Monday, January 20, 2014

When the White House served "Chateau Iquem"

Before we go a step further, let me say that in plunging into the White House Cookbook, we fully intended to make Lemon Dumplings with Wine Sauce, circa 1887. The book proved so interesting, however, that we got a little distracted.

The White House Cookbook first published in 1887 seems to have been something of a marketing scam, although it sounds rude to say such a thing of our upright Victorian ancestors. According to the good people at Feeding America, when Mrs. F. L. Gillette published the book, subtitled A Selection of Choice Recipes Original and Selected, During a Period of Forty Years' Practical Housekeeping, she included only a few pictures of First Ladies as frontispieces to justify the somewhat grand-sounding preamble to the title. Otherwise, the work had nothing to do with the White House.

How did she get by with it? Perhaps publishing firms were not too fussy about truth-in-advertising in those days. Or she may have thought it would be brilliant to associate her book with the White House because President Grover Cleveland, erstwhile middle-aged bachelor, had just married lovely, twenty-one-year-old Frances Folsom the previous summer. Such a romantic circumstance! -- the cookbook-buying public could perhaps easily envision the young bride needing household hints, or to the contrary, slowly civilizing her husband's tastes at table. These, it seems, cannot have been good. Today the White House's official site records a presidential complaint: " 'I must go to dinner,' he wrote a friend [in his single days], 'but I wish it was to eat a pickled herring, a Swiss cheese, and a chop at Louis' instead of the French stuff I shall find.' "

Image from Frances Folsom Cleveland Collection, Wells College

Cleverly ployed or not, Mrs. Gillette's book was popular enough to require later editions. They in turn came to justify the grand sounding preamble to the title because with them, she got herself a collaborator. White House steward Hugo Ziemann joined her, his name remaining on the title page, and his expertise gracing the interior, of new printings for years to come. Many a turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century bride, we are told, received a copy of this cookbook and household manual as she started married life.

My copy existed only virtually, downloaded to my Kindle from wonderful Project Gutenberg, until we found an ancient, real White House Cookbook in our favorite antique mall in Crown Point, Indiana. There inside the cover are Mrs. Gillette's and Mr. Ziemann's names; there are the photo portraits of First Ladies. There is the menu for General Grant's birthday dinner, and look, there is the menu for Mrs. Cleveland's wedding lunch, June 4th, '88.

The date is curious. Modern sources say theirs was an evening wedding, held at 7 pm in the Blue Room on June 2, 1886. Could a lunch on June 4, '88 have been an anniversary party? Or are the National First Ladies' Library and the White House's official site both wrong, and Mrs. Gillette and Chef Ziemann right? Someone must know. The nuptials seem to have amounted to one of those once-in-a-century media frenzies, not least because rumor had it the bride's widowed mother had expected the President, a longtime family friend, to propose to her. Surely some eyewitness would have written down the correct and exciting date on a piece of paper somewhere.

Anyway we mustn't get too distracted by this small puzzle. The lunch sounds good, if rather light, and more French than hearty American-Victorian. (Poor Grover.)

Consomme en tasse. Soft Shell Crabs. Accompanied by: Chateau Iquem.
Coquilles de Ris de Vean [sic -- read "veau"]. Snipes on toast. Lettuce and Tomato Salade. Accompanied by: Moet & Chandon.
Fancy ice-cream. Cakes. Tea. Coffee. Fruits. Mottos.

(What on earth were "mottos"?) The highlight of the meal must have been the coquilles de ris de veau, a concoction of veal sweetbreads, truffles, and mushrooms cooked, minced and bound together as little morsels, and then sauced of course. If you would like to see the authentic instructions in French for this recette traditionelle, all two sentences of them, you may go to Le Guide Gantie Provence-Cote-d'Azur 2010, and have at it.

Now we must note the two wines, Chateau Iquem (d'Yquem), and Moet & Chandon. The White House had good taste.

Chateau d'Yquem is a wine about which we mortals ought not to dare speak -- or so it can seem when we remember how much time we spend dealing in (and drinking) plain cabernets and chardonnays which shock us if they retail for more than fifteen dollars. The four-hundred-year-old Chateau, located in the Sauternes appellation of Bordeaux, makes a sweet white wine from semillon (and sauvignon blanc) grapes which have been shrivelled on the vine by the beneficial mold botrytis cinerea. The results go beyond legend. Golden colors, peach and chocolate flavors, tangy honey, caramel-vanilla, "rich, fragrant," raspberries and cream, "very rich," rich, rich, rich. All these tasting notes I have appropriated from Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine (2002). He tastes so many extraordinary d'Yquems not only because he founded the rare and fine wine auctions department at Christie's in 1966  and so has access to a lot, but also because d'Yquems last forever. That mold concentrates the semillon grape's sugars as well as its acidity. Acid is a preservative -- think pinot noir and riesling, just two wines that people tend to classify merely as either "lighter" or sweet, but which they could lay down for a few years if they had a good enough sample -- and where Sauternes are concerned, oh my is acid ever a preservative.

