I’m in Piemonte now, spending a month wrapping up final interviews and research for my book project on the wine women of the Langhe and Roero.
It’s mid-May, a time when the weather can be unpredictable, but is generally kind to visitors and vintners. Although snowstorms still plague my home in the Colorado Rockies, here the sun is shining. At my agriturismo in the countryside, I am suspended between Heaven and earth, azure blue skies and rolling green hills.
Unfortunately, my experiences haven’t always been like today. The shyness of the sun in those early trips nearly foiled later adventures to the region. How I came to love this land and find a connection so deep that I am consumed with writing about it is something that did not come easy.
Since so many of my storytelling-moments involve Piemonte, people often people ask why I’m drawn to the province, particularly the Langhe and Roero, the two most prominent wine districts (my apologies to Montferrato and northern Piemonte wineries). It’s a fair question and actually quite easy to answer. This region in the northwestern corner of Italy is an endearing amalgamation of people, culture and natural beauty that literally bewitched me.
A year passed before I experienced a sunny day in Piemonte and saw for myself what I had only seen in photographs – vine-covered rolling landscapes peppered with medieval hilltop towns against a backdrop of snow-covered alps far away on the western and northern horizons.
In early November 1999, I set out on my first Piemontese adventure with my mom and my mini-Schnauzer, Otis.
My mom was visiting and my husband Dani was in China overseeing a shipbuilding project at Jiangnan Shipyards in Shanghai, so this was a great opportunity to take mom on a reconnaissance mission to learn about this under-discovered region. We lived in neighboring Switzerland, so I loaded up mom who was visiting from south Louisiana, and Otis who enjoyed the benefits of Europe’s enlightened pet access rules into our white Ford Explorer for the nearly 5 hour drive south from Zurich.
Anyone who knows Piemonte knows Mother Nature usually unleashes her foul mood on the region in November after (hopefully) holding rains in abeyance through the autumn harvest. At a minimum, there’s always fog. But there is also rain. We had rain. Lots of it. Walking a dog in the pouring rain through sticky mud was not the experience I sought. Frankly, I was miserable.
In those days before bloggers and writers began spreading the gospel of Piemonte, there were few travel resources in any language much less English. A few of my colleagues at Swiss Re gave me tips, but for the most part, I didn’t know where to go or what to eat. I was just told it was hard to make a bad choice. My mom was along for the ride. Normally someone who wanted to be in full control, she happily ceded control to me. You might say it was a classic case of the blind leading the blind.
I discovered agriturismo Villa Meridiana on the outskirts of Alba. Perched on a west-facing slope high above the town with a view, I was told, of the Roero to the north and the Langhe to the west, it was one of the few agriturismi in existence at the time. As I had discovered when I booked, it was full. No one had told me early November was still high season when gastronomes across Europe descended on Alba to dine on and purchase tartufi bianchi d’Alba.
Fortunately, the owners had two vacant apartments in Neviglie, a hilltop hamlet in the Barbaresco appellation about 10 minutes to the east. We were delighted, but the terrifying drive on narrow, winding roads in pouring rain in what we would in later years dub the “wine panzer,” proved to be an unexpected stressor. Wine was needed.
We spent four rainy days and nights there, only once venturing outside at night. Although we didn’t discover very much beyond the apartment’s door, each day we had a delightful time buying grissini, bread, salumi, cheese and, of course, wine from the mercato d’Alba and small salumerie, panetterie, alimentari and enoteche.
The experience connected me to the region and I knew I would return if for no other reason than to see the sun shining on the vineyards.
Still Seeking the Sun
During the first February of the new millennium, I made my second trip to Piemonte, this time with Dani and my ever-present companion, Otis. Still not the best seasonal choice, but at least the persistent clouds didn’t rain on us. Although we didn’t see the vistas the Langhe was known for, the abundance of medieval villages, seemingly ghost towns in the mid-winter cold, held gastronomic secrets we soon discovered – excellent, family-owned restaurants.
We couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate introduction to classic Piemontese cucina. It was as it should be: simple, fresh and made with love. Needless to say, the concept of eating food grown within a few miles of the restaurants was a fabulous discovery.
The warmth of the food and those who prepared and served it made us long for more. We still hadn’t seen the landscape nor had we truly experienced the wine culture. That would soon change in a – positive – seismic way.
Discovering a part of New Zealand in Barbaresco
It wasn’t until later that year, again in November, when I saw the bright sunshine and what the clouds and fog had hidden from me. The trip began as expected: foggy days and even foggier nights. On the third day, an early season snowstorm blanketed the near naked vineyards with snow so that when the clouds surrendered to the sun, we discovered the landscape in all its splendor.
