Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Five things to eat before you die

When Susan in Italy from Porcini Chronicles tagged me for this meme originated by Melissa (The Traveler's Lunchbox) I was thrilled: this is such an interesting subject, there will be so much to learn from other bloggers! But after sitting for a (long) while in front of my computer, trying to give my own contribution to the project, I started getting the "writer's block". How on earth was I going to narrow down to 5 an ever growing list of dishes I would have died of not trying? My whole life is devoted to culinary experiments (like many food bloggers for sure). I rarely cook the same recipe twice and what waters my mouth the most when reading a restaurant's menu is dishes I can't pronounce or made of ingredients I have never heard of. This isn't really something I am forcing on myself (say I'd rather have something I know but try to get out of my comfort zone): I actually enjoy a dish more if it surprises me. Discovery is endless... and so is the list of dishes I wish everyone can try at least once in their life.

On the other hand, of course, I often dream of renewing my best food experiences and do so if I can. So I guess I do have favorites. For this meme, let's stay in the French realm (since this is the subject of this blog), although there would be many more cuisines to talk about. I'll try to tell you about five dishes I dream of all year round until I go back to my home country (you have to be there to get the real deal, especially when it comes to childhood memories). Here is goes:

1. Choucroute alsacienne. Alsace-style sauerkraut ("sauerkraut" became "choucroute" after centuries of interactions between french and german languages at the border) is a dish made of fermented cabbage garnished with various deli meats: saussages, pork... and more pork coming in all shapes and forms. The fermented shredded cabbage is slowly cooked in Alsace white wine (usually Riesling) and flavored with Juniper berries. Choucroute has become a traditional brasserie dish all over France, which allowed me to eat a lot of them in Lyon where I grew up. Most boucheries-charcuteries (butcher-deli shops) also sell the necessary ingredients (meats and cabbage) to prepare your own. The sourness of the cabbage, the tart taste of Juniper berries, the juicy meats spiced up with Dijon mustard are amazing.

2. Steak tartare is on the long list of french dishes that are not "politically correct" and that some people don't dare to try (along with snails, frogs, very smelly and colorful cheeses, etc, etc). But it is soooooooo good that it would be a real mistake to not try it at least once (and then you'll want more). Technically speaking, steak tartare is raw ground beef, mixed with a raw egg yolk and just seasonned... The whole "uncooked meat" story is clearly against the "safe handling" warning displayed in huge red letters on each package of meat we buy here in the US. But let's forget about this somehow marginal issue and focus on the taste. If you like tuna sashimi you already have an idea of what raw beef tastes like. Steak tartare seasonning usually consists of Dijon mustard, chopped cornichons (delicious small crunchy gerkins that would deserve to be in this 5-item list by themselves), chopped onion, chopped capers, chopped flat-leaf parsley, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. This is yet another typical brasserie dish. In some restaurants they prepare it in front of you, bringing the meat topped with the egg yolk with spices on the side, and mixing everything at your table. It is served with thin and deliciously crunchy pommes frites.

3. "Bouchon" cuisine. "Les bouchons de Lyon" are famous for two reasons: heavy traffic jams ("bouchon" means cork) and traditional restaurants. Les Bouchons emerged in the 18th century at the apogee of Lyon's silk weaving industry. They were generally held by women and offered various hearty foods for the silk workers ("les canuts"). Famous dishes include onion soup, "salade lyonnaise" (frisée with grilled bacon, poached egg, croutons and a shallot vinaigrette dressing) or "rosette" (dry saussage) for a start; veal kidneys ("rognons") or "andouillette" (veal tripe saussage) served with a creamy whole grain mustard sauce, "quenelles" (pike fish dumplings) or "cardons" (cardoons) au gratin as a main dish; "cervelle de canut" ("weaver brain", a weird name for "fromage blanc" fresh cheese seasonned with salt, pepper, garlic and chives), Saint-Marcellin cheese, "tarte à la praline" (bright pink sugar-coated almond tart)... Eating in a Bouchon downtown or on Croix-Rousse hillside (usually sharing a table with other patrons) is really something to try.

4. Oysters from Marenne-Oléron. Oysters are mostly eaten raw in France, with minimal seasonning (a dash of lemon juice or a few drops of red wine vinegar and finely chopped shallots) so as to not mask the subtle flavors of this delightful "fruit de mer". They are served with a slice of rye bread coated with salted butter, and a glass of dry white wine. Marenne-Oléron is a famous oyster farming region on the french Atlantic coast. The oysters they grow there are small and delicate. Their taste is divine. Definitely something you want to try (and if you can go there: even better!)

5. Cantaloupe from Provence. There had to be something sweet in this list... And I have eaten so many bland cantaloupes over here that it makes me sourly regret those grown in South of France. They are usually smaller that their American counterparts but much softer and sweeter: the juices are more concentrated. If you go to a farmers market they'll pick the right one for you depending on when you plan to eat it, so that it will be at its peak when you dive in it with a teaspoon. Eat it plain or pour a teaspoon of port wine in each half. It makes a lovely appetizer.

Now I wonder what the following fellow food bloggers will come up with:


Pascal said...

What a great list, Estelle! I see at least 4 worthy of my top 5: choucroute, one of the best ones I had was in a bistro in Paris (sorry, never been to Alsace yet), a good salad Lyonnaise (brings back memories of the 2 years I spent in
Lyon as a student :) ), Oysters, although I might go for the whole "plateau de fruit de mer" (best in Normandy or Brittany!) with a plethora of different things like I've had in Normandy many many times), and yes, the "Melon de Provence" is most excellent too, when just ripe, so fragant, and so smooth, maybe, just maybe add a little port?
Not sure about steak tartare for my top 5, altough quite yummy.

All in all, very worthy choices!

Before reading your post, I wasn't quite sure where to start. Now the ideas are pouring in! The next challenge is to narrow it down to 5.

And thanks so much for the tag!

Susan in Italy said...

Hi Estelle, Thanks for playing and for the intriguing list! Have only been to Lyon for 1 day and ate at a friend's house, so the bouchons (sp?) are still a mystery and they sound great. I grew Charantais (sp?) melons one year and they really were much better than ones in the markets. Were they what you were talking about?

Estelle said...

Pascal: Thanks ! I was tempted to go with the whole plate of various seafoods ("plateau de fruits de mer") too... Choosing 5 items is not enough!

Susan: Glad you found the list intriguing :-) That was the plan: talk about things people wouldn't think of. I've just checked and yes, "melon charentais" is the variety of cantaloupe that is grown in Provence and other sunny regions of France. No doubt that they must taste even better when they're home grown!

Papilles et Pupilles said...

Ah les huitres de Marenne Oléron ! La saison va bientôt reprendre avec les mois en R ;)

Papilles et Pupilles said...

Ah les huitres de Marenne Oléron ! La saison va bientôt reprendre avec les mois en R ;)

Ken said...

I just discovered your site. Amazing recipes! Thanks for sharing.

Estelle said...

Papilles et pupilles: septembeR! Here we are!

Ken: thanks and welcome! Good to hear from you. How's everything doing back East?

Susan said...

I still remember the Alsatian choucroute I had a number of years ago while driving through the area. The benchmark for all since then.

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