A vine proposition

Kim wine fair 2Sick of the cold wind making your cheeks all rosy as you battle the elements to get to work? You’re giving rosy cheeks a bad rep. Yes, they spell the approach of winter, but they also spell ruddy-cheeked winemakers and a crimson glow caused by an afternoon tasting your way through a hangar full of their delicious produce. Yay! It’s wine fair time again!

If you’ve been a die-hard reader since the beginning, or your wine detection skills are so honed you hardly need my help, you’ll know that Paris plays host to two wine fairs a year where independent vintners gather together, fill an exhibition centre with wine, and invite thirsty laymen like us to taste it. And buy it, of course.

This Thursday (27th) marks the start of the second, this time being held at Porte de Versailles (bottom end of line 12), taking place for five days until Monday evening. For those who live here, you’d be a fool not to go. For those who don’t, you’d be a bigger one not to arrange your next Parisian stay around it (and make room in your suitcase).

So, as usual, it’ll cost you 6 euros to get in (or free if you’ve bought a bottle or two before and you’ve received your invitation), and you get a glass upon arrival to fill up and drain to your heart’s content. The whole gang is there to sample from classy whites through to rosés and reds, sticky sweet dessert wines and kick-you-in-the-throat Cognacs and Armagnacs. Plus chocolate and foie gras sandwiches to keep your strength up.

Kim wine fair 1It sounds like heaven, no? Well, aside from rapidly fading willpower the more glasses you drink leading you to make wildly ostentatious purchases designed to cripple your bank balance, tasting all of this good stuff might lead you into a wine habit that your wallet just can’t support. Instead of risking bankruptcy, treat it as an education into France’s lesser-known wines, and develop a knowledge of the simpler and cheaper delights that’ll save you hundreds in the process.

Don’t know where to start? Here’s a brief rundown on how to save cash whilst drinking grape juice like a king.

IF your cellar’s looking empty, buying direct from the producer is the most economical way to get it looking healthy again. If you’ve got the means, buying in bulk will reduce the price even more (either take a trolley for your booty, or you can pick one up at the event). Supermarkets also keep the wine cheap with their power to buy enormous quantities, and always have a huge selection. Or if you’re lucky enough to have a wine tour booked, buy straight from the winemaker’s hands.

GIVE the big dogs a miss. Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne may be the connoisseurs’ choice, but you’ll pay for the reputation of the famous names. Try lesser known and more unfashionable areas for some hidden gems. Languedoc Roussillon is one of the largest regions in France, and the former home of Vin de Table now produces an exciting array of different varieties and innovative styles. Personally I’m an avid fan of Cahors malbec based wine (what Argentinian wine dreams are made of, but not so well known here), and lighter reds Morgon and Brouilly. The fun is in the trying. And you can impress your French dinner hosts with a cracking bottle they’ve probably never heard of.

Kim wine fair 3BE label savvy. AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) is the highest classification of wine, but strict laws mean that the second category Vin de Pays might be of a similar quality, though the wine will be labelled differently (often using the grape variety) and made using different techniques. The lowest category, Vin de Table is the cheapest, though you might end up with some barely palatable plonk.

KEEP an eye on the price. In general, the price tag dictates the quality, though if you find a cheap bottle of Margaux, it might just be the reflection of a bad year, and not worth the effort. But make sure your taste leads the way – if you spend 25 euros on a heavy oaky red when you prefer drinking a lighter Beaujolais, then you’ve spent badly my friend.

LOOK towards the edge. Often all that separates different appellations is a road, a river or a few metres of land. By looking at wines from areas that border the more prestigious AOCs, there’s treasure to be found for a fraction of the price compared to their posh siblings. Saint Émilion for example is much revered, but its satellite appellations Lussac, Montagne, Puisseguin and Saint-Georges offer some spectacular alternatives. The same goes for Pomerol’s poorer relative Lalande-de-Pomerol, and if you’re into Sauternes, give Barsac a go instead. Research rewards the curious.

Get those corks a-popping! (And don’t forget to invite me). Here’s all the info you need.

The Grapes of Math

Kim Beaujolais 2As marketing campaigns go, France is the king. This is the country in which a dreadlocked man (former tennis and music star Yannick Noah) is chosen to promote personal grooming products (it later turned out to be mostly shower gels, but gee, I was confused there for a while). Last year market leader Sushi Shop released a box of Kate Moss-inspired rolls. Presumably they wanted to give the impression they’d infused their raw fish with Champagne effervescence and a nicotine aftertaste.

