French choco-concentrated cakes…and brownies

October 25th, 2010

Gâteau by the slice

In anticipation of the Salon du Chocolat* and its attendant media blitz, it seems the right moment to set aside seasonal vegetables and fruit for a minute to focus on le chocolat.  And how the French love their chocolate !  It’s hard to imagine a classic éclair, a profiterole or poire belle hélène without a dark drizzle of chocolate.  So it’s not surprising that the sweet, dark and fudgy American brownie has been enthusiastically embraced by French pâtissiers and star chefs over the last ten years.  The basic brownie, a sweet butter-chocolate-sugar concoction, can vary with whims and what is available.  A handful of hazel nuts? A touch of chili pepper, candied ginger, orange peel or glazed chestnuts? Toss in whatever you fancy, but not all at once! And although the fragile crust is part of a brownie’s charm, why not spread a glossy glaze/glaçage of white or milk chocolate over all, to simply gild the lily?

Crispy top, fudgy interior...

It was more than ten years ago that the vagabond baked her first French chocolate cake, à la Julia Child, a sinfully rich Reine de Saba/Queen of Sheba cake.  No leavening (like a brownie), dense and yet moist in the center (like a brownie), it opened my eyes to the special character of European cakes using ground almonds instead of flour.  Last week, I tried a recipe from l’Express magazine for “Brownies” and found it altogether too gooey in the center, not a brownie success story.  Remembering the Queen of Sheba, I incorporated almond flour instead of white flour and separated the egg yolks – the second batch of brownies turned out better with the help of whisked egg whites.  The characteristic crisp, tan top and dark interior were true to brownie tradition.  Although the l’Express recipe called for 42% bittersweet chocolate, I used 70 % chocolate for an extra edge, and incorporated a tablespoon or two of strong coffee for a Moka version.  If you have no square baking pans, a pie tin (27 cm/11″) works just as well and brownies can be cut in sliver-wedges.  Serve this with a buttermilk panna cotta, crème fraïche ice cream or a dollop of smetana to soften the chocolate’s bittersweet edge.  It goes together easily in an hour, start to finish. Let cool before cutting…

Heat oven to 160°c/325°f. and set the oven rack just below mid-oven. Butter a 9″ square pan or 11″ pie tin (smaller pan =  thicker brownies, but allow a few more minutes baking time); bring a saucepan of water to simmer under a bowl to melt the butter and chocolate.

170 g./3/4  cup  sweet butter, cut into bits

90 g/1 tablet minus 1 square of bittersweet (Bio/organic)French chocolate

3 eggs, (62 to 66 g. each), separated

120 g./1/2 cup + 2 T light brown sugar

120 g/1/2 cup + 2 T. sugar

40 g./1/3 cup ground almonds + 1 tsp. grated nutmeg

10 g./ 1 T. cocoa (Dutch process)

1 T. strong coffee

2 T. chopped almonds

In a metal bowl set over (not touching) simmering water, melt the chocolate & butter, stirring often.  Set aside when almost all melted; stir, let cool.  Separate the eggs and using electric beaters, beat the yolks, add gradually the brown then white sugar, until thick and glossy. Stir in the chocolate mixture, cocoa & coffee; fold in the ground almonds (and any chopped nuts or peel if using) – at this point add another spoonful of almonds if the batter seems thin. Whisk the egg whites to soft, firm peaks and fold this carefully into the batter. Pour into the greased pan, scatter chopped almonds over the top and bake for 20 minutes (for gooey center) or 30 minutes (for more cake-like center), but test at 20 minutes to see if toothpick comes out gooey or dry.  Let cool on a rack, cut and serve at room temperature with something creamy alongside….and sprinkle with cinnamon.

*From October 28th to November 1st, the Salon du Chocolate fills the Porte de Versailles in Paris 15th arrondissement with professionals and chocolate fans. See:  www.salon-du-chocolat.com  No time to travel to Paris?  Go to New York’s Chocolate extravaganza at the Metropolitan Pavilion, November 11th to 14th.  See the above site for these and many other salons.

Versailles pastry shop window, chocolate inside and out...

Note: Watch for November’s chocolate feature: a butterless chocolate cake.

Heads up, pickle fans !

