Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Phones, Proust and Madeleines

First published Canberra Times, Wednesday 25 May 2011.

Bearing the scars of previous battles with telephone companies, it is with some apprehension that we make the journey to the larger city of Strasbourg to buy a French SIM card for our mobile phone.
Our poor French cranks the degree of difficulty up by several notches. Our hope is that jumping on a train and heading to Strasbourg will increase our chances of finding an English speaking salesperson to assist us.
We do our research and decide that Orange France is the go. We locate the OF shop in Strasbourg and wait our turn for an English speaking shop assistant. Unfortunately, none are available. After lots of head nodding, paperwork and conferring between staff, we are told our newly installed card will work within 15 minutes and we leave the shop feeling fairly confident. As we walk out the door I hear; “just come back here if you have a problem”. Somehow, it all seems too easy.
Just down the street is a patisserie with a window brimming with Madeleines, those gorgeous petite French tea cakes. I make a note to pick some up before leaving Strasbourg today.
We happily bounce off to do some shopping and sightseeing and don’t think to check the phone until a couple of hours later. Much to our chagrin, the phone remains stubbornly unresponsive. Reluctantly we make our way back to the friendly OF shop who redirect us to their technical department in another outlet around the corner. We receive convoluted directions and our confidence is now waning.
Which is why we’re now sitting in the upstairs office of the OF technical department, with a bunch of people who are also there to sort out their telephony problems., We have found, generally speaking, that the French are incredibly patient while waiting for a service, seemingly a resigned acceptance of convoluted bureaucracy.
It’s hot and stuffy in this tiny room and there is no obvious system or queue, and as people arrive they stand and wait their turn with a fragile patience. This patience is tested by the chaotic comings and goings in the increasingly crowded space. Some are sent back downstairs and return only to serve their time again from the beginning. Staff constantly emerge from below to interrupt the only available technician and the phone continually rings. In between these interruptions, he sees people one by one, “ums” and “ahs” as he examines their phone; turns it over, switches it on and off, stares for small eternities at his computer screen and ultimately decides that there’s nothing he can do.
We watch this performance until it’s our turn. Our French is poor, and the technician has little English, so with a combination of sign language and a little “Frenglish” the whole room concludes that it is our Australian provider that is the problem. Our worst fears are realised - we now have to deal with both our provider at home and Orange France in one day.
To mull this one over; we head back to the patisserie where the shell-shaped Madeleines are piled high in the window. We order a much needed cup of coffee and seek the comfort of these petite and buttery traditional cakes. Sadly, as we have come to expect in France, the coffee is atrocious, but our Madeleines are perfect. They are light and golden with a hint of vanilla and just a whisper of lemon icing across the top.
As with many of the traditional French dishes, there are conflicting views of their origins. One version has it that Madeleines originated in the little French town of Commercy in Lorraine, where bakers sold the little cakes packed in oval boxes as a specialty of the area. Another theory involves that noted cake lover, Louis XV, and the legend of a servant girl named Madeleine who made the sweets for the deposed king of Poland who was exiled to Lorraine.
Maybe the last word should go to Marcel Proust who writes in his unfinished autobiographical novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu:
“She sent for one of those squat plump little cakes called "petites madeleines," which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell … I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure invaded my senses …”
These are great little afternoon tea cakes and easy to make. To achieve the traditional shell shape you will need to bake them in fluted Madeleine pans which are easily available.
Although not entirely in keeping with the traditional spirit of Madeleines and the whole Proust thing, I made mine using silicone moulds bought at the local supermarket and translated the recipe from the back of the pack.
In case you were wondering, we fixed the phone ourselves. 

Recipe makes 24 Madeleines
Preheat oven at 210C

90g sugar
3 eggs
240g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
90g unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
80mls milk
few drops vanilla essence
pinch of salt 

Lemon Glaze
2 cups of sifted icing sugar
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp water
Grease and flour the Madeleine pan moulds, shaking off excess flour. Place moulds in the freezer while making the mixture.
In an electric mixer combine the sugar, vanilla, eggs, salt,and half the milk. Beat until foamy and thick, about 5 minutes.
Remove bowl from the mixer, and sift the flour and baking powder into the egg mixture. Fold in by hand with a metal spoon. Pour in the remaining milk and the melted butter, again folding gently until just combined.
Remove pans from the freezer and fill each mould with mixture, about ¾ full. The less you play with this mixture, the more your Madeleines will rise.
Bake in the top half of the oven for about 7 to 10 minutes or until just cooked and golden topped. While the Madeleines are still hot, dip them into the lemon glaze and allow to drip dry. They are best eaten the day they are baked.
To make the lemon glaze, mix the icing sugar, lemon juice and water until free of lumps.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alfresco in alsace

