Saturday, June 10, 2017

Safran – Saffron. Saffron, the Most Expensive Spice in the World. Saffron on French Menus.

Behind the French Menus
Bryan G. Newman
Saffron threads.

Saffron’s color, aroma, and the taste that it imparts to certain dishes are unique; even the few who do not appreciate saffron’s taste will not dispute the unique golden hue with which saffron infuses the dishes with which it is prepared.
The saffron crocus.
What makes saffron so expensive?
Saffron comes from the flower called the saffron crocus, with some 150,000 flowers needed for one kilogram of dried saffron.  Inside every flower, there are just some 12 threads, correctly called styles and stigmas, which are the saffron spice. These threads can only be harvested by hand and that single kilo comes from about half an acre of flowers. The threads range from orange to dark red and are taken from the heart of the flower, any yellow threads included are tasteless and worthless.  France has always grown saffron, but every year more and more is imported; when French saffron is being used, you may be sure that it will be indicated on the menu.  Spain was once France’s largest foreign supplier but it is also now producing less; countries like Iran and Thailand produce more. Europe cannot compete with the cost of hand labor and saffron remains the most expensive spice in the world.

Saffron on French Menus:

Filet de Maigre Label Rouge, Émulsion au Safran des Ardennes - A filet of meagre, the fish, also called croaker or salmon bass,  prepared with a thick sauce using saffron from the French Ardennes. The French department of the Ardennes is now part of the region of the Grand Est, previously the Champagne-Ardenne region. Just over the northern border is the region of the Belgian Ardennes; that is the site of the bloody Battle of the Bulge which was the last German offensive in Europe in WWII. These farmed fish meagre are raised in huge open nets, with plenty of space, in the clear waters off the coast of Corsica.  To achieve  France's red label for quality these fish are highly rated for their taste and raised in the absence of antibiotics and all other unwanted additives.
La Véritable Bouillabaisse – The authentic bouillabaisse.   Do not order an hors d’oeuvre or an entrée if you are in a restaurant that serves traditional bouillabaisse; it is an enormous stew which includes at least four different fish prepared in a soup flavored with saffron.  In a restaurant that wants to impress it will be served in two different stages. Bouillabaisse is the most famous of all France’s saffron flavored dishes. 
A bouillabaisse
Photograph courtesy of nyaa_birdies_perch.
 Noix de Saint-Jacques Poêlées, Beurre d'Agrumes et Safran – The meat of the king scallop lightly fried with a citrus butter and saffron sauce.

Moules au Safran et Frites  Mussels prepared in a broth flavored with saffron and served with French fries, in the UK chips.
Saffron flavored crème caramel.

Pavé de Turbot au Safran – A thick cut of turbot, the fish, cooked with a saffron based sauce.

Risotto d'Orge Perlé au Poireau et au Safran – A risotto made with pearled barley flavored with leeks and saffron. (Pearled barley is barley that has had its hull and bran removed).

Crème Brûlée au Safran - Crème Brûlée flavored with saffron.
When you buy saffron for your home, there should only be dark orange to deep reddish threads, no yellow mixed with the red. Neither should saffron be powdered or inexpensive; if you see discounted saffron it probably is not saffron!  The best saffron will cost over 8 Euros per gram, and anything under 5 Euros per grams should be viewed with suspicion

The history of Saffron

Despite most assumptions saffron did not originate in the Middle or Far East; botanists have determined that saffron developed on the Greek island of Crete.
For the history of saffron see the websites of Gernot Katzer, Gernot Katzer’s Spice-Pages,  and  Eric Schoenzetter’s, Toil'd'Épices.  I use these two very knowledgeable individuals to check on all the information and misinformation on the history of herbs and spices that I collect along the way.

(The Toil d’Épice website is in French only but with the Bing and Google translate apps it is easily understood.