October 6th, 2010

Beets, onion slices and spices...

If you *love* pickles and happen to be in New York this month, devote a day to all manner of brined veg: The International Pickle Festival brings connoisseurs of condiments together on a busy intersection in the Lower East Side. Before I get to the pickle recipe, here are the details: Sunday, October 17th is the day to circle, from 11 to 4:30 (don’t dilly-dally, or it will all be over), between Orchard and Ludlow – extending onto Broome Street, follow your nose. Besides garlic infused Polish dill pickles, you’ll sample pickles from Asia (kimchi salsa anyone?) to savory French and Italian brined specialties. Chopped, sliced, in chunks or pickles on a stick – this is the place to explore the realm of pickles, a culinary subculture unto itself. Bring a bag, buy a few bottles to spice up chilly autumn week ends. Not just for fun, but (as you will learn there) pickles are good for you – after all, it seems that Cleopatra believed in pickles as one of her beauty secrets. Artisans such as Brooklyn Brine bring their best, and watch for Wong’s Thunder Pickles. This, the 10th annual Pickle Day, is sponsored by the New York Food Museum (visit their Pickle Wing sometime), Umani Food, and New York City Greenmarkets. Bring the kids for a day of tastings, music, demonstrations and book signings on the Lower East Side – a culinary crossroads of the world (of pickles).

For more, check: www.lowereastsideny.com

Recipe #1, an old favorite:  Beet Pickles

Pickling is about conserving flavor in times of plenty, when we all know less plentiful times lie just around the corner. That goes for color as well, so begin with ruby red beets.  Boil the beets until just tender*, peel and quarter them and pack in hot jars. You will need:

1 quart beets, cooked peeled and quartered or cut in slices (no not overcook or use pre-cooked beets: result will be flabby pickles)

3/4 cup light brown sugar + 1 tsp. kosher salt

1 cup cider vinegar + 1/2 cup spring water

1 tsp. toasted  cumin seeds + 12 cloves + cinnamon stick + 6 whole allspice (optional)

Bring the liquids, sugar and spices to a boil, pour over the beets in hot jars and seal with sterilized lids. Great with a winter lunch of cold roast pork or poached fish – and a must with pork sausages.

Recipe #2: Mixed vegetable pickles – two ways

Cauliflorets, onions and peppers...

There are more ways to pickle a cucumber (or most any vegetable) than I imagined:  raw in a brine, raw in hot jars with hot vinegar, cooked for a few minutes in vinegar or soaked in vodka. To pickle in brine, I checked Michael Ruhlman’s essential guide, Ratio, for advice. This is the classic tried and true crock method, soaking (all parts submerged) vegetables in a brine of 2  1/2 cups/20 oz. spring water with 2 tablespoons/1 oz. coarse salt. Dissolve the salt in the water in a non-reactive pan over high heat, stir it, turn off the heat and let it cool. This basic brine, poured over a jar or crock of sliced carrots, onions, peppers, wax beans, cucumbers (and dill heads) or a mix of whatever is heaped in the market, will produce crisp and tangy pickles in a week or two. Use compatible herbs, such as tarragon or dill and garlic if you wish.  Be sure to put a plate (with a stone or brick) to weigh it down and cover the top with cling-film. Then they are ready for the table or to be bottled.

For a recent batch of cooked cauliflower pickles, a basic ratio of 2 cups sugar to 1 quart vinegar got me started on a series of pickle-packing sessions. First, while the cauliflower and onions refresh in an ice bath for 2 hours, get out the pans, bottles, tongs and heat the vinegar mixture. This works well for a mix of golden peppers, carrots, and red onions – whatever you have in quantity. Heat water in a large soup pot and when boiling, submerge jars – wait to scald the lids until just before sealing the jars. You will need tongs, a long-handled ladle and a large soup spoon, and a cloth placed on the countertop next to the stove or cook-top.