Snow-covered vineyards, azure blue sky – we call it “bluebird skies” in Colorado – and soaring mountains on the horizon made the wait worthwhile. Perhaps it was Mother Nature’s way of making visitors to the region worthy of witnessing the splendor she could unveil.
On that trip, we not only discovered what fog and clouds had hidden from us, but it was the beginning of our adventures in wine. After the brief period of sun, the snow melted and the fog returned. Piemonte was once again shrouded in her foggy winter mantle.
Nestled on the slopes of the Martinenga ampitheatre, it’s not an easy place to find, particularly when the pea-soup thick fog obscures signs. But we persevered and our lives changed forever. We quickly discovered it wasn’t just sun that had been missing, but an anglophone wine sage to guide us through the exciting world of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis and all the other varietals that make their home in Piemonte.
At Home – Briefly – in Piemonte
Fast-forward 15 years and over 20 trips to this morning in the Langhe. Once again, I’m rewarded with deep blue skies above, but now it’s lush green below my feet that dominates the colors of the landscape. Nascent grapes are profiting from warm, sunny days and vines are growing fast to produce leaves that will capture the nurturing sun’s rays.
Another vintage is dawning in the heart of Piemonte. I’m here to witness it and share with you stories of Piemonte’s wine families and their region.
Come back in the days ahead as I share stories and guide visitors to some of the under-discovered places that enchant us. Needless to say, I will introduce you to many people who have become dear friends, including Jeffrey, the tall Kiwi of Martinenga.
DISCLAIMER – This is an essay about my recent experience digging down to my cultural roots deep in south Louisiana to cook smoked goose gumbo. I highly recommend you pour a glass of your favorite vinous drink – and keep the bottle handy – to sip as you come along on my bayou country adventure in my Colorado kitchen. One more comment, sorry I don’t have more photos to share. Making gumbo and shooting my own photos was a recipe for disaster.
In the beginning…..
When I set out to write a column on the fine art of creating goose gumbo, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. Not that it’s difficult to make gumbo since it’s actually surprisingly simple once you get the hang of it. It’s because I’m a child of the bayou country, rooted deep in its fertile culinary ground. With that, I feel a weighty responsibility to get it right.
As I began to free-write, memories of smells, tastes and countless family meals enjoying hearty gumbo possessed my fingers. I couldn’t stop writing. That’s a problem since my word budget in the Vail Daily is 1,200 words per column. Even 2,400 words weren’t enough to share my passion for this centuries-old – if not older – dish Chef John Besh refers to as a “cultural stew.”
Another impediment to staying within my word budget is the wealth of information and stories about gumbo out there in cyberspace and on bookshelves. Louisiana luminary chefs such as John Folse have penned reams about gumbo. There’s no way I could compete with that and I felt intimidated that my qualifications to weave a tale of gumbo might be lacking.
With all those thoughts swirling through my mind, I decided to restrain my writing voice in favor of a shorter Vail Daily piece, comply (sort of) with my word budget and just tell a shorter gumbo story in my column. But I also wanted to tell my story and share it with my readers, so you’ll find it here in my own little corner of cyberspace.
What Does Gumbo Have to do with Winefamilies?
“Why here?” you say when this is a blog about wine families. Hey, you have to eat when you drink beautiful vinous creations from these family-owned wineries, so why not eat gumbo!
Gumbo is a dish with many faces and can dance with an array of varietals, blends and terroir expressions. Stick with me and I’ll share with you some spirited tips on pairing gumbo, particularly my smoked goose creation, Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Vail Resorts Mountain Dining, shared with me.
Yes, I could have bought “manufactured” stock from a grocery story, but that would be cheating. Needless to say, you won’t find goose stock in your local grocery store and even if you could, store-bought goose stock would pale in comparison with what resulted from hours of extracting flavors from herbs, vegetables and the marrow, fat and residual meat from my goose carcass. (Visit Schiltz Food’s website to order this delicious smoked goose to make your own gumbo.)
The stock was the easy part. Let’s go to my kitchen get into some hardcore gumbo making!
First You Make a Roux
Roux is the essence of every kind of gumbo, etouffée and many other Louisiana dishes such as shrimp creole. Since this simple amalgamation of flour and hot fat is the cornerstone of gumbo, a perfectly crafted roux is the Holy Grail chefs and home cooks strive to attain. Before we make our roux, let’s prepare our mise en place.
