Wednesday, August 26, 2009

M'sieur Rose' Does Lunch at St. Tropez

There are very, very few things that are as relaxing, as enjoyable, as sensuously rewarding as having a summertime lunch in the Gulf of St. Tropez.

Sizzling hot day along the Gulf of St. Tropez, gazing over the gulf to the storied town, shimmery sun burning down and glaring painfully in the eyes, heat bouncing off the pavement---then you walk into the cool and comforting tiki-house shade of Mahi Plage-Restaurant, look out over the white beach and the lapping waves, watch the languid sun-bathers and the unhurried beach strollers, enjoy the ocean-cooled breezes wafting in, and you can almost feel your body slow down and your spirit calm.

When the house rosè arrives, bottle misted over and beaded with moisture, looking cool and transparent and seductive with enough luscious pastel color to be appealing but not concealing, it sits in dramatic contrast to the actinic white beach and the cool blue water and the soft, vague grays of the horizon.

But it doesn’t sit long. Soon our glasses are filled, and aggressively sipped---we are too sophisticated to gulp our rosè, after all---and then re-filled for a second and more studious consideration. Subjective delight yields to objective evaluation and categorization. Sheer satisfaction becomes shimmering pink and orange and light ruby glints; succulent aromas of strawberries, cherries, pomegranates, melon and mango; brisk, tingling acidity and tartness on the tongue that springs the tastebuds awake; and a tantalizing wisp of flavor remaining to invite another sip.

An attractive and curvaceous young lady walks past on the plage in a slight flouncing air, in a way that only a young woman walking on beach sand with eyes upon her can walk, with her body going as much this way and that way as forward, and making progress seem less necessary than process…and then, shortly later she undulates past again. When a female companion comments, “Oh, what a cute outfit,” I realize that she has a different outfit on than during her previous sashay, and figure out in my guy brain that this is a fashion show of beachwear rather than merely a young woman with many changes of clothing who happens to like to display them.

Either way seems good to me, but becomes only a momentary distraction when our food begins to arrive, and one pleasure gives way to another.

I am briefly envious as my companion receives a delicious bread-bowl containing an immaculate Salade Nicoise with fresh, crisp greens, hard boiled egg, chunks of tuna, and large filets of anchovy---what a perfect food, I think, for this day and in this place and with this wine!

But envy fades as my dish arrives, for the only thing better now could be this sea bass, this chunk of wolf of the sea, in a butter, cream and capers sauce that is placed before me. Once again, Provencal Rosè proves itself as a consummate wine with food: delicate but precise in aromas and flavors, mouth-watering on its own but accommodating to the fleshy white fish, the butter and cream, the tart green tang of capers and the softer herbal notes of the vegetables alongside. Each sip of wine enlightens and freshens the palate, and clears the oils and fats, and makes the next sip and the next bite taste as lively as the last.

And in French fashion, conversation subsides for awhile as we address ourselves to the food and the wine and the process of consumption and appreciation. It’s a pleasant silence with the clink of silverware on china and the soft susurrance of the ocean and an occasional quiet muffled hum of a tiny motorboat in the distance.

Obligatory photo of topless sunbather on the plage---hey, it's St. Tropez!

Then, after this application of cool respite and chilled wine and well-made food, we recline slightly in our chairs, stretch our legs out a bit and open ourselves to the ocean, metering out slow minutes with languorous sips and letting the cool, crisp wine trickle lightly down our throats, until we’re told it’s time to go and we, still quiet and hushed, pull ourselves away and shuffle out with one last longing look out over the beach and the water.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Penderyn Welsh Single Malt Whisky

Good luck on finding it in the US, but if you're looking for an exceptional and signally different whisky, seek out the Penderyn Single Malt Madeira Finished Welsh Whisky. It's a unique experience.

Penderyn is a small distillery---and as far as I know, still the only active distillery in Wales---but some of the whisky does make it to the US. And a good thing too.

It's not for everyone, as some of my friends who are whisky lovers find it a bit too far outside the expected norm. Since I'm not always a stickler for norms, that's not a problem for me. Penderyn is obviously---some would say outrageously----different, and thoroughly enjoyable for its difference.

Penderyn is a single malt whisky made to exacting standards---but where it differs significantly from a Scotch Single Malt is in the flavor profile.

