Spring in all its Glory
Season of fancy and of hope, Permit not for one hour, A blossom from thy crown to drop, Nor add to it a flower! Keep, lovely May, as if by touch Of self restraining art, This modest charm of not too much, Part seen, imagined part! William Wordsworth
It is difficult not to love the month of May, Maia the goddess of springtime and growth. The clocks are back and the days noticeably longer and warmer. The garden is a riot of colour and all those lazy summer days are still an enticing prospect to come. Winter, year end, the cold, it’s all behind you. A walk in the forest shows a carpet of bluebells (except that the wild boar here have rotivated the soil and trashed the flowers whilst seemingly spreading an ocean of suffocating bindweed) and if you happen to have a pond, when you approach it from a distance you’d swear there was a flock of ducks installed, such is the raucous quacking. But in fact, it’s not a quack but a croak, a throaty symphony from an orchestra of rasping frogs.
It's strange, we are all so busy, so preoccupied, so attached to our phones nowadyas that whoever stops in a forest in spring to listen to the birdsong? It’s so mellifluous, so varied and everywhere, like a 360 degree free chamber orchestra. But we never bother to take the time.
And as the bluebells bend their elegant necks and tinkle into seed, two of the best freebies from Nature sprout up. No, not the dandelions, though their benefits to health and garden are numerous, but nettles and wild garlic. The latter, an allium, should be picked in spring when it’s flowering, so as not to confuse it with autumn crocus (which is seriously toxic) or that other carpet of a spring forest, Lilley of the valley, which is also poisonous, though the delicate white bell flowers are a giveaway, and smell so sweet! The real wild garlic, well, look at its erect stem and crown of delicate white flowers, a head of multiple separate white stars. Or, more simply, just breath in deeply and smell. Its pretty pungent. You can eat the lot, flower, leaf, stem and bulb.
Now you may find stinging nettles an unlikely ‘benefit’, so put on your rubber gloves and then blanch them for a minute and the sting is gone and you are left with a super food and one of the hearts of biodynamic treatment. As I write this, some of the best winemakers in the world are out in the vineyards spraying dynamised nettles.
Ok, I am not going to go lunar, hippy or Steiner, but nettles and wild garlic have a number of things in common: they are abundant; they are free; they are good for you and they both make great pesto. Oh, and they grow like weeds. All you need is a pestle and mortar and some elbow grease (or you can cheat with a blender, but I prefer the more Luddite version), some pine nuts, olive oil and cheese. So easy, and so good on top of pasta, baked potatoes, you name it… and how nice to have something genuinely seasonal that probably grows on your doorstep.
I’m never quite sure what to drink with pesto. It is of course vegetarian, but can carry quite a garlic bite, though if you are indulgent you can soften that with a dash of cream. I’m not sure about tannic or heavy reds, but Burgundy and Beaujolais, or Valtellina Nebbiolo – wines with aromatics and softness all work well. So do whites, and here we have a couple of the indigenous carricante grape wines from ancient vineyards planted a century ago before Phylloxera. The louse cannot get through volcanic soil, so you can drink wines on their original rootstock, a genuine rarity.
They sit high up on Mount Etna, often around the thousand-meter mark, and were planted bush style – not in the neat rows trained along a trellis that we are so used to. Here you just have little vine bushes dotted over the mountainside, planted on the ‘caldera, or named lava flow vineyards.
Etna is fast becoming Italy’s (well, Sicily’s) answer to Burgundy with its specific sites and terroirs, plus that famous lava soil. Thankfully most of it is made with local grape varieties too, (nerello mascalese/cappuccio for the reds) and has not yet bowed to the tedious demand for yet more ‘international varieties’ – wines with recognisable names but no sense of place. The only downside is that as more and more vineyards sprout up, and more and more journalists rave, the prices escalate and I am not entirely convinced that the wines are (yet) that good. Very nice for sure, but they’ve only really been rediscovered and grown as quality wines for a couple of decades. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Anyway, Terre Nere is a top name and does make lovely pre-phylloxera wine. These two named sites produce elegant whites with lots of character, balance and the ability to age. A nice foil to your homemade pesto.
And whilst I’m rambling around, here’s another wine that goes just fine, but carries a definite value stamp, which is all too rare these days. In Burgundy I have watched premier crus charge what were recently grand cru prices and now some village wines do as well. Indeed, in some cases a simple Bourgogne can make you wince in disbelief. It’s as if the label stops at the domaine name, and nobody cares whether it’s their top vineyard or their toilet cleaner.
Domaine Jamet is a superstar in the Rhone, and, for my palate, way above the much publicised, flashily oaked Guigal La’La’s. But unlike in Burgundy, his basic Cote du Rhone is extremely affordable (under 30 euros) and is fleshy, tarry, cassis, juicy and, the 2017, still quite young – a baby Cote Rotie at half the price. Great value from a great domaine. Hallelujah!
Oh, and by the way, though Jamet is best known for his reds there is also an excellent Cote du Rhone white (60% Marsanne, 30% viognier, 7% roussane, 3% grenache blanc). Nowadays Jamet also makes a Condrieu if you want pure viognier, but that of course carries a different price tag.