Everything in its place
As with everything you cook, preparation is key to minimizing stress and maximizing quality. It makes no sense to stop in the middle of a process, grab a knife and start chopping away at your ingredients or start rooting for the correct pan. Stress is an unwanted ingredient in epicurean creations.
With gumbo, it’s extremely important to have your mise en place ready. Making roux is a relatively slow process, but when it’s ready, things will happen very quickly so make sure you’re prepared to meet the challenge when the time arrives.
Sidebar: I am a bowl freak. I have a broad assortment of bowls ranging in size from 1-ounce glass bowls – great for holding small amounts of spices and liquids such as vanilla extract – to 9-quart stainless steel mixing bowls great for holding prepped items.
My stock recipe yielded about six quarts. I used four quarts and froze the other two. I always like to have some stock on hand when the urge to make gumbo strikes me!
Although the process of making gumbo is fairly standard, what goes in it is limited by your imagination and, of course, logical choices. Here’s what I use for my goose gumbo that begins with four quarts of stock. Keep in mind, unlike making bread and pastries, gumbo ingredients don’t have to be exact. This is truly art, not science. Like painting, there are rules to follow in getting the paint on the canvas, but the colors you use and designs you create are purely your own. So go for it!
Dicetwo large onions, three stalks of celery and seed and dicetwo green bell peppers. If you want to play Picasso, substitute a red bell pepper for one of the green peppers to add a dash of color. Mincetwo or three large cloves of garlic.
I love okra in my gumbo, but only fresh will do for me, not something easy to find during long Colorado winters. I’ve learned to do without it. But if you can get your hands on the fresh stuff, use two cups of frozen (and defrosted) sliced okra.
Nowadays with mass hydroponic production of tasteless fruit, tomatoes challenge discerning home cook. Since Colorado in winter isn’t a haven for fresh tomatoes, I use a handful of canned San Marzano tomatoes when the snow’s flying. In summer, I use the real deal, grown in dirt. Pity I can’t get the red, sweet and delicious Creole tomatoes I was raised on. Whichever, my recipe requires one tomatoseeded and diced.
Leaves from a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme provide a subtle, woodsy taste. We’ll also need two bay leaves. I like California laurel leaves that are large and a bit pungent, so I only use only one. Grind a couple of tablespoons of black pepper and measure a bit of Kosher salt. A tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce will provide a je ne sais quoi that would definitely be missing otherwise.
I also use about an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, teaspoon of ground cumin and a quarter of a teaspoon each of ground allspice, sweet paprika and ground coriander. Some recipes call for Cajun spice mixes that include onion and garlic powders, but this is my answer to that. It actually becomes a question of taste, but please, whatever you do, don’t kill the flavors with a ton a Tabasco or cayenne pepper. Use those two sparingly.
For our meat, we need a half-pound of andouille sausagesliced or chopped. I like to slice it on the bias, place on a sheet pan and bake on 350 degrees for about 10 minutes to render the fat. Since my goose carcass had been picked clean at Christmas, I ordered more smoked goose breast from Schiltz Foods of South Dakota. Three to four cups of rough choppedgoose meat is perfect.
A few words about the andouille. First, this is not andouillette you may have eaten in France (if you had buy accident, you’d know it!). It’s a course smoked pork sausage typical to south Louisiana. There are some great purveyors of Jacob’s in “The Andouille Capital of the World,” La Place, Louisiana, is a great source for andouille, if you happen to live within driving distance of the store. Shipping costs more than the sausage, so I turned to Aidells Cajun Style Andouille as a reasonable substitute. It’s good quality and I can even pronounce each ingredient on the label, always a plus for me.
Don’t forget to prep ingredients for the roux: fat and oil. Fat choices include clarified butter, rendered duck or chicken fat and oil. If you were making etouffee or bisque, I’d say go for the butter, but with gumbo I use oil. Chef Folse, recommends using vegetable oil. I use canola. Perhaps next time I go with the expert’s suggestion.
A quick note about butter-based roux. Butter burns easy as you’ve probably discovered. To make a dark roux, you need heat and time. Both of those don’t agree with butter so much. Accordingly, butter is glorious for etouffee where a light roux is preferred – at least that’s my opinion – and for a dark (black) roux that’s part and parcel to the deep, rich flavor of goose or duck gumbo, oil is the preferred route. NEVER OLIVE OIL in any case!