Mr. Broadbent has tasting notes on d'Yquems from the 1780s. These are wines that the chateau records Thomas Jefferson as having ordered, for himself and for Mr. Washington, in wicker hampers of 50 bottles each. (The chateau, or other collectors, still had some in their cellars for twentieth-century auctioneers to try as late as 1998, it seems.) He has tasting notes on d'Yquems from the famous "Comet" vintage (1811 -- Abraham Lincoln was two), from 1814 ("picking commenced on 29 September" of that year), from 1834 and so on through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Most of what he sampled remained excellent. Notes on the 1847 are rapturous. "Unquestionably the greatest-ever vintage ... immensely sweet, fabulous flavor, incredible finish ... superb ... faultless ... glorious." Six stars. Five is his usual limit.

The Sauternes appellation occasionally had problems, but they were and are the huge and inevitable ones of weather or war. As it happens, the 1880s, just the decade when President and Mrs. Cleveland would have been sitting down to their wedding lunch, was one of the worst decades in this chateau's history. (We can only surmise the White House steward would have made sure the "Iquem" came from a good old vintage). The root louse or "aphid-like insect" phylloxera struck then as it did all over France and Europe, devastating vineyards until farmers realized the way to fight this American invader, inadvertently imported by growers desiring to experiment with American grape varieties, was to graft European vines onto resistant American rootstocks. But what Sauternes always has on the plus side of its ledger, and the reason why it consistently produces wines of sheer legend, is what Mr. Broadbent calls its "perfect" combination of "site, soils, drainage, and cepages [grape varieties]." The thin-skinned semillon is susceptible to that good botrytis mold, which loves moisture and is in turn encouraged to form by the autumn mists that rise over a land dominated by a warm-water, tidal river (the Garonne) and a cool-water mountain spring (the Ciron). Swift-draining, gravelly soil -- we are in the district of Bordeaux called Graves for that reason -- completes the circumstances of perfection.  

Needless to say -- well, not actually, I had better say it -- Chateau d'Yquem was included in the famed Bordeaux classification of 1855, by which the wine brokers of the area affirmed the status of the seventy-three most outstanding chateaux there. All were and are located in four areas of Bordeaux only, all of them on the left bank, Atlantic-facing side of the Gironde estuary, which is fed partly by the Garonne mentioned above: the Medoc, Graves, Sauternes, and Barsac. D'Yquem was the only wine, red or white, singled out as "Grand premier cru" (or "Premier cru superieur," since wine writers disagree on the precise term), meaning great first [class] growth. This is a status that outranks even the "premier cru," first class growth, bestowed on other legends such as Chateau Lafite-Rothschild or Chateau La Tour, both of which are reds from the Medoc.

Yes, indeed the Gilded Age White House had good taste. Still you may pause here, consult the old menu again, and gape in disbelief, as I did too. A honey-sweet white wine with soup and then crab? Yes. Sauternes with fish was normal on Victorian and Edwardian tables. The people maintaining Chateau d'Yquem's website today confirm that the wine is so complex and glorious that it will flatter any food. Kevin Zraly, in Windows on the World, records that the first time he visited Sauternes and ate a meal at a chateau there, he was astonished to find the glorious local tipple served with every course except dessert. With dessert came a dry red Bordeaux. It made a pairing he didn't like.

As to that other wine served on a June day in '88, after all this there seems little to say about Moet & Chandon. A champagne, fabulous of course. Favorite of Napoleon, which is why the house eventually acquired the trademark "Imperial." Their famed White Star was only recently renamed Imperial, too. They make Dom Perignon as a sort of side line. 

All of this, as a preliminary to the lemon dumplings with wine sauce. They are very good. But we really must pause and draw breath, and continue later.

Meanwhile, do visit: Chateau d'Yquem and Moet & Chandon.

Chateau d'Yquem retails in the Chicago area for between $200 and $600 per 750 ml bottle, depending on vintage. Expect to find it mostly at downtown or north suburban locations. Moet & Chandon retails for about $45 to $70 per 750 ml, depending on style.

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