Saturday, December 8, 2012

Definitely NOT the Summer Of Love ...

It's a sad commentary on the times in which we live that some poor soul apparently got here by googling "chaussée aux moines oven baked". For one thing who, apart from the French, could possibly have heard of "Chaussée aux Moines", that sort of industrial "dairy" product (in the sense that casein shirt-buttons could accurately be classified as such) with aspirations to cheesiness and a label, probably more nutritious than its contents, depicting a jolly well-fed monk about to bite into a hunk of creamy glistening goodness? With a tankard of foaming ale to hand. Possibly to drown it, should it decide to fight back. (Truth in advertising standards oblige me to state that the "ale" is probably, indeed, piss.)

For another, who in their right mind would consider sticking the damn stuff in the oven? At worst, it could explode: the best you could hope for would be melt-down, which still leaves you with a layer of yellowish slime on the bottom of the oven tray. And a sort of grayish crôute, stuck to the walls of the oven. And a stinky kitchen.

I suppose that if you had a none-too-bright and not too picky dog they might help you out with it, but I can't see the point myself. If you want melted plastic there are other, easier ways of getting it. On the other hand, a reblochon (which actually means "twice-milked") is marvelous in a tartiflette - I'll get onto that in a bit - and a vacherin has to be smelled to be believed.

Because it seems that back in the day the Savoyard tenant farmers were taxed on the milk their herds produced, as seems more or less fair and reasonable, or at least contractual. But being peasants they tended not to agree with this concept of paying someone else if it was neither necessary nor avoidable, so rather than milking the cows dry they would do a first milking, pay the owner on the results, and then do a second milking later on when he'd buggered off - this second milking giving something much richer in cream, and the crafty sods would use this to make their own cheese. Which was, given the circumstances, called a "reblochon".

You'd think that over the years the farm-owners would have got wise to this little ruse, but it's a tribute to the legendary stupidity of the Savoyards that apparently this was not the case, and the custom went on for centuries. (I guess that the whey from the first milking went on to become "Chaussée aux Moines", but I could be wrong. And would definitely be digressing.) Or maybe the owners were smarter than they seemed, saw no reason to make waves, and just factored this circumstance into the price. Which would have course have meant that an honest tenant would be penalised but that's a purely hypothetical situation as "honest" and "peasant" are kind of antithetical.

In any case a tartiflette can be a wonderful thing. In its simplest, and best, incarnation, it's nowt but cubes or slices of potato mixed with fried lardons and some finely chopped onion, all of which get stuck into a large gratin dish, covered with cream, and then get a reblochon cheese, cut in half, stuck on top with the cut side down before going into the oven for an hour. After which the potatoes are soft and melting, the cheese has luxuriantly dribbled into them, and there is a crispy crust which you may, if you wish (and some people really really like this) nibble on.

You could probably do some greens to go with that, if you wish, but let me warn you that no-one will touch them. I know, I've tried. Oh, don't even think of trying to do that with a camembert, or a brie. Won't. Work.

As for the vacherin, or Mont d'Or as they tend to call it around here, it's a soft cheese that's plonked into a round mould made from pine, once it's old enough to actually have some sort of self-respect and a crust to hold itself together, and then left to fester in isolated spots. As it does this the guts actually turn back into a creamy blend and the thin crust distorts until it looks like it's got a case of elephantiasis compounded with acne, at which point a French-person would stick it, still in its little pine box, into the oven until it's hot and runny, then spoon it out over potatoes or something and eat it like a fondue. You really should try that, if ever you get a chance.

Whatever, just to really annoy me it started snowing again today, half-way through the afternoon. And the in Chambéry, that turned to vicious sleet, just so that the roads go icy. Which made for a long slow trip back home tonight: the sleet had turned to abundant rain so I (foolishly) decided to take the nationale, only to come up behind someone who had apparently decided that the speed limit, in times of snow, was 40kph when the road was clear, and that it was a good idea to start slowing down for traffic lights about 2km away.

And then, approaching Saint-Pierre, it turned out that it was not raining but still snowing, and just to add to my pleasure the snow-ploughs were all either tucked up in the warm with a note from their mothers, or out doing anything but get rid of the snow in our street. If I never see that white stuff again, it will not be too soon.

Anyway, our favourite daughter has apparently made known her desires for food when she and Tony turn up in a couple of days: hot, filling French peasant grub. If I manage to find a decent bit of basse-côte tomorrow I suppose that, after marinating in wine and vinegar and garlic and shallots for a few days, we could eat boeuf batellerie (that's "bargee's beef", if you prefer) in the weekend. I'm pretty sure there are still some anchovies in the fridge, for the sauce.

And I'm given to understand that almost any dessert I care to make will be eagerly eaten, so I guess clafouti and tarte tatin will be committed, and as our neurotic potted lemon tree has blessed us with two ripe lemons just maybe lemon meringue pie will be on the menu too. Although I have a vague memory of a rustic lemon tart from Jacques Pepin, maybe I should go look that up. Provided it involves a cooked custard Margo will eat it.

