Tuesday, April 03, 2007

For your reading appetite

By popular demand* a post on food.

First, a disclaimer. I am not what food-obsessed people would call a “foodie” (a word I find irritating all out of proportion to how often I encounter it on a daily basis. I’m not an “airy” despite my fondness for that life sustaining collection of gases) and so I might not do so well describing the gastronomic delights I have endured whilst en France. I generally prefer to apply my limited store of adjectives elsewhere. That said, I make no claims that everything described here is spelled correctly, or even described all that accurately - once an ingredient is combined with a larger dish, I cease to care about its individual identity: therefore something is "spicy" not "flavoured with scotch peppers."

My lack of food sense aside, dining at people's homes is probably one of my favourite things about living in France, not least because my being thoroughly smashed on fine wine by the end of the meal is a reliable part of the experience.

It would be hard to know where to start. One of the first meals we had here was with our friends Julie and Sebastien. We had been out exploring the Alsatian countryside, a trip that devolved into a mushroom picking expedition.

On our return, Julie and Sebastien invited in for dinner. Now, it is important to note that this was a completely spontaneous invitation, the equivalent of “Hey, it’s pretty late – you want to come in for a bite to eat?” that would be followed by pasta or pizza in North America.

Not here. First, they pulled out a bottle of wine and a “martini” (which is a type of liqueur here, rather than the mixed drink) offering us a choice of either. While I sipped my wine, Julie busied herself preparing fresh picked mushrooms and magrette de canard in the kitchen. This was followed by a cheese plate with three separate artisinal cheeses (reflecting the improvised nature of the meal – had this been planned there would have been at least four cheeses and possibly six). Needless to say, each course was accompanied by its own wine.

Planned meals are yet more elaborate still. Soon after our arrival here, Amynah’s boss invited all the newbies and their spouses to her place for a traditional Alsatian dinner. Her home at the time was a converted farmhouse about twenty kilometers from town.

On entering, we were confronted with a table full of “bretzels” – giant pretzels, which locals claim are an Alsatian invention. Once everyone was gathered they pulled out the cremant - Alsace’s answer to champagne. Another common apertif is a mix of Reisling and Kir, a cherry black currant liqueur.

Traditional Alsatian cuisine, such as it is, consists of pig in all its multifarious forms. In this case, the main course was a “choucroutte.” This is basically an enormous pile shredded cabbage cooked in wine, atop which are piled a joint of ham, cooked to be so juicy that it dissolved on contact with a fork, sausages, pork ribs and some other swine part I can never identify. All of the local restaurants serve this – though none has measured up to the homemade version we had, largely because restaurant “chou” is generally way too acidic.

This, in turn was followed by a cheese plate which featured (among many other cheeses) munster. Munster is not unlike brie in texture and originates from a town in Alsace not far from Switzerland. Munster is what aficionados would term a “stinky” cheese. I made the mistake of buying some during the heat wave when we moved here and then not eating it immediately. Our fridge inadequate to the 35-degree heat, soon smelled like a locker room. A locker room filled with stinky cheese. It is tasty though – more tart than brie.

Cheeses, like wines and most other foodstuffs, be eaten in a certain order. Just as one does not have a Pinot gris before a reisling, one would not eat brie after munster, nor munster after emmental. I've learned that the convention in restaurants seems to be to present the cheeses clockwise - you start at 12 and make your way around the plate. Remarkably, people will cut off giant pie-sized hunks of cheese at this stage of the meal, as if they hadn't just downed three courses, four glasses of wine and were preparing for a giant dessert.

Dessert was a tarte aux quetches (a quetch is a type of plum) served with Gewurztraminer wine, a very sweet dessert wine which is the pride of the Alsatian vineyards. It’s too sweet for my tastes, but as I am rapidly discovering, the right wine served with the right dish really does improve both considerably. Sadly, I can never remember which wine is supposed to go with which dish, so my nascent wine snobbery is unlikely to develop into an insufferable pretension.

Afterwards, we had the digestif which in this case was schnapps. I had never had schnapps before, associating it with old men and Nazis for some reason, but they too are supposed to be a local specialty (I would not be in the least bit surprised if some Alsatian were to one day serve me pancakes and claim that maple syrup was an Alsatian invention). Shnapps come in many varieties – peach, quetches, myrtle (a local berry), cherry, blackberry and Gewurztraminer, made from grape skins left over from winemaking. Learning that I had not had schnapps before, a fellow guest insisted at a subsequent dinner, on plying me with shots drawn from his considerable collection (this on a day that had started with a wine tasting and moved on to pre-apertif aperitifs before the various wines served with dinner. That I was still upright by the end of the evening was a miracle).

Dining culture is considerably different from North America. If you are invited as early as 7:30, chances are you won’t sit down before nine and will be likely finishing dessert at around 11 PM. On Saturday, when we were invited to a fondue (turkey and veal cooked in wine and boulliaise) we finished at about 1 AM.

