adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, February 26, 2006

IMBB 23: Vive la France

I was on break the other day and one of my coworkers asked what I liked to do for fun. I told her that I enjoy cooking. When prompted what I cook, I told her that I have a real affinity for French food. She responded by saying that she enjoys "cooking gourmet" every once in a while.

Historically "cooking gourmet" meant cooking French. Yet the refined cuisine we imagine when we think of French food and indeed the food we cook in our restaurants isn't a good representation of French fare. Yes, the French are known for being of the world's preeminant cooks. But there's another side to what the French eat that we don't often talk about in the food world, and that's the rustic every day kind of food.

As I sat and tried to figure out dish best epitomizes the opposite of the kind of French food we find in our restaurants, a traditional Alsatian dish came to mind. Baeckoffe is a simple stew of meat and onions in white wine.

In the Lutèce Cookbook, Soltner gives a charming account of the dish's history. Apparently, women traditionally did the laundry on Mondays. Since they were so busy, they threw some meat, potato, and white wine in a pot on Sunday evening and let it marinate overnight. As their children went to school on Monday, they dropped off the pots at the village bakery. By that hour, the day's baking would be finished but the ovens would still be quite hot. The children would then pick up the pots on their way home at lunchtime, and the family would sit down and eat together.

It seems that a parallel story has emerged on the history of the dish. Several websites claim that the dish originated as a Sunday after church lunch. This (probably Americanized) version is almost undoubtedly false. The name of the dish means "baker's oven" via the German "Bäckhof." This fact signifies that the baker's oven must have played some role in the tradition of the dish. However, French bakeries are closed on Sunday.

Regardless of the dish's origins, I made baeckoffe.

On the first day of making it, I put half a pound of beef, lamb, and pork into a pot. Then I minced an onion and sliced some garlic, which found it's way into the pot as well. I then prepared a bouquet garni with two stands of thyme, parsley, and a bay leaf. I immersed the contents of the pot with a dry Alsatian white wine. In the interest of economy, and to stick with a rustic preparation, I chose a wine that was made to be quaffed. That is, I chose an Edelzwicker. This kind of wine is made out of whatever grapes the vintner has at hand, and isn't crafted into any particular "style." Ironically, though, the name means "noble blend." Specifically, I used a 2002 vintage Domaine Bott-Geyl. It was about $10 at my local wine store.

On its own, the wine is actually relatively tasty. In the interests of integrity, I need to fess up and admit that I'm more of a beer drinker than a wine drinker. The nose is full of muted fruit notes. I can almost smell grapefruit in the glass. The taste is slightly dry, with biting acidity and a pleasant but astringent oak aftertaste. The flavors aren't necessarily well balanced and seem vaguely "square" but I kind of appreciate a bit of edginess to the taste. At 12% abv, it seems fairly graceful.

After 36 hours of refrigeration, I sliced some russet potatoes and laid them into the bottom of a dish. The meat, onions, garlic, and marinade all got poured into the dish. I then cut up a half an onion and added it. Slices of potato topped the stew, after seasoning of course. The stew was baked at 300°F for 2.5 hours. I tried to seal the dish with some dough, but the lid seats from the side rather than from the top.

The result?


This is a no-nonsense dish in which any imperfection wouldn't hesitate to announce itself. The meat was not as tender as I would have liked, owing to the tough cuts of meat that were used (again, sticking with the spirit of the dish). When I make this dish again, I'll let the stew go for my "tried and true" four hours instead. From my experience, that produces wonderfuly tender meat.

As a wine, I wanted to set up a contrast. I was worried that the flavors of a dry white wine would cancel out the wine flavors of the stew. As a result, I deliberately picked something that might seem zany to some of you. I chose a pinot gris. As in that which was once called tokay. Tokay, which usually refers to the Hungarian variety, is dessert wine par excellence. My goal was to play off a sweet-savory contrast in picking the wine. Specifically, I chose a 1998 Domaine du Clos St. Landelin Grand Cru Pinot Gris.

By itself, the wine is exceptional. It's breathtakingly sweet, but in a good way. The nose is full of peach and apricot flavor, with strong wood notes. I think I can smell traces of green apple. The alcohol smell of the wine is very subdued, and lets the other scents really come through in a pleasant way. The flavor has none of the astringent or alcohol flavors that I expect in wine. Instead, it has a peach flavor that lingers on the tongue for tens of seconds. Over time, it fades to a wooden taste that isn't entirely rounded. But again, the wood taste is extremely pleasant and sets up a contrast with the rounded sweetness of the earlier fruit flavors. I'm not so sure that I'd drink this wine with dessert, unless said dessert were gelato or sorbet. However, this wine is so fantastically complex that I learned something new about wine with every sip. To drink it with anything would almost undoubtedly sacrifice that very quality of the wine.

Maybe it's because I'm not a sworn oenophile, but I thought the combination was pretty good. The sweetness did contrast with the dryness of the wine in the dish. The flavors were like a couple on a first date. Not completely going together, but clearly sharing some common interests. I was just happy that they didn't fight like a married couple.

In some ways, water seemed to be a better choice than the wine though. Despite the fact that the two wines have different flavor profiles, there was some cancellation of flavors. Water cleansed the pallate and let me taste the dish for the first time many times.

Since this is a food and beer blog, I think that any beer you think would go well with stew would be a good choice here. Any kind of Belgian dubbel or trippel would be nice provided the flavor wasn't tipped too heavily toward banana. A traditional English porter would make an ok partner, but only if the flavors weren't too roasty.

Tagged with: +


cucina testa rossa said...

you picked my favorite chef in the world! andre soltner is a french chef's french chef. he is one of the reasons i went to cooking school. this looks perfect for a cold winter day like today and your table so inviting. thanks for participating! laura

xenobiologista said...

When you told me about this earlier I had the weirdest mental image because Alsatians in Malaysia are what you guys call German Shepherd dogs.

LDub said...

Hey Nick! You make me feel like a bad French resident for knowing more about French cuisine than I do. A couple of notes, though.

a)Not all French bakeries are closed on Sunday (although most are)

b) I find it interesting that you picked an Alsatian dish to represent typical French cuisine, since Alsace wasn't a permanent part of France until after WWI or WWII (I forget which one it was where they voted)--and choucrout (sourkraut w/various meats)is the first thing that most French ppl think of when they think of Alsatian food

c) Ditto on the fact that most French cuisine isn't fancy-schamncy

Anonymous said...

Your thoughts are very interesting to me, I'm blogging about French cooking. Maybe you will also find something interesting for you:)