July 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
The latest in our series of international breakfasts making up the Breakfasts of the World Project.
Unlike most of the far-flung destinations whose breakfasts we’ve tried to recreate at home, hopping over to Belgium is relatively straighforward for us in the UK so we were able to do some serious research on a recent family trip based in Bruges. This combined a little education (First World War graves, Ypres, Flemish painting and architecture) with gastronomic sight-seeing.
I know that Venice has the edge when it comes to a romantic weekend away à deux, but if you’re travelling en famille, as we were, a city which combines gorgeous architecture with chips, chocolate and waffles takes the biscuit (or should that be the speculoos…?).
We stayed in the charming canalside Ter Duinen hotel which these days would probably be called a boutique hotel as this sounds more desirable than “small hotel”. They laid on an impressive breakfast spread and if you were prepared to leap out of bed early, you could grab one of the coveted window seats with gorgeous reflected light from the canal:
This is how we attempted to recreate the experience at home. Not quite as beautiful as the Ter Duinen breakfast I know. I don’t run to white damask in our kitchen but I made an effort with some Flemish inspired tulips.
As you might expect from a country which has been fought over between the France and the Netherlands for aeons, its breakfast is a hybrid between the French influenced café au lait with croissants and the more Northern European influenced hearty brown bread with ham and sliced cheese. You get both at breakfast together with Belgium’s particular contribution to the breakfast universe, a host of tasty packaged treats, the legacy of its industrial and colonial past perhaps?
Belgium may not be known as a cheese producer, but here’s some prepacked slices of Bruges’ finest:
There were little squares of chocolate too – one of the reasons Belgium is world famous. Oddly, I can’t find a decent definition of what Belgian chocolate is – Côte d’Or with its familiar Elephant logo is the indigenous mass-market producer. Côte d’Or or Gold Coast is of course the old name for Ghana which is a former British rather than Belgian colony so how does that work? Maybe Belgian chocolates just refer to the delicious filled pralines sold by Neuhaus, Godiva and Leonidas and many more small artisan producers. A clear and comprehensive definition of Belgian chocolate remains elusive for the time being.
Popping into the Bruges branch of Delhaize (one of the big Belgian supermarket chains) to stock up on Belgian breakfast products I was thrilled to find family sized jars of two types of breakfast spread which we’d sampled only in indiviual portion packs at Ter Duinen.
On the right is an Ovomaltine spread based on the popular continental malted chocolate drink – imagine Nutella with the goodness of hazelnuts removed and replaced with nuggets of crunchy malty sugary stuff.
But wait for it, on the left is a jar of Speculoos spread based on the national biscuit of Belgium – a thin crisp ginger-spiced biscuit. Speculoos have a sort of mediaeval feel about them and were no doubt originally hand-made in elaborately decorated wooden moulds. They are most often found now individually wrapped in cellophane, branded Rombouts or most often Lotus, and served as a complimentary sweet nibble with a cup of coffee.
The idea of turning this small spicy biscuit into a spread is as preposterous an idea as a spread made from our own indigenous McVities’ ginger nuts.
Both jars were packed with unsuitable ingredients with a high E number count but nevertheless both have made it onto my not-so-secret list of guilty pleasures. All the family were secretly taking spoonfuls from the jar. I was amused to read recently the similar reaction to Speculoos spread of Paris-based food writer David Lebovitz (http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2010/05/speculoos-a-tartiner-gingersnap-paste/)
Grab a jar if you dare!
Ter Duinen Hotel
Tel: 00 32 50 33 04 37
Fax: 00 32 50 34 42 16
May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
Yes, you guessed it – curiosity piqued by the current BBC adaption of “The Crimson Petal and the White” I’ve finally got round to reading Michel Faber’s racy historical novel . It made a perfect holiday read over Easter in France, punctuating the main activities of exploring the Forêt de Fontainebleau and thinking about the next meal.
I was reminded of the febrile atmosphere of the novel whilst strolling past a curiously mounded asparagus bed on the outskirts of the village where we were staying:
The French prefer their asparagus white with the tips displaying just a tinge of purple. This is achieved by banking the soil up around each asparagus crown to blanch the growing shoots. Pausing beside the weird dusty anthills concealing the exclusively male crowns beneath, you can practically hear the shoots growing as they thrust upwards towards the source of warmth and light. I felt positively faint after a few minutes gazing at these shoots in the lazy afternoon sunshine.
The Germans too prefer the thicky juicy spears of white asparagus (Spargel in German). Despite their buttoned-up reputation, they go a little bit crazy during asparagus season (“Spargelzeit”) when asparagus festivals and special restaurant menus abound. The thick juicy white spears are simply served either on their own or with boiled potatoes and ham and always with generous pools of yellow buttery hollandaise sauce.
Whilst in Dusseldorf during Spargelzeit I was intrigued to find an asparagus ice cream sundae on the menu. This turned out to be a spectacular trompe l’oeil affair of piped vanilla and palest pistachio ice cream (to imitate the spears) topped with chilled vanilla sauce to mimic the hollandaise. Only in Germany…
We Brits prefer the arguably better flavoured and certainly more decorous green asparagus. No stonking purple-tipped white shoots the width of a baby’s arm here thank you! There is the added plus point for the lazy cook that tender shoots of green asparagus don’t require peeling unlike their continental cousins.