1 quart/900 ml. white wine vinegar

2 cups/225 g.  sugar

1/4 cup/43 g. coarse (Kosher) salt

2  T. whole mustard seeds

1 T. whole celery seed + 1 tsp. ground turmeric

Heat the above ingredients in a large pot, bring to a boil, then add the following vegetables (cut them up smaller for smaller jars, chunky for larger jars):

1 large head cauliflower, broken into small florets (refreshed in an ice bath for 2 hours)

1 large yellow bell pepper, trimmed & cut in strips

2 medium red onions, peeled and sliced in vertical strips

3 medium carrots/270 g. peeled and sliced into thick coins

slivers of hot chili pepper, 1 or 2 for each pot (if desired)

Drain the iced vegetables well and plunge them into the bubbling vinegar mixture, lower heat to a simmer to cook for 8 minutes, then reduce heat to minimum as you scoop the pickled veg into sterile jars.  Wipe the rims of each jar before putting a hot cap on, twist tightly and set on the kitchen towel to cool; place another towel over all jars as they cool overnight. This makes about 5 pints or 6 large jam jars. When cool, store in a dark, chilly place.  If concerned about keeping the pickles for many months, after capping, plunge them back into the pot of hot water to process for about 10 minutes.  This recipe is inspired by a recipe on CDkitchen.

Variation by color: Keep the carrot coins separate, pickle the cauliflower mix first, then cook the carrots & 1 more red onion for 6 minutes in the remaining vinegar bath before bottling (add a few allspice berries or cloves to each jar).

Note: Ratio, by Michael Ruhlman (published in 2009 by Scribner) is an essential resource when puzzled about a process or basic proportion of ingredients.  Good for advice on anything from cream puffs to, well….pickles.

French baskets by the dozen dozens

July 18th, 2010

Choosing a basket from hundreds....

A festival of baskets – for shopping or storing, for fishermen and for cooks – fills a medieval Périgord village to the brim on a July Sunday every year.  Annual fairs, whatever the theme, can be fun or boring…. same old winemakers, same old tomato or melon vendors.  To go to a melon fair year after year, one must have a dedicated interest in the fragrant fruit.  To go to a basket fair every year (don’t count, says the vagabond after fifteen-plus fairs), my interest in woven willow verges on passion.  One Sunday in July, the weekly market in Issigeac – always colorful on its own – adds another attraction: baskets.  Stretching across the shady Place du Château between the town’s gray stone church and a medieval bishop’s palace, basket makers from many regions of France display their own wares for the shopper’s choice.  The entry fee of 2 Euros not only gives you a chance at a tombola - drawing for a prize, a basket – but helps fund the organizing of this ambitious event.

Coiled rye straw baskets from the Charente, with a running commentary

Children crowd around to watch a vanier (basket maker) coiling a wrapped rye straw basket, while at another stall, the technique involves steamed chestnut slats to construct a sturdy basket for gathering nuts.  An artisan from Brittany shows us how to make a fish trap basket and a woman chats with bystanders while deftly looping caning across the seat of an antique chair.

Chestnut strip baskets...strong, versatile, and écologique: I was heartened to see a wizened artisan from the Corrèze again this year with his elegantly finished, slatted chestnut baskets and trays.

The flexible and sturdy dark willow baskets of the southwest are in the majority at Issigeac’s fair, in an age old traditional oval form.  From the nearby village of Molières, I spotted the well known basket maker, René Carrier…over ninety and still shaping practical baskets.

Fill them with logs, grapes, plums or potatoes...

There are classes offered in the basket maker’s craft in the southwest, but my thoughts turned to the speed and finesse of these artisans’ work, wondering who will carry on the tradition.  To make hefty working baskets for wood, light, oval baskets to fill with fungi, shallow baskets for serving bread or cheese – each takes a trick or six to master the technique.

Shaping the sides of a large basket…

Of the sixty artisans at the Foire aux Paniers et à la Vannerie, many work steadily through the day to demonstrate techniques of their craft.  A simple panel banner by each stall announces the region, whether it is the Loire Valley, the Ariège or the Ardennes.  One year a basket maker from Sardinia make the journey to the foire, another visiting artisan was from Spain.  So, there are new faces every year, and hopefully the old masters will continue to bring their well woven baskets of all sizes and materials.

