Egg, milk, sugar and vanilla mix. Sugar gets caramelized. Done but no taste testing until Thanksgiving!

The main reason I decided to live in an apartment in downtown Bordeaux was to have a kitchen with an oven. It has served me well so far – some nice dinners including Canadian Thanksgiving last month. This week my kitchen has been invaded by a classmate intent on proving that the fourth time is the charm when it comes to making flan and making dessert for our class’ upcoming American Thanksgiving celebration. As I have never made this particular dessert, I’ve been quick to offer up use of my kitchen (key ingredient to a successful flan) so I can hopefully learn a few culinary tricks.

Earlier this year in the Talenti gelato factory, I spent about one minute learning how to scrape the pods out of vanilla beans (more to prove a point about efficiency than anything else). That minute has actually paid off as I find myself dutifully splitting and scraping vanilla beans for the pot.  At first it seems a bit of a wild-mousse chase: my kitchen does not seem to have any measuring cups, and translating the recipe from Dutch to English, volume to weight, imperial to metric, while re-engineering it to consume exactly all the ingredients that were purchased (cooking with the very practical Dutch has its own particular eccentricities: we’re literally pudding all our eggs in one basket) but we manage to create something (two somethings, in fact) that pass the elaborate jiggle, colour, and density tests created by my fellow flantrepreneur.

Some people might say it passes custard; I wouldn’t be one of them… (I mean, it’s a pretty weak joke; that would be quite off-pudding, wouldn’t it?)

Ok, ok, no more jokes!!

In the first few days I had the opportunity to visit 5 different châteaus – two on my own time, and three as part of a class.  The first one, Château Caronne Sainte-Gemme is located in Haut-Médoc, just minutes away from the St-Julien appellation.  We’re greeted by François, one of the owners, who also leads the Cru Bourgeois association.  We pepper him with questions about his own wines and winery, but also about how the association is helping the châteaus involved change their marketing techniques as global drinking habits evolve.  The Cru Bourgeois classification is unique in that it is awarded by wine quality, and therefore renewed each year, rather than a historical classification process that carries on like the Premier and Grand Crus Classé.  There is generally considered to be some overlap in quality between the Cru Bourgeois and the Cru Classé, but the Cru Classé are of course the crème of the crop.

Francois explains the terroir and lineup at Chateau Caronne Ste-Gemme. The sun starts to go down behind Chateau Beychevelle while the famous lowered sails Baisse-voile take the spotlight on the lawn.

François explains the terroir and lineup at Château Caronne Ste-Gemme. The sun starts to go down behind Château Beychevelle while the famous lowered sails (Baisse-Voile) take centre stage on the lawn.

The next stop is Château Beychevelle.  Unlike many other Grand Cru estates, they love to throw the doors open for visitors and have open entry to the gardens year round. While the cellar is under construction, the art exhibition that typically resides inside the château has been moved outside on the lawn for the summer; a tradition they’ve decided to carry on in following years.  We’re intrigued by their biodynamic experiments and wrap up the all-too-short visit with a promise to return next summer for the big fireworks show on the river.

The following day we have a series of Grand Cru visits organized by the school.  I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking this time. The first is Château Pichon Longueville in Pauillac:

The winery at Pichon-Longueville is stunning - both visually and intelligently designed. The round tank room sits directly under the pool on the lawn of the main building.

The winery at Pichon Longueville is stunning – both visually and intelligently designed. The round tank room sits directly under the pool on the lawn of the main building.

The second is Château Lagrange in St-Julien:

A Bordeaux Sciences Agro alumnus gives us a tour in the barrel room at Château Lagrange. The red stains are from wine dripping during topping up, as roughly 10% of the wine will evaporate out of the barrel during aging. (Thirsty angels and their angel's share!) We are treated to a delicious lunch before we're off to the next estate.

A Bordeaux Sciences Agro alumnus gives us a tour in the barrel room at Lagrange. The red stains are from wine dripping during topping up, as roughly 10% of the wine will evaporate out of the barrel during aging. (Thirsty angels and their demanding share!) We are treated to a delicious lunch before we’re off to the next estate.

The final visit is to Château Palmer in Margaux. This estate is interesting for a few reasons: one of the 2nd year Masters students is currently completing his internship here so we get an interesting insight into the different experiments they are running on the side.  Additionally, Palmer is currently using the biodynamic principles but is aiming for final certification in 2017. This is both difficult and unusual among the Cru Classé due to the climate here in Bordeaux (very wet – high risk of disease) and the challenges associated with biodynamic viticulture – depressed yields being the argument touted the most. It’ll be really interesting to see if the other châteaus follow suit; regardless, I’m definitely planning to keep an eye on Palmer’s growing strategy for the long term.

Château Palmer: the rose at the end of the rows, and new barrels waiting to be filled.

Château Palmer: the rose at the end of the rows, and new barrels waiting to be filled.

The rest of the week goes by in a bit of a blur – we have a class budget to buy wines, and we’ve decided to explore French wines outside of Bordeaux for our first class tasting.  Our afternoon of Loire Valley wines is a refreshing change from the Bordeaux wines we’ve been drinking thus far, and a good reminder of the vast diversity of grapes, climates and styles of winemaking that French wine encompasses. (Now you see why the weeks are starting to blur together for me…)

Thursday brings our cooperage presentation on tannin potential, and it turns out the most significant result of our testing is that we are not trained enough yet in sensory analysis.  With the promise of even more wine tasting in our future, we wrap up the week with the internship presentations from the second year students who have just returned from their stages. Their experiences have covered a wide range of roles: logistics, marketing, export, estate management, communications to name a few, and of course vinification!  It’s good food (or drink) for thought as we’re starting to think about our own internships coming up in about six months

With the weekend upon us, our class has decided to celebrate American Thanksgiving a few days early.  We’re on a class trip to Montpellier next week, and our resident Finn, Nea at Château Carsin, has been promising to have us all up for a big feast after the harvest, so the timing works out perfectly.

Earning my dinner; I’m put to work stirring the lees (dead yeast cells) with nitrogen and by bâtonnage. This helps the wine develop complexity as it ages. On to dinner: a turkey so big the legs need to come off before it will fit in the oven, Mark and Nea add fairy dust (or something) to a Finnish take on dinner rolls, and the flan turns out to be a hit. Dinner aftermath: one big, happy (loud, multicultural, full, etc) family.

Another day to be grateful; another round of leftovers in my fridge, and another week in Bordeaux comes to an end.

A great setting to celebrate the end of the harvest.

Scenes from Château Carsin; a beautiful way to celebrate the end of the harvest

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