Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bresse and baba

Restaurant L'Escargot Paris

First published Canberra Times 22 June 2011.
On a short visit to Paris, we walk across from our nearby hotel to the Châtelet-Les Halles district, an area that has reinvented itself over a number of centuries from shabby to chic, now housing the who’s who of restaurants.
It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and the heart of this historic precinct, the Rue Montorgueil is buzzing with locals out for brunch. It’s pretty obvious from the crowd that this is ‘the’ place to eat, shop and be seen.  
Bordering Les Halles, where the city’s old central market was located, the bustling pedestrian street of Rue Montorgueil and its surrounds have taken up the slack and is now home to many artisanal food producers.  The roots of the district have always been centred around food, housing the ‘metiers de la bouche’ the secondary food service industries that grew up servicing the old market. 
It’s a pretty lively area with buskers, street theatre and a plethora of trendy and traditional wine bars. The adjoining street of Rue Mauconseil was home to many historic theatre troupes, including that of 16th-century playwright, Jean Baptiste Racine.
Our new found taste for escargot lures us to a huge golden snail that sits majestically above the entrance to the restaurant L’Escargot, at number 38 Rue Montorgueil. This magnificent example of classic Parisian decor was opened in 1875 by the well known restaurateur Mignard. Oozing decadence, its plush velvet lounges, glistening chandeliers and etched glass provides us with a taster of its past.  We reserve a table for dinner the following night.
Coq au vin blanc
Just along the street is the famous patisserie Le Maison Stohrer. Dating back to 1730, it is one of the oldest patisseries in Paris. I buy two of its signature pastries, the puits d’amour, or the ’well of love’ and a baba au rhum. The puits d’amour is a crispy pastry filled with custard, topped with burnt toffee brittle, and the subject of another infamous Louis story. This is so light, flaky and delicious, I am lost for words. Okay, I’ll try. The brittle toffee layer cracks while the buttery, flaky layers of pastry crunch as I bite down. The warm, creamy brulee dribbles out over my hand and clothes and I am enveloped in a cloud of sweet vanilla, albeit with a messy t-shirt.
I have overdosed on my well of love and can’t contemplate eating the “baba au rhum”, so it’s left it in the bag for later. I’m sorry about that, because I’m not sure how it will fare some hours later.
On my way out of the shop, I stop to check out the gold crown embedded in the floor at the entrance and the opulent murals covering the walls by artist Paul Baudry. I’m afraid these pale into insignificance when confronted with such sweet creations. 
We walk on to my favourite part of the neighbourhood, where there is a cluster of shops dedicated to the “arts de la table”, selling catering equipment and cookware to professional chefs and cooks.  We only have time to visit Dehillerin, Simon and Mora, where the variety of cookware and pastry supplies located on multiple levels is mind-boggling. Our stop here manages to fulfil my kitchen accoutrement addiction and another suitcase, providing a welcome distraction to our imminent Paris departure. 
Bresse chickens
Further down the street we are led by our noses to a boucherie, where chickens are roasting on an outdoor rotisserie. The fat drips below onto a bed of sliced potatoes, sizzling and roasting on an open hotplate. With my well of love now nothing but a faded memory, my stomach is growling again.
I poke my head into the shop and it’s filled with meats of all descriptions, including a pig’s heads with staring eyes, an assortment of innards, pâtés and regional specialty terrines. Resisting the potatoes, I choose a contented looking Bresse chicken, resting peacefully in its refrigerated nest with head still attached, complete with feathers.
Raised in a designated area, near the small town of Bourg-en-Bresse in southeastern France, the flavour of these princely chooks is rated among the best in the world. They are appellation classified, like a good wine, and free to walk around the countryside foraging for insects and eating real food. They are dry plucked and have not been through a chlorine bath process, that many large producers use to reduce the presence of bacteria. French producers have moved away from this technique, after a dioxin scare some years ago and you will be hard pressed to find anything but free range chickens in France.  Although worth it, be prepared to pay at least double the amount for the Bresse experience.
The Bresse works particularly well in this recipe and I use most of the chicken for this dish.  The more gamey and distinctive flavour of this organic chicken, comes through against the subtlety of the winter vegetables and the soft, slightly acidic sauce. Over the years, this recipe learned from Anne Willan, has been one of my standards. You can use chicken marylands, legs or the whole chicken. Sometimes I vary it using all white winter vegetables, or carrots and broadbeans for a change of texture and colour. I have adjusted it to be a little more heart friendly by reducing the butter and cream content, trimming the fat from the chicken and using a light cream.  If you can’t source a Bresse, an organic chook is the next best thing.
Our shared dessert of Baba au Rhum, with a slug of extra rum, freshened and warmed in the microwave, matched the chook perfectly.
Serves 4
Coq au vin blanc
1 organic chicken, cut into pieces or chicken legs/marylands with bones
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp olive oil
2 leeks, sliced into 3 cm lengths, the white part only
6 french eschalots, halved
1 organic garlic clove, sliced into chunks
2 carrots, cut into 3 cm lengths
½ cup of broadbeans, blanched and peeled or peas if you prefer
bunch of thyme
1 ½ cups of dry white wine, you may not need all of this, a riesling or chardonnay
¼ cup of light pouring cream
pinch of paprika
2 tsp plain flour
2 tbsp unsalted melted butter, extra
½ tsp sea salt and pepper

