This Christmas I unwrapped lovely gifts from family and friends. On New Year’s Eve I wrapped up a lovely year of fabulous foodie adventures. France, Greece, and New York City were, by far, at the top of my food chain but anywhere and everywhere, including the Granite State, have all the ingredients for wow-in-your-mouth memories, if only you’re determined to seek them.
I’d like to share the standouts of 2014 over the next several weeks and how they influenced my appreciation for fine food in general and/or techniques in the kitchen.
Never in my wildest dreams could I have predicted traveling to Lyon, Europe’s culinary mecca, twice in 2014 but our younger daughter’s semester abroad in nearby Grenoble and a subsequent Viking River Cruise through the south of France gave me handy excuses for dual pilgrimages in January and April.
Situated in southeastern France, between Paris and Marseilles, at the crux of the Rhône and Saône rivers, this historic, architecturally rich city of about 2 million was largely known for silk weaving for well over 300 years until disease decimated the silkworm population in the 19th century. While vestiges of the industry remain, Hermes and Marc Rozier among them, Lyon’s No. 2 ranking in the nation’s economy is all about international finance and high-tech and – I gotta believe – its gastronomic reputation. That’s why this Yankee crossed the pond. The city boasts 14 Michelin rated restaurants, among them 3-star Paul Bocuse, and 2-star Mere Brazier, both of which I’ve had the pleasure of dining. (I’ll gladly howl accolades about those monuments to French morsels in a future edition of “Barking Tomato.”)
If you stick with the “pilgrimage” theme, and contemplate the thought that food shopping in just about every market, every bakery, every restaurant, and every corner store in this city of 18 square miles is akin to a religious experience, THAT is Lyon. The artisan breads. The cheeses, local and too many to count. The finest mustard. Produce? Shallots the size of your fist. Mushrooms, Morel and Chanterelles by the basket full. And the pastries, Mon Dieu!
The most grand cathedral of markets is the famed Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, so named for the most famous chef of all, French or otherwise. Think Mall of New Hampshire with food and only food sold in every store. This morning’s seafood catch in one shop with the one next door featuring fresh chickens from Bresse, well reputed to be the finest poultry in the world. No less than three cheesemongers, likewise butchers, bakers, produce stands, specialty shops serving ornate delicacies from roasted peppers stuffed with eggplant to every conceivable olive variety available in France and preserved in myriad ways – 60 stalls in total. And those selling all this mouthwatering merchandise, as passionate as those buying it.
I planned on staying a few hours at Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse but stayed far, far longer. Notebook and camera in hand, I documented the cheeses I sampled including a triple creme cow’s milk from Alain Martinet – as fluffy as its name and aromatic as fresh cut grass; the finely cured hams bearing the name of every village in a 100 mile radius, each with its own distinct flavor although too subtle for me to distinguish, which absolutely roiled the gentleman behind the counter; the mind-boggling number and combination of terrines and pates on display as beautiful as any museum exhibit and as seductive. Need I bother mentioning wine? As plentiful as soda and almost as cheap. For the good stuff!
I’d like to say my husband, Gordon, pulled me out of that first visit to the holy grail of markets kicking and screaming but frankly, I was ready to leave. The sensory overload became unnerving. A case of culinary culture shock. I needed time to read my notes, study the photographs, digest the experience and figure out just what it meant in terms of my future foodie path. After some prayer and rumination – “God, will I ever measure up to a Francophile in the kitchen?” – the trip to Lyon energized my inner gourmand. Here’s the zest:
1. Honor Thy Food. Weird as it may sound to the “western” mindset, one that largely opts for quantity over quality, fast/processed over slow/fresh, cheap over value, the idea of honoring or revering those foods you prepare for sustenance may seem outside the norm but I would argue that it was once the norm and should remain so. Food appreciation is the first step to foodie fulfillment. While you don’t need a trip to France to begin this process, I found being submerged in a culture that honors food so profoundly vastly reaffirmed the intuition I felt years ago when my “romance” for all things culinary began. Additionally, it gave me more patience and the confidence to experiment with even more complex or time consuming cooking techniques without fear of failure.
