Confessions of a wine-phobe: I choose wine based on what the label looks like

Wine bottles without labels, for the moment, in Cahors, France.

‘Fess up.

At some point in your life, you’ve bought a bottle of wine based on what the label looks like.

I say good for you. It means you’ve tuned into the whole aesthetic experience of wine, and let’s face it, a good-looking exterior – be it a bottle of wine, a car, a jacket, a certain someone – can be awfully persuasive.

Choosing a bottle based on the look of its label, however, also means that you’re participating in a well-considered marketing tactic that’s designed to appeal to our weakness for all that is visually good-looking.

A few times a year, a hefty publication called Communication Arts lands in my mailbox and each time I read it, I am impressed both by the artistry of communications professionals and by their strategy. In my experience with this periodical, wine labels are called out as choice examples of a category called Packaging.

Other examples of Packaging highlights range from candles to bottled green tea, and some of them, when seen in the context of design from a technical and functional perspective, easily could land in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

But it is the wine labels that I notice and consider most.

A brand called Meteor, for example, contracted a design firm in Richmond, VA, to design a label that “created the feeling of looking up into the night sky, searching for meteors,” a representative of the firm said. “We had never seen a 360-degree visual on a wine bottle, so that helped shape the design.” (From the November 2008 issue.)

Wine labels are prime real estate, and some wineries choose to use that space to highlight certain aspects or motivations of their brand. Vista Hills Winery, for example, wanted to promote “drinking for the common good. It’s an honest approach,” a representative of their design firm said, “and one consumers could get behind, so we put [their] mission to donate 10% of their wine profits to working college students front and center” on the label. (From the November 2008 issue.)

You might think that a winery who puts that much thought and effort into the outside of their bottle isn’t putting quite as much into what’s inside. That isn’t necessarily true, of course: witness first-growth Château Mouton-Rothschild, whose labels have been designed by different artists – including Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí – every year since 1945.

Savvy? Sure.

Distracting? Maybe.

But paying attention to consumers’ attention to how a bottle looks is a realistic assessment that is – or perhaps should be – part of every wine brand’s business plan.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Book review: Cleaving by Julie Powell, sequel to Julie & Julia, has plenty of spice

Meat on display, and as a metaphor for life, in Cleaving by Julie Powell.

Julie Powell must certainly have considered cooking her way through volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the follow-up sequel to her wildly successful Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

Some writers would have done just that. It would have been a predictable next move, maybe, but one that came with a fair guarantee of readership by the legions of Julia Child fans – many of whom have been Child devotees since WGBH’s groundbreaking cooking series, The French Chef.

But instead of cooking her way through Mastering (Volume Two), Powell apprenticed herself at a butcher shop in upstate New York. It was a bold, creative, and decidedly unpredictable move, and I applauded her courage and lack of orthodoxy. Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession was my book club’s March’s pick, and we met last week at Cornerstone Bookstore in Salem to discuss it in detail.

I was, I rush to say, keen to discuss Powell’s descriptions of dismembering steer and disemboweling pigs with the group, fellow food lovers all. But, if speaking honestly, it must be said that we all were more interested in what else Powell writes about.

What else she writes about is sex.

In Cleaving, Powell writes candidly and in detail about her highly charged affair with “D.” She writes about her troubled marriage in a tone that oscillates between indifference and agony. She writes revealingly about the emotional and psychological troubles of a life she complicates to the extreme.

It was a racier book than anyone in our group had anticipated. What it had to do with Julia Child – the reason at least some of us voted to read the book in the first place – was tangential at best. And as discussion within the group began, thoughts of Julia or, indeed, of butchery in general, fell quickly by the wayside.

There was a little of this at the start: “I was amazed by what it takes to cut meat.” And this: “I liked the parts where she went to other countries and connected with people over the meat.”

But the tempo of the conversation picked up considerably when we turned inevitably to the subject of sex.

“I read the whole thing,” one member volunteered immediately.

“I finished it ahead of time,” said another.

“She hooked me right at the beginning,” said a third.

