It’s been a while since I posted anything, and the endless summer has finally ended. Gone the baking dry sunshine, the ever-ripening tomatoes, the desertification of what once masqueraded as a lawn. The hydrangeas don’t need watering every day to stay alive and across France the grapes have been picked, sorted, crushed and vinified, now slumbering in cask. It was an early vintage, as normal these days, but the grapes were in the main healthy and the plaudits for 2022 are already growing, the domaines doubtless happy to have a decent volume crop after the hail-frost-rot reduced disaster of 2021. Sadly, the prices will only go one way.
But as Instagram floods with pictures of grapes tumbling into vats, vineyard workers silhouetted against the sunset and effusive thankyous to the pickers, my mind wanders to the forest that spreads literally across the road, less than 10 yards from our gate.
There’s a grassy verge that rises steeply up to the line of oaks that delineates the wood, recently dotted with what look like very fry-able forest mushrooms. Behind that you reach the interesting part. Most people think oaks (or their network of roots) are the gold dust, but though truffles like them, my quarry does not. Instead, walking the paths becomes perilous and noisy with the crackling and crunching of a million acorns underfoot and the ping-ping-splat as another one ricochets through the leaves until bouncing off the ground. I wear a hat as protection as an acorn from the top of an oak tree gathers considerable gravitational force by the time it hits your head.
But the bullet-like acorns pale in comparison when you think of the real McCoy. And here we need to pop back a few centuries. Oaks might put out roots that favour the formation of truffles, but as any Iberian ham lover knows, pigs adore acorns. But they also cannot resist an even more dangerous, prickly bomb of a nut, and that is why the Sun King ordained that the forest be planted with chestnut trees which grow at a rather faster rate than the regal oak. And so it is really to Louis XIV that I should give thanks when I don hat, grab wicker basket and head out a-hunting.
Yes, Keats’ glorious season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is also the close-bosomed friend of boletus edulis, the cepe or porcini, prince of funghi. I will head off with the dog for a walk, but circuit through and under the thousands of chestnuts, as it is here that the mycelium creep like invisible spiders’ webs fruited with sprouting ceps. It takes a few years to work out where they grow, and time to develop the eye, as scanning thousands of square metres of mud, chestnut leaves, twigs, dead leaves and fallen chestnuts can be tiring and brain-numbing, but here and there, maybe just once per acre, your glance will register a vertical white object and a rounded umbrella like dome of a cap in suitable chestnut brown. I think it is the white of the bulbous stem of a cep that really catches the eye, as the brown is perfectly camouflaged by the ocean of leaves.
It is really the season to be in Barolo, surrounded by the rolling slopes of gold and scarlet, Nebbiolo Barbera and Dolcetto, and here it’s the holm oaks and hazel nut trees that do the magic, to such an extent that everyone is so obsessed with truffles that mere porcini are overlooked. Nice, but if the humble mushroom here will set you back 30 euros a kilo in the market, a prime white truffle would be 10 times that. And yes, I mean 10.
My wife tells me that the reason she agreed to go out with me was my mushroom risotto (and the wine cellar?) and way back when, in London, I remember taking a would-be Italian girlfriend to Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden, long before he became the jovial, cuddly mushroom tv star, bless him. And that is where I learned to love making mushroom risotto.
3 decades later I was invited to a corporate meeting by SwissRe the insurance giant in Zurich, and the dinner entertainment was not a nice restaurant but an evening cooking in their corporate kitchen. I yawned with anticipated tedium.
Until I got there, walked in, and saw a tall, wiry man with chef’s hat. The face reminded me of the star chef from The Dorchester Hotel in the 1980s, a doyen of modern cuisine (was it nouvelle cuisine or cuisine minceur? Less butter sauce and cream anyway…). Michelin stars glittered and he went on to become chef to the queen etc. A cooking megastar before the era of ubiquitous (foul-mouthed?) tv chefs.
Anton Mosimann, still with the moustache, now white, and cooking guess what with us that night? Oh bliss. Apart from his charm and engaging stories (he has cooked for everyone), his risotto is very different, and raises what is basically an Italian comfort food of chicken stock made from your roast, mushrooms and rice to an altogether higher level of cuisine, with veal stock, madeira, cream and truffle oil. When I heard cream and flour, I scratched my head, until I saw and tasted it. Delicious, and something I look forward to every autumn, if the weather and forest permits. Last year, after a rotten summer, the autumn was Indian dry and relatively hot, and the mushrooms such as they were turned out to be infrequent, small and wormy. Hopeless. No risotto. Another year to wait (I refuse to buy them as it seems to admit defeat).
Risotto, but with market bought girolles..
But what to drink with this most seasonal and awaited of fare? This is, after all, supposed to be a wine blog. A cepe is great for its texture which, when young and firm, is almost crunchy, but the taste is delicate, gently nutty, nothing like the aromatic power of a truffle. My cocker could smell a truffle underground from a few yards away, but stick a bag of mushrooms under her nose and there’s no interest. Sadly, the only way to search for ceps is with your own eyes. Even the pigs can find acorns and chestnuts, and of course truffles, but not mushrooms.
