January 10, 2016


Welcome to the fine folks of Virginia who saw my piece about ham in the Pilot, the largest daily newspaper in the Commonwealth. Thank you for reading. There are entries here about jambon persillé, wild boar, why French people will probably have cancer, or ping pong, among others.

Since all things porcine are on the brain today, let's talk cookery. On a recent cold, rainy winter day, I stared at the contents of the refrigerator and realized I had all the fixings for a classic rib-sticker lunch for my family of four. 

The strong odor emanating from the fridge told me there was good cheese inside. (A side note: we are diligent about cleaning our fridge here once a week or so; everything comes out, sketchy items are tossed, shelves wiped down, etc. Yet, no matter how thorough we are, a distinct smell remains. When I first moved to France,this was unsettling. It was always just, well, funky. Now, after two years here, I don't trust a fridge that smells sanitized. It means there is no good cheese, no terrines, no pig cheeks or blood sausage inside. In other words, strong smell = good food.) 
A package of smoked lardons beckoned from the top shelf. The pantry had onions, garlic, and potatoes. I was in business for tartiflette.

This is one of those meals that is wildly popular in France that I have never seen in an American home. That's a shame because it meets so many criteria for perfection. Tartiflette is:
  • Inexpensive
  • Fun to say out loud
  • Deeply satisfying
  • Easily modifiable (read on for some of the crimes I committed in my preparation)
  • Popular with every age group
  • Simple
You can find innumerable recipes with a simple click, but tartiflette, once you understand the basics, does not really need a recipe so much as a few simple guidelines. 
At its core, tartiflette is potatoes; sautéed onions; chunks of bacon (called lardons here); and cheese, the total baked together until gooey, runny, and brown. I suppose you could freak out about what variety of potato or cheese. You could dissolve into tears if you realized you had only shallots not onions in the house. You might despair that your sliced ham was not, technically, lardons. But what a waste of a good worry. The beauty of tariflette is that once you have potatoes and cheese and pig in the house, you're good to go. Don't sweat the specifics.

I started by peeling and cubing the potatoes and gave them a parboil to soften them a bit. Meantime, I let a chopped onion sweat in some olive oil. I removed the onions from the pan and added the lardons, letting them render and brown while I preheated the oven to 200 celsius (about 400 F). I drained the potatoes, dried them in a dish towel, and, after removing the lardons, let the potatoes brown a little bit in the pan. After stirring in the onions and lardons, I put a layer of potatoes into a baking dish that I had previously rubbed with a clove of garlic. 

It was time for the culinary star to make her Big Entrance. The odor from the fridge belonged to a wheel of Munster we had procured during a trip to Colmar (#37), in Alsace, over Christmas. This raw cow's milk cheese has a washed rind and is a specialty of the Alsace region. It ain't Kraft Singles, ok? And it's got nothing to do with American Muenster, It packs a punch, both to the nose and the tongue, but neither smell nor taste is off-putting. 

Purists would stone me for not using the traditional Reblochon cheese,a raw milk cow's cheese from the Alps, where tartiflette originates. To me, such requirements stink of the inflexible elitism that so many food nerds succumb to. (Should I be drawn and quartered for liking peanut butter on my BLT? Try it, and decide for yourself.) After all, it's just one meal...you'll have three more tomorrow and the day after that. 

Happily, my 5-year-old and nearly 3-year-old boys are not purists; they're just ravenous wolves. I cut the wheel in half so I had two discs of dairy, cut them in half again to obtain four half-moons, and placed two of them on top of the potatoes. A second layer of taters followed, capped by the remaining cheese. Into the oven for 10-20 minutes until the cheese is melty and brown and -- bam! -- lunch for four, with leftovers. A little green salad on the side (ça glisse) and you've got a simple, satisfying meal in under an hour. 

Is that a recipe? Not really. There are not quantities listed, no guidelines on the size of the cubed potatoes (you could even slice them if you want, like a gratin), no indication of what heat to use for the onions or lardons. But that's the point. Just enjoy putting potatoes, cheese, and ham together. How could that combination possibly fail? If you have answers to that question, please don't come to France. You will be very unhappy here.

No comments:

Post a Comment