Sex manages to strike those chords. Not that we spent much time on the specifics of the acts, but we did delve into what the acts meant and how we related to them.

One woman related, with startling clarity, the merits of “a love that hurts.” Another zoomed into page 22, where Powell describes her grandmother’s lifelong feeling of pointlessness, something that was passed down from generation to generation, and her mother’s “bone-deep unhappiness or discontent.”

It wasn’t a pretty story but, frankly, neither is sex nor love nor life all the time. I found Powell’s book refreshing exactly because it did not have an ending all tied up in a bow. In fact, members of our book club disagreed on what exactly the ending of the story was. We read the same last pages, but our interpretations of those pages varied widely.

I say that’s a good thing.

Because a perfect thing, a perfect, pretty thing, is boring. Powell’s story, and how it strikes chords within our own, is life. It’s complicated. It has texture, and ridges. It’s coarse. And rough. Sometimes that’s just what you want. And sometimes that’s what you get, whether you want it or not.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Carving a pig from head to tail at Formaggio Kitchen

Jason Lord and Julie Biggs at the start of their Pig 101 class at Formaggio Kitchen.

Last Wednesday evening, Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge gave class attendees a rare opportunity to witness what most foodies only read about: the actual carving of a pig.

In the spirit of Cochon555, a traveling competition centered on the appreciation and creative preparation of all things porcine, Julie Biggs and Jason Lord reduced a 110-pound heritage pig into cuts of meat easily recognized in your local meat case. Picnic hams, tenderloins, Boston Butt cuts, spareribs, pig’s feet, and jowl were all on the menu.

As attendees arrived for the class, they found themselves in the presence of a carcass that had been initially prepared; the head was separated from the body, which was cut cleanly in half. It took some a few moments to adjust to what they were standing next to, but there were no real surprises. Biggs commented, “These people know why they are here, and they know what they are going to see.”

Biggs and Lord’s sheer passion for their work quickly mitigated any slight discomfort.

Biggs, Formaggio’s charcutière, and Lord, the chef for Formaggio South End, were excited to conduct Pig Butchery 101: Primal Cuts from Head to Tail. “I love how cool pigs are today,” said Lord. “People are more educated and interested in what they eat.”

Neither Biggs nor Lord has any formal training in butchery per se. “I never learned butchering in culinary school,” said Lord. When asked how he acquired the considerable skills he was demonstrating throughout the evening, he confided, “I learned from sticking around [East Coast Grill, in Cambridge]. I just got involved.” Biggs is still learning. “I’ve always wanted to learn,” she said. “I love the idea of going to a farm, picking out an animal, and seeing it through to the end myself.”

Throughout the class, attendees sampled dishes made from various parts of the pig. The starter was a simple sausage roll; a light pastry shell filled with browned sausage with a hint of garlic. Next came “head to tail” posole, a traditional Mexican stew made from “bits and pieces” of pork livened up with hominy, cayenne pepper, cumin, and other spices in a robust pork broth.

For those feeling a little more adventurous, pig ear salad came next. This was many people’s first experience with pig ear, and most found the salad to be a pleasant balance between salty (from the roasted pig’s ear and capers) and tangy (from the citrus vinaigrette dressing). The final tasting was a Chinese-styled pork belly, sliced and served simply, letting the flavors of the meat’s fats melt in their mouths. During each course, Formaggio manager Vince Razionale kept guests’ glass full of rich, dark ales and stouts to complement each of the dishes.

A recurring theme during the evening was respect. “As long as you respect and appreciate what the animal is doing for you, you’re in the clear,” Lord said. Several times he leaned near the animal and thanked it in a hushed tone.

Watching Biggs and Lord treat the animal with such reverence summed up the spirit of the event. In dismantling their heritage pig, they were completing the journey of an animal in the food chain for our benefit, and while the results were tasty and the mood light, they never lost sight of what was actually happening. When asked why an experience like this was so important for people to have, and why he loved participating, Lord said it best.

“It’s real.”

Adam Centamore is the guest author for today’s Foodie Blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, where we explore myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Julia Child’s old stomping grounds: Photos from Paris

Julia and Paul Child's address is France was 81 Rue de l'Université, 7th Arrondissement.