The malt is definitely there, and the slow wood mellowing is there as well. But there's a mingling of aromas and flavors you don't generally find in this type of whisky. The key, of course, is in the Madeira Finish Barrels!

The primary wood aging for Penderyn uses bourbon barrels from Buffalo Trace and Evan Williams. So far, so good. But towards the end of its aging cycle, the Penderyn is racked into old Madeira barrels---and therein lies the difference.

Now you whisky connoisseurs will leap to tell me that you've had Scotch Single Malt Madeira Finish whiskies before, so what's the big deal? Simple: Penderyn doesn't really taste at all like a Scotch, even with the Madeira similarity.

There's a definite soft toffee note in front, a touch of caramel verging over into a butterscotch/vanilla, but then a tangy, spicy, citrusy, bitter orange rings through it all, followed by a distinct note of ripe tropical fruit. Wrapped around all this abundance of aroma and flavor is the most intriguing hint of spearmint that stays and lingers into a long, long finish. I said, Penderyn might not be for everyone, and if you're a Scotch Purist, you may look askance at it. But I'd say it was worth a punt if there's any flexibility in your whisky preferences; and if you're up for new experiences, Penderyn might be your next major find.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Universite' du Vin, Rhone Valley, Suze la Rousse

The Université du Vin in Suze la Rousse is one very impressive place.

Mind you, it’s hard not to be impressive when your university is in a 12th Century castellated chateau perched on a promontory overlooking the village and the plains below. Complete with an entranceway bridge over a craggy chasm for perfect effect. Eat your heart out, Harvard!

(For a neat interactive virtual visit tour of the facility, go to

The huge and impressive chateau had become something of a white elephant, it seems, and so it remained until a local group had an idea: “Hey, we’re here in the middle (almost literally) of the Rhone Valley, we have a perfectly good chateau available, and we could use a “University of Wine” to get some studies going, train some students, and get some wine geeks coming through the town to drop some tourist dollars!” They said it in French, and it probably sounded better, but that’s likely a close translation.

And so the Université was begun in 1978. And it has thrived since. It’s now home to hundreds of international students each year; provides both professional seminars and public classes and tours; conducts impressive research on the soils, vine varieties and clones; and serves as both a commercial and tourist focus for the area.

And I have to say, there’s something kind of cool in going to class through a machicolated tower turret designed to repel heavily armed invaders! When you get inside, however, it’s very much Medieval-converted-to-modern. The formal tasting room is gorgeously gilded and decorated in high style---but the tasting modules are absolutely state-of-the-art and equipped with every modern amenity to provide a perfect analytical experience.

After a fast-paced and impressive verbal/visual tour through the Rhone by Professor/Oenologist Philippe Dupond, we are ushered into the tasting room to work through an interesting and challenging program where we are furnished with comparative blind samples of first white, then red, and encouraged to assess the wines through the Université-approved method

The first white, we learn, is a Viognier from a 2006 Cote du Rhone-Village. The second white is a Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2008, composed of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourbolenc.

Philippe Dupond explains the intricacies of Rhone AOC labelling.

The red exercise is different: we are presented with one producer: a CdR-V Gervais from the 2004 and 2005 vintages. A blend of Carignane and Grenache Noir, the Gervais red shows distinctive differences from one vintage to the next, with the 2005 showing lighter, brighter colors and the 2004 appearing muddy and with browning edges. The wines differ greatly on the palate as well: the 2005 is thinner, more tart and primary and simple, where the 2004 is, sadly, marred by oppressive brettanomyces funk and stink. The source vineyards might be the same, but the vintage variation and the stylistic differences make these two entirely different wines.

On the grounds of the chateau is an instructive vineyard with each of the multitude of varieties that are permitted in the Rhone. It’s fascinating to meander slowly through this “living laboratory”, especially when you have a trained oenologist with you to detail the differences.

The Université delivers diplomas and certifications in partnership with other Universities; does on-going training seminars for professionals as well as weekend lectures and tasting sessions for wine lovers and visitors. It has a multilingual staff, and many of its events are offered in English. For both casual and professional travelers, it’s well worth a visit.

It’s situated just off the main Autoroute (from Bollène) between Orange and Montelimar, so it’s convenient to either the Northern or Southern Rhone.

