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Malbec is to Argentina as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco: impossible to imagine one without the other. Yet this deeply colored, exuberant purple grape that is automatically associated with Argentina came originally from France. Known as Cot in its original homeland, Cahors, where it continues to play a leading in the wines of that region, it was brought over by French agronomist Michel Pouget in 1852.
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But it’s in the vineyards all along the eastern edge of the Andes that the Malbec vine has really found its feet. There are now more than 30,000 hectares (76,000 acres) planted throughout Argentina — six times as much as in its homeland.
In its adopted home, the grape is celebrated for its ability to make huge quantities of juicy, fruity, uncomplicated red wine at a fair price — perfect for the upcoming barbecue season. But there’s a new wave of Malbecs that merit more than the obligatory char-grilled steak.
On a recent visit to Mendoza and Salta, two of the country’s most significant wine regions, I found (aside from a warm welcome and some gorgeous wines) a buzz of excitement, plenty of experimentation and a firm belief in what has become Argentina’s signature red wine grape.
Per Se Vines
Edy del Popolo’s microwinery Per Se Vines has just 1.5 hectares (barely 4 acres) of vineyards in Gualtallary, a top appellation in the Valle de Uco south of Mendoza, and the first harvest was in 2012. Plantings are principally Malbec with a little Cabernet Franc, and wines combine the two in varying proportions.
“I like non-interventionist viticulture” is how del Popolo explains his wine-making philosophy. “I want the place to express itself without my fingerprint showing.”
Per Se Jubileus (mainly Malbec “with a few bunches of Cabernet Franc thrown in”) is a joyous wine with good, ripe tannins, while La Craie (a Malbec-Cab Franc blend) is restrained elegance overlaid with subtle hints of orange and lemon zest.
Fincas y Bodegas Montechez is another new venture in Mendoza’s Valle de Uco but on quite a different scale with 100 hectares (250 acres). In the prime appellation of Altamira, serried ranks of newly planted vines — every row drip-irrigated and draped in anti-hail netting — stretch as far as the eye can see, framed by the snowcapped Andes.
The aptly named Vivo is a bright, lively Malbec, briefly aged in used French and American oak barrels and designed for early drinking. Reserva is discreet and elegant after a slightly longer spell in used barrels, while Limited Edition, with 16 months in all French oak (new and used), is the aristocrat, dark and brooding and promising a long and distinguished life.
The Lagarde estate in Luján de Cuyo comprises about 245 hectares (619 acres), including a parcel of 100-year-old Malbec vines. Founded in 1897 and one of the oldest wineries in Mendoza, it nonetheless looks resolutely forward — “Honoring the past, imagining the future” is the house motto, explained Sofia Pescarmona, who runs the estate jointly with her sister, Lucila.
They were the first in Argentina to introduce Viognier, the aromatic Rhone white. Their house pink, 50 percent Malbec and 50 percent Pinot Noir, is a delight with all the fruit and fragrance that’s missing from many a rosé. On the Malbec front, there’s a whole slew of juicy 100 percent varietals (Primeras Viñas, Guarda, Lagarde and Altas Cumbres ). For a special occasion, look for the super-elegant blend Henry Gran Guarda, a very Bordelais mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
Bodega Colomé is hidden away up a bone-shaking track in a remote and spectacularly beautiful valley in the northwestern province of Salta, close to the Bolivian border. Wine growing here, at 2,300 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level in desert-like conditions with an annual rainfall of barely 120 millimeters (4 inches), is not for the fainthearted.
Established in 1831 and now owned by Hess Family Wine Estates, Colomé produces several whites, including Salta’s signature wine Torrontés and three Malbecs: Estate, a Malbec-rich wine with a small proportion of other red varieties; Auténtico, 100 percent Malbec, unoaked and unfiltered with rich red fruit flavors; and Reserva, made with fruit from vines aged between 60 and 150 years, with a two-year spell in new French oak barrels and one more in bottle.
