In case anyone should think I am permanently attached to a laptop (heaven forbid) my other overriding interest is food – in particular, the sourcing, preparation and consuming of it.
In the winter I dream of warming soups and stews; in the summer I plan meals grilled over a barbecue and served with adventurous salads. By adventurous salads, I mean something more than lettuce, tomato and cucumber, with side orders of radish and spring onions - my mother’s standard summer fare. My mum’s enterprising attempts at livening up the tea time salad might occasionally involve grating a carrot, or reincarnating the lunch time left over potatoes by covering them in a dollop of salad cream (mayonnaise was virtually unheard of). This was as adventurous as it got.
If she could see the wild assortment of ingredients that are melanged into a salad now, she would declare that “folk are better fed than taught”. It was an expression she used liberally, and to this day I can’t work out the literal sense of it, except I think she would have applied the same comment to the avid consumerism that we see in the 21st century. She would have been very contemptuous of such culinary novelties as bean and pea sprouts (Brussels were the only sort she knew, and you didn’t serve them raw, they needed boiling for at least ¾ of an hour)) awabi radish (what was the matter with French Breakfast?) and olive oil ( well that came from Boots in a small bottle and you warmed it up and dripped it into your ears to soften the wax). Our French doctor nearly fell off his chair when I told him that one.
We Brits were quite accustomed to being the butt of our continental neighbours' jokes when it came to food, and I think it gave us an unwarranted sense of inferiority. We can cook just as well as the French, and our classic regional recipes are equally as good as theirs, in fact sometimes they can be better. Where we go wrong is in the name. We are just not inventive enough.
Take the potato. Being half Irish, I adore potatoes. Were the human race to be left with nothing else but potatoes to eat, it wouldn’t bother me a bit. That’s one reason I can’t be doing with low carb weight loss plans like the Hay Diet. I’m sure it’s great, and I know people who swear by it, but I can’t face eating protein without some form of carbohydrate; I love pasta, I like rice, but I worship at the altar of the humble spud. I have yet to find a French potato that comes anywhere near a British one for texture and flavour, but we’ll skate over that.
A natural companion to potato is cheese. Both the British and the French have cottoned on to this , so we both have perfected comforting, warming dishes using these two basic ingredients.
What do we call ours? Interestingly, cheese and potato pie. And the French version? Tartiflette.
The former is mashed potato and grated cheese, beaten together with butter and milk, spread in a pie dish, topped with more grated cheese and browned in the oven. The French variant uses sliced potato, a slug of white wine (comme d’habitude)and a topping of reblochon cheese. But it isn’t common old cheese and potato pie, it’s tartiflette.
It’s a name to conjure with. It elevates cheese and potato to realms far above their station. It’s a cheeky, pert little word …. it deserves to be up in lights - Mimi Tartiflette the Parisian burlesque dancer. Or in the pages of a crime novel – Alfonse Tartiflette, the unorthodox detective from the Quai D’Orsay.
You never see ‘Cheese and Potato Pie’ on a restaurant menu in the UK and yet ‘Tartiflette’ is all over the place in France. You can even buy it in tins, or frozen, in 4- portion bags, if it’s too much effort to peel all those potatoes.
Here in Southwest France we have another cheese and potato speciality that is almost sacramental. It has to be made with a certain type of cheese – laguiole -which is produced in the Aubrac region of the Midi Pyrenees.It involves creaming mashed potato and garlic over a low heat and beating the laguiole cheese into it. This cheese and potato puree has almost mystical qualities and is known as aligot (pronounced al-ee- go) It’s also ridiculously expensive to make because of the cheese that must (on pain of death) be used … emmenthal or simlar melting cheese is a complete anathema to purists - a cantal of a certain age may be acceptable in some regions, but the whole thing is fraught with argument, as is so much in France. Like tartiflette this traditional recipe has been brought into the supermarkets in easy- cook packets; ready to warm up in plastic sachets, or dehydrated (just add warm milk) Surely that’s cheesey Smash? No, it’s aligot.
I have a theory that if we renamed our simple dishes, gave them pretty, or exotic names instead of boring titles like fish pie, or bizarre names like toad in the hole, we might get a bit more international recognition.
Tartiflette is a great lunchtime dish on a chilly day, so here’s the recipe:
I should really say ‘Here is one of many recipes for tartiflette.
For six to eight people you will need:
About 750 gs of potatoes (peeled)
A large onion (chopped)
A 250 pkt lardoons
A glass of dry white wine
A round of reblochon cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
The ingredients are universally accepted as being correct. The method differs from cook to cook, so here’s how I do it.
Cook the potatoes whole, in lightly salted water, for about ten minutes. They should still be quite firm as they are going to be cooked again. Drain and when they are cool enough to handle, slice into not-too- thin slices.
Melt some butter into a frying pan, and fry the onion and potatoes together until lightly browned, add the lardons and enough wine to simmer the potatoes for a few minutes without boiling dry. Drink the rest of the wine… ...no point in trying to put it back into the bottle. That's one of my rules of life.
Gently spoon the onion- potato- lardon- mixture into a large gratin dish. Cut the reblochon in half through the middle, and (this is where there is some dispute) either place the two halves of cheese rind side up or down on top of the potatoes.
Cover with some baking foil and cook in a hot oven (200c) for half an hour or so. It’s an easy-going dish, so timing isn’t crucial.
Next blog ..... France's deep and lasting relationship with cheese and potatoes.