Tag Archives: #wine

Wild Pink Thyme

It’s About Thyme

A memory of an idyllic French lunch, with a recipe, first published in the US magazine Barbecue and Beverage.

The drink arrived in a gigantic stemmed glass shaped like a cross between a bell and an old-fashioned hurricane lamp. As pale gold as straw, yet with a slight greenish tinge, it was garnished with pink flowered stems and smelled of summer – Mediterranean summer.

The scene was a long time ago, but the memory is still fresh and green. In honour of my friend’s birthday we had travelled, in early summer, to a famous restaurant overlooking a hazy valley in Provence, in the south of France.

We were seated at a table in the shade with just the right, artful amount of sunlight filtering down through the fingered leaves of a massive fig tree.  A small wedding party, chattering and laughing at a table for ten or twelve were the only other patrons. At an open grill in the corner, a chef turned a roast on a spit using a brush of rosemary branches to baste it with olive oil. The same breeze that ruffled the turquoise waters of the swimming pool carried the scent across to us.

In the spirit of celebration, we ordered the somewhat expensive  aperitif de la maison – the house cocktail – which was served to us in huge glasses.

“What’s in it?” I asked the waiter.

“It’s made of white wine, Madame,” he said. But that didn’t begin to describe the taste which brought to mind honey bees and wild flowers and the spikey scent of the garrigue – the sun baked scrub country on the western edge of the region.

White wine in a glassAfter the first sip, I tried to discover the mystery of its taste yet again. “What is it flavoured with? What makes it taste so vibrantly green?”

“Ah, Madame,” the waiter replied, with great seriousness, “That is the secret of Monsieur le Patron.”

When he left, a member of the wedding party leaned over. “You like?” she smiled. “It is, here, a most famous and traditional aperitif.  The secret is the serpolet.

“What is that…in English?”

The woman’s brow creased as she struggled to find the perfect word. “So…you know it is like…lawn…yes, lawn.”

She had mistranslated the French word herbe (which can in fact mean grass) and for years I thought this wonderful drink was made from grass. Much later, I discovered that serpolet is, in fact, wild mountain thyme.

Thyme, native to the western Mediterranean, grows in its wild (serpolet) and cultivated (thyme) forms throughout Provence.  Walking across a field you will crush it underfoot, releasing its evocative scent, a key element in the famous herbes de Provence. In addition to this refreshing  and unusually perfumed drink, local cooks use fresh thyme as a robust and versatile herb for the barbecue. Scattered on hot coals, the woody branches produce a smoke-scented flavour that is wonderful for grilled meat, fish or chicken.  A generous handful of branches stuffed into a bottle of quality olive oil makes an excellent base for a marinade or homemade mayonnaise.  New potatoes take on a continental dimension when roasted with thyme.

French thyme (thymus vulgaris), cultivated from wild Provencal thyme, is reputed to be the best of the approximately 100 varieties of the plant. It has larger leaves, more essential oils and a stronger, sweeter flavour  than English thyme.  In Provence, cooks pick a few sprigs from the garden as needed to preserve the strong, fresh taste until just before use.

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to grow in most temperate gardens. Seeds for French thyme can be ordered online from a wide range of suppliers.

We first tasted a version of this drink at the then Michelin 3-star L’Oustau de Baumanière under the ramparts of Les Baux-de-Provence. The late, legendary chef, Raymond Thuilier, who founded the restaurant and the hotel Le Baumanière still presided over the kitchen. This recipe, similar to the one we sampled, was given to me by a French traiteur who made it for her own catering shop.

Coupe Serpolet

Recipe

4-6 servings

  • 1 liter of dry white wine
  • 6-10 branches of fresh, pink-flowering thyme (preferably in bloom), washed but left on the branch.
  • 3 tablespoons of honey (more or less to taste)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 quart covered glass or ceramic container (don’t use metal)

Spread the thyme branches in the base of a one-and-a-half to two-quart non-reactive container. Pour in all the white wine. Cover and soak for 15 days in a cool (but not refrigerated) spot.

Line a sieve with one layer of clean, dampened cheesecloth or muslin, Strain the wine through it and into a glass bowl, squeezing as much juice as possible out of the thyme branches. Discard the branches.

Wash and dry the container, making sure any soap residue is gone.

Warm honey until it reaches a thin consistency. Add the honey to the wine infusion; mix well and return to the container. Cover and allow to age for one month in a cool (but not refrigerated) place.

Serve straight or over ice in a roomy, bowl-shaped glass, garnished with a sprig of flowering thyme.

Featured photo above by Philip Goddard, ccl

* FULL DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: If you use links on this page to book tickets or services, I will receive a small amount of money, at no extra cost to you, to help fund this website.

© Ferne Arfin 2017

Hightlights of a Tour in Champagne Country – First Stop Reims

The Lady of Champagne

I’m just back from a tour of Champagne country. Together with a small group of professional travel writers, I walked the cobbles, mounted the stairs, descended into the cellars and climbed the hills of a handful of towns and villages in the multi-departmental region now known as La Champagne (to differentiate it from the drink which is le champagne).