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya
Bodega San Pedro de Yacochuya is a boutique winery in Salta’s Calchaquí Valley, a joint venture between the Etchart family and French winemaker Michel Rolland. The estate’s 20 hectares (50 acres) used to be planted largely with Torrontés, the finely aromatic white grape that thrives in the rarefied altitudes of the northwest. Nowadays Malbec rules, plus Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Tannat.
Ranked by Wine Advocate as one of Argentina’s top five wineries (Parker points abound here), they make three impressive reds in which the Rolland fingerprint is clearly visible: opulent and mouth-filling Malbec Yacochuya has a little Cabernet Sauvignon added to the mix and is aged in new oak; San Pedro de Yacochuya is a dense and delicious 100 percent Malbec; and the impressive Yacochuya made from 60-year-old Malbec vines is one to cellar.
José Louis Mounier, one of Salta’s most celebrated winemakers with an impressive track record working for many of the region’s top wineries, is responsible for wine making at Bodega Tukma in Tolombón, south of Cafayate. The estate has about 25 hectares (62 acres) of vineyards scattered throughout the Calchaquí Valley, with red wine production centred on Tolombón.
The entry-level Malbec Reserva is an uncomplicated, fruit-forward Malbec that’s perfect with a plate of empanadas, while Gran Corte, a blend with Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon for which the grapes are rigorously selected and the wine aged for one year in new French oak, calls for your best piece of bife (steak).
Consult www.wine-searcher.com for worldwide availability and prices of all wines mentioned.
Main photo: Some of Colomé’s oldest Malbec vines, planted in the mid-19th century and grown on pergolas. Credit: Copyright 2015 Sue Style
Why did a handful of British chefs invade the 2015 St. Moritz Gourmet Festival? It’s a nod to the very British pioneers who more than a century ago visited in winter and made the Swiss mountain town a popular cold-season tourist spot.
In September 1864, Johannes Badrutt, a hotelier in St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, staged a neat publicity stunt. At the time, people on holiday — about 75% of them British — ventured to the Alps only during the summer months. In a bold initiative to change the established pattern and persuade them of the beauty of the mountains in winter, Badrutt made a promise to his departing British summer guests: If they returned in December and stayed until Easter, their stay in St. Mortiz would be free of charge, provided the winter experience matched their summer memories.
Toward the end of 1864, a handful of hardy British guests, motivated by the now-famous bet, set off on the long journey from London by horse and carriage across the English Channel and through France to Switzerland. From Chur in Switzerland’s Graubünden, the carriages got progressively smaller and more uncomfortable as the guests traveled ever higher, finally reaching St. Moritz via the winding Julierpass. Piled high on long sledges towed behind the carriages was everything they needed for their two- or three-month stay.
In the spring of 1865 the delighted caravan of guests returned to England, suntanned and singing the praises of St. Moritz in winter. Winter tourism in the Alps was launched.
In recognition of Badrutt’s initiative, and of the key part Brits played in developing winter tourism in the Engadine valley of southern Switzerland, this year’s St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, held annually at the end of January, took on British colors. Just how much the British food scene has changed in the past 20 years — not to mention since that winter of 1864 when the first British guests stayed in St. Moritz — became apparent over the course of the festival, during which a team of nine of Britain’s leading chefs returned in the footsteps of those first British winter tourists. Their job was to showcase the best of what the British have to offer in a series of spectacular dinners, kitchen parties and gala events.
Food festivals are two a penny nowadays. What set this one apart was not just the quality of the cooking but also the surprise element. “Plenty of people still think that British food is just fish and chips and Yorkshire pudding,” said Jean-Jacques Bauer, assistant manager at the Hotel Kulm, where the whole story began and where the final gala dinner took place, with all nine chefs in attendance. “But, as we saw at this year’s festival, it offers so much more than this.” During the week, he said, “the chefs took us on a culinary journey and opened our eyes to the outstanding quality of contemporary British food.”
