Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Day Visiting Wineries in the Basque Country (and an accidental, quickie pop into Spain)

The next day dawned cloudy and cool, to the point where I actually put on a T-shirt and sweater. I was looking forward to try the wines of this wild-looking land, where terraced vineyards clinging precariously to the sheer sides of the mountains were the norm. I had never really tried the wines of the region, whose Appelation d’Origine Controlée is known as Irouleguy. Here they grow mainly Tannat, as in the South-Central part of France, though here it traditionally made an even darker, more tannic beast of a wine. Lately, winemakers had managed to tame its aggressive aspects and were turning out interesting examples by blending Tannat with the two other reds of the area, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

So, I was looking forward to learning some new things.

Terraced Vineyards on the Sides of the Mountains
With Patrice’s list of wineries to visit in hand, I jumped in the car and roared out of town, ready to tackle the winding, mountainous roads. Only to discover that the first town on my list, Ispoure, butted up against Saint Jean Pied de Port. Within 3 minutes, I was in the small town and following signs uphill for the first producer I was planning on visiting, Domaine Abotia.

The car crested the top of a steep hill with vistas of the Pyrénées and there sat the house of Domaine Abotia. They were in full construction mode and wouldn’t be open for a while, so I looked at my list and took off for the biggest producer in the area, Domaine Brana (the one that had made the fabulous eau de vie de poire that had helped me sleep well…). After driving down into the main square of Ispoure, the road took off up another steep incline, with numerous switchbacks which kept me awake and my senses on the lookout. I did mention these were steep inclines, no?

After climbing high up the side of the mountain, I finally arrived at Domaine Etienne Brana. I was the only person there, and I was greeted by a nice-enough young lady who proceeded to taste me on all their wines. While I found all their wines technically correct, I wasn’t impressed overall by the quality, though one of the whites was quite nice and had nice acidity (something that the others lacked in spades). Yet the wines, for lack of a better term, had no soul. They were well-made, but there was nothing special, no oomph, nothing that made me go “hmmm”. I had been looking forward to this tasting, as I’d expected great things after tasting their eau de vie, but alas, it was not to be. I did, however, snag a bottle of that wicked pear liqueur…

My next stop, after making sure to drink several large glasses of water, was back down the hill, at Domaine Mourguy. Smack dab in the center of town, this cute little house offered views of the surrounding mountains, as well as several donkeys for the tourists. The winemaker, Florence Mourguy, greeted me and proceeded to show me around their immaculate winery. We eventually got to the tasting part of the visit, where we went through several vintages. The wines were very nice, well-made, approachable and, frankly, impressive. The use of oak was minimal, and the wines smooth despite the heavy grapes used.

Mourguy's Donkeys

Next, I went back to Domaine Abotia, where they had finally opened the tasting room and I was met by the winemaker’s mother. Got to love these small places! I was ready to go through their wines quickly as it was almost noon and I was hungry. However, the moment I tasted their white (their first vintage of the white, a blend of Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Courbu) I was fascinated. Whereas most of the whites in the area are fat and lack the acidity I like in my whites, this one had plenty to spare. This helped balance out the fat, thick mouthfeel of the fruit. Lovely!

The reds, however, while nicely fruity, were far too oaky for my tastes, so I thanked Mom and quickly left, driving back to Saint Jean Pied de Port for lunch. I had been told about a very good restaurant, Iratze Ostatua, which was on the main drag in town. I got there just as they opened to find a long room, open to a backyard with tables that was bordered by the town’s walls. Quite a nice view!

At 14 Euros, my Assiète Complète de Porc (complete dish of pork) was delicious, a big plate covered in various pork preparations, including pork rib confit (oh God, that was good!). The wine list was interesting and well-priced, with many of the better local producers showcased. I had a glass of the 2005 Ilarria for 5 Euros which was delicious with my dish.

Properly sated, I waddled back to the car, heading out of town towards Irouleguy. But as I made my way deeper into the brooding, misty mountains, I began to notice less and less traffic. After many twists and turns, I discovered a tiny town, where all the signs were in Spanish and Basque. What the…?

Oops! I was in Spain!

I quickly veered around the traffic circle and headed back the way I came, passing a large sign explaining, in Spanish, the various French speed limits. Yep, wrong turn.

I finally found Irouleguy, a lovely mountain town, with a flower-filled main square and many small streets. My first stop here would be Domaine Ilarria, a biodynamic producer whose wines were gaining renown. I met up with the winemaker, who proceeded to taste me on their entire selection of wines. They were delicious, showing a significant attention to quality.