The Université du Vin, Chateau Suze la Rousse

26790 Suze la Rousse

Telephone: 04 75 97 21 30

Fax: 04 75 98 24 20



Saturday, August 15, 2009

M'sieur Rose' Reports: Two Pinks from the Willamette

Leaving my tights and swirling pink cloak behind so as to mingle in anonymity with the commoners, I ventured forth to Dundee in my constant quest to sample good rosé, from wherever it may be.

Colorful, small, rustic---and traffic snarled---Dundee possesses a pleasant little café/restaurant called farm to fork, where I treated my long-suffering wife to lunch. And a very good lunch it

was too: onion rings coated with crisp buttermilk batter with a light horseradish dressing drizzled on the plate; a croque-monsieur for her, with toasted gruyere and ham on thick slabs of grilled bread; and a lovely plate of home-made tagliatelle pasta tossed with smoked trout and dredged in a light sauce of lemon, tarragon, white wine and cream for me.

My eye immediately spied the sign announcing “Rosé Tasting Today!” and I saw on the menu wine list they also featured four rosés. To my delight, a young couple at a nearby table were enjoying flights of rosés!!! I smoothed down both sides of my sleek pencil-thin mustache in satisfaction; my plan must be working since pink wines were making such a comeback!!!

Since we couldn’t decide which wine we were most interested in, we ordered a glass of two Willamette Valley wines listed, so we could taste and share.

The first was the Penner-Ash Roseo 2008, a bright pink and orange Rosé of Pinot Noir with fresh strawberry aromas, tingly acidity, and a crisp, lively, fruity finish. Definitely Pinot Noir in character. We liked it quite a bit.

The second was predictably controversial---predictably, because it announced itself as such through its name, Belle Pente Cuvee Contraire Rosé 2007. And contrary it is, since it is not made in traditional rose style (either vin de presse or saignée) but by the blending of a white wine and a red. In this case the Pinot Noir component was made as a white wine---Pinot Noir Blanc---and then blended with lesser amounts of Gamay Noir which was made as a red wine.

Highly unorthodox for a rosé---the French just fought and won a great battle with the EU about forbidding the name ‘rosé’ on such a blend, so it would not be allowed the designation in the Old World---it has a much bolder bright red color, and shows deep red fruit in the nose as well. The Gamay might be the lesser volume, but it is the more dominant of the two grapes. The Gamay also adds a definite and pronounced spiciness, almost a black pepper quality, to the wine.

So…is it a rosé, or is it a red wine diluted with white? Good question. It’s definitely contrarian, and would be fun to haul to a tasting with wine geeks, who could argue endlessly whether it was proper or not (and I sometimes think wine geeks are more interested in the arguing than the wine).

But is it good? Well, yes. It is good. I’d say very good. Leave orthodoxy out for the moment: this wine was great with our meal. It handled the gruyere and Dijon of the croque-monsieur, the vinaigrette of the mixed salad accompanying it, and the cream and lemon and smoked fish of my tagliatelle. It added an interesting component to the meal, and the wine was quite deliciously bold and spicy---not what I think a rosé is, but in a singular category of itself, quite tasty and drinkable.

But here’s where my wine geekiness comes in and my need for taxonomy asserts itself: it’s good, but it’s not what I call rosé. Rosé is made, from the beginning, to be rosé; it is neither a pink nor a red wine. The Belle Pente is two wines, one made as a red, one as a white, blended together.

Sure, one part of me can say “Hey, it’s good; shut up and drink it.” But then the other part says, “But…but…but…it’s not what it says it is.” So, yeah, I can see the sly contrariness of the Belle Pente winemaker, in effect thumbing his nose at the regularities of the wine world. And this is the New World, where such things are not only allowed but encouraged. In the end, I quelled my objections, bade the angel and demon on opposing shoulders to be still, and enjoyed the wine until the last drop. I’ll let the little fellows argue about it tonight in my sleep.

Verdict: We liked both Rosés, for entirely different reasons. The Penner-Ash is carefully made in a traditional manner, and is a vibrant expression of Pinot Noir; the Belle Pente, with digit proudly raised in defiance, is a contrarian style that nonetheless delivers up a lively and spicy taste experience.

Guess there’s room enough in my life for both the traditionalist and the contrarian. But tonight’s nocturnal debates might be interesting…

Friday, August 14, 2009

When You've Got Rambla-ing on your mi-i-ind...

…and can’t make it to Barcelona, I’ve got another option a little bit closer to home.

Well, my home, anyway.

