Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some Thoughts About Food

One of the vendors at the Saturday vide-grenier near the farmer's market brought his goat to work. Or perhaps it was for sale as well. The idea of spending weeks or months or even years working with goats still appeals to me, especially if there are cats and chickens in the mix, too. And maybe horses. My friend Melia has given me the contact information for a working farm/dairy in Alsace where she spent some time and they appear to have all of the above, except possibly not the cats. On the other hand, I've never yet seen a farm without at least one cat somewhere, so perhaps it's just shy of being photographed for the website. And they make cheese there with the milk from their goats, so it's one of the places on my list of people to contact for a room-and-board-for-work exchange in the future. And the future is arriving quickly, given that it's already mid-November.

I still look longingly at the cheeses whenever I go to the market, and sometimes I break down and taste a bit or even buy a small wedge. I'm out of lactase tablets, however, so will have to restock before indulging myself again. When we go to the big supermarket for our monthly stock run on laundry detergent, toilet paper, trash bags, soy milk, pet food, and kitty litter, Seb teases me as we walk down the double-sided length of the immense cheese aisle, though sometimes he takes pity on me and blocks my view with arms outspread so I don't have to look at what I can't touch.

He brought back a wheel of Bleu d'Auvergne from his August camping trip in that area, as well as another blue cheese called Fourme d'Ambert from the same region, both made with unpasteurized cow's milk. The Bleu d'Auvergne is barely 150 years old as a variety, and uses the same culture as Roquefort cheese (Penicillium Roqueforti), though the story goes that the original cheesemaker used rye bread mold. The curds are pressed and cheddared (cut into small bits) and then drained before they're placed in the form; the cheeses are then salted and pierced to aerate the curd and let the molds develop. It's a strong-flavored cheese that matures for at least a month, and by the time I tasted it in September it was quite strong indeed. Fourme d'Ambert dates back the age of the Romans, though it didn't get its AOC mark for nearly 2,000 years. It's sweeter, and the curds are ladled into the forms and not pressed, so the cheese is less dense.

Bleu d'Avergne on the left, Fourme d'Ambert on the right.

September and October brought the grapes to market, and I enjoyed the dark Muscat variety and the more honey-flavored variety named Le Chasselas. With the vendange (grape harvest) over, there were also bottles of bernache for sale around town. This specialty of the Touraine region is the first fermentation of the grape juice that becomes wine eventually. In this case it's drawn off after three or four days of fermentation, and it's fizzy and very sweet. I thought it tasted more like fresh apple cider than fresh grape juice. It's not as high in alcohol as wine, but alarmingly easy to drink. The bottles are sold with a hole pierced in their caps because otherwise there would be explosions in the aisles. I liked it, but wasn't sure about whether my body did so much, as there were, um, explosions in le WC that evening. I had a physical therapy appointment the next day and mentioned that I'd tried the local brew but didn't think it agreed with me. "Ah, oui, la bernache," the therapist replied. "C'est un laxatif excellent."

You can only get bernache for a few weeks after the grape harvest, and only in a few areas of France. I didn't want to drink any more of it but having poured the small glass for blogging purposes, didn't want to toss it either. I had some almost too ripe peaches (white and yellow) I needed to use, so I decided to poach them in the bernache.

Pêches Pochées au Bernache

3 ripe peaches, sliced into wedges
1/3 cup bernache (or fresh apple cider if you don't live in France)
24 small fresh mint leaves, thinly sliced (about 1/4 cup)
plain yoghurt

Put the sliced peaches into a small pot and add the bernache. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Let cool and mix in the shredded mint leaves. Serve topped with yoghurt, plain or frozen.

Norway has specialties too, like geitost, made of goat's-milk whey (the liquid that drains off the curds when cheese is made) that's been cooked for a long time until it gets caramelized and sweet, often with a little whole milk added at the end, and (especially if you're gigantic dairy monopoly Tine) sometimes extra sugar. Ommang Søndre is a biodynamic farm in Løten, near Hamar, about two hours north of Oslo by train. They've got a booth at the Saturday farmer's market not far from the hotel where I was staying. They make pressed-curd cheeses that taste a bit like cheddar, but I didn't get details on the manufacture because the man who helps make the cheese had just stepped away from the booth, and didn't come back before I had to leave. The farm raises goats and cows for meat as well as milk, and bees for honey, and grows root vegetables for markets and CSAs in the region. And they have employees and take volunteers, so they're on my list of places to look for work. Norwegian doesn't seem too hard to learn ...