After this, I hopped across the street to Domaine Arretxea, but sadly they were closed. As the great philosopher Homer once said, “D’oh!” From there I took a small back road that wound its way through the steep mountains to the next stop, Domaine Etxegarya. It was perched atop a foothill, surrounded by vines and mountains and nothing else. Two lovely young ladies greeted me, offering me their wines and a seat at an outdoor table. I accepted the invitation (it would be rude to do otherwise, non?) and spent the better part of an hour chatting with them, with views of the valleys and peaks. Oh, and the wines were pretty good too.

God, I love this business.

One of the daughters took me for a walk in the fields near the house, where ungrafted 125-year old Tannat vines clung to the sides of the hill with snaky roots. How cool to see ungrafted vines!

125-Year Old Ungrafted Vines

It was getting late at this point so I bade them a hearty farewell and an appreciative merci. Rolling down the mountain, I passed sheep and cows and pastures, with awesome views of the misty summits and the terraced vineyards around me. I finally arrived in the town of Saint Etienne de Baigorry, where the Cave des Vignerons de Baigorry, a cooperative, awaited me. While I’m not too keen on coops, sometimes they can surprise you with their quality. And I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised, as (in general) the wines were well-made, and the prices quite soft on the wallet.

I left Saint Etienne de Baigorry and headed back to Saint Jean Pied de Port. This was to be my last night in the region and I figured I’d spend it at the wine bar, La Cave des Etats de Navarre. Once again, I was greeted by Patrice and his lovely bartenders, who prepared a tasting plate of all the local cured meats and sausages, ribbons of aged ham interspersed with slices of reddish-orange chorizo and a basket of fresh bread. Oh, and of course, several glasses of the local wines. What a way to end my first visit to the region, with delicious food, good wines and beautiful bartenders!

When the bill came, I almost fell off my chair: 17 Euros.

I really enjoyed the Basque Country. The people are warm and friendly, the food is delicious, the wines getting better (in general), and the countryside quite beautiful. For me, it was one of those little discoveries that means I’ll probably be back someday.

HERE are some pictures of the Basque region.

Next, the Languedoc, from Carcassonne to Montpellier.


Monday, August 20, 2007

The Basque Country: Land of Fantastic Food, Beautiful Vistas and Unpronounceable Words

I left my family’s mas early in the morning (well, early for me, around 10am), as I had a good 4 hour drive ahead of me. The Basque Country was some 300 kilometers from their farm, and the entire trip would be on back roads. Indeed, most of it would take place on the smaller Départementales and Nationales roads, as the closest autoroute was near Bordeaux. Then again, I much prefer driving on the smaller roads. There’s less traffic, less police, and one gets to see the beautiful countryside (for make no mistake, as I’ve said before, driving in France is one of life’s little pleasures). Oh, and of course, if you’re like me, you can abuse the crap out of your little car’s engine and look at the speed limit signs as cute, quaint suggestions. Let’s just say that the 4-hour drive I was looking forward to ended up being a bit over 3 hours…

As I drove south, the weather warmed up, the sun became more apparent, and the scenery went from a semi-dry, temperate landscape to a lush green carpet of trees and oceanic grasses. Soon I began to see the misty, brooding tips of the Western Pyrénées, the mountain range that separates France from Spain. I also began seeing more and more signs spelled out in French and Basque, a strange language with very few modern equivalents. In fact, few folks seem to know its roots, though it does seem to have some linguistic comparisons to some Eastern European tongues. More information can be found here. To someone raised with the Romance Languages of French, Spanish or Italian, or even the Anglo-Saxon English and German, Basque is a strange mash of tongue-twisting sounds.

I arrived in Saint Jean Pied de Port, or Donibane Garazi in Basque, the center of the region and the stopping point for many pilgrims following the road of Saint Jean de Compostelle (the Way of St. James). This is the last stop before they start an arduous trek south through the Ronceveaux Pass into Spain and then to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where St. James’ remains are supposedly buried. To my surprise, there are still many people who follow this route, traditionally on foot (though my hosts made some sneering remarks about the bus-loads of German pilgrims appearing regularly).

