Thursday, 26 January 2012

A Goat, a Buffalo, Four Cows and lots of Bread

Ah, butter.  That stuff that we all love and we're never supposed to eat any more lest our arteries clog and we all die instantly. 

Well, we took our lives into our own hands this Saturday when my good friend Meghan, who knows more about food than I ever will, showed up on Friday night for a weekend pyjama party with an intriguing hostess gift, some Au Bon Beurre butter from one of her food shops in Beaulieu .

Clearly she knows me well.  I love interesting  food gifts and I had never heard of this butter before.

Fresh butter four days a week
Instead of digging in on the spot we saved it until the next day when we could buy some carb-worthy wood oven baked bread from our neighbourhood Boulangerie, which we all agreed would be the best thing we could think of on which to taste it.   Besides, if we were all going to die from eating  loads of butter, our last moments should at least be forbidden, pleasurable ones.

Early the next day I trotted into  town,  bought three different breads and then, as one does on a Saturday,  we all piled into the car and headed to the fresh food market in Ventimiglia, Italy.

At the market, not far into the locavore or "Ladies' Row", we  spotted an artisanal butter from the Piedmont, available on only certain days of the week.    How could we resist that?

A buffalo and four cows
We bought some to taste with the butter that Meghan brought and then things got a bit out of hand.  By the time we finished shopping, we had 6 different butters to taste.  Three were French and three were Italian. One was made from goat milk, one from buffalo milk, and 4 were made from cow milk, one of them raw.

Hand crafted fresh butter from Cuneo in the Piedmonte

It all made sense to us.  Lately we'd become a bit disappointed with the quality and taste of what was once our all-time favourite butter, Echiré and we were looking for a suitable replacement.

The first time I had Echiré was ages ago at Alain Ducasse's 3 Michelin starred restaurant, Le Louis XV in Monaco.  The servers ceremoniously place little wooden baskets of it  before you,  one salted and one sweet, to portend the arrival of the  bread cart.  The Echiré butter elevated the already fabulous bread  to a course unto itself.   But I digress...

Back home, we unpacked our goodies and left all 6 of the butters on the counter to temper, sharpened the bread knife  and dug in for a tasting. 

On the butter tasting menu from France:
  • Baratte d'or by Sevre & Belle from the Poitou-Charentes Region
  • Le Gall, raw milk butter from Bretagne
  • Au Bon Beurre from Nord-Pas-de-Calais on the Belgian border
And from Italy:
  • Mandara Burro di Bufala from Naples
  • Bottero Bruno cow's milk butter from Cuneo in the Piedmont
  • Mamabe Burro di Capra from Cesena in Emilia-Romagna with an 84% butter fat content.

Worth the calories
After many slices of bread were consumed, each slathered in tempered butter we had some observations..

1.  The fresh, Piedmontese butter from the Ventimiglia market was creamy, smelt divine and was a rich yellow colour.  The butter was made in a pretty mould and we all loved the  hand crafted look of it.  The girls found it to have a slightly fermented note but hubby didn't share this opinion.

2.  The Buffalo milk butter was mild with an unpleasant waxy mouth feel.  It was also the whitest of the butters, just a bit darker than shortening or lard.
Goat milk butter.  Lame packaging, delicious taste

3.  The goat butter was also slightly waxy in the mouth,  white, and had a very mild goat cheese flavour.  It smelt stronger of goat than it tasted.  At first we weren't going to buy it because the packaging was a bit juvenile but cooler heads prevailed.

4.  The Au Bon Beurre  smelt sweet and floral and was a deeper yellow than the others.  It also had the softest, most spreadable texture right from the fridge.

5.  The Baratte d'or and the Le Gall butters were quite similar in appearance, light yellow,  dense, and also had the most neutral flavour.
And the winner  was...

Meghan's Au Bon Beurre from Nord-Pas-de-Calais on the Belgian border!  The taste was sweet, deep, and it had a rich, almost caramel like after taste.  We all agreed it was the butter we would like to have poured over a bowl of fresh, hot popcorn.
Just another day in an Italian dairy case

Well, the next day we ate salad, popped asprin and drank lots of water just for good measure and I can  say that it was all worth it now that we've found our new favourite butter.