Potlucks are almost unheard of, and it is considered by some to be offensive to send people home with leftovers. Amynah is still trying to adapt her tradition of putting all the food on the table at once, buffet-style, with the more rigid local protocols for serving food one course at a time.

Alsatian restaurants are another mystery. One local delicacy that I am rather fond of is the flammekuechen which is a flat bread with sour cream and “lardons” – what we in Canada might call back bacon.** It's light, yet filling and would appear to be an ideal lunch food. So one would think, except most restaurants, especially those in the smaller villages, never serve it for lunch. Lunch is for the huge pile of pork meals. Dinner is for the light meals. Of course, schnapps was traditionally for breakfast as well.

Local restaurants are extremely local. When Zack came to visit a while ago we took him to our favourite Alsatian place, called the Mairie for it’s proximity to city hall. It’s a comfortable place, cozy inside with very friendly servers. The owner, we soon realized, was on a first name basis with every customer who came in. No exceptions (well, us, of course). Everyone who walked in was greeted with a two-cheek kiss, small talk, and seated immediately. Some were never shown a menu – their order was brought to them in minutes, obviously prepared beforehand for their arrival. It felt vaguely like we were intruding on a giant family reunion.

There’s no shortage of other oddities on the local menus – I’ve had both roe deer and wild boar. I’ve developed a real fondness for “spaetzel” which is a kind of spongy, cheese-like pasta. When the Christmas market was on I was feeling munchy so I picked up a piece of garlic bread covered with an escargot butter from a market stall, like one might get a hot dog from a street vendor in Toronto. On the other hand, it's fairly difficult to find chicken. Go figure.

The local produce is excellent as well. There are farmer’s markets almost every day in various parts of the city. Our favourite is the organic farmer’s market, where we get our apples and potatoes and whatever other necessities are in season. One week they had live geese in a pen – for what purpose I’m afraid to ask.

Amynah gets her honey there, which she usually uses for her tea. The honey guy has a vast selection of honeys on display, varying in hue from translucent amber to mud-brown. Last time we went, Amynah asked him his recommendations as to what sort of honey is best with tea. His reply? “Well, there are two schools on this question…” Only in France would there be schools of thought on the niceties of honey-tea combinations.

Food is remarkably fresh here – our green beans are always incredibly firm and Amynah’s raspberries actually look like raspberries, rather than those watery red balloons that come from California. I buy fresh baked bread nearly every day, simply because I have no choice: the big, preservative laden loaves I grew up on don’t exist here, and so I make do with fresh, tiny little things that looked like they were made for Barbie Dolls. I am also pleased to announce that after five straight months of partronizing the same bread shop every morning, they’ve finally deigned to acknowledge that they might have seen me before. This was a big step for me. I feel like a local.

Allright, I’m done. I’m sure no one made it this far, since I was unable to break it up with many photos, as I am generally to busy eating to take pictures of my food, unlike several other bloggers I could name.

*That would be one person, Tara, who made a request on Facebook, of which I am now a member. See what powers you readers wield over me!

** Montreal readers: Both the Trois Brassuers locations serve this, along with many of the innovations that have been inflicted upon it over the years to make it more pizza-like. Resist! Get the “traditional” if you can.


Maeve said...

mmm. Booze. Piles of pig... (do folks whip something else up for Amynah?). Good spaetzel I've heard can be found at Boucherie Atlantique in Mtl, and now I'm hankering for munster flammekeuchen, which I've never had... Nice to see you not just say "s'good" after a meal.
(btw, kir's made with blackcurrants)

Jul said...

LOL at "airy".

When did Facebook become the "it" thing? I had never heard of it before this week, and then suddenly everyone's talking about it.

I started becoming a maniacal food-photographing fiend when I started blogging for Veggie Chic. You never know what might make a good blog post, and everything's better with pictures... Yeah, I'm a freak.

Travis said...

Like Maeve pointed out: what the hell does Amynah eat?

Mark Reynolds said...

Maeve, Travis: Amynah generally eats fish, freshwater fish being (all together now!) an Alsatian specialty. They also invented fresh water. And fish. And yes, people are generally very good about cooking for her particular dietary needs.

Mark Reynolds said...

Jul: Facebook became the "it" thing exactly one week ago, when I joined. For I am the "it" boy.
I think it's a big deal now because it used to only be available on college campuses, and now it's open to all. It's amazing how many people I know (not a notably techie bunch) are on it.
As for food photography, I has occured to me, but I'm a bad one for wanting to avoid strange looks. I'll work on it (though let me tell you, a big pile of cabbage topped with big pile of ham does not make quite the appealing image as ione might think).

Maeve said...

Wait a minute, I, too, was just recently invited to join facebook, by three people in the span of a week. Odd...

Food photography's notoriously tricky, but it'd great for you to try, Mark! Especially in the markets. Such a fun post, has me dreaming of raspberries.