The main street of Saint Jean Pied de Port
The old town, on the side of a hill, is basically one long cobble-stoned street with buildings to either side, encircled by a medieval wall and straddling the river Nive. Looming over the town sits an ancient citadel (what a surprise, an ancient fortress in France!) that had been designed by the famed French architech Vauban in the 17th century. Inside the walls, numerous buildings have small scallop shells affixed over their doorways to advertise their welcome to tired pilgrims. These are refuges, where travelers can find a warm meal, a cool shower and a snug bed for the night for a few Euros.

The scallop sign on the wall of a building

I walked around for a bit, getting my bearings, marveling at the strange architecture. It looked like a Spanish version of Switzerland but where everyone and everything was French but also spoke Basque. To say the least, it’s a rather interesting blend. Soon I found the one wine bar in the city within walking/stumbling distance of my hotel. What a surprise, me finding a wine bar…! The Cave des Etats de Navarre advertised its presence with high bar stools set around barrels and a huge mobile sign in a small courtyard.

Thirsty and tired, I wandered in, only to be greeted by two lovely bartenders and a gruff-looking gentleman, who turned out to be the owner of the place, Patrice. I told them I didn’t know anything about the wines of the area and had a very curious, enquiring palate. Immediately, Patrice lined up about 15 glasses on the counter and grabbed a basket of sliced baguettes. “You’ll need that,” he advised. He then proceeded to pop and pour bottles, tasting me on all the wines on his list. Once he had figured out what kind of wines I preferred, he wrote down a list of wineries he thought I should visit during my stay, instructing me to inform them that “Patrice from Saint Jean Pied de Port” had sent me (or not to tell them he’d sent me, in several cases…).

Patrice, owner/bartender at La Cave des Etats de Navarre

With my list in hand, I had dinner at my hotel, the Maison Bernat, where my friendly hosts generously offered me a glass of the local eau de vie de poire (pear). Made by the Brana winery, a local producer, it was reputed to be the best in France, if not Europe. While I’m not a big fan of eau de vie in general, this one was fantastic, well-balanced, with the essence of pears but without the searing alcohol I usually associate with the stuff. Rather, I should say, the alcohol was definitely there, but it wasn’t as offensive as it usually is and was rather well-hidden. That said, I did need to take a LONG walk around town after that glass, drunkenly texting my friends in the US and in Europe…

To say the least, I slept well that night...

Next, a day on the twisty roads of the Pyrenees, including an inadvertent pop into Spain and many, many interesting wines and great foods.


Monday, August 13, 2007

South-Central France

I left Pouilly-sur-Loire early in the morning to take advantage of the cool, crisp air and the (hopefully) empty highways. But that plan was quickly thwarted the moment I got to the autoroute: I hadn’t counted on being accompanied by caravans of mobile homes (there’s an RV culture in Europe????) and towed trailers, most bearing the NL or B stickers for the Netherlands or Belgium. It seemed that those entire nations had emptied and headed south for the summer (isn’t it usually the other way around?). Still, I managed to zip my way through the Nordic hordes in my little hamster-powered car, the motor screaming as I downshifted at 140 kph on an upward incline.

Luckily, the miserably cool summer of 2007 kept its temperatures on low, so I never had to turn on the AC. And anyway, I don’t think the engine could have taken that added stress. With the windows down, the IPod volume up, I roared south from the Loire, heading deep into the heart of France.

My family has a mas, a renovated farmhouse, just north of the small fortified city of Montflanquin. You can find a virtual visit of the Old Town in French here. For decades, it managed to fend off the British invasions of the Hundred Years Wars, but now it finds itself surrounded and besieged by the Anglo-Saxons again. You see, the English have bought up most of the houses and farms in the area. As my friend François says, “Zey could not win La France in ze Hundred Years War, so now zey are buying her.”


Anyway, as I was saying, the French side of my family has a renovated farmhouse just north of the city of Montflanquin. My uncle is quite the handyman and basically rebuilt a decrepit old barn into a lovely, warm, inviting house. After the long drive (including a wrong turn that cost me an hour) from the Loire Valley, this was quite a relief. But I wasn’t here just to see them. I had come to visit a domaine which had impressed me with its quality and pricing, Chateau Gaudou. In addition, I had leads on several other wineries making interesting wines in the area.
Chateau Gaudou
Located a few hundred kilometers east of Bordeaux, the Cahors region of south-central France was previously known more for “black wine” - tough, tannic reds that took forever to come around and stained the teeth - than for elegant, balanced wines. Advances in winemaking and adaptations to the market had forced the local winemakers to tame their workhorse grapes, Malbec (also called Côt) and Tannat. These could be robust, unruly beasts unless well-treated, as some of the examples I tasted proved. But a new generation of winemakers is making lovely wines out of these monsters, soothing their fierce tannins and softening their harsher characteristics.