Crocus Sativus

Saffron in the languages of France’s neighbors:

(Catalan - safrà), (Dutch -  saffraan), (German – safran), (Italian – zafferano), (Spanish – azafrán).
Connected Posts:
"Behind the French Menu: links includes many other words, names, and phrases that are often seen on French menus. To search for more articles like this one simply add the word or words you are searching for along with the words "Behind the French Menu" and search with Google or Bing. There are nearly 400 articles out there that include over 1,000 French dishes, and many more words or phrases that include English explanations, translations, and explanations.
Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2017

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Sancerre Wines and Sancerrois. Sancerre Wines on French Menus.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman
Sancerre Blanc
Sancerre La Mercy Dieu, Domaine Bailly Reverdy

Sancerre is a beautiful, small, hilltop town with a medieval aspect; it is set nearly in the geographic center of France. The town has maybe 2,000 inhabitants and is the source of the name for the white, rosé and red Sancerre AOC/AOP wines. The area around the town is called Sancerrois and with 14 other communes (towns or villages and the area around them) produce the Sancerre wines, but not everything in Sancerrois is vineyards. The area is famous for its many goat cheeses especially the Crottin de Chavignol AOC/AOP produced in and around the village of Chavignol, next door to the town of Sancerre.

Getting to Sancerre
Bourges was the capital of the ancient Province of Berry and is now the capital of the department of Cher and Sancerre is in Cher.  Bourges, itself a beautiful and absorbing city is just 46km (29 miles) from Sancerre. It takes about 50 minutes by car or bus from Bourges to Sancerre; however, avoid the train which is indirect and takes over three hours with changes.

Bourges Cathedral

The History of the Sancerre wines.

As may be expected Sancerre was a wine growing area of France from when the Romans arrived in the area and they planted grape vines they brought from home; very different to the grapes grown today. (The Romans occupied Provence in 121 BCE and after Julius Caesar defeated the Gauls in 51 BCE the Romans settled France and made it part of the Roman Empire.  Roman rule ended with the Battle of Soissons in 486 CE.)

The Sancerre White Wines.

The white Sancerre Blanc, white wine, is made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes with a minimum of 10.5% alcohol. Sancerre whites wines were amongst the first wines to be granted an AOC in 1936 when the AOC became part of France’s official labeling system for wines.  The light red and rose wines, both made with pinot noir grapes, received their AOC’s in 1959.

Across the River Loire from Sancerre on the right side is the appellation for Pouilly-Fumé. whose wines are also made with Sauvignon Blanc grapes, but with very different tastes. There is also a huge difference in the taste of the Sancerre Blanc wines within its own appellation. That difference I was told comes from the very different soils in the appellation.

To buy a Sancerre Blanc wine, you need an up-to-date wine book or a knowledgeable friend who will explain the differences among the Sancerre Blanc wines. In a restaurant, a knowledgeable sommelier, (wine waiter) will help if he or she is given a budget.  I was on a sales trip to Bourges, nothing to do with wine, to visit a customer who invited me to his home for dinner.  At dinner, he served a white Sancerre that showed that all my previous tastings were of mediocre wines. Here I received a lesson on the very different Sancerre white wines; the best come from specific vineyards and vintners and are often aged.  Later I checked the cost of the wine that was served at dinner, and in a restaurant, a bottle would have been more than the cost of dinner for one. I try not to pay more for wine than the cost of the main courses; nevertheless, if someone else is paying I am happy to accept the invitation. 

Château de Sancerre and park
In the background is the town of Sancerre.

The Sancerre Reds and Sancerre Rosés

The Sancerre Rouge, Red wines, and the Sancerre Rosé wines have 10% alcohol and are both are made with Pinot Noir grapes. The red Sancerre is a light red that goes with well with duck and also certain fish dishes. The Sancerre Rosé wines have a very different taste to the light reds as the grape skins are separated from the wine at a very early stage.

Sancerre Rosé wines.

Wines just outside the Sancerre Appellation.

