Dinner With The Omnivore

Posts Tagged ‘France

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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It’s a frequent grumble amongst misplaced Brits that they can’t get their hands on a decent curry. Indian restaurants do exist in France (several in Grenoble, for example) but in general the food is frankly rubbish, having been dumbed down beyond all recognition in order to suit the French, who are paranoidly suspicious of anything which could be described as even slightly spicy.

Frenchman

A Frenchman - not keen on spicy food

But it rarely occurs to anyone that it’s perfectly possible to make curry (what do you think the whole population of India is doing – sending out for takeaway?). And when I suggest that it could be feasible to construct a decent curry at home, I’m usually met with the objection that you can’t get curry paste/curry sauce here. (Actually you can, if you look in the right places, but since it all tastes like sauce-in-a-jar, why would you bother?)

fresh chili

A chili. Not likely to taste of sauce-in-a-jar

The answer is that Indians, who eat curry all the time, are neither lining up round the block for carry out nor buying jars of Sharwood’s sauces. They are using spices and chili. I know this sounds bafflingly simple, but it’s true. What’s more, the spices concerned aren’t particularly exotic or unobtainable – even in France I manage to construct authentic curries using spices bought from mass-market supermarket chains. The only things I’ve had to go elsewhere for were garam masala, fenugreek and asafoetida (all right, I haven’t found that at all, but I don’t care because I only have one recipe which uses it and even there it’s listed as optional).

Our forays into curry-from-scratch so far have mainly been courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey, the Delia of Indian cooking (click on the ‘books’ tab above), whose recipes are clear, practical, and do exactly what they say on the tin.

This one, for curried eggs, was one of Ms Jaffrey’s to start with, but I’ve messed with it because I didn’t fancy using cream in the sauce. The result is a very tasty but quite light curry dish, which promises to become a summer evening staple. Assuming we ever have a summer, that is. I blame that bloody volcano.

eggs

Some eggs. A change from chickpeas.

Curried Eggs

You will need: 1 onion; about 2cm fresh ginger; 1 chili; 1 large tomato; 3-4 tblsp yogurt; 150ml chicken stock; 1 tblsp lemon juice; 1 tsp ground roasted cumin seeds; 1/2 tsp garam masala; 4 hard boiled eggs.

Chop the onions and fry until soft. Grate and finely chop the ginger and add to the pan along with the chopped chili and continue frying for a couple of minutes. Dice the tomato then add it and everything else except the yogurt and bring it all to a simmer. Add the yogurt a spoonful at a time and mix thoroughly. Leave the sauce to simmer until everything is cooked and it has become fairly thick. Halve the eggs and put them cut side up into the pan. Spoon the sauce over them and leave to cook gently for a further five minutes or so. Serves two, with rice or flat bread.

The vegetarians in your life will thank you for this, as they are bound to be bored witless with chickpea/lentil/potato concoctions – I like a chickpea as much as the next person, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

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I was going to leave any discussion of pig-and-lard meals until next winter, but having found an abominable perversion of our beloved tartiflette on an otherwise rather good food blog by James Ramsden I feel the need to post a proper recipe just in case people are bamboozled into thinking it’s just any old cheesy piggy thing.

I can forgive young James for using mere streaky bacon, and it should indeed be much the same as lardons, what with it being basically the same substance, but inexplicably it really isn’t. I have no idea why. But it’s damn difficult to get your paws on lardons in the UK, for some reason (though these people will sell you some if you ask nicely and the French chef down the road hasn’t bagsied them all again).

However, I do feel I should take issue with the brie. You cannot possibly think of putting brie in a tartiflette. I mean the dish was invented by the makers of reblochon and passed off  to tourists as some age-old local speciality in a bid to boost sales, how can you put brie in it and still call it tartiflette? It’s a potato bake, James. In fact if you cook it in a saucepan as suggested it’s more like that classic student dish Tasty Slop (not that there’s anything wrong with Tasty Slop, but it’s not tartiflette).

So in the interests of culinary clarity, here’s how you make tartiflette.

Tartiflette

You will need: 2 large potatoes; an onion; 2 cloves garlic; 100g lardons; creme fraiche; white wine; a reblochon.

Slice or dice the potatoes and parboil them. Chop the onions and garlic and fry them up with the lardons until the onions soften. Layer the potatoes with the onion/garlic/bacon mix in a baking dish. Spoon over about four dessert spoons of the creme fraiche and one spoon of white wine. Chop the reblochon in half and then slice each half in two horizontally. Put the cheese rind side up on top of the potatoes then cook for about 40 minutes at 180°C.

The cheese rind will make a crunchy crust on top of the potatoes while the cheese melts into the rest of the dish. I’ve seen veggie versions using mushrooms rather than bacon, and some restaurants offer tartichevre, which is the same thing made with goat cheese, though to my mind there are far better things to do with a nice bit of goat.

This recipe makes enough for four sensible people or two to three gluttons using the excuse of having been out skiing all day to gorge on neat cholesterol.

Culinary/sartorial fusion - all the rage at altitude.

Pig-and-lard enthusiasts and former seasonnaires missing the mountains can show their appreciation with a tartiflette T-shirt from skipass.com. They used to do car stickers as well, which you can see on old bangers all over Savoie and Isere.

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Or at least not the stuff you’re talking about, most of which is not actually food. I lose count of the number of times I’ve heard British resort staff  bemoan the lack of ‘proper bread’ (ie sliced polystyrene), ‘real bacon’ (pink spongy stuff which pours with water once in the pan) and Cheddar ‘cheese’ (by which they don’t mean decent farmhouse cheddar but those lumps of industrial cheeseoid you can buy in Tesco). For God’s sake people, you’re in France. It’s famous for bread and cheese, what are you talking about? But no, they carry on bribing coach drivers to bring them British ‘sausages’ and complaining that they’re tired of baguettes (having completely failed to spot the two dozen other types of bread on offer in every boulangerie). I despair.

French bread - not 'proper', apparently

Not that the paying public is much better. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that having forked over good money to travel abroad on holiday, people would want to make the most of the experience – eat things they can’t get at home, look out for local dishes, whatever. But no. Every major resort is littered with English bars offering over-priced Full English Breakfast made with the lowest quality ingredients. You wouldn’t dream of paying upwards of a tenner at home for budget sausages, watery bacon and frozen hash browns, so why on earth do you do it on holiday?

Long-term expats don’t seem to be a great deal better at surviving without weird semi-foods at stratospheric prices either, judging by the number of British gorcery shopping websites out there. Birds Dream Topping at nearly £5 for three sachets, tins of  ‘Celebrity Bacon Grill’ (don’t tell me, I don’t want to know), ready-to-eat orange jelly …. hideous.

So I’ve got some alarming news for everyone out there – people in other parts of the world do actually eat stuff. No, honestly, they really do. And it probably tastes a whole lot better than Crosse and Blackwell Hunger Break followed by Angel Delight and washed down with Maltesers Hot Chocolate Drink.

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Food for thought

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

Food by e-mail - takeaway for the modern age.

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