Baskets woven of honeysuckle roots - for tiny treasures

More basket fairs coming up! If your travels this month lead to the heart of France, the Auvergne, take a day for the Fête des Paniers in Montsalvy. This popular event in a Cantal town south of Aurillac opens with giant marionettes, and winds up with a Soirée Dansante on Saturday, July 31st 2010.  Willow growers and basket makers get together on October 2nd & 3rd in northern France in Reilly, east of Rouen for a Fête de l’Osier et de la Vannerie Française. – don’t miss the afternoon parade of the brotherhood of the noble willow, la Confrérie des Façonneurs du Noble Osier.

Lavender Fields Forever

July 3rd, 2010

Bienvenue  juillet…the vagabond welcomes July with open arms! This week, my market basket is laden with stone fruit for preserves, green almonds and bundles of herbs.  On the way to markets across southern France I note lavender in bud, ready to bloom and scent the air.  But nowhere is lavender as much a part of the July scene as in the Vaucluse and high country of Haute Provence.  My memories drift back to Saturday markets in Apt, a hub of trade and activity on the river Coulon.  Artisans, farmers, plantsmen and vendors selling all manner of household goods – some with olive and lemon prints to dance across your table, others with olive wood salad tossers – line the narrow streets of this Luberon town.  We always begin at the open market at the edge of the old town, where sausage, honey and cheese vendors mingle with flower stalls bursting with the region’s trademark colors:  golden sunflowers, brilliant zinnias and graceful wands of lavender.  This week may be a little too early for the surrounding lavender fields to be in full bloom, but wait a week to take in miles of the purple haze.

Gather lavender early, just as blossoms form

Lavender lore credits the Romans for bringing both their bathing rituals and the cleansing, antiseptic lavender plants to Apta Julia when this trading crossroads center was founded.  Originally a military camp, the town grew to assume importance as an administrative center on the Domitian Way from Rome to Narbonne. The climate was right for lavender, cultivated for its medicinal and antiseptic values, and the plant took hold.  Soldiers carried it to cleanse wounds and found the scent relieved stress.  I sometimes wonder what a citizen of ancient Apta Julia would say now when gazing across expanses of lavender fields between Apt, the high country of Sault, and east towards Forcalquier – before surveying the seemingly endless fields of the Valensole plâteau.  If the lavender fields now seem to stretch to the horizon, the reason today is in part commercial:  this region of Provence leads the world in lavender production.

Within this genus, Lavendula augustifolius, there are thirty-nine species. Spikes with flower tips wave above the round, bushy plant – and easily cross-pollinate, so many variations exist.  Blue, lilac, violet or white lavender all draw bees, and lavender honey is one of the region’s specialties.  To discover lavender country, the market at Sault - on Wednesdays since 1515 – is not only overflowing with Provençal vegetables, but vendors offer honeys and soaps, pastries and essential oils, all with a hint of lavender. Take a moment to ramble around Sault’s old streets and admire the vistas from its promontory overlooking the valley.  Be tempted by nougat, both black and white (both a part of the Christmas Eve Treize Desserts tradition) of local almonds and lavender honey.

A fleeting moment in the lavender fields

Pick lavender just before blossoms are completely open to maximize the natural oils.  Tuck a few into your pillow case, a bag of sweaters sealed away for winter, and in closets to repel moths and refresh the air. Using lavender in cooking takes restraint – one too many blossoms can impart a bitter taste:  remember, it is an antiseptic.  A little caution is due for the relaxing, de-stressing effect of lavender under your pillow:  it slows the nervous system to some extent, a natural for inducing sleep.  Its essential oils are effective in aromatherapy and in beauty products as well as the classic, refreshing lavender eau de toilette.  If you travel across Provence in late July and through August, you may see the lavender harvesters at work, machines rolling through fields gathering the blossoms destined for distilleries to extract lavender’s essential oils.  In Sault’s August Lavender Festival, watch a lavender-cutting competition, all a blur of scythes in action.  But for a few sprigs to infuse in a refreshing sorbet, a simple panna cotta or a custard with summer berries, now is the time to snip lavender.

For more on Provençal lavender, visit: www.avignon-et-provence.com tap Tourism, then scroll to Practical Information to tap:  Markets.  In www.saultenprovence.com/gb you will find details on lavender-related events, and at www.provencebeyond.com , a variety of travel information.