Wash the chicken pieces and pat dry with paper towel. Trim the excess skin and fat. Using a large high sided frypan, about 40cm wide, heat the butter and olive oil over a medium heat. Fry the chicken, skin side down, till golden brown, then turning to do the other side. Fry for 4 to 5 minutes on each side, checking for colour. When done, remove from the pan and drain on paper towel. 
Tip away excess oil accumulated in the frypan and return the chicken to the pan. Add garlic, eschalots, leek, thyme, carrots and wine and place over medium to high heat until bubbling. Reduce heat to a low simmer and cover with a lid or foil to cook for about 30 minutes. You can cook this dish either on top of the stove in a frypan, or in a large casserole or roasting dish in a preheated 180 degree oven for the same length of time.
After 30 minutes, remove the lid from the frypan and mix in the cream, paprika and salt and pepper. Replace lid and continue to cook for approximately 20 minutes, or until the chicken is almost coming off the bone.

With a slotted spoon, carefully remove the chicken and vegetables from the sauce to a bowl and cover with foil.  Keep the sauce on the heat. At this stage if there is any excess fat on the top of the sauce, blot with paper towel or skim off.
Mix the flour and melted butter together and add this to the sauce, cooking for a further couple of minutes. Taste for seasoning and pour the sauce over the chicken and vegetables, lastly adding the broadbeans or peas.
If preparing this meal in advance, complete up until the final step where you have removed the chicken and vegetables from the sauce. When you are ready, reheat the sauce, adding the flour and butter mixture and return the chicken and vegetables to reheat through before serving.
If you prefer you can omit the flour and butter paste at the end, resulting in a thinner sauce.
This meal also looks great served at Christmas, using all white vegetables, served with creamy mashed potato, to complement an all white theme. Photos Steve Shanahan

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oysters at Harrods

First published Canberra Times 15 June 2011
I can only just reach the kitchen tabletop, which is covered with the usual seersucker cloth. Dad is home for lunch and laid out in front of him are a dozen oysters freshly harvested from the lake, buttered white bread, vinegar and pepper. With my elbows on the table, I watch him intently as he slowly and precisely seasons each oyster. His adam’s apple moves as he swallows, savouring the flavour of each slippery mollusc as it slides down. He offers me one, and I close my eyes. It tastes like I am eating the sea, swallowing gulps of water in a pounding surf. This is my first taste of oysters.
It's a far cry from the serene elegance of Harrods London Caviar House Oyster Bar where we each slide back a dozen cold, briny oysters and share a bottle of champagne. The rococo style decor of the Fish Hall with its real-life fish sculpture that adorns the wall, attracts curious customers. Some turn up their noses in disgust at the briny and fishy odour, while others make it a photo opportunity. The entertainment only intensifies this decadent experience for us.  
Our bubbly Spanish waitress suggests we each go with a mixed half dozen to start with, then choose our favourites for the next half dozen. She carefully selects our oysters, smelling each one before she expertly shucks and plates them.  They are presented to us neatly nestled in their pearly shells, accompanied by a lemon quarter enrobed in muslin and a flute of lively, citrusy champagne.
Our mixed half dozen includes;  Fines de Claires -  cultivated in a ‘claire’ at low stock density and high salinity levels; the Mediterranean -  a rock  oyster from Montpelier; Portland Royals -  large rock oysters grown in Portland, Dorset along with the smaller Princesses; and the Loch Ryan, a native from Scotland.  I go with the Loch Ryan for its distinctive, mineral and salty flavours.  The flavour difference between oysters is surprising; some taste of seaweed and mermaids while others are just plain salty.
Two dressing options are provided, the traditional French Shallot dressing or the classic zingy Japanese style dressing, reminding us of another memorable oyster experience at our own Tetsuya’s restaurant.  
In my observation, oyster eaters (the human, not the bird variety) fall into two categories. There are those that slide them back quickly, straight from the shell, sucking out the juice; and those that treat them like a good wine, a slight chew, aerating to allow the flavours to cross the palate, and then swallow. The distinction also applies to the choice of dressing, with many “purists” believing them an unnecessary accoutrement. The other camp will immediately reach for anything from lemon and pepper to soy, wasabi, Tabasco or whatever; the world is their oyster. For oyster novices, a dressing can help overcome the squeam factor by providing a welcome flavour distraction to a texture that can be challenging. 
Speaking of squeam and the perils of oyster-eating, I am reminded of a birthday celebration dinner at a Canberra restaurant for our daughter some years back. She bravely tries an oyster for the first time and it contrives to wrap itself around her braces like some sort of sea monster. Horrified at the taste and texture, she spends much of the rest of the evening removing the sinew from her teeth and her expensive meal from her stomach. She has not tried one since.
Back in Paris a few days earlier, on a quest for an oyster meal, we seek out the bistro Le Rocher du Cancale at number 78 Rue Montorgueil. An interesting menu is displayed on the window, that includes Cancale oysters, but disappointment rules when we find it is closed tonight.  Our oyster feast will have to wait until we reach London.

