A Provence of One's Own

TIMES STAFF WRITER

That old saying about stopping to smell the roses doesn't apply at the Andrew Murray Vineyards. Here, you stop to smell the rosemary--bush after bush of it, perfuming this hilly site along with lavender, thyme, sage and a multitude of vigorous, colorful native plants.

The carefully landscaped Provencal-Mediterranean look reflects the taste of the occupants. James K. Murray is an ardent Francophile and serious bistro cook. His 24-year-old son, Andrew, who is the winemaker, speaks fluent French and crafts his wines only from Rho^ne varietal agrapes.

They lead the good life, it's obvious, and they're still relishing the novelty of it. The winery building was finished only a couple of years ago, and their first commercial wine wasn't released until last fall.

James Murray developed the El Paso Cantina chain of Mexican restaurants that flourished in and around Los Angeles in the 1980s. He sold it in 1986 and now has time to indulge in what he liked best about the restaurant business--cooking.

The whole family was collaborating on lunch one day, just before James and his wife, Frances, left for Dijon, where they are spending July studying French, touring vineyards and poking into restaurants and bakeries.

James Murray was getting ready to roast chickens, which he had already smoked over grapevine cuttings. Frances was in her garden picking herbs and salad greens. Andrew and his wife, Kristen Battaglia Murray, had come over to help, and a chef friend, Jeff Nichols, was shaping pizza dough.

The Murray kitchen is spectacular, a huge sunlit room with a massive granite-topped center island and a dining area and fireplace at one end. A bank of windows looks out on mountainous vistas, and a bookcase holds the "short list" of James Murray's cookbook collection, which concentrates on French food. Still more cookbooks take up most of the shelves in the library.

A wisteria vine trails under the kitchen windows, and there's a swimming pool out back, hidden in the sort of bushy, drought-resistant foliage that is typical of Provence.

You're impressed--make that awed--by the giant French-made La Cornue range, which is fueled with both gas and electricity. Sprays of white morning glories decorate its white porcelain facing. Brass fittings include a plaque engraved with James Murray's name. An antique tile painting of hanging game is set in the wall above it.

The kitchen opens onto a patio, where James Murray smoked the chickens. In a stone wood-burning oven made in Marseille, he bakes his weekly batch of bread, leavened with a wild yeast starter that he has nursed for six years. For today, he has baked three loaves--one flavored with Kalamata olives and thyme, another with lemon and rosemary, and a third studded with walnuts and raisins.

Getting fuel is no problem. The Murrays simply gather up dead branches from oak trees on their property.

Walk beyond the patio and you come to Frances Murray's herb garden, with orderly beds of basil, thyme, chervil, sage, dill, marjoram and fennel. Bundles of these hang to dry from kitchen light fixtures.

James Murray does most of the cooking. After all, he's gone through formal chef's training in France--his first priority after leaving the restaurant business.

"At 48, I was the oldest student," he says of his time in the chef's program at Paris' Ritz-Escoffier, where he was in the school's first class, held in the basement of the Ritz Hotel. And he is still studying. The Murrays take occasional classes at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in the Napa Valley.

"I think cooking is just so neat," he says. "I've got the bug, I guess. I learn something every day. It's just amazing."

His wife, a former librarian, doesn't mind playing second fiddle.

"I'm the prep cook and dishwasher," she says. "I get to do the salads because they are from my garden."

As you sip Andrew Murray Rose D'Esperance, a wine made just for the family, you watch James Murray and Nichols top the pizzas with various combinations of artichoke pesto, homemade olive paste, prosciutto, Black Forest ham, roasted red peppers, tomatoes, basil, garlic and cheese.

You eat the pizzas as soon as they come from the wood-burning oven, then move on to the winery, where a table is set next to a tall window looking out on the gardens. Frances Murray brought the rustic cherry dining table from her family's farm in Tennessee. The chairs, made in Taos, N.M., were saved from one of the Murray restaurants.

The main dish is the chickens, sliced and arranged on organic greens just plucked from the garden. The chickens have been seasoned with rosemary, lemon and pepper, and the salad dressing is based on the roasting juices combined with Andrew Murray Viognier, olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic. There are homemade pickles on the table too--black olives marinated with herbes de Provence and green olives marinated with fennel and orange juice.

Now you taste the rest of the wines--the Roussanne, Viognier, Syrah and red Esperance, a Rho^ne grape blend--while Andrew Murray explains how he made them.

For dessert, Andrew Murray and Nichols have collaborated on Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Frances Murray supplied the sauce, made with fresh cherries and Cognac.

As you tour the vineyards before departing, two additional members of the family join in, making a great uproar. They are Syrah and Esperance, not grapes but a black Labrador and her pup rescued from the local pound.