Chefs highlight multicultural influences in British cuisine
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The crack team of chefs was selected first and foremost because each is at the top of their game — most have Michelin stars. Some work in London, others out in the country. More importantly, the festival organizers had understood well what distinguishes the best modern British food: not just superb local ingredients and specialties used with skill and flair, but also the many international and multicultural influences at work, both contemporary and from the country’s colonial past. “Great Britain is a melting pot,” Bauer said. “And so, too, is its food … which has brought together tastes from all over the world within just one country. This is British cuisine today.”
Each chef was assigned to one of St. Moritz’s five-star hotels, where they worked in tandem with the home team, preparing menus with their own personal stamp. Yorkshire-born Jason Atherton boasts a stableful of trendsetting London restaurants (Pollen Street Social, Social Eating House) with outposts in Asia, and further operations about to open in Dubai, Sydney and New York. Guests at the Schweizerhof were treated to what he describes as “real food based on British traditions,” along the lines of Cornish sea bass with a kombu glaze and braised ox cheeks sourced from the estates of the Duke of Buccleuch.
Angela Hartnett, whose home kitchen is Murano in London’s Mayfair, brought a British-Italian perspective to diners at the Carlton with her brand of seasonal, pared down cucina Italiana, which included a virginal buttermilk panna cotta with grapes and candied oranges. Across the lake at the Waldhaus in Sils-Maria, Nathan Outlaw managed to bring a breath of sea air from St. Enodoc in deepest Cornwall all the way up to the Swiss mountains with his seafood-rich menu, including succulent turbot with lobster sauce and seaweed.
And while all the chefs at this year’s festival are currently working in the U.K., not all were born there, yet another reflection of the international flavor of British food today. Take French native Claude Bosi, for example, who found his way to London from his home town of Lyon, France, via Ludlow in Shropshire and now officiates at the double-starred Hibiscus in Mayfair. At Badrutt’s Palace his highly creative and personalized version of French cuisine included a dramatic dish of venison with quince and Sharon fruit, while Atul Kochhar, born in India, educated in Britain and now a star chef with several London restaurants to his name (plus one in Dublin and another in Madrid), dazzled palates at the Kulm with slivers of duck breast cured with Indian spices (“my charcuterie, Indian-style”), a fragrant fish curry and a delicate dessert based on yogurt and dulce de leche.
“People used to poke fun at Britain on the culinary front,” said Atherton, adding ruefully, “If there’d been an Olympics for food, we’d have been at the bottom!”
But a week in the mountains of St. Moritz was enough to show that British chefs are now right up there at the summit.
Main photo: Guest and resident chefs at the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival 2015. Credit: Andy Mettler
“To make ice wine, you need a thick skin,” Dave Gimbel says with a ghost of a smile.
Gimbel, who is representing Vineland Estates at Canada’s annual Niagara Icewine Festival, is not talking about the resilience required of any winemaker willing to embark on this demanding and highly risky enterprise — though that certainly helps. Instead, he is referring to the grape variety best equipped to withstand the intense cold needed to make this singular, highly concentrated, intensely sweet wine.
Producing ice wine a risky endeavor
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Vidal, a hybrid vine bred specially for icy conditions, is ideal, Gimbel explains. Thanks to their thick skins, the grapes borne by this hardy variety can survive intact on the vine right through to January or February, when midwinter temperatures in the Niagara vineyards dip to the regulation minus 8 degrees C (17.6 degrees F) for several consecutive days and nights. The risks — which include anything from rot to hungry birds — are outweighed by the potential rewards; ice wine is a premium product that sells at a premium price.
The practice of producing naturally sweet wine from frozen grapes originated in Germany and Austria, where it is known as Eiswein. Nowadays, perhaps due to the changing climate, both countries struggle to muster low enough winter temperatures for a reliable harvest. Canadian winemakers, on the other hand, can count every year on the kind of freezing conditions needed to make ice wine, and the country has long since overtaken Germany and Austria as the world’s most significant producer.