Right, so I braved Carrefour in December yesterday (actually got in and out without killing anyone, which took a lot of restraint) and found that meat, which has been duly smeared with crushed garlic and chopped parsley, placed on a bed of chopped onions and thyme, and is now sitting there awash in red wine, vinegar and olive oil. Turn it tonight I guess, and then in a day or two it goes into the little sauteuse with the strained marinade, gets brought to a slow simmer, then covered and sits on the stove-top for three hours or so.

At the end of that time my cook-book tells me sternly that all the liquid will have been absorbed or evaporated (and if this is not the case I must be doing something wrong) and that I should remove the meat and put it under tinfoil (to avert the mind-control rays from the black UN helicopters, I suppose) in the oven whilst I reduce a half-bottle of red to sod-all, with some shallots. And when that's done the sauce gets enriched with some of the anchovy butter I just happen to have lying around, and poured over the meat. That sounds pretty good to me, either with jacket potatoes as suggested, or maybe a creamy gratin dauphinois.

So I was chatting with my favourite camionneur again, the weedy red-headed guy (and from now on, when I refer to WRG, you'll know who I mean), swapping recipes as one will and talking about suitable meals for the season, and I happened to mention that I planned on doing a cassoulet in that big German earthenware pot I have. "So", says WRG, "in the stove? Bitch on electricity." "Not at all", I replied, "for I happen to have an old wood-burner in the kitchen, came with the house". "Pute!", he said, "I went out and bought one brand new! Cost an arm and a leg, being cast-iron, but worth every cent, the steel ones are shit."

From whence the conversation turned to pots and pans, and how Teflon is crap and toxic to boot, and there's nowt better than stainless steel. I got incredibly jealous as the guy apparently acquired a collection of professional  stainless steel cookware from various family members. Turns out he actually trained as a patissier, which I suppose just goes to show.

Oh, and I would just like to say that in my opinion, 40cm of snow is at least 39cm too many. Took the train in on Friday - luckily enough, as is turned out - under a clear blue sky, but as luck would have it about 10:30 this white soggy stuff started falling, and just never stopped. So by six that evening Chambéry was in total lockdown as lorries and cars careened off the roads: luckily the buses were still running, and the SNCF has not yet learnt that the wrong type of snow can stop a train so they too were, if not actually on time, at least going from A to B. B being, in my case, St Pierre, where I trudged up the hill to get home as conditions were certainly too foul for Margo to think about coming down to pick me up, grateful for the small mercies like the snow having stopped for a bit.

Then it started up again, great soft fat flakes drifting down, and I do have to admit that it's kind of magical. There's no sky, it's like you're inside a soft bowl of light for outside it was indeed almost as bright as day, and the only sound is the susurration as the snow falls. And the odd obscene cry as someone else finds themselves in a ditch, but let's pass that one over in silence.

And so this morning I woke, bright and early (well, not really bright because the room was in fact extremely dim, due to the velux being covered by a thick layer of snow, but it was 8am which, for a Saturday, I for one am inclined to call "early") to find the house surrounded by the aforementioned 40cm or so of snow. The guy with the snowplough had been busy for some time for the roads were clear, unfortunately I was not as grateful as I could have been because he had managed to bank great mounds of snow up against the shutters on the door onto the street so not only was I wrathful and wished to smite him, I'm afraid I swore. A bit.

But the sky was blue and sunny as I trudged down to the car with the snow shovel, and carved a couple of tracks from car to road: exercise I could happily have forgone were it not for the fact that, fairly obviously, we had not been able to do the grocery shopping Friday night and were in dire need of wine and coffee, at a minimum.

When I did finally get to the market it was mostly deserted, which is normally a Good Thing but sad to say it wasn't only the customers that were lacking, half the stall-holders hadn't shown up either, which is a bit of a bugger. Still, I managed to find some more grenaille, which is always good, and some pain bio (which turned out, as will happen, to be very earnest and good-intentioned but, sad to say, rather on the heavy side) and got out before it started snowing seriously again.

At which point it was off to Carrefour, where I almost lost it. Not so much trudging around the aisles, full of happy couples searching for foie gras and oysters, without which Christmas would not be complete, just the petty small-mindedness: so they have these express DIY checkouts at Carrefour, only hiccup is that the rule is no shopping trolleys. Fair enough. And so  the family in front of me at the line have a trolley, piled high with crap: they send the kids off to get little shopping baskets, into which they distribute the loot. And get rid of the trolley. Which ran over my foot as they did so, but the witch did apologize so I guess that's OK then. And then, with their three or four overflowing baskets, they go through the "express" checkout.

I mean, you have to wonder what the point of the exercise was. If it was to piss everyone off, it was a success. Didn't seem to worry them though, which I suppose just goes to show that there are small-minded mean-spirited little twats everywhere. You do not have a monopoly on those, I'm afraid.

Leave you with this happy poetical thought, I guess most of you know it anyway:

Blood on the staircase
Blood on the mat
Christopher Robin's
Castrated the cat

1 comment:

  1. whilst I reduce a half-bottle of red to sod-all

    Years of practice there.