I'm making short bread cookies with the remaining French butter, Italian cornmeal cookies or Paste di Meliga with the Italian butter and I'm holding on to the winning butter to melt and pour on popcorn for this Saturday's movie night.

Thank you Meghan.  You're welcome here any time!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Farinata Anyone? I Made it Myself....

With our jet lag on the wane and a breathtakingly beautiful day set before us, hubby and I ventured out for the afternoon and decided to go up and east instead of down and west which is our usual path.  In this case, up and east was across the border into Italy.

The view from La Grotta
If you've lived in the region for a while, you may know the charming Bar la Grotta.  It's the first place you hit in Italy just across the upper French border crossing.  You can sit for hours while you have drinks and enjoy the stunning views of the French coast from the terrace.   Inside they have a small stock of Italian foods,wine, booze, reasonably priced scotch, and Italian lottery tickets so you can stock up after you pay the tab.  Since we hadn't been there in ages, I took some time to poke around the shelves inside to see what was new.

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of pre-packaged products but when I spotted a boxed mix for Farinata for a mere €2.99, I thought I'd give it a try and I'm glad I did.  It's just one of a bunch of baking products  that Italian food manufacturer, Lo Conte makes as part of their "Magic Flour" line.
French Socca in Monaco's Port Hercule

Farinata is a traditional Italian peasant food made with chick pea flour, salt, water, and olive oil. In France Farinata is known as Socca and if you've ever been to an outdoor event in France or the outdoor market in Antibes, you've probably eaten it or at least seen it.  The best stuff is made in a traditional wood burning oven from a Socciste who bakes it at ultra-high temperatures in big, round copper-bottomed trays.  You can tell if it's good by the long lines of people waiting for it like hungry birds.

When we got home, I ran to the kitchen and went to it.

The kit consists of a 300g bag of chick pea and rice flours and a little 20g bag of flavouring, a mixture of powdered rosemary, mint, and salt.  It makes two pans of Farinata,  each is enough to serve 6-8 people as a generous snack or appetiser.  It has the added bonus of being gluten free so it's ideal for anyone who's following a wheat-free diet.
Pretty golden chick pea flour

After translating the instructions, which were quite vague, I mixed up two batches, one with and one without the herbs and both were  delicious although we preferred the herbed version.  In fact, we munched on them for the rest of the afternoon.

It didn't quite measure up to what comes from a traditional Socca vendor but for a home baked version made in an everyday oven, without the complex flavour imparted by a wood fire,  it was still delicious.  Add a glass or two of rosé and it would make a nice snack or appetizer to share with friends.

You can probably find the Farinata kit in most Italian grocery stores but why not get a nice view in the bargain?

Here then, are the English instructions with my extra, detailed notes should you ever decide to make it yourself.  I recommend that you do!

Pan 25cm x 32cm
Wire whisk
200ºC or 385ºF, 25 minutes plus 3-4 minutes broiling

For 1/2 of the box or one pan of Farinata or, 6 servings.
Into a medium bowl, measure 150g or 1- 1/2 cups of the flour mixture and 10g or 1 tablespoon/half of the herb mixture.
To this you add 500ml or 2 cups of water, 20g or 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
If you're not adding the herbs, add  1 teaspoon or 6 g salt.
Mix well with a whisk.  Let the mixture rest while you preheat the oven to 200ºC or 385ºF.
Coat the pan with 2 tablespoons or 20g of oil.
Before you bake the Farinata, to avoid spilling the mixture which is quite liquid, put the oiled pan in the oven and then pour the mixture into the pan.
After 25 minutes of baking, turn on the broiler and broil the Farinata for 3-4 minutes to brown the top.
In keeping with tradition, you should cut the Farinata into small squares and serve the plain Farinata topped with  ground pepper.  And of course, eat it with your hands.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Crown Someone. Serve the Cake of Kings.

Some modern day fèves from my favourite Paris pastry supply shop, MORA
Today is Epiphany in France so don't put away those holiday fat pants just yet!

