Small Towns and Big City Lights
A major European city such as Paris has a large number of iconic sites and "must-see" attractions, including - but not limited to - the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. I enjoy the variety and energy of Paris; there’s a certain feeling of excitement throughout the attractions, shopping district and bistros. Certainly, when one thinks of a country or region, the major metropolitan areas usually come to mind. Although Paris has retained its unique “French-ness”, most urban areas throughout the world have some diversity and international aspects as well.
Yet, to better understand the people and their culture, I prefer spending time in the country side and the smaller villages. Perhaps I’m just a small town guy at heart, but I think the smaller cities and villages truly represent the country as much as the large cities.
Two of our new favorite smaller cities in France that are high on my recommendation as “must-see” and “must-eat” destinations are also located right in the middle of their local wine region. That’s really not too surprising, is it?
The first is an Alsatian village, Colmar, a picturesque village with an Old Town in the city center. A canal runs through this part of town (Petit Venice), giving the visitor hundreds of photo opportunities. In Colmar the culture is a rich blend of German and French, probably due to the fact that throughout history, the town has found itself in different countries (as a result of the outcome of the wars). As one might imagine, this lends itself to a split personality of half French and half German. In fact, you will meet many residents that have common French first names but their surname is quite German! The wines in this area are predominately white and one can enjoy wonderfully dry Rieslings, Pinot Blancs, Gewürztraminers and Cremant’s (sparkling wines).
The second village is Beaune, a walled city in the middle of the Burgundy wine region. Undoubtedly, this is a wine village. The quaint town square is ringed by cafés and shops, including wine shops that will provide you with samples of the local world class wines. Other shops specialize in food and wine pairings. Here, the wines are the famous red (Pinot Noir) and white (Chardonnay) Burgundies and the local dishes include beef cooked in red wine (beef bourguignon) and snails cooked in butter and garlic (Escargot).
Both small cities are picture postcards for the eyes and taste bud tantalizers. True, neither has the glitz or glamour of Paris but both give you the feel for their part of France. To me, that’s what I’m looking for and what France is all about.
Our family is very traditional. I guess that would be an understatement for those of you who know us well. Even though we enjoy new experiences - especially new foods and events - in the end, it seems the classic (or at least classic to us) is the preferred.
For example, I recall many years ago, when my Dad posed the question of eating out on Thanksgiving Day so Mom wouldn’t have to cook all day. Never considering how much work went into the meal, we immediately and emphatically replied “NO”! To us it was almost like proposing that there be no baseball season or no Christmas. I think my brother and I looked at each other in horror and amazement - and wondered if Dad had been downstairs in the Peistengle Wine. What a crazy idea! Oh sure some families do this but not the Rettig family. After all, who would make Mom’s traditional stuffing recipe? She made it once a year and we all looked forward to it. Albeit, other stuffings might also be delicious, but to us, her stuffing tasted like “Thanksgiving”.
Thanksgivings around our family dinner table have given us some wonderful memories over the years, such as the time my great aunt looked up at the ceiling light fixture in the middle of dinner and proclaimed to my Mother in German “Du kanst auch deine Licht einmajl butse” (Tranlated “you could clean out your light fixture once”). Or hiding Dad’s dessert when he briefly left the table to get the coffee pot.
Well, time marches on and now neither Mom nor Dad are with us but the traditions at Thanksgiving and throughout the entire year live on and with those traditions a little memory of those generations that make up the family.
I will make the turkey and Mom’s dressing and someone will most likely look up at the ceiling light and proclaim “you could clean out your light fixture once” and someone will attempt to steal a dessert.
You’ve got to love traditions.
Why all the fuss about a wine glass?
I can’t think of a thing that goes better with a big slab of beef than a bottle or two of really good red juice. After months of trying, some of the crew finally got together to burn some steaks on the BarBQ along with grilled corn on the cob and homemade potato salad.
Before that, we polished off fresh shrimp cocktail with extra hot horseradish sauce and a number of gourmet cheeses and crackers. Yum! We’ve been wanting an excuse to pull a few corks off some good jugs, this provided the occasion.
First poured was an “07 Kosta Browne Sonoma” Pinot Noir. There is no better porch wine than Pinot. This one has incredible aroma and a wonderful taste of black cherries, cola, raspberries and is more on the “extracted” side with good integration and a smoothness that is second to none.
