It’s a truism and a cliché (and I don’t blame you if you stop reading right now): life is kinda hard . No matter how many times I tell myself that I’m lucky (I really am !!) not to be a French aristocrat heading to the guillotine or a wrecked homeless person panhandling on the L train , there are still weeks that try body , brain , heart , and soul ; it couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be any other way ; hardship toughens our psyche the way exercise toughens our bodies . Of course the ideal is to balance hardship with good times , sadness with joy , to balance work with leisure , to balance the moments that make us feel like we can’t go on with moments that make us tingle with love of life . I think I’m pretty good at finding balance , and maybe that’s why it was only fitting that a hard week should be punctuated by something truly fun and gratifying on the most basic level : having friends over for dinner .
It occurred to me toward the end , in my overall examination of the week that — in my pure love of and enthusiasm for the work I’ve been doing these past seven months — I’d let it take over my brain , and that I needed to disconnect , to detach , to reclaim the person I was before I worked in wine , before I knew about Poulsard from the Jura , before I cared whether this or that winemaker ferments with native yeast or uses too much or too little sulfur , before I cared about what so-and-so is pouring by the glass , or who got a better price on what . I needed to go back to my roots . So I compiled a little mental list of things that are essential to who I am , the things I’ve loved since before I came to New York , before I embraced this trade , before I became Sophie from Astor or Chambers or Selection Massale , and I decided to take an afternoon to reconnect with those things .
One of them is cooking . Cooking is essential and elemental and one of my favorite things to do in the world . Even though cooking is never long off my mind , a chat with Ralf from Trestle on Tenth reminded me I hadn’t cooked much of anything recently . Out of the blue he asked “do you miss cooking?” Yes ! Yes I miss cooking ! I don’t miss the chaotic life , and I certainly don’t miss the hours , but I do miss the energy of the line , the breakneck multi-tasking , the dudes and their off-color senses of humor , the creativity , the immersion in something totally physical … Long story short : I decided to cook some shit . And not just some shit , but the kind of shit I like , which means soups , vegetables , fresh things , greens , salads , and all that rabbit food I’ve always been teased for loving so much . There was definitely a voice inside me whispering “what about your guests? They might require sausage and roast chicken” but I decided to push that voice to the back and just be myself in the kitchen . Fortunately it’s early summer , and my truly dear friend Ariana and I had a hang out session on the books that involved popping some bubbles . She had recently been ranting about how much she dislikes “big meals” , so there were multiple reasons to get out those freshly sharpened knives and tap into my super powers : making salads and chopping things .
But as I’m not much a recipe user , first I had to run , and think and clear my head for inspiration and the farmers market . It was one of those cool , misty , Montauk days , a light rain falling , the kind of day that feels so good during summer . I put on my headphones , went out into the world , and started running , around and around and around the track , listening to old hip hop from my youth , to NAS and RZA , to Del , Jay-Z , Snoop , Big Boi ; I let in some Black Rebel Motorcycle Club , Spoon , and some Sonic Youth , I sprinted and danced ; my legs were elastic in my tattered old shoes ; when I was tired I stopped and did pushups , and with every lap I felt more like myself , immersed in the moment , in the sheer physicality of the experience , eyes just half open gazing at the foliage around the park , the delicious light rain on my face . As always with running , the care seemed to slip away , frustration , anxiety pounded into the track beneath …
At the market I bought lots of things with a sort of rough idea of what I wanted to make . There was no grocery list ; there was no plan to speak of except to indulge and be true to myself in the kitchen .
The basic idea was to do a chilled soup with avocado squash , inspired by a soup I ate years ago at an outdoor restaurant called “Le Tracteur” in the south of France . The original soup was a super fine velouté of zucchini garnished with aged goat cheese , mint , and toasted walnuts . Mine wound up garnished with tangy yogurt , mint , preserved lemon , and feta . Six of one and half a dozen of other other , right ?
I’d been heavily pondering the meat side of things . Champagne was on the horizon , and the kind of Champagnes we drink are dense and mineral laden , sappy , intense wines that are generally quite dry , wines that are aged in barrel , wines that cry out for roast chicken . There was no way that I was going to heat up the house by roasting a chicken or cooking sausages or any of that nonsense . I hearkened back — as one does — to that culinary genius, JBT : the man who microwaved buttered oysters to pair with Krug , the man who doesn’t blink at the prospect of making Coq au Vin Jaune in his tiny apartment in Murray Hill , and the man who told me beyond a shadow of doubt that BLTs and Champagne are perfect together . And there was the solution : sweet , summer tomatoes and high quality bacon , slow cooked to perfection . I’d tried this pairing before , and found it to be especially well suited to mature Champagne made in an older style , with lots of umami and a healthy dosage .