In 1963, Julia Child stepped in front of the cameras at WGBH and introduced viewers to the art of French cooking with The French Chef, bringing her passion for French cuisine and inimitable voice to television. The series ran for 10 years, sparking a revolution in both American cooking and TV how-to shows that endures today. A recent trip to Paris gave me a chance to retrace the steps of this iconic, yet supremely relatable, chef and food lover.


Julia and Paul lived on the top two floors of this building.

Imagine if one of the names listed here today, on the call box outside the front blue door, were Child.

The closest Metro stop to the Child’s apartment, looking very much like it would have looked in Julia’s time.

Situated close to Saint Germain des Près, Androuet Fromagerie was back then, and still is today, one of the finest cheese shops in all of Paris.

Androuet’s cheeses range from “workhorses” like Comte to these precious bites, looking like the cheese version of mignardises.

You can’t have Paris without chocolate. Jean-Paul Hévin chocolatier, located on rue Saint Honoré in the 1st arrondissement, is famous for its cheese-filled chocolates.

And you can’t have chocolate — or Paris! — without wine. Le Rubis wine bar, also in the 1st arrondissement, is old, comfortable, and crowded. Their selection of wines by the glass relies on small pours from trustworthy regions.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Letter from Paris: Tasting of US wines

US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin addresses the audience at a tasting of American wines and spirits yesterday afternoon.

Technically no, I did not have to come to France in order to attend a seminar about California Zinfandel.

Yet there it was — the invitation, that is, for the seminar and an afternoon of tasting wines and spirits from all across the US — and there I was, at the US Embassy on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris yesterday afternoon, in order to partake.

There were plenty of connections between the event and WGBH, including the ambassador himself, Charles Rivkin, formerly CEO of The Jim Henson Company and a friend (and fan) of ‘GBH’s children’s programming. Several of the wines being poured are represented in the WGBH wine cellar and auction, including Kistler, Joseph Phelps, and Hahn Family Wines. And wines from the state of Massachusetts were originally slated to be included in the tasting; they withdrew, unfortunately, at the last minute, but states like Missouri and Colorado in addition to California and Washington all poured samples of their wines.

All of which were excellent reasons to spend an afternoon at the Embassy. But, aside from those reasons, my eyes and ears were especially attentive to the reception the wines would receive from the 600-plus attendees. American wines in France have traditionally been given a rather cool reception, despite the increasing percentage of US wine exports into France.

That cool reception was still very much in evidence at the tasting yesterday. “That tastes excellent,” I heard one guest say to another before adding, “for an American wine.” The cool reception was also in evidence at the Zinfandel tasting, when a member of the audience asked presenter and California winemaker Paul Dolan if it was “within the possibility of his imagination” to make a wine that’s less subtle than the high-alcohol wines we were tasting. I sat next to a restaurant consultant who is active in Paris, who told me that several Parisian sommeliers in the room weren’t even picking up their glasses to taste the wines in front of them.

Was it worth the effort, to bring more than 100 American wines to Paris where they received such a response? Perhaps, especially if you factor in the responses from less hostile guests who commended the effort to increase bonheur between the two countries.

But would the tasting and seminar have been as well attended were it not held at the US Embassy? Probably not. And that is the uphill battle that the US Foreign Agricultural Service will have — may always have — to fight.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Roast Chicken (and a Few Tips) From a Time-Crunched Fitness Coach

Our time-crunched fitness coach shows you how to get a healthy dinner on the table — sorry, chicken — with time to spare.

Tips for edging toward a healthy life, even when there’s no time:

  • Multi-task. When I’m cooking I’ll often listen to a book on tape or I’ll have my son help.  This actually makes it a special and relaxing, and it transforms a chore into an experience.
  • Take advantage of the Internet. Gather healthy recipe ideas. Order produce online from Boston Organics; it’s reasonably priced and delivered straight to my door. Use the internet to make planning and shopping quicker, simpler and easier.
  • Plan, shop, prepare. On a weekly basis — Sunday, say — take time to plan your meals and do all of your shopping for the week. Then go home and prepare as much as you can.  Freeze it, store it, do whatever you need to do. During the week you will be much more likely to serve healthy choices if the food is already cooked.

