Thursday, April 1, 2010

Kesslers Cassoulet Dinner: The Main Event

We were quiet as we gathered at the table and found our seats, with Lou presiding at one end and BettyLu at the other, and I suspect others were doing the same as I, remembering the cassoulet dinners past, and all the great wine, sumptuous food, and wonderful companionship we had enjoyed over the years.

Most faces were familiar, of course, but this year there were new acquaintances to welcome as we caught up on the year gone by. As we talked, sotto voce, Lou had us pass the first wine around, William Fevre Chablis Les Clos 2002.

I had been fortunate to share other bottles of this with the Kesslers before, and knew there was potential variation lurking...and so it was here, for of the two bottles one was crisp, bright, citrusy and mineral-laden and the other more restrained, with a definite toasty, nutty character most prominent. Interesting to see such differences, especially in that none of us suspected or discerned the dread premox. But there was variance, and it was not subtle. Loose cork? Different bottling sequence? Who knows.

Lou chose to highlight the differences even more by pulling out another Fevre---but this time a 2002 Bougros! I was delighted, because this is probably the plot I am least familiar with in Chablis. It was exceptional: a testament to what Chablis can achieve, with the pure, austere, crisp minerality, the intense citrus oil, and the shivering acidity one longs for.

Curiously enough though, I thought the Les Clos did best with the first course. BettyLu had done it again, of course, with plump, firm, sweet Diver Scallops lightly laced with a tangy Tangerine sauce. The buttery/creamy texture of the sauce was a lovely foil to the firm, meaty scallops, and the Les Clos supported the flavors beautifully, then refreshed the palate for the next bite. I love scallops, and this was one of the best scallop dishes I've had the pleasure to linger over---and I noticed that not one morsel of scallop remained on the other plates. And there were few traces of that lovely tangerine sauce either.

Then, after the setting was cleared and we began to anticipate the imminent arrival of the cassoulet, Lou brought out two bottles of Cote-Rotie Michel Ogier 1998. Still young, still bright, still tightly wrapped with tannins and humming with tension, this was old-school Syrah, with lean, tightly bound blackberry and dark, intense oven-roasted plum, and that intense smell of red meat. Stern stuff, this wine, not yielding a bit to its age, and grudgingly releasing its treasures. (And for those with hoardings of this wine: don't worry, and don't be impatient. Wait. Wait. It has years to go yet.)
And then there was cassoulet.

BettyLu's intense labor of love had arrived. She had the wisdom and taste to make a simple presentation, with just the cassoulet, unadorned except for a small serving of haricots vert to the side of the plate. The rich, shimmery orange of the sweet carrots, the shreds and slivers of glistening confit, the smaller morsels of red andouille, and the dark nuggets of Toulouse sausage were amply mixed with the tender and perfectly textured beans---not the least bit mushy or soupy, but al dente, and richly infused with flavor.

I don't know how she does it, but somehow BettyLu manages to surprise me each year with her cassoulet. She puts in so much time and attention and thought and care, and tries so many variations (for which I'm sure Lou is the happy beneficiary during the year), that each year there is a slight difference, a subtle nuance, an interesting variation that makes it that tiny bit better than the year before. This time, I think it was primarily in the sausages; specifically, for me, the andouille was chewy and zesty (but not at all hot, for this is French andouille, not the Cajun style, which would be out of place here), and the remarkable Toulouse sausages were more dense and more dry than before, and more herbal in nature, and truly delicious.

When cassoulet is this good, and the wine is so perfectly matched to it, it simply can't get any better, I think. It's my meal of the year. But then, it always is.
As if this weren't enough, for the second go-around of the cassoulet, Lou pulls out another Cote-Rotie, a 1999 from Burgaud. Wow! As different as possible from the Ogier, this wine is lively and open and effusive with brambly fruit jumping out of the glass. Mind you, there's nothing gobby or overdone here, simply rich, intense fruit in harmony with the tannins, and at that point where it all shines forth with exuberance. This is a great study in contrast between two very different styles and expressions of northern Rhone Syrah.
Jason Brandt Lewis asked for Lou's indulgence here, and received permission to introduce a special wine, a Pro-Yeck-Toh...actually, a Projecto, a special project introduced just the week before by Niepoort of a very different Vinho Tinto: a 2006 Vinho Regional Douro Pinot Noir.

According to Jason, only 36 bottles of this had even come into the country, all destined to show around to interested wine geeks. Of course, Jason had already helped consume five of these at different tastings, so we were finishing off the sixth. It received mixed reviews. Some people simply said, "Why do Pinot in the Douro in the first place? What, they don't have enough grapes there already???" Others said, "It's interesting, sure, but other places make it better." And still others said, "It's Pinot in the nose, but doesn't come across as Pinot in the mouth; more like Syrah. And who needs more Pinot-Syrah?" It was a tough crowd.

And then, replete with slightly too much cassoulet and probably slightly too much red wine, we slowed down slightly, and let our conversations amble pleasantly. Except for when the rich, chocolate and berry laced cheesecake came out. And of course we were all circumspect and, minding our waistlines, decided to pass. Yeah, right. Uh huh. Fortunately, the slices were small.
And the final wine of the night came out, and BettyLu passed around small glasses to each of us. What better way to end the evening than with Huet again. But this time with a Huet Clos du Bourg Moelleux Vouvray 2002. Soft, mellow, golden brown in color and almost chewy in texture, with that peculiar and particularly delicious flavor of Chenin Blanc in all its sweet/sour, quince paste and melon and orange peel charm.

And so another monumental night of cassoulet at the Kesslers ends. All the months of planning and experimenting, of preserving, and sampling and sampling again, of tinkering and tweaking to make every small detail absolutely spot on perfect has reached its lovely culmination with us.

As Lou said---and says each time, wise man that he is---all honors to the Chef. So here's to BettyLu. (And to Lou, for being smart enough to marry her and to stock all that great wine in his magic cellar.) Better hosts, and better friends, there never were.

1 comment:

  1. 02 Huet Moelleux? Infantcide....but if you're going to kill babies, that's not a bad one.