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.
Yotsuya (east of Shinjuku), Tokyo
Wine importers have been playing for a long time an important role for the development of wineries and domaines, but for the segment of natural wine producers a few wine importers were certainly of strategic importance, particularly in the 1990s' when the nascent non-interventionist winemaking movement was still short of a strong domestic market for its wines. At that time when the future was still
uncertain for the vignerons leaving the "security" of conventional winemaking for the unchartered waters of real wine, a few importers were certainly of great help, and Mrs Yasuko Goda of Racines was certainly one of them. The Japanese wine lovers, or at least enough of them, turned to understand very early the appeal of these wines that departed so much from the norms of what was done at that time, and they put their money where their mouth was, giving a decisive boost to many vignerons who were also encouraged by this sign of appreciation coming from so far away. Mrs Goda's name bounced back to me along the years as I was visiting all these artisan producers, along the one of Mr Ito, another big and early player in the field, and I decided to at last visit her and her business partner Masaaki Tsukahara in their offices downtown Tokyo.
Mrs Yasuko Goda's inspiration for her future career probably needed a French episode and it materialized when in the late 1980s' her husband (who had just spent 3 months in Europe for his job) suggested she takes a year off in France with their 2 young children and find something to do that she'd like, the children were young enough so that she could move with them, and if she waited more they'd be stuck with the studies. She left for France and enrolled at the University of Bordeaux [you see it coming] to learn French and there she found tasting courses that were given by a few people including Denis Dubourdieu and Emile Gaillon. She says with a laugh that she didn't understand much to these courses, it was pretty hard but she got the beginning of her wine education there.
The yearly wine event Festivin just took place in Tokyo a few days ago, it's a smoothly-functioning wine-tating fair taking place in two sessions in a single day on the last sunday of november. It has such a success among wine lovers in Tokyo that the tickets are sold well in advance. I attended my first Festivin wine fair in march 2014 but it was kind of a minor-key version of the real thing because there had been issues back then on renting the usual exhibition space. This was already a great tasting event, even though like usual I could taste few wines considering the time I spend at each table plus the time spent looking at people, listening to the music and shooting pictures... This Festivin 2015 was in line with my first experience, add to that a music entertainment that was by itself worth the
ticket even if you had been a teetotaller, the credit for that great music part goes of course to our friend François Dumas, the French
Tokyoite and wine importer who also has a long experience and good taste in music shows. François Dumas is pictured on the right with John Wood, a New-Zealander who spent years working in Tokyo (moved recently to Melbourne for the studies of his children) and who worked several years as staff for Festivin.
The wine tasting even took place at Ebis303 which is a convention & exhibition centre in Ebisu, a trendy area on the south-eastern edge of Shibuya. That day was very sunny and mild (few people know Japan has great weather in november) and I walked all the way from Ikebukuro, where I was staying, and Ebisu, spending time in Takadanobaba, Shinjuku, Harajuku & Shibuya on the way, great stroll and a great way to discover a city by the way, even when the walked-through neighborhoods aren't of touristic value.
The entree fee was high on Paris standards where tastings are often free or charged a symbolic 5 € (which usually pays for the glass), but I was willing to pay the ¥ 7500 (56 €) asked for the 4-hour session because that's really a way to feel the beat of natural-wine in Japan and have a glimpse on its public. As an introduction while we were beginning to enjoy the wines we had a speech by Shinsaku Katsuyama, the core organizer of the event who sported for the occasion a hat made of corks (pic on left). Katsuyama-san is a pioneer in natural wine in Tokyo and he is the founder of Shonzui, now an institution for natural wine and great food in the Japanese capital.
A few weeks ago B. brought back this copy of News Digest magazine from the Japanese quarter near Opéra in Paris; you may know that there are a few streets near the Métro Pyramides and the rue Saint Anne where there's a high concentration of Japanese businesses, offices and venues, and in many of these places including the restaurants you can pick one of the several free Japanese magazines catering for the large expat community living in Paris.
I reported a couple years ago about 33 Vin, another free magazine that helps the Japanese expats discover wine with great pictures, in-depth reports and also this knowledgeable interest for natural wines. Here although I don't read or speak Japanese I was intrigued by a long wine subject where it seemed that outstanding Japanese chefs living in France were asked to pick a wine of their choice. This was another illustration of the high regard for fine wine among the Japanese, with an approach that goes beyond the prestigious labels and Chateaux.