A French country fair for all…

March 12th, 2010

Oxen in action

The vagabond expected everything from greens to goats in Le Buisson’s spring fair, Foire aux Bestiaux de St. Vivien. In the tradition of medieval fairs, this event has long been held early in March, on the day of St.Vivien, drawing traders and farmers with their calves, donkeys, horses and sheep. Le Buisson’s  location on the road from Bergerac to Sarlat sprawls across a major intersection, luring shoppers to its Friday morning market and annual foire.  Eager to see what has changed in the passing years since we last strolled through the fair, I could hear load speakers as we approached the center of town.

Tools and plows of yesteryear

Where the stalls of calves, cattle and sheep once lined the aisles, now space was cleared for a demonstration of a working ox team.  Driven by a farmer in clogs and peasant shirt,  it struck me as théatre as he drove his ox team back and forth for over an hour, shouting at the beasts and cracking his stick on their backs if they didn’t go as directed.  A few old plows sat forlornly aside, as pieces of folklore planted next to the oxens’ path. We found no goats, no calves, but there were donkeys and ponies for kids to pet – and one enormous bull to admire (but I wouldn’t venture to touch its broad chestnut back).  A couple appeared to be bargaining for a pair of donkeys, however that was the extent of trading that I observed, and moved along hoping to find a basket in the marché.

Dark willow baskets, for shopping or walnuts

And baskets there were, many shapes and sizes – but not all local.  Instead of the old basket maker I remembered – who demonstrated and readily discussed traditional materials -  a basket dealer had spread his wares on the ground.  But I did find a basket:  a garlic vendor displayed small oval garlic baskets, just what I need to keep this staple at hand until  new shoots of aillet arrive in upcoming weeks.

Pink garlic from Lautrec, a good "keeper"

Relieved that more products from the greater southwest were represented, I popped for garlic and the basket before moving along to chat with a prune seller.  It was clear that he had shucked many walnuts for his oil, spread many plums to dry, pressed chestnuts for purée and was proud of his products – all organic, I was assured. I’ll  cook the prunes in tea and spice to tenderize the skins, we’ll  enjoy them in a simple prune whip or clafoutis, and recall the wizened artisan at the Le Buisson marché.

Prunes, walnuts and chestnuts pass through an artisan's hands

Tomato Fiesta!

July 20th, 2009

dsc_00052

‘Tis the season, the plump red tomatoes of Marmande are in the spotlight:  on July 24 and 25th the bastide town overflows with Tomato Fiesta festivities.  One of the most important French fruit growing regions surrounds Marmande in northern Gascony, south east of Bordeaux. Until the nineteenth century’s Phylloxera epidemic wiped out French grape vines, lands sloping down to the Garonne River were a patchwork of vineyards. It took over fifty years of recovery to plant the same hills in fruit and vegetables, primarily strawberries, tomatoes and fruit trees, taking advantage of a fruit-favorable micro-climate. It was only in the latter half of the twentieth century that wine making was revived and the Côtes de Marmande wines were again produced. The perfectly round tomato called the Marmande, developed in this region, is only one variety to be found in the town’s animated Saturday morning market. And this is indeed the season to sniff out other varieties, their heady aromas filling the air. The rosy-pink Coeur de Boeuf (pictured above) is a local favorite, but Romas and San Marinos for super sauces appear on vendors’ stalls as well.

The Tomato Fiesta gets underway  Friday the 24th of July with a late afternoon market and chef Fabrice Biasolo’s cooking workshops. A recipe contest will also be judged (deadline for all recipe-blogger entries is the 23rd!), and tomatoes are featured on Marmande menus all weekend.  At 7:00 on Friday evening, a fanfare parade led by the Confréries Chevalier de la Pomme d’Amour* opens the festivites.  Saturday morning, things get rolling early and an expanded weekly market teases shoppers with tomato tastings. Another chef’s atelier/workshop led by an Italian and a Spanish chef fills the morning; contests, games and music hold sway all day.  And after the choosing, the tasting, the cooking, you will still say:  Some French tomato!

*Brotherhood of the Love Apple

Note:  For details on the tomato recipe contest, see: www. marie-marmande.fr or www.concours.tomatoaquitaine.fr and for other tomato events in France, see index.htmltomodori.com. September’s tomato harvest is celebrated in the Loire valley near Montlouis: visit www.chateaulabourdaisiere.com for more on this major autumn fête.