So what does a field of English green asparagus look like? I’d fondly imagined rows upon rows of waving green fronds but in fact the banked-up rows of dry soil I spotted in Suffolk don’t look radically different from their French counterparts:
I took this photo in the sandy fields near the coast around Wrentham. These spears were destined for the packing sheds of Sea Breeze Asparagus http://www.seabreezeasparagus.co.uk/ who supply by mail order all over the country and have come up with the delightful idea of sending an edible bouquet of perfect top grade asparagus spears to your loved one. It’s got to be better than a tired bunch of petrol station flowers hasn’t it?
So, what to do if you find yourself with a bunch of either the green asparagus or the white and feel inclined to do a little more with it than the usual steaming and serving with melted butter?
Having trawled through my collection of recipe books and notes, here are a couple of recipes that appeal to me, the first suitable for green asparagus and the second for white.
Recipe for grilled asparagus with blood oranges and tapenade toast
From Alice Waters’ inspirational and beautifully illustrated book “Chez Panisse Vegetables”. This is her typically relaxed Californian take on a classic combination of asparagus and oranges. Classical French cuisine does this by primly serving steamed asparagus presented in white napkin with the orange flavoured hollandaise known as Sauce Maltaise. All very well but a tad formal. In contrast, just reading Alice Waters’ recipe transports you to Californian wine country and the perfect al fresco supper…
For the tapenade
2 cups niçoise (black) olives, pitted
4 salt-packed anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons capers
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
For the rest of the dish
3 blood oranges
1 and 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
extra-virgin olive oil
salt and pepper
1 and 1/2 pounds fat (green) asparagus – 25 to 30 spears
4 slices country-style bread
First make the tapenade. Peel and smash the garlic with a pinch of salt. Using a food processor, pulse together the olive. anchovies, garlic and capers to make a coarse paste. Add the lemon juice and then gradually the olive oil, pulsing until completely incorporated. Put into a small bowl and set aside.
Peel and chop the shallot finely and macerate for 30 minutes in the juice of half an orange and the balsamic and red wine vinegars. Whisk in the olive oil to make a vinaigrette, and season with salt and pepper.
Peel just the zest from one of the oranges, chop it very fine and add to the vinaigrette. Cut away all the rind and pith from 2 and a half oranges (one half was used earlier for juicing) and slice them crosswise thinly into rounds.
Parboil and drain the asparagus. Brush lightly with olive oil, salt lightly and grill the asparagus ideally over charcoal or a wood fire for about 6 minutes over medium heat, turning often. At the same time, grill the bread.
When the bread is toasted, cut the slices into thirds and spread with tapenade. Arrange the asparagus on a platter with the orange slices on top. Drizzle the vinaigrette over and garnish with the tapenade toast.
Recipe for white asparagus and new potato salad with mustard and walnut vinaigrette
Serves 8 as a side dish
An idea I came up with whilst in France this easter. A good way of stretching a single bunch of asparagus into a dish to feed more than one or two people. The combination of white on white looks good, the chives add both colour and delicate onion flavour. The walnut oil imparts a delicious flavour to the salad without overpowering either the asparagus or the new potatoes. Reading the list of ingredients, I’m transported away from my computer screen in grey and cloudy Manchester to a sunny lunch table in France once more.
1 bunch white asparagus (500g)
650g small new potatoes
small bunch chives
For the dressing
3 tablespoons light olive oil
3 tablespoons walnut or hazelnut oil
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar or white wine vinegar plus a teaspoon of sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
squeeze of lemon juice to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Wash, peel and trim the white asparagus. Steam for 10-15 minutes until soft but not mushy. Leave to cool, then slice each spear on the bias into 3 or 4 pieces. Set aside.
Prepare the dressing by whisking together all the ingredients. Taste and check for flavour and seasoning.
Scrub the new potatoes (no need to peel) and steam for 10 minutes or until cooked through (test with the point of a knife).
As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, slice into chunks and tip into a bowl. Pour three quarters of the dressing over and stir. Leave for 5-10 minutes to allow the warm potatoes to absorb the dressing.
Add the reserved pieces of asparagus, the remaining dressing and a generous quantity of snipped chives to the bowl and stir carefully to distribute.
Transfer to a serving dish lined with little gem or baby cos lettuce leaves.
Contact details for Seabreeze Asparagus
Priory Road Site
Phone number 01502675330
E-mail address email@example.com
April 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
You have to wonder what the point is of the tourist office in Pithiviers. After 10 minutes’ browsing the leaflets for various châteaux, parks and gardens I was none the wiser about the two things for which Pithiviers is most famous. The first is its eponymous cake, an indulgent confection of buttery puff pastry with an almond filling, and the second is its notorious second world war transit camp where French Jews were rounded up and detained before being sent on to Auschwitz.
We were spending the easter holidays in France based in and around Paris and Fontainebleau. On a sunny Monday morning we decided over breakfast to head off to Pithiviers, a typical French market town some 50 miles South of Paris.
