A newly-married couple from Los Angeles quit their jobs to work on farms and wineries across Europe. Read it from the beginning...

Banks of the River Seine

Posted: August 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: France, Paris | 1 Comment »

An arty shot of people enjoying the sunshine on the banks of the river Seine. This was opposite Notre Dame. Halbe and I had just enjoyed an ice cream cone. A man sat on the street behind us, playing an accordion for spare change. I leaned over the edge of the bridge we stood on and snapped this photo.

The Paris “Hummer” burger

Posted: August 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: France, Meals | No Comments »

We came across this treat while walking in Paris. The sign over the door said “American Restaurant,” and a visual menu was hung in the window to advertise their offerings (to, I assume, the illiterate). But it was the name that caught my attention first. A sandwich this brazen, this excessive, this laughable could only be named “The Hummer.”

I imagine the classically-trained French chef preparing this meal, weeping. Is this what Americans are thought to enjoy?

What I appreciate most about this image is how un-apologetically it has been manipulated. The identical tomato, cheese, and burger, closely stacked, seem to ask the viewer, “So what?” And the bulge at the top — What is that? What could that possibly be? This American does not want to know.

We are in the Umbria region of Italy

Posted: August 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Italy, Umbria | 4 Comments »

We made it safely to Umbria, and have set up residence with our new host. He lives in a 400 year old home high on hill with a killer view of the farms and other chateaus in the area. Above is a shot taken shortly after we arrived. I’m writing this on the porch shown there, and can hear the church bells from the village in the valley below.

The host is a laid back sort (born in 1951), who did the “hippie trail” (his words) of India back in the 70’s, and now is living a beautiful lifestyle on 5 acres out here. He has a horse, a donkey, a cat, a dog, and three recently acquired ducks.

The work is more standard manual labor stuff. We were clearing brush along a road this morning. We will be building some stone and mortar enclosures for his fruit trees next. We may make a house for the ducks.

Italy has a feel completely unique from France. I would describe it as warmer, more provincial, more run down, but generally more cheerful. People crack jokes with strangers, which I like.

We’re at Chateau d’Isle Marie

Posted: July 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: France | 3 Comments »

After the sudden change of plans, we made it safe and sound to Chateau d’Isle Marie, in Normandy. It’s a bed and breakfast in a chateau dating from the 11th century. You can read more about it at www.islemarie.com.

One neat thing about the place: There is a graffito on an entrance door frame that reads “EDGAR MASON JUNE 6, 1944”. That’s June 6, as in D-Day. This was a soldier who stormed the beaches that morning, or, possibly, a paratrooper who fell from the sky.

Flaky farm, change of destination

Posted: July 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: France, Unexpected Adventure | 6 Comments »

Halbe and I were in a rented car on Saturday, finishing a three-day road trip through the Loir Valley. The plan was to drive to Caen, spend the night, return the car, then on Sunday be picked up to begin a three week stay in a beautiful cider farm in Normandy.

We’re a few hours outside Caen when we receive a mysterious text message from our host at the cider farm, something about “sorry it didn’t work out” and could he help find “someplace more hospitable.” We get our host on the phone, who tells us there was a “miscommunication” and that he did not believe we were actually confirmed. In addition, his father had recently passed away and this was not a good time to come. The whole thing didn’t sit quite right with us, as we had confirmed our stay with him via email a month or so previous. But, what can you do? The man said no.

The cost of a hotel/hostel in France for three weeks would cripple us financially. We took him up on his offer to help find another place. More calls are exchanged, us drawing closer to Caen by the moment. The now non-host connects us to his neighbor who needed help with their curtains. As in, making and hanging curtains, possibly for three weeks. We weren’t sure.

And then we received a call from a cheerful woman named Dorothea. She had been expecting a helper for her B&B but fell through, and was “keen” to find a replacement. It’s a little further down the road, she said, but she could pick us up. She said the main house was full, but we could stay in the farmhouse, and she could take us all three weeks. She gave us her web site to check once we arrived in Caen. We said we’d let her know.

We get to Caen, get a hotel, and load up her site. Here’s the place:

Wow. Alright, looks great. But what about that farmhouse?

We were sold. We called her back and set up a time to meet later today (Sunday). So, goodbye cider farm, hello magical island in Normandy.  We really hope it works out.

And to everyone in the States, happy Fourth of July!

Vines need to suffer

Posted: June 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bordeaux, France, Wine | 4 Comments »

You’d think grape vines would have it easy. The way wine is cooed over by the cultured and wealthy, and labored over by millions of dedicated vintners, then surely their lives must be nothing but sunshine and gentle care, right?

Allow me to introduce a vine knife, held by my lovely wife Halbe. This nasty, hooked blade is one of several torture devices we’ve employed since arriving at our current host. With it we hack and carve the plants, and for what? The idea is this: happy vines make no fruit. Vines beaten to the limit of their survival produce offspring (that’s grapes to us) as quickly as possible.