During the course of a week in the region we wandered through several astonishingly beautiful churches and cathedrals, admired local architecture, visited vineyards and cellars, learned all about how champagne is made and what the method champenoise really means,  ate lots of regional specialities and, naturally, drank gallons of delicious bubbly.

I’m not a wine writer so I won’t foist my tasting notes on you because they would be meaningless.  And surprisingly, you don’t really visit La Champagne for le champagne anyway. You can save yourself the cost of the trip and spend the money on really expensive bottles at home instead.

But of course, there are dozens of wonderful and compelling reasons to visit this region.  Starting with today’s post  and continuing with several more, I’ll be sharing some of them – the highlights of a truly memorable trip.

In the interests of full disclosure:  I traveled with more than 100 members of the British Guild of Travel Writers who spread out, in small groups, all over the region. Our travel was sponsored by the official tourism authorities of Champagne-Ardenne , Aube  and Haute-Marne  and enhanced by the generosity of several dozen champagne producers.

First Stop Reims

Reims Cathedral

Notre-Dame de Reims

Reims Cathedral, perched on the site where Clovis, first king of the Franks was baptized by Saint Remi, is a battle-scarred survivor. Risen, in 1211, from the ashes of an earlier church destroyed by fire, Notre-Dame de Reims has repeatedly suffered damage from wind, fire and war throughout its 806 year history.

Its towers had barely been completed when they were damaged by a roof fire. In the 18th century an angel atop the bell tower was sent flying in a tempest. And in World War I, the cathedral took 300 direct hits from German artillery. Restoration took 40 years and buckets of Rockefeller money.

Yet through it all, the cathedral’s 806-year-old  gothic bones remain virtually intact, its façade a medieval masterpiece.

Statues on Reims Cathedral ©Ferne Arfin 2017

An army of statues large and small – saints, biblical figures, angels, more than any cathedral except Chartres – parades across the east front. Look out, especially, for the smiling angel, beheaded by a shell in 1914, restored in 1926 and an icon of the city.

The Cathedral sits in the center of the city, beside the Palais du Tau, the ancient Bishop’s Palace, now a museum. Try to see it after dark when the wildly exuberant creativity of centuries of stone carvers dazzles in the spotlights like giddy champagne bubbles frozen in stone.

© Ferne Arfin 2017
Close up of Reims Cathedral, bursting with extravagant detail

Les Crayères

Beneath the city of Reims a network of Gallo Roman chalk quarries provide the perfect atmosphere for making champagne.  Thats why at least 20 major champagne houses, some of the most famous labels in the world,  are headquartered here.  Taittinger, Mumms, Pommery, Heidsieck, Krug, and Veuve Clicquot – known affectionately in the UK where it is a favorite, as the Widow – have turned Reims into the modern capital of La Champagne.

Les Crayères, as they are known, are part of a listed UNESCO World Heritage site. In their cool, dark, interconnected passages, millions of bottles of champagne quietly come of age.

We’ve been invited to tour the subterranean depths of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin, 482 chambers spread out across almost 24 kilometers.

Les Crayeres
Down into les crayeres at Veuve Clicquot

Our guide in the cellars explains the méthode champenoise. The wine, made from a secret blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier grapes, undergoes a second fermentation in the bottles. That’s what produces the bubbles.

Riddling the bottles
Guide explains riddling – an element of the methode champenoise invented by the Widow Clicquot

She’s surrounded by bottles, slotted at a fixed angle in “riddling tables” that encourage the yeast and grape sediment to move toward the neck.

Over a period of time, the bottles are gently turned – riddled – to help the process along, a method used throughout the industry but apparently invented by the Widow herself in the early 19th century. What happens next – called disgorgement – can best be described as a sort of yeasty burp. The bottles are uncapped and the pressure of the carbon dioxide they contain pushes the plug of sediment out of the bottle. These days the necks of the bottles are also chilled to -26° C keeping the plug of frozen sediment intact  as it bursts from the bottle.

Public cellar tours, bookable in advance, are available weekdays and range in price from 25€ to 150€ – information from their website.

A highlight is a view of a 170-year-old bottle, part of a cargo retrieved from a sunken vessel in the Baltic Sea in 2010 and apparently still drinkable.

Only in Champagne

Eight in the morning on the Rue Buirette. On the wide, pink and grey tesselated pavement, a stall holder unrolls his awnings, opens his cabinets and counters,  turns on strings of festive lights and sets out his wares.

Reims
Oysters and Shellfish in Reims © Ferne Arfin

In Paris, these might be magazines and newpapers, sweets and mints and cigarettes. But this is the capital of la Champagne. And though we are more than 250 miles from the sea, his offering is the natural accompaniment for le champagne, huîtres et coquillages – oysters and shellfish, of course.

Come back soon for more travels in Champagne Country – Find Part 2 Here.