Wines made outside the Sancerre AOC appellation may not carry the Sancerre AOC label.  Most are classified as IGP wines that previously were known as Vin de Pays du Val de Loire and now are called Vins de Val de Loire IGP.  Here the cognoscenti look for bargains in wines made in the same manner as Sancerre wines but outside the boundaries of the Appellation. If they find an excellent IGP wine with the taste of a good AOC Sancerre, they may save more than 25% or 30% of the prices when they buy a crate. Good restaurants with a local clientele will stock up on these wines and offer them as house wines.  With a good wine and low prices, the customers will return again and again.

Sancerre on French menus:
Andouillette AAAAA (Christophe Thierry) Rôtie Sauce Sancerre Andouillette AAAAA sausages made by Christophe Thierry, a highly rated producer from the town of Troyes.  In this menu listing the sausage is roasted and served with a Sancerre wine sauce.  Andouillettes are a pork intestine sausage that is quite strong; some call them the French chitterlings.

Andouillette de Troyes in a mustard sauce.
Photograph courtesy of Ross Bruniges
Filet de Bar sur Fondue de Poireaux, Sauce Sancerre – A filet of European Sea Bass served on a bed of leeks that have almost been cooked to the consistency of a jam, and all is served with a Sancerre wine sauce.
Le Dos de Cabillaud Sauce Sancerre et Purée Maison – A thick cut from the back of a cod, the fish, prepared with a Sancerre wine sauce and served with the house’s special potato puree.
Omble Chevalier Sauce Sancerre - Freshwater Char prepared in a sauce made with a Sancerre wine. Freshwater char come from France’s rivers and lakes and are one of France’s tastiest freshwater fish.

Fishing for trout and freshwater char near Sancerre.
Photograph courtesy of Grégory Ménard
Pavé de Saumon Grillé à la Plancha, Riz Pilaf et Légumes du Marché à la Sauce Sancerre – A thick cut of Atlantic salmon grilled on the plancha served with a rice pilaf and the season’s vegetables; all is accompanied by a Sancerre wine sauce.

Tournedos de Bœuf en Robe de Lard Paysan et sa Sauce Sancerre Rouge – A tournedos, a thick cut from a beef filet, the tenderloin, cooked while wrapped in country bacon and served with a red Sancerre wine sauce.

Quenelle de Brochet, Sauce Sancerre Blanc Pike, the fish, made into dumplings served with a white Sancerre wine sauce. (Pike dumplings are a traditional dish and a French comfort food)

In the cellars of the Delaporte’s family.
The Delaporte Domain has been family owned since the 17th century.
Photograph courtesy of Jameson Fink
The cheeses of Sancerrois

The most famous cheese in Sancerrois is the Crottin de Chavignol AOC, a goat’s cheese mostly made in and around the village of Chavignol just 3.7km (2.19 miles) from Sancerre. At the same time, many villages in the area make other cheeses that are excellent, but most are only available locally because their production is small and without a minimum production level they remain mostly unknown in the rest of France. In local fromagers, cheese shops, you may buy them, and at least one or two will be on local restaurant cheese plates.  However, the best way to enjoy these cheeses is to take a cold bottle of white Sancerre and three or four local cheese plus the Crottin de Chanvignol and have a picnic. Do not buy more than 30 grams of cheese per person or you will have a lot left over.

Goats’ cheeses from Sancerrois.
The light colored cheeses are ten days old
and the cheese with the all-blue rind is three months old.
The fetes in Sancerre and Sancerrois
With advice from the local Tourist Information Office, you will see that many of the nearby villages have fetes for their cheeses, snails, and wines. From April through August these villages have about nine or ten fetes of their own.  To that add the town of Sancerre with its own seven or more fetes. One of the Sancerre fetes includes their neighbors’ Crottin de Chavignol AOC cheese and another that celebrates Sancerre wines and oysters.

