Spoils of the Sport
For some California winemakers, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving if they don’t hunt the main course themselves.
It’s early morning in Napa Valley, and Terry Mathison walks quietly through a grove of native California oak trees that borders a hillside vineyard. The tall, rugged 40-year-old vineyard manager for Rudd Vineyards and Winery spends most of his days outside, tending vines that produce some of wine country’s more noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignon. The grower directs much of his energy at keeping his vines free from vineyard pests and other hazards that might compromise the quality of his harvest.
Today, however, Mathison’s goal is to provide his family with a main course for Thanksgiving. Wild turkey is the game du jour as he stops to examine a turkey feather caught in the high grass.
“You can only kill Toms that come to call,” Mathison says. He then pulls a slate scraper out of his pocket and scratches it with a plastic striker to mimic a turkey’s gobble. The technique is akin to scratching a blackboard with your fingernails, but nonetheless attracts the large birds, which usually weigh 15 to 20 pounds. Those that answer his call find themselves in the Mathison kitchen.
Hundreds of winemakers and vineyard workers in California hunt, and prepare the spoils of the sport for their families’ dinner tables. Although grizzly bears no longer roam the coastal hillsides, turkey, duck, wild boar, deer and even mountain lion are plentiful. All—with the exception of the lions—are fair game during their respective hunting seasons.
Mathison comes from a long line of hunters. Descendants of the nation’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, the Mathison family settled in Napa Valley in the 1860s. “Until recently, everyone used to hunt,” Mathison notes. “Hunting provided a fresh source of meat at a time when refrigeration was still uncommon. In fact, there wasn’t much electricity around here until the 1940s, so families would often share their game meats with their neighbors.”
The modern-day hunter pulls a small, worn booklet called The Hungry Sportsman’s Fish and Game Cookbook out of his back pocket. “This belonged to my father,” he says, holding the 1955 volume with pride. Recipes for bear, possum, porcupine, beaver, squirrel, crow, blue jay and even fried tenderloin of mountain lion fill the pages of the well-worn book, which doubles as a sort of culinary history of the region.
Mathison began hunting with his father as a young boy. His family still owns a 1,100-acre ranch where he now brings his three young daughters with him to hunt deer. They don’t shoot yet, but they’re adept with binoculars. However, turkey hunting remains a mostly solitary affair for the grape grower, who also has a deft hand in the kitchen.
“Because they have less fat, wild turkeys tend to dry out,” Mathison states. He recommends covering the bird’s skin with olive oil or butter prior to baking in order to seal in juices. Regular basting is also required. Both techniques also work well with domestic turkeys. Some form of stuffing is also a must to keep the meat moist, although it can be as simple as a vegetable or fruit filling.
Mathison drinks well with his turkey. The Rudd red and white wines are both good matches. And because his wife, Rachaele, works at Caymus, the family owns a few bottles from that renowned winery as well.
Neighboring Napa vintner Dennis Cakebread also hunts. Duck, not turkey, is Cakebread’s favorite game bird. Like Mathison’s family, Cakebread’s has lived in the region since the mid-1800s, when Robert Cakebread arrived from England to search for gold.
“I learned to hunt from my grandfather,” Cakebread says. His early memories are of hunting doves and quail. “When my parents bought a dog that was trained to chase ducks, we moved to that bird,” he explains. Now he’s hooked on duck hunting, a wintertime sport that he practices with local friends who include U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson.
Apparently, waking up before dawn and shivering in the early morning cold doesn’t bother the 48-year-old Cakebread, who is the sales and marketing director for his family’s eponymous winery. “Being out in nature is wonderful,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter whether or not you get something. It’s just the beauty of being there.”
Still, no hunter likes to come home empty-handed. To ensure a successful hunt, duck hunters use decoys, gauge wind direction and perfect audio techniques. “Different ducks make different noises,” Cakebread explains. To make sure he’s mimicking the right call, he carries an impressive collection of duck-calling devices around his neck. “Duck hunting is a bit like winemaking,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of steps to do it right. But the results are worth it.”
Those results can be tasted at the Cakebread dinner table, where Dennis and his wife, Sara, do a lot of entertaining. The Cakebreads pair their family’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling with the ducks that they eat.
“One of my favorite recipes was inspired by Mike [Thompson],” Cakebread says. “It’s called a ‘Duck Popper’ because you just pop the duck breast into your mouth.” The appetizer works well as an introduction to a main course such as turkey.
Several hundred miles south of Napa Valley, winemaker Steve Pessagno, who makes wine for Lockwood Vineyards and his own Pessagno label, tracks wild boar in Monterey County. But unlike Mathison and Cakebread, who hunt with rifles, the Central Coast winemaker uses a bow and arrow.
“It’s a greater challenge,” Pessagno says. “With a bow, you need to be closer to the animal. You have to think differently and be very quiet. It’s also more dangerous, because you risk wounding the animal and having it come after you.”
