Dinner With The Omnivore

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Probably, given the number of zombie epics I watched last winter

The alpine winter diet of lard, cheese and beer is undeniably tasty, but it’s a bit hard on the waistline and probably isn’t doing vitamin levels any favours either. In fact if it wasn’t for the skiing and sunshine we’d all emerge in May looking like overfed maggots. Fortunately summer offers the chance to address these pressing health and fitness issues via swimming, cycling and not sitting on your fat arse all evening swilling wine and watching zombie movies.

The summer challenge then was to find appealing lunches which aren’t the seasonnaire sandwich, one of my favourite midday options, but a tad on the calorific side for someone aiming to become less porky, stuffed as it is with cheese, mayo and carbs. I did try fruit at one point, but it was a bit of a non-starter really as I don’t actually like it much in its most convenient forms. Bananas aren’t bad, and grapes, melons and strawberries always appeal, but standard stuff like apples or peaches just doesn’t do it for me unless it’s cooked. And since cooked fruit usually involves pies or those almond tart things you get in the patisseries, it’s not about to feature prominently on the diet and exercise menu.

But perusal of Casino’s tourist-oriented picnic shelves suggested that little boxed salad foods might well be the way forward. Not actually purchased from the supermarket, clearly, but their stock is certainly a useful source of ideas. And after minimal experimentation it transpired that salad in plastic tubs was indeed a winner. Plenty of variety, nice fresh food and appropriately summery. Pity the weather was anything but summery for most of the time, but you can’t have everything.

First favourite was the Indian chickpea salad which proved perfect salad-in-a-box material along with a hard boiled egg and a squeezy pack of apple compote (see, the cooked fruit solution) and I ate it for nearly a week before getting bored enough to branch out into alternatives. And many tasty alternatives there were:

Faux Greek Salad – pasta based, making it very faux indeed on the Greek front. Mix with spring onions, fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, sliced black olives and little bits of feta cheese, then drizzle with garlic oil. Not very much feta or it gets overwhelming, so buying it under oil in little jars turns out to be best value, despite the fact that it looks more expensive.

Rice ‘n’ beans – I didn’t eat much rice-based lunch despite the fact that it’s a favourite, as leaving it in your bag in an increasingly warm hut all morning is just asking for food poisoning really. But given July’s consistently arctic weather I reckoned I could probably get away with it. This one consists of white basmati rice and (you guessed it) pulses, my usual combo being chickpeas and lentils with chopped spring onions and a splodge of soy sauce. Works well with all kinds of pulses, and sweetcorn does the biz as well.

Brown rice & prawns – more lunchbox roulette, this time with brown basmati, prawns, spring onion, sliced gherkins, chopped capers and either cherry tomatoes or pineapple. Add chopped anchovy and Thai fish sauce for more fishiness. I think I ultimately preferred the tomato version, though pineapple worked quite well. It seems you can only buy it in huge tins, but as this gives you an excuse to have sweet and sour pork for dinner it can only be a plus.

Lentil salad – yes it’s pulses again. Gosh I’m such a healthy eco-freak. Mix of tinned puy lentils, spring onion, cucumber and cooked beetroot. I know the beet thing sounds slightly odd, but give it a go – you’ll be surprised.

Rice salad weather

Carrot vinaigrette – flagrantly stolen from the supermarket picnic repertoire, this one, and you wonder how they have the brass neck to charge what they do for a load of grated carrot covered in salad dressing. Fresh and tasty, and you can obviously try different dressings for a bit of variety. Adding raisins gives a bit of extra zing as well, assuming you like raisins.

Celeri remoulade – another supermarket picnic staple, but amazingly bland compared to the home made version. This one thanks to JC, who spent an entire afternoon perfecting the remoulade following a row with his boss over what should go in it. Turns out it tastes best made with three parts olive oil, ditto mayo, one part mustard, some capers and a minced garlic clove. Mix with grated celeriac, but add only just enough sauce to coat the veg. Improves for a day spent sitting in the fridge, so you can make it in advance and use it on days when you get up too late to spend time putting lunch together.

And finally ……

Random generic salad – for the end of the shopping week when you’re taking pot luck with the contents of the fridge. Any carb (rice, pasta, couscous, wheat) plus a bit of protein (chopped chicken, prawns, smoked salmon, pulses, cheese) and whatever vegetable matter is lying about (salad veggies, grated carrot, sweetcorn, gherkins, sundried tomatoes). Drizzle with flavoured oil (the stuff out of the feta jar is a good wheeze), soy, Worcester sauce, sweet chilli sauce, Thai fish sauce etc.