Following that, a “2000 Opus One” Cabernet. A full body and very powerful wine with superb structure and big oak/tannins which can easily take another decade or more of age. We ended with a very sweet but nicely fruited German ”Ice-wine”, accompanied with fresh peach tort pie. Sounds perfect - but it just wasn’t quite right. Our fine and wonderful hosts, who have more wine than all of Utah and enough stemware to cater a football stadium, went with some very unusual glassware. Short, stemless and cylinder shaped. Stylish and fun but not so much practical.
I’ve had both of these reds before. They are serious wines which call for special attention. The fact that we used this design took something away from the wines enjoyment and qualities. You could not “nose” nor “swirl” which is a bad thing as both are important when evaluating and drinking quality stuff. It’s like drinking beer out of a can. OK, but not how it should be and somewhat of a shame as it won’t show it’s best.
Some people think that being picky about glass cleanliness, proper size/shape stemware, decanting, enough air time before pour, etc., is just the “showing off” of a “wine snob” but they couldn’t be more wrong. This night was kind of an example. Although the wines were decanted for almost an hour, the wine was tight and stringent. Made to be big and powerful, which it is, when served in the proper manner. I believe if we had had larger stemware, it would have helped the wine “open up”.
You need and should be particular about all those things to help bring out the best of what a bottle has to offer.
The Loire Valley of France is home to a variety of grapes that, in turn, make wonderful wines. The river itself flows from the center of France west to the Atlantic; along the way, great wines abound in its entirety. The center section, near the small city of Amboise, is Chateau Country. This is the area that during the 16th century saw the nobility of France build huge Chateaux in the country.
(Chateau Chambord pictured above)
Prior to our visit to the King of these Chateaux, Chambord, we enjoyed a humble picnic lunch in the little village that is adjacent to the Chateau. This was a simple picnic but there’s something about outdoor dining with a French Chateau as the backdrop that makes a glass of wine, ham, cheese and a loaf of French bread feel like a special occasion!
Built as a hunting lodge for François I (whose “home address” was in the Loire Valley) this chateau is very impressive in size alone… Not bad, for a hunting lodge!
(Chateau de Chenonceau pictured above)
We also spent a morning at the very picturesque Château de Chenonceau which is built into the Cher River. This is a classic French Chateau with gardens, stables and a hall for dances and entertaining. It is very upper crust and certainly very much part of French Nobility.
With this a primer it was only fitting to eat one of the most French of selections –Foie Gras. What a treat! Foie Gras is of course fatty duck/goose liver but I will tell you first hand it tastes very little like the liver I choked down growing up.
In fact, Foie Gras is creamy, smooth and has more of a buttery taste than a liver taste. Served with a sweet Vouvray from just across the Loire River, it was the perfect dining option for touring the Chateau Country. MMMM…..when I close my eyes I still see the beautiful scenery and can taste the wonderful wines and Foie Gras….
Wine Tastings at the Winery
I may be ”riff-raff” of the lowest sort but there’s one talent I’m really good at - getting the most out of a winery tasting.
Price wise, there is a wide range. Some states don’t even allow tasting fees like Iowa, while others may limit the amount permitted. Even where paying something is standard, some wineries charge nothing or very little, to sample their wares.
When visiting producers on the West coast, fees generally apply, usually in the $5 to $20 range which gives you multiple pours. Often you get your money back if you buy something.
To get the best ”cannon” bang for your buck, please note:
Tasting rooms are profit centers and charge full retail price for the wine they sell in house. It’s often cheaper to buy at your local bottle shop.
Big commercial wineries host many hundreds of people per day but there are ways to get more and sometimes even better wines than the hordes standing around you.
Come to the winery with a general knowledge of what they make. It’s amazing how much better service and attention you get when you know something about their particular product.
Tell them (if true) that you are a long time ”wino” looking for something special to buy and interested in their wines. Take your time sampling, ask questions and make comments to the ”pour master” as you run through the sample list. You are usually limited to a certain number of pours but there is nothing wrong with asking for a refill if it’s something you really like or for other labels not on the pour list if you show significant interest. ”Pour Masters” often get paid on commission so their goal is to sell you something. Mention you are willing to pay for additional samples if need be, rarely will they bother. Winery staff pour all day long to lots of people who just “drink & dash”.
