It was our good fortune to be standing at that moment at the intersection of the Rue Richelieu and the Rue Quatre Septembre. Directly across the street was an unassuming little neighborhood brasserie called L’Ami Georges. The sidewalk blackboard listed a lot of the old warhorses—quiche, steak-frites, escargots, smoked salmon—but also less common dishes—house-made rabbit terrine, foie gras with oyster mushrooms, brandade. We had a feeling someone was actually cooking in this kitchen, and once we poked our head in the door we were quickly drawn in by the comfortable dining room and the patron's warm welcome.
Mary ordered quiche with fries and a salad. I was intrigued by the sight and smell of some kind of potato gratin that arrived at several tables while we waited. It turned out that this was the "tartiflette maison," potatoes baked with cream, bacon, and onions, with a copious layer of melted cheese on top. I could think of worse things to eat after a long day of travel and a restless night’s sleep.
We passed the time till our food arrived with a few sips of red wine from a demi-carafe, and a few bites of a really good sliced baguette (you're not guaranteed great bread in French restaurants these days; on one previous trip we'd been in the country for three days before we were served a piece of bread worthy of the name). We didn't have much to say to each other. We were just settling in to the feeling of being in Paris again, getting over the jet lag, the culture and language shift. And we were hungry. When our food arrived with the patron's sincere "Bon appetit," we didn't stand on ceremony, but dug right in.
I didn't know what kind of cheese it was on top of the tartiflette—I guessed brie at the time, and was wrong—only that it was highly aromatic and extremely delicious. I had taken a few healthy forkfuls before I set down my knife and fork, took a bite of bread and a swallow of wine, and began to declaim.
"You know..." I said, which is how many declamations begin, and Mary looked up from her plate with kind attention. (One of my wife's many charms, though surely not her greatest, is her willingness to let me declaim, even over lunch, even in Paris.)
"You know," I said, indicating the dish of creamy, smoky, cheesy potatoes before me, "when you say 'French food,' people tend to think of exotic, expensive ingredients, and fancy sauces and elaborate presentations. But this, this is what French food is really about: potatoes, bacon, cream, cheese. Just simple, great ingredients treated with care and respect. This is what it's all about." Mary reached over with her fork and took a bite. She nodded in agreement. We were both too hungry to brook further declamation. The point had been made. We were glad to be in France, eating real French food, and it's rude to talk with your mouth full, regardless of what continent you're on.
I did make a mental note, though, to track down the origins of tartiflette. Not to imply that I have read the Larousse Gastronomique from cover to cover, but I tend to think that I'm pretty well versed in French cooking, both high and low. To discover a dish that I have absolutely never heard of is rare. It was clearly a country, "peasant" type of dish, the sort of thing you’re served in a half-timbered tavern on a mountain road where you sit beneath ancient beams as the afternoon sun filters in through the thick leaded window panes wavy with age. You’d have a pichet of rough young red wine to go with it, and crusty country bread from a wood-fired oven, and when you broke through the crust of cheese to release the aromas of cream and bacon and onions you took a deep, satisfied sniff, and when you put the first bite in your mouth you thought, “Yes, everything’s going to be all right.”
And so, having concocted in my imagination this venerable romantic history for the estimable tartiflette, imagine my surprise when later that same day, as our train pulled out of the Metro station on our way back to our hotel, there on the tiled station wall we beheld a gigantic poster, in garish red and orange, advertising, "La Maxi Tartiflette" at...Pizza Hut.
It’s the small ironies like this that really make travel interesting. And serve as cautions against letting one’s imagination roam too far unattended.
I'll spare you the suspense and let you in on the secret: Tartiflette is not a dish of ancient peasant lineage, but the relatively recent invention of cheesemakers in the Savoie region trying to move a few more rounds of reblochon. It is, nonetheless, an excellent dish, and worth recreating while the land around us is still white and cold. Like a brand-new piece of furniture expertly distressed to pass for antique, tartiflette wears its novelty well. (As to the Pizza Hut version, I couldn't say.)