This being part of the annual effort to carry on fitting into the same jeans I didn’t venture into dressings based on mayo or creme fraiche and nor did I get too involved with cheese or bacon, but adding those options opens up a whole further world of salad possibility. I did accessorise a bit though, with hard boiled eggs prominent on the menu along with cereal bars, fruit compotes and the odd banana. I have to confess to being led into temptation by some Nutella muffins at one point as well, but I refuse to feel guilty about what I eat. Besides you can’t expect me to exercise iron willpower all of the time.

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Wood burner. Nice in theory, at any rate.

Resort is open (all right, it’s only for a week, but what do you want in October?), snow is forecast all the way down to the valley floor and once more I spend evenings wrestling with the woodstove in a bid to get it hot enough to reverse the gale howling down the chimney and filling the house with smoke. Winter, we love it.

One of the plus points of risking frostbite all through January by recklessly stepping out of the front door from time to time is that you can eat anything you like at any time of the day without resisting the temptations of cake or restraining yourself from snacking between meals, because if you didn’t you’d probably implode shortly after New Year. This is why traditional montagnard cuisine consists largely of cheese, lard, starch, lard and bacon. Garnished with lard.

Keeping yourself alive and adequately fuelled whilst actually out on the hill can present a challenge, especially if you wish to arrive at the bottom as a reasonably civilised human being and not a ravening beast in the throes of hyperphagy. I once got through most of an innocent-looking baguette before brain managed to wrest control from stomach and register desperate messages coming in from the taste buds that incoming fodder was actually a cold chicken nugget and pesto sandwich with cheapo engine-oil mayonnaise, and not a food substance at all.

Which more than adequately illustrates the pressing need for a portable on-piste fuel supply. There’s always the mountain restaurant option, of course, but at 7€ for a handful of chips it’s well out of reach of a seasonnaire on £200 a month. Besides, there’s no point in wasting good ski time sitting on a terrace and stuffing your face when you can multi-task and do it on the chairlifts.

That's why they tell you to take it off, fool.

Unless you want to carry a backpack around all day, the key considerations in piste food are size, convenience,  resistance to freezing and general wear and tear, and calorie content. Not that there’s anything wrong with backpacks, but I can’t be bothered with the faff of taking it off on the lifts and I’ve seen too many people suspended from chairlifts by their backpack straps to risk leaving it on and suffering the resultant ridicule. Besides, they tend to make me fall over backwards, which is irritating.

The seasonnaire sandwich: probably the most popular munch out there, mainly because it’s free and you just nab one from the kitchen before you leave (free is a big plus for the seasonnaire). Resistant and filling, but doesn’t score too well on the size criterion in my opinion, unless you’re rocking one of those tent arrangements favoured by the park rats.

Kendal Mint Cake: a good high-calorie portable snackette, performs well in extreme conditions, and comes recommended by the likes of Edmund Hillary and Ernest Shackleton, both of whom took stacks of it with them. Invented in 1869 and still going strong. How could you go wrong? Well, there’s the fact that it tastes horrible even at -10°C when most food tastes of nothing at all, and the residual mintiness makes you feel as though your tonsils are about to freeze solid every time you inhale. But top marks if you don’t mind the mint thing.

Another Scottish contribution to haute cuisine

Scottish butter tablet: passes almost every test with flying colours. A sort of fudge arrangement, for those sassenachs amongst you unfamiliar with this nectar in solid form. Compact, impervious to the elements and basically made of sugar stuck together with butter. Half a day’s calorie allowance in every bite. The drawback is a) I’ve never seen it for sale outside Scotland and b) the commercial stuff is a mere ghostlike imitation of the true tablet. Realistically you’d have to make it yourself, an activity fraught with peril as in its liquid form it could be used as napalm. Falls down a bit on the convenience front.

Haribo crocodiles: this recommendation from a friend who used to be a competition rower and is consequently a bit of a connoisseur of energy foods. I was sceptical initially, but actually the crocodiles score well across the board, particularly on convenience, as thanks to the Baltic temperatures involved they can be eaten directly from the jacket pocket without leaving residual stickiness. Fried eggs, smurfs and gummi bears preform equally well.

Mars Bars: not bad on the calorie front, and reasonably convenient and cost-effective, but let down badly by its performance in the cold. Unacceptably high tooth-resistance quotient initially, and when warmed up turns into a tar-like substance liable to ruin any expensive dental work you may have. Avoid.