Floralies, plant shopping heaven

May 29th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand, image of poppy

Fête des Plantes, Floralies, Foire aux Fleurs…anywhere in France during May and June, plant-shoppers flock to their favorite plant specialists’ stalls to bring color back home.  In fact, color, fragrance, and taste are all to be found  in every Foire aux Fleurs. Vendors gather in a church square, or on the grounds of medieval monasteries to tempt gardeners of all stripes.  Geraniums for your balcony? Maple trees and bushes of great diversity to enhance your slopes or lawns?  A Meyer Lemon tree for the terrace (and pies in good time), bamboos or ferns, perennials or old roses are all to be admired – and bought – in this season’s floralies.

Vagabond Gourmand, photo of poppy

Two of the vagabond’s favorite plant festivals are set against 13th century walls.  In Cadouin, between Bergerac and Sarlat, stalls sprawl across the square of the grey stone abbey church that was once a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to St. Jaques de Compostella. Now, the village May Floralies draws some of the finest plant specialists in  southwest France.  Whether one is searching for a special cyclamen or pots of lavender, a wide variety of greenery and related wares tempt gardeners.  How many new kinds of peppers can you find for the potager?  The vagabond succumbs to enticing piments et aromatiques each year at the Cadouin fair.

At L’Abbaye – Nouvelle, a 13th century Cistercian site in the Lot  south of Gourdon, a Fête des Plantes in May brings together vendors of everything from bonsai to aquatic plants, as well as camelias and jasmins.  Usually held on Sunday, floralies fit into my calendar of special markets, a visual feast as well as  a chance to bring fragrance home….and to watch a new season unfold in the garden.

A note on the Poppy shown above:  the star of the borders this week is Picotee, a robust poppy found at a plant fair three years ago.  Picotee has a different tint or orange sorbet blush every year.  And the seed pods are always left to dry, ready to poke open and sprinkle a few black seeds into yogurt cakes or for an added crunch in a crumb crust for fish.  Any poppy seed recipe ideas are welcome…to include in the Poppy Seed file – comments and tips bienvenue!

Do the Chandeleur “flip”

February 2nd, 2009

Making pancakes is good exercise, look at it this way.  When I watched women making crèpes at a foire in Brittany, they stirred, they flipped, they rolled or folded the golden pancake envelope around a sweet filling- and so deftly it took but a minute.  Practice makes perfect (as we all know, the first pancake is always ratée - a mess!) and these crèpe flipping experts have been at it since they were about six years old. But why, I wondered, is the crèpe always eaten on February second, Chandeleur ? Thank the pagans, whose sun-worshipping traditions were reinterpreted as Christianity took hold around the Mediterranean.  Roman revelers worshiping Pan carried torches on their noisy processions to chase away the last traces of winter and celebrate the longer days of early spring.  Forty days after Christmas, when the Greeks carried candles to the mass for Hypapante (the meeting) in the fifth century, they marked the day Mary and Joseph presented Jesus for consecration at the temple.  This follows – torches, candles for Chandeleur - but what about pancakes? The round, quickly-made blini symbolized the sun for Russians, who saluted the return of spring during “butter week” before their forty meatless days of Lent began. Blinis bathed in butter answered the need for street food as they invoked the nature’s spirits for an upcoming season of abundance.  So, the round crèpe is still flipped across Europe, certainly in France, during February’s days of Carnaval that run from Chandeleur to Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday.

For a far better description of the crèpe and all its cousins around the world, I dipped into a tidy little volume: Pancake, A Global History, by food historian Ken Albala.  Pancake is one of a delicious series called Edibles by Reaktion Books, a UK publisher.  Not only does Albala’s book answer many questions about this universal favorite, he amusingly covers such traditions as pancake races (what was I saying about the pancake as exercise?!). The last pages are devoted to recipes for everything from Berry Explosion Pancakes to Provençal Socca and Brittany’s Galettes.  Oh, and do try the blini – with or without caviar – to celebrate the sun’s return.