A: a rather frivolous excursion to try and track down a genuine Pithiviers pastry.
The less frivolous outcome was that we learned a little about an unedifying episode in French history, one that the tourist office was keen to airbrush away. I’d read about the French internment camps before, specifically Drancy on the outskirts of Paris. This was not in a history book but in Sebastian Faulks’ moving wartime novel “Charlotte Gray”.
It was another novelist, Irène Némirovsky, the author of the sensational “Suite Française” who’s partly responsible for putting Pithiviers on the map, for all the wrong reasons. Némirovsky was interned here before being sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942 leaving her epic novel unfinished, its manuscript undiscovered until some 60 years later.
Back to the original purpose of our visit. The Pithiviers has a special place in our family history as I ate a stunning chocolate Pithiviers at London’s Bibendum restaurant the night before our eldest son George was born. It features in chef proprietor Simon Hopkinson’s book “Roast Chicken and Other Stories” if you fancy making one at home.
Finding a Pithiviers proved surprisingly easy. Having found a parking space in a sunny square (the Mail Ouest) in the centre, we found ourselves just across the road from an inviting-looking pâtisserie, “À la Renommée” (the Renowned).
Heading to the window, we realised we’d struck lucky with a picture perfect example of a Pithiviers feuilleté (puff pastry) with its distinctive scalloped border and sculpted lid not just once:
but twice, with its more gaudy iced cousin, the Pithiviers fondant:
Of course, we had to buy both, the fondant version to enjoy there and then with a cup of coffee and the feuilleté version later after our evening meal.
The fondant Pithiviers, with its virginal white icing and old school glacé cherry and crystallised angelica decoration, bore more than a passing resemblance to a Mr Kipling Cherry Bakewell, but without the pastry case. Beneath the icing was a dense and crumbly almond sponge, satisfying in its simplicity. Apparently this is the original version of the cake, an ancient Gaulish speciality, its origins lost in the mists of time. Maybe Asterix ate one of these…
The origins of puff pastry in France are generally dated back to the 17th century so the more familiar Pithiviers feuilleté is a relatively recent upstart. We followed the bakery instructions to warm it through gently for 15-20 minutes before serving. It needs no accompaniment (other than a strong cup of coffee). The puff pastry layers were featherlight, belying the huge quantities of butter that went into its manufacture, and the almond cream filling rich and sweet. It reminded me just a little of its more rustic cousin the English Bakewell pudding – the real dense almondy version you find in the Peak District town rather than the more usual tart I mentioned earlier. Maybe Pithiviers and Bakewell should be twinned?
You’ll find recipes for the regular puff pastry Pithiviers in any fat cook book with a pâtisserie chapter. Recipes for the fondant version are harder to come by so here’s one I hunted down:
Recipe for Pithiviers fondant – iced almond cake from Pithiviers
From the recipe section of the website http://www.loiret.logishotels.com with quantities halved to make a more manageable sized cake.
250g blanched almonds, very finely chopped
250g caster sugar
1.5 cl rum
6 or 7 eggs (depending on size) beaten
White fondant icing
Halved glacé cherries and angelica to decorate
Mix the sugar with the finely chopped almonds and beat in the softened butter. Incorporate the eggs gradually and the rum. Spoon into a greased and floured Pain de Gênes mould (a deep fluted flan tin – use an ordinary round cale tin not a shallow flan tin as a substitute) and baked in a moderate oven (180 degrees C fan) for 30 to 35 minutes. When cool, ice with white fondant icing and decorate with glacé cherries and Angelica.
April 23, 2010 § Leave a comment
We’ve been coming to this area of France for the past 15 years now and I’ve managed to build up quite a little black book of food addresses. It’s time to write them down and share them which will be quite a magnum opus. If you happen to be staying in a gîte nearby, please don’t just rely on the supermarket but give these places a try.
I’m going to start not with Fontainebleau itself but with Nemours and its nearby villages of Larchant and La Chapelle. After all Larchant is the village we’ve been based in for the last few years thanks to our friends Alex and Elin who’ve bought a house in the village.
Nemours is a substantial market town on the Loing, a tributary of the Seine. Despite its castle and imposing church it’s a straightforward workaday sort of place not on the tourist trail and none the worse for that. The heart of the town is its marketplace. Perversely the twice-weekly market (Wednesdays and Saturday mornings – a good range of fresh food stalls) is no longer held here but in the Champ de Mars, an open area by the riverside.
The market may have moved on but the old marketplace is home to some great food shops. Let’s start with Chaffraix, the cheese and poultry shop:
This is the place to come if you want to try Brie which is the local cheese in this reqion. You will be spoilt for choice:
Next stop is Aujard Aufradet’s butcher’s shop also in the marketplace where you can have your meat prepared by a real craftsman. The guy is an absolute whizz with his boning knife and that fine string that French butchers like to use.
Keep walking just a little longer to complete your meal with a fruit tart from the best bakery in Nemours, La Fontaine Gourmande:
They have a handy little café at the back where, after your morning shopping, you can enjoy a cup of coffee and one of their incredible Bostock pastries. I haven’t found the intriguingly named Bostock anywhere else – I’m sure there’s a story behind this somewhere that I will have to look into sometime. It’s an absolutely deliciously buttery almondy affair:
And if you really do need a supermarket, your best bet is Carrefour Marché on the west side of town in the suburb of Nemours St Pierre.