We start young. Three-year-olds, dude. By now they have decent roots (American, of course) and have grown six to eight long, green vines. They reach out to the sky, flopping in the air like the arms of laughing children. Not acceptable. We spent five days removing these vines from 7,000 baby plants. Halbe preferred the knife, but I just ripped them out with my bare hands. We leave two vines on each, and truss them up with plastic cord, holding them vertical.

The babies, they don't understand

Now, with less vines to support, the roots pump all their goodness into those two remaining, vertically-tied vines, forcing the plant to grow to a better height for picking and further abuse/tending.

Épamprage (eh-pahm-prajsh) comes next. The plants get bigger and eventually produce grapes. They also continue to attempt new vines, from the graft point, from the stalk, and from the head. We hack those off. On some farms, they have a machine to do this. It smacks the vines with strips of rubber tire until those suckers rip off.

What else? Oh yes, if they get too tall, they chop off the tops. You’re not allowed to water them. And, as if to add insult to injury, when they DO grow grapes, some farms do a vert vandage — green harvest — and remove about a third of the immature grapes and throw them away.

It’s a hard knock life, absolutely, but without it, we’d have no wine. Generally speaking, the harder those vines have to work to grow those grapes, the higher the quality of grape and the finer the wine. But not too much pain. After all, a vintner depends on those vines for their own survival.

Bloggers invade Bordeaux

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bordeaux, France | No Comments »

Same table, some different people, different day

I’m sitting at a table in Castillon la Battaille, France, with my wife and two other women. Both are from the United States and both have blogs about traveling in Europe, much like this one. So here we sit, thousands of miles from home, discussing our blogs that we write for the people we know, thousands of miles away.

Their blogs are:

Jenny (in the photo above, back left, white shirt): Moving & Eating

Jenny is into cheese and like us has worked on goat farms. She lives not far from us in SoCal, and has a job very similar to Halbe’s. Today as we tended the vines, she told me about one of the only film ever shot in the constructed language Esperanto, Incubus, starring William Shatner.

Elena (not pictured): Passport? Check!

Elena arrived yesterday to the farm. She grew up in Olympia, Washington, a short drive from where I went to university in Seattle. This evening we did the dishes, and discussed our shared love of Dick’s Hamburgers.

These coincidences are odd and ongoing. Do people in their twenties from the West Coast just particularly like to travel and work on farms?

How America saved French wine

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bordeaux, France, Wine | 4 Comments »

All French wine is from grapes grown on American roots. From the thousand dollar bottle on down to the swill, a little bit of the US of A is in every sip. Here’s why:

In the 1860’s nearly half the vineyards in France had fallen to a terrible blight. Vines, many of them decades old, were faltering, not producing grapes, then eventually dying. No one knew why. The blight lasted for over 15 years, closed over 4 million wineries, and devastated the French economy. The government offered a reward of 320,000 francs to anyone who could cure the problem.

A team of French biologists figured out the cause in 1870: an aphid, introduced from America, called phylloxera. This tiny insect would nest in the leaves (like the one I photographed above), hatch, fall to the ground, and consume the roots of the grape vine, eventually killing the plant.

Knowing the cause was a help, but there was no cure. Farmers tried pesticides and other chemicals. They left frogs under the plants, and let chickens roam the vines with the hope that they would eat the phylloxera. None of these ideas worked. It was Leo Laliman and Gaston Bazille, a team of previously unknown wine growers and viticulturists, who suggested the solution of grafting America’s phylloxera-resistant rootstock on to French vines. Their solution worked, and over the following years there was a great reconstruction of the wineries and their vines, and eventually the wine industry returned to normal.

No cure to phylloxera has been found, and this practice continues today. Every vine I’ve worked on or seen since arriving to France has a graft point near the base. The young vines still have a covering of wax over their graft point, like this:

That bark covered stick is a chunk of harvested American rootstock. An inch-long portion of a French vine was grafted on top, and has since grown into several new, green vines. Though the plant will likely contract phylloxera (many vines have diseased leaves like those in the top photo), the plant will remain strong and hopefully produce grapes for decades to come. That American rootstock will also attempt to grow vines, and their removal is one of the common chores on all wineries. In fact, that’s what I spent most of this morning doing with a spade and pruning shears.

As for Leo and Gaston, they did not receive the 320,000 reward. The French government argued they had not cured the blight, but only stopped it from occurring.

We’re in wine country: Bordeaux

Posted: June 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Bordeaux, France, Wine | 6 Comments »

Here we are enjoying box wine from our neighborhood, Cote de Castillon. And the view:

One of the fields of Cabernet grapes.

