One of my favorite regions in America is Northern California. In a lot of ways, the picturesque Anderson Valley of Mendocino reminds me of the South of France and parts of Italy, though in an obscure kind of way. The sun kissed rocky hills and foggy valley floor are home to thousands of acres of grape vines, small organic farms and herds of goats and sheep. Its bucolic small towns nestled among towering redwoods and craggy coastlines bathed in the golden California sunshine are a photographer’s wet dream. Like Peter Mayle’s biographical series ‘A Year in Provence’, Mendocino boasts a unique rhythm governed by it’s own cast of colorful characters that people the region. As an outsider you are viewed with a weary apprehension and often confused for a government official of one kind or another till you integrate . Time is measured not by days, weeks or months but by the seasons.
We lived in a small decaying rural cabin off the grid and with an actual outhouse. Slowly as we made friends we were introduced to the amazing food culture that resides there hidden quietly. Our introduction came with Jen, one of the trio of midwives who delivered our son Beaumont. When she wasn’t helping hopeful parents bring beautiful babies into the world, she was milking goats and making Jezebel, the best aged goat cheese I ever slathered on toasted sourdough baguettes. Some of the bounty came from colorful characters like Bobby the barrel chested cowboy who had a penchant for wrestling wild pigs before dispatching them with his bowie knife. Only a wimp or someone without time uses a gun for hunting. Beneath Bobby’s gruff exterior lay a heart of gold and a true zest for living life.Our dairy came from a Buddhist collective that operated on the honor system. Jars of fresh raw milk, cream and yogurt were dropped off in a cooler behind Burt’s farm store in Boonville. Fresh milk, much like fresh eggs, taste more flavorful than the mass produced stuff we normally are subjected to. Locally grown and milled flour and grains came from the fields of a retired stockbroker who felt the world might explode into anarchy at any moment. He spent his days penning conspiracy essays and stocking all of us with enough food to survive the onslaught in style. Alan raised heirloom varieties of grass fed cow, if one can really say that, that rivalled any meat being produced in the country. Fish came either from the owners of Lemon’s Market in Philo who operated a fishing boat, or from listening to sporadic announcements on KZYX community radio signaling the arrival of fishing boats in Fort Bragg laden with $2 a pound fresh albacore tuna.
Every time I though I reached a culinary plateau some other cool ingredient would appear and blow my mind Lisa and I eventually moved away but still come back once a year for the International Alsace Wine Festival. During the last Festival, we took a break and wandered through the Gewurztraminer’s and Rieslings and came across our friend Stephanie pouring a great Signal Ridge bubbly surrounded by tins of piment d’ville. Anyone intimately familiar with my kitchen will note the copious quantity of spicy peppers next to the range, Espelettes from Basque France, Aleppo from war ravaged Syria, Clay Peppers from Canada, red chili flakes, homemade Harissa powder and a spicy seasoning from Chile called Merken.
I anxiously opened the tin and was blown away by the complex flavors and beautiful mild heat. Piment d’ville is made from the same pepper as it’s famous cousin the espelette pepper. For a long time professional chefs enthusiastically seasoned their dishes with Espelettes as the popularity circled the globe spread like an out of control wildfire. I went home that night and compared the tin to some espelettes I had brought with me. I actually preferred the piment d’ville and found the color more vibrant with a richer, more distinct of aroma of smoky sweet peppers punctuated with hints of tobacco. Soon I started seasoning everything in sight with piment d’ville. You can buy the piment d’ville straight from the farm in Mendocino where they are grown with the greatest of love then hand harvested and processed. Buy Here! and tell them Francois sent you!
I updated an old French recipe for a lamb stew scented rose wine, rosemary and espelettes to make with these beautiful peppers. It is the perfect crossover dish that bridge Provence and Mendocino in a bowl. If you are fortunate enough to live near the Anderson Valley make this with local grass fed lamb, a great local rose, some rosemary plucked out of someone’s yard and a tin of piment d’ville!
- herbal rose infusion
- 1 bunch rosemary
- 1 bunch thyme
- 4 bay leaves
- 10 juniper berries
- 10 black peppercorns
- 4 ” segment of dried orange peel
- 1 bottle rose
- lamb stew
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 10 thin carrots, peeled and sliced
- 1 sweet onion, peeled and sliced
- 2 ribs of celery, diced
- 1 leek, cleaned and diced
- 10 cloves garlic, sliced ‘good fellas’ thin
- 3 # boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 inch dice
- 2 teaspoons piment d’ville
- 2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
- sea salt and black pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons lavender honey
- 1 teaspoon nutmeg
- Bring eight quarts of water to a boil with the rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, juniper, black peppercorn and dried orange peel.
- Simmer 15 minutes then add bottle of rose.
- Continue simmering till infusion has reduced by fifty percent.
- Strain out herbs and save for making lamb stew.
- Saute sliced carrots, sliced sweet onion, diced celery and diced leeks in olive oil.
- Cook five to ten minutes till the vegetables are soft.
- While vegetables are cooking slowly, season lamb shoulder with piment d’ville, herbes de Provence, sea salt, pepper and lavender honey.
- Saute in oil until browned.
- Add to vegetables with garlic and top with herbal rose infusion.
- Grate nutmeg with a microplane till you have about one teaspoon and add to stew.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and cook covered till tender, about 2 – 3 hours.