Lazy Fondue or O, Mon Mont d'Or!
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Special little gatherings pepper these winter months and, like freshly ground black pepper, liven our appetite for sharing life with our friends. Take a cue from my own Birthday dinner this week- a table with three delicious plates, doused with a glass of wine and shared with friends and family. My favorite was a most simple presentation of a favored cheese, studded with garlic, dampened with wine, baked, and served warm with toasted bread. We all fell under it's magical spell at our neighborhood gathering spot, Gueuleton in Nerac-Mont d’Or or Vacherin du Haut-Doubs. It's no coincidence that the owner, Benjamin Munoz's father is an expert affineur and cheese monger.

This is the simplest of winter dishes-not even a recipe really-when you are too lazy to cook but crave a warming, rich and satisfying supper.  Mais fais gaffe! This is one of those deceptively easy recipes. ‘Easy’ because there is only one really ingredient- the cheese. ‘Deceptive’ because you must buy a VERY good cheese. Here that means a Mont d’Or or Vacherin du Haut-Doubs- a French raw milk cheese which is near impossible to find outside of France. The Swiss-version Vacherin is made from heat-treated milk on the other side of the border and is exported to speciality shops. Vacherins from both sides of the border are made from winter milk only, with cows fed on hay and before they are turned out to summer Alpine pastures. Sold only between September and May the heyday for a Baked Mont d’Or is these chilly winter evenings when a hot runny cheese, a crispy baguette and a glass of good wine is enough to satisfy even the most demanding gourmand. It made total sense why I love these cheeses when  I realised that in summer they make Comte and Gruyere, respectively, from these same cow’s grass enriched milk. But since there are great local and regional cheeses being made all over the world now, why not find the best local version you can and give this simple winter treat a try. Then when you are in France on some cold winter vacation, you can try the original version.

Baked Mont d’Or

Serves 4

Time 30 minutes total; hot oven at 200’C or 425’F

Ingredients:

  • One 350gr Mont d’Or or Vacherin cheese
  • One or two cloves of garlic, peeled and split in half
  • One half glass of white wine
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • One baguette, sliced and toasted
  1. Place the Mont d’Or in it’s wooden box on a piece of parchment on a baking tin or in a clay gratin dish.
  2. Remove the lid and pierce the top several times with a knife. Push the garlic pieces into some of the holes.
  3. Pour the wine over the cheese and let it absorb into the holes.
  4. Place the pan in the hot oven at 200’C or 425’F for 20-25 minutes.
  5. Remove and place the cheese in its box onto a serving dish.
  6. Serve while very hot with the toasted bread.


 

Facades

November 27 2017

Marché Couverte Agen 1884-1970

Marché Couverte Agen 1884-1970

This autumn week is always abundantly oversaturated with food, friends, family, fetes… It’s like the new year really begins here-one very busy year ending and one yet to be born arriving. Beautiful food haunts the fleeting Insta-photograph feeds as millions of my fellow Americans set tables, arrange flowers and autumn leaves, bake endless pies to the moon, and sit down to eat together, at last. It happens once a year near my birthday (but never on it) and the hoopla and feasting is a joyous thing to witness. I just wished it was more often. Really. More a normal thing for all these folks. Maybe not a ‘too much to eat’ dinner, but a ‘let’s share some food once a week or once a month’ sort of thing. Could we start a new movement?

I don’t mean to preach. At least, not too much. The life I chose to make here in France has been one continuous long feast. But like many, I, too, need an occasional reminder and social media heads-up to be grateful. A special day to say ‘Merci’ for all the blessings of friends and family, plenty and diversity, and all the small comings and goings of a gastronomic life. I always said Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday: the extra efforts, the long-distance travel to table, the gathering of the clans. Now, I think I’d swap it for the weekly suppers with French neighbors and friends, the monthly ex-pat Spicy Cravings Club Potlucks, and the occasional lunches out in a charming village cafe with girlfriends. We all need reminding more often. We all need gratitude and cooking on a daily basis. I hope I can inspire some of you here, cajole a bit or just give you a solid recipe to try out. Shopping would be where I start. Always.

Look at this old postcard. The photograph is of the original Marche Couverte in Agen, the covered market hall. What a nostalgic reminder of when beauty and food were a daily occurrence! Inseparable. Concrete evidence that food (and thus cooking and eating) was valued so highly that a glass and iron temple was erected to its honor. It doesn’t look like that now. Demolished in 1970 by the army of young revolutionaries looking to upgrade and modernize France, a modern concrete parking structure squats over a truncated market hall with barely two dozen vendors. When built in 1884, there were 184 stalls selling locally produced food.