The bistro takes its name from the French seaside resort of Cancale, noted for its oyster production, dating back to Roman times. Opened in 1846, this traditional bistro is one of Paris’s oldest, famous for its neo-classical décor and delicately carved facade that includes a wooden sculpture that depicts oysters growing on rocks. The interior walls are decorated with paintings by Paul Gavarni, which he gradually painted each time he came in for lunch. 

An earlier and swankier rendition of this restaurant, located at number 59, was a favourite rendezvous of the Parisian elite, including Balzac, who came here for its specialty oysters. Back then, the Rue Montorgueil was the terminus for carts that hauled shellfish from the north coast to Paris, and Cancale oysters were, and remain among the best. The horses that drew the carts from the coast were exchanged with others at rest points along the way, to ensure the oysters arrived fresh.   

With elbows on the bar, and the detritus of our oyster feast in front of us, I sink deeper into the soft leather of the bar stool. I have sated the craving that had been left disappointingly unsatisfied by Cancale’s and I am reminded of a seersucker covered kitchen table, my dad and my first revelatory taste of oysters. Reality returns as Harrods starts mobilising shoppers for its evening closing and the bubbly waitress clears the dishes. But I have swallowed the sea.
Shallot dressing
2 french shallots, finely chopped
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Combine all ingredients and spoon over oysters. 

Tets’ dressing
Adapted from the book Tetsuya’s
1 tsp finely grated ginger
60ml rice wine vinegar
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
90ml grapeseed oil
½ tsp fresh lemon juice
¼ red onion, chopped finely
1 tbsp chopped fresh chives
Whisk together the ginger, vinegar, sugar, soy, oils and lemon juice or shake them in a screw-top jar. Add the red onion. When ready to serve spoon half the dressing over the oysters and put the rest into a small bowl for the table.  Sprinkle with the chives and serve.  Photos by Steve Shanahan

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Facing phobias in Alsace - Snails

First published Canberra Times 8 June 2011
Auberge de la Huhnelmuhle feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but it’s actually only a few minutes drive from our house. We spot this inviting looking restaurant from the track that leads to the ruins of Ortenbourg and Ramstein Chateaux that tower over the picturesque village of Scherwiller. We make a plan to eat there before our holiday is over. The Auberge is located on the ancient Route du Sel, once a stopover for Roman salt merchants on their way to the Rhine River.

The Auberge is part of an old, double-storey Alsatian farm house located on the banks of a small stream. The sound of rushing water comes from canal diversions running around the farm buildings and provides a clue that this property had a former life as a mill.

We arrive without a booking and join another couple who are seated on the terrace at a table overlooking the stream. The sun is close to setting and a golden, hazy glow settles over the forest, paddocks and vines that surround us. We drink in this gorgeous vista, along with an Alsatian Cremant, embedding it as a mellow memory to take home with us to Australia. The calm beauty of the place only highlights the short time we have left of our holiday in Alsace.