First published Canberra Times 18 May 2011.
After a long, hot afternoon browsing the markets of Strasbourg, we take a break in a weinstub and order a local Alsatian specialty, Tarte Flambée. The Tarte Flambée has its roots in the Bas Rhin region of Alsace, where the close proximity to Germany and the history of floating frontiers means that Alsatian food often straddles the balance between robust German fare and more subtle French cuisine. Germans know this dish as Flammekueche.
It arrives on a piece of thin plywood and our tarte is still bubbling and trembling from the heat of the wood oven. The dough crust, licked by the flames and slightly blackened is cardboard thin and crispy with a sparse but piquant topping, perfect with our aperitif, a couple of icy, cold beers.
The Tarte Flambée entered the Alsatian recipe repertoire through the creativity of farmwomen who used this dish as a thermometer for bread baking in wood ovens. The tarte was inserted into the oven and if it was cooked in a few minutes, the oven was hot enough to bake bread. The key ingredients of bacon, onions, cheese or quark, cream, and flour were all staple farm foods and readily available.

This dish is taken so seriously here, that in 1979 the La Confrérie du Véritable Flammekueche d'Alsace was formed to preserve the tradition and ensure the quality and standard of the Tarte Flambée or Flammekueche sold in Alsatian restaurants is maintained.
The majority of houses in Alsace are constructed with a steeply pitched roofline to deal with the snow, and are of double or three storey construction with a cellar. In the yard you will also usually find a large, solid brick wood-fired oven for cooking, among other things, this regional specialty dish.
When we first arrive in Alsace, we are struck by the number of household ovens in yards, and how carefully they are looked after. Most have a blackened patina on the bricks indicating their regular use. The ovens sit dormant, lovingly protected by plastic jackets for the colder parts of the year and as soon as spring arrives they’re unveiled and primed to do their job. Many ovens sit proudly in the front garden or alongside an outdoor eating area while others sit beneath a purpose built roof structure.
The trigger for the unveiling seems to be around Easter, when the weather warms and people are preparing to entertain family and friends, and readying their alfresco eating areas. The locals call their ovens BBQs and, coming from the land of aussie BBQs it took us a while to realise that they were referring to their wood ovens.
It’s been a warm couple of days here, 25c and above, and the evening is very still. We can see people sitting in their gardens, talking and laughing and the smell of wood ovens cooking, mixed with orange blossom, floats in the air.
We decide to make Tarte Flambée in our wood oven to entertain guests for the following evening, so head to the local timber yard the next day, to buy some wood. The miller asks immediately if it’s for our BBQ and we are supplied with two bags of wood, one of kindling and the other more solid.
Our small but adequate wood oven is steel and resembles a tall combustion stove with a chimney. Red Box Pizza has left me with plenty of experience in cooking in wood ovens, so I light it and in no time at all, it’s chugging and roaring like a steam train ready to accept our tarte.
The Tarte Flambée is a simple, tasty starter that’s ideal for sharing, similar to a thin-crust pizza. Although I suspect I might be hunted down by the Confrerie for making this comparison, and that could be scary.

The piquant topping consists of fromage blanc, very thinly diced onion and bacon pieces, seasoned with salt, pepper and nutmeg. The key is to ensure the crust is as thin as you can make it, to retain its crispiness, and the topping is sparse and spread right to the edges. It is not cooked as long as a pizza, as it should be only lightly browned.

There are variations to this tarte, and some use the local Munster cheese in the topping. I adapted this one for Australia using a light, sour cream and cream cheese mixture. For the base, you could use a frozen bread dough and roll it out very thinly, although I made my own very easily, a simple yeast free dough.

If you don’t have a wood oven, use a pre-heated pizza stone in a hot oven or cook the tarte on a tray at a very high oven temperature.

Tarte Flambée

400g plain flour
250ml milk (extra if needed)
¾ tsp salt
1 tsp vegetable oil

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until combined into a loose dough, adding extra milk if too dry. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it comes together into a ball, about 2 or 3 minutes. It should be firm and not too wet. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while preparing the topping. This quantity will make four 35 x 25cm tarts. You can seal and freeze any leftover dough if needed. If you don’t have a food processor this can all easily be made by hand.

