Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Twenty Five!

Buckle your seat belts. Today's "Theory Day" cropped a plentiful harvest of tips. I started the day down at the greenhouse for our weekly organic gardening lesson, which mostly focused on herb and salad leaf identification in preparation for our midterm exams (we'll have to identify 15 herbs and 8 salad leaves). Sufficiently muddled in a jumble of pakchoi, mustard greens, and Chinese cabbage, I headed to the demonstration room for a full day of learning.

Our headmistress introduced the "cheese of the week": the ever-pungent blue. On a large platter lay various Irish farmhouse blues (including Cashel Blue, Crozier Blue, and Wicklow Blue Brie), a traditional English Stilton ("the king of cheeses"- there are only six dairies licensed to produce it), an Italian Gorgonzola, and a French Roquefort, which we enjoyed with lunch. Tip: When storing blue cheese, wrap it well in foil lest its strong scent permeate throughout the fridge!

For the remainder of the morning, Colm McCan, the sommelier at the Ballymaloe House, and guest lecturer Pascal Rossignol, French native and owner of Le Caveau Wine Merchant in Kilkenny (, gave a cursory review of the wines of France. As I've
noted before, the French classify their wines by region, rather than by the grape used. The most famous wine regions are Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Alsace, Loire, and Champagne. The French often put very little information on their wine labels, assuming the buyer is familiar with the regions of France. I'm certainly not, so here is, to the best of my knowledge, a quick (and over-simplified, I'm sure!) review of the grapes for which the regions are known:

Bordeaux can either be red or white. The "left bank" of the Bordeaux region (or "Medoc") produces reds with mainly Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, while the "right bank" produces reds with mainly Merlot grapes. White Bordeaux is made mainly with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes. Tip: If you like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc (like Sancerre), try Bordeaux whites. They are less known but equally good, and tend to be a great value for your money! They also pair with food well.

Burgundy is by far the most confusing region. Simply put, there are red Burgundy wines made with Pinot Noir grapes, and there are white Burgundy wines made with Chardonnay grapes (Burgundy whites made Chardonnay famous).

The Rhone Valley produces red wines made with the Shiraz (or Syrah) grape and white wines made with a blend of grapes (specifically Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane).

The Loire region produces white wines made with Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc grapes (like Sancerre or Pouilly Fume).

Alsace makes whites with the Riesling and Pinot Gris grape. Though many write off wines from Alsace as "sweet" and "German", the modern whites from this region are actually dry and go well with food.

Finally, Champagne makes Champagne with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes. Delicious!

These regions are strictly regulated by the Appellation Controllee system. Under French law, you cannot, for instance, put "Burgundy" on your wine label unless your wine was produced in Burgundy. So when you see "Appellation Bourgogne Controllee" printed on a wine label (always on the front), this means that the French law guarantees that your wine came from "Bourgogne" AKA Burgundy. Higher classes of wines might guarantee that your wine came from a particular village (eg. "Appellation [insert village name here] Controllee") and higher still guarantee a particular vineyard ("Appellation [vineyard] Controllee"). This is a way to guarantee the origins of the wine. You'll notice that a bottle of Andre does not have "Appellation Champagne Controllee" printed on the label!

- Store wine in a dark room with a relatively stable year round temperature (cellar, under the stairs, etc).

- Saint Vincent is the patron saint of winemakers.

- If you would like to "decant" a bottle of red (let it "breath" to release the full flavor), and do not have a decanter (I certainly don't!), pour the entire bottle into a jug, and then pour it back into the bottle. This is called "double decanting", and will have the same effects as a fancy decanter.

After a morning of wine, we jumped into an afternoon of tea and cakes. Tea, after water, is the most consumed beverage in the world. Some blame the Boston Tea Party (where thousands of boxes of tea were thrown into Boston Harbor) for the reason America is a coffee drinking nation. As a Boston-born, I resent that statement! Surprisingly enough, White, Green, and Black tea all come from the same tea plant. It is the way producers harvest and dry the leaves that gives the teas their particular color. Since "tea is the new black", (and I am a tea addict!), here are some tea tips from today!

- If you are ever in Paris, try getting to Mariage Freres (

- On a Caffeine Scale, if coffee has 100 units, black tea scores a 70, green tea scores a 30, and white tea scores a 10.

- Use fresh water and "never boil a kettle twice" - oxygen levels lower each time you boil and your tea won't taste as fresh.

- Coffee stimulates the heart and gives a real jolt (but then you crash!). Tea gives you a longer, more steady "nudge". It also increases concentration so have a pot when you have a lot of work to get through!

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