Sunday, 26 September 2010

Don't forget the wine!

Last night, we finished off a very pleasing bottle of Domaine Combes 2009 Saint-Chinian. A Syrah Grenache from the Languedoc, it was purchased last week in the John Lewis food hall, where it was available as part of that store’s contribution to the Sud de France festival that’s taking place in London until the end of the month, as part of a developing campaign by regional producers from the Languedoc-Roussillon to promote their wares.

I decided, before popping the bottle into the recycling crate, to make a proper note of what it was – call it part of an educational project.

Let’s be completely honest: I am a million miles from being a wine expert. But I’d also like to know more than just someone who claims: ‘I know what I like’. I’d like to know, for instance, what it is that I do like.

I can sometimes tell a Riesling and I can spot a Tempranillo. Indeed, five years ago, on our first visit to Barcelona, we were enjoying our first proper meal in the city, a very nice restaurant next to the legendary La Boqueria market on Las Rambla. The waiter assumed that The Other Half was order the wine, and he opted for safety, asking for a house red. When it arrived, it was wrapped in a cloth.

The waiter poured for both of us and, after a sip, I asked: “Tempranillo, sí?” The waiter was impressed; The Other Half was even more impressed. I was rather chuffed.

But that’s about it as far as any claims to wine expertise go.

About 18 months ago, I picked up the Times Wine Encyclopedia at a snip, and have actually made the effort to look at it a little bit.

It was there that I discovered, before last year’s trip to the region, why wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon tastes as it does: that the grapes are left on the wine until they’re on the cusp of shriveling to raisins, full of the sweetness of the sun.

The boeuf à la gardiane in Nîmes was the first time that I can think of when we had such a dish in France: of course it made me wonder what exactly had gone into the sauce, but in particular, what sort of red wine would they use?

When Angela Murrills says, in her excellent and thoroughly enjoyable book Hot Sun Cool Shadow: Savouring the food, history and mystery of the Languedoc (with illustrations by her partner, Peter Mathews), that the dish requires a “sturdy red wine”, I am left wondering exactly what that means.

What is a “sturdy” wine – particularly in the regional context? This is an absolutely Julian Barnes Pedant in the Kitchen moment but, I think, entirely understandable.

I’ve cooked a few classic French casseroles over the last decade, but nothing has come close to that sweetness of sauce. Perhaps a Grenache or Syrah (or a blend of those) from the region? Do I need to ignore the recipe directions, adjust heat and cook for longer, slower?

Of course, in Collioure and elsewhere in France, wine is available everywhere – and is available everywhere and without overtaxing the budget; after all, imagine France without a glass of wine at mealtimes.

Le Petite Train is three carriages and a ‘train’ that’s actually something like a heavily disguised tractor, which takes tourists from Collioure, up through the vineyards to Fort St Elne and then down into Port Vendres and back.

We had done the trip two years ago, but not bothered when we were there last summer. This year, since we were heading to Port Vendres one day as part of our art epic, we decided to take it instead of the bus, and simply get off in Port Vendres. After all, there's nothing wrong with scenic routes – although it's hardly as if the bus journey isn't scenic!

I love seeing the vineyards, with the little huts scattered over the hills.

And the view all around, of terraced fields with the brown earth around, looking so dry, as though it could hardly produce all the fabulous crops that it does.

Unlike our previous experience, we found ourselves in the carriage with the English commentary and, setting aside the rather daft ‘jokes’ (‘it’s time for the ladies to get out and push’ etc), there were plenty of fascinating facts to glean.

After seeing the grape harvest as we chugged up the winding hillsides – and being waved to by laughing grape pickers, who also waved bunches of the lovely fruit that they were harvesting at us – our winding descent came with the commentary revelation that the vineyards in the area were first established in 600BC, at around the same time as Greek sailors discovered Port Vendres when they needed a harbour in storms. And it remains a working port, with a thriving fish market, partly because it's a deep port.

There's more than a bit of a ‘wow’ factor to hearing such information.

And then there are the cork trees, which we’d not noticed before: the bark is harvested every five years – that’s how long it takes to re-grow. How obvious to have cork trees around vineyards!

Well, we certainly enjoyed a pleasant enough local rosé later that afternoon, when we lunched in Port Vendres itself, under a canopy and alongside the water, at Chez Pujol, a very, very good fish restaurant.

I opted for ‘brochette’ – skewers of gambas, monkfish and scallops, with a ‘garnish’ of sweet orange peppers and a quarter of lemon. Such dishes are spectacular to look at. It arrives at your table with the skewers hanging from a long, arched metal hook that also has a metal hoop at the base to hold your plate below it.

I’d seen them before in Collioure itself, but had partly always assumed that there would be too much actual food in a serving to do it justice.

My plate held one of the scallops, the inevitable (but lovely) grilled tomato with stuffing, a neat mound of rice with slivered almonds, and portions of a vegetable dish of courgettes in cream and a dish of sliced potatoes, all finished off with a garnish of dill and squiggles of massively reduced vinegar that were sweet and syrupy.

It’s not neat eating – but it was lovely eating; absolutely lovely.

And since we opted for the house wine, I haven’t a clue what it was – but it was more than acceptable!


  1. Dear Sybarite, Have enjoyed reading your accounts of travels to Languedoc-Roussillon and Sud de France wines enjoyed as part of the Festival (I handle PR for Sud de France in the UK). More power to your pen! Best wishes, Louise Hurren

  2. Dear Louise,

    Thank you very much for your comments. I've dropped you an email suggesting we explore a number of potential opportunities, but I still want to thank you here.