As with any wine, the story starts in the vineyards. The pickers (or mechanical harvesters) swing into action beneath floodlights in the dead of night, when temperatures are at their lowest, picking the grapes and speeding them to the waiting presses out in the yard. Throughout the night, tiny quantities of juice are painstakingly squeezed from the whole berries, and the intensely aromatic juice is then left to ferment gently through to spring.
At Inniskillin winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, some grapes are still hanging on the vine when I visit in January, which enables me to experience harvesting firsthand. With numbed fingers, I pluck bunches of frostbitten fruit from beneath the nets — essential protection against flocks of winter-starved starlings — and drop them one by one into shallow crates. For the wine to be made, explains Debi Pratt, Inniskillin’s honorary ice wine ambassador, the outside temperature must hold steady at minus 8 C (better still, minus 10 C) for several days so the grapes are frozen solid, like little pinkish marbles.
Over the course of my three-day visit for the festival, I sip golden nectars made by several different Niagara wineries and from a whole range of grapes — the thick-skinned Vidal, of course, but also Riesling, the classic German and Austrian Eiswein grape, and even some made from Gewurztraminer. Truly exciting and distinctive are the ruby-red versions made with Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon. Some ice wines sparkle, but most are still; all are delectable.
The idea that both winemakers and chefs are keen to counter is that ice wine is strictly for dessert. There’s much talk of “the texture of the wine” (the mouthfeel is indeed remarkable and satisfying), its complex array of aromas and flavors and its intense natural sweetness balanced by rapier-sharp acidity, which equips it for most food challenges.
My first “aha!” moment comes at Inniskillin with the pairing of oysters Rockefeller and sparkling Vidal. “Those tiny bubbles lift the wine and delude you into thinking there’s less sweetness — perfect for oysters,” explains Bruce Nicholson, Inniskillin’s senior winemaker. Outside the winery, by a roaring fire, in-house chef Tim MacKiddie has prepared maple-glazed duck breast and portobello mushrooms on the barbecue smoker, wonderful with a lick of Cabernet Franc.
At Jackson-Triggs Winery I sample empanada-sized wraps of chicken in mole topped with tiny dice of crunchy rhubarb, another great match with Cabernet Franc, while over at Pilliteri Estates Winery they partner a pork belly taco and avocado salsa with Riesling. Trius Winery’s take on the sweet-spicy theme is beef chili with Vidal, whereas Kacaba Vineyards & Winery offers a singular taste of Gewurztraminer with toasted panini filled with brie, shredded apple and pear. Another rarity is Vineland Estates Winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon, which they partner with cassoulet of braised short ribs with a blob of ice-wine-infused crème fraiche.
The final surprising — and deliciously democratic — combination consists of s’mores toasted on the embers of the roaring fire outside the winery, paired with Inniskillin’s rare, sparkling Cabernet Franc ice wine. The only combo I draw the line at — though the opportunity does, fleetingly, present itself at a lively street festival where food trucks stand shoulder to shoulder with wine stands — is ice wine with Canada’s now infamous poutine, those rubbery cheese curds that squeak beneath your teeth, doused with brown gravy and served with fries. That would surely be heresy, requiring a very thick skin.
Zester Daily contributor Sue Style attended the Niagara Icewine Festival as a guest of Ontario Tourism.
Main photo: A crate of frozen grapes harvested for ice wine. Credit: Sue Style
The British like to mock what they love best. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the irreverent names they give to favorite foods — think bubble and squeak (fried cabbage and potatoes), stargazy pie (a pie with sardines poking their heads out through the pastry), bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) or even (dare we mention) spotted dick (a steamed pudding made with dried fruit).
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My personal favorite is toad in the hole. This epic dish of sausages baked in batter — the same as used for Yorkshire puddings — is a kind of distant cousin of pigs in a blanket. The crucial difference is that the sausages, instead of being tightly swathed in a blanket of pastry, are reclining in a delicious duvet of batter, which billows up agreeably around them. A good toad (as it’s familiarly known) is perfect comfort food for the depths of winter.