Try and develop a ”one on one” conversation relationship. They have the same passion for wine as you so it’s fun for them to get customers who interact with them.
Never criticize what you are drinking. If it’s bad or something you don’t like, dump it and move on to the next one. If and when you find something you really like, tell them so. They love compliments and enthusiasm so maybe will refill your glass without asking. If the tasting room is slow, it’s even easier to get additional samples as otherwise, the pourer has nothing to do.
Don’t forget to ask if they have any special or limited production wines. I always do and have gotten lots of extra samples on juice they normally don’t offer to the general public. Plus it’s fun to try stuff that is limited and maybe not available anywhere else other than right at the winery and at that point in time.
Always be polite and have a smile on your face. A happy customer seem to get the biggest pours.
In Europe, I remember getting 16 or 17 samples at one Alsatian cellar just by going to their wine bar while the rest of the group was sitting at tables and asking if I could try some (all) of their other wines.
In fact, I think I got extra pours at every Germany and French cellar we visited. The only time I got into trouble was in Champagne when I helped myself to refilling my flute (they told me that’s a ”no-no” but invited me to just take another full glass sitting on the bar). Oh well, you maybe can’t win em’ all but you will most of the time if you just be nice and play your cards right.
Jump off that Cliff
People wonderful, don’t you agree? Everyone is unique in some way. Take for example how some individuals will travel to an area and eagerly sample a bite of everything that the new/strange culture has to offer. Just the thought of something new is exciting! You know these folks: they’re the ones that would jump off a cliff into the water below without really checking out how deep it was.
On the other side of the coin, are the indiduals who won’t taste anything that is new or seems strange to them. There is no daring here, these folks not only won’t jump off that cliff, in fact, they don’t even consider venturing to the shoreline to stick a toe in the lake.
Most of us lay somewhere in between; we are curious and want to try the new food but would like a little information on it before sampling it. Occasionally, that information can set our opinion of the taste before it even hits the palette. Often, it’s more the mere thought of the food’s origin than the taste of the food itself. Two such squeamish foods are oysters and snails. Personally, I love oysters raw on the half shell and [in season] they can easily be found - even in Iowa.
The second item, snails, or in French culinary terms “Escargot” is a classic food in Europe that is fairly rare on menus in Iowa Restaurants. I think in many cases both of these foods could be classified as ”squeamish”. People don’t like the idea or appearance of the item so they never experience the taste.
On our trip to France several of our travelers came face to face with their first Escargot. And some of those less daring folks a choice was about to be made—-experience something very classically French or continue to go through life on their same steady course. Happily, we were able to convince (or shame) most of our travelers to try something new.
The result –most said “they’re ok, but now that I’ve had one I won’t be ordering another.”
Ok, so we didn’t make any cliff jumpers on the trip but we did at least splash a little water on them.
With the end of October upon us, it is the season for the cable TV movie channels to feature an endless number of slasher and horror movies. Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street….you know the type. As kids we loved them!
The unexpected is so surprisingly good that it makes your heart race and can, at times, make you “jump” right out of your seat. As an adult, one of my favorite “jump movies” is Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. The famous shower scene is so effective that there are still individuals who don’t feel comfortable taking a shower in a hotel. The very first time I saw it I’m sure I jumped a couple of inches off my seat.
Some foods are like that—so good that they make you want to jump. For me, a classic autumn food, a Caramel Apple, was just that. I had my first caramel apple (with chopped nuts) as a little boy. My Aunt and Uncle brought a tray of them home from their restaurant one autumn day and every youngster in our house got one.
Wow, what a treat! The combination of the crisp tart apple and the gooey, sweet, buttery caramel was wonderful. I’m sure the grown-ups had fun just watching us eat them.
I love to try new foods; the flavors, aromas, and texture all add to the enjoyment and sometimes - maybe when you least expect it - those three characteristic line up to create a “killer” combination, resulting in a “Jump Movie” effect on your palette. I think it is why I keep trying new foods. I’m continually looking for that next “jump”.
Dinner in the Caves of Amboise
Dinner in a Cave? Indeed, one of our most memorable feasts during our summer trip was when our dining venue was a cave. Located just a few miles outside the picturesque town of Amboise, on the Loire River in France, our tour guide had ferreted out this special meal inside a cave - on a cool and rainy eve (but all was cozy and dry inside). This cave was, in actuality, a full restaurant - fully engulfed within the cavity dug in to the side of a hill. Immediately we sensed a unique and fun evening was in store for us!
