Sometimes food and drink gracefully evolve into gastronomical wonders out of the depths of a master chef’s kitchen and sometimes it’s simplest of form continues as it has been for centuries to exist at our tables strictly for desire. Growing from it’s original purpose of simple food supply for survival, food and drink can maintain their basic flavors and presentation and still prove a tasty tradition to enjoy.
The french food i have encountered this past month has been the richest and most delicious and yet so simply prepared. And i don’t mean pb&j simple….simple as in quality ingredients naturally sourced (from the area, in season, from the root cellar) and simple in method (utilizing the same techniques of preparation for hundreds of years, over a fire, in a crock). With no “over manipulation” of the dish morphing a sincere component into something it’s not. With no pretension from the chef, the butcher or the baker, only confidence in his inherited and learned abilities to know his ingredients and his tools and
what to do (or not to do). All of which began with a need to feed , harvesting from the forests and fields, hunting game and domesticating livestock. Learning from time and effect, nutritional values and proper food preservation methods, many of which today we see as a culinary art process such as curing meats and making cheese. Simple necessities of times gone by yet gastronomical desires we crave and enjoy today. For centuries and to this day, one would find hillsides with nothing but vineyards and apple and cherry orchards – home cellars stocked with the years harvest of potatoes, cabbage, and onions – pantries bursting with a varied selection of cows milk and goat cheeses – wine stocks of the family vintage – fresh loaves of bread and plenty of pastry sweets all about and pork consumed in some manner at least one meal a day.
As i’ve walked around Westhoffen, a small village of 1600, most homes over 400 years old and most all with an inner courtyard. I peek in and a regular site is a wood fired oven on wheels. This modern day cousin to the bakers oven of old is most used on a Sunday (an absolute day off around these parts!) The morning is spent preparing and rising the dough while the oven gets hot (a good two hours), then the magic quickly begins. With loaves in ancient baskets strewn about rising gracefully, the oven is utilized to make the richest and simplest of Alastian delicacy …Flamme Kueche. Known throughout France as tarte flambe, a thinly rolled rectangle of dough is placed on the oven floor, topped with formage blanc (farmers cheese, eggs, cream, salt), thinly sliced onions, and lardons (deliciously fatty bacon pieces). It quickly bakes at perfection and serves the masses quite easily. Origins of this casual delicacy was basically a method to test the readiness of a bread oven for use, so simple and now such a treat!
The other night we enjoyed Raclette. I honestly was clueless on this Rustic delight…simple, not totally healthy and way to easy to enjoy too much in one sitting! Definitely not gourmet french cusine, and much more Swiss than French, Raclette can be traced all through the centurys back to medieval times when Swiss/French mountain peasants enjoyed a nutritious meal of fire warmed cheese scraped onto bread and other accoutrements. How simple and more delicious can you get than melted cheese over anything!? It’s name is derived of the French word “racler”-to scrape, and although common in the Savoy region of France, it’s most prominent on tables in the Swiss canton of Valais, my ancestral stomping ground. Modern day home version Raclette is prepared via a table top electric grill/broiler utilizing coupelles, little small pans to melt the cheese and mini wooden spatulas to scrape it on top of your various sliced delights. Raclette being the name sake for not only the preparation but the cheese as well. I found it to be very similar to an American Munster Cheese ….. by the way, American Munster is NOTHING compared to true delicious and aromatic Alsatian Munster Cheese, one of which we enjoyed just last night (Jura Munster) of soft white rounds wrapped in thin paper with an oozing mid layer of stand alone stinch, one can smell it way before it arrives. Raclette however is a mild and common cheese thats true purpose is to melt and smother delicious accompaniments as we had, such as jacket-on potatoes, charcuterie, onions, and pickled gerkins- we enjoyed a jar of last summers pickled courgettes (zucchini). Traditionally one is to drink a dry white wine with the Raclette, for health reasons (!) due to the past common day thought that consuming water while enjoying Raclette would cause the cheese to harden in the stomach, causing indigestion…????….. So in order to maintain traditional standards we enjoyed some of Daniel’s “unofficially Alsatian” Sparkling Sylvaner. The Sylvaner was a grape grown simply for quantity not quality, durning a time when drinking wine was a necessity due to unsafe drinking water. It was a necessity, a wine meant for the men to refresh themselves at lunch in the fields. And now it is a glass of pleasure to accompany a long casual dinner of mild yet delicious French flavors.
I could continue on and on about my edible memories of the past few weeks, but you would get bored and as I sit here in this 400 year old courtyard basking in the Sunday afternoon sunshine I smell the fresh wood fired loaves are done and requiring sampling. This age-old loaf has been needed by man for centuries, and like so many other simple yet amazing foods to be found in Alsace and throughout France, will continue to be desired for many more.
If your thinking about visiting France, the Alsace region is a MUST and I recommend May as every May for 12 years in Alsace and 3 years country wide winemakers open their gates and offer public “picnic” space for visitors to enjoy their packed lunches and free tastings. the Picnic Vigneron this year will be May 18, 19, & 20. Click on THIS LINK to learn more including a long list of winemakers In the very condensed and delicious region of Alsace!
For more pictures of my consumable delights while in Alsace and Paris check out my FaceBook page www.facebook.com/TheRucksackFoodie