It's funny how fashions change, or maybe it’s just the English who are behind the curve when it comes to food and foraging. I can remember friends of mine making nettle soup maybe thirty years ago in Scotland, and it was viewed as a bit wild and weird, well, until you tasted it when it seemed obvious, free and very good. As for garlic, as a teenager I used to fish in Devon in May and the riverbanks were awash with the stuff. I eventually found out that it was ‘wild garlic’ but I presumed it was like crab ‘apples’, i.e. inedible, as absolutely nobody ever ate it. And yet now every halfway trendy restaurant has wild garlic on its menu. No doubt the chefs are delighted to have such an easy to find and free ingredient. No need to pay for wild asparagus, truffles, morels or the like. It’s free, but you can still make the customer pay…
Our local forest was planted with oaks and chestnuts as the king, Louis XIV, (we are near Versailles), liked to hunt the sangliers (boar) and they pig out on chestnuts and acorns. Given the clay soil, the oaks are no good for a food hunter, (you need limestone for truffles), but the chestnuts are a haven for the mystical webs of mycorrhizae that, here, give birth to cepes (porcini) – the prince of mushrooms. So, in October you will find me pretending to walk the dog, but, in reality, looking for cepes to make risotto.
Risotto. My wife jokes that it was either my risotto ai funghi or my wine cellar that inveigled her into marrying me, and it’s true, I love to make mushroom, Milanese/saffarn or prawn risotto, greatly helped by the fact that it’s so idiot proof to cook. So, when we received an invitation to dinner this week, with a menu attached, I had a light bulb moment.
I jumped onto the internet to find a recipe, and there was one from Sally Clarke, a well-known chef whose restaurant in Notting Hill I used to eat in 30 years ago.
Wild garlic risotto. Why did I never think of it? So easy, healthy, tasty, stock boiled up with your roast chicken carcass, thyme and garlic from the garden.
As for wine, we branched out with something different. I’ve lived in France for 31 years and spent many a holiday across the border in Italy, so you can guess where my palate lies. I don’t like to compare everything to France, but if we are talking indigenous French grape varieties, it’s difficult not to. With cabernet I have no problem – one of my favourites is Ridge Montebello and that’s a long way from Bordeaux up in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Italy, Argentina, Chile, Australia, there are compelling examples from all around the globe. Chardonnay is more difficult, but as I wrote last time, South Africa, California, Argentina can come up with lovely wines (& Haytesbury in Margaret River, Australia and doubtless many more). But. Yes, a large but. But pinot..??
I’ve tried lots from the USA, California and Oregon, and with the odd exception they all taste almost sweet, often with a strange coca cola taste, no acidity, no tannin and are very easy to drink. Pleasant but nothing to excite or enthral. If you move to Argentina, I’d have to say pretty much similar, and then Italy and elsewhere, well, nothing I would buy again.
These days New Zealand seems to be even trendier for pinot than for its famed catspee on a gooseberry bush sauvignon blanc. But I am afraid that the four examples we’ve tried, all from reputed estates, were all very ‘funky’ and, frankly weird. Sorry, half of them we did not even finish.
So when a good friend, and well known restauranter and wine connoisseur gave us a bottle, and he happens to hail from New Zealand, we thought we’d best pay attention. Dry River from Martinborough. From what I read, it’s high up the scale, so how would it compare, even if I don’t want to hold everything up to a Burgundian mirror?
First of all, it complimented the risotto just fine. Darker colour than ‘back home’, and a denser nose of dark fruit. The texture was thicker, a bit soupy, a sort of pinot meets syrah, and the palate very spicey and quite medicinal. And that’s where it becomes difficult to judge – as a wine it was undoubtedly good, but as a pinot, if you try to assess it by Cote d’Or standards, it did not have the structure (acidity & tannin) or purity, and was a lot less elegant. I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison to make, but if you spend too much time in Burgundy, it’s very tough to avoid doing so.
As you might have gathered, I do love to fly fish, and May is the month of the Mayfly, one of the wonders of nature, when beautiful insects the size of your thumb hatch in the thousands and spiral up into the sky in their mating dance like clouds of whirling ballerinas. Their life is so ephemeral (the genus is ephemera) that their adulthood lasts just a day or two, but for the trout they represent a mass of easy calories. Comfort food with second, and third helpings aplenty.
What better then, than to dig up a couple of wild garlic bulbs on the riverbank, plant them in a wine box back home and think of wild garlic risotto next spring? The wine box is not just because I love wine, but garlic is like mint, invasive, and if you simply dig it into your garden, you’ll soon be swamped by it everywhere. Keep it in a box and you stop it spreading out of control. And, after all, what else are you going to do with all those empty wine boxes? I think my garlic grows in William Fevre grand cru Chablis boxes which, I have to say, is a pretty good match.
The Mayfly hatch can be so thick that they land on you, your fishing rod, your hand – even your picnic Meursault… Porusots sits just above the village of Meursault at the northern end of the best premier crus (along with Boucheres and Goutte d’Or) and represents the (slightly) more affordable part of the golden slope until you hit the magic trio of Genevrieres, Charmes and Perrieres just to the south (and you credit card wilts). It’s a little cooler and perhaps a bit more robust, but Antoine Jobard has a good chunk (half a hectare is pretty big here…) and makes a lovely wine, with suitably mineral, tingly backbone. Mayfly, garlic and Meursault, it’s a great trio.
So, get out there with your trowel or scissors, plus of course your corkscrew, and have yourself a healthy, low-cost feast and, for a few minutes, forget the endless media depression about inflation and the cost of living.