The offering was very much in keeping with the region; however, rather than the Foie Gras (that we enjoyed the previous evening) this meal was more reminiscent of the fare eaten by the common folk of the region.
It started with a combination of Lard and pork bits that one was told to spread on a fresh baked roll, slide a piece of lettuce on it and take a bite. That was the appetizer course. Keep in mind that this was not a bread that “builds strong bodies in 12 ways”….No, this bread is unique to the Amboise area and like everything else was made right in the cave. Mary had a chance to rake the coals and help the chef.
Our main course was a combination of sausage and side pork cooked in the fashion of the area in a caldron. It was delicious.
For the finale it was a local version of Baked Alaska which was called a Norwegian Omelette. The chef gave us a show as he flamed the dessert.
What a great evening thanks to our expert guide Brend, who finds these little out of the way (or in a cave) type of experiences for us.
Remember the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and the popularity of going to Cedar Rapids to “Cruise the Ave”? It was the place to be. Golly, it was where everything was “happening” and a good place to be seen. Teenagers piled into a car and drive up and down First Avenue…Like in the movie classic “American Graffiti”, they wanted not only to see what what going on, but they also needed to be seen!
We did a little cruising in Germany this past June, but our cruising was a bit different than in years-past. For example, we boarded a sightseeing river-boat with a hoard of other tourists in the picturesque town of St. Goar, Germany and proceeded to cruise south to the wine village of Rudesheim.
One thing becomes apparent when you are cruising the Rhine—this is not the “Ave” in Cedar Rapids. Just look around and you see castle after castle and vineyard after vineyard. The castles are lined up on either shore and as one goes out of sight a new one appears. It’s an amazing sight!
Also in abundance is the endless rows of grape vines stretching up from the river’s edge to the crest of the ridge.
Ahhhh, this is Riesling country! Here in Germany, the locals prefer a Trocken (dry) Riesling rather than the sweeter Riesling that most Americans are familiar with. Like our ancestors, we also favor Trocken Rieslings and I encourage you to try a dry Riesling - I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
But back to cruising….If you recall the scene in “American Graffiti” where one of the heroes becomes obsessed with a beautiful, yet mysterious blonde driving a white T-bird…then you might find the tale involving a mysterious blonde overlooking the Rhine quite captivating, as well.
Her name is Loreley, and this beautiful blonde has been the obsession of many sailors on the Rhine. Over the years she has claimed many ships as the sailors would be captivated by her song.
Here is a verse from her song:
The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, so wondrously fair;
Her golden jewelry is glist’ning;
She combs her golden hair.
Wine tasting on the Mosel
One of my visions of heaven is much like the Mosel Valley: it is a picturesque valley filled with vineyards and small hamlets. These quaint river towns make their livelihood on their wine and tourist trade it brings to them (sounds good, doesn’t it?). The wineries are so prevalent, one can’t swing a Schwarze Katz (Black Cat) without hitting one!
Selecting just one spot to have a tour and tasting for 40 is not an easy assignment, but our tour guide found a great place. It happened to be in the small town of Reil - and, even better, it was at our hotel for the evening! Not only convenient, but even more importantly, it was an outstanding wine experience. The tour of the winery itself was guided by the German Opa (Grandfather) proprietor and Patriarch of the family and what a show he put on. He revealed the entire process and best of all he took us into his tasting cave.
Here, with assistance from his wife, great-grandson (yes, very young) and staff, he poured five very generous glasses of wine, giving us a good overview of what the family makes and the differences in styles. Isn’t it funny how food tastes better outside and wine tastes better in the caves of the winery? The ambiance of the caves, the personality of the host and the traditional taste of a Trocken Riesling from the Mosel made for a memorable experience.
How good was the wine? The winemaker’s 80-something wife offered this toast that pretty much sums it up.
Ach wuerd’ ich doch ein Englein wissen,
das koennt’ solch edle Tropfen pissen.
Da wuerd’ ich mit Vergnuegen
vor ihrem Spundloch liegen.
Translated and modified for a “G” rated reader it means
Oh, if I only an angel I did know,
who produced such a noble flow,
In front of her I would stop
ready to catch each drop.
There is not much more I can add to that. What a great wine tasting!