Purple Haze

Words by John Humphries

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One spring afternoon while working for a London wine merchant, I returned to our cellar near Borough Market to find my boss holding court as to the most suitable wine to drink on one's death bed. I was asked for my choice and answered "a Margarita on the rocks, no salt." A dumbfounded silence ensued; clearly my colleagues had not had the same fun experiences as I in Mexico's raucous cantinas.

I would have a dilemma if I was asked the same question today. For today my answer would have changed to Crème de Cassis. I discovered the beauty of this luxuriant and regally coloured nectar while I was working the 2002 vendange (grape harvest) in Nuits-Saints-George.

I can hear your protests; is he crazy? In the home of the finest Pinot Noir wines on the planet he would prefer to savour a blackcurrant liqueur rather than a Grand Cru? Has the Kir Aperitif genie bewitched him? Or, has he been rendered senseless by the sheer, voluptuous deliciousness of sorbet au cassis; an everyday menu item in the bistro's and restaurants of the Côte D'Or?

I can assure you that my both my taste buds and my judgement are in fine fettle; but yes, I have been seduced by a liquid goddess robed in purple. It was, in fact, a cassis sorbet that had lead me to this perverse position.

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Noir de Bourgogne grapes

I had ordered one for dessert on my first evening in Nuit. I ordered another. Pascal, my waiter explained that the restaurant buys frozen blackcurrants; a variety called Noir de Bourgogne from a farmer up on the Hautes-Côtes and then churn them with Crème de Cassis in an ancient ice cream machine. He returned to my table with a bottle of Crème de Cassis and a small cognac balloon. My moment of conversion had arrived. The nose. The nose: as rich an expression of fruit as I had ever experienced; way-out beyond any wine. It was exquisitely profound. Was I rediscovering an aroma that harked back to my Ribena schooldays? Then I tasted it. Immediately I knew I would have sweet dreams that night. I paid my bill, left a good tip and floated away into the now tender, violette hued, Nuit night.

The following morning vendange commenced at Domaine Henri Gouges. The first vineyard to be cut was a 1er Cru; Les Perrieres, but not Pinot Noir, instead a unique clone of Pinot Blanc (one that Clive Coates has christened 'Pinot Gouges') from 45 year old vines. At midday, on the dot, we stopped work for lunch, our aperitif was also Pinot Blanc, not the very precious 1er Cru but an ordinaíre white wine from a less important vineyard, located on the flat land at the top of the slope; the Haute Côtes. Augusto approached me, in his hand a brown glass, unlabelled bottle "Kir?" he said pointing to my glass. I asked him who had made it, he proudly told me he had. I reached for another glass and he poured me a measure. The aroma was pure pheromone and it was also stunningly delicious, with twice the intensity of fruit of the brand I had tasted the previous night. Augusto told me it was "Super Cassis;" I readily agreed with him, but not fully understanding the true importance of his words. His homemade cassis was so good I choose to sip Augusto's cassis neat and keep my wine separate; a glass in each hand, which was a cause for further hilarity amongst my new French friends.

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Haute Côtes

I returned to Burgundy again for vendange in 2008 to Domaine Simon Bize in Savigny-Les-Beaune. Other than my duties in the vineyards I was on another mission. I had arrived a week early to allow me time to investigate. But before setting off on my bicycle to the Cassissium, yes, there is a museum (it's superb) devoted to Crème de Cassis in Nuits-Saint-Georges, founded and run by Verdrenne liqueur company, it was time for a Kir Aperitif.

In France, Kir is the second most popular aperitif after pastis. It is named after a former Mayor of Dijon, so it has a special importance in and around Burgundy. Canon Felix Kir was born in 1878, he came to prominence in the 1940's for his covert opposition to the Nazi occupation during the Second World War and for the assistance he provide to the Marqui, the French Resistance movement. When the war finished in 1945 he was able to promote his homeland once again by offering all visitors to the hotel de ville a blanc-cassis. This drink was renamed Kir in his honour and the word 'Kir' entered the French dictionary in 1960.