But mismatched celebrity/product pairings aside, one of the major triumphs has to be the cult of wonder that shines out of the mist every November surrounding the release of Beaujolais nouveau. You take one of France’s shoddiest wines, create a festival around it, and every fool dashes out to taste the stuff as if it were the last drop of Dom Perignon in the world. As marketing strategies go, it’s quite frankly genius. Promoting a mediocre wine to the dizzy heights of fame (and increasing profits a million-fold in the process) is no mean feat. Pretty impressive if you think about it.

Kim Beaujolais 1At this time of year you can’t pass a café window without seeing the excited scrawl upon it ‘Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!’ Beaujolais nouveau has arrived! In a nutshell, the tradition is this – a vineyard mouse’s whisker after the grape harvest (in wine terms at least), the bounty is speedily pressed, bottled and distributed to eager, salivating punters.

And it’s not just France either. Bottles are shipped all around the world every year, released at 12.01am on the dot on the third Thursday in November (so tomorrow the 20th) where they are met with welcoming arms by a global audience who afford it an almost cult-like status. The idea is to chug back on a glass and toast the wine gods (and producers of course), for letting us have another year’s worth of delicious produce to drink. What’s not to celebrate?

Well, the festival abstainers don’t see an awful lot of point in indulging in a drop that is considered by most to wildly inferior to the rest of the country’s offerings, dismissing it as a sneaky marketing ploy (which in truth it is). And they’d be partly right. Made from the Gamay grape, Beaujolais nouveau is the lightest red money can by, and the speed at which it hits the shelves means the finished product is juvenile and simplistic, hardly worth the glass it’s contained in.

Kim Beaujolais 3Sure it’s nowhere near a Grand Cru, but if you’re that picky, you’ve got the rest of the year to drink Margaux if you want. Beaujolais nouveau was always meant to be drunk young and drunk fast, and if you prefer a more aged version, you can wait for the later-released Beaujolais (that drops the ‘nouveau’), boasting a deeper complexity.

Personally, it’s one of my favourite French festivals, and I’ll be raising a glass in its honour. Not for the ‘delicious’ taste, but it marks the beginning of a new year of vintages, and it’s a chance to celebrate French wine on a more general level in absence of any other festivals championing any other type of wine the country could muster (get on to that please Monsieur Hollande). If it really is the sneaky marketing aspect that persuades many a nay-sayer to give it a wide berth, I’d say Christmas could be a pretty quiet one this year…

101 ways with a baguette #6: The Morning Glory

So you’ve followed my advice and thrown yourself a killer dinner party chez toi, reaped the appropriate glory and even tackled the washing up (ok, let’s not go too far). You wake up the next morning, still glowing from your culinary success, but that sad, leftover crustificating baguette sitting on top of the freezer somehow puts a downer on things. It just didn’t get to fulfil its breadly purpose, poor lamb.

You pick up the rigid has-been and gallop around your minuscule kitchen for a while sword fighting with the apron hanging on the back of the door, before your inner adult gets the better of you and you come over all frugal-like. It’s not a weapon. I am not a jousting knight from the Middle Ages. There’s a meal to be had here if I’m just bold enough to take the chance. And a damn fine one at that.

Porridge is all saintly and minimalist as breakfasts go, but nothing says decadence like French toast in the morning. Here it’s done pretty sweetly and simply in the classic dish pain perdu, literally translating as ‘lost bread’. It’s a recipe akin to food alchemy as you take an otherwise wasted castaway from an imminent mouldy demise and transform it into fluffy, sugary magnificence with just a few added ingredients.

If breakfast to you spells as much coffee as your veins can handle before a mad dash to the bus, you needn’t let the delicious second-chance magic of it all pass you by. Though in many parts of the world French toast is considered an a.m. delight, here in France it’s quite allowed to tuck in for afternoon tea or dessert instead. Though if you take a look at the ingredient list below you’ll see how much of your svelteness might be lost if you sample all three (click here for a guide to losing the kilos for free in Paris).