I decided to write about tartiflette this week for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons is so I'd have an excuse to show you some pictures of Paris. Now, I know pictures of Paris don't have much to do with local foods (unless, of course, you happen to live in Paris, lucky you), but I see by the calendar that we are smack dab in the middle of February, arguably the most gruesome month of the year here in Minnesota, and seeing a few photos of Paris probably can't hurt. Just to help take your minds off the ice, the snow, and the windchill.
The other reason is local-foods related, though, and it's this: tartiflette and similar dishes, casseroles or gratins, are a great way to make appealing meals out what few local vegetables we still might have access to at this time of year, mainly those that come in root form.
Getting back to the tartiflette before getting on to a recipe: A little research revealed that the term and the dish were invented in the 1980s by the producers of reblochon cheese, a raw cow's-milk cheese from the mountainous Savoie region. It was a good gambit by those French cheeseheads, since the "recipe" (of which I found dozens of variations in an Internet search) generally calls for an entire round of reblochon, about a pound-and-a-quarter, for each four-serving tartiflette. It’s rib-sticking fare, for sure, the après-ski entrée par excellence.
Madeleine Kamman, one of my favorite food writers, has written a book called Savoie: The Land, People, and Food of the French Alps. It was published in 1989, focuses on the unique foods of the region, and contains not a single mention of tartiflette, while reblochon cheese receives a rhapsodic three-page description, and occurs as an ingredient in a number of dishes.
Kamman is an uncommonly intelligent and engaging writer. Her memoir-with-recipes, When French Women Cook, should be on every Francophile’s shelf. And given the climatic similarities between alpine France and our upper Midwest, Savoie... turns out to be an excellent resource for local-foods enthusiasts in our part of the world. The section on gratins, in particular, is full of appetizing ideas for simple main-course dishes based on seasonal ingredients—potatoes, squash, leeks, cabbage, turnips, apples.
Kamman is never shy with her opinions, and I especially enjoyed these introductory remarks to the gratin chapter:
No recipe followed to the ¼ teaspoon will ever give you a civilized gratin….
No two vegetables once sliced give the very same volume when measured in cups; so if a dish is too large, use a smaller one, and if it is too small, obviously, use a larger one. The same applies to the amount of stock or cream needed; if there is not enough cream or stock to cover the vegetables, by all means add more without worrying whether you are doing the right thing or not.
Worrying about amounts of ingredients takes all the fun out of cooking. Make sure that you always have enough cream or broth, or both, when you make a gratin, and proceed from there, cooking the gratin with your eyes and your nose; both will tell you when it is done. One thing is certain, it should look tight and well reduced, not soggy with unreduced liquid. Now good luck, you will make it, I am certain; generations of peasant women have done it very successfully before you.
With those encouraging words as preface, I give you my own take on tartiflette, as well as full permission to tweak it as you like to suit your tastes.
There’s only one small problem with making a true tartiflette here in America: we can’t get reblochon cheese. Until yesterday afternoon I thought we could, because I had purchased something labeled as reblochon at Whole Foods. But while I was out on a cheese research mission yesterday, looking for some sort of local equivalent to reblochon, I found at the Wedge co-op a cheese called “Fleur des Alpes,” which was described as a reblochon-type cheese made with pasteurized milk. That’s the key: Reblochon is made with raw, unpasteurized milk, and since it is aged less than 60 days, it cannot legally be imported to the U.S.
So the bad news is you can’t buy real reblochon here. The good news is the alternatives are quite satisfactory, especially when melted over potatoes, bacon and cream. We did a taste test last night of three reblochon imposters, and here’s what we found:
The winner was a Wisconsin cheese called “Les Frères” made by the Crave Brothers dairy in Waterloo, Wisconsin. I found it at Farm in the Market in the Midtown Global Market, as well as at Whole Foods. This is just a lovely, distinctive cheese, rich, sharp, aromatic, and earthy. This was really a find. This cheese would earn its place on any local artisan cheese cart. Definitely not for melting only.
The runner-up was the “Fleur des Alpes,” the pasteurized reblochon stand-in. This was also an estimable cheese to eat on its own. It was perhaps a bit creamier than Les Frères, a bit more refined tasting. We preferred the slightly barnyard-y quality of the Wisconsin farmstead product.