Crèpe flippers take note: London’s pancakealympics are set for February 22nd at Blackheath Market, and the flip-finals to be run at Islington Green Farmers’ Market on February 24th at 12:20.  For directions and further details about the pancake races, visit: www.pancakeday.lfm.org.uk. Bonne chance!

And Shrove Tuesday is Pannukakku Päivä in Finland, where the vagabondgourmand learned to eat split pea soup on this day – always followed by a pancake with strawberry jam.  Bring on the pannukakku!

Amazed in the Meuse, from dragées to dragons

June 23rd, 2008

A week in Lorraine – the Meuse and Moselle region of northeastern France – isn’t enough. What I had planned as a jaunt to visit Verdun, to taste and learn more about fine, artisanal sugared almonds turned out to be a revelation beyond candy-making. Wedged between Alsace and Champagne-Ardennes on the northern route to Luxembourg, the Lorraine region doesn’t get much ink in travelogues – or even in foodologues. The fact that Jeanne d’Arc lived here is an item tossed into guides and tourist pamphlets, as an aside to the glories of the Isle de France and the Loire valley. Since pre-Roman times, this cross roads has carried its history well, surviving invasions and changing rulers. In fact, it is amazing that so much remains after centuries of warfare.

After a day in Verdun, where Dragées Braquier have made sugared almonds since the eighteenth century (this is another, sweeter story!), we took a regional bus back to Metz, rolling through tranquil landscapes of pastures and river valleys from the Meuse to the Moselle. The city’s enormous central train station has a hulking stone presence, reflecting the neo-roman style popular in early twentieth century Germanic architcture (Metz was at the time under German rule).  I looked up at the modern fingers of light ringing the station plaza, and thought: these look like talons – or claws of a beast. We would meet the monster later, in the crypt of Cathedral St-Etienne.

We ambled up and down walking streets lined with shops on the way to the city’s central market. The best of Metz’ shopping streets is Rue Tête d’Or, where pastries and confections decorate windows, enticing me inside to inspect and to catch a whiff of raspberries and vanilla. I stopped to admire fanciful pastries as we passed Claude Bourguinon’s chocolate shop and tea room, just as a case of artisanal ice creams was temptingly rolled onto the street. We found the U-shaped Metz market hall facing the grand cathedral, which is still the hub of this vibrant city. Longer than the cathedrals of Bourges or Strasbourg, and nicknamed “God’s Lantern”, Metz’ cathedral is illuminated by 6,500 square meters of stained glass. Like many buildings in this historic center, St-Etienne is built of a luminous golden stone, pierre de Jaumont. With or without exterior illumination, these plazas and surrounding façades seem to glow from within. After a pause to study the cathedral looming over a café on the plaza, I was ready to scout for regional specialties in the market hall. June brings the melon season, berries and rhubarb for tartes, along with early green cabbage and flats of chantarelle mushrooms. Jars of Mirabelle plums are everywhere, but fresh Mirabelles will not be in the market until August. Then, the sweet, golden plum is cause for celebration in Metz, attracting thousands to its annual Mirabelle Fest.

Well past noon, a mounting hunger sent us in search of lunch à la Lorraine. The Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is a short walk, across two bridges, from the cathedral. We luckily found a table on their shaded terrace, an ideal spot to watch swans dipping into the river. I sipped a fruity white Moselle wine and awaited the arrival of a Tarte aux poireaux (Leek tart), then a Pintade au choux (Guinea fowl braised with cabbage) before tackling a Tarte aux groseilles à la crème d’amandes. The waitress, dressed in peasant skirt, cap and bodice, smiled when I rolled my eyes and took the last bite of the dark berry (currants and raspberries) tart with almond cream. My husband, Michel, didn’t look surprised and asked: More cream, eh? Well, a two-tart lunch doesn’t happen every day – only in Lorraine.

The crypt below St-Etienne cathedral holds artifacts of the city as well as religious documents and sculpture. And that is where I encountered a replica of the city’s legendary monster, the Graoully, suspended from the ceiling. St-Clement, the first bishop of Metz, was credited with destroying the menacing beast who was said to live in the old Roman arenas. It is a story reminiscent of St-George and the dragon, a familiar metaphor of Christian force crushing pagan beasts. In the third century, St-Clement founded the first chapel on the site of the Roman forum’s ruins. But tales of the Graoully are still told, in fact a literary award for science fiction writing, Le Graoully d’or (The golden Graoully) is awarded annually in Metz.