As to flour, Chef Folse advises cooks use “fresh and properly stored flour.” In Louisiana, the high humidity makes that an issue. “Mee-mees” in flour is one thing I do not miss about Louisiana! Cooking at altitude may be challenging, but storing staples like flour is a dream.
My mom used Wondra flour because it’s fine and resists clumping. I generally use all-purpose, unbleached King Arthur flour for my roux. Do not – I repeat – do not consider any other thickener for your roux than white flour. Chef John Besh believes “only a flour-based roux yields that traditional flavor” of gumbo. Bottom line, if you want the real deal in your bowl, there’s no gluten free alternative. Make soup, not gumbo.
A one-to-one ratio of flour to oil is ideal. One cup of oil – vegetable as Chef Folse advises or canola – and one cup of fresh flour works great for four quarts of stock.
Serious Business of Roux Making
Now, as I walk you through making the rest of the process, you’ll discover why prepping is so important. Before you begin making the roux, take care of all calls, including Mother Nature’s, and walk the dog because there’s no stopping once you’ve started.
SIDEBAR – Roux can be an incredibly contentious issue between Louisiana cooks. There’s so much written about it and even 40 years since I made my first roux, there is still so much for me to learn. Chef Folse is one of those who have written reams on the subject and I doubt he’s covered everything he knows about it.
Back to cooking.
Which pot to use? Certainly not a shallow one, definitely not non-stick and preferably heavy-bottom. My grandmother had a cast iron Dutch oven that seemed to be the only pot she ever used except the small one for boiling milk for her coffee that I proudly gave her for Christmas one year. She was a fabulous Sicilian-American cook whose love of family and food fused in her pot to create memorable meals, particularly Sunday lunch.
But I digress. See why I couldn’t write a short article? This is family history for me and memory lane leads right to my kitchen.
I prefer to use a large pot, so my 13.25-quart gargantuan Le Creuset Dutch oven Santa Claus gave me last year is my pot of choice for a large batch of gumbo.
It’s heavy and can easily overheat, but the most important quality is it is heavy and heats evenly. Since moving to a house with a gas stove, I find my Le Creuset pots much easier to use on gas than on halogen.
With my treasured pot on high heat and my whisk and trusty 30 year-old wooden spatula in hand, I’m ready to go. Oh, I forgot. My step stool. At 5’1”, the extra 6” helps me see into the pot and is easier on my arms.
Chef John Besh advises heating the oil before whisking in the flour. He believes it speeds up the process and produces a deeper dark chocolate color. I concur.
Once the oil is “dancing” – making ripples – add the flour, whisking until it’s all dissolved.
Next, lower the heat to medium – continue to stir and watch the heat, lowering as needed to keep it from burning. If you see little specks of black, that’s not a good sign. Toss it and start over. Don’t feel inadequate if you do burn your roux. We’ve all done it and it will actually help improve your skills.
More sage advice from Chef Folse: “Risk is the tariff paid to leave the shores of predictable misery.” I’ve risked burning my roux – which I’ve done several times – to speed up the process. Confession time. I did burn the roux last week because I was taking photos; almost dropped the camera in the pot, too. Not to be deterred, I started again and, with better focus, had a glossy, dark chocolate-colored roux in 20 minutes.
Initially, the flour will bubble and then settle down, releasing a fragrant nutty aroma as it begins to cook. It’s a smell of my childhood particularly Lenten Fridays when dinner consisted of seafood gumbo and fried catfish or speckled trout. With duck and goose gumbo, a dark chocolate-colored (black) roux is desirable. For seafood and chicken, it’s more like milk chocolate. We’re going for dark.
Once the flour is completely dissolved, I switch to my wooden spatula. I believe moves the roux around better than a whisk.
This is when being ambidextrous comes in handy. It’s a process that imperfect cooks like me need to take slowly, which sometimes means 20 minutes or so of constant stirring. I’m getting better. It used to take me 45 minutes to make a dark roux because I was so paranoid about burning it; now I can do it in 20.
Sidebar: Time for a health warning (sorry, but it’s the lawyer in me). Hot flour and oil splashing on tender skin – like fingers and forearms, not to mention foreheads – leaves pretty nasty burns. The combination of hot oil and flour gave roux its name “Creole napalm” since it’s sticky and contact with skin quickly results in a nasty burn. I have the scars to prove it! Take care to keep the roux in the pot, not in the air. Hot roux “spits” if you’re not careful, so it’s important to continue carefully stirring not just to keep the roux from burning, but to keep the roux from burning you! It’s not a bad idea to have some Aloe Vera gel nearby.
When the roux is glossy and the right color, it’s time to assemble the gumbo.