1 onion, diced finely
6 slices of bacon, rind removed, diced finely
¾ cup of cream cheese
⅓ cup sour cream or crème fraiche (you can use light sour cream)
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
drizzle of olive oil

Preheat the oven to 230c.

In a food processor, combine the sour cream (or crème fraiche), cream cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper, until smooth. Set aside.

On a floured surface, roll the dough as thinly as possible, and fit onto a heavily floured baking sheet, to the size needed to fit your tray (mine was 25cm x 35cm). Roll the edges of the dough up slightly to form a low ridge to contain the topping. (If cooking in a wood oven, prepare on a board, as you would a pizza).

Using a spatula spread the cream cheese mixture onto the dough right up to the dough ridge, so you have all-over coverage, spreading a little thicker than for a tomato pizza base. Sprinkle the onions and the bacon sparsely over the cream cheese mixture. Drizzle the top lightly with olive oil.

Bake for approximately 7 to 10 minutes in wood fired oven or slightly longer in a conventional oven, about 10 to 15 minutes or until crisp. Serve straight away as a starter or with a green salad as a main. Enjoy with a crisp riesling or cold beer.  Photos by Steve Shanahan

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Land of salt and butter

First published Canberra Times 11 May 2011

I was initiated into the butter, salt and cream culture back in the 1960’s when my migrant grandparents’ farm was the weekend gathering place for our large and noisy family. Some of my early food memories are big pans of chicken cooking in brown butter and the pan drippings then poured over bowls of boiled and shaken potatoes.

salt in the supermarket in France
These early food memories resonate sharply for me in France and it’s here that I can safely and proudly declare my love for pure unadulterated butter, salt, duck fat and cream. I add fleur-de- sel to most foods both savoury and sweet and I won’t compromise by using butter substitutes that contain colourings and synthetics to inadequately simulate the real thing.

Not only do I cook with butter, but I love slathering the fleur-de-sel butter liberally on crunchy, warm baguette. It’s even better when the butter’s slightly cold and the little salt crystals explode in your mouth. 

It's a subject that’s close to my heart and I’m sure my doctor would agree. However, my declaration causes no ripples here; I am in France. If a Frenchman is caught smearing margarine on his baguette, he is not considered worth his salt. 

One of my favourite dishes, that can be eaten warm or at room temperature, is potato dauphinoise that uses a combination of many of the quality products of France, including the small yellow potatoes, rich doux butter, fleur de sel, fresh cream and gruyere and not forgetting a dollop of duck fat.  

The French butter and salt passion has its roots in Brittany, where the blustery, cold Atlantic provides the nursery for the premium grade salt flowers. This is then added to the creamy butters of Normandy and Brittany to create the mind-boggling choices available not only in the best gourmet food stores, but even in the average supermarket. You can choose from unsalted butters; demi-sel, fleur-de-sel, doux and rouge, all defined within a range of appellations, quality and grades. It can also be bought in bulk slabs or by the gram at village markets.  

French cuisine without butter and salt is like a meat pie without tomato sauce. It can be as simple as peasant food or as complex as gastronomic creation, but all have in common the use of pure fundamentals such as butter, cream, salt and oil and fresh, seasonal ingredients. Making, serving and savouring food in France is a daily, living art. A glance in the window of any boucherie, charcuterie, patisserie or boulanger is all the evidence you need of this. 

The higher grade French salted butter is a gourmet treat, although it is used in many traditional dishes, and coveted for its delicious effect on everything from fine chocolates to buttery cakes. Salt is as important as sugar in many French dessert recipes, and provides a balance to the sweetness.  

salt mountain at Aigues-Morts, Provence
Trade in salt was of such importance to Rome that it was often used as currency. The Latin term “salarium argentum” (salt money) formed part of the payment made to every Roman soldier and is the root of the word “salary”.

When salt was farmed in medieval France, it was taxed at more than one hundred percent. The tax was known as “la gabelle” and the revenue became crucial to France’s survival. The repeal of the salt tax was a major goal of the revolutionaries of 1789, but Napoléon restored it as Emperor to pay for his foreign wars. It continued in various forms until 1945 when it was finally abolished.  

To further fuel my butter and salt obsession, while visiting the Camargue - the marshy delta of the Rhone River on the Mediterranean -we visit some salt farms for a first-hand look at this ancient industry. We see the methods of irrigation, draining, evaporation and skimming of the premium florets, and processing of the highly prized fleur-de-sel and the remaining lesser graded grey salt flakes. With more salt produced during dry seasons as evaporation levels increase, farmers tell us they are praying for the dry. 

