Midummer Dreaming

June 26th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand

The lure of the open road is so magnetic now:  back lanes and distant horizons spin into  summer’s dream destinations.  And as with all dreams – some are possible, even probable – while others must rest on the dreams shelf for later realization.  Maybe you also have a dreams shelf, where books bring to life far away places that one can only imagine exploring. When the travel itch bites and I know that a chair under the maple tree is as far as I can go,  I reach for one of the 500 Journeys series by National Geographic Books.  Journeys of a Lifetime was their first, and this summer I am lapping up all of the pages in the  “In Gourmet Heaven” chapter.  “A Wine Route through Hungary” takes me back to the Putza plains , “A Bedouin Feast” piques my curiosity about Jordan’s cardamom in coffee, and I even reread my own entry on  Sicilian Food and Wine. The destinations that the vagabondgourmand wrote number five in this book of dream journeys, and eleven for their next book, a stunning collection of Sacred Places of a Lifetime. Soon I will be curious to read what other travel writers reveal in the next up, Food Journeys – to be released in the autumn.

As cookbooks go, many in my collection serve to take me there….to northern Italy or Spain, the Greek Islands or southern Sweden. Thanks to a new title on my dreams shelf, I’ve been introduced to Swedish pastries, and the idea of rambling through Gothenburg’s historic old town grows more appealing. Vicarious travel begins with baking, steaming or stewing from the desired destination – a taste of what may lie ahead.  When I opened A Taste of Haga to Apple & Almond buns, Nougatine biscuits, a Victoria Torte covered with a delicate layer of marzipan, then Almond Horseshoes, the cobblestone streets and cozy cafés of the Haga quarter of Gothenburg became almost palpable.  My antenae are always up for almond details:  Haga’s bakeries come in loud and clear.  After a reality check on timing for the months ahead,  southern Sweden may be off my travel map, but in the meantime, there are recipes to sample…and one can always dream.

Dream shelf details:   Journeys of a Lifetime, 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips, published by National Geographic Books.  See site: www.nationalgeographic.com/books.  A Taste of Haga, by Eija Niskakari, was published in 2008 by Ic Bokförlag, Forma Publishing Group AB.

Absolut Cherries

June 19th, 2009

Vagabond Gourmand Absolut Cherries

Time for berries and cherries? Absolutely! And when the baskets are full, with no time for stirring jams and jellies, what to do?  This was a banner year for both red and yellow cherries – friends were giving them away: Eau de vie to the rescue!  Basic fruit spirits preserve all sorts of fruit, but when I reached for a jar in the pantry….oh, oh…..only vodka was at hand.  After an over-the-fence counsel, a short course from my petite voisine (little neighbor), I was ready to pot up the lovely cherries. Once the fruit is clean (any firm fruit will do, but avoid soft fruit like strawberries) and some are de-stemmed, they are ready to pop into a sterile canning jar (Mason, Kilner type wide-mouthed glass jars).  She said simply:  2/3 spirits – pour that over the cherries, then top it up with a light sugar syrup, cooled.  Basic ratio:  2/3 spirits to 1/3 simple syrup. Scald the lids and rings, set in place and screw on tight. Within a week, the fruits’ colors change, becoming muted as they wait….

Our cherries will be bathing in spirits for a year, waiting in a dark, cool cupboard for the 4th year celebration of VagabondGourmand!  This week marks our 3rd year on the Net, gathering impressions and passing them along. You have watched as the posts evolve, become more frequent, more varied and covering more ground.  I see a loyal following emerging, as thousands of visitors flock around – more specifically from Canada, from France and Ireland over the last 6 months. Bienvenue, and let us know what you would like to read about as the vagabond forages farther afield for the best ingredients, unusual markets, a dash of history, news and local color.  And because I know you will read more pages with every visit, from your perch somewhere in the wide world, I thank you again…merci mille fois!

An easy-going loaf, Fougasse

June 12th, 2009


There is no easier bread to bake than Fougasse. That was my conclusion this morning when I stirred up a small batch of this ever-so-basic bread before lunch.  Fougasse was originally an unleavened “hearth bread”, baked under the coals or cinders in the fireplace or bake oven in the “casa foganha“, the kitchen of an Occitan farm. Clearly, it is humble fare.  Traveling across southeastern France today, the region of Occitania called Provence, one doesn’t hear the Occitan language spoken (except, occasionally in the back country livestock fairs) anymore. You may sometimes hear the rustic Fougasse called “ladder bread”  shaped in circles, rectangles or leaves with slits in the dough. Some bakers top the dough with olives, salt, seeds and herbs, while others make a simply unadorned, delicious loaf.