The original from my childhood had only sausages, which from memory were a sickly pallid pink, suspiciously straight, very smoothly textured and terminally bland. For a properly tasty toad, I prefer a seriously meaty pork sausage, quite coarsely ground. I like to add bacon chunks too. You could think of it as a way to get the full English breakfast, but for brunch or supper and served with chutney and salad.
Here are a couple of hints to help you arrive at the perfect toad in the hole. First off, make the batter a little ahead — an hour is enough to allow the starch molecules in the flour to relax and absorb the milk and water, which gives a lighter result. Secondly, give the bacon and sausages a bit of a fry-up first so they take on a little color. You can do this in a skillet or in a roasting pan in the oven — the same one in which you will bake the dish. Thirdly, use a metal roasting pan, never a ceramic or glass dish, which is the surest way to a soggy toad. Finally, heat is of the essence. The oven and the roasting pan should be preheated, so that when you pour in the batter it makes a satisfying sizzle and starts to set lightly in the bottom, providing a base for the sausages and bacon to be embraced by the billowing batter.
Toad in the Hole
Prep time: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour to rest the batter
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Yield: Makes 8 servings
For the batter:
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) water
1/2 cup (125 milliliters) milk
4 ounces all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons melted butter or vegetable oil
A pinch of salt
For the sausages and bacon:
10 ounces (300 grams) cured or smoked slab bacon
4 coarse-cut pork sausages, about 12 ounces (350 grams)
1. Place all the batter ingredients in a blender and blend till smooth. Scrape down the sides and blend again. Refrigerate the batter for about one hour.
2. Cut rind off the slab bacon and excise any gristly bits. Slice the bacon thickly and cut each slice in squares.
3. Cut the sausages in 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) thick slices.
4. Put the bacon in a frying pan and fry gently till the fat runs and the bacon begins to take a little color, turning the slices once. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and tip excess fat into a side dish.
5. Add the sausage slices to the pan and fry till lightly colored, turning them until evenly browned.
6. Pour about 1 tablespoon of reserved bacon fat into a roasting pan about 10 inches by 12 inches (25 centimeters by 30 centimeters).
7. Heat the oven to 425 F (220 C).
8. When the oven is good and hot, put the roasting pan inside to heat the bacon fat. Remove pan from the oven and roll the fat around to coat the bottom of the pan — adding a little more fat if necessary.
9. Pour in the batter, then add the fried bacon and sausages, distributing them evenly around the pan.
10. Return the pan to the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until the batter is a beautifully burnished brown and nicely risen. Serve with chutney and salad.
Main image: Toad in the hole. Credit: Sue Style
In a rural enclave of central England, just off the historic coaching route between London and York formerly known as the Great North Road, there is a celebrated cluster of cheese dairies. Their fame rests on one magnificent product: Stilton, otherwise known as “the King of English cheeses,” which is an indispensable part of any self-respecting British Christmas.
This grand, cylindrical, semi-hard blue cheese has always enjoyed a royal reputation, which its producers have gone to great lengths to nurture. As Jenny Linford, author of “Great British Cheeses,” observes, Stilton is one of only a handful of British cheeses to have been protected and defined by law. In 1936, the producers banded together to form the Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association, or SCMA, for promotional purposes and to manage the brand and ensure quality production. In 1996 they secured Protected Designation of Origin status for their cheese, a label reserved for traditional products that are prepared, processed and produced within a specific region and thus have unique properties.
Stilton has a raw-milk counterpart in Stichelton
Six dairies in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire are responsible for rolling out more than 1 million Stiltons every year, with sales climaxing around Christmas. The SCMA, in its wisdom, has specified the use of pasteurized milk for its cheese. Raw-milk cheese fans can seek out Stilton’s alter ego Stichelton, which has taken the ancient name of the village of Stilton (where — perversely — it may no longer be made, because the village falls outside today’s permitted production area).