The global food industry is slowly waking from its margarine-induced hibernation, reinvigorating both the salt and dairy industries. France resisted this chemical invasion because preparing and eating good food never stopped being a serious business. Their faithful producers are reaping the benefits.  

If the look of absolute contentment among cows lazily grazing in the verdant green fields overlooked by medieval chateaux and hilltop villages is any indication of the quality you will find in the local produce, then there is abundance here to be had.  

The light of the setting sun on the Camargue marshes, filled with graceful flocks of gorgeous pink flamingos, provides a backdrop for our gourmet picnic of foie, potato dauphinoise, rich and pungent cheeses, baguette and a fine white burgundy. The knowing smiles on the faces of passing locals who wish us “bon appétit” says it all. 

Potatoes dauphinoise

1kg small potatoes, Bintje or similar
½ clove garlic
4 tblsp softened butter
1 cup Gruyere cheese, grated
½ cup cream
¼ cup milk
nutmeg, freshly grated
dollop of duck fat (optional)
plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 210c
Peel the potatoes and slice them evenly, about ¼ centimetre thickness. Rub the baking dish with the cut garlic and smear the inside of the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
Layer the potatoes in the bottom of the gratin dish in an overlapping pattern and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the layer with some of the cheese, grate over some nutmeg and dot with some of the butter.
Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer, and continue layering with potato, cheese, nutmeg, butter, salt and pepper until all the potatoes are used. Finish with a sprinkle of cheese. Combine the milk and cream, and pour over the potatoes. If you wish, dollop the duck fat on the top. Place the baking dish in the upper third of the preheated oven. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until the potatoes are tender, the milk has been absorbed and the top is nicely browned.
Alternatively, you can divide this dish between 4 smaller gratin dishes using the same method and you will get a drier crunchier finish.
Recipe adapted from Marjorie Taylor of the Cook’s Atelier. Photos by Steve Shanahan

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Relais de la Poste

First published Canberra Times 4 May 2011
We arrive at our weekend destination, the hotel Relais de la Poste in La Wantzenau, in good shape due to the excellent navigating skills of our helpful, Irish speaking GPS friend. We find this hotel through unexpected coincidences and contacts, initiated through Chef Emile Jung, the former owner of Au Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg. He kindly provided an introduction to the owner, Mrs Caroline Van Meanen of this Michelin starred hotel after I had contacted him for a recipe I was researching. He recommended we visit the historic 18th century hotel and sample the food in the restaurant, which is now run by his former chef Monsieur Laurent Huguet.