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The wine for a proper Kir should only be a Bourgogne Aligote, a bone dry white with a tingling, fresh acidity and with delicate pear and green herb flavours, mixed with a generous dollop of crème de cassis, and served in a large brandy balloon; 1/5 Cassis to 4/5 Aligote. In England the Kir we drink is far too dry, not enough cassis and of course we rarely use Aligote, in fact the first dry white wine that comes to hand is the usual pour. So, in fact, what we drink here is an impoverished Vin Blanc Cassis; not a Kir. There is one other variation in France, a bar may use sirop de cassis which is non-alcoholic, rather than a crème that is.

A local difficulty is ordering a Kir on the rocks, to dilute it, a consideration when cycling. One patron refused to serve it to me (it was a Basil Fawlty moment) when he declared at the top of his voice it was "c'est un sacrilege". I countered attacked by ordering a mineral water, which should never be poured over ice, especially as the bottle was already chilled and this was, served by a dizzy waiter, with, what I guessed to be a monster hang-over. Thus I got the ice I required and the Patron got a rage and un visage rouge.

A Communard is a mixture of red wine; Beaujolais or a Passe-Tout-Grains (a blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay) with Cassis. Kir Royale is the luxury choice, Crème de Cassis topped with champagne or another sparkling wine. I expect the original 'Royale' was made with Cremant de Bourgogne, the classy, local fizz based on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Crème de Cassis liqueurs first came to the market in the 1840's. And as blanc-cassis became more popular a bottle of Cassis would be placed on cafe tables as a condiment, not only for wine but for vermouths too. Dubonnet cassis, Noilly cassis, Chambery cassis, Suze cassis, and even Marc cassis, it was also used to flavour mineral water. In Paris, on my way home, I ordered a citroen-presse with a splash of cassis, the bartender did not bat an eyelid. By 1914, at the eve of the First World War, over 80 companies were producing cassis in and around the Côte D'or.

There is a kiwi cassis made in New Zealand and others of very high quality from Canada. I'm also pleased to inform you that cassis is made in England at Stanlake Park in Berkshire and 'British Cassis' by Joe Hilditch in Herefordshire. She is a third generation of blackcurrant farmers, they previously sold their entire crop to Ribena. All of the above are titles, brand types or names, as none are regulated by an Appelllation Controlee. Cassis is produced without strict rules but often with love, especially by independent producers on a small scale at domains across Burgundy.

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The blackcurrant harvest occurs in early July, the crop is immediately frozen. When the crème production process begins the baises de cassis are placed in a stainless steel tanks and the fruit is then sprayed with a mist of alcohol which is distilled from sugar beet. This will leach the colour and flavours but most importantly the beguiling perfume from the fruit, it will also prevent fermentation. For if blackcurrants are allowed to ferment they produce an intense and foul stench, as they contain a chemical that's identical to one found in cats' urine.

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Revolving maceration tanks at Lejay Lagoute

The blackcurrants may be steeped in alcohol for up to 12 weeks. Crème de Cassis is obtained only by a maceration process. In the tanks the finest crème rises to the top, this is removed and set aside. The remaining must is then gently pressed and sugar is added and both are blended together.

A Bourgogne Crème with 20% alcohol will have up to twice as much fruit content as another crème at 16% but only a 1/8 increase in the amount of sugar. This is 'Super Cassis' or a 'Double,' which is even more fruity, aromatic and darker; a dense purple/black. A top quality Crème will be made from as much as 750 grams of blackcurrants per bottle. Once opened a bottle of cassis should always be stored in the refrigerator, tres important, to retain its 'bite' its freshness and aroma.

A happy coincidence. The start of vendange in September coincides with the release of the Annee or Recolte styles. Made from blackcurrants harvested just two months earlier. So fresh, so pure, so intensely aromatic, this is my favourite style of Crème de Cassis but I am not aware of anybody who imports this style in to the U.K.

When vendange was finally over I was able to cycle to the tiny village of Cissy, some 8kms south east of Beaune. To meet Emmanuelle Baillard, the patronne of the aptly named Nectars de Bourgogne. She and her husband Florent farm 60 hectares of Noir de Bourgogne. From which they produce a delicious Nectar de Cassis, a non-alcoholic blackcurrant juice, the major proportion of their crop is sold to the big brand owners in Beaune, Dijon and Nuits-Saint-George.