So why do I still shop there? To touch the past; to buy the best beef and imported charcuterie from the Pineau Freres; to celebrate the oyster season at Poisonnerie Gibaux and find foie gras and a rare truffle or two at Chez Maria; to share a glass at Gueuleton’s wine bar; to support the experienced butchers, charcuteries, cheese and fishmongers; and especially to keep the future market options varied and abundant.

In 2019, the current Marche Couverte will get a much needed face lift. A new glass facade will be imprinted with this old postcard image and the main entrance to the market will be restored to its rightful place facing the Place des Laitiers- the ancient Roman forum. Looking through these transparent layers from past to the future is part of learning the France game. Each year, I delve a bit deeper and uncover a golden nugget that helps me understand how we hold onto the past enough to enrich the future. When America makes more of its shopping experiences less like Costco and more like a French farmer’s market, maybe then I can inspire some of you to spend a bit more time shopping for a bit more beautiful cooking and eating experience. As I said once, “Shopping is Cooking!” 

So your first task- support your local, farmer, producer, CSA, or whatever food is actually bought from a real person. Keep your food money close to home. Encourage your raw milk neighbors to keep those few cows freshened. Buy small batch cheese. Bring home warm bread from the bakery. Each small thing that you do that touches another is a reward in itself. This week I bought the following at the weekend fete and market: fresh grape juice and grapes, hazelnut flour and oil, walnuts and their oil, spelt bread, prunes, cheese, chicken, carrots, apples, eggs.  I'll be making some holiday treats with these and sharing those recipes here. 

 

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November Flyway Song
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November 17 2017

Remember those sweet plaintive cries from far overhead of wide wingspan birds- geese, cranes, and storks? They haunt my many November souvenirs of France. Each fall I would write about their comings and goings as a bell that tolls the passing hours. First October. Then November. Next, deep dark December.

Camont sits on the most important European flyway that guides thousands of migrations from northern Europe to southern Spain across the Pyrenees and over the water to African winter feeding grounds. Each November I’d wake to hundreds of calling birds overhead and be stricken blue as they seemed to herald the coming cold, the darkening days. Damn that November and its foggy days.

Oh, what a little change in perspective can bring. this year I missed the migration while traveling and teaching in the US.  It was only now that I consider that the melancholia might be mine only at the end of long year and that the far above calls might be instead whoops of joy and daring aerial challenges. “ I’m taking the lead boys, move aside!” Or “Last one to Africa is a rotten egg!”

While November does end one long season of teaching, touring, and workshopping, so it begins another--a new season of planning, festivity, and gathering in at Camont. Throw in an expat Thanksgiving, a Champagne birthday feast, a Cassoulet Cooking Class or two, and a local celebration of fruit trees and orchards and you’ll see why I am changing my perspective on looking forward at the flyway instead of regretting the miles left behind. P.S. You needn’t pause in mid-flight to change your point of view.

So, I am no longer looking back on the thousands of miles of words written on this blog. You’ll notice the archives and their recipes have ‘disappeared’ to be gently replaced by new thoughts and stories here. From time to time, you, too, can fly down this new path with me as I upcycle many of those classic Gascon recipes for “The Big Cookbook Project”. Working along with Tim Clinch, photographic cohort who has been documenting Camont for nearly 20 years now, I am also looking at the past with a fresh eye for how we shop and cook now, who really cooks, how I still make the time. When I lack inspiration, I need only look at the Camont’s Windfall Harvest that Tim shot a few November’s ago. It speaks volumes of winter dishes I long to cook now- a deep ruby caramelized quince and duck stew, some tart crabapple vinegar to splash over bitter greens, and buttery apple croustades with bright sugar snow drifts across the egg-washed pastry top.

So while you think that November food might climax with turkey and stuffing, pumpkin pies and groaning tables in America, I look forward, too. To my Australian friends like Annie Smithers for Spring hope as their gardens just begin to sprout. I'll watch southern orchards blossom as I prune this year’s French winter branches back. While looking behind, it’s not such a bad idea to look a little more forward after all. Last one to 2018 is a rotten egg!

Truc*: to Caramelize Quince

Quarter and core a few unpeeled quinces, place in a terracotta dish or cast iron pan with a tight-fitting lid, add an inch of water in the bottom of the pan, heavily douse with raw sugar- about 1/2 cup per quince, place the lid on and bake at a low temperature (150'C/ 325'F) for 1- 2 hours. DO NOT STIR! The quince will turn deep red, the sugar will melt and caramelize across the fruit, the syrup from the juices will reduce and be wonderfully sticky. remove from heat, let cool and then gently lift the fruit out into a jar. Reserve any excess syrup for drinks or desserts. 

* A truc is a little trick or a tip that I learned along the way. Sometimes learned by accident, sometimes a generous gift from a Gascon cook.