Dragging our too-many-bags-for-one-weekend from the boot of the car, I look up at a three storey, half-timbered Alsatian chocolate box and expect to be greeted by Hansel and Gretel. Instead we are warmly and efficiently welcomed and offered a drink on the sunny terrace, but first opt to install our multiple bags in our first floor room and we ascend in a postage stamp-sized lift.
The room is decorated in a mix of modern and Alsatian furnishings, including the original timber dowelled roof beams painted milk white. It’s hard to ignore the hot pink, crushed velvet bed-head and the floor to ceiling red satin curtains that dominate the room, bathing it in a pearly pink glow. The overall effect is of an eclectic mix of edieval vs Louis XIV – is there such a thing? I’m not sure- but it really works.
verandah dining
We wind down the original timber curved staircase to the terrace, taking in the murals and the luminous dining area with luxuriously set tables. On each table, the double white cloths, napkins and aged silver cutlery provide a backdrop for the coloured glasses, and a single purple orchid in a glass bud bowl casts mauve prisms. Mrs Van Meanen appears and greets us warmly to explain some of the history of the building.
Le Wantzanau, on the banks of the River Ill, situated just north of Strasbourg, is a former fishing village that is famed for its eel, pike, tench and perch. The Relais de la Poste was constructed as a farmhouse in 1789 by the Oberle family and was later used as a coach-stop. It was transformed into a bistro and tobacconists shop many years later and in 1975 it opened solely as a bistro. Mrs Van Meanen took over the reins in 2009 and with the appointment of Chef Laurent Huguet, formerly of restaurant Au Crocodile, the restaurant was awarded a Michelin Star in 2010. The reputation is enhanced by award winning Sommelier, M. Herve Schmitt who is officially rated as the “vice best sommelier in France 2008, and presides over an outstanding cellar.
chevre entree
Now deep in conversation with Mrs Van Meanen, the aromas and noises coming from the kitchen indicate preparations are in full swing ready for the evening and we are told the restaurant is close to fully booked.
Our dinner reservation is for 7.00pm - yes, unfashionably early again. The staff appear periodically in the dining room to check that everything is just right. Champagne and wine glasses are lined up like glistening soldiers and the ice bucket is crammed with well known Champagnes and an impressive array of Alsatian grand crus and cremants.
We are seated at our table and the restaurant unobtrusively fills. Delicious morsels begin to magically appear from the kitchen, delivered discreetly with the flair and flourish of a top notch restaurant.
In addition to our ordered food, the sommelier advises a lush Alsatian muscat, served with a mini pastry filled with an intensely flavoured herbed bass. A small bowl of chilled asparagus and mint soup follows, with a bite sized square of smoked eel and shredded fennel. Our entrees of lobster salad, green asparagus and gingered champignons, and Chevre cheese with spring baby vegetables in an herb vinaigrette, are next. A cleansing pineapple sorbet arrives before our shared main for two, a single duck liver cooked in a salt crust on a bed of Tarbais haricot beans, bathed in a bay flavoured broth. This dish is highly regarded in Alsace and great show is made of the presentation, as the foie is ceremoniously prepared at the table by a waiter who deftly slices, plates and sauces the meal with grace and style. We both agree that this silky and sublime dish rates as one of the best we have ever eaten.
The decadence continues with a cheese trolley laden with a selection of cheeses of your choice. The grand finale was a lemon and vanilla bean fromage blanc in a meringue pocket on a bed of poached crisp green apple, and a mini chocolate pot with crispy praline balls with a dessert wine.  
The components of each dish were intense and alive, with the local landscape and climate determining many of the dishes on the menu. The passion for fresh and local produce is obvious with many of the restaurant ingredients sourced from local small scale food producers, including charcuteries, boulangeries and fishmongers.
Tarbais haricot beans were used by Chef Laurent for this dish. They are sought after for their thin skin, and buttery, delicate flavour and very low starch content, making them easy to digest. In 1930, almost 10,000 hectares of Tarbais beans were recorded as growing in France, but by 1970 there were only 55 hectares left across the 650 farms in the Hautes-Pyrenees Region. Tarbais beans are often found in the home vegetable garden, and for sale at the markets of Tarbes and Lourdes. The Tarbais bean remains an important part of the local regional diet and the seed is guarded jealously by individual families, handed down through generations.

Duck liver in salt crust
Serves 2
duck liver in salt crust
one whole duck liver, 300g
1 kg coarse salt flakes
3 eggs
80g flour
200g dried haricot beans, soaked overnight in cold water 100g onion, finely diced
100g carrot, finely diced
60g of good quality smoked ham fat, diced and rind removed
1 bay leaf
100g eschalots, diced
250ml Madeira
100ml good quality brown stock 
Preheat oven to 200C. Drain water from beans and set aside. Combine soaked haricot beans, onions, carrots and bay leaf in 6 cups of unsalted water and cook covered for 20 minutes until the beans are fork tender but not mushy, set aside without draining. 
Prepare the salt crust in a large bowl by mixing salt, egg, flour and mixing by hand to make a dough. Roughly roll or pull the dough to shape until it is large enough to wrap around the liver. Place in an oven roasting dish on baking paper and cook for 17 minutes at 200C. When cooked allow to sit out of the oven for 10 minutes. 
The silky foie on a bed of tarbais beans
In a small pan, place the Madeira, the eschalots, then add the brown stock and reduce by half. Adjust seasoning at this stage, by adding salt and pepper to taste.
The beans should have some of the cooking broth still in the pot. Heat the ham fat in a separate small saucepan until much of the fat has melted, about 10 minutes and set aside. 
When the liver is cooked, delicately cut the salt crust from around the liver and remove, slice into 6 large servings, 3 per plate. Discard the salt crust dough. 
Place a thin bed of white beans capturing some of the cooking broth on each plate, and pour over half of the melted ham fat. Place the liver slices on the bed of beans and pour a ribbon of the Madeira sauce over the liver. 
This can be served with a crisp green salad or a selection of cooked baby vegetables as a main or in small single serve portions for 6 as an entree. Photos by Steve Shanahan. To view more photos of Relais de la Poste see picasa web album at www.roamingredbox.blogspot.com