Recipe from a fitness coach: Roast Chicken

Ingredients:

  • 1 small or medium organic, free-range chicken
  • 1 large red onion, roughly chopped
  • Half a cabbage, roughly chopped
  • 7-10 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1 lemon
  • Ample olive oil
  • 1 T. balsamic vinegar (optional)
  • Celtic sea salt and fresh ground pepper
  • Red wine or balsamic vinegar and water (optional for gravy)
  • Rice flour (optional for gravy)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 475° F.

Heap the onion, cabbage and garlic in the middle of a roasting pan and drizzle with olive oil. If you like, you can also drizzle your balsamic vinegar over the veggies as well.

Rinse the chicken and pat it dry with a clean cloth or paper towel. With a sharp knife, prick holes in the lemon and stuff it into the cavity of the chicken.

Cover the outside of your chicken with olive oil and rub thoroughly with Celtic sea salt and fresh ground pepper. Then place the chicken on top of the bed of veggies in the pan.

Pop the pan in the oven. Reduce the heat to 400° F. Baste after about 40 minutes.

Total cooking time should be about 1 hour and 20 minutes. (I like to use a meat thermometer to check it; just insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the chicken’s thigh, without touching the bone. Take the bird out when it reads 175° F. The internal temperature will continue to rise.)

Cover your bird with foil and let it sit for another 10 minutes. Carve it up and serve on a platter with your favorite steamed veggies and wild rice.

Bonus gravy:

Remove excess fat by skimming it off the top of the pan.  Put the pan on a large burner and bring it to a simmer. Mash up all the vegetables with a potato masher. Add a few glugs of balsamic vinegar and a half-cup of water, or you could use a half-cup of red wine.

Let the gravy simmer for a few more minutes, then sprinkle about one tablespoon of rice flour over the pan. Whisk vigorously until you reach the desired thickness and then remove it from the heat. Let it cool for a few minutes and then press it through a strainer. Add salt and pepper to taste.

It’s that easy.

Jennifer Dunn, Certified Personal Trainer, is the guest author for today’s Foodie Blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, where we explore myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

Burgers and burgundy at Gordon’s

The star of the show: true certified Angus burgers by the chefs at Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro, on offer last Saturday afternoon at Gordon's.

I know I was supposed to be there for the wine. It was Burgundy, after all, and a lot of it — almost 20 different wines, both red and white, all readily sippable.

But I got distracted by the food.

That was the danger at the Burgers & Burgundy! event last Saturday afternoon at Gordon’s Fine Wines & Liquors in Waltham. Certainly, there were three tables set up with six or seven Burgundies each but across the room were two cooks from Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro serving up small bites like stacks of beets with Narrangansett feta and popcorn that had been dried for nine years — who ages popcorn for nine years? — and seasoned with brown butter and sage.

I tried to focus, I swear I did, and get myself back to those wines. Nicholas Potel Côte de Nuits. Bouchard Père et Fils. Château de Chamirey…

But then I glanced over my shoulder and the cooks were putting up the burgers, one a fish version made from Maine shrimp and the other a meat version made from true certified Angus beef from Blackford Farms.

Their draw was irresistible, especially the Maine shrimp burgers. So I made a deal with myself: to appreciate both the food and the wine by identifying the best pairing for each.

The beef burger was easy, thanks to Lexington-based wine writer Becky Sue Epstein who I trust implicitly on such matters. “The Givry,” she said simply, referring to the 2007 Parize Givry 1er Cru “Les Grandes Vignes.”

As for the shrimp burger? (Which, by the way, was garnished with a romesco sauce and arugula dressed in a sherry vinaigrette.) I couldn’t quite decide between the 2007 “Marie Antoinette” Pouilly Fuisse by J.J. Vincent or the 2007 “Les Setilles” by Olivier Leflaive.

But here’s the good news: I didn’t have to.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.