We are greeted warmly by Madame Schmitt, who explains in French and German that she is the owner of the establishment and the surrounding vineyard, Domain Jean-Paul Schmitt. She gives us menus and tells us that the specialty of the house is Carp fritters. We are strangely excited by the unexpected prospect of fish and frites on a Friday night even if it is oversized goldfish.

Two of my food dreads are on the menu tonight and confronting my phobias head on, we order Escargots a l’Alsacienne and Carp Fritters to share. Before this, I had only encountered rubbery, flavourless snails in faux French restaurants and dead carp on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, smelly victims of sport fishing.

More customers arrive and with the sun now setting we decide to linger on the terrace for our aperitif and entree. Our aperitif is a Cremant, the light and refreshing bubbly, brewed in Alsace, followed by a Muscat with snails, and finally a bottle of Schmitt’s Pinot Gris with the main. Madame Schmitt appears at our table to say she is finishing for the evening and her daughter will look after us, she wishes us au revoir and bon appetit. This friendly and personal touch is one that will have us return.

The snails arrive in a bubbling lava mixture of oil, garlic and herb butter, nestled in their special ceramic dish. The inviting smell of garlic beckons us and we dip our forks in to extract these tasty little morsels. These molluscs are like nothing I’ve had before, tender and succulent with a prawn-like texture bathed in rich French butter. Before we realise it, we’re mopping up the remnants of garlicky butter with fresh, crunchy bread.

As the sun sinks lower and the view becomes even more impossibly spectacular, the falling temperature signals our move inside. We are surprised at how full the restaurant is now and we are shown to a cosy table in the corner. The interior is traditionally timber-lined, with hefty exposed beams spanning its width. The large open fire in the corner looks big enough to manage the freezing winters that are dealt out here.

Our Carp fritters arrive on a large shared plate atop a warming tray, reminiscent of Swiss and German fare. The flavour of the Carp, with its three dipping sauces, is unexpectedly un-fishy, surrounded by a light and crunchy beer batter. This meal is essentially gourmet fish and potatoes, but very tasty and beautifully presented.

Our grand finale, a shared Souffle au Grand Marnier, was a perfect rendering of that pillow soft, eggy puffiness balanced by a hint of orange liquor. The meal was topped off with surprisingly good coffee, unusual in our experience here.

The food, as we expected, is traditional Alsatian, well presented and beautifully and sensitively cooked. It’s dipped in a spectacularly beautiful setting and accompanied by confident and personal but non-pretentious service. The other highlight for me was squashing two food phobias in one fell swoop.

The French reportedly consume approximately 40 000 tons of escargot each year, making them the world's largest consumers of snails in the world. Much of this is imported, as the French are currently unable to produce enough domestically to meet the demand. Consumption is particularly high during festive times, as escargot is considered a delicacy.

Snail meat is available in a number of ways, fresh, frozen or tinned. It is more difficult to obtain fresh snails in Australia and they require extensive preparation to be table ready. Frozen and tinned are ready to bake without the requirement for further processing.

If you decide to tackle your phobias and munch on a snail, there are a number of online companies or delicatessens selling escargot in Australia. Don’t be tempted by our shelled friends from the garden as they can contain toxins.

Serves 2

Escargots a l’Alsacienne

80g soft, unsalted butter
2 fillets of anchovies, mashed (optional)
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
half a bunch of parsley, finely chopped
50ml vegetable stock
100ml dry white wine
1 tin of snails, drained, usually contains about 2 dozen per tin
½ tspn pastis (optional)
½ tspn lemon juice
pinch of salt
ground black pepper

Combine the butter, anchovies, garlic, parsley, lemon juice, pastis, salt and pepper and mix well. Flatten the mixture between two sheets of baking paper and chill until hardened.

Preheat the oven to 200C.

Rinse the snails in a couple of changes of fresh water and drain. Combine the vegetable stock, wine and drained snails and simmer for 10 minutes and drain.

If you don’t have a traditional snail dish, arrange half the snails each in two small gratin dishes and top each with half of the chilled butter mixture.

Bake for about 6 minutes in the oven or until snails are warm and the butter is melted and golden on the top.

Recipe adapted from the book, Cuisiner avec la poterie de Soufflenheim, Colmar.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Munster in the fridge

First published Canberra Times 1 June 2011

We arrive at our house exchange in Chatenois in Alsace feeling pretty strung out after a series of near misses on the Paris to Strasbourg rail leg. We drop our bags and check out what is to be our new home for the next few months. I open the fridge and am knocked sideways by an alarming smell of near-nuclear intensity that explodes into the house. We think something has died in there. What we don’t know is that we have a Munster in the fridge.

