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  • Writer's pictureMelissa L. Smith

A menu on the fly, decades in the making

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Cali Tunisian Clams

I have a virtual tasting on Friday with Anderson Valley’s Bee Hunter winery. The theme is pairing wine with food. We're also under stay at home orders, so I am at my new favorite butcher’s counter getting chicken backs for bone broth, and I’m thinking, what can I make using a good amount of white wine? Clams! White wine and clams. But that’s too simple, and too obvious. I think, pancetta, but my husband is allergic to pork. And then I remember their delicious Merguez. My husband is from Tunisia, and he loves Merguez (any type of lamb really), and seafood. I stand there in a mental culinary trance, orchestrating a recipe, and hoping that it turns out so that I can talk about it on Friday, and possibly get my act together enough to write a recipe for it. (As a chef, I hate writing recipes.)

On the drive home from the market, I think, this really needs some bright fresh Italian parsley, so I stop at the high end market by our home. And as my life is basically a continual version of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, I decide that we need a baguette, at least for the pictures. My husband and I are both hyper sensitive to gluten, so neither of us has any intention of eating it. Buuuuuuut, it’s made by a friend, it’s slow fermentation baking, and it’s truly a sexy baguette.

Years ago, I’m not sure if we were still dating or recently married, (it was a short and intense 9 months leading up to our micro wedding/elopement on Baker Beach; apparently there’s a nudist portion I had no idea about), so the dates are easily blurred, Monte told me one of his fascinating cultural stories. For a bit of background, my husband worked in law enforcement in Tunisia in his previous life. Completely unrelated to his very successful career, he told me that there are laws in Tunisia, as there are in France, about baguettes. They must weigh a certain amount, they must cost a certain amount, and probably some other nuances I’ve since forgotten.

Husband in his former life in law enforcement

I’ve always had an overactive imagination. I immediately picture him and his SWAT team buddies busting up a bakery where the women are wearing only bottoms a la a scene in a Denzel Washington movie where the women are packaging cocaine, only in this case it's under weight baguettes. I joke about his team using bagels as handcuffs and guns carved out of butter. I cracked myself up so much I almost had to pull over.

Back to clams in a white wine broth. A million years ago while I was at K&L, my cousin was a flight attendant for an airline, and offered me discounted tickets through the airline partnership program. I went to Clyde Beffa (still one of my absolute favorite human beings), and said, if I can pay my own way, can I go on a buying trip? Eric Story was my first mentor at K&L. He was the buyer in charge of Germany, Alsace, Loire, and all of the esoteric wine regions like Croatia, Lebanon, and Georgia. I was, and am, super into unknown wine regions. When given the choice of him, or Mulan Chan-Randell (who was the Rhone and Southern Rhone buyer) to be my mentor, it was a toss up. Jason Marwadell and I had started at the same time, and he seemed more into Rhone, so we decided to stake claim on our mentors and our regions, and I’m so glad that we did. I eventually got to work with Mulan, and she is now one of my absolute best friends, and one of the most respected people I know in wine. Eric is now the co-founder of Smith Story Winery with his amazing wife Ali Smith (and their massive golden-doodle Sandwich).

Eric was scheduled to do two weeks between Alsace and Loire, and he graciously let me tag along. We got along great, and complemented each other in our traveling. He drove, my French was the tiniest bit better than his, and he let me lead the conversations. We kicked ass together. Literally no one outside of our industry realizes how grueling these trips are. An average of five producers every day, starting at nine or ten in the morning, and oftentimes concluding with a dinner that continues until we call uncle sometime around midnight. Each of these producers could show us 12-20 bottles of wine. We could end up tasting 100 wines in one day, touring vineyards, wineries, cellars, and homes, and giving them no less than 100% of our attention. My secret to success is No Doz. On these buying trips I’ll take one every two to three hours (the equivalent to three cups of coffee, but it doesn’t mess with your palate).

We had AMAZING experiences, and I’m sure I’ll write about them someday. One of the ones that always sticks out, which wasn’t even related to a winery visit, was when we were staying in the Loire Valley. We were booked at a hotel on the river opposite of the Castle Château de Saumur. We had our own rooms, and we were both dog tired when we finally arrived. I wasn’t sure if Erik was sick of me or not, so the second night we were there, I figured I’d let him off the hook and we could have dinner separately. We were getting along great, and he certainly wasn’t on my nerves and was an absolute gentleman, and I didn’t want to be a burden.

Eric avec casoulet

There was a bridge over the Loire River just south of the castle and our hotel. I can still picture how breathtaking it was, and how I felt like there was a serious chance I’d already died and was actually in heaven, and wondering how I would rectify this current situation is that was indeed the case.

Anyway, it was getting dark out, and even though I am a tough as nails person, I wanted to get to my dining destination before it was too late. (Remember that overactive imagination.) I remember walking along the river towards the bridge, and thinking, I miss Eric’s company. How was that possible? We’d spent every waking hour together, and had even spent one night out snoring each other in Alsace, him on the floor and me on a less than comfortable futon. I’m also a fiercely independent person that happily travels on my own, even internationally. We just really got along. And in all likelihood, that was completely on him. I can be very particular in how much of any one person (including myself) that I can stand. So I’m walking across the bridge, the sun is setting in the west, I’m kind of melancholy, and almost in the middle, I look up and see Eric! We decide to go to dinner together after all. It was at a place that I think is now called Brasserie L'Entracte. They are known for their mussels. I don’t like mussels. Way too many experiences where they just don’t taste right. But we’re in France, and they’re called Moules, and they come with frites, and fuck it. Let’s do it. I ordered an Absinthe, because, why the hell not. There’s pastis in the mussels, it’s not a bad pairing. I think we also ordered a bottle of Muscadet. Everything was amazing. I have no idea what we talked about, what made us laugh, but it was like something out of a RomCom, but with no rom.

I bring up Eric on a few occasions professionally, because he is one of the few men I’ve worked with in my career, where there was zero awkwardness. No crossing any lines, no attraction, no anything, except a genuine respect for each other, and we get along great! We’re both passionate about and fascinated with wines, and cooking, and in the age of SommGate, I feel that it is important to call out the men that have had a positive impact on my career.

So whenever I’m taking the leap to order a big bowl of white wine braised bivalves, I remember this perfect experience. In the shadow of a castle, in a region I was only familiar with because of the name on the labels of wines sitting at a 30 degree angle on a wooden rack in the back row of K&L, on a trip only possible because of the generosity of my cousin, I was experiencing one of those ‘last meal’ meals.

Since Covid took over the world in March, I’ve lost my restaurant sommelier job, applied for sommelier positions just as restaurants figure out a way to transition to outdoor dining, and then anticipate indoor dining, and the next thing I know there is no need for the position I’ve been interviewing for. I’ve gone back to private chef work part time. I’ve mastered virtual wine tastings. I’ve delivered wine, carrying cases on my shoulder up steep flights of stairs to homes overlooking the San Francisco skyline with little to no acknowledgement that I’m about to faint because I’m wearing a mask and carrying a highly breakable good a quarter of my weight hundreds of steps above where I’m able to park. I worked a tiny harvest after the fires in Sonoma subsided. And I worked a bottling line.

A friend of a friend on facebook posted a CTA, and I jumped on it. Report to Sebastopol just after sunrise the last week of June.

Dude. Whatever illusion I had of the romance of bottling wine, was G O N E after the first hour. Little did I know I had nine hours left. I almost walked out a few times, but that’s not my style. My mask was too tight and was killing my ears and nose. My claustrophobia was absolutely out of control in this mobile bottling unit, and magnified because of the stifling mask situation. My body absolutely ached from the repetitive motion. I wanted a bottle of Advil and a magnum of Champagne to wash it down. I got to know Ali Nemo working the line. She was the friend of the friend. She was on fire. Dancing, joking, swapping out positions on the line, and keeping me motivated to keep going on.

Ali and I taking a micro break from the bottling line

Flash forward five months (I think) later, and I’m ⅞ of the way through a bottle of her Bee Hunter Pinot Gris ( a quarter of it went into the recipe), and pouring my heart out to my computer that is pre populating my writing, and I’ve time traveled a decade from California to France to Anderson Valley from my corner chair in Oakland.

The clams were delicious. My husband was doing his happy dance and offering to marry me all over again. The baguette… is long gone.

Cali Tunisian Clams with Merguez

2 links of Merguez, removed from the casing

2 Tablespoons of olive oil (mine was infused with garlic from another project)

1 very large Shallot, sliced 2 credit cards in width

1 very large home grown Strawberry Tomato, chopped (or any delicious heirloom tomato)

½ cup Heavy Cream

1 generous pinch of Diamond Kosher Salt

2 pounds fresh Clams in the shell

1 Tablespoon of fried garlic chile paste

Chopped Italian Parsley.

Saute the Merguez in the heated olive oil until it is cooked 75% of the way. Add in the shallots and stir until they are starting to become soft. Add the tomatoes and stir. Pour in the wine, and stir until the alcohol evaporates a bit, and then glug in the heavy cream and let that reduce about a minute. Add the salt and the clams and cover. 4 minutes later remove the lid and use a slotted spoon to remove the clams. Add the fried garlic chili paste, and let the liquid reduce for a few minutes, and then ladle it over the clams. Finish the dish with chopped parsley, and a generous tear of baguette that has been crisped in the oven.

Pour 4-5 ounces of chilled Pinot Gris, and keep it close. The rich texture of the dish with the high acid component mirror and compliment the wines.

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