Saturday, February 21, 2009

La belle France OR 100 Kms. - Part 3

I also learned to enjoy the regional dishes of Alsace. Colmar sits a half-hour away from the German border and the Black Forest. Much of Alsace’s cuisine is influenced by its proximity to, and history with, Germany. That combined with the cold, wet weather of northern Europe lends a certain heartiness to its dishes. Alsace is known for such dishes as choucroute garni, an Alsatian version of the German sauerkraut, baeckeoffe, a baked dish of pork, beef, mutton, potatoes and white wine, tarte aux oignons, onion tart – a dish I liked to eat often, spätzele, the German influenced small dumplings served with meat dishes, and for dessert kougelhopf, a coffee cake, and tarte aux quetsches, or plum tart.

Aside from the everyday shopping, I also helped Madame Zundel in the kitchen to prepare the lunch meal. For the evening meal I was solely responsible and I usually made a simple soup like leek and potato, a salad, cheese and bread. As it turned out Madame Zundel was American; she came from Northern California so when I first arrived to the household we spoke a lot of English until she insisted we speak French only. She also had cookbooks in English – one of those being Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That book quickly became my bible. I used it often throughout the year, and from it I learned the basics of French cooking. By the time I returned to the states I was well grounded in French cooking techniques. Madame Zundel and I made many wonderful dishes together. If she had guests over she always let me help with the menu and meal preparation as well as sit at table with the other guests. For Christmas she and her husband gave me Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine – sa techniques – ses secrets. In French, recipes in grams and liters, and a cookbook I still use today.

My experiences in France that year started me on a lifelong journey involving food and eating. The simplicity of the way of life; the daily revolution around meals and sustenance; the quality of the ingredients that were the rule not the exception all showed me the value of living in a forthright yet uncomplicated way. A way that feeds not only the body but the soul.

Here is a very easy but fun recipe for yogurt cake that Madame Zundel and I made often. The measurements are based on 1 small yogurt container. We usually served it without frosting but with melted chocolate and ice cream. The children loved it.


1 container of plain yogurt
3 containers of flour
1 container of vegetable oil or melted butter
2 containers of sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. of baking soda

*container(s) refer to the yogurt container. Once the yogurt is poured out, rinse the container out, and use it as a measure for the other wet and dry ingredients

Mix all the ingredients together well then pour into a floured cake pan and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.

Bon appėtit!

Photo Credit: Alec Sharpe

Bookmark and Share

La belle France OR 100 Kms. - Part 2

Another delight was the bread. I made a daily stop at the bakers’ to buy bread -- bread baked that morning. With seven mouths to feed the bread went fast. We usually had several different loaves to choose from at table: baguettes, whole wheat, and farmhouse, among others. It was a wonderful treat to have bread that fresh and to slather it with sweet Normandy butter. Breakfasts were comprised of coffee or tea and bread. A honey local to Alsace, miel de sapin, or ‘pine tree honey’ was usually on the table with other jams and jellies. Miel de sapin is made from bees gathering pollen from pine trees that forest the local Vosges Mountains. Unlike most honey, it has a slight resinous taste; considered an acquired taste but one I learned to love. It was like no other honey I had ever eaten. Often on the weekend, Monsieur Zundel would jump into the car and drive to the local patisserie and bring back fresh-baked croissants.

The cheese course, after the salad course but before the dessert course, quickly became one I looked forward to. One cheese I grew to love was müntser, a locally made cheese from the Münster Valley, located about 25 kilometers from Colmar. Münster, a soft-ripening cheese with an orange rind and a nicely pungent flavor, was eaten with caraway seeds. Sprinkle a few caraway seeds onto a plate and dip a piece of cheese into them. The combination was delicious – the earthiness of the cheese with the pungent crunch of the seeds.

Photo Credit: Alec Sharpe

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

La belle France OR 100 Kms.

In September of 1977, at age seventeen, three months after I graduated from high school, I went to live in la belle France. And that’s when my real introduction to, and ultimate love for food and cooking, began. After a few days in Paris where I turned eighteen, I landed in the town of Colmar in the Alsace region of eastern France. I lived there for the next year caring for four French children, avec la famille Zundel. I was an au pair or ‘mother’s helper’. My duties included looking after the children, as well as cooking and cleaning. In return I was provided with room and board, and a small cash stipend.

Au pair work was usually given to girls not boys; a fact proven by the work papers (carte de séjour) the local police department gave me. My job title on the permit read ‘jeune fille au pair’ which translates to ‘girl mother’s helper’. Luckily for me the family had four very active children and decided that a boy might be a good idea.

My immersion into the French way of life was immediate. Part of my duties involved daily food shopping. Each morning after dropping the children off at school, I’d consult with Madame Zundel about that day’s lunch menu (the big meal of day) then set off with a list and a large wicker basket. I went to the green grocer, the baker, the butcher, the cheese shop, and occasionally the pastry shop if guests were coming. The shops were all separate from one another and spread around the town of Colmar. I went from one to the next to the next – my basket growing heavier with each stop. My French was remedial at that point but I was able to communicate what it was I wanted by gesturing and pointing.