Next stop is the picturesque village of Larchant a few miles outside Nemours. There’s a great local bakery here:
I like their brown Campagrain bread once I’ve had my fill of baguette à l’ancienne. The almond croissants they do are a breakfast treat but you need to get there early as they sell out fast.
And if you are into foraging for wild food the nearby forest is awash with wild violets at this time of year. They have a shy but distinct taste and make a pretty addition to a salad – just be sure to leave out garlic in your salad dressing which will otherwise overpower their delicate flavour. One year I will definitely try my hand at crystallising some for cakes and chocolate puddings.
Last port of call is the village of La Chapelle la Reine, a village in the midst of prairie-like fields on the plateau beyond Larchant. It’s home to an Atac supermarket, a convenience store and a couple of OK bakeries – useful when the Larchant bakery takes its weekly day off. There is a weekly market too but it’s sadly nothing to write home about.
Clearly signposted from the main road on a handwritten chalk board is a farm shop selling potatoes and all your onion family requirements (onions, shallots and garlic).
That’s it from the Forest of Fontainebleau for this year – I’ll continue with my shopping round-up after our next visit, Easter 2011.
If you know anything more about the mysterious Bostock pastry or if you have tips on crystallising your own violets I’d love to hear from you…
April 22, 2010 § 2 Comments
We took a day out from our usual walking and climbing routine in the Forest of Fontainebleau to make the one hour drive west to Chartres. Chartres is dominated by its glorious gothic cathedral which soars out of the plains and can be seen from miles away. Here it is on a beautiful spring morning:
The grandeur of the building, the intricate carving throughout, the stained glass and the view from the belltower were all uplifting. Only the noise (I can’t bring myself to call it music) in the nave as we entered the cathedral marred our visit: a church service was in progress conducted by a guitar playing and singing group, loudly amplified and execrable. There was no-one attending the service but the performers themselves. More than a little self-indulgent.
After a visit to the cathedral, the modern-day pilgrim can take refreshment at the Bistrot de la Cathédrale. Despite its proximity to the cathedral (No 1, Cloisters Tel 00 33 (0)2 37 36 59 60) this is no mere tourist trap but an outpost of Chartres highly regarded “Le Georges” restaurant within the Grand Monarque hotel (22 Place des Epars Tel 00 33 (0)2 37 18 15 15).
Our visit was on Easter Monday so most shops were closed but we still had chance to wander through the streets. Chartres has a beautiful market hall:
And I spotted this wonderful old-fashioned butcher’s in the old town:
In terms of regional specialites, local pâtisseries sell sweets called Mentchikoffs. These are praline in a crispy meringue coating and were invented in 1893 to celebrate the Franco-Russian pact of that year. The white meringue poetically represents Russian snow. There’s also Pâté de Chartres made from mixed game birds served either en croûte or from a terrine. Another speciality as is the French classic Poule au Pot (pot roast chicken). King Henri IV who famously wanted to put a Poule au Pot on every table in France was the only king to be crowned at Chartres hence the connection.
I was mistaken in thinking that the green and yellow Chartreuse liqueurs are from Chartres – the liqueur is made by Carthusian monks in Voiron near Grenoble. The drink local to Chartres is the beer “L’Eurélienne”. Sadly there was no opportunity to drink some that day.
So that’s almost it for my quick gastro-tour of Chartres. I think it would be a fantastic place to be whisked away for a weekend – wonderful architecture, places to eat and drink and not overrun with tourists.
But before I finish I have to mention these macaroons spotted in the window of a pâtisserie:
Your eyes are not deceiving you. These are sweet/savoury macaroons and the flavours on offer really are salmon, foie gras, blue roquefort cheese, and, to cap it all, tomato ketchup! This isn’t witty, it isn’t clever, it’s just yucky.
April 21, 2010 § Leave a comment
Fontainebleau, 35 miles south east of Paris, is dominated by the vast palace where the kings of France took their rest and relaxation. It is also home to Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero, the charming but dangerous Tom Ripley. In the town’s centre, you will find a vast marketplace, the imposing Baroque St Louis church and a range of chic shops clustered in the cobbled streets of the old town.
But no visit to Fontainebleau would be complete without a visit to Frédéric Cassel’s exquisite boulangerie-pâtisserie on the Rue Grande. Cassel is no ordinary provincial cake-maker: he trained at Fauchon and Pierre Hermé in Paris before setting up shop in Fontainebleau. His marketing literature discreetly informs you that he was “pâtissier of the year” in both 1999 and 2007 – quite something in France.
The queues which form outside the shop at weekends are the first hint that this is something a little out of the ordinary:
There are five distinct areas in the shop: the first displays petit fours, individual cakes and, of course, the obligatory macaroons.