I’ve been busy checking out my new ‘ville here, so I had to go to a place highly recommended by a friend. Turned out to be a real winner too. La Rambla, on Third Street in McMinnville, is a tapas bar with a decidedly Spanish attitude. We had a lovely meal there, all of tapas; although they had a full list of main menu items, we decided to go with the small plates flow this first time out. I’m glad we did, as we ended up with some delicious small plates, with enough food to stuff us full, and enough variety of flavors to satisfy even the most demanding foodie.

We started with some mixed olives, of course. Their variety of olives, along with some fresh, fruity olive oil and standard aceto balsamico for dipping the crusty bread (of which you get plenty) gave us plenty of room to study the cocktails, wine list and tapas offerings. The cocktail list looked sufficiently interesting that we deviated from our standard practice and each ordered one. Hey, it was a Friday night!

When the tapas started arriving though, we ordered a wine new to us, a local named Remy Three Wives Red 2007 from the Willamette Valley. Wow! We were both impressed by this wine, a heady blend of 50% Syrah, 13% Sangiovese, and 37% Lagrein. Yes, I said Lagrein! (I know, I know; I was surprised to find Lagrein in the Pacific Northwest too. I can rarely find it here from its original home in northern Italy.) Those three make for a wonderful blend, with the Syrah giving some basic body and blueberry fruit, the Sangiovese giving some racy acidity and structure and dusty cherry, and the Lagrein delivering a wallop of black fruit (think big, fat, black plums), black pepper, herbs and earthiness. We liked it enough we went out the next day and found a couple of bottles on a local retailer’s shelf. We’ll be drinking a lot of this stuff! My suggestion is to find some if you can (and apparently you can order it via the internet from Avalon Wine ( in Corvallis; you should do so. Word.)

With the Three Wives Red perking up our tastebuds, the tapas began to arrive in quick succession. There was a Dungeness and goat cheese stuffed piquillo pepper that disappeared in a flash; it was so good, it was gone before we knew it, and good enough that we could have easily ordered another, had not the other delectables distracted us.

The next highlight was succulent green figs, soft and silky and sweet, but not cloying, with Serrano ham wrapped around it and then roasted lightly. Snarf.

Then the bowl of Penn Cove Mussels arrived, fragrant in a bath of aromatic white wine, harissa cream and citrus. The mussels were small but meaty and plump, and the sauce was eminently soppable with the grill-singed toast that accompanied them.

The mushrooms sautéed in wine and garlic were an unexpected delight: an assortment of fresh, tasty ‘shrooms with just the right touch of garlic and olive oil and sautéed to the point of perfection in white wine.

The list of tapas featured several different varieties of potato dishes: the traditional Spanish potato and onion frittata/omelet, garlic fried potatoes, patatas con alioli, and the one we decided on, the patatas Bravas, a delicious combination of chunked Yukon Gold potatoes, bronzed in the oven, and covered with a creamy garlic aioli sauce, then topped with romescu sauce (tomato).

The Remy Three Wives Red soldiered on through each of these dishes without faltering; it matched and mated with each dish. It even handled the mussels in harrisa cream sauce! And it had that capacity, so important in a ‘food wine’, of being both earthy and refreshing at the same time. Truly impressive and delicious wine. [Note: Apparently the Remy Red Blend changes each year, as the 2006 is reported to be a Sangiovese/Syrah blend from Washington. We had the 2007 triple-variety blend.)

Mind you, the paella and other Spanish cucina items were on the list at La Rambla. And we intend to go back and try as many as we can. We like this place…a lot. And to top it off, it has a lovely long, dark wooden bar, perfect for singles or casual couples, and a wine list worth exploring, balanced between local faves and a variety of well-selected Spanish wines. And after you eat, you have all of Third Street to explore and….*ahem* …ramble down.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Chateau Ferry Lacombe in Provence

It was another blazing hot Provencal day under a clear sky and searing sun, but Monsieur Pinot managed to look cool and collected. And he was thoughtful enough to fetch a hat for the two idiots who came to visit his vineyard without bringing their own (me being one of said idiots).

Chateau Ferry Lacombe is a lovely sprawling vineyard estate near Trets-en-Provence, nestled just north of the coastal range in rolling hills with a startling view of Mont Sainte-Victoire spreading out before it. In this vineyard dedicated to the art and artistry of rosé wines, M. Pinot proudly shows us the precise location of the different varieties and explains the intricacies of regulations and customs that dictate the age-old farming techniques that must coexist with modern agronomy here.