My visit at Chateau Gaudou proved this point. Here, centuries of winemaking tradition were being updated by the talented vigneron Fabrice Durou. His wines were clean, lovely, not too extracted and nicely balanced, a sharp change from others’ wines, which had stained my teeth and left me gasping for water. The beautiful chateau overlooks the region, a stunning vista of rolling hills shimmering in the summer heat. His vines are planted on hillsides to take advantage of the wind and the exposure, and grass is allowed to grow between the rows to ensure maximum stress. The chai (winery) is spotless, a clean environment where he has control over as much of the winemaking process as possible. Yet despite all the modern equipment, the wines are not technical, they are soulful expressions of both the vineyard and the winemaker.

After several hours of walking the fields, visiting the chai and tasting the wines, my uncle and I left Fabrice, driving down the hills and back into the valley. My uncle had told me about a winery he’d been to where the wines were fabulous and cheap. When I asked where it was, he replied that it had been a while since he’d been there.

“Oh? How long?” I asked.

“Twenty five years ago,” he replied. I rolled my eyes. But we started asking questions and looking around, and in the process found ourselves lost in the hills in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by deep, dark forests, ruined farmhouses, and the occasional Dutch RV, on narrow roads. After several stops to ask for directions, we finally found the winery, the Clos de l’Auvergne. It was a small house set atop a steep hill, where an older gentleman and two beautiful, excited dogs came out to greet us.

Clos de l'Auvergne's vineyard

This was Mr. Lavouroux, the father, a barrel-maker extraordinaire, who extended a calloused and scarred hand to us. I immediately noticed there were a few fingertips missing. Seeing this, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Every once in a while, I wasn’t paying attention…”, trailing off and leaving me to imagine what would happen to someone working with a circular saw. Yikes!

Without telling him what I was doing there, we started tasting the wines. To my surprise (I will admit I’d never thought of my uncle has having a good palate), the wines were fantastic, lovely balanced wines that softened the monster Malbec with some Merlot. In addition, he tasted us on his 1995, a beautiful, dark, truffly wine that seemed almost like an older Bordeaux. Yum!

His son was making the wines, and we finally got to meet Jean-Luc. He was a strapping fellow wearing overalls and looking like the down-to-earth winemaker that everyone thinks of when they imagine winemakers. We followed him into the field atop the hill, where row after row of Malbec sat in the sun, the vineyard buzzing with life. Grass grew between the vines, as he was treating them as organically as possible. But what really got my attention, aside from the quality of the wines, was the fact that he didn’t use any oak barrels. Yet his father is a barrel-maker!

Calling Dr. Freud…

In any case, the wines were fantastic and well-priced, so after some discussions we struck a deal and I went back to the family mas rather satisfied with my day in the Cahors region. That night we celebrated my aunt and uncle’s wedding anniversary with a wonderful meal sitting outside under the stars, drinking a truffly bottle of the 1995 Clos de l’Auvergne and a bottle of NV Nicolas Feuillate Champagne.

Sitting there, the sun slowly setting, stars starting to twinkle, with great wine, hearty food, and a loving family, made me thankful that I’d decided to follow my passion and my heart into the wine business. These are the moments we live for.

I went to sleep around midnight, knowing that I needed to rest up as the next day I’d be driving to the Basque Country.

Here are some pictures of the South-Central area of France, again just click on the picture, no need to sign in.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Two Days in the Loire Valley

My first appointment during my stay in the Loire Valley was in the small town of Reuilly, about an hour and a quarter from my hotel in Pouilly-sur-Loire. As I drove there, the landscape changed from sharply hilly to a gently rolling countryside of yellow fields, reminiscent of the American Midwest. Every now and then, scattered amongst the wheat and maize, I could see plots of vineyards, the Sauvignon Blanc vines reaching straight up into the sky (Sauvignon Blanc tends to grow vertically whereas most other varietals tend to spread out).