To have Fougasse for lunch, begin 2 to 3 hours ahead by letting 1 teaspoon of dry yeast proof in 3 tablespoons warm water for 10 minutes. Warm bowls and flour at room temperature speed up the process. Measure* 250 g/2 cups bread flour (a light whole wheat flour works well – I use organic T80) into a warm bowl and make a well in the center, pour the dissolved and slightly thickened yeast mixture into the well.  Dissolve 1 teaspoon sea salt in 2 tablespoons water (it should not be mixed directly with the yeast), then mix it with the flour:  use a long handled wooden spoon or stand mixer with a dough-hook (wish I had space for one!), sprinkling more flour to make a workable dough as it pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Oil your hands with olive oil, pull the dough together and knead on a lightly oiled surface. Add a little more flour if needed, turn and pummel the dough as it becomes more elastic, then form into a ball. Let it rise in an oiled bowl until doubled (about 2 hours, depending on temperature), punch down and split in half; on an oiled metal baking sheet, shape into rectangles and flatten them out to form 2 leaves or rectangles. Let rest, covered, for 30 to 50 minutes. Turn the oven on to 225°c/420° to preheat for 35 minutes.  At this point, you can make slits like the veins of a leaf, poke the top with a fork, or poke with your finger overall to make a dimpled surface. Brush with oil, lightly press 1 tablespoon chopped fresh (Not dried) rosemary leaves and sea salt over the surface. To top with olives, gently press halves of pitted olives into the top. Bake for 10 minutes, then lower temperature to 200°c/400°f  for another 15 minutes – but watch that it doesn’t brown too much. For a crunchy crust, spray with a water-mist sprayer when you put them into the oven, or put a pan of water in the lower half of the oven. If you like a puffier bread, don’t roll it too thin and avoid misting. The thinner style of Fougasse is more like a crisp Ligurian Focacia – a close cousin – both traced to the Latin foyer, hearth or focus of the home.  Toss a green salad, set forth a plate of local cheeses, pour chilled rosé into glasses all around…. an easy-going summer lunch is ready!

*For larger loaves (more coming for lunch?) follow a ratio of 5 parts flour to 3 parts water as  proportions. This and heaps of other sensible advice is at hand in Michael Ruhlman’s book: RATIO, The simple codes behind the craft of everyday cooking, published this year by Scribner. Keep it IN the kitchen, for referral on everything from custard and ganache to toffee.

Note: Rosemary, romarin, is tender in June, the perfect time to chop it onto a fougasse or to freeze stems for later use – by the end of the summer, the rosemary leaves stiffen up like little green needles…. gather your rosemary while ye may.

Hooray for Rosé!

June 10th, 2009

With a ruling that rosé wine must be made in the traditional method, using contact with grape skins rather than blending red with white wine, Europen Union officials this week reversed what could have been a low blow for French wine-makers.  But it wasn’t only the voice of French vignerons that turned the tide:  Italy, Greece and Hungary raised their objections to blended rosés. The ruling was due to take effect as of August 1, so the pressure on Brussels this month was insistent – to the point that the European Agriculture Commisioner, Mariann Fischer Boel, withdrew the upcoming June 19th vote.  A sigh of relief was voiced in regional newspapers across southern France.  If passed, the ruling would have decimated over thirty years of refining quality control in making French rosé, and would allow blush-plonk to flood café terraces across Europe.  Loss of jobs would accompany loss of quality and leave the growing, discerning rosé market in the lurch.

Making rosé is not a simple process, as I learned in a recent conversation with a Bordeaux winemaker, Jacques Demonchaux. “It is more challenging to make a good rosé than to make a good red wine”, he explained in the tasting room at Château Pierrail. The temperature must be cool, between 5 and 15° c/42° to 59° f, and maceration (when skins and pulp are left in contact with the fresh grape juice)  is closely watched for 2 to 24 hours. I lifted a glass of the limpid rosé to the light, admiring both its luminosity and translucent qualities before sipping the fragrant, refined wine. To get to this point is a tricky process, one that can be appreciated best by sampling the many styles and hues of traditionally made rosé, whether from the Var or the southwest – each region has its own twist on the refreshing theme. The rosé learning curve is underway, with summer months ahead to pair rosés with fresh fish and cold soups.  And we can cheer with the Italian agriculture minister who acclaimed the decision: “Tradition has prevailed!”

Sites for more about rosé:   Look for wines from a vinyard in the Var, www.peyrassol.com – try their fruity, pale rosé. For a deeper toned, complex wine, try rosé from www.chateaupierrail.com, made in the eastern reaches of the Bordeaux Supérieur region. Both are well worth a visit for their historic settings, as well as their fine wines.

Foires in June, best time to explore Provence

June 6th, 2009

June’s open roads offer optimum timing to ramble across the French hexagon – before the school year is over and everyone is en vacance.  In July it will be the juilletistes, followed by aoûtiens in August flocking to French beaches and mountainsides. The vagabond, after traveling to summer fêtes and foires to write La France Gourmande, is fed up with clogged roads and bouchon (bottlenecks) around cities, preferring June to find “the road less traveled”.  And if you find the backways and byways of the south appealing, head to the northeast corner of Provence to both taste and observe age-old traditions.

The Transhumance, when sheep are driven to higher ground for summer grazing, is good reason for two fêtes in the Verdon region. One will take place on Sunday, June 14th in Castellane, and another Fête de la Transhumance follows June 21st in Riez. But be ready for another kind of slow traffic:  the sheep fill the main street – a sort of four-footed bouchon.

Haute Provence celebrates local bread traditions on June 21st in Pourcelles, when bread ovens are filled with fougasse and pompe à l’huile for their Fête du Pain. On higher ground in the Mercantour, Jausiers brings folks together with their Fête du Pain on June 27-28th.  All of these fêtes are a little off the beaten track, in the refreshing air of Provence’s stunning back country.

Reference sites: www.alpes-haute-provence.com/sorties  and www.jausiers.com .  Watch this space for a provençal fougasse recipe….soon.