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Discovering the Complexity of Cider at 2941

April 26, 2018

By William Babash, Vice Chargé de Presse, Bailliage of Greater Washington, D.C.

What would a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs dinner be with no wine served, and who could possibly imagine and create such a thing? Answers: The dinner would be "fantastic," and its creators would be our Bailli Judy Mazza and Chef Bertrand Chemel of 2941.

Judy and Officier Allan Kam returned from a fall 2017 trip to Normandy with a deeper appreciation for the range and sophistication of French hard ciders and a vision for a Chaîne dinner focused entirely on cider. Nothing like American unfiltered ciders common at farmers' markets, these ciders are produced very much like fine wine, with careful selection of fruit varieties, pressing, fermenting, and bottling, and possibly aging (although ciders have a much shorter shelf life than wine). Could an entire dinner be built around them? Judy and Vice Conseiller Gastronomique Michael McHenry knew it would take an inspired and talented chef to attempt such a non-traditional approach to food and beverage pairing. Chef Bertrand Chemel of 2941 in Falls Church, Virginia, immediately came to mind. The chef was intrigued by the idea and eagerly agreed to create the dinner. (The Bailliage last visited 2941 in April 2016 for five wonderful courses of Chef Chemel's cuisine.)

In January, Judy, Michael, and Vice Chargé de Presse Bill Babash joined Chef Chemel, Sommelier Jonathan Schuyler, and Wine Program Director Joshua Claus at 2941 to taste 11 ciders – apple and pear, French and American, still and sparkling – that were candidates for the dinner. Much like a formal wine tasting, Jonathan led the group in a critical analysis of the ciders, assessing attributes such as alcohol content, residual sugar, tannins, and flavor nuances of each, with participants making notes on the ciders and comparing impressions. Everyone found it eye-opening to experience just how much diversity there is among ciders (including a few that the group agreed lacked the complexity and character to be worthy of a Chaîne event). In the end, seven ciders made the cut.

As the group tasted each cider, Chef Chemel led the brainstorming of possible food pairings: A crisp, dry, citrussy cider suggested a light fish dish – ceviche, perhaps. A cider with a higher alcohol content and pronounced earthiness needed a robust dish with a higher fat content. Pork belly immediately came to mind, but looking ahead to spring, the Chef focused on lamb belly. And so it went for each cider until the Chef had a page full of notes and ideas from which he would craft a detailed menu. This fascinating process was a reversal of typical food and wine pairing, where the food is known first and then wines are selected to complement the meal. Here the ciders determined the food.

More than six months after the initial idea, forty-one members and guests gathered in 2941's elegant Koi Room, the private dining venue overlooking the beautiful landscaping and pond at the entrance to 2941, for an evening they won't soon forget. Throughout the evening, 2941's Wine Program Director Joshua Clauss introduced each cider and shared details of the food pairings.

The evening's first cider was from the cidrerie of Eric Bordelet. Bodelet took over the family orchard in 1992 and the estate, located in the south of Normandy, today produces 20 varieties of apples and 15 varieties of pear. Bordelet believes that cider should be produced with the same craftsmanship and attention to detail as fine wine. The Poiré L'Authentique Biodynamic pear cider – a dry, mineral-driven cider – was the perfect way to start the evening. Its light, crisp texture was the outstanding accompaniment to Chef Chemel's passed hors d'oeuvres: Jambon de Bayonne and Pyrénées Cheese Canelé was a most sophisticated interpretation of a classic flavor combination, while radish with smoked sea salt and whipped butter was a rich and refreshing bite of spring.

Once seated, diners' glasses were filled with the Petite Cuvée from La Cidrerie du Golfe in Moustoir, near the Bay of Biscay in Brittany. This cider is made from 100% Guillevic apples and shares characteristics with a Kabinett Riesling wine. Tart and golden, it was perfect with the canapé of cured foie gras and kumquat confit. As Joshua explained, the cider's acidity cut through the foie gras while having enough richness and sweetness to match it and the kumquat.

