection rooms with reasonable attendance. Lately, the threat of renewed islamic terror has kind of diminished the crowds on major monuments in Paris, including in the Louvre, but you might not notice it easily at first glance, it's still crowded on certain days with foreign visitors including Chinese groups, so it's wise to go there at the opening hour and preferably on a week day if you look for quieter times.
A personnal 2/3-hour tour can be arranged on this wine thread at the Louvre (in French, English & Japanese) and with much more info including the untold story behind these works.
Better than the Internet !
Winery tools in 1958, 1955 and 1934
Although the company still exists today, the younger generation may ignore the name of Manufrance. This company was the first mail-order company in this country when it began working in 1885, its original name was Manufacture Française d'Armes et Cycles de St.Etienne as its prime products were guns
and cycles and it was based in the industrial town of Saint Etienne. I discovered that the company
was still around even though we don't hear much about it these days, it reached its peak certainly in the 1970s' before large supermarkets became ubiquitous even in the countryside. Manufrance sold primarily guns with their ammo (which remain their prime products from what I understand), bicycles, motorbikes (the latter disappeared in the 1950s', with the ill-fated government post-WW2 policies against small/medium businesses), but it had also been selling all along the 20th century all kind of tools including professional ones. Just leafing through a catalog a few decades old makes you imagine the wonder of the potential buyer with all these informative images about their products, at a time there was no Internet. You could become a beehiver, make cheese, buy all sort of music instruments, buy all sort of traps to poach or any imaginable agriculture tools including walk plows, everything, including you guess it, here I come, all you need to make wine...
I stumbled upon two such catalogs in Strasbourg some time ago (a friends kept them as collectibles), one was from 1934 and the other from 1955 and I found other views online of the 1958 issue. I focused of course on the winemaking and cellar tools, this was very exciting when you think to all the myriads of small backyard and family parcels that have certainly been uprooted since. One odd thing is there isn't that much differences (apart from the inflation in the prices) between the winery/viticulture tools when you compare the 1930s' and the 1950s', that's strange.
The pages reproduced here come from 3 Manufrance mail-order catalogs, 1934, 1955 and 1958 (screen shots). You can leaf through the 1958 catalog at the bottom of this page, the range of products is pretty weird and much of this stuff is professionnal, you could start a business with them, including start your domaine...
Speaking of the price conversion, according to this page a French Franc from 1958 was worth the equivalent of 0,01649 €.
It's been years that we've been enjoying home-cooked foie gras here and there, beginning with the one my mother cooks for Christmas, a delicate mi-cuit foie gras which retains all this beautiful taste. Cooking foie gras oneself is the door to an affordable culinary luxury, and it's been more and more easy over the years to buy raw duck- or goose liver, as if charcuterie shops were selling so much of foie gras that they didn't
even care about the competition of home cooking. In spite of the easy availability of the
raw material of late, it's only now that I jumped in the cold water and tried my talents on this cooking adventure.
I was helped a lot by the rock bottom prices for raw foie gras in Budapest. Among the many covered markets I've been to there, the Nagyvásárcsarnok or Great Market Hall in Hungarian is N° 1 for the choice and supply, and with prices generally at 5000 Forints a kilogram (16 € or 17,5 USD) or even below, I couldn't let this pass.The production of foie gras and the related breeding of geese and ducks is an important sector of the Hungarian agriculture, with some 30,000 Hungarian goose farmers being dependent on the foie gras industry. Much of these foies gras are exported to France where, through the intricate subtilities of the French and EU labelling laws, they can be labelled as being "Product of France" after being shortly processed there.
We're here in the same register as when the Maisons de Champagne of the Marne went shopping in the Aube for their grapes a century ago and got all the proceeds of the juicy business although the Aube growers did all the hard work for pennies. Because of the big difference in the production costs (you see what I paid for retail, just imagine the wholesale price...) I think that the share for Hungarian and Bulgarian raw material in the French final product is willfully underestimated by the CIFOG (French Union of producers of foie gras), especially for the canned foie gras. Their page about the French production doesn't say even a word about this supply source and about the fact that a duck or a goose born, raised and fed in Hungary can have its raw liver exported to France where it'll be processed and sold/re-exported as French Foie Gras. According to this decade-old document (in English), Hungary which is the 2nd world producer of foie gras exports eighty five percent of its foie gras to France.
Healthy foods and self-sufficiency at easy reach
This year was a very good vintage for quince [coing in French], not that I came through any bad year (except maybe 2014) since B.' parents gave me a baby cognassier (quince tree) to plant in the Loire in 2000. I never pruned the tree and it felt quickly at home, yielding lots of fruits year after year with its thin branches bending heavily on the load of fruits every september and october. Quince isn't an easy fruit to eat, you don't just grab one and crunch it like an apple, my improvised recipe for years to eat
them was to cut one or two in half as such with the skin and put them in the microwave for 2 to 4 minutes; once the temperature had
cooled you could eat them right away, with enough of natural sugar in it in spite of its reputation as lacking of it, and the unique texture made it a nice experience, B. would often use some for breakfast.