Other than the family, you see no one, because this is isolated land, and the Murrays like privacy. Their vineyards interject orderly greenery into 200 acres so primitive that deer, wild boar, quail, rabbits, badgers, even a black bear, roam freely.

To get to the house, you have to drive several miles in a four-wheel-drive vehicle off Highway 154 from Los Olivos along winding, rural Foxen Canyon Road. It's another 2 1/2 miles through vineyards and open land until you come to a tennis court. Then you see the handsome Provencal mas (farmhouse) where the senior Murrays live. Andrew Murray and his wife live in a smaller house across from the winery.

The winery building has the same Provencal look as the house. It too contains a kitchen with a hotel-grade range. The kitchen opens to gardens that look down to a grassy space so large that helicopter tours can land with ease. Near this is a kitchen garden planted with corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplant, squash and much more. The vegetables share space with a grape vine nursery that will provide vineyard replacements when needed.

This is a lot of development in land so forbidding that James Murray's broker didn't want to show it to him. But the Murrays are hands-on workers who like challenge. They bought the property in 1988 and set to work putting in a road and other improvements. Local vintners attending a luncheon there in April were "drop-jawed," as Andrew Murray puts it, when they saw what had been accomplished.

The Murrays' 34 acres of vineyards are the highest and steepest in Santa Barbara County. The technique of planting on steep slopes was so foreign to the region the original spacing of the first Syrah vineyard had to be corrected, a long and costly procedure.

Eleven of the 34 acres are not yet producing. But in any case, wine production will remain small. Andrew Murray anticipates that it will reach a maximum of 5,000 cases annually in four years.

Last fall's debut release was the 1993 Syrah. The quantity was tiny, just 50 cases. This summer, the winery is shipping out the 1995 Roussanne, 1995 Viognier and 1994 Esperance, a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne and Viognier. The total is only 150 cases.

Rose d'Esperance is reserved for the family, but even the Murrays won't get many tastes because Andrew produced only four cases in 1995. Following French custom, he has handwritten the label on each bottle.

At a winery this small, winemaking is not done by committee. When Andrew Murray came up with an Esperance blend he liked, he bottled it at once. No second opinions required.

Andrew graduated from UC Davis last year with a degree in viticulture and enology. He had spent eight months as an unpaid student intern at a winery in western Australia, winding up as paid assistant winemaker at age 19. His wife, Kristen, formerly marketing director for a Sonoma winery, has just been elected to the board of the Santa Barbara County Vintners Assn.

James and Andrew are out in the vineyards early in the morning. "We often work around the clock. The vineyards never sleep," Andrew says.

James doesn't just stop for lunch, he cooks it. That's an easy job for someone who mastered a solid repertoire of classic French recipes in Paris.

He has auctioned off his cooking skills for charity, treating high bidders to dinner at the winery with the family waiting on tables.

After the tour, the Murrays rush home to prepare for a potluck dinner meeting of the Vintners Assn. This gives James Murray yet another opportunity to cook. His contribution will be a sliced mango salad with candied walnuts and walnut oil vinaigrette.

The salad reflects his style of cooking, which is based on classic French cuisine but replaces the butter and cream with herbs and stock reductions. He emphasizes vegetables cooked al dente, rustic dishes with bold flavors.

"Let's call it spontaneous cooking," he says.

WARM ROSEMARY CHICKEN SALAD

James Murray smokes the chicken for 20 minutes the day before he makes this dish. If you don't have a home smoker, simply roast the chicken as directed. Says Murray, "The citrus flavors combined with bitter greens and the subtle smokiness of the chicken make for versatile food and wine pairings." In other words, you can go red or white. The lemony flavors go well with Viognier or Roussanne, and the herbs and chicken match well with Esperance (Murray's Rho^ne blend).

ROSEMARY CHICKEN

2 lemons

9 sprigs rosemary

1 (4- to 5-pound) chicken

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Cut lemons crosswise into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Place lemon slices and 4 rosemary sprigs in chicken cavity. Insert additional 4 rosemary sprigs under skin of breast. Rub entire bird with salt, pepper and remaining rosemary. Roast chicken at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 1 hour, basting several times with pan juices.

Remove chicken from oven, reserving pan juices. Keep chicken warm.

SALAD

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons Viognier or other white Rho^ne wine

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Juice of 1 lemon

16 Kalamata olives

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

6 cups mixed salad greens

Skim fat from roasting juices, then pour juices into skillet. Deglaze roasting pan with 2 tablespoons wine, scraping up brown bits, then add bits and sauce to skillet with juices. Reduce mixture over medium heat about 5 minutes.

In separate pan, saute garlic in olive oil. Add to juices in skillet along with 1/2 cup wine, lemon juice, olives and salt and pepper to taste. Boil over high heat until reduced by half, about 10 minutes.