The wine routes of Sancerre

If you are not in the area at a time that coincides with one of the fêtes, there is still much to do in the area around Sancerre. Take from the French Government Tourist Office a map of the local route de vins, the wine roads; the maps include places of interest along with farms that make cheeses and, of course, restaurants. While the wine routes of the whole of the Centre Pay du Loire covers all its appellations and is more than 300 km (187 miles) long the local part of the route may be enjoyed in a day’s drive.

Signpost to the wine route in Sancerrois and all Loire wines.

The Tourist Information Office in Sancerre has an English language website:

For additional information on what is happing in Sancerrois write to the Tourist Information Office, in English.

Additionally, there is an excellent website from the Doyen of wine routes, Jacques Coeur but it is in French. Nevertheless, if you use the Bing or Google translate apps you will miss very little:

The routes de vin in the Jacques Coeur website above covers all of the wines in the ancient province of Berry.

Other sites in Sancerroise.

Depending on your interests, especially if you are traveling with children, consider the Musée de la Sorcellerie, the museum of witchcraft (open in July and August in the village of Blancafort 39 km (miles) from Sancerre. The museum has an English language website:

Connected Posts:

The Plancha or Planxa in French Cuisine. The Plancha on French Menus.

To check if Behind the French Menu has other words, names or phrases that are on your French menu simply add the word or words you are searching for along with the words "Behind the French Menu." Then search with Google or Bing. There are nearly 400 articles out there that include over 1,000 French dishes, and many more words or phrases that include English explanations, translations, and explanations.

Bryan G. Newman
Copyright 2010, 2017

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Époisses (Epoisses) AOC the Premier Cheese from Burgundy (Bourgogne – Franche-Comte).

Behind the French Menu
Bryan G. Newman

A properly aged Époisses.

Époisses is a strongly flavored, slightly salty, slightly nutty, very creamy, pale beige, 50% fat, cow’s milk cheese made from pasteurized and non-pasteurized milk. The Époisses is also a very smelly cheese, but its smell has no relation to its strong but excellent taste. The rind is shiny, smooth or slightly wrinkled and can vary between a light yellowy orange to a deep orange-red; the older the cheese gets, the more wrinkles will be seen on the rind.
An Époisses cheese that has just been tested.

The origins of the Époisses’ cheese.
The origin of the cheese’s name is a small village called Époisses, part of a commune in the department of Côte-d'Or.  The village has a population of less than 1,000 and is just 91 km (57 miles) from the city of Dijon.

A fromager, a cheese merchant, with an impressive shop in the wine center city of Beaune said the cheese dates back to the 16th century when it was created by the Cistercian monks in Abbey of Notre-Dame de Cîteaux some 30 km from Beaune. He said that the monks from this Abbey taught the farmers’ and their wives, from Époisses, how to make the cheese.  (Époisses is 112 km (70 miles), from the Abbey).
Epoisses on French Menus:

Entrecôte Grillée Sauce Époisses – A grilled entrecote steak served with a sauce made with the Époisses cheese.

Croustades d'Escargots aux Morilles et à l'Époisses Toasted bread served with snails and wild morel mushrooms with Époisses cheese. (A croustarde, like that in the menu listing above, is often very similar to an Italian bruschetta).

Faux Filet à la Crème d'Époisses - A US strip steak (a UK sirloin), served with a cream of Époisses cheese sauce.

Tarte Flambée à l’Époisses de BourgogneTarte Flambée or Flammen Kuechen from the region of Alsace.  (Since 1-1-2016 Alsace has been part of the new super region of Grande Est formed together with the regions of  Champagne-Ardenne and the Lorraine).

The traditional tarte flambée is a rolled out, very thin, pâte à pain, bread dough, covered with crème fraîche and a soft white cheese baked in the oven. The cheese used is a local cheese from the Alsace called bibeleskaes; to this are added thinly sliced onions and lardons, smoked or fried bacon bits all baked together in an oven for about ten minutes. Today many different flavors may be part of a Tarte Flambée, and  Époisses cheese is one of them.
An Époisses ready for serving.