Fruit: pants. Sorry, I know it’s healthy and good for your teeth and all that, but it’s an awkward shape, it leaves you with pockets full of soggy cores and peelings, and you probably use more energy eating the stuff than you get out of it in return.

Token vitamin

Fruit compote: this stuff, on the other hand, scores quite well on convenience with its handy stick-the-nozzle-in-the-gob-and-squeeze system and while its calorie count is still a bit low it’s small enough to stuff in a pocket along with a second more heavy-duty snack. Allows you to feel virtuous about eating at least one vitamin during the course of the day.

Twix: probably the best all-round compromise, in my opinion. Good low-temperature performance despite the toffee, which somehow manages to avoid becoming rock solid. The twin-biscuit arrangement allows for convenient stashing of half your snackette for later in the day, and the Twix has the advantage of being weight for weight the cheapest thing in its class. Yes, I am the sort of sad obsessive who checks the per kilo price on the chocolate bars.

And the winner is ...!

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Cheeeeese, Gromit!

One of the quirks of alpine eating (apart from the wall to wall pigs ‘n’ cheese) is the communal DIY element. Restaurant diners paying good money for a meal would usually expect a) to get their own dinner which they don’t have to share with the rest of the table and b) to have their food cooked for them.

But this isn’t necessarily the case in your montagnard eatery, where fondue and pierrade are billed as being for minimum two people (the clear implication being that if you’re the sort of weirdo hermit who wants solitary dinner you should probably stay at home with beans on toast).

Fondue has had something of a bad press in the UK since the seventies, when it enjoyed a bit a vogue, with fondue sets making a regular appearance on the Generation Game’s  end-of-show conveyer belt along with teasmaids and cuddly toys. Eventually it all got a bit naff in a Margo and Jerry black forest gateau kind of a way (along with most of the rest of the 70s) and has never quite managed to muster up a renaissance.

Look, just get up and make the bloody tea, will you?

This is a shame, since despite the fact that involves nothing more gastronomical than sitting round a pot dipping stale bread into melted cheese, fondue is actually pretty fabulous. Unless you’re the person doing the washing up, in which case it becomes a total nightmare, since congealed cheese fondue could probably be used to surface motorways when we start running out of oil and its derivatives.

Pierrade, on the other hand,  never really made it over to Blighty as far as I know. This is not only a communal dinner but seriously DIY as well – the diner is presented with a hot stone and a pile of raw delicacies, which he and his companions proceed to cook for themselves on the aforementioned stone. You’d think this would be a cheap option given that all the chef has to do is whack a few chips in the fryer, knock up a salad and put out some dips, but for some reason it usually costs more than the steak.

We used to do pierrade as a resort ‘theme night’ back in the mists of time, using the old fashioned stones which had to be heated up all day in the oven, removed at peril to life and limb, and which promptly went cold on the table before the guest had cooked so much as a prawn. (I say we used to do this – I think we actually did it once, decided it was a bloody silly idea and then spent the rest of the season feeding people lasagne while telling management that of course we were giving regular pierrade evenings.)

Electric stones, definitely the way forward

Fortunately things have moved on somewhat, and electric pierrade stones with properly controllable heat have become the norm, thus avoiding both the risk of suffering full thickness burns while getting them out of the oven and the possibility of poisoning your customers with half cooked seafood.

Usually you would have to fork out a small fortune on a ski holiday in some nouveau riche ghetto full of armed Russian oligarchs if you wanted to sample the delights of classic alpine fare (unless you want to do your own post-fondue washing up, which believe me is not preferable), but the Omnivore just happens to know that it will be available to the select few this very week on the Isle of Wight, of all places.

Sam and Susie Mackay, former seasonnaires and current business empire-builders, will be serving pierrade at the Roadside Inn in Nettlestone, an unusual venue for this sort of thing, but why not. Nothing ventured nothing gained and all that. And since I believe that between the two of them they are currently working several jobs, running two pubs and bringing up a pair of toddlers I would urge anyone in the vicinity to get over there and make a success of the project, because there’s a limit to how long you can carry on doing that sort of thing without dropping dead from exhaustion.

Odd place for a fondue. But much better than doing your own washing up.

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Soft fruit: very short window of edibility

Desserts don’t feature prominently on the summer menu (they’re not all that prominent on the winter menu either, what with work and skiing taking up all the available cooking time) and when they do appear they tend to consist largely of soft fruits which need to be eaten urgently before they disintegrate into small piles of green fur.