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Even though all Stilton must now be made from pasteurized milk, there are significant and interesting variations from dairy to dairy. “Very few people realize how much Stilton cheeses can vary depending on the creamery which makes them,” Linford commented in a recent email. Her recommendation is to sample cheeses from different producers until you find one you like. Her personal preference is for Colston Bassett Stilton, made specially for Neal’s Yard Dairy; I have a soft spot for Cropwell Bishop Creamery.
You may be vaguely familiar (or even helplessly infatuated) with Stilton, but if you’re not, what can you expect from this festive cheese? Its nicely nubbly crust is an appealing, burnished gold color, dotted with small, regularly occurring holes — evidence the maturing cheese was pierced with needles to allow the characteristic internal blue veins to develop. Flavorwise, I like to place it in the center of the blue cheese spectrum, somewhere between the salty, crumbly Roquefort from southern France and the luscious Gorgonzola from northern Italy. Its pale ivory paste flecked with blue delivers a smooth, satisfying, mushroomy punch that speaks to me of middle England (and of Christmas).
Most often, Stilton is presented in smallish, ready-cut wedges, which is fine. But at least once in the life of any trembling cheese-lover, the chance to go for bust with a half-cylinder, typically weighing about 9 pounds (4 kilograms), will present itself. Seize it. Fold over a snow-white linen napkin, wrap it around the cheese like a corset and fix with a couple of pins.
If you can lay hands on a Stilton scoop (see picture), go for it. With the help of this traditional tool, which resembles a tiny trowel, burrow gently into the cut surface of the cheese. In our Yorkshire household, the trick when scooping out a respectable helping of cheese (closely monitored by other family members) was to edge as close to crust as you dared without breaking the wall — a cardinal sin for which severe penalties were levied. For lack of a scoop, you can cut slender, horizontal slices (with crust) from the top of the cheese — but never wedges, which would be hugely greedy and punishable by Stilton deprivation for the rest of the year.
Besides the half cylinders, you can also buy whole, infant Stiltons, which weigh in at around 5 pounds (2 kilograms). But in rather the same way that a magnum of wine delivers even more than double the pleasure of a regular 750-milliliter bottle, baby Stiltons never quite match up to the full-sized cheese for sheer pizzazz and total, creamy perfection. Resist the temptation to buy Stilton in a pot — the pots are nice, but the cheese (overly salted and a bit dry) seldom is.
To go with the cheese, offer a selection of cheese biscuits (with coarse-milled oatcakes leading the pack), slices of rustic country bread or soda bread, or slivers of walnut and dried fruit loaf or even pumpernickel.
And finally, which wine goes best? Port is often invoked, but for my taste this feisty, fortified wine delivers a sledgehammer blow at the end of what is not, by any measure, a light repast (think roast turkey, stuffing, Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, bread sauce, Christmas pudding AND whipped brandy butter). Some favor Sauternes, or Tokaji, “the wine of kings and the king of wines” to partner this “King of English cheeses.”
Living here in Alsace, where we faithfully observe the Christmas Stilton tradition, my preference goes to a local, late-harvested Riesling, Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer (Domaine Weinbach, René Muré or Zind-Humbrecht all do wonderful Vendanges Tardives). For a real treat, we uncork a treasured Sélection de Grains Nobles, which is not only late harvested but also botrytised and combines depth and complexity with a tingling spine of acidity to counterbalance the wine’s natural sweetness.
Where to buy Stilton
In the UK
Try top top cheesemongers throughout Britain, including these London shops:
La Fromagerie, Moxon Street
Neal’s Yard Dairy at Borough Market and Covent Garden
Paxton & Whitfield, Jermyn Street
Harrods in Knightsbridge
Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly
Whole Foods, Kensington High Street
Caviar House & Prunier at London Heathrow
In the U.S. (East Coast):
Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge, Mass.
Murrays, Greenwich Village, New York City
Artisanal Premium Cheese, New York City
Where to buy Stichelton
In the U.K.: top cheesemongers in Britain, as above
In the U.S.: Formaggio Kitchen, Cambridge Mass.