Ferry Lacombe is actually in two parts, which results in two different label designations. The first and largest portion is at the foot of Monts Olympe and Aurélien to the south, and straddling the Arnàves River on the valley floor.

Top: Ch. Ferry Lacombe, main vineyard

Bottom: Sainte-Victoire section, with new Syrah Vines, Mont Sainte-Victoire in background.

The hill rising to the north, facing Mont Sainte-Victoire, however, is of entirely different soil, and wine from this portion is allowed the smaller “Sainte-Victoire” designation.

With fine rosé, M. Pinot explains, one must provide different grapes---some for particular

aromas, some for flavors, some for body and vigor---and one must pay attention to the soil to put the vines in their proper places. He points out the deep red clay soils on the hill where we stand, and the different, more loam/sand soils of the valley just below us. He traces the water courses which dictate the varieties---some need more water; some need less---and discusses the different elements and textures of the wines from different vineyards, and talks of the significant differences from the ages of the vines. Different soils, different grapes, different aromas and flavors for his several different rosés. Chateau Ferry Lacombe produces five different rosés, each distinctive in style and flavor, and we will taste them all today, from 2008. And the names? Think astronomy; think stars in the sky.

All the wines are made by the vin de presse method, with the varieties individually lightly pressed and given limited skin contact to extract delicate colors. The different lots are then blended together to achieve the desired wine.

Chateau Ferry Lacombe Haedus Rosé, Côtes de Provence
A blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and Syrah from young vines less than 10 years along the banks of the Arnàves River, this is fairly straight-forward wine, brisk and lively, dry and tart, dominated by

light strawberry/cherry aromas and flavors, but with little complexity or nuance. (Haedus is available in a white and a red blend as well.)

Chateau Ferry Lacombe Naos Rosé, Côtes de Provence
Also carrying the Cotes de Provence AOC, but from significantly more mature vines---many up to 40 years old---planted in particular lots heavy in argilo-limestone soils. The high minerality of the soil and age of the vines create a wine of more perfume and more texture. Both more fully-structured than the Haedus, and at the same time fleshier and with more intense berry aromas, the Naos is an interesting comparison to the more simple and youthful Haedus. (Also available in a white and red blend.)

Chateau Ferry Lacombe Fidis Rosé, Sainte Victoire
Allowed the more distinctive designation of Sainte-Victoire (which requires different rules than the more expansive Côtes de Provence designation), the Fidis is primarily a Syrah/Grenache blend. The soil here is calcareous limestone, with higher elevation, and the sappiness of Syrah mingles with the lollipop candy of Grenache to make a delightful rosé, with a noticeable touch of spiciness enlivening the fruit, which ranges from berry to cling peach to tropical mango and passion fruit. (Also available in a red blend.)

Chateau Ferry Lacombe Cascaï Rosé, Cotes de Provence
Monsieur Pinot considers this to be the standard bearer for the tradition and quality of the Chateau, and he’s right to think so, for it is a compelling blend of the oldest vines from ‘selections parcellaires’ chosen to give the greatest complexity possible. First there is meaty and rustic Cinsault, then Syrah from the vineyards around the Roy du Collet woods, and finally the full-blown Grenache from the pebbly soil of Puyloubier at the foot of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Bigger, bolder, more pronounced, with some jammy-rich notes in the nose, this wine can easily stand up to hearty main courses, and would be delightful with the soupe de poissons, cured meats and ripe cheeses of the area. (Also available in a white and red blend.)

Chateau Ferry Lacombe Equinoxe Rosé
Monsieur Pinot’s labor of love and statement of excellence, made in small quantities from the most select vineyards, Equinoxe is made with exacting care from only the first and most aromatic trickle of fresh first-press juice of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault. The perfume is heady and ripe, more passion fruit and mango and peach and poached pear than berry, very complex and intriguing. The flavor is likewise rich and plush, but the wine has impressive structure, and an almost stony acidity that finishes out deliciously tart. Definitely not casual sipping wine, and not so much food wine as a more serious style of rosé that invites contemplation and consideration.