There is one more delicious cake to indulge in during the coming week, the Galette des Rois or Kings' Cake.  Larousse Gastronomy calls it "Twelfth Night Cake" but most people call it Epiphany Cake since it's  meant to celebrate the Christian observance of Epiphany.

So why all the fuss?  Well, baked into each cake is a fève or trinket and along with each cake comes a crown. You've got to love a cake that comes with its own accessories!
With the Epiphany cake, the fun really starts when the cake is cut and served:  the one lucky person who gets the portion with the fève inside is crowned king.  Aside from getting to wear the crown, being king comes with the royal responsibility of buying the next Epiphany cake.  Precisely when this next cake should appear on the scene varies depending on whom you ask.  As I recall, the last time we served an Epiphany cake in our home, the second cake never appeared, the king kept the fève, posed for photos and gave a long-winded speech.
A Provençal Epiphany cake with candied fruit and violets

Traditionally, Epiphany cake is made with layers of pâte feuilleté or puff pastry filled with frangipane, a rich almond cream, but some regions of France have their own style.

Here in the south, you'll find a special Provençal version  made by topping a golden ring of brioche with candied fruit.  Usually there's candied fruit inside too.

One of my favourite bakeries, Le Baiser de Mitron in Menton makes four versions of the Epiphany cake including a special, praline coated ring of brioche.  As an unusual bonus, they put 2 fèves in each of their cakes, perhaps so the cost of buying the next cake can be shared between the two kings.  Unfortunately, they provide only one crown.

A French friend of mine enjoyed the Galette Franche-Comté as her customary Epiphany cake, popular in Besançon near the French/Swiss border.

Instead of puff pastry the Galette de Franche-Comté is made from pâte à choux, or cream puff dough, collapsed into a pancake that's quite thin so sometimes you can see a bump where the fève is.  Her family had a lovely tradition when it came time to serve the Galette. The youngest child in the household would sit under the table and as her mom apportioned the cake, the sequestered child, unable to see the slices and perhaps a bump where the fève was, got to chose to whom each slice was served.  How's that for a sweet childhood lesson in égalité !
Polar bear fèves

In her great-grandmother's time, the fève in her Epiphany cake was a modest little dried bean and I'll bet she never would have predicted that the fève would evolve the way it has and become a collector's item.  For example, the Paris pâtisserie, Lenôtre, offers a chic boxed set of fèves depicting Aston Martin in place of the humble bean.

The venerable Parisian pastry supply shop, Mora, (a personal favourite of mine) has a great selection of  fèves and crowns that you can order by mail. Keeping apace with modern times they stock ceramic race cars, cupcakes, coffee makers, spices, bees, childhood songs, hand bags, and dairy products.  Something for everyone.

Another local pastry shop  I popped into  today is baking a  polar bear fève into each of its cakes this year.  Why a polar bear?  Why not?

Supermarket Intermarché has cakes stacked like cord wood and an Epiphany cake promotion from January 3rd to the 10th.  For every 10 you spend you get a scratch card for a chance to win a free cake.  I lost.

If vintage is more your style you can always find fèves in antique shops and usually there's a box or two to poke through at the weekly brocante or flea market.

Fèves  for sale at the Brocante
For the true enthusiast, this January 8th in Paris you can attend the 22nd annual Fèves des Rois World Collectors Expo.  Imagine what miniature fun that would be surrounded by millions of fèves.

Epiphany cake promo at Intermarché
If you have the time, why not try your hand at making your own Epiphany cake? French company Vahiné has a handy little Epiphany cake kit available from most supermarkets.  Each kit includes the necessary ingredients for a frangipan filling with your choice of either chocolate or praline, a crown, and a little fève of a Japanese girl in a kimono. You just need to add a few basic ingredients of your own, a bit of puff pastry, and some imagination.

A crown and fève from Vahiné's Epiphany Cake kit
Just for fun, why not put a little fève or trinket into your next dinner party dessert? It can be something fun or something expensive...

Just remember to warn your guests before they dig in!

Grab and go cakes at the local Intermarché