One of the restaurants that Bea had recommended is Lofotstua, also not far from the hotel, and I went by to check out the menu. Unfortunately, the only thing they serve in the fall and early winter is lutefisk, with an accompaniment of bacon, split peas, and potatoes, for the (to me) astonishingly high price of $75. In the summer months they serve fresh fish, and apparently during the late winter and early spring it's all about the spawning Arctic cod, including the deep-fried cod tongues. I didn't even know cod had tongues. The lutefisk must be very good there, though, because almost all the tables had little "reserved" signs on them. The two men in the restaurant (owners? waiters? cooks? maybe all three at once, but I didn't ask) were very nice, and gave me the name and address of a place on the harbor where I could find other types of traditional Norwegian cuisine.

There were several vendors at the market selling sausages or other meat products, or just packages of lamb and pork. I tasted a sausage that might have had cheese in it, and what I thought was head cheese. Sylte is made of pork shoulder and pork cheeks cooked with salt and pepper and cooled in a mold, mild and meaty and very good. I might have bought some for later, but I had a day of sightseeing ahead of me, and though it was cold outside I wasn't sure it was cold enough.

I did buy a bottle of mushroom soy sauce (which doesn't have soy in it at all) called Gledesdråper ("Drops of Joy") made by mushroom inspector, educator, and expert Morten Jødal. It's made out of chanterelles, mostly traktkantarell or funnel chanterelles, often called "yellow-foot chanterelles" in Oregon. I haven't tried it yet, but Mr. Jødal said it's flavored with red wine, brown sugar, and fresh ginger, so I'm sure it will be delicious.

The restaurant recommended to me is called Rorbua, a popular place on the stretch of southwest harborside called Aker Brygge, which reminded me of the southwest waterfront in Portland, all trendy shops and spendy bars, high-tech offices and high-end apartments. It's where a lot of the ferries and cruise ships dock, and even in the late afternoon cold there was a crowd strolling up and down and getting ready for Saturday night. The restaurant's only about 20 years old but it's filled with fishing photographs and paraphernalia from decades before that, with a lowered ceiling of weathered wooden poles hung with glass floats, and a wicked-looking spear in the corner, possibly one that was used for catching whales. I was there to eat whale, in fact, and ordered their "Taste of Northern Norway" plate. The waitress was sorry to tell me that they were out of the reindeer heart and the assorted Norwegian cheeses, but I said that was fine, and to please bring me the rest of the selection anyway.

Clockwise from left: dried fish in beer, reindeer tongue, salt-cured lamb, elk sausage, whale meat

The salt fish in beer was nothing but salt, so I left that after one bite. The reindeer tongue was lightly smoked and very chewy with a mild flavor. The salt-cured lamb - they substituted it for the missing reindeer heart - was sweet and delicious with an almost-raw texture; I think it's called spekemat, and it's something I'd look for again. The elk sausage was your basic elk sausage, dark and gamy and not too smokey. And the curls of whale meat (probably minke whale) were not at all what I expected in flavor or texture. The last whale I ate was in Alaska, and it was mostly blubber, plus it was raw, just like the whale I tasted in Tokyo once, and it was greasy and fishy and really nasty. This was very thinly sliced and quite juicy and tender, though it had been smoked, and didn't taste fishy at all. Yes, I know a whale is not a fish, but they eat fish and little fishy krill, and believe me whale blubber tastes like fish.

My fat reserves probably taste like French salami and grapes after the last few months. I really must eat more vegetables. It's funny, but the last time I lived in France I didn't eat much in the way of produce, but that was mostly because all of the vegetables I was given were thoroughly boiled and not very appealing. I was a vegetarian (plus fish and eggs and dairy) at the time, so mostly ate bread and cheese during my months as an au pair, though once I got to Lilian's parents' house and their massive garden, I had a much more healthy diet. Last night I cooked some rice and pasta together (two almost-empty packages) and stewed some eggplant with garlic for a topping, and had grapes for dessert. I had a buckwheat crêpe with a slice of ham this morning for breakfast, along with my coffee and soy milk, and I have spinach and cabbage and escarole that I'm going to cook with red onions for dinner tonight. Tomorrow I'll finish the leftovers from last night and tonight with some chicken breast I had on Tuesday, and that will clear out the refrigerator before I go out of town for a few days. But that just means I get to have fun filling it up again when I get back, with more good things from the market.

No comments:

Post a Comment