We then hunkered down in the shade, appreciating the light breeze that had come up suddenly to cool down the day a notch, and enjoyed a truly lovely and memorable lunch of jambon, fresh-picked and drippy-juiced Cavaillon melons, even drippier vivid red tomatoes laced with popping-fresh basil, a platter of cheeses, and Madame’s personal recipe for potato salad (M. Pinot assures us it is always a hit, and I can believe it! I think it’s those tasty little gherkins hiding in and around the redskin potatoes that does the trick, but it might be those julienned onions too. It’s a double, if not a triple, helping kind of potato salad.) Add some gritty gray sel de mer and fresh, fruity, cough in the back of the throat olive oil, and crusty loaves of bread, and you have a delightful meal on a hot day. Oh, and add the remains of those five bottles of rosé to finish it off.

Some of the hardier souls ventured out onto the petanque court to toss the balls around. The less hardy and more languid (like moi) lingered in the shade and did some well-deserved lolling. When it came time to leave, we did so with sincere regret. Chateau Ferry Lacombe is a delightful place; Monsieur Pinot is an impressively dedicated man; and the rosés are delicious.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Marseille Bouillabaisse at Chez FonFon

As the fierce Mediterranean sun declines and the air begins to cool, we wind our way through the streets up from the Vieux Port to a small memorial park perched on a jutting spar of white limestone above a small cove---the same cove we ventured into earlier on our boat trip through the calanques of the Bay of Marseille. We clamber down four precipitous flights of stairs, between houses jammed precariously together, the indigo Mediterranean to our right and the Romanesque bridge and cove to our left.

Past the fishing boats is Restaurant FonFon. We enter---and then we navigate our way up the four stories of FonFon, almost back up where we started! Ah well, good exercise for the meal that awaits us, for FonFon is one of the more celebrated of the famous Marseille bouillabaisse restaurants. And while I’m quite sure that FonFon makes many delicious things in its kitchens, we’re here for the specialty, not even bothering to look at menus, should they exist. We want wine and fish stew, in that order, please.

We are assured with great solemnity by our hosts that FonFon is authentic and not some touristy substitute for the real thing. This is where the people who know go to eat bouillabaisse (outside of their kitchens, of course, where their mother or grandmother makes the best bouillabaisse of all, mais certainement!)

Bouillabaisse is a simple meal, really; it is, after all, a fisherman’s stew. As such, it’s an appetizer, a soup course, and a main course all in one. As we sit, drinking our rosé and enjoying the evening breeze wafting in from the bay, platters of croutons---not salad croutons, but slices of baguette bread--- are placed around the table, to be replenished at need. We also receive several bowls of

pungent rouille, the ubiquitous and necessary condiment of bouillabaisse, and pimenton, a rouille laden with spicy pepper.

[And please, whatever you do, when in Provence, do not make the mistake of referring to rouille as mayonnaise. I think there’s a legal statute somewhere forbidding it. Such a faux pas results in horrified looks on French faces, and precise lectures on the nature of rouille. And the nature of mayonnaise. And only ignorant

barbarians don’t know the clear and present difference between the two. So do not make that mistake. Fair warning.]

Our server parades around the room with the variety of fish and shellfish of the day: the same fish that we saw come off the boats at the fisherman’s market that morning are about to go into our bouillabaisse this night! As the fish are taken away to be prepared, a second server enters with a huge tureen of the soup and ladles it over the rouille-laced croutons in our bowls, and we spoon the hot, spicy, rich, tomato-based soup, now fragrant with even more garlic and spice from the rouille, into our mouths.

As we finish our soup course, the freshly cooked fish arrives, accompanied by golden-yellow potatoes, and all is plated beside our bowl for us to pick what we wish, and the tureen comes around again to refill the bowl.

For the remainder of the evening, the soup tureen keeps coming around, again and again, as needed. More croutons are slathered with rouille and pimenton, fish is added at need, more broth is ladled, more rosé is poured, and the conversation and laughter get louder and louder. A classic Marseille Bouillabaisse dinner is not only a meal, it is a convivial affair.

As an obligatory wine aside, I have to say the Provence Rosé was absolutely ideal with bouillabaisse! The robust flavors and tangy spiciness of the soup would destroy almost any red, overcoming the delicate racy ones and clashing horribly with anything with noticeable tannins. Full-bodied whites would clash as well; even whites that would normally pair well with either fish or soup dishes would be difficult here. But the chilled rosé is perfect with its lightly perfumed floral/fruit nose, tangy acidity, and dry, crisp assertive finish; it refreshes the palate, perks up the taste buds, and restores the senses for that next spicy spoonful (especially if, like me, you have become addicted to the pimenton, which has stoked the heat index to dangerous but delicious levels, requiring the loosening of shirt collars and the addition of more chilled rosé.)

