Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My new favorite person

Her name is Mamie, and she is Benoit's grandmother. Based on my current knowledge of her, she embodies all my most favorite characteristics of a beautiful French woman. She is impeccably dressed, in suits of age-appropriate cut and color, yet, she has not forgotten that she was, once, a young woman with her hair up. She is forever the gracious hostess to all, yet, found the time to cry, just with me. She has an apartment. In it, she displays memories, yet plenty of life lived for this moment: tea for her grandson, a flatscreen for current affairs , a calendar of parties to attend. Above everything, Mamie has spunk. It's a twinkle in her eye, a directness in her manner, an awareness that appointments are not just appointments, but potential memories, particularly when you are young, as Ben and I are. Finally, there is that mischievous lilt in her voice, when she becomes impassioned and speaks Alsatian. This is what I know of Mamie after three meetings, and Mamie is my new favorite person.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Days of Foie Gras, Fromage, Champagne...and Pirags!

I have officially eaten foie gras five days in a row. The first two times were courtesy of Ben’s mother, served traditional Alsatian Holiday style, with gelée and regional Pain d’épices; there was also year-round white Pain Grillé. The third, served again Holiday style, kicked-off Christmas Eve dinner. This meal lasted over six hours, five succulent courses, four types of wine--- welcoming and au revoir champagne not included--- three joke swapping male relatives, two brothers with too much distance in between, and one tiniest man, crying, with a broken arm. The fourth and fifth days featured Jean-Marie, Ben’s father’s, handiwork. Infused with cognac and with dried fruit creating a line of demarcation between that made from a goose liver and that from a duck’s, my taste buds told me that the duck left the party with the greater hangover.

Then there’s every home that has welcomed us with Champagne, or the more traditional Crémant d’Alsace, each Apèro Pour prefaced with a, “Quelq’un veut boire un petit Insert the name of the beverage?” I love it, “Would anyone care to drink a little one of Insert the name of the beverage?” Then, when another bottle has been opened after the first one has been emptied, “Quelq’un veut un petit schluk?” or “anyone care for one last drop?”

Finally, on Christmas Eve, I ate the best cheese of my life, a Brie with Marscapone and truffles. This was one of fifteen types of cheese served on three platters and explained by Ben’s uncle who is a cheese exporter in the detail to which I have only ever been privée at Manhattan's finest restaurants. Other favorite slices on my Christmas Eve plate were a melt-on-the tongue regional tradition, the soft, cow’s milk Muenster, and a Tome de Savoie, a proud, well-postured, semi-hard, Sheep’s milk enrobed in an ashy crust. And even after Christmas Day venison with a sauce of trompettes de la mort, and sides of, first, the savory mushroom trio, chanterelles d’automnes, chanterelles, and les cépes-tête-de-negre, then steamed artichokes and the Alsatian traditional sweet-spiced red cabbage of before, I still so enjoyed a perfectly, creamy-salty Roquefort. With a mouthful of pain de campagne, I whispered to Ben that I could be persuaded to consume the white and black-and-blue block in its delectable entirety, were it not that I would look absolutely ridiculous and my stomach would ache.

Somehow, whilst indulging in all of these French pleasures, I found the time to introduce my hosts to a Latvian one: Pirags. Pirags are a crescent-shaped hors d'oeuvres filled with ham, a healthy serving of chopped onions and bacon, wrapped in a cardamon-spiced dough. In the Land of Meat, I was finally able to prepare them as my great-great grandmother's cookbook directs: with real speck, a meat resembling bacon, with a bit stronger flavor and wrapped in some spices that neither Ben nor I could identify. It must be something in dough, because this Pirag-making session, too, became a family-affair: Jean-Paul dug the huge dough pot out of the basement, Ben cut cubes from the rectangular block of speck, skillfully removing the too-chewy fat, Nicole patiently helped me re-do the dough when it failed to rise the first time with chemical yeast, and even Hervé, half-awake from his three hour nap on the couch, too played a part and shaped a few little half moons. I was asked to translate the recipe back from American to European measurements by more than one satisfied relative.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dr. Atkins is Alsatian