In France: Fromager Bernard Antony, Vieux-Ferrette, Alsace
Main image: Stilton. Credit: Credit: Cropwell Bishop Creamery
Christmas is for sharing, and some of the best gifts to share are the ones you’ve made yourself. The only snag about edible gifts is that once you’ve conceived and created them, put them up in clever containers and wrapped and labeled them with a holiday flourish, it can be a bit of a wrench to part with them. Steel yourself — or better still, make enough to keep some for yourself.
Winter chutneys go beautifully with a holiday ham, meat or game pie, or pâté en croûte. This super-simple date chutney (see recipe below) — a recipe from my mother, who used to make it every Christmas — is a double pleasure because it’s just a leisurely chopping and mixing job. There’s no cooking at all, so the apartment is not invaded with penetrating vinegary fumes. It benefits from keeping for a few weeks, so the flavors ripen nicely and will last for several months.
If you have herbs growing in your garden or terrace, the more robust perennial ones like rosemary, thyme and winter savory will still be good to go. Throw some in a food processor with sea salt and grind till fine for a wonderfully aromatic herby salt (see recipe below). The color when freshly ground is a delicate herbaceous green. This will fade after a few weeks, but the flavor lingers on. Add a note to the gift label with serving suggestions: It’s wonderful scattered over roast vegetables either before they go into the oven or as they come out (for even more flavor) or sprinkled onto focaccia or other bread before baking.
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The softer, more delicate herbs work best in a moist mix like pesto. Instead of the usual basil-pine nut combo, try one with pumpkin seeds, loads of flat-leaf parsley and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, whizzed together to a verdant paste. A bright green blob floated on top of deep orange pumpkin soup is a thing of beauty, or you can stir it into pasta or risotto or serve with cold turkey, duck breasts or grilled fish.
Around Christmas here in Alsace, France, on the border with Switzerland and Germany, baking reaches fever pitch at this time of year. Whether you visit friends at home, buy bread at the baker’s or attend the local hunt, you will be plied with Guetzli (Switzerland), bredele (Alsace) or Weihnachtsbrödle (southern Germany) at every turn. And here I have to own up to my sad little secret: I really, really don’t care for them and find that, at a time of major carb-overload, most are just not worth the calories (for me). However, I do make an honorable exception for Brunsli (see recipe below), moist, dark chocolate, almond-laden cookies laced with Kirsch brandy from Basel, Switzerland.
Finally, if life gives you lemons, make citrons confits, or salted lemons (see recipe below), which will bring a golden Mediterranean glow to your kitchen and make an especially welcome midwinter gift. In this recipe, from chef Thierry Voisin, former chef at Les Crayères in Reims, France, the lemons are first blanched, then packed into jars and covered with a sweet-salty syrup. They are a bit softer and less briny than the kinds packed in a jar with kosher salt, and they’re ready to use sooner than the salt-packed quarters. The finely diced peel (discard the pith) gives a bright, zesty lift to meat stews, tagines, couscous and all manner of vegetable dishes.
Fresh (Uncooked) Date Chutney
Prep time: 10 minutes (15, if you don’t use a food processor)
Total time: 10 to 15 minutes plus 2 to 3 weeks of maturing
Yield: Makes 4 1-pound (450-gram) jars
1 pound (450 grams) pitted dates
1 pound (450 grams) raisins or sultanas
1 pound (450 grams) apples
1 pound (450 grams) onions
1 pound (450 grams) brown or raw sugar
1 tablespoon salt
Plenty of freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 cups (1/2 liter) cider vinegar or wine vinegar
1. Put the pitted dates and raisins or sultanas in a food processor.
2. Quarter and core the apples (don’t peel) and chop them roughly.
3. Add the apples to the food processor along with the peeled and chopped onions.
4. Add brown or raw sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar and process thoroughly till quite finely chopped and well mixed. (Alternatively, chop dates, raisins/sultanas, apples and onions finely together, then tip them into a bowl and stir in the sugar, salt, pepper, cayenne and vinegar.)