The famous Dragées de Verdun drew me to the Moselle, but there are many other reasons to return. The Mirabelle Festival in August, the huge monthly flea market – perhaps to find Madeleine molds or oval earthenware terrines – a gathering of brocante dealers second only in size to Paris’ noteworthy Marché St-Ouen, and the Marché de Noël would all be fun. Imagine stepping out of the monumental railway station into a frosty plaza filled with cabin-stalls chuck full of jams, pâtés, wines, novelties and preserved Mirabelles – all well lit by designer Philippe Starck’s narrow, pointed street lights. In any season, Metz is well worth the detour.

To view more images of Metz, tap the photo above. Then tap category “Bites of History” to return to the story.

Note: Take the TGV Est from Paris’ Gare de l’Est, about one hour’s train ride to Metz, via Nancy.

Restaurant du Pont St-Marcel is at 1, rue du Pont St-Marcel in Metz. Open year round, reserving a table for dinner is advised : tel. 03 87 30 1229. Claude Bourguignon’s chocolate and pastry shop at 31, rue Tête d’Or, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:15 to 7 p.m., and Sunday from 8:30 to 12:30.

The rustic clafoutis dresses up

June 13th, 2008

Some call it “homely”, others say: “just a simple pudding” – whatever its reputation as a provincial dessert, the cherry clafoutis of the Limousin has wide appeal as an adaptible, versatile treat. James Villas, one of my favorite oracles on French cooking, calls it a Cherry Flan. And around Limoges, cherries are the classic fruit (always with the pits – for flavor) to be used. But when my black currant bush was loaded with berries this year, and juicy nectarines from the market called out to be included, the “simple pudding” took on a new identity. With a penchant for including almonds (in most everything), I reached for a small bar of almond paste to be grated into the mix. The nectarines are washed, not peeled – for color – and a sprinkling of flaked almonds toasts on top as it bakes. Bring the clafoutis to the table warm while the nectarines have puffed to the top, or let it cool and enjoy the custard chilled. This recipe is adapted from two sources, given below, and serves four or five. Try your own variations, even as a savory starter with cherry tomatoes by adding some salt (or chopped anchovies?), omitting the sugar, steeping a bay leaf in the hot milk, and scattering grated parmesan over it all. Salty or sweet, pour this batter into a baked pie crust, to be dressed up for the fête. Allow an hour for the batter to rest, and about 30 minutes to bake.

1 cup milk + 1 T. butter

2 large eggs

1/3 cup vanilla sugar + pinch of salt

2 T. grated almond paste

1 tsp. almond extract

3/4 cup sifted flour, or half flour and half ground almonds (almond flour)

2 large nectarines, sliced

1/2 cup fresh, stemmed black or red currants

1/3 cup of flaked almonds + 1 T. sugar

In a small saucepan, heat the milk and let the butter melt in it – do not scald – and let cool before adding it to the eggs. Whisk the eggs until foamy, then add the sugar, flour, and then stir in the grated (soft) almond paste: then stir in the milk and extract. Allow this batter to rest an hour. (This makes a firm flan – use less flour for softer consistency.) Meanwhile, slice the peaches, butter a 9 inch baking dish (I use a glass pyrex pie plate), and pick (and stem!) the fresh currants. Don’t forget to chill the wine. Preheat the oven to 375°f/191°c. Arrange the nectarine slices in a radial pattern, scatter the berries in the middle and a few around the edges, the pour the batter over all. Scatter flaked almonds on top, then sprinkle a little sugar over all. Bake for 30 minutes or until toasty and golden. Pour chilled sparkling Vouvray into flutes with a few black currants, or serve with a cool Saussignac sweet wine from Clos d’Yvigne.

This clafoutis is adapted from: Suzanne Goin’s Sunday Supper at Luques, Knopf, 2005. My copy falls open to her recipe for Cranberry-Walnut Clafoutis with Bourbon Whipped Cream. Inspired. And for a larger, more classic clafoutis (for 8), refer to James Villas’ French Country Kitchen, Bantam Books 1992, his superb collection of basics.

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