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


Recipe: Forest Foraged Walnut Cake

Foraged walnuts in the Loir-et-Cher region of France

Foraged walnuts in the Loir-et-Cher region of France

Post-holiday season in France means recovering from our fill of chocolate, but not of fêtes. After traveling to spend the holidays with friends and family, a second round of celebrations begins when we return to wherever we've decided to make our home in the hexagon and reunite with the family we've created there.

Every new year, France keeps the party going with the traditional Galette des Rois, or King's Cake, which ostensibly celebrates the Christian epiphany holiday, but is more universally regarded as an excuse to eat more cake

Not that anyone needs an excuse to eat more cake. Cake is always a great idea. That's why I suggest expanding your winter baking repertoire beyond the galette to include this simple walnut cake, which is seasonaldelicious, and easy to make.

If you're lucky enough to live, or have access to, a wooded region with walnut trees then you can forage your own nuts for this cake, keeping an eye out for them as they fall to the forest floor, in the late autumn and winter months. 

I had the good fortune of spending time at my winemaker friends' home in the Loir-et-Cher region of France this winter, pruning grapevines and enjoying seasonal meals made up of locally-sourced ingredients including wild mushrooms, ail sauvage, and different varieties of nuts.

Foraged wild mushrooms in the Loir-et-Cher

Foraged wild mushrooms in the Loir-et-Cher

I wanted to make this cake the minute I saw the bowl of foraged walnuts in the kitchen that Laurent had collected. Without having to bother with the puff pastry and several steps involved in making a Galette des Rois, this Walnut Cake is a fuss free option that makes a great finish to a simple, rustic winter meal. A perfect end to a cosy countryside dinner that has also found its way into many a meal in my Parisian apartment. 

Forest Foraged Walnut Cake

Ingredients

1 stick (110 grams) softened butter

3/4 cup (150 grams) sugar

3 eggs, white and yolks separated

1 tsp vanilla

1/3 cup (40 grams) flour

1 1/2 cup (200 grams) walnuts, coarsely chopped

1 pinch of salt

2 tablespoons confectioners sugar

Preparation

Preheat oven to 400 °F (210° C). Butter and flour an 8 inch circular cake pan. Cream together butter and sugar. Stir in in egg yolks one by one. Add vanilla and mix in. Fold flour into egg mixture, followed by walnuts. In a separate bowl, whip egg whites until they begin to froth up, then add a pinch of salt and continue beating until they become fluffy with soft peaks. Mix 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter and then fold remaining egg whites in batches into the batter, until fully combined. Pour batter into cake pan. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out of the cake clean. Sprinkle the top of the cake with powdered sugar and serve warm.

 

In Season: Family Dinner (+ Coq au Vin recipe!)

Putting the "vin" in "Coq au Vin"

Putting the "vin" in "Coq au Vin"

A recent coup de coeur  moment for my neighborhood (here's looking at you, 18th arrondissement), in which my dry cleaner invited me to have dinner at her house upon finding out that I have no family in Paris, inspired a lively conversation on Facebook. "No family in Paris??" my friend Jeremy quickly responded, slightly insulted that I didn't immediately inform my dry cleaner that I was not at all alone in the city.

It's true that I have no biological family in Paris, or France for that matter, but I am fortunate in having an extended urban family in my adopted city. Close friends, mostly fellow ex-pats, who made a leap of faith to relocate to Paris, have become my touchstones and support network, providing everything we could ever ask of a family, with the added bonus of rarely driving each other crazy.

It's not a dinner PARTY if there aren't balloons

It's not a dinner PARTY if there aren't balloons

In my almost decade of living in Paris, I've learned that it's important to create the community you need to thrive while living abroad, or just living in general. I have honorary roommates who have free reign on a spare key to my house. Friends I can count on to enable me to have more fun and disable me when I'm having too much. Neighbors who look out for the strange American in their midst. A crew of passionate, intelligent, and hilarious ladies who inspire and lunch like no one else on this planet. And, of course, there's the family you choose.

Our family of friends celebrates finding each other with regular family dinners. We all sit down together, eat a home-cooked meal and drink wine. Lots of wine.

The most recent family dinner was one of our more epic affairs. I made a Coq au Vin for the first time ever and we had plenty of fermented grape juice to go with. Stories were told, dances were danced, and memories were made.

Family.

Family.

The fact that I have hardly any photos of the food I served that night is a testament to how much I adore this time spent à table, when I live totally in the moment and thoughts of blog posts, Instagram, etc. are far from my manic, internet-making mind. On nights like these I'm simply enjoying every minute of the time I have with my friends.

So, you'll have to take my word for it that the Coq au Vin looked (and was) delicious! Also a great choice for feeding a growing family of hungry ex-pats on a chilly autumn night

Here's a recipe you can serve to whoever you consider kin. I've included ideas for expanding the recipe to feed more people, because you can never have too much family.

Just add chicken! The more the merrier!

Just add chicken! The more the merrier!

Family Dinner Coq au Vin

Serves 6

Ingredients

4 lbs (2 kilos) chicken; mixture of thighs, breasts, drumsticks, and wings (add 2-3 pieces of chicken for each additional person)

1/2 lb (150 grams) diced bacon

2 cups (300 grams) button mushrooms

10 small white or yellow onions

2 cups full-bodied red wine

2 cups beef or chicken stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

3 tablespoons flour

2 cloves garlic

Olive oil

1/4 teaspoon Thyme

1 Bay leaf

1 teaspoon Salt

Preparation

Prepare to brown your chicken by cooking bacon in a large pot* until they render their fat. In the meantime, wash the chicken and then dry chicken pieces with a clean dishtowel. After about 5 minutes, remove bacon from pot and set aside. Add more olive oil if necessary, and arrange chicken pieces in one layer on the bottom of the pot. Cook, turning the chicken occasionally, for 6-8 minutes. If you are browning your chicken in two separate pots, you can combine the meat in the larger of the two at this point. Add onions, bay leaf, salt and thyme. Cover and cook on low heat for 5 minutes. Turn chicken over and season to taste, then cover and cook an additional 5 minutes. Add flour, lightly coating the chicken. Add red wine and stock, stirring to make sure there are no clumps of flour in your sauce. Add the browned bacon, tomato paste, and pressed garlic. Cover and cook for 20 minutes. Test chicken and onions after 20 minutes, they should be easily pierced with a fork. If this is not the case, continuing cooking until done. Add mushrooms, cover and cook an additional 5 minutes. At this point you can taste your sauce and season as necessary. If the sauce is not thick enough, bring the pot to a quick boil until you have the desired consistency. Serve with rice or shell beans and your choice of seasonal vegetable.

 

* It is important not to crowd the chicken, so if you have more chicken than room in your pot, you can use two different pots for the browning step