Roquefort, caught in the cross-fire

January 29th, 2009

A cheese held hostage? Non – mais, oui! Last week it was announced that as of March 23rd, 2009, a 300% duty will take effect on all French Roquefort cheese imported into North America.  Currently at a 100% duty, this sheep’s milk cheese produced in caves north of Montpelier, will soon triple in price.  The real issue is a complex tangle of rulings and rebuffs dating back a dozen years. It is all about beef:  hormone treated beef from North America has been banned from European Union markets. European Union farmers have not been allowed to use hormones in raising livestock since 1989, a measure taken for health reasons as well as concerns about run-off from manure on farms where hormones were used.  Water quality and environmental questions were involved.  Central to the ruling were questions about the effect on children’s growth (early puberty, etc.) of eating hormone-raised beef during childhood.  Out of the six hormones in question, one has been found harmful/carcinogenic; the remaining five are labeled “precautionary”.  But the World Trade Organization ruling on this EU ban cited insufficient scientific proof of the health implications.  Europe’s farmers are enraged, have raised their voices in protest. Next week’s French Agriculture Fair in Paris will provide a forum for their viewpoints. And there will be viewpoints: in 2007,  3,800 tonnes of Roquefort was shipped to the US, the third largest market for this veined cheese. It has been taxed at 100% for nine years.  A list of European Union products to carry 100% duty include chocolate, pork, pears, truffles, hams, oats, truffles, mineral water, and French mustard (see Mustard Woes post of November 2008). A North American official stated that the intent of these high duties is: “to shut down trade in target imports”.  So, next time Steck-frites, sauce Roquefort (Steak topped with roquefort sauce, a side of French fries) is on the menu, think about it….and check the price.

Note: vagabondgourmand  will dig for more facts on this, to be noted in this space. For further information, check the following:, for International Centre for Trade & Sustainable Development, for World Trade Organization.

On a clear day, whip up a platter of Amaretti

January 17th, 2009

A bright and clear winter day dawns at last, the perfect time for a little Saturday baking session.  This is impromptu so I must use what staples the cupboard holds. I scan my recipes for macarons, but adapt what is on hand to a variation on the Italian classic, Amaretti. Eggs are at room temperature, dry ingredients weighed and measured, and since they bake for less than 15 minutes, a batch of cookies can be on the tea tray in under an hour (don’t count the time to wash the dishes!).

Amaretti recipe:  Line a large cookie sheet with baking paper, preheat the oven to 180°c/360°f.  Measure 1 cup + 1 tablespoon ground almonds (almond flour) and mix it in a bowl with 1 cup + 1 tablespoon sifted powdered sugar. Whisk 2 egg whites (reserve the yolks for a Sabayon or other sauce) to soft peaks with a pinch of salt, and stir in 1 teaspoon bitter almond extract and 1 teaspoon (or more) Amaretto liquour. Blend the whipped egg white mixture into the mixed dry ingredients by folding gently ’til well blended. Using a teaspoon, drop rounded mounds of batter on the lined baking sheet; then gently place a few flaked or slivered almonds atop each one.  Bake for 12 to 15 minutes in the upper half of the oven and remove when slightly browned. Let cool 5 minutes, then slide them with a spatula to a rack and dust (do not drench!) with powdered sugar.  Although this makes 26 Amaretti, and I know that they keep for a week in a tin, I doubt there will be more than a few crumbs left by Sunday morning. Whether you make these rustic, moist macarons or a more citified piped version, choose a day when skies are clear – a lesson learned from my mother, applied whenever I make cream puffs as well.  Carpe Diem, seize a cloudless day:  thanks Mom, for the good advice!

An amaretti note: after a day or two, these become very chewy, deliciously dunkable.