But this wonder tree gives us maybe 80 kg of fruit every year (possibly more, that's a rough estimation) and if you wait too much, unsprayed quince tends to rot at some point, so I usually gave some of the harvest load to B.'s parents if we were to go to Burgundy in those weeks, and also to a neighbors in Paris, with some would give us a couple of jelly jars in return.
This fall 2015 was so plentiful (pic on left, sorry it's the only one with full tree in 2016, was shot with my phone) that even though I gave away lots of it I was still faced with this big load of fruit, thinking I shouldn't rely entirely on other people to process it, so I decided to try my chance and make some quince jelly myself, B. not having the time to take care of it, plus she was in Japan in october/november anyway when it was becoming urgent to deal with the quince stack.
I also keep thinking for a while that Mother Nature had us receive these odd fruits for a reason, not just to upset us with frustration while looking on ways to make them edible. These fruits are given to us just before winter and they certainly contain precious components which we need to go through winter (after checking on the web, it's indeed full of health benefits). Quince has also a particular umami or texture feel which you don't find often in fruits, it almost reminds me lovely sticking mouth feel of cartilaginous meat like ox tail or pork feet, with a different taste of course. All these feelings and awareness pushed me to take the matter into my hands and do what our ancestors did, before we became spoiled by the laziness induced by our consumerist way of life where shopping is viewed as more attractive than doing things yourself.
In spite of my repeated stays in Budapest these last few years I hadn't been aware of the existence of Terroir Club, a Hungarian distribution company focused on artisan and natural wines from all of Europe and Hungary as well, and I was tipped on it by my friend Deborah in Portland, Oregon who knew the manager András Kató from the time he spent in Oregon a few years ago.
I was set to visit him on the outside of central Budapest
last july but the heat wave at that time was so bad that I preferred to cancel the interview and postpone it for another time. January was pretty cold (minus 8° C when I was there) and the night comes fast but this was easier to handle and I managed to have the time to visit András at his office and warehouse in the 3rd district in the north-west corner of the Hungarian capital.
Terroir Club is now a well established distributor, a company that imports into Hungary artisan and natural wines from different European countries and distributes them nationally along with a number of Hungarian wines fitting in the same quality category. Hungary has a thriving winery sector that has been recovering from the communist-regime years when the land including the vineyards were state owned (except for the small family plots) through Borkombinats and traditional winemaking was replaced with high-yield industrial production with vineyards planted on flatland where soviet-made tractors could maneuver. Hungary has been recovering since then, replanting on the slopes and has now both mainstream wineries and smaller, more authentic wine farms aimed at more demanding wine amateurs.
Terroir Club is having a pivotal role in the emergence of these wineries in Hungary as well as in the awareness of the Hungarian public about the fundamental difference between conventional growing/winemaking ways and the ones practiced by these artisan wineries.
I must admit we don't often drink Rivesaltes, and this bottle was an awakening to what we miss : Here is a fortified wine from the Roussillon region, a Rivesaltes Vin Doux Naturel 1996 made by the Parcé brothers of La Rectorie winery, this wine being made through their négoce wing Les Frères Parcé (purchased grapes). See this map with the tiny orange spots of the Rivesaltes and Maury appellations (2 fortified wines) on the upper-left corner of the pink Roussillon area.
This Rivesaltes wine went through 18 years of élevage in barrels and was bottled very recently, on march 2015. It seems that the Parcé Frères have a large number of barrels of this wine and that they bottle along the demand__see this page featuring the same 1996 wine with a 17-year élevage, bottled in april 2014. The wine is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeu and it makes 16,5 % alc. It went through skin contact from what I learned.
Let me tell you that you drink this wine comme du petit lait like we say in French, it sports a great freshness in spite of the sugar and alcohol, you have these soft spices and this rich range of aromas along a saline edge, a delight. Was superb with a Bleu des causses cheese and also a Roquefort. Costs a mere 15 €, incredibly cheap given the long élevage... Plus I'm sure you can just put the cork back and help yourself days later, it won't spoil.
Smallest natural-wine bar ever : Wine Stand Bouteille (Shibuya)
Izakaya, tachinomi-ya, wine bar...
Here are a few places I came across during this trip, beginning with this natural-wine bar in Shibuya. The area is just a stone throw from Hachiko crossing and you feel like in an other age, with a couple of alleys along the railroad tracks, it's some sort of Piss Alley like the
one near Shinjuku, just smaller
and less crowded.I was tipped about it by John but had completely forgotten and it was a colleague of Terumi, our friend in Tokyo, that pointed to this place after failing to find another venue in the area that had probably closed since last time he went there. He was looking specificly for what Japanese call a senbero which means literally "getting drunk for 1000 [¥]", this amount being the equivalent of 7,5 € or 8,3 USD, this is the type of place I love in Tokyo even if the booze they pour is not of the highest quality.
