Wine Tasting

The collection
The collection

For the past fifteen years, I’ve hosted a monthly wine tasting on Rue Tatin for a group of about fifteen friends. The group has shifted and changed but one thing has remained constant – everyone who comes for the three hour tasting loves every minute of it.

Hervé Lestage, oenologue and caviste, brings the wine.  Together we discuss the food. Hervé likes to keep it simple – fresh bread, charcuterie, artisanal cheeses.  But, he also loves to eat and I have my reputation to think of…so I always at least make dessert.

Last night we hosted our first tasting of 2015.  It coincided with two birthdays in the group, including that of Baptiste Bourdon, a market gardener.  I made a mile-high carrot cake, flecked with carrots from Baptiste’s farm.  It was  a risk but I know my group, and I know they not only love a dense American cake but they love spices which, here, included freshly ground nutmeg, and cinnamon.

Hosting a wine tasting is so easy, and such a pleasure, I want to tell you how you can do it.

Decide the theme – last night, ours was a “tour de France” and we tasted wines from Champagne down to Burgundy, into the Cotes du Rhone,  through the Languedoc up through Bergerac, into Bordeaux and the Loire.

wine tasting

Set the table with  a white sheet of paper at each place. Set the wine glasses on the paper.  Put spittoons, a jar of pens, pitchers of water,  baskets of freshly cut baguette in the center of the table.

Have a map of whatever country’s wines you are featuring, so you can see where you are.

Hide each bottle in a wine sock or a tea towel. Blind tastings are more fun.

Have red wines at room temperature.  Open them right before everyone arrives, so you can have the full experience of each wine.

I always serve something right away, since everyone is coming straight from work.  (Last night it was  hummus with slightly under ripe persimmons, for dipping).  Hervé  pours a wine to get us started, then the tasting begins.

The Tasting

Sight –  We watch how the wine pours; this gives us a first impression.  Then, we examine the color, tipping each glass against the white paper  backdrop.

Smell – We smell each wine, without moving the glass. Then, we rotate the glasses, exciting the flavors in the wine, and smell again.  At this point we begin trying  to guess the wines.

Taste – We taste, first without moving the wine, then after rotating the glass to excite more flavor from the wine.

Once we’ve gone through these steps, we start talking flavors, memories, impressions.  The better noses and palates among the group venture guesses as to the identities of the wines.  Hervé divulges nothing.

We eat.  Last night it was simple – air-cured sausages, pork and duck pates.

We taste again.  Wine is always totally different after food.

Hervé divulges the first flight of wines.

We move onto cheese, and a white wine or two.

Dessert – The wine tasting is officially over before the dessert arrives, because we aren’t a dessert wine group. With all the bottles in the center of the table, each person is free to re-taste what they want.

As always happens, the wines and the foods last night – including the carrot cake – were delectable together, proving Hervé’s unwavering point.  “If you love what you’re drinking, it will go well with what you are eating.”

big cake


2 cups (280g) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
4 large eggs
2 cups (400g) vanilla sugar
1-1/2 cups (24 tablespoons;360g) unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
The zest from 1 lemon, minced
3 cups  grated carrots, from about 3 medium carrots

For the icing:
8 tablespoons (120g) lightly salted butter
1/2 cup (50g) dark brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (220g) confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1.  Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).  Butter and flour two 9-inch  (23cm) round pans.

2.  Sift the dry ingredients and spices onto a piece of parchment paper.

3. In a large bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk the eggs and sugar until they are pale yellow. Add the butter, and continue whisking until the mixture is light and pale yellow.  Whisk in the dry ingredients, the vanilla, and the lemon zest, then continue to whisk on high for about 4 minutes in an electric mixer, or vigorously by hand for 5 minutes, until the batter is shiny and very creamy.  Fold in the carrots.

4.   Divide the batter between the pans and bake in the center of the oven until they are golden and puffed, and when you press in the center of one with your finger, it is firm but leaves a light indentation.  Remove from the oven and let cool on wire cooling racks for about 20 minutes, then turn out of the pan and continue to let cool.

5.  Make the icing just before you plan to ice the cakes:  Melt the butter in a medium-size, heavy bottom pan over medium heat. When the butter is melted, whisk in the brown sugar, reduce the heat to low and cook until the sugar melts and begins to get slightly ropy, about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Whisk in the milk, bring to a boil over medium heat, and remove from the heat.  When the mixture has cooled to lukewarm, whisk in the confectioner’s sugar and the vanilla until smooth.

6.  Set a round of cake on a serving plate.  Dust it off with a pastry brush, then pour 1/3 of the icing over the cake, letting it drizzle down the sides.  Dust the crumbs from the other cake, set it atop the iced cake, adn repeat the process.  If you want the cake to be smoothly iced, simply take an offset spatula or other wide-bladed spatula, and smooth out the frosting while it is still supple. It hardens quite quickly, so you need to work fast.

8 to 10 servings

carrot cake

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