I bought a bottle of sparkling grape juice just before the election, just in case there was something to celebrate. Since there was not, it lay chilling the fridge until New Year's Eve, when it went well with (as they say in the world of slightly harder drinks) a bit of stromboli and a stout bowl of chocolate Chex mix.
I would be no good in the world of slightly harder drinks, where one is expected to know that wine in a box is a social faux pas. If you wish to keep your dignity, you must be willing to pay as much as a week's groceries for one bottle.
But how about a bottle that costs as much as a college education? No, seriously. We're talking an Ivy-league law school education. That's what a member of the Forbes family bid on a bottle that supposedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. As told in The Billionaire's Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, rare wines whet the competitive pride of the set that own multiple homes, small jets, banking empires, etc.
That is, until they suspect that the wine on the auction block might not be so rare after all. For those of you interested in crossing over to the dark side, the chapter on wine counterfeiting proves interesting. Where do they come up with these tricks? Spraying bottles with aerosolized dust? Staining labels with orange juice and tea? Filing off corks and branding them the year of prized vintages? One fellow sprayed bottles with a shotgun to give them that weathered-by-the-centuries look.
Otherwise, Vinegar was a lot like reading baseball stats, with a good many unpronounceable names thrown in.
Far more delightful to read A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. Mayle, a British journalist, and his wife visited the south of France often. They loved it so much they decided to buy a house there. It was a charming house, not like those boxy things springing up in suburbs everywhere.
Their first winter taught them the price of charm. The house had no central heating and yes, the south of France is warm, but not in January when the "mistral," a wind that starts in Siberia, howls across the continent. By the time the mistral reaches Provence, it can "blow the ears off a goat." It tends to foul the mood of Provencale folk.
It also tends to cause a lot of October babies.
But anyway, when Mayle engaged the local craftsmen and bumped up against their cultural quirks, their delays, their opinions of the British, he made it into a most amusing read. Somehow, having a Frenchman standing in one's kitchen exclaiming, "Oh, la la! Your pipes are broken" sounds more romantic than any household emergency I've actually lived through.
And the French are drop-the-tools serious about their lunch breaks. Actually, they're serious about any kind of eating at all. In honor of their love of food, I share with you:
CIDER BEEF STEW (OK, it's not French, but wow does it smell good!)
2 pounds beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons canola oil
3 cups apple cider or juice
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 teaspoons salt, optional
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 medium carrots, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
3 celery ribs, cut into 3/4-inch pieces
2 medium onions, cut into wedges
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup water
In a Dutch oven, brown beef on all sides in oil over medium-high heat; drain. Add the cider, vinegar, salt if desired, thyme and pepper; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 1-1/4 hours.
Add the potatoes, carrots, celery and onions; return to a boil. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 30-35 minutes or until beef and vegetables are tender.
Combine flour and water until smooth; stir into stew. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Yield: 8 servings.
One 1-cup serving equals 315 calories.