A Typical Chateau in the Loire Valley
This was unlike anything I’d ever seen in wine country. In Napa, vines hug the steep flanks of the mountains, then spread out on the valley floor like the headwaters of a massive flood. In Burgundy, vines are splayed out from Dijon to Lyon over the hills and on the plains, a carpet of trellises linking the north to the south. In the Rhone, vines crawl out of the ground like alien creatures escaping a Martian landscape covered in stones and pebbles. But this? This was like planting vineyards in Iowa. Nothing had prepared me for Reuilly and its neighboring town of Quincy.

I arrived a bit late after getting somewhat lost (again, one of the pleasures/pains of driving in France is the lackluster signage, meaning every turn might produce a lovely discovery or an annoying dead-end). The wines were so-so, nothing to get too excited about, but what really surprised and frustrated me were the prices. Apparently, being close to their more famous cousins of Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé had gone to these wineries’ heads as well. No one in their right mind would pay for the quality they were offering.

And while it might sound like I’m a cheap bastard (and, by all means, I am), I am looking for something that offers a good quality-to-price ratio (QPR, in professional terms). Making a so-so wine at high prices just doesn’t work in my equation.

So I slowly made my way back to the Pouilly region, stopping at various wineries where I’d made appointments, only to find again and again that prices had become stratospheric while quality had not. My last stop of the day was at a winery on a hill next to Sancerre, where I found excellent quality (finally!) but similar prices. In my head, I did the math to see if I could make this work, but alas, it was not to be. That said, the winemaker and his son could not have been more understanding, even giving me the name of one of their friends who was making good wines across the river (north of Pouilly-sur-Loire).

I quickly jumped into the car and raced back to the area. Again, I discovered an excellent wine and a capable winemaker, but the cost, especially with the Euro climbing to the heavens, was just unacceptable. I sighed in defeat and ate a lovely dinner that night, sitting outside at my hotel’s restaurant with a nice bottle of Sancerre.

The next day dawned bright and sunny (enfin!), and I jumped into my rental car and once again abused its little engine, racing from appointment to appointment, screeching around surprising bends in the roads and trying at all costs to avoid the ever-present ditches on their sides. This day was slightly more productive, though not by much. I did find some excellent quality wines being made but they too were far too expensive.

I ate a lovely (and cheap!) lunch at the Bistrot des Vignerons, near the town of Sury-en-Vaux, a wonderful 3-course affair with a bottle of Badoit water that cost me less than 20 Euros. Then it was back to the grindstone (or wine press, as it was).

At this point, I would like to mention one interesting winemaker making Sauvignon Blancs unlike any I’ve ever tasted. I don’t know if I liked them, but I do know they were interesting and made me go “hmmmm”. Not something I find nearly enough these days. These Sauvignon Blancs are not for the everyday-consumer, they are weird, unique expressions of the grape from a winemaker who’s not afraid to (really) push the envelope.

Sebastien Riffault (Sebastien's website) is his name, and he and his father share a winery. The father makes traditional Sancerres, crisp, elegant, beautifully expressive wines. But Sebastien, well, his wines can be found only in limited quantities in the US. And there’s a reason for this: 1) he has only 2 hectares and practices extremely rigorous biodynamic treatments of the vines, meaning a very small production; and 2) they are, as I mentioned previously (and you’d have known had you been paying attention), weird. He allows his grapes to reach a very high level of maturity, so the sugar levels are very high. Then he ferments the wine to the point where there are almost no grams of residual sugar. Unlike other producers, he makes the wine go through its malolactic fermentation, where the malic acid is transformed into lactic acid. This has a tendency to tone down the wine’s mouthfeel and make it plusher, almost softer. Most Sancerres and Pouilly Fumés are not treated this way, which is why they taste leaner. What you get with Sebastien's bottles is a fat wine that smells like a late-harvest dessert wine but has no sugar on the palate and ends with some bracing acidity.

In addition, he uses Lithuanian names for his two cuvées, making for some very un-French sounding wines. In case you were curious, they are named for his Lithuanian wife. Lastly, he was written up on a blog I enjoy reading, Wine Terroirs (by all means, feel free to click, I won't consider it cheating).

Not your everyday bistrot wine, as I’ve been saying.

Thus ended my two-day visit to the eastern Loire. I hadn’t found anything I liked at the price points I needed, but I was looking forward to my next step: the Cahors region of South-Central France. My aunt and uncle awaited me at their rebuilt farmhouse (mas in French) just north of the adorable fortified city of Montflanquin.

Next, a long drive south into the sun and warmth.