But inviting people for dinner provides a flimsy excuse for indulging in piggy pudding, particularly when you’re doing roast veggies as a main course and can therefore fool yourself into thinking that you can afford to stuff your face with mega-calories afterwards because you haven’t really eaten much. We will obviously gloss over the fact that the veg are roasted in generous quantities of basil oil.

Bossy goverment ad campaigns. Just piss off and leave me alone, will you.

Cheesecake is a fairly heatwave-friendly dessert, since it is eaten cold and can reasonably be served with fresh fruit. So it even qualifies as counting towards that five-a-day rubbish, yet another piece of idiot government advice which turns out to be based on no evidence whatsoever and isn’t about to make you immortal after all.

There are multiple different recipes for cheesecake out there in the webworld, but this one is courtesy of a Lithuanian friend in Portsmouth. She made some for our wedding, where it went down a treat, along with banoffee pie, Savoyarde cheeseboard and (in my case) for too much champagne. But let’s face it, if you can’t get ratted on expensive champers at your own wedding, when can you?

Audrile’s cheesecake

You will need: 215g of cheapo butter biscuits; 115g melted butter; 675g of Philadelphia or similar cream cheese; 175g caster sugar; 2 eggs; 1 tsp vanilla essence.

Make the base by crushing all the biscuits, mixing with butter and then squishing the mixture into the bottom of a baking tin, preferably one of those ones with a removable base. Chill in the fridge for about 20 mins. Mix together the rest of the ingredients then pour the filling over the base and bake in the centre of the oven at 150°C for about 30 minutes until set. Turn off the heat and allow the cake to cool in the oven. Chill before eating.

Since I’m making this in France I have virtually zero chance of finding Philadelphia cheese, but fortunately St Moret produces just the same result, despite what the various purveyors of expensively imported US/UK groceries would have you believe.

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According to the ever-inaccurate Wikipedia, Haribo sweeties are a Europe-wide phenomenon, with at least five different products sold in the UK. But for some reason the whole Haribo phenomenon passed me by entirely until I started spending time in France, where they sometimes seem to be the only sweets in the world.

Supermarket sweetie aisles here have entire shelves devoted to the various Haribo assortments of multi coloured jelly confections in a choice of big plastic tubs, enormous packets, or packets of smaller packets, presumably to put in kids’ packed lunches when you’ve fallen out with the teacher and want to land her with a class of wet Mogwai.

Haribo, for anyone else out there who has so far missed out, are essentially small blobs of cows’ hoof extract laced with a cocktail of attention deficit related E-numbers. Though allegedly fruit flavoured, eating them is generally more like sucking on an unwashed test tube than anything else. For this we have to thank one Hans Riegel – multimillionaire,  inventor of the Gummi Bear and German national badminton champion. Hans is now well into his 80s and still running the business, so it has to be assumed that he doesn’t indulge to any great extent in his own product.

The high point of winter Saturdays in the ticket sales office is the arrival of the tourist office welcome team with a handful of pocket packets of whatever assorted Haribo they have been dishing out to new tourist arrivals. This is great when they’re doing Polka and World Mix, but for my money they could ditch the Mini Bams and the Tagada, both of which are frankly vile. The supply runs out as soon as February is out of the way and the cheapskate low season skiers arrive – they don’t merit anything as fancy as Haribo, so we end up with handfuls of cheapo plastic pseudo-Chewits from Marche U, which is a bit of a let down.

So with the aim of keeping consumers informed and for no personal pleasure whatsoever, we have spent the weekend sampling and reviewing the available Haribo products (available in Casino that is – there’s a limit to how far I’m going to go for a packet of rubbery crocodiles which may or may not taste of fruit).

Rotella: a bit boring really, consisting entirely of those rolled-up liquorice strips which always break when you try to unroll them. I like liquorice as much as anyone, but I don’t really need an entire packet of it all at once.

Carensac: what we used to know as liquorice torpedoes only smaller. Again, not fantastically exciting.

Chamallows: come on, these are just bog standard marshmallows. Good for sticking on the ends of forks then dropping in the barbecue before you get a chance to eat them, but that’s it.

Hari Croco: jelly crocodiles with a bit of white foam stuck to the bottom. Alleged to taste of fruit, and the yellow ones are indeed somewhat reminiscent of lemon. A lot better than you’d think.