Here’s where another great tip from Chef Besh I use. After stirring and stirring, you’ll have the urge to dump the onions, bell peppers and celery – the Holy Trinity – into the roux all at one.
Resist that urge and just add the onions first. I tried it and it works fairly well.
As the hot roux cocoons the onions, a tantalizing, nutty aroma emerges. Adding the onions first also allows the onions to caramelize and release its sweet juices without interference from the water in the vegetables.
Reduce the heat, add the onions and stir for about 5 to 10 minutes. Next, add the other vegetables, herbs and spices, stirring well while cooking for another few minutes.
The stock is next and, as you’ll see, is another opportunity for disaster if not done correctly.
After recently breaking my roux – after burning the first batch (wasn’t a good day) – I turned to Chef Folse for some troubleshooting advice. If, after adding stock, flour separates and floats instead of mixes with the liquid, it’s broken. To avoid this, add the liquid in one-quart intervals, stirring constantly to allow the roux to absorb the stock before adding more. I was flustered from my previous roux failure and added the stock too quickly.
My second mistake was not to warm my stock. Chef Folse cautions that when “Cold liquid is added to hot roux, the fat may coagulate as it rises.” He advises to bring the liquid to a boil then briskly whisk to blend the mixture back into suspension. Problem solved.
Once you’ve successfully crossed that bridge, add the andouille, goose meat, Worcestershire sauce, file, and balance salt and pepper.
A few dashes of Tabasco will add some kick, but only add a little at time. Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf. Stir, bring to a boil then simmer for about an hour to let the flavors meld, skimming fat that floats to the surface. Note that you’ll find many recipes that call for a different ordering of ingredient additions at this stage, but this is what I do. You’ll discover over time how gumbo can be a very personal dish.
While the gumbo is simmering, it’s a good time to prepare the rice. Since I grew up on it, I often use extra long grain Mahatma white rice, but I recently discovered Full Circle organic long grain brown rice at Village Market in Edwards that is quite nice.
Place about a half cup of steaming rice into a bowl, spoon the gumbo over it and garnish with sliced green onions, parsley and filé, preferably homemade from dried sassafras leaves. Salad and crusty garlic bread – baguette or ciabatta – are perfect partners for your gumbo.
What to drink?
Quite honestly, Barq’s root beer was my favorite soda growing up. It wasn’t the kind made with high fructose corn syrup sold today – yuck! Until the late 70s, no one had to put “real sugar” on the label. My other favorite root beer was homemade using Zatarain’s root beer extract. Oh the memories! Therefore, I must confess that root beer is hands down my favorite drink with gumbo.
But since this is a wine blog, I thought I’d turn to Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Mountain Dining at Vail Resorts, for some advice to share with my readers who stuck with me for the last 2900 words.
Since Sean so perfectly articulated his recommendations, here are his words verbatim:
My first wine inclination (following an amber ale or sweet tea) to pair with a dark roux, goose meat, and likely some spice, is to serve a thin-skinned red grape with a hint of sweetness—something like a Côtes-du-Rhône Grenache-based red.
I envision the goose meat lending a hint of gamey earthiness to the dish that would be complimented by a Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault/Mouvedre blend
Any herbal notes in the dish would merge beautifully with the Southern French flavors that are typical in these wines (thyme, rosemary, parsley, bay leaf)
Grenache will carry a hint of sweetness to counter the spiciness of the dish
Gumbo has French, Spanish, etc. influences and this wine is a French wine based on a Spanish grape (Garnacha/Grenache); so there is a nice cultural connection
For small, estate producers, my recommendations would be:
I discovered Schiltz Foods’ smoked goose gumbo at a dear friend’s house on Thanksgiving. Delicious, moist meat that make bird my new go-to star for my holiday feast! From that point on, I was on a mission to make smoked goose gumbo. This article emanated from that mission.
Gumbo is such an amorphous dish that can challenge your imagination. Other proteins that are at home in gumbo include shrimp and crab, turkey, chicken and duck. Here are some resources that you might find helpful whether you’ve made gumbo before or inspired to broaden your cookery horizons.
I truly hope my musings provided you with some food for thought and that you’ll experiment with this wonderful dish steeped in centuries of Gulf Coast history. Since this dish represents all that is good about familial cooking in my home region, it goes perfect with the concept of honoring family-owned wineries, which is what I strive to achieve on this blog.
Let me know how it goes or if you have any questions. I may not have the answer to all your queries, but I’m blessed to have wonderful Louisiana culinary resources available to me.