Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Byrrh tonic wine: big business from a bygone era

In addition to the once fashionable fortified wines of Banyuls and Rivesaltes, hot, fertile Roussillon is also home to what was one of the biggest ever French wine companies, Byrrh.

In France during the late 19th and early 20th century, in stark contrast to the fragmented production we see today, there were wine businesses large enough to dominate their markets. Only Champagne currently succeeds in this way due to grandes marques investing heavily in branding and the region aggressively protecting its name legally if they think anyone is using it inappropriately.

During this period large companies across Europe sourced grapes from countless small growers, feeding them into fortified wines, vermouths and other wine products such as 'tonic' wines. Many of the labels remain, but production has been radically scaled back due to changes in fashion and taste. In France, in the Mediterranean port of Marseillan Noilly Prat has produced highly regarded vermouth from local grapes Clairette and Picpoul de Pinet since 1855. Further along the coast in Roussillon Thuir is home to Byrrh established by the Violet brothers in 1866.

The name Byrrh (pronounced 'beer') might be vaguely familiar, particularly from eye-catching vintage posters, but you probably haven't drunk it. Byrrh is a 'tonic' wine – in this case, local red wine, fortified then aromatised with botanicals like gin, but heavy on quinine. Winemaking is similar to Rivesaltes and Banyuls – partially fermented and then fortified to 17 degrees by the addition of spirit. Orange peel, cinnamon, coffee and cocoa, as well as the quinine were use to flavour the wine. The result is aromatic, sweet and spicy and distinctly bitter. Rather like Campari, but richer and smoother and very old fashioned tasting; the bitterness gives it a medicinal quality, making it feel as though it's doing you good. What's more, it certainly tastes stable enough to withstand lengthy storage and shipping to far flung French colonies in the days before refrigeration.

After several decades of magnificent marketing, by the time of its heyday in the 1930s annual sales were in excess of 35 million litres and Byrrh had 50 percent of the aperitif market. The company sourced grapes from Corbières, Tautavel, Espira de l'Agly and Cases de Pene and employed 700 at its factory in Thuir, and the company boasted the world's largest oak vat with a capacity of 1,000,200 litres.

The factory in Thuir has recently been renovated by current owners, Pernod-Ricard who also use it for Dubonnet. Regular guided tours take place (in French, but a written translation is available) that give a fascinating glimpse of another age and a different approach to business; like the Cadbury family, the Violets always tried to maintain certain principles and an appreciation of their staff. A visit is also worthwhile just to experience the impressive scale of the operation. It's a pleasure strolling around this handsome little town and there are several good lunch options nearby, making it a decent day out if you're in the area.

Byrrh might be making its presence felt again in export markets, benefitting from the renewed interest in cocktails and vintage ingredients. Keep an eye out as it could be finding its way behind a bar near you soon. However, as our tastebuds are being reintroduced to bitter flavours via Aperol Spritz and Negronis, it's a logical step. Mind you, in the Italian Alps recently I had a glass of Fernet Branca, but that's another story.

Caves Byrrh
Boulevard Violet
66300 Thuir
Tel + 33 (0)4 68 53 45 86

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Posh Chinese and Provence Rosé

This doesn't sound the most obvious combination, but a recent dinner at Hakkasan in Mayfair stylishly demonstrated how well Provence Rosé go with seriously good Chinese cuisine. A series of superb Cantonese dishes served with an elegant selection of delicate, bone dry rosés on a cold winter evening was a memorable experience. Crisp, gently aromatic wines with the most subtle pink hue were especially happy with hot fresh chillies and spring onions and cut a swathe through deep fried dishes. More predictably they were also great with delicately flavoured dim sum.

I particularly liked Stephen Cronk's flavoursome Mirabeau Côtes de Provence 2013 (available from Waitrose at £8.99, but do take a look at his entertaining website). It had a good depth of colour and refreshing structure making it a versatile partner to all the dishes. My other favourite was the paler more delicate and firm Domaine Houchart Côtes de Provence Sainte-Victoire 2013 (The Wine Society have stocked this at £8.50, but, checking their website, it seems to have sold out). This was equally versatile, but with a cool minerality – delicious, especially with the steamed brill. Both great value wines for under a tenner, although perhaps worryingly quaffable!

At this time of year, when your palate feels a little jaded or if you need a refreshing treat after a dry January, a light dry rosé could be much more energising and satisfying than a hefty red. Surprise yourself. You might not make it to Hakkasan, but bear Provence Rosé in mind for Chinese New Year in February or even for a decent takeaway.

I attended the dinner as a guest of Provence Wines.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Chilli venison casserole with chocolate

I made this Mexican 'mole' inspired casserole in the slow cooker at the weekend and, apart from having to deal with all the shallots, it was very easy indeed. What's more at this time of year it's so useful to literally throw several ingredients in the pot and a few hours later, as if by magic, have a delicious warming meal. My slow cooker was a Christmas gift from my parents last year and we use it constantly. As well as being an incredibly efficient bit of kit, there is something deeply reassuring about knowing that dinner is taken care of and you can get on with your day.

This is based on a recipe from Slow Cooking: Best New Recipes by Annette Yates and Norma Miller which doesn't look or sound terribly inspiring, but has become my slow cooking bible. It serves 6 people.

900g stewing venison, cut into cubes
3 rashers of streaky bacon
12 shallots, peeled and sliced into quarters
2 red chillies, seeds removed, finely sliced
150g cranberries
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
400ml stock (ideally venison or beef)
150ml port or red wine
freshly ground black pepper
55g dark chocolate

Firstly preheat the slow cooker to High. Place everything apart from the chocolate in the slow cooker, cover with the lid and cook on Low for 6 to 8 hours. Everything goes straight in without having to fry the meat or shallots/onions first. Just before serving stir through the chocolate and check the seasoning. You might need to thicken the sauce slightly if it's a bit thin with some cornflour mixed with water.

