Anticipa-A-A-tion, It’s Making Me Wait
My female compatriots think I married a renaissance man. My husband Nick picked out my engagement ring all by himself. Despite having absolutely no guidance from me, I not only approved of his selection but also loved it. When I share this with inquiring friends, Nick groans, “Why do you have to tell people?” I declare with a wink, “Not every man can change a transmission and pick out a diamond ring!” The women are usually at this moment eyeing their husbands who are no doubt glowering at Nick. “He is a sensitive new-age guy and a DIY he-man!” I exclaim. “Oh,” and I add nonchalantly, “he also makes his own duck confit.”
The making of duck confit is inexplicably appealing to me (see Nick’s recipe). I think it has something to do with the fact that as an ancient method of preserving food it strikes some primordial chord. The intricate food science explanation of why it works also appeals to the geeky part of my personality. The French word “confit” means preserved, and the process was devised as a means of preserving a variety of meats and poultry – most traditionally goose, duck, or pork. The technique evolved over centuries but with the advent of modern methods of preserving food it has become somewhat of a dying art. The process involves fully curing the meat in salt, poaching it slowly in its own fat, and storing it covered with the fat until you are ready to eat it or cook with it. Curing the meat in salt makes the water in the piece of meat unavailable to microorganisms thereby rendering them incapable of causing spoilage. Covering the meat completely with fat keeps air from reaching it, further retarding the tendency to spoil. If the meat has been properly cured, a confit will keep in a cool, dark place (a cellar or refrigerator) for up to six months.
To me making duck confit is also an exercise in patience and the deferral of instant gratification for the reward of a product improved by time aging. Although making duck confit is not very complicated, it does take time: it is a two day affair. Nick likes to salt and pack the duck legs in herbs at least the night before he will cook them. Then he poaches them slowly in low heat so that the fat barely simmers for about 3 to 4 hours. During this time, the aroma of the garlicky, succulent duck legs bubbling in the fragrant herbs is exquisite torture. One must resist the temptation to pull the legs from the oven and call them ready just to seek relief from the sheer agony of waiting. Nick says that you have to wait until you see the skin pull back from the joints: a cooking tip he learned from our chef buddy, Rob Hunter of Pangaea Restaurant in Gualala, California. But the most difficult part is resisting the temptation to eat the duck legs straight away. The smell of the meltingly tender meat is almost too much to bear. Duck confit, however, is one of those dishes that get better with a little time. The flavors and texture come together and confit is better at one month than it is straight out of the oven. So if you wait, you will be rewarded with the enhanced complexity of flavor and texture.
The same holds true for our wines, or more specifically, our red wines. I know a lot of folks are curious and succumb to temptation, popping a few corks as soon as the Peay bottles arrive on their doorstep. As a winemaker, however, I have a quiet hope that our customers will cellar a few bottles for a little while, perhaps even for a few years. When making our Pinot noir, I intend for the wine to be aged in bottle since it is necessary for the wine to evolve slowly to reach its full potential (for further discussion see Andy’s article). After the jarring process of bottling, wine shuts down and becomes a little inert or goes into a “dumb” phase. When we pour our new, young wines at events or for customers we almost always decant them to allow them to open up and wake from their slumber. With more time in bottle, the wine undergoes a secondary transformation: tannins soften, fruity aromas evolve to include a more subtle and complex bouquet of florals, spices and perfume. The true character and terroir expression begin to unfold after the more brash primary aromas subside. So a wine could be quite good when it is young, yet would yield great rewards to the drinker who waited for this evolution to take place. It is like a stew that tastes better the next day or a cheese that ripens and goes from being mild in flavor and chalky in texture to delectably pungent and gooey. Instead of occurring in a matter of days or weeks, however, this transformation process could take years in a wine.
The six million dollar question is when best to drink a wine. To answer it, I like to refine the analogy of the bell curve and liken the trajectory to that of a mesa or a plateau. There is no precise moment at which it is best to open a specific bottle. It is more a span of time that is the ideal. I always find it most fun to have 2 or 3 bottles of the same wine so I can open them at 2 to 4 year intervals. What does a winemaker drink, you ask? Right now Nick and I are mostly pulling corks on 1999 to 2003 Pinot noirs, a little older for the Syrahs and circa 1996 for any California Cabernet Sauvignon we have. Occasionally, we will pull out a treasure from our cellar for a special dinner like the 1989 La Tâche and the 1982 Château Margaux this past Christmas meal. They were both hitting their stride, gliding along the mesa, diminishing in volume but gaining ethereal qualities.
When I sit down for a meal and tuck into the duck confit that I waited for a month to enjoy, I think about how my patience has paid off. I also revel in what a “catch” Nick is. Yet, I have that quiet hope that with time he will also evolve and attain new attributes that I can brag about: such as the ability to pick up his dirty socks from the floor, fix the water heater, and remember Valentine’s Day. Ah well, at least when I am working on my patience I can enjoy some tasty duck confit and some aged Pinot Noir.