Saturday, July 10th was my 45th birthday. When I turned 40, and thought about my 45th birthday...it seemed so far away. I also never imagined I would be spending it in France! 45 seems old to me...at least it did when I was young. 45 was a serious age, where you are grown up, have lots of responsibilities, and you are definitely not a kid anymore. My mom had me when she was 22, so when she turned 45, I was 23 years old. Old enough to remember the party we had for her and remember what she was like. While she seemed a little old to me at the time, she didn’t really seem that old! She told me that she still felt 16. In fact, every year, she told me that she always felt 16 inside. I didn’t understand that for a long time, but I do now. I don’t feel 16 inside, but I certainly feel 20 something. I sure as hell don’t feel like I think 45 should feel. I wonder how I’ll feel when I’m 60? I know when my mom was 60, she’d been sick for awhile and she definitely felt old at that point. I know there are a lot of people who are still very young at 60, and I plan on being like them!
I slept in until 9 Saturday morning and then Ethan came to tell me they had a surprise for me. I got up and went downstairs and Kerry and the kids had made me a great birthday sign and a wonderful breakfast! It was delicious, especially since I hadn’t lifted a finger.
We then decided to go visit a few wineries, as we hadn’t done this yet. Burgundy has over 4,000 wineries. After reading about them, I was excited, but also a little apprehensive. Most of the wineries were very small and the people who owned them were the ones who worked on them and also handled the wine tasting. On any given day, they could be out in the fields, or in their caves bottling or doing a variety of other things.
Many of the wineries required reservations, which posed two problems for us. First, we really didn’t have a phone and second, having a conversation on the phone would be difficult, given our limited French. What this really boiled down to is I was uncomfortable calling wineries to make reservations! So, I did the next best thing...I found an area relatively close to us that listed several wineries that said no reservation required.
We plotted our course on Garmin (have I mentioned that our host left his Garmin in the car...I’ve gotta say...it’s a life saver!!!!!) and away we went. We went to a village called Saint-Bris-le-Vineux which was just a little south east of Auxerre and about a 25 minute drive from our house. Considered one of the most charming villages of the Yonne region, the Saint-Bris AOC only produces white wines from Sauvignon and Sauvignon Gris grapes, which is very unusual in this Chardonnay-dominated region. Built over an amazing network of vaulted cellars covering 3.5ha at 60m underground, Saint-Bris boasts fine old stone houses and a 13 C Gothic church. When we arrived, it started raining, so sight seeing around the little village was out of the question. That was ok with me, I was here for the wine.
The first winery we went to was Domaine Felix & Fils. We walked into what looked like a large garage and were greeted by a man and woman who were hard at work, labeling bottles of wine.
When the woman finished the bottle she was working on, she came over to us and invited us to follow her. We descended down a flight of stairs and the air temperature had a noticeable change...it dropped by at least 20 degrees, and then we were in her wine cellar/tasting room.
She didn’t speak very much English, but we were able to communicate well enough. We tried six different wines, three whites and three reds. We enjoyed them all. The wines are significantly different than California wines. They seem much lighter, some had very mild flavors. In several of the wines, you could taste the terrior of the region. They were earthy and it almost seemed like you could taste the love and work that went into them.
Some of the wines were still very young and would need a few more years of cellaring, but we tried a few that were quite drinkable. We ended up buying a Chardonnay that had been finished in oak (she also had one that wasn’t oaked), an Aligote, a Sauvignon, and two reds, one being a Pinot Noir and one being a blend of Pinot Nior and Cesar. The Cesar is an original grape type, believed to have been imported by Roman legions. It is a very old varietal and is not available anywhere else in the world. (Way cool!). So, while this particular village and the vines growing directly around it are all whites, the wineries purchase grapes from other local vineyards, which is how they’re able to make their reds. (The wines were between 6 and 10 euro...so definitely not fancy, expensive wines...just nice, everyday drinkable wines!)
We then meandered down the road and found our next winery here:
We then meandered down the road and found our next winery here:
The woman who greeted us did not speak English and called her son to come help us. He was in his 20’s and had spent 6 months in Australia and his English was quite good. He described all the wines that they had available and we selected 5 to try. These wines weren’t quite as good as the Domain Felix, but they were still enjoyable. In addition to the whites and reds that we tried, they also made some schnapp type drinks. We sampled three...two were very good (about 17% alcohol) and the final one was quite strong and was like taking a shot of tequila (it was 45% alcohol). Needless to say, after sampling 11 wines and three liquors...we were done tasting for the day. (While both wineries offered dump buckets...we didn’t really dump or spit out anything, until the 45% one!) Everything else was just too nice to spit out. If we are going to be able to visit more than 2 wineries at a time, we are definitely going to have to learn to spit! We ended up buying 4 bottles here (again, same price range). I personally was delighted because we had bought numerous bottles of wine at the grocery store and hadn’t found anything that was very good. We now at least had wine for a week or two!!!