Bams: strange little banana-looking things which taste of banana flavouring, something not to be confused in any way with actual banana. Really quite nasty.

Tagada: As above, only strawberry. Over a billion of these sold annually, and God knows why because they’re disgusting.

Polka: now you’re talking. Mixture of Allsorts-esque liquorice things, crocodiles and other jelly items both with and without white foam. Let down by the round red things, which are so grim I generally throw them away.

Dragibus: little round thingies in multiple colours with a slightly hard outer casing and a chewy bit. Good for playing Mankala with as long as your opponent refrains from eating them while the game is in progress, as this makes it difficult to assess who actually won.

Les Schtroumpfs: raspberry flavoured Smurfs  in bright blue gelatin. The mind boggles.

World Mix: my personal favourite, partly because JC dislikes half of them, which means I stand some chance of actually getting any. Apparently an international selection of Haribo from across Europe.

Oeufs au Plat: lemon flavoured fried eggs. No, I don’t know what that’s about either. For those who like their sweets surreal.

And finally ….

Ours d’Or: also known as Goldbären and Gummi Bears, Hans’s original creation and the one which made him rich. An assortment of different coloured bears. Made of jelly.

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This month's pay packet. Best hope you're not allergic.

One of the excuses given by ski tour operators for paying their staff a monthly sum which wouldn’t motivate a ten-year-old to get out of bed in the morning is that they also provide bed and board. In order to satisfy local regulations regarding the legal definition of people-trafficking, they quote an almost reasonable looking wage but then promptly smack you for an eye-watering amount of something they like to call ‘provision of services’ or other such HR marketing waffle, thereby bringing your income down to the £180 a month they intended to pay you in the first place.

I’m not about to go into the Rackmanesque economics of stuffing six people into a damp basement room with no window and charging each of them an amount which could cover the rent on quite a decent studio apartment. Or not today, at any rate.

The ‘board’ part of the deal is variable. Staff in chalets – with easy access to cake, fancy starters, meat bought from a butcher and (most importantly) their own budgets – can even fare quite well. Hotel teams, on the other hand, get what they’re given and are supposed to think themselves lucky.

Sausages. Hold the blue plastic.

Bangers and mash looked like a good hearty option after a day’s skiing and before the evening shift, until someone spotted the chef mixing powdered potato up with water. And the sausages, which looked slightly alarming in the first place, became positively terrifying when we cut one in half and found a lump of blue plastic in it. Add to that the bits of metal chain in the cheap ‘fish’ fingers and you can see why people might be forgiven for requesting emergency food parcels from home.

And it didn’t stop there. Frozen cordon bleus and chicken nuggets, both of them made of the same nameless spongy substance but each laced with a slightly different cocktail of chemicals. Five different kinds of frozen deep-fried potato-related products designed to fool the consumer that he wasn’t just getting chips yet again, honest. And rarely a vegetable to be seen unless it was a bit of limp lettuce leaf or a bit of previously frozen green sponge. (Actually I think that might have been broccoli, though it’s hard to tell.)

In fact, the lunchtime sandwich was the culinary high point of the day, although chefs did occasionally try to ambush the unsuspecting by experimenting unneccessarily with fillings. Bolognese sandwich was memorable, and the chicken nugget with pesto mayonnaise was frankly traumatising.

But the classic seasonnaire sandwich contains:

Mayonnaise: usually out of a cheapo five-litre catering bucket of the stuff, but you can’t have everything, and the buckets come in handy later on.

Sliced ham: and by this I mean ham and not epaule. Known to staff as ‘scary ham’ this stuff consists of unmentionable offcuts of pig stirred up with a load of fat and salt and then squashed until it all sticks together in a square shape. I once worked for a tour op whose policy it was to buy it for school groups – don’t you love the British attitude that it’s fine to feed your kids stuff you wouldn’t give the dog?

Sliced Edam: usually left over from breakfast, and therefore a tad curly at the edges. And why is it always rectangular when we all know Edam comes in a ball? Best not to dwell on that one, I imagine.

Salad: ie more of the above mentioned limp lettuce. Come on, it’s hard enough to persuade the chefs to put even that amount of effort into a staff sanger. You can’t expect cucumber and tomato as well.

Is that a sandwich in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Serving suggestions usually involve clingfilm, followed by stuffing the sandwich into a pocket slightly too small for it, falling on it at least twice while doing something ‘gnarly’, partially freezing it and then showing off by eating it two-handed on a draglift while riding a snowboard.

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Food for thought

“Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” ― Orson Welles

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