First Emanuelle showed me their processing plant, which was remarkably similar to a winery. A membrane press, stainless steel tanks, pumps and a bottling line. Florent was busy packing frozen blackcurrants that were to be dispatched to a yogurt producer.

I was told that it is important to flash freeze the blackcurrants to minus 30°C within 24 hours of being machine harvested, at the peak of their ripeness and to prevent oxidation and to preserve the vitamin C content.

One hectare will contain up to 6,000 blackcurrant bushes of the noble Noir de Bourgogne, which is preferred for its dense clusters of petit pois sized berries that have a superior flavour and aromatic intensity than all other varieties. Another type grown in the Côte D'Or is called the Royal de Naples.

Each hectare will yield between 3 to 4 tonnes of fruit. Which with machine harvesting can amass up to 20 tonnes a day. Before the machines took over harvesting in the 1970's the harvest was by hand which restricted the growers; as they could only cultivate what could be hand-harvested at the critical peak of ripeness, any more would have been to left to rot or decay.

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green blackcurrant buds

Yet the most astonishing aspect of Emanuelle's production is the 150 kilos of green blackcurrant buds they collect each year, which are sent, with maximum speed to Grasse, the perfume capital of France, to be the core 'fresh' note of so many perfumes. These buds are harvested by hand in the winter months; this was early October so the season had just began. Emanuelle led me out into the fields and picked off a bud and crushing it between her fingers handed to me. How is it possible for such a tiny green jewel to be so aromatic, so fresh so invigorating? I then plucked off a leaf and crunched it between my fingers, took a sniff and handed to Emanuelle. I said 'Pouilly Fume' she giggled and nodding her head said "Oui"

With our meeting over I took a look at my map, I was about 6kms from Meursault, isn't life awful? So off I peddled in the rain (purple?) in search of a Kir or perhaps a 1er Cru.

Further information

There is a Route du Cassis available from the Office de Tourisme du Pays de Nuits-Saint-Georges, 3 Rue Soneys 21700 N-St-G France.

Le Cassissum, Avenue du Jura, Rue des Freres Montgolfier, 21700 N-St-G France.

Recipe de Sorbet au Cassis
500 grams Frozen blackcurrants*
200 grams Caster sugar* *
250 ml Cold water
200 ml Crème de Cassis

* It is very difficult to find frozen blackcurrants in mainstream supermarkets but Whole Food Market stock them.

* * This should be viewed as the maximum amount of sugar. I believe the French have a 'sweeter tooth' than we do. I also recommend that you make a simple sugar syrup with most of the water and let it cool, before mixing it with the blackcurrants. Sugar is needed to obtain the correct firmness of texture to the sorbet but too much makes the sorbet too sweet for me. I have also tried substituting agave syrup for part of the sugar. You will need to stop the machine and taste the mixture to decide the right amount of sugar for your own taste.

Or, combine the first three ingredients in a heavy pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves; stir. Pass through a coarse sieve and then stir in the Crème de Cassis, a little at a time. Pour the mixture into an ice-cream machine with the motor running, churn and freeze. Do not over pour the Crème de Cassis, as too much alcohol will prevent the sorbet from forming correctly; it will remain a liquid.

To serve. Allow the sorbet to lose its freezer chill, 15 mins. Then with a small ice-cream scoop, form the sorbet in to neat, small balls and placed in a chilled/frozen Martini glass. Resist the urge to decorate.

Dick Bradsell's Russian Spring Punch
Dick first mixed this cocktail back in the mid 1980's. He was a bartender at Fred's Bar just off Dean Street when this punch first landed a knock-out blow.

But first a health warning. It was Dick's day off; he went to a private party. Not wanting to be on his feet all evening he pre-prepared the first stage of this punch, allowing his fellow guests the fun bit. Later......... two people fell down the stairs; another guest was run-over in the street outside the flat, the police were called to deal with that and a married couple decided to divorce. You have been warned.

Take a tall, thin glass and fill with ice cubes. Pour in the juice of 1/2 a lemon. Add 15ml of Crème de Cassis. Stir. Take a bottle of Brut Cava in one hand; and a bottle of vodka in the other. Then pour the two simultaneously into the glass, fill to the top. Note: The vodka quells the cava's fizz.

Retire from the bar. Sit Down. Drink. Dance. Lay Down. Dream Purple.

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