By this time we were starving, so we headed towards our house and stopped at a pub in Bleury (St. Patricks) where we had delicious pizzas. St. Patricks also had GREAT wifi (meaning FAST) and we all got our fix of the internet for the day (and I got to post some things to this blog).
We then headed home and spent some time recovering from wine tasting and pizza eating!
As if this hadn’t been a great enough birthday, there was still a surprise outing waiting for me. All James and Kerry would tell me is that I needed to dress up and be ready to leave at 6:30.
At the appointed hour, we headed out. James programmed Garmin, and I didn’t see where to. We drove into Joigny (about 15 minutes west) and down to the river. We arrived at a hotel/restaurant sitting on the water called Le Rive Gauche.
We were a few minutes early for our reservations, so we went down to the river and enjoyed the amazing view!
The restaurant was lovely. It was fancy, but not too fancy. We were warmly greeted and our first true French gastronomic experience began. As we reviewed the menu, we all decided that we would get the prix fixe dinner. We had a choice of appetizers, entrees & desserts. We ordered a lovely bottle of Champagne to celebrate! We started with grougeres (the local cheesy, peppery popover) and an amuse buche which was a cold artichoke cream soup with baby scallops...it was cool and refreshing and the scallops were absolutely delicious.
For our appetizers (entrees in French), we tried the escargot (everyone enjoyed it), the foie gras (to die for), the rabbit (yeah for brave Katie!) and a crab and cucumber salad. The only thing that didn’t go over that well was the rabbit, but that was more because of the stuffing...the rabbit itself was quite good with a mild flavor.
Crab & Cucumber salad
For our main dishes, I had a fabulous chicken dish with a sauce that made me want to marry the chef and incredible veggies (including ramps...which I’d never eaten but have been wanting to...they are like a mix between a green onion and garlic and I was not disappointed. Kerry, Ethan & Katie had the beef dish which they all gobbled up and James had a pork tenderloin that have foie gras & bacon. It was incredibly rich (as all the dishes were) and delicious. As you can see, the presentation on all the dishes was absolutely beautiful.
We then had a cheese course (although we were quite stuffed at this point). The waitress brought over the cheese cart and we selected what we wanted. The cheeses that were available were absolutely amazing by American standards...and even though I was stuffed, I was determined to eat several of them. I had my favorite (Epoisse), which I am falling more and more in love with every time I eat it. I also had a Soumatrain and a Camembert. James had two cheeses that we didn’t quite catch the name of. One was like a thick ricotta, creamy and sweet and delightful. The other one couldn’t have been more opposite. As Kerry said, it smelled like very old, nasty gym socks. I personally love “stinky” cheeses, however in this cheese I had met my match. Not only did I agree that it smelled like gym socks...it actually tasted like gym socks. It was so strong it kind of burned your mouth as you ate it. James insisted that he thought it was great with a little bread. Kerry and I remain dubious and it is the first cheese that I’ve ever had that I would definitely not eat again. I will need to call the restaurant and get the name of it!
Super Yummy Cheese!
At this point, we were done in. However, when the server arrived with our desserts...we found renewed strength. Katie, Ethan and I had the Chocolat plate, Kerry had the The plate and James had the Pistache. Katie, Ethan and I made the right choice. There were three desserts...a chocolate lava cake, a thick chocolate mousse and a parfait with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate and coffee nibs. Each was fantastic! Kerry’s dessert had several components, including a creme brulee, a green tea meringue, a mint green tea and a deep fried apricot. James’ dessert had a pistachio creme on a bed of strawberries, a hearty fruit sorbet and some fresh berries.
By the end of the meal, we all agreed we wouldn’t be eating for a couple of days! The best news? The cost was 31 euros a piece, not including our drinks. So for less than $40 each, we had a lovely, authentic four-course French dinner. Afterwards, we wondered why anyone would pay 450 euro for two to eat at the Jules Vern restaurant on the Eiffel Tour!
This will definitely be one of my most memorable birthdays!