The odour rushes past us, up the stairs, and we hear shrill accusation and counter accusation of flatulence from our kids who have gone up to unpack. Everyone converges on the kitchen to investigate.

I’m searching for the offending item in the fridge and thinking unbelievably smelly socks, but the only thing in there is a seemingly innocent round of cheese in a plastic container. I’m begged not to open the container in the house, but to take the “thing” outside and leave it there. Smugly pleased that I have identified this smelly perpetrator, the cheese sits outside for a few days until garbage collection day. For some time afterwards, each time the fridge is opened, a pungent reminder radiates into the kitchen. We enter the world of Munster cheese.

There is no doubt that Munster is formidable, described as having a farmyard aroma, and is not for the feint hearted. It’s taken us some months to get beyond its teenage-boys-dirty-socks pungency to truly appreciate this washed rind cheese, seeking it out wherever we can. Don’t let the smell discourage you. This is a truly delicious cheese.

To have a closer look at the production process, we contact the Ferme du Saesserle dairy in Breitenbach and arrange to rendezvous at Auberge Reid, a farm inn, located in Erstein, six kilometres from the town of Munster, high above the Munster Valley. We arrive at the agreed time, and again as a result of our poor French, find we are a day too early for the cheese-making. However, by fluke, the Auberge is celebrating the Transhumance festival and we are invited to stay for the festivities.

Le Sonneurs
 Transhumance is the celebration of the yearly migration of the dairy herd from the valley to graze the higher mountain spring pastures. The locals dress in traditional garb and walk with the herd up the road, stopping along the way to perform rituals that date back to antiquity.

Synchronised bell ringing by the well-drilled “Sonneurs” is followed by a trio of mountain horn players who herald the herd’s arrival and departure for the next waypoint on their journey up the mountain. The cows are resplendent, wearing large bells on decorated leather straps around their necks. Festivities at our Auberge ramp up at the arrival of the herd. The
accordion band swings into jaunty polkas and waltzes and icy cold beer and Alsatian wine flows to wash down mountains of bredzel and kugelhopf.

With the oompah music, beer, bredzels and a pink-cheeked boy standing next to me wearing lederhosen, I’m having trouble believing I am in France instead of Germany or Switzerland.

A solo horn player then moves up into the centre of the herd and plays a call and response with the other two horns. The cows lift their heads and appear to understand that their move for the next higher pasture has been announced.

Munster cheese has been made in Alsace since the Middle Ages, initially by monks who were prohibited from eating meat for long periods of time. It must have been a very fragrant environment, with the combination of unbathed monks, dung and the pungent aromas of Munster cheese making contained within the cloistered walls. Without thermometers, cheese-making was a pretty hit and miss affair. Temperature was measured by sticking a finger into the warm milk which introduced many rogue bacteria into the process.

Traditional Munster is made in Alsace by only a handful of dairies that still use raw milk and follow a prescribed series of steps. Its production centre is the pretty village of Munster, set amid pastures and vineyards. The cheese is rubbed by hand with a solution of rock-salt and water to develop the growth of bacteria, giving a strong flavour to the cheese and preventing mould from forming. The young Munsters are then transferred into caves next to old Munsters, and every second day they are washed and brushed.

A young Munster cheese has a thin but firm, pinkish-red rind with white paste. As it matures the rind turns to a darker russet colour with a deep straw-coloured interior. The interior is soft and supple filled with small holes, and as it matures the paste becomes creamy in texture. The maturation time is usually two to three months.

Certain Munsters are protected origin designation cheeses, meaning that they must be made by dairies in a particular way to be labelled and sold as Munster. By protecting these Munsters, it is hoped that the culinary heritage of the cheese will be preserved for generations to come. Traditional Alsatian Munster should not be confused with cheese varieties with similar names, such as muenster, adapted for milder tastes and made in other parts of the world.

We have tried Munster in a number of ways. It is commonly sprinkled on Tarte Flambée, and is an important ingredient in the Tourte de la Vallée, a traditional Munster pork and veal pie. It’s also used in a number of tarts and commonly added to Alsatian potato dishes. While these are all tasty and unique, they are very heavy and rich.

For me, I believe that the flavour of Munster is best enjoyed when served simply - on a cheese platter and sprinkled with cumin seeds. It also adds another dimension to a spinach salad or added to hot pasta, but always accompanied by a fruity Gewürztraminer

Munster cheese is available through a number of online suppliers in Australia; just ensure you order Munster from Alsace.

Photos by Steve Shanahan