2. Artist Appreciation. Much of what we eat is prepared through mechanic automation in manufacturing facilities around the world. In turn, our consumption is, likewise, mechanical and emotionally disconnected from any personal relationship with what we put in our mouths. We merely provide another stage in the process, one that ultimately ends up at the sewage treatment plant. On the other hand, when you hear phrases like, home cooked meal, for example, all kinds of associations may come to mind i.e. memories of childhood, your grandmother, the taste of her special meat balls made from scratch with lots of TLC. Those meat balls took a lot of ingredients and a long time to make; those were happy times around the Sunday dinner table with family and friends back in the hood. My point? There was an art to making those meatballs; your grandmother was the artist and you appreciated her work. Imagine how different our perceptions of eating might be if we included a few more artists on the grocery list, people whose passion, brilliance, education, and sacrifice in creating an edible masterpiece were part of our everyday lives, enriching us mind, body, and soul. I think eating would be a lot less sterile and a lot more enjoyable. I’m only sorry it took a trip to Les Halles Paul Bocuse, in all its visual gourmet splendor, for me to realize this basic truth: food artisans and their work are everywhere and in abundance, from the country store nearby to the produce stand, local bakeries, specialty shops, and health food stores.
3. Pass the cheese. Pass the cheddar, pass the Monterey Jack, pass the provolone, for the love of God, pass the American. Pass by all the tired, worn out, processed flavors of plastic – I mean, cheese – that you’ve eaten your whole life and live a little. Any decent grocery store today has a cheese section with imported varieties. Hopefully, some small- batch possibilities. Definitely try a wedge of creamy, soft French camembert or brie with a baguette of crusty bread. Whole Foods has a fab triple crème from Herve Mons called St. Nuage. (The translation means cloud and it’s like eating one.) Despite the impression my trip to Lyon may give, France hasn’t cornered the fromage market. There’s lots of interesting picks from Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. I’ve grown particularly fond of sheep’s milk cheese from Spain. What’s the worst that could happen? You hate it, spit it out, and are out $10? Imagine, then, the bliss of falling in love with a complete stranger.
4. Let me eat cake. And tarte aux pralines. Historians today submit that Marie Antoinette most likely did not utter those famous words before losing her head in 1793 to revolutionists at the age of 37. Despite her lavish spending and lifestyle, she often gave charitably to the poor. So, in my own little perverse revisionist history, I’d like to think that maybe, just maybe, she would be generous enough to share the crown jewel of Lyon’s bakeries should her subjects be lacking bread. Tarte aux pralines is the city’s signature sweet; beautiful to behold with its lush rouge colour and luxurious richness on the tongue. Candied pralines (almonds) mixed with decadent heavy cream give it that awesome red hue then poured into a French fluted tarte shell of buttery, flaky yum. After eating it – and eating it – and helplessly falling in love, I fretted, ‘How can I go back to America without you?’ Well, that’s what recipes are for so as soon as I got home I searched the Internet until I found an authentic Lyonnaise one that I tweaked for our measurement system. I was initially shocked at how few the ingredients were for such an elegant and sophisticated result. The directions, however, were quite another matter (as you will see.) Mon cher, tarte aux pralines, is the perfect analogy for my trip to Lyon, if not my life. Someone as simple as myself, from humble means and without station, can aspire to culinary greatness. Bon appétit in 2015!
TARTE A LA PRALINE – SÉBASTIEN BOUILLET
– 2 ¾ sticks of butter (warm)
– 1 tsp of salt – 1 ½ cup confectioner’s sugar
– ¾ cup almonds ground to powder
– 2 eggs
– 4 1/3 cup flour
– 1 vanilla bean
Ingredients for the mix:
– 2 cups fresh cream
– 3 cups French pink pralines (candy coated almonds)
The evening before, prepare the dough. In this order, mix: the butter with the icing sugar and the salt. Open the vanilla bean. With a knife, scratch the inside of the bean to extract. Mix it in the dough. Then, add the almond powder and mix again. Add the eggs one by one while mixing until you get a consistent and compact mix. Keep the mix in the refrigerator the whole night, covered by a plastic film.
The following day, preheat the oven to 320 F. After rolling out the dough, position in the appropriate dish. Bake for 30 minutes.
Prepare the mix:
Boil the fresh cream in a large saucepan.
Add the pink pralines and let it heat for around 5-10 minutes. Pour the mix in the pastry shell delicately.
Bake the tart 5 minutes in the oven heated at 400 F.
Let it rest 4 hours in the refrigerator and savour!
About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at email@example.com.