The ingredients cook down beautifully resulting in a warmly spicy dish and meltingly tender venison. As a crunchy garnish I made a gremolata with a handful of breadcrumbs fried until golden with butter and a crushed clove of garlic, combined with finely grated orange zest and chopped parsley.

Served with steamed cabbage and a bottle of Rioja Reserva, it was a perfect winter meal.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Home made candied peel

This is a real winter favourite and something I make most years as Christmas gifts – what's not to love about home made candied peel, especially dipped in chocolate. You often see recipes for it in the run up to Christmas as it's photogenic and sounds so luxurious, but they are rarely honest about how long it can take. The method hinges on the sugar syrup dried out fully and this depends on the atmosphere. Last year mine weren't ready in time for Christmas after leaving them for a week to dry out and I think all the damp weather was the problem. However, if you start now and use a warm airing cupboard (or low oven if it comes to it), you should be fine.

You can use any citrus fruit, but I prefer orange as it goes better with chocolate. Select unwaxed fruit or failing that, scrub the skins thoroughly. Divide 6 oranges into quarters and carefully cut away the flesh from the pith and peel. Slice this into strips or leave in larger pieces to use in cooking (cakes, buns, mincemeat etc). Place in a large saucepan or preserving pan and cover with water. Over a low heat simmer until soft. Drain away the water and repeat the process. Strain the fruit and reserve the cooking water for the syrup.

Make a syrup by dissolving 600g granulated sugar in 300ml water, bring it to the boil and let it bubble until slightly thickened. Add the cooked peel. Over a low heat allow it to simmer gently until the peel has absorbed all the syrup – this might take two hours or so and swirl the pan occasionally in case the peel is sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Once all the syrup has been absorbed, arrange the peel on drying racks spaced so the air can circulate. I put the racks on large trays lined with cling film or baking parchment as the sticky syrup drips off the fruit and makes a real mess (I learned this the hard way first time around). Rearrange them every couple of days.

Once fully dry, if you like, dip the peel in melted dark chocolate, alternatively, larger pieces can be snipped up to use in cooking. Store in airtight containers. To say it's better than shop bought candied peel is quite an understatement. It's fabulous with Vin Santo, but Tokaji and other well flavoured sweet wines also work beautifully.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

A walk around Banyuls sur Mer

On holiday in France in the summer we took some time out for a leisurely stroll around Banyuls. Banyuls sur Mer is overshadowed by its neighbour Collioure, but this makes it much more enjoyable to visit. Parking is less of a problem (or you can take the bus that runs along the coast during the season) and you don't have to negotiate gawping tourists wherever you go.

Banyuls has oodles of character and a charming sedate elegance. It has the gently buzzy vibe of a small beach resort, but you're always aware of the dramatic terraced vineyards and olive groves in the near distance. Here in deepest Catalan France, you never forget that Spain is only a few kilometres down the coast. However, strolling around the town is not as relaxing as it sounds as you'll see from the pictures – there are a lot of stairs involved. It's well worth it, though, as the views are so spectacular and there'll always be something delicious to sip afterwards.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Argelès and Le Racou

I was in two minds about writing this as it feels like I'm sharing a secret. However, I'll tell you about one of my favourite places in Roussillon, the far corner of Mediterranean France where we spend our summer holidays. Le Racou is a small, unshowy beach resort just south of Argelès before the coastline becomes more rugged and continues through Collioure and Banyuls before it reaches Spain.

Argelès is a large sprawling place catering to mass tourism, but particularly well know for its campsites (previously used by refugees from the Spanish Civil War, but rather more luxurious now). It has a long, straight, wide beach and popular with families. There is an old town further inland, but the coastal resort Argelès Plage grew with the advent of the railways, and, if you scratch the surface and look away from the crowds swarming around the shops, bars and restaurants, there are several elegant streets of fin de siècle villas. All along the seafront are beautifully maintained gardens overlooked by some of the town's finest buildings. To those early holidaymakers stepping off the train from cool northern France, this must have felt like heaven.

In contrast, Le Racou feels intimate and tucked away, fringed by pine woods and nestling against a dramatically rocky promontory that marks the beginning of the Côte Vermeille. Le Racou is at the end of a sweep of straight coastline that runs pretty much all the way from the Rhône delta and the Camargue. Unlike the beaches further north, the sand is less fine and gives your feet quite a tingling workout, but it doesn't matter as you'd have been charmed by then.

Many of Le Racou's beach huts were built to temporarily house Spanish exiles during the 1930s, but now make desirable holiday accommodation. Just the one paved road accesses the village, otherwise there is a network of sandy tracks. A few old fashioned bucket and spade shops punctuate the main road, along with a boulangerie, a smattering of bars and restaurants and a couple of hotels. There are a few newer developments tastefully screened by the pines, but they don't spoil the laid back, uncommercial atmosphere.

Apparently previous communities have wanted to make Le Racou independent and, with its chilled out, alternative vibe, you can see why. It's great that it's managed to retain such a bohemian outlook. It reminds me of Le Canon on Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast with its oyster huts, and Gruisson further up the coast near Narbonne with its fisherman's shacks on stilts (where the movie Betty Blue was filmed) – distinctive, relaxed places with an easy nonchalance. Just what holidays should be all about.

Le Canon

Le Canon