This couple of narrow alleys along the railroad tracks in Shibuya is known under the name Nonbei Yokocho (drunkards alley), see the map here for directions (area underlined in yellow). It's basically a cluster of tiny bars and restaurants, so tiny that you wonder how you could find a slot between the patrons. A couple of places have wine and one is fully about natural wine. It was full when I first walked there but coming back after a while I managed to find some room. As you can see maybe 5 people can stand along the small counter, that's really the wine equivalent of a tachinomi-ya, these cramped standing bars that are a long Japanese tradition. Like any "drunkards alley" in Japan the place was certainly smelling urine in the past (that's why they were dubbed "piss alleys") but now they've strategically put efficient, easy-access toilets at both ends of the small area (pic on right). This speaks volumes about the amount of beer and nihonshu (mostly) that is being downed there...
Real sake & natural wines at Maruchu Kamabokoten in the Tateishi shopping arcade
Two wine bars and a great izakaya
When you look for wine bars in Tokyo you don't think first to a Shitamachi area, these remants of the old working-class Tokyo with its poorly-lit, narrow alleys and low buildings, and I don't even dare to think about a natural-wine bar, your first guess for these would be neighboroods like Shibuya, Roppongi, Ebisu, in short, trendy places for modern Tokyoites. Shitamachi is for the simple people, you go there to find mom & pop's izakayas squeezed into cramped venues where you'll slurp
noisily your ramen along with an overflowing glass of cheap sake, bathing happily in the steam coming from the
behind-the-counter-kitchen... That's what I'm looking for at least in Tokyo, and not only because these places are damn cheap but because they're real and no fuss.
This story began oddly with my interest in a national figure named Tora-san, a fictional character that is known to most Japanese because of the TV series Otoko wa tsurai yo (means "it's hard to be a man") which ran from 1969 to 1995 (making it the longest-running movie series starring a single actor), featuring a bachelor and itinerant salesman, some sort of looser with a big heart. In the series, the hero's home roots in Tokyo were in a Shitamachi area, Shibamata in the north-east edge of Tokyo, and my initial query was to go there and find some cheap drinking spot favored by ordinary Japanese locals. I didn't find anything there, at least my Japanese intel sources Terumi and Tadashi didn't find anything interesting in that field, although the neighborhood had a lovely provincial touch with the nice Taishakuten buddhist temple and some sort of small Asakusa-like alley lined with shops (video of temple & alley -- not a single gaijin in view when I went there !). You'll find souvenirs (the first thing you see when you step out of the station is Torasan's statue...) and traditional sweets like in Asakusa, plus many souvenirs featuring Tora-san, portraits with his iconic brown suitcase, and also a museum fully devoted to the TV-series character, I strongly encourage foreign visitors to visit the museum (closed for renovation alas when I went there recently) as well as watch at least a Tora-san movie because it helps understand Japan I'm sure (on min 6:42 begins a scene that takes place in the Shibamata alley).
I was a bit disappointed that Shibamata hadn't a local izakaya or tachinomi that could fit my taste for athentic watering hole and that's when I asked John W., an experienced Tokyoite who knows better than many locals about the immense resources of the city and who recently moved back to Australia for his kids' studies, he was back in Tokyo for a month of [Australia's] summer vacation and he told me there was another shitamachi area not far from there, in Tateishi, where he knew both an authentic local drinking spot and TWO natural-wine venues.... Each time you come back to a city you should discover some place out of the beaten path and this was it, thank you John !
Nirasaki, Yamanashi Prefecture
Japan is also a wine producing country, and some of its producers have reached such a quality that their wine is virtually sold before it is made, and this is the case for the wines of Eishi Okamoto, who founded the small domaine Beau Paysage in the high valleys of Yamanashi with the reassuring Mount Fuji in view.
The demanding wine lover in Japan has long been wary and mistrustful regarding domestic-produced wine, there's of course the large
volumes of Koshu wine made with the indigenous variety but wineries aren't all into quality winemaking and the farming techniques are far from traditional. In the
last decade though, a serious work has been done by some winemakers, with great results for those choosing the organic farming and low intervention in the cellar, you can certainly witness that firsthand year after year by tasting the Japanese domaines taking part to the wine fair.
Okamoto-san farms his vineyards organically with a Japanese twist, the farming culture in this country having also a long tradition of uninterventionist modes using different ways that the ones we know in Europe. The weather in Japan is way more complicated for organic farming with a hot and humid summer and lots of rain (just imagine, people often say the Bordeaux region is unfit for organic farming...), but there are Japanese ways to make with these conditions without resorting to chemicals, one of them being the type of permaculture advocated by Masanobu Fukuoka, managing fields and vineyards without ever plowing them to preserve the microbian life on its surface.
We reached the small city of Nirasaki after some 3 hours in a limited-express (Azusa) train on a JR line departing from the Shinjuku station in the direction of Kofu, under a bright sky. As I wrore earlier people in Europe usually don't know that november and december are great months to visit Japan with blue skies and temperatures that are usually milder than in France at the same time. Of course we were heading to the mountains and we experienced a temperature drop compared to Tokyo.