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

Dough
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.

Topping
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