Next came Hamachi crudo served with Asian pear, celery, Lucques olives from France, and arbequina olive oil from Spain. Alone, the Hamachi was spectacular. With the fruitiness, crunch, and saltiness of the accompaniments, the dish was transcendent. A poiré cider from Domaine Christian Drouin in Calvados paired perfectly. Light in color, this crisp, acidic pear cider brightened the crudo and lifted it off the palate.

Grilled black sea bass with walnut caponata and basil followed. The fish was flavorful, beautifully cooked, and marvelous with the indulgent caponata. Eric Bordelet Brut pear cider – from the same cidrerie as the welcome cider – was an intriguing match. This cider, deep gold in color, has significant tannins from the pear skins and is quite dry, sharing some attributes of pinot noir. When first sipped alone, this cider generated an ambivalent reaction from several diners. But as Joshua pointed out, the walnuts and eggplant of the caponata "opened the door" for the cider and quelled the tannins. Indeed, with a bite of the food, it became a totally different cider and a most delicious pairing.

Next, diners discovered the Famille DuPont Cidre Bouché from Pays d'Auge. The DuPont family have been producing cider and calvados on their 74-acre estate some 125 miles west of Paris for over 25 years. They employ many of the techniques used in the production of the finest wines, selecting varieties of apples just as a winemaker would choose a blend of grapes. Joshua compared this cider to a Brunello wine with Brettanomyces. Commonly known as Brett, this yeast is often unwelcomed in wine as it imparts funky, earthy aromas and flavors. But Brett is welcome in this cider (as it is in many beers). Joshua noted that the Cidre Bouché is "a completely distinctive Norman cider that is the benchmark for the region." Chef Chemel's lamb duo was fantastic. The lamb chop and belly confit were perfectly seasoned and cooked, with yellow wax beans, ramps, spring garlic, and natural jus beautifully completing the composition. The Brett-derived funkiness and earthiness of the cider paired perfectly with the mild gaminess of lamb.

A cheese course was next. Good Thunder Cheese is a cow's milk cheese from the Alemar Cheese Company in Mankato, Minnesota. The cheesemakers wash the cheese weekly in local beer, cultures, and salt, producing what they call "an alchemy of flavors." Dried apricot chutney was the perfect garnish. Evoking some characteristics of a Riesling Spätlese (late harvest), Eric Bordelet Tendre Biodynamic pear cider is Bordelet's sweetest cider. With aromas of baked apple and honey and a medium gold color, it was a wonderful partner to the cheese.

To conclude dinner, Pastry Chef Nicholas Pine delighted diners with La Noisette – a caramel sponge with candied hazelnut, served with spiced caramel ice cream and praline cream. Eden Heirloom Blend Ice Cider was fantastic with dessert. From northern Vermont, this was the evening's sole domestic cider. In addition to their own organically produced apples, Eden sources rare varieties from orchards in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Québec to complete their blend. Vermont's naturally cold winters concentrate the flavor and sugar of the apples before fermenting, with eight pounds of apples required to make one 375ml bottle of ice cider. Chef Chemel captured the essence of this cider perfectly, exclaiming upon his first sip at the tasting, "I have Tarte Tatin in my glass."

Bailli Mazza presented Chef Chemel with a Chaîne des Rôtisseurs plate to thank him and his entire team for mastering the challenge of turning her vision of a cider dinner into an exquisite meal and a fun and informative evening. Chef Chemel had clearly enjoyed the project, telling the group, "As a French chef, I never thought I'd do a full tasting menu with cider. It was quite exciting, actually," adding "It was a lot of fun!"

As the event concluded, diners were still discussing the evening's ciders and food pairings. Perhaps even more than with wine, the tight linkage between food and drink was on full and delicious display. Some ciders were delightful to sip on their own while others revealed their full character when paired with the right food. Everyone left with an expanded appreciation for the range and complexity of cider.

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