Like Mathison and Cakebread, Pessagno has been hunting since he was a boy. He learned at the heels of his grandfather, who shepherded him out to the hills around San Jose. Now Pessagno, 44, often hunts with his own four sons.
According to Pessagno, wild boar meat is similar in flavor to that of commercially raised hogs, but is somewhat denser and leaner. The exceptions to the rule are large, older boar—particularly males—which can be extremely gamy.
The winemaker butchers his own meat and says his favorite cuts are the fillets, located inside the rib cage, and the backstraps, cut from the muscle that runs from the shoulder to the buttocks. True to his Italian roots, Pessagno also indulges in the time-honored tradition of sausage-making, for which he uses cuts from the leg and shoulder as well as the trimmings from other parts of the animal.
His wine of choice for wild boar pairings? Silky smooth Pinot Noir, perhaps the most versatile of all reds.
Recipes for a Thanksgiving Feast
You can’t have too much on your plate for the most important feast of the year. While you design your Thanksgiving menu, however, remember that sweets such as cranberry sauce were not designed with fine wine in mind. The sweetness will make most dry wines taste tart. Dessert, however, can be easily paired with lush late-harvest wines.
Wild Duck Poppers
These snappy morsels are served skewered on toothpicks and make a fine introduction to the evening’s festivities. Adapted from Dennis Cakebread’s recipe.
- 2 wild duck breasts (or 1 domestic duck breast) sliced into 2-inch rounds, 1/4-inch thick
- 1/2 cup tamari or soy sauce
- 5 slices bacon (about 1/2 pound)
- 3 tablespoons water
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 15 to 20 toothpicks
In a small bowl, marinate the duck breast in soy sauce for 30 minutes. Cook the bacon in a large skillet over high heat until it is cooked but still supple. (If it is too crisp, it will break on the toothpicks.) Drain the bacon on a paper towel and set aside.
Remove bacon grease from the skillet, and return skillet to the stovetop heat. Using the 3 tablespoons water, break up any solids remaining on the surface of the pan and add the duck breast pieces. Cook them on both sides for 1 to 2 minutes. (They should be eaten rare.)
Cut the bacon into 2-inch lengths. Pierce one or two pieces of duck breast with a toothpick. Then add a piece of bacon to the mini-duck skewer. Arrange the duck poppers on a serving plate and sprinkle liberally with freshly ground black pepper. Serves 4 to 6 as an appetizer.
Wine recommendations: Duck works well with everything from sparkling wine and off-dry whites to full-bodied Cabernets and Merlots. Why not try the poppers with their inventor’s wine, the Cakebread 1999 Merlot? Hugel’s 2000 Cuvée Les Amours Pinot Blanc from Alsace is a great predinner white-wine choice.
Roast Wild Turkey with
This is a classic method for roasting turkey—wild or domestic. Wild ones might take from 5 to 10 minutes longer per pound to cook than domestic varieties. Adapted from Terry Mathison’s recipe.
- 1 wild (or domestic) turkey, 10 to 15 pounds
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3 teaspoons dried thyme
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 carrots, cut into 3-inch lengths
- 1 onion, quartered
- 1 or 2 lemons
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cups Cabernet Sauvignon (or other dry red wine)
- 3 tablespoons sweet butter
Preheat oven to 400F. Salt and pepper the body cavity and exterior of the bird. Rub 1 teaspoon of the thyme inside the body cavity as well. Stuff the cavity with the garlic, carrots, onion and 1 or 2 whole lemons, depending on how much room is available. Rub the body with the remaining olive oil and cover the skin with the remaining thyme. Place on a rack in a large roasting pan and roast for 20 minutes.
Reduce heat to 325F and continuing roasting, basting occasionally, until the legs move loosely in their joints, and the bird’s juices run clear when the thigh is pierced with a fork. Count on 25 minutes per pound. After the initial 20 minutes, you may set a sheet of aluminum foil loosely over the top of the bird to keep the breast meat from drying out.
Remove the bird from the pan and set aside. Discard the fatty drippings from the pan and place the pan on the stovetop over high heat. Add the wine to the pan and stir to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom. Cook to reduce the liquid by half. Reduce heat to low and add the butter, stirring until it is melted. Transfer the sauce to a serving dish and use as a garnish for the sliced turkey meat. Serves 6.
Wine recommendations: In general, you can enjoy any number of wines—from zingy Sauvignon Blanc to rich, barrel-fermented Chardonnay, spicy Zinfandel or focused Cabernet—with versatile turkey. With this red wine sauce, however, you should go with Cabernet Sauvignon or another dry red. Rudd’s 1999 Jericho Canyon red blend is a lip-smacking choice—you’ll need one bottle for the sauce, another one to enjoy alongside the turkey.
Wild Boar Cassoulet
Serve this casserole as an alternative to turkey, or alongside your Thanksgiving bird. If finding wild boar sausages proves too difficult, you can substitute Italian sausage. Recipe copyright 2002, by Jeff and Jodie Morgan.
