It was around this point that Nick noted the proliferation of stands dispensing aperitifs. We concluded that the reason behind it was to keep everyone in a constant state of hunger. And on that note, we went to taste some Armagnac. Before we were given a sip, we got a full-on Armagnac-tasting lesson. The (very) Frenchman doling it out told us that you must warm it in your hands and take deep smells of it – like a woman. We got to taste the 1979 and the 1967. The ’67 was pretty remarkable, I thought, although never having tried Armagnac before, I don’t have much of a frame of reference. When the vendor found out this fact, he said this was the third time in one day that he had initiated someone into the world of Armagnac. The first was a Swiss man, and the second was a Japanese couple. We were holding out to try the 1944, but it didn’t seem to be in the cards. He tried to put the hard sell on us, and we walked away empty handed.
Over to another foie gras booth, where we got samples of foie gras mi-cuit and foie gras au sel from Alban Laban. Both were unctuously delicious, but the foie gras au selwas the real standout. Uncooked, simply cured in salt, it was perfectly seasoned with an incredibly smooth mouthfeel. I could have eaten tubs of the stuff and they would have had to roll me home. So I guess it’s a good thing that they weren’t giving out free tubs of foie gras au sel.
Instead, we wandered over to the G. Prieur Grands Vins de Bourgogne stand. I came for the Vosne-Romanée, and I stayed for the nice large Burgundy glasses (as opposed to the cheap tasting glasses most of the other stands were using) and the amiable proprietors. At first we were proposed a flight of 3 wines, starting with my requested 2005 Vosne-Romanée, which had a deep rose color, almost floral aroma, and juicy flavor. Next came the 2003 Nuits-St.-Georges, darker and more complex, followed by the 2003 Morey-Saint-Denis, ruby-colored with a slight oakiness. As we chatted with the proprietors, (my French is getting better by the glass!) I mentioned that our 2nd wedding anniversary was in a few days, and they insisted we try a few more wines. Out came the 2005 Beaune 1er cru Clos du Roy. It was absolutely amazing. We asked if 2005 was a better year than 2003, and they told us that 2005 was one for the ages. Then they gave us a taste of the 2005 Volnay, which was lighter and sweeter, and described as “très feminin, très fin.” Perhaps it was a little too subtle for my palate – it was nice, but nothing particularly noteworthy, especially after the Vosne-Romanée and the Beaune 1er cru. To top it off, we were given one more sample: the 2003 Aloxe-Corton. It was rond. We began to notice a few fellow salon-goers with hand-trucks for carrying their purchases and wished we had planned as well. Luckily, G. Prieur was selling cases of 6 bottles for home delivery. We couldn’t pass up that Clos du Roy, especially if we didn’t even have to carry it!
Our next stop showed that even France is not immune to inane food fads.
Yes, that’s a chocolate fountain. Which is too bad, because they had some very good chocolates, once you got past the stupid gimmick. Our favorite was the dark chocolate with cacao nibs. We wanted to buy a bag of just those, but all they were selling were mixed-bag gift baskets – again with the stupid gimmicks!
Speaking of gimmicks, the next thing we tried was a fresh cheese mixed with red pepper and shallot, rolled in neat little hors d’oeuvre-sized balls. They were quite tasty despite their cutesy look, and made with lait cru, to boot. Then we stopped by a caviar booth and, inexplicably, were given candied hazelnuts. They were actually quite good, with a nice, dark caramel crunch to them. But that’s not why I’m at the caviar booth, now is it?
Moving on, we were flagged down by a man peddling calvados and a lighter, sweeter liqueur made from apple cider. This is not the sort of thing we would normally try, but it turned out to be enjoyable, especially the liqueur, marketed as either an apéritif or a digestif. It had distinct apple flavor, but with earthy undertones that balanced out the sweetness.
Of course, no French food fair would be complete without an array of fancy sea salts.
This particular booth was handing out salted butter caramels. The caramel could have been cooked a little darker, in my opinion, but I am a sucker for a salty caramel. To the right of the salt was the Camille de Lys mushroom stand. Obviously, we had to try it. We got three different marinated mushrooms: Champignons Bruns, in an acidic, appetite-stimulating marinade; Pleurote Gris, meaty and rich; and Lentins du Chêne, with a subtle curry flavor.
With our palates fully blasted, we, predictably, went straight to…
Domaine du Grison’s white Burgundies! First we tried the Crémant de Bourgogne – almost spring-green in color with a pleasant herbal aroma and nearly savory flavor. Next came the 2007 Mâcon-Villages, which Nick dubbed a “utility wine,” suggesting that it may pair nicely with asparagus. Which prompted the woman tasting wines with us to ask how we cook asparagus. I told her I would put it in a very hot pan with some olive oil, let it brown a bit, put a cover on for a few minutes to cook it through, season with salt and pepper and dress it with orange juice, sherry vinegar, and toasted almonds. Her jaw dropped, along with that of the winemaker, and she invited me to come cook at her house anytime. (I should note that over the course of the day, many people, including this woman, approached me asking what I was writing in my little notebook, which turned out to be a great icebreaker.) After that, we tried one more wine, a 2007 Bourgogne Aligoté. It was a sweeter, more typical white than the first two. The winemaker explained that the first two were made from chardonnay grapes and the last was aligoté, a varietal I had never heard of before and is apparently unique to the Burgundy region.
We noticed that the next booth over was serving cheeses from Burgundy, so we thought we’d better follow up with that. The very friendly woman there served us some Cendre de Vergy, a soft ripened cheese covered in ash and washed in marc. (For the uninitiated, washed-rind cheeses are some of the stinkiest and tastiest out there.)
We also tried a Petit Creux AOC époisses – another marc-washed soft cheese, but without the ash. We didn’t want to go home without it, but were running low on cash. As they didn’t accept credit cards, we dug into our pockets and managed to scrape together enough coins to buy it (not as low-rent as it sounds, the coins are worth more here). The woman then proceeded to ask us when we planned to eat the cheese, so she could give us one at the perfect degree of ripeness! Awesome.
After some fruity Provençal olive oil, three-year-old Reggiano, and a bathroom break, we entered the home stretch. We started with a sip of Château Renon Sauternes. It was not too sweet, with the characteristic golden color. It went smashingly with the ostrich-liver pâté we tried next, which was decadent, but a must-have for our fridge. They also had ostrich sausages, which were surprisingly beefy in flavor. And then there was the Basque donkey sausage, which we sampled more for novelty’s sake than anything else. And the four-year-old cheese:
Clearly, I couldn’t walk past that without trying it, despite the ominous sign reading “Réservé aux Connaisseurs.” I’m not scared. It was very strong and piquant, but delicious.
Then we met Damien Rineau, a 9th generation winemaker from Nantes. We tasted his 2006 Muscadet sur lie, whose slight fennel smell makes it a natural match for seafood. The 2004 Fleur de Gabbro was refreshing and drinkable, and the 1997 Vieilles Vignes Gorgeois, made from a grape called “Melon de Bourgogne,” was rich and complex.
In the far back corner of the room, we snacked on terrine campagnarde (pork pâté with bits of meat), terrine de foie à l’armagnac (pork liver and armagnac pâté), and chorizo with pipérade. We finished off the day with a 25-year-old cognac.