Cassel does all the standard macaroon flavours plus some more unusual ones as well. Pictured below are the Punch Creole and Pina Colada macaroons alongside the more usual chocolate and raspberry:
I picked up a selection which included the aforementioned Punch Creole (rum an pineapple?) and Pina Colada (looks like coconut?) varieties alongside chestnut and chocolate to savour at leisure over a cup of coffee:
And to serve after dinner later that evening, a box of pâtisserie to share between 9 of us so it’s not as greedy as it looks:
You come next to the counter displaying savoury canapés, beautifully arranged, miniature works of art. Planning a picnic in the forest we weren’t in the market for dainty cocktail snacks but the most beautiful “oeufs surprise” served in their own eggshells, trimmed and cleaned so neatly, caught my eye. The pastel blue Cotswold Legbar eggs we find at home in the UK would look stunning given this treatment.
Cassel also makes a range of breads, croissants and other viennoiserie. There are clearly some lucky folk who call in regularly for their breakfast pastries and daily baguette.
The final area of the shop is devoted to whole large pâtisserie items – stunning fruit tarts and layered gateaux, and also to Cassel’s range of hand-made chocolates.
Here are the Easter items on display on the right hand side of the shop:
You walk out of the shop with pride clutching your precious purchases displayed in Cassel’s chic orange and brown packaging – the French couture experience all for a few Euros.
And the verdict on the cakes we brought home? Stunning, pure flavours, crisp pastry, light as air fillings. Truthfully I think the whole macaroon search for new flavours has got a little out of hand – eyes closed I would have recognised the chocolate flavour from our selectionbut the other three (chestnut, Pina colada and Punch Creole) were pretty much indistinguishable. Maybe the tried and tested flavours are the best and there’s no need for variety for its own sake.
71-73, rue Grande
Tel +33(0)1 64 22 29 59
April 16, 2010 § Leave a comment
We took a deep breath and decided to book a table for all four of us at this French restaurant which takes itself very seriously. Time to teach the boys some proper table manners.
We visit Fontainebleau pretty much every Easter mainly for the rock-climbing (in fact bouldering which is climbing with no more equipment than a chalk bag and crash mat). This is younger son Arthur doing his thing with the help of 2 “spotters”.
Just once during the week it’s good to have a change of milieu so we dress up as smartly as our holiday wardrobe permits and head off to this Michelin and Gault-Millau recognised establishment situated in the grounds of Bourron Marlotte’s château.
Based on previous visits, the place is clearly kept going by its proximity to INSEAD, the Fontainebleau based business school. We’ve quietly sniggered to ourselves as job interviews are conducted in loud American English at neighbouring tables or as professors hold court surrounded by a clique of adoring students hanging on their every word. A great place to play bullshit bingo as phrases such as “framing the argument”, “low hanging fruit” or worst of all “paradigm shift” bounce off the walls.
Tonight though we were alone until pudding arrived, albeit we were early having booked a table for 7.30. A sign of recessionary times perhaps? Given the behaviour of elder son George who was on top boisterous teenage form that evening this was perhaps a blessing…
The dining room has been completely refurbished since our last visit. Previously it had a bit of shabby suburban conservatory feel with cane furniture and green carpet. The new look is much more chic and sharp, discreetly elegant in shades of steel grey and aubergine. Tables are still opulently dressed with generous white napery, designer stainless steel cutlery and plain crystal glasses. As a passing nod to Easter, each table was decorated with a solitary enormous ostrich egg. George thought it would make a good rugby ball and started to demonstrate. Aagh!
Here is our miraculously intact egg pictured with canapés served on trendy roofing slates. The toffee and sesame cherry tomatoes were weird but strangely good.
The ratio of front-of-house staff to customers was almost one to one. We were looked after by 2 charming young waitresses who exuded French chic and were snappily dressed in perfectly tailored trouser suits. I received the distinct impression that they hadn’t encountered children before though.
Our request for Orangina as an apéritif was enough to turn renowned sommelier Laurent Piro’s face white with shock. It clearly upset him so much he forgot to bring my glass of champagne.
Amusingly, the restaurant’s idea of a children’s menu was foie gras with toasted brioche, poached chicken breast with noodles and a chocolate fondant pudding. To be fair, Arthur did enjoy the last 2 courses but not the foie gras which we shared between the three of us spilling crumbs across the table much to the consternation of the staff.
The various multi-course tasting menus seemed too much for the children to take so, having sorted Arthur out with the children’s menu, the rest of us opted for the basic (relatively speaking) four-course market menu instead.
Our first course was a modern take on a prawn cocktail – avocado mousse, crayfish and some pink tomato foam all served in a massive martini glass. It looked extremely tacky but this was meant to be so in a post-modern ironic sort of way I think. It tasted good – zingy, fresh and light.
Next came dorade (translated as gilthead bream? must check this later) with Mediterranean vegetables and a bouillabaisse sauce – a really successful dish and portions not too large and overfacing. The bream was firm fleshed and subtly flavoured and all the tomato, saffron, shellfish, wine and garlic flavours of a good bouillabaisse were concentrated into the spoonful of sauce served with it.
Next was the cheese course. The restaurant’s speciality is a baked camembert with caramelised apples and salad. This may seem like a novelty in France but back here in the UK we are used to all sorts of fruit and cheese combinations. What I would much have preferred is one of those old fashioned French cheese trolleys. Never mind.