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Chillin’ in the custard stage

Pain perdu

Makes enough for one very hungry camper, or two people with more dietary restraint than me

4 slices of stale baguette (or 6 if it’s a skinny one)
1 egg
15g vanilla sugar
grating of fresh nutmeg
50ml milk
dash of cream
knob of butter

Put everything except bread and butter into a shallow bowl and beat together to make a custard. Soak bread slices for ten minutes, making sure they’re covered on both sides. Melt butter in a pan and fry for about three minutes on each side. Serve with a dusting of icing sugar, fresh berries or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And a jog afterwards, obviously.

Paris through the pages

IMG_1971Here in Granny Flat HQ, it’s fair to say that books outnumber people. Books outnumber all of my pieces of crockery and cutlery put together. And probably clothes, too if I’m honest. If I can put it into perspective, I’m a huge fan of wine and love nothing more than cracking open a decent bottle with carefully selected invitees. I have a wine rack in fact. It’s filled to the brim with the good stuff. Books.

So obviously, as is my duty as an avid reader and Paris resident, I’ve obediently consumed a good number of the ex-pat literature on France, of which there are a massive amount of examples. We’ve all heard of the Stephen Clarke Merde series, good enough for a giggle but one of the leaders of a band of books that seem to trade on French stereotypes and Parisian clichés. It’s as if writers are still trying to recreate the success of Mayle’s Provence series, with most being poor substitutes.

I personally don’t think many of the I-moved-to-a-foreign-country-and-here’s-my-hilarious-take-on-the-natives examples floating around are really much cop, relying on the same tired format and hackneyed anecdotes. But happily I have stumbled across a few gems that offer a fresh perspective on a city, so here’s a few recommendations, good for residents and those who just love a bit of French flair in their lives, whatever their location.

IMG_1940Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard is on the more saccharine side of the genre, but that’s no bad thing. There are those moments we want to ignore the dog poo coating the streets, being pushed on the metro and ignored in restaurants and concentrate on the magic of Paris that can fade into a pin prick the longer you stay here. Paris is magic. But Paris can be incredibly jading too. There’s nothing like seeing the city afresh through the rose-tinted glasses of an enthusiastic American to restore the romance. Plus you get cooking tips too.

Paris-centric The Secret Life of France sounds at first glance like another in a long line of conveyor belt fluff about an individual’s experience in this sometimes maddeningly complicated country, complete with stroppy waiters and stripy-jumper-clad plumbers named Pierre who don’t know the first thing about fixing pipes. So many of these books are paint-by-numbers accounts jumping from croissant to ancient writer’s hangout and back again, but Oxford-educated Lucy Wadham offers a hugely intelligent view on the living in Paris, and France as a whole, looking into history, politics, medicine and schooling, and everything in between. Exhaustively researched, its view of the French psyche is as thorough, funny and accurate as any I’ve seen.

IMG_1941If it’s the tales the city can tell about itself that float your literary boat, Pure by Andrew Miller gives an excellent fictional account of one of the grisliest histories, the emptying and eventual demolition of the Cemetery of the Innocents (and the subsequent creation of the Catacombs), its overflowing graves stinking out the area around St Eustache and Châtelet back in the day. Set in pre-Revolutionary Paris, the writer conjures up a vivid portrait of what the atmosphere and geography was during that era, in all of its putrid, cramped, wonky-building-ed glory. As historical fiction goes, I haven’t read much better.

In The Most Beautiful Walk in the World, John Baxter winds through the city following in the footsteps of many a famous inhabitant, doing that thing Parisians love doing best, walking. Sure he hits the well-known boulevards and visits the sites of literary heritage visited by the world and his wife before. But he does go off the beaten track a little bit too, painting a harmonious picture of gritty realism and magical history, with a few of his tales of domestic bliss and time as a walking tour guide thrown in for good measure.IMG_1942

Though a tour of the whole country, with a mere chapter on Paris itself, A Goose in Toulouse by Mort Rosenblum is a must-read for those interested in French food culture (so that’s all of us then). A quite delicious dive into the culinary heritage of a nation that occupies its collective mind more than most on such matters, Rosenblum gets to know Michelin chefs, local producers, decades-old restaurant patrons and those trying to tooth-and-nail to keep centuries-old traditions alive. It’ll inspire a desperate motivation to make full use of the kitchen, or at least a gargantuan appetite. Preferably both.

And Robert est ton oncle as the French would say. Whether it’s the real version of Paris scheduled for the spring, or a desire to capture the atmosphere of one of the most enchanting cities in the world without actually being there, these will keep you going through the winter months. Happy reading mes amis.