Cheesemaking: Aged Goat Cheddar

Posted: June 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: England, Recipes | 8 Comments »

The first farm we stayed at, Riverside Goats’ Cheese, made two varieties of goat cheese: a fresh cheese with herbs, and an aged cheddar-style cheese.

Yes, that’s mold, but the good kind. This hard cheese is white, with a smooth, mild flavor and a slight earthy tang. This particular specimen is three months old.

I’d never had cheddar cheese from a goat before. I’d always assumed it was a strictly cow thing, and orange like the Tillamook bricks I’ve had all my life. I learned cheddar cheese takes its name from the town of Cheddar, where it has been made for over a thousand years. The “cheddaring” process developed and used there can be applied to kinds of milk beside a cow’s. While we were there, our host prepared a new cheese from scratch.

First, extract a bit of the ol’ goat juice. If I’ve learned one thing about milking a goat it’s that you need to squeeze harder that you may initially be comfortable with. In the words of this farmer, “Don’t worry, you wont hurt them. The kids use their teeth.”

The milk is filtered, then added to a temperature-controlled stainless steel vat. The temperature is raised to around 29 degrees Celsius (84 Fahrenheit).  Several grams of a starter culture is added. This is a freeze-dried bacteria of a very particular strain. It looks like flaky, yellow-ish powder. It’s called a “starter” because it starts the cheese.

Stir it in, and let that bacteria multiply in there. The acidity of the milk will begin to raise, which is a good thing. That is a result of the bacteria, and it helps ensure that ONLY good bacteria exists in the milk, and not the kind that can make you violently ill.

Rennet is then added (20 drops or so to the 25 liters of milk we’re using to make this single cheese). Rennet is a combination of enzymes, traditionally extracted from the stomach of mammals (cows, usually), used to digest milk. In cheese making, it coagulates the milk, separating it into the solid stuff used to make cheese (curds) and the liquid (whey).

Within an hour, the milk became custard-like, with a watery liquid covering it. Then comes the fun part: cheddaring.

A “cheddaring knife” (six dull blades held in parallel) is passed through the curds and whey, dicing it up. The size of those diced chunks of curd affects the ultimate texture and taste of the cheese. The goal is to create surfaces inside the curd for the whey to seep away. Too large, it may become lumpy with veins of mold running through. Too small, and the result may dry and become crumbly. She spent a lot of time ensuring the entire vat was cheddared consistently, and no large chunks remained, especially on the bottom.

You then allow the whey to seep from the curd, then drain that whey away.

You leave those curds to drain again, then cut them again. Drain again, then cut again. Then, finally, drain again. The consistency will become drier on each pass, from custard-like, to soft wet tofu, to hard tofu.

The curds at this point is chewy and fairly tasteless. The flavor of cheese tends to come from the bacteria that inhabit it, and develops over time, as that bacteria consumes proteins and sugars in the curds. But before that happens, the curds are milled (broken up by hand) and salted.

The salt helps the flavor. I read recently that salt functions to open up the tastebuds, to allow in flavors that otherwise would be missed by the tongue. The salt also acts a preservative. Also, thanks to the culture, the pH should have dropped to 5.4 or so — acidic enough to keep bad bacteria at bay.

But this bowl of curds is not cheese yet. First it must be drained more, but in a controlled fashion that limits the loss of the protein-rich curds. For that, cheese cloth, a form, and heavy wood blocks are used.

The salted curds are packed into a cylindrical form with holes in it (for drainage) and lined with cheesecloth. Round wood blocks are placed atop it, slowly squeezing the whey out.

Additional blocks are added as the curds are squeezed down. Cheesemakers tend to use the same blocks. The thought is that a bacterial culture unique to their cheesemaking operation lives on the surface of those wood blocks which adds a unique flavor to their cheese.

The contraption in this photo is a spring-loaded squeezer that applies a delicate downward pressure. Too much pressure, and you squeeze out too much moisture. Not enough, and it can rot. The draining can take a full day, or more. Once drained, you extract your squeezed, round-shaped block of curd which is looking more and more like cheese. This particular cheese is only half-drained. It still had more time to go.

Look how small it is compared to the initial vat of milk. Once drained thoroughly, you extract the cheese for the last time from the form and cheesecloth, then set it on a shelf in a cool, ventilated room.

After a few days a fine white mold will cover the cheese. Here is our cheese, about two days old. This mold is a good thing, as it helps hold in moisture, necessary to the bacteria inside. As time passes, other molds may form (as can be seen in the first photo on the three-month cheese). If it gets too nasty, you can wipe the excess mold off with a damp cloth.

For this particular variety of cheddar, there’s not much to do now but wait for the flavor to develop to the desired sharpness. There’s many other things one can do, from poking tiny holes hrough the block so mold can grow inside (as seen in blue cheese), to placing it in a bath of brine. There are hundreds of cheeses out there, and a different method for each.

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