I’d planned on cozying up with a bottle of this 1997 Pinot/Chardo blend from our new friend Vincent Couche in the Aube . At this point I can’t speak about Couche as authoritatively as I can about some of my other friends who make wine in Champagne , because I don’t know him as well , but my sense is that he’s doing things right . His Domaine is in Buxeuil , which is about half an hour by car from Chablis ; he’s making Chablis out of Pinot Noir , and with bubbles . Amongst his obsessions are long , slow élèvage , integrating oxygen into the winemaking process , and lowering sulfur and dosage , which he can now do apropos of a better farming regime as of the late 2000s . And he occasionally wears gold body paint , but who am I to judge ? I occasionally wear red corduroy bell bottoms . With 8 grams dosage , and disgorged in October of last year , this is an ideal type of Champagne to pair with BLTs , though it’s not representative of the current wines Couche makes , which are zippier and drier with an emphasis on terroir expression and biodynamic farming . Thank god there’s room in life for both ! This is an deep , yeasty , cheesy Champagne that is very long , nutty , and vinous , and hums alongside the sweet , salt , and fat of the BLT . Mature Champagne has its place , and that place is — apparently — at the table , with bacon .
The pièce de résistance (we actually polished it off long before the soup or the BLTs were on the table , the bottle we’d been planning to drink together for somewhere between one and two months was this magnum of Lahaye Naturessence . All in all we did a pretty good job not talking about wine , but this bottle was so beautiful that everyone kind of looked at each other with that “wow” look , and then of course we had dissect its virtues for a moment or two .
There are more of these magnums at Chambers Street , and if you can afford it , I’d encourage you to pop over there and grab one . I bought quite a few of them while I was working there , and the present regime of excellent Champagne buyers are perhaps not as obsessed with Benoït Lahaye’s wines as I am , with the result that some are still hanging out at the shop . As I was sipping my glass , one friend asked if I could tell her about the wine , and I realized that I’ve been drinking Benoït’s wines , and visiting him and his lovely wife Valérie for enough years now that (in my sleep) I could tell the story of every wine he makes . Lahaye has been — and doubtless always will be — a Domaine that speaks to every fiber of my being . I’ll be the first to admit to an absolutely irrational love for these wines . To me , these are perfect Champagnes . There’s a subtly that is uncommon for Bouzy , though it makes sense when you know Lahaye — an understated guy who likes to be in the vines with his horse , or in the cellar with his barrels (and now those two gorgeous Italian amphoras he’s using for the rosé). This wine is half and half Chardo and Pinot from old vines ; the base wine is aged in barrel , and the dosage — on the higher side for Lahaye — maybe around 5 grams — is seamlessly integrated .
I waxed on about Benoït Marguet’s uncanny ability to produce stunning rosé Champagne in one of my recent posts , and he does a comparable job with this wine from the hallowed Ambonnay vineyard “Les Crayères”. What I chiefly found myself thinking as I drank this was how much more accessible it is than the 2008 . 2008 is one of those vintages in Champagne in which you basically had to be incompetent to make a bad wine ; even now — just a few years down the road — ’08 is becoming a legendary vintage . The result is that the riper , softer , 2009 vintage has been over shadowed , perhaps also because 2009 was sort of hot and fat in other regions we love . Do not let the hype surrounding 2008 prejudice you against 2009 ! 2009 produced some insanely good Champagnes (look at Aurélian Laherte’s 2009s , for example) , and I think this is one of them . Intensely sapid and chalky , with fine mouse , and clearly showing Benoït’s superb biodynamic work in the vines , my money is on the sexy 2009 over the powerful 2008 to drink now .
We had briny, rustic east coast oysters on the table , and consequently the Agrapart was going fast . Having not gotten a chance to taste it , I grabbed the bottle with a few sips left and ran to the kitchen to plate and garnish the soup . I drank out of the bottle , a guilty pleasure that feels especially satisfying with Champagne , and kept me from getting preserved lemon all over my glass . “Terroirs” is a good way to get to know Pascal Agrapart . In my opinion it’s a big step up from the 7 Crus bottling , with more reserve wine in the bottle , and more wood used in the élèvage . Perhaps best of all , “Terroirs” has remained a price normal humans can afford , which can’t be said for the rest of Agrapart’s wines . What you get when you drink Agrapart is not the nuttiness of Couche , the subtly of Lahaye , or the intensity of Marguet . What you get when you drink Agrapart is the sheer skill of the vigneron farming top terroirs in the Côte des Blancs ; you get the Pascal Agrapart master-of-his-kingdom thing , and you get the shape of the wine : zesty and lemony and broad in the front , tapering to finish of chalk , citrus rind , and bitter almond .
Someone please tell me about this Domaine in Cramant .
And second by saying that the last elemental thing along with running and cooking , entertaining friends over food and drink at a big table outside the way my parents did when I was a kid , is writing . Writing — good or bad , sloppy or tightly knit — is a core principle .