Our meals the other day confirmed it for me. Midi began with what I dubbed Frikadelu Zupa d'Alsace. Double translation---that's from Latvian and French to English---a soup of herbed meatballs in a savory broth, okay, so without the potatoes and vegetables! Then, there was bone marrow, which I tried more than once, before allowing Herve to claim what remained before Benoit could. They adore it. I, if ever offered this obvious delicacy again, would kindly refuse with a "thank you, and I've tried it; please excuse me, it's not my favorite food," pause, smile. Finally, for the main course, there was an incredibly tender, juicy cut of beef, perhaps the term "corned beef" will help with your image. It was offered with mustard Maille, a French condiment brand and type of mustard that I happen to love, in the style of Dijon, a formulation a bit creamier and spicier than my coarser, beadier, ever-so-milder favorite, the recipe Ancienne.

Afterwords, we all went to Monoprix, a multipurpose store that I can only equate to that French export, Target. I bought the extra soft lavender soap that I can only find in France, five of them, and it made me happy. Dinner upon our return, you guessed it, was charcuterie--- a mixture of sliced meats of your choice--- served with cornichons a fait du chiles, the mustard from that afternoon, and a much needed, lightly-dressed salad. Sufficit it to say, I had not consumed such a quantity of wonderful cuts since Argentina! Perhaps someone should warn dear Ben now: we're going to become "Customers of 2009" of Manhattan Vegan Haunts, Angelika Kitchen and Counter!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Fountains, Castles and Fondue, Part #2

With the cabbage and threesome of potatoes, naturally, was meat. Stay tuned for my theory that Dr. Atkins is Alsatian...To open our appetites for this meal, Ben and I hiked up to Les Trois Chateaux, the ruins of three castles in various stages of preservation up in Les Vosges, just above Herrlisheim, his mother's village. Due to the recent snow melt, our ascent was quite squishy in places, as well as leaf-covered and mossy, and near the top, it began to get rocky, literally man-made rocky. Apparently, some villagers who foraged the castles for rocks to build their homes after the castles had been attacked or abandoned, bit off a bit more than they could chew, and left a few behind on the mountain. At the top, from the first castle, the view to our left was of The Black Forest and Germany. Eyeing the dilapidated state of Castle #1, Ben posed a challenge to New York City's finest real estate agent, and did s/he who accepted the favor of deciding on its selling point: its old, dungeon prison. Punishing room or playroom, fun for the whole family, the ad would declare! Ben finally managed a photo of me next to what looked like a really big chimney, I crawled into an opening in the back of Castle #2 and swore that I was not alone, and Ben decided we needed to be adventurous, so we found some wooden planks on which to play gymnast. Then, it got really windy, so we took an alternate route down to our little gray Peugeot.

With some time to spare before the arrival of Ben's brother, Herve, we decided to engage in that great Alsatian pastime, wind through the mountainside vineyards really fast, and visit where it all began, for Ben that is: his childhood home, the church of his baptism and First Communion, and the primary school where he skipped a grade, smart one. The house itself, now painted salmon, was, first of all huge---apparently, they used to rent the third story---with plenty of land behind it for a garden, a doghouse...even though they never had a dog, and lots of just general kid running space. The school looked like a school, white now, not the orange and brown of Ben's school days, with a large gymnasium, where Ben played basketball, admittedly not very well.

We returned to the sounds of Gislane and Julie, Jean-Paul's son and his girlfriend. Missing only Herve, who was stuck on the road, we popped the hors d'oeuvres and the Cremant d'Alsace---a bubbly wine that I find better tasting than some real Champagnes. Then, Herve descended, "A table" was declared and the feasting could really begin. First, came foie gras with pane grille and a tiny orange nestled in its leaves. Then, came dish that took all day, the meat with the red cabbage and three kinds of potatoes. Next, was the cheese, six different kinds, including my new favorite, a cow's milk from Corsica.