Pudding was a rather lovely poached pear and gingerbread confection:
And afterwards with coffee came not one but two trays of dinky petit fours. Here’s arguably the prettier of the two served this time on a hunk of pink marble:
Frankly, I was then rather relieved to make our escape as the children were becoming restless and there was talk of initiating an armpit farting competition. We made our hasty excuses and left.
Les Prémices is a lovely restaurant and I think you would see the best of head chef Dominique Maës’ craft by sampling one of the multi course tasting or surprise menus.
It’s not the place to come for a quick or informal meal though – I wonder if current tastes have moved on and perhaps what people want is a little more informality without compromising on quality. The emptiness of the restaurant on what should have been a bustling Thursday night would suggest this might be so.
12 bis Rue Blaise de Montesquiou, 77780 Bourron-Marlotte, France
00 33 (0)1 64 78 33 00
March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment
Back home for 10 days now and still pining for the sunny crisp weather and the food of the French Alps.
I decided I could hold out no longer and visited the very wonderful Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury to buy a splendid Reblochon, half to savour au naturel (that is just a wedge of cheese and a glass of wine rather than me eating the cheese in my birthday suit) and the other half to turn into an unctuous Tartiflette, the potato, cheese and cream gratin which is a speciality of the Savoy Alps in France. You can find a link to the Cheese Hamlet’s site in my blogroll/links section in the sidebar. Here it is again just for good measure:
Having picked up a leaflet about Reblochon whilst in Moutiers 10 days ago I feel obliged to show off with a few cheesy facts:
• The name Reblochon is derived from the verb reblocher literally “to pinch a cow’s udder again” because the cheese is made from the more creamy milk of a cow’s second milking of the day.
• Reblochon achieved AOC (now the European AOP Appellation d’Origine Protégée) status in 1958 and is produced in a small region within the département (administrative region) of Haute-Savoie centred around the Aravis massif in the Alps.
• Reblochon is produced from unpasteurised cows’ milk from 3 permitted breeds: Abondance; Tarine; & Montbéliarde.
• The rind of an authentic AOP Reblochon cheese will bear a small edible seal made of the naturally occurring protein caseine; the very special Reblochon Fermier has a similar green seal.
That’s enough of the academic stuff. What you really need to know is that Reblochon is a creamy semi-soft cheese with an earthy nutty flavour and an apricot coloured edible rind which is dusted with a naturally occurring white mould. And if you are in the United States, sorry folks you can’t get hold of it because of your (misguided) countrywide ban on cheeses made from unpasteurised milk. Your loss I’m afraid….
Recipe for Tartiflette
This is my version of this classic Savoyarde potato gratin, pretty similar to the one found in my authentic Reblochon information leaflet. Some ersatz supermarket-derived recipes suggest cubing the cheese or, horror of horrors, cutting off and discarding the rind. No, no, no! When the cheese is halved horizontally and placed rind-side up atop the potatoes, it becomes deliciously crispy and brown when baked in a hot oven, absolutely the point of this dish.
The specified quantity is enough for 2 greedy people. Serve with a simple green salad and a glass of crisp white wine (ideally an Apremont from Savoie). The name of this dish is derived from the Franco-Provençal word for potato – tartifla.
Here’s the Tartiflette ready to go into the oven. The finished dish can be seen in at the top of this post.
1 medium onion finely chopped
70g lardons (I like pancetta lardons – inauthentic I know but still tasty)
750g waxy potatoes such as Charlotte, scrubbed, steamed until tender and thickly sliced
142 ml double cream
half a Reblochon cheese which should weigh approx 250g
salt, pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, a few fresh thyme leaves
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C. Fry the onions and lardons together until golden brown. Grease a cast iron gratin dish generously with butter. Layer half the cooked sliced potatoes in the bottom. Season then spread over them half the onion and bacon mixture. Repeat with the remaining potatoes, onions and bacon. Pour over the cream and top with the Reblochon cheese, which you should cut in half first horizontally then vertically, rind and all. See picture above.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until bubbling and golden brown.
March 27, 2010 § Leave a comment
The best thing about the Tarentaise town of Moutiers in the French alps is that it is home to a co-operative which produces the magnificent Beaufort cheese. I passed through Moutiers last weekend on the way home from my ski tour and brought home a generous wedge of the stuff.
You may know Moutiers as the road bottleneck en route to your ski holiday or indeed as a vast alpine waiting room: at weekends the coaches lumber through from the early hours of the morning and the place is thronged with dishevelled looking bleary-eyed travellers. However last weekend, Moutiers was looking uncharacteristically lovely in the spring sunshine:
Just around the corner from the bridge over the Isère river is the redoubtable co-operative building. Solid and pink, you really can’t miss it:
And, joy of joys, there is a wonderful shop within which keeps sensible opening hours (open till 6.30 in the evening). Of course the Beaufort d’ été (cheese made from summer milk when the cows have grazed on the high alpine pastures) takes pride of place:
As well as the Beaufort, the shop sells a fantastic range of other local cheeses, sausages and preserves. I could have filled my shopping basket many times over but, mindful of my budget airline’s baggage weight limit and my own ability to lug the stuff home along with my ski kit, I confined myself to a single perfect generously proportioned wax paper wrapped parcel.
