Sunday, 24 January 2010

Munster Cheese & Gewürztraminer Wine: a perfect match

Wine and food matching never excites as much debate as when the food in question is cheese.  It is true that a corner of mousetrap or a wedge of supermarket Brie will take the rough edges off a glass of plonky red but great cheese deserves decent wine and the most pleasurable combination will often be with a white (not to mention a beer, cider, sherry & port, or the occasional spirit).  

The problem in red wine is often the tannin which can clash with the fat in cheese, particularly the soft varieties.  And, the salt in cheese goes very well with the naturally higher acidity found in most whites.
The French especially have a tendency to serve their best red wines with the cheese and many a fragile mature red Burgundy or thin old Claret is laid waste by a board groaning and reeking with impossibly strong, runny, salty, acidic cheeses of which there are hundreds in France.  Far better really to serve just one cheese in perfect condition and match it with the appropriate wine.  And if in doubt about
which wine then sometimes local goes with local.  In this case,  Munster cheese from Alsace matched with white Alsatian Gewürztraminer.

Munster is a strong, 'wet rind', pooey cheese which demolishes most wines in its path.  Here however, the highish alcohol, luscious texture, residual sugar and very pronounced flavour of the wine (think lychees, rosewater, and a bag full of makeup) manages to match the cheese and create some harmony in spite of the seeming odds.

Occasionally Munster impregnated with cumin is sold.  This centuries-old practice came about as an aid to digestion (that well known digestif Kümmel is based on cumin) and again the aromatic spice matches the perfume of the wine (gewürz actually means spice in German) and the monster pong of the cheese.  Caraway seeds served separately are also traditional.  I discovered this at that Alsatian temple of gastronomy, l'Auberge de l'Ill, where the cheese course was made up of a plate of Munster in various guises including mini soufflé, mini croque monsieur, mini aumônière, fresh, solid and runny, and in the middle a bowl of caraway seeds, and on the side, a glass of fragrant, slightly sweet, vendanges tardives (late harvest),  Gewürz.  Perfect.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Nice Apple Tart (Aumônière aux Pommes Flambée)

I'm a sucker for table-side preparation in a restaurant and the rare times I see "flambée" mentioned on a menu I invariably choose the associated dish.  In Paris, at the great brasseries like La Coupole and Terminus Nord, I always have crêpes Suzette  to give the waiter a chance to show off his pyrotechnic skills.  Similarly, I enjoy raw steak tartare as, even if they only very rarely chop the beef (or horse if you're lucky) in front of you these days, they still (in France at least) blend in the raw egg yolk, Dijon mustard, chopped shallots, capers and cornichons, condiments and seasonings with a flourish at the table and ask you how daring you want to be with the tabasco.

In this simple little restaurant in Nice I spotted aumônière aux pommes  on the menu followed by the magic word flambée so I had to have it.  Aumônière is an old word for purse (the type one would have tied to one's belt and where we get the words alms and almoner) and here represents the  pastry pouch holding the baked apple slices (and vanilla ice cream).  The waiter poured Calvados over the dish and then lit it with his little Bic lighter.  Notice in the short video below his forced laughter at my attempt at jocular engagement with him...
My French friend Claire points out that a true aumônière is made from pancakes and is therefore soft and bundles up like an oldfashioned purse. It's not clear to me however how one would tie it up at the top.  The chef here has used (Tunisian)  feuille de brik pastry which one can buy in packs of a dozen sheets from the supermarket rather like one can buy (Greek or Turkish) filo.  It's less brittle than filo though and can be merely moistened and shaped in a bowl before spending a few minutes in the oven.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Porchetta Pork Out

On a recent trip to Nice I was struck  by the Italian influence on local food. There are shops solely dedicated to selling handmade pasta. Or market stalls just selling tomatoes in various degrees of sun-induced dryness.  Pizza and its variants is everywhere and not just in restaurants; it is quintessential street food, as in Italy, and I saw people eating triangles of it whilst walking around, browsing in the markets, or sitting down at improvised little temporary, outdoor, snack bars.  The French are normally a bit more formal and parochial in their eating habits (I pretend the only people patronising all those McDonald's are foreign tourists) and I found this approach refreshing.

But having explored the town including its most magnificent square, named after Garibaldi who was a local, I recalled that Nice and its surrounding province was only incorporated into the French Republic in 1860 when Italy was unified.  Before that, Nice was part of the kingdom of Savoy which included Turin.  And much of the pizza I saw being eaten was actually pissaladière, a Provençal variant of the Neapolitan dish.
On further exploration I learned that gnocchi are actually Niçois and often accompany daube de boeuf, a Provençal take on boeuf bourguignonne.  Which is great because one has an excuse to sprinkle grated Parmesan all over one's plate.                                       
Much as the French love charcuterie they are rivalled, if not beaten, by the Italians with their vast range of salume.  In the narrow alleys of le vieux Nice I came across this glass cabinet containing two whole pigs bearing the label porchetta.  I couldn't believe my eyes.  The pigs had been completly boned out (save the head), then restuffed with meat, offal (including plenty of tripe) and herbs.  It was being sold as a kind of terrine.  But unlike many terrines, you could actually see the constituent parts.           Back at home for dinner, the herbs turned out to be (wild) fennel and the whole thing was highly seasoned, and dryish and crumbly rather than moist and fatty.  Delicious.  I often serve white wine with pork terrines, patés and rillettes (demi-sec Vouvray is good) but here a robust albeit rustic red was in order and we sunk a bottle of Côtes du Rhône.  A Barbera or Bardolino would have been more appropriate, I guess, but you can't expect the French to sell Italian wine, can you?  Even if they are Nice French.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Breakfast with a Bite

In our family we traditionally have smoked salmon & scrambled eggs for breakfast on Christmas Day (and I invariably serve this to French guests whenever they are staying as they find it novel and exotic... but less challenging than kippers or Full English).    Buck's Fizz is de rigueur to wash it all down.  On this particular occasion the supermarket-supplied ingredients all lacked impact. But, after a root around in the 'fridge for inspiration, a large splash of Campari came to the rescue for the Buck's Fizz and added bitterness and interest (and a lovely, innocent-looking grenadine hue) 
And to improve the slightly bland eggs and under-smoked salmon I found some little green peppers from Galicia in Spain, pimientos de Padrón.  Eating these is a bit like Russian roulette as the occasional one will be fatally fiery.  It's impossible to tell from their appearance which are which.  They need some hard frying in hot olive oil and then a sprinkling of sea salt.  They're often served as tapas and lend themselves to being eaten by hand by their little stalks.  They need something cold and wet to counteract any palate pyrotechnics and are usually accompanied in bars by a copita of chilled Manzanilla or Fino Sherry. But here, the grown up fizzy OJ was just the ticket...;     it was breakfast, after all.