Foraging in the Grapevines + A Recipe for Poached Eggs & Mâche

One thing I love about life in the countryside is that there's always something new to be foraged. Each season brings its own timely treasures and, by the time you feel like you don't know what else to do with your baskets of walnuts or mushrooms, there's something new to be on the lookout for.

Full disclosure: winter is not my favorite season. I've never enjoyed the cold and while I recognize the importance of winter and I know that everything that grows depends on these colder months in order to do so, it's a time of year that I have a hard time with.

Maybe I should try harder, maybe I should get over the fact that I really hate wearing layers of winter clothes,  maybe my feelings will change next year- but for now all I know is that during these months of the year it is really hard for me to get excited about getting out in the cold. 

 But now that I live in the countryside, it's easier for me to get out into nature. And that's how I'm discovering that winter is different when you're outside. Like, really outside- not walking from the metro to a coffee date, but like in the out-of-doors, like no doors in sight- just trees and leaves and greens and browns. If I can get it together to put on those dreaded layers- my doubled up socks, laced up boots, jacket, scarf, and wool hat and get outside, I realize the december landscape is worth exploring. 

One thing that makes winter worth it to me is wild mâche. Mâche, or Lamb's Lettuce, is a delicate bright green bunch of baby leaves that grows in freshly tilled soil. In the winter, when the earth around the grapevines has been worked to give the plants some space to breathe, wild mâche fills in the cracks, peeking through mounds of dirt. 

Foraging for mâche is like foraging for anything- at first you think you'll never be able to spot it among all the life and richness of a happy vineyard floor. But then you see one, and then two or more bunches of this cheery wild lettuce and all of the sudden you can't stop seeing it.

You get hooked, working against the clock that is run by a swiftly setting sun, digging your fingers into the earth, extracting the small sturdy mâche by its roots, adding it to your list of things that make winter worth getting out of bed for. 

Poached Eggs on Mâche

serves 2

Ingredients:

2-3 handfuls of fresh mâche

2 eggs

For the Vinaigrette:

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 shallot, finely chopped

Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

Preparation:

Soak mâche in a bowl of cold water, emptying repeatedly until the water runs clear and mâche is clean. Spin dry and set aside. In a small bowl, combine vinegar, shallots, a dash of salt and a turn fresh ground pepper. Slowly whisk in olive oil in a steady stream. Toss clean mâche in vinaigrette and serve in equal parts on two plates. 

To make poached eggs, bring a medium sized pot of salted water to a light boil. Once you have a steady, low boil crack open your egg and let it slide down the side of the pot into the water (if the pot is big enough you can do both at the same time). Let cook, untouched, for three minutes then remove with a slotted spoon. Place on top of the mâche and top with salt and fresh ground pepper. Serve with bread or toast (goat cheese makes a great toast topping to go with this dish). Serve immediately. 

In the Vines: Pruning and "Pliage"

 A Sauvignon vine, after pruning and "pliage" 

A Sauvignon vine, after pruning and "pliage" 

Every year in wine growing regions around the world, winemakers call on seasonal workers to team up and help with the annual grape harvest. In France, this period is called "les vendanges"- a word that refers both to the harvest itself and the experience of harvesting. It's something you do ("j'ai fait les vendanges") but also something that happens to you

There are many stories of how the vendanges have changed people's lives- the short period of time is often the source of inspiration, exciting encounters, and unforgettable experiences. I think of the vendanges as France's version of summer camp for college kids and adults- it's a time set apart from the rest of the year- and the distractions of daily life- when people come together, form a community, and synchronize to the rhythm of nature.

 Working in the vines in the springtime

Working in the vines in the springtime

I did the vendanges in 2014 and count myself among the large number of people who can say it changed the way I see the world.  Not only did the experience inspire lasting friendships, it also lit a fire in me concerning everything that goes into biodynamic farming and natural winemaking.

When the vendanges came to an end last year and it was time to say good-bye, I was sure I wasn't saying "adieu", but rather "au revoir", knowing that I would be back again to visit the vines soon. 

 Pruning Gamay vines in December

Pruning Gamay vines in December

By early December I was back. The weather had changed and the trusty boots that served me so well in September did little against the winter morning chill. But that wasn't the only difference from the harvest season. Now, instead picking the fruit of the grapevines, we were to cut back the branches by pruning each vine, being sure to pay careful attention to the equilibrium and harmony of each knobby vine foot. 

There are several ways to prune and the act, like all aspects of biodynamic farming and winemaking, is a mixture of science and philosophy, fact and feeling

Unlike industrial or conventional wineries, natural winemakers concentrate on quality rather than quantity, by pruning vines so that they have a chance to produce ripe, healthy fruit rather than being  overburdened by too many bunches. This is done by manually pruning each grapevine, choosing a primary fruit bearing branch on each side of the "cep" , or foot of the plant. The grapevines are pruned to stay low to the ground, assuring that sap can travel to feed the vines more easily and economizing energy that the vines will later invest in growing fruit

For winemakers that favor a low-intervention approach to wine making, the act of pruning may be one of the most intentional manipulations they will exercise in the life cycle of a vine/wine. While the role of man/woman is evident in the practice of pruning, and not something that occurs naturally in the life of a vine, it is not so much a violent act- but rather a humbling experience not taken lightly by the winemaker, who understands that they are affecting the destiny of not only the next year's harvest, but of the form of the vine stock itself.

 Laurent teaching us all about "la taille" on a cold winter day

Laurent teaching us all about "la taille" on a cold winter day

Pruning vines that are often older than you are, and will most likely be around longer than you, too, is taking part in a long history of decisions made by winemakers who came before you as well as sending a message to generations of winemakers who will come. 

In certain cases, when vines are pruned "à la baguette", or using a method that leaves one large cane, or branch, on each side of the grapevine foot, a secondary step is necessary. This step is called "Pliage" and refers to the act of folding and tethering the longer branch to a wire so that it will grow parallel to the ground. This method is often used with Sauvignon vines, who benefit from the restructuring that provides structure and stimulates growth

 Bringing staples back from the vineyard after a morning of folding Sauvignon vines

Bringing staples back from the vineyard after a morning of folding Sauvignon vines

Using steady and firm gestures to bend the grapevine branches proves the flexibility and resilience of the plant. The branches will resist slightly as you fold them and use a special stapler to attach them to a low-hanging wire (this doesn't hurt the branches- just creates a lose circle around them and the wire so that they stay in place), but they (rarely) split or break, and adapt readily to their new formation

Another superpower of grapevine branches is their ability to make new life. On an early April visit to Laurent Saillard's parcel of Sauvignon I was lucky enough to observe the birth of a "marcotte". Marcottage is when you take a branch of a grapevine that was left to grow long in the past year or two, and bury the middle part in the ground.

 Laurent digging a hole for a brand new, baby marcotte

Laurent digging a hole for a brand new, baby marcotte

After time, the buried branch will start to grow strong, downward reaching roots and a new vine stock is born, filling in the previously vacant neighboring space. It's a process that takes years to prepare and longer to reap the fruit of- but it's a beautiful way to create life in the vines and really makes you appreciate everything that the vines can give. 

One of the greatest things the vines offer, no matter what time of the year, is the opportunity to be silent and simultaneously in dialogue with something ancient, both inside and around you. Great winemakers listen to their vines and help them tell their story so that we can drink it all in. 

 A marcotte from a previous year is growing strong

A marcotte from a previous year is growing strong