And coming in a distant last was the so-called reblochon from Whole Foods wrapped in the “Fromage de Savoie” label. Proving that raw milk isn’t everything to a cheese, this was the blandest of them all, and though it must have been aged more than 60 days, it also seemed the least well matured. Having said that, this was the cheese we used on our first tartiflette, thinking it reblochon, and it produced a very tasty dish. So, you really can’t lose.
Another local-cheese option would be a nicely fragrant German brick cheese. We’ve used brick on a tartiflette, and found that it has just about the right texture, and melted very well into the potatoes. The only drawback was that the brick is a good deal more…aromatic, let’s say, than reblochon-type cheeses. If you don’t mind the smell, it’s a pretty good substitute.
This recipe calls for four ounces of cheese per person, which is rather a lot, but remember it’s a main course, and most of the rest of it is potatoes. And the portions are hearty—it serves two if those two have good appetites and have been working or playing hard in the cold for a couple of hours. Otherwise it will probably serve three at dinner, or someone gets a nice warming lunch next day.
1 ½ pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, 3 or 4 medium-large spuds
½ pound "reblochon", brick, or other flavorful, melty cheese
2 slices thick-sliced bacon (about 3 ounces), cut into ½-inch lardons
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup heavy cream (Cedar Summit our local choice, of course)
Salt and pepper
Peel the potatoes, quarter them, then cook in boiling water till they are nearly done but still a bit al dente, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain and let cool, then slice them ½-inch thick.
Heat your oven to 375.
In a small skillet over medium heat, cook the bacon lardons slowly till they have rendered most of their fat and become golden. Remove the bacon from the skillet and set aside. Leave a couple of tablespoons of fat in the pan and add the onions. Cook till tender and translucent, about five minutes.
Remove the skillet from the heat and add the wine, then put the skillet back on the heat and cook till the wine is reduced by half. Set the skillet aside.
Rub the inside of a 6-cup gratin (oval baking) dish (or 9-inch pie plate) with the crushed garlic clove. Discard the garlic clove. Add the potatoes, bacon, and onion-wine mixture. Season with a couple of good pinches of salt, and a few grinds of the pepper mill. Pour the cream over the top.
If you’re using reblochon-type cheese, slice it in half across the middle, leaving the rind on. Cut these pieces into largish chunks, and arrange them on top of the potatoes in the baking dish, rind side up. If using another type of cheese, cut ½-inch slices and arrange them over top of the potatoes. They probably won’t cover the whole thing.
Bake for 20 minutes, then check to see if the cheese is nicely melted and the top is getting brown. If not, leave it a few more mintues.
Remove and serve immediately.
Here’s a nice winter salad that we enjoyed with our tartiflette a couple of weeks ago:
Cabbage, Carrot, and Apple Slaw
1 small carrot, peeled and julienned or grated
1 wedge cabbage, shredded (about a cup)
1 small apple, peeled, seeded, cut cut into slivers to approximate the carrot and cabbage
Put the shredded cabbage in a bowl and toss with a pinch of salt. Let sit at least 15 minutes.
Add the carrots and apple, and toss with a vinaigrette made of:
1 tsp honey
1 tsp good mustard—we like grain mustard for this, but a good Dijon will work fine
1 tsp white wine vinegar
1 Tablespoon grapeseed or other light vegetable oil
Pepper to taste
Mix it all up and let it sit awhile. You can use green or red cabbage, or Savoy or napa, for that matter. All sorts of winter roots and greens can be used in slaws like this.
Of course you’ll want some good crusty bread with that (a pain de campagne, our Strasbourg Seedy or Wheaty), and a glass of wine—nothing fancy, a crisp dry white from the Savoie would be perfect, or a gruner veltliner or a sauvignon blanc. A lighter red like a beaujolais or a cabernet franc from the Loire (Chinon, Touraine), slightly chilled, would also do very well.
It has been a long, cold winter here already; hey, it’s Minnesota, what did you expect?
Just the same…. A dish like tartiflette can make you not mind the cold so much. Might even make you wish for snow, at least once more before the thaw.