Onglet de Bœuf Charolais Grillé, Sauce Époisses A US hanger steak or London broil and a UK skirt steak. Here the grilled steak comes from the very highly rated Charolaise beef served with a sauce made from the Époisses cheese.
Tartiflette à l'Époisses - Tartiflette began as a whole, baked, Reblochon cheese poured, as it melts, over boiled potatoes with some recipes adding crème fraîche to the cheese. To a tartiflette on the side may be added bacon, local dried meats, sausages or ham. A good recipe has many copies, and the tartiflette noted here is made using the Époisses cheese.

The Château d'Epoisses.
Now a place for meetings and conferences.

The Époisses cheese, like many other French cheeses, was very popular in the 19th century but with WWI, WWII  and the Great Depression farmer's could not make a living and production practically ended.  Then in the 1950’s Robert and Simone Berthaut, at the time artisan cheese makers in the village of Époisses began reintroducing the Époisses cheese. Today the Berthaut’s have a modern dairy and they, along with two other dairies and one farmer artisan producer, makes the cheese which has held  AOC status since 1991.
   The village of Époisses.
While these cheeses are maturing, they are rinsed with water and then dipped in Burgundy's Marc de Bourgogne about three times a week.  (Marc is the French version of Italian Grappa, a brandy made with the grape skins, leaves, etc,  that are left over in making regular brandies). The washing in Marc de Bourgogne inhibits mold growth, and that, in turn, allows in bacteria, which give the cheese its distinctive aroma and flavor to grow along with the flavor added by the Marc. After four weeks the Époisses AOC cheese is considered mature; however, the cheese is sold when the pate inside is still slightly granular, becoming creamier as the cheese matures. When bought in a fromager, a cheese shop, or ordered in a restaurant, if they have continued the aging process correctly, the cheese will have a smooth, creamy pate. The Époisses aficionados consider the cheese perfect when it can be eaten with a spoon

Washing and dipping an Époisses.
The sizes of Époisses

The cheese comes in two sizes and is sold in thin wooden boxes.  The smallest is about 10cm across and weighs between 250 and 350 grams (between 9 and 12 ounces). The larger size depends on the producer and may weigh from 700 to 1100 grams (25 to 39 ounces).

Pasteurized and unpasteurized Époisses cheeses.

One dairy (Gaugry) and the Bartkowiez farm produces Époisses in unpasteurized versions while the other two dairies make the cheese with pasteurized milk and that is the version that is sold to the USA. The UK permits the import inspected unpasteurized cheeses from members of the European Union.
The cheeses of Burgundy.
Burgundy is more famous for its wines than its cheeses, but five cheeses made in Burgundy have been granted AOC status:

Chaource, AOC/AOP; a cow’s milk cheese. (Le Chaource originated in the town of Chaource in the department of Aube in the region of the Champagne-Ardenne.  (Champagne -Ardenne since 1-1-2016 is part of the new super region of Grande Est, to the North of Burgundy-Franche-Comte).
Charolais  AOC/AOP; a goat’s milk cheese.
Époisses, AOC/AOP; a cow’s milk cheese.
Mâconnais, AOC/AOP; a goat’s milk cheese
Soumaintrain AOC/AOP; a cow's milk cheese.

There are many other fine cheeses in Burgundy without an AOC on the label. Look for cheeses like the Ami Du Chambertin (cow's milk), Montrachet (goat's milk) and the Aisy-Cendre (cow's milk) among many many others. To enjoy the cheeses of Burgundy on a picnic, and there are at least fifty different cheeses to choose from, buy three or four cheeses along with a baguette and a bottle of a cold Burgundy white wine. N.B. When buying four different cheeses for your picnic, do not buy more than 30 grams of cheese per person or you will have a lot left over; I speak from experience.
Connected Posts:


Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2017.

For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman