Chapter Twenty-Four

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Once the women had been seated in the dining room, Michael asked David to sit. "I'll open the Sauternes." He remained standing as he removed the foil, dipped a linen into the ice bucket and wiped the top of the neck. "We must be careful to remove the moulds and fungi which grow under the capsule. Otherwise, the wine washes them into the glasses as it's poured."

With deft movements, he inserted the corkscrew and opened the bottle. "Note the length of this, David." He passed the cork to him. "The greater the ageing potential of the wine, the longer the cork the producers use. See how the wine has worked its way up. In twenty or twenty-five years, it will have permeated the entire length."

David passed the cork to Maria, and she smelt it. "Smells clean. Do you often find a bad cork?"

"We've been fortunate that the few we've had have been on minor wines."

"Bad cork? What's that?"

"Every once in a while, there is a tainted cork, and it imparts an unpleasant fungal and earthy smell and taste to the wine." Michael curled his lip. "Once you've experienced an affected wine, you'll never mistake it. Science has yet to isolate its cause." He walked around the table and poured the wine, finishing with his own glass. "Savour its bouquet while I open and decant the claret."

Maria swirled her wine and examined it. "This is an unusual colour, Grandpa, golden amber. And it appears more viscous than wines I know."

Michael turned from the sideboard. "Yes, it needs a lot of explanation. Let me finish here, then we'll discuss it."

A short while later, Michael took his seat and lifted his glass to his nose. "It's maturing nicely." He took a sip and nodded. "Maria, you have undoubtedly seen botrytis, the mould which sometimes affects the grapes."

"Yes, we dust the vineyards with sulphur powder to prevent it. Sometimes there is little we can do but cut away the affected bunches and burn them, so the rot doesn't spread." She brought her glass to her nose again.

A smile grew on Michael's face. "This wine is made from rotten grapes."

Maria snapped her head up from her glass and turned to stare at him. "What? I was enraptured with the wine. Surely I misunderstood."

Michael laughed. "I often get a reaction like this when I begin explaining. The rot is undesirable while the grapes ripen, but once they've matured, it becomes marvellously beneficial. The bunches are left hanging on the vines long after they're ready to pick, hoping for an infection with botrytis."

He swirled his glass and held it to his nose. "The rot pierces the skins and slowly dehydrates the grapes, imparting a subtle flavour and leaving the juice thick and concentrated." He motioned his glass to the others. "Take a sip."

"Oh, my!" Maria worked her mouth as she savoured the long aftertaste. "So intense, so complex, so sweet." She nosed the glass again and took another sip, and after she had savoured it, she continued. "Yet it's clean and balanced. Not in the least cloying."

Michael smiled. "The area from which this comes has a rare climate. It sits near the Garonne River east of the city of Bordeaux. In the autumn, the vineyards are often covered in mist, and you know how lingering dampness encourages rot. Every few years, conditions and timing allow wines such as this to be made. The French call the mould pouriture noble, noble rot."

"And in the other years?"

"Most proprietors abandon ship early when they see conditions might not become favourable. They then harvest and make passable vins ordinaires they can sell in bulk to the merchants, allowing survival for another year."

"They seem to play a high-risk game," David said. "One with occasional success spread among years of scrambling to cut losses. I hope they are rewarded well for the successful years." He stroked his beard. "They must be, else they wouldn't remain in the business."

"Oh! They are. They command and receive high prices." Michael nosed his wine again. "In years when conditions are right, pickers make successive passes through the vineyards over many weeks, selecting individual grapes and small clusters that have been shrivelled by botrytis."

David swirled his glass again, lingered on the bouquet, then took a sip. "That's a huge dichotomy. Maria and her family struggling to prevent the rot, and vineyards like..." He lifted the bottle from the ice bucket and looked again at the label. "Like Château... How do you pronounce this?"

"Informally, on its own without the château, it's eekem, but normally it's shato deekem."

Michael savoured the bouquet again. "And there's another dichotomy here. Wines such as this are usually served at the end of a meal with the sweet course. This evening, we'll be enjoying it at both ends; beginning with the entrée, a torchon of foie gras."

"I've so much to learn." David examined his wine as he swirled it. "It coats the sides of the glass and hangs there. Then it slowly..."

He paused as Murielle wheeled a trolley into the dining room, and they all sat silently watching as she set plates in front of each and placed small baskets of toasts on their bread plates.

After Murielle had wished them bon appétit and wheeled the trolley out, Mary raised her glass. "To success with your studies, Maria, and to your snooping on Fritz, David. I'm salivating. Let's begin."

David and Maria watched as Mary selected a piece of narrow, thin toasted bread, sliced a small piece from her disk of foie gras and placed it on the end of the toast then added a sliver of prune and two dried cranberries. She looked up and smiled at them. "Like this." She moved it to her mouth and bit the end off it, then moaned as she savoured it before she added a sip of wine, moaning again.

They both copied her actions, and as David finished his bite and sip and his own moaning, he said, "Now I see why my mother raved about this. She tried often to get foie gras in Canada, but with no luck."

"That's right, the areas around Toulouse are the main sources of this." Mary nodded as she built another bite. "She would have grown up knowing its sublime texture and taste."

After a few more bites, David pointed to the remainder of the disk on his plate. "You called this a torchon. Isn't that a dish towel?"

Mary chuckled. "Yes. It's named after the manner in which it's prepared." She took another small bite, then continued. "A good fattened goose liver is generally about twice the size of my fist. Once it's cleaned of veins, it's cured for a few days in a mixture of salt, sugar, pepper and a splash of Sauternes. Then it's rolled up tightly into a cylinder in a kitchen towel and hung in a cool place for a few more days before being immersed in boiling water for a minute and a half or two, then it's set to chill before serving."

"And its taste is even more complex with a sweet wine such as this Yquem." Michael took another sip. "Fatty and savoury with sweet and fruity. It doesn't make logical sense, but this combination sings a superb harmony on the palate."

They all turned to enjoying the remainder of the entrée, and shortly after they had finished, Murielle came in and cleared their places, then set plates with small dishes in front of each person, before she bowed and left.

"This is lemon sorbet to clean our palates before we continue," Mary said as she lifted her small spoon. "That much richness and sweetness would carry over and interfere with the claret."

Michael finished his sorbet, then he rose and brought the two decanters from the sideboard. "I'll pour these in alphabetical order, left to right, Latour and Mouton, so we're not confused. I want to compare them, and to do that, it's easier to taste them simultaneously than sequentially."

While he was pouring the wine, Murielle arrived to clear the sorbet settings, then she returned with the trolley. Mary applauded, and they all joined her as they admired the presentation. Standing on a silver charger and forming a square were four racks of lamb, their ribs enclosing a cloud of fluffy whipped potatoes. Surrounding this were wedges of roasted acorn squash separated alternately by julienned carrots and beetroots.

After Murielle had deconstructed the display onto four plates and served them, she again wished them bon appétit and left.

Michael raised his glass of Mouton. "To a swift end of the war, so everyone has the opportunity to enjoy life as they wish."

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