Applying the Gerald Asher Rule (Pay attention to what others are drinking the most of; that’s probably the best wine with the food. At tastings, look for the bottle that empties the quickest. It’s not infallible, but it’s pretty reliable), I notice that of the twelve of us dining, and with red, white, and rosé available, all but one person is opting for the rosé!

[Which brings us, of course, to the question of rosé as a suitable main course wine. But that’s a lengthy topic for another post…]

After a light dessert--- nothing else was necessary after the gluttony of bouillabaisse we had just performed--- we lumbered back out into the blessedly cool night, to be carted back to our beds. Who knew fish soup was such a heavy meal???

What a day: a fish market in the morning, a tour of the magnificent and otherworldly calanques, a traipse through old Marseille, and a superb bouillabaisse dinner. Next, we launch ourselves into the wine country of Provence!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Marseille Vieux Port and a tour of the Calanques

Marseille…Massilia…Massalia… Whatever the name, this is an ancient city, an old port, and though undeniably French, it is more than French: it is the pulsing heart of the Mediterranean. Glittering and new and modern in places, it is equally sordid and dingy and reeking of fuel oil and fish in others, for above all else, Marseille is a working port and has been for countless ages.

The Greeks, who knew about fishing, and ports, and trading, established an outpost here long before the Romans emerged from their tiny villages to build an Empire. Phocaeans and Phoenicians came from the sea and Celts (which Romans named as Gauls) came from the land. And Marseille thrived.

The Romans simply co-opted what the Greeks and Celts had built, conquered and subjugated the area, and called it, fondly but ironically, “Nostre Provincia,”…Our Province…which eventually became Provence!

In the midst of this sprawling, thriving, bustling commercial city, the fishermen still come in their small boats in the morning, pull up to the Vieux Port, and display their catch to the passersby, as they have for hundreds and hundreds of years. Octopi with tentacles writhing…supremely, hideously ugly rascasse for the bouillabaisse we’ll have tonight…streamlined loup de mer, wolf of the sea…silver and gray torpedoes now still and awaiting the stockpot for the soupe de poissons. The smell of fresh picked lavender and rosemary twigs wafts through the air from one stand, and under a tattered umbrella weathered gray by the sun a man scoops handfuls of tiny, thimble-sized brownshelled snails.

Just a typical Monday morning in Marseille.

Our hosts have arranged a treat for us today, and soon an old, but well kept coastal fishing boat pulls up to the pier between the luxury yachts and sleek motor-sailors, and we hop aboard. As we cruise slowly out of the Vieux Port our Marseillaise guide proudly details the cathedral on the hill, the massive forts that guard the entrance to the port, and the slowly emerging sprawl of coastline that reveals itself to us as we motor out into the vast Bay. We cruise past the famous Chateau d’If, of Monte Cristo fame, still capable of evincing a shudder, and then to the famous quarantine island, where ships docked before entering the harbor in futile attempts to stop the dreaded black plagues sweeping Europe in the Middle Ages.

And then we see the magnificent calanques of the Bay of Marseille, massive limestone mountains along the coastline, emerging like gigantic white creatures of the deep from the sparkling teal and azure waters. These island mountains are barren and inhospitable to humans, and except for occasional lighthouses and old fortifications and caretaker shacks, are home only to birds and wild animals.

Small sandy inlets dot the shores, most available only from the sea, and isolated fisher villages can be seen, but people are few and roads are fewer. The sun beats down mercilessly from an almost cloudless sky, casting the white limestone and the Homeric sea in actinic light, and the air is unbearably hot and still, alleviated only by the cool wind of motion from the boat’s passage along the white coast.

As we pull back in sight of the outskirts of the city sprawl, we tuck into one cove, under a Roman-style archway bridge, past small fishing boats pulled up on the shingle shore underneath stagger-stacked houses cantilevered up the rock walls---an old cove for fishermen, now too expensive for such humble folk and home to only a few, but dotted with restaurants and shops. And there we see the multi-storied restaurant that is our evening destination, the celebrated bouillabaisse restaurant, FonFon!

…But that is a story for the next insert.