Each shop, and its attendant proprietors, was a unique experience. Most were family owned businesses handed down through the generations. This usually meant the people behind the counters were the owners or the sons or daughters of. A lesson I learned on day one: always say hello upon entering a French shop or business. As I opened the door, no matter how many people were in line in front of me, whoever was behind the counter always called out ‘Bonjour, monsieur’ – if I did not respond in kind I was met with a stony silence and helped begrudgingly.

My first impression of this new way of life and eating was how fresh and seasonal everything was. This was most noticeable at the green grocer. I arrived in France in the fall so there was an abundance of fall produce. Considering that the vendange, or annual grape harvest, takes place in September there were table grapes available until the end of October. Alsace is known for its white wines, Riesling, Muscat, and Gewürztraminer, so we ate a lot of white grapes always at the end of the meal right after the cheese course in place of dessert. I also discovered, long before this type of green was available in the U.S., something called mâche, or ‘lambs’ lettuce’. Hearty, a bit peppery and a huge improvement on the Iceberg lettuce I grew up with. Most French meals include a simple salad served before the cheese course, and mâche quickly became a favorite. In the spring white asparagus season started – another favorite dish we ate was white asparagus with la sauce hollandaise. White asparagus was grown locally so there were month long festivals celebrating the vegetable and its’ dishes; all the produce stands in the region had piles of it front and center throughout the season. There were many meals of steamed white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce only. Madame Zundel made a variation on the dish by wrapping the asparagus in slices of ham. Some crusty bread, a glass of Riesling, and volia, a meal.

I can’t attest to the fact that all of the produce we ate came from the region; in fact I know that we bought citrus that was from Spain and Morocco. What I do know is that it all tasted amazing -- fresh and full of flavor. I ate blood oranges for the first time, a revelation in taste and color: so juicy with a bright red-orange pulp. The other citrus we ate was always ripe and flavorful. And if memory serves the tomatoes we ate also came from Spain and North Africa – but given the distance they were still bursting with flavor. All of this reminded me of the fruits and vegetables my great-grandmother grew in her garden; and it was vastly better than the produce available at the time in the local Safeway back home.

Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Local 100

Victory gardens. A White House farmer . The Slow Food movement. Eating local and organic. One hundred miles from where you live. The idea of keeping life local intrigues me. Not only as it regards food and eating but for living life in general. If we all lived our lives locally how different would they be? Quite different in my view. More intimate. Possibly more rewarding. None of these ideas are necessarily new. American chefs have been pushing ‘local’ for years. And I have no political agenda in writing this blog. Yes, living locally will help the carbon footprint but I am not advocating total abstinence from living life – one should still travel to overseas locations, take trips by car and airplane, do the things that make life pleasurable. I just wonder -- if our lives were consciously more intimate might they be more fulfilling?

As I mention in my blog description, my great-grandmother lived her life locally but it was by dint of circumstance not of choice. She and my great-grandfather were not rich people yet they lived an abundant life. Somehow they didn’t need a lot to survive. My great-grandmother’s backyard garden fed a family of four plus any and all visiting relatives for many years. My great-grandfather fished local waters, hunted with my great-uncle in local mountains, and grew fruits and vegetables in the garden. I learned very valuable lessons from them about living a simple yet satisfying life.

The idea for this blog actually came to me through a friend, Martine Rothstein, who makes every attempt to live her life locally. Her company, Burden Free Foods , uses only local ingredients in all its products. On a recent visit we were discussing buying and cooking with local ingredients only. Through her work with her company she has sourced many local New Jersey farmers and purveyors for both her business and her family. She mentioned trying to keep it all within a 100-mile radius. It made a lot of sense to me. I began to think about it as a way of life.

I live in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles -- a small 3-block ‘village’ with restaurants, cafes, hair salons, a taco stand, yoga and dance studios, and various shops. On one end is a Starbucks, and in the middle is Kaldi Coffee & Tea, a small independent coffee house that roasts its own coffee beans. I am currently re-training myself not to automatically go to Starbucks (not a big fan anyway) but to go to Kaldi instead – a local business that needs my support. My partner, Robert, and I often walk from my condo to eat at one of the restaurants; we try to get to the weekly farmers market; and I recently started getting a haircut at Salon Mix, a local Atwater hair salon. All efforts to localize my life.

It is 100 Miles as a concept that I will explore in this blog. As well as a place where I will put down on paper memories of my experiences working in the food industry, of other foodies, chefs and friends I have met along the way. Old and new discoveries made. Places visited and recipes prepared. Amazing meals I have had. All with the idea that living closer to home as much as possible is ultimately better for the spirit.

One hundred miles from home.

Charles G. Thompson
February 3, 2009

Bookmark and Share