Finally, came the piece de resistance, a production that truly showed how Ben's family can pull together: Jean-Paul placed the fountain in the middle of the table, Ben found the nearest available outlet, Ben's Mother, Nicole, stirred the chocolate, the fruits were assembled, and Herve and Ben, the engineers of the family, ascertained how hot the device needed to be to spin enough to make the chocolate flow evenly. Somehow, nobody ever figured that out. But, it was fun to watch them try! In the end, we couldn't stop laughing---it was such a cool little thing and Nicole's heart was so into creating the perfect chocolate fondue fountain! More importantly, we all learned a very important life's lesson: no matter how clementines come to be smothered in the finest dark chocolate, rained on or poured on or dipped into a struggling chocolate fountain's pool, clementines and chocolate is one of THE yuuuummiest combinations!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Fountains, Castles and Fondue, Part #1

Benoit's Mother followed her "Bonne Nuit" bisous to me with a last apology for the sluggish Chocolate Fountain. I could only laugh kindly because the subject of her concern was, first, a manufacturer's error, and second and more poignantly, her desire to offer food in the fashion she was taught as a French woman: naturally, properly and with just a touch of whimsy.

At the first mid-day meal or midi, casual place mats and small, clear green, leaf- engraved wine glasses in the German style favored by my grandparents matched the fixed orange and green tablecloth underneath. Karbonara, a dish of pasta and ham and parmesan cheese, was served with an in-the-shell raw egg, for moisture and, as I discovered, better taste. Our first dinner was an even more beautiful production, and one I happily appreciated before I was beckoned a table. Announcing it was the smell of boiling Beaufort, Comte and Appenzeller. Then came a touch of white wine and Muscat and Kir, and Voila, a Fondue Savayard was born. Second, was the assembling of the accompaniements: the cutting of the baguette, the gathering and distribution of the dipping tools, and, of course, the lighting of the warming table fire. All these were done by Jean-Paul, the man of the house, whose responsibilties, I discovered, also include keeping wine glasses full of perfectly paired wine.

The Chocolate Fountain came at the end of the 2nd evening's meal. Apparently, Ben had recounted the story of its appearance at my niece's bat mitzvah, and his mother had taken to the idea of it as a way to present chocolate fondue. But, I must rewind. The preparation of the evening meal, in honor of a house full of grown children and their partners, began right after breakfast. Due to jet-lag, Ben and I hadn't risen until nearly noon. So, besides to the smell of made-to-order espresso, we awoke to wafts of cinnamon, nutmeg and coriander, being added to red cabbage, and what I would taste later, three different kinds of mashed potatoes...

With that, I must get ready for Ben's grandmother's birthday party...Until then, happy food dreaming!!!

If Akroyd and Martin Had Had Passports, Part #2: 2 Trains and an Automobile

Landing was, in a word, white. First, came the clouds provoking you to crash through your tiny window and jump in; the second wave had you searching for a stick, to scoop up the cotton candy; lastly, was the snow, blanketing the landscape, the mountains, and, ever-slightly, the sky.

We had to flash our passports twice, once to the German-Swiss accented pair in the landing vessel, once to Immigration. Roles were reversed from our Parisian return; Ben, he of European passport, stood patiently awaiting my approval on the other side of the glass-enclosed booths.

Officially welcomed to Switzerland, we scooted to see if Ben would spend the following days in his traveling clothes. The second wave of baggage answered our question: his bag was there. So were the ascending and descending stairs he was going to have scale with it to reach the train ticket booth.

The train we needed was to Basel, pronounced (Ball, but in the middle of your mouth). We decided to brave the 5 minute switch in Zurich Midtown to arrive at the time Ben had proposed to his mother. A bilingual transaction later---Ben tried his German, then switched to his fluent French at the prompting of the ticket man. The result? Two seats at restaurant car tables and my realization that he could both understand and speak more than decent German. On the ride was the local snowboarder, balancing his board on the overhead luggage rack just so it would not hit the lady below. Downtown Zurich was couched in mountains and not a skyscraper did I see. In its heart, we made the switch easily, and that's when the ride got really pretty: colored buildings with painted signs and typical crisscross window pattern architecture, a surprising lot in English, and that one bridge over a body of water, positioned just so as to not block the view of the snow caps to our right. I also played, let's count the skiers!

When we descended the train stairs in Basel, the weather was cold with no snow. The train station was not overly-crowded and pretty: bright, tall ceilings, skylights, color on the walls, and stalls selling sweets and maps and ski things. Though, a scan of the gear on the station patrons told me their business was probably low that day! Ben knew where the exit was, so we headed that way, and waved to his mother and Jean-Paul waiting at the bottom of the escalator.