The co-operative offers guided tours at weekends. Sadly I didn’t have time for one of these but there are plenty of information leaflets on hand.
Time for a few Beaufort facts:
• Beaufort is produced under the EU’s “Appellation d’Origine Protégée” scheme
• Its production is limited to the Beaufortain, Tarentaise, Maurienne valleys plus part of the Val d’Arly all in the département (administrative region) of Savoie in France.
• The milk used to make the cheese must come from two special mountain cow breeds, the Tarine and the Abondance.
• There are currently 650 milk suppliers, and 45 cheesemakers collectively producing some 4,300 tonnes of cheese a year.
And one kilogramme of this lovely stuff was mine all mine to to take home and treasure! In the unlikely event that you should tire of eating your Beaufort au naturel, here is a recipe which both showcases the cheese and doesn’t require too much of it.
It comes from Simon Hopkinson’s new book “The Vegetarian Option” and combines the cheese with potatoes and cream, encasing the lot in buttery puff pastry. A scattering of fresh herbs – thyme and the first chives from the garden – give a taste of spring.
Here’s the cheese and potato filling spread onto the puff pastry base:
And here is the finished pie glazed and ready for the oven:
And here is the crispy golden brown finished article smelling deliciously of thyme, a touch of garlic and cheese.
Recipe for potato pie with Beaufort cheese
Taken from Simon Hopkinson’s “The Vegetarian Option” but with some alterations/improvements of my own. This is absolutely gorgeous eaten warm from the oven with a simply dressed peppery green salad. It’s also pretty good cold the next day perhaps as part of a superior packed lunch if by chance there’s a wedge left.
500g small/medium potatoes (SH suggests Desirée: I used new season Pentland Dells very successfully – they have just the right balance between flouriness and waxiness for this dish)
Salt, freshly ground black pepper, freshly grated nutmeg
100 ml double cream
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly bruised
10-15g butter for dotting
375g bought all-butter puff pastry in 2 equal pieces or sheets (if you have a 500g pack pastry, simply scale up the recipe)
75g Beaufort cheese, very thinly sliced
teaspoon each chopped thyme leaves and snipped chives
beaten egg to glaze the pastry
First steam or boil the potatoes in their skins until tender. Leave to cool, peel and slice thickly and put to one side.
Place the cream with the garlic in a small saucepan, bring to the boil then remove from the heat, cover and allow to infuse until the cream is cool.
Line a shallow heavy baking sheet with baking paper. Roll out the pastry into a rough square shape 2-3mm thick. Take as much care as you can as this will be the shape of your finished pie. Lay the pastry on the baking sheet.
Leaving a border of 2 cm or soCover the pastry shape with half of the potatoes, overlapping slightly. Lightly season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and cover with half the cheese, half the herbs and a few dots of butter.
Repeat these layers. Brush the border of the pastry with beaten egg. Roll out the second piece of pastry to an identical shape and place over the following. Press the edges very firmly together, rolling up to form a tight seal. Remember that you will be adding liquid cream to the filling shortly and it is imperative that it does not leak out. Press the tines of a fork into the rolled rim of your pie to further reinforce the join.
Carefully cut a hole 1 cm in diameter in the centre of the pie. This will allow you to pour cream into the pie in due course. Glaze the finished pie generously with beaten egg.
Before adding the cream and baking the pie it is a good idea to rest the whole thing in the fridge for half an hour to stop the pastry shrinking when it goes into a hot oven.
Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C/gas mark 6 while the pie rests.
Once the pie is rested and you are ready to bake it, the final step is to add the cream. Remove the garlic from the cream then carefully pour cream through the hole into the pie either using a funnel or a teaspoon. Allow the cream to settle and stop pouring as soon as the pie seems full. Reserve and set aside any leftover cream, you will have a chance to add some more once the pie has browned.
Place the pie in the oven and bake for 220 degrees C/gas mark 6 for 20 minutes until the pastry begins to crisp up and become golden. Remove from the oven and add a little more of any remaining cream.
Reduce the heat to 180 degrees/gas mark 4, return the pie to the oven and continue cooking for a further 20-25 minutes until puffed and golden brown all over. Check progress during this second phase of baking and cover with foil of necessary to stop the pastry turning too brown.
Let the pie stand for a few minutes after baking. If you are not eating it straightaway, remove carefully to a wire rack to allow to cool.
March 25, 2010 § 2 Comments
I’m fresh back from my annual ski touring week which this year was a traverse of the Vanoise National Park. Our group comprised me, David, a Glasgow-based classical music composer and Matteo, a Milanese financier now settled in London. We were led by mountain guide Bruce Goodlad together with aspirant guide Phil Ashby.
For the skiers amongst you, our trip involved setting off from the Val Thorens lift system on Sunday morning and arriving in Val d’Isère five days later on Friday afternoon. Accomodation and most importantly meals were in a different alpine hut or refuge each each evening.
This might sound like hardship but we ate some fabulous food on the trip with the only dud meal being an indifferent tartiflette down in the valley in Moutiers on the Saturday night before our team set off into the wilderness.
