Category Archives: Food & Wine

Life Lesson from a French Brioche

In Jodi Picoult’s latest book, “The Storyteller,” Sage Singer, baker and the novel’s heroine, turns to her kitchen for comfort. And in so doing reveals the power of baking to teach us all a lesson about ourselves and coping when events seem to unhinge our emotional stability.

“I decide to bake something that requires my undivided attention: brioche.

brioche, baking. bread

“It’s a bread that is an anomaly—50 percent of it is butter, yet instead of being a brick of a loaf, it is melt-in-your-mouth, sweet, airy. To make it on a hot, humid day like this is an added challenge, because it requires all ingredients to be cold. I even refrigerate the mixing bowl and the dough hook.

“I begin by beating the butter with a rolling pin while the dough is mixing. Then I add it, in small portions, to the mixer. This is my favorite part about brioche. The dough doesn’t quite know what to do with all that butter, and begins to come apart. But with enough time, it manages to bring itself back to center, to a satin consistency.

“I turn off the mixer and rip off a hunk of dough the size of a plum. Holding it between my hands, I pull it slowly to see if it sheets—growing transparent as it stretches. I set the dough into a container and cover it tightly with plastic wrap, then place it on my counter and begin to clean up the kitchen.”

Read that middle paragraph again – and join me in saying “Vive la France, la brioche, Mlle Singer et spécialement Mme Picoult!” 

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Roll Out the Barrel

Many factors combine to make a great wine: the grapes, the soil and environment where they grow, the skill of the winemaker and even the very barrels in which the wine comes of age before bottling.

Oak barrels at CHATEAU LUSSAC

– There are actually three kinds of wood barrels that are used: oak, pine and chestnut. Oak is used primarily. Most of it comes from France and the U.S. (particularly Michigan and Minnesota).

– Typically barrels hold about 59 gallons. French oak barrels are the “gold standard” of the trade and cost about $600 each. American oak barrels are about $300 each.

– Oak can be used either in the fermentation or aging process.

– The porous nature of an oak barrel allows some degree of evaporation and oxygenation to take place in wine but typically not so much that it spoils the wine.

French oak tree

The best barrels are made from French oak trees.

– When the barrels are made, the oak staves are heated over a wood fire, so they can be bent and shaped. The charring that occurs is retained on the inside of the barrel during construction and is called “toasting.” Wineries ordering the barrels will ask for a certain degree of toasting. The more it’s toasted the more the tannin level and wood flavor will be in the wine. It also imparts that “vanilla” taste in a wine that you hear mentioned so often.

– Oak barrels have become so expensive that a number of U.S. wine producers have taken some short cuts to give their wines an “oak” flavor without spending so much money. These methods include floating oaks staves or oak saw dust in the juice to give it the oak taste, or even buying and using liquid oak extract and powders. In France, where wine production is highly regulated, only oak barrels can be used.

– California wines tend to be more “oakie” because that’s where the American palette is right now. In France and other parts of the world the wine has less oak and more mineral taste.

– Pinot Noirs, which are lighter in tannins, pass through the oak quickly. Heavier Cabernet Sauvignons stay longer.

French Words To Travel By: At the Market – Les tomatoes

les tomates

Tomatoes in a bowlIn the summer, the local French markets are teeming with vendors selling big juicy tomatoes right off the farm. They smell and taste just like the ones I remember from my youth and it’s impossible to get back to the villa with them all in tact. But we do save enough to stuff and bake for Les Tomates Provencal or to make a Tomato Tarte.

les tomates, f, (tomatoes) from the Spanish word “tomate.”

Pronunciation:

Illustration by Judi Janofsky

French Words To Travel By: In the Café – le café au lait

le café au lait

French coffee served at a cafe
No matter where we are in France or home in the states, we love to go by a cafe and have a rich and creamy café au lait. It’s the perfect drink to sip while we’re doing some people watching along the village streets in Provence.

le café au lait, m. (coffee with milk), a French coffee drink made with espresso coffee and steamed milk and usually served in a white porcelain cup or bowl.

Pronunciation:

Illustration by Judi Janofsky

Dining Protocol In France

Eat Like a French Native …

plate with silverware

As hosts of our Provence Escapes tours, we’re often asked about what cultural differences Americans should be aware of when traveling in France. No one wants to make an embarrassing “faux pas” in a foreign country.

Well, in a country where food is king it’s good to have courtly manners, especially while dining. So here are a few cultural differences between eating styles in America and France that we’ve picked up over our years traveling in France.

– You’ll notice that most Europeans use the fork in their left hand, the knife in their right. It makes sense, especially if you’re cutting something – why keep switching hands every time? Try it; you’ll quickly feel comfortable with the new arrangement.

– Don’t cut your salad with a knife or fork. Instead, fold your salad on your fork (in your left hand) using your knife. (This will take a bit of finesse, so practice at home to get the hang of it.)

– Never cut bread. Break it with your fingers. And because there usually aren’t bread/butter plates, it’s OK to place your bread on the table above your dinner plate on the left.

– Good news: it’s OK to sop up your plate with a small piece of bread!

– Cut cheese long ways, not across. (For example, don’t cut off the point.)

– Never eat fruit whole – always peel and slice it before eating.

– When you’re finished eating, place knife and fork side by side on the plate at the 5:20 position. The fork should be on the left and the knife should be on the right with the blade of the knife facing the fork a la the photo above.

silverware message on a plate– To signify that you would like more food, cross your knife and fork across your plate.

Bon appétit.

French Chocolate Bombs in Asheville

French Chocolate Pastry
Chocolate bombs are these wonderful ganache covered cakes that often have a cream filling – kind of like a truffle with a layer of cake between the rich filling and ganache covering.  We found this version of the chocolate bomb at the Donatelli Cafe and Bakery in Asheville, NC. Not only are they beautiful but they taste just as good as the ones we’ve had in France.

Fresh produce from local French markets