Jean-Paul drove their royal blue Euro-size SUV---that's more compact, yet still sufficient and efficient---right through the "Suisse" sign. Despite Switzerland not being part of the EU, no checks were made. The border just barely looked liked a border. Then, the sign "France" was on our right, Les Vosges were on our left and villages began ending in "heim", a nod to the French-German balance that is Alsace, our destination...

Friday, December 19, 2008

If Akroyd and Martin Had Had Passports, Part#1: 3 Trains, 1 Plane

We actually began with trains, three to be exact, two subways to Penn Station and NJ Transit to Newark Airport. Only upon arrival in EWR did Ben’s reticence at taking my proposed later train register. We needed to stand in the checked baggage line for his gift-laden suitcase. Since a language barrier enhanced three-day luggage loss en route to Marseille in ’99, I have not willingly checked anything. In a nod to herd mentality, I unwillingly bid my regulation cabin size bag adieu onto an LGA baggage belt last December. I was bound for Durban via Jo’burg through Charles de Gaulle. The number of warning bells in that itinerary makes the mind reel: Charles de Gaulle is one of the world’s widest airports, Jo’burg, one of the most dangerous and socially- transient cities, and Durban? Durban is a pretty resort city where the position of Whites during Apartheid has been overtaken by a group of entitled feeling Coloureds, and everyone is fighting for a place. Yes, such class categories still see daily use. Irate, but not surprised I was the only one leaving Durban Airport with solely my carry-on. Through the “pass-the-buck” muddle of Durban baggage service call-in lines, I learned my bag was stranded in Paris. I only hoped it was enjoying some of that city's gastronomic pleasures! Eight days later, wearing part of the new wardrobe I had been forced to buy, I retrieved a filthy version of its former self in Jo’burg, then gladly presented Air France with a detailed wardrobe bill.

My current trip, fortunately, was a direct shot to Zurich. Besides a moment’s pause as to whether or not Ben's suitcase would warrant the over 50lb. $15.00 surcharge (it didn’t), and slight skepticism towards the meager ratio of visible, blue-uniformed Continental employees per passenger, I had little fear that it would fall off, perhaps yodeling, on to the luggage belt. So, we joined the overextended Checkpoint 2 Security Line.

As usual, this queuing invited the standard commentary: why international passengers don’t have their own line, why we bother to get dressed or pack at home at all, etc. For the newest addition to this litany, I extend a heartfelt thanks to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and what I’ll dub its Justification Signs---sort of an FAQ section for the TSA, in the form of small, bright white signs on the line pillars every couple of feet. Turning my head to regard the length remaining ahead, I came face-to-face with one of my favorite gripes, The 3oz. Liquid Restriction. “Why is each passenger only allowed 3 oz. of liquid container placed in a see-through Ziploc bag?” the gleaming sign asked. “Future technology will enable the TSA to distinguish between dangerous and benign (sic) liquids,” its answer read. "Until then (please forgive the paraphrase) a plastic bag makes it easier for TSA officials to see inside." Excuse me, Mr. CEO of the TSA. So, what you’re saying, in fact, is that current technology is incapable of making said distinction, so, you or any TSA employees have no idea whether the clear liquids measuring no more than 3oz. that I have compliantly placed in my little Ziploc bag are shampoo, water, hemlock, gasoline, or cyanide? Pause while he searches for pre-packaged, convincing sounding rebuttal.

The highlights of the actual flight were, first, the meal and, second, the managing bursar’s skill in rattling off airplane greeting and protocol simultaneously in Switzerland’s three official languages, and English, without missing a beat. Having not eaten much that day, due to packing and errands, I was salivating in anticipation of the flight attendant's chipper inquiry, “chicken or beef, or would it be chicken or pasta?” The actual question, “chicken or chicken?” did not bother my open palette in the least. The couple behind me, however, was a different story. He didn’t eat chicken and this particular flight attendant had cinched her scarf too tightly, because “it’s either chicken or nothing,” she growled. Moments later came a flight first for me: screaming from the kitchen area of the plane. The uproar, we heard later when the bursar came around to smooth things over, was that the couple had felt quite slighted in not being offered a food alternative on a seven-hour flight. While I quite agree, I’m not sure dried- out chicken and mushy pasta and vegetables were worth rousing the sleeping twins in the seat next door...