A dish for spring: potato pie with Beaufort cheese

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.

Ingredients

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.

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From the sublime to the not so ridiculous: food in the French Alps

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.

http://www.dentparrachee.refuges-vanoise.com/actualites.pl?id_evenement=29

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:

http://www.travellunch.de/

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!

Contact details

Refuge Roc de la Pêche

Tel +33 4 79 08 79 75
http://www.rocdelapeche.com/

Refuge Dent Parrachée

Tel +33 4 79 20 32 87

http://www.dentparrachee.refuges-vanoise.com/index.pl

Refuge Arpont

Tel +33 4 79 20 51 51

http://www.arpont.refuges-vanoise.com/

Col de la Vanoise

Tel +33 4 79 08 25 23

http://www.coldelavanoise.refuges-vanoise.com/

Refuge Femma

Tel +33 4 79 20 33 00

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