You use white wine in making the rice, and indeed a white wine can marry well with the delicacy of the dish, though if you are using cream, butter, oil and of course parmesan, you need a blanc with sufficient body and, above all, acidity to cut through, which makes me think of a suitably aged burgundy. I think a really well aged Riesling would do the trick too, but from Alsace (or if from Germany, trocken), one that retains its lively acidity but has shifted to mature, nutty scents. Personally, I don’t think southern whites that depend on the sun work as they can be as the French would say ‘ecoeurant’, too much, like putting cream on top of butter…
If you are in Italy, it is usually rosso rather than bianco, and that’s my habit. Tannins don’t really react well, and, again, I am more for the north than the south. Bordeaux I find too heavy or rigid, unless it’s something like an old merlot (Pomerol). In the Rhone, I find the more elegant of syrah (Cote Rotie) comes to mind, but not the heavily oaked and extracted type. Likewise, the best versions of Cornas, bred of granite minerality, and even Hermitage (if you can avoid the weighty), but I’d say straying further south into Chateauneuf territory brings too much alcohol, spicey garrigue and power. Your mushrooms will not hold up against powerful grenache.
Which brings us (do all my roads lead this way?!) to Burgundy, the supreme wine for floral elegance and weightlessness. The perfect match, an earthy red fruited Gevrey, a rosebed from Chambolle, the elegance of Volnay… you pick (these days the budget probably being the major concern. I mean ceps are delicious, but don’t merit taking out a second mortgage…).
Aah, but I hear the distant siren call from my favourite place in autumn. If you are for porcini rather than cepes, then what to choose to accompany your tasty little piglets? Again, I go for the north more than the south. Below Rome I think you are in sunny territory, the fruit is powerful, the alcohol often high and the tannins tending to the more rustic. With perhaps the notable exception of the nerello-based wines from the high, ancient laval slopes of Mount Etna. Etna Rosso from an elevated contrada, made with the right hands can be a treat, and if you can find (& afford) those ancient pre-phylloxera vines, you are in for a treat. (The vine root munching and dreaded louse does not like volcanic lava).
But heading back up Italy, you invariably end up with the two main regions of Tuscany versus Piedmont and the fight of the B’s – Brunello or Barolo/Barbaresco. So, let’s start down below Florence. The coastal wines are predominantly cabernet based (Maremma, Bolgheri) and, like Bordeaux, not my thing here (& often in Italy they are on steroids to impress US critics). Non grazie. Brunello can also suffer from weight, extraction and over-maturity, but the rossos can go beautifully with risotto, especially if from the likes of Pian del’Orino or Poggio di Sotto, people who make wine to drink, not to impress. I’d also say that old style Chianti (from sangiovese also) is often a cheaper and less masculine bet than Brunello down south of Siena, and also ages nicely. Just avoid the new wave ‘gran selezione’ if they have dollops of dark, extracted cabernet for those critics that prefer gobs of fruit.
Which leaves the north and Nebbiolo, as barbera is too strong. Now you might say that I said tannin was not a great match, and if there is one wine that can be tannic, it’s Nebbiolo and Barolo, so you either need to find an aged, refined version, perhaps more from the La Morra side of the valleys than the Serralunga, or from Barbaresco, or head even further north to the steep, terraced Alpine slopes of Valtellina, where the mountain Nebbiolo is just a bit less weighty. Lovely.
Though the mushrooms we eat are all cepes from west of Paris, I tend to identify more with porcini, tartufi and Italy, so I must admit that when Nature gives me the chance to dig out my chef’s hat and try not to embarrass Anton’s marvellous recipe, I head for Nebbiolo.
Bussia is a ridiculously large vineyard in Monforte in Barolo, which has multiple sub-divisions and can produce everything from the sublime to the mundane. I was going to drink a single vineyard 2011 from the Bussia God Aldo Conterno until I noticed the 15% figure at the bottom of the label. So I went for a better vintage, 2010, but a less renowned grower, Prunotto, and just a generic Bussia. It was a fortunate choice – the wine was spot on for drinking now, only 13.5%, aromatic, gently almondy, ripe but with lovely orangey acidity. A super foil for the Swiss chef’s genius.
A few days later I had to travel to the UK and was staying with some friends with whom we holidayed in Monforte a year ago. Being banished to the wilds of southern England and away from the posh shops of the capital, they were sadly bemoaning the lack of mushroom/truffles and virtually groaning at my Whats Ap photos of forest funghi and the finished dish. In the end I set out early that morning with the dog hoping to be able to take pity and ferry across the Channel the all too precious ingredients. And though the conditions seemed iffy and the crop very sporadic, someone looked after us just enough for me to find the requisite number of prime grade ceps for dinner.
And Roger, a man with as much generosity as depth of Italian cellar, disappeared underground and pitched up in the kitchen clutching these two.
Angelo Gaja is a towering figure in Barbaresco. Indeed, many wine journalists and punters would say he is Barbaresco, (though the cognoscenti might demur in favour of the late Bruno GIacosa, a much more reserved and private man). Anyway, Senor Gaja did more to market his village than anyone else and dragged it into the modern era. He also skirted controversy, brough cabernet to the Langhe (not a move I really understand), and the abandoned the Barbaresco denomination he had done so much to empower by adding Barbera to his Nebbiolo (another move I find a bit surprising). The Gaja empire stretches all down the country, through Brunello and lately into Etna.
Anyway, like or dislike, this is one of the greatest producers in Barbaresco and the wines were super. The 1993 was the more obviously Nebbiolo, with that trademark tang of bitter almond and still a bit of Nebbiolo structure on the finish, perhaps suggesting that 29 years was pushing it a bit. The 1994 on the other hand was blissfully difficult to place as it was all melded together, soft, velvety and ripe, impossible to discern a specific fruit, texturally sensuous, a treat.
Thankyou Roger, thankyou Mr Mosimann and thank your Royal Highness Le Roi Soleil.