After a relatively gentle start to the trip (a short climb followed by a long ski down) we arrived at the Roc de la Pêche hut at the head of the Pralognan valley. This is more mountain hotel than hut with running water and hot showers in the dormitory rooms. We had not really worked up sufficient appetite to do justice to our huge platefuls of jambon à l’os, sauce madère, gratin savoyarde and grilled sweet peppers. Afterwards, we felt like the pet hut St Bernard must have done in the picture below:
Our second night in the Dent Parrachée hut was the real deal. This is a wilderness cabin at the foot of the majestic striated mountain which gives the hut its name. We were given a warm welcome by hut guardian Franck and his Sherpa assistant Kaptan, known affectionately as the “Prince of the Vanoise”. They sound like characters created by Hergé for an episode of Tin Tin.
Franck invited us to the inner sanctum, his kitchen table for an apéritif of local white wine accompanied by delicious olives. Dinner then followed: a first course of vegetable soup followed by a main course of local sausages, diots, braised in white wine and accompanied by a generous dish of gratineéd rice and vegetables. Salad, a wedge of reblochon and Kaptan’s freshly baked apple tart completed the meal. Hearty and delicious, just right after a long day in the mountains.
Here’s a picture of our convivial dining table as the soup is served. The presence of a Bordeaux winemaker in the group meant that Franck raided the cellar for a superior bottle of red.
Here’s a link to the Dent Parrachée recipe for braised diots this time cooked with potatoes.
Day 3 took us the the Arpont Hut in the heart of the Vanoise national park, perched on the moraine of the Arpont glacier. With no guardian arriving until the end of the month we were staying in the hut’s winter room and cooking for ourselves. This felt like the real wilderness experience emphasised by the golden eagle and ptarmigan we saw along the way.
Arriving at the hut in glorious late afternoon sunshine we set to work chopping the wood, lighting the fire, melting snow and brewing a cup of tea. Having made ourselves at home, we set to work to produce a four course meal: first soup – dehydrated vegetable but tasting good after a long day out. Next the pièce de résistance, chilli con carne with rice. How did we do it? The rice was long-grain boil-in-bag which after 12 minutes was cooked to perfection – tender separate grains. The chilli con carne was a dehydrated meal in a foil pouch – just add boiling water, leave to stand for 10 minutes and your meal is ready ta da! If dried food brings back memories of Vesta curries, then think again.
Our chilli was made by high tech German firm Simpert Reiter marketed under the brandname Travellunch. It’s proper food, nutritionally balanced, packed with calories and actually tastes quite decent. This was the not so ridiculous element of our diet this week.
Here’s a link to the website if you’d like to see the full Travellunch range and read the nutritional data:
We followed the chilli with Beaufort cheese and, for the greediest member of the group (me!) a Travellunch pudding – vanilla dessert with raspberries – an upmarket version of Angel Delight packed with almost 500 calories. The rest of the group sensibly chose to eat their puddings with muesli for breakfast the following morning.
The meal was completed with a delicate tisane prepared for us by guide Bruce and drunk by flickering candlelight. I rather like the Rembrandtesque lighting of this photo:
Next day, an arduous trek up the glacier was followed by a satisfying ski down to the Col de la Vanoise hut. Here we were welcomed by a charming gardienne who could easily have passed for a vendeuse in a chic Parisian boutique. She plied us with locally brewed organic Chardon beers and then produced the most delicious creamy sauté of chicken with tarragon. A surprisingly refined dish to find in the mountains.
I’d be hard pressed to choose whether this was our best meal of the trip or whether that prize should go to the team at the Femma hut the following evening.
We didn’t reach the Femma hut until 5.00pm – this is a long day in ski-touring terms – normally you might expect to arrive at the hut around 2.30pm. We were tired and hungry and looking forward to a good meal.
The comfortable modern Femma hut is blessed with running water from the river running through the valley but despite its large size it still has bags of character. It’s run by a team of mountain women who really know their stuff. After a fresh leek and potato soup they produced the most fantastic deeply savoury dish of braised pork with prunes, garlicky green beans and a generous helping of crozets, a rustic square cut buckwheat pasta typical of the Savoy region.
This was followed by not just a single wedge but a whole board of local cheeses including an unpasteurised soft cows’ milk one made by the hut guardian’s sister as well as the (by now) more usual Beaufort, Reblochon and Tomme.
By the narrowest of margins, we collectively decided that the Femma hut took the prize for best meal of the week.
Having eaten and slept well, we were well set-up for the last push over the col and back to civilisation in the form of Val d’Isère. After a not so short, sharp climb up to the col we admired the magnificent view over to Mont Blanc before our final descent into Val d’ Isère.
A most satisfying end to my ski season this year. Thanks guys for a great trip. Standing on the scales back home I see I’m exactly the same weight as when I left – success!
Refuge Roc de la Pêche
Tel +33 4 79 08 79 75
Refuge Dent Parrachée
Tel +33 4 79 20 32 87
Tel +33 4 79 20 51 51
Col de la Vanoise
Tel +33 4 79 08 25 23
Tel +33 4 79 20 33 00