5. Spoon into clean, dry jars and label.
Note: The chutney is best when matured for a couple of weeks, and it will keep for several months.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: 2 4-ounce (100-gram) jars
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, stripped off stalks
1 tablespoon winter savory leaves, stripped off stalks
10 sage leaves, torn
7 ounces (200 grams) sea salt (sel de Guérande or similar) or kosher salt
Put the thyme, savory and sage leaves in a food processor, add the salt and process till fine. It will turn a beautiful jade green color. This will fade after a week or two, but the flavor will remain hauntingly herby.
Pumpkin Seed and Parsley Pesto
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
Yield: about 1 cup pesto
1 good bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only (about 1 ounce, or 30 grams)
2 tablespoons hulled green pumpkin seeds
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Grana Padano
Pinch of salt
1 small clove garlic, mashed
6 tablespoons olive oil
1. Put parsley leaves, pumpkin seeds, cheese, salt and garlic in a blender.
2. Blend until well-chopped, stopping to scrape down every now and then — add a little water if necessary to make the blades turn.
3. Pour in the olive oil in a steady stream and continue blending till very smooth, scraping down if necessary.
4. Tip into a dish or jar and cover tightly.
5. The pesto will keep in the fridge, unopened, for up to a month. Once broached, cover with a thin layer of olive oil to exclude air.
Prep time: 25 minutes (plus 1 hour to refrigerate the dough and 1 hour to allow the Brunsli to dry out before baking).
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Yield: Makes 20 to 30, depending on size
4 ounces (100 grams) dark chocolate, (Lindt Excellence, for example)
5 ounces (150 grams) sugar, plus extra for rolling out dough
8 ounces (250 grams) ground almonds
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 egg whites
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons Kirsch
1. Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water (or microwave for 1 to 2 minutes). Stir till smooth, then set aside till cooled but still melted.
2. Mix together in a large bowl the sugar, ground almonds, flour, cocoa powder and cinnamon.
3. Beat the egg whites in a bowl with a pinch of salt till snowy but still creamy — don’t overbeat or they will be hard to incorporate smoothly.
4. Fold the egg whites into the dry ingredients.
5. Stir in the cooled, melted chocolate and Kirsch and press the mixture together to form a firm dough. (It’s a good idea to use latex gloves because the dough is very sticky.)
6. Refrigerate the dough for 1 hour.
7. Sprinkle a working surface with sugar (do not use flour) and roll or pat out the dough to about half an inch (1 centimeter) thick.
8. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters (hearts, Christmas trees, half-moons etc.) and lay them on a baking sheet lined with non-stick baking parchment. Recycle any trimmings and cut out more shapes.
9. Leave the unbaked Brunsli at room temperature for 1 hour to dry out a little, otherwise they fall apart when baked.
10. Heat the oven to 475 degrees F (240 degrees C) and bake Brunsli for 5 minutes — they will turn a shade paler and start to dry out a bit around the edges, but should remain moist in the middle.
11. Remove Brunsli from the oven and let cool on a rack.
12. Once cool, pack in cellophane bags and tie with pretty ribbons, or store in an airtight tin.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes, plus 2 to 3 weeks’ maturing
Yield: Makes 4 preserved lemons.
4 lemons, untreated
4 ounces (100 grams) salt
5 ounces (150 grams) sugar
2 cups (1/2 liter) water
3 to 4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1. Put the lemons in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring the water to a boil.
2. When the water boils, tip it away; repeat the process twice more.
3. Press the drained lemons firmly into a Mason or Kilner glass jar.
4. In the same pan, dissolve the salt and sugar in 2 cups of water and pour it (hot) over the lemons.
5. Push the thyme down into the liquid.
6. Snap the lid shut while the lemons are still hot.
7. Cool, refrigerate for 2 to 4 weeks before using (or bestowing on favored friends). The lemons will keep for several months.
Main image: An herbed salt. Credit: Sue Style