Pictures of the Loire can be found here, just click on the picture, no need to sign in.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007


After a week of hard work, swirling, sniffing, tasting, spitting and trying not to make choking sounds when I found a rather noxious wine that was offered with a warm, expecting smile, I decided to treat myself. I had been making dinner every night at my rented apartment in Beaune, which was just lovely (there’s nothing like shopping for fresh ingredients everyday; for some reason I don’t do this in New York, but that will change), but this last night I wanted to try the new bistrot at l’Hotel de Beaune. For those of you who don’t know, l’Hotel de Beaune is a small hotel located in Louis Jadot (yes, that Louis Jadot)’s old home. With seven rooms, it’s a luxury retreat with a cellar to die for at easy prices (and I make sure to raid it every visit).

The owner had recently opened a small restaurant in the building next door, and the care and love (and money) put into it were quite evident. The ever-beautiful Marie-Aurelie, concierge at the Hotel, took my reservation, making sure that the chef, Yohann, was aware that I would be stopping by. When I arrived he came out and sat with me a bit, making me feel quite welcome. He shopped everyday for the freshest ingredients at all the markets up and down the Côte d’Or, ensuring a market menu that outshone most of what was offered in Beaune’s establishments (which has a pretty nice restaurant scene for a 20,000 inhabitant town).

I ordered a fricassée de girolles et trompettes de la mort avec herbes fines (sautéed girolles and horn of plenty mushrooms with fresh herbs) and a ris de veau a la Dijonnaise (veal sweetbreads in a Dijon mustard sauce). Alongside, I picked a 1997 Mommessin Clos de Tart, a great wine from a ripe year that should be showing well.

The mushrooms arrived and I inhaled their amazingly fresh earthy, herbal fragrance: as my friend Drew says, C’est super bon! The mushrooms were cooked to perfection, not too soft and not too hard, and the excellent olive oil added a lovely earthy-olive note to the dish. The wine was poured, and I slowly inhaled, letting a long, deliberate, sly smile cross my lips: I had chosen well.

Musky, earthy cherries filled the air above the glass, with hints of sous-bois (undergrowth) and a slight suggestion of oak that just seemed to dance and glide with each other through the air. Oh man, I could snort lines of this all night! I swirled and tasted, letting the dark liquid expand over my palate and fill every nook and cranny of my mouth: no way was any of this going to waste! Absolutely fantastic, with tons more of ripe, dark cherries and earthy, musky accents, the wine tasted much fresher than it smelled. This was like dating an older woman and discovering she had the body of a young lady. The finish was extremely long-lasting, giving me tiny tremors of excitement knowing that the wine, just opened, would take time to really begin strutting its stuff.

Then came the moment all wine and food geeks seek: the marriage of food and wine. When done incorrectly, it can ruin a meal, leaving your taste buds rebelling and wondering at the injustice that was done to them. When done correctly, it can send one into fits of orgasmic, gustatory delights. One and one become four, five and even six if done correctly. The solid and the liquid mesh in the mouth, transcending each other’s qualities and opening the door to another universe of perverse pleasure. It is a moment that is more exciting than Viagra and more exhilarating then cocaine. Aside from sex itself, it is Heaven on Earth.

And this is where I found myself as I sipped the wine and ate the mushrooms.

The two just went so well together that I sat there for a very, very long time, sipping the wine, taking a small bite of the mushrooms, and just enjoying the orgy of flavors that I was experiencing. In fact, I was sitting there so long that Yohann came out to make sure everything was OK. “Why do you ask?” I said. “Because you’ve been sitting there for an hour eating your first course,” was the reply. “I wanted to make sure everything was alright.”

Oh man, yes.

After the fireworks of the first course, the veal sweetbreads were a bit of a letdown. But that’s being relative, of course. It was a fantastic preparation, a delicious dish cooked exactly as it needed to be. And the wine went quite well with this too. But nothing like that first course. Sigh…

Then came the cheese course, of course, a massive cart showcasing the fermented, smelly, curdled beauties of the region. It’s funny how that lovely stink doesn’t bother a cheese-lover like me, but instead makes my heart beat faster and faster (and no, it’s not a cholesterol-induced heart attack). I swooned in delight over the choices, so many to pick from, which ones to grab? For have no doubt about it, I was going to choose more than one!

And thus I ended my meal with four fantastic cheeses, each one smellier, nastier than the one before it, each one trying to outdo the other, yet holding its own with typical Gallic pride.

And folks wonder why I love Beaune so much…

OK, off to the Loire.