What I learned during vacation: there’s more to vineyards than wine!
When we pulled into the empty parking spot under our apartment building last night, our venture home from vacation wasn’t quite finished. We still had to unload the car. You have to admit, most of us take a handful of unnecessary things on vacation with us- in our case, it was seven button-down dress shirts (for a man) and a pair of classy heels (for a woman). It was also four unread novels (mostly for me), extra razor blades (for Sébastien) and a bottle of organic insect repellent (for both of us). You really don’t need any of that when on vacation in Southwestern France. Instead, we should have left room for the bottles of red wine, the over-sized jar of vinegar (you’ll hear about that one soon) and the cheese we brought back. Fortunately, the cooking stories rousing around in my head didn’t take up any precious car space.
I’ll start with the barbecue. When you think of Bordeaux, you probably think of vineyards, right? That’s normal. When you think of vineyards, you think of wine. Also normal. How about thinking of barbecue instead?
Sarments is my French word of the week. These are the vine-shoots, or branches, of a grape vine. And that’s exactly what we used to make our barbecue while in Bordeaux. No charcoal- just old newspapers, sarments, a few matches and we were cooking.
Sarments grow out of the cep (vine-stock or “trunk”) of a grape vine. Usually between December and March, well after the autumn grape harvests, the vines are pruned and unnecessary branches are cut off, giving way to the following year’s buds. The viticulteurs (wine growers) pile up the unwanted sarments and the lucky people who live in wine country are free to collect them.
Since we enjoyed it so much, we made our “Barbecue à la Bordelaise” three times during our vacation- once for gambas (large shrimp), once for salmon and once for shish kebabs. For the record, we didn’t use any fancy-smancy barbecue, but an outdoor brick oven, like the kind you’d imagine seeing in Spain or Portugal, kind of like a wood-burning pizza oven, but not quite as deep and round. Unlike traditional charcoal, vine-shoots are ready for use really quickly after lighting them; they burn out faster, too. Thus, we opted for foods that didn’t have to cook for too long. The shrimp and kebabs were easy- we just placed them directly on the flat iron grill that sat over the flames. The piece of salmon was a bit trickier because it would have stuck to the grill. In full experimental mode, Sébastien sprinkled it with olive oil and wrapped it up in a piece of aluminum foil to make a papillote. In order the benefit from the savory taste of the sarments, he opened up the foil before the fish was finished and let it “smoke” for a few minutes. We thought it turned out slightly reminiscent of the thick smoked salmon you find in the Pacific Northwest. In sum, the vine-stocks gave the barbecue a very satisfying and unique flavor that would be hard to copy with any other wood!
Now that I’m back in Paris, it just makes me laugh that we cooked with the same matter that grapes and wine come from. What makes me laugh even more is imagining what cépage our barbecued shrimp might have been. The cépage is the type of vine (and thus grape) used to make a particular wine- in France, it’s most often a combination of two or more. The most common grape varieties in Bordeaux are the cabernet sauvignon and the merlot, so I’ll say our meal’s hint of black currant (a typical aroma of both cépages) was more than just a figment of my imagination.
Anyone have any similar stories (or hints) on using vine-shoots for a barbecue, especially when cooking fish? I’m all ears…