Arrange greens on 4 serving plates. Slice Rosemary Chicken. Divide chicken, lemon slices from chicken cavity and olives from dressing among plates and arrange on greens. Pour warm dressing over salads and serve at once.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

665 calories; 1,234 mg sodium; 195 mg cholesterol; 47 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 50 grams protein; 1.04 grams fiber.

MARINATED BLACK OLIVES WITH HERBS OF PROVENCE

The Murrays vary the seasonings for these olives. Frances Murray happened to pluck a tiny red onion from her garden and added it for color. Sweet onion slices are another possibility. You can find the herb mixture known as herbes de Provence in supermarkets, gourmet shops and most cookware stores.

1 (6-ounce) can pitted black olives, drained

1 cup water

1/4 cup white vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon herbes de Provence

1 tablespoon minced parsley

Juice of 1 lemon

1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

1 teaspoon grated orange peel

1 clove garlic

1 baby red onion, optional

2 or 3 thin slices orange

2 or 3 thin slices lemon

Place olives in bowl or jar. Add water, vinegar, olive oil, herbes de Provence, parsley, lemon juice, lemon peel, orange peel, garlic, whole red onion and orange and lemon slices. Cover and marinate in refrigerator 1 week.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

Each 1/4-cup serving contains about:

48 calories; 139 mg sodium; 0 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.25 gram fiber.

JAMES MURRAY'S BASIC PIZZA DOUGH

Murray suggests topping these pizza rounds with an assortment including, but not limited to, Fontina cheese, goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, marinated olives, sliced tomatoes, sliced prosciutto or artichoke pesto and fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, oregano, chervil, rosemary or sage.

1 teaspoon dry yeast

1 tablespoon honey

1 1/3 cups lukewarm water

3 3/4 cups bread flour plus extra for dusting

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Toppings of choice

Combine yeast, honey and water in bowl and set aside 5 to 10 minutes, until yeast is dissolved. Place flour and salt in 4- to 6-quart mixing bowl. Make well in center and pour in liquid and olive oil. Combine ingredients with wooden spoon, then lightly oil hands and knead dough until it forms a ball. Lightly oil dough ball and inside of 1-quart glass bowl. Place dough in bowl and seal tight with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 8 hours or overnight.

Remove dough from refrigerator 2 hours before assembling pizzas. With sharp knife, divide into quarters. Form each into ball and set aside to reach room temperature.

Sprinkle flour over 12-inch-square clean, smooth surface. Use metal spatula or dough scraper to carefully lift dough ball, being careful to preserve its round shape. Place on floured surface. With hand or rolling pin, press down to form flat circle about 1/2 inch thick. Pinch dough between fingers all around edge of circle to form rim rising about 1/4 inch above center of dough. Continue pressing dough outward to form 10- to 12-inch circle. Prepare other dough balls in same fashion. Top with desired toppings. Slide with baking peel onto heated pizza stone in 450-degree oven. Or place on baking sheets sprinkled lightly with cornmeal to prevent sticking. Bake at 450 degrees until golden brown, about 13 to 15 minutes.

Makes enough dough for 4 (10- to 12-inch) pizzas.

Each pizza crust contains about:

541 calories; 593 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 98 grams carbohydrates; 16 grams protein; 0.39 gram fiber.

MARINATED GREEN OLIVES WITH FENNEL

1 (6-ounce) can green olives, drained

1 cup water

1/4 cup white vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fennel fronds, finely chopped

Grated peel of 1 orange

Juice of 1 orange

1 bay leaf, crushed

Dash paprika

2 to 3 thin slices orange

2 to 3 thin slices lemon

Place olives in bowl or jar. Add water, vinegar, olive oil, fennel, orange peel, orange juice, bay leaf, paprika and orange and lemon slices. Cover and let marinate in refrigerator 1 week.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

Each 1/4-cup serving contains about:

53 calories; 139 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 2 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.31 gram fiber.

BRANDIED CHERRIES

The Murrays like this mixture over vanilla ice cream, but it is also good with frozen yogurt. If you can find cherries at a good price, make a double batch and store it in the refrigerator to have on hand when you need a quick, impromptu dessert.

2 cups cherries, pitted

1 cup sugar

1 cup bottled cherry juice

3 tablespoons Cognac

Combine cherries, sugar and cherry juice in heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until mixture begins to thicken slightly, 15 to 20 minutes. Add Cognac and stir 1 to 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat, place in bowl or jar and cover. Refrigerate overnight before using.

Makes 2 1/4 cups.

Each 1/4-cup serving contains about:

145 calories; 5 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 35 grams carbohydrates; 0 protein; 0.06 gram fiber.

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