How to Drive Your Cabernet Franc Crazy at the Dinner Table

Homemade côte de boeuf and sauce Choron.

Given this blog’s obvious indebtedness to François Rabelais, it’s long overdue that I sing praises of Loire Cabernet Franc — particularly Chinon.

Last Thursday, thanks in large part to Thierry Germain, I discovered the most perfect food pairing in the universe for Loire Cabernet Franc.

With a friend, we threw together an impromptu dinner contrasting two Loire Cabernet Francs from the same vintage: a 2002 Domaine des Roches Neuves Saumur-Champigny “La Marginale”, and a 2002 Olga Raffault Chinon “Les Picasses”.

These are two benchmark Cab Francs from an excellent, sun-drenched, warm vintage. Thierry Germain’s Domaine des Roches Neuves “La Marginale” is his tête de cuvée wine, only made in the best vintages. A portion of the vines for La Marginale reside in the fabled lieu-dit “Poyeux” (of Clos Rougeard fame) in Varrains, and the other comes from other vines around Chacé; Olga Raffault’s Picasses is sourced from its own revered vineyard in the northwest of Chinon. Here are maps of Saumur and Chinon.

Saumur and Saumur-Champigny. 
Chinon and Bourgueil.

Thierry Germain is clearly a bon vivant, and meticulous in all he does; he is one of the only winemakers whose technical sheets offer not one, but twelve different food pairings.

Côte de boeuf sauce Choron was Thierry Germain’s pairing suggestion for La Marginale that stole our hearts. We’d already decided steak was in order, so all that was left was figuring out what the hell a sauce Choron is.

WHAT THE HELL IS SAUCE CHORON?

Basically, it’s a sauce Béarnaise with tomato paste added at the last minute. Which sounds like a fucking terrible idea, and a fantastic way to waste a perfectly good sauce Béarnaise … but in truth, it’s life-alteringly delicious, and custom-tailored to these wines (recipe follows).

Alexandre Étienne Choron (1837-1924) invented this sauce by accident. Choron was most famous for cooking up zoo animals at his Voisin restaurant on rue Saint Honoré during the siege of Paris in 1870 for Christmas (see the famous menu below). Prussia wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, and had cut Paris off from every last supply necessary for human life.

The Prussians hadn’t managed to deprive the Parisians of the wine still resting in their cellars.

There wasn’t even enough food to feed the zoo animals, nevermind Parisians. The poor, starving zoo animals were thus sacrificed, and clearly the elephant was the first animal everyone glared at covetously. Choron’s restaurant Voisin officially ran out of elephant and moved on to horse on January 13th.

I don’t know how elephant would taste with Chinon or Saumur Champigny, but given the tarragon and tomato aromas in this sauce, you could probably just slather any ol’ zoo animal with sauce Choron and marvel at the pairing. Seeing as Choron had invented the sauce by serendipitously modifying a traditional sauce Béarnaise, he probably intended for the tarragon to be infused in the wine and vinegar reduction. What’s odd is the Larousse Gastronomique (2009) leaves the fresh tarragon, but Curnonski’s seminal Larousse: Traditional French Cooking (1989) explicity removes it.

Back to the wines: the 2002 Olga Raffault Chinon Les Picasses was a simply stellar bottle. It was absolutely impeccable on every front, completely devoid of brettanomyces, one of those wines that shines so bright it seems to diminish all other nearby celestial bodies.

So, even if the Marginale was an amazing wine in its own right, the Marginale by comparison felt blocky; the Marginale’s nose was full of vinyl and graphite, but seemed square and encumbered by comparison to the Raffault’s lively, sprite strawberry aroma which pierces an earthy asphalt undercurrent, and thankfully seemed to precede the requisite earthy green bell pepper aroma one expects from Cab Franc, rendering it fresh, energetic, and light.

Particularly near the end of the bottle, the Raffault showed tiny hints of that drying paper aroma (one young Grenache often shows as well), suggesting some sneaky tannins would ensure that the Raffault has a lot of life left in it. But really it’s a waste to consider aging it any further; it’s already on fire delicious. Maybe it would unwind a bit over one, max two years; but that’s as long as I would wait before worrying about sacrificing some vital freshness in the balance. For my Marginale, however, I’m really hoping another couple years of age will bring it to a silkier place.  I also wonder if the transport to the dinner muddled the wine by shaking the sediment, perhaps disfiguring the bouquet a touch.

This was a great opportunity to take stock of just how much has changed in the last seven years, as I’d tasted the ’02 Raffault Picasses back in 2008, and hadn’t cared for it much. But my palate has grown immeasurably since then, and even if I’m still not a fan of pyrazine or thiol-dominant wines, once they’ve grown silky with age, they’re a bit like a holy green bell pepper wrapped in a plush, velvet royal robes.

And the versatility they offer in food pairings is magical. With such a versatile wine, if you custom-tailor a food pairing like this, and “come to the wine”, it’s a whole other mind-bending level. I could eat this every night … if only I had a place to fit steak outside of my belly. The sauce has an insane acidity given the amount of white wine vinegar, but with the mass of butter and beef you’re about to courageously ingest, it’ll be your best friend.

Here’s how to make a sauce Choron (this recipe is a translation of this one). This makes enough sauce for two large steaks, but I’d fear halving it:

SAUCE CHORON

1 large or 2 small shallots
6 tbsp white wine vinegar
6 tbsp white wine
1 bouquet of fresh tarragon
1 tsp ground pepper
4 egg yolks, brought to room temp
8 oz butter (that’s right, French cooking) in chunks, brought to room temp
3 tbsp tomato paste concentrate (from a tube)

Mesh filter/strainer
Two sauce pans
Whisk

I don’t need to tell you how to prepare a good steak. Do it, then cover it with foil while you prep this sauce. Do not cook this sauce in the browned-bit laden skillet you used to cook beef: this needs to be a clean sauce.

Cook some potatoes however you want — steamed, boiled, baked, whatever — and sprinkle some paprika on them as a side.

Chop your shallots.

In a sauce pan, add the vinegar, white wine, shallots, whole branches of tarragon, and pepper and reduce the liquid by half on a medium flame. What a heavenly smell!

Pour that through a filter, discard the solids (conserving the precious infused liquid), let the liquid cool a bit, then add that liquid to a new, clean sauce pan that’s not hot along with the egg yolks. EVERYTHING depends on your not overheating these egg yolks. Put it on the lowest possible flame, then whisk them until they thicken. It’s magical when it starts to thicken.

Once thickened, add the pieces of room temperature butter, gradually whisking them in.

Now, before making the leap of faith: taste the unbelievably good Béarnaise sauce you just made. Pretty amazing, hmm? Now add the tomato concentrate one tablespoon at a time, incorporating with the whisk.

Try to keep the sauce ever so slightly warm until slathering it all over your paprika-dusted potatoes and grilled beef.

Then watch the fireworks as you pair it with a proper Loire Cab Franc. Whisper a little prayer of gratitude for Thierry Germain, Etienne Choron, and all those poor zoo animals that gave their lives during the Siege of Paris.

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