Gaston Lenôtre, a legacy: pastries of perfection

January 8th, 2009

All day I had been thinking about making a frangipane tarte for the weekend, but was stirring up a simple lentil stew tonight when I heard the sad news of Lenôtre’s death. The guiding light of French pastry makers passed away this morning in his home at the age of eighty eight, after a long illness. On the radio, French president Sarkozy offered words of praise: “He didn’t like conformity – he always searched to innovate with respect to the traditions and rules of the art of his métier….une remise en question incessante (always re-thinking a problem). He lifted pastry creation to the ranks of art”. Born in Normandy, the child of cooks, Gaston Lenôtre apprenticed with a pastry maker, then opened his first boutique in the chic rue d’Auteuil neighborhood in 1957. His clients clamored for more, and in 1960 the Lenôtre “service traiteur” was founded to cater receptions, weddings and official Parisian events. In 1971, a school of gastronomy, training chefs as well as pâtissiers was fit under the Lenôtre umbrella. Paul Bocuse, his colleague and friend of over fifty years commented: “Gaston was a genius, always reaching for perfection”. But the tribute that touched me was that of Pierre Hermé, the master of the macaron and a force in the wave of contemporary pâtisserie, who had been Lenôtre’s student. Hermé declared: “Without Gaston Lenôtre, pastry would not be the metier/art it has become today – he left us all a formidable legacy”.

Translations on this post from the French Press, January 8, by vagabondgourmand.

Make a menu, follow David Tanis….in harmony with the seasons

January 4th, 2009

Those handsome parsnips from the market could be simmered in soup, but I’d rather roast them. So, how to roast them for maximum flavor and minimum scorched edges? I reach for a new cookbook, a beaming guide to seasonal fare and menu ideas by David Tanis, A platter of figs and other recipes. Open to page 45, Parsnips Epiphany-style, for the simplest solution.  Then spend the morning devouring pages of irresistibly straight-forward recipes with a common theme: it all begins at the market. This is the vagabond’s dream book, not only a tutorial in menu composition but a liberation to improvise with each season’s textures, colors and flavors. The tone of the seasons is heightened by Christopher Hirsheimer’s naturally lit photographs; more inspiration. Characters and a variety of settings bring meals and menus to life, from the goat keeper who roasts parsnips to a Catalan evening at the ballet followed by cava and anchovies on toast. Next time I’m sleuthing Paris markets, the “Bird man of Place Maubert” will be the show to catch – for drama as well as magret de canard. In keeping with the season for a “Bean Soup Lunch”, this week I will stir up a soup, bake almond biscotti, and thank David Tanis for refreshing my culinary imagination!

A platter of figs and other recipes by David Tanis was published by Artisan, a division of Workman Publishing Company, N.Y., in 2008.

Winter’s earthy flavors

January 2nd, 2009


The Friday morning market in St-Germain-en-Laye is a treasure trove during the holidays – or anytime, in fact. Wander through the old town’s narrow streets to the market after a short ride on the RER train northwest of Paris (from La Defence or Gare de Lyon). Find fresh mushrooms, parsnips or even the little corkscrew shaped roots called crosne. Delight in the rich range of winter fruits, heaps of clementines and mandarines, then select a ripe mango or a sack of plump dates. And leave room in your basket for cheese….. oh, my.

Winter pleasures

January 1st, 2009

With heartiest wishes for a happy, healthy New Year !

Quelle chance! What good luck we’ve had to begin 2009 with mild weather and bright skies. Even the birds are warming up, twittering to beat the band. In these early hours as twelve new months stretch before us, my mood is optimistic …malgré la crise (in spite of the economic storms around us)…with a new list of markets to try and each season’s surprises to be found. Winter’s earthy wonders, roots to be roasted and mushrooms to sauté, as well as cabbages and lentils for soups are January ‘s pleasures. A plate of dates and oranges, and why not a few almond macarons to cap off a long Sunday lunch with friends? Bring branches of red berries for a stoneware vase, light a few tapers in brass candle holders, warm the plates and linger around the table until dusk draws clouds across the valley. The new year is duly launched!