Sunday, January 29, 2012

In Praise of Brassicae ...

So, like I said, Jerry is off somewhere near Briançon and now Margo's left for Poitou or something like that, which leaves me rattling around the house with only the animals for company. Not that the dog is much good at that: having the canine equivalent of Alzheimer's she's completely lost without Margo, and rather than go for a walk to discreetly empty her nether regions paces monomaniacally up and down the street in front of the house.

I assume Jerry is doing fine, the only communication I've had from him was a text asking me to transfer some money into his account. To go skiing with the innkeeper's attractive daughter, I guess. He did promise to pay me back, mind you.

It's one of those periods of the year: much of Belgium, and I'd guess at least half their annual potato crop, are on the roads, annoying me by sticking in the left-hand lane and religiously not overtaking. When they go on holiday, the Belgian national cuisine being the only one, to my knowledge, based exclusively on the potato and beer, they bring their own spuds with them, perhaps fearing food-poisoning from the inferior French varieties.

Or more to the point, as they've elevated the pomme frite to the status of a religion (it's probably about the only thing on which the Flemings and the Walloons can agree) they're unwilling to blaspheme by using anything other than annointed Belgian potatoes to make them.

They travel in flocks in ridiculously large cars, and tend to leave small shrines to mark their presence, these usually taking the form of carefully constucted little cairns of beer bottles with dull-coloured labels, exotic and unpronouncable names like "Das Grimsberger Gustpot" or "Jubilator", and eaten away by the appallingly high alcohol content.

Whatever, it could have been worse - at least most of them were heading up to the ski stations rather than back to their homes - so I made it to the market without any noticeable rise in my blood pressure. I was tootling around, squeezing mangos and sneering at those round reddish things that the Dutch like to pretend are tomatoes, when I bumped into Bev - or, more accurately, she bumped into me and addressed me by name.

I'm not really very good at that, but noblesse oblige and all that and I hardly hesitated before blurting out "Oh, hello there ... Bev" (pronounced, à la Blackadder, as "Bob") and, much to my surprise, got it right. (The trick, I've discovered, is to pick a name more or less at random, but speak it so confidently that the other party feels so guilty at not actually being called that, and accepts it - at least temporarily - as their name for the duration.)

So we chatted for a bit and practised snagging passing caddies, earning ourselves some dirty looks from the little old ladies dragging them, before I repaired Chez Liddy. It's usually full - mostly inhabited by elderly men (well, over 65 anyway) - but I was lucky enough to score a table at the back before the rush. Not that it did me much good, for a flock of five came in, talking gaily about their adventures with e-mail and how great it is to be able to send photos of the grand-children off to everyone, and squatted the other seats, leaving me huddled in a corner.

Shouldn't complain, because they ordered a bottle of chilled Macon white and, perhaps feeling a bit guilty or maybe just as an act of spontaneous generosity, served me copiously from it, and the charcuterie that accompanied it. Probably a good thing that I had other stuff to do, for otherwise I might well still be there.

That other stuff, of course, involved le Café de Paris for the usual executive meeting and some health-food. Unfortunately I very nearly got kneecapped by Beckham, as I'd apparently committed the almost unpardonable sin of having heard of Bryan's top-secret plans (which  definitely do not involve setting up a language school which will in no way be in competition with his current employers) before he got around to telling her. I don't see why that should be my fault, but it seems that women see these things differently.

Mind you, she was even more pissed with Bryan, who only managed to wiggle out of it by promising chocolates, flowers and a decent bottle of wine. In my opinion, that woman is very high-maintenance.

It was about that time that Sophie texted to say something along the lines of "Please don't hate me, something's come up and I have to cancel", which left me in the rather embarrasing situation of having everything required, save for the actual cabbage, for a choucroute.

(One of these days I really should get around to making my own cabbagey bits as well. Godnose it's easy enough, just cut the stuff into fine strips and stick them into a 3% brine solution for three weeks. Unfortunately, this does tend to stink a bit at first, so maybe I'll carry on buying choucroute crue at the supermarket.)

Weaker spirits might have quailed, but I ran through the mental rolodex of everyone I know that likes the stuff, and Stacey's number came up. She was more than willing so I trotted back home, stopping off to pick up a kilo of choucroute, unloaded the car and decided to spare fifteen minutes for some quality time with the beasts.

Which turned out to be a bit of a mistake, because when I opened my eyes I was stiff, the cat was weighing on my chest, the dog snoring loudly on my feet and it was five o'clock.

Doing a decent choucroute garnie starting with choucroute crue takes at least three hours. Start with your kilo of choucroute and squeeze it to get as much of the liquid out as you can, and mix it up with some juniper berries. Then line the bottom of a large - as in five-litre or so - casserole with strips of bacon and stick half the cabbage on top of that. 

After that add 500gm of smoked pork shoulder, in one lump please, and 500gm of smoked pork sausages, and an onion, cut in half and studded with cloves. Add the rest of the cabbage, and a bottle of white wine: let boil until the alcohol has evaporated off, cover and simmer for two and a half hours in the oven or on the stovetop. Either's good: as we have the old wood-burner going I tend to use that.

At the end of that time, add as many halved potatoes as you feel like, and eight or ten decent frankfurters: just put them on top of the seething mess, cover and let simmer again for forty minutes more so that they cook in the steam.

At the end of this time you should have enough choucroute for at least four people: fish out the pork shoulder, slice it (makes serving so much easier) and put it back in the casserole, and start in on it. If you ask me there is very little point to serving anything else with this, certainly not a salad: some people, can't think why, will insist on putting mustard on it. I would not recommend that personally, but feel free if you must.

So there we were, just the two of us with this enormous steaming mass in front of us - we made a pretty bloody good effort but Margo will definitely get her share when she comes back: even after leaving a pile with Stacey there was still enough for four.

But she won't be quite as lucky with the galette des Rois, sad to say: what we didn't eat disappeared at breakfast, at least my bit did.

Anyway, it's a grey and dismal Sunday afternoon and I am totally uninspired ... time for another coffee, then I suppose I ought to get a bit of work done. Enjoy your summer, people.


  1. the Belgian national cuisine being the only one, to my knowledge, based exclusively on the potato and beer

    Have you not been to the Czech Republic?

    I am also duty-bound to report that there is a restaurant in Schleswig called Kartoffelkeller serving nothing but, well. But you could argue that that's only a regional cuisine.

  2. "enough for four" ???? More like fourteen!

    Can sympathize with you rattling around on your own. Rosie is off flatting from today so it will be just Barry & me at home from now on. And the dog. And the cats. And the goldfish.