Rinse and pick over the beans. Soak them overnight or for 8 hours in water that covers them by 2 inches. Drain any remaining water and transfer beans to a large pot. Add fresh cold water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a boil, add 2 teaspoons salt and reduce heat to simmer. Cook uncovered until tender, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Drain off any remaining water and set beans aside.
Using a fork, poke one set of holes in opposite sides of each sausage. Place the sausages in a large skillet and fill with water about 1/2-inch deep. (Do not cover the sausages with water. They should be half immersed in liquid.) Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Reserve the sausages and discard the water.
Preheat oven to 400F. In a Dutch oven or ovenproof pot, sauté the onion and garlic in the olive oil over medium heat, stirring regularly until the onion is somewhat translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the thyme, rosemary and mushrooms and continue to simmer, covered, until the mushrooms are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the cooked beans. Stir in the tomatoes. (If using canned tomatoes, you may also pour in the juice from the can.) Stir in the 2 remaining teaspoons of salt. Remove beans from heat.
Cut the sausages in half or into 2-inch long sections and mix them into the beans. Insert the bay leaves into the top of the cassoulet and bake, uncovered, in the oven for 45 minutes. Season with freshly ground pepper to taste. Serves 6 to 8.
Wine recommendations: This dish’s gamy sausage and earthy mushroom flavors calls for a hearty but rustic red—Rhône reds are good bets, as are Chiantis. American Sangioveses, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs, such as those made by Steve Pessagno, are also excellent matches.
String Beans with Tomato
To prepare this simple and tasty side dish for a large group (more than 6), simply double the recipe. To save time, pinch off only the knobby tip of each bean. There’s no need to remove the pointy ends. Recipe copyright 2002, by Jeff and Jodie Morgan.
- 3 tablespoons virgin olive oil
- 4 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pound fresh string beans, knobby tips removed
- 2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 3 tablespoons water
- Salt and pepper to taste
In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté, stirring so that it doesn’t brown or burn, about 45 seconds. Add the beans and toss them so that they are evenly coated with the garlic and oil. Stir in the chopped tomatoes.
Add the 3 tablespoons water, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the liquid evaporates, add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to keep the beans moist and to prevent them from burning. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4 as a side dish.
Pear and Apple Tart
Pear and apple orchards still flourish in parts of wine country. The Russian River town of Sebastopol is renowned for its Gravenstein apples, prized for their crunchy texture and fine, tangy taste. When selecting apples for baking, it’s best to choose crisp, tart ones—red, green, or yellow—which will complement a buttery pastry. The firm texture of Bosc pears works well for this tart, although any unpeeled ripe pears will do.
From Dean & DeLuca, The Food and Wine Cookbook, by Jeff Morgan (Chronicle Books, 2002).
For the pastry crust:
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the filling:
- 2 unpeeled apples, cored
- 1 unpeeled pear, cored
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into bits
- 1 tablespoon sugar
To make the crust: In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until they are fluffy. Whisk in the egg. Add the flour and salt and mix thoroughly. On a floured surface, push the dough down with the heel of your floured hand, spreading the mound forward 6 to 8 inches. Pull the dough together in a mound and repeat the procedure several times, lightly flouring your hands and the surface as needed to prevent the dough from sticking, until the dough develops a silky elasticity.
Form the dough into a disk and place in a self-sealing plastic bag. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.
Cut the disk in half. Freeze one half, for up to 3 months, for later use. (If you want to make a second tart immediately, use both disk halves and follow the directions for the first tart, below. Double the filling ingredients above.)
Let the dough sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes. On a lightly floured board, roll it into a 12-inch round. Fit into a 10-inch tart pan. Trim the edges.
To make the filling: Preheat the oven to 350F. Cut the apples and the pear into 1Â¼4-inch lengthwise slices. Place the slices in concentric circles or a spiral pattern. Alternate one pear slice for every two apple slices, overlapping each slice slightly.
Dot the surface of the tart with the butter. Sprinkle with the sugar.
Bake until the crust is golden brown, about 40 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack and unmold when ready to serve. Makes one 10-inch tart; serves 6 to 8.
Wine recommendations: This tart is only mildly sweet and quite delicate, making it a fine foil for an elegant, smooth dessert wine. Try a late-harvest Muscat, such as M. Chapoutier’s 1998 Muscat de Rivesaltes.
Winning the Game
Chefs who live in concrete jungles—or any cook who just won’t pick up a weapon to bring dinner home—can prepare these dishes with purchased meats. Specialty shops and reputable butchers should be your first stop in your hunt for big game. Another option is to contact one of the two gourmet purveyors below, who can ship your goods to you safely.
D’Artagnan 280 Wilson Avenue, Newark, NJ 07105. Tel.: 800/327-8246; www.dartagnan.com.
Polarica 105 Quint Street, San Francisco, CA 94124. Tel.: 415/647-1